The fresh air, the vegetation, the bird song, the earthy food; the resort feels like a forest community
By Anna Mathews
The jackfruit tree incites passions in Kerala. I didn’t know this; I’m a city girl who grew up abroad. My friend and artist Bhaskaran Bare said to me the next morning that he lay in bed thinking late into the night about what Girish Kumar told us about the spiky, balloon-like fruit on our walk around Spice Village. They were things Bhaskaran did not know, though it was a fruit he so loved that he bought it at a premium in Ernakulam, where he lived and worked.
Spice Village unfolds like a little forest when we enter, with its nearly 200 varieties of shrubs, creepers, trees and other magnificent manner of flora, and the rustically designed tribal cottages for guests, set over 14 organic acres. But a walk with Girish, the property’s naturalist, familiarizes you with the wonders of nature. The jackfruit tree is a staple in most rural backyards across Kerala, which is home to—at a conservative estimate—35 different varieties.
The tree, which reaches a height of up to 15-20metres and valued also for its wood, usually with a lovely canopy, has some quirks. It produces male and female fruit; the male fruit shrivels and drops off the tree after all the female fruits have formed. It is the female fruit that is eaten, prompting Bhaskaran to say that instead of calling the fruit “chakka” in the vernacular Malayalam, it should have a feminine “i”-inflection and bear the “chakki” moniker.
Also, the jackfruit tree is “true to type”. You might plant a certain variety of jackfruit seed, but it need not yield that same variety of jackfruit. If, for example, you plant a “varika” jackfruit seed, you might end up with a “kuzha” jackfruit tree; an amazing, evolutionary, self-preservation tactic.
Bhaskaran, who is also a writer in Malayalam, told me that in the old days, when families had disputes and broke up over property claims, siblings would fight over who got the jackfruit tree that stood on the border. “When the tree itself is so mischievous, it is little wonder it caused strife between brother and sister,” he joked.
After a heavier-than-usual monsoon, Spice Village looked fresh and earthy at the same time. Nature gently set the rules and we just enjoyed the bucolic ambiance. On the short walk from the restaurant to the room after dinner, the sounds of the night were constant and piercing, without being disturbing. It was just frogs, bats, cicadas, crickets and brain-fever bird (Common Hawk cuckoo). And then there was the cuckoo and red wattled lapwing calling out of the guys’ pockets; Girish’s and Bhaskaran’s mobile ringtones!
“Sometimes I grab my phone from my pocket when it rings and are puzzled to see that it’s off. It’s only then that I realize that it is the sound of a cuckoo from a tree outside my office,” boasts Girish. Bhaskaran’s bird is the alarm clock of the jungle; it is the call of the wattled lapwing that wakes the creatures of the forest. Girish has a ringtone collection of about 200 birdsong and Bhaskaran wants it. This is boys talking toys on a different level. Nature has a finger even in the technology pie here.
Girish’s office, the nature interpretation centre, offers a safari of the local flora and fauna, through slideshows, pictures—a photo taken by a guest at Spice Village of the notoriously people-shy Nilgiri marten has pride of place—nature periodicals and rare books. There is a board outside the office where guests list down the animals they have spotted on their trek or boat ride around Thekkady, where the Periyar Tiger Reserve is situated. Today’s list includes wild boars and samba deer.
Most guests are also awestruck by the roofing at the resort. Anything other than the cottages with elephant grass thatching would have marred the delicately wild ambiance of Spice Village. Imagine a structure more basic or more complicated standing shoulder to shoulder with the splendid, spiky Mauritian hemp. It wouldn’t gel. Have you seen those majestic hemps? They look like a crown and stand as if they are kings of the land. These cottages can look a hemp in the eye.
The thatching is several layers thick. Every couple of years, the top layer is refurbished with new grass brought from the forest. Every decade of so, the roof undergoes a complete overhaul. It is done with a tribal collective under local administrative approval. This was a traditional method of thatching locally, but is an almost forgotten art, and is now only found in Spice Village.
