You could call it the uncricket theory of Indian getaway desirability. The easiest way to locate an offbeat experience is to look at what the local boys are playing. If it’s cricket, you’re almost certainly still too close to civilisation, the tawdry solicitations of mass media, and plenty tourist traps. If it’s anything else, you can be sure you’re close to somewhere interesting — it’s a principle that works with deeply satisfying results whether you’re in Ladakh, Jharkhand, Goa or Sikkim.
I’m in the hills of southern Malappuram in Kerala, and my uncricket theory is just being demonstrated with interest. Because in addition to steady substitution of cricket with football on the grounds, the identity of the sportsmen on the posters at bus stops and tea shop walls has changed. There’s Christiano Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldinho, and always, the man who is revered as a near-deity in these parts, Diego Maradona.
Images of footballing heroes, though, are often the only outsiders you’ll see in this land. It’s quite distinctly off Kerala’s major Kovalam/backwaters tourist axis. This is rather different country, one that may perhaps lack for the conveniences of a fully developed tourist infrastructure, but one that makes up for it with its own brand of relatively unspoilt charm.
It is still, for instance, the sort of place where our photographer Srikanth and I are instantly marked as outsiders. Neither of us is a neatly dressed man with a moustache and a ready wit, a description that fits virtually every Kerala male over 15. I’m not even using all my piercings, but our dress and Srikanth’s dreadlocks and tattoos have the locals pulling our legs. It is one of life’s wicked little pleasures to see their faces when we reply in Malayalam that we’re both virtually locals. It is an altogether greater pleasure to be in a place where outsiders are still few enough to be remarked upon.
Some of Nilambur’s outsiders have left enduring marks, though. H.V. Conolly, a collector of Malabar in the mid-19th century, and a pioneer of systematic forest management, established a teak plantation here. Called Conolly’s Plot, it contains some of the finest examples of this magnificent tropical hardwood that you’ll see anywhere. The area around Nilambur has some of India’s best moist deciduous and tropical rain forest, and is today among the few places in the subcontinent that hasn’t been stripped of its original forest cover. A lot of this is teak, and this versatile wood drove the local economy for decades.
The very well tended Nilambur Teak Museum will tell you virtually everything you might want to know about the tree. The museum also has an excellent botanical park with an impressive collection of ferns, orchids and other plants, but teak is clearly the star here.
Nearby, in Nilambur town, you’ll get another sense of teak’s enduring beauty and strength at the Kovilakams, grand mansions of the rajas of Nilambur. Some are close to 300 years old, and the woodwork, plastering and detailing here show the sort of artisanship money cannot buy today. The finer woodwork is in rosewood and other exotic timber, but much of the load-bearing is carried out by great beams of teak, polished and immaculately jointed with nary a nail to mar the finish.
Teak isn’t the only local forest giant. At Chaliyar Mukku, a confluence of the local Chaliyar river with one of its tributaries near the Teak Museum, there is a simply awe-inspiring grove of 100-150-foot mahogany trees by the riverbank. Walking in the shade of these magnificent trees, stepping around their huge buttress roots, is a bit like wandering alone through a giant cathedral.
The Chaliyar is the major river here. Teak logs would be floated down the river to where it meets the sea at Beypore near Kozhikode. Beypore was, and is, a traditional centre for boatbuilding, and teak continues to be used in making the large dhow-like ocean-going boats called urus. Uniquely, the top master designers make these big boats from plans in their heads, and are tremendously respected by their clientele, mainly wealthy Arabs.
On the way to the scenic Adyanpara waterfall, about 16km from Nilambur town, another Gulf connection emerges. Instead of a regular highway sign, Saddam Hussein glowers out of a large billboard that clearly marks our turnoff from the main road. The late Iraqi leader has his supporters in this corner of Kerala, where underdogs of any description are guaranteed a degree of support.
The sight of what appear to be a number of grubby hand-towels drying on lines outside many homes in the area suggest that rubber is virtually a cottage industry here. The ‘hand-towels’ are actually sheets of rubber, which are off-white before the smoke curing turns them darker.
Some rubber operations are much larger, such as the estate we’re staying on. Cicely and Thomas Tharakan, who run Backwoods, a homestay, out of their estate, are blue-blooded Kerala landed gentry. Plantations and land holdings in their Syrian Christian community can be hundreds of years old and run into thousands of acres. When you’re not dozing off after Cicely’s delicious meals, Thomas will drive you around his two rubber estates near Nilambur, all the while keeping you engrossed with local colour. Like all the best hosts, Thomas has the mild eccentricity that guarantees an interesting past and plenty of stories to keep you entertained.
