Explore the rich culture and heritage of Kerala
What evolved as a temple art form in the 17th century Kerala, Kathakali went on to become a classical dance-story-drama performance like no other. A distinguished art form with a loyal set of patrons and stalwarts who remain undisputed in their knowledge, Kathakali is a legacy that has kept up with the changing times. Largely based on Indian epics, it retells stories from the days of yore. The style used in this art form is detailed yet subtle; everything, from the swift movement of the eyes, quivering fingers and expressive hands talk of an emotion. The dramatic narratives are further embellished with the grand costumes of the performers complete with oversized jackets, headgears and intricately painted faces. It is a performance that is as much for the eyes as for the senses. There are several centres where you can enjoy this art formally at Kerala Kalamandalam in Thrissur, Margi theatre in Thiruvananthapuram, Folklore Museum and Kerala Kathakali centre in Kochi are a few of them.
They say you learn Kalari (payattu) not to fight, but to primarily defend. One of the oldest martial art forms in the country, Kalaripayattu was developed in modern Kerala. It is renowned for its scientific methods of combat where the agility of the body meets the steadiness of the mind. Weapons such as swords, daggers, spears, maces, bows and arrows are used like an extension of the body. Chattom (jumping), ottam (running) and marichil (somersault) are mastered with unparalleled alacrity. An oil massage to make the limbs supple precedes the act. Kalaripayattu also includes indigenous medicinal practices that aid fighting techniques. There are many places you can catch a performance. Punarjani Traditional Village in Munnar holds performances in a circular theatre for a 360-degree view from the gallery. C.V.N. Kalari offers regular training, short-term classes for foreign visitors and treatments for orthopaedic, neurological and muscular diseases. The Kerala Kathakali centre in Kochi, Mudra Cultural Centre, Thekkady also host regular performances.
3. Boat Races
Around the Onam season, Kerala gets ready for the umpteen Chundanvallam (snake boat) races is a grand tradition kept alive on its sprawling backwaters. Chundanvalloms were first commissioned by the Kings for the purpose of combat on waters. The method of crafting this water vehicle is around 650 years old. Today, they are celebrated as a sporting event attended by thousands of people. The Nehru Trophy boat race is the most popular one in the state. It takes place on the second Saturday in August on Punnamada Lake in Alappuzha. The Champakkulam boat race and the Aranmula boat race on Pampa River are some of the oldest in the state. They exhibit much grandeur and have their trysts with history as well. Chundanvallams are 100-120 feet long and have strong oarsmen wielding paddled war canoes. It is an experience like no other, hundreds of oarsmen passionately paddling, boats splitting the waters apart while the rumble of local boat songs reaches a crescendo.
A vibrant echo of a ritual worship that is more than eight centuries old, Theyyam is a magnificent art form that originated in North Kerala. With more than 400 forms of it, the performances are varied, but themed on the lines of tribal animism that includes elements of Hinduism. A dramatic rendition of tales calls for an enchanting visual of the same. Theyyam has elaborate attiresâ€”a flood of colour with definitive reds and oranges, props and ornate face painting. Fire is an integral part of the narrative; embers rise up in the air with priests fanning the palm frond torches. An evocative call out to God, the crowds that throng the shrines awaiting the performance refer to the performer as God. And when the God arrives, Theyyam begins. A Theyyam performance is a one-of-a-kind experience when in northern parts of Kerala. One can easily see the act in many venues during the months of October to May.
Kerala has a strong bond with native folk art and classical performances that originated from the region, be it dance, drama or music. It is renowned for its grand displays of percussion music during temple festivals. Panchari Melam is a similar orchestration with an ensemble of instruments. Temple festivals in Kerala are massive in proportion; their vigour is reflected in the reverberating music that accompanies the festivities. The Panchari Melam lasts for four hours. The instruments include the chenda, kombu, kuzhal and cymbals. A five-stage performance where the rhythm steadily rises to a crescendo, the final phase is considered to be the best part of the show. One can witness this sublime performance in its classical form during temple festivals in Thrissur district. Exceptional Panchari Melams in the state are held at Trupunithura poornathrayeesas vrishchikolsavam, at Arattupuzha pooram and at Koodalmanikyam temple, to name a few.
Mohiniyattam, a classical dance form of Kerala, connotes the dance of the enchantress. The name has its root in the Hindu mythology where Lord Vishnu takes the form of a seductress to help the good prevail over evil in a battle between Devas and Asuras. The dance celebrates this story with its captivating moves. Its history can be traced as far back as the 9th century to the devdasis or temple dancers. The dance follows the lasya style’s delicate, feminine movements with expressions of desire. Performed solo by women after years of training, it has its roots in Natya Shastra. The music, though in Carnatic-style, is a recitation in Manipravalam, the hybrid language of Malayalam and Sanskrit. Dressed in an ivory-gold costume with simple jewellery, the performance calls attention to the story and the slow, rhythmic movements. It includes instruments such as the mridangam, idakka, flute, veena, and cymbals.
7. Muziris Excavation site
The Muziris or Muchiri is a fabled town much talked about in ancient Greek, Roman and Tamil literature. Around 3000 years ago, it was the most important trading port in India and on Silk Road, a network of trade routes that connected the east with the west from 2nd BC to 18th century. It is said that western traders came to this port with gold and departed with pepper and precious stones. Today, although the exact site still remains an enigma, archaeologists and historians speculate that the answer lies in a small township in Kodungallur called Pattanam in Thrissur district. Around the turn of 21st century, a large number of glass and stone beads and pottery remnants among other things were excavated from this region. The Muziris Heritage Project has been initiated to unfold the secrets and grandeur of the ancient port city. It covers a part of the region that falls between north Paravur and Kodungallur. It includes sites like the synagogues in Mattancherry and Chennamangalam, the Paliam naalukettu among others.
