seaside

The magic of Malabar

Travel and Places

 

Though few people know this, the northern part of Kerala has as much to offer a traveler as its southern counterpart. Ask anybody about Kerala, and you are likely to hear about its backwaters and houseboats, its swaying palms, its beaches (especially Kovalam) and the dance form of Kathakali. Someone slightly more knowledgeable about the place would probably tell you about Fort Kochi and its old-world ambience (including Jew Street, which is the last remnant of a once-strong sub-culture of Kerala), the Ona Sadya (a traditional feast served during the festival of Onam) and the annual boat races of Alleppey. Over the years however, few visitors to Kerala have bothered to look at what lies North of Kochi.

You’d be amazed at all Malabar has to offer—mountains, rivers, untouched beaches, forts, old-world towns, bazaars, museums, temples—there’s something here for everyone. Malabar is the region that starts from Malappuram (just north of Palakkad) and stretches right up to the northern-most tip of Kerala. A princely state till 1956, this is where Vasco da Gama first set foot in India in the 15th century, thereby laying the foundation for the globalisation of Kerala. Through the centuries, commerce has always flourished in the region, but when it comes to tourism, Malabar has always eluded tourists. The next time you think of visiting Kerala, add Malabar to your itinerary, and you’ll come away charmed.

Kannur 

The magic of MalabarPhoto by:  freebird (bobinson|ബോബിന്‍സണ്), Creative Commons Attribution Licence

Kannur was the seat of the Kolathiri rajas and the Arakkal dynasty. The main attractions here are its beautiful beaches, temples dedicated to Muthappan (Lord Shiva in his incarnation as a hunter) and the enthralling dance form of theyyam. Angelo Fort, a couple of kilometers from the centre of town, is a legacy of Kannur’s earliest foreign settlers, the Portuguese. The sprawling fort is rather well-maintained and offers a stunning view of the sea from its ramparts. Out of the beaches, the beaches of Muzhappilangad and Thottada are secluded and definitely worth a visit. Visit a handloom weaving centre for some great bargains, and if you’re culturally inclined, take in a theyyam dance performance at a local Muthappan kaavu. Round off your stay in Kannur with a visit to the Arakkal Museum, which is a repository of royal possessions from the days of the Arakkal Dynasty.

Kozhikode 

For most tourists, Kozhikode is a jump-off point on the way to Wayanad, or a snacking halt during the long haul over the mountains to Mysore or Bangalore. But pause a while and look around, and you will see that Kozhikode throws up a mélange of flavours. For centuries, it has been the bustling capital of commerce in Malabar, and is one of the oldest ports in Kerala. The older sections of the city are known for their bazaars and wholesale markets—you can buy a bewildering variety of spices here at extremely reasonable prices—and the city is dotted with beaches like the Kappad beach (the exact spot where Vasco Da Gama landed in Kerala), Kozhikode beach and Payyoli beach. When you have had your fill of the sea, head over to the bountiful hills for a dose of trekking and a bath in the Tusharagiri Falls. Sightseeing aside, Kozhikode is a great place for foodies—head to Hotel Paragon on Kannur Road for some excellent Malabar biryani, appam and kadala curry—and indulge your sweet tooth with some delicious Kozhikode halwa.

Bekal Fort 

Between the towns of Kannur and Kasaragod lies Bekal Fort. Around 300 years old, it looks like a giant key-hole when seen from above. Abutting the Arabian Sea, it stands like a proud sentinel—which indeed it was in the olden days—guarding the city from marauders approaching from the sea. Thankfully, it has been well-preserved, and exudes oodles of atmosphere. You can see the tall observation towers, from where huge cannons used to be fired during battles.

Nilambur 

Nilambur is practically hidden from the eyes of the world. Situated off the trunk route, it is a charming little town with an undulating terrain. Though its tree cover has reduced over the decades, it is still green enough to send you into a trance. Teak plantations abound, and so do old mansions. You can find the oldest teak plantation in the world—called Conolly’s plot—here, and there’s even a teak museum on the premises. In Keralan history, Nilambur has always been known for its kovilakams (stately manors that were once the residences of princely families of yore). Built according to traditional norms of architecture, kovilakams are beautiful structures of wood and laterite, with inner courtyards, intricate etchings on the ceilings, and extensive slat work. The forests of Nilambur are home to a number of elephants, and trekking along the elephant corridors is a delight. There’s a large variety of accommodation to choose from, although you should plump for the homestays—which offer a good combination of beautiful architecture, old-world hospitality, solitude and good food.

 

History through art: Chennai to Kochi

Travel and Places

A town that becomes a canvas for artists.

This story first appeared in Mint on January 19, 2017 under the section ‘Weekend Vacations’.

