Is Kerala good for a driving holiday in the monsoon? With a week’s time on our hands, a copy of the Lonely Planet, and our decade-old car serviced and ready, we decide to find out for ourselves. There is a certain charm in travelling without a fixed plan. You decide where you want to get to each day, and when you get there, you get to choose your roof for the night. On some whim or fancy, you change your destination midway. If you like a place, you stay longer, else, you move on.
Normally, this freedom and flexibility comes at a cost. You are not certain when you get to a place that you will find a decent accommodation, or that you will not be overcharged. Travelling with your family, you will not want to take the risk of running around in a strange city. Here is where travelling off season — mid June in Kerala — is different. There is no need to bother about advance reservations; hotel rooms are available in plenty and you, as the customer, can even get a bargain.
So here we are, driving towards Kannur on a wet morning after resting the night in Madikeri. A conscientious hotelier has advised us that a stopover in Wayanad will not be much fun during this period. Our plan is to travel along the coastal route through northern and central Kerala. The narrow, newly carpeted road cuts through the lush forest of the Western Ghats in a steep and continuous descent to the coastal plain of Kerala. A thick fog cutting down visibility makes it a nerve-tingling drive. We stop by the Aralam River near Iritty to take in the monsoon view of the swiftly flowing muddy waters under a leaden sky.
Reaching Kannur, we head for the Kerala government guest house. The parking lot is empty and the hotel, deserted. The hotel staff, when we finally locate them, is surprised to see us. We are brusquely informed that all the rooms are full. This is the only incident during this week of travel in Kerala where we are turned away. A private hotel nearby is friendly and welcoming and ready to throw in a discount to boot; we take a delightful room overlooking the sea. Looking out from our window, we can see the curve of the coast and the bright red lighthouse. The sea appears just a shade darker than the monsoon sky.
That evening, we drive to the Muthappan Temple in Parassinikadavu to witness a theyyam, a form of worship here. The receptionist at our hotel informs us that this is the only place where theyyams are performed at this time of the year. The temple is at a scenic location, right on the banks of the Valapattanam River, which presents a broad expanse here. Waiting for the performance to begin, we are surprised to see a dog stretched out in front of the idol of the main deity. We also notice bronze statues of dogs at the entrance of the temple and a set of giant kuttivalakkus inside, crowned with the figure of a dog. Apparently, dogs are considered to be sacred creatures in this temple.
A large but orderly crowd has gathered for the evening performance. The drummers announce the beginning of the ritual conducted by the priests. The theyyam dancer, dressed in a grand costume, sword and shield in hand, holds the crowd in rapt attention with his moves. At some point in the ritual, the prasad is tossed to the waiting dogs. It is pouring when we leave the Muthappan Temple — luckily, we have not left the umbrellas behind.
The next morning, we get to enjoy the vast expanse of the pristine Payyambalam Beach. At its far end, the clouds, sea, and sand, all take on the same hues. Later, we take a relaxed tour of Arakkal Kettu, the residence of the former Muslim ruling family of Kannur, and St Angelo’s Fort, which was originally Portuguese, later rebuilt by the Dutch, overlooking the Mappila Bay Harbour, crowded with fishing vessels.
We hit the road and head to Kochi, stopping only for the night at a quaint clubhouse-turned-budget hotel in Kozhikode. The National Highway is a narrow road in these parts, intimate with villages and small towns on its way. The drive is slow but full of interesting sights. We enter Ernakulam, conveniently at lunchtime, and head straight for an eatery named Fry’s, a local favourite, to savour sumptuous fried fish. Driving to Fort Kochi, we inspect homestays, calling in first to enquire on the price. We settle for a cosy room in an immaculate bungalow overlooking the parade ground.
There is a slight drizzle, as we step out to explore Fort Kochi. Unmindful of getting wet, the boys of the Rufous Football Club are enjoying their game. We walk around in the rain, do a little shopping, inspect the Chinese fishing nets, and discover a good place for dinner. We like the place and inform our host that we will stay another day.
We spend the next day exploring the backwaters, an hour’s drive from Fort Kochi. On the vast expanse of the Vembanad, fishermen are out in strength, propelling their small boats with long poles, dredging the lake floor for mussels. The clouds have dispersed, showing a deep blue sky. We stop on an island to taste a mussel dish. It is a perfect day for staying outdoors.
Driving out from Fort Kochi Island, we get a chance to take the ferry, which we learn is a faster way to get to the mainland than the road bridge. There is a moment of madness when the ferry arrives; there is a scramble by cyclists, motorcyclists, and auto drivers to get in and position their vehicles for a quick exit. Ours is the only four-wheeler on the ferry. We glide past giant Chinese fishing nets, now drawn up above the water. After disembarking, we stop at a roadside hotel for breakfast. The food — puttu with egg curry — is hot, tasty and inexpensive.
We head in the direction of Thrissur. On the way, we decide to take a diversion and visit the Athirapally Falls on Chalakudy River. After crossing the town of Chalakudy, the road heads towards the Western Ghats, passing through serene plantations of rubber and jaggery palm. We walk up to the river just before the falls. The sky is heavy with monsoon clouds. The falls present a truly majestic sight, the defining image of this trip.
Monsoon does bring rivers and their falls to life. Our last halt in Kerala is with family in Ottapalam, in the warmth of an old taravad house. With thoughts now centered on getting back quickly, we choose the road via Salem to return to Bangalore.