February 24, 2017

Guiding the God!


A Kuttichathan Thira performer being led after an invigorating performance at Thavakkara Valiyavalappukaav temple, Kannur, Kerala. 

It is believed that Theyyam and Thira performers magically transform into gods during their act. In the months from December to April, these ritualistic forms of worship are held in sacred groves across North Malabar.

February 21, 2017

Thalassery- The Land of Many Firsts


A prominent town during the colonial era, Thalassery in Northern Kerala is now a pale shadow of its glorious past. Situated alongside the Arabian Sea, Thalassery or Tellicherry as it was earlier known, was an important trading post in Malabar during the British rule. Roads and bungalows are still named after many popular Europeans, and that gives a glimpse of their influence on this coastal town. Thalassery was also a major spice trading centre for ages and a stroll through its streets will give a waft of the spices and its ever popular delicious biriyani.

After Vasco da Gama established trade relations in the Malabar, the Dutch and French too followed soon. In 1720s, the French East India Company had military establishments here apart from trading factories. They moved to Mahe, south of Thalassery, when the British made this trading centre their stronghold.

Thalassery is where many popular things first took place in India. India’s obsessive sport, cricket, was first played in Thalassery in 1805 when the first Duke of Wellington, Lord Arthur Wellesley introduced the sport and made teams out of butlers and dhobis. Thalassery is home to India’s first cricket club formed in 1850 and is presently known as Town Cricket Club. Influenced by the British, the first cakes in the country were baked here in 1880. Mambally’s is claimed to be the first bakery in the country when they started baking cakes and biscuits for the Englishmen who wanted baked food. Indian circus also has its origins here. With influences from the Kalari exercises, Keeleri Kunhikannan who brought many reforms to circus, was the one behind the training of first set of acrobatics in 1890. He was requested by Vishnupant Chatre (he is beleived to have started the Indian circus) to train artists.

Thalassery is also where Kalaripayattu had its rebirth after independence. It is also one of the first cities in Kerala where allopathic medicines were introduced. Rajyasamacharam, the first newspaper in Kerala was printed here by Hermann Gundert. The first communist party and the first naxalite movement in Kerala were in Thalassery.

Andalur kaav (kaavs are sacred groves), is where I began my journey through Thalassery. Believed to have had Buddhist origins, this old temple is known for its popular festival and theyyam that takes place in the month of February. Dedicated to Rama, there are other shrines too apart from a nice stepped pond. Sree Rama Temple at Thiruvangad, close to the town is one of the largest and oldest Rama temples in Kerala. The mural paintings and the hanging bronze lamps here are a major attraction. Kadirur Suryanarayana temple is the other major temple in Thalassery.


Andalur Kaav

Thiruvangaad Sreerama temple

Near Thiruvangad temple is CVN Kalari, started in 1921 by C V Narayana Nair, an ideal place to watch students gracefully undergo kalaripayattu exercises. Early in the morning, the semi-open room with an image of goddess and an array of armour is dimly lit, while the students with oiled bodies undergo their daily exercises and performances. 



From temples I headed to colonial Tellicherry. The 17th century fort built by the British was used as a trading station and most of the spice trade, Tellicherry pepper in particular, was controlled from here. The fort is also believed to have an underground passage to a large room. It presently has a well maintained garden and a lighthouse, the second oldest in India. The ramparts of Thalassery fort offer panoramic views of the Arabian Sea, the Holy Rosary church and Anglican church.










Anglican church

A short distance away from the fort lies Overbury’s folly, presently a sea side park named after E.N.Overbury, who worked as a local judge here in late 19th century. The folly also has a watch tower and is an ideal place to enjoy beautiful sunsets.


Overbury's folly

View from the folly


Thalassery pier lies south of the fort and a short walk through the fish market leads to it. Stretching into the sea, the pier locally referred as kadalpalam, was built by the British in early 20th century when Thalassery became a busy trading port. It is presently in a deteriorated state and is purely kept as tourist attraction.



Located in Illikunnu, atop a small hill, Gundert Bungalow is now a part of NTTF, a prominent college. This colonial house with large doors was the home of Hermann Gundert in mid 19th century. The German scholar and missionary was also a linguist and compiled the first English- Malayalam dictionary apart from significant contributions in translating the Bible to Malayalam. Wellesley’s Bungalow (named after Arthur Wellesley) is another colonial house which is now converted into the sub- collector’s home. Edward Brennan, the English philanthropist is another prominent personality who lived in Thalassery and has a college named after him.


