A CULTURAL HERITAGE TRAIL IN NORTH KERALA

 

Text by Anil Mulchandani; Pics by Dinesh Shukla

 

 

The Malabar coast, with historic port cities like Kannur, Naura, Vizhinjam, Muziris, Nelcynda, Beypore, Kadalundi, Kozhikode and Cochin, in the medieval period, has attracted traders, invaders and migrants from millennia. Some of India’s first Christian, Jew and Muslim religious places were built in the coastal areas of Kerala.Today, a trip to these coastal towns offers an opportunity to explore historical monuments, textiles, music, dance and rural culture.

 

 We arrived at Cochin and saw its many European colonial buildings. Some of the star attractions of Cochin are the Jew Synagogue, St Francis Church and the royal palace called the Dutch Palace.

 

From Cochin, we took the road north to  Thrissur is the abbreviation of Thiru, Shiva and Perur, meaning the city named for Lord Shiva, and has been for centuries an important religious and cultural centre of Kerala. It is famous for its temples, churches, art colleges and training schools for performing arts.

Located at the western end of the Palakkad Gap or Palghat Pass, Thrissur was a vital link between the coast and the interior of the peninsula. The Rajas of Central Kerala reigned from here before moving their capital to Cochin. Thrissur fell to the Zamorin of Malabar, then Sultan Hyder Ali, and eventually the European colonial powers.

 

The city of Thrissur has many great temples and churches. The Lourdes Cathedral has an impressive Indo-European façade with pink spires and its imposing bulk makes it a major landmark. The interior of the cathedral has a pretty underground shrine.The centre of Thrissur is dominated by a temple complex, with roads radiating on all sides. Predominantly a Shiva Temple, it also has shrines to other deities. The main sanctuaries are dedicated to Shiva as Vaddukkanath and Sankara Narayan, with a Ganesh shrine between them. The temple has fine wood carvings decorating the roof and façade. The interior has beautiful murals near the main shrines.

Nearby, the Sakthan Thampuran Palace now houses a museum containing archaeological finds, bronzes, earthenware and princely relics of the Rajas of Kochi. The piece de resistance is a wooden treasure chest with spikes and locks, a measure of princely riches. The state museum nearby also has some fine murals, woodwork, sculpture and ornaments. As a cultural hub for Kerala, we are told, Thrissur has a number of institutions for performing arts and literature.

 

From Thrissur, we headed for Cheruthuruthy, a town by the Bharatpuzha River where we stayed at the River Retreat, once a palace of the Maharaja of Cochin.

 

In the morning, we visited the Kerala Kalamandalam,  founded in the 1920s and ‘30s by the late poet Vellathol Menon and his associate Mukunda Raja. It is an important academy for teaching the performing arts of Kerala like Kathakali, Mohiniattam, Kuttiyattam and Onam Thullal. The centre is credited with the revival of Kerala’s dance forms and for opening the doors for training all Hindus and non-Hindus in these performing arts. The academy has also established international links for the promotion of Kathakali overseas.  The highlight of the academy is the theatre attractively designed like the performing halls of Kerala’s temples with fine woodwork.

Another village of note is Irinjalakuda where the Natana Kairali Research and Performing Centre is dedicated to the performance, preservation, documentation and promotion of Kerala’s performing arts like Kuttiyam, Nangiar Koothu and puppetry. The Koodal Manikhyam Temple at Irinjalakuda is an unusual temple to Rama’s brother Bharata, depicting his joy when he learned of the victory of Rama and his reunion with Sita.Irinjalakuda also has the St Thomas Church, an impressive building erected in 1917 on the site of an older church built here in 1845. The feast is in January and the images of saints are taken out in procession welcomed with fireworks. You can buy bell metal, bronze and brass lamps at nearby Nadavaramba Angamali is an important Syrian Christian centre and nearby Akaparambhu has a church with murals narrating stories from the bible.

 From Thrissur, we drove to Guruvayoor, a great religious centre for the worship of infant Krishna. According to one of the legends associated with the temple, the site for this temple to infant Krishna was selected by Guru, preceptor of the gods, and Vayu, lord of the winds, when they met Lord Shiva and Parvati with Parsurama, creator of Kerala, at the tank of Guruvayoor. The tank has a statue of Krishna playing the flute. Nearby is a place with huge elephants.

Guruvayoor is the base to see megalithic sites with the hat-stones that that are distinctive Iron Age megalithic remains locally called topi-kals. Substantial remnants of Kerala’s megalithic era can be seen at Porkalam.

Also in Thrissur are the Athirapally and Vazhachal waterfalls set in the Western Ghats. Many tribal villages can be seen in the rainforests near the falls.

 

From Thrissur, we travelled to Kozhikode. After lunch, we visited Thekkepuram which is one of the historic neighbourhoods of Kozhikode. This area has classic Keralan mansions called Theravada  and is also one of the most important quarters of the Malabari Muslim Mappila community,  with a  collection of mosques that have retained the traditional Malabari architectural style distinguished by a multi-tiered roof in the traditional pagoda-style  of Kerala, slatted screens, angled teakwood beams, Kerala-style carved gables and carved doors. The hallways of the mosque have enormous timber rafters supporting an elaborate ceiling with fine carvings.   These mosques are little visited by tourists but must rank among the finest buildings in southern India and are an important architectural heritage of Malabar. Another distinctive aspect of this neighbourhood is the domination of Kazis, a judge ruling in accordance with the sharia or Islamic religious law which is not common in other parts of Kerala. The mosques have ornate ceilings covered in colourful stucco and bearing intricate script from the Koran. The handsome Mithqal Palli Mosque, named for Nakuda Mithqal who was a well-known merchant of Kozhikode in the 14th century, has a turquoise wall with a series of doors surmounted by semi-circular arches. 24 wooden columns support the four-tiered timber roof of the mosque.

