Category Archives: Kerala

Kumarakom: Backwaters and beyond


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover wellness at Niraamaya Retreats by the serene Vembanad Lake at Kumarakom in Kerala


A strong gust of wind sent ripples across the surface of Lake Vembanad. Spread across three districts, it was Kerala’s largest lake and the longest in the country. We were at its widest point, Kumarakom, where the lake measured 6km across. There was a steady stream of boats down the National Waterway (the aquatic version of a highway). As we squinted into the distance to see its far shore, it seemed as vast as the sea and we wondered why it was tagged as a lake!

Kumarakom owed its existence to Henry Baker, a missionary from Essex who came here in 1818. His son, Alfred George Baker bought 500 acres from the Maharaja of Travancore, reclaimed the backwaters, developed canals and cultivated a coconut farm. Ingenious dykes prevented seawater from flowing in, which led to paddy cultivation on the reclaimed land. Fed by lakes and rivers, this riverine nook of Kuttanad transformed into the Rice Bowl of Kerala.


In the following years, Baker’s 130-year-old colonial bungalow was assimilated into the Kerala Agriculture University and Taj Kumarakom Resort and Spa. The luxurious villas and heritage rooms overlook lotus pools, gardens and a lagoon, blending Kerala style with Edwardian and modern décor. Baker’s rubber plantation was converted into Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, a habitat for aquatic birds and fruit bats. But it was the convalescence of PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his ‘Musings from Kumarakom’ that drew the attention of domestic travelers to its therapeutic charms.

We were staying at Niraamaya Retreats Backwaters and Beyond, a swank new wellness retreat that afforded the longest lakefront view from its 27 villas – some by the water front, some with private pools on the ground floor and others on the first floor with panoramic waterscapes to gaze at. The rooms were named after local rivers and birds. Our perch, named after the river Chalakudy, presented a stunning view of the sunset from a wide Kerala-style balcony.


Hailing from the legacy of Surya Samudra in Kovalam and Cardamom Club in Thekkady, the resort was a real spot of luxury. After the lighting of the lamp by HH Shweta Rathore of Ranbanka Palace Jodhpur, CEO Manu Rishi Guptha elaborated on Niraamaya’s vision as we experienced their holistic healing with mindfulness coach Dr Shahir and yoga classes by Lalitha Damodaran.

With a golden sunset on Lake Vembanad as a backdrop, we watched Bengaluru band Chronic Blues Circus perform at the official launch. Seeing Mukut Chakravarti, the resort’s GM for Sales & Marketing double up as a keyboard player who put the swing into the evening took us completely by surprise.


The next morning, after an early breakfast at the restaurant decorated with vibrant theyyam (ritualistic folk dance of North Kerala) masks, we set off to explore Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, the largest heronry in Kerala. A 2km trail over culverts and overgrown roots led past trees laden with giant fruit bats.

Two watchtowers rose above a 5-acre swamp in the core of the sanctuary that was the breeding site for Darters and Black headed Ibis. Apart from all four cormorant species, Kumarakom harbours 88 avian species, including White-breasted Waterhen, Purple Heron, Night Heron and Marsh Harrier.


We lounged in the garden benches set in a clearing, watching a houseboat dock across the bird sanctuary at Coconut Lagoon, CGH Earth’s resort. Tharavad homes (heritage bungalows) had been transplanted in a 22-acre coconut plantation fringed by an 8-acre paddy farm. Guests enjoy an elaborate Kuttanad style curry meal on banana leaf with mashed kappa (tapioca), fish curry, fish fry and duck, besides Ayurvedic rejuvenation based on ancient marma techniques and luxurious Spice Coast Cruises.

Just across the lake, but invisible to the naked eye, was Purity by Vembanad, the new boutique hotel run by Malabar Escapes. Winner of the World Luxury Hotel Awards in 2017, this Relais & Chateaux property won the best designed hotel in Outlook Traveller’s Boutique Hotel Awards 2018. Strewn with contemporary art, it offered wellness treatments at its Purespa Ayurveda and boat tours aboard Discovery, their stylized solar-powered houseboat complete with sundecks!


We headed back to Niraamaya for a relaxing massage and Kerala sadya (veg meal usually served during Onam) on banana leaf, before heading out on a boat cruise around Vembanad Lake. A tightly bunched squadron of neer kaka (literally ‘water crows’) or cormorants flew low above the water’s surface like fighter jets avoiding detection by radar. Pond herons hopped between clumps of hyacinth, which bobbed and drifted with the current.

Small country boats better suited to explore the narrow canals offered a glimpse into Kuttanad’s riverine culture – fishing, coir making, duck farming, toddy tapping, cultivating rice, coconut, banana and tapioca besides unnamed kallu shaaps (local bar) serving kappa-meen. It’s not hard to see why Arundhati Roy chose this idyll setting as the backdrop for her book ‘God of Small Things’. The famed village of Ayemenem was just a stone’s throw away.


Vembanad is a fabulous eco-system. During monsoons, as water levels rise, the locks of Thaneermukkam Bund (literally ‘mouth of the water’) are opened to regulate the water level, making the lake saline. But the roots of mangrove trees absorb the salinity, making the water fresh again.

We crossed the private MRF Villa – there was indeed a lot of rubber from the plantations available locally and the embankment was lined with strips of old tyres. The boatman pointed out a lush stretch of paddy fields called 900-acres and R-Block, a 3000-acre patch lower than the sea level. It was once owned by the Marickans, hailed as the Kings of the Backwaters who named it after one of their daughters, Rani.


It was the same uncanny Malayali sense of enterprise that transformed war canoes into chundan vallams (snake boats) for races and humble rice boats or grain barges into plush kettu vallams (house boats). Rest and recreation in these parts was not new. The King of Kochi traditionally made an overnight halt at Pathiramanal or Island of Midnight Sand on his journey to south Kerala.

The 19.6-hectare island supposedly surfaced from the lake after an earthquake, though locals say it was formed when a devout Brahmin Sri Narayan Gurudev, dived in to perform his ritual evening bath and the waters of the Vembanad magically parted. A paved path led to the far end of the island and by evening Pathiramanal became the feeding-ground for birds from Kumarakom sanctuary nearby. The sun dipped over the waters, turning it into liquid gold and the sounds of a flute from a passing houseboat caught the wind…



Getting there
Fly to Nedumbassery airport at Kochi and drive 100km (1hr 30 min) to Kumarakom. Cabs can be hired from Alappuzha or Cochin from Travel Cart Ph 0484 2669933/44

Getting around
Boats ply on Lake Vembanad from the jetty at Muhamma or Kavanatinkara boat landing, 10 km from Kottayam. Spice Coast Tours operate houseboats from the private jetty at Puthenangad, 45 km from Kochi. Choose from short 2-hr Kettuvallam Cruise, Sunset Cruise, 6-hour Day Cruise that includes on-board lunch and evening snacks/tea or Overnight Cruise with full board.

When to Go
The main tourist season is from October to March, though the monsoon months of June-August offer quiet romantic holidays.


Where to Stay

Niraamaya Retreat
Ph 0481-2527700, 080-45104510

Coconut Lagoon
Ph 0481 2525834-6, 2523572-4

Purity by Lake Vembanad
Ph 0484-2704600

Taj Kumarakom Resort & Spa
Ph 0481-2525711-18

The Zuri Kumarakom
Ph 9620335599

Kumarakom Lake Resort
Ph 1800 4255030


Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April 2019 issue of Travel 360, the in-flight magazine of Air Asia. 

Thrissur: Gold’s Own Country


PRIYA GANAPATHY travels to Kerala’s cultural capital Thrissur to understand the Malayali fascination for gold


Gold is extraterrestrial. How it came to our earth’s crust is itself a miracle. It was created in space by cataclysmic stellar explosions or supernova that rained on earth as meteorites! So, gold is literally born out of dead stars. According to the journal Nature, a meteor bombardment 4 billion years ago brought 20 billion billion tons of ‘gold and precious metal-rich space rock’ to Earth. So predicting when our love affair with gold began might be tough, though excavations in Egypt peg it to 3000 BC.

While the affinity to gold is universal, the people of Kerala possess an unabashed love for it. Keralites buy nearly a third of the overall gold imported into India. From Padmanabhaswamy Temple’s buried vaults spilling with gold worth hundreds of billions of dollars, to glinting nettipattams (forehead adornments) of caparisoned temple elephants during the renowned Thrissur Pooram, traditional ivory-hued kasavu saris woven with gold threads and giant hoardings with models weighed down with ornaments – the proof is out there.


In God’s Own Country, there’s ‘Gold’s Own Country’ Thrissur, an unassuming cultural district that is the epicentre of the gold industry. Nearly 70% of all the gold sold in the state everyday is handcrafted in Thrissur. People in Kerala love their gold. When asked why, college girls, mothers, husbands, salesmen, artisans, traders, each had a view.

“It’s in our culture.” “Gold is a deposit.” “We can easily liquidate it in an emergency.” “Unlike land, gold is a guaranteed investment.” Saji, a cab driver joked, “In Kerala, ladies love gold more than their husbands! Attend a rich family’s wedding and you won’t see the girl’s face or sari, only gold.” Those WhatsApp forwards on Malayali brides laden from head to toe in gold are true!


TS Kalyanaraman, Chairman & Managing Director of Thrissur-based Kalyan Jewellers says, “Kerala has always celebrated this precious yellow metal. Ayurveda has extensive references on the therapeutic nature of gold. In rituals, gold and ghee are considered two of the purest elements.”

In Kerala, gold plays its part through rites and rituals of life’s significant events – from the birth of a child, educational initiation, puberty, communion ceremony, graduation to wedding, the cycle continues. The gold connect begins rather early. Newborns are given honey and vayambu (sweet flag plant) mixed with 24-carat gold. During the Vidyaarambham ceremony elders use a gold ring to write on the child’s tongue, marking the entry into the world of knowledge and learning. We reckon, once Malayalis get the first (and second) taste of gold, they develop a healthy palate for it!


The Thrissur connection

Every state has its own unique style and creative renditions. Kerala’s traditional jewellery designs borrow heavily from nature. A visit to the Kalyan showroom presented the full range of designs, each with evocative names. Mulla Mottu Mala is shaped like a string of jasmine buds, Naaga Padam resembles a hooded cobra and Maangamala is inspired by the paisley shape of mangoes. Manimala was a string of gold beads, Poothali was embellished with intricate flower (poo) patterns, Pulinakha mala was shaped like a tiger claw, Kaasu mala was a chain of gold coins (kaas), while Elakkathali was a choker named after the quivering movement (elakku) of its tiny free-hanging gold leaflets.

Palakka, a chain with a repeated heart-shaped pattern, mimicked the palakka fruit that tribals strung together into long chains. The classy kasavumala, a broad band of gold, was recently invented to match the gold border of the traditional kasavu mundu or two-piece sari. Non-traditional names – like Sachin, Seema Tara and Savitham – are design identities named after celebrities, actor or movies for the karigar’s convenience!


CS Ajay Kumar ‘Chitti Kappil,’ a fourth generation goldsmith, says his ancestors moved from a village near Kochi and settled at Cherpu in Thrissur’s suburbs when King Rama Varma IX or Sakthan Thampuran (1751-1805) invited professionals to populate his newly founded capital. His family specialized in making the unique jewel Chittum Kaapum used in the past by Nambuthiri Brahmin women.

He discloses that his family name ‘Chitti Kappil’ is attributed to the jewel rather than the ‘tharavad’ or ‘ancestral place’ as is the norm. His son, Hari Krishnan says, “The unusual earring is not worn anymore as the earlobe hole had to be widened to insert and lock the stud. One would probably find it as a family heirloom or some elderly lady’s ear.”


