13 mins

Travelling through Kerala’s mysterious North

With its dramatic rituals, empty waterways and highland rainforests, we find out that to truly understand Kerala’s less visited north, you need to have someone tell you its stories

The mysterious north Kerala (Alamy)

Wild-eyed and orange-faced under a gigantic red headdress writhing with serpents, the dancer spun and gyrated. He leapt free from a circle of drummers, their naked torsos glistening with sweat as they rapped an incessant rhythm on their cow-hide chendas. The beat became louder, faster and ever more frenzied as the apparition strutted towards the crowd. He stamped his red-painted feet, bared white teeth, jabbed silver-fingered claws and hissed like a snake at us…at me, a transfixed arm’s length away.

“The mortal body has been seized by Gulikan, the incarnation of Lord Shiva… he is possessed,” Mohan Kumar shouted in my ear amid the mêlée while throngs jostled to make offerings in obeisance to the god.

Mohan is the ‘storyteller’ who brought me to the Theyyam ritual at a kavu (sacred grove) of ancient trees cloaked in vines in Kerala’s far northern Kasaragod district. I was the sole outsider at this mesmerism of noise, colour, smoky scents and mystical energy. It was thrilling, mind-blowing, but completely baffling.

At least, it would’ve been without Mohan’s expert voice in my ear. How else would I have understood that a Theyyam dancer is always a Dalit, an ‘Untouchable’ in the Hindu caste system, who once a year enters a trance and becomes a medium, “a vehicle for the god who’s seized him”?

While the myths told in the dance unspooled, Mohan clarified the meaning: the transmogrified creature’s actions, movements and words are – quite literally, it is believed – those of the deity to whom everybody from the highest Brahmin downwards will give thanks for prayers answered and wishes granted. After the Theyyam is over, the divine spirit will depart the body, leaving behind an ordinary man who remembers nothing and will return to his job on Monday.

And to think that Kerala is sometimes described as Indialite, ideal as a soft introduction to the sub-continent.

Theyyam tells the story of Kandanar Kelan (Alamy)

Theyyam tells the story of Kandanar Kelan (Alamy)

Telling a different story...

It is true that millions fly into Cochin or Trivandrum down towards India’s southern tip, regions of Kerala well-geared up for easy holidays: seaside hotels and photogenic fishing nets; houseboats on glassy backwaters; gentle hills blanketed with spice plantations.

Northern Kerala, by contrast, is far less visited, and so begging to be explored. The beaches are pristine and almost deserted. Towns and villages are almost untouched by tourism, their strange histories rarely unearthed. The mountains of the interior are higher, wilder and teem with wildlife.

With a car and driver, I would travel the length of this forgotten Malabar coast, and meet a succession of local people, part-time guides styled as ‘story-tellers’. Then I would head for the Western Ghats, the range that hems in coastal Kerala from the rest of India.

My journey began with a flight across the Arabian Sea to Calicut (now re-named Kozhikode), the plane lowering over a rippled expanse of coconut palms. Calicut is where the colonial relationship between Europe and India began, because it was here that Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in 1498, discovering a sea route between the two.

More precisely, da Gama came ashore about 16 kilometres up the coast at Kappad beach where I found a small seaside resort of crunchy sand thumped by waves. Schoolteacher Binusha Jaganansan Baby, my first storyteller, led me to a small, stone monument marking the arrival from Lisbon of three battered caravels and a ragbag of bedraggled sailors. I was surprised at how small and unobtrusive it was, but Binusha laughed: “The kingdom of Calicut was rich and powerful. When this shabby stranger offered six wash basins as a gift, the mighty Zamorin ruler sent him packing. He was definitely not a big deal then, nor is he now.”

