- Sunday, 7 September 2014

Calicut (Kozhikode): Revisting Historical Gem of Malabar

The Light House at Calicut Beach
Lush green fields interspersed with sleepy hamlets zipping past me on my right while my left, in contrast, was cramped with frozen unknown faces- each looking out into the blank while in their own reverie. Suddenly it started raining outside and water started trickling in. I struggled to shut the rickety window & before I realised there was another unknown hand helping me with it. The ice was broken.
A hand soon reached out offering me a few candies which I politely refused but the burqa clad lady insisted and even went to the extent of opening her purse and showing me to assure that she has more. I passed a smile, thanked and took the sticky candy. 

It was in this second class train journey from Coimbatore to Calicut that I had my first tryst with Keralan hospitality. What followed was an hour long conversation with multi-ethnic neighbours in my train compartment- all natives of Kerala, using hand movements, smiles, nodding and an occasional word or two in Hindi. 

It had already been about 7 years since I last visited this state and I decided to do it in the middle of monsoons. I was headed to Calicut- more out of curiosity than any specific travel plans. I did not know much of what to expect in this historic & most important trade centre of its time between Arabs, Chinese and East Africans. Vasco da Gama landed here bringing Calicut onto a larger map. What followed was an influx of the Portuguese, Dutch, Arabs, French and British to this spice centre on Malabar coast. Everyone wanted their share. The city seems to have stood the test of time. 

My hosts in Calicut were a local couple with gorgeous 2-floor villa called Krishna Leela, located away from the hustle & bustle of modern day Calicut city. It turned out to be one of the most authentic home stay experience I had in a while !

Calicut is largely known for its spice markets, Calicut Halwa and some beaches. Owing to the international airport, it's often used as a transit point. However without much expectation, I randomly picked Calicut and decided to explore. Not only did I find some really good authentic food but some rare architectural forms, vast serene beaches and some rare professional skills preserved by a few.

Here are my gems from the city:

1. The Mosques of Malabar- The old traditional mosques in this region stand out for its architecture. Without the usual domes and minarets, they might look like a temple to an unaware eye. Islam spread in this region much before north India due its strong trade relations with Arabs and was based on mutual cooperation and religious tolerance. Islam was at its inception in this part of country and it is said that, local artisans those days did not know what a mosque should look like, therefore they built it using local designs. These fascinating mosques have withstood pressures of time and are rare to find- do visit Mishkalpalli, Kuttichira Juma Masjid and Muchundipalli when in Calicut. 

Mishkalpalli Built in 14th Century

Kuttichira Juma Masjid, Said to be Built in 9th Century

2. Uru Building in Beypore- Urus are these boats traditionally handmade in Beypore, just 10 km from Calicut city and exported to Arab countries primarily Qatar. What's special here is to see these giant boats being constructed from scratch right in from of your eyes. There are no factories or big machinery system, but simple hand tools and unmatched skills of these hard working men to whom it takes about 2 years to complete these teak boats. One of the boat maker shares that the wood is imported from Malaysia and Burma as Indian teak can be expensive and even after 2 years of hard work, the boat is not completely ready. Its wooden structure is prepared, engine fitted and then its towed away by larger ships to Qatar, where they do the final finishing. With 147 ft of bottom, 200 ft of top and 40 ft of height to deck followed by engine rooms, cabins, gallery etc- Uru building is no mean feet.

On Top of an Under-Construction Uru Deck

Uru Side View
3. Pulimuttu in Beypore- Walking on this 1.67 km long stoned walkway into the sea is an exhilarating experience. Sounds of waves crashing on the walls, sights of men fishing by stepping onto the side stones, the smell of the sea, old rusted lampposts, small red crabs crawling out of sea water onto side stones, people taking a leisurely walk- all this makes its a perfect choice for a stroll. Other interesting beaches are the Calicut Beach and West Hill Beach.

Pulimuttu, Beypore

Calicut Beach
4. Tasara Weaving Centre- This is no ordinary weaving centre. Tasara is an institution dedicated to traditional weaving forms and giving it a contemporary touch. Its a paradise for artists who are looking out for work in various weaving related creative forms. Tasara also runs an annual workshop with limited seats inclusive of full board, for lessons in weaving and dyeing. For anyone interested in this art form, its a good platform to interact with artists and weavers from various countries, share ideas and enjoy and learn about Kerala culture up close. If not interested in workshop, one can simply visit the centre which has a marvellous design and have a look at the sample products and interact with Vasudevan- the owner, weaver and creative mind behind it. It's recommended for those with some prior knowledge of fabrics and its science or some genuine curiosity to know about it. Its definitely not for tourists who just want to peak in.

Creative Weaving at Tasara, Photo: Tasara Beypore

5. The Local Food- Well, there is certainly no dearth good food in Calicut. While a visit to Paragon Restaurant seems mandatory, another one to Sagar and Bombay Restaurant can also turn out to be really fruitful. Apart from the traditional Kerala food like appams, puttu, stew, thoran, avial etc- what one has to try exclusively in Calicut is the Calicut Biryani. Closer to its cousin in Hyderabad than one in Lucknow, Calicut biryani is loaded with various spices, very filling and with a distict local flavour. Its definitely worth a try. Also, once there, its impossible to miss Calicut Halwa being sold in every street corner, railway station, general shops, bus stands- however, if you've tasted Karachi Halwa before, then this local version is not going to appeal to your palate much. Another very interesting thing that you would surely not miss here is the warm herbal water being consumed at homes, restaurants and everyone else. This habit of drinking yellow-pink herbal water is not an exception but a general rule and this became more clear when we saw our auto-driver carrying a bottle with him. It can be a mix of several herbs, plants, tree barks including Pathimukham (Caesalpenia Sappan) and is added to water while boiling which gives it a yellow-pink color. The herbs are supposed to serve as blood cleanser and in general very good for one's health.

Calicut Chicken Biryani at Paragon and Herbal Water
Calicut Halwa 

6. The Spice Market- A trip to any city is incomplete unless you've visited it's old market district. In Calicut its the Spice Market. A visit to this district is sure to take you back in time- specially the by lanes. Century old cleaning-processing units with heavy wooden doors in traditional set up are quite charming. I landed here in the middle of afternoon and met with abandoned streets. Knocking on doors would reveal the actual spice trading firms inside them. Some of them are happy to sell directly to travelers in small quantities. However, if you're looking for the buzz, head to jampacked Big Bazaar, the wholesale and retail market for spices.

At a Spice Trading Centre
Added Information:

Stay: I highly reccommend Krishna Leela homestay because of its off-city location and great hospitality. Tariff Rs. 2000/night for a double inclusive of breakfast. Lunch/Dinner also available at very nominal rates. The hosts are very lovely and there is no place better if you want to enjoy traditional Kerala meals.

Commute: While you can always hire a taxi, I am sharing number of my autodriver Shaji- +91 9961088798. Very friendly local driver and charges reasonable amount. He speaks Malyalam, therefore you may ask help of your hosts or hotel staff to call and book him for you.

1 comment:

  1. Have only passed through Calicut... need to spend more time in this town