Tall coconut palms sway in the rain. Blue waters cut across lush green paddy fields and the sparkling colours make you wonder if Earth has snatched a fistful of rainbow from the sky. The God of small things, it’s clear, is in a magnanimous mood. I am returning to my birthplace after a three-year-sojourn in Delhi and Kottayam has spread out an emerald green carpet to greet me. Yes, the lovely small town does prefer to hide behind the obvious, unmindful of the fact that Arundhati Roy’s novel has put her on the world map. But all you need to do is look around to capture the treasures of a town considered synonymous with backwaters and boat rides.

The town may look somewhat somnolent, but then, appearances can be deceptive. Kottayam’s a commercial centre, with many rubber and spice plantations. It was the first town in India to achieve 100 per cent literacy as far back as 1989. It’s also home to one of India’s largest selling newspapers, Malayala Manorama.

Way before such milestones dotted Kottayam, the land was ruled by the Kulasekharas (1090-1102) and was part of their Vempolinad Kingdom. Around 1100, the territory was split into Thekkumkur and Vadakkumkur. Spice trade between these kingdoms, the Portuguese and the Dutch flourished in the 15th century, until both were reduced to subordinate allies of the Raj. By the mid-18th century, Thekkumkur and Vadakkumkur were annexed by Marthanda Varma and became part of Travancore.

Today, the many churches of the town stand testimony to the erstwhile Dutch and Portuguese presence. Kottayam’s heritage is unique, for it’s a true melting pot of varied cultural and religious influences. It helped that almost all the churches, mosques and temples here were built under royal patronage. What you see now is its splendid culmination: a lovely amalgamation of religions, where each house of worship mixes and matches customs and rituals associated with another.

Things to See & Do

Most tourists visit Kottayam for its backwaters and houseboats. But the town’s heritage structures are also a must-see. Like in many Indian cities, the town mushroomed around a temple; in this case, the sprawling Thirunakkara Mahadeva Temple. It is hailed as the archetype of traditional Kerala temple architecture. The temple was built by one of the Thekkumkur rajas and is more than 500 years old. The main entrance to the temple is via a set of steep steps at the eastern gopuram, just next to a rustling banyan tree. The small entrance door does not betray the beauty and the grace of the temple beyond the threshold. Look for the Shivalingam ensconced within the inner praharam straight in line with the door as you step in. The Ganesha and Ayappa shrines are further ahead. Take note of the scores of lamps lining the walls of the inner praharam. To the left, the deity of Lord Muruga blesses the faithful. Remember that photography is not allowed inside the temple. Entry Free Timings 5 am-12 noon and 5-8 pm Cameras Still 20, video 100

Not very far from the temple stands the ancient St Mary’s Knanaya Church, known as Valiapally. It was built in 1550 by Syrian Knanaya Christians. The church has two granite Persian crosses, each carved out of a single slab of stone dating back to the 4th and 7th centuries CE. Both bear inscriptions in Pahalavi language, once the official language of the Sassanian dynasty of Persia. The crosses were apparently brought here from an older church in Cranganore. The wooden altar and ceiling are beautifully carved and decorated with vegetable dye paintings depicting scenes from the Bible. Look for the baptismal font built within the width of the thick church walls, more than a metre in diameter. Entry Free Timings 9.30 am-5.30 pm Cameras Free.

Saibal Das
A beautiful Portuguese style painted altar and ceiling, at the Cheriapally
A beautiful Portuguese style painted altar and ceiling, at the Cheriapally

Just a short distance from the Valiapally is the Cheriapally or the small church, which is neither small nor typically like a church. A synchronous blend of temple and Portuguese architecture, St Mary’s Orthodox Church was built and consecrated by the Portuguese in 1579.

The large brick outer walls, the huge hanging lamp in the hall and the granite pillars are reminiscent of temples in Kerala, while the vegetable dye paintings on the altar walls and ceiling depicting the life of Christ are typically Portuguese. Sadly, the paintings on the lower half of the altar wall have been ruthlessly whitewashed. The porch, with granite pillars and carved wooden ceilings, the tiled roof, the baptism basin hewn out of a single stone and the bay windows add to the uniqueness of the church. The grass carpeted courtyard houses an annexe, which functions as the church’s office. Don’t miss the inscriptions in Syriac on its walls. Entry Free Timings 8 am-6 pm Cameras Free.

