Tag Archives: Kerala

Malabar Daze: Silent Valley National Park

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go in search of the Lion-tailed Macaque in one of the last undisturbed tracts of Kerala’s Western Ghats

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For a name like Silent Valley, the place was alive with sounds of the forest – the gurgle of the brook, the buzz of insects, the whoop of langurs and the chirrup of giant grizzly squirrels in the towering Culinea trees. When Scottish botanist Robert Wright explored the area in 1847, he named it after the relative absence of cicadas. Cicadas do not thrive well in wet climate; since Silent Valley does not receive nine months of rain anymore, the cicadas too were back…

According to legend, this dense jungle was once Sairandhri Vanam, where the Pandavas stayed incognito during their agyata vasa (secret exile). It was called Sairandhri after the alias assumed by Draupadi and the river was called Kuntipuzha after the Pandavas’ mother. Pathrakadavu is regarded as the spot where the mythical akshay patra was washed.

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Though Silent Valley abounds in legends, it is its ecological importance that makes it special. Between its notification as a reserve forest in 1914 and declaration as a national park in 1984, a protracted and sustained campaign by the public, media, activists and expert committees had helped protect this unique habitat.

We were in one of the last tracts of undisturbed tropical evergreen rainforest in the world. Surrounded by steep ridges, hills and escarpments, Silent Valley’s topographical isolation allowed it to develop into an ecological island with an unbroken bio history that evolved over millions of years. Driving past tribal settlements and the forest gate at Mukkali, we reached Sairandhri and hiked through the wilderness accompanied by experienced forest guides.

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Of the 960 species of flora here, 17 come under IUCN’s Red List. Our guide pointed out the giant tree fern Dinosaur pulpan, described as a ‘50 million year old living fossil’! Tapping the hard tree trunk, he intoned “Iron Wood of the Forest, in Malayalam Churuli, scientific name Mesua nagassarium.

Braving leeches on our walk, we reached the 100 ft watchtower at Sairandhri. The sign ‘Even Toddy Cats have stopped drinking in the park’ was clearly aimed at revelers. From the top, we got a panoramic view of Katimudi, Mukkalimudi and the Kuntipuzha river cutting through the valley.

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Fed by several mountain streams, the river dashes down the Anginda and Sispara mountains in Western Nilgiris, and flows south through the park after which it is called Thuthapuzha before joining the mighty Bharatapuzha. A 1½ km path from Sairandhri led to the crystal clear river with a steel suspension bridge, a rusty relic from Kerala State Electricity Board’s controversial and now defunct hydroelectric project.

Silent Valley’s flagship species and mascot is the Lion-tailed macaque. The vedichakka fruit of the tall Culinea tree is its primary food source and over half the global population of Lion-tailed macaques can be found here. The park also harbours 25 species of mammals, 35 species of snakes, 12 species of fish, 255 species of moths and 100 species of butterflies.

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Photo Courtesy: Dhritiman Mukherjee (Outlook Traveller, Oct 2019)

These include many endemics like Malabar Rose, Malabar Tree Nymph, Malabar Raven, Buddha Peacock, South Indian Blue Oakleaf and Tamil Catseye. Mukkali, the park entrance to the south, is the only place in Kerala where all three species of Crow butterflies – Common Crow, Double Branded Crow and the Brown King Crow – are found.

There are other winged visitors too; the checklist of 200 species of birds includes Ceylon Frogmouth, Nilgiri Laughing Thrush, Jerdon’s Imperial Pigeon, Peninsular Bay Owl and the elusive Malay Tiger Bittern. We spotted a Great Indian Hornbill swoop down from its lofty height. The peaks of Perumalmudi and Velliangiri Mala rose against the mountain folds while the tallest peak Malleshwaram is worshiped as a gigantic Shiva linga by local tribes.

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Trekking is not promoted within the park, though the buffer zones abound in numerous hikes organized by the Eco Development Committee – the Bhavani river trail (6km), the Karuvara waterfall trail (8km) past an Irula tribal colony and the Keeripara trail (10km) to scenic grasslands. Dark clouds swirled in and we just managed a hike back to our vehicle as the call of a Lion-tailed macaque resonated through the forests.

FACT FILE 

Getting There
By air: The nearest airports are Coimbatore (74 km) and Kozhikode (92 km).
By rail: The nearest railhead is Palakkad Junction at Olavakode (60 km)
By road: Drive 40km from Palakkad to Mannarkkad, pick up permissions at the Wildlife Warden’s Office and continue 20km to Mukkali, the park’s entrance. Jeeps can be hired from the Eco Development Committee at Mukkali to Sairandhri (23 km).

