Many using the road popularly called Swaraj Round, perhaps don't know that Thrissur is the first planned town of the region that is called Kerala today. Once the state was formed in 1956 and the rule of 18th-century local king Sakthan Thampuran receded into history, Thrissur was tagged as 'Kerala's cultural capital.'
That stays till date, chiefly owing to the famed 'Pooram' that the town hosts in summers. It is a glittering temple festival with all local communities bringing in the best of elephants — caparisoned and carrying Hindu deities, to the accompaniment of Kerala's top ensemble artistes and featuring dazzling fireworks in the wee hours.
The sky above Thrissur is fresh after the monsoon rains. It's a bit warm and humid, but then that is typical of tropical territory. Vehicles of all sizes, categories, and colours take busy circumambulation around the vintage Vadakkunnathan shrine, which is the central motif of the bustling town. From the Swaraj Round, several roads take origin to various directions, somewhat like New Delhi's Connaught Place, which is the central spot of the national capital.
Thekkinkadu Maithanam. That is the name of the reddish-brown ground encircling the Vadakkunnathan temple up till the Swaraj Round spanning 3 km. Going by the literal meaning of the name of the maidan, it is a forest of teak wood trees. Well, that was once the case. Today, it's tough to spoke a teak here. That doesn't mean the 56-acre maidan is bald. It has its set of beautiful trees, huge and with broad foliage. They provide comforting shade to walkers. Even if it's not Pooram time, the coolness lent by trees is like the one you get below the parasol on a tusker lined up in front of the traditional melam concerts.
Quite a few have found their seat in such shades. It's a patch of luxury under the glowing sun. It is also impressive that the main venue for the Pooram celebrations is a vacant but equally happy place when life goes on as usual. Curiously, the 1,300-year-old Vadakkunnathan temple, with Lord Siva as the chief deity, doesn't take part in the 36-hour festivities beyond its role as a good host. The Pooram, centrally, is a healthy cultural competition between a handful of temples around Vadakkunnathan.
In fact, the name Thrissur is an condensed version of 'Tri Siva Perur' meaning the 'Abode of lord Siva.'
The Thekkinkadu Maithanam used to be a densely wooded area till Sakthan Thampuran, whose real name was Rama Varma Kunjippilla, cleared the stretch of the forest during his 15-year reign as the Kochi king. Soon, a small circle of urban civilisation took birth around the age-old Vadakkunnathan temple. Thrissur is today among a couple of other names in the world that are labelled a 'natural city.' It's also a multi-religious heritage pocket because, Thampuran, a dynamic visionary, brought in members of Christian and Muslim communities to Thrissur, mainly for the commercial advancement of the region. Records say he brought in 52 Christian families and gave them settlements in Aranattukara and Padinjarekotta, which are suburbs of Thrissur today. The community continues to enjoy considerable role in the economic prosperity of the urban landscape.
Vadakkunnathan temple, with its four imposing gateways called 'gopuram,' has a 10-acre compound inside the strong fence. If Siva occupies the main sanctum sanctorum, the sub-deities next to it are Srirama and Sankaranarayana. Outside the four walls and within the square-shaped boundary, the temple precincts house more deities. One of the chief attractions is the Koothambalam, which is the traditional theatre that stages ritualistic temple arts of Koodiyattam, Nangiarkoothu, and Chakiarkoothu. Its architecture is particularly south-east Asian, betraying a possible Buddhist influence that existed in pre-Sankaracharya Kerala till the ninth century AD. The Vadakkunnathan Koothambalam is the state's biggest such structure today.
Thiruvambady and Paramekkavu are the two other major temples gracing the town. Both form the chief participants at the annual Thrissur Pooram. Thiruvambady temple is a bit north of the town, on the Shoranur road, with Unnikkannan (little Krishna) as the presiding deity even as the fame goes to its focal goddess Bhagavati (which is technically a sub-deity).
To the west of Vadakkunnathan is the Paramekkavu temple. Durga is the principal deity. The name Paramekkavu translates into 'temple on the rock.' It's said the place where the goddess has been consecrated was once a rock-top.
The Kerala summer month of Medam is when the annual Pooram festival graces Thrissur. Central Kerala, which is where the town lies, has a lot of similar temple extravaganzas but nothing quite matches the fame and pomp of Thrissur Pooram. On that day-and-night festival, the town wears a celebratory look that is hard to imagine on a normal day at Thrissur.
It is widely believed that Sakthan Thampuran initiated Thrissur Pooram 220 years ago. In 1797, when unexpected torrential rains delayed Thrissurians reaching the prestigious 'Arattupuzha Pooram' 10 km south of the town, the chief 'tantri' priest stopped their temple deities from participating in that festival held in sprawling post-harvest paddy fields. Thampuran, feeling indignant, organised the next year Thrissur Pooram by calling in ten temples around the town.