On our last evening, though, what is developing into an interesting story about feuding local VIPs peters out because we’re distracted by the local fast food we’ve come to pick up. It’s called broast, something I’d long dismissed as typographically challenged branding. It turns out ‘broasting’ is a commercial process that deep fries spiced chicken in a pressure cooker, an American invention that’s come to this part of Kerala by way of West Asia, where it’s a popular takeaway. The process is supposed to seal the chicken’s juices while not letting the meat get too oily. It is indeed tasty, but it simply pales before the succession of biryanis, fish, desserts and more that keep appearing from Cicely’s kitchen.
It’s my last evening in Nilambur, though, and I’m also reluctantly planning my journey back. Thomas suggests the train; the line was built to transport timber; much of it was shipped for use as railway sleepers to places like Kenya when the British were building the East African rail network. The next morning, I’m glad I took his suggestion. The line is achingly pretty. Tiny stations surrounded by teak, mahogany and huge stands of bamboo with stalks a foot thick at the base, with a train that rarely accelerates much beyond a man’s sprinting speed as it curves around forested hills and stands of banana, areca nut and rubber broken up by little villages and small paddy fields. This is what much of Kerala looked like before a growing population and economy turned large stretches of the state into an extended semi-urban sprawl, and it’s quite gorgeous. Get there quickly before the crowd discovers it.
Nilambur is 45km (Rs 800 by non-AC taxi) from Calicut (Kozhikode) airport, and 165km (Rs 3,000) from Cochin (Kochi) airport. The drive from Calicut takes you through Manjeri and Vadapuram; from Cochin the route is Thrissur-Shoranur-Perinthalmanna-Vadapuram. Heavy traffic can be a nuisance on early stages of the latter, but both are scenic routes and a recommended attraction in themselves. Even better is the Mysore-Gundalpet-Bandipur-Gudalur route from Bangalore (300km). For much of the last 100km you’ll be driving through moist deciduous and montane rain forest before descending into Nilambur’s more tropical rain forest. These woods are truly lovely, dark and deep, with a fair chance of seeing wild elephant on your way. If your schedule permits, try the very scenic railway (originally constructed for moving timber) between Nilambur Road and Shoranur (well connected to the rest of India). There are several trains a day, and you’ll pass through charming little tree-lined stations and a rugged countryside that offers glimpses of what much of Kerala once looked like. The Back Woods homestay is 7km from Nilambur, near Vadapuram.
The Back Woods homestay
The tariff at Thomas and Cicely Tharakan’s homestay is Rs 4,500 per couple per day (includes all meals and field trips). Children under 15 are charged at half the rate. If you’re just transiting, but would like to stop by for a meal, let the Tharakans know in advance (rates are Rs 200 a head for breakfast and Rs 400 a head for lunch or dinner). Call Thomas Tharakan at The Backwoods, Chemmaram Estate, Naduvath P.O., Malappuram district, Kerala (04931-200529, 9447748529, www.backwoodsnilambur.com).
What to see & do
- Adyanpara waterfall (16km) is a popular picnic spot, with a tumbling cataract amid hilly jungle near Kurmbalangod village.
- The Chaliyar Mukku (7km) is a sandy bank of the Chaliyar river, accessed by a 2km walk through an imposing mahogany forest.
- Cross the Chaliyar by boat at Aruvakode, 3km from Nilambur, to get to Conolly’s Plot, a 150-year-old teak plantation, the world’s first. There are magnificent stands of teak, topped by a 48m giant said to be the world’s oldest living teak tree.
- Visit the Nilambur Kovilakams, a colony of stately old mansions — some nearly 300 years old. The woodwork, tiling and plasterwork show the sort of craftsmanship that money can’t buy today.
- Rubber grows everywhere in Nilambur; you can see tappers at work on plantations, and also visit rubber-processing units. Backwoods is itself located in a rubber estate.
- The Teak Museum (4km) is easily one of India’s better museums and a must-visit. You’ll know all you want to know about teak once you’ve been through the main building, but that shouldn’t mean you miss the superb ferns, orchids and other plants in the adjoining horti-cultural garden. Entry Rs 20.