God’s own Country – Thrissur – Kerala’s cultural capital

Sometime last year, our friend announced her wedding and that the event was most likely to be held in Guruvayoor. We were excited (for the Guruvayoor trip, obviously) ! We even threatened her that we would skip the wedding if she changed the place. The wedding was to take place in the 3rd weekend of May 2019 and right away we decided that we were going to take the runway till Coimbatore and then the highway to Guruvayoor. Driving all the way to Guruvayoor would be a journey of more than 1000 kms and it didn’t seem feasible at that point of time. Instead, we chose to fly to Coimbatore and then take a Zoomcar to Guruvayoor via Thrissur. Though Cochin is closest to Guruvayoor, we booked our flight to Coimbatore because the flights to Cochin were expensive compared to the Coimbatore route. Until about 10 days before our trip, we hadn’t planned where to stay and what to see, highly unlike this writer with a major OCD travel planning syndrome.

Initially, we had planned stay at Coimbatore, drive through Thrissur and proceed to Guruvayoor but when we read about Thrissur and the significance of the temples and the culture, we decided, we had to spend atleast a day there.

Say once more to Coimbatore and Sree Annapoorna !

About a month before our trip, SpiceJet rescheduled our direct flight to Coimbatore, via Bangalore, for someone with a fear of flying, this is not exactly a welcome news. On the day of our flight, after our early morning flight to Bangalore took off, the Captain announced that the weather was slightly turbulent but it was nothing to be worried about. Now, imagine the plight of someone with an anxiety disorder, we are talking about this writer, of course ! Every small movement sent a panic attack until the partner decided it was better to doze off ! Thankfully, the writer got a window seat and could look out and marvel at the landscape, we had our moments of excitement when we could spot 3 dams in a short span, one of which we guessed could be the Almatti Dam, it was quite a big one.

We had about 2 hours transit at Bangalore, which we spent having breakfast and whining about spending Rs.120/- for a Dosa ! The flight to Coimbatore was only about 45 minutes, we had hardly read a few pages of the day’s newspaper when they announced that it was time to land.

When you enter the Coimbatore airport, you will find striking statues of Thanjavur dolls, life size statues of elephants, the Gangeyam Bull and other wildlife of the Nilgiris. These are very impressive.

Our Zoomcar pick up point was very close to the airport, so we walked the distance. The Zoomcar we had booked was in a dirty state, the previous user having made a mess, we got it cleaned, checked the documents and picked up our car, all this took up atleast an hour. Coimbatore was burning hot and the asbestos shed under which we waited till the car was cleaned almost suffocated us but what is the fun of Summer if it doesn’t make you feel that way?

Once we got the car, we were all set for our journey. Driving through the city and marvelling at how clean and organised the city looked, we passed by the famous educational institutions of Coimbatore, we made a quick visit to our friend’s house and then headed for lunch at Sree Annapoorna Sree Gowrishankar, R.S.Puram. In addition to the flight rates, the other major reason for coming to Coimbatore was lunch at Sree Annapoorna, we had the fortune of tasting their Divine Sambaar during our trip in 2015 and have been devotees of it ever since !

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There’s the Sambaar and hot meal served on a tender banana leaf ! Can you see the Keerai (Green leafy vegetable) in the picture? It was so unbelievably delicious that we even forgot the Sambaar, we had about 3 servings of the Keerai alone. As for the Paal Payasam that was served as the dessert, this writer scooped it off the leaf till the last drop, any more scooping would have torn the leaf ! Restaurants like Sree Annapoorna are just God’s gift to mankind !

Passing through Palakkad

Right after the hearty lunch, we started our drive to Thrissur, on NH544, the highway connecting Salem and Kochi. The highway was super smooth. Just about 25 kms from Coimbatore, we reached Walayar Checkpost on the TN-Kerala border. We were asked by the Zoomcar guys to stop at the Checkpost and get a permit to enter Kerala. We were expecting a long drawn process with the RTA but the officers were friendly and the work was done in 10 minutes.

As soon as you cross the border and enter Kerala, you will find the landscape suddenly lush green, we looked back at TN, the summer had turned the trees and hills dry. Wonder how just across the border, Kerala continues to remain green !

We drove on towards Thrissur and as we neared the famous Palakkad city, we could see the silhouette of the Western Ghats looming in the distance.

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Ignore the picture quality, it was taken on a mobile camera from the windshield against direct sunlight.

