With its beautiful landscape, charming coast and pleasant weather, Kerala truly lives up to the epithet ‘God’s own country’. I have been Chinese ambassador to India for nearly a year and have heard a lot about this wonderland. As the chief guest at the 63rd Nehru Trophy Boat Race, I recently embarked on a three-day trip to Kerala.
As an important harbour along the ancient maritime route, Kerala had plenty of interactions with other parts of the world. In 1405, Admiral Zheng He, a great Chinese navigator of the Ming dynasty who commanded the largest fleet of the time, stopped at Calicut on his way to Africa. He exchanged gifts and conducted fair trade with the king of Calicut, and forged a profound friendship with the local people. In his later voyages, Zheng He’s fleet stopped at Calicut five more times. In 1469, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, drawn by the wealth of the Orient, travelled to this legendary place. He left after establishing a new colony for his kingdom, and later returned as the governor of the colony. Perhaps, it was destiny that the two explorers were laid to rest here.
The extensive exchanges Kerala had with other countries contributed to its openness and diversity. A narrow street in Kochi, which has a Jewish synagogue, a Christian church, a Muslim mosque and a Hindu temple side by side, is a telling example of this tradition. Touring the city, we saw imprints left by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, Arabs and Persians. Kochi is a living museum of diverse cultures.
Such open and inclusive tradition keeps Kerala ahead of the times. In the 1960s, two agricultural revolutions took place in India. The ‘white revolution’ made India the world’s No 1 milk producer, while the ‘green revolution’ achieved significant increase in food production. Dr Verghese Kurien and Dr M.S. Swaminathan, the heralds of these two revolutions, have close links with Kerala.
Now, Kerala is leading India’s “ecological revolution”. Once out of Kochi airport, I was impressed by a large area of solar panels and the metro rail under construction. The solar panels are providing green energy for the airport, which is set to be the world’s first fully solar-powered airport, and the metro will become the foundation of Kochi’s low-carbon public transport system.
The concept of eco-friendliness is everywhere in Kerala. The villas in the resort we stayed in were reconstructed from antique materials transported from other parts of the state. The compound itself has a recycle and filtration system to collect and reuse rainwater. The manager told me that all hotels of their group are environment-friendly—garbage bags are made of non-woven fabrics and the handbags are made of used newspapers.
The open spirit and advanced development have helped: Kerala has a literacy rate of over 90 per cent, while the average life expectancy is 72 years. Both the figures are the highest in India. Three million among its 33 million citizens are working abroad, and their remittances account for nearly one-third of its GDP.
Kerala is famous for its backwaters, and the annual Nehru Trophy Boat Race is one of the most celebrated events. As I watched the rowers competing and the spectators cheering, I could not help but think of the Chinese dragon boat race. Both the events call for teamwork and sportsmanship, and they harvest happiness and hope.
I had the pleasure of watching kalaripayat, the traditional martial arts of Kerala, which is strikingly similar to kung-fu. Ayurveda is quite similar to traditional Chinese medicine, in terms of harmony between man and nature, and the use of herbs. And I found the local cuisine closer to Chinese food—fresh, delicate and delicious.
In addition to these intangible similarities, I found quite a few tangible Chinese elements here. We saw Chinese fishing nets at Fort Kochi, brought here by the Chinese 700 years ago and still in use today. As I walked in and around the hotel, I spotted jars, potteries and porcelains from China, some of them 200 years old. A curator of a private museum showed me centuries-old Chinese coins.
The tangible and intangible links speak volumes for the splendid civilisations of our two countries. Today, China and India are at a new historical point. By joining hands and aligning development strategies, we can revive the glory of the ancient Silk Road and Spice Route, achieve national renewal and contribute more to the progress of mankind.
Le Yucheng is Chinese ambassador to India.