Calicut, now better known as Kozhikode, is a historic coastal city that was once one of the wealthiest kingdoms in India. A port that exported spices, ivory, timber, and cloth (Calico textiles derive their name from Calicut), it prospered and grew into an important city. Today, Calicut offers visitors a glimpse of the medieval architecture of Kerala and a staging post to explore the Malabar coast.
We had heard much about the medieval architecture of Calicut, specially the Islamic buildings dating to the days when Calicut traded with the Arabs. Those were the days of the Zamorin—a title derived from Samudra, to mean king of the sea—one of the most affluent Rajas of medieval South India, who ruled about half of Kerala with Calicut as his capital.
The Zamorin forged important trade links with the Arabs and the Chinese, in an era when Europeans were unable to access the Malabar Coast because of the Ottoman domination of the Red Sea that fell on the sea route. By doing this, he established Kozhikode’s monopoly over the international spice trade from the Malabar Coast. He was reputedly one of the wealthiest rulers of India and had a rich cache of gold and pearls. Marco Polo described the Zamorin’s territory in 1320 A.D. as the “great province of Malabar.”
Ibn Batur relates the wonders of Calicut and Quilon, and eulogies the riches of the Muslim merchants of the 14th century. “The greater part of the [Muslim] merchants are so wealthy that one of them can purchase the whole freightage of such vessels as put in here and fit out others like them,” he wrote on one of his six visits to the Zamorin’s capital. The 15th century Chinese traveler Ma Huan described the bustle of Calicut and the wonders of Cochin. Abdu-r-Razak, an ambassador from the Samarkand court, was impressed by the merchant navy fleet, merchandise and assemblage of international merchants at Calicut. The Zamorin wore little but gold and pearls while he sweated it out in heavy Persian clothing in the tropical climate. In 1443 A.D, he stated, “Kozhikode is a perfectly secured harbor, which, like that of Ormuz, brings together merchants from every city and from every country.” Nicolo Conti, another 15th century visitor, called Calicut an emporium of spices. Niketan, a Russian traveler, praised the land of the Zamorin during his tour of India.
Life in Kerala changed when the Portuguese, led by Vasco Da Gama, landed at Kappad near Kozhikode in 1498 and 1502 A.D. His attempts to forge ties with the Zamorin failed and the Portuguese turned their attention to Cochin. The Zamorin, fearing his trade monopoly was at an end, launched an offensive against the Raja of Cochin. The Portuguese supported the Raja and beat back the Kozhikode forces. The Zamorin was forced to accede to Portuguese demands. In the 18th century, the Sultans of Mysore invaded Kozhikode. The Zamorin realized victory was impossible and as Sultan Hyder Ali refused offers of peace, he immolated himself and his family. The Sultans were driven out by the East India Company who made Malabar, including Kozhikode, a province ruled directly by the British Empire.
Today, Kozhikode is an important trading center for timber and tiles and a commercial city for the northern districts of Kerala. Interestingly, it retains its strong Arab association with a large percentage of its population going to the Middle East for employment!
Our driver showed us the beach near the town, which is unsuitable for swimming but the palm-lined coastal sand stretch is pleasant for a quiet walk. There is a park, piers, and a lighthouse, and a couple relaxing here in the morning said they spotted dolphins surfacing for air.
We asked local directions for the Moplah quarter where the Malabari Muslims have their finest mosques. We drove first to the Kuttichara mosque, which the locals told us dates to the 15th century. The mosque is unique in belonging to the traditional Kerala style of architecture rather than the Middle Eastern style that is prevalent in more recent mosques of Kerala. The façade has intricate wood carvings and the three-tiered roof is in the traditional pagoda-style for which Kerala is well known. An ornate door leads into the mosque. The hallway of the mosque has enormous timber rafters within the mosque supporting an elaborate ceiling with fine carvings.
We drove out of the area to the Pazhassiraja Museum, located at East Hill. This museum is managed by the State Archaeological Department. The museum is best known for its copies of original murals, models of temples and megalith monuments of Kerala. There is also a fine collection of bronzes and ancient coins displayed at the museum that are worth seeing. It is named for the Lion of Malabar, Pazhassiraja, who challenged the might of the British. He is respected by the people of Kerala as a freedom fighter of the 19th century.
We drove next to the Kozhikode Art Galley, which has an extensive collection of paintings by Raja Ravi Varma, Raja Raja Varma, and other Indian artists, besides wood sculptures and ivory carvings. The Krishna Menon Museum has a section in honor of the great Indian leader V.K. Krishna Menon, the Kerala statesman who became an important figure in Indian political history. His personal belongings and souvenirs gifted by world leaders are put on view at the museum. Close to the museums in Kozhikode on East Hill Street is the Jay Bees Art Gallery, which has fine displays of the art created by the owner of the gallery, Jayan Bilathikulam. He employs the ‘scratch’ method in his paintings, using crayons and blades. Oil on canvas, pottery and sculpture are also what Jayan Bilathikulam displays at the gallery.
We were hungry now and headed for Mananchira, the hub of Kozhikode, which was once part of the Zamorin’s palace. The British conquered Calicut and made Malabar a province, relieving the Zamorin family of its power. Since then Maninchira was endowed with imposing public buildings like the Town Hall, the Public Library and Commonwealth Trust’s office, most of them dating to colonial times, besides temples, mosques, an attractive public park, and a medieval pond. We lunched at Malabar Palace and then set out to explore the rest of Calicut.
