Payyanur an ancient town shrouded by hills and rivers

The Bangalorean was determined to coax a few blessings out of the deity of Payyanur’s famous temple. She’s here to find antidotes to her many woes. “Alight here to visit Sri Subramanya Swami temple,” she read aloud the faded yellow and black boards at Payyanur railway station. That was why she braved her aching back, and osteoporosis-hit knees and travelled 14 hours on a train to this old town in Malabar. She eyed me expectantly. “After the temple trip, can I meet the astrologer?”

“Of course!” I didn’t tell her the clientele of “the astrologer” she wanted included the Tatas, Jayalalithaa,Yeddyurappa and other who’s whos.

This northern corner of Kannur district in the North Malabar region of Kerala is known for its temples, astrologers and the Pavithra Mothiram, a ring shaped like a knot which is worn during vedic rituals or the ‘pithrubali’ (a ceremony performed for the well-being of ancestors).

On average there must be three temples for every square kilometre here. But Payyanur has other claims to fame as well. Mahatma Gandhi heard of this place when the Payyanurians enthusiastically took out a salt satyagraha right after the Dandi march. Freedom fighters like Peeranki Nambeesan, KP Kunhirama Poduval and CV Kunhambu welcomed Gandhi when he visited the town and set up a khadi unit. Politically, this is now a communist stronghold. But people have to learned to juggle their faith and politics well. It’d be a pity though to overlook Payyanur’s stunning geography in the preoccupation with its supposed divine quotient.

The Cinderella of Kerala

There’s a deceptive ordinariness about Payyanur, a sort of low-key, no-nonsense air that the place and its people wear. That must be the reason why this small town plays Cinderella among Kerala’s much touted tourist attractions. Or else why would an ancient town, one of the oldest in Kerala, nestled snug among hills caressed by the Arabian Sea be a secret to outsiders?

Famous travellers like Ibn Battuta (AD 1342), Abul Fida (AD 1273), Marco Polo (AD 1293) and Nicholo Kondi (15th century) had written about Payyanur in their travelogues. More recently, however, it is largely pilgrims and zodiac enthusiasts who come here in search of answers.

The town, known as the Palani of Kerala, got its name from its famous temple. ‘Payyan’ is another name for Subramanya, and ‘uru’ means land, so that makes Payyanur the land of Subramanya. Twice destroyed, once in a fire, and then by the army of Tipu Sultan, this temple was last reconstructed in 1792. The myths say Lord Parasurama, who threw his axe into the sea in anger and retrieved Kerala for the people, stopped by here for a night on his way to heaven. He had a dream that night. “This is my home,” Subramanya told Parasurama in it. So he built a temple for the god before resuming his journey. Payyanur also finds a mention in the Brahmanda Purana. In it, Garga Muni tells the Pandavas about its temple during their exile.

Hills, rivers and the sea

Three rivers — Perumba Puzha (also called Vannathi Puzha), Punnakka Puzha, and Thattar Puzha — run through Payyanur. There are no boats for tourists, but lone fishermen paddling wooden boats gladly indulge strangers requesting rides. An isolated bunch of hills — Ezhimala (meaning seven hills) — guards its western borders. The Arabian Sea lines the hills on three sides. This was one of the major battlefields of the Chola-Chera wars of the 11th century. Rarely do hills and sea come together like this. So Tipu Sultan too had eyed the place. At the foot of the hills, there are ruins of a fort, some carved stone pillars, an ancient mosque and burial chamber. The main hill was once known as Mount Delly by the English or Monte D’Ely by the Portuguese, who built a lighthouse there. The area is now restricted as the Indian Navy has its academy here. Travellers can take permission during the day to visit, which is what I did.

The sea here is bluer, and quieter. The beaches are clean, and almost deserted. Dolphins frequent the glittering waters and break the sound of murmuring water. I wandered about on the hillside, climbed over boulders, swung around on the stout branches of a banyan tree, listened to the birds and watched the water below. A few fishing boats were dots heading out to the sea.


Getting there

There are direct trains from Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, and Bangalore. The nearest airports are Kozhikode and Mangalore, both about three hours by road.

Staying there: KK Residency (04985-201111), opposite the bus stand in the centre of Payyanur town. Tourists can look for low-budget lodges after arrival.

Ancient customs

Payyanur is the northernmost of the traditional settlements of Kerala. When Brahmins took control of Kerala society, they formed 64 ‘manigramas’ (villages) and Payyanur was one of them.The customs of the Brahmins of Payyanur are entirely different from those of other parts of Kerala. The main peculiarity is that they are matrilineal.