That went on to become Kerala's most impressive of Poorams, featuring classical ensembles such as Pandimelam and Panchavadyam, besides a competitively grand display of colourful parasols atop elephants in the evening. Plus, of course, the fireworks in the small hours and then the next forenoon postscript called Pazhampooram that chiefly features percussion concerts by the main participants Thiruvambady and Paramekkavu.
Tanks and ponds
Thrissur has always been a city of tanks. Sprawling and well-staggered across its space, these 40-odd squarish and rectangular ponds show the planned nature of the town. Vadakkechira, Padinjarechira, Pallikkulam, and Irattachira had been the main ones. Thrissur has undergone massive changes in its landscaping since the Sakthan days, but not at the cost of levelling all its tanks. Some, though, have disappeared and a couple of existing ones are not in the best of shape. Yet, their placid waters continue to lend coolness both to the body and mind.
For instance, at Vadakkechira, to the north of the town, Thampuran used to bathe, scaling down its steps after reaching the spot with his entourage. It has a traditional gateway that functioned as the entry point for the women of the royal family. Today, in the days of democracy, Vadakkechira has its road maintained by the municipal corporation, which has also lit up both sides of it with lamps.
The Pallikkulam, which Thampuran had built for the use of the town's Christians, doesn't paint a pleasing picture today. Lying east of Valiyapally and Puthanpally churches, the tank has effectively become a dump yard even as its boundary walls are well raised. Also, ironically, the town's bus-stand named after Sakthan is situated in a place that once had twin tanks (called Irattachira) built by the Thampuran.
When Thampuran called in Christians to settle in his town, the king didn't forget to also give them places to worship.. Thus came up the Martha Mariyam church of the Chaldean Syrians. It's so big that the church is Valiyapally ('valiya' meaning large and 'pally' meaning church). It's on one side of the High Road, known today for its long rows of jewellery shops.
The Lady of Lourdes Metropolitan Cathedral is another Thrissur church and also functions as the diocese building. The church has a smaller chapel underground to where one can reach climbing down the steps from the altar; it's a major tourist attraction as well. The cathedral, which also has a gopuram tower built in Indo-European aesthetics, is on the Thrissur-Palakkad road to the east of the town.
Thampuran's encouragement of Christians was not without its share of ruckus between churches. The Catholic and Chaldean denominations of Christianity had local differences that even took the matter to court on the ownership of the Valiyapally. The jury decided in favour of Chaldeans (Kaldaya in Malayalam), following which Thampuran gave the Catholics permission to build another church of their own. Thrissur thus got a Gothic-style church called Puthanpally, formally called Basilica of Our Lady of Dolours. Today, after a renovation in 1925 (by an architect called Ambrose Gounder) that made it look in its present form, Valiyapalli graces a 25,000-sq ft area with soaring belfries at the entrance, two-storey aisles along the nave, and transepts besides eleven altars.
A good 82 years later, in 2007, Valiyapalli got a 260-foot-tall 'gopuram' gateway called Bible Tower. Its top floor gives peek to a panoramic view of Thrissur town: the hills to the east and the equally green expanse rolling out as plains to the west. The tower also features frescoes portraying crucifixion and other related episodes. The top echelons of the tower can be reached both by climbing up the staircase or using the lift. Visitors are regulated by a pass system.
Eleven decades ago, Kochi royal family member Rama Varma Appan Thampuran chose to settle in Ayyanthole, which is a suburb of Thrissur today. That relocation (from his native Thrippunithura, south of Kochi) boosted Thrissur's rise as a cultural hub. Appan Thampuran (1875-1941) had deep knowledge in Sanskrit, particularly in Ashtanga Hridaya that is an ancient treatise on Ayurveda medical science. He soon launched a magazine called 'Rasikaranjini.' Thampuran's influence in the field of literature brought the second conclave of the Sahithya Parishad (literary assembly) to Thrissur besides an agricultural and industrial exhibition.
The legacy of Appan Thampuran, who penned 'Bhaskaramenon' (1905) that turned out to be the first detective novel in Malayalam, survives today chiefly in a memorial raised in his name in 1976 at Ayyanthole. It functions in his residence named Kumara Mandiram.
Added to that, Thrissur has a Rama Varma College of Music and a School of Drama besides the state's Akademis for literature (Sahitya), fine arts (Lalithakala) and music and dance (Sangeetha Nataka). They all contribute to Thrissur's fame as Kerala's cultural capital, given that the city, even today, hosts a range of art events from theatre to cinema to literary workshops to folk arts to classical music to dances to ballets amd more.
Sakthan Thampuran Palace
This mansion in Thrissur used to be the summer abode of Kochi kings who had their palace in Tripunithura. This vintage structure near the northern bus-stand is dense with the air of a bygone era, featuring items such as bronze vessels, coins, china jars, and wooden vessels besides the coffin-like nannangadi container. Built in 1795 in Kerala-Dutch architecture, the mansion is now a museum under the archaeological department. It's open for visitors from 10 am to 6 pm.
