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In Zamorin’s own country

With great food, sights and heritage to match, Malabar is the perfect place to spend time away from the rat race, writes Lalita Panicker.

india Updated: Apr 10, 2009 22:18 IST
Lalita Panicker

It’s election time and the sleepy town of Kozhikode, formerly Calicut, the heartland of Kerala’s fabled Malabar region, has come alive to the sound of loudspeakers. But sadly, it is the latter-day tinpot kings, the mundu-veshti clad politicians who seek the attention of the people by spreading their divisive message. This, in the land once ruled by the fabulous Zamorins who controlled the destiny of this Alladin’s Cave brimming with cloves, cinnamon, pepper and tea. All around, you can see the benign legacy of these Hindu rulers in the mosques they made for their Muslim subjects, in the educational institutes they set up and in the still genteel culture of its people.

It is not a hyped tourist destination, thank God for that, so a visit to this region does not involve you getting ripped off. You are left to your own devices as you meander through the hills and vales that surely the Gods once traversed. In Wynad with its sprawling estates and natural abundance, you might well find yourself amid a herd of elephants as a peacock flies past you in a kaleidoscope of emerald and cobalt blue. As you wind up the hairpin bends of the mist-wreathed hills, gigantic bamboo clumps flank the road like spectral Titans. Now and again, their gnarled, gigantic branches reach down to the road like alien cranes trying to pick up vehicles and people. The surrounding estates remind you of a Keatsian landscape, its trees weighed down by mangoes, jackfruit, bananas and riotous pepper vines.

With a bit of luck, you can call upon the Zamorin himself, a modest man by the name of PKS Raja. He is realistic. His kingdom vanished with the high tides of the azure Arabian sea — he does not aspire to high office or to be a kingmaker. From his modest Kozhikode home, he hands out his blessings to those seeking more corporeal forms of power. Nearby bells peal from the 1,500-year-old Shiva temple his forefathers built.

Not far from here stands the Miscal mosque, dating back 800 years. The mosque is run by a family of Qazis, hereditary keepers of the faith, and is a cross between an old Kerala Hindu building and a pagoda. No doubt a result of the influences that ancient seafarers brought from far-flung lands.

For the gastronomically inclined, this region is just short of paradise. Swirling pathiris (a crepe-like bread) is accompanied by incendiary red fish curries or volatile chicken, mutton or beef kormas. And, mind you, this is wolfed down by the locals for breakfast. So if you have a delicate stomach, look out for a vegetarian hotel and stick to a safe masala dosa. As the day progresses, you can take in the famed Kozhikode biryani, a cholesterol-laden temptation of meat, ghee, boiled eggs and fried onions. Of course, the ubiquitous ‘meals’ are served everywhere and all food, unless in five-star settings, is easy on the wallet.

Language is not a problem, Malayalis understand English well. Once you get past that ‘pebbles in the mouth’ accent, you’ll get by just fine. Kozhikode has a gorgeous seaface and a clean beach. However, if you want to show a bit of skin, please perish the thought. This is the Muslim heartland of Kerala and discretion is definitely the better part of valour. So cover up and take a promenade on the coast. At night, it is especially breathtaking to lounge about listening to the soft heaving of the inky Arabian Sea under a million starbursts.

There are plenty of hotels to suit all budgets and the locals don’t try to sell you bargains. For the historically-minded, you could nip up from Wynad to Sultan’s Battery and see the armoury of the legendary king Tipu Sultan who fought the British to a standstill. Much of the local economy is kept afloat by Gulf money and this explains the fantastical colours of the houses. It is as if the owners are shouting ‘look at me’ by painting their newly-built homes candy pink, pistachio green, violent purple and jaundiced yellow. Incongruous amid the gentle palm trees and a myriad streams and rivers. Once renowned for its stunning women in their exquisite cream linen clothes and filigreed jewellery, Arabisation of the region has seen to it that today they are covered up in hijabs. All things Arabic seem to exert a huge influence on this region.

If you are a nightbird, you’re in for disappointment. Come 11 pm and the most action you’ll get is on your TV screen. But then again, unless you are a hopeless philistine, you don’t go to this patch of India to trip the light fantastic. So for a few days, be a lotus-eater in this slow motion land where 24 hours seems like a lifetime.