Kannur is beautiful and quiet. Can there a better combination for slow travelers? I reached Kannur from Madurai, a destination in Tamil Nadu that I visited after Kumily. It was at the fag end of my holiday and all I wanted to do was unwind. Kannur suited that purpose wonderfully and I spent an amazing week in this little coastal Kerala destination. Needless to say, I fell in love with Kannur and it is one place which I will keep re-visiting. To begin with, Kannur is located on the Malabar Coast, a place that I always wanted to visit after reading Amitava Ghosh’s ‘In an Antique Land’. The novel consists of two travelers’ tales: one the writer himself in his new expatriate life in Egypt, and the other of a medieval Indian slave of a Jewish Arab merchant who lived in Egypt. The Indian slave, who acted as the Indian representative of his master’s spice trade lived on the Malabar Coast several centuries ago and his letters to his master are redolent with descriptions of the scenic beauty, cultural intricacies, and natural lushness of the area. Kannur, in the words of the slave, was a place of golden sands, crashing waves, green coconut palm groves, spice gardens, and quiet fish-filled lagoons. Backwaters meandered through the area and hundreds of birds lived in its mangrove forests.
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The Malabar coastal jewel of Kannur
In my eyes, Kannur seemed to have not changed much since the days of the medieval Malabar spice trade. It is still quiet, lush, full of trees, birds, and golden sands. The beaches are tranquil and the town, though bigger and more commercialized, still retains an old-time charm. It is a town of traditional low-rise buildings with sloping tiled roofs, red cement floors, and rich wooden panelings. Most of the well-to-do local residents of Kannur live along the coast and coconut palms grow in rich abundance. The villages around Kannur and all along the Malabar Coast abound with intriguing cultural rituals and the famous Theyyam is performed here on auspicious nights.
The lovely Kannur Beach House
Due to a delayed flight, I arrived in Kannur in the middle of the night. The town was completely asleep and it was by sheer luck, that I managed to find my homestay. The Kannur Beach House, where I was staying promised a century-old traditional Kerala house set in coconut groves next to a small freshwater lagoon. It was 2 minutes from the Thottada beach and all the rooms had sea-views. The hosts were well known for their delicious local meals and arranging visits to Theyyam shows. My first impression upon arrival was of a grouchy hostess and inky blackness of the night. I could hear the calls of insects, night birds, and the crashing of the waves. The air smelled salty with hints of wildflowers and over-ripe fruits and there were occasional plops of something falling in the water. That night, I had no sense of orientation or space and felt being gobbled up by pitch darkness as I turned off the lights in my room.
Slow traveling in Kannur
The next morning, a most delightful vista awaited my eyes. A little garden led to a shallow lagoon beyond which the Arabian Sea unfurled. A small river flowed beside the property and pomelo trees bore big globes of fruits. Bird cries filled the air and further away an empty beach spread like a golden carpet. That sight was enough for me to feel happy about traveling to Kannur and I did exactly what had I planned: unwind. Kannur is an easy place to do so. No traffic noises could be heard at my homestay and apart from the waves and occasional pitter-patter of truant rain showers, it was a silent place. My days grew longer as my body rested and apart from kayaking down the river and spending some time on the beach, I simply lazed on the hammock in the garden and slept. Once, I went out to the Kannur town for the customary sightseeing and after making brief stops at the Fort St. Angelo and Arakkal Kettu, I came back to the homestay. I found the main town to be unimaginative, unwieldy, and jam-packed with shops, restaurants, offices, traffic, and quintessential holy cows, which didn’t flinch despite the ceaseless whirr of cars around them. The town grew in an unplanned manner taking up space as it grew richer and it was a relief to head back to the quiet lagoon resident.
The heritage of Kannur
The main town’s bustle reminded me of what Kannur had once been; as the Indian slave in Amitava Ghosh’s book had described a Malabari spice hub to be: a major port and a trading junction. Under the rule of the Kolathiri kings, Cannanore (as Kannur was known in those days) was, in Marco Polo’s own words “a great emporium of spice trade”. The city flourished as a major port bristling with international trade and over centuries, colonial rulers including the Portuguese, Dutch, and the British have left behind their marks. Its importance waned with the growing popularity of Calicut that lies 80 kilometers north and today, Kannur lures travelers by its theyyam rituals and uncrowded beaches. Tourism is yet to strike gold here and the main revenue generators for the town are the weaving industry and cashew trade. The local population, being predominantly Mopila Muslim, flaunting a bikini on the beach may seem out of place and that is why Kannur attracts international travelers of mature years, travelers with families, and slow travelers. This instead of hindering the charm of the destination makes it even more alluring as a quiet, tranquil beach getaway of Kerala.
