Immortalised in Arundhati Roy's Booker prizewinning novel The God of Small Things, the southern Indian state of Kerala is visited by tens of thousands of British holidaymakers each year. But an environmental crisis is threatening the heart of one of the most beautiful corners of the sub-continent.
Kerala lies on a narrow strip of land between the Western Ghats mountain chain and the Arabian Sea, buffered from the open waters by lakes and canals supporting a wealth of marine and bird life. The foremost of these natural barriers is Vembanad Lake. Once the size of four Lake Windermeres, over the past decade it has been reduced to a third of its expanse.
Elsewhere only 33 per cent of the canals remain from a British marine survey in the early 1900s. Kerala's backwaters are disappearing.
'The steady reduction of water levels due to construction and the increase in chemical discharges into the marine environment from factories over the past decade has left Kerala on the verge of an environmental catastrophe,' warns Dr Bijoy Nandan, head of the state's Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute. 'Local crops are suffering. Fish stocks are depleted, rare birds are at risk and the numbers of freshwater turtles are falling.
'The massive reclamation of backwaters for agriculture, urbanisation, housing, aquaculture and port construction has drastically affected the area's flora and fauna. Unbridled economic growth, a population explosion and increased human activities along coastlines are the most serious problems facing India's fragile ecosystems today and the backwaters are no exception to this.'
Down the coast from the idyllic spot where 10-year-old Amitha and her brother play, vast barges dredge sand from the canal bed for cement factories to feed the country's huge desire for construction. Environmental campaigners say unregulated sand-dredging has resulted in damaging changes in the river eco-system. Nandan claims the annual landing of fish from the Vembanad Lake back-waters is down from about 16,000 tonnes a year in the late Seventies to about 7,200 tonnes in recent years.
One traditional occupation, the production of coir fibre - coconut husks weaved into rope, matting and filters for air-conditioning - has been singled out by environmentalists as a key threat to the eco-system. The husks are immersed in shallow backwaters for up to nine months, releasing toxic compounds that kill fauna and flora. But over 70 per cent of India's coir comes from Kerala, where thousands of jobs depend on it.
The harbour in Kochi, the economic capital of Kerala and India's second port, is so badly polluted by effluent that local people rarely swim or fish in it. Atmospheric pollution is so bad that Kochi is nicknamed Asthma City.
Madhusoodana Kurup, professor of fisheries at Cochin University of Science and Technology, said: 'For centuries these canals have sustained Keralans, but today these people have no pure air to breathe. The disaster graph is peaking.'
We'd been driving around the reserve for two hours when I finally accepted I was probably not going to spot one of the world's most iconic and endangered mammals. Then, suddenly, the ranger's mobile rang (with a bird-call ringtone), and we were off. Up ahead, padding along with his back to us, apparently oblivious to all the excitement behind him, was a four-year-old male tiger.
The engine of our camouflaged, open-sided truck was switched off and we were told to be silent. The ranger whispered that the animal would be totally aware of, and unconcerned by, our presence – as long as we weren't noisy. The tiger lingered for a while, his face in profile as cameras whirred behind me. Then he was off and away; the exhilaration among us was palpable. We were all high on tiger, with the rangers as thrilled as we were.
Such levels of expertise and local knowledge were just what I'd been hoping for when I began exploring the possibilities for a first trip to India. For a complete sub-continent novice, the prospect was daunting: the heat, the noise, the sheer overwhelming colour of the place. Though safety in numbers and a chaperone weren't particularly part of my plans, I'd opted for a group tour (with local guides) because my time was limited and I wanted a planned itinerary that would take in major sights.
My biggest dilemma was whether to go north or south. After deliberation I opted for the south – with its promise of a gentler, more relaxing and less taxing introduction to the wonders of India.
From the minibus as we left the airport at Chennai – the "gateway to the south" on the east coast of Tamil Nadu – the view was all jewel-coloured silken sarees against a muddy mustard-coloured backdrop of battered low-rise buildings. It was rush hour and there was a crowded, jostling intimacy to the flow of vehicles on the dusty main road – three-wheel taxis, many motorbikes (no helmets, women riding pillion and sitting side-saddle) and pushbikes. From the cars and crammed public buses faces stared at us and we, 11 of us, stared back.
