The morning sky hung over the river bank at Kuthampully in a meditative trance. The atmosphere was silent and the bank was deserted as the lonely river continued to flow like a drop of tear.
The steps starting from the bank of the river lead to the courtyard of the temple. It is situated at the border of Kuthampully village. The streets of this village have an aroma of Kasavu (golden thread used to do decorate sarees) and the rhythmic heaving sounds of weaving machines fill the air. The road from the deserted river banks leads to the interiors of the village where there are hundreds of houses.
The old man I met on the way told me that this is where the River Gayatri meets the river Bharatappuzha or Nila. According to him, the name of this place was originally Bharatakhandam. Bharatappuzha river, which originates in Tamil Nadu, got its name from around this place. I had seen this river a number of times during train journeys. A river that has enticed and inspired generations through its presence in stories and poems. My journey to see this iconic river and understand it closely started from Kuthampully.
The greenery along the road that leads to Thiruvilwamala was a welcome sight and an assurance that Kerala’s green cover has not completely been destroyed. Thoughts about the river kept flooding into my mind while I stood with reverence in front of the deity of Vilwadrinathan. Here, what remains now is, only the shadow of a once mighty river that was romanced by several poets and writers including P.Kunhiraman Nair. What I saw there was not the same old river that was an inspiration for a lot of folk songs and poems.
From the steps leading to the ritual ghats at the Aivarmatam Sri Krishna temple, the river was clearly visible, a substantial portion of it covered with wild shrubs. I felt what remained of the river now was only a feeble memory of its old glorious self.
History has it that Pandavas visited this temple after the battle of Mahabharata to do the rituals of washing off the sin of killing one’s own relatives. Even today, the thousands flock here to offer rituals to their forefathers. The only difference may be that a mighty river has now been reduced to a namesake trickle of water just enough to carry off the ritual offerings of rice and black sesame.
According to Madhava Warrier, the trustee of the temple management, the river was vast and broader during his childhood. He sighed, looking at the shrubs that now cover most part of the river.
On the way from Tiruviluamala to Lakkidi, I saw the narrow river again Miles away, the smoke rising from Pampadi Aivarmatam crematorium painted a picture gloom on the sky. At some distance, Lakkidi railway station was visible. The small railway station and its faded building reminded me once again of Kunjiraman Nair.
I wondered, years ago, how many times would he have gone down this way and proceeded to enjoy the moonlit banks of this vast river and to experience the serenity while praying before the deity of Vilwadrinathan. Nair spent several years of his life here, but there is no monument here to preserve his memories. A villager told me that the poet’s daughter was perhaps staying somewhere nearby. He was not sure.
Bharatapuzha has been an inspiration to many including writers, poets, Kathakali artists and others. The list of those who were creatively energised by this once beautiful and vast river is a long one. But there are few monuments here to signify the heritage of this region.
Perhaps the only exception to this would be the home in which Kunjan Nambiar was born. Kalakkath Bhavanam is in Killikkurussi Mangalam. I was happy to see that it was well maintained. Walking towards the old temple where Nambiar used to play Mizhavu, I felt I was tracing the footprints of a great personality. It was a bit dark inside Kalakkath Bhavanam and I would have had to strain my eyes but for the faint light from the burning eternal lamp.
An excerpt from a poem was scribbled in P. Kunhiraman Nair’s handwriting on the wall of the room in which Kunjan Nambiar was born. Memories of these great poets will come to your mind when you cross this riverbank. The place where Mahakavi Vallathol Samadhi is situated within the old Kalamandalam premise is cool, thanks to the trees and the breeze from the river.
While crossing the Shoranur bridge, the river resembled a painful fading memory. Human greed and sand mining has eaten into its existence. Even the pits formed in the river bed as a result of incessant sand mining have given away the river to intrusive shrubs. One can just not ignore the cries of this dying river.
The beautiful greenery of Thrithala
The greenery and beauty of villages only got better as we crossed Pattambi and reached Thrithala. This must perhaps be the most beautiful village on the banks of this great river. It is blessed with ancient temples on the bank of the river while vast swathes of green paddy fields add to its beauty.
Then came Kadallur, the native place of M.T Vasudevan Nair. He had once said that Nila, the river, was dearer to him and more significant than vast unknown oceans. The river looked much better at Koottakadavu in Kadallur and it looked charming.
