Thrissur: Art, Heritage and Culture
Cultural performances, heritage tours, and shadow puppet plays. Thrissur is the cultural hub of Kerala, India; our sixth destination during our Kerala Blog Express Season 4. After our Munnar adventures in the upland (READ: Munnar: Chilling in the Mountains), we went back for a day at Kochi before we headed northward to Thrissur.
Our heritage tour in Muziris was handled by the Muziris Heritage Project, a project of the Government of Kerala in preserving and promoting the history and culture around the area. On the other hand, our activities in Cheruthuruthy and its vicinity was handled by The Blue Yonder, an organization founded by Gopinath Parayil and is an active advocate of responsible tourism as it promotes meaningful travel experiences by connecting travelers with local communities, educating them of the local history, culture, art and environment realities.
From our two-day activities in the Thrissur district, here are some recommended things to see and do in Thrissur.
Boat Tour around the Muziris Heritage Village
The port city of Muziris has played a major significance in the history and development of Kerala. The Government of Kerala has put up the Muziris Heritage Project for heritage conservation and promotion. Part of the project are the three circuits or routes for the hop-on hop-off boat tour. Although it is supposed to be a whole day activity, we compressed ours in just half a day.
From Cochin, we traveled for a few hours by land and made our first stop at the Paliam Palace Museum. The Paliam Kovilakam, or palace, which is open from 10:00am to 5:00pm, used to be the traditional house of the Paliathu Achans or the Prime Ministers to the Kochi Kings. But when the Prime Minister took the King into his home due to a threat of the Portuguese on the royal house, his home was used as the King’s official residence.
Now, the Paliam Kovilakam, which has a blend Kerala and Dutch architecture, is being maintained as a museum. The house has hallways on the periphery and an inner portion. Items significant to the Paliam noble family are on exhibit in the Paliam Kovilakam.
From there, we walked towards the Paliam jetty to catch our boat for the boat tour. We traversed the Periyar River and made a stop at the 16th century Kottappuram Fort. Also known as Cranganore Fort or Kodungallur Fort, it was built by the Portuguese and then later captured and destroyed by the Dutch. Though it was in a state of ruins, a memorial is built within the fort grounds and is maintained for the public.
We made a brief walk around the fort before we went back to the jetty and sailed towards the mouth of the river that leads to the Arabian Sea, where we spotted some dolphins. Most of the river banks were filled with boats and yards where new boats were being constructed. We passed the Azhikode Marthoma Church, St. Thomas’ Shrine, and the Manjumatha Church before we made our next stop at the Sahodaran Ayyappan Museum.
The Museum features thatched roof houses, including one where Sahodaran Ayyappan, a social reformist who voiced against the futility of the caste system, was born. A large relief art is also on display at the museum grounds.
Manu Folk Art Forms by the Vayali Folklore Group
After our boat tour in Muziris, we proceeded to Cheruthuruthy, a small town in the Thrissur District, some 30 Km away from the Thrissur City. It is beautifully located at the banks of Bharathapuzha or the River Nila . The Blue Yonder organized and coordinated the activities we had in Cheruthuruthy and in the Palakkad District. One of these was the dance presentation in a traditional village.
It was already night time when we reached the house where we would be watching the various Manu folk art forms, composed of ritualistic dance drama, singing and chanting, as well as dancing, accompanied by traditional musical instruments.
Under the dark night, we settled on the mats prepared at the front yard of the house, which added an authentic ambiance to the whole performance. The group that did the art forms is called the Vayali Group that, along with The Blue Yonder, hopes to preserve the artistic traditions of Kerala.
The performers wore headdresses and heavy makeup, as well as accessories that created sound at their every move. The whole performance was entrancing, adding a sense of mystical allure to the night.
Koodiyattam at the River Retreat
Our hotel, The River Retreat Heritag Ayurvedic Resort, also prepared a Koodiyattam presentation for us after our outing at the village. Koodiyattam, also declared by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”, is part of ancient Sanskrit theatre which has several features similar to Kathakali, although the former is much older.
The hotel also provided other cultural performances, such as the Mohiniattam (dance of an enchantress), on our second night. I will detail more about the hotel in a separate blog post.
Ottan Thullal at a School in Kodaloor
On our second day in Thrissur, The Blue Yonder took as to the BKMLP School, a preschool located in Kodaloor, Pattambi, in the neighboring district of Palakkad. Young children excitedly gathered in their common hall, enthralled by the visitors from various countries and amazed by the Ottan Thullal performance of a local group.