Ajay narrates how until the 1930s, thatans (traditional goldsmiths) would visit homes six months prior to a wedding to take orders for customized jewellery. Easwar Warrier, belonging to a community of temple treasurers, opened the first gold workshop in 1935 near Paramekkavu Devaswom at Thrissur Round with 10-15 talented goldsmiths. As business grew, the workers roped in their skilled cousins and craftsmen from Palakkad, Thiruvallamala and Chenganassery.

Warrier encouraged them to settle down with their families, triggering an influx of master craftsmen and talented goldsmiths. This was the beginning of Thrissur as a gold hub. Families from across the state would travel to Thrissur to buy ornaments. The steady growth spawned more retailers and the advent of readymade jewellery.


Behind the Scenes

“In our culture women look more beautiful in gold,” said young Ans. His father Anto, a gold trader in the busy Puthanpally Church area since 40 years remembers it as the main gold hub. Some traders melted as much as 10-20kg gold every day; its purity checked by placing it on a ‘purity analyzer’ for 30 seconds. “The purity of gold in Thrissur is excellent so people love to hoard gold.” Ans continued, “Local lore says if there is an earthquake in Thrissur, they’ll find cities of gold underground!” “It’s a fixed asset that can be exchanged anywhere at the day’s rate”, sums Anto. “Today’s is Rs.2960/g.”

In sweaty workshops artisans deftly twisted, beat and blew fire on gold bits and wire, transforming them into wondrous adornments, which make their way to showrooms of India’s biggest brands and gold retailers. To Manikandan a craftsman from Palakkad, “This is good work and good pay.” Hammering a tiny bit of gold into a pathalachi – a pockmarked cube used in jewellery making, he says, “It’s been 35 years. I learnt the skill from my father when I was 10.” Thrissur has the most skilled and gifted craftsmen.


Another feature that sets Thrissur jewellery apart is its lightness – a skill that makes gold purchases affordable without sacrificing aesthetics or design. The astuteness of Thrissur’s craftsmen makes them an asset in every gold jewellery unit. The labour-intensive nature and migration to other cities led to a decline in craftsmen; a gap filled by migrant workers from Kolkata. Nearly 10,000 Bengali craftsmen work in Thrissur.

Demand for Thrissur-trained workers everywhere and the skills acquired here helps them earn better back home. This cultural cross-pollination has also impacted jewellery design. Customers now have additional choices of Bengali filigree designs and nakkaash or hand-embossed ornate designs from Karnataka and Chettinad.


Back at Kalyan Jewellers, Anjana, a shy bride-to-be eyed a tray of gold bangles quietly. Her mother, sister and grandparents hovered over her along with a small platoon from the groom’s side. The mother-in-law to be, her four co-sisters and a few nieces pored over the choices, mumbling about weight and patterns. Shelba, one of the nieces confessed that her pre-wedding gold shopping fourteen years ago was exactly the same.

“This is the tradition. Even after shopping, all the neighbours and relatives will come over on the wedding eve to scrutinize the purchases, comment and probe into all the details.” In contrast, at another counter Jibin and Vaishnavi, a young couple shopped independently for their upcoming wedding. Vaishnavi says, “This piece is my choice, the rest of the shopping like rings, mangalsutra and wedding pieces will be a family affair.”


“Jewellery shopping continues to be an emotional exercise that involves families or couples coming together to pick the right pieces,” says Kalyanaraman. “Thrissur is where brand Kalyan is from – and for that very reason, it is one of our most important markets, despite 18 showrooms across the state. When I started my business, I knew every customer by face and name. Today, their children are our customers, and for many in Thrissur, Kalyan is their family jeweller.”

They undertake surveys and study every market beforehand as jewellery tastes vary from city to city. Thrissur’s buyers prefer traditional designs – the shinier the better – and nearly 96% go for yellow gold rather than pink and brushed gold, platinum or diamonds. Thrissur also has a strong culture of exchanging old jewellery for newer pieces because there is 100% exchange on gold value.


Digging into the past

“It is the innate curiosity of women to enter a shop when they see a new product on display. If women were happy with whatever they had, shops would shut down”, quipped Mohan, a tour guide and history buff from Calicut. “The fashion-minded ladies in Kerala have perhaps motivated artisans to produce newer products, thus fueling the gold industry.”

Mohan explained, “The Greeks and Romans settled around Kodungullur in 300 BC. There was rich cultural exchange through trade as pepper, ivory, spices and diamonds were bartered for gold. When the Jews and Christians arrived, there was demand for skilled artisans to craft gold crowns and ornamented vestments for bishops.


Excavation findings between 2007-2014 at Pattanam point to a flourishing tradition of glass and bead-making in the region but little gold.” Historian TR Venugopalan too confirmed that Thrissur’s tag as a gold capital was a recent phenomenon.

Stories of excavated gold coins took us to Thrissur’s Sakthan Thampuran Palace, now a museum. The Numismatic gallery revealed 5th BCE Roman dinari found in the Eyyal hoards of Thrissur, which also included Veerarayans (gold coins) circulated around Kochi. Museum Curator Srinath said, “In 1341, when the great flood in the Periyar River swallowed Muziris, Kochi was created (derived from Kochch-azhi literally ‘new port’).”


At Kodungallur, Nawshad PM, Managing Director of the Muziris Heritage Project and archaeological expert Dr Midhun showed us around Kottapuram Fort. Pattanam, the excavation site, broadly corresponds to the ancient port of Muziris, hailed by ancient chroniclers like Pliny as ‘the first emporium of India’. However, gold findings were limited to a small axe-like pendant, a tiny gold bead and some Roman gold coins kept at Koyikkal Palace Nedumangad Museum in Trivandrum.

The temple of Augustus, testimony to the prosperous trade with the Red Sea, has long gone. It was evening and the sky was ablaze as families sat scrutinizing ornaments in bright-lit stores. The Latin word for gold is ‘aurum’, meaning ‘shining dawn’. Clearly, the name holds true in Kerala, where the sun will never go down on their love for gold.


Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the January 2019 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

Wayanad: Kerala’s Heartland


Misty hills, green valleys, heart-shaped lakes, monsoon festivals and delightful new resorts, Wayand never ceases to amaze, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

Chembra trek IMG_1399_Wayanad-Anurag Mallick

As we negotiated the highest peak in Wayanad, the top seemed achingly near, ringed by a tiara of clouds. Our reticent VSS (Vana Samrakshana Samiti) guide from Meppadi made an odd clucking sound to get our attention and motioned below. We looked back and gasped at the sight.

It was indeed a heart-shaped lake, or as locals quaintly called it ‘Hriday Saras’! When we sat by it half an hour ago, it looked more like liver, but from up here there was no mistaking its shape. We pointed to the top and asked ‘Chembra’? Some more guttural sounds followed, which seemed like a ‘no’.

Chembra Heart-shaped Lake IMG_1479_Wayanad-Anurag Mallick

There must have been five points where this strange monosyllabic interaction took place and with each successive crest, Chembra seemed to elude us. It was a lot like our experience in Wayanad, where each step showed us a new aspect to this fascinating hill district of Kerala. The summit, at 6,800ft, was wreathed in clouds and it started to drizzle, so we made our slow descent down the grassy slope.

Our guide disappeared for a while and returned with what looked like a wild orange. We greedily tore into its thick skin and bit into the flesh but it turned out to be grapefruit. ‘Bambli moos’, mumbled the VSS guard. Later, we learnt that its Malayalam moniker was a corruption of the Dutch and French name pamplemousse.


The colonial stamp on the region was a recent one and as one peeled away the layers, Wayanad seemed wrapped in several histories. The imprint of early man is evident at Edakkal Caves, India’s most important prehistoric rock shelter, with Megalithic and Neolithic wall etchings like the Chieftain dating back to 4000 BC! It also has its ‘Kilroy was here’ equivalent. A scrawl in Brahmi script ‘Palpulita nandakari bedungomalai kachhabanu nanduchatti’, loosely translated to ‘Nandu, who killed many tigers on this mountain, was here.’

This was hallowed land where Lord Rama crossed over the Brahmagiri Hills from Coorg to Kerala, where he performed the pind daan for his deceased father Dasratha at the Thirunelly temple and shot an arrow that ‘pierced the mountain’, which was hence called Ambukuthy. There’s even a temple of Seetha Devi, Lava and Kusha at Pulpally.

Kerala_Wayanad-Panamaram Jain Temple DSC_0170

Jainism once prospered here and the wily Tipu Sultan converted a 14th century Jain shrine into an ammo dump, which led to the place Ganpathivattom being renamed Sulthan Bathery after the sultan’s battery! Wayanad was a tactical stopover between his capital Srirangapatna and the Malabar coast. The legendary Van Ingen family, taxidermists to the Maharajas of Mysore, were based in Wayanad. Many of the estates and bungalows they once held, are now resorts – like Tranquil Plantation, not far from the tribal heritage museum at Ambalavayal.

The district has a very large tribal population, chiefly the Kuruchiyas, Kurumbas and Paniyas. It was Kerala Verma Pazhassi Raja of Kottayam (a local principality, not the south Kerala town) who mobilized them into a guerilla army and eventually perished fighting the British. If Tipu was the Tiger of Mysore, Pazhassi Raja was undoubtedly the Lion of Kerala. His memorial stands proud at Mananthavady.


Yet, Wayanad’s secrets hide in plain sight. Ruins of Jain shrines lie in scenic coffee, coconut and spice plantations. It was spices grown in the highlands around Wayanad that fuelled the lucrative trade in coastal centres like Thalassery and Kannur. We dropped off our guide at Meppadi and continued to the misty ghats of Lakkidi near Vythiri.

By the roadside we stopped at an unusual tree that was ensnared in chains. This is Wayanad’s famous Chain Tree. The story goes that Karinthandan, a young tribal helped a British engineer find a safe route through the treacherous Thamarassery Ghat. Unwilling to share the credit, the Britisher killed him and Karinthandan’s restless spirit began haunting travelers near that spot. After a string of accidents, a priest was brought to perform a puja and pacify the spirit, which was supposedly chained to the tree. We sent a silent prayer for safe travels and wheeled offroad from Vythiri.

Chain Tree Lakkidi IMG_7274_Wayanad-Anurag Mallick

Wayanad, the hilliest district in Kerala is also its least populous. We lurched up the mountain slope to Vythiri Resort, which did more to put Wayanad on the map than the unassuming, dull brown Wayanad Laughing Thrush. Long before tourism opened up in Wayanad, it had been wowing travelers with its treehouses, swaying bridge, streamside cottages and local cuisine. Almost every resort in Wayanad is tucked away in an estate, on a mountain or by a stream.

In nearly a dozen visits to the district, we’ve had the chance to stay at some really special spots. Over a waterfall at Meenmutty Heights, around boulders and caves at Edakkal Hermitage, in a colonial era cottage at Tranquil, by India’s largest earth dam Banasura Sagar at Silver Woods and Banasura Island Retreat, in cottages by a waterfall at Blue Ginger… you dream it, it’s out there!

Banasura Island Resort IMG_7455_Wayanad-Anurag Mallick

There’s a whole new crop of resorts in Wayanad. After years of manning Tranquil Resort, Victor and Ranjini Dey have opened their own homestay Amaryllis at Deydreams Farm. It is named after the vibrant long lasting flower, the first one they planted along the driveway when they bought the patch in 2008. The floral theme continues with garden rooms named Azalea, Begonia and Callindra while the tree villas Solandra and Poinsettia overlook the backwaters of Karapuzha reservoir in the distance.

For a closer view of Karapuzha, stay at Vistara by the Lake, with private balconies, immaculate gardens and an outdoor pool overlooking the reservoir. It’s pet friendly too! One place that’s neither pet friendly nor kid friendly (purely due to safety considerations) is Pepper Trail.