Area: 237.52 sq km
Altitude: 725 m to 2383 m above sea level
Location: In the northeastern corner of Kerala’s Palakkad district overlooking the plains of Mannarkkad (45 km).
When to go: The best time to visit is November to February.

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Stay
Malleeshwaram Jungle Lodge
Set amidst 10 acres of protected wilderness and adjoining tracts of forest, Dominic Xavier’s rustic forest lodge offers three eco cottages and nature walks to interact with local tribal communities.
Pettickal, Sholayur, Attapady, Kerala 678581
Ph 099615 44663 http://malleeshwaram.com

Inspection Bungalow, Mukkali
Basic accommodation near the park entrance with three double rooms for Rs.600/day and two 8-bed dormitories at Rs.100/person, booked at the Wildlife Warden’s office in Mannarkkad (Ph 04924–222 056). There are also two huts that can be booked at 04294-253 225 (Rs.1000 for stay, Rs.3000 full package for stay, food and trekking).

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Contact
Office of the Wildlife Warden
Wildlife Division, Mannarkad
Palakkad 678 582
Ph 04924–222 056, 94473 73736
Email mail@silentvalley.gov.in

Asst. Wildlife Warden
Mukkali, Silent Valley National Park
Ph: 04924-253 225

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as part of the Wildlife cover story in the October, 2019 edition of Outlook Traveller magazine.

 

Kumarakom: Backwaters and beyond

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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…

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FACT FILE

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 www.travelcartindia.com

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.

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Where to Stay

Niraamaya Retreat
Ph 0481-2527700, 080-45104510
www.niraamaya.in

Coconut Lagoon
Ph 0481 2525834-6, 2523572-4
www.cghearth.com

Purity by Lake Vembanad
Ph 0484-2704600
www.purityresort.com

Taj Kumarakom Resort & Spa
Ph 0481-2525711-18
www.tajhotels.com

The Zuri Kumarakom
Ph 9620335599
www.thezurihotels.com

Kumarakom Lake Resort
Ph 1800 4255030
www.kumarakomlakeresort.in

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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

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

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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“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.

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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.

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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’).”

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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.

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

Inspired Heritage: Reclaiming the Past

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‘Inspired Heritage’, that’s the buzz at luxury hotels across the country, as they pick out elements from history to spruce up their interior decor, while curating new menus and experiences, discover ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY

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A turbaned doorkeeper sounded the gong marking our arrival outside the gates of Kamalapura Palace, alerting the front desk about our impending check in. The car rattled along the stone pathway, deliberately rough hewn like in the past, the way a ratha or chariot would have clattered in bygone Hampi. The main building and villas came to view, their turrets and domes so reminiscent of Hampi’s monuments. There were shades of Anegundi’s Kamalapura Palace and the angular roofs echoed the temples near Virupaksha…

Greeted with a cool sandalwood tika, flower garland and a welcome drink, we were ushered to a foyer. In place of the reception was a recreation of Hampi’s iconic landmark Sister Stones, two sisters who complained about the tedious exploration of Hampi on foot and were magically turned into stone! The beautiful arches seemed right out of the Octagonal Bath.

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We were led to our Jal Mahal villa styled after the zenana or Queen’s Quarters and their water palaces. While Evolve Back (formerly Orange County) had styled its pioneering resort at Chikkana Halli Estate in Siddapur, Coorg on the lines of a plantation resort and its Kabini resort as a thatched Kuruba hadi (settlement), their latest offering in Hampi was a celebration of the architectural glory of the Vijayanagar Empire.

In what’s emerging as a new trend, hotels in India are now seeking inspiration from their immediate environment not just for design and architecture, but also for cuisine and thematic curated experiences. After working up an appetite in our private pool, we relished local Vijayanagara cuisine at Tuluva, the restaurant named after the most prominent of the three dynasties that ruled Hampi. Bidri showcased the Dakkani flavours of the Hyderabad-Karnataka region. The lofty Elephant Stables inspired the design of the Howdah bar.

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Our guide Venkatesh took us on specially curated itineraries – the Raya Trail, the Virupaksha Trail, the Pattabhirama temple adopted by Evolve Back and the Tungabhadra Trek, along the banks of the river past Courtesan Street, Achyutharaya Temple, Sugreeva’s Cave and the fascinating Koti Linga carved on a sheet of rock, just in time for sunset.

After wowing everyone with Grand Chola in Chennai with its Chola inspired architecture, the latest addition to ITC’s luxury portfolio is ITC Kohenur in Hyderabad, the first luxury business hotel in the heart of Hi-tech City. In keeping with their Responsible Luxury theme, it mirrors the culture and ethos of the destination, inspired by the world’s most famed jewel – the rare priceless diamond from Golconda.

