Biking Kerala: Riding Kasaragod to Kottayam
// May 30th, 2011 // Culture and Ecology
On 24 May 2011 I embarked on a long 450km ride from Kasaragod to Kottayam on my five year old Kawasaki Avenger. It took two days to reach Kottayam as I stopped and visited plenty of places and people in between. Because of the contemporary and historical relevance of the places, people and routes I think I must record and write about it in text at least as there was no camera with me on this long and interesting land cruise from extreme north Malabar to south Travancore.
I was shifting my bike that has successfully completed its fifth year of sensational service to Kottayam and the railway parcel people at Kasaragod expressed some ambiguity regarding the loading and unloading of the bike and its possible delayed arrival at destination, so I thought of riding it the whole way down to south on my own. It is one of the longest bike tours that I have ever undertaken at a stretch connecting Tulunadu and Travancore.
I remember my early long rides above 500km on my dearest Kawasaki to Kanyakumari from Kottayam through Punalur-Tenmala-Kutalam-Tirunelveli route and return through Trivandrum-Kollam( in 2008); Kodaikanal from Kalady through Munnar-Bodimett-Theni and return through Pollachy-Palakad-Thrissur (2007); To Valparai from Kalady through Athirapally-Malakaparai route and return through Pollachy-Palakad-Thrissur (2008) and Rameswaram and Dhanushkoti from Rajakumari through Bodimett-Theni-Madurai-Ramnad(2009).
I started at 8.30am from Kasaragod from Thalangara the site of the ancient 8th century Malik Dinar Pally or Mosque and passing through NH17 connecting Kanjangad, Payyannur, Kannur and Thalasery reached the seashore near Thalasery bay around 12.30pm. Took lunch from a sea side restaurant, rested a while and visited the fort and churches belonging to the early 17th century European colonialists, mainly Dutch, Portuguese and British.
Then through the relics of French settlements at Mahi, Vadakara and Koilandy reached Kozhikode and enjoyed tea near Ramanatukara well past the traffic of the city towards south east. Again rode south on the NH17 and reached Kottakal and Valanchery and ended the day’s ride at Kutipuram at around 7pm. The beautiful KTDC Aram motel on the highway above the western arm of Kutipuram brdige on river Bharathapuzha is a cool place to stay overnight.
Rooms (only two ) and food are good and homely. They also gave me fresh bed cloths, bath towel and soaps all for Rs 450. The location and views are excellent especially at night and in the morning. The windows open to the river-scape beneath. Only the water level is low in the river in this advanced drought season. Its bare sandy beds are exposed in summer.
On the morning of 26 May 2011, the next day I restarted the journey at 7am again riding NH 17 through Ponnani. Near Chamravattam I could witness the new road barrage that is being constructed across the river that is going to cut the distance by more than 40km between Kochi and Kozhikode. I also enjoyed the sight of ancient temples and laterite cap-stones on the banks of Perar or Nila a river basin that housed early stone age civilizations in Kerala. This river valley and Palakad pass linked the Chera west coast with the Chola and Pandya empires in the east in the ancient Tamil country.
At Ponnani I visited ancient mosques Thotumkal Pally, Pally Kadavu and Jumath Pally, ancient Muslim Pallys near the mouth of the river on the southern bank of the estuary. This ancient port town was also the head quarters of the legendary Kunjali Marakars the supreme commanders of all naval forces in Malabar coast for many centuries. Unfortunately the Purathoor estuary and its mudflats and sand banks amidst the vast placid waters of the Ponnani estuary are gone in the dredging construction for the new harbor and fish landing.
The migratory birds may not come here next season. I remember visiting the location earlier and even enumerating the birds here as part of Asian Waterfowl Count with birding friends Dr Dileep K G, Manoj, Jijo, Vishnu, Sandeep, Jinu and others plenty of times in late winter in 2007 and 2009. But all of that is gone. My friend artist Anirudharaman who is currently teaching art in a Kutipuram Govt School has informed me that plenty of gulls flocked so inland as far as Kutipuram this season because of the habitat damage caused by the dredging and construction near the river mouth at Ponnani.
After visiting the ancient Pallys so cherished by foreign travelers, Tipu Sultan and a range of Sufi sages from the north west I visited Biyam Kayal near Ponnani near Ezhavathuruthy and enjoyed breakfast there on the banks of this unique wetland and backwater at around 9am and resumed my southward journey through the the coastal highway NH 17.