Sant Angelo's Fort (Alamy)

Sant Angelo's Fort (Alamy)

Kannur lighthouse in Kerala (Alamy)

Kannur lighthouse in Kerala (Alamy)

Kadinjimoola village (Martin Symington)

Kadinjimoola village (Martin Symington)

Still, there was a thread to follow of early European colonisation on the Malabar coast. India’s first ever game of cricket was played by members of the British East India company at Tellicherry (now Thalassery) in around 1800, according to local lawyer and part-time storyteller Farhan Abdul, who proudly showed me the site in the lee of a rusty-red Portuguese fort. Next up, another daunting fort, at Kannur where Dutch merchants enjoyed glory days trading cardamom and ginger before upping sticks in 1790.

Mahé, on the other hand, remained a French dependency until 1954 and is now a tiny enclave of the Union of Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry) surrounded by Kerala. Amid markets where men in mundu loincloths hawked piles of finger-sized bananas, I found few concessions to Frenchness – just the white-washed Sainte-Thérèse shrine and a waterside promenade with Parisian-style iron street lamps. However, Farhan told me: “People still have the right to French passports, which is amazing for their marriage prospects.”

Continuing up the Malabar coast, further anomalies came thick and fast: the bearded face of Karl Marx stencilled on walls next to showy ‘Gulf mansions’ built on earnings in Saudi or the UAE where so many Keralans make their fortunes I noticed churches, small Hindu temples and mosques painted mint green, all cheek by jowl with one another.

Between Nileshwaram’s river mouth and Bekal Fort, the honey-toned beach is unbroken for 30 kilometres and largely deserted except for the occasional chain of muscly fishermen hauling their wooden boats from the breakers, tug of war-style. This must have been how Goa was 60 years ago, I mused, striding into the hazy distance with my feet in the surf. Why is there nobody about?

Healing at the hermitage...

I was lucky enough to be staying at the Neeleshwar Hermitage ‘beach retreat’, which specialises in meditation, yoga and holistic therapies. Kerala is the cradle of Ayuveda, the ancient Hindu philosophy of healing and wellbeing as offered at numerous centres and ashrams in the state, many of them ascetically vegan and teetotal. The Hermitage understands that wellness does not have to be part punishment. Rather, it works in a sublime setting of lush tropical gardens sprinkled with thatched bungalows, hammocks and an infinity pool.

Dr Deepa, the on-site Ayuvedic practitioner, told me with the certitude of a true believer that “a kati basti will be most efficacious for your spinal stiffness.” This turned out to mean having heady-scented medicated oils poured into a rope ring placed on my lower back. It felt great, especially when the oil seeped deep into my tissues. That evening, I prescribed myself (with equal certitude of efficacy) an ice-cold Kingfisher Premier beer to complement the barbecued tiger prawns, spicy sauces and sounds of crashing waves at the moonlit beach restaurant.

It was tempting to stay. But Kasaragod, this northernmost district of Kerala, is the most culturally distilled anywhere in the state, the more so for being off any tourist trail. It was near here, at a kavu outside Pallikkara village, that Mohan Kumar took me to witness the spellbinding Theyyam ritual.

After that, I spent a morning with another storyteller, young environmental campaigner Sujith Narayanan who took me to lagoon-side Kadinjimoola village to meet one of his heroes. When we caught up with locally-renowned agricultural scientist Mr Divakaran, he was shinning up a palm with a homespun white mundu hitched around his waist, tapping sap to make fresh toddy. “This is one of the traditional ways that keeps us sound in body and mind, both the tapping and drinking the toddy,” he told me, Sujith translating from the Keralan language Malayalam. He certainly looked extraordinarily lean and healthy for his 62 years.

Divakarettan, as he’s affectionately known, has planted a medicinal garden outside the simple brick house he built with his own hands. Villagers are welcome to help themselves. He’s also revived the art of spinning coir fibre from coconut husks to make matting and nets for sustainable fishing.

“We must live free of plastics, and at all costs keep them from the ocean,” Divakarettan said softly, not to me but to a crocodile of children on a ‘nature club’ visit to the village. “You are the seed-corn of Kerala’s future.” I left Kadinjimoola feeling I had met a Gandhi-esque figure.

