Kumily: a pleasant one-stop shop for South Indian mediocrity
Convenience rules over the mountain town of Kumily, in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Most Keralan specialties, from spices, to wildlife, to theatre to martial arts can be found within its five or six streets. This makes Kummily a cultural Wal-Mart of South India.
But like any all-in-one, each component is of doubtful quality.
Kumily is the base for exploring the Thekkady wildlife sanctuary, and has morphed completely into a tourist hub. Four main businesses line its streets: hotels, restaurants, Kashmiri textiles, and spices. Like any good Kerala tourist town, Ayurvedic spas are a dime a dozen.
Still, the town has a relaxed feel, where auto-rickshaws calmly wait for street cows saunter out of the way. Goats relax in front of restaurant doors and school children are always walking to and fro.
Tourist brochures offer guided hikes, elephant rides, boat trips on the park’s reservoir, night safaris and tiger sightings. A kindly Muslim who works for the state tourist bureau discouraged me from half those activities.
The tigers, he said, are rare to spot, having migrated away from the human activity. The boat trips were crowded with Indian tourists and the night safari, in his words, were “not really worth it.”
Result: I did none of it.
Kumily’s cool mountain climate is ideal for the cultivation of spices and tea. It’s a major hub for the spice trade, and Indians from all over come to buy in bulk. Half the town’s stores are spice merchants, and it leaves one wondering how each one can make a living. But they do. There are always people, white or brown, negotiating a deal with the sellers.
Merchants insist they have a standard-grade batch of cardamon, cinnamon and cloves, and a premium organic stash. My experience with other developing countries taught me that what is often sold as organic is the industrial stuff with a different label and a higher price tag. Unless you go with an expert, it’s hard to tell if the spices, oils and powder mixes are of good quality.
As an extra money maker, some sellers offer spice garden tours. A guide takes you through a dense patch of forest and points out the different spice bushes and trees. Again, this is of variable quality. In one tour, which sot me 200 rupees, a bored-looking woman simply names each plant and had be taste a piece of it.
Unsatisfied, I went to another man, who explained with knowledge and enthusiasm how each plant is cultivated, how the spices are used in food and their medicinal properties in Ayurvedic healing. It cost me 100 rupees.
Kumily has two cultural houses with daily shows in Kathakali, the colourful and voiceless Keralan theatre that recounts tales from the Hindu epics, and Kalari, the spectacular Keralan martial art.
I watched both at the Mudra Cultural Centre, and again a the Kalari show at the rival and neighbouring house. The Kalari was identical: the sword-fights, fire dancing, displays of acrobatics and disarming of a knife-wielding opponent were exactly the same. It made me suspect both houses are owned by the same company built to accommodate the high demand.
The Kathakali was fascinating and well-explained, but I had the feeling it was abbreviated and simplified for tourists.
Fro the time-crunched traveler who wants a concentrated South Indian experience, Kumily is perfect. The cool weather offers a lovely respite from the searing heat of the coast. Its position at the border with Tamil Nadu State is also ideal for moving on.
Just don’t expect to come away fulfilled by an authentic cultural contact.