Gundert's bungalow

I stood outside contemplating whether to enter the premises of the 500 year old Odathil palli, when the guy at the adjoining shop assured that I can walk in. Located in the centre of Thalassery town, the mosque is unique in its architectural style. Constructed in typical Kerala temple architecture, the mosque is devoid of the ubiquitous domes. While the crown on top is made of gold, the roofs are covered with copper sheets and the interiors have gorgeous artworks. Though it is claimed to have been built by the Keyee family (a prominent Muslim family in Thalassery who were spice traders and commission agents to the British), there are also sources which say that it was built by a rich Arab timber merchant. Non- Muslims aren’t allowed inside Odathil palli. 



Running through colonial Thalassery and its streets, I was soon at the door step of Paris restaurant on Logan’s road, Thalassery’s seventy year old popular restaurant known for its biriyani. The aroma and the traditional way of preparation makes Thalassery biriyani here a renowned one.  As the old Hindi songs played feebly in the background, I relished the biriyani and washed it down with a sulaimani. Rara Avis is another hotel which serves delicious Thalassery biriyani.


Paris biriyani

Thalassery is also well known for its mussels (locally called Kallumakkayi/ kadukka) which are available throughout the year except during monsoons. Ari kadukka (stuffed mussels), erachi pathiri (stuffed meat), unnakaya (fried plantain), kinnathappam (a sweet cake) and kozhikaal (fried tapioca) are the must try local delicacies which are available at bakeries and tea- stalls. Jayabharathi is a well recommended bakery in town.

The renowned Mambally’s bakery known for its biscuits and cakes now has a small outlet in a mall near the fort. They were the first to make plum cakes in India and they are popular even today.  I had a bite of their delicious cake before heading out of Thalassery town.


Mambally's cakes

I headed north towards Kannur, and en-route a few kilometers away, a short detour led to one of the best beaches I have been to- Muzhappilangad. A narrow road through coconut groves lead to the expansive Muzhappilangad beach. Stretching over 4 Kms, this drive in beach is considered one of the best in Asia.  Bordered with rocks, it is undoubtedly the best place in Thalassery to enjoy the evening as the sun goes down the horizon. Numerous birds can also be spotted frolicking the beach in the mornings and evenings. Dharmadom island, an uninhabited island is a few meters away from the beach and is accessible during low tide. The ride on the beach as the sun set was absolutely a blissful experience and a memorable way to end my Thalassery sojourn.


Muzhappilangad beach



Dharmadom island



Mahe, a French colonial town, 9 Kms south of Thalassery is also worth a visit. Thalassery has always been known for its 3 Cs- Cricket, Cakes and Circus. However, for me Thalassery would always be the colonial town which serves delicious biriyani and mussels.

Location:

Thalassery to Kannur- 22 Kms.
Thalassery to Kozhikode- 75 Kms
Closest railhead is at Thalassery. The nearest airport is at Kozhikode (94 Kms)

Food and Accommodation:

Explore biriyani and other local delicacies which are easily available across the town. Most of the restaurants and shops are on Logan road. There are numerous budget and mid range hotels in Thalassery. Paris residency is well recommended. I stayed in Kannur during my visit to Thalassery.

February 17, 2017

Mahe- A Colonial French Town


Mahe overlooks the Arabian Sea as Mayyazhi River disgorges herself into it. Located at the mouth of the river, Mahe or Mayyazhi as it was earlier called, is all of 9 sq km. The tiny French colony which is a part of the union territory of Pondicherry is just 8 kms south of Thalassery, and was an important trading post of French East India Company during the 18th century. The colonial influences are not evident everywhere, but there are a couple of old buildings and structures which are a reminiscence of its French rule. The fort built by the French is presently in ruins.

Mahe Bridge separates Kannur district from the union territory and also offers a gorgeous view of the Mayyazhi River disembarking into the Arabian Sea. As soon as you cross over, a bevy of liquor shops welcome you, a frequent getaway for people from Thalassery and surroundings for a swig.