Elephant grass—named so, because an elephant can hide in its tall thickets—is typical to this region. Coconut frond was a fairly common thatching material a couple of decades back across Kerala. Bhaskaran remembers a finer straw than elephant grass being used in his hometown in north Kerala. He tells me about the artistry in thatching and also in the coir joints, where the thatch would be tied together. Masons took pride in these skills, and it is sad to think that they are all but lost today.
Spice Village is a plastic-free zone and there is a recycled paper making “factory” manned by two local women. They produce the note pads for rooms and conferences, luggage tags, gift bags for the shop and even the card on which the wedding invite of the managing director, Jose Dominic’s son, was printed. It is a fun craft that most guests try their hands at. They take back samples of their handmade paper embossed with leaves and flowers, and sometimes mail the paper that they have experimented with back home to Spice Village. We wondered why more people weren’t getting into this business and replacing all the ugly, wasteful, plastic bags used in shops.
The temperature was cooler than where we arrived from; me about four hours from the south and Bhaskaran about the same from the north. I felt silly when I looked for the air conditioning regulator and realized the room was just naturally cool. No wonder the property’s kitchen garden has a healthy harvest of carrots, cabbage, beets and herbs—all cooler clime vegetables. Girish plucked a couple of leaves for us to sniff. “Pricks you right between the eyes, doesn’t it?” he asks of the smell.
It is my first taste, or smell rather, of fresh peppermint and it feels like the fragrance of Spice Village. It is one of the herbs—you can choose from India borace, basil, mint, lemon balm or whatever is available in the resort’s garden—offered in your green tea as a welcome drink.
The flavours of Spice Village are varied. As with all CGH Earth kitchens, the philosophy is to provide healthy, authentic local cuisine with global appeal. So there are wholegrain cinnamon buns and flavoured breads; bakery items are sweetened with jaggery, rather than sugar. The fish curry is possibly the best we have tasted. Then there is the resort’s specialty: its range of pickles from green pepper to fish and meat. Because we arrived a month before the tourist season begins, we missed out on the 50 Mile Diet eating experience, where all the ingredients served at the restaurant is sourced within a 50-mile radius.
Bhaskaran puts salt and a chilli in his drink at Wood’s House bar; a couple more ingredients and it could be a pickle. As always the staff is friendly and obliging, and is always around with a smile and small talk. A. Francis, the all-round sports and games hand at the property, walks in briskly, shows me one way of finishing off brain-vita (a board game with balls in a grid), gives us a billiards demo and shows us a magic trick with playing cards. It all feels very old-world with the chilly evening air in a game warden’s old lodge. Girish remembers the original lodge, built in the late 1930s, around the same time as the local post office and post master general’s bungalow, with its thick walls made to protect from marauding elephants that would not infrequently wander in from the forest.
“I draw forests,” Bhaskaran tells Girish. It drizzles lightly and then sun breaks forth. He loves the play of light and shade; it is what he wants to master. “Forests aren’t green alone, are they?” he asks. How do you reply to an artist who asks that? “For me, forests are green and black and yellow.”
Bhaskaran spent serious time in Wayyanad’s Muthanga forest about a decade back, while he was doing research for his acclaimed biography Mother Earth on tribal leader C.K. Janu. She fights an ongoing, difficult battle with the government against displacement of tribals from their traditional settlement in the forest in north Kerala. Bhaskaran drew from his experiences with the tribals, but also from his own childhood in a village, in writing the book, which is now part of Calicut University’s literature curriculum. He said to me that some elements of Spice Village reminded him of those days of earthy living.
On our walk around the property, we saw and heard hundreds of flying foxes in the nearby forest among tall bamboo thickets. In the property, we saw the flower pecker, the smallest bird spotted in India. I think there is a primal joy that comes from knowing that the forest and its creatures are thriving not far away.
Anna is the editor of Earth Calling, the magazine.