Exploring the family roots: Palakkad

After having talked about Rama’s paternal heritage in Palakkad numerous times, and considering the famous landscape of neighboring Wayanad, Palakkad seemed like a worthy starting point for our Keralan tour.

Palakkad is one of Kerala’s Northern districts and far less travelled than the mid and south with its beaches and backwater cruises. As usual, it was an auto (a motored Riksha or Tuk-Tuk, as it is called in South-East-Asia) that brought us and our (in one case) slightly over-dimensioned suitcases to the homestay which we had selected online. Just as we were developing mixed feelings about the homestay being too close to the city, another turn of the road changed our minds: Suddenly, the town ended, the road transformed into a bumpy, unpaved path of red soil and stones and the forest closed its canopy around us. Ambat Farm Stay turned out to be a nice little place in the middle of a tropical plantation, with the typical Keralan variety of fruits and spices effortlessly growing everywhere and birds chirping in the massive trees.

We later decided that our hosts Mr. and Mrs. Kutty are the ideal homestay hosts: Very welcoming, trustworthy and interested to converse, but at the same time delivering the expected services and maintaining a personal distance from their guests. The homestay being limited to one guest cottage and a large cottage for special classes or western groups of retired esoterics, we were the only guests. However, we were joined by the Menons, Mrs. Kutty’s brother and sister-in-law who had come to visit their family for a couple of weeks from the US: Mohan Das aka Das and his wife Shanta. What followed was an interesting two days alternating between breathtaking and not so breathtaking visits to the nearby places of attraction, and really absorbing dining table conversations with the family.

After having taken a short tour around the family’s land, we took an auto to visit the local ‘must see’ Malampuzha Dam. Having expected to find a Dam with its reservoir being the main point of interest, we were somewhat surprised to realize that the main attraction was in fact a grandiosely constructed park (called ‘garden’) in front of the dam, with hardly anyone taking the trouble to climb and view the reservoir. The park was densely populated with bewildering signboards bearing the word ‘way’ and arrows pointing in various directions. After a few minutes of disoriented walking, we quickly came to the conclusion that following the signboards was an assured way to get lost.

After a strenuous walk of about 2 minutes in the park’s maze, Anna was suddenly convinced that she was exhausted and only an ice cream could cure her state of malaise. Given that it was the hottest time of the day and every move produced more floods of sweat, we decided that taking a ropeway going along the dam wall to be a good idea. However, after having walked into the wrong direction for a while and being told that the entrance to the ropeway station was in fact on the very other end of the park, we relinquished our idea and justified our change of minds with the assumption that the ropeway cabins with their plastic covering would anyway have been too hot to bear. So we went right for the dam wall.

The entrance to the steps leading to the dam was quite well concealed with hardly any signboards pointing its ‘way’.  But we were convinced and after some minutes of determined walking and asking, we soon found ourselves at the bottom of a winding staircase, which lead to the top of the reservoir wall.

The staircase was so narrow that only one person could walk comfortably in any direction. Thus, climbing the staircase soon became a test of balance, chivalry (when we met people coming from the opposite direction at a sudden turn in the staircase) and of course, a head for heights.

Surmounting these odds, we were soon at the top of the dam wall and were treated to a vista of a vast body of calm water, fringed by the greenery of forests and plantations everywhere. The sight was definitely as breath taking as the climb.

After engorging ourselves with the view of the reservoir, we completed our tour of the ‘garden’ and decided to visit the adjacent snake park.

The snake park visit with an entrance fee of INR 15 per head is great value for money and can be recommended for anybody with half an interest in these notoriously ill-understood and even more ill-portrayed denizens of the world.  The snake park has a respectable variety of Indian snakes including some real good specimens of king cobra and Indian rock python. For us, the uncontestable attraction was the sinuously slender, leaf-green colored, tree snake, which kept dancing and nodding its head to some rhythm, which only it could hear. It did bring to the mind’s eye images of rap culture youth gyrating to the sound of the music piping into their ears through ipods on the sub-way trains and platforms in NY.

It was with a satisfied smile that we boarded the auto for our trip back to the Ambat homestay; not before attracting some honest and investigative curiosity from a group of Muslim women whose list of questions at Anna was longer than the application form for an Indian Visa.

The next day’s trip took us to the hill Nelliampathy, which was advertised to us with the drive through pre-historic forests, tea plantations and breathtaking views. The great landscapes of Kerala had already spoilt us enough to not fully appreciate the forest, which itself would have been worth the trip. What we enjoyed most was the indeed outstanding view from so-called ‘suicide cliff’ on Nelliampathy. We were told that there are people who earn their living by performing the unenviable task of retrieving the roundabout 100 dead bodies that pile up in the valley below each year. Even a recent Tamil movie has been released where the hero is employed in a similar profession. Apart from this morbid aspect to this place, the sight was truly enjoyable.  It was not just the scenery that captivated us, but also the sightings of two great eagles perched on the impossibly twisted trees adorned with forest vines in addition to the numerous encounters with the forest monkeys and a fleeting glance of a hog deer.

But our report of Palakkad would not be complete without a synopsis of our encounter with the Menons. Das and Shanta had left Kerala for Texas – of all states, Texas! – in 1962, when Shanta was 18 and Das 22. With both of them having spent most of their lives abroad, the cultural gap between them and their Indian counterparts was huge and noticeable at a glance. A really interesting phenomenon to watch, which showed not only in pronunciation and clothing, but also in their different views on religion, Indian culture and ethics, humor and generally their panoramas on life. Particularly endearing was Shantas role in trying to rein in Das’ almost continuous provocative escapades, which he in turn kept blaming on his creative background. Our conversations at Ambat farm were akin to our road trip and trails in Nelliampathy: First going one way and then the other, and sometimes in a totally opposite direction, but all the time providing inspiring perspectives. Das impressed us with his strikingly open mind and curiosity, which he used to continuously explore new ideas and technologies, while others in his age group rather take a liking to Bingo and card games. A totally engaging couple, which managed to fill in for the Palakkad intelligentsia that we had so associated with the place.

Exploring our favourite Indian state Kerala, my boyfriend and me travelled from Chennai to Palakkad, Kalpetta, Kannur, Ernakulam, Munnar and Alleppey in April and May of 2012 and wrote this travel documentary on the way.

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