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Palakkad: Stunning Gateway to Kerala

While Palakkad enjoys a salubrious climate and forest cover, the city of Palakkad, on the lower edges of the Sahyadri ranges of the Western Ghats, is veritably a slice of God’s own land, writes Chitra Ramaswamy.

Often called the Gateway to Kerala, the quiet town of Palakkad is the capital of Palakkad District — Kerala's rice bowl and the corridor between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. A natural depression in the Western Ghats — the famous Palghat Gap — makes Palakkad perennially windy. Like a town that would rather be a village, it makes way for chariots during festivals and beams gloriously when the sunlight falls on its Palmyras and golden paddy fields.

Our 400 km-drive from Bengaluru to Palakkad, first on NH7 to Salem, and then from Salem to our destination, on NH 47 via Coimbatore, is picturesque. We halt at several places on the stretch between Coimbatore and Palakkad and also make a few digressions, to visit spots we've chalked out on our itinerary. We make brief halts at Monkey Falls, and Aliyar Dam, at an elevation of 918 feet on the Anamalai range of mountains, with its park, garden, aquarium and boating. The dreamy land of evergreen tropical forests, dams, wild life sanctuaries, rare flora and fauna, swaying coconut palmyra trees, historical monuments, places of worship and traditional Ayurvedic treatment centres – Palakkad, nursed by crisscrossing rivers and contoured by hills, bowled us over with its rustic charm. While Palakkad enjoys a salubrious climate and forest cover, the city of Palakkad, on the lower edges of the Sahyadri ranges of the Western Ghats, is veritably a slice of God's own land.

Palakkad, or Palakkattussery, derived its name from "Pala" "Kadu", which means barren jungle! The name is probably a corruption of Palighat, in the Jain language, from the 'pala' trees that were once abundant in the region. Relics confirm Palakkad existed from the Paleolithic Age and, as a part of the Malabar region, was once the stronghold of the Pallavas of Kanchi. While a lot of wars were fought over the region, the British finally wrested it from Tipu Sultan during the Third Anglo Mysore War of 1792 and made it a part of the Madras Presidency. However, Palakkad became part of Kerala with the formation of the State in 1956. No wonder then, that the quaint town which offers the best of Kerala, is peppered with Tamil culture, due to generations of intermingling between Malayalees and Tamils. Extensive paddy fields sheath the district, earning Palakkad the sobriquet Granary or Rice Bowl of Kerala, and its crisp, and the herb-scented air wafts its therapeutic effect, with fields of aromatic spices stretching miles on end. The mellow remains of Palakkad Fort made famous by Tipu Sultan, and hence often referred to as Tipu's Fort, greets us as we enter the town. A moat and bridge lead us to the entrance of the red-grey stronghold made of brick and granite. We walk past an idol of Hanuman that stands guard at the entrance and discover serene surrounds. The twitter of birds perched high in the canopy of the trees, and the laughter of children that ring like concert bells, now replaces the blood, gore and tumultuous war cries that were once its daily life.

The fort which was originally built to facilitate communication between the two sides of the Western Ghats was restructured by Haider Ali in 1766. It witnessed several skirmishes and battles, especially between Haider Ali and the Zamorin, and later between Haider's son Tipu and the British. The symbolic Kota Maidanam or the Fort Ground, which lies sandwiched between the Town Hall and the fort, once served as the stables for Tipu's elephants and horses. It now doubles up as a sports arena and a stage for public gatherings.

Kalpathy, one of the 21 Agraharams of Palakkad District on the banks of the Kalpathy river, famous for its annual Ratholsavam (Temple car festival) and annual music festival, is one of the oldest settlements of Tamil Brahmins in Kerala, and dates back to the 15th century. It is an interesting spot in the city, with its labyrinthine alleys, flanked with narrow houses bearing tiled roofs. Of course, few of these houses have survived the ravages of time with most giving way to contemporary glass-concrete buildings.