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Aspinwall House. Photo courtesy Ganesh Vancheeswaran

Aspinwall House

 

Fort Kochi is not a place you visit just once in a lifetime. This former Portuguese and Dutch colony offers experiences at multiple levels, inviting you to find meaning and solace time and again. And for those who love a dose of history and culture by the seaside, this is a great bet. Which is perhaps why, when I wondered about an ideal solo travel destination for the weekend, Fort Kochi automatically came to mind. Especially since the art festival, Kochi-Muziris Biennale, was back in town.

An overnight train journey from Chennai took me to Ernakulam. There, I hopped on to the ferry across the backwater channel that lies on the fringes of the city. Ernakulam (also known as Kochi) is the main city and commercial hub. Lying close to the mainland, but joined by bridges, are the small islands of Willingdon (mostly government offices), Fort Kochi and Mattancherry (the travel hub), Bolgatty and Vypeen. The boat took me past leafy Willingdon Island, busy Thoppumpady and medieval Mattancherry, before dropping me off at Fort Kochi. The shimmering waters, the local people and the fishing boats bobbing up and down the gentle waves kept me company. What an atmospheric journey for just Rs. 4!

Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

Dumping my bag in my room, I had a quick shower and headed out. Hunger pangs led me straight to Kayees (also known as the Rahmathulla restaurant). Several decades old, this simple eatery has been a favourite for a Kerala breakfast. After a few appams (rice pancakes), idiyappams (rice noodles), kadala (chickpea) curry and a cup of strong tea later, I found myself at Aspinwall House on Calvathy Road. This is the main venue of the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale, an art festival that is held once in two years (Kochimuzirisbiennale.org). Into its third edition this year, the biennale, which began on 12 December, is on till 29 March.

The decision to revisit this festival was an inspired one. Unlike most art shows, the biennale does not take place in an air-conditioned hotel or a posh gallery. Instead, it takes place all over the township—in old spice and timber yards, local art galleries, and mansions that are two-three centuries old.

Wall art in Fort Kochi. Photo courtesy Ganesh Vancheeswaran.

Wall art in Fort Kochi. 

All day, I moved from venue to venue, studying the stunning paintings, etchings and installations on display. In this, my fourth visit to Fort Kochi, I felt like I was seeing the town for the first time. I took in Brij Mohan Anand’s dissentive art at the Greenix Village cultural arts centre and the brilliant paintings on the history of immigrant Jews at the Kashi Art Gallery. Elsewhere, I found exquisite cloth tapestries created by cutting old clothes and re-stitching them. I was told by another visitor that several local tailors had been involved in this project. The day ended with stimulating INK Salon talks at Cabral Yard.

The next morning, I strolled through Jew Town in the satellite area of Mattancherry. With its cobblestone streets, timber-framed houses and a 16th century synagogue, it evoked a different, historical era. Shops selling authentic antiquities vied for space with those selling spices, essential oils, tea and handmade soaps. At a store called Crafters, I found what must surely have been one of the largest vaarpus (a traditional Kerala brass vessel used to cook at feasts) in the world.

By afternoon, my feet gave up and I headed to the Seagull restaurant. I sat on the deck abutting the estuary and sipped my drink. Waves lapped at the deck, seagulls glided silently and a balmy breeze caressed my face. A mammoth ship hooted as it passed close to the shore.

I sighed in contentment.

 

 

 

 

Luxury by the sea – a review of Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel, Fort Kochi.

Travel and Places

 

Picture this. A British engineer is brought to India from London, on the express commission of building the Cochin port. This man accomplishes this task with the help of a large team that includes native Indians. Over the years, he makes Cochin a port to reckon with. With the arrival of the port, the railways too came to the area (the imported goods had to be carted away from the port, right?), and the Cochin Harbour Terminus was established in neighbouring Willingdon Island. The engineer is lauded by none less than Lord Willingdon, the then Governor of Madras and is decorated by the Queen.

In 1928, this man, who answers to the name, Robert Bristow, builds a sprawling mansion for himself by the sea and lives there until his return to Britain in 1941. The parcel of land he picks offers choice views of the untamed sea, of boats and ships passing by and of glorious sunrises and sunsets. But it has something more than all this too – a piece of maritime history. Because on this very same plot of land stood the old Cochin lighthouse, the guiding lamp for ships passing through the bay.

Fast forward by ninety years. The bungalow by the sea is now the Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel, a boutique hotel. A couple of sit-outs with awnings, a lawn, a swimming pool and two rooms have been added to the compound. Modern fixtures have been fitted too. But the core of the mansion remains as it was all those years ago. The wooden floors and stairs, the large wood-framed windows, solid wooden doors and tiled roofs are all there and in superb nick.