River Thootha meets the Nila at Kadallur. Though boats are rarely used to cross the river these days, I was fortunate to meet a boatman here. Majeed is a slim old man. “I have been doing this at least for the past thirty years now. My father and grandfather were also boatmen here,” he said, rowing strongly. There were a few passengers in the boat. Malappuram district starts from the other side of the river. A big house was visible in the woods on the other side of the river. It's windows were open. Perhaps someone in that house was in love with the river and liked sitting at the window and enjoying its beauty, I thought.
It had rained a day before and the flow was heavy under Kuttipuram bridge. Someone said it heavily rained around Sholayar forests and Sivani. The river was with us, sometimes very close and sometimes away, throughout the journey, changing its character to suit the geography. In some areas, it was wide, cold, and rushing, and then reducing to a thin thread when flowing through hot sands.
Off late a lot of hotels have come up in Kuttipuram near the river bank. They offer a lot of packages for customers to know and experience the river more closely. The package includes Kathakali, Pulluvanpaattu, visit to kalaripayattu training centres and so on. Many tourists from distant lands come here and by the time they get to know the river as part of the package, they fall in love with it and consider it like their own.
Thirunavaya and memories of Mamankam
The river was visible from the Navamukunda temple at Thirunavaya and was a bit wider here. It was here that the Mamankam, the wars were held. On the other side of the river are a few serene temples.
Temples of both Brahma and Shiva are here. The speciality of this place is that the temples at both sides of the river have the deities of trimurtis.
Ummar started speaking about the river. He has been fighting for years to protect the monuments that preserve the memories of Mamankam. Like Mamankam, Ummar is emotionally attached to the river also. Ummar studied about Mamankam when he was in the seventh standard. And from that day his love for the river and this land has only grown.
While our motorboat was nearing the other bank, we could see boats carrying mined sand from the riverbed. Illegal sand mining is a routine sight here even today. Everyone who loves the river is against the on-going mining. But their protests have not yielded any results. Parents should teach their children to love the river.
Unfortunately, not many parents in our part of the world do so, Ummar says.
The boatman said we were crossing the widest part of the river. The other bank was not clearly visible. The boat had to be negotiated through tall grasses that grew on sand dunes. The previous day someone who had come to perform bali tharpanam (ritual to propitiate departed souls) fell into the river and drowned. “I sometimes join the efforts in recovering dead bodies from the river bed,” the boatman said. Now, I started feeling the coldness of death looking at the river.
As the boat reached the other bank and we progressed to Thavanoor Brahma temple and Shiva temple, the mild breeze that blew past us carried rustlings of banyan tree leaves. On the way we saw the ancient vedic learning centre and K. Kelappan shanti kuteeram. We could hear the sound of weaving machines coming from the faded building inside that compound. It was from the Sarvodaya Sangh’s weaving centre.
As we went inside, we saw a group of women, weaving busily and their tutor intently watching his wards’ progress. I felt for a moment that time was frozen in past here. It was a totally different sight and I was not sure when I would see it again.
We passed by Nilapaadu thara and Manikinar, where elephants were used to bury the bodies of martyred men. We tracked the river and reached Koottayi port at Chaliyam by evening. The Chaliyam road was constructed by Tipu Sultan and most of its stretches are straight without any curves. After a while we saw white sand on either side of the road and got the smell of the sea in the breeze. A little away from us there were lines of Casuarina trees and beyond them was the blue sea.
Far away was the Ponnani harbour where the Nila and Thirur river become one with the blue Arabian sea. The river that has been drying very fast owing to unending exploitation by people is still alive and makes it to the ocean at the end of its journey mixed with joy and sorrow.
Would the river remember those days of yore, steeped in history? What all would have this river seen on its journey? What would it have on its mind? Would it be the faces of those who were deeply in love with it? If so, whose face will be the brightest among them? Would it be the face of the poet, who in his house of golden clouds and evening birds, dreamed of eternal virgins? Who else would have loved the Nila more than that poet who wanted the river to take his lotus-bud like heart in its current?
Nila heritage tour
The tour is conducted by Malappuram District Tourism Promotion Council and it gives tourists an opportunity to travel alongside the river through places of cultural importance. The package includes visits to Kuttippuram, Thirunnavaya, Mamangam memorials, Jangaar journey and so on.
DTPC Malappuram phone number – 0483-2731504