We were on one of the relatively new "premium" trips that Exodus, the company we were travelling with, runs. They cost a bit more and the accommodation is better than on their standard tours. There was a lot of travelling and heat and humidity on this journey, and having an air-conditioned, comfortable room was a boon. The trip takes in India's three southernmost states: Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. Suresh Moni, our guide, described it as "a perfect starter Indian trip".
Our first outing was a tour of the stunning temples, carved shrines and caves of Mamallapuram, a Unesco world heritage site a couple of hours' drive from Chennai, with the oldest existing examples of the Dravidian architecture that is particular to this part of India. For the first few days we visited many of the temples for which the region is famous and marvelled at the fabulously detailed carvings and scale of these well-preserved ancient sites.
The largest temples in southern India are in Tamil Nadu: Kanchipuram, "city of 1,000 temples", is one of Hinduism's most sacred cities. On the way to see it we stopped to watch blacksmiths on the side of the road working metal and shaping knives and machetes. Suresh pointed out that it was the women who were doing the work, while the men did the selling.
We moved around a lot on this trip – no more than two nights anywhere. One of the highlights was a long journey by train. We rose at 4.30am for a seven-hour trip from Chennai to Mysore via Bangalore, state capital of Karnataka and India's Silicon Valley (though Mysore is catching up). The railway station in Chennai at 5.45am was electrifying – porters in turbans piled our luggage high on wooden trolleys and we fought our way through the carpet of sleeping, eating, chattering crowds who covered most of the available floor space to begin a truly fantastic journey.
You're never alone in India – wherever you look, at whatever time of day, in however rural a landscape, you always see people. From the window we could see crouching figures picking crops, peering, washing, waving. We passed junctions where jostling crowds on foot, on bikes, with cows, wait to cross. The views were extraordinarily rich, full of colour and life.
Mysore, city of palaces, is more relaxed than Chennai, with wide airy boulevards. At the fabulous central market, full of flowers, fruits, vegetables and jewellery, I asked Suresh about the cows who seemed to wander free. They are sacred animals here, and so get away with backing into you and taking the occasional nip. There was much buying of bangles in the market, but I liked the heavily decorated cardboard boxes they came in best.
It was at Bandipur Safari Lodge, in the Karnataka national park, that we had our encounter with the tiger – the beautiful beast gracing us briefly with its majestic presence deep in the bush. We also saw sambar deer, long-tailed paradise flycatcher birds, and the merest glimpse of an elephant browsing among the bushes.
In the high Nilgiri hill towns of Coonoor and Ooty (famous as temperate refuges for Raj officials and tea planters) back in Tamil Nadu, the air was much cooler and, unusually, we needed a sweater in the evenings. The Gateway hotel in Coonoor was my favourite on the trip – a real old colonial-style beauty where a man brought hot-water bottles to our rooms after dinner.
The scenery in the hills was stunning – high, sloping tea plantations so verdant they look almost fake. The narrow-gauge railway that runs to Ooty was a particular delight. I got an open-sided window seat, which was how I ended up being interviewed by a local TV news team, wanting to know what I made of this trip, and their country.
By chance we were in India for Diwali (or Deepavali as it is called in the south), one of the most important Hindu festivals of the year and a national holiday. On the way to Kochi, on the Malabar Coast, we stopped off at Kalpathy, a Tamil Brahmin village where they celebrate Diwali traditionally, by wheeling huge temple chariots through the streets. They weigh a ton and people have been known to be squashed and killed under the huge wheels.
After Kochi and an overnight stay on one of the stately houseboats that drift along the magnificent Keralan lagoons and lakes, we reached our last port of call. Varkala is on the west coast where the tropical scenery is dramatic. The locals on the beach – both men and women – were fully clothed and it was so hot and the sun so strong that this seemed only sensible.
We were definitely in a "resort", which was a first: the shops, bars and restaurants were full of westerners, a gentle reminder that our trip back to London was almost upon us.
• The trip was provided by Exodus (0845 863 9601, exodus.co.uk), whose 15-day Classic South India itinerary costs from £2,199pp including flights, transfers, accommodation and some meals