Located in the historic Mangalam Carp Estate set up in the late 1800s by pioneering planter Colin Auley Mackenzie, it comes with two treehouses and two suites in a 140-year-old Pazhey Bungalow. That’s the thing with Wayanad – depending on your predilection, you can choose to be a couch potato or a super trooper game for any adventure.

Trek to Banasura Hill or Little Meenmutty waterfall overlooking the 1700 hectare Banasura Sagar. Dotted with 19 islands, the speedboat rides on the reservoir mark the start of Hydel Tourism in the district. Get a dose of responsible tourism with DTPC Kalpetta’s Village Life Experience tours that include visits to tribal hamlets, nature walks through plantations and paddy fields and learning how eucalyptus oil, tribal weapons, leather drums and pottery are made, ending with a tribal ethnic meal.

Wildlife-Tusker by the road IMG_7652_Wayanad-Anurag Mallick

Hike to waterfalls like Soochipara (Needle Rock), Kanthampara and Meenmutty Falls or go on day trails or multi-day hiking, cycling and kayaking adventure trips with Muddy Boots. Spot packs of dhol on the hunt at Tholpetty or tuskers by the road at Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary.

Lakes like Pookote and Karalad are already popular among tourists for boating or you could drop by at Uravu’s bamboo processing center near Kalpetta, where handicrafts are fashioned out of bamboo like spice boxes, lampshades and Rainmakers (hollow bamboo instrument with seeds cascading through it to mimic the sounds of rain).

Uravu bamboo products IMG_7354_Wayanad-Anurag Mallick

While Wayanad hums to an ancient rhythm, it is indeed in the rains that it comes alive – when streams, waterfalls and grasslands revive and paddy fields turn into venues for mud football, coconut tree climbing and crab catching! So take the winding road to wonderland and make a splash in Wayanad…


Getting there
The Kozhikode–Mysore highway NH 212 passes through Wayanad via Vythiri in the west to Sulthan Bathery in the east. Kozhikode International Airport at Karipur is the nearest airport, 95 km from the district headquarters Kalpetta.

When to visit
Great all year round, some wildlife areas are closed in summer due to threat of forest fires. In the rains, Wayanad Splash in July is a unique monsoon festival with offroad rallies and other events.

Wayanad Splash-Mud football IMG_1261_Wayanad-Anurag Mallick

Where to Stay

Vistara Wayanad
Karapuzha, Kalathuvayal, Ambalavayal
Ph +91 9072111299

Narikund P.O., Via Ambalavayal
Ph +91 9847865824, 9847180244

Pepper Trail
Chulliyode, Sulthan Bathery
Ph +91 9562 277 000

Banasura Island Retreat
Kuttiyamvayal, Varambetta P.O, Padinharathara
Ph +91 94955 53311

Wayanad Silverwoods Resort
Manjoora P.O, Pozhuthana, Kalpetta
Ph +91 9746475714, 9562088844

Vythiri Resort IMG_1686_Wayanad-Anurag Mallick

Vythiri Resort
Lakkidi P.O, Wayanad
Ph +91 4936 256800, 255366, 94470 55367

Blue Ginger Spa Resorts
Melapoonchola, Vythri
Ph +91 9287439315, 9287439303

Meenmutty Heights
Ph +91 9656056215

Sunrise Valley
Ph + 91 9526072777

Greenex Farms
Ph +91 9846131560, 9645091512 


What to Do

Thrikkaipetta, 7km from Kalpetta
Ph 04936 231400

Chembra Trek
VSS Office, Erumakkolly
2km from Meppadi

Muddy Boots
Ph +91 95442 01249

For more info

District Tourism Promotion Council (DTPC)
Civil Station, North Kalpetta
Ph 04936 202134

Wayanad Tourism Organisation (WTO)
Vasudeva Edom, Pozhuthana PO
Ph 04936 255 308, 8547255308

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April 2017 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine. 

Pepper Trail: Treehouse luxury


Tree-houses, colonial charm, Kerala cuisine and jeep rides around the estate and a wildlife sanctuary, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY enjoy their plantation stay in Wayanad


We trudged up the wooden ramp that snaked 40ft above the coffee bushes in a gentle ascent to the Woodpecker Treehouse. Inspired by local Wayanad tribal styles and built on a sturdy jackfruit tree, our lavish perch came with wood-panelled walls, fine décor, luxurious bathroom, a wide balcony with easy chairs besides a country style four-poster bed next to a tree jutting through the floor. While we’re no strangers to Kerala or treehouses, Pepper Trail was definitely the most luxurious perch we had been to. Its twin, the Hornbill Treehouse was a little further away.

Every morning and evening, we’d sip coffee, watching barbets and sunbirds flit about while Racket tailed drongos and Malabar Grey hornbills competed with their vocal calisthenics. Lost in the cacophonic din of urban living, even silence in the rainforest sits on an underlay of crooning cicadas. We sat watching the constant rain beat down on the heart-shaped pepper leaves that quivered in the cool wind.


Apparently, when the British were taking the pepper plant back to England, the Zamorin of Calicut had scoffed, “They may take our pepper vine, but they cannot steal our Thiruvathira Njattuvela” (the 15-day assault of the monsoon that triggers the fruiting of the pepper)!

Our arboreal existence drew the attention of a boisterous troop of macaques, who would peer through our windows in the hope of biscuits or bananas and romp on the railings in wild tantrum displays. Snootily, we became the burra sahib and memsahib who would descend from their lair only to feed.


Pepper Trail is a good place to know your poriyal (dry fry) from your ulithiyal (roasted shallots in spicy tamarind coconut gravy). The genuine warmth of our host Anand Jayan was apparent as he patiently explained how farm fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs from the 200-acre coffee, tea and spice plantation was used to make irresistible home-style delicacies.

Meals were served under the tiled roof Pavilion, its deck hovering over a swathe of coffee shrubs broken by the shade of tall silver oak shade and jackfruit. From cheruvayur pindi toran (tempered green gram) to chena mizhaku pereti (yam fry), nendra pazham curry made of ripe bananas to kayi toran, stir fried with unripe ones; each meal was a culinary journey.


A common local produce like coconut had been reinterpreted into a chapati
 and coconut milk chicken curry. Sometimes, the chicken came in a varatherecha curry with roasted ground masalas or as Chicken kizhi (bundled in a leaf pouch, Ayurveda style) with mint chutney. The diversity of the repertoire can be gauged from the fact that when a Japanese couple came here for three weeks, no dish was repeated! The lean staff toiled away like genies, speaking in hushed tones ready to take care of every need, appearing and disappearing magically to make the holiday experience, a private indulgence. With a maximum occupancy of ten guests, it’s truly personalized service.

After two days of trudging up and down from the treehouse, we moved to the 140-year-old Pazhey Bungalow the ‘old’ plantation bungalow. Set in a manicured garden, the upstairs houses the Mackenzie Suite, in honour of the estate’s original owner Colin Auley Mackenzie who founded the Mangalam Carp Estate in the late 1800s. Mackenzie was a Scottish pioneer planter who was part of the first wave of colonial planters in India.


After he died in 1920, Anand’s maternal grandfather PB Kurup came from Africa and bought the colonial estate in 1932. Long before biotechnology had taken off in India, this biotech pioneer got into the manufacture of distilled water and extraction of oil from eucalyptus, patchouli and bergamot… People called him Techno Kurup.

The ground floor, with its offices and red oxide floors was renovated into the Malabar Suite, with a hall, bedroom, sit out and the old chemical storeroom converted into a large ensuite bathroom! The philosophy of the place is rooted in Anand’s vision of creating special places to stay – a dream he nurtured even as a child. Taking up his father’s challenge, he renovated it with utmost care. Each Basel Mission roof tile and anjali (wild jack) wooden board on the wall was removed, numbered and put back.


The old glass swivel windows on its façade have watched history unfold. With heirloom and colonial furniture collected from antique shops, this wood-scented hideaway is ideal for solitude or romance. Lounge in wicker plantation chairs or in reading nooks where speckled piculets peck at windows indignant at their own reflections, or relax in the secluded balcony overlooking a backyard garden with bamboo thickets and trees frequented by scarlet minivets.

The sprawling estate is great for birding besides leisurely walks to understand how coffee and tea are cultivated. Guests can participate in farm work, as experienced hands harvest coffee, tea and spice, using centuries old methods. In the heart of the estate, fed by natural springs, the acre-wide natural reservoir forms the focal point for local flora and fauna. Perfect for fishing or a leisurely canoe or coracle ride, this is one spot where you’d like to linger. Or laze in the pool and get an Ayurvedic spa therapy.


We decided to head out on an open jeep ride around the plantation. Lined by cheery orange and red heliconia, the driveway cut through the expansive estate with tea bushes on one side and coffee on the other. Driving through the buffer zones of Muthanga and Bandipur wildlife parks, we spotted seven elephants, wild boar and numerous chital (spotted deer).

It was time for dinner by the time we returned. The piece de resistance was the mola ari payasam or sweet porridge made of bamboo rice, jaggery and coconut milk. Each time the bamboo flowers – once every hundred years – the entire bamboo forest dies. It’s a fascinating natural phenomenon that’s as tragic as it’s beautiful. After blossoming, the flowers produce a fruit called ‘bamboo rice’, which is collected and stored for future use. Last year was a bumper harvest in Wayanad. Who knows it would be decades before the flowers would bloom again, but we wouldn’t wait that long to return…



Getting There
Located at Chulliyode, 10 km from Sulthan Bathery in Wayanad, Pepper Trail is 100 km from Calicut International Airport, 130 km from Mysore, 250 km from Bangalore and 280 km from Cochin.

What to See/Do
Visit the old Jain shrine converted into an ammunition dump by Tipu Sultan (hence the name Sultan Battery), hike to Edakkal Caves in the Ambukuthi hills to see the Neolithic cave drawings dating to 6000 BC and go on wildlife safaris in Muthanga and Bandipur.


Pepper Trail
Mangalam Carp Estate, Chulliyode
Sulthan Bathery, Wayanad
Ph: +91 9562 277 000

Malabar Suite Rs.11,750
McKenzie Suite/treehouse Rs.14,750
Inclusive of breakfast, Meals Rs.600 lunch, Rs.750 dinner

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the August, 2016 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

Dance of the Divine: Theyyam & Kalaripayattu


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY travel deep into the Malabar hinterland of North Kerala to experience its celebrated art forms Theyyam and Kalaripayattu 

Theyyam edit

Somewhere on the fringes of Pallikunnu, a remote village near Kannur in North Kerala, we waited with bated breath to watch the magical transformation of a mere mortal into a god. In the orange glow of an olachottu, an indigenous torch made of dried coconut leaves, flames danced on the somber face of the performer, who recited an invocation. A crowd had assembled in the dead of the night to witness a theyyam performance.

Theyyam is a ritualistic dance form performed in Kerala’s erstwhile Kolathunad region (present day Kasargod and Kannur districts and parts of Wayanad, Malappuram and Kozhikode). The word is derived from devam or thaivam (god) and is as much art as it is ritual. While classical art forms like Kathakali, Koodiyattam and Kalaripayattu flourished in palaces, mansions and temples as exclusive domains of the elite and upper caste Brahmins and Kshatriyas, folklore ran parallel to the mainstream. It represented the hopes and aspirations of the marginalized segment of society and found a platform at sthanams (village shrines) and kavus (sacred groves).