The famed St. Theresa’s church of Mahe attracts people of all religions from across Malabar. Built in 1736, colourful danglers and numerous frames adorn the interiors of this beautiful church. The festival in October is when people throng the church and streets of Mahe.  


Though Mayyazhi doesn’t have a list of attractions, Tagore Park and its walkway are where all the action happens. The park is located adjoining the Mayyazhi River and its walkway runs parallel until it joins the Arabian Sea. Lined with tall trees, the park also houses the statue of Marianne, depicting the ideologies of French revolution.  The walls of the park have a visual portrayal of the famed Malayalam writer, M. Mukundan’s ‘Mayyazhipuzhayude Theerangalil’ (By the banks of River Mayyazhi), probably his most famous creation.

The walkway has been well done up to give a glimpse of the colonial times with cast iron railings, nicely designed street lights and benches to enjoy the evenings. As the sun sets, the well lit up walkway is a gorgeous sight. Apart from the lovely sunset in the evening, one can also spot many birds frolicking near the estuary.




The walkway leads further to a hillock which has a watch tower and a lighthouse.  The lighthouse isn’t open for public, but the watch tower offers panoramic vistas of the Arabian Sea, the beach and the swaying coconut trees. The hillock is well wooded with various trees and paths meandering through them.





Other than the walkway, the government house next to it is one of the prominent buildings where one can see the influence of the French architecture. The building currently has a museum which displays relics and artefacts from Mahe’s history.


The other popular attractions include water sports complex which offers boating facilities and remnants of Othenan’s fort.

Mahe might not be a long stop over for visitors, but a visit while in Thalassery is well recommended to know more about this small piece of colonial France in Kerala.


Travel Tips:
  • A few hours to half a day would suffice to explore Mahe.
  • Make Thalassery your base while visiting Mahe.
  • Most of the attractions are near the estuary and park.


Location:

Northern Kerala, close to Thalassery (8 Kms).  NH- 17 passes through Mahe and there are frequent buses connecting to Thalassery and Vadakara.

Closest major rail head- Thalassery
Closest airport- Kozhikode (87 Kms)


Food and Accommodation:

There are bakeries and small restaurants near the park. Mahe is known for its numerous liquor shops and bars (the taxes are subsidized as it is a union territory). It is recommended to stay in Thalassery, which has numerous budget and mid range options.


February 15, 2017

Chembra Peak- Trek to the Heart Shaped Lake


Tea gardens showed up as I crossed Meppadi and rode to Chembra, the highest peak in Wayanad (6890 feet above sea level). Amidst the green landscape, Chembra stood tall and could be seen from a distance. The road turned bad as ascent became steep. It led to the check post, which is a couple of kilometers before the entry gate to the trek. The officer was quite patient enough to explain in detail about the charges and other mandates.  From the entry gate one can either stroll through the tea gardens and the small forest stretch until the watch tower, or can trek all the way to the heart shaped lake. Bought a ticket for the trek and rode ahead to the entry gate. The authorities have made sure that people do not litter and they take a count of plastic bottles and wrappers you carry. One has to deposit Rs. 100/- (refundable) while entering the gate.

The initial trail of half a kilometer went past the small ‘thirst quenching’ stalls and the tea plantations into a shola forest. The trail meandered its way past tall trees to the watch tower. The tower offers panoramic views of the hills, plantations and the tiny towns in the distance.  From the watch tower it is a 2.5 Kms trek to the lake.



Though a mud trail, it was a slow ascent initially with protruding roots and stones.  I had started late, and it became warm as I trudged further. The trail soon became narrower and turned into steep climbs without a cue.  The forests gave way to clearings and the mud trail to a rocky gradient.  As expected, panoramic vistas showed up intermittently.  Without much difficulty crossed the first hill with short breaks to enter open grasslands. Being a holiday (Republic day), the number of trekkers were huge. There were smiles, helping hands and shared water bottles all along the trail. I could hear the lime soda seller cry out near the entry gate despite being a hill away.




The second hill beyond the open lands was almost devoid of forest patches.  The trail that goes up can be seen from the plains.  This stretch was rockier, but a moderate climb in comparison to the first hill. The ascent ended at another small plain which led to the lake and the base of the actual Chembra peak.