 

The  Pazhassiraja Museum has, besides coins, bronzes and paintings, an interesting collection of models showing the megalith monuments of Kerala, Kerala’s historical architecture and copies of original murals. It is named for the Lion of Malabar, Pazhassiraja, who challenged the might of the British. He is respected by the people of Kerala as a freedom fighter of the 19th century. The Kozhikode Art Galley, honour has an extensive collection of paintings by Raja Ravi Varma, Raja Raja Varma, and other Indian artists, besides wood sculptures and ivory carvings. The Krishna Menon Museum has a section honour of the great Indian leader Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon (3 May 1896 – 6 October 1974), an Indian nationalist, diplomat and statesman. Close to the museum complex in Kozhikode on East Hill Street is the Jay Bees Art Gallery, which has fine displays of the art created by the owner of the gallery, Jayan Bilathikulam, who is a well-known designer and artist of Kerala.   Mananchira has imposing public buildings like the Town Hall, the Public Library and Commonwealth Trust’s office, most of them dating to colonial times, besides temples, mosques, an attractive public park, and a medieval pond.  This district was once the palace of the Zamorin, ruler of Kozhikode when it was a major port allied with the Portuguese forces. It was conquered by Tipu Sultan and the British built most of the present day buildings.

 

We settled for the night at Harivihar, a heritage home of a Nair family which has been sympathetically renovated and opened for tourists.  The rooms are in a horse-shoe shaped house surrounded by well laid out lawns. We entered the house which has wooden floors and staircases leading to teak furnished rooms. For dinner, we had a traditional Sadya here.

 

In the morning we visited the CVN Kalari, one of the important centres of Kalaripayattu, a martial art form that includes strikes, kicks, grappling, preset forms and weaponry.  The northern school of this martial art is known for its use of weapons, meippayattu (physical training), healing methods and body massages. CVN Kalari is popularly known for choreographing combat scenes of Ashoka, Dil Se and Lajja, and the weaponry scenes of the Jackie Chan starred movie, The Myth, a 2005 martial arts period drama action and adventure film directed by Stanley Tong.

Since Kozhikode or Calicut was an important port, there are many religious influences -  Parsi Fire Temple, churches, temples and mosques. Just outside the city, Beypore is a picturesque place with fishing boats and a weaving centre called TASARA.  We watched the hand-building of dhow-like ocean worthy vessels called Urus. We also bought uru models from a shop before travelling north to the former French colony of Mahe. After a drive in the town, we continued to Thalasseri, still well-known its colonial name of Tellicherry.  Here we saw the square 18th century British Fort, a mosque which has a tiered roof with a profusion of copper and topped by a gold covered dome, and many old buildings. `It was here that Dr Hermann Gundert,  a German missionary and scholar,  compiled a Malayalam grammar book, Malayalabhaasha Vyakaranam (1859), the first Malayalam-English dictionary (1872), and the first Bible in Malayalam, apart from works in astronomy and history.

 

Our room was booked at  Ayisha Manzil, an enormous mansion built by a British officer in the late-19th or early-20thcentury, which later became a family home of the Moosa family. It is appointed with rosewood, teak and mahogany furniture. We enjoyed a Meen Pathiri with fish sandwiched between rice-and-coconut bread, Erachi Puttu with mussels, and Tellicherry Biryani.


At dawn, we drove to watch a Teyyam dance at the Parsinnadukavu Temple. The Teyyam dance is a spiritual possession ritual, featuring colourfully costumed performers and depicting fascinating folk tales, performed in select temples. The Teyyam at this temple is a ritual enactment of Sree Muthappan, considered to be a manifestation of an integrated or unified form of Vishnu (with a fish-shaped crown) and Shiva (with a crescent-shaped crown). People of all castes, religions and nationalities are permitted to enter the temple and take part in the worship of this incarnation of Lord Shiva, during which fish is offered. Dogs are considered sacred here.

 

After the dance, we went around Kannur, or Cannanore called the Land of Looms and Lore. The Portuguese period St. Angelo Fort, built on a promontory, north-west of Kannur, dates from the 16th century, with a moat protecting the landward end and imposing bastions strengthening the laterite walls. Inside the fort are canons that have been set in cement, a chapel, jail, stables, and a magazine.  

 

Kannur is also the centre for handloom weaving cooperatives. We visited the Kanhirode Weavers Cooperative Society Ltd, established in 1952, where women and men were weaving textiles on handlooms. The city has a National Institute of Fashion Technology. The Irinavu Weavers’ Co-operative Society and the Kallyassery Weavers’ Industrial Co-operative Society are other initiatives for weavers.

 

Continuing north along the coast, we visited the historical Bekal Fort and the holy Malik Dinar Mosque at Kasaragode.

 

From Kasaragode, we drove to Sultan’s Bathery in the hills of Wayanad district which is among Kerala’s most forested regions. Here we saw many plantations. The two caves of Ampukuthimala (Edakal Caves) in Sulthan Bathery, with pictures on their walls and pictorial writings, are evidence of the New Stone Age Civilisation that thrived in this region.  Here, we saw villages of many tribal groups.  We saw a Jain temple believed to have been built in the 13th century before hiring a jeep for a safari in the wildlife sanctuary where we saw barking deer, spotted deer, wild boar and grey jungle fowl. As we drove back to the entrance, a huge tusker threatened to charge at us and our driver expertly drove us out of the sanctuary.

 

NORTHWEST SAFARIS SPECIALISES IN TOURS OF OFF-BEAT DESTINATIONS IN INDIA, INCLUDING KERALA AND SOUTHERN INDIA. PHONE 079-26302019, 26308031 EMAIL nwsafaris@hotmail.com