Unique on the subcontinent for the wealth of its natural resources, the state of Kerala is bordered by the tropical forests of the Western Ghats Mountains on the east, and the Indian Ocean on the west, where the shores of the Malabar Coast stretch for over 500 km along the azure waters of the Arabian Sea.
Here, a combination of humid equatorial tropical climate and unique geographical features creates a remarkable variety of ecosystems with exceptional concentrations of plants and animal species that make Kerala one of the world’s richest biodiversity areas.
Cloaked by lush tropical vegetation, ‘Malabar’, as the region has been known historically, harbours, just in the Western Ghats, 27% of India’s plant species, 1800 of which are native to here.
Amongst them, a slender vine that thrives in the undergrowth of the monsoon forests, bears a fruit so desirable that in its pursuit, thousands of unimaginably long voyages have been launched: black pepper – the undisputed ‘King of Spices’.
Home to the world’s most traded spice, as well as 1600 species of plants that are found nowhere else in the world, Kerala is a tropical heaven with an intriguing history forged by an age-old tradition of contact with the rest of the globe, that offers superbly varied photographic opportunities.
From the emerald green of the Cardamom Hills, to the shimmering waterways of the Backwaters; from tropical forests, to ancient rituals and colonial architecture, Kerala is a singularly beautiful land, with a vibrant, cosmopolitan culture shaped by millennia of international trade and the multicultural links that grew alongside it.
It is this rich tapestry of sheer natural splendour and cosmopolitanism that forms the subject of the Pepper Coast Photography Expedition™.
One the oldest articles of commerce known to man, true pepper, as black pepper is also known, has been shipped from one end of the Earth to the other since antiquity, creating one of the first and most enduring links between Asia and Europe and, according to some, giving birth to the modern age of global trade.
It was a voracious appetite for this ‘black gold’ and the vast profits that came with its trade that triggered the earliest voyages of the Age of Discovery, and the global mapping of the world that came in their wake.
The most exceptional and historically significant of the spices, Piper nigrum (‘black pepper’ as the Romans knew it) is indigenous to the jungles of the Western Ghats, where an even balance of light, warmth, and humidity promotes the pungent, biting flavour that, according to connoisseurs, makes it the finest pepper in the world.
The keystone of Malabar’s wealth since 3000 B.C., pepper travelled from here, together with cardamom, cinnamon, sandalwood, sesame, turmeric, and a whole host of luxury items that could only be paid for in gold, on the longest trade route of the ancient world, over a vast network of sea and land routes that connected China with the Mediterranean.
In antiquity, much like now, black pepper began its long journey from the jungles of the Ghats. From here, it was transported down the foothills and punted over the rivers and lakes of the Backwaters that maze across the plains, to the ports of the Malabar Coast for onward travel.
Shadowing the route of pepper from mountains to sea, the expedition’s itinerary traverses extremely varied environments, offering opportunities across very diverse subjects, and providing an extensive panorama of a remarkable land.
Since ancient times, the richness of Kerala’s flora has marked its history, inextricably linking its fortunes to the spice trade.
In antiquity, the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, the Romans, and the Arabs undertook fabulously adventurous journeys to Malabar to acquire the spices – above all, black pepper – that grow here.
Such was the allure of these aromatics, that the exploitation of the monsoon winds for navigation was developed in response to the need to transport them.
Lying mid-way between the ancient ports of Rome and China, and as the first region of the Indian peninsula to receive the southwest monsoon winds, Malabar was ideally placed for the production and distribution of spices.
In 1498, five years after Columbus failed to discover ‘the Indies’, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama succeeded in rediscovering the ancient sea route from the east coast of Africa to the southern-west tip of India and landed on the Malabar Coast to establish the first European settlement in India.
In the days of Empire, after the Portuguese, it would be the turn of the Dutch, and then the British to fight for control of the spice trade.