In the same vicinity, don’t miss a beautiful double-storeyed traditional structure made of teak, the Thazathangadi Juma Masjid, one of the oldest mosques in India. Believed to be more than 1,000 years old, the mosque has a square inner courtyard typical of a nalukettu (four-sided mansion with an inner courtyard), carved wooden gabled roof, a traditional bathing area and latticed windows. Entry Free Timings 7 am-6 pm Cameras Not allowed. Women are not allowed inside.

Clothes and jewellery are the chief draws in Kottayam. KK Road buzzes with multi-tiered jewellery shops and sari showrooms. If you are looking for Travancore saris and dress material, try Kasavukada in Arafa Towers, west of Thirunakkara Temple. Another place to visit is Seemati on MG Road, which has a special showroom called Temple of Silks; Narmada and Parthas on MG Road are also excellent places to pick up saris. If you are a collector of antique items, head for a small shop tucked away on the highway in Kodimatha. Its modest setting hides a wealth of artefacts from all over Kerala. For souvenirs, you can pick up old lamps, gramophones, Chinese pickle jars and lamp shades. Anne’s Bakery on Bakery Junction is a good place to buy some Syrian Christian specialities such as churuttu (a sweet savoury) and kozhalappams (fried items made of rice flour).

Where to Stay

There is no dearth of places to stay in Kottayam, but most tourists prefer to head to Kumarakom, 15 km west. There, you get to mix heritage with breathtaking views of the countryside.

Kottayam Town

There’s plenty to choose from. Akkara House (Tel: 0481-2516951; Tariff: 3,250-3,750) is a homestay set in a Syrian Christian mansion on the river-bend of the Meenachil. You need a boat to get to your room! Prime location and great food are two major pluses with Hotel Anjali Park (Tel: 2563661; Tariff: 1,200-3,800) on KK Road. Another decent hotel located in the heart of town is Homestead Hotel (Tel: 2562346; Tariff: 425-1,688). Two adjoining restaurants here serve North and South Indian food. Hotel Aida (Tel: 2568391; Tariff: 990-1,700) on MC Road has a restaurant and a bar. Pearl Regency (Tel: 2561123/ 25; Tariff: 2,600-6,250) at TB Junction is a fairly good hotel.

The Cherian Ashram Ayurvedic Resort (Tel: 2371334/ 964; Tariff: 650-2,000), on KK Road, Ayrattunada, has cottages and Internet facilities. Hotel Nisha Continental (Tel: 2562189, 2563984; Tariff: 520-610), on Sastri Road, is a good budget option.

Kumarakom, Vembanad Lake

Atul Loke
After the heritage trail, next is a blissful ride in the Vembanad backwaters
After the heritage trail, next is a blissful ride in the Vembanad backwaters

One of the best places you can stay here is Vivanta by Taj (Tel: 0481-2525711/16; Tariff: 16,000-35,000), that motivated former PM Atal Behari Vajpayee to write his Musings from Kumarakom (also one of the chief settings in The God of Small Things). Built in 1877, it is the ideal haven for a heritage holiday. You can tour the property without staying in it.

The Windsor Castle (Tel: 2363637-40; Tariff: 3,000-6,000) is on the banks of Vembanad Lake. The Lake Village Resort (Tel: 2363637-38; Tariff: 6,000), has cottages designed like traditional illams and tharavadus, facing the waters. Vembanad Lake Resort (Tel: 2360866; Tariff: 600-1,000), next door to Windsor, has cottages facing the lake.

For a retreat in the proximity of Vembanad, try Backwater Ripples (Tel: 2565404; Tariff: 9,200-18,500) in Kumarakom. It has lake-facing rooms and personalised service.

Where to Eat

The Kottayam experience won’t be complete unless you taste the three Ks—kappa, kallu and karimeen, meaning tapioca, toddy and pearlspot fish respectively. Kottayam’s speciality is the Kottayam duck roast.

Vivanta by Taj at Kumarakom is a good place to start. Their thattu dosa (a thicker version of the regular dosa) with chutneys are excellent. So are the idiappams and appams. Try their fish curries too.

The Vyshali Restaurant at Manipuzha, Changanassery Road, is the best place to have sweet toddy, accompanied by the day’s catch from the nearby Vembanad. It’s famous for the crab dishes (crab roast being one). They also serve delicious kappa and kallappams (appams made with toddy).