Preparing for Theyyam (Martin Symington)

Preparing for Theyyam (Martin Symington)

Boats ((Martin Symington))

Boats ((Martin Symington))

Some of the local catch ((Martin Symington))

Some of the local catch ((Martin Symington))

From the backwaters to the highlands

Cruising the backwaters – a latticework of connecting rivers, lagoons, canals and lakes between the sea and the Western Ghats – has become a staple of holidays in Kerala. Down south, literally thousands of ketuvallam houseboats converted from traditional rice barges chug around these waterways, which leads inevitably to overcrowding and pollution.

But while the north can’t compete in scale with the expansive Alleppey backwaters near Cochin, the Valiyaparamba inlet, fed by five rivers near Neeleshwaram, has only a handful of houseboats. One of these is the sybaritic Lotus built of dark, oiled wood with a palm-shaded deck lashed with coir rope.

For a day and a night we glided through tranquil waterways with coconut trees bending over the banks. There were a few fishermen casting nets from their wooden canoes, and when we went ashore on Monkey Island, I saw a group of boys by the bank, sifting through bucketloads of mussels from mud, viewed by noisy, predatory macaques. But that was about the limit of human action.

I watched a grey-headed fish eagle on a branch waiting for prey to ripple the surface. Crimson dragonflies whined and Brahminy kites wheeled overhead. When night fell, huge fruit bats flapped across the water, silhouetted against a dimming sky and contours of the Western Ghats.

"In Wayanad there were butterflies as big as both your hands, metre-long Malabar giant squirrels crashing through branches and black tadpoles with heads the size of quails’ eggs"
"In Wayanad there were butterflies as big as both your hands, metre-long Malabar giant squirrels crashing through branches and black tadpoles with heads the size of quails’ eggs"

Kerala is long and thin, narrowing to a taper in the north so, despite the twisting roads, it was only a few hours’ drive from Kasaragod to the wildlife-rich Wayanad highlands. We climbed first through terraced fields of yams, papayas, pineapples and emerald-green rice paddy, then into darker-hued forests and plantations.

Homestays – estates where you are treated as personal guests of the owners – are nothing new in Kerala. However, the Pepper Trail near Sultan Bathery takes hospitality and heritage to a level I’d never experienced in India before. Tall, donnish Anand Jayan greeted me at the gates of the 80-hectare plantation that his grandfather bought from Scottish coffee planter Colin Mackenzie in 1932.

“Grandpapa introduced tea, and then ginger, which these days is a lottery with prices up and down,” said Anand. We rambled around a hillside of tea bushes planted under silver oaks to filter the sun, then found vestiges of the rubber and cinnamon that also once thrived here, and pepper plants growing as creepers up tree trunks. “Our future is as a heritage retreat,” Anand concluded, showing me to the colonial bungalow, painstakingly restored with mahogany furniture and Bakelite switches.

While I swung in a rocking chair on his Veranda, I tried to picture Mr Mackenzie. With a bit of concentration he appeared, mutton-chop whiskered and happily sipping a scotch, though looking a wee bit puzzled that his faraway corner of a foreign field is now reckoned to be ‘heritage’?

Wayanad was a region of dense forest before pioneering Europeans and Indians converted forbidding wilderness into orderly estates. Thankfully, swathes of jungle remain in areas too remote and mountainous for any human traces. Much of it is now wildlife reserve.

The story's end

The final chapter of my North Kerala adventure was to unfold at Wayanad Wild, a discreet lodge hidden away in a reserve of primary rainforest and waterfalls in sight of looming Chembra Peak, one of the highest points in the Western Ghats. Wild elephants, leopards and even tigers roam the reserve, although in reality sightings of the latter are vanishingly rare. Resident naturalist Maneesh Manu had stories to tell about “thrilling small things we might encounter on nature treks.”

Oddly, the sort of forest residents Maneesh meant turned out to be implausibly large: butterflies as big as both your hands; metre-long Malabar giant squirrels with faces like koalas, leaping and crashing through branches; and in a clear, fast-flowing stream, sinister-looking black tadpoles with heads the size of quails’ eggs.

