Kerala on Wheels and Water

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With 44 rivers and 1500 km of labyrinthine canals, Kerala’s backwaters are a maze. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY negotiate highways and waterways in a droll look on a bike trip down the Kerala coastline

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THE Yezdi 250 cc Roadking is perhaps the most uncomplicated motorbike known to mankind. The point at which it got complicated was when we expressed our desire to use its services for a coastal trip of Kerala. We never realised we had so many Malayali friends until then. “Venda, it’s veeeery rash.” “It’s quite far, no!” A graphic designer friend even went as far as to read into the colour coding of the Kerala State Transport buses. “Red is the colour for danger, yellow is for fear – go make the connection.”

But with long road trips under our belt, we felt reasonably confident. There was a second round of parleying about the route. We could either ride via Mysore and follow State Highway 88 to Kannur or take the long-winded NH 47 to Thrissur via Salem and Palakkad. We decided to do neither and took the less-explored route to Kasaragod, so we could start from the northern-most tip of Kerala. The straight sparse road from Bangalore to Mangalore seemed perfect and before our Malayali friends could say Thiruvananthapuram, we were off.

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Valiyaparamba boat crossing

We sped past the stark landscape till Hassan, climbed the sweeping Ghat roads after Sakleshpur and 50 odd kilometres before Mangalore took a detour south from Uppinangadi. In the olden days, salt and other goods used to be transported upstream in boats to Uppinanagadi from Mangalore and the Kerala coastline. Over time the confluence of the Netravathy and the Kumaradhara evolved into a salt market (uppu angadi), hence its present name.

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Ducks in Alappuzha

The general plan was to follow the coastal road that coiled its way down Kerala, its black form slithering along the waterways like an aquatic snake. From Ananthapura in the north, the original seat of Ananthapadmanabha Swamy to Thiruvananthapuram in the south, his displaced home; Vishnu’s all-pervasive aura seemed to float on an aqueous bed of rivers, lakes and canals. Stirred by such parallels in mythology, we decided to visit a temple for an auspicious start. And who better to turn to than Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles? We rode eight kilometres northeast of Kasaragod to Madhur and after a token offering, were ready for my coastal trip. Our first leg would take us through the legendary spice coast of Malabar or ‘The land of hills’, which stretched from Kasaragod to Kannur, Wayanad, Kozhikode, Malappuram, Palakkad and Thrissur.

We took a detour south of Kasaragod and as the bike slipped and slid over weeds we rode into Bekal. Famous for the largest and the best-preserved fort in Kerala, this was where ‘Tu hi re’ from Mani Ratnam’s film, Bombay, was shot. Next came the stunning Pallikere beach and then we carried on to Muzhappilangad, a four kilometre stretch touted as Kerala’s longest drive-in beach, which was more easily accessible.

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Korapuzha backwaters – Houseboat ride in Karyangode

Normally we’re not the kind who drink while driving but when you come across a town like Mahe, even the strongest of characters can suffer a total breakdown of self- control. Apart from Goa, Mahe had the cheapest booze anywhere on the West Coast. Perhaps news of India’s liberation had not reached this intoxicated nook, which is why they were selling booze at such pre-independence rates. Or maybe because it was part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry. Soon, it didn’t even matter. After losing a day but still dangerously flippant, we resisted my urge to take a detour and personally congratulate Payyoli Express PT Usha for catapulting a tiny village onto the international athletic map.

However, we did make a symbolic stop at Kappad, where the first Europeans had set foot in India 500 years ago. A small stone memorial on the beach marked the approximate landing spot of Vasco da Gama. It was time for us to drop anchor and we rode down the remaining 16 km to Kozhikode and roamed around the bustling township. It was during one such walkabout that we had our first close brush with the red and yellow Kerala State Transport bus. After narrowly missing us, the mean contraption went hurtling down the unpaved road in a fume of dust, its black cloth windows rolled up on the sides, unfurled only during rains. It seemed, with a little more tweaking, it could even be set to sail. It was time to get back on the bike.

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It was amazing; just the same way every city had an MG Road, every temple town had a Temple Lane or a Car Street. All temple lanes were more or less the same – narrow, lined by shops and suddenly a temple right in the middle of everything. Same was the case with Guruvayur. We found out that apart from other sacred ablutions, the idol of Guruvayurappan had a abhisheka with panchagavya, a holy mixture of five bovine products – ghee, milk, curd, urine and cow dung. It was even more startling that several pilgrims actually consumed this prasad as it was supposed to cleanse all your inner impurities. We decided we could live with our impurities and bought the regular palpayasam from the prasad counter instead. The sandal paste smeared on our foreheads felt cool as we rode out of Guruvayur, stopping next at the strange paradox that was Kodungallur.

