By leaving Coorg, the Karnataka chapter of our trip was ending. Karnataka had been wonderful – not only for its great sights, but also for the fact that we really felt that we were off the beaten track, at least as far as foreign tourists were concerned. The other travellers that we had met had been primarily Indians exploring their own country, and we could count the number of foreigners on our hands. Kerala we knew, was part of the established tourist trail – prices were likely to go up, sights were likely to be more crowded with foreigners and we weren’t sure how it was all going to stack up.
Leaving Coorg early in the morning, we slowly drove over the Western Ghats, first passing coffee plantations and then tea plantations as we entered Kerala. Malayalam took over from Kannada and we could see this in the changing script on signboards. As we drove towards the coastal town of Kannur, villages and towns began to look more affluent, and we learned that many Keralans employed in the Gulf States send their earnings back to the northern part of Kerala that we were driving through.
Kannur was on strike. We knew from our first trip to India that the only time that touring in India can feel menacing is when there is a strike on. The towns are empty, shops are closed, and there is an air of violence around. We had no idea why Kannur was on strike but the town was still and it felt very uncomfortable. All businesses were closed.
Our destination was a small hotel out of the city, in a village on the coast near Thalassery. It took us a long time to find it but eventually we did by calling the owner who met us on the highway on his motorcycle. Costa Malabari (the hotel) looked like a house, and had the most magnificent view of a completely deserted beach – a really stereotypical tropical beach with palm trees bent horizontally, long stretches of beach and trees and flowers everywhere. The hotel was set on a bluff above the beach and we climbed down to the beach on a home made rope ladder.
Be Warned — Costa Malabari has a main house and a couple of annexes in other locations. We considered staying in an annex – but we took a look at the annexes and found them completely unsatisfactory. The main house is a fine place to stay (simple, rooms, excellent breakfast and food in general) but you do not want to find yourself spending the night in one of the annex houses.
The owner was an expert on the local dramatic dance of Theyyam. We asked him if he knew of any dances being performed and he told us about one that evening that he would take us to. Theyyam is a traditional art form that is highly spiritual, involving the spirits and other factors that we really had no idea about. We were interested in seeing it for ourselves.
After we had settled in, the owner reappeared and we again we followed him around the village to another house, where a group of people were sitting outside. Clearly this was a family affair and we felt like real outsiders but he assured us that it would be fine for us to watch. The people of the house were very kind, welcoming us in, giving up their seats and handing us a snack of roasted chick peas.
The Theyyam began. This must rank as one of the strangest and most incomprehensible performance that we have ever seen. A fantastically made up dancer entered a room, apparently possessed by the local deity – he certainly appeared to be possessed by something. He wore a huge headdress and an elaborate uniform, and swayed up and down, as if in a trance, to the beat of drums and horns that blared throughout the neighborhood. The kids were petrified – I was entranced at this and we watched for about forty minutes until the kids couldn’t take it any more. Apparently it would continue for hours. A mystical, spiritual cultural experience that we had no hope of understanding and certainly not a place for kids.
Our first day in Kerala had been strange – dramatically beautiful beaches reached by a precarious rope ladder, the menacing atmosphere of the strike and the Theyyam – an experience so strange and haunting that we felt we had been intruding on something sacred way beyond our comprehension!
PS These days I’m planning great family trips to India. For more info on how I can help your family, visit here.