When you leave Kochi behind and head up into the midlands of Kerala, the distinct shift in energy is almost palpable. For those who love the countryside, myself included, this is like a refreshing drink on a hot summer’s day. Time seems to move at a slower pace here. Houses aren’t stacked close together, instead stand separated by acres of verdure. Rubber plantations dominate the landscape providing plenty of shade yet allowing sunlight to filter through, casting a peridot green hue over everything. Gently rolling hills and winding roads flanked by more greenery lends a fairytale characteristic to the region. “I almost expect to see little woodland creatures and fairies to pop out from behind trees and bushes”, said a friend when she saw photos of my trip.
The midlands of Kerala are renowned for spices. And Dewalokam, the organic farm and homestay, which was my home for two nights, is also a spice plantation. This tropical paradise belongs to the Alilakuzhys, a Syrian Christian family, who have lived here for generations. Jose and Sinta Alilakuzhy manage Dewalokam with a determined slant towards sustainability. Although they are both teachers by profession, they still farm the land like their ancestors before them. Their children Tara and Paul also interact with guests on a daily basis, often times conducting the activities on offer.
Guests receive a traditional aarti usually done by Sinta or Tara before they’re shown to their rooms. You’ll notice how you can see your reflection in floors here – guests are asked to leave their own shoes in a rack at the entrance and don a pair of cloth house slippers while indoors. This keeps the interiors free of mud and dirt. The rooms are located on the first floor and open out onto a common verandah, which overlooks the courtyard. Although each room has an air-conditioner, I didn’t feel the need to use it during my stay. The cool breeze from the windows and ceiling fan were more than enough to keep me comfortable. Nestled amongst dense foliage with a river running past the property, the temperature is lower here than it would be in city areas. Don’t expect to find a TV in your room since there’s plenty to do outdoors. Running hot water in the bathroom comes from a solar water heater so be patient if it takes a little time to come through. I looked out of my window and noticed an old-fashioned house built entirely from dark wood and made a mental note to ask Jose about it later.
Every afternoon Jose takes his guests on a walking tour of his property. The sky was overcast my first afternoon there but that didn’t dampen our spirits as we set off happily with umbrellas, Jose leading the way like the Pied Piper. First off were the pepper vines that creep up the trunks of tall trees. “Tell me which one you find the sweetest,” he said innocently while handing us black, green, red and white peppercorns. Not suspecting a thing, some of us dutifully popped them into our mouths one by one, thinking we’d eventually get the sweet one; instead we ended up with watery eyes and stinging tongues, and an amused Jose, barely able to control his laughter.
As we walked along we chewed on sweet cinnamon leaves, learnt that a banana tree isn’t actually a tree at all but a herbaceous flowering plant, with a pseudo-stem. Jose even cut a small banana plant to show us the separate layers of the pseudostem, which is really the stalk of the plant. The lovely pineapple salad we ate during lunch was made from the pineapples grown on the property. Up until this trip I had never realised that mace and nutmeg come from the same plant. This spice comes from the nutmeg fruit, which is cut open to reveal the shiny red aril that covers the nutmeg seed. Mace is the red aril and it’s the second-most expensive spice in the world. A few rubber trees also grow on the property and Jose showed us how channels are cut into the bark to allow the sap to drip down into a cup. The sap is collected every couple of days and smells a lot like fermented cheese. He also stopped by a patch of turmeric plants, pulling one up by the stem to reveal the bright orange roots, which have been used for cooking and medicinal purposes in India for centuries. As an amateur baker, I often use vanilla extract or the scrapings from dried vanilla beans in my cakes, so I was delighted to finally see what fresh vanilla beans looked like. In case you’re wondering, they look somewhat like French beans that that have been completely flattened. Jose also grows bitter gourd (karela) here. Unlike the dark green ones in north India, these were pale green and fairly long – the length of an adult’s size 7 shoe to give you an idea! We were treated to crispy bitter gourd chips sprinkled with chaat masala later that evening. What a delicious snack!
One section of the farm is home to fat chickens, goats and a few buffaloes and cows. I was very tempted to scoop one of the chickens up in my arms but they weren’t interested in being friends and clucked loudly and hid under bushes whenever I approached. I had better luck with the goats, who smelt my hand very much like a dog would. One of the buffaloes got very excited as Jose approached and he laughingly explained that he’s her boyfriend and unless he visits her every day she gets upset with him. The dung collected from the bovines is treated in the biogas plant and the resulting gas is sent to the kitchen via pipes and used in place of LPG cylinders for cooking. There are also two large ponds filled with tilapia fish, which are fed food waste from the kitchen. Everything is connected in Dewalokam – the overgrown grass and weeds cut from around the property are fed to the goats; the free-range chickens provide eggs; milk comes from the cows and buffalo; and honey is extracted from the apiary. A composting unit provides manure that is used as fertiliser on the farm. All the fruit and vegetables grown at Dewalokam are used for in-house consumption only.
After the tour we headed back to the main building for masala chai. The tea maker put on quite a show for the guests, dropping the tea from one tumbler into another ensuring that he worked up enough froth on top before distributing glasses amongst us. Very pleased with the display, we sat around afterwards chit chatting with our hosts till it was time for the cooking demonstration to showcase traditional Kerala dishes, which we’d get to eat at dinner.
