Kerala: Making Hay in the Indian sun

Sree Padmanabhaswami Temple

Sree Padmanabhaswami Temple

One of the architectural marvels of Kerala can be found in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) , the capital of the south Indian state. Situated at the centre of the city, at the top of a small hill, the Kanakakunnu Palace is a sprawling complex of beautiful buildings surrounded by lush green open grounds. The palace was built by Sree Moolam Thirunal, the Maharaja who ruled the territory between 1885 and 1924.

Moolam Thirunal was a reformist ruler who encouraged female education and road building. The British, the real rulers of India at the time, rewarded his progressive measures with a 21-gun salute.

Architecturally, the palace is a mixture of Indian and European styles: alongside the crimson walls are white Greek-style columns.

Independence in 1947 signalled the end of the line for the maharajas. Kerala, like all the other states, was gradually absorbed into a unified democratic India. The palace is now protected by the tourism department and, as well as being a place where families can relax at weekends, it has served as a venue for a wide variety of cultural events – including, last November, the inaugural Hay Festival in Kerala.

Kerala drum
Kerala drum

The palace’s position as a point of cultural intersection makes it an ideal place in which to hold a literary festival. What makes it even more fitting is that the local MP, Shashi Tharoor, is also an acclaimed novelist. Tharoor began his career as a diplomat at the United Nations and in 2006 came a close second to Ban Ki-moon in the race to become secretary-general.

While at the UN he published novels – the most famous of which is The Great Indian Novel (1989), an epic satirical work that uses the framework of the Hindu holy book the Mahabharata (literally, “Great India”) to tell the story of independence and its aftermath.

Speaking at the Kanakakunnu Palace at the festival last year, Tharoor recalled how a passion for literature had shaped his upbringing: “The nature of my early Kerala experience has been one of important literature, ideas and words… What my cousins were reading, thinking and being taught was what I was learning in expensive schools,” he said.

Museum Trivandrum
Museum Thiruvananthapuram

Kerala is famous for having a literacy rate of nearly 100 per cent. Thanks to its radical governments (the communist party regularly does well in elections) there is less poverty than in most other Indian states; and as of the start of October, Kerala had a banking facility in every village – though few multinational corporations invest there because of strict labour laws.

Thiruvananthapuram’s relaxed and friendly atmosphere reminded Tharoor of the Welsh borders town of Hay-on-Wye, and for years he encouraged his friend Peter Florence, director of the Hay Festival, to bring his event to Thiruvananthapuram.

As well as Malayalam, the native language, many people in Kerala speak and read English. When I attended last year’s festival, the crowd was almost entirely local. (It helps that it was free to enter.) What I found striking was the openness and enthusiasm of the crowd, full of people from differing backgrounds, united by their love of literature.

One especially popular event was that involving William Dalrymple, the travel writer, who read from his books about India and the Middle East, including his most recent, Nine Lives, an account of the variety of Indian religious experience.

Even by Indian standards, Kerala is highly religiously mixed. Known as “God’s Own Country”, the state is 50 per cent Hindu, 25 per cent Muslim and 20 per cent Christian. However, compared with other Indian states such as Gujarat, it has seen little sectarian violence in recent years. (Tharoor, whose wife, Sunanda Tharoor, is also a driving force behind the festival, has described the place as exemplifying the “best of India’s diversity and plurality”.)

The state was once home to a Jewish community which sailed to the Malabar Coast after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. The oldest synagogue in the commonwealth can be found in Kerala – in Kochi (Cochin), a port city about 135 miles north of Thiruvananthapuram. In the 16th century the Jewish community built Paradesi Synagogue and it is still in use today. Unlike some synagogues, which can look austere, this one has Belgian chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and a brass pulpit. The building is a fascinating hybrid of ancient Jewish culture and Hindu influences: worshippers wear special coloured clothing on feast days. At last year’s festival the historian Simon Schama, who is researching the Jewish diaspora, spent his final day journeying north to see this remarkable place.

Kerala’s capital is not short on religious sights, either. Trivandrum is the anglicised spelling of Thiruvananthapuram – literally “the Abode of Lord Anantha”. The Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple at the heart of the city is dedicated to this Hindu incarnation of the divine. Rising above the city’s tropical greenery the temple, run by the descendants of the royal family, is swarming with brightly coloured pilgrims, and the visitors who come to admire the intricately carved images that cover the rectangular facade. Non-Hindus are not allowed in, but there is much to admire from the outside.

About 30 miles north-west of Thiruvananthapuram is the coastal town of Varkala. Visitors can see the 2,000-year-old Janardana Swami Temple, close to the Papanasam beach – or “beach of redemption”. According to local lore, a wise man in ancient times named Narada flung a cloth into the air and where it landed the beach now stands. Since then it has been the place where Hindus throw the ashes of their dead.

Varkala has a natural spring that has healing properties, supposedly as a result of the medicinal plants that grow near the water source. There is also a centre for Ayurvedic treatments and yoga.

Varkala Papanasam Beach
Varkala Papanasam Beach

In his inaugural speech at last year’s festival, Tharoor spoke of the practical challenges in bringing the festival to Kerala. But one of the great things about Hay is the choice of unexpected venues. After all, why bring a festival to a familiar place or one that is already being served by an existing literary culture?

It is a chance to introduce the people of Kerala to foreign stars as well as Indian figures such as the journalist Basharat Peer, whose memoir about Kashmir and the Indian army’s undistinguished role there provided some of the most robust audience participation last year. Or indeed famous local authors such as the Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan, who by some accounts only narrowly missed out on the Nobel Prize this year.

Visitors from Britain to this year’s festival will have the opportunity of hearing some fascinating speakers from around the world – Germaine Greer, Jung Chang, Simon Singh – as well as being introduced to Indian and Keralean authors they might not have heard of before. All in the lush tropical surroundings of what must be India’s most intriguing state.

  • Highlights of Hay Kerala Hay Festival Kerala, in association with Qatar Airways, runs from November 17 to 19 at Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum). This year’s speakers include Jung Chang, the author of Wild Swans and a biography of Mao; Simon Singh, who will lecture on cosmology and codes; and Germaine Greer, who will be discussing Shakespeare’s lovers. For the full programme visit and for full coverage, including live reports, go to

News Sourced from The Telegraph

Some images of 2010 Hay Festival of Thiruvananthapuram taken from

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