The myriad characters of "Legends of Khazak", by O.V. Vijayan are said to have been inspired by people from villages here

Exploring the magical trail of River Nila the Blue Yonder wayPic Courtesy: Ajay Menon
Features Rivers Tuesday, August 02, 2016 - 15:09

A river that traverses across 200-odd kilometres...a river valley civilization that is as ancient as the river itself….the Bharatapuzha, also known as the River Nila.

The Bharatapuzha (Bharata’s River) spans a wide stretch before it becomes one with the Arabian Sea at Ponnani in the Malappuram district of Kerala. Though not many know of it, there are some, like Gopinath Parayil, who take great pride in their association with the river. “I am from Nila,” he says, introducing himself to The News Minute.

It may sound strange to hear someone say that they are the native of a river, but Gopinath feels there cannot be a better way to describe his emotional connect to the Nila. 

This is what led him to found The Blue Yonder, a travel company that seeks to provide “meaningful travel experiences for discerning travellers”, in 2004. The Nila is not just any river but epitomizes a rich and varied culture that has evolved over centuries around its course, and of which – unbelievably - very few natives of Kerala are even aware, much less proud of.

The Blue Yonder began as a small initiative on river conservation in the state. It later grew to create meaningful and inspirational holidays for travellers who wish to connect with the local communities with whom Gopinath and his team work in close tandem.

Gopinath, who likes to identify himself as a storyteller, is keen to conserve not just the dying river, but to preserve its priceless heritage as well. The just-concluded photo journey of following the river’s trail, undertaken along with renowned travel photographer, Ajay Menon, is one such effort.

“Responsible tourism is what it is all about…travel that goes beyond a mere journey to transform into a life-changing experience. It is not just about enjoying picturesque views, but actually getting a feel of the lifescape inherent in such places,” Gopinath avers.

This time around, there were 12 travellers who decided to follow the Nila trail along with The Blue Yonder. Traditional Kerala homes like the Thenkurussi-Kandath Tharavaad, the Vellinezhi-Olappamanna Mana and the Tirunaavaya-Koderi Mana opened their doors to enable the visitors to get an inkling of their glorious past.

 

In a symbiotic working arrangement, the owners of these homesteads are willing to play the gracious hosts, while The Blue Yonder invests in their maintenance and upkeep.

As Ajay posts on his Facebook page: “Venkateswaran aka Venkidy was one of the most endearing characters whom we met during our trip. This septuagenarian is deaf and mute, but that does not stop him from staking a place in your hearts. A house-help for the past three decades at the famed Ollappamanna Mana, Venkidy is more like a family member for the household. With a forever-boyish smile, the old-timer’s tranquillity captures one’s fancy.”

 

The Nila trail had a novel blend of trek-cum-rides (including a lumbering train journey through the Nilambur forests!) along the banks of the river with quite a few planned detours into the surrounding settlements.  It was flagged off on July 21 from the Palakkad Gap nestled in the Western Ghats, from where the river enters Kerala from Tamil Nadu.

Historically, the Gap opened up a route for the migrants from neighbouring Tamil Nadu and other states into the geographically-blessed coastal zone of Kerala. It also led to a gradual mingling of varied cultures and agrarian traditions - which is evident around the Nelliyampathy hills and hillocks doting the river.

The myriad characters of the Malayalam classic, "Legends of Khazak", by O.V. Vijayan are said to have been inspired by the people from the villages in and around Kinasserry and Tasrak.

Even the ‘Ramasseri idlis’ that the guests relished for breakfast have an interesting tale to tell. According to folklore, a lady from Chitoor shared her century-old recipe with Bhagyalakshmi’s family to tide over their poverty-stricken days. Its ‘tasty’ success has gone on to ensure a source of sustainable income too for the family.

With more than 80 temples dotting the landscape, the 10108 lamps that lit up one of the oldest temples in the area -for the prosperity of the Bharatapuzha- were a surreal sight to behold!

Moving on, the travellers had the fortune to watch master-puppeteers in action. Gopinath elaborates: “Tholpaava Koothu (Shadow Puppetry) which is practised on the river-banks is confined to 85 temples spread across Malappuram, Thrissur and Palakkad districts. Based on stories mentioned in Kamba Ramayanam (Ramayana as conceptualised by the Tamil poet Kambar), puppet-masters like Ramachandra Pulavar ( Pulavar means scholar ) try to bring the art to the common man, and not just confine it to temples alone. Some of the puppets used are made of deer skin and are more than 800 years old.”

They also got to interact with the only practising bell-metal worker who makes ‘Adakkaputhoor Kannadi’ (glazed mirror unique to the Nila), document ‘Kalamezhuthu Paattu’ (Hand-Painting), hear the haunting strains of Pulluvan Paattu (Ballads of the Nila), see ‘Guruthi’, the village oracle, in action and experience folk-arts like ‘Poothanum Thirayum’, Koodiyaattom, Nangiyaarkoothu and Kathakali, as well as Kerala’s traditional martial form ‘Kalaripayattu’.

 

This leisurely exploration -spread over two weeks- of the Nila culminated at Ponnani on Tuesday. This last stop too had something different to offer the travelers, as its predominantly Muslim culture sets it apart from the rest of the villages set along the banks of Nila. 

The Blue Yonder is truly a holistic exercise taken up by committed professionals who have succeeded in making their visitors turn a contemplative gaze towards a river and its ebbing culture…and it is indeed a paradigm worth emulating.

(All photographs by Ajay Menon)

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