Despite the school’s proximity in the cultural center of Kerala, they have not yet seen a theatre performance like the Ottan Thullal. This dance and poetic performance was introduced by poet Kunchan Nambiar in the 18th century as a parody to various social realities. The actor also wears green makeup, similar to that in Kathakali, but with a more colorful costume and adornments.
Because the performer sings and dances with the drum and cymbal accompaniment, while he makes funny expressions and gestures, the children cheered in delight throughout the cultural presentation. It was one of the touching experiences I had in this Kerala Blog Express trip as I also interacted with the children. They placed a wonderful smile on our faces as we did to them through our visit.
Poothan and Thira at Kumbidi
In a remote village of Kumbidi, still in the Palakkad District, we watched two artists do the Poothan and Thira, another local ritualistic performance. One acted as Poothan, the lieutenant of Shiva, and the other represented the goddess Kali. They danced to the accompaniment of drums, with their trinkets creating additional sounds as they moved. The actors wore masks and a large fan-shaped headdress, held on both ends with a white cloth.
Poothan and Thira is said to be performed in villages and in temples to cleanse the locals of evil spirits. This traditional performance is confined in some areas of Palakkad and Thrissur districts.
Sadhya Feast at the Center for Harmonious Living
While the sadhya is not in the performing arts category, the way it was served to us was like a theatre act as well. The Blue Yonder took us to the Center for Harmonious Living (CHL), also located in Kumbidi, near the river Nila. CHL provides mental health care that infuses a humane approach with scientific methods.
In the serene compound of CHL we were welcomed with fresh coconuts using natural bamboo straws (almost similar to what I had in Sibuyan Island, Romblon, Philippines). After our briefing, we were led to the social hall and sat on the mats by the floor. Banana leaves were laid down in front of us and food was served one by one. We ate with our hands and savored every part of the meal. I must say that it was the best meal we ever had in the entire trip.
Sopanam School of Panchavadyam
In the afternoon, we visited a Sopanam School nearby and watched the group perform the Panchavadyam, a musical performance played in the temples of Kerala. The orchestra is grouped into five musical instruments: Thimila, a slender percussion shaped like an hourglass; Madhalam, a wide drum from the wood of a jackfruit tree; Edakka, a handy percussion; Elathalam, a pair of small bronze objects that is used like cymbals; and Kombu, a slender arched horn.
Later on, we went outdoors and the group performed more songs and music under a large tree. There was a part wherein the elder men did the Sopana Sangeetham, as they sang with the accompaniment of the Edakka and the small cymbals.
The school was the brainchild of Santhosh Alankode, who was also one of the recipients of The Blue Yonder Fellowships for 2016. Students, regardless of gender, age and caste, are trained in the Sopanam School.
I also tried my hand in one of the instruments. It was a wonderful experience playing with the group, being part of their rhythm.
Tolpava Koothu by Shri Ramachandra Pulavar
At night, after dinner, there were only eight of us who went with Blue Yonder’s Gopi and his team to the house of Ramachandra Pulavar, who comes from a family of puppeteers. He does shadow puppetry, called Tolpava Koothu in Kerala, India. He has several leather puppets that he uses in the performance, a ritual offered to Bhadrakali, a known goddess or Devi. Pulavar and his sons perform in temple festivals at the koothumadams or special theatres near a temple.
During our visit, Pulavar’s sons showed us a sample of the Tolpava Koothu, using traditional lamps behind the screen, instead of the electric lights that modern performances use.
After their short act, we joined them at a nearby temple and observed the festivities. A group chanted, drums were beaten, firecrackers were lit. They went round and round the temple grounds as we watched them. It was already midnight at that time and the Pulavars were still going to perform their Tolpava Koothu until the morning.
This was our two-day immersion in the cultural heritage of Kerala. It plays a significant part of their lives, yet it is being threatened by modernization. Before they disappear from society, we, as travelers, can practice responsible tourism in helping preserve this colorful and harmonious art forms. We hope that the future generation will still be able to enjoy these heritage to humanity, art forms that highlights the unique traditions and culture of Kerala, India. Good thing that the Kerala Government is taking an active stance in preserving the local culture, and there are organizations like The Blue Yonder that is promoting responsible tourism — bridging travelers and locals, the past and the present, and heritage and culture.
This article is part of the over-arching post First-time in Kerala: God’s Own Country where you will find the list of my blog posts related to this trip. Get updates on the Kerala Blog Express at the http://keralablogexpress.com/ and check #keralablogexpress #tripofalifetime and #liveinspired in social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.