 

We stayed at this hotel for three days recently. We were treating ourselves on the tenth anniversary of our hitched life. Sitting on the terrace that gives on to the sea, I remember thinking that ‘hitched’ would be a wrong word to describe our married life. On the contrary, ‘liberated’ would be the apt word, because I found my soul mate in my wife. Someone who shares my love for life and believes in letting me live the way I want to, rather than imposing ifs and buts on me. I really started leading an unfettered life only after I came to know her.

 

 

We are given the only room in the hotel that has a private terrace. I look at the nameplate outside the room (The Bristow Suite) and realize that this is the same room that Robert Bristow used to occupy all those years ago. Apart from the terrace, the suite has a spacious room and a roomy bathroom. Most of the furniture has an antique look, right down to the brass dial telephone in which the earpiece and mouthpiece are different. This instrument is the source of much excitement to us over the three days, with each one of us taking turns to make calls on it. If the hotel staff are surprised to find so many calls coming from our room, they do not show it.

 

 

 

Our typical day was like this. We wake up at about seven and settle down in the terrace with a cup of tea to watch the sky come alive. The sea breeze caresses our faces as we drink in the sights and sounds. On the tiny beach next door, people are already riding the waves. Our cuppa over, we head over to the beach for our own share of frolicking. An hour later, we tramp back to the hotel, totally drenched and with sand all over. A large grin is plastered on our faces. We wash off the sand (but not the grin) at the outdoor shower, change clothes quickly in our room and come down for some much-needed food.

 

Breakfast is sumptuous, with a few Continental and Indian dishes on the menu. Apart from cornflakes, fruits, a variety of fresh juices, toast and eggs, there are a few Keralan dishes on offer. We see a changing menu of dosas, idlis, uppuma, puttu and appams, with chutney, sambar, vegetable stew, kadala curry and peas curry to go with them. Over the next hour and a half, there is total silence at our table, as we treat the food with the devotion it deserves. Sitting back with a belch and a contented sigh, we move on to a cup of hot South Indian filter coffee. In between all this, we chat with the genial wait staff, gleaning details about their life, the hotel, the town and sundry other things. They are hardworking people who help a lot in giving us a great experience.

 

 

 

We then drag ourselves out of the hotel for a bit of exploration. If we take in the little-known Indo-Portuguese Museum and the St. Francis Church one day, we visit the Vasco da Gama Square and the quaint little streets around it the next. One morning, we take off to explore Vypeen island and the beach in the tiny hamlet of Cherai (separate pieces on all this to come soon on the blog). Later, we down a beer somewhere and lunch at a sidewalk café or a thattu kada (mobile food vending stalls that serve authentic local food in Kerala) before returning to the hotel for a snooze.

 

Late afternoon finds us in the lovely pool, letting the water cool down our heated bodies. Afterwards, we lie back on the deck chairs and read awhile.

 

 

Come evening, we take a table on the sea-facing lawn and gaze out at the churning waters. Over the three days, we got used to seeing boats big and small, and ships so massive, your jaw’d drop. Some banter with fellow-guests follows. And soon, the great orange disc in the sky starts dipping towards the sea. There are few sights in the whole world that rival a sunset in sheer beauty and simplicity. Even a sunrise pales in comparison, I think. Words seem not just out of place, but positively intrusive at this time. A cloak of silence invariably descends, as all the guests and even the hotel staff submit to the mesmeric beauty of the moment. Slowly, we watch the fireball inch its way towards the great waters on the horizon. And then, finally, it touches the sea and melts into it.

 

 

We wend our way to our room and take our place on the terrace. Uncorking the bottles, we sit down to enjoy a few drinks. Sometimes, we talk. At other times, we fall silent. The mind wanders into fresh pastures. A pleasurable hour or so later, it is time for dinner. We choose one of the lovely cafes that are housed in bungalows nearby. Bungalows that are at least two hundred years old; some built during the Portuguese rule, some during the British time. In all of them, you can see colonial architectural influences beautifully merging with the native style of Kerala.

 

 

Returning to the hotel, we read or star-gaze on the terrace. A few guests are dining on the lawn below, their conversation punctuating the silence. Gradually, the neighbourhood falls silent. The diners go back to their rooms. The last revellers leave the beach and go home. After that, it is just the sea, the breeze, the swaying trees, the moon, the stars and us. And then, late into the night, very, very reluctantly, we leave the terrace and get back into the cozy room. Tonight, will it be the four-poster queen-sized bed or the bay window that is wide enough and comfortable enough to sleep on?

As we hit the sack, there is a sense of peace and quiet satisfaction. It has been a wonderful day. Lazy, yet productive. And sooner than later, we surrender to blissful sleep. A glorious tomorrow awaits us.