It is believed theyyam originated from various cults prevalent in ancient Kerala – from totemism to worship of trees, serpents, tigers, ancestors, spirits, heroes, mother goddesses and divinities that ruled diseases. Traditionally held between the Malayalam months of Thulappathu (mid-October) and Edavappathy (mid-May), theyyam is performed mainly by the Ezhavas and Thiyas, traditionally toddy-tappers, besides Hindu sub-castes like Vannan, Malayan, Anjutton, Mannatton, Karimbalan, Pulayan and tribes like Koppalan, Velan, Mayilon and Chungathan.

There are nearly 400 different kinds of theyyam – Vishnu-murti is most commonly performed with some rare ones called Perumkaliyattam that are performed every 12 years. Vayanattukulavan traces the journey of Shiva’s attendant through the forests of Wayanad after he was blinded for drinking from the lord’s cache of toddy. A Brahmin virgin committed suicide to prove her chastity and was deified in the form of Muchilottu Bhagavathi.

Vayanatukulavan theyyam 2-edit

We were witnessing the thottam (preliminary ritual) of Kunnavu Muchilotu Bhagavathy with minimal make-up and costume. Accompanied by singers and musicians, the performer sang the myth or tale of the divinity. In the background, the chenda drummed up a haunting rhythm as folk instruments like tuti (hourglass-shaped drum), kuzhal (double-reed flute) and veekni gave company. The performer received naithiri (lighted wick) in the nakkila (plantain leaf) from the priest of the shrine, who invokes the deity into the wick. Thereafter, god resides with the performer and is ritually returned after the theyyam.

We watched guardian attendants clad in red clothes with swords and shield in hand accompanying the theyyam. They were the komaram or velachipad, who swayed to the hypnotic rhythm, moving in synchronized steps in a group dance is called Kudiyattam. The performer then retired to the aniyara (makeshift green room) to complete his make-up and costume, which took a few hours.


Make up is done with locally available materials – tender coconut fronds for tasseled frocks or headgear and natural dyes like chayilyam (vermillion), manjal (turmeric powder), arichanthu (rice powder paste) and lamp black are used. The spine of a coconut leaf was used to apply make up. Red clothes, masks, eyepieces, breastplates and tusks are typical accessories of theyyam performances.

After final touches of make-up, the headgear is fixed, usually in front of the shrine. Only then does the performer look into a mirror to perceive the deity for the first time. This ritual, called mukhadarshanam, helps him forget his individuality and become one with his character. It is a moment that sends frissons of excitement through the crowd.


To perform the theyyam, a person has to undergo tremendous preparation, both physically and mentally. He is supposed to concentrate on the deity and often takes on peculiar vows. Some stay in the premises of the shrine, some prepare their own food while others abstain from meat and alcohol or do not mingle with women. Then, on the big night, all this built up energy is unleashed…

There were gasps in the audience as the theyyam was led out into the arena in full regalia, accompanied by attendants holding the kuthuvilakku (metal lamp with iron rod). The theyyam bore a shield and kadthala (sword) in his hand. He circumambulated the shrine thrice and walked to the family members. A theyyam is usually performed as an offering to a particular deity, to fulfill prayers, after getting a serious problem solved or winning a court case. The person conducting it must bear all the expenses.


As the clan members sprinkled sacred rice, the theyyam heard their supplications. The theyyam becomes an oracle through which the divinity offers anuvada or solutions to various problems. He then walked rhythmically to the crowds to bless them and continued dancing in the courtyard. Theyyam has different steps known as kalaasams, repeated systematically from the first to the eighth step of footwork. Sometimes, a performance can stretch over hours.

The weapons brandished by the performers hark back to the martial traditions of ancient Kerala society. And there’s no better example of it than kalaripayattu, considered to be one of the oldest forms of combat in existence and a precursor to other martial traditions around the world. The art of payattu (fight) was disseminated through kalari (schools), which served as centres of learning before the modern education system.

CVN Kalari dagger 2

Though Kerala’s culture is rich with several artistic traditions, kalaripayattu blends together various disciplines like yoga, dance, performing arts and Ayurveda with martial art. It is suggested that the art developed during the Sangam Age between 3rd century BC and 2nd century AD, with elements of shastra vidya of warrior sage Parasurama, siddha vaidya of Sage Agastya and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It was codified into its present form only by 11th century, during an extended period of conflict between the Chera and Chola dynasties. The art was widely practiced by the Pada Nairs and Chekavas, a sub group of Ezhavas and gained popularity over time.

Often, to save on the loss of lives and material in a full-scale war, disputes were resolved with ankam, a one-on-one combat between the best fighters from the two sides. It was like ‘Olympics meets Mortal Kombat’. The stakes were high and nothing was left to chance. Every warrior received regular training in target practice, riding horses and elephants and the use of different weapons – vel (spear), val (sword), kedaham (shield), vil-ambu (bow and arrow), neduvadi (sticks), katthi (daggers) and the deadly urumi (long, flexible sword).


Kalaripayattu bears an uncanny resemblance to kung fu and some conjecture it migrated from India to the Far East with the dispersal of Buddhism. While on the one hand you have Shaolin monks; on the other, are Brahmin warrior sages. Like Kung Fu, kalaripayattu too, borrows a lot from animal movement for vadivu (postures) and combat techniques – asva (horse), sarpa (serpent), simha (lion), gaja (elephant), kukkuta (rooster), mayura (peacock), marjara (cat) and varaha (boar). For all you know, Crouching Tiger and Snake in the Monkey’s Shadow might be more Indian than you think!

To the untrained eye, it may all seem the same but there are three distinct styles of the martial art. Vadakkan (Northern) Kalari, practiced in North Malabar, focuses on weapons rather than empty hands and lays emphasis on meippayattu (physical training and oil massages). Madhya (Central) Kalari, practiced in North Kerala, lays emphasis on application and lower body strength. Thekkan (Southern) Kalari has its roots in Siddha medicine and marma (vital points) techniques.

CVN Kalari teaching the young

After the Portuguese and the Dutch, when the British came to Kerala they realized the deadly power of kalaripayattu. To prevent any potential rebellion or anti-colonial movement, they banned the practice and the Nair custom of holding swords. And thus, an ancient art languished till the 1920s when public interest revived the artform and Thalassery became the epicentre of learning. Though there are several cultural platforms where kalaripayattu is demonstrated, a visit to a kalari is the best way to understand the martial art. We dropped by at the renowned CVN Kalari at Kozhikode for a ringside view.

Built as per vastu sastra, the kalari has an east facing entrance and main door to the right of centre. The sunken central training area is 3.5 ft below ground level with a high thatched roof. The typical architecture shields students against winds that could lower body temperature. Even the floor made with wet red clay offers cushioning and prevents injury. In the southwest corner is a puttara (seven tiered platform) with the guardian deity, usually Bhagavathi, Kali or Shiva. Students offer flowers, incense and water in veneration before every training session. The guru’s stern voice cracked through the chamber like a whip as well-oiled pupils practiced their squats, kicks, jumps and fighting techniques, the way their forefathers did centuries ago. We watched in awe as they flew through the air, swinging swords that set off sparks. In Kerala, the old traditions are well and truly alive…



Getting there
Kerala is well connected by air with international airports at Trivandrum, Kochi and Kozhikode. Thalassery is 70 km north of Kozhikode.

When to go
October to March is a pleasant time to visit, though theyyam season goes on till May, which can get quite warm.

Those who can’t catch a performance during theyyam season, there’s an early morning ritual performed in the Muthappan Temple at Parassinikkadavu every day. Local dailies and roadside posters list out theyyams taking place in the area. A detailed list is available at

Where to stay
Gitanjali Hermitage at Bekal, Kannur Beach House at Thottada, Ayesha Manzil in Thalassery and Hari Vihar in Kozhikode are excellent host-run properties that serve as excellent bases for culinary and culture tours.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the August-September 2015 issue of India Now magazine.

10 magical drives from Bengaluru


From the Western Ghats to the Deccan Plateau and the Karavali Coast to Coromandel, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY hit the highways of South India to seek out ten scenic drives from Bangalore

Searching for some great drives around Bengaluru? Look no further than this handpicked list of destinations across regions, themes and geographic zones with everything you need to know – where to stay, what to eat, how to get there, distances, midway stops and what to see en route. Presented in increasing order of distance from Bangalore, take these scenic routes across Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Goa.

Baba Budan Giri_Landscape 2_opt

Swathed in plantations of coffee, cardamom, pepper and areca, Sakleshpur is the scenic gateway to the Western Ghats. Straddling the passes on the town’s outskirts is Tipu Sultan’s strategic fort Manjarabad. Shaped like an eight-cornered star radiating around a central hillock, the climb is difficult, but offers superb views all around. The 56.8 km Green Route from Sakleshpur to Kukke Subrahmanya, dotted by 58 tunnels, 109 bridges and 25 waterfalls used to be a stunning trek along an abandoned railway track until it was recently converted into broad gauge. Now you can hop on to a train to soak in the natural beauty of Bisle Ghat, home to India’s most spectacular rainforests. From the scenic Bisle viewpoint one can see the mountain ranges of three districts – Kumara Parvatha (1319 m) in Dakshina Kannada, Puspha Giri (1712 m) and Dodda Betta (1119 m) in Coorg and Patta Betta (1112 m) in Hassan district. For a misty drive, head north to Chikmagalur and the Baba Budan Giri hills to climb Karnataka’s highest peak Mullaiyanagiri.
Stay: The Radcliffe Bungalow at the 1000-acre Ossoor Estate 3 km before Sakleshpur off the highway is a charming colonial era plantation bungalow with 3 rooms, red oxide floors and open to sky bathrooms. Run by Plantation Escapes, they also have an 8-room property near Chikmagalur called Mist Valley.
Distance: 221 km (4 hrs)
Route: Take the Bengaluru-Mangaluru highway or NH-48 via Nelamangala, Kunigal, Hassan and Channarayapatna

Pitstop: Kamath Upchar after Channarayapatna
En route: Drowning church of Shettihalli, Gorur Dam, Hoysala temples at Mosale, Nuggehalli besides Belur-Halebid

Guided Jeep Drive Through Coffee Plantations

As the winding road climbs the ghats of Coorg, the glossy green coffee bushes and pepper vines present a soothing sight. In monsoon, blankets of mist wrap the rainforest and waterfalls are at their torrential best – be it Abbi and Hattihole near Madikeri (Mercara), Chelavara near Kakkabe or Irpu near Srimangala. Go on a guided Bean to Cup plantation tour with Tata Coffee, enjoy a round of golf at the 9-hole course, grapple with rapids while whitewater rafting at Dubare and Upper Barapole rivers or hike to vantage points like Kotebetta, Mandalpatti and Kabbe Pass. Base yourself in any of the colonial-era bungalows around Pollibetta run by Tata Coffee’s Plantation Trails and feast on traditional Kodava cuisine like koli (chicken) and pandi (pork) curry and monsoon staples like kumme (mushrooms), bemble (bamboo shoots) and kemb (colocasia) curry.
Stay: Stay in premium heritage bungalows like the century old Cottabetta or Thaneerhulla, Woshully plantation bungalow or plantation cottages like Surgi, Thaneerhulla, Yemmengundi or Glenlorna, which offers the rare view of a tea estate in coffee county. They also run the Arabidacool heritage bungalow near Chikmagalur.
Distance: 230 km (5 hrs)
Route: SH-17 till Srirangapatna, turn right onto the Mercara highway and after Hunsur, take the left deviation towards Gonicoppa (look out for the Plantation Trails sign), drive on to Thithimathi and turn right at another sign to Pollibetta, 9 km away.
Pitstop: Maddur vada at Maddur Tiffany’s or puliyogare, pongal, Kanchipuram idlis and Brahmin Iyengar snacks at Kadambam, Channapatna
En route: Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, KRS Dam (Brindavan Gardens) and Namdroling Golden Temple at the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe near Kushalnagar.

