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South India with Kids

From fervent religious festivals to feisty cuisine, William Gray introduces his children to India

First published in Sunday Times Travel Magazine

Tuk-tuk, Madurai, India
Tuk-tuk, Madurai, India

Joe and Ellie weren’t as fazed by their first experience of India’s chaotic traffic as I thought they’d be. Perhaps it was all too familiar – a real-life version of Super Mario Karts, only played out with tuk-tuk rickshaws, scooters and garishly painted trucks. It didn’t take long for culture shock to kick in though.

At Cochin’s waterfront, the first stop on our two-week tour of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, we stepped from the air-conditioned bubble of our minibus into the sweaty swirl of South Indian streetlife. As the staring began and the hawkers closed in I felt the twins’ hands fumbling for mine. Our guide, Suresh, led us briskly to Cochin’s famous Chinese fishing nets – giant cantilevered structures rearing above the shore like a row of praying mantids. I tried to listen to Suresh’s description of how the nets worked, but my mind kept snagging on distractions: piles of fruit being heaped on rickety stalls, a bullock hauling a cart laden with sacks of rice, waves of cloying humidity thick with the stench of fish and refuse.

It wasn’t long before our shy nine-year-olds attracted the cheek-squidging attention of passers-by who wanted to shake Joe’s hand or touch Ellie’s long blond hair. For a moment I wondered if it was all going to be too much for them; that they were too young to cope with the intensity of India. It was one thing studying Tamil culture at school, but quite another to be pitched into the thick of it.

Several factors put me at ease however. The locals clearly loved children and we had a wonderful guide who would often put a protective hand on Joe and Ellie’s shoulders and check they were okay. And then there was Kerala itself – easier going than most Indian states and with a well-established tourist circuit. We were also on an organised family tour with a good balance of full-on and laid-back experiences.

The following morning we were driven to Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary – a soothing green balm after frenetic Cochin. “Today I have one hundred per cent satisfaction,” said local guide Gireesh Chandran after a morning in which we successfully spotted the rare Sri Lankan frogmouth.

Satisfaction was also guaranteed further inland at Kodanad, where we waded in the River Periyar for a lesson in pachyderm husbandry. Wild elephants were once trained here for work in the timber industry, but now a rag-tag herd of rescued adults and orphaned youngsters enjoy the good life, including daily baths in the river. While the elephants flopped on their sides, Joe and Ellie scrubbed behind their ears with coconut husks, suppressing fits of giggles as the jumbos created their own flatulent bubble bath.

This hands-on approach proved to be the key to the trip’s success. By day four, the twins had not only learnt how to wash elephants and eat rice and dhal off a banana leaf, but they’d also tried tea picking.

Leaving behind the steamy coastal plain, we had climbed 1600m into the blissfully cool Western Ghats where the hill station of Munnar sits snugly amongst undulating folds of emerald tea plantations. As with the elephant mahouts, the tea pickers were keen that Joe and Ellie ‘had a go’ – and in doing so, they drew their parents into a more intimate experience, bridging the cultural gap more easily than would have been possible on an adults-only trip.

That’s not to say the kids took everything in their stride. Barely an hour passed when they weren’t brought up short by some ‘shocking’ aspect of daily Indian life – a whole family, baby and all, riding on a scooter for example, or the fact that tea pickers earn just £1.50 for 18kg of plucked leaves.

Nothing, however, could have prepared them – or their parents – for Madurai. Descending from the Ghats onto the dusty plains of Tamil Nadu, we lurched into the city amid a maelstrom of fumes and horn blasts, black and yellow tuk-tuks swarming around us like angry bees. Our hotel provided momentary refuge before we set out, on foot, to the Minakshi Temple. That’s when things started to go wrong.

Kavadi festival procession, Madurai, India
Kavadi festival procession, Madurai, India

We had almost reached the temple’s spectacular eastern gopura – a 50m-tall gateway adorned with colourful figures of deities and mythical creatures – when we were swept up in the frenzied drumming, singing and dancing of a Kavadi procession. The heat and noise were crushing, but it was the sight of a man, swaying trance-like at the head of the crowd, a 3m-long metal spike inserted through his cheeks, that finally overwhelmed Joe. We laid him out in a patch of shade and doused him with water until the colour returned to his face. He’d hated the typhoid injection before our trip – no wonder the sight of a Kavadi-bearer (enduring excruciating pain to gain merit from Murugan, the Tamil God of War) had pushed him over the edge.

The Minakshi Temple was like an oasis after the manic street scene. Suresh stayed close to Joe as we strolled through its glorious colonnaded halls and gazed at elaborately painted ceilings. “You okay now, Joe?” I overheard him say. “You know, you see things like that in your life and your mind gets stronger.” Joe smiled weakly and nodded.

A couple of days later we returned to the Western Ghats, exploring Periyar National Park. Joe was back to his old self – our very own Mowgli, scampering carefree through the jungle, pausing to kick footballs of dry elephant dung while Suresh pointed out the bear necessities.

Heading back towards the Kerala coast, we stopped to meet families tending spice plantations, tapping rubber, weaving cloth or moulding bricks from mud beside the road. An overnight houseboat cruise on the Backwaters provided a chance to witness local life at a more sedate pace. Then, for our final two days, we checked into a beach hotel and suddenly ‘real India’ was snuffed out by the sounds of an altogether more traditional family holiday: children shrieking in a swimming pool or complaining about being smothered in sun cream. There was something strangely comforting in the fact that we only had to step outside the hotel lobby to find a tuk-tuk waiting to hurl us back into the magical mayhem of southern India.

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