It was a morning steeped in melancholy and muted shades. I was in the village of Thrithala in the Palakkad district of central Kerala, standing ankle deep in the Nila river. Its shallow waters and the dull dawn colours belied the ways I had seen it touch the lives of the people I met. For two weeks, I had traced the river’s course from source to sea. That morning, with the Nila as my muse, my journey spanning three districts—Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram—along its banks had come to an end.
Nila is a term of endearment, I was told by Gopinath Parayil, who grew up by the river, and is the founder of The Blue Yonder, a responsible travel company that conducts tours in the region. Its original name is Bharathapuzha; Nila refers more to the emotion it elicits and the culture it fosters. Originating in Tamil Nadu’s Annamalai Hills, it meanders over 209 kilometres through Kerala before draining into the Arabian Sea at the city of Ponnani, 25 kilometres southwest of Thrithala. Periyar may be Kerala’s longest river but it can’t hold a candle to the beloved Bharathapuzha. Poets have sung paeans to it; writers have immortalised it in their words. The river lives in the nostalgia of childhood dreams and patronage of devoted artistes.
I wasn’t aware of Nila’s existence when I first heard of a monsoon trail along its banks two years ago. Led by two ‘Nila connoisseurs’ hailing from the two ends of the river—Ajay Menon from Vellinezhi and Parayil from Ponnani—a dozen of us from different corners of the country set out to trace the Nila’s course in July 2016. Basing ourselves at Thenkurissi village at the outskirts of Palakkad for the first few days, we drove to surrounding villages to see Nila’s physical and metaphorical manifestation.
Driving along paddy fields of Palakkad one evening, I arrived at the ancient, unpretentious Thiruvalathur Randu Moorthy Temple, one of the 60-odd temples situated on Nila’s banks in the village of Thiruvalathur. With wooden frames and tiled roofs, the temple architecture of Kerala is quite unusual compared to the stone-based Dravidian style found across other southern states. But this temple’s circular sreekovil (sanctum sanctorum) was rarer; the antiquity was visible in the fine yet crumbling woodwork on the tiled roof. I watched as locals spilled in that evening, dressed in their finest to light up thousands of stone lamps on the outer wall as part of the temple ceremony. The river and I watched in awe from the sidelines.
The first artiste I met along the Nila was a 14-year-old dancer, Supta Attupuram, in the makeshift green room of Mani Madhava Chakyar Gurukulam in the village of Killikkurussimangalam in Palakkad. Satish, the make-up artist, carefully applied kohl around her eyes while her teacher Vasanthi arranged her headgear. Supta was preparing for her solo performance in the 1,500-year-old dance form, Nangiarkoothu.
Exclusively performed by women, the dance form recounts epics through elaborate facial expressions and hand gestures, accompanied by two percussionists. The solo act usually features stories of Lord Krishna. I couldn’t take my eyes off Supta as she performed the Govardhan hill episode from Srikrishna Charitham. Young boys played the mizhavu (drums) and girls clanged the taalam (cymbal). There was much reason to rejoice that one of Kerala’s oldest art forms, which was kept within rigid boundaries of temple grounds, ancestral families and caste till as late as 1955, found takers a thousand years on.
My next stop lay 25 kilometres northeast, in the heritage village of Vellinezhi on the banks of Kunthipuzha, a tributary of the Nila. I learnt that at least 40 art and craft forms, including training for Kathakali and Kutiyattam, statue making, Kathakali outfit design, and Adakkaputhur metal mirror-making, thrive here. Olappamanna Mana, an ancient feudal complex sprawled over 20 green acres, is at the centre of this cultural affluence. The family patronised the arts for decades, and it was here that the Kalluvazhi Chitta, the dominant style of Kathakali practised today, was born.
Large courtyards, and massive rose-and-teakwood columns grace the original 300-year-old house, one of the few remaining traditional homes in Kerala. The present family lives in a newer colonial-inspired mansion in the complex. A three-storied granary has been converted to a heritage homestay, where I stayed. These days, the main building stays locked up and serves as a venue for family rituals and cultural performances. One evening, we joined about 100 locals to enjoy Kathakali in the complex. The applause of young and old patrons reverberated through the empty halls as the performance ended with Bhima ripping the innards of Dussasana. It was heartening, how along the banks of Nila art wasn’t a commodity for purveyors to exploit. Instead, artistes were afforded the dignity they deserve.
Sixty-eight-year-old Kothavil Ramanakutty, a cheerful resident of Vellinezhi, sat surrounded by boxes of wooden accessories and carving tools. He is the last living artist who creates the Kathakali koppu—the intricate wooden headgear and accessories for Kathakali and other dance dramas, which are light as feather but durable for decades.
When I met him in his house-cum-workshop one morning, Ramanakutty was one month away from delivering one of his the largest orders placed recently—costume sets for 32 characters commissioned by Kalamandalam, Kerala’s premier centre for performing arts. The task took him one-and-a-half years. Seated between boxes full of half-finished accessories and tools, Ramankutty chatted about what it is like to nurture a lost art. He candidly told me that it was perhaps the last time he’d see a commission of that scale. Wooden replicas of weapons hung behind him on the wall, along with a portrait of his father who pioneered the design and configuration of Kathakali koppu. Considering he is the only craftsman proficient at making a full set, Ramankutty believes it is his moral duty to continue the vocation even though it is not financially viable. I was awestruck by his dedication to the cause, and his evident joy in his creations, unperturbed by the lack of fame, patronage or apprentices.
Tracing the Nila threw up similar stories of grit and beauty. In Killimangalam in Thrissur, for instance, I met 54-year-old Prabhavathi amma who single-handedly revived the art of weaving Killimangalam mats and is now its sole producer. Traditionally made by the Kuruva community, these mats made from Kora grass growing along Nila’s banks have striking geometric patterns and are dyed in natural colours. Prabhavathi Amma isn’t a Kuruva, but learnt the art as an 18-year-old bride.