Kannur Travel Guide
How to Reach
By Train: Kannur Station is connected with Ernakulam and Trivandrum by the Cannanore, Netravati, and Parashuram daily express trains. It is connected with Chennai by the Mangalore Mail, and to Mumbai by the Netravati and Mangla Lakshadweep Expresses. The latter begins at Delhi, to which Kannur is also connected by Trivandrum Rajdhani (thrice a week) and Kerala Sampark Kranti (twice a week). info – Outlook India
- From Kochi – There are plenty of daily direct trains between Kochi and Kannur. Choose the express options to and from Ernakulam Junction to save time. Plan better by enquiring at the station and booking your ticket in advance. The journey should take around 5 hours.
- From Munnar: Get on an early morning bus to Kochi from Munnar. Get off after 4 hours at Aluva and catch a train to Kannur South station or Kannur Junction station. It is a full-day journey.
By Air: Karipur International Airport, Kozhikode is the nearest airport. It is 112km and the drive takes 2.5hrs. Taxis to Kannur from the airport cost around ₹2,000-2,500.
By Road: Kannur is connected to Kozhikode (86km), Kasargod (89km), Mangalore (138km), Panjim (514km), and Mumbai (1,072km) by NH17. It is a 6-hour drive from Kochi (309km), along NH47 to Edapally, then NH17 to Kannur via Kodungallur, Ponnani, Kozhikode, and Thalassery. info – Outlook India
By Bus: Kannur has regular bus services to Thiruvananthapuram, Kasargod, Kozhikode, Kalpetta, Ponnani, Palakkad, Thrissur, Ernakulam, Bengaluru, and Mangalore. The town’s KSRTC Bus Stand is opposite the Collector’s Office near NH17.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the wonderful Kannur Beach House at Thottada Beach. It is a quiet place and is much loved by travelers with families. The Ivory Coaste in Kizzhuna is also very popular.
Best Time to Visit
The time between December and May is most suitable for Theyyam performances. Summer is hot and humid. Monsoon is beautiful on the Malabar Coast, though the sea remains off-limits for safety reasons.
Things to do in Kannur
Visit the beaches
- Kizzhuna Beach in Kannur is one of the most beautiful beaches in south India. It is made of ‘virgin sand’ meaning every year, the harsh monsoon storms and high waves wash away the old beach, and ‘new sand’ is brought in. That is why, it is one of the cleanest, trash-free beaches in India.
- Thottada Beach is not as clean as Kizzhina Beach but is empty.
- Payyambalam Beach is the most popular beach in the town. It is neither very clean nor empty. You can go there for people-watching.
- Muzhappilangad Drive-in Beach is a drive-in beach that is most suitable for 4-WD or ATV drive. It can get pretty popular.
See the monuments and cultural centers
- Climb the Kannur lighthouse for breathtaking views. Entrance Fee – Rs. 60 per person for non-Indian tourists and Rs. 20 for phone or digital camera photography. Rs. 100 is a professional SLR camera fee.
- Visit the colonial heritage of St. Agnelo’s Fort. Accessed through a gateway on its northern side, this fort remains in good condition and is worth visiting. It has massive laterite ramparts and British-era cannons. The fort offers commanding views of the sea and of Moplah Bay. Within the compound are numerous cashew trees, said to have been planted by the Portuguese. Entrance Fee – NA, Timings 8.30am–6.00pm
- When in Kannur, visit the Arakkal Kettu or the former residence of the Arakkal Ali Rajas. Located 3 km from Kannur, the monument has been transformed into a museum and houses historical documents, weapons, various pieces of 400-year-old rosewood furniture, and other heirlooms.