There was something in its gene or maybe its location that made it a natural stop for seafarers and missionaries. Earlier, Kodungallur was a flourishing port-town called Muziris and an astonishing confluence of cultures. Mentioned in the memoirs of Ptolemy and Pliny, this was where the Romans built a temple for Augustus in the 1st century. This was where St Thomas is supposed to have landed in 52 AD. This was where the first Jews arrived in Kerala, as legend has it, in King Solomon’s ship. This was also where Malik Ibn Dinar first landed along with 20 disciples of Prophet Muhammad. But the sudden flooding of the Periyar in 1341 wiped out Muziris and the flood waters gouged out a natural safe port 50 kilometres south. This new small harbour ‘Kochh-azi’ came to be known as Kochi.

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Vembanad Lake houseboat cruise

Kochi too was not without its share of glory. After Vasco’s arrival, the Portuguese developed it as a trading outpost and built a fort to protect their factory. Fort Manuel, a tribute to the King of Portugal, became the first fortress constructed by the Europeans in India and this was where Vasco was finally laid to rest. What fascinated us were the Chinese fishing nets, which according to legend, were brought here by Chinese traders from the court of Kublai Khan. As we left Kochi, we did something unthinkable. We abandoned the National Highway.

There was a time when roads as we know them didn’t exist and the entire transportation system in Kerala was a network of rivers, lakes and backwater canals. Boats were the only way to get around. And the mother of all such aquatic highways was National Waterway 3. Stretching from Kochi to Kollam, interlinked by several rivers and the Vembanad, Punnamada, Kayamkulam and Ashtamudi lakes, it was a distance of about 150 kilometres. We somehow managed to get a boatman considerate enough to offer us a ride, with a little extra baggage – our bike.  We didn’t want to backtrack to pick it later, but could take this relationship only as far as Vaikom, some 30 odd kilometres.

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Boatman steering the way along the backwaters

After two days of backwater rides, a visit to Kumarakom bird sanctuary, Mohiniattam performances and the joys of Kerala massages, we moved ahead. Our only concern was to get back to the main coastal road, which after joining up with Thrissur had undergone a name change–it had become NH 47! We stopped by at Kottayam to visit the 13th century Valliyapalli and Cheriyapalli churches and were amazed to see a plaque commemorating a State visit by Ethiopian king Halie Selassie in 1956. Riding out of Kottayam to Alappuzha via Changanaserry, we got a lazy slideshow of the rich Kuttanad culture. Women wove coir ropes by the riverside, bare-bodied men flung fishing nets with great skill and kids paddled country boats with ease. The river was their lifeline in much the same way we were dependent on it. Mussels, crab, prawn and every variety of fish that the river could yield, we had consumed during our stay. Just the way Parasurama was moved by guilt after his carnage, our salvation lay in a short temple tour.

We stopped at the Sree Krishna Temple in Ambalappuzha to taste the legendary palpayasam. We also visited the Subrahmanya Swamy Temple at Haripad, the snake temple at Mannarassala and by sundown made a detour closer to the coast to see the majestic Kayamkulam. The wide mouth of the lake opened into the Arabian Sea offering spectacular views of the sunset. En route we checked out the 18th century Krishnapuram Palace built during the reign of Marthanda Varma, the great ruler of Travancore. The double-storied structure housed one of the largest mural painting in Kerala – the 14 feet by 11 feet Gajendra Moksham. Soon the NH 47 curved to the right and squeezed its way between the coast and the eight-armed Ashtamudi Lake, the second largest backwater stretch in Kerala. NW 3 terminated at Kollam nearby and we forsook the highway and took a smaller road to one last offbeat destination. 

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Kottapuram bridge

Varkala, just a little south of Paravur, was a pilgrim centre famous for the Papanasam (Destroyer of Sins) Beach. A dip absolved a person of all the sins he had committed and as a precaution, we spent a good deal of time under water before visiting the Janardhana Swamy Temple. The temple site marked the spot where Brahma consecrated Vishnu as Janardhana. But the story of how the place was chosen reminded us of the manner in which train passengers reserved seats in general compartments – by hurling a handkerchief, towel or any disposable piece of garment. Legend has it that in the hunt for an appropriate place for consecration Sage Narada threw his bark garment (valkalam), and that is how the spot was chosen and named.

Fifteen km south of Varkala was Anjengo, a small shanty known only for the fort built there by the Dutch. The outlandish name was a Dutch phonetic corruption of the original name ‘Anj-thengu’ or The Place with Five Coconut Trees. In a place like Kerala, where every inch was covered by coconut, that really wasn’t a very good landmark to tell people how to get there. But somehow we managed to reach Anjengo, and even made it back to the National Highway. And before we could realise it, we were in Thiruvananthapuram. That was it – the marathon Kerala trip was over. We did go further south to visit Kovalam and Poovar, but we had simply run out of any more Kerala. Or so we thought. We still had to get back…

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Authors: Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as an Impressions piece in the encyclopedia-cum-coffee table book Stark World Kerala. For more on Kerala Great Backwaters visit http://greatbackwaters.com

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