Though not the best time to enjoy the lush greenery of the surroundings, Chembra peak definitely looked beautiful with with its green carpet of grass. Though not a large one, the serene heart shaped lake is believed to have never dried up. It remains placid at the base of the peak, creating ripples as the wind blows. Visitors aren’t allowed to take a dip in the waters. The shape of the heart can be visualised only from a particular point, which lies to the left of the lake.




I chatted up with a young guide, Sreekanth, who mentioned that the trek further up to the summit of Chembra is not permissible any more. Reasons being a few migratory who have made the peak their home (intrusion by humans could make it vulnerable) and rumoured presence of Maoists in nearby areas.  

Apart from the lake, the vantage points here offer magnificent views of the valleys, plantations and hills. Fellow trekkers sat down to enjoy the views after the long climb.  I strolled around for a while soaking in the beautiful vistas. The sun blazed over us as I walked back to the trail and gazed at the route that would take me to the base. It always feels wonderful to look back at the path you have taken all the way up, both figuratively and literally.




As always, the trek down was more precarious with the muddy trails turning slippery.  While the first hill was a quick walk down, the second hill (first one while climbing) was a bit tough with mud, rocks and protruding roots. Gulped a few glasses of cold butter milk at the gates to refresh before heading back.



A moderate trek, it took about three and a half hours for me to return at a leisurely pace.

Travel Tips:

  • The gates open at 7AM and it is recommended to begin the trek around same time, as it gets hot as the day progresses.
  • The charges for the trek are Rs.750/- per person. To walk up to the watch tower, the entry charges are Rs.40/-.
  • Though guides are available, one can trek without them and the trail is pretty evident.
  • Carry water, energy bars and chocolates. Make sure not to leave behind any trash, carry them back.
  • There are small food stalls near the entry gate which provides refreshments.
  • The watch tower has restrooms.
  • Make Kalpetta or Meppadi your base, Kalpetta has numerous stay options. 
  • It is recommended to have your own vehicle or hire a taxi as there aren't much public transports beyond Meppadi.

Location:

8 Kms from Meppadi. 21 Kms from Kalpetta.
Nearest airport and major railway station is at Kozhikode (80 Kms fom Meppadi). There are frequent buses till Meppadi from Kalpetta.

February 13, 2017

Places to Visit in Wayanad


Wayanad has always been known for its gorgeous landscapes. The forests, lakes and waterfalls have a charm that leaves a trail and casts a spell on the visitors. The aroma of spices, tea and coffee waft in as you ride through the serpentine roads of Wayanad. Most of its geographical area is covered in forests and a visit post the monsoon is ideal as the landscape turns lush green. Though often seen as a quick getaway, Wayanad has more to offer than just a weekend sojourn.

Located in northern Kerala bordering Karnataka and Nilgiri mountains, Wayanad gets its name from Vayal (paddy field) and Naad (land), and is home to many indigenous tribal settlements. Though most tribes have accustomed themselves to the modern changes, there are still many who continue to live their traditional lifestyle.

For the traveler, Wayanad offers a smorgasbord of places to see and activities to do. Most places are quite far from each other and requires at least four to five days to explore Wayanad leisurely and in detail.

Caves and Rocks:

As per archaeological surveys, Wayanad has been inhabited for more than 6000 years and its evidences can be seen at Edakkal caves. Located in Ambukuthy mala, the insides of the caves have pictorial drawings and unique engravings from neolithic age. As per information shared by the guide, the only other place where you can find such engravings are in France.  The drawings include human figures, elephants, deer, carts and much more. The carvings symbolize the lifestyle of a tribe that lived here eons ago. The caves are actually a huge rift between two large rocks with a huge boulder balancing atop it acting as the roof. The long climb to the caves through coffee plantations is a tough one. From the base of the hill, steps have been cut to take you further up with beautiful vistas all through. 

Nearest town is Ambalavayal.
Timings: 9AM- 4PM




Phantom rock located near Ambalavayal offers nice panoramic views of the hills. The rock looks similar to a skull/ phantom’s head and hence the name.

Nearest town is Ambalavayal.
Timings: 9AM- 5.30PM




Waterfalls:

Soochipara falls also referred to as Sentinal falls is probably the most popular of all falls in Wayanad. It is a lovely ride past numerous tea estates from Meppadi to the waterfalls. A short walk through a well laid path from the entrance gate leads to the base of Soochipara falls. The cascading falls gushes through rocks shrouded by thick forests as it flows down further to join Chaliyar river. In Malayalam, ‘soochi’ means needle and ‘para’ means rock. If not peak season (monsoons), one can perch comfortably on any of the large boulders to enjoy the falls.

