Prawns, coconuts, enlightenment ... Kerala's harvest feeds body and soul

Physical comfort combined with spiritual ease win Sarah Bancroft perfect relaxation - and local approval

'Please make an effort to relax the foot." I tried not to smile and sink back into thoughtlessness. "Please make an effort to relax the foot," said Punam again. Another silence. "The foot is completely relaxed." More silence. "Please make an effort to relax the calf..."

'Please make an effort to relax the foot." I tried not to smile and sink back into thoughtlessness. "Please make an effort to relax the foot," said Punam again. Another silence. "The foot is completely relaxed." More silence. "Please make an effort to relax the calf..."

The two of us had an airy, wooden-floored studio to ourselves; beyond, the harbour stretched its arms in the pale morning sunlight. It was the third day of my stay in Kochi on India's south-west coast and, under the influence of Punam's gentle but firm yoga instruction, I was beginning to feel more relaxed than I could remember. I loved the warm monsoon air and occasional bursts of rain. I'd had two ayurvedic massages. I'd been fed fresh fish, mango, papaya, spices and coconut.

The offer of a week in Kerala had been too good to resist, but I had wondered how much I would really "be there" in so short a time. I also wondered how I would find it travelling alone. On neither count need I have feared.

The week was to be split between Kochi and Kumarakom, three hours inland. Kochi is India's second busiest port. Dotted with islands and peninsulas, it is often described as the Venice of the East.

If you stay at the splendid Taj Malabar ("authenticity but not at the expense of luxury", as one of its staff solemnly assured me), you have the city's best waterside vantage point. At first light you will see red kites and dolphins surveying a trail of cargo ships as they turn in from the Arabian Sea; in the evening, fishermen paddle past on their way to a night's work.

The region is renowned for the welcome it extends to outsiders: its spices, cashews, tea, coffee, coir, cotton and rubber have brought traders to its shores for thousands of years. Arabs, Phoenicians, Romans and Chinese were succeeded centuries later by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. The noisy bartering of dealers in the India Pepper and Spice Trade Building, as well as the low, red-tiled warehouses, clubs, churches and maidan of Fort Cochin, are living legacies of this culturally varied past.

Many of these visitors tried their hand at colonisation, but Kochi's Mattancherry Palace - built in the 1550s by the Portuguese to placate the local maharaja after rash soldiers had razed a Hindu temple to the ground - is eloquent testimony to Keralan power and diplomacy. This was, ultimately, a relationship dependent not on force but negotiation. Externally unimposing, the palace's fabulous murals (the work of Keralan artists, not Portuguese) are good enough reason alone to visit Kochi: Shiva's amorous exploits on the walls of the queen's bedchamber give a wonderful sense of gods who are familiar with every complicated turn of human experience.

Today, Kerala is little short of a model population: women play a strong part in society, the inheritance of an ancient matriarchy. For the most part, Christians, Hindus and Muslims (who make up not dissimilar proportions of the population) mix easily and borrow from one another's traditions - here, for example, you will find Hindus who eat meat.

Under its Communist government - in 1957 it became the first state in the world to elect Marxist leaders - Kerala betters America's literacy rate and life expectancy, and provides as many hospital beds per thousand. All this is on the basis of a population earning typically one-sixtieth of a US wage. As India's richest state on a per capita basis, it exudes an unusual sense of ease and is an excellent place to begin exploring the country.

Encounters with vibrant women seemed to punctuate my week. My yoga sessions with Punam were a revelation: she showed me how shallowly most of us breathe and how it is possible to suffuse the body with oxygen and strength. I had lunch with Nimmy Paul, one of Kerala's top cooks. And then there was the spirit of Arundhati Roy, whose presence I couldn't help feeling in Kumarakom, which is the setting for her novel The God of Small Things. Nimmy had welcomed me to her home in Kochi with a tray on which lay a strand of jasmine for my hair and red and yellow powders to mark my forehead. "Excellent," some women called out to me in a tiny market later that day, gesturing to the creamy flower heads.

The afternoon had been spent punting among villages an hour from Kochi. Life here is intimately tied to the environment. While the coconut is king - every part of the tree provides some food, utensil or furnishing - tamarind, jackfruit, mango, banana, betel palm, bamboo, banyan, nutmeg and almond all grow plentifully. Cinnamon, pepper vines, and cloves are never far away. At this time of year, when the rivers are full of fresh water, prawns are farmed; come the dry season and the same spot becomes a paddy field. Something happens as soon as you take to the water in a kettavallum ("stitched barge"), the main form of transport in the backwaters and still propelled by bamboo pole. Peace descends. As Kenai Kapoor, a smart, thirtysomething Taj manager, said on my return: "When I'm in the villages, I feel the rest of my life is out of touch" - or, as a road sign on the way to Kumarakom read, "No hurry. No worry".

My second base, Baker's Bungalow, the home of a late-19th-century English missionary, and its verdant grounds on the edge of Lake Vembanad, offered the chance to slow down even more. Furnished with a mini planter's cottage complete with terrace, elegant living-room, four-poster bed and open-air bathroom - as well as a spa and pool to hand - I let the humid heat dictate the day's rhythms and took to a temple timetable: rising at six, retreating for three or four hours at midday, moving out again in the late afternoon. As with Kochi, it was impossible not to be seduced by the abundance and beauty of the surroundings. A bird reserve next to the hotel was home to kingfishers, darters, herons and cranes, as well as bright-eyed fruit bats. They hung 60 feet up and littered the ground with almond husks. A family of otters had laid claim to a mangrove-lined canal. Turtle prints marked a nearby path.

But the highlight for me came on my last afternoon when I took a car to the area's three most celebrated temples. It is believed that to visit Vaikom, Kaduthuruthy and Ettumanur on the same day is especially auspicious. As I walked into Ettumanur's large outer courtyard, the light was fading but the place was buzzing. At festivals, every one of the thousands of brass cups projecting from the central enclosure would be lit up; the night I was there only a fraction were burning yet the effect was spectacular. It has been a place of worship for a thousand years, but is known now for its 16th-century murals and wood carvings.

Non-Hindus are often barred from the inner sections of temples but, encouraged by my driver, a Hindu married to a Christian, I nodded questioningly to one of the priests. His open-handed reply was my entrance pass. Inside, old and young, families, friends, fathers and sons, grandmothers and grandchildren walked, together but alone, absorbed in their own particular course around a circular sanctuary. Occasionally, a worshipper would cause a small traffic jam by lying down for a few seconds near the main entrance.

The temple is dedicated to Shiva, the destroyer, at his most furious; but the dark wood of the interior also depicts Vishnu's various incarnations and scenes from the Ramayana. One senses each individual engaging with the aspect of god most appropriate to their stage in life. As I left, a young woman caught my eye and smiled. I realised that I, too, 5,000 miles from home, had begun exploring my own path.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Sarah Bancroft travelled as a guest of Greaves Travel (020-7487 9111; www.greavesindia.com), which offers tailor-made itineraries in Kerala. A seven-night holiday staying in Taj hotels in Mumbai, Kochi and Kumarakom starts from £1,395 per person, based on two sharing. This includes return flights from London Heathrow, transfers and room-only accommodation, and is valid for travel from 1 October to 30 November.

When to go

The best time to visit is between October and April.

Further information

India Tourism (020-7437 3677; www.indiatouristoffice.org).

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