Thrissur, Palakkad and the River Nila

The blue thread of the River Nila, Kerala's equivalent of the Ganges and the crucible of much of the state's rich cultural heritage, stitches together a collection of fascinating sights and experiences in the rarely explored central belt of Kerala between Kochi and Kozhikode. Busy Thrissur, the state's cultural capital, is unmissable in April and May when it holds its annual Pooram festival and millions pack into the city's central square, sardine-style, to watch the elephant procession and fireworks display. Coastal Guruvayur, meanwhile, is among Kerala's most sacred Hindu pilgrimage spots; it is home to one of India's wealthiest temples as well as an elephant yard where huge tuskers and their mahouts relax before they hit the road for the next festival. Inland, the Palakkad Gap cuts a broad trench through the Western Ghats, the only natural break in the mountain chain, providing a ready conduit for roads, railway lines, innumerable waves of historical migrants, and blasts of scorching air from the roasted plains of Tamil Nadu. Palakkad itself is now known as Kerala's granary, and makes a good stopover point on the route to or from Tamil Nadu.

Thrissur (Trichur) and around

Thrissur sits at the west end of the Palakkad gap, which runs through the low pass between the Nilgiri and the Palani hills. The route through the ghats is not scenic but it has been the most important link to the peninsula interior since Roman times. Thrissur is built round a hill on which stand the Vadakkunnathan Temple and an open green, which form the centre of the earth-shaking festivities. The town's bearings are given in cardinal directions from this raised 'Round'.

The
Vadakkunnathan Temple
 a predominantly Siva temple, is also known as the Rishabhadri or Thenkailasam ('Kailash of the South'). At the shrine to the Jain Tirthankara Vrishabha, worshippers offer a thread from their clothing, symbolically to cover the saint's nakedness. The shrine to Sankara Narayana has superb murals depicting stories from the
Mahabharata
. It is a classic example of the Kerala style of architecture with its special pagoda-like roof richly decorated with fine wood carving. The temple plays a pivotal role in the
Pooram
celebrations. In September and October, there are
live performances of Chakyarkothu, a classical art form. There is a small elephant compound
attached to the temple.

The
Town Hall
is a striking building housing an art gallery with murals from other parts of the state. In the
Archaeological Museum
 ask to see the royal chariot. Next door, the
Art Museum
has woodcarvings, sculptures, an excellent collection of traditional lamps and old jewellery. Nearby,
Thrissur Zoo
 is known for its snake collection. The impressive
Lourdes Church
has an interesting underground shrine.

Guruvayur

As one of the holiest sites in Kerala, Guruvayur, 29 km west of Trichur, is a heaving pilgrimage centre, filled with stalls and thronged from 0300 to 2200 with people wanting to take
darshan
of Guruvayurappan.

It is one of the richest temples in India: there is a waiting list for the auspicious duty of lighting its oil lamps that stretches to 2025. On well-augured marriage days there is a scrum in which couples are literally shunted from the podium by new pairs urgently pressing behind them in the queue, and the whole town is geared towards the wedding industry; most hotels here have huge marriage halls and expect guests to stay a maximum of two nights. The ceremony of children's first rice feed falls on the first of every
Malayali
month. The
Sri Krishna Temple
, which probably dates from at least the 16th century has an outer enclosure where there is a tall gold-plated flagpost and a pillar of lamps. The sanctum sanctorum is in the two-storeyed
srikoil
, with the image of the four-armed Krishna garlanded with pearls and marigolds. Photography of the tank is not allowed. Non- Hindus are not allowed inside and are not made to feel welcome.

On the left as you walk towards the temple is the
Guruvayur Devaswom Institute of Mural Painting
 a tiny educational institute where you can see the training of, and buy finished works from, the next generation of mural painters. In a similar vein to
Kathakali
, with the weakening structure of feudalism and opposition to the caste system, the age-old decorative arts of temple culture steadily declined during the 20th century. When Guruvayur lost three walls to a fire in 1970 there were hardly any artists left to carry out renovation, prompting authorities to build the school in 1989. Today the small institute runs a five-year course on a scholarship basis for just 10 students. Paintings sell for
Rs 500-15,000 depending on size, canvas, wood, etc. Humans are stylized (facial expressions
and gestures can be traced back to
Kathakali
and
Koodiyattom
) and have wide-open eyes, elongated lips, over-ornamentation and exaggerated eyebrows and hand gestures.