Thrissur's zoo and museum are among India's oldest, having been opened in 1885. The 13.5-acre compound also features a botanical garden and art museum, open to visitors during day time (10 am to 6 pm). Its highlight? The biggest skeleton of an Indian elephant.
At the same, the zoo is being translocated to Puthur village, 10 km south-east of Thrissur. That will earn it a space of 336 acres, making it a national-level zoo with international standards.
Thrissur has its western belt featuring low-lying paddy farms called 'kole paadam.' They form expansive greenery in summer months of March-May by growing rice. That's the best time to view the place, ideally by riding a cycle towards evening when there's the prospect of cool breeze.
All you need to do is to pedal down from West Fort junction. Take either the Elthuruthu road or Kanjani road or Ayyanthole road or even the Kunnamkulam road (to hit Ambakkad off Puzhakkal). Further south of Thrissur, places such as Perumbilissery on Kodungallur road and Cherpu on Thriprayar road also have kole fields.
Symphony of tastes
Thrissur has its local delicacies that are a gourmet's delight. The sadya feast served to guests on celebratory occasions like weddings and milestone birthdays stand testimony to the eminence of vegetarian dishes of the place. The town also has its Hindu chef families such as yesteryear's Ambi Swami and Valappaya Kannan of today. Their dishes such as sambar, kaalan, olan, aviyal, and erisseri besides the hot pickles and sweet varieties of payasams are celebrated by a whole range of people.
Christians, too, have their ethnic snacks like kolappam and kuzhalappam that gain a special taste around Thrissur.
The culinary skills of the two communities find enchanting mention in contemporary literary works of Malayalam titans such as (late) VKN and Sara Joseph.
Alongside lies Appam Angadi, a suburban marketplace that is worth a visit or more. It is behind by-lanes spread around Puthanpally, with small eateries on both sides featuring stoves made of raised mud on which vessels are mounted with logwood beneath them giving fire. On them is prepared velleppam (literary meaning 'white cake'). It's more of a cottage industry featuring women. As much as the taste of their item, it's relishing to watch their expertise in preparing the velleppam. The way the cake puffs up and the mouthwatering smell wafts across with its obvious presence of part-fermented toddy is a uniquely enjoyable experience. The adept among the hands make as many as half-a-dozen appams simultaneously.
Along the Kozhikode road, a little northwest of Thrissur, is the famed Amala Hospital. A left turn from there takes you to a set of hills called Vilangan. It's greener and a hot picnic spot. Its USP? you get to see the whole of Thrissur and beyond.
If the new kiosks on Vilangan—the hilltop, too, finds mention in Malayalam literature, courtesy a poem (Vilanganil) by modern writer K Satchindanandan—are indicative of a new Thrissur, equally novel is a residential complex down it on the other side of the road. It's called Shobha City, which is an integrated town house standing on 4.7-acre compound and opened in 2015, offering a luxury business hotel, office space, restaurants, food court, and a 600-car parking facility besides a six-screen multiplex.
By nightfall, Thrissur gains a romantic quality with its illuminated looks. The Puthanpally is all decked up with electric lights, while Vadakkunnathan gateways maintain a mellowed yellow glow.
A good slice of the terrain around Thrissur is rugged. That also means the place is full of hills, forests, wild animals (in protected sanctuaries) and even dams. Together, they provide great scope for what is of late gaining currency as eco tourism. One such spot under the scheme is Chimmony dam, which is 25 km south of Thrissur. The slender Karuvannur river lines the scenic place that is a little away from Echipara village. A night camp here, after a trek that gifts you amazing forest vignettes, will give visitors a beautiful experience by the west of the famed Nelliyampathy hills. Forest officials run an inspection bungalow that provides lodging for the visitors to the 1996-completed dam across the Chimmony, a tributary of the Karuvannur.
Peechi, to the east of Thrissur, is another dam that is a nature lover's pleasure spot. Situated 22 km east of the town, it has the 1958-established Peechi-Vazhani Wildlife Sanctuary covering 125 sq km, close to the dam built across the Manali river, another tributary of the Karuvannur.
The famed Kuthiran hills have in their valley a dam by the name Poomala. Its waters are largely used for irrigation even as the spot in Mulangunnathukvu, 10 km north of Thrissur, is equally scenic and quiet. More so, the sunset at Poomala dam.
Another 5 km away, Cheppara, which is a chain of rocks, gives a peek to Wadakkanchery town 20 km north of Thrissur. There, you get food from small hotels that serve ethnic items.
It's magical to feel the seamless transformation of Thrissur from an urban landscape to the rustic spots around the town.