The Tali temple is an interesting example of the traditional Keralan architectural style, using laterite walls and wooden roofing. There are two important shrines here, one dedicated to Narasimha and the other to Krishna. One can observe intricately carved stone sculptures of various gods and delicate wooden carvings of animals suspended from the wooden roof. The Zamorin built the temple in the 14th century as part of his palace complex. The temple is famous for the Revathi Pattathanam, an annual competition of educational skills. The Lokanarkavu Temple is dedicated to the Goddess Durga and the temple has some interesting paintings displayed within. The temple is also dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu and there are shrines to the two gods at the temple complex. One can observe intricate wood carvings and brilliant paintings at the Shiva temple. It is the site for fairs and festivals, which are held at the temple annually. The Trikkovil area is unusual in that it has two Jain temples. The temples display some fine carvings. The Shiva temple and the Krishna temple at Ponmerri have traditional Kerala style murals and are worth a visit just for the artistry.
The Anju Amman Baug is the site of a Parsi fire temple built in the 18th century when Zoroastrian traders settled at Kozhikode. Non-Parsis are not permitted within the temple itself.
The Church of Mother Mary was built in the 16th century. The church dates back to the Portuguese times and has a famous portrait of Mother Mary.
We drove south to Beypore to watch master artisans at work on making Urus, the famous dhows exported to the Middle East. Unfortunately only one uru was present at the site.
“Orders are low now and we are usually making trawlers for the local market,” explains one of the boatyard owners, “when there are orders we make different kinds of dhows. The sambuke, the breek, the Pakistani breek.” Brahminy kites wheeled over the waters of the Beypore river estuary. Beypore has an arts center but it was closed. Instead we visited the workshops where ship and dhow models, uru-in-a-bottle, boat-in-a-bottle and various wooden toys were being made. We bought a medium sized model of an uru for 250 rupees (approximately $5).
Traveling on we reached Kappad, with a beach resort facing the rocks lashed by the waves. The best views are from the restaurant where we ordered tea and pakodas. Foreigners are the next table were excitedly talking about sighting dolphins in the morning from the restaurant. Newly-weds from Calicut posed for photographs in the garden. The cottages here are named for different explorers who visited the Malabar coast. The ayurvedic centre of Kappad is well-known for its health and beauty therapies. Nearby, a stone memorial marks the spot where Vasco Da Gama is believed to have landed in 1498 A.D.
We drove north to Thalasseri and arrived at Ayisha Manzil in time for dinner. The Moosa family owns this massive colonial period mansion and runs it as a five-room heritage hotel. The rooms are enormous and furnished in old Malabari style, but the bathrooms have the latest fixtures. The couple takes pride in laying a great spread—we had mussels and fish starters, Moplah biryani, dessert. “Thalasseri has an interesting fort with secret tunnels, British buildings, a medieval mosque in traditional style, a circus school, a kalari martial arts center and a Sai gymnasium,” explains Moosa, adding, “but it is Kannur that has numerous attractions for travelers.”
The next morning we started at the crack of dawn for Kannur, known as “the land of looms and lore.” A prosperous port in medieval times and during the European colonial period, Kannur was known as an important center for spice and silk trade. Today, a number of weaving units, including important hand-weaving co-operatives, weave cotton and silk fabrics for domestic and international consumption. Traditional pitlooms and Malabari 90” looms still produce some of the finest silk sarees of Kerala.
As for the lore, well folklore is everywhere in Kannur. The Teyyam dance is a spiritual possession ritual, featuring colorfully costumed performers and depicting fascinating folk tales, that can be witnessed at temples of Kannur district. We witnessed a Teyyam dance at the Parsinnadukavu Temple, recreating the life of Muttapan, an incarnation of Lord Shiva, and then drove to St. Angelo Fort, built on a promontory, northwest of Kannur, in 1505 A.D. by the Portuguese in a roughly triangular shape, with a moat protecting the landward end and imposing bastions strengthening the laterite walls.
Inside the fort are canons that have been set in cement, a chapel, jail, stables, and a magazine.
Just out of Kannur is Kanhirode Weaver’s Co-operative, one of the largest of over 50 hand-weaving co-operatives in Kerala. We watched weavers at work on traditional pitlooms, handlooms and shuttles. One of the largest beedi factories of Kerala, Dinesh Beedi Co-operative, is situated near the weaving center. Men and women work on cutting the leaves, filling them with tobacco, and rolling them into beedis. Interestingly enough, there is a newspaper reader at the rear of the unit who keeps the workers informed about political developments and current affairs. The “newspaper reader” symbolizes the Malayalee obsession with news, politics, events, and literature. Our driver showed us the Cinnamon Estate, one of the largest in Kerala, and the old house of a German who compiled a Malayalee-English dictionary.
Finally, we reached Muzhappilangad beach, north of Thalesseri town, a pretty stretch of sand washed by the Arabian Sea. This piece of firm coastal sand is being promoted as a “drive-in” beach and you could suddenly find your quiet place in the sun disturbed by youngsters in jeeps and on motorbikes! When this happens swim to a deserted island offshore for peace. There is one that can be reached by wading across during the low tide.