Nearest town is Meppadi.
Timings: 8AM- 5PM



Meenmutty was once the most favoured waterfalls of visitors and locals. However, recent mishaps and issues with forest authorities have made sure that it remains closed. Neelimala view point off Ooty road offers majestic views of the surrounding hills (including Chembra peak), valleys and a long shot of Menmutty falls. One needs to either take a jeep or walk up the steep 2.5 Km stretch to the vantage point. The three tier falls is at its best during the monsoon, as per the guide. Blanketed by mist, Meenmutty falls, Chaliyar river and the lush green surroundings are absolutely magical in the months of July and August.

Nearest town is Vaduvanchal.
Timings: 8AM- 3PM





The ride to Kanthanpara falls goes past large coffee plantations.  Though much smaller than Soochipara and Mennmutty, the cascading Kanthanpara falls flows over a large rock and has picturesque surroundings. The large pond as you walk down to the falls is an ideal place for a quick dip.

Nearest town is Meppadi.
Timings: 8AM- 5PM




Another Meenmutty falls near Mananthavady is often referred to as Makkiyad Meenmutty falls. Cut off from the road that leads to Kuttiyadi, the detour (a treacherous road) goes past tea plantations to the falls. A climb down from the entrance gate leads to the base of this falls. Cascading through a pile of boulders, the falls has a nice pool at its base.  

Nearest town is Makkiyad
Timings: 8AM- 5PM





Chethalayam falls (near Sultan Bathery) and Meenmutty falls (near Banasura sagar dam) are best visited during monsoon season. There are 3 Meenmutty falls in Wayanad.


Dams:

The sprawling Banasura Sagar dam is the largest earth dam in India and the second largest in Asia. Surrounded by Banasura hills and sprinkled with islets all over, the dam offers spectacular views. The islets are formed when the reservoir gets flooded during monsoon. There are boating facilities too at this expansive reservoir.

Nearest town is Padinjarathara.
Timings: 8.30AM- 5.30PM





A detour from the Mysore- Kozhikode highway at Kaakavayal leads to Karapuzha dam, one of the largest earth dams in India. Formed out of Karapuzha river, a tributary of Kabini, the dam offers nice views of the surroundings.

Nearest town is Kaakavayal.
Timings: 9AM- 6PM




Lakes:

Despite being crowded most of the time, Pookote lake stands out as a major attraction in Wayanad. The serene lake shrouded by a dense landscape offers a gorgeous frame. One can walk around the lake along its periphery. The premise has a children’s park, aquarium and also offers boating facilities on the lake. The Uruva eco shop has a wide range of souvenirs made by the local tribes.

Nearest town is Vythiri
Timings: 9AM to 6PM



Though not a very popular one, the placid Karlad lake surrounded by tall palm trees offers more than just boating. The adventure camp here offers kayaking, zip lining and rock climbing. It is also one of the largest fresh water lakes in Kerala.

Nearest town is Thariyod.
Timings: 9AM- 5PM




Sanctuaries and Parks:

Adjoining the sanctuaries of Bandipur and Mudumalai, Muthanga wildlife sanctuary with a rich bio-diversity is known for its large population of elephants, deer, macaques and numerous birds. Tigers and bisons are also occasionally spotted in this sanctuary. Elephants are frequently sighted here by the road side as you drive along the Mysore- Kozhikode highway. Elephant rides are arranged inside the sanctuary at Muthanga. The sanctuary is also home to many tribes such as Paniyas, Kattunaykans and Kurichyas.

Nearest town is Sultan Bathery
Timings: 7AM- 10AM and 3PM- 5PM. Closed on Sundays.

Tholpetty wildlife sanctuary in northern Wayanad is an extension of Muthanga sanctuary (they together form Wayanad wildlife sanctuary, the second largest in Kerala). Located next to Nagarhole national park, this sanctuary has a huge elephant population. Wild dogs, deer and peacocks are also commonly spotted here. Safaris are arranged here and you would be accompanied by a naturalist.  This is less popular than the sanctuary at Muthanga and hence devoid of the huge crowds.