If you refresh your school Geography, you would remember that Palakkad is located in the Palghat Gap of the Western Ghats. There is some research which says Palghat Gap was the point where Madagascar was joined to Indian land mass millions of years ago before it split. The Palakkad region is considered the ‘rice bowl’ of Kerala. This is where the famous Palakkad Tamil dialect, a mixture of Malayalam and Tamil, originates.

Palakkad has some beautiful, traditional Kerala houses, you can see them from the highway. Green trees, sloping roofs with red clay tiles, age old architectural style, we just couldn’t take our eyes off them.

Palakkad is quite a big city and it took us a lot of time to cross it because there are traffic signals even on the highway ! We had no complaints though, the route was very scenic, we could see the Western Ghats covered with clouds and there was greenery everywhere. We studied about Palghat Gap may be in the 10th standard, back then, we could have never imagined that one day, we would be driving through the Palghat Gap !

Thrissur – An unforgettable cultural experience

It took us about 3.5 hours to reach Thrissur, we could have reached atleast half an hour earlier, if not for the leisurely pace at which we drove, we strongly believe that journeys should be about leisure, we usually don’t keep our drives time bound.

We had booked our stay at Wariyam Heritage and to reach the hotel, we had to drive around the Swaraj Round and the Thekkinkadu Maidan, a 65 acre open ground, the Vadakkunnathan Temple is located in the Thekkinkadu Maidan and the famous Pooram festival is held here every year. The Swaraj Round is the city centre of Thrissur and we read that it is one of the the biggest roundabouts in the world.

It took us two circles around the Swaraj Round to locate Wariyam Heritage, located in one of the narrow bye-lanes. Wariyam Heritage is a 100 year old heritage home that has been converted into a hotel.

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The front portion of the house is a traditional Kerala home and we loved it.

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We decided, when we retire, we would build a home like that.

At Wairyam Heritage, we were greeted by an old man, he was the caretaker of the place while the owner was away. He could only speak Malayalam and the conversations that followed between us and him were hilarious . He could understand Tamil “koracha koracha” (little, little), this writer’s Tamil skills came in handy. The rest we managed with the few words of Malayalam we knew, “manasilayo”, “samsarikkanum”, “endha”, most of it thanks to our obsession with the movie “Premam” ! The old man’s accent was so strong, at the end of the conversation, our Telugu began to sound like Malayalam !

We checked into our room, freshened up and headed out for a walk to explore Thrissur.

The Pooram festival had concluded only 3 days before our arrival, the decorations were still up, we badly wished we had been there to witness the grand temple festival. Pooram is a 3 day festival held every year in April-May on the day of the Pooram star, according to the Malayalam calendar. Thrissur Pooram is the most popular of the Pooram festivals in Kerala and lakhs of people come to Thrissur to witness the event. 8 temples in Thrissur participate and compete in the festival which includes a parade of elephants, hoisting of temple umbrellas and Chenda drum beats. It is truly a sight to behold.

We walked around the Maidan, taking in the sights and sounds of Thrissur. It is one of the largest cities in Kerala and has a history that goes back to the Sangam Era. The colonial influence is evident from the British buildings still standing on the main road.

There were old coffee shops around, we walked into the most popular among them, Indian Coffee House. The coffee shop looks straight from the 1970s-80s, sitting there, we were transported back to our childhood, when restaurants were not fancy, smelt like coffee, sambhar, idly, dosa all mixed together, the servers wore Gandhi caps and rattled off the items, the menu was painted on the wall – you get the idea, Indian Coffee House was exactly like that !

We had beetroot cutlets and coffee, while watching people go about their business. We walked the entire stretch of the Swaraj Round, passing the Maidan, the Vadakkunnathan Temple. A short while after our coffee, we stopped by at one of the shops selling Nannari Sarbath or as we were told, Naruneendi in Malayalam. While waiting for our drink, we chatted up with the shop keeper, while we spoke in Tamil, he replied in Malayalam, each of us understanding what the other said perfectly well ! Did someone say we need a common language to unite the whole of India?

As evening set in, it was time for us to visit the Vadakkunnathan temple. We went back to our room, got ready and walked to the temple.

The Vadakkunnathan Temple’s history goes back to the 7th Century A.D., the structures as we see now must have been renovated over the centuries. There are four gopurams in each direction, marking the entrance to the temple.

This tower in the south, is where the famous Kudamattom or the umbrella exchange event of the Pooram festival is held every year.

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On most days, this gopuram on the west, is the usual entrance to the temple.

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The temple has two court yards housing shrines dedicated to different deities. The inner courtyard has the main shrine dedicated to Lord Vadakkunnathan. There is an order in which people are supposed to visit the shrines, the order is listed on the information board, if you can read Malayalam. You wouldn’t find information boards in any other language.