The several old temples that dot Palakkad are magnificent, in spite of their simple architectural style. Well preserved, and boasting stunning wall murals depicting Hindu mythology, with its pantheon of deities, these places of worship reverberate with spiritual energy. Unfortunately, photography is strictly prohibited here as in the rest of Kerala's temples. Jainmedu, the 15th century Jain temple dedicated to Chandraprabha, a Tirthankara, is situated on the banks of the Kalpathy River, and one of the few places in Kerala where the vestiges of Jainism still survive. Built by a family of diamond merchants from Karnataka, the temple, with its plain granite walls and a sanctum bereft of adornments, displays majesty in simplicity. The altar contains idols of the Tirthankaras and Yakshinis associated with the Jain faith. It is believed that the much celebrated Kumaran Ashan, one of the triumvirate poets of Kerala, philosopher and social reformer scripted his epoch-making poem Veenapoovu, meaning "Fallen Flower" in one of the houses near the temple. The hillside village of Thiruvilvamala on the banks of the Bharathappuzha River is home to the famed Vilwadrinatha Temple. The temple, enjoys a unique status, being one of the rare temples dedicated to Lord Rama in Kerala, as Krishna, Ayyappa and Bhagavathy Amman appear to have more shrines in their honour in the State.

As we proceed to the Malampuzha Dam, north of the Kalpathy River, en route, we enjoy scenic vistas of the Palghat Gap from the slopes of Malampuzha to the hills of Nelliampathy. Palakkad is blessed with many rivers, all tributaries of Bharatapuzha, Kerala's longest river, which originates from the Palakkad hills, as do seven other rivers. Of the number of dams in Palakkad district, the largest, Malampuzha dam, is 12 km from Palakkad town. The landscaped Malampuzha Gardens adjoining the dam sprawls across 28.5 acres, bearing resemblance to Delhi's Mughul Gardens, is a riot of colours. The main attractions are the suspension bridge, the cable car ride and the fantasy park. Floral beds, sparkling pools offering boating facilities, a musical fountain, two hanging bridges running across the Malampuzha canal, an aquarium built to resemble a fish, a snake park, rock garden and a ropeway ride across the lush garden, allow us to spend substantial time here, savouring nature's bounty and man-made beauties. The Yakshi statue by Kaniya Kunhiraman, Kerala's acclaimed sculptor, is also reputed even though the nudity of the structure is not approved by the conservative society of Kerala. Walking along well laid out pathways in the garden, we come across several tourists gushing over the Yakshi, a mythical creature who is the guardian of the hidden treasures of the earth but we find the artwork rather incongruous in the park. Kerala's own Vrindavan, Malampuzha is one of Palakkad's largest lung spaces, and exudes charm that perfectly harmonises the magnificence of descending mountains with the tranquility of gently meandering rivers. The blue mountain peaks rise majestically in the background of the dam, cloaked by patches of white mist and grey fluffy clouds, glistening with raindrops and streaked in places with slivers of waterfalls. The nest day we drive through the dense Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, revered as Nature's own abode. Tangled tree roots that seem to stretch endlessly, a panoramic landscape, rolling hills, virgin forests, cascading waterfalls, surging streams, scintillating array of flora and creatures of the wild, greet us at Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, a fertile and rich biodiversity hotspot, which is part of the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve. The views of the Parambikulam and Thunaccadavu dams are breathtaking and the reservoirs add magnetic charm to the sanctuary environs. It is evident that the Kannimara Tree is a major crowd puller at Parambikulam. The local tribals believe the tree oozed blood when an axe was thrown at it.

Since then the tree, Kanni, meaning 'virgin', mara meaning 'tree' in the Tamil and Malayalam languages, has been held in veneration and worshipped as a holy virgin by the natives. It is widely acclaimed that the tree is the largest living teak tree in the world with a girth of 6.57m, standing tall at a height of 48.5m.
We wind up our Palakkad trip with a mind-blowing experience, trekking to the Dhoni Waterfalls, 15 km away from the town.
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