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Kannur is a land with pristine beaches, old-school churches and forts, and an impressive display of tradition

travel Updated: Jan 10, 2011 09:56 IST

Kannur's spotlight on Kerala's stage remains a little dim, but only because its tourism hasn't actively kicked in. I find the place as historic, artistic and attractive as its bigger, louder neighbours. I also find it has come well recommended. Marco Polo, the intrepid traveller, christened Kannur many centuries ago: "The great emporium of the spice trade." No wonder this scenic coastal town, serving time as major port and maritime centre, was lustily eyed by the usual colonial suspects: the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. 

Many who came, stayed, and left behind substantial evidence of their presence. Take the Portuguese who built the St Angelo Fort in 1505. Today this enormous red laterite stone edifice, constructed on a rocky promontory, still provides refuge and sanctuary. If only for the couples that visit to stroll amid its serene gardens and be photographed against the backdrop of the fishing harbour and the palm-fringed beaches it overlooks. Meanwhile their historian friends scrutinise the canons, horse stables and chapel that are restored and maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.

I leave feeling humbled by the grandeur, only to be elevated at our next halt, which exudes the bliss of a great and joyful piece of music. We stroll down what may well be Kerala's only drive-in beach, where you can motor along an entire length of 4 kilometres of sandy strip by an exotic, lovely sunset. Local lads play football at one end of the sands and burst into Shakira's Waka Waka, with variations all their own, as they see us approach. The black rocks glisten. The water is safe for swimmers as the rocks protect the beach from strong currents. Everything appears smiled upon by Mother Nature. The beach is heaven on earth.

Another highlight of Kannur, perhaps even more compelling than the Portuguese architecture, the natural fishing harbour of Mopilla Bay and the historic forts, is the experience of theyyam for the novelty it holds. Theyyam is Kerala's spectacular dance ritual aimed at appeasing ancient village deities -- the mother goddess, ancestors and spirits. The season for theyyam is usually between December and May, but the Parassinkadavu Temple, just 20 kms north of Kannur, hosts a performance daily. It is more than worth visiting this striking religious structure situated before an oasis of water and coconut palms. Inside the temple, authorities separate the men from the women for the performance which finally begins with the singing of a thottam, in praise of the deity. Song is followed by an impassioned dance-display -- in which the dancer really appears to have become the dance. Apart from being vital, the performance showcases the strong influence of Kerala's martial art tradition of kalaripayattu. The masks, body paint and headgear sometimes rise to a staggering height of more than seven feet. But what really has me do a double-take of delight and wonder, is the collective devotion of the people who've come from miles for the ritual. Faith manifest at a time when it is perhaps the scarcest commodity available, is a pleasure to behold.

First Published: Jan 10, 2011 09:56 IST