Of Ancient Rituals, Small Factories and Quiet Backwaters
15.02.2009 - 19.02.2009 38 °C
The world capital of Theyyam is five hours north of Thrissur, on the coast of northern Kerala (You’re probably wondering what Theyyam is - I’ll tell you about it in a minute!) We arrived in Cannanoor (or Kanoor) late in the day and immediately headed to a lovely heritage hotel in the middle of nowhere. Lonely Planet (our guide book) had failed to mention that if you stay there, you pretty much need a rickshaw to get anywhere – restaurants, the beach, temples, the internet... We were far more satisfied once we moved to a more basic lodge in the centre of the city. The furnishings were far simpler but there was also a little less grime, and a far more convenient location.
Next morning we made our way to a Theyyam ritual taking place in one of the temples on the outskirts of the city. The ritual form is thought to predate Hinduism dating back at least 2000 years. There are hundreds of different Theyyam rituals that are still widely practiced in northern Kerala for house purification, the celebration of births, deaths and much more. Usually it goes on in the evening and sometimes all through the night, but the one we “caught” was a morning event. The elaborate costume of the “possessed” dancer is reminiscent of Kathakali, but the ritual itself – or at least the small bit we saw – is vastly different. The dancer/priest/god sings and dances to drumming and offers blessings to participants. At one point, there was a small procession through a corner of town as the Theyyam dancer went from house to house, getting rid of evil spirits.
As always, there was a bit of a carnival atmosphere: cotton candy, ice cream and plastic trinkets were sold just outside the small temple. People hung out chatting, and when the dancer entered the temple area, those who so desired went up to receive blessings.
Christian and the kids got bored before I did, and walked to the nearby beach. When I left, I was lured into a home based factory producing tapioca chips. Everything was done by hand. One young man sat on the floor peeling tapioca root, the next man was on a small stool grating it. A third stood over a wood stove, expertly frying and draining the chips. In the inner room, a 4th man (more a boy) bagged the chips by the handful and a 5th boy skillfully used a candle to melt a thin line of plastic on each bag to seal it. A 6th man, the owner of the operation, was absent – he’d gone into town to sell the chips, carrying them piled up and almost overflowing on his motorbike. It was fascinating to see this family business – our first and only view of child labour in Kerala. It’s so hard to know what to think after what we’ve heard about the frustrations of the educated. This place felt very happy and harmonious. But of course I hope the children have at least learned to read and do basic math, so that they can’t get too exploited.
Another day we hired a couple of auto rickshaws to take us to a village south of town to tour a handloom factory. Kaya and I had already toured a much smaller one – but we enjoyed the clickety-clack of the looms once again, and it was interesting to see the special looms that are used to make toweling. This factory seemed to be more focused on producing things for the modern home and the overseas market than the one we’d happened upon near Kochi. At that one, all the cloth was either for traditional women’s saris or men’s lungis.
Christian, Emil and I proceeded from the factory to yet another gorgeous beach and enjoyed a warm swim. It is so amazing to be almost too hot when swimming in the ocean! The girls preferred to return to town to walk around in the bazaar area. Kanoor is pretty non-touristy and has a very pleasant feel. Not that we aren’t tourists, it’s just that the tourist hot-spots have so many aggressive sales men that it gets a little tiresome repeating, “No, I do not want to come into your shop. No, I do not want to buy that (incredibly beautiful but overpriced) trinket.”
Kerala is famous for its houseboat trips and after rejecting the many offers in Allepey, we decided to arrange one here. We traveled by train for about an hour to get to Nileshwar, and found a little piece of heaven. The backwater here is a river rather than canals, and there are only 4 houseboats on the river. Our overnight moorage was at the dock where we cast off, so it didn’t feel like as much of an adventure as it might have, but we enjoyed the serenity of the place. Best of all was floating on the water, looking at birds and watching all the boat men. Most were fishermen, raking clams off the bottom. Others ferried sand from the spit to an inland point from where it will be transported by truck to construction projects all over Kerala.
We made a few stops, one for a swim in the brackish river water. Christian and Emil dove down and picked clams for our supper off the muddy river bed. Later, we walked into a village where we fed monkeys (okay, we know it’s a bad idea, but what do you do when the whole village is excited you’re there to feed the monkeys??) We wished we could have communicated that one day the monkeys are likely take over the place and become terrible pests, but there was no point; no one that we saw spoke English well enough. We stopped to visit another coir factory – and were interested to find this one was completely different than the one in Allepey where mats were hand-woven. This place had a series of chopping/sieving machines to process the coconut fiber and make rope. The waste is carefully gathered – not only does it look like peat moss; it acts like it, making a wonderful garden compost/mulch. Our final stop was to walk across the small island separating the river from the ocean to watch the sun sink into the Arabian Sea. A perfect end to a lovely day!
After breakfast next morning and a short circle trip on the river our time on the boat was over. We were reluctant to leave the area! We stored our bags in the tourist office and off we went to explore the village across the river on foot. Our perambulations lead us past many friendly people, a boat repair workshop and another coir processing “plant” (consisting of two men and a few hand tools.) As always there was a beautiful temple, and on the road all sorts of Communist party signs. Have I mentioned Kerala was the first place to democratically elect a communist government sometime in the 70’s (I think)? It is in power today and apparently not so much for “the people” as it used to be, but obviously still popular here and in many other parts of the state.
We whiled away the afternoon with a trip to the gorgeously situated Bekel Fort. Not much is left there except the wall… but the dramatic views of the ocean and craggy coastline more than made up for that. Even Christian was content after a sea eagle kindly made an appearance.
Finally, at 8:30 pm, our train pulled into the station and we waved a fond farewell to Kerala. I felt a little sad… we have absolutely relished spending time in South India! And, we’d heard so many stories about North India being a far harsher place, especially in terms of the people…we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Since I’ve taken so long to post this blog, you’ll be able to hear our experience very soon!!