Dubbed ‘The Pepper Coast’ by the Arab traders who, for a time, dominated this lucrative commerce across the Indian Ocean, present-day Kerala remains at the heart of the global spice trade and is still commonly referred to as ‘The Spice Garden of India’.
Over time, the customs of the spice-seekers who reached this region merged with indigenous local traditions, giving rise to a singularly diverse culture, which sets Kerala apart from any other Indian state.
In photographic terms, the expedition centres on diversity and entwines a unique range of photographic opportunities.
The itinerary traverses Kerala’s three main climate regions – from the lowlands of the coastal plain, where the town of Kochi and the Backwaters are found, through the verdant slopes of the Cardamom Hills in the central midlands, to the foot of the highest peak in South India, in the tropical highlands of the Western Ghats.
Tropical, exotic, and multifaceted the Pepper Coast Expedition is a magnificent photographic journey into the heart of South India.
Our photographic journey begins in the Indian Ocean port city of Kochi, also known as Cochin.
Drenched with colour, saturated with history, the fascinating ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea’ looks over a natural harbour where fishermen still operate the iconic Chinese Fishing Nets brought here over seven centuries ago by representatives of the court of Kublai Khan.
Created by a flood in the mid 1300s, Kochi’s harbour determined the city’s fortunes, allowing it to flourish as the Pepper Coast’s main distribution point for spices from the 14th century onward.
Enclosing one of the largest ports in India, the harbour continues to drive the economy of the region – the city’s very name is thought to derive from the local Malayalam word ‘Kaci’, meaning ‘harbour’.
The crumbling capital of an extinct Portuguese empire, Kochi retains a worldly atmosphere, redolent of its history as the centre of the global spice trade, and the entry point of many creeds into the Indian peninsula.
Our base here is in Fort Kochi, in the heart of the Old Town, a short distance from the harbour, and the imposing Santa Cruz Cathedral.
Incongruously framed by palm trees, this 16th century Portuguese basilica is a powerful reminder that it is here that the Jesuits begun their ‘harvest of souls’ from the local Hindu, Jew, Muslim, and Nestorians communities, which eventually led to Kochi being dubbed the ‘cradle of Catholicism in India’.
During our time in Kochi, we explore distinct aspects of its appeal – looking for images in the alleyways and vast spice warehouses of the Jewish quarter (home to the only International Pepper Exchange in the world), and along the extensive waterfront, where fishermen and vendors ply their trade amidst the many who gather to peruse the Ocean’s horizon.
We also spend time with Kathakali artists, in the town’s purpose-build theatre, to photograph the elaborate costume and make-up rituals that precede their performance of this renowned classical Indian dance-drama, which, like so much else, originated in Kerala.
Above all, we take time to savour the visual qualities of this captivating place and pursue the outstanding possibilities that it presents, in particular for street and architecture photography.
From Kochi, our photographic journey continues 150 km north-east, to the hill station of Munnar, the former Summer capital of the British Raj in South India.
Hidden amongst swathes of green, the town lies in the shadows of the highest peaks of the South-Western Ghats, surrounded by the undulating hills of the largest tea-growing region in South India.
Dotted with the yellow, orange, and fuchsia saris of the legion of tea-pickers who keep them in pristine order, the tea plantations around Munnar are among the highest in the world.
Here, serried rows of meticulously trimmed bushes contour the hillsides up to the tropical forest that envelops the crest of the chain dividing Kerala from its neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu.
In photographic terms, exploring the geometries of this manicured landscape – a visual feast that is often shrouded by mist – is made all the more rewarding by the dramatic skies that often unfold above it, and the light effects that these create.
To increase our opportunities of capturing this fleeting, constantly changing spectacle, we ensure that it is literally on our doorstep – our base in Munnar is on one of the most spectacularly-located tea plantations in the whole area, on a private estate to which we enjoy exclusive, round-the-clock access.
We explore the area’s diverse opportunities for landscape photography further at Eravikulam National Park, a mosaic of grassland interspersed with patches of evergreen forest that scatters over the Ana Mundi massif (2695 m), the highest point in South India.
