A road trip to Nilambur Kovilakam
It was only February but felt like mid-summer days. As the scorching heat arrived much earlier this year, we decided to take a few days off and visit the high ranges to cool-off. When I mentioned my fascination to visit a Kovilakam, my friend Jose invited us to Nilambur and his estate in the Nilgiris. It touched a nostalgic chord in me as the song “Neelagiriyude sakhikale…" from the 1973 hit movie Panitheeratha Veedu, sung by P Jayachandran (maestros Vayalar/M S Viswanathan composition) kept resonating in my mind. The year 1973 was another difficult milestone in my life, that’s the year I became an NRI and left my kith and kin and my village for a foreign land.
We started our journey from Pathanamthitta. It was a 38-degree Celsius bright sunny day. Our target was Nilambur about 300 kilometers away with an estimated travel time of 7 hours.
Pathanamthitta is the gateway to Sabarimala and other hill stations on the Western Ghats. It is in the laps of rivers Achankovil and Pampa and her tributaries. It is a lush land of hills and valleys, and rice fields, plantain and mangosteen farms, and rubber estates. These days much of the paddy fields are abandoned thus they are fertile grounds for weeds and creepy crawlers.
We traveled on newly patched-up and paved roads since the 2018 floods had caused substantial damage to the infrastructure. It is sad to say that the Kerala road system is still way behind all other states' even though the number of vehicles on the roads is ten times higher than we had 30 or 40 years ago. As an example, the State Highway 8 (Main Eastern Highway) that connects many high range townships, and pilgrimage places including the famous Sabarimala hasn’t changed a bit despite many surveys, and re-surveys, funding opportunities, and political commitments over the past 60 years. As long as I could remember, the so-called highway remains the same old road that is struggling to keep pace with the burgeoning traffic.
We traveled via thoroughfares lined with lush green trees, flowering shrubs and small and big houses. The mango trees in full bloom across the towns and villages was an unusual sight for us. We drove past backwaters, and crossed a few rivers, and got stuck at heavily congested junctions, and crossroads.
Traffic was better than we expected in many areas but for the highly congested areas in Thiruvalla, Changanasery, and Kottayam. The major bottlenecks were the downtown core and certain cross-junctions. These towns are the major commercial hubs of central Travancore. They are the centers of education, many established institutions, from arts and science to professional colleges are in these towns. We stopped in Changanasery for light lunch at Arya Bhavan before we headed out for the long haul.
We bypassed Ernakulam and Kochi by utilizing the MC Road and traveled via Perumbavoor and joined the NH544 in Angamali. Then, till Trichur, it was free flowing, as it is modern highway. As we were inching closer to sections of Thrissur, Pattambi and Perinthalmanna, the roads were poorer and congested traffic volume.
As we traveled through villages, small towns, and cities, we encountered good roads and bad ones, construction areas, general congestion, traffic jams, man-made impediments such as toll plazas, and haphazard parking, and poor driving attitudes due to an ‘I don’t care’ mindset. Towns and junctions were packed with evening shoppers, restaurant patrons, and people enjoying the hubbubs of the crowded places. Small-time vendors, peddlers, and thattukadas were everywhere. The aroma of open-air cooking, burning incenses, and garbage heap nearby permeated the evening air. Even the bright LED and neon lights from the stores and the signs felt dimmed in the diesel smoke and dust-laden haze. The atmosphere was noisy.
We stopped at few places for bio-breaks and coffee and dinner. Despite all the achievements in awareness-building efforts on hygiene, it is still difficult to find a half-decent and clean place for bio breaks.
We found many new eating places bearing fancy and foreign names on the sides of byways, and highways offering local, international, and fusion cuisines. My main concern was the quality of the food, and hygienic conditions of the premises We found a few of them better and accepted the quality of the food based on the cleanliness of the premises.
There is a general trend towards cleanliness as the hospitality industry is learning from their counterparts in other places and countries. Hygiene practices in many places have improved over the years, however, there is a long way to go. Cleanliness is simple to achieve once we realize that our healthy existence depends on it. Hygiene is not a one-shot thing; it is a mindset that allows us to practice it consistently.
The two places, Kerala Food Court and Adayar Bhavan were not too bad concerning cleanliness. As always, I stick with my ubiquitous favorites, hot dosa, idly, black coffee, etc.
We reached Nilambur by about 9:30 in the night. Towns and junctions were still alive with people, and stores, and restaurants were doing a brisk business. This is opposite to what we see in the mid-Travancore areas, almost everything shuts down by 7 PM. We had a reservation at Tamarind hotel belonging to the KTDC's budget chain. It is ideally located, right on the on Nilambur-Ooty Road on the banks of Karimpuzha River. It was an okay place but needs much up-keeping and renovation. The staff was very courteous and diligent.
Nilambur located on the banks of the Chaliyar River is a major town in the Malappuram district. The Chaliyar River makes her way down from the Nilgiris of the Western Ghats and runs through Malappuram and Kozhikode districts before drains into the Beypore estuary. In the past, the river was the main waterway to transport lumber and forest products to the nearby mills in the Kozhikode area. Nilambur is famous for the teak plantation and Kovilakam and her colonial history.
The next day morning after a sumptuous breakfast at my friend's place, we moved to the Nilambur Kovilakam premises. Jose’s whole family excelled in the real spirit of ‘Aditi Devo Bhava' courtesies.