Vythiri Resort rope bridge IMG_1686_Anurag Priya

Perched at an altitude of 700 m atop Thamarassery Ghat, Lakkidi squats on the western border of Kerala’s hilliest district Wayanad. Located just 5 km from the tourist hub of Vythiri, it is one of the highest locations in the district. The winding Thamarassery–Lakkidi Ghat road, often shrouded in mist and fog, is called the Cherrapunjee of Kerala. Stop by at the freshwater Pookot Lake and the Chain Tree, which pays tribute to the spirit of a tribal chieftain who showed the secret way through the passes to a British officer but was treacherously killed. Head to the district headquarters Kalpetta for Wayanad Splash, a monsoon carnival with mud football, crab hunting, offroad drives and other rain soaked adventures. Hike to the heart-shaped lake at Chembra, Wayanad’s highest peak or take part in cross country cycling, treks and other adventure trails with Muddy Boots.
Stay: Laze in rustic themed tree houses or pool villas at Vythiri Resort, an eco friendly rainforest hideaway landscaped around a gurgling mountain stream. Pamper yourself with rejuvenative Ayurveda therapies, delicious Kerala cuisine and leisurely forest walks.
Distance: 290 km (7-8 hrs)
Route: SH-17 till Mysuru and NH-212 on the Kozhikode Road via Gundlupet, Muthanga, Sulthan Bathery and Kalpetta
Pitstop: Jowar roti, yenne badnekayi, neer dosa and North Karnataka delights at Kamat Madhuvan on the southern outskirts of Mysuru on the Kozhikode Road
En route: Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary and the Jain Temple at Sulthan Bathery that Tipu Sultan used an ammunition dump.

Coonoor offroad jeep ride to Pakkasurankote IMG_2450_Anurag Priya

Take a drive up the hairpin bends of the Nilgiris or Blue Mountains for a magical sight of tea plantations that stretch for miles. Escape the bustle of Ooty to quieter Coonoor for drives to stunning viewpoints like Dolphin’s Nose, Catherine Falls, Kodanad and Rangaswamy Pillar. For an offroad experience, drive to Red Hills and Avalanchi or take a 4-wheel jeep ride past Glendale and Nonsuch Estates to Pakkasuran Kote with ruins of Tipu Sultan’s fort. Stay in a plantation bungalow while trekking downhill past Toda hamlets and Hillgrove Railway station. For a lazy slideshow of the hills, hop on to the Nilgiri Mountain Railway that covers the 26km uphill climb from Mettupalayam to Ooty in just under 5 hrs, crossing 16 tunnels and 250 bridges.
Stay: Tea Nest Coonoor on Singara Estate Road is a quiet nook overlooking tea plantations with rooms named after tea varieties, a seven-course tea-themed menu and the odd gaur among the bushes. They also run a private 2-room planter bungalow called Tea Nest Annexe 1 km down the road, besides the ethnic Kurumba Village Resort in a spice plantation on the Connoor-Mettupalayam Ghat road
Distance: 285 km (7-8 hrs)
Route: SH-17 till Mysuru, NH-212 till Gundlupet and NH-67 till Theppakadu. The route via Gudalur (right of the Y junction) is 30 km longer with less hairpin bends, though the left route via Masinagudi is more scenic with 36 hairpin bends
Pitstop: JLR’s Bandipur Safari Lodge has decent buffet lunches or try South Indian fare at Indian Coffee House Hotel on NH-67 at Gudalur
En route: Wildlife at Mudumalai National Park, Bandipur Tiger Reserve or Kabini

Agumbe British milestone DSC04266_Anurag Priya

One of the rainiest places in Karnataka, Agumbe is significant for many reasons. With a mean annual rainfall of 7,620 mm (300 inches), it is often described as the Cherrapunjee of the South. The sleepy rain-soaked hamlet served as Malgudi in Shankar Nag’s TV adaptation of RK Narayan’s nostalgic tale of Swami and his childhood. It is home to Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) founded in 2005 by herpetologist Romulus Whitaker dedicated to the Indian Cobra. One could visit Agumbe just to see the ‘Top of the Ghaut’ milestone erected by the British to mark the distance from ‘Shemoga’. Or marvel at the sunset from the viewpoint. But one of the biggest incentives is Mr. Nayak, the vada seller at Agumbe Forest checkpost who dispenses vadas with wisdom, stocking books of literary interest, for which regular patrons drive for miles.
Stay: Not too far from Agumbe near Thirthahalli is the quaint Kolavara Heritage homestay, a Chowkimane (traditional home) in a working plantation where you can enjoy Malnad cuisine and nature hikes
Distance: 357 km (8-9 hrs)
Route: NH-4 till Tumkur, NH-206 via Tiptur, Kadur, Tarikere, Bhadravati bypass, Shivamogga bypass, Thirthahalli
Pitstop: Chattambade and vadas at Mr. Nayak’s roadside stall at Agumbe Check-post and meenina oota (fish meals) at Mandagadde, midway between Shivamogga and Thirthahalli
En route: Sringeri temple, Mandagadde Bird Sanctuary and Kannada poet laureate Kuvempu’s birthplace Kavishaila

Pichavaram drive Gingee Fort 622_Anurag Priya

Spread over 2800 acres off Tamil Nadu’s Coromandel Coast; Pichavaram is one of the largest mangrove forests in the world. It first shot to fame with MGR’s 1975 film Idhaya Kanni and more recently served as a dramatic backdrop for Kamal Hassan’s Dashavataram. Navigable by boats that weave in and out of narrow canals lined by overgrown mangrove roots, it is a paradise for nature lovers. An early morning boat ride from the Arignar Anna Tourist Complex is ideal for birdwatching. And once you hit the ECR or East Coast Road, extend your itinerary by driving north to the erstwhile French enclave of Puducherry and the ancient maritime Pallava capital of Mamallapuram. Or head south to Tharamgambadi or Tranquebar, once a flourishing Danish outpost with stunning Scandinavian churches and a seaside fort.
Stay: Hotel Sardharam have a decent property in Chidambaram with great food and also run Pichavaram Eco Resort overlooking the boat jetty at Pichavaram backwaters, besides a Chola-themed heritage hotel Lakshmi Vilas near Veeranam Lake
Distance: 366 km (9-10 hrs)
Route: NH-7 via Electronic City, Hosur to Krishnagiri, NH-66 to Tiruvannamalai and onward to Cuddalore
Adyar Ananda Bhavan at BP petrol pump in Chinnar, between Hosur and Krishnagiri
En route: Arunachaleshwara temple and Sri Ramana Maharishi Ashram at Tiruvannamalai, Gingee Fort, Nataraja temple at Chidambaram

Vivanta by Taj Bekal Exterior

Remember ‘Tu Hi Re’ from Mani Ratnam’s Bombay and the rain drenched fort where it was shot? That’s Bekal, the largest and most well preserved fort in Kerala built by Shivappa Nayak in 1650. Kasaragod, Kerala’s northernmost district has the highest concentration of forts in the state, highlighting the importance of trade in the Malabar region. Follow the fort trail to Chandragiri and Hosadurg nearby, feast on local Moplah cuisine or take a houseboat ride in the Thejaswini river and the serene backwaters of Valiyaparamba.
Stay: BRDC (Bekal Resort Development Corporation) has facilitated a string of premium resorts like Nileshwaram Hermitage and The Lalit, though the pick of the lot is Vivanta by Taj Bekal. Spread over 26 acres near Kappil Beach, stay in laterite-lined villas inspired by kettuvallam (houseboat) motifs with private plunge pools, signature therapies at Jiva Grande Spa, besides honeymoon packages and vow renewal ceremonies.
Distance: 368 km (9-10 hrs)
Route: SH-17 to Mysuru and the old Mysuru-Mangaluru highway or NH-275 via Madikeri, Sampaje, Sullia to Jaloor, and SH-55 via Adhur and Cherkala to Bekal
Pitstop: The renovated East End Hotel in Madikeri is a great place for keema parathas, meat ball curry, though for firewood roasted akki roti with pandi curry stop by at the dingy yet delicious West End Bar on the other end of town.
En route: Omkareshwar Temple, Raja’s Seat and Gaddige in Madikeri, Malik Dinar mosque at Kasaragod

Munnar monsoon IMG_8985_Anurag Priya

With most beaches out of bounds during monsoon, the beauty of Kerala in the rains is best experienced in the hills. And what better haunt than Munnar, located at the scenic tri-junction of moon aaru or ‘three rivers’ – Mudrapuzha, Nallathanni and Kundala? Watch the mist roll over the mountains from your perch as you sip a steaming cup of Kannan Devan Hills chai. Drop by at the tea factory to trace the journey from leaf to cup as you explore the colonial summer hideout of the British through excellent short drives. Go via Mattupety Dam and Echo Point to Top Station or via the scenic lake of Devikulam to Bison Valley. Visit Eravikulam National Park to spot the Nilgiri Tahr or head to Anamudi Peak, at 2695m the highest point south of the Himalayas.
Stay: Tiled roof stone cottages built using rocks from the property, Mountain Club is a picture-postcard resort at Chinnakanal 21 km from town adjacent to Club Mahindra. It has an excellent multi-cuisine restaurant, coffee shop and an infinity pool overlooking Anayirankal Dam.
Distance: 478km (11-12 hrs)
Route: NH-7 via Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri to Salem, via Avinashi and Udumalpet onto Munnar Road
Pitstop: Besides Adyar Ananda Bhavan midway between Dharmapuri and Thoppur, there’s all day dining and a great value lunch buffet at GRT Grand Estancia at Salem, besides Hotel Chinnis at Perundurai
En route: Mettur Dam, Bhavani temple,
Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary

Kundapura DSC04826_Anurag Priya

Ever heard that thing about not eating fish in months that don’t have an ‘r’? May, June, July and August is the monsoon period when fish usually spawn, hence the old adage. But if you were to drive up the Karavali Coast to Karwar, there are several places to drop anchor. Kundapura, a town known for its legendary cuisine, boasts iconic dishes like Kundapur Chicken, Chicken Ghee Roast, Chicken sukka and neer dosa, with enough variety to keep one docked for days. Drive up further to Sai Vishram Beach Resort in Baindoor, perhaps the only non-alcoholic pure vegetarian resort on the coast. But for the best culinary and wellness experience drop by at Wild Woods Spa, which offers rare delights like jackfruit idli and dosa, wild mushroom curry, bamboo shoot curry, pathrode, spinach dosa and the signature dasola yele (Hibiscus leaf) idli.
Stay: Besides Blue Waters at Kundapura and Sai Vishram at Baindoor, Wild Woods Spa & Resort at Toodhalli, 7km from Shiroor checkpost, is a great place to enjoy the rains. A mountain stream encircles the botanical retreat that offers wood and stone cottages, exotic cuisine and spa treatments.
Distance: 496 km (12 hrs)
Route: NH-48 to Mangaluru via Shiradi Ghat and head north on NH-17 to Kundapura, Bhatkal and beyond. If closed for renovation or road repair, take NH-4 via Tumkur, Chitradurga, Davangere to Harihar and turn left via Siddapur and Jog Falls to reach the coast at Bhatkal. Or take NH-48 to Hassan and NH-234 via Belur and Mudigere to Charmadi Ghat, Belthangady, Karkala and Udupi.
Pitstop: Shetty Lunch Home in Kundapura is legendary for its sukkas, ghee roast and the eponymous Kundapur Chicken. Stop at Kwality on NH-17 for Bhatkal biryani (they serve only chicken)
En route: Stunning coastal views, waterfalls like Jog, Arshinagundi and Apsarakonda, coastal pilgrim trail from Udupi, Kukke Subramanya, Kollur Mookambika, Murudeshwar, Idagunji to Gokarna and Jain circuit of Moodbidri, Karkala, Varanga and Bhatkal.