Spread over a high rolling plateau, the park looks over the folds and valleys of the Ghats’ High Ranges, affording sumptuous views of a grand, natural landscape that provides an interesting visual counterpoint to the man-made symmetries of the tea plantations.
Beyond Munnar, our photographic journey takes us to the mountainous interior of the Cardamom Hills, to Periyar National Park, one of Kerala’s most important wildlife reserves.
Older than the Himalayas, the forests of the Western Ghats are amongst the top 25 biologically richest areas in the world; part of ‘Project Tiger’, the park is home to leopards, tigers, and elephants, amongst myriads of others animals and plant species.
Surrounding the tranquil waters of Periyar Lake, the reserve presents further, excellent possibilities for both landscape and wildlife photography, which we explore both on foot and by boat, trekking into the jungle and bamboo-rafting through the submerged forest of Periyar Lake.
During our stay in the area, we also photograph the ‘Spice Gardens’ characteristic of this part of the Cardamom Hills, where pepper, coffee, cardamom, and other spices that have long been the source of Kerala’s wealth are grown.
Descending from the Ghats, our photographic journey takes us to the celebrated Backwaters – a seemingly endless succession of canals, rivers and lakes extending between the hills and the coast, where the ebb and flow of freshwater and seawater creates an aqueous panorama of floating islets.
Fed by the rivers that flow down from the Western Ghats, the Backwaters are dotted by a multitude of islands carved by sea erosion and are rich in species which are uniquely adapted to this environment.
Similarly, the inhabitants of the Backwaters have developed distinctive ways of living in these surroundings, building their houses on long, narrow strips of land and traversing the waterways on shallow boats propelled by long poles.
During the Expedition, we navigate this lush labyrinth aboard Kettuvalam houseboats, to reach the more remote corners of the Backwaters, where tiny communities live encircled by water.
These large vessels, that were once used to transport rice, are the most comfortable and effective way of exploring this particular environment – there can be few more pleasurable ways of taking pictures than while cruising on a Kettuvalam’s shaded deck, as schools, churches, and houses covered with flowers drift in and out of view.
During the last part of our photographic journey, we return to the coast, to a small town perched on the edge of a spectacular red cliff formation overlooking the Arabian Sea.
An important pilgrimage site for Hindus, the town and its surroundings offer excellent possibilities for both people and landscape photography, and form a fitting conclusion to our photographic exploration of the Pepper Coast.
Our main reason for coming here is to photograph the resident fishing community as well as the Hindu pilgrims who come to pray at the local 2000-year-old temple and consign the ashes of their departed to the waters of the Ocean.
Located over high cliffs peppered with mineral springs that rise majestically from the sea, the town enjoys a uniquely dramatic position on the otherwise flat coastline of southern Kerala, offering beautiful views over the palm-fringed shoreline.
Hindus believe that the waters that lap the town’s main beach are holy and bathing in them washes away all sins. Accordingly, pilgrims congregate here, particularly at sunrise, for ancestor worship and ritualistic bathing.
Lastly, we photograph the fishing villages that stretch along this part of the coast, where the ‘Pusalan’ community – the traditional fishermen of Malabar – employ centuries-old methods of harvesting their livelihood from the sea.
Although this Expedition is open to photographers of all levels, participants should note that it is a relatively intense journey that traverses a wide range of environments both urban and natural, on land and water, and involves extensive walking, including trekking in the tropical forest.
It is a journey in which we explore diverse aspects of a many-sided land – from the crowded lanes of Kochi’s Spice Quarter, through the rugged Highlands of the Western Ghats, to the serene watercourses of the Backwaters, and the open horizons of the Malabar Coast.
As such, this Expedition is ideal for photographers who enjoy adventure and diversity. For those who have never travelled to India before, the Expedition can also form a gentle introduction to photographing the subcontinent.
Whilst the workshop includes numerous opportunities for photographing people in their environment, it is particularly well-suited for photographers who are interested in landscape photography.