waterfall

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.

 

Bengaluru to Agumbe: Rains and akka’s abode

Travel and Places

A village enveloped in thick, white fog, the monsoon, and memories of ‘Malgudi Days’.

This story first appeared in Mint on Aug 26, 2016 under the section ‘Weekend Vacations’.

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The Jogigundi Falls in Agumbe. Photo: Ganesh Vancheeswaran

 

I stepped off the bus and walked right into a white wall. Turning around, I saw the white wall creeping up behind me. It took a few seconds for my dazed mind to realize that it was actually thick fog. Almost animate, it was on the prowl, gliding without warning, and wrapping itself around the entire village.

A friend and I were in the hilly hamlet of Agumbe in the Western Ghats. An overnight bus journey from Bengaluru had brought us here for a weekend getaway to savour the magic of the monsoon. After all, Agumbe is one of the wettest places in India.

We had to trudge only 200m to Kasturi akka’s house (akka means elder sister in Kannada) from the bus stand. Locally known as Dodda Mane (big house in Kannada), it’s a village landmark.

Akka’s family has been giving sanctuary to weary travellers for 45 years, essentially converting Dodda Mane into a home stay much before the word started occupying an exalted position in the hospitality industry in India. This two-storeyed, traditional Malnad house, built with teak wood and stone, is more than 125 years old. Thick wooden columns line the front court; beyond it lies a central courtyard with potted plants circling it. From there, stout doors lead to the bedrooms and the kitchen.

Despite its rambling spread, there is a curious charm about it.

Akka’s son showed us to the rooms and dormitory on the first floor. The wooden stairs creaked under our feet. The sound was enough for the dame of the house to holler to ensure that her guests were okay and tell us that we could join her in the kitchen if we liked.

The kitchen had an old-fashioned brick stove, with large cucumbers hung above it to dry. At the corner of a large vintage table sat akka. The introductions happened over breakfast.

The first day was reserved for a trek to the Jogigundi Waterfalls, about 4km away. We logged a kilometre on the paved road before veering on to a forest trail. The slushy dirt path, with small, slippery rocks, put us to the test. The tall trees made a thick canopy above our heads and slim streams formed temporary capillaries around them. Thankfully, it had stopped raining.

The silence of the forest was punctuated only by the call of crickets and cicadas. We were about an hour into the trek when we heard a rising roar, an indication that we were nearing the waterfall. Stepping over fallen logs and walking down mossy stone steps, we parted the thick foliage to emerge at the base of the waterfall.

The Malapahaari river was rushing thunderously over boulders. It emerged from a cave-like formation, flowing down in a long trail over a series of rocks. We got as close as we could to the water, feeling the misty spray on our faces.

A couple of hours later, we headed back—and relaxed in the courtyard of Dodda Mane. Dinner that night was an excellent Malnad-style repast—high on vegetables and low on masala (spices) and oil.

There were no arguments about whether the next day should be dedicated to akka’s stories and a generous supply of kashaya (a herbal concoction). We decided to forgo the trip to Sirimane Falls (38km away) and the temple town of Sringeri (29km away). And over several cups of kashayaakka and her family recalled the days when a few shows of the TV serial Malgudi Days had been shot in that very house.

By noon, the monsoon was living up to its promise, and fat drops of rain were exploding again on the roof of the house. The downpour came as a tonic, and we decided to take a short ride to an ancient Jain temple (19km).

We climbed the steps to the top of the temple and walked to a rocky outcrop at the rear. Volunteering to get slammed by the wind, we looked out at the outrageously green valley, punctuated by capillaries of freshly created streams.

It didn’t take long, of course, for the fog to blot out the scene.