Turiya Spa Canacona Goa_Amit Bhandare

Driving through Goa in the rains, especially the rich hinterland, is the perfect foil to the frenetic beach activity of the high season. Away from the secluded coast and the sore sight of fishing boats shrouded with palm fronds and blue tarpaulin, the green of the lush countryside is so bright it hurts your eyes! Explore the quiet south with trips to Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary on the Goa-Karnataka border, the stone cut temple of Tambdi Surla, a railway track hike or adventure bike ride to Doodhsagar waterfall or white water rafting on the Surla Mhadei river.
Stay: A tastefully renovated century old Portuguese villa in a quiet colony of Canacona, Turiya Villa & Spa is named after the fourth state of consciousness and is a great place to relax with lovely homestyle Konkani food and an in-house spa that offers Ayurveda, body and beauty treatments
Distance: 559 km (12-14 hrs)
Route: NH-4 via Tumkur, Chitradurga, Davangere to Haveri, via Yellapur to Karwar and up the coastal NH-17 to Canacona
Pitstop: Thatte idlis at Bidadi, Sri Kottureshwara or Old Sagar Hotel in Davangere for benne dosas and Amrut Restaurant and Shwetha Lunch Home in Karwar
En route: Chitradurga Fort, Yana Caves (Kumta-Sirsi route), Tagore Beach Karwar

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as a monsoon special on 15 July 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at

Kochi Coo: 10 Reasons why we love Cochin


There’s more to India’s first European township than Dutch palaces and Chinese fishing nets; ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY find ten reasons to love Kochi

IMG_9292 Earplugs at Brunton Boatyard_Anurag Mallick

Boat spotting from Brunton Boatyard
Anyone stepping into the leafy courtyard of the pierside Brunton Boatyard never fails to ask how old the heritage property is. Guests are startled to learn that CGH Earth’s faux colonial hotel resurrected from an old Victorian shipbuilding yard is just over a decade old! At the waterfront garden spot birds and boats over breakfast or watch the daily traffic in India’s busiest harbour from your balcony. Ferries, fishing boats, trawlers, massive liners to naval ships; it’s a continuous procession along the aquatic highway. Little wonder the attentive management provides earplugs with each room to block out the foghorns!

IMG_9340 East Indies_Cheenavala, a trio of fish, calamari and tiger prawn_Anurag Mallick

Colonial cuisines
Kerala’s legendary Spice Coast drew the world’s leading colonial powers to its shores. And there’s no better place than Cochin to see the merging of various cultures through cuisine. The Portuguese introduced the use of coconut milk, the Jews gave the appam while the Dutch drew culinary influences from their colonies in Ceylon, Indonesia and Malaya. Even today, the Dutch Bruder bread is baked daily in Fort Kochi. Enjoy the confluence of Mediterranean and Malabar flavours at The Malabar Junction or Cajun and Creole at fusionBay. At Eighth Bastion Hotel’s East Indies take the ‘Dutch Route’, a specially prepared menu of satays, rendang (Sumatran caramelized curry), shiitake bisque and lamprais (a corruption of ‘lump rice’) – a Sri Lankan Dutch Burgher dish of aubergine, frikkadel (Afrikaans meatball), sambal (spicy relish) and shrimp balchao (pickle) wrapped in a leaf with rice. Brunton Boatyard’s History Restaurant offers a limited portion of First Class Railway Mutton Curry every day, besides classics like Syrian Christian Duck Moilee, Anglo Indian cutlet, Jewish Chuttulli Meen and idiappam (Ceylonese string hoppers) with fish curry. Enjoy the day’s catch at the alfresco Terrace Grill or fresh fish caught at the Chinese fishing nets rustled up at street shacks.

IMG_9548 Rickshaw Run parking lot_Anurag Mallick

India’s most colourful parking lot
Ganesha’s Goras, Curry on Tukkin’, Bananas in Pyjamas, Good Korma, The Goafather, Krazy Jalfrezi, Here Today Gandhi ‘morrow, Naan Point Five on Rickshaw Scale… the names of the autorickshaws are as colourful as their zany appearance. Kochi is the designated parking lot for the Rickshaw Run, a 3500 km race across the subcontinent organized by The Adventurists. The offbeat tour company describes it as a ‘pan-Indian adventure in a 7 horsepower glorified lawnmower, the least sensible thing to do with two weeks’. Teams of three take part in custom-built autorickshaws with no fixed route, often espousing a social cause. On a handwritten bulletin board, participants record memorable incidents on the road, which makes for an interesting read! There’s a Cochin to Jaisalmer race via Goa in January 2015 and an August run from North East to Cochin.

IMG_9450 Graffiti on Burgher Street_Anurag Mallick

Graffiti from Kochi-Muziris Biennale
Kochi is literally an open-air gallery where walls act as canvases and beachside boulders and trees are reclaimed as artworks. Local artists often squat by the roadside, drawing old buildings or picturesque lanes. Most of the graffiti appeared during the inaugural Kochi-Muziris Biennale, an international exhibition of contemporary art held at Kochi and the historic port of Muziris in December 2012. Over three months nearly 4 lakh visitors saw works by 89 artists from 23 countries at a dozen sites. After a great debut, the second biennale between December 2014-March 2015 saw new artworks and the addition of a new venue – the historic Bastion Bungalow. Drop by at Gallery OED on Bazaar Road, Kashi Art Gallery and David Hall for ongoing art exhibitions.

IMG_9983 Feeding pigeons at Jain Temple_Anurag Mallick

Feeding pigeons at the Jain temple
Every noon, the old Jain temple at Mattancherry witnesses a unique avian ritual. The resident pigeons at Sri Vardhman Sthanak Vasi Jain Sangh circle the spire of the temple thrice before landing in the courtyard to feed. The sky is transformed into a blur of wings as the fearless birds hop right into your palm to peck at grains. Spotting the white pigeon is considered auspicious.

Visiting hours for foreigners is after 11 am.

IMG_9601 Fort Kochi Heritage Walk_Gunnery_Anurag Mallick

Heritage walk around Fort Kochi
If you’ve had your share of overpriced spice boxes in Jew’s Town, the world’s largest varpu (brass vessel) at Crafters antique shop and a peek into Idiom Booksellers, the ‘best little book shop in South India’, take a heritage walk down the streets of Fort Kochi. The Dutch wrested Cochin from the Portuguese in 1663 and the British took over in 1795. The streets bear traces of all these colonial influences. Begin at Vasco Da Gama Square with a narrow promenade running parallel to the Chinese fishing nets. By the beach is a large anchor and steam boilers; relics from the dredging of Vembanad Lake to create the modern port of Kochi in 1936. The artificial island thus created was named Willingdon after the erstwhile governor of Madras, who commissioned the project. Walk past the remains of Fort Immanuel and Gunnery and follow the Dutch Cemetery Road to the oldest European cemetery in India dated 1724. Marvel at the colonial architecture of Poovath Heritage and Thakur House as you walk past Parade Ground to St. Francis Church, Santa Cruz Basilica, VOC Gate from 1740 and the Indo-Portuguese Museum inside the Bishop’s House campus.

IMG_9301 Eighth Bastion Hotel_Anurag Mallick

Stay in historic settings
From St Francis’ home to Vasco da Gama Inn and the House of Yesudas to colonial haunts, Kochi’s hotels are steeped in history. Imagine staying in a bungalow once inhabited by Vasco da Gama and Saint Francis Xavier! Dating back to 1506, Neemrana’s Le Colonial adjacent to St. Francis Church is the oldest hotel in Fort Cochin. Its other property The Tower House, a scallop-walled twin-bungalow on the site of a 17th century lighthouse, is located right opposite the Chinese fishing nets. Amritara’s Poovath Heritage is a renovated Dutch palace next to the Dutch cemetery while Bolgatty Palace is an island resort located within the oldest Dutch palace outside Holland. The Old Harbour Hotel, a colonial home for employees of English tea-broking firms is a 300 year-old building that blends Dutch and Portuguese architecture. Koder House, home of an illustrious Jewish family that migrated from Iraq, served as a haunt for statesmen and dignitaries who came for its Friday Open House parties. Adding colour and character to Cochin are several homestays and boutique hotels – from The Bungalow Heritage Homestay in Vypeen to Walton’s Homestay on Princess Street described as ‘The home by the side of the road’.

IMG_9569 David Hall_Anurag Mallick

Vibrant cafe scene
Kochi has a buzzing café culture where art, music and eclectic cuisine come together. The iconic Kashi Art Café on Burgher Street is a destination by itself with great décor and atmosphere, besides excellent French pressed coffee, cakes and canvases. Try Teapot on Petercelli Street, catch a gig at Café Papaya’s Under the Tree in Ernakulam or Springr Café & Studio in Mattancherry, with the popular Ramesh ettan chai kada below it. David Hall, built in late 17th century by the Dutch East India Company from recycled material of demolished Portuguese churches, was the residence of Dutch commander Van Rheede who compiled Malabar’s flora in Hortus Malabaricus. Renovated by CGH Earth into a contemporary art gallery for local artists, it also has a laid-back garden café.

Kashi Art Café Ph 0484-2215769

IMG_9962 Kayees mutton biryani_Anurag Mallick

Kayees, Mattancherry’s Mutton Biryani
There are biryanis and then there’s Kayees’ mutton biryani. Locals even specify, “The one from Mattancherry, not Ernakulam”! For years, Kayees Rahmathulla Café, a small eatery on New Road has been churning out delicious Malabari cuisine in its wood fired kitchen. Besides biryanis, try chicken curry, mutton roast, fish curry, or mop up the curries and kurmas with an assortment of idiyappam, appam, pathiri, puttu or parotta. Lunch times are quite busy with large take away orders. Be there early as the mutton biryani gets depleted quite rapidly.

Kayees Hotel Ph 0484-2226080, 2221234 Email

IMG_9432 Take a ferry_Anurag Mallick

Take the ferry instead of the road
Cut down travel time like the locals by ferry hopping from Fort Kochi to Ernakulam and islands like Vypeen, Bolghatty and Willingdon. The spacious ferries load up bikes, cycles, four-wheelers and throngs of people in an organized manner, before tooting their horn and chugging across the waters. The ferry service is available from 6am to 10pm and the timetable and fares is listed at all jetties. Escape peak hour snarls in a 30-minute hop between the islands!

Main Jetty Ph 0484-2360215

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 28 November 2014 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at

Thrissur: Throbbing to its own rhythm


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover rare art forms and the many sides of Thrissur that are overshadowed by the pomp of its main festival, the Thrissur Pooram

IMG_5802_Anurag Mallick

Green faced Theyyam gods posed for the camera, Kavadi artists swirled giddily and two legged tigers prowled the Thekkinnakadu Maidan. Thrissur Peruma, a cultural showcase of the district organized by DTPC (District Tourism Promotion Council), was in full swing. People had gathered in droves to witness Pulikali, the fiery tiger dance, usually performed during Onam. Troupes of men wearing tiger masks paraded the streets, flaunting elaborate bodypaint and striated limbs; their torsos and bellies gleaming with tiger faces. In a blaze of orange, yellow, black and white, the folk dancers mimicked hunting scenes and feline behaviour to entertain the crowds. At newly refurbished performance spaces like the scenic hilltop venue of Vilangankunnu 7km from town, we witnessed Kerala’s riveting traditions of music and dance, as Thrissur took strident steps to reclaim its position as a cultural beacon.