The restaurant at Anjali Park Hotel on KK Road also has a delicious array of local fare. Meenachil Restaurant, also on KK Road, and its sister concern Thali offer decent North and South Indian fare.

Around Kottayam

Mannanam (11 km)

A half-hour drive up the Mannanam hillock, north of Kottayam, is worth the effort just for a breathtaking view of the town, its coconut palms, soaring church spires and silver lagoons.

Besides being associated with the Blessed Father Chavara, Mannanam is the seat of the first seminary of the Malabar Church (1833), the first Catholic Sanskrit School in Kerala (1846), the first printing press in Kerala (the CMS Press, 1846), the first Catholic English School (1846), and the first daily newspaper in Malayalam, the Deepika (1887). In Mannanam, ask for the 19thcentury St Joseph Church. It retains its original altar, adorned with gold filigree work. The most brilliant repertory of church history is preserved at the Chavara Art Museum nearby. Entry Free Timings 9 am-5 pm, open daily.

Ettumanur (11 km)

Also to the north of Kottayam is the ancient Shiva Temple at Ettumanur, the most important of the Shiva temples situated here and in Kadathurthy and Vaikom. The main gopuram fronts a mural, most of which is hidden under layers of whitewash. Look for the big brass lamp facing the shrine. Entry Free Timings 4 am-12.30 pm and 5-8 pm Cameras Still 20, video 50.

Athirumpuzha (18 km)

North of Mananam is Athirumpuzha, where St Mary’s Forane Church is located. The church dates to 835 CE. The lovingly preserved St Sebastian’s statue in the church was brought by a sailor from Portugal in 1687. An unusual feature is a statue of Jesus on the cross without a single wound. Entry Free Timings 9.30 am-1 pm and 3.30-6 pm.

Changanassery (18 km)

People in Changanassery (south of Kottayam) take immense pride in the name of the place. Changanassery is said to be a corruption of shankhunatha-sseri. The story goes back to the 12th century, when a Thekkumkur raja, Udaya Marthanda Varma, built a temple, a church and a mosque at equal distance from each other, to hear the sound of the shanghu (conch), the natham (chime of the church bells) and the sseri (muezzin’s call) every morning. The rituals and festivals of the temple, church and mosque are inter-linked, paying eloquent testimony to Kottayam’s syncretic traditions.

The Kavil Bhagwati Temple venerates Goddess Kali and welcomes the annual procession from the Pazhayapalli Mosque and the Easter procession from St Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral. The cathedral, which has granite flooring typical of 16th-century religious buildings, in turn welcomes annual processions from the mosque and the Bhagwati Temple. The rundown Pazhayapalli Mosque completes Kottayam’s famed religious amity. Entry to all three Free Timings Temple 5-10 am and 5-8 pm; Cathedral 5.30 am-8.30 pm; Mosque 8 am-7 pm, except when the namaz is being read.

Vaikom Temple (36 km)

The Vaikom Temple (north-west of Kottayam), where Lord Shiva is known as the ‘Annadana Prabhu’ or the Giver of Food, has a big kitchen and a doublestorey, 1,000-m-long oottupura (dining room). This 16th-century temple has a 317-foot-tall gold flagstaff. Entry Free Timings 4 am-12.30 pm and 5-8 pm Cameras Still 20, video 50.

Piravam (41 km)

Piravam (north-west of Kottayam), a kilometre west of Peppathy Junction in Veliyanad, on the Ernakulam-Piravam route is ideal for those who want to see the surviving manas or illams, the traditional Kerala Brahmin houses. Its most famous house, the 8th-century Melpazhur Mana, meticulously preserved, is where Shankaracharya is believed to have been born. Entry Free Timings 9 am-5 pm, Sundays closed Stay Residential accommodation with meals is available at 500-750 per day (Tel: 0484-2747307/ 104).

Poonjar Palace (45 km)

The Poonjar Palace complex, to the east of Kottayam, has a nalukettu and ettukettu (a mansion with two inner courtyards). The royalty’s collection of antiques housed inside the palace includes wooden utensils, wooden and stone measures, and palm leaf manuscripts. The complex also houses a Madurai Meenakshi Temple with 2,200 lamps hewn out of stone. Entry only with prior permission from the family. Call Vishwanatha Menon at the palace (Tel: 0482-2272908) at least two days prior to the visit.