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Its unique angular architecture is a reflection of the facets of the famed diamond with crystal clear glass façade. Like the Kohenur (Persian for ‘Mountain of Light’), the hotel is bright and full of light by day. By evening, it lights up like a gem, rising majestically above the lake Durgam Cheruvu that it overlooks.

The jali (lattice) pattern and marble inlay floors are a recurrent motif with an installation of Hyderabad’s local craft bangles hanging from the ceiling at the reception. The Peacock Bar, a tribute to Shah Jahan’s Peacock Throne where the Kohinoor diamond was once mounted, had a bas relief plaster peacock on the ceiling glittering with colourful tekri (glass) work. The Golconda Pavilion with design motifs from the 14th century Bidri metal craft, Persian zardozi and pearls, showcases local culinary favourites from the region.

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The restaurant Dum Pukht Begum’s has arches, columns and chandeliers reminiscent of palaces like Falaknuma and Chowmahalla. Its rich interiors reflect another famous diamond from the region the Noor-ul-ain (Light of the Eye), a tribute to the royal ladies who brought refinement and appreciation of fine things. The food too balances the flavours of Awadhi cuisine from the Dum Pukht brand with local Nizami touches.

At 4000 sq ft, the Grand Presidential Suite Koh-i-Noor is the largest in the Hi-Tech area. Even the Executive Room is more spacious than the other base category rooms in the city. Given its location in Hi-Tech City, the hotel comes with snazzy features – entertainment and room automation app on an i-Pad and a unique automated laundry system that can be accessed without entering the room. In between meals at the creative Chinese restaurant Yi Jing and authentic Italian Ottimo, we found time and space to rejuvenate ourselves at Kaya Kalp Spa.

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In Kochi, CGH Earth Hotels achieved the impossible. Inspired by the shipping legacy of India’s busiest harbour town, they transformed an old Victorian shipbuilding yard into a waterfront colonial-style hotel called Brunton Boatyard. One look at its lofty ceiling and large pillars and one imagines it’s a restored heritage mansion that dates back a few centuries; yet it’s just over a decade old!

Enjoy the day’s catch at the alfresco Terrace Grill or sample Kochi’s multi-cultural cuisine at History Restaurant – the Syrian Christian Duck Moilee, Anglo Indian cutlet, Jewish Chuttulli Meen, Ceylonese idiappam (string hoppers) with fish curry and the now iconic First Class Railway Mutton Curry.

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

CGH’s other hotel Eighth Bastion is a tribute to the historic port town’s Dutch legacy and is named after Fort Kochi’s ‘eighth bastion’ – no longer there. Their restaurant East Indies presents a specially prepared menu called the ‘Dutch Route’, featuring dishes collected from former Dutch colonies. Expect everything from Dutch Bruder bread to Indonesian satays, rendang (Sumatran caramelized curry) and lamprais, a Sri Lankan Dutch Burgher dish of aubergine, frikkadel (Afrikaans meatball), sambal (spicy relish) and balchao (shrimp pickle) wrapped in a leaf with rice, hence its derived name ‘lump rice’.

When it comes to heritage, no one does it as well as Rajasthan. JW Marriott Jaipur Resort & Spa is the first signature hotel under the Starwood banner in Rajasthan. An architectural gem set against the Aravalis, it is styled after the Amber Fort nearby. Musicians by the doorway welcome you to a mesmerizing world of intricate marble inlay, traditional jaali (lattice) and tikri (patterned mirror work), with ornate fountains and water bodies recreating the air of a pleasure palace.

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Each dining space had its own character – all-day dining at Sukh Mahal, the rooftop restaurant Hawa Mahal or the Indian specialty restaurant Mohan Mahal, inspired by the Sheesh Mahal at Amer Fort in Jaipur. A unique fine-dine experience, instead of electric lighting, light from candle flames are reflected in a stunning mosaic of mirrors in the ceiling and walls of the restaurant.

We savoured signature dishes such as laal maas, murgh makai ka soweta, dana methi ki sabzi and more. Tailor-made experiences included a walking tour of old Amer and a visit to Hathi Gaon, home to rehabilitated elephants that ply up the slope of Amer Fort ferrying tourists every day. The elephant interaction program includes a joyride, body painting with natural colours, bathing and feeding.

Magical clouds at Suryagarh Jaisalmer

As you drive past Jaisalmer, an open jeep convoy leads guests to the fort-like entrance of Suryagarh where a pair of camel riders usher you up the driveway. At the porch, a Manganiyar troupe welcomes you with song, Panditji applies a tilak and flower petals are showered from a jharokha above as you enter the foyer. An attendant hands a towel, another plies you with cool beverage and a musician seated in the central courtyard welcomes you to the magical world of Suryagarh.

