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Travelling the Kerala Roads

After a long period of stay in Ahmedabad, I decided to return and settle down in Kerala after my retirement from active service. We bought an apartment in Kottayam which is a town in central Travancore, where I was born and had my early education.

Syrian Christians in Kerala are a close-knit community. Its true meaning is that a large number of relatives spread over the state are in close communication, especially in the WhatsApp age. Events like marriages, baptisms and death bring all the members together. A personal invitation or an invitation through a card specially printed for the occasion is a command to attend these events: not only is it bad style not to attend these events, but the grudge if you miss one is tended life-long.

The best way to travel to these events is to use your personal transport engaging a driver. This frees one of the stresses of actual driving, which can be substantial given the nature of the roads and the traffic. The other consideration is that one can be relieved of the problem of finding a place to park while attending formal events like marriages. There are agencies who provide excellent drivers even on short notice. Most of these drivers are persons who had some service in the Gulf countries or have wives working there. This means that the drivers are financially well off and the driving is an activity which fetches an extra income.

Kerala has an extensive network of highways, major roads, and interior roads. Official statistics claim that the “Total Road length in Kerala is 2,38,773.02 km. Road density in Kerala is 548km per 100 sq. km, which is roughly thrice the national average. The length of road for a population of a lakh is 993.54km and almost 90 per cent of the road network is single lane. The National Highways, considered to be the primary network, carries 40 percent of the total traffic, and the State Highways and Major District Roads (MDRs) — the secondary road network — carries another 40 percent of the road traffic. Thus around 12 per cent of the road network handles almost 80 per cent of the traffic in the State (1).”

The crowds that we now see along these roads are also a reflection of the social transformation that the state of Kerala has witnessed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Kerala, this period saw struggles by people across castes for access to public spaces: roads, markets, temples. The famous Vaikom Satyagraha led by Ayyankali for temple entry for Dalits was equally for their access to the roads to the temple, which were denied to them earlier.

Ayyankali, who came from a Dalit family in Kerala, was a social reformer. In Travancore/Kerala, members of lower caste communities were not allowed to enter public roads as these roads were controlled by the members of higher caste communities. So, ‘Villuvandi Samaram’ (Bullock cart strike) was the direct result of this social discrimination, and this movement was led by Ayyankali himself. In 1893 Ayyankali brought a Bullock cart from a neighbouring state and marched over the public roads of Venganoor.

The physical spaces have now extended to other manifestations of spaces like reading rooms, libraries, public education institutions, teashops — where the modernity was produced (and reproduced) daily through lived experiences.

Ubiquitous along the Kerala roads are churches ranging from Grand Cathedrals to wayside shrines. So are the teashops (Chayakadas) where people gather to have a cup of tea, read the newspaper, and enter friendly political debates.

Another sight is religious processions, usually accompanied by a drum-beating group and occasionally by a caparisoned elephant. Women take part in these processions quite strongly. They end up in the local temple on auspicious days.

On the road, you pass every few kilometres a new village with a strange and sometimes evocative name. A friend of mine, Kottayam Baburaj, has travelled across Kerala on a scooter to write ‘Sthala Vijnana Kosam’ or an encyclopedia of various places in Kerala. He has some amazing fun facts to share about the nomenclature of Kerala. Kerala Sthala Vinjanakosam prepared by Kottayam Baburaj has info of more than 25,000 places, 532 route maps and a list of various short cuts.

He found out that there are many other ‘Keralams’ within Kerala. Keralapara in the Kottayam district is near the Angel Valley in the Erumcly panchayat. There are places named Keralapuram in three districts. You could visit Keralapuram at Koduvayur in Palakkad, Kottangal panchayat in Pathanamthitta and in Kottamkara — Perinad panchayats in the Kollam district. Meanwhile, Kerlaparambu is in the Alathur panchayat in Palakkad. There are two places called Keralam in Malappuram district.

Since Kerala has predominantly been synonymous with lakes, ponds, rivers and backwaters, most cities and towns in the state have names suffixed with kulam and puzha, which translate to pond and rivulets in Malayalam, respectively. Although many places were addressed with anglicised monikers during the periods of colonialism, the last few decades have seen most of them reverting to colloquial titles. Kollam from Quilon, Kannur from Cannanore, Alappuzha from Alleppey, Kochi from Cochin and Thiruvananthapuram from Trivandrum, to name a few.

As an example of the etymology of places, we may consider Kottayam, my town. The name Kottayam is considered to have come from Kotta, meaning a fort and akam meaning inside. In the mid-18th century, Marthanda Varma of Travancore attacked Thekkumkur, destroying the Thaliyil fort and annexing the region into Travancore. In the early 19th century, the kingdom was made a princely state of the British Empire.

Kerala has a vibrant and unique social life on its streets. The concept of “street life” can refer to the social activities and interactions that take place in public spaces. In this sense, street life can be seen as a reflection of the social fabric of a community and can provide insight into the level of social harmony and cohesion in that community. The state is known for its diverse culture, art, and cuisine, which is reflected in the lively streets of its cities and towns. A notable aspect of the social life on the streets of Kerala is the abundance of street food. You can find a variety of delicious snacks and meals being prepared and sold by vendors on the streets. Some of the most popular street foods in Kerala include appam, puttu, vada, samosa, and parotta.

In addition to food, the streets of Kerala are also filled with people engaging in various activities. You can find groups of people chatting, playing games like carrom or chess, or simply enjoying the company of their friends and family. In some areas, you may even see street performers entertaining passersby with their music, dance, or theater.

Another significant aspect of social life on the streets of Kerala is the abundance of markets and bazaars. These bustling areas offer a range of goods and products, from clothing and accessories to fresh produce and spices. The markets are not just a place to shop but also an opportunity for people to connect with one another and exchange stories and experiences. Overall, the social life on the streets of Kerala is rich and diverse, reflecting the state’s unique culture and traditions. Whether you’re looking for delicious food, entertainment, or a chance to connect with locals, the streets of Kerala offer an experience unlike any other.

Kerala is known for its rich cultural heritage, and many of its traditional art forms and festivals involve public performances and processions that take place on the streets. Additionally, the state has a high level of social capital, which refers to the networks, norms, and trust that exist between individuals and groups in a society. This social capital can help to foster a sense of community and cooperation, which can be reflected in the way people interact in public spaces.

Overall, it can be argued that street life in Kerala is indicative of a relatively high level of social harmony and cohesion. However, it is important to note that there are also challenges and inequalities that exist within the state, and these can impact the experiences of different groups within society.

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