You have to come see Kannur’s buddhu fish,” the colonel, an old friend, tells me. And I’m hooked. What is life if you haven’t caught a glimpse of buddhu fish, whatever they might be?
Which is why and how I find I’m in Kannur, a very tiny strip on the tiny strip that is my native land, Kerala. The immediate montages are of paddy fields, coconut palms, areca nut, tapioca, pepper, cashew. Fisheries, beedi, coir. Mangroves, red sandy soil. Kannur’s buildings are almost all brick with tiled roofs.
We kicked off ‘Op Kannur’ with a six-kilometre trek up Pythal Mala; it wasn’t very arduous mainly because the weather was near balmy. The 4,500- feet tall mala (hill) sits some 65 km outside Kannur. At the top is a watchtower atop a cliff, the view from which is worth every minute of the climb up the hill.
Inside Kannur town is the well-maintained St Angelo’s fort, with its mandatory moat, now dry, connecting the Arabian Sea to Mapilla Bay. It also has dungeons, rows of stables, cannons an ammo house, sea views from high ramparts, and the erstwhile caretaker’s bhooth bangla. I was charmed when I came upon the ‘Tourism Policemen’ in the fort, among them the locally famous Sathyan Edakkad, who has written books on the fort as well as on Vasco de Gama. The fort, built in 1505, sits atop a rocky promontory, is triangular in shape, and has changed hands many times. Longtime owners the Kolathiri Rajas, were forced to hand it over to the Portuguese, then the Dutch took over, eventually selling the fort to Ali Raja of Arakkal. The British took it over in 1790. Kannur was then the most vital military state in all of Malabar and St Angelo’s fort played a huge part in the defence of the west coast.
Kannur’s beaches are pretty and what’s more to the point, pretty much left alone. Not too many crowds and virtually no muck. The Muzhapilangad beach is a drive-through, four km of tightly packed sand. While we sorely missed a dune buggy, it was fun to drive parallel to the sea, letting the incoming surf throw spray high on our windshield. Inland, there were stone steps in tiers, making for an ideal place to sit and watch the sea do its thing. Large boulders rose out of the waters just beyond the shoreline. To one side was a thick grove that was the privately-owned Dharmadam Island, traversable on foot when the tide was down. The isle is just a 100 metres from the mainland, five acres of coconut palms and dense shrubbery. The Payambalam and Meenkunnu beaches are other popular, unspoilt beaches.
The jewel in the crown was the location of our guest house, inside the sprawling Defence Security Corps (DSC) compound. Perched on the lip of a bluff, all our rooms overlooked the sea, with incredible sunrise and sunset views. To the left was Mappila Bay, once a bustling commercial harbour, now a fishing one, where gulls wheeled noisily above the incoming and outgoing fishing vessels.
We drive a few kilometres to the 75-feet high Cannanore lighthouse, where we had missed the visitors timing, but a chance meeting with the affable official in charge had him open the locked door and let us climb all the way to the top where we were able to take in lovely views of the sea, the Sea View Park just below, and the palm groves behind us.
A drive through Kannur has one constantly travelling beside the coastline, with glimpses of the sun glinting on blue-gray waters. We come upon an unusual building. It is the Moideen Palli, a lovely mosque. Close by is the Arakkal Museum that has a modest collection of armour, artefacts and portraits.
The Snake Park, which showcases over 150 varieties of the reptile, including the spectacled cobra, King Cobra, Russell’s viper, kraits, pit vipers and pythons, has a live show, and offers ‘one hundred per cent’ cures for snakebites. Another tourist attraction is the Anjarakandy plantation, Asia’s largest cinnamon estate, which is now the Kannur Medical College. And of course, no mention of Kannur is complete without mentioning the Parissini Kadavu temple; devotees flock, all year round, to pay tribute to Lord Muthappan.
The town is soaked in history. The ships of Solomon, they say, anchored along its coast to collect timber for building the fabled Temple of the Lord. It is believed to be the Naura mentioned in the Periplus of the Erithrean Sea, an ancient Greek work. Visitors to Kannur include Marco Polo, Fahian, and Ibn Batuta. It is land of football and theyyam, the circus. Pazhassi Raja, the lion of Kerala whose fight with the British was made into an award- winning Malayalam film, was from hereabouts.
What do Kannur’s shops hold? All the spices your heart could desire, banana chips, sweet and garnished with masala. Replicas of the uru boat (once the trading vessels of the Malabar coast) made in nearby Beypore of the finest teak, wooden jewel boxes and of course, all the cottons and handlooms the town is justly famous for.
And so, as our Kannur tryst came to an end, we sat on our very own patch of heaven, a modest hillock in the DSC environs, dining on fresh fish and watching quaint, fat, little white birds waddle on the rocky shoreline in front of us, looking for their version of our dinner. Colonel Saini, the Commandant of the Centre, smiles and says, “The birds will get more than their share, too… these are the buddhu fish.” Buddhu fish, (foolish fish) I ask. “Yes,” continues the colonel. “These fish are washed in by the tides and they stay in the shallow bays, a ready meal for the birds.” And that is the image of Kannur I take away, the buddhu fish and their predators, the cute, obese birds.