Nearest Town is Thirunelly.
Timings: 6AM- 8AM and 3PM- 5.30PM

Kuruvadweep is a 950 acre island surrounded by Kabini river and covered with lush greenery. The island is known for its various species of flora and avian fauna which form an interesting eco-system.  The island can be accessed only by a raft and is an ideal place to spent time amidst nature.

Nearest town is Pulpally.
Timings: 9AM- 5PM




Treks:

Known for its rich avian fauna, Pakshipathalam is a delight for birders as well as nature lovers. The trek here is an ideal way to soak in the nature, capture beautiful frames and learn more about the birds. The trek from Thirunelly is a moderate one, but requires permission from the forest department in prior. The watch tower enroute offers lovely views of the gorgeous surroundings.

Nearest town is Thirunelly
Timings: 7AM- 5 PM Closed from February to May

The trek to Chembra peak is the most popular one in Wayanad. The 2.5 Km trek goes through forest patches, rocks and open plains with panoramic vistas all through. The heart shaped lake at the end of the trek is the major attraction. Trekking further up isn’t permitted. Tickets for the trek can be bought at the entry gate. Read more about the trek here.

Nearest town is Meppadi
Timings: 7AM- 2PM


Museums:

The heritage museum at Ambalavayal gives an insight into the lives of tribes of Wayanad. The displays include pottery, ornaments, hunting traps, musical instruments and much more.  The museum also displays centuries old objects and sculptures unearthed from various locations across Wayanad.

Nearest town is Ambalavayal
Timings: 9AM- 5.30PM




Pazhassi tomb and museum is a memorial to Veera Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja, who boldly fought the British during pre-independence. The museum here houses various records and memorabilia which belonged to the king.

Nearest town is Mananthavady
Timings: 9AM-5PM. Closed on Mondays.



Temples and Shrines:

Wayanad has a significant Jain population and is known for its Jain temples.  The 13th century jain temple at Sultan Bathery is the most popular one.  Influenced by Vijayanagar style of architecture, the temple also served as an ammunition store yard of Tipu Sultan’s army. There are Jain temples in Kalpetta and Panamaram too.

Nearest town is Sultan Bathery
Timings: 9.30AM- 12noon and 2PM- 5.30PM



The ancient Jain temples in Punchavayal are in a dilapidated state and are quite an attraction. Amidst coffee plantations, both the temples here remain neglected and have overgrown shrubs creeping over them.

Nearest town is Panamaram.





Centuries old Thirunelly temple in northern Wayanad is often referred to as the Kashi of the south and a popular pilgrim centre in Kerala. The temple is located at the base of Brahmagiri hills and the Papanashini stream that flows nearby is believed to cleanse your sins.

Nearest town is Thirunelly.
Timings: 5AM- 10AM and 6PM- 8PM

Chain tree is a small shrine at Lakkidi that has a lot of significance in the history of Wayanad.  It is believed that the spirit of a tribal, Karinthandan, is chained to the tree here after it started troubling travellers. Karinthandan was killed by the Englishman whom he helped reach Wayanad and post that his spirit attacked people who travelled that route.

Nearest town is Vythiri.




View Points:

The 9 hair pin bends that lead from the plains of Kozhikode to Wayanad offers breathtaking views of the expansive valley and distant hills. Known as Thamarasseri ghats, the views are spectacular in the evening from the view point just before the entry gate to Wayanad. Take a break at the small stalls at the second hair pin bend which offers mouth watering short eats.

The nearest town is Vythiri.





Travel Tips:
  • It is recommended to cover all the places as early as possible as it gets warm as the day progresses.
  • Ideal time to visit Wayanad is during monsoon or post that. Avoid the summer months.
  • Most resorts can help you arrange tours to all these places.
  • Most of the attractions are far from each other. Take into consideration the commutation time while preparing your itinerary.

Location:

Northern Kerala
Closest airport and major railway station: Kozhikode
Kozhikode to Kalpetta- 75 Kms


Food and Accommodation:

Being a popular tourist destination, there are numerous restaurants and a wide range of resorts, hotels and budget stays across Wayanad. Most of the tourist attractions have small shops nearby where you can relish the local dishes.


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