An ode to the medieval Silk Route trade, Suryagarh is styled on the impressive ruins of Paliwal Brahmin settlements at Kuldhara and Khaba Fort. The hotel beautifully integrates design elements from its surroundings – the jharokas overlooking the central courtyard were inspired by Jaisalmer’s havelis, windows and friezes from Khaba Fort and stone walls and ceiling design from Kuldhara.

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The Residences, an exclusive section of private suites set away from the main hotel. Each handcrafted sandstone haveli was based on the community living concept and offered a sense of private luxury with a large open courtyard, reminiscent of Paliwal villages. Wide windows and pillared corridors framed the vastness of the desert while the warm décor, sunken rooms and furnishings exude sophisticated charm. Even its diverse dining experiences are beautifully curated – Breakfast with Peacocks, Halwayi Breakfast in the courtyard or Dining on the Dunes.

Its bespoke Desert Remembers trails present the Thar desert’s lesser known history – a midnight Chudail (Witches) Trail at Kuldhara, cenotaphs of merchants and travellers, ancient stepwells, ruins of caravanserais, rainwater harvesting techniques and the sweet water wells of Mundari, retracing old trade routes. Even the wellness therapies at Rait Spa were an ode to the region’s geography, using salt from the Luni river and potlis of rait (sand).

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Narendra Bhawan, a swanky boutique hotel in Bikaner has taken theme holidays to another level. It retells the story of Narendra Singh ji, the last reigning maharaja of Bikaner (1948-2003). Born at the cusp of India’s independence, Narendra Singh ji established a novel residence in keeping with his new tastes and vision and Narendra Bhawan celebrates his life’s passage through time – from his royal birth and patronage, military life, the makings of a global bon vivant to a socialist who embraced the idea of a new democratic India.

We viewed the recently launched premium Regimental Rooms, based on Narendra Singh ji’s time at the royal military academy. The canopied bed is styled like a field tent, while stern military stripes and miniature Spanish armada lanterns adorn the room. The starters were finger food you’d expect in an elite military club. We were led down to the foyer where a police band played outside to go with the theme, followed by a ‘mess lunch’ at the Gaushala.

Narendra Bhawan Bikaner_Corridor

After a viewing of the India Room, we enjoyed a sundowner and dinner by the poolside and a viewing of the Republic Room ended in a brunch at the Indira Gandhi canal and an Imperial dinner at Laxmi Niwas Palace. Each category of room corresponded a particular stage of Narendra Singh ji’s life with a specially curated meal and experience, titled the Grand Essentials of Life.

The food at Narendra Bhawan is as eclectic in choice as its erstwhile owner. From smoked salmon, cured ham, assorted cheese and canapés to robust Rajasthani fare like kale chane ki kadhi, papad ki sabzi and aloe vera ki sabzi, it carries off its varied cuisine with élan. Thanks to the direct flight connectivity from Delhi to Bikaner, you can be here quicker than the waiting time on a weekend at a posh South Delhi restaurant.

Facade-The Grand Dragon Hotel Ladakh

In Leh, The Grand Dragon Ladakh draws from vernacular architecture of the region with ornate carved windows and intricate dragons blazing flames of colour around the pillars and wide open views overlooking the Stok Kangri range. Welcomed with silken scarves we are handed a pouch of camphor that helps acclimatize to the high altitude.

Going beyond the obvious sightseeing trails, the hotel highlights unique offbeat excursions like visiting the only potter in the monastery village of Likir, local oracles, tea and biscuits by the Indus and smithy workshops in Chilling to interact with metal craftsmen making bells and utensils for locals and Buddhist monasteries, including exquisite kettles. It’s heartening to see how hospitality brands in India are exploring new ways to recreate the glory of the days gone by in their architecture, cuisine and experiences.

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FACT FILE 

Where to Stay

Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace, Hampi
www.evolveback.com

ITC Kohenur, Hi-tech City, Hyderabad
www.itchotels.in

Brunton Boatyard/Eighth Bastion, Kochi
www.cghearth.com

JW Marriott Jaipur Resort & Spa, Kukas, near Amer
www.jwmarriottjaipur.com

Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner
www.narendrabhawan.com

Suryagarh, Jaisalmer
www.suryagarh.com

The Grand Dragon Ladakh, Leh
www.thegranddragonladakh.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 7 Dec, 2018 in Indulge, the Friday supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

Lofty heights: Tree houses in India

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY lead an arboreal existence as they pick out the best tree houses in the country

woodpecker-tree-house-view-from-the-plantation

We remember the first time we got onto a treehouse was sometime in 2001 when Green Magic in Wayanad had pioneered the concept of treehouses in Kerala. It was like a childhood fantasy come true as we imagined we’d be ushered like Phantom and Diana by Bandar into a counter-weighted basket that would magically zoom up in the air. We wondered if the jungle vine would snap or was it a ladder we had to climb? Walking through the lush plantation, we reached the edge of a ravine from where a gently sloping wooden ramp led to the thatched hut.