We didn’t know about the order of visiting the shrines, so we directly went to the Vadakkunnanathan shrine. The moment we stepped inside, it felt like we were back some thousands of years. Except for one dim light near the ticket booking counter, there are no artificial lights anywhere else, the only light comes from the oil lamps lighted inside the shrines of each deity. You must be there to experience how it feels to see an idol of the deity surrounded by lamps when it is pitch dark all around ! People dressed in traditional wear (the temple rules insist on traditional dressing), no modern gadgets, no artificial lights, you can hardly see the person beside you, it is just you and your spiritual thoughts, the effect was magical ! It was a full moon day and we could see the moon from behind the clouds, shining over the Vadakkunnathan shrine, the view was just stunning ! There was something so pure and divine about the entire setting on one side and an overwhelming, almost fearful feeling on the other.

It was hot and sultry, the sweat had almost drenched us but nothing could take away the deep, spiritual experience we had at the Vadakkunnathan temple, the kind of feeling that makes you feel one with the universe, makes you feel aware that everything, every being, every part of the nature is divine and that divinity is within you – one would remember Adi Sankara’s Advaitam in moments like these. Not surprising, Thrissur is associated with Adi Sankara. It is believed that Adi Sankara’s parents prayed at Vadakkunnanthan temple to bless them with a child. Kalady, the great Saint’s birthplace is only an hour’s drive from Thrissur. We walked out of the temple, unable to get over the trance like  experience.

Reality pulled us back, as we walked along the Swaraj Road, trying to negotiate the traffic. This is where Thrissur had us floored. Every time we tried crossing the road where there were no signals, people on vehicles politely stopped and allowed us to walk across ! For someone coming from Hyderabad, where people do not even bother to stop at a traffic signal, vehicles stopping for pedestrians to cross a road was royal treatment !

A light drizzle started when we walked for dinner to Hotel Bharath, another iconic restaurant in Thrissur. This writer was excited the moment Idiyappam was spotted on the menu.

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We were having Idiyappam after many years and this one was just perfect ! Idiyappam was followed by delicious Wheat Parotta, a healthier option compared to the maida Parotta. We wound up our dinner with filter coffee served in the traditional way, tumbler and davara. When in Thrissur, don’t miss dining at Hotel Bharath.

While waiting for our bill, we could see people walking in with wet umbrellas, it was only after we stepped out, we realised there was a heavy downpour outside. One could call it a glimpse of the pre-monsoon showers, we were lucky to witness the Kerala rain – one hour non-stop, heavy rain, like someone over turned buckets of water from above ! We had to take shelter under shops, walk a few feet and run for shelter again. Drenched in sweat and rain within a matter of an hour !

As we waited for the rain to stop, we made some purchases from some shops, chatting up with the owners, whoever we met, told us one thing – we should have come 4-5 days earlier to witness the Pooram festival and that everybody should witness the event atleast once in their lifetime !

One of the store owner got quite excited when we told him we were from Hyderabad – “oh Telangana !!” he exclaimed. Looked like he had not met anyone from that part of the country after the Andhra Pradesh state was bifurcated. We had such lovely interactions with the locals before we returned to our hotel room for the night, including sharing our experiences with our hotel caretaker, we spoke to him in all the languages we knew with a Malayalam accent to make it sound like we were speaking Malayalam !

Early next morning, we were up early for our morning coffee and a walk around the place, we explored some bye-lanes and were head over heels in love with the old, traditional houses, we so badly wanted to live in one such house right away.

Not having enough of the Vadakkunnathan temple, we went for another visit to the temple. The morning calmness adding to the serene beauty of the temple. We sat down and watched devotees praying with utmost reverence. Nobody was rushing, no shouting, no entry fee, no long queues – just blissful silence, you and your interactions with the divine.

Next, we visited the Paramekkavu Bhagavathy temple. The temple is opposite the Vadakkunnathan temple, we walked to the temple through the Thekkinkadu Maidan. There were a lot of morning walkers, school kids, athletes going about their daily routine. As we were walking, we were suddenly greeted by someone with a cheerful “Good Morning, Sir” ! It was the owner of the general store we had shopped at the previous night, he was on his morning walk and recognised us in the crowd. It felt wonderful to be recognised by someone in a strange city ! We felt welcomed.

After the Vadakkunnathan Temple, the Paramekkavu Bhagavathy temple is the next main temple of Thrissur and one of the 8 important temples that participate in the Pooram festival. This temple is dedicated to Goddess Bhagavathy.

