Wednesday, September 13

A Journey through Northern Kerala

The image of Kerala of course evokes all the palms, all the lagoons, and all the oil massages that one can think of or dream of - not only as to their plenty, but also their ability to spring upon you from nowhere, to jut at unexpected corners, to elbow you into a premature dusk when for the rest of the world it is meridian.
Yet, it differs so much. Having been to Kerala often, maybe, has helped. The southern Kerala is so different - more humid and hotter, more drenched in the commercial spirit that is more evident in neighbouring cities of Tamil Nadu, more worldlywise, and yet veritably acting as a doorway to the Kerala beyond. As you move up from Alwaye–Kottayam region the things pick up momentum. The vast lagoons call you to get submerged in water, water everywhere, the paddy fields remind you that the escape is nowhere, and the overcast skies put the final stamp upon the only element which seems to be nourishing life. It all does sound so clichéd, so romantic - ducks being shepherded on the water, government boats plying school students cheaply on the stagnant water dying with weeds, spotless white 'lungis' with sprightly steps on the boat jetties - but then what is a better praise, a better temptation, for a place to lay claim to than to bear clichés justifiably and proudly.
Yes, I know the last word is somehow wrong, at least to me, 'proudly'. Kerala never seems to be proud of its beauty, though Keralites themselves seem to be a proud race. It is maybe the numerous temples and churches that dot the smallest of towns, probably the number of lithe young men working as conductors, hotel boys, tea stall assistants, criers for buses, probably the drunkenness that sets in once the sun has already done so, or, simply speaking, probably the stark poverty all around, which always seems to point out to a broken spirit, to a heritage not proud of itself, to a country which seems to be touted as 'God's own country' more for the 'Christian humility' with which it keeps itself than the 'green thumb of Parasurama'.
Nowhere is this more evident than north Kerala - it's poorer, it's dirtier, and in some ways, more beautiful. Having seen much of south/south-central and east-southern Kerala previously, I went to the northernmost district of Kerala, Kasargod, bordering Mangalore in Karnataka. The following account, rather than a list of things to do, or an insincere effusive praise, which many tourists, especially the ones who write/show something, are prone to (maybe, to not to admit, that after all their time taken off, they were not successful in keeping it sincere and honest), is simply a record of my own experience, my emotions that I felt about the whole journey, in parts and in all.

I had gone expecting nothing, or rather a mixed bag - but the way to Kasargod itself turned me around. The route went through Madikeri–Jalsoor, and I don't think that I have ever been through a more wonderful experience in my life uptil now. Slow rain leading to everything dripping - the lonely bungalows sprawling on the lower tiers of the road, with barely proper gravelly ways leading to them (and yet all those steep paths were ending at a car parked in a porch), the plantations come to joyously, their joyous dripping prompting you to alight there and then, and to be lost in that oblivion, and the quietness of the life in general making you more unquiet, more ambitious, more eager to get the good things in life! In a way, it was a precursor to that transforming experience which was to come soon – that of Ranipuram. More of that later!

Kasargod is an extremely disappointing town - even though there's nothing being touted as ‘touristy’ there, yet every place has its own magic, its own charms; but, at least at first glance, it is difficult to pinpoint anything there. One arrives at a washed-out looking bus stand, with no hustle, everyone (including the buses) seeming to lag, a place which really is like the outpost of Kerala (and is, in fact) in every aspect, where people seem to live apologetically, as if the place is no fault of theirs. After the hills give you company right from Madikeri to the very edge of Kasargod, it is indeed a something stronger than disappointment. But, then, a tourist knows that he has heard about this place, he has heard about the fort of Bekal, and it's an unexplored country as yet, so he can always stumble upon something priceless, something which has the potential to become a memory for him, and that too a dear memory. To quote from Lemony Snicketts, "there is always something".

The sense of the beauty is somehow lost when you reach Bekal. Yes, if you say so, 'technically speaking' it is beautiful (for now when people's emotions are being tried to be read by computers, maybe places are not far behind). But, for me, it was a different emotion. The vast grounds of the fort, the sea lashing furiously at the fort, the simple, aesthetic fort itself (which, in fact, looks less a fort against the mighty landscape in which it is set) - all is unbridled freedom, and when did freedom not fail to frighten the man? Nature is challenging you to embrace it, and you are powerless - you don't want to simply go to it, see it, roam there, come back, but you want to be there only, always, learn about how the fort bears the hot sun and bears the constant drizzle, of how the moon peeps from the gun holes and how the sea turns crimson when the sun rises, of how every morning it must look as if you are the possessor of this earth and how every evening that you have lost one more day in probably a futile effort to possess this earth.

My base was Kanhangad, a better, and much more livelier, town than Kasargod. There I used to return before each evening, and explore its markets, its bus-stands, its eateries. It was again a poor-looking place, but being not the source or destination of any route was a happening place. Buses always going to north (Udma/Tellicherry) or south (Kannur) - the constant stream keeping you on the move always, bringing the world to you with minimal effort from your side, unawares taking you to places you would never have dreamed of.

Ranipuram was one such place - I had never decided on going there, and yet I was there. I did not go high up in the hills, as I was to return to my base in the evening, but the foothills were already a new love for me. The trek in those hills, the climb down the slopes to the rivulets there (probably, the manifold sources of the river Chandragiri), and the darkness enwrapping me all alone when rain became heavy - had I ever got all this before? Every leaf, every blade of the grass, every small and big rivulet and stream had to tell a story when that rain fell, me alone on the densely vegetated slopes of the hills, on the banks of the stormiest of the sources of the river - there was no other man in sight, and yet I was so much in company. Different ways lead you to different aspects of the life there - while some lead you to plantations, where you occasionally met a man, some led to quiet brooks, where you could easily wash your face and hands, with much pleasure and much quietitude. In between, higher up the hills, an occasional house was dotted, people who worked for the plantations, or kept a couple of cows. Salt was their constant source of comfort against leeches and snakes, and an umbrella against the intermittent rain.

I have seen so many shrines of so many faiths, big and small, in my life, at all sorts of places, in all sorts of designs. Yet, to describe the Ananthapura temple would be difficult. Suddenly, in the midst of the greenery come vast, black plains, as if encrusted lava all over. You reach out your neck, you crane you eyes, but to no avail, just long, winding, lonely roads amidst undulating black plains, with not much habitation in sight, not much life in sight. And yet, the air itself seems full of life - the air there is keener than the sea air of Bekal, it feels that as if you stay the night here you will come upon a wondrous adventure, you will come come upon that story of Hawthorne, where the culprit comes and goes silently from the fireside. The temple itself, set upon a pond, is somewhat unreal - combined with that place, you feel as if some witchcraft is going to be practised, and that you will like like to be a part of that ritual; you want to be an integral part of those plains, those people, that temple with its tank, its crocodile, and its weediness. The whole temple seems to be a 'swayambhu' - even its weedy vegetation and the dirty pond look to be springs of miracle in that dry place, and the magic wand really crosses your mind.

When I went there, it was 'Janmashtami', and much of the hamlet was assembled at the temple, with a mike and accompanying music, a singing competition being held in the main (and only) 'mandapam' of the temple, with songs devoted to God being sung (the competition was for, I think, children to tweens - most of them were terribly out of tune and had shrill voices); as I turned my back on the temple and the long, straight but sloping return road faced me, I could still feel the temple and its songs in my ears, in my bones - the quietness of the coming evening, the cheerfulness of the lonely plains, the sharp air, the hamlet's way of living, the solitary cyclists, calm bungalows further on the long road - all blended harmoniously, and drew my three-day tour of the Kasargod district of Kerala to a close.

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Blogger Smitha said...


An interesting estimate of Kasargod, that confused district torn between Kerala and Karnataka. I do not think that Kasargod is an apt showcase of Kerala or its people. True, it is part of Kerala in a way, but it is also a conflicted zone, with influences from adjoining Karnataka that have clouded much of its Keralite individuality for centuries now. It cannot be taken as a standalone testimony of what Kerala and its culture typify, no matter what the official govt. website states. Further south, say Kottayam or Palakkad, or even Pathanamthitta, are districts typical of Kerala and its heritage. Those people proud of their heritage are rather in abundance here, though diminishing with the spread of anglophilia and westernization.
Here, you will see heirs of ancient families striving to hold on to the essence of Kerala that is propagated through them, but not too hard, as this is something innate and cannot be tainted in a decade or two.

8:50 am  
Blogger ankyuk said...

You are right Smitha. Kasargod is not at all the typical Kerala, probably it's more Malabar than Kerala? But it's a different cup of tea, and each of those cups should be different, shouldn't they? I loved it maybe more than any other Kerala region excepting Munnar/Peermede region; when I had visited Alapuzha/Kottayam region, they had still not become fashionable places, the luxury houseboats and massage resorts had still not surfaced. I don't know does the central Kerala still stand as it was, or has its beauty gone, corrupted, scarred by the commercialisation? (I don't prefer to call it Westernization)

9:25 am  

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