The aromas of freshly ground spices, chopped garlic, coriander and green chillies wafted through the air in the spacious kitchen. My mouth began watering even before anything had been cooked. Our chef was a smiling, jovial young man who had been with Dewalokam for over five years. After passing a box of spices around, asking us to identify each one, he commenced with the demo. Soon enough curry leaves and onions were spluttering in coconut oil with chef stirring the pot on occasion and slowly adding the ingredients such as dried fenugreek and coconut milk to end up with a lip-smacking chicken curry.
The heavens opened up that night, the steady pound of the rain on the roof lulled me into a deep sleep. While mornings can be lazy here, I was up at first light staring out the window at the delicate mist that had descended across the property. Birdsong filled the air along with the calls of the rooster from the chicken coop. If you really want to do something productive before breakfast, head down to the open-sided yoga hall near the swimming pool for a free asana class followed by meditation. The teacher had us bending forward, encouraging us to touch our toes, and stretching our limbs out to either side, which had us grinning since most of us were wound tight while he was as flexible as a rubber band and looked to be in his seventies.
Unfortunately for me, the monsoon carried on till quite late in the year in 2017. It rained every day that I was there so I couldn’t swim in the river, which usually runs clear by November and has a gentler current. Guests can also cross the river in a raft and go for a guided walk through the forest that lies on the opposite bank. This two-hour walk is a great chance to see thousands of fruit bats roosting.
During your stay, a trip to Thommankuthu Waterfall is a must. A 30-minute drive away from Dewalokam, this eco-tourism spot has been well-developed and maintained. Trees reach great heights here and solid old creepers twist and turn their way up thick trunks while gnarly roots appear here and there along the path, so watch your step. While you don’t need to be in peak physical condition for this walk, it’s not for those who tire easily or can’t scramble over a few boulders every now and then. Along the way you’ll see gentle cascades as well as gushing waterfalls. It can get quite humid and sweaty, so I would advise you to wear comfortable clothes and shoes with a good grip. This outing definitely worked up my appetite and I was looking forward to a very filling lunch back at the homestay.
A traditional sadya lunch is served to guests at least once during their stay. Mealtimes are a communal affair here, giving you a chance to interact with people from around the world. I was really looking forward to this meal because I’d last eaten sadya at my best friend’s wedding six years earlier. I clearly remember devouring everything that had been put on my plate including two or three portions of dessert. Served on a fresh banana leaf, fluffy grains of Keralan rice are accompanied by at least 10 different vegetarian dishes made from beetroot, banana, pumpkin, yam, drumsticks and lentils as well as chutney, pickle and papadam. You may want to skimp on breakfast the day sadya is being served for lunch.
After a hearty lunch, Jose showed me the last section of the original house that I could see from my room’s window. Built entirely from teak wood, there are three rooms in this single-storey building, each with a bathroom cum open-aired shower area. While maintaining it requires a lot of work, it does give guests a chance to experience living in a traditional house.
On my last day I went for a guided village walk along with a few other guests. We were accompanied by Prince, a friendly young man who has been working at Dewalokam for the past few years. Incidentally, all the members of staff are from the surrounding villages. At Dewalokam they get a chance to improve their spoken English by interacting with travellers from around the globe as well as learn other skills. Along the way he pointed out a stream he used to fish and swim in as a boy and told us that wild boars occasionally roam the woods, which made us glance around. Thankfully, we didn’t encounter one. We stopped to say hello to a couple of rubber plantation workers who were winding up their day, which began at 3.00am! Yet they were kind enough to show us how they collected the rubber sap and also cut channels into one tree’s trunk so we could see the sticky white sap flow down into a bowl. A tuk-tuk ride into the neighbouring town gave us the chance to stop by a coconut oil processing unit. Huge vats are filled with chopped up pieces of dried coconut, which are then crushed by grinders to extract the oil. The oil flows into buckets and then cleaned and bottled.
We hopped onto a local bus next to head back to the farm. It was definitely the cleanest public bus I’d ever been on and it was a fun ride back with the wind blowing our hair about and catchy tunes blaring from the front of the bus.
All too soon my stay at Dewalokam came to an end. I was truly envious of Jose and Sinta and their kids, who never have to say goodbye to this tropical haven. Nature lovers will feel completely at ease here. I could have admired the beautifully manicured lawns, trees and plants all day. I often found myself wandering down to say hello to the goats or standing by the river to watch it rush by silently. There’s a certain calm that descends on you in such places, a calm that we all look for in cities but fail to find. So head here if you need to recharge your batteries and you’ll find yourself wanting to retire to this verdant countryside and never venture into the chaos of a city again.
- Solar power
- Biogas plant
- Compost unit
- Organic farm
- Employs locals
When to go November to February is the best time to visit; the homestay is shut from May to June; July to October is still monsoon season so many activities may be hampered by rain
Kodikulam - 685582
Tariff ₹10,000 for two with all meals, taxes extra
- Walk around the farm
- Village walk
- Cooking demonstration
- Walk in the forest (Nov–Apr)
- Visit Thommankuthu Waterfall (Jun–Dec)
- School visit (Jun–Feb)
Air Nearest airport: Kochi International Airport (65km/ 2hrs). Taxi costs around ₹2,000–2,500. Dewalokam arranges pick-ups and drops for around the same price
Rail Nearest rail head: Kochi (75km/ 2.5hrs). Taxi is about ₹2,750. Dewalokam arranges pick-ups and drops for around the same price
Road State buses from anywhere in Kerala connect to Thodupuzha, 15kms from Dewalokam. From Thodupuzha take any bus going through Kaliyar and get down at Chalackamukku. A tuk tuk from here to Dewalokam costs ₹60. Pick up and drop at a reasonable rate also arranged by Dewalokam
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