Made of exquisite temples, pristine beaches and a bustling folk tradition – Kannur is a southern delight with historic linkages to explorers from many centuries ago
We took the scenic Bangalore-Mysore-Gundlupet-Sulthan Bathery route to reach our destination, Kannur, motoring roughly 400 km, all in a day, with halts to heed our gustatory impulses.
The drive is slow as we leave Karnataka and maneuver the hilly terrain of Kerala through several hairpin bends amid rain that alternates between drizzles and downpours. It is well past twilight as we approach Kannur and the moon emerges out of the clutches of the clouds, spreading a dull light before us. The December nip in the breeze is welcoming as we drive into the awesome town which is a mystic melange of pristine beaches, historic sites, a plethora of temples, religious practices, folk art, music and festivities.
Kannur, 'Land of Krishna', derived from Kannan, another name of Krishna, and Ooru meaning place, was once called the 'garden of India' by Jawaharlal Nehru. Known as Cannanore during the British rule, it is a tiny slice of land sandwiched between the Lakshadweep Sea in the west and the Western Ghats in the east. The beach town enjoys a rich colonial heritage, vestiges of which we see in monuments that dot the city and the district.
"The great emporium of spice trade" – as Marco Polo the renowned explorer labeled it, Kannur to us is a wonderful revelation. Its black pepper from Thalassery changed the culinary landscape of seafarers engaged in trade. Trading merchants who came from as far as Rome and other European countries carried back the spice with them in large quantities, experimenting with its distinct aroma – from fruity to grassy to citrus and pine. In more recent times, even former US President Obama is believed to have relished the Malabar spice. The district is just as well-known for its timber, reed basket weaving and handloom industry. Records from a first-century Greek travelogue, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, identify Kannur as Naura from where King Solomon is said to have carted timber to build the great temple of Jerusalem.
Perhaps, in our cricket-crazy country, few of us will be aware that it was in the nondescript Keralite town of Thalassery, then known as Tellicherry, 22 km from Kannur, that the first ball was ever bowled on Indian soil! Yes, cricket was introduced in the district of Kannur in the 1800s by Sir Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) for the British soldiers who were garrisoned in the fort here. At his initiative, India's first cricket club, the Town Cricket Club was established in 1860. It is believed that Ernest Arthur Cowdrey, father of former English captain Colin Cowdrey, played for Cannanore Cricket Club, and it was on these grounds that Colin had his baptism in the sport.
We are fascinated by the endless stretches of water that is everywhere about Kannur. The azure blue bodies – Payyambalam, Meenkunnu, Adikadalayi, Baby and Thayyil – the pentad of beaches that comprise the popular Kannur Beach so captivate us that we wish to savour their beauty in complete tranquility, without the compulsion of having to capture them on our lenses. It is going to be a beach day for us! As swirls of early morning mist curl through the avenues of trees with pearls of dew dripping from their leaves, we walk towards Payyambalam. While a couple of surfers and swimmers busy themselves in its gentle waters, we are overwhelmed by intense waves of pleasure as we amble along its serene shoreline, mesmerised by the play of sun, sand and surf. As in some of Kerala's other beaches that are dotted with life-size sculptures, a huge statue of a mother and child at Payyambalam catches our attention.
The shutterbug in us compels us to retrieve our digital devices from their safe confines as we drive to Muzhappilangad, Kerala's only drive-in beach, also claimed to be Asia's longest such beach, stretching 5.5 km. A vendor at the beach who is looking out to sell his catch of mussels regales us with tales of how youngsters with bikes come here to perform wheeling and drifting stunts. The day was clear and sunny, he points out, far away, to a cluster of trees, which is Dharmadam, a private island, about 17 km from Kannur. "When the water ebbs, you can actually walk to the place," he adds. In the middle of the beach, however, we spot a few rocky protrusions atop which are a couple of people basking in the sun. But it's the marine life on the shores of the beach that casts its spell on me. Creatures of all shapes and sizes wash up and make our feet feel squishy as we walk along the vast stretch of Muzhappilangad.
As the dark of the night draws its cloak around Muzhappilangad, the tall and lanky palm trees on the fringes of the beach make a lovely silhouette dancing to a mild but chilly breeze under the ornamental sky. We pull ourselves half-heartedly from the enticing environs of Muzhappilangad.
For aquatic adventure seekers, Anjarakkandy and Tejaswini rivers, and the backwaters of Valiyamparamba offer kayaking, white-water rafting and paddling.
It's dinner time and we look to an eatery that would serve us some crispy, hot masala dosa.
Though Kannur is one of Kerala's top destinations for gastronomic indulgences, drawing particularly on fish and meat preparations, for us vegetarians, the fare on non-festive days is rather limited. For those of us from Tamil Nadu or Karnataka, dosas in dhabas or modest restaurants of Kerala certainly do not flatter the palate. Neither does their sambar tickle our gastronomic senses. In spite of the long, lusting tongues, we settle for the next best – idlis, not as fluffy as we'd like them to be.
Yet another sunny day, sees us visit St Angelo Fort aka known as Kannur Fort, an imposing stronghold against the backdrop of the Arabian Sea. The mammoth triangular laterite edifice, flanked by gargantuan bastions, was built in 1505 by Dom Francisco de Almeida, the first Portuguese Viceroy of India. We follow a group of youngsters to heave ourselves on to the rocks adjoining the fort walls, and thrill to the sound of the lashing waves as they hit them. Teeming fishing and passenger boats, bustling with activity, lie on the bay facing the fort.
History records the fort as having changed hands several times. It was captured in 1663 by the Dutch who modernised it and added the bastions to it. The British seized it in 1790 from king Ali Raja of Arakkal who bought it from the Dutch in 1772.
With its chequered history, the fort is one of Kannur's prime historical monuments. Unfortunately, it's Monday and the last day of our stay in Kannur when we visit the fort, and the famed Arakkal Kettu Museum nearby is closed on the day. The former residence of the Arakkal Ali Rajas, the only Muslim Royal family in Kerala, the museum houses a treasure chest of artefacts of their reign, many of which we learn, were obtained from countries with which the king enjoyed trade relations.
We make a conscious decision to avoid temple-hopping on our present trip.
However, for the more religiously or spiritually inclined, Muthappan Temple on the banks of the Vakapattanam River, is a must see. One may witness the traditional Muthappan Theyyam dance as a mode of worship in the temple.
Air: Calicut International Airport (CCJ) is the nearest, 115 km away. Bajpe Airport (IXE), Mangalore in Karnataka, is 128 km from Kannur. Taxis may be hired from either airport to reach Kannur.
Rail: Kannur has its own railway station and is well-connected to major Indian cities via regular trains.
Road: Buses ply regularly between Kannur and major South Indian cities.
Accommodation: Blue Lagoon, Sun Ville Beach House, Palm Shore, Mascot Beach and Arabian Beach resorts, Kairali Heritage, Aroma Heritage.
Best time to visit: During the months of winters when the city experiences mild climatic conditions.
Shopping: In addition to a variety of spices, Kannur is famed for its gold jewellery, ivory artefacts, earthenware pottery and brocade fabrics.