Heritage homes such as Kovilakams, Manas, Kottarams and Illams are our windows to the past. The allure is the mysticism and the unknows of yesteryear stories associated with them. They attract me immensely as I try to learn more about our history. They are all awe-inspiring and tell us stories of grandeur, highlife, glory, power, pompous, and aristocracy of our forefathers. They also exemplify power struggles, infights, wars, animosity among kith and kin, and their fast rise to glory, and the freefall to pauperdom. They are the living symbols of our heritage. Compared to other countries, I find, especially in Kerala, we do not care much about our ancestral artifacts. Perhaps, we are too much preoccupied with our current affairs. In other countries along with the governments, other organizations, and individuals try to upkeep and restore them so that the future generations can enjoy and learn more about the amazing accomplishments of their ancestors.
The culture and history of old Malabar were closely associated with Eranad/Nilambur rulers. The Nilambur Kovilakam was once the powerhouse of the Thirumulpads, the feudal landowners i.e. local rulers representing the Kozhikode Zamorins (Samoothiris). According to The Malabar Manual (published in 1887) by William Logan, ‘Forests in Malabar are chiefly private property and the great bulk of the land in the Nilambur valley is the property of the Nilambur Tirumulpad…." Willian Logan was a British Civil Service Officer who served as the Collector of Malabar for 20 years. His two-volume Malabar Manual gives insights into the geography, people, culture, religion, lifestyles of that period.
The gate to the Kovilakam compound is in a state of neglect. As we walked in, we realized the vast complex is not unique anymore, the adjoining lands were subdivided and sold and owned by many individuals. There are many tenements on both sides of the road leading to the main Kovilakam. The courtyard in front of the Kovilakam is large and has many flowering bushes and fruit trees. The compound extends to the Chaliyar river.
The current owners, Dr. Vasudevan, and Manavedan Thirumulpad and the family greeted us with open arms. They took us around, explaining the history, art, and artifacts in detail. Their demeanor was exceptionally praise-worthy.
The original Kovilakam, as I understood, was a pathinarukettu building with 16 hallways joined to the four open courtyards. It was massive and built to accommodate large multi-generational families to live ‘under one umbrella’ as a joint family, a koottukudumbam.
The Nilambur Kovilakam exemplifies the traditional Vaastu architecture of Kerala. From the roof to floor and from side to side the Kovilamkam building follows the Vaastu Sastra: high pointed roof and ceilings, windows that permit cross ventilation, and corridors that connect to the central courtyard(s) are unique features of the architecture. The use of locally-sourced teak, rosewoods, mahogany, and other hardwoods, and tiles, stones, clay and laterite blocks are features of the building. Clay-tiles on the roof, wooden ceilings, and floors to dampen the outside temperature are also unique. Ceilings, windows, doors, and hallways were placed in such a way to promote cross-ventilation thus to keep the building cool. The façade itself is uniquely Kerala style, as seen in many temples. There are paintings, and murals, and woodcarvings and old-world beds, and chaise-lounges, kitchen tools, like in a museum. Such institutions were centers of arts, literature, culture, and music.
It was estimated that some of the buildings in the Kovilakam complex were about 200 years old. As the years passed, the compound was subdivided among the newer generations, and even sold to outsiders.
Famous Vettakkorumakan temple (dedicate to Kiratha Moorthy, a manifestation of Lord Shiva) is in the Kovilakam complex. The temple festival known as the Pattutsavam is a cultural phenomenon these days. The origin of the famous Nilambur Pattu is unknown, but it has been said that the tribal people from the nearby forests played the songs as an homage to the Nilambur rulers. These days the pattulsavam festival is celebrated as a cultural event. It does reverberate the good old days of the Kovilakam.
The Nilambur Kovilakam was one of the richest families in the Malabar area with a vast holding of land. Manavedan Raja gave away much of the lands for the benefit of the society to builds schools, hospitals, plantations, railroads, etc. Thus, the people of Nilambur still have high regards for the Kovilakam family.
Inside the Kovilakam
Artworks, artifacts, and antiquities
While on the historical aspects of Nilambur, it is suitable mentioning the Malabar Rebellion (aka Māppila Lahala). It was the 1921 failed armed uprising by the Mappila Muslims against British authority. However, the riots and ensued chaos and destruction caused havoc across Malabar and touched Nilambur in many ways.
There are other worthwhile attractions, rubber, and teak plantations, rain forests, tribal settlements, and, waterfalls in and around Nilambur. The oldest teak plantation in the world, Conolly's Plot, is in Nilambur. The plantation was named after the then British Malabar district collector H. V. Conolly who along with forest officer Chathu Menon was instrumental in developing it. The famous Teak Museum is on the Nilambur–Gudalur road. Nilambur-Shoranur Railway line is one of the single, shortest broad-gauge lines in India. The line passes through lush forestlands, plantations, and rice fields. The Nilambur station and the railroad line was built by the British to transport forest products and teak to the mills. Adyan Para and Kozhippara Waterfalls are in the vicinity of Nilambur on the Chaliyar River. Another attraction is the Vaniyambalam Temple on the Shornur- Nilambur Railway Line.
Nilambur is the ideal gateway, if you are planning, to visit Bandipur Tiger Reserve and National Park, Mudumalai National park, New Amarambalam Wildlife Sanctuary, and to the Nilgiris and Ooty.
For us, it was a fun-filled as well as an educational tour: a tour blended in facts, realities, and history.