The beautiful coast north of Kozhikode is a seemingly endless stretch of coconut palms, wooded hills and virtually deserted beaches. The small fishing towns ranged along it hold little of interest for visitors, most of whom bypass the area completely – missing out on some exquisite, quiet coves, and the chance to see theyyem, the extraordinary masked trance dances that take place in villages throughout the region between November and May.
KANNUR (Cannanore), a large, predominantly Moppila Muslim fishing and market town 92km north of Kozhikode, was for many centuries the capital of the Kolathiri rajas, who prospered from the maritime spice-trade through its port. India’s first Portuguese Viceroy, Francisco de Almeida, took the stronghold in 1505, leaving in his wake an imposing triangular bastion, St Angelo’s Fort. This was taken in the seventeenth century by the Dutch, who sold it a hundred or so years later to the Arakkal rajas, Kerala’s only ruling Muslim dynasty.
These days, the town is the largest in the northern Malabar region – a typically Keralan market and transport hub jammed with giant gold emporia and silk shops, and seething with traffic. Land prices are booming ahead of the proposed construction of an international airport, which will doubtless see more skyscrapers rise on the outskirts. Kannur’s few sights can be slotted into a morning, but increasing numbers of travellers are using the beaches to the south as bases from which to venture into the hinterland in search of theyyem rituals.
The only village in Kannur district where you can be guaranteed a glimpse of theyyem is Parassinikadavu, a thirty-minute drive north of Kannur, where temple priests don elaborate costumes, dance and make offerings to the god Muthappan each morning and evening. With an early enough start, it’s possible to catch the morning session and still have time to continue north to explore the little-visited Valiyaparamba backwater region. Local ferries crisscross this fascinating necklace of lagoons, and there’s even a company running houseboat trips – though foreign tourists are few and far between.
Pressing on further north into Kasaragod district, it’s worth splashing out on a night in one of the boutique retreats that have sprung up recently – the loveliest of them near the roadside town of Nileshwaram, at the head of the Valiyaparamba backwaters. Larger hotel complexes, pitched at wealthy holidaymakers from Bangalore, are beginning to appear further north still around Bekal Fort, where you can walk along some impressive ramparts overlooking kilometres of empty coast.