Gingerly walking up the ramp we reached the rustic hut with a small balcony and a low bed made of bamboo. We were above the tree line and the aerial perch afforded a birds’ eye view, literally. The sight of bright orange and black scarlet minivets flitting about the dense shrubbery was magical. The thrill of being up there and spending a night as the wind creaked the tree can never be forgotten.

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That was 16 years ago, when the concept of a tree house was quite novel and still taking root. Today, every nature resort or plantation stay worth its salt prides in having at least one tree house or machan. But gone are the days of rustic simplicity; today’s treehouses come equipped with all kinds of creature comforts.

The best place to experience tree houses in India is undoubtedly Wayanad. It is no coincidence that the hilly district, with its abundant nature, mountainous terrain and rich tribal knowledge, is a stronghold for tree houses. Many resorts have relied on the traditional knowhow of local tribes.

Tranquil Wayanad

Tranquil Resort at Kolagapara near Ambalavayal used to have a treehouse with an actual basket that transported you to the top. However, they have renovated their old perches into the Tranquilitree tree house, perched at 45 feet on a gulmohar tree. The rustic 572 sq ft living space comes with an en-suite bathroom, verandah, mini-fridge, LCD TV and coffee maker. However, kids below 8 are not allowed due to safety concerns.

High above the rainforest canopy, Vythiri Resort has five tree houses ranging from 35 ft to 80 ft off the ground, including a child friendly one! Natural spring water has been channeled from a high source so gravity takes care of water supply without using a motor for pumping water. The quaint thatch roof and bamboo walls have been built by members of the local tribal community using locally sourced materials. Plenty of precautions are taken – guests are asked to pack light with heavy luggage kept in a locker room and no food, liquor or smoking is allowed up there. It’s the perfect escape for couples or honeymooners.

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The newest entrant into Wayanad’s extended treehouse family is Pepper Trail near Sulthan Bathery. Lined by cheery orange and red heliconia, the driveway sliced through the expansive Mangalam Carp Estate, set up by pioneering planter Scotsman Colin Auley Mackenzie in the 1800s. At the tiled roof Pavilion deck, a refreshing drink of lime was served overlooking coffee shrubs interspersed with tall silver oak and 1,200 jackfruit trees.

On a sturdy jackfruit tree, a wooden walkway rose over the coffee bushes in a gentle ascent to a treehouse 40ft off the ground. The Woodpecker Treehouse was fitted with wood-panelled walls, fine décor and linen, a country style four-poster bed, dressing area, luxurious bathroom and a wide balcony with plantation chairs. Its counterpart, the Hornbill Treehouse was further away. Every morning or evening, we’d eyeball barbets, sunbirds, drongos and raucous Malabar Grey hornbills, sipping our cuppa.

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Lost in the cacophonic din of urban life, we discovered that silence in the remote rainforests sits on an underlay of crooning cicadas. Our arboreal existence drew the attention of a boisterous troop of macaques, who peered through our windows in the hope of some generosity of spirit. With no biscuits or bananas going their way, they’d romp on the railings in wild tantrum displays. Monkeys can be a menace, so catapults are kept handy with air guns to scare them away. We felt mildly annoyed about their infringement when ironically we had invaded their leafy domain!

With a live feed of Animal Planet outdoors, who would miss TV! Pepper Trail maintains a “No kids under 12” policy. While this may seem tough for families with kids, it underlines the resort’s stress on safety and concern for a guest’s need for peace and quiet. The sprawling estate is great for birding besides leisurely walks to see how coffee and tea are cultivated. Take a drive around the plantation in the open top jeep or go on short highway jaunts around Bandipur and Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuaries!

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At Rainforest Boutique Resort in Athirapally, as if the charm of viewing Kerala’s most magnificent waterfall from your room wasn’t enough, a Swiss architect was roped in to design a treehouse as dramatic as the view. Overlooking the Sholayar rainforests, the tree house is the ideal vantage point to gaze at the thundering Athirapally waterfalls. Equally dramatic is the Shola Periyar Tree House perched atop a banyan tree. Another region making a name for its treehouses is the wildlife zone of Masinagudi near Mudumalai with rustic perches at Safari Land, Forest Hills and The Wilds. However, the trend is not restricted to South India.

