Sunday Herald: On Malabar's menu, Kannur

There is more to the emerald state than backwaters and beaches. Historical destinations...

St Angelo's Fort, Kannur
Highlights: 
Kannur (place of Krishna), called Cannanore by the British, is one of the oldest military cantonments used by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, and now the only cantonment of the Indian army in Kerala.

Although Kerala is a much-sought-after tourist destination, most visitors have not dared to explore anything beyond the houseboat packages on the oft-touted backwaters of Kumarakom or a sojourn at Kovalam Beach. But there is more to the emerald state than backwaters and beaches. Historical destinations are a refreshing change to get off the beaten track while simultaneously enjoying the beaches as these were the ports of entry for not only the Europeans, who later ruled this green swathe of land for several centuries, but also for early Arab traders who made the Malabar coast their home.

I discovered Kannur rather serendipitously. Kannur (place of Krishna), called Cannanore by the British, is one of the oldest military cantonments used by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, and now the only cantonment of the Indian army in Kerala. There is a beautiful Defence Security Corps mess facing the azure Arabian Sea with its private crescent-shaped Baby Beach, open to defence personnel for a short vacation. I grabbed the chance and booked myself in for a weekend stay. An overnight comfortable train journey from Bengaluru brought me to my destination.

Follow the curve

Situated towards the northern end of the 600-km-long Malabar coast, Kannur has a rich history and unspoiled coastline that beckons the intrepid traveller who loves to take the road less travelled.

I hired an autorickshaw to take me around the place, and told the driver, Manoj, to take me to historical locations. The autos here are much larger than the ones in Bengaluru. This was a smart move as the roads in Kerala are narrow, but they can be negotiated easily by these three-wheelers. What’s more, the fare, too, is light on the pocket. To my good fortune, the plucky auto driver doubled up as my tourist guide.

We skipped the crowded Payyambalam Beach, a much larger beach adjunct to Baby Beach, and headed straight to St Angelo’s Fort, which was built by the first Portuguese viceroy, Dom Francisco de Almeida, in 1505 AD. Despite being over five-centuries old, the fort is still in a good condition and well maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. The walls of the fort, built with burgundy laterite, have aged beautifully, and the turrets mellowed with age give a great view of the sinuous curve of the bay. No doubt the spice trade was a major attraction, but I am of the view that the Europeans came under the magical spell of the coast ­— its golden sands, swaying coconut palms and the balmy romantic weather.

Encouraged by my interest in St Angelo’s Fort, the auto driver decided to take me on a crazy ride to another fort in the same district, about 22 km away, — the Thalassery (formerly Tellicherry) Fort. This fort is not in as good a condition as the one in Kannur, although it was built by the British almost two centuries later than St Angelo’s Fort was built. The reason is... initially, permission was taken from the local rulers to build a storehouse for pepper and cardamom, which was later expanded into a fort.

Nearby is a great picnic spot called Overbury’s Folly, named after an English judge who planned this picnic spot for its vantage view of the sweeping bay, but was unable to complete the project. It is maintained well by the local municipality and frequented by the locals.

Along the shore

The ride to the fort also covered the only drive-in beach in India ­— the Muzhappilangad Beach. I was thrilled to see many cars zipping close to the sea on the hard-baked sand. Unfortunately, Manoj refused a ride on the beach as his auto was not built for it, so I jogged on the hard sand and savoured the gentle lap of the waves against my feet.

We then headed back to Kannur’s Arakkal Palace, situated near Mappila Bay. The palace has been converted into a museum that houses the personal paraphernalia of the royal Arakkal family, the only Muslim rulers of this region who followed a matriarchal system. The story goes that a Nair princess was saved from drowning by a Mohammedan. The fact that a Muslim man had touched her made her undesirable in the marriage market; so her father gave her a dowry and married her off to her rescuer.

It was time for me to head back to my room and pack up to catch the night train back home, but before that, I had one more chore on hand. I headed to the chips maker and bought a humungous quantity of banana chips for friends and family.

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Sunday Herald: On Malabar's menu, Kannur

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