Chasing Myths

I have been asked by many readers, the story behind the image that graces the cover of this blog. January’s, Outlook Traveller carries that tale, in the form of a travelogue, which I now feel very happy to share with you. I would still urge you to pick it up before it runs out only because of the spectacular snaps which Kunal has taken for this story, that much like the cover image, are the real narrators of this tale. My words can do just so much. Oh and it carries details on what to do and how to get there. Without further ado…. Chasing Myths. 

——————-

In a lingering haze of streaking lights and the fading and flowing yawns of onrushing vehicles, a familiar unsettling thrill had begun to soak in like a splash of cold water on a winter night.

For a month I had been waiting on a friend in Bangalore, with a very specific skill set, of capturing light, form and soul in burnt ochre skins of celluloid, a profession that had been corrupted by its nondescript tag of photography and its amateur practitioners. A month I spent in a small room in an infinite loop of time and space, where the air stayed musty and lines of white were chop,chop, chopped and snorted with discomfiture and elan. But we were off now, travellers and troublemakers in cahoots, nestled uncomfortably in the belly of a metal beast gnawing and thundering to the whims of inconsistent tarmac, making our way to Kasargod, the northern entrance to Kerala.

Kasargod is buzzing by nine. The town wakes early, thrives into noon, slows down for a siesta, then buckles up again around evening until it crawls into dormancy by nightfall – a very systematic pacing typifies its clock. Tourists are scant, and have yet to influence its cycles. Fortunately for me, my companion Kunal, worked like clockwork and set the pace for our journey.  Our first pit stop was hallowed grounds, a mosque named after one of the first followers of Prophet Mohammed who was directly instructed by him to sail to our shores and spread the word of Islam. His name was Malik Ibn Dinar and the Malik Dinar Mosque was his final resting place.

Supported on wooden pillars, the reverential slant of the double storeyed mosque’s terracotta tiled roof is typical of Keralite architecture. The original structure was no more than a humble thatched roof, which was renovated much later in the mosque’s history. Some of the original marble tiles had been brought in by Ibn Dinar from Mecca and has been retained in the innermost sanctum of the mosque. Inscribed by an expert hand in Arabic on the pillars of this ancient monument is the account of it’s genesis.  Against a clear sky, the double storeyed, pristine white mosque, flanked on both sides by a graveyard was a sparkling pearl in an azure sea. An old man stood motionless over a grave. The two looked to have found some profound symbiosis in each other’s company.

Into this atmosphere ventured us misfits, armed with a dictaphone, a camera and some loose change. The sinner’s paranoia had kicked in.  A man with a worn out forehead of piety, stepped out with a cordial smile that conveyed his familiarity with malapropos tourists. He asked us for our names. I duly introduced Kunal and then myself, which is when I made the grave error of telling him I am a Nair. With the grandest of smiles, he proclaimed ‘Aaha! Malayalee aano’ (Aha! A fellow Malayalee), to which I replied in the fractured diction of a man, long estranged from the motherland ‘korachu korachu Malayalam ariyum’ (little, little, Malayalam know). His smile persisted. His eyes bore little amusement. Our discussion did not progress much further. We were politely left to our devices, as Kunal applauded my ignorance and proceeded to converse with a few children from the local madrasa. who were fortunately enough, eager to impress him, with their factoids on the place, with a fortitude that only innocence can provide. I left it to him to further our cause.

The heat in Kerala, has an ally in an omnipresent humidity that is generously laced with sea salt. It lends a coarse irritation that persists even when the skin is wiped dry. It is the premium charged by nature for the bounty it has bestowed on Kerala and there was a time when Kasargod was one of its greatest beneficiaries, trading liberally in spices, coir, nuts and textiles with Arabia. Many years have gone by since those days when every dynasty south of the Vindhyas fought to stake their claim over this land. And in a historic power center that persisted through the reign of the Kolathiris, the Nayaks, Tipu Sultan, and the British, lie vestiges of those days of blood and metal.

A 17th century edifice overlooking the Arabian Sea, Bekal Fort is a monument of pure military force, raised from the floor of the sea itself. Feudal lords had flown their banners on its bastions. The British and the Portuguese had waged naval wars at its shores for control of trade. No administrative buildings, no mansions for comfort – Bekal was a man’s fort, a warrior’s home. Our walk up to its martial walls,  the surrounding moat, cannons at the entrance and a gate that resembled the acrimonious strappings of a warlord