Tree House Hideaway is set in 21 acres of woodland adjacent to Bandhavgarh National Park. Combine the joy of staying in a tree house with the thrill of spotting tigers in the wild on jeep safaris through Bandhavgarh. Five exclusive tree houses are built on stilts on five different trees – Mahua, Tendu, Peepal, Banyan and Palash. Though grungy and wild from the outside, the rooms are posh. The dining hall is built across two levels around a century old Mahua tree with a dining hall on the ground level and The Watering Hole, a bar cum lounge on the upper floor.

Treehouse Hideaway Bandhavgarh

Pugdundee Safaris, the folks behind Treehouse Hideaway in Bandhavgarh, also run other treehouse getaways in the lesser known parks of Central India. They have six fabulous perches at Pench Tree Lodge at Pench National Park and two at Denwa Backwater Escape near Satpura Tiger Reserve.

Yet another luxurious romantic hideaway is The Machan near Lonavala. Perched at 3300 feet, the 25-acre patch is part of a tropical cloud forest with a choice of treehouses! The Heritage Machan is built across four levels around a wild fig tree, a spiral staircase leads up to the glass encased Canopy Machan, a wooden bridge connects up to the Forest Machan, the Jungle Machans are set amid a thicket of trees while an elevated wooden walkway through thick vegetation leads to the towering Sunset Machans, known for their magical sunset views. The Machan is completely off grid and generates all energy from renewable sources (solar and wind). There’s trekking, birding and local explorations to forts like Lohagad and Koraigad, besides Karla and Bhaja caves.

Treehouse Hideaway Bandhavgarh 2

Further north, 30 min from Jaipur at Nature Farms in Syari Valley is Tree House Resort. Perched atop keekar trees, the nests have several branches running through the rooms, blending nature with creature comforts. Each Tree House nest is named after a bird found in the area and the 5-room tree houses are counted among the largest in the world.

In Himachal too, the trend has caught on. At Manali Tree house cottages near Katrain, perch on an oak tree while at Himalayan Village Kasol, the tree houses are actually wooden structures called bhandars, representative of typical Himachali architecture. Gone are those days when you just thought of surviving the night on a rickety perch, here you can get out of the rain shower, grab a drink from the mini bar and plonk yourself on the sofa as if it were your own living room… there’s a whole new world up there!

Vythiri Tree House Interior

FACT FILE

Pepper Trail, Chulliyode
Ph +91 9562277000 www.peppertrail.in
Getting there: At Mangalam Carp Estate, Chulliyode, 10 km from Sulthan Bathery in Wayanad, 100 km from Calicut International Airport and 250 km from Bangalore.

Tranquil Resort, Kolagapara
Ph +91 7053126407 www.tranquilresort.com
Getting there: At Kuppamudi Estate on Kolagappara-Ambalavayal Road, 7km from Sulthan Bathery and 105km from Calicut International Airport

Vythiri Resort, Lakkidi
Ph 0484 4055250 www.vythiriresort.com
Getting there: At Lakkidi, 18km from Kalpetta, district headquarters of Wayanad and 85km from Calicut International Airport

Rainforest Boutique Resort, Athirapally
Ph + 91 9995358888, 9539058888 www.avenuehotels.in
Getting there: 30km from Chalakudy, 55km from Cochin International Airport and 63km from Thrissur railway station.

Pench Tree Lodge 2

Treehouse Hideaway, Bandhavgarh
Ph +91 8800637711 www.treehousehideaway.com
Getting there: Bandhavgarh is 34 km/1 hr from Umaria, the nearest railhead and 22km/4hrs from Jabalpur, the nearest airport

Tree House Resort, Syari Valley
Ph +91 9001797422, 9799490390 www.treehouseresort.in
Getting there: Nature Farms, Syari vallry is 35km from Jaipur opposite Amity University on NH-8.

The Machan, Lonavala
Ph +91 7666622426 www.themachan.com
Getting there: Located at Atvan, 17km south of Lonavala and 100km from Mumbai.

Himalayan Village, Kasol
Ph 01902 276266, +91 9805072712 www.thehimalayanvillage.in
Getting there: Located between Jari and Kasol, 25 km from Kullu Airport Bhuntar and 10km before Manikaran.

