India: Kerala #1: Rum Rock 'n' Ram and Holy Men In Black

Leaving Secunderabad back in early-January on the train to Kochi (Cochin), we really had no idea what we were heading into. I mean, we had absolutely no reason to suspect we were about to experience the best 3.5 months of our entire time in India. We only planned to stay in Kochi, a city in Kerala State in the very south-west of the country, for a few days and our plan was to stay in Kerala for a month, at the most. But things, luckily and as always, didn't quite work out as planned. And, in reality, we never really have anything more than the vaguest idea of a plan anyhow - which is definitely the best way to travel as far as we're concerned.

We did know Kerala was supposed to be nice since EVERYONE we'd met who'd been there had told us what a great place it was and how the people there were so laid-back and friendly; however, no one - absolutely no one - had told us about Rum Rock 'n' Ram. And it was the Rum Rock 'n' Ram that really made our time there extra special.

And, really, who'd expect to find a full-on Rum Rock 'n' Ram experience in Kochi, Southern India? I mean, talk about totally unexpected. When I left home (or at least Nepal) and headed to India I expected to experience/meet/see/bump into/come across a few cows and sadhus, maybe a funeral procession or two down by the holy River Ganges and definitely a few thousand cricket players; however, I never - not even somewhat - expected to come to Southern India and suddenly find myself living the 100% full-on Rum Rock 'n' Ram lifestyle. In the immortal words of Chicago, baby what a big surprise.

Our train ride from Secunderabad to Kochi was quite a big surprise in itself - very interesting and very very far from normal. For the 27-hour journey we were accompanied by hundreds and hundreds - a whole train load in fact - of Holy Men In Black. It was pilgrimage season at some famous temple in Kerala and our train was overflowing with hundreds of bearded, barefoot guys dressed entirely in black - all with beards and big necklaces, many shirtless and all apparently quite happy. For 41 days preceding this pilgrimage they had bathed twice a day, refrained from shaving and made sure to stay "pure", which is defined as: no meat, no alcohol, no sex (though I fail to see why sex is considered impure) and I assume, though no one said so explicitly, no heroin or cocaine either. We were actually very lucky because, even though there was no space and we were really packed in, we found ourselves surrounded by thousands of flowers and many, many very friendly and happy people, all of whom were clearly quite excited about being on this pilgrimage.

Two guys in our compartment were Sudanese students who were studying engineering in Hyderabad, but who were now on their way to Kerala for a vacation. The peace deal having just been signed in Sudan a couple of days earlier, we had something good to talk about. Aside from the 4 of us, everyone on the train looked like sadhus, albeit sadhus in black rather than the more standard orange. However, as we found out after a bit of discussion, these guys were, in fact, engineers, civil servants, doctors, you name it, and they had all taken time off from work for this pilgrimage. As everyone was dressed completely in black I thought for a moment that they were all paying one big giant tribute to Johnny Cash, though I soon realized that that was highly unlikely. So, it was 2 vacationing Sudanese students, one Canadian, one Japanese and an overflowing train full of Men In Black. Friendly Men In Black. Happy Men In Black. But no Women In Black. Their menstrual cycle, apparently, once again making them filthy, dirty and impure (Bite me!). However, prepubescent girls and post-menopausal women are deemed pure enough to join; and I did, in fact, see one of the former, though none of the latter. So, more truthfully, it was a train full of Men and One Girl In Black. The one other guy on the train not on this pilgrimage was an English professor at a college in Hyderabad who was quite nice. Quite nice and quite talkative. So talkative, in fact, that he didn't stop talking to me - only to me - until he got off 6 hours after we'd left Secunderabad (What if he'd been going all the way to Kochi??). At that stop, and all others, many more Men In Black rushed onto the train. But it wasn't as bad as it sounds - we only had 12 people in our 6-person compartment.

The highlight came after we had just watched the huge orange sun set out the window. As it slowly became dark the hundreds of Men In Black, along with the one Girl In Black, all started to sing and chant together. Then came the call and response songs. Wonderful. Peaceful. Brilliant.

Another definite highlight was watching 2 or 3 shirtless, necklaced and flowered Guys In Black, including Big Company Boss Man In Black, messaging away on their cell phones.

As on any Indian train, we heard the familiar and constant cries of "chai chai chaiiiiiiya" and "coffee coffee", but on this train we also got the added joy of the "tomato soup" cry. Always best at 5 or 6 AM, of course. And, really, why would you want to sleep when you could wake up and have some tomato soup instead?

We were heading down to Kerala on the West Coast, so naturally the train took us to the East Coast and then down past Chennai before finally heading west. Probably an extra 500 kms or so. And with all that tomato soup to drink, why not?

This long, but very interesting, train ride (definitely the best during our time in India) finally came to an end when we arrived in Kochi a-relatively-good-for-India 2 hours late at 4 PM on Saturday, January 10th. Then, after finding a good place to stay (which, as usual, took a little while), we went out for a big steak dinner. Yes, we're talking about eating Holy Cow here... and at the type of fancy restaurant we've rarely eaten at on this trip. And it was free too! Or sort of. Dinner was on George and Vera. They hadn't taken the money we owed them for the utilities and for all the hours we had spent on-line using their computer. They had told us to use it for our trip instead. They said to go out and enjoy ourselves. And so we did.

It was the perfect start to what was going to be a fantastic experience in Kerala. There was lots more to come and I'm not just talkin' about Rum Rock 'n' Ram and big delicious cuts of Holy Cow. Our time there was also to include soccer, basketball, sharja shakes, lots of beer, many movies, trips out on the incredibly beautiful backwaters, dozens of new friends and much much more. 


                    Out on the backwaters with Ram

Mike Cowie
Wednesday, June 16th, 2004


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Holy cow?

Wow? they served you beef? how is that possible? around the back where no hindus where looking. I believe you but I still can't belive it! :) ...sab

Talkin' about Kerala

Hey, Sab, the thing about Kerala is that it's a lot more secular than the rest of the country. Politically, most people in Kerala vote for either the Communists or Congress parties. And the Hindu nationalist BJP party is almost nonexistent. And the other thing is, Muslims and Christians together make up about 45% of Kerala's population. So, if you add up all those Communists, Christians and Muslims, it's simply not a very safe place for a cow to hang out. The long and the short of it is if you're an Indian Holy Cow you'd best stay far far away from Kerala.