(This travelogue was meant to be posted almost a month and a half back. But, with Kerala flooded and in such dire straits, it somehow seemed inappropriate to write about a touristy visit to a state which was already, at the time I visited, reeling under a natural disaster. Kerala, however, has begun the process of rebuilding, and the mirror post to this post seemed to be this one).
Early this year, friend, fellow blogger and soul sister Anu (who blogs at Conversations Over Chai) informed me that she’d be visiting her home town—Thrissur, or Trichur—in August.
I had been wanting to meet Anu again (I’ve only had the pleasure of being in her company for a couple of days, when she visited Delhi), so I said I’d come and meet her in Thrissur. Anu was also going to be spending a few days in Mumbai, so she offered me the option of visiting her in Mumbai, if I preferred.
We had a long and involved discussion on this. Mumbai is notoriously hard to negotiate during the monsoon. Once the rains hit the city, what with the traffic, the narrow congested lanes and the construction going on all around… we decided it would be less hassle-free to come to Thrissur instead.
Who was to know? Who was to know that Kerala was to be hit by the heaviest monsoon in a century, and that Anu would have some truly hair-raising experiences trying to get out of Thrissur in time to catch her flight back to the US?
In Delhi and around (I live in Noida), the newspapers carried not a single snippet of news hinting at the flood situation in Kerala. Just the day before I was to catch my flight to Kochi (Thrissur doesn’t have an airport of its own), my husband did notice a news article online about Kochi Airport having been closed for a few days because of flooding. That was alarming, but since the airport was open again, I thought everything would be all right.
And so I went to Thrissur, and beyond. For three days, I wandered around this part of Kerala, only occasionally bothered by rain, and not really realizing how bad things already were, and how much worse they were going to get. Not even a week down the line, when I was safe and sound back in Noida, horror stories were coming in about how things were in Kerala. There were stories, too, of heroism, of ordinary people performing acts of selflessness, putting their lives at risk to help others. Of generosity and bravery and kindness in giving help, and of dignity and gratitude on the part of those receiving that help.
It will perhaps be several months before Kerala can get back on its feet, but in that almost surreal window of three days that I was there before the storm hit, I experienced two sights—a temple complex and a waterfall—that I deemed worthy of chronicling.
My main reason to visit Kerala was to meet Anu, and to have long chats. We did, but Anu and her family also made sure I did some sightseeing, and got a flavour of Kerala. In fact, more than a mere flavour. Many flavours. At Thrissur’s Delite Sweets Parlour (which looks utterly shabby), I had fabulous samosas and what stands out as the very best fruit salad with ice cream I have ever had.
Later still, I was finally able to eat puttu, which I’d only heard about. A mixture of rice flour and freshly grated coconut, this is steamed inside a cylinder of bamboo, and is served with kadala, a spicy gravy containing black chickpeas. Delicious, but oh, so filling.
After eating three-fourths of a puttu (Anu’s family had to help me finish the rest), I thought I couldn’t eat any more, but Anu ordered an addictive banana fritter—made from a local banana, split in half, dipped in batter and deep-fried—so I ended up succumbing.
I also had a very good local thali, and—egged on by Anu’s non-vegetarian cousins, who vouched for it—a beef fry with parotta. The beef fry, spicy and rich with curry leaves, fennel seeds, pepper and more, was the best I’ve had, and the parotta was melt in the mouth.
But, beyond the food: two major sights that Anu thought I would like to see, and which left me awestruck.
The first was the ancient Vadakumnatham Temple in Thrissur, which has been proposed to be included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This is a vast temple complex, with the central shrine—the main one—being dedicated to Shiva. Surrounding this is an array of shrines devoted to other deities, including Parvati (whose temple is situated, appropriately enough, behind that of Shiva), Vishnu (this was a surprise, more so since his temple is within the elite inner circle where the Siva Temple is situated), Rama, Ganesh, Adi Sankara (who is believed to have attained nirvana here), and others.
Anu’s husband, Sadu (who is an authority not just on music and movies but—as I soon discovered—on a lot more), was appointed my guide around Vadakumnatham. Sadu spent his childhood in Thrissur, so as he took me around the complex, he entertained (and educated) me with interesting anecdotes of coming to the temple as a child.
One of these pertained to the shrine of Kumbhakarna. You are supposed to enter the courtyard surrounding this little temple very quietly. Make your obeisance in silence (Kumbhakarna is sleeping, after all—some consideration is in order!), and then, having done the parikrama (which, interestingly enough, isn’t a complete circumambulation, but a sort of three-fourths one), go out. And, as you go out, clap loudly (to wake up Kumbhakarna—after all, some mischief is in order!) As Sadu and I moved out of the little courtyard, we heard a visitor clap loudly behind us.
Another shrine with an interesting little ritual attached to it is that of Simhodara. Just beyond this, you’ll see a little pedestal-like thing, with tiny towers of pebbles on it. You’re supposed to pick up a pebble from the surrounding ground, place it on the pedestal, then turn around and walk away without looking back. That is imperative: don’t look back, or you’ll be turned to stone. I made certain I didn’t; I didn’t want poor Anu and Sadu to be saddled with the responsibility of shipping a petrified me back to my family.
Sadu also showed me the outdoor shrine to Parashuram, and one to snakes (this one stands next to a beautiful pink-flowering crepe myrtle tree, and garlands of the flowers were draped around the necks of the serpent deities). We went past the beautiful gate through which the Pooram elephants pass at the annual Pooram (a festival which sounds amazing—it’s marked by gorgeously caparisoned elephants and much traditional music and dance).
Near this gate is a massive tree, and two spaces with mythological significance tied to plants.
Hanuman, bringing back the sanjeevani herb from the Himalaya, is supposed to have stopped here briefly. And Vyasa, who wrote the Mahabharat, is said to have rested here—the spot is known as Vyasashila, a patch of grassy ground that looks ordinary but the grass of which, if nibbled, is supposed to impart to the nibbler the knowledge of Vyasa himself. I nibbled, dutifully, but nothing has changed so far. Considering I nibbled at a leaf of the tamarind tree beside Tansen’s tomb in Gwalior some years ago in the (none too firm) belief that it would give me a voice as sweet as Tansen’s—and my voice is still like a phata baans (a ‘cracked bamboo’)—I hold out little hope.
A compete circuit of the different shrines within the complex is about a kilometre. It’s a lovely walk, too, through grassy lawns, quiet and well-maintained (and very clean) temples, with beautiful trees dotting the area. One of these, Anu told me, is now only a fraction of what it was: a huge banyan tree, the canopy of which once spread all across the grounds but is now reduced to a section along one wall. Outside the temple (which stands on a low hill) is a grove of teak saplings, planted to replace a teak forest which once stood here.
After seeing Vadakumnatham, I was all ready to spend the next day quietly chatting with Anu. But no, there was more planned. Anu and her family took me off to see the Athirappilly Falls, about 60 km from Thrissur. Till a day earlier, because of the torrential rains, the road to the falls had been blocked, so we weren’t sure, even as we set off from Thrissur in a van, whether we’d be able to actually get to the falls or not.
We didn’t, not to the falls themselves. Because of the rain, the road which leads down to the falls—a dirt track, and both treacherous and slippery in such conditions—had been shut. But the falls can be seen from the main road, and I must admit I was impressed. Very impressed. In normal years, the Athirappilly Falls are in the form of four distinct streams of water; this year, the falls were so swollen that the four streams almost seemed to merge. They frothed and foamed, sending clouds of mist floating into the air above the surrounding forests. Anu and her sister informed me that this was where Baahubali was shot (though of course what appeared onscreen was suitably enhanced with CGI).
All this water, having fallen in that spectacular manner off the cliffs, goes down into the valley below and flows along as the Chalakkudy River. I was told that the otherwise fairly calm appearance of the river is deceptive; get caught in the undertow, and that will be the end of you.
So, when we wandered down to the river from the resort where we were staying for the night, I made sure to keep my distance. Muddy rivers, as it is, are not a favourite with me; and I was more interested in looking up at the palm oil trees which formed the estate around us. With ferns and other parasitic plants growing up the trunks, with the ground carpeted with rough grass and mauve-flowering touch-me-not, this area breathed green.
In fact, the entire stretch along the road was very verdant. Anu and I, twice alone and once with a cousin of Anu’s in tow, went for long walks here, admiring the trees, the flowers, the birds—even, having wandered up a narrow lane, some green peppercorns decorating a vine. We heard an elephant trumpeting loudly (and frighteningly) in the forest across the river.
Anu and I got caught in a sudden shower and had to run for a small roadside shelter where we sat and chatted while watching the rain rinse everything all over again. When the rain ceased and we started back, it was to find that the lovely elongated heart-shaped taro leaves lining the road now each sported its own necklace (or pendant, as the case may be) of raindrop pearls. Anu told me that villagers put the waterproof qualities of these leaves to good use: they hold the stem of a large leaf over their heads as makeshift umbrellas.
My idea of a quiet two days to catch up with Anu therefore took some unexpected turns and introduced me to places and sights I’d certainly not planned on seeing—but which, once seen, I’m unlikely to forget in a hurry. And, given what happened to Kerala two days after I left (Anu told me that it started pouring with rain in Thrissur on the 14th, and rained nonstop for the next 24 hours. No wishy-washy drizzle, either)—given that, I get the feeling that I have been on a trip that was nothing short of a miracle. In the aftermath of it, I felt horribly guilty, because I thought I’d been enjoying myself, having fun and being all touristy, while there were already people struggling in the flood-hit districts of Kerala. But since I hadn’t the faintest clue what was happening back then, I suppose I can forgive myself… perhaps.
And I did have a memorable time.
Thank you, Anu.