Punnathur Kotta Elephant Yard
 is situated within a fort 4 km out of town. Temple elephants (68 at the last count) are looked after here and wild ones are trained. There are some interesting insights into traditional animal training but this is not everyone's cup of tea. Though captive, the elephants are dedicated to Krishna and appear to be well cared for by their attendants. The elephants are donated by pious Hindus but religious virtue doesn't come cheap: the elephants cost Rs 500,000 each.

Kodungallur

At one time Kodungallur, 50 km southwest of Trichur on the border of Ernakulam District, was the west coast's major port, and the capital of the Chera king Cheraman Perumal. Nearby
Kottapuram
is where St Thomas is believed to have landed in AD 52. The commemorative shrine was built in 1952. Kodungallur is also associated by tradition with the arrival of the first Muslims to reach India by sea. Malik-ibn-Dinar is reputed to have built India's first
Juma Masjid
, 2 km from town.
Tiruvanchikulam Temple
and the
Portuguese fort
are worth visiting. The Syrian orthodox church in
Azikode
blends early Christian architecture in Kerala with surrounding Hindu traditions. Thus the images of Peter and Paul are placed where the
dvarapalas
(doorkeepers) of Hindu temples would be found, and the portico in front of the church is for pilgrims.

Along the River Nila

North of Thrissur the road and railway cut through lush countryside of paddy fields, quiet villages and craggy red hills mantled with coconut and rubber plantations, before crossing the wide sandy bed of the Bharatapuzha River at
Shoranur
. Known to the people who populate its banks as Nila, this is Kerala's longest river, rising on the eastern side of the Palakkad Gap and winding lazily through 209 km to spill into the Arabian Sea at the bustling fishing port of
Ponnani
. Though its flow is
severely depleted by irrigation dams and its bed gouged by sand miners, the importance of the river to Kerala's cultural development is hard to overstate: Ayurveda,
kathakali
and the martial art
kalaripayattu
were all nurtured along the banks of the Nila, not to mention the cacophonous classical music that soundtracks festive blow-outs like the Thrissur
Pooram
. Folk tradition too is vibrantly represented: elaborately adorned devotees carry colourful effigies to temple
festivals, snake worshippers roam house to house performing ancient rituals to seek blessing
from the serpent gods, and village musicians sing songs of the paddy field mother goddess, passed down from generation to generation.

Despite all this, the Nila thus far remains refreshingly untouched by Kerala's tourism boom, and few travellers see more of it than the glimpses afforded by the beautiful train ride between Shoranur and Kozhikode. This is in part because there's little tourist infra- structure, few genuine 'sights', and no easy way for a travellers to hook into the cultural scene. Traditional potters and brass-smiths labour in humble workshops behind unmarked houses, while performers (singers and dancers by night, coolies, plumbers and snack sellers by day) only get together for certain events. With your own transport you can search out any number of beautiful riverside temples, but unless you join one of the superb storytelling tours run by local guiding outfit
The Blue Yonder
,
Kerala Kalamandalam
might be the only direct contact you have with the Nila's rich heritage.

The residential school of
 Kerala Kalamandalam
, www.kalamandalam.org, is dedicated to preserving the state's unique forms of performance art. Founded in 1930, after the provincial rulers' patronage for the arts dwindled in line with their plummeting wealth and influence, the Kalamandalam spear- headed a revival of
Kathakali
dancing, along with
Ottam Thullal
and the all-female drama
Mohiniyattam
. The school and the state tourism department run a fascinating three-hour tour of the campus, 'A Day With the Masters' (US$25), with in-depth explanations of the significance and background of the art forms, the academy and its architecture, taking you through the various open air
kalaris
(classrooms) to watch training sessions. There are all-night
Kathakali
performances on 26 January, 15 August, and 9 November.
Koodiyattam
, the oldest surviving form of Sanskrit theatre, is enshrined by UNESCO as an 'oral and intangible heritage of humanity'. Frequent private buses from Thrissur's northern bus stand (ask for Vadakkancheri Bus Stand) go straight to Kalamandalam, taking about one hour.

In the bustling port town of
Ponnani
at the mouth of the Nila, the
Ponnani Juma Masjid
, was built in the mid-15th century by the spiritual leader Zainudhin Ibn Ali Ibn Ahmed Ma'bari, who employed a Hindu carpenter to design the exterior. Ignorant of traditional Islamic architecture, the carpenter carved the elaborate teak-wood facade to resemble a Hindu temple incorporating many intricate Hindu designs. The carpenter was killed by a fall from the roof as he finished construction and lies buried inside inside the mosque. The nearby fishing docks are a hive of activity, but prepare for plenty of attention from local boys.

