Kottayam - Lakes, Letters and Latex
Sandwiched between the Western Ghats and the backwaters, Kottayam is renowned for being the centre of Kerala's spice and rubber trade rather than for its aesthetic appeal. The fertile lands on the outskirts produce rubber and other cash crops.
For most travellers it is a hub town, well connected to both the mountains and the backwaters.
Kottayam has a bookish history: the first Malayalam-language printing press was established here in 1820, and this was the first district in India to achieve 100% literacy.
Kottayam is also known for its high literacy rate, and it publishes some of the most read Malayalam newspapers. Many well-known Malayalam writers hail from Kottayam.
A place of churches and seminaries, it was a refuge for the Syrian Church when the Portuguese began forcing Kerala Christians to switch to Catholicism in the 16th century.
The Christian population of Kerala followed the Syrian Orthodox Church, but after attempts by the Portuguese to Latinise the Church, the Syrian Christians took an oath stating that the Portuguese priests were not their leaders.
The Syrian Church became an autonomous body without links to Rome. Many Syrian Christians subsequently rejoined the Roman Church later. Kottayam's history of Syrian Christians settlement is reflected in its churches.
The elegant St Mary's Church, called Cheria Palli, is some 450 years and is situated on top of a hill. Its interior displays some beautiful murals on the walls and ceiling, and above the altar. 2km north of the town centre.
Tel: 0481 2566744
This church was built in the 16th century and is famous for its Persian Cross with a Pahlavi inscription next to the altar. Another cross has a Syriac liturgy. There is also an unusual portrayal of St George slaying a dragon. The guest book has comments dating from 1899, and among its entries is one by an Ethiopian emperor. 2km north of the town centre.
Tel: 0481 2563324
With its bird sanctuary, backwater villages and islands, Kumarakom has seen the development of tourist resorts around it. Here you can arrange boat trips to see the birdlife, which is at its best from November to February when migrants from north make it their winter home. This is also good spot to experience traditional farming life and village activities.
About 16km west of Kottayam. Buses leave from KSRTC bus stand in Kottayam for Kumarakom every 15 minutes.
Spread around the banks of Meenachil River, 5 km north of Kottayam, is the village of Ayamanam, where novelist Arundhati Roy grow up, and which served as a setting for her Booker-Prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things.
A perfect place to soak up the atmosphere evoked so memorably by the novel is the homestay Akkara, in the hamlet of Mariathuruthu, on the southern edge of Aymanam.
Tour: South of Kottayam
Thiruvalla is home to the Shri Vallabha Temple, which is noted for its night-time Kathakali performances. Kathakali performances: 10pm-1am.
Kaviyur has one of Kerala's best preserved caves, dating from the 18th century and notable for its carved reliefs. It also houses a pillared hall, a shrine and a linga.
5km form Thiruvalla on the rail route to Trivandrum, east of the main road. About 30km south of Kottayam.
The ancient Hindu temple at Aranmula, 30km south of Kottayam, is dedicated to Parthasarathy, the divine name under which Krishna acted as Arjuna's charioteer during the bloody Kurukshetra war.
Each year, towards the end of the Onam (Aug/Sep), a Snake Boat Race is conducted as part of temple rituals. The crowds line the banks of the Pampa River to cheer on the thrusting long boats.
Aranmula is also known for manufacturing extraordinary kannadi metal mirrors. Only seven master craftsmen and their families still make them.
Tour: North of Kottayam
The road north from Kottayam to Kochi criss-crosses rivers and backwaters, and two of Kerala's most important temples can be seen on this route. From Kottayam to Vaikom, via the diversion to Pala.
Drive 12km north from Kottayam towards Kochi. The Shiva temple of Ettumanoor is on the right-hand side, with parking available on the road heading east to Pala.
The Mahadeva Temple (Open: daily 4am-12.30pm and 5-8pm) at Ettumanoor is one of the wealthiest in Kerala. Built in the typical Kerala style in the 16th century, the temple is noted for its woodcarvings.
Beautiful murals on the gopuram depict Vishnu in the form of Padmanabha reclining on a serpent, and Shiva as Natraja crushing evil, as well as the lives of Rama and Krishna figures in the halls. The murals are similar in style to those in the Mattancherry Palace of Kochi.
The main shrine is circular, with a colonial, copper-clad interior ceiling, enclosing a square sanctuary. There is a large festival here in February or March, When gold elephant statues are put on display.
Pala on the Meenachil River is the gateway to the southern ranges of the Western Ghats. It is also an important hub of Roman Catholic Syrian Christians in India.
There are several impressive churches, one of which, St Mary's Church of Bharananganam, is believed to date from the 11th century. Pala is boasts the Shrine of Kurishupalli as well as a number of old Syrian Christian houses on the rubber plantations.
Vaikom is one of the holiest Shiva temple in Kerala and is enshrined in myth. The temple's present structure probably dates from the 16th century and its murals from the 18th century. These depict Shiva, Parvathi and Ganesha. Vishnu with his consort, among other figures.
In 1925, the temple was one of the first to allow untouchables to visit the main sanctuary. By 1928, the Maharaja of Travancore had opened temples to Hindus of all castes throughout his princely state.
The temple has a 12-day festival in November and December, with a particularly auspicious last night. Deities from nearby temples are brought here throughout the festival.
From Vaikom you can drive back to Kottayam or continue on the road to Kochi.
Lovely, spotlessly kept 1st-floor room, with slatted blinds, this place is a swankier version of the typical Kerala set-meal place. The food here is great, including Malabar fish curry and thalis.
This is a favourite place in Kottayam to fill up on scrumptious Indian and Chinese fare. The family atmosphere is friendly, the dining room modern and tidy and the menu expensive.
The traditional Kerala restaurant at the Windsor Castle overlooks some neat backwaters and serves tasty Kerala specialities. There is also a recommended buffet.
It is no surprise this dark and cosy, vintage wood-lined dining room is packed to the rafters with hungry families come mealtime - the North and South Indian food here is excellent.
The KSRTC bus stand is 1km south of the centre.
The boat jetty is a further 2km (at Kodimatha).
The train station is 1km north of Kottayam.
At the boat jetty
Getting There and Away
Ferry Ferries leave from the Kodimatha Jetty except during the monsoons. During the monsoon you should head to the Town Jetty 3 km south- west of the train station. Ferries to Alappuzha: 7.30am, 9.30am, 11.30am, 2.30pm, 5.30pm (3 hrs). This is an interesting trip but gets very busy in peak season. Other departures include Champakulam, 3.30pm (4 hrs) and Mannar, 2.30pm (3 hrs).
The KSRTC bus stand has buses to Trivandrum (4 hours, every 20 minutes), Alleppey (1 hour 15 minutes, every 30 minutes) and Ernakulam (Kochi, 2 hours, every 20 minutes). There are also frequent buses to nearby Kumarakom (30 minutes. every 15 minutes), to Thrissur (4 hours), Calicut (7 hours, 13 daily). Kumily for Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary (4 hours, every 30 minutes) and Munnar (5 hours, 5 daily). There are also buses to Kollam and Varkala.
Kottayam is well served by frequent trains running between Trivandrum (3 hours 30 minutes) and Ernakulam (1 hour 30minutes).
Autorickshaw is the best option to get around in the town and nearby places.
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