Amidst all the drama, the city’s most famous landmark, the Vaddakkunathan Temple, stood ceremoniously aloof. Believed to have been consecrated by the legendary sage Parasurama, the shrine venerates the patron deity that gave the city and district its name. Thirusivaperur, as it was earlier known, translates to “the sacred city of Shiva”. Hundreds of years ago, Thekkinnakadu maidan, the open ground surrounding the temple was a teak forest where wild animals roamed and kings would order soldiers to banish criminals and traitors to this dreaded terrain. Today, the famous Swaraj Round or Thrissur Round girdles the 65 acre ground, making it the largest roundabout in India. As many as 17 roads including 9 main roads radiate towards the different corners of the city. Not surprisingly, the key activities of business, commerce, politics and culture converge around this junction that forms the geographical nucleus of the city.

IMG_5770_Anurag Mallick

Though Trivandrum is the state capital, all the Kala Akademis are located in Thrissur, making it the cradle of Kerala’s rich culture. At Kodungallur to the south, both Christianity and Islam docked at Indian shores in their years of infancy – from St Thomas’ arrival in 52 AD and his first baptism at Palayur to the Cheraman Juma Masjid, the first mosque established in India in 629 AD. While all mosques customarily face the direction of Mecca, this one faces east and even houses a rare ornate brass oil lamp. For eons, the historic land sagely observed the reign and decline of mighty dynasties – after the Cheras, the Kulashekaras in 12th Century followed by the Zamorins in 14th century, and the scramble for power when Haider Ali, Tipu Sultan and European powers like the Portuguese, Dutch and British entered the fray.

However, it was Raja Rama Varma IX (1751-1805) who earned the title of Sakthan Thampuran, the Ruler of Cochin who became the architect of modern Thrissur. The shrewd and powerful ruler consolidated his power over agriculture, trade and commerce and went on to build a well-planned city around the Vaddakkunathan Temple besides exquisite palaces, water tanks, temples, granaries and forts in the region. He shifted his capital from Mattancherry to Thrissur, cleared the teak forests around Thekkinnakadu maidan and conceived the idea of Thrissur Pooram as a solution to squabbling temple priests. Thereby, he catalysed the revival of Thrissur, a historic place deeply entrenched in spiritual, religious and cultural pursuits, into a thriving cultural capital. After all, the ancient town was a centre of Sanskrit studies and legend has it that Adi Shankaracharya, one of the greatest philosopher saints of all time, was born after his parents prayed at the Vaddakkunatthan temple.

IMG_5800_Anurag Mallick

To most people, the very name Thrissur evokes images of the Pooram festival in the month of Medam (April-May) marked by throngs of people, caparisoned elephants with gilded headdresses on their trunks, hypnotic rhythms of the melam, an orchestra of drums, pipes, horns and cymbals and the inescapable deafening thunder of fireworks. For a whole week, the city is gripped by the frenzy of this mother of all festivals, a tradition that has been nurtured for over two centuries. The Pooram builds to a crescendo over the last 36 hours, when it is believed that the Gods and Goddesses gather from neighbouring shrines for an annual assembly or celebration at the Vaddakkunnathan Temple to pay obeisance to Shiva.

Each year, the Pooram witnesses a surge of tourists who wish to experience what UNESCO calls “one of the most spectacular festival events on the planet”. Once that is ticked off the checklist, people rush off to the famous Krishna temple in Guruvayur or expectedly to Cochin and beyond to indulge in signature Kerala experiences – beaches, backwaters, Ayurveda, houseboats and wildlife. After an exhilarating Pooram, spent and hungover Thrissur is left to hobble back to its humdrum routine…

IMG_7956_Anurag Mallick

Yet, Thrissur is Kerala’s best kept secret. If you tarried a while longer, the district slowly unfolds itself to reveal a world of rare encounters and experiences. Over a week, guided by our enthusiastic tour manager Jackson, we made day visits to key attractions – the Sakthan Thampuran Palace, Lourdes Cathedral and Mural Art Museum in town, the informative hi-tech Vaidyaratnam Ayurveda Museum at Thaikkattussery near Ollur, the weaving town of Kuthampully with its kasavu saris, mundus and dhotis, the torrential Athirapally and Vazhachal waterfalls in the forests of Chalakudy, stunning kole (paddy) wetlands, the elephant camp at Punnathur Kotta and the Muziris trail to the ancient port where the Roman temple of Augustus once stood.

We were ushered into unique shrines like Arnos Padri Church with its painted ceiling and depiction of the devil, a Jesus statue in padmasana at Palayur, the Naal ambalam (Four Temple) circuit of individual shrines dedicated to Ram, Lakshman, Shatrughan and Bharat (his Koodalmanikyam temple being the most important) and Kodungallur Bhagavathy Temple where devotees hurl abuses to awaken the deity during the Bharani Mahotsav. And each evening, as the sun went down, the stage would come alive with performances…

IMG_7539_Anurag Mallick

Thrissur’s love for the arts is legendary. Bound by the Bharatapuzha river (or Nila) to the north, where Kalaripayattu and other art forms were practiced and perfected on its sandy banks, Cheruthuruthy is just a 1-hr drive from town. We enter the precincts of Kerala Kalamandalam where the legacy of poet Padmabhushan Vallathol Narayana Menon reverberates in classrooms. Founded in 1930 on the banks of the (the legendary Bharatapuzha) to resuscitate classical arts like Kathakali, Koodiyattam and Mohiniattam which were threatened under colonial rule, Kalamandalam followed the age-old gurukul tradition, a residential school to impart training in the arts by expert teachers.

If Kathakali is a buzzword today and the painted green mask or studded wooden plaque, a familiar souvenir from Kerala, we have Vallathol Narayana Menon to thank. For way back in the 50s, he spoke of the greatness of the art on his sojourns abroad. Today in the temple-like environs of the deemed University, visitors are given glimpses of performing arts and an intimate understanding of the special costumes, make-up and expressions besides music.

IMG_8093_Anurag Mallick

Day with the Masters, an enriching half-day guided tour around the kalaris (classrooms) and museum with presentation of classical dances like Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam and Kuchipudi, the dramatic Kathakali, Koodiyattam and Thullal and demonstrations of typical instruments like Chenda, Maddalam, Mizhavu, Thimila and Mridangam and Carnatic vocal styles. As light filters through the wooden slats of the Koothambalam, the synchrony of classical dance movements creates an alluring vision.

At Natanakairali, in the tiny village of Irinjalakuda south of Thrissur, classical dramatic art traditions that predate 2nd Century treatises like the Tamil epic Silapadigaram still survive. While Kathakali, Mohiniattam and Kalaripayattu are well known traditions of Kerala, Koodiyattam and Mudiyattam are among the rare arts recognised by UNESCO as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

IMG_7738_Anurag Mallick

Koodiyattam is a 2000 year old classical dramatic performance of Sanskrit and South Indian theatre with a fascinating vocabulary of physical movement, hand gestures, ocular acting, costumes and choreography. Watching a Koodiyattam performance leaves you spellbound with its sheer power and intensity. Surprisingly, this esoteric art that was confined to the temple and later only for the elite for centuries, has found a receptive audience among locals and viewers the world over, for the last three decades.

G Venu, performer, guru, scholar and fine exponent of Kathakali and Koodiyattam has worked tirelessly to preserve the latter form of Sanskrit theatre and other such dying traditions of puppet theatre like PavaKathakali (glove puppetry) , TholpavaKoothu (shadow/leather puppetry drama dedicated to Goddess Bhadrakali), Kakkarissi Natakam (satirical folk theatre), etc. Through training programs, documentation and publications, the painstaking task of reviving gems of temple theatre has been well underway since the 1970s.

IMG_7055_Anurag Mallick

That a culture and spirit for satire existed eons ago is evident in Chakyar Koothu. Stories abound of how a mizhavu (copper drum) player dozed off during a performance and when ridiculed by the audience, returned in a strange new attire to create Chakyar Koothu, a solo act narrating scenes from the puranas, making social commentary while taking potshots at the crowd. It was probably the earliest form of improv stand-up comedy! Another branch of Koodiyattam, the Nangiar Koothu staged only within the temple in the past, underlines the role of women in society; its very presence demonstrates how platforms for equal opportunity existed in early society to recognize and express talent.

Perhaps one of most captivating treasures of Thrissur is Paavakathakali, a very unusual form of hand puppetry that combines paava (puppets), katha (storytelling) and kali (play/theatre) originally performed by Andipandaram or wandering performers hailing from Andhra Pradesh. Their origins can be traced to Bommanuru in Palakkad and the art form itself is several centuries old. In a lamp-lit atmosphere, the performers remain on stage in full view of the audience as music takes over and they perform finger magic, making the glove puppets come alive with dramatic flourish.

IMG_7270_Anurag Mallick

The Guruvayur Institute of Mural Art has carved a niche for itself by preserving a bold individualistic style of mural painting that could have become extinct. When a fire broke out in the temple sanctum in 1970, it charred 3 walls bearing fabulous ancient mural paintings. The need to save this style of art arose during the restoration when only a few trained artists came forward for the task. Under the leadership of master artist Mammiyur Krishnankutty Nair, the Guruvayur Devaswom established a gurukul to train future generations of artists through a five year diploma.

Today, one can enter the humble gurukul near the temple to watch and interact with students painting divine masterpieces using a typical colour palette of organic and vegetable pigments with great intricacy and precision. You can also buy finished artworks here. Like painting, wood sculpture and pottery too, still thrives in Thrissur. In a few quiet lanes and in the courtyards of little unnumbered homes at Kumbharagramam, you find artisans squeezing mounds of clay into exquisite pots and earthenware to be fired in rustic kilns and master craftsmen chiselling trunks of wood into elephants and idols.

IMG_7593_Anurag Mallick

Back at the Thekkinnakadu maidan it is evening. As two herds of mighty elephants line-up, people gather around to witness a strange pachyderm face-off that has taken place over the centuries during the Pooram. As the bedecked elephants twirl and tuck tufts of grass into their mouths with apparent nonchalance, quietly observing the crowds, their riders prepare for a competition of sorts. A large band of bare chested musicians clad in pristine dhotis enter the fray at the centre and the “Pandimelam” or traditional orchestra begins.

Soon the low hypnotic bellow of horns and pipes blends with the clang of cymbals and roll of drumbeats. The music is set to a mathematical rhythmic cycle based on 7 beats and provides an unbroken soundtrack for the elephant parade. Atop the elephants, men deftly raise vibrant parasols on tall poles for display and swiftly exchange it for even more exotic ones as peacock fan-bears and men wielding ceremonial whisks of yak-tail tufts wave them in the air with choreographed moves. Two of the oldest or tallest elephants bear the main temple deities. This continues for over two and half hours!

IMG_5868_Anurag Mallick

As more people gravitate towards the sound of a chenda or traditional Kerala drum, percussion virtuoso Padmashri Peruvanam Kuttan Marar, the leader of the 300-member ensemble smiles benignly. The melam builds to a deafening crescendo and the air is charged by the frenzied rendition of the performers drawing the crowds into a musical trance. They say you can recognize a Thrissurian in a crowd because he’s the one who can’t stand still…. when the melam is on, he involuntarily raises his hand and sways to its rhythm.

We realised that dusk had turned into night only when rustic oil torches were brought out to light up the arena. As the tongues of fire swept out, the gilded headdresses on the elephants gleamed bright with their eyes mirroring the flickering flames. When the music stopped, the fireworks began – obliterating the sky with starbursts and ear-shattering explosions, announcing that Thrissur remains Kerala’s most celebrated centre of culture.

IMG_8999_Anurag Mallick

Fact File

Getting there: Well connected by road and rail, Thrissur is just 52 km from Kochi International Airport. Jet Airways flies daily to Kochi.

Where to Stay: Thrissur has several city hotels like Joys Palace, Pooram International, Merlin International, Pearl Regency and the swanky Lulu International Convention Centre. River Retreat is the perfect base at Cheruthuruthy while Rainforest Athirappally offers rooms with a stunning view of the falls. Rejuvenate yourself with Ayurveda at the Kadappuram Beach Resort on the coast or at the heritage healing centre Niramayam at Cherpu.