- If you like culture, then you must visit the Folklore Museum near Kannur. Housed in a 130-year old mansion located in Chirakkal just 5 kilometers north of Kannur, this splendid museum showcases extravagant costumes worn in theyyam and other less-known local art and ritual forms, including the Muslim dance style oppana. Also on display are various local masks and weapons used in Padayani rituals performed in local Bhadrakali temples.
Support the local co-operatives
- Visit the Thotthada Beedi Workers’ Ind. Co-Op Society to get an insight into the making of the local cigars a.k.a the beedi. Used mostly by the blue-collar workers, beedis are cheap, easily found, and very addictive. While this provides an insight into the making of this highly important commercial product, the working conditions of the workers may seem distressing.
- If you are interested in handlooms, then make sure to visit the Kanhirode Co-operative, 13km northeast of Kannur on the main road to Mattanur. It employs around four hundred workers to make upholstery and curtain fabrics, plus material for luxury shirts and saris.
Witness a Theyyam ritual
This is the most important reason why most travelers visit Kannur.
What is theyyam?
- Often mentioned as the Dance of the Gods, theyyam is one of the oldest indigenous art forms of North Kerala. Its roots are believed to predate Hinduism and can be traced back more than 1500 years. An extraordinary spectacle, there are more than 400 different manifestations of theyyam existing in and around Kannur. Each of them comes with its own distinctive costumes, elaborate jewellery, body paints, face make-up, and gigantic headdresses (mudi).
What happens during a theyyam ritual?
- In theyyam, actors impersonate goddesses or gods and they actually become the deity being invoked, thus acquiring their magical powers. This trance-like state allows them to perform superhuman feats, such as rolling in hot ashes or dancing with a crown that rises to the height of a coconut tree. It is locally believed that by experiencing theyyam, the audience absorbs the deity’s powers – to cure illness, conceive a child or get lucky in a business venture.
Where and when are theyyams held?
- Theyyam rituals are traditionally staged in small clearings (kaavus) attached to village shrines. These are always performed by members of the lowest castes with the higher caste members in attendance. They do so to venerate the deity – a unique inversion of the normal social hierarchy. Theyyam takes place between November to May all over the north of Kerala (and parts of neighbouring Karnataka), with the peak season when there are multiple performances a day in kavus/temples all over the region – falling from November to December. There is a Theyyam calendar available on the Kerala Tourism website but since the events are often changed at the last minute, it’s advisable to speak with your hotel/guest house to confirm. I experienced theyyam with the help of my homestay owner.
Details of theyyam performance
- Theyyam is generally performed in three distinct phases: the thottam, where the dancer, wearing a small red headdress, recites a simple devotional song accompanied by the temple musicians; the vellattam, in which he runs through a series of more complicated rituals and slower, elegant poses; and the mukhathezhuttu, the main event, when he appears in full costume in front of the shrine. From this point on until the end of the performance, which may last all night, the theyyam is manifest and empowered, dancing around the arena in graceful, rhythmic steps that grow quicker and more energetic as the night progresses, culminating in a frenzied outburst just before dawn, when it isn’t uncommon for the dancer to be struck by a kind of spasm. (Information credit – Along Dusty Roads
Things to remember before witnessing a theyyam ritual
- This is a religious ceremony and not an experience put on for tourists. Tourists are welcome to observe and to take photos in a respectful manner but it is important to not use a flash especially if you are watching it at night.
- Conservative dress code is more suited for this purpose.
- Members of the audience are welcome to offer a donation to the temple, but these are done in return for a blessing.
Follow the rest of the Kerala series
- SAT DARSHAN: ASHRAM TRAVEL FOR THE SOUL
- KERALA TRAVEL MEMORIES
- A KERALA HOLIDAY
- A PERFECT COCHIN STAY
- KOCHI ITINERARY AND TRAVEL GUIDE
- LIFE ALONG THE KERALA BACKWATERS
- KOLLAM, LESSER-KNOWN SIDE OF KERALA
- VALLAM KALI, THE FAMOUS KERALA BOAT RACE
- MUNROE ISLAND, THE QUIET BACKWATER GETAWAY
- COMPLETE KERALA BACKWATERS GUIDE
- PULIKALI TIGER DANCE OF KERALA
- KUMILY, THE LAND OF SPICES AND TEA
- PERIYAR WILDLIFE SANCTUARY: A COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE