Once upon a time in picturesque Vellinezhi, a tiny, sleepy village in Palakkad district, Kerala, there lived a powerful feudal family of upper caste Brahmins called the Namboothiris. Although they owned thousands of acres of land (almost half of the entire Palakkad district to be precise) they had dedicated their lives to helping the community – they were patrons of literature, classical music, Vedic and Sanskrit education and percussion. They were influential benefactors of the older styles of the mesmerising Kathakali dance. Around 300 years ago the family made their most notable and significant contribution to the field of performing arts. Their home, Olappamanna Mana, became the birthplace of the Kalluvazhi Chitta, one of the most popular forms of Kathakali. They taught this wondrous art form for centuries in their house where they had founded the Ola-ppamanna Kaliyogam (dance school). Then in 1965–70, the Land Reform Act came into being and most of their land was taken away. With this dramatic change in Kerala’s socio-political environment, the Namboothiris of Olappamanna Mana lost much of their income. However, a sense of service to the community has remained of utmost importance to the members of this once powerful family.

Olappamanna1_TI_1
A performer getting ready for his act

Set on a 20-acre property, the Olappamanna Mana Homestay opened its doors to guests in 2006. What began as a simple retirement project for O.N. Damodaran Namboothiripad soon became a highly sought-after accommodation option for those seeking an insight into Kerala’s artistic history. With a legacy steeped in history and legend, I was greatly looking forward to my stay at this diamond-rated heritage home-stay. Coconut and banana trees dot the sprawling property, myriad birds flutter about in the foliage and peacocks casually cross your pathway.

The first thing you see when you enter the main gate is a huge structure with an old-fashioned sloping red roof. Built in the typical Kerala style of architecture, this edifice is the former family home and is more than 300 years old. While generation after generation occupied it over the centuries, today it stands as an empty reminder of a once rich heritage. The only part of this historic house that is still in use is a small temple, which houses two idols of the family deity, Kali (one of them is made of gold and the larger one is made from an alloy of five metals or panchloha). The temple also has two Sri Chakras, which is a geometric representation of Goddess Parvati – the older one is made of granite, while the newer, smaller one has been sculpted in bronze. “Till 1989, there were many people who lived in this building. Eventually, we had to move out because there were fewer people in the family and despite that we would have needed many servants to cater to our needs.

The only person who lives here now is the priest, but he is also constructing his own house and will be moving out shortly,” said Navaneeth Olappamanna, who has been running the homestay since 2016. The only time that this building witnesses major activity is during a 41-day festival celebrated from mid-January to February. There is a puja every day and on the final day, the building plays host to a splendid feast attended by all members of the family and villagers. Besides, the temple, several rooms, two courtyards and a large kitchen, the main building also has a small museum, which houses centuries-old artefacts such as a massive palanquin and several large Chinese vases that were used to store oil. The family will be happy to open the museum if you want to have a look inside.

The main building is surrounded by relatively newer dwellings and guests will be accommodated in one of them. However, do not discount the historicity of these newer structures either; they are more than 200 years old!

The family shared an interesting anecdote about the bronze Sri Chakra with me during my stay. In the 18th century, Kerala was invaded by Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the kingdom of Mysore. In their effort to lay siege on the kingdom of Travancore, which was an ally of the British Empire, Tipu Sultan and his army reached Palakkad, a mere 40km away from Olappamanna Mana. Since he was an iconoclast, the family knew that the temple in their house was at serious risk. Back then, there was a heavy granite Sri Chakra, a geometric representation of Goddess Parvati, in the temple. They were forced to flip this Sri Chakra and it sustained a crack, which can be seen even today. In order to counter the negative effects of the crack, the family placed the smaller bronze Sri Chakra here. You know you’re in a historic place when even something as commonplace as a crack has a story that can be traced back to the Tiger of Mysore!

A variety of centuries-old artefacts displayed inside the museum
A centuries-old artefact displayed inside the museum

Over the years the quaint village of Vellinezhi has churned out hundreds of renowned Kathakali dancers, Carnatic singers and percussionists, some of whom have gone on to win national awards. In 2014, the government started developing this historic hamlet into south India’s largest artist village since several famous sculptors, weavers, musicians and dancers still reside in the area. There are also plans afoot to erect cultural complexes, heritage study centres, a crafts bazaar and a heritage park in this sleepy village, which remains unchanged despite the relentless passage of time. Olappamanna Mana is at the helm of this movement – the family has already donated land for the construction of the Kala Gramam (office), which will serve as the headquarters for the project. The heritage homestay is intrinsically linked with the development of local talent, and even though there are only a few activities on offer, all of them ensure that the artists get the attention they deserve.

Today, more than 70 Kathakali dancers, Carnatic singers and percussionists still reside in the village. Travellers who visit the homestay have the option of booking Kathakali performances that employ these gifted local artists. Traditionally, these performances last an entire night. However, you can book a three-hour story for ₹40,000. This ensures that the artists have work round the year and not just during the temple festivals that occur between mid February to April. This boosts the local economy greatly.

Vellinezhi is also home to several dying art forms. One of them is the traditional method of making the koppu – the intricate ornaments and headgear worn by Kathakali artists. The Olappamannas will be happy to direct you to the home of Ramankutty Kothavil, a 69-year-old artisan whose family has been involved in this rare art form for generations. He uses the white wood of the kumizh tree (Gmelina arborea), which is extremely light, to make his elaborate creations. The headgear alone takes more than a month to carve. Today, he is teaching his sons this rare craft in the hopes of keeping his legacy alive. He will explain the importance of his craft, albeit in broken English, and show you all the accessories worn by a dancer during a Kathakali performance. The Blue Yonder, a travel organisation that promotes responsible tourism, has bestowed Ramankutty with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Navaneeth also helped me arrange a tour of the village. I was lucky enough to visit Karimpuzha, 14km away from the Mana, and meet weavers of traditional Karaikudi Kerala saris, who were busy at their looms. Fair warning: you will encounter an immense language barrier if you do not speak or understand Malayalam. Even though the weavers don’t speak more than a word or two of English, they will strive hard to enlighten you about their work, even if it requires elaborate hand gestures! Remember that most of them will (sometimes not so subtly) ask you for a small donation. But considering they spend a chunk of their time showing you their work, it’s quite understandable. You can buy saris or veshtis directly from weavers or from handloom shops located in the area.

The Kalamezhuthu Pattu, a spectacular ancient ritual in honour of Goddess Kali
The Kalamezhuthu Pattu, a spectacular ancient ritual in honour of Goddess Kali

During your trip, you are also likely to meet Krishnakumar, a man who forges his own version of the famous Aranmula metal mirror. This type of mirror has been crafted for centuries in Aranmula, a temple town located 116km from Thiruvananthapuram. When you visit his home in Adakkaputhur, quite close to Olappamanna Mana, he will show you his home-made clay furnace. Bronze is heated and melted using wood and coal. The temperature inside the furnace can reach a whopping 2,000 degrees Celsius. You can also buy these mirrors here, which come in small (₹6,000), medium (₹8,000) and large (₹10,000) sizes.

Besides holding an extremely significant place in the artistic map of the Kerala, Olappamanna Mana is also important to the residents of this village, who are free to roam about the premises. They are even allowed to use the bathing area, a beautiful outdoor pond with a separate, shaded section for ladies! You can also use this pond if you are so inclined, however, you must know how to swim. You might also see many curious visitors from different regions of Kerala and Tamil Nadu who have come here just to see the property – this is because the homestay and its surrounding areas are regularly used as a location for several Malayalam and Tamil films and soaps. In fact, I bumped into a very enthusiastic film crew while I was there too.

Guests here also have the unique opportunity to book a Kalamezhuthu Pattu – an ancient ritual, which is rarely practised today. I planned my trip so as to witness one of these pujas, and it was as magnificent as it sounds! A person who belongs to the Kurup caste first draws an image of Goddess Kali with organic powders – rice flour for white, charcoal powder for black, turmeric powder for yellow, powdered leaves for green and a mix of turmeric and lime for red. Just the drawing may take him more than two hours. The call to prayer is the beating of the Kerala drum, which resonates throughout the property.

The guesthouse verandah at the home stay
The guesthouse verandah at the home stay

Once all the members of the family and guests have assembled, the main priest performs the puja while singing hymns as a man from the Puduval family plays the drum to keep time. You can book this elaborate ritual for the wellness of your loved ones, and it will set you back by ₹1,800. However, I personally think that it is completely worth it since not only do you get to witness a spectacular ancient ritual, but your prayers might just be answered by the supreme being upstairs – it’s a win-win situation! The entire fee goes to the locals performing the puja, in an effort to ensure that the art form is kept alive.

The family also continues to patronise percussion. Though they do not have a school themselves, teachers can use the main building free of cost to hold classes. These classes take place on Saturdays and Sundays, and if you’re visiting the homestay during this time, you will hear the soulful beats of the Kerala drums as the children practise this art. Besides drumming classes, they also have Carnatic music and Kathakali classes. These lessons take place every day during summer vacations.

Olappamanna Mana was also the home of OMC Narayanan Namboothiripad, a renowned Malayalam writer and poet who translated the whole Rig Veda to Malayalam. His work, which spans eight thick volumes, is on display in the small library located in the main building. Famous Malayalam poet OM Subramanian Namboothiripad, who wrote under the pseudonym Olappamanna, lived here as well. The library also houses books made of palm leaves.

Award-winning artist Ramankutty with his creations
Award-winning artist Ramankutty with his creations

In an effort to preserve this region’s cultural and artistic heritage, the Olappamannas founded the Deviprasadam Trust. This trust conserves the ancient main building from the grips of dilapidation. Since 1990, they have also been giving out awards that recognise the contribution of imminent personalities in Kathakali, Carnatic music, Malayalam literature, Veda and Sanskrit literature – all the fields that the family has been supporting for centuries.

During your stay at Olappamanna Mana, you will also be taken to a few temples around the area. Even if you are not religious, be mindful of the people and remember to follow the rules carefully. Men will need to take their shirts off and hitch their pants up while entering the main temple, while women will need to hitch their pants up as well. Though they are not strict about attire, remember to dress modestly. Till a while back, even salwar kameez wasn’t appropriate attire! Unfortunately, non-Hindus are not allowed inside most temples in Kerala.

After exploring all the deeply interesting historic and cultural aspects of the homestay, I needed to take a breather. I had the opportunity to do just that with a visit to River Kunthipuzha. It is a tributary of the Bharatapuzha River, which is the second-longest river flowing through Kerala. Spending a few quiet moments on the Kunthipuzha’s beautiful and verdant banks are sure to make you forget all about your big city blues. For the spiritually inclined, there is also a Shiva Temple nearby.

caution Do not visit the river during heavy rain. The area is prone to flash floods.

The verdant premises of the homestay
The verdant premises of the homestay

One of the best things about this homestay, and the glutton in me is ecstatic to inform you, is its mouth-watering food. You will be invited into Navaneeth’s home, which was built in the 1940s as a granary with a few rooms at the back. Here, his mother, P. Sreedevi, will serve you authentic Kerala and sadya food on a banana leaf and I promise it will make you want to stay here much longer than you had planned! Some of the ingredients on your plate, such as bananas, jackfruits, drumsticks, mangoes and other seasonal vegetables and fruits, are grown within the property itself. I had the opportunity to sample some dishes that I had never encountered before. And that was really the icing on the cake, or the ladle of delicious, steaming hot sambar on the idli that was this trip. Remember that you will be served vegetarian food only, but fear not non-vegetarians! The food is so delectable that you definitely won’t miss meat during your stay. Note that alcohol is strictly off-limits within the premises. While here you are likely to meet Venkateswarn, a deaf and mute septuagenarian, who has been working for the family for over three decades. His graciousness, boyish smile and sparkling eyes are bound to melt your heart!

While this charming homestay is nowhere near the heart of Kerala’s popular tourist areas, it offers something that few places in the world can – an opportunity to interact freely with history. Olappamanna Mana continues to bring attention to this beautiful village, tiny in size but giant in stature. This home is a living, breathing paragon of culture that opens its arms to travellers who want an interesting twist to their journeys – speckled with a little bit of history, a little bit of culture and a whole lot of splendour.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Heritage homestay
  • Helps preserve cultural and artistic heri­tage of Palakkad
  • Founded Deviprasadam Trust to protect the building and to honour imminent per­sonalities in the arts
  • Only pure vegetarian food served; ingredi­ents sourced from within the property and local markets

FAST FACTS

When to go October to February

  • Olappamanna Mana

Vellinezhi PO

Dist. Palakkad – 679504

Kerala

Tel: 0466-2285383

Cell: 09847180703

Email: navaneethon@gmail.com

W olappamannamana.com

Tariff ₹8,200–13,700, with meals

Activities

  • Kathakali performances
  • Kalamezhuthu Pattu puja
  • Village visit to meet artists and weavers
  • Explore the museum
  • Visit River Kunthipuzha

GETTING THERE

Air Nearest airport: Coimbatore (93km/ 2.5hrs) and Kochi (150km/ 3.5 hrs). Taxi from Kochi is about ₹7,000. Taxi from Coimbatore will cost you ₹7,500 (including permit and toll en route)

Rail Shoranur Railway Station (30km/ 45min) is a major junction served by all major trains serving Kerala. Taxis charge approx ₹800

Road From Coimbatore head for Palakkad. Take the road to Cherpulassery. Just 4km ahead from Mangod, take a right turn into Vellinezhi, which is 2km away. If you are coming from Kochi, drive on to Trissur and Shoranur, from where you will head for Palakkad and the road to Cherpuassery (6km from Vellinezhi village). Rest as above.

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