At the heart of Mattancherry, the old port town renowned for its spice souk, is the Mattancherry palace, also known as the Dutch palace. A market right in front of the palace is perhaps the faint echo of a glorious bygone era where trade and culture flourished. The palace is around 12 km from Kochi by road. Although it was built by the Portuguese in 1545, as a gift to the then Maharaja of Kochi, it came to be known as the Dutch Palace, as the Dutch restored it once they took over Mattancherry. One can witness Kerala’s love for mural art in its full glory in the palace. Episodes from Indian epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana adorn an area of 300 sq km in natural colours. A line-up of objects used by the royalty cracks open a window to history; Swords, portraits, coins, and even developmental plans made for the city are on display.
9.Shakthan Thampuran Palace
Rama Varma Thampuran (Shakthan Thampuran), hailed as the greatest ruler of Cochin, renovated the palace in 1795 fusing together Kerala and Dutch architecture. There are very few such monuments left in the state that dust up colonial memories. It’s a two-storeyed structure with spacious rooms, high roof and floors paved with smooth Italian marble that talks of yesteryear grandeur. The unique interior design of the palace makes it pleasant to stay whatever the weather outside. Situated at the heart of Thrissur, the palace and its surroundings interest history buffs. The museum housed by the palace has the bronze gallery and epigraphy gallery. There is an ancient “Sarpakavu” or serpent worshipping grove outside; serpents, considered Gods, are worshipped in many communities in Kerala. A heritage garden and archaeological garden add to the must-see places on palace grounds. The palace is also the final resting place of the great King whose reign is classified as the Golden Era of Cochin dynasty.
10.Fort Kochi Island
Fort Kochi is a vibrant seaside town where a colonial past comes alive. The landscape of international art and local trade is in cahoots with the budding tourism. You can take the road or a boat to get from Kochi city to Fort Kochi. This old town has a Portuguese-Dutch-British history weaved into its native one. The Cheenavala, a hallmark of Kochi, are huge fishing nets that were installed in the bustling port by the Chinese in the 14th century. St Francis church, built in 1905 by the Portuguese; the Mattancherry palace, in the adjacent island of Mattancherry, is a walk through the corridors of history. It is also a time to caf-hop for local as well as continental delicacies. Keep the Kochi Muziris Biennale marked on your tour calendar; it’s an art spectacle that takes place every other year on the Island. A melting pot of cultures, the architecture and stories of this town are definitely worth your time.
The Mattancherry Island, close to Fort Kochi, is yet another reminder of an era steeped in an eclectic mix of cultures. The ‘Paradesi’ synagogue, as it is known locally, remains the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth. The roots of many members of the dwindling Jewish community here can be traced back to Europe, the Middle Eastern countries and Kodungallurin Kerala. The synagogue isn’t palatial, but it’s a charming, colonial structure that has seen itself through difficult times. Antiques, imported 19th century chandeliers, hand-painted tiles, gifts from Kings of Cochin and Travancore, Oriental rug gifted by the last King of Ethiopia among other artifacts light up this. It has a unique architecture with natural light seeping in through the large windows. The Synagogue is open every day except on Fridays, Saturdays and Jewish holidays.
12.Paliam Palace Museum
When the Kochi royalty was threatened by the Portuguese, the King of Kochi is said to have lived in disguise at the traditional home of the long lineage of Prime Ministers of Kochi, the Paliam Palace. Much later, the Dutch, who ousted the Portuguese out of the state, helped redecorate the palace infusing some Dutch elements into the architectural vein of Kerala. Where there’s history, there are stories of heritage. With its memory steeped in colonial history, the Paliam Palace is a repertoire of yesteryear grandeur. A Muziris Heritage site today, the Kovilakam (the principle manor) and the Nalukettu, a traditional model of home architecture, are museums home to fragments of antiquity. A 4 km drive from North Paravoor in Kochi will take you to the Paliam Palace where you can relive an era of cultural significance. The Jewish synagogue at Chendamangalam and the Cheraman Juma Masjid, the first mosque in India, are quite close by for a quick visit.
13.St Francis Church
Turn a page backwards to history, and the St Francis Church in Fort Kochi will unravel the narrative of colonial struggle in Kerala. Built by the Portuguese in the early 16th century, it is the oldest European church in India. The famous Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama was buried here in 1524. Although his body was later taken away to Portugal, the burial spot and the tomb stone are kept intact. A war memorial was later constructed in front of the church in memory of the soldiers from Kochi who fought to their death in World War 1. This monument, a vestige of the Portuguese era before the Dutch took over, has been standing unfazed despite the passage of time. Located at the heart of Fort Kochi, tourists flock to this particularly calm and quaint church to sit in quiet and offer their prayers. A morning visit will be ideal followed by a walk on the stone pathway that leads to the beach.
14. Bekel Fort (History)
The unforgettable sea-side location immortalized by the film ‘Bombay’ is in the Kasargod district of Kerala. A colossal fort that leaves the impression of having risen from the sea, Bekal was built in 1650, and is the largest fort in Kerala. The circular fort standing on a 35 km headland is a yesteryear military stronghold for keeping invaders at bay. It offers a magnificent visualof the sea and itscoastline along the Malabar province. History takes a peek through the cannonballs still stored in the fort. The observation tower with its flight of stairs and the sea bastion enhances the view. The intriguing underground passages that lead to outside from the fort is something children and adults alike would love to explore. At the entrance is a Hanuman temple believed to be as old as the fort. There is also a mosque outside, built in the era of Tipu Sultan when the Mysore royals took over the region
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