Palakkad (Palghat)

Kerala's rice cellar, prosperous Palakkad has long been of strategic importance for its gap - the only break in the mountain ranges that otherwise block the state from Tamil Nadu and the rest of India. Whereas once this brought military incursions, today the gap bears tourist buses from Chennai and tractors for the rich agricultural fields here that few educated modern Keralites care to plough using the old bullock carts (although the tradition is kept alive through
kaalapoottu
, a series of races between yoked oxen held in mud-churned paddy fields every January).
The whole of Palakkad is like a thick paddy forest, its iridescent old blue mansions, many ruined by the Land Reform Act, crumbling into paddy ponds. There are village idylls like a Constable painting. Harvest hands loll idly on pillows of straw during lunch hours, chewing ruminatively on chapattis.

The annual festival of
Chinakathoor Pooram
(late February to early March) held at the Sri Chinakathoor Bhagavathy Temple, Palappuram, features a 33-tusker procession, plus remarkable evening puppet shows. Bejewelled tuskers can also be seen at the 20-day
Nenmara-Vallangi Vela
, held at the Sri Nellikulangara Bhagavathy Temple in Kodakara (early April): an amazing festival with grander firework displays than Trichur's
Pooram
but set in fields rather than across the city.

The region is filled with old architecture of
illams
and
tharavadus
belonging to wealthy landowners making a visit worthwhile in itself - but chief among the actual sights is
Palakkad Fort
, a granite structure in Palakkad town itself, built by Haider Ali in 1766, and taken over by the British in 1790. It now has a Hanuman temple inside. Ask directions locally to the 500-year-old Jain temple of
Jainimedu
in the town's western suburbs, a 10-m-long granite temple with Jain
Thirthankaras
and
Yakshinis
built for the Jain sage Chandranathaswami. Only one Jain family is left in the region, but the area around this temple is one of the only places in Kerala where remnants of the religion have survived.

Also
well worth visiting in the region are the many traditional Brahmin villages:
Kalpathy
, 10 km outside Palakkad, holds the oldest Siva temple in Malabar, dating from AD 1425 and built by Kombi Achan, then Raja of Palakkad. But the village itself, an 800-year-old settlement
by a self-contained Tamil community, is full of beautiful houses with wooden shutters and metal grills and is now a World Heritage Site that gives you a glimpse of village life that has been held half-frozen in time for nearly 1000 years. The temple here is called
Kasiyil Pakuthi Kalpathy
meaning Half Banares because its situation on the river is reminiscent of the Banares temple on the Ganges. A 10-day
car festival
in November centres on this temple and features teak chariots tugged by people and pushed by elephants.

Another unique feature of Palakkad is the
Ramassery Iddli
made at the
Sarswathy tea stall
.
If you spend any time on the street in South India, your morning meal will inevitably feature many of these tasty steamed fermented rice cakes. Palakkad is home to a peculiar take on the dumpling, one that has been developed to last for days rather than having to be cooked from fresh. The four families in this poky teashop churn out 5000
iddlis
a day. Originally settlers from somewhere near Coimbatore, in Tamil Nadu, over 100 years ago, they turned to making this variety of
iddli
when there wasn't enough weaving work to sustain their families. They started out selling them door to door, but pretty soon started to get orders for weddings. The
iddlis
are known to have travelled as far afield as Delhi, by plane in a shipment of 300. Manufacturers have started to arrive in order to buy the secret recipe.

Nelliyampathy
, 56 km from Palakkad town, is a hill station with a tiny community of planters. It is famous for its oranges, but there are also orchids, bison, elephant and butterflies in abundance. The view across the Keralite plains from Seethakundu stunning; a third of the district lies spread out under you. The area has good trekking, too.

Megalith trail: Guruvayur to Kunnamkulam

The Palakkad Gap has been one of the few relatively easy routes through the ghats for 3000 years and this area is noted for its megalithic monuments. Megalithic cultures spread from the Tamil Nadu plains down into Kerala, but developed local forms. The small villages of Eyyal, Chovvanur, Kakkad, Porkalam, Kattakampala and Kadamsseri, between
Guruvayur and Kunnamkulam, have hoodstones, hatstones, dolmens, burial urns and
menhirs
.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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