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Inside the temple is an imposing idol of Goddess Bhagavathy, the whole temple gave you a feel that you were standing in a very high energy place. There was a person, probably an officer of the Temple Board, who made sure everybody followed the rules and traditions of praying at the temple. A young man wearing a pant was asked to stay near the entrance and pray, only those wearing the traditional Veshti (dhoti) were allowed near the Sanctum !

We passed by what seemed like the temple kitchen, some women making garlands, priests reading scriptures, the kind of sights that make you forget the mad, hectic world outside !

We wanted to visit one more temple before we had breakfast but the next temple on our list was about 2 kms away, so we decided we needed some energy to walk the distance. We went to another outlet of Indian Coffee House for breakfast. Our Poori came with a curry with a generous dose of beetroot along with the usual potato, we hadn’t seen a Poori curry like this.

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Beetroot in cutlets, beetroot in Poori Masala, beetroot in almost every dish, we later read that, this is a signature style of Indian Coffee House !

Then, we walked to Thiruvambady Sri Krishna Temple, this temple too is an important participant in the Pooram festival.

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When you visit temples in Kerala, one understands why it is called God’s Own Country, not just for the scenic beauty, it could be the piety with which people worship at the temples, the rituals, the settings or the collective belief – the aura in the temples makes you think that some sacred energy is present in the air.

Completing our temple tour, we walked to the Sakthan Thampuran Palace. Rama Varma Thampuran or Rama Varma IX, was the most popular king of the Kingdom of Kochi, he lived in the 1750s and was the man behind developing Thrissur, its temples, the Pooram festival and the culture that we see today at Thrissur. Rama Varma IX shifted the capital of Kochi kingdom to Thrissur and reconstructed a palace that existed in Thrissur around 1795, this palace is now called the Vadakkekara Palace or commonly, Sakthan Thampuran Palace.

Built in Kerala – Dutch style of architecture, the Sakthan Thampuran Palace has been converted into a museum.

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The museum has galleries ranging from Bronze statues to sculpture, inscriptions, coins and so on.

The best part of the museum is the prehistory gallery which has artefacts from the Indus Valley Civilisation, we had seen them at the National Museum in New Delhi and it was wonderful surprise to see them all the way down south in Thrissur !

We also met a young woman, who was the museum guide, she had a Masters degree in Archaeology, a subject very close to this writer’s heart and we it hit off instantly, sharing interesting notes on history. (This writer’s unfulfilled dream of becoming an archaeologist was partly achieved by obtaining a Masters degree in History and Heritage Management at the ripe old age of 38 !) She pointed out that it was a coincidence that we happened to visit the museum on International Museum Day ! 

The museum is a delight for history lovers, we spent more time than we had expected to and forced ourselves to leave because it was time for us head to Guruvayur. Before winding up our tour of Thrissur, we had one more glass of Nannari Sarbath. 

We checked out of our hotel, met the owner, who gave us some more insights into the Pooram festival and told us he would ensure that we would find accommodation if we ever planned to visit Thrissur during the heavy rush of the festival season.

Thrissur had bewitched us and we kept repeating to ourselves, that we were coming back there for sure. We haven’t stopped talking about Thrissur or watching videos of the Pooram festival even after August has set in, a full 3 months after our trip !

Around 11 AM, we picked up our friends who had arrived at Thrissur that morning and then drove to Guruvayur. In our awe of Thrissur, we had almost forgotten that we had a wedding to attend the next day !

Info tidbits

  • Unless you are a fan of Sree Annapoorna, one need not take the Coimbatore route to Thrissur. The nearest airport is Kochi International Airport, which is about 50 kms. If you wish to take a train, Bengaluru or Chennai could be your transit points, preferably Bengaluru. There are buses to Thrissur from Bengaluru too.
  • Most of the temples in Thrissur are open between 4 AM and 11 AM and 4.30 PM and 8.30 PM.
  • All the temples have a dress code, men have to wear the traditional mundu veshti (dhoti) and women are allowed to wear sarees or salwar kameez.
  • To know more about the Pooram festival and participating temples, check this website: http://www.thrissurpooramfestival.com/
  • The Sakthan Thampuran Palace is open from 9.30 AM to 4.30 PM and closed on Mondays.
  • One would need atleast 2 full days to visit all the places of interest in Thrissur, plan your trip accordingly. The best way to explore any place is by walking, take a walk around Thrissur and experience the richness of its culture.
  • Thrissur, Kalady, Guruvayur are about 30 – 50 kms apart and can be clubbed together as a long weekend trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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