In Paruthipully in Palakkad, K.C. Ramakrishnan belongs to the last few families of the Aandiandaram community which still practices Paava Kathakali, the fusion of Kathakali and Andhra’s glove puppetry. In Koonathara, also in Palakkad, Ramachandra Pulavar spearheads the only troupe in Kerala that practices and performs the ninth-century art of shadow puppetry, Tholpavakoothu, across the state and overseas. Everywhere I looked, old cultures were getting new lives.
But not the river. Once a perennial behemoth, today’s Nila is a child of the monsoons, stifled by rampant sand mining and damming. One evening, as I stood on its banks in Cheruthuruthy in Thrissur district, I didn’t find that graceful, unimpeded flow I expect from rivers. It was full of bushes that came after the sand layer was lost to disproportionate mining over the last few decades, hindering Nila’s already meagre flow.
Ardent old-time artistes aside, the last leg of the journey took me to changemakers grooming a new crop of Nila connoisseurs.
One evening, the verdant paddy fields of Arangottukara, a town in Thrissur, rang with a most curious soundtrack. A flute, a rain stick, percussion sets and a xylophone—all made of bamboo—belted out A.R. Rahman’s “Jiya Jale” and Celine Dion hits with equal gusto.
The Vayali Folk Group is an ensemble of energetic youth from the Valluvanad (southern Malabar) region, keen to find new ways to preserve their Nila-inspired folklore. Their Bamboo Orchestra project aspires to revive traditional folk music through fusion with a unique all-bamboo instrument setup. Artists who are painters or carpenters by day don matching cream-coloured shirts by evening, and performpop music for tourists like us, and local and folk music for a more discerning audience. They have 500 shows to their credit.
Later that evening the group donned bright red costumes and golden accessories to perform Chavittukali, Kudachozhi and other ritualistic folk dances performed during the post-harvest season in the village. It was an electric performance, where they swirled and leaped around flaring wooden torches to the reverberating score of drum beats, even as rain lashed down on us. The downpour mingled with heightened emotions. Had it not been for the persistence of the Vayali Folk Group, a vibrant art form would have faded into oblivion.
My last stop on this winding journey lay 27 kilometres west of Arangottukara, at a temple in Alamcode. Girls and boys as young as four, trained at the Sopanam School of Music, were part of an orchestra that comprised percussion and wind instruments such as the timila (an hourglass-shaped drum), maddalam (a heavy drum made from jackfruit tree wood) and the kombu, a long C-shaped horn made of brass or copper). Slowly, a thunderous musical performance filled us inside and out, and an ever-rising tempo echoed through the temple.
Panchavadyam, a prominent temple art form, is taught for free in the school run by Santhosh Alankode. He spoke with me about his dream to have a university for percussion art in Kerala, and a museum that archives the region’s musical instruments. Santhosh’s goal is to teach Panchavadyam to anyone who’s interested, defying barriers of caste, religion, and gender. I could see it reflected in the way the boys and girls outshone him and his troupe’s Panchavadyam performance—over 800 students study in his school.
On my last evening on the trail, sailing along the estuary in an ex-sand smuggler’s boat, I saw Nila quietly (and a tad unceremoniously) meet its end at the Arabian Sea near Ponnani. Throughout the journey, glimpses of the river were hard to come by even though the villages I was visiting were right on its banks. But the river was undeniably alive in the collective consciousness of those who lived by its banks. It was clear that it takes a village to keep a culture alive; turns out it also takes a village to keep the river alive.
Go here to view a photoessay on the dance, music, and theatre that thrives on the Nila’s banks.
The city of Palakkad is the most common point of entry into the Malabar region, and Coimbatore (52 km/1.5 hr) is the nearest railhead and airport. Kozhikode has the closest airport to exit from after the trail ends at Ponnani on the west coast (67 km/2 hr).
Unlike much of Kerala, the region around the Nila river—between Palakkad and Ponnani—is not too developed when it comes to tourist infrastructure. The trail can be done independently, but the best way is to sign up with a local operator. The writer travelled with The Blue Yonder, a company that emphasises on responsible travel and community development (theblueyonder.com; packages between Rs40,000-1,40,000).
Local Kerala cuisine is all that’s mostly available. Most places serve simple, delicious vegetarian meals. For non-vegetarians the best options are the no-frills food joints by the roadside that rustle up fish and beef dishes.
If you attempt the Nila trail indepen-dently, stay at atmospheric traditional Kerala homes, many of which are centuries old:
Palakkad With impressive wooden columns and intricately carved doors, Kandath Tharavad is a 200-year-old ancestral home of the Kandath family, set amidst the lush paddy fields of Thenkurissi, 15 kilometers out of Palakkad (9349904124; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Vellinezhi Olappamanna Mana, a 300-year-old home, is a classic example of the glorious Kerala mansions of the past (www.olappamannamana.com; doubles from Rs8,495)
If you aren’t travelling with an operator, visit the artists with prior appointment to avoid disrupting their schedules. In situations where a direct purchase of crafts or services isn’t possible, consider compensating the artists financially for the time they spend with you. Doing so ensures that tourists aren’t considered a nuisance in the long run and the artists find an alternate source of income that helps sustain their passion.
Killimangalam mats and Adakkaputhur Kannadi (metal mirror) are unique crafts found only in this region. To leave something back, plant a tree in your name in the Traveller’s Forest in the village of Thirunavaya.
Neelima Vallangi is an itinerant freelance travel writer and photographer who enjoys purposefully getting lost in the mountains and going to faraway corners where Google Maps fail. She tweets as @i_wanderingsoul.