'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Nila Valley

Nila is Kerala's Ganga. The river's 100 odd kilometer journey begins at Parali near Palghat at the confluence of Amaravati and Kalpathi. It flows generally westward down a well-defined valley until the Arabian sea is reached at Ponnani. This post collects notes from stations on the river.

1. An evening at the Malampuzha Dam and Gardens (a little upstream from Parali on the Kalpathi river): Early June. Monsoon had arrived and it had rained a bit. But there was not much water in yet and the low hills that ring the reservoir were still brown. Beyond were higher hills which had turned a fresh green - with further increase in altitude this green darkened into a deep shade of blue and the summits were lost among dense violet clouds.

The canals crisscrossing the sprawling gardens were stagnant or dry and the fountains lay idle. In a surprisingly localized burst of color, butterflies by the thousands fluttered around the lovely blue flowers on a plumbago hedge.

The (in)famous 'Yakshi' by Kanai Kunhiraman is the one work of art for many miles around - the colossal female figure appears to be awakening from deep sleep into a deeper erotic trance. Was Kanai inspired by Michelangelo's 'Night' - about the latter it has been said: "Night sleeps, but in a posture suggesting stressful dreams."?

2. RAYIRANELLUR: Naranathu Bhranthan, legendary Kerala's Sysiphus, used to roll boulders up this 500-odd foot hill near Naduvattam, not far from the northern banks of the mature Nila. When I reached here on a rainfree afternoon, there was no one to be seen. A muscular and bearded 15-20 foot sculptural figure of Bhranthan - more Grecian than Desi but for a loincloth - stands near the southern edge of the summit (his left foot swollen with filariasis; legend says a subsequent encounter with Kali led to its getting transferred to the right foot). A massive boulder stands poised at Bhranthan's feet and he appears to be blessing it for an instant just before letting it roll and crash down - and starting the process all over again. Nearby is a little temple and a clearing frequented by peacocks.

The river could be seen gently meandering away - parallel ranges of verdant hills clearly marking out its valley. As I sat at Bhranthan's feet, a muezzin called for prayer from a mosque far below. Soon, the same call was heard from over a dozen different mosques (some with minarets rising above the trees, some invisible) at varying distances from across the valley. In the limpid afternoon air, cleansed of dust and grit by the monsoon, the voices rang out clear and pure (a stiff breeze made them flicker and flutter occasionally though).

Although posterity reveres Bhranthan as an enlightened Master and something of a demigod, his own kith and kin thought rather differently of his sayings and stunts. They caught and chained him to a wall at a nearby place (now called Bhranthachalam) and he is said to have given up the ghost there.

Caught by a strange urge, I went up and down the hill thrice in succession; before the final descent, I approached the statue and reverentially touched the filarial swelling. And I guess it must have silently muttered: "My left foot!"

3. PANNIYUR: At Koodallur, Nila is joined by its last major tributary Toota. A few kilometers from here and at a short distance to the south of the river course, on an elevated tableland is the vast sanctuary of the Panniyur Varahamurti temple.

The presiding deity is Varaha, the boar-man incarnation of Vishnu. The principal idol shows him enthroned in majesty with Bhumidevi (Mother Earth personified) on his lap. The temple enclosure has several other shrines - Laxminarayana (the idol has a right arm missing), Siva, Devi and so forth. It is believed that Perunthachan, ancient Kerala's great architect (he was Bhranthan's brother!) started work on the temple and declared - "Panniyur temple shall remain unfinished". What sounds like a bleak prophecy was actually a cryptic blessing - that future generations of architects would always find work here. And work aplenty remains to be done - the sanctum of Laxminarayana is unfinished. Only robust stone foundations - with a stand of trees having grown from it - exist of another structure which I was told was intended to be a Koothambalam theatre. The temple has no proper outer walls and no Gopurams.

The Perunthachan connection notwithstanding, one sees no conspicuously great art or architecture here - even the principal sanctum is a gentle, understated affair. But for pure, meditative calm, few locales can compare with a monsoon twilight at Panniyur.