Treehouse Cottages, Katrain
Ph 01902-240365, +91-98160-78765 www.manalitreehousecottages.com
Getting there: At Katrain, between Kullu and Manali, 32 km north of Kullu Airport Bhuntar

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 17 March 2017 in Indulge, the Friday magazine supplement of The New Indian Express. Here’s the link: http://www.indulgexpress.com/culture/cover-story/2017/mar/17/sample-a-slice-of-the-arboreal-life-at-some-of-the-best-tree-houses-across-india-387.html

Wayanad: Kerala’s Heartland

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

FACT FILE 

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. www.wayanadsplash.com

Wayanad Splash-Mud football IMG_1261_Wayanad-Anurag Mallick

Where to Stay

Vistara Wayanad
Karapuzha, Kalathuvayal, Ambalavayal
Ph +91 9072111299
vistararesort.com

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

Pepper Trail
Chulliyode, Sulthan Bathery
Ph +91 9562 277 000
www.peppertrail.in

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

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

Vythiri Resort IMG_1686_Wayanad-Anurag Mallick

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

Blue Ginger Spa Resorts
Melapoonchola, Vythri
Ph +91 9287439315, 9287439303
www.bluegingerresorts.com

Meenmutty Heights
Ph +91 9656056215
www.meenmuttyheights.com

Sunrise Valley
Ph + 91 9526072777
www.sunrisevalleywayanad.com

Greenex Farms
Ph +91 9846131560, 9645091512
www.greenexfarms.com 

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What to Do

Uravu
Thrikkaipetta, 7km from Kalpetta
Ph 04936 231400 www.uravu.org

Chembra Trek
VSS Office, Erumakkolly
2km from Meppadi

Muddy Boots
Ph +91 95442 01249
www.muddyboots.in

For more info

District Tourism Promotion Council (DTPC)
Civil Station, North Kalpetta
Ph 04936 202134
www.dtpcwayanad.com

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

www.keralatourism.org

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

Pepper Trail: Treehouse luxury

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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FACT FILE

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.

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

Tariff
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

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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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…

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FACT FILE

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.

Tip
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 www.theyyamcalendar.com

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.

Kochi Coo: 10 Reasons why we love Cochin

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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

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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!

http://www.cghearth.com

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.

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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.

http://www.theadventurists.com/rickshaw-run

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.

http://www.kochimuzirisbiennale.org

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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.

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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.

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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’.

http://www.neemranahotels.com

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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 http://www.kashiartgallery.com

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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 kayees@sify.com

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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 http://www.cntraveller.in/story/10-reasons-why-we-love-kochi

Wayanad Splash: Kerala’s monsoon carnival

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Mud football, off-road rallying, bamboo rafting and other adventures, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY find out how Kerala’s northern hill district makes the most of the monsoon 

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The faces on the field were unrecognizable, their clothes and ages obscured by layers of mud splattered on their bodies. Despite the shin-high slush, they ran with remarkable agility, shouting instructions, names and curses, their eyes focused on a brown ball being kicked around, creating caramel coloured fountains as it splashed around the muddy waters.

They chased each other, blocking, tackling even slipping and falling into the muck as spectators stood screaming and cheering along the short bunds surrounding the rectangular playing field. Football in Kerala has always been a craze, but nothing beats the euphoric frenzy of mud football in Wayanad!

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This monsoon, you don’t have to sit in the verandah of your home watching dark rain clouds consume the sky and city. You could choose to head out to Wayanad, a district that has transformed the rains into a full-fledged tourist season. Nearly a decade ago, Wayanad was still coming to grips with its branding issues.

A tourism official lamented that bus signs would read Bangalore to Kalpetta, Sulthan Batheri or Manathavady, while ‘Wayanad’ largely remained a nebulous hill district somewhere in Kerala. The Wayanad Laughing Thrush, a dull brown nondescript bird not very easy to spot, was hardly a good brand mascot. But that was ten years ago…

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Today, through its relentless efforts, the Wayanad Tourism Organization, a consortium of hotels, homestays and hospitality partners, has elevated the region into one of India’s most sought after destinations. Strategically located at the tri-junction of Kozhikode, Coorg and Nilgiris, Wayanad owes its popularity to several reasons.

Prehistoric sites like Edakkal Caves, wildlife zones at Muthanga and Tholpetty, trekking trails to Chembra and Banasura, popular waterfalls like Meenmutty and Soochipara, hoary shrines like Thirunelly, Kottiyoor and Valiyoorkavu, Uravu’s intriguing bamboo handicrafts, proximity to Bangalore and Mysore but above all, stunning resorts in the midst of nature. Often the drive to a mountain retreat is as incredible as the place itself.

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In a way, Vythiri Resort did to Wayanad what Orange County did to Coorg – place it firmly on the tourist map! And soon an upsurge in the hospitality sector gave a further boost to the region. Five years ago, when WTO introduced Wayanad Splash, the concept of rediscovering Kerala in the rains took root.

This unique festival celebrates Rain Tourism, making the most daunting and dormant period of the year more marketable for all. The event takes place at Kalpetta (12-14 July) and witnesses tour operators, media and travel experts coming together to experience and promote the monsoon carnival.

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Living up to its name as ‘wayal nadu’ or land of paddy fields, a football pitch is specially prepared in an empty rice field at Hill District Club near Kolagapara. The ground is flattened and watered to keep it slushy as people are encouraged to get down and dirty and participate in sports like mud football or kabbadi! Guests can try their hand in farm related activities with competitions in indigenous expertise like paddy transplantation, climbing the slipper tree, catching crabs and archery! WTO also arranges local experiences like elephant safaris.

Offroad rallying, another adventure sport organized in association with Jeep Club Wayanad, lures participants from all over India. Adrenalin junkies come to test their driving prowess and push their SUVs, jeeps, Gypsys and quad bikes to their limit over mountainous tracts. Since it is a time when streams and waterfalls are swollen, adventure lovers can indulge in the thrills of river rafting in bamboo rafts at Kuruvadweep Island or zip-lining at Vythiri Village. Local outdoor outfit Muddy Boots organizes wide-ranging activities that include kayaking, river crossing, hiking, cycling and biking in Wayanad and nearby districts of Coorg and Nilgiris catering to families, groups and corporates.

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Being a hilly terrain, many resorts offer trekking opportunities. Don your leech guards and embark on a trek to Banasura Hill overlooking India’s largest earth dam while staying at Banasura Island Retreat or Silver Woods. Stay in aesthetically made bamboo and eco-cottages at Greenex Farms and scale Chembra Peak, the highest mountain in Wayanad with a mist-covered heart-shaped lake.

Base yourself at Meenmutty Heights at the top of the 300 m waterfall and visit Neelimala viewpoint nearby. At Sunrise Valley Resort, enjoy a distant view of Meenmutty falls from your honeymoon cottage or drive to Sunrise Valley viewpoint to watch the river below enveloped in clouds. Birdwatching haven and eco-friendly resort Wynberg promises a jungle trek to Manikunnu mala.

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Lakkidi, atop Thamrasseri Ghat on the district’s western border, acts like a gateway to Wayanad. One of the loftiest points in the region with a high degree of precipitation, Lakkidi is swaddled in mist and offers stupendous views of the plains of Calicut. Stop by at the unusual Chain Tree to pay your respects to Karinthandan, a young tribal killed by a British engineer after sharing the secret route across the once treacherous pass. When Karinthandan’s spirit started haunting travellers, his soul was pacified and chained to a large ficus that became known as Chain Tree.

For those who feel overwhelmed by the bouquet of monsoon activities on offer, one can indulge in the comforts of plush resorts set in the picturesque corners of Wayanad. From plantation bungalows and traditional cottages to eco-resorts with private waterfalls like Blue Ginger, one is clearly spoilt for choice.

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Get pampered in luxurious tree houses at Vythiri Resort or Tranquil Plantation Hideaway with 14 trails within the property. At Fringe Ford, a 500-acre plantation allowed to go wild, trek to Namboodiri Hill or Makkimala reserve. Or stay in pristine tea gardens of Priyadarshini Estate at the DTPC-run Wayanad Tea Country. Whatever your idea of enjoying the rains, Wayanad has something for everyone…

FACT FILE

Contact
Wayanad Tourism Organisation
www.wayanad.org www.wayanadsplash.com

Getting there
Kalpetta, the district headquarters of Wayanad, is located on NH-212 that connects Kozhikode to Mysore and is 280km (6 hrs) from Bangalore. The nearest airport is Kozhikode International Airport (Ph 0483–271 1314) at Karipur, 88 km away.
Monsoon Season
Wayanad’s annual rainfall averages 2300 mm with Lakkidi receiving the second highest rainfall in the country. The southwest monsoon stretches from Jun to Sep and the northeast monsoon from Oct to Nov.
Where to Stay
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Vythiri Resort
Ph +91 94470 55367
Tariff Rs.9,000-15,000
Blue Ginger Resorts
Ph +91 9287229302/3
Tariff Rs.7,500-15,000
Meenmutty Heights
Ph +91 9656056215
Tariff Rs.3,600-5,900
Sunrise Valley
Ph + 91 9526072777
Tariff Rs.5,700-6,700
Greenex Farms
Ph +91 9846131560, 9645091512
Tariff Rs.3,120-6,000
Banasura Island Retreat
Ph +91-9495553311, 9645546295
Tariff Rs.3,350-5,850
Wayanad Silver Woods
Ph 04936 273310-2, 9746475714
Tariff Rs.8,000-11,500
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 20 July 2013 in The Hindu.