As we crossed the arid landscape of Tamil Nadu border and entered Kerala, I could sense a perceptible change in the scenic charm. Swaying palmyras, vast vistas of paddy fields and the mountains of the Sahya range which stood sentinel-like, guarding the region heralded a welcome to Palakkad, the green getaway of Kerala.
I dropped anchor for a customary visit to my kith and kin. After a truly blissful quiet weekend, I set out to explore the tourist attractions of Palakkad town. Once upon a time, it was a beautiful stretch of forests covered with the pala (Indian devil) trees. Hailed as the â€˜Granary of Keralaâ€™, it is synonymous with the misty mountain ranges of Nelliyampathy, the call of the wild at Parambikulam and the serenity of the pristine, evergreen forests of the Silent Valley.
A view of green paddy fields and hills in the distance
Palakkad abounds in rivers and dams. Bharathapuzha, the longest river in the state, meanders through the district. It holds a special place in the cultural psyche of the state. I realised that there was more to Palakkad than its natural wonders.
As I entered the heart of the town, the old, granite fort built by Hyder Ali in 1766, with its imposing bastions and deep moat, loomed into view. Exploring the marvels and mysteries of the fort, I discovered a few contemporary structures like pillared mandapas, stepped wells and buildings which were added later. The fort was captured by the British and modified in 1790. Tipu Sultanâ€™s army is said to have marched through the Palakkad gap in its conquest of Malabar. There were several other tourist attractions around the fort as well.
Tipu Sultan's fort
About 14 km from Palakkad is the Malampuzha Dam and Garden Complex built on the banks of the Bharathapuzha. What makes Malampuzha unique is the magnificent blend of the mountains in the backdrop with the breath-taking scenery. I saw weekend crowds making a beeline to the childrenâ€™s park, toy train, mini zoo, snake park and fish-shaped aquarium there. The Japanese gardens and the hanging bridge across the canal are the other attractions of Malampuzha.
The Malampuzha Garden Complex
I stopped by to gaze at the imposing concrete sculpture of Yakshi, the divine enchantress, which is a marvellous piece sculpted by the renowned Kanai Kunhiraman.
A passenger ropeway offers a panoramic view of the gardens, the distant hills and the blue expanse of the reservoir. The Rock Garden of Malampuzha, built by Nek Chand of Chandigarh, is another tourist attraction. The statues and other structures are characteristic of Kerala culture and art, with the murals of Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, Kalari and racing boats are all made out of waste material. From there, I made a dash to Kava near Malampuzha Dam just in time to have a panoramic view of the sunset.
Sunset at Malampuzha
From Malampuzha, I went on a temple-hopping spree. First on my list was the historic Jain temple of Jainimedu. Jainimedu was once a thriving community of diamond traders till Tipuâ€™s invasion drove them to Wayanad. The temple has images of Jain tirthankaras and yakshinis.
The Emur Bhagavathy temple at Kallekulangara, where I went next, has a pair of hands enshrined in the sanctum sanctorum. Legend has it that a Namboodiri was elated to see the goddess rising from the water but the enraged goddess refused to rise fully. The goddess is worshipped in myriad avatars here. At dawn, she is Saraswati, at noon Lakshmi, and in the evening, she is worshipped as Durga. The quaint temple draws a multitude of devotees from far and near. Late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is said to have visited this temple several times to pay respects to the â€˜handâ€™ symbol.
A view of the Bhagavathy Temple
The nearby Vadakkanthara temple, devoted to Bhadrakali, boasts of some unique rituals including the bursting of 101 crackers every morning and evening to drive away evil spirits. Manapullikaavu is another major temple in Palakkad.
No trip to Palakkad is complete without a visit to Kalpathy, a heritage village housing the oldest Agraharam or Brahmin settlement on the banks of Kalpathy river, a tributary of Bharathapuzha. Comprising five villages established in the 12th century by migrant Brahmins from Thanjavur, Kalpathy is a repository of tradition and culture.
As I strolled around, the rich amalgamation of Tamil and Keralite culture was palpable. The Palghat Brahmins, or Palghat Iyers as they are commonly known, have a distinct personality. Having brought with them their own culture and lifestyle, which continues to flourish, they have lent a unique characteristic to Palakkad. The place lays proud claim to being the birthplace of cooks, astrologers, renowned musicians, Vedic scholars and eminent bureaucrats. Some of the best-known names in Carnatic music hail from this region.
The row houses at Kalpathy
One must make a visit here in November during the spectacular Kalpathy Theru (Car Festival), when the deity from Viswanatha Swamy temple is taken out, installed in a gigantic, bulbous domed chariot and hauled through the streets around the temple. Kalpathy comes alive during this time, with music concerts and street fairs.
The elaborate pujas on every festival day, the annual car festival, the sparkling santhana kaapu (sandal paste applied to the idols of goddesses) on Fridays and the fragrance of incense and flowers, add to the unique ambience and charm. As I ambled in the century-old agraharam, I had glimpses of the row houses in each lane leading to a temple, and vignettes of village life half-frozen in time. Priests chanting Sanskrit slokas, women clad in traditional nine-yard sarees drawing intricate â€˜kolamsâ€™ in front of their houses, and the strains of nadaswaram (a wind instrument) from the neighbourhood temple.
Some kolams in front of houses
I heard people conversing in Thalayalam, a smattering of Tamil and Malayalam. In the evening, I saw residents congregating in their thinnais (the seat just outside every house), to recapitulate the dayâ€™s events, and discuss their pet topics with their neighbours across the road. I returned from the Heritage Village, overwhelmed by the old-world charms of the Brahmin agraharams and the lingering camaraderie of folks there.
Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer and photographer, contributing articles, content and images to several publications, travel portals, guide books, brochures and coffee table books. Views expressed are the authorâ€™s own. All pictures by Susheela Nair.