To the north of the temple area is a vast tank - it reminded me of the so-called 'shipyard' at Lothal in Gujarat. And this hunch might well have some substance. The waterbody, I gathered later, is actually called 'Panniyur Thura' (thura could mean 'harbor'). The sea is many kilometers away and even the river course is a couple of kilometers to the north but in times long gone, things could have been very different - it is conceivable that the 'uru' craft of Arabs used to sail a long way up the Nila and trade in spices (it is perhaps no coincidence that a high-grade strain of pepper goes by the name 'Panniyur-one'). It is also said: in medieval times, factions of Nambuthiri priests based at Panniyur and Sukapuram (a place not far from Panniyur) were locked in a vicious feud - local chiefs and kings were drawn into this conflict which gradually became a major watershed in the history of Kerala as a whole. Factoring in the maritime presence and commercial prominence the area might have enjoyed in those times, the belligerants could well have had stakes in matters more substantial than the issue of which Nambuthiri faction deserved greater sacerdotal eminence.

4. MUKKOLA: Here is a legend-hallowed group of six temples, believed to have been consecrated by none other than Sankaracharya. On a persistently rainy day, we visited the core group of three goddess shrines. The setting is simply wonderful - many acres of madly green woodland protected by very old and very massive laterite walls. The site has left an indelible imprint on Kerala history due to its associations with a galaxy of great names - including the celebrated poet-scholar-mathematician Melpathur Bhattathiri. But, here is the dampener, the temples themselves have been almost totally rebuilt in grossly modern ferroconcrete - the very fate I feared (and still fear) would befall the Mahadeva temple at Koothattukulam (a few posts back).

5. PONNANI: The laid-back town of Ponnani straggles along the southern bank as Nila merges with the Arabian Sea. The place has had a rich and long association with Arabs and Islam; but the Gulf boom which has choked several Muslim neighborhoods in Kerala with characterless and garishly painted ferroconcrete structures has not impacted Ponnani much - some of the streets are lined with two-storied and tile-roofed shop and warehouse buildings dating back to early 20th century and there are quiet lanes with old fortress-like Muslim 'tharavadu's.

The 'Azhimukham' (estuary) of Nila is a nice enough place to see the sea and in June, to watch Monsoon clouds form as thin, foggy wisps and build up rapidly into menacing towers of dark violet. But the riverine landscape has been spoiled by the massive walls of a pulimuttu (salinity barrier) that stick out into the sea like the mouth parts of a cockroach. V P Muhammad's description ('Kunhayante Kusrithikal')of Nila "turning from a bashful country-girl into a lustful woman as she rushes into the eager embrace of the Arabian sea" stands invalidated, perhaps forever.

The Jama Masjid is famous for its temple-ish architecture and carved timber. Its tiled roof is crowned by a row of finial 'tazhikakkudams' (Tim Mackintosh Smith, in his 'Hall of Thousand Columns', reports seeing 'Siva's trident' planted atop the building; I did not. Maybe I missed it; and just maybe, 'Mr. Tim Sir' mistook a lightning arrestor for the Pagan symbol. The central portion of 'Allah' written in Arabic script (and at a stretch, even the Buddhist 'triratna' symbol) can look a trident to a novice but Mackintosh Smith is anything but a novice with Arabic).

Legend talks of a master craftsman who went up to give finishing touches to the Masjid roof; he chanced to look west and saw Mecca(!) and was so stunned by the brilliance of the holy city that he fell and died. In in its present form, the building does not really overpower with its height. It is 'only'about as tall as the 'Tazhathangadi' mosque at Kottayam.

Happily, the faithful appear very keen on preserving the Masjid in its traditional form - unlike the reputedly even more ancient 'Cheraman mosque'at Kodungallur that has very recently been smothered by a modern concrete facade.

A booklet on the Islamic history of Ponnani and the Jama Masjid was on sale at the Masjid office. Unfortunately, I missed picking up a copy in the rush to catch a bus back home. I also missed to ask about the tomb of the unfortunate (or blessed) craftsman, who is said to rest here.