Passing Chetuwa, Chavakad, Vadanapally and Kaipamangalam I reached Mathilakam the ancient Trikanamathilakam or Kunavailkottam north of Kodungallur where Ilango Adikal the younger brother of Cheran Chengutuvan the Chera emperor of Kerala during the early Sangham age wrote his ancient classical Tamil epic Silapatikaram. I missed my camera all the while.
The Tirukunavayil Kottam or Mathilakam was an ancient Jain and Buddhist center and the Siva temple is a relic of the ancient Sramana heritage converted after the 10th century by Brahmanism and its most virile and violent Sudra henchmen.
The late P K Gopalakrishnan the radical local historian and writer who has extensively written about the place and its Sramana antiquity was from Panangad just south of Mathilakam. I felt like reading PKG once again as I crossed these ancient regions on my Kawasaki motorcycle that enjoys a love-hate relationship with many friends for its Japanese Buddhist design and looks.
Passing Panangad I reached Kodungallur shrine and rested a while underneath the huge Banyans named after several households from Malabar and Travancore. I remembered the struggles by Sahodaran Ayyappan to ban the animal sacrifice at Kodungallur Bharani during the early 20th century.
In the temple premise I tried to locate the exact Banyan beneath which there was an attempt on Sahodaran’s life while speaking against bloody and violent cults; so sensitively narrated by Adv K A Subramanyam and Prof M K Sanu in their respective biographies. And then proceeded to Cheraman mosque the earliest mosque outside West Asia and the first one in India founded by Malik Bin Dinar in 629 AD.
It is also important to remember that an ordinary Muslim tradesman saved the life of Sahodaran as he was beaten up and chased by upper caste henchmen to end his life near this ancient Pally that is just a few hundred meters from the temple.
It is also interesting to note that Kodungallur Kunjikuttan Thampuran has even gone to the extend of describing this Pally as an ancient Buddhist Pally in the early centuries of the Christian era. According to biographers Sahodaran was given asylum inside his shop by the Muslim tradesman and he defiantly guarded and chased away the henchmen and hooligans of Brahmanism with an unleashed dagger drawn from his belt.
The officials allowed me to enter into the old 7th century central chamber and I saw the ancient wood carvings, the pulpit and hanging bronze lamp with ancient Vatezhuthu (old Malayam-Tamil script) inscriptions used in the olden days. The museum of the Pally is also valuable in many ways.
Then by crossing the Kottapuram Kayal reached Muthakunnam, Maliyankara and Pattanam – all resonant with the pasts of Kerala and its historical linkages with the world and radical reformers who shaped our society and cultures. Crossing the Vadakekara bridge I reached North Paravur and straight away visited the Jew street and ancient synagogue that is being renovated now by Kerala Tourism Department.
Site engineer Radhakrishnan from Iritty showed me around this marvelous monument in laterite and wood. The oldest and biggest synagogue in Kerala would be welcoming the cultural enthusiasts and researchers in a few months. Only a few Jew Pallys are left in Kerala that include the ones at Paravur, Chennamangalam, Mala and Mattanchery.
Then I visited my friend Kannan of Prakruti Graphics, Paravur and after taking lunch resumed my journey to Idapally through Cheriyapally and Varapuzha. In between I also visited Varapuzha Pally breifly but could not get inside the ancient structure. After resting a few hours in a book shop inside the Oberon mall, Idapally I resumed my journey to Kottayam. Though plenty of books on Gandhi and Chanakya are abundant in this hi-fi bookshop I was wooed by some books on birds and a German author who wrote about India and Asia.
Accidentally I read Jesus Lived in India by Holger Kersten and was deeply engaged with the narrative on the enlightened Jesus who is also called a Boddhisatva in Gandhara Buddhism and in Kashmiri and Kabuli Sufi tradition. I resumed my ride to Kottayam through Vytila, Thripunithura, Vaikom and Thalayolaparambu, the homeland of Basheer and reached home in Gandhinagar at 7.30pm.
Fortunately the summer showers in Ernakulam and Kottayam districts that keep the regions cooler and greener than the other parts of Kerala this summer spared me and my long ride on the Kawasaki that still lures the children and the young in mind with its Japanese Buddhist design elements, fun looks and flowing curves and cool contours.
After reaching home I found out that my bike’s fifth birthday is over; it was on 12th May 2011. I think even machines have spirit and soul and they could enlighten us humans in various respects. The sights and sounds of sea coasts, rivers, high mountains, wetlands, people and the ancient Pallys at Thalangara, Ponnani, Kodungallur and the one in Thazhathangady are unforgettable and exciting in many ways.