Nila – an emotion, not just a river

Nila River Bharatapuzha kerala

Nila enjoys an exalted position in Kerala’s cultural history. The 250-km long river drives Kerala’s traditional ethos and has deep influence on its literary evolution and a number of classical art forms flourish along the banks of the revered river.

Once a perennial river, it now dries up in summer and many feel it may be on the verge of extinction. The river looks like a narrow ribbon at many stages of its path, as sand mining and deforestation continue to take a toll.

The Ministry of Tourism, as part of its Dekho Apna Desh series, held a webinar to discuss Nila and its significance and two persons who know the river like the back of their hands – Blue Yonder founder Gopinath Parayil and writer Anita Nair – drove the discussion.

Over to the conversation:

Gopinath Parayil: For Malayalis, Nila is not just a river. It’s not just a destination. It’s an emotion, and a feeling. Malayalam literature flourished on these banks. There’s lots of passion and romance attached to the river. Back home in Kerala we call it Bharathappuzha which is a tongue twister for some, so we decided to give it the poetic name Nila. It is 250 km long, of which 50 km runs along Tamilnadu. From the Anaimalai hills in the Western Ghats, the river flows through three districts of Kerala- Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram – before joining the Arabian Sea at Ponnani in Malappuram district.

In 2005, the magazine Outlook traveller featured our little river as one of the best five river journeys in India. Just imagine being featured along with Ganges, Brahmaputra, Jhelum etc. Then in 2018, National Geographic Traveller in India dedicated 9 pages to talk about river Nila. So, this was a particular edition where they mentioned cultural aspects of it. For those people who are curious to know and get access to this place there are three airports which are accessible. Kozhikode or Calicut airport, Cochin and Coimbatore airport in Tamil Nadu. Between these three airports lies our place and it is accessible in 1-2 hrs by road or train.

Now a super special and unique aspect about river Nila is the Silent Valley which is one among the top 10 bio-diverse regions in the world as listed by IUCN. It is part of the Western Ghats which is in Palakkad District.

You must have heard of a geographical phenomenon called Palakkad gap which is about 30-32 kms long. Many communities discovered the region through the Palakkad gap. The hot air from Tamil Nadu enters through the gap and that influences our monsoon.

How do you explore Nila? There are so many ways we could travel by train, go for soft treks in Western Ghats and nearby Nelliyampathy. You can take a stroll near places like Pattambi. The railway stations on the Shornur-Nilambur track are the highlights of the journey.

Worthy contributions have been made by talented artists of this district for maintaining and enriching the classical dance and art forms of Kerala, such as Chakkiar Koothu, Thullal, Kathakali , Koodiyatam,Tholpaava koothu and Mohiniattom. The musical tradition of Palakkad district is unchallenged.

The visit to the artisans, folk performing artists, potter & bell metal community will be an appreciation of the efforts to rehabilitate the traditional dying art & handicrafts of the area. Our visits expand our knowledge about the programme and provide them financial support.

Famous poet Vallathol, who had a deep spiritual bond with the river, established the Kerala Kalamandalam, the reputed centre for performing arts at Cheruthuruthy on its banks. Though there are different schools of music available in the district, one particular initiative called Sopanam School of Panchavadyam in Edappal in Malapuram district is unique. They are aiming at the conservation of regional cultural heritage. The region’s percussion tradition allows all art lovers across the world to know, learn and practice panchavadhyam, chenda, sopanasangeetham etc in a traditional way.

Anita Nair: The story of my association with this river began when I was a child. I grew up in a little suburb 22 kms away from Chennai. Thrice a year we travelled to Kerala and we used to catch a train from central station Chennai and come into Kerala. Now the first glimpse of Kerala is Walayar, the border town. However, for me Kerala wasn’t Walayar; there was a particular railway station called Palli and it was at that station that you catch the first glimpse of the river and that was when I would start feeling that I am actually entering Kerala.

To this day I know of so many people who tell me they get the same feeling. Many people go and stand at the compartment door to try and catch a glimpse of the river and it makes a kind of huge difference to the way you feel when you enter the state. It makes you feel like you have put aside everything behind you and that you are actually entering a place where life has a different pace. The first time they used that slogan `Gods own country’ for Kerala, I kind of said yes because this is the feeling you get especially if you’re a Malayali and coming back to Kerala. Now when I would reach Shornur station, I would disembark, as that’s where my family home is, and the first question my uncle would ask would be ‘Was there water in the river at Palli’? Now the thing is that lot of farmers especially in that region depend on the river for watering their fields especially for growing paddy.

I remember one of the things which happened routinely when we went to Kerala was that about 8 kms away from Shornur, which is a railway junction town, there is this village called Mundakottukurussi, my ancestral village. It’s surrounded by hills on all sides and it’s a little valley and there is nothing much that happens in Mundakkottukurussi. It’s a very agrarian place and people still live in a way that people probably lived many years ago and one of the interesting things about this Mundakkottukurussi village is that it’s one of those ancient villages that for no specific reason has survived and it continues to survive and remains almost unchanged to this day.

This region as whole is called Valluvanad and food in this region is season specific. Puliyinji is traditionally served with sadya (traditional vegetarian meal). Kalan is made out of ripe mangoes, which are available in the months of March, April, May and pretty much everything we cook has coconut in it. Then we have a dish called koova (arrowroot ) in the month of December.

During the Thiruvathira festival, women actually take a vow and worship Lord Shiva and goddess Parvathy and the whole idea is you pray for husbands’ well-being and that day you break the fast with a halwa like dish made of arrowroot, jaggery and bits of coconut.

The temple festivals are called Pooram. In larger places you can see elephants coming in but in small villages we have something called Kala Vela. Every region around small villages and taluks is called Desham. Each village sends their Kala or bullock and there are competitions as to which is the most gorgeously and ostentatiously decorated one. Usually in my village this happens in the month of February and there are little customs attached to it. Once Pooram is announced and they put up the flag, then for the next one month nobody from that village should leave home. They need to be in that village till the Pooram is over. It usually ends with fireworks. The landscape, living culture, the food, the performances, the dance forms and the traditional music lend itself to storytelling.