On a night hike, Maneesh knew where to find rare Western Ghats endemics such as a Malabar tree toad, and bizarre bioluminescent fungi glowing eerily on the rotting bark of dead tree trunks. His torch beam scoured the undergrowth to alight on quivering eyes in the bulbous head of a green vine snake.

Snakes stir unsettling sensations in me. A flick of forked tongue flitted me back to the writhing serpents of Gulikan’s headdress, despite this forest of the night feeling a world away from the frenzy of a Theyyam.

At dawn, on the balcony of my cabin in the leafy canopy, I watched a hornbill sail gracefully past, then a long-armed Nilgiri langur slinking from tree to tree. It was transcendently serene, a moment to reflect on the stories that had unfolded on my journey through Kerala’s lesser-known north. It had been packed with hypnotising energy, captivating history, and escapes to pristine wilderness. And all lifted to heightened levels by Mohan, Binusha, Farhan and their fellow tellers of illuminating tales.

5 North Kerala Highlights

  1. Theyyam - Witness the moment when, once a year, the gods come down to earth and dance. This extraordinary ritual is entrancing.
  2. Kannur - The Portuguese St Angelo Fort and Dutch trading post at this coastal town provide insights into early colonial history. Also, check out the riotous morning fish market on the harbourside as the overnight catch is landed and auctioned.
  3. The beach between Nileshwaram & Bekal - The stretch of sand and surf, fringed by coconut trees, has nothing to stop you walking uninterrupted all day. And not a trinket seller to be seen.
  4. Valiyaparamda backwaters - Pristine, tranquil and a nirvana for birdwatchers. Go for the sort of experience that drew travellers to southern Kerala half a century ago.
  5. Wayanad’s forest - Teeming with wildlife, the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary jungles in North Kerala’s hinterland feels all the more remote for being lesser-known than many other famous reserves in India, or even Kerala.

The Trip

The author travelled with Audley Travel (01993 838330; audleytravel.com) on a 12-night tailormade trip based on two sharing. This included international flights, all transport in a private car with driver and B&B accommodation.

When to go

Kerala is warm year-around with relatively little seasonal variation in temperature (27°C-29°C).

December to March is the dry, peak seasons. In June to August the south-west monsoon drenches the state. Lighter, less frequent rain can also be expected in April, May and September to November. That said, traditional weather patterns are becoming decreasingly reliable.

Most Theyyan performances happen November to April.

Getting there

Etihad Airways expect to resume flights from London Heathrow and Manchester to Calicut (Kozhikode Airport) via Abu Dhabi. Flight time was around 13 hours. Alternatively, BA or Virgin connect at either Delhi or Mumbai, and then on to Cochin (Kochi) International Airport from there.

Getting around

The author was driven by car as part of a pre-arranged package. Except for those on backpacker-basic budgets, this is the norm. There is a railway all the way up the Malabar coast, and bus services to Wayanad. In towns, auto-rickshaws are the easy option.

Cost of travel

India is cheap by UK standards and North Kerala especially so because prices have not been inflated by mass tourism. Expect to pay about INR900 (roughly £10) per person for a meal in a good-standard restaurant.

Accommodation

Raviz Kadavu (theraviz.com) is the pick of the Calicut five-star properties, just a short drive from the city centre, standing at the edge of a peaceful backwater. B&B doubles from £46.

A wellness retreat of understated opulence, Neeleshwar Hermitage (neeleshwarhermitage.com) is peerless on the Malabar coast. B&B doubles from (£193).

For a houseboat experience, the Lotus (thelotuskerala.com) offers elegance, peace and pampering. Double cabin from £198 for one-night cruise including all meals.

It’s an immersive experience at Pepper Trail (peppertrail.in), a family-run plantation with roots in the Raj. Accommodation is in luxury rooms and treehouses. B&B doubles from £73.

Wayanad Wild (cghearth.com/wayanad-wild) offers individual cabins with balconies, hidden in the forest canopy. A range of hiking and wildlife trips included. B&B doubles from £89.

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