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P.S. I doff my hat to the management and staff at The Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel for giving us a supremely memorable stay there. The room, the property, the food and the service were all first-rate.

We paid for the room and food. Our stay was not sponsored by the hotel or any other company/person.

Hotel fact file

  • The hotel is located on Beach Road, near the INS Dronacharya naval base. Most locals in Fort Kochi know it as the ‘old lighthouse bungalow’. For more details, visit the hotel’s website: http://oldlighthousehotel.com/
  • From Kochi airport, you can take a taxi to Fort Kochi and then ask for the hotel. From Ernakulam railway station, you can either hop into an auto (anywhere between Rs. 150 and 400, depending upon your bargaining skills, the mood of the auto driver and whether or not there is a bandh on that day), take a bus (Rs. 10 or thereabouts for a pleasant ride) or take the ferry (ask someone for the ferry to Fort Kochi; fare in single digits.)
  • Depending upon what kind of room you choose and the season, the tariff is upwards of Rs. 7000/- per night, including breakfast. Taxes extra. For the exact tariff, contact the hotel through the website.
  • The hotel is child-friendly. We took our six year old brat along and he had a great time too.
  • The food here can be termed ‘bland’ by Indian standards. So, if you like your food spicy, request the staff to up the ante while placing your order.

The Lighthouse Effect

Travel and Places

I have a thing for the past. And the ‘paster’, the better. Events, buildings, houses, towns, things, people, stories….anything. In my travels, I often visit places that have a strong hangover of the past. In a country like India especially, it is easy to find such places because they are practically everywhere. There, I find myself spending hours browsing antiquities, looking up old bookstores, gazing at old mansions and forts…even seeking out old people with faces crinkled like walnuts to chat with.

Why is this so? For one, because there is simply so much beauty, grandeur and harmony in things from the past. Most things from the olden days have an exquisite design aesthetic, a robustness and a caliber of craftsmanship that is difficult to find these days. But also, the past reminds us of our roots, our beginnings and the paths we have trodden to come this far. The living remnants and accounts of the past tell us of another way of life, another worldview altogether. They tell us about how we had thought, spoken, acted at one point of time. And if you aggregate these remnants and accounts, you get a cumulative view of the history of mankind. After all, all that we have today has been built on the past (often, on the debris of the past).

But, of all things that embody another time, the one that moves me the most is the lighthouse (again, the older, the better). No curio, no fort, no ancient temple or mosque comes even close to it. From the minute I clap my eyes on a lighthouse, I itch to explore it – even touch and feel it. Even if I spot one from afar (say, from a bus or train), my gaze remains locked on it till it fades out of view.

 

 

The lighthouse instantly calls to mind the several generations of seafarers, for whom the sea was the only way to travel to far-flung places. These were the bravest travelers of all time, foraying into uncharted waters and finding unmapped lands. Braving extreme weather conditions, illness and frequent paucity of resources, they managed to go where nobody else had gone before them.

For them, lighthouses were crucial navigational guides, like lamp posts in the sea. And often, the presence of a lighthouse made the difference between life and death to them. In that sense, they were one of the earliest friends of travelers.

 

 

All these thoughts rush through my mind whenever I see a lighthouse. I have seen several of them over the years – in Daman, Kannur, Vypeen, Vizhinjam, Chennai, Galle (Sri Lanka) and other places. And the effect they have on me hasn’t changed over the years – if anything, it has only intensified.

As soon as I arrive at a seaside town, I enquire about lighthouses. And, if I find that there is one in those parts, I invariably end up visiting it. I enjoy rooting about their base, looking for identification marks (like inscriptions and metal plates) that can help me anchor them in a specific time period. I then sit down on a rampart or rocky coastline next to it for a while, gazing into the sea. If I find the caretaker of the lighthouse, I spend a few minutes with him in delightful conversation.

 

 

 

But what exactly I see in a lighthouse also depends upon my mood-of-the-moment. When I am in a deeply reflective mood, I think of what would have happened, had there never been lighthouses in history. That would surely have set back our progress and our understanding of the world by a few centuries.  When I feel buoyant, I see it as a beacon of hope and safety – a pathfinder and a sanctuary. When I am feeling a little low, I can’t help thinking of it as an extremely desolate place, eyes eternally cast over an equally desolate sea that is vast and unchanging over millions of years. At those moments, I am invariably reminded of a short story called ‘The Foghorn’, that I read in school. ‘The great deep cry of our foghorn shuddering through the rags of mist…’ and the answering call of the creature of the sea, deep-throated in its loneliness are forever etched in my memory.

No matter what my mood, lighthouses have left an indelible impression on me. In my book of travels, they occupy a very special place.

What effect does a lighthouse have on you?