IMG_8163_Anurag Mallick

When to go: The Kochi-Muziris Biennale will be held between 12 December 2014 and 29 March, 2015 making it a great time to visit the region. Held at multiple locations across Kochi and Kodungallur, the biennale will showcase art, cultural programs and a 100 day film festival. The big ticket festivities kick off with Kodungallur Bharani Utsavam in March-April and the Thrissur Pooram in April-May, followed immediately by the Arattupuzha pooram.

For planning a tour, visit,,

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the Cover Story in the December 2014 issue of JetWings International magazine.

Waterworld: Aquatic adventures across India


With a 7000km coastline, hundreds of rivers and waterfalls, a long monsoon and spurt in adventure outfitters, India is fast emerging as a destination for water sports, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY.

Surf with Swamis, swim with dugongs, rapel down waterfalls, attend monsoon carnivals and raft in rivers from the Himalayas to the Western Ghats as you discover India’s top water sports haunts…


Raft the Surla Mhadei, Dudhsagar Falls & other adventures (Goa)
Most popular beaches like Baga, Calangute, Candolim and Dona Paula offer a range of adventure sports like parasailing and water scooter or jet ski rides. But all the offbeat action in Goa is tucked away from the beaches in the lush hinterland. Brave an adventure bike ride from Kullem as you wade through mountain streams to reach the base of India’s fifth highest waterfall Dudhsagar. John Pollard of Southern River Adventures, who pioneered 6 rafting stretches in South India, recently teamed up with GTDC to offer white-water rafting in Goa for the first time (two daily batches at 10:30am and 2:30pm). The lower 10km stretch of the Mhadei where it joins the Mandovi promises Grade II-III rapids like Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks and Y-Fronts. Veluz, the base camp, is 1km from Valpoi bus stop in Sattari Taluka, 45 km from Panaji (1½ hrs). The season lasts from July to September (Rs.1500/person). However, between October and May, head to the Goa-Maharashtra border for the most advanced rapids south of the Himalayas. The Tilari River Gorge, 10 km from Dodamarg on the Kudashi Village road boasts Class IV rapids and requires good swimming ability and fitness levels. It’s a whole new way to let your hair down in Goa! Ph +91 7387238866, 8805727230


Waterfall rapelling at Vihi & Kolad rafting (Maharashtra)
There’s more to water sports in Maharashtra than Tarkarli. Come monsoon, the Konkan revives with swollen rivers, mist-laden ghats and waterfalls at every turn. At Vihigaon (13km from Kasara near Igatpuri) you don’t just gaze at a waterfall, you literally rapel down one! Surrounded by hills and paddy fields, the 100 ft tall 30 ft wide rockface is a slippery challenge. Offbeat Sahyadri, Ph 9987990300, 9664782503 E also organizes canyoning (Rs.750/head) at Bekare near Karjat, Dudhani near Panvel and Dudhiware near Lonavala. Adventure outfits like Trek Mates India, Nature Knights and Aberrant Wanderers offer several monsoon treks to Kalsubai, Malshej Ghat and other spots in the Sahyadris. At Kolad, Maharashtra’s only white water rafting site, tackle a 14 km stretch of the Kundalika River. Being dam-fed, it’s a perennial attraction with a dozen Class II-III rapids like Good Morning Buddha, Morning Headache, Johnny Walker, Rajdhani Express and Boom Shankar. Wild River Adventure Ph 9819297760, Mercury Himalayan Explorations Ph 92728 82874


Surfing with Swamis & Rafting in Coorg/Dandeli (Karnataka)
Surfing in India was probably something people did on the Internet, until the Surfing Swamis showed up! Run by Krishna bhaktas, Kaliya Mardana Krishna Ashram at Mulki (30 km north of Mangalore) or Ashram Surf Retreat promises adventure buffs the real deal – surfing lessons (Rs.1500/day), yoga, mantra meditation, healthy veg fare and complete detox (no smoking/alcohol allowed)! Go river kayaking and ride the Zodiac boat to local surf breaks like Swami’s, Baba’s Left, Water Tank and Tree Line. With empty beaches and just 3 guest rooms (Tariff Rs.3500-4500), it’s a quiet place to flounder in anonymity. April-May is mild surfing season with 1-2 m waves but expect 8 feet waves between June-September. India Surf Club Ph 9880659130 For water sports and banana boat rides, head up the coast to Sai Vishram Baindoor Beach Resort Ph 9449817535, Devbagh Beach Resort near Karwar and Paradise Edge Resort at Hankon, en route to Dandeli. Karnataka also offers some great rafting opportunities like the Kali river at Dandeli, Cauvery at Dubare and KKR or Upper Barapole in Coorg Ph 08762346289 Coorg Adventure Sports organize sailing, kayaking and other water sports at Hyrige reservoir.


Attend Wayanad Splash, a monsoon carnival & boat races (Kerala)
With the advent of rains, Kerala transforms into a rich mosaic of green paddy fields and swollen lakes as every corner throbs with life and vitality. While the monsoon is great for romantic holidays, Ayurveda retreats and witnessing Kerala’s snake boat races, there’s one region that celebrates the rains unabashedly – the hill district of Wayanad! Wayanad Splash is a unique monsoon festival that has transformed the lull of off-season into prime time fun. Get a rush of adrenaline with offroad rallies over streams and mountains. Enjoy river rafting in bamboo boats. Play mud football and kabaddi in specially prepared rice fields. Stay in Banasura Island Retreat as you trek to Banasura Hill overlooking India’s largest earth dam. Or climb Chembra Peak, Wayanad’s highest mountain to see its heart-shaped lake! The weeklong event by WTO (Wayanad Tourism Organization) at Kalpetta (9-15 July, 2014) ushers in the monsoon season with local adventure outfit Muddy Boots (Ph 9544201249 organizing Triathlon on the Kabini, rafting on the Pozhuthanna and several such adventures.


Scuba & Snorkelling in Ritchie’s Archipelago (Andamans)
Turquoise waters, great visibility, beautiful coral reefs and some of the best marine life in India, that’s Andamans in a nutshell! Only 30 of the 532 islands are inhabited, leaving an untouched expanse of underwater delights waiting to be explored. A 2.5 hr flight from Chennai or Kolkata deposits you at the capital Port Blair. Glass bottom boat rides and snorkeling at North Bay, Jolly Buoy, Red Skin and Wandoor Marine National Park are a good curtain raiser for the serious stuff to follow. Take a Makruzz boat to Havelock Island, the hub of adventure sports. Dive shops like Barefoot Scuba Ph 95660 88560, Dive India Ph 99320 82205 and Andaman Bubbles offer a wide range of courses. Beginners go through introductory sessions at the picturesque Hathi Tapu or Elephant Beach. Day trips usually include 2 dives with packed lunch. After a detailed briefing, dive masters lead teams to remote dive sites around Ritchie’s Archipelago like Barracuda City, Dugong Dungeon and Turtle Bay. Lacadives has started a new dive centre at Chidiya Tapu and offers reef adventures at Cinque, Rutland and Passage Islands! To get away from all the action, slip away to the quiet Neil Island for snorkeling around the reefs and swimming with dugongs.


Diving/Surfing off Mamallapuram & Pondy (Tamil Nadu)
If you don’t have the time or money to travel to the Andamans or Lakshadweep to dive, here’s some good news – there’s enough action on the Coromandel Coast. Temple Adventures (Ph 9789844191, 9940219449, a PADI certified scuba diving outfit is just a shell’s throw from Chennai near Indira Gandhi Sports Complex on Covelong Road. Get snorkeling lessons for Rs.800/hr and surfing (Rs.800/3hrs) with bodyboards, surfboards and equipment on hire. Experienced instructors teach you to scuba dive off the Pondicherry coast with Rs.1,500 for a Try Dive and Rs.2,000–21,000 for PADI courses. For surfing, contact Kallialay Surf Club (Ph 9442992874, 9787306376 Further south, the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust near Rameshwaram’s Pamban Bridge offers glass bottomed boat rides (Rs.50/head, 8 persons/trip) at Mandapam Beach Park (Ph 9443112740; Rs.5 adults, Rs.3 child, Rs.5 swimming pool, 7am–5.30pm). Contact Wildlife Warden, Mandapam (Ph 04567 230079)



Adventure Sports at Tajpur (West Bengal)
Tucked away between Shankarpur and Mandarmoni, just 16km east of touristy Digha, Tajpur is West Bengal’s emerging adventure hub. For starters, it has one of the few motorable beaches on the east coast. Several nature camps and local outfitters organize a range of adventure activities like parasailing, kayaking, snorkelling, coastal biking and treks, rubber boat propelling and even water zorbing! Tajpur Retreat Hotel also has a 35-feet high artificial rock wall and high-rope activity system within the campus for you to sharpen your instincts before you hit the high seas.


Rafting in the Himalayas
The snow-fed rivers of the entire Himalayan range provide the most exciting rafting opportunities in India. The country’s leading rafting operators Ibex Expeditions (Ph 0 11-26460244/46, and Aquaterra (Ph 011-29212641, 29212760, 41636101, run several rivers. Choices at Ladakh include day trips from Leh, 2-3 day rafting trips on the Indus or the challenging 14-day Zanskar river expedition from July till September end. In Himachal Pradesh, try the Beas or a 25 km stretch in Spiti from Rangrik (4km from Kaza) to Sichling, with many Class I-II rapids. In Uttarakhand, the Tons offers Class IV rapids besides 4-5 day expeditions on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi. The most popular site remains Rishikesh with a 36km stretch of the Ganga from Kaudiyala via Marine Drive, Brahmpuri and Shivpuri to Lakshman Jhula having 13 Grade I-IV rapids like Daniel’s Dip, The Wall, Club House, Initiation, Good Morning, Roller Coaster, Golf Course and Sweet Sixteen. Go body surfing or steel your nerves for some cliff jumping as you camp on sandy banks in basic tents. Live it up at Neemrana’s Glasshouse on the Ganges in an orchard once owned by the Maharaja of Tehri. In Arunachal besides the Upper Subansiri, go rafting on the Yargyap Chu, Siyom and the Siang from Yingkiong to Pasighat. The rafting location is so remote it takes five days of travel just to reach the launch point! October till April is the usual rafting season in most places.


Diving in the Lakshadweep Islands
400 km from the Kerala coast and reachable via Kochi, Lakshadweep is a group of 36 coral islands in the Arabian Sea. Lacadives (Ph 9820890948, 9619690898 the pioneers of diving in India in Lakshadweep since 1995, now offer diving courses in the Andamans besides a Scuba in the City program with pool-training facilities in Mumbai & Bangalore. Dive Lakshadweep (Ph 9446055972, the latest entrants on the scene, are located near the State Guest House in Agatti with another dive base at the famous Agatti Island Beach Resort. First-timers can try a dive session in the lagoon to familiarize themselves with breathing underwater. The 2 hr practice session, with 25 min spent underwater till a maximum depth of 6m, costs Rs.1,700. Guided snorkeling off the beach costs Rs.500 and Rs.1000 at the reef. PADI’s day long Discover Scuba Diving (DSD) Introductory Dives for Rs.4500 give a good diving experience for those who do not have enough time for a full open water course. Dolphin Reef & Sting Ray City to the northwest of Agatti Island or Japanese Garden and Ocean Club near Agatti Island Beach Resort are popular haunts. Diving beyond 35m is not permitted in the Lakshadweep and diving outside the reef is possible only between 15 September and 15 May.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as a Cover Story on 23 February 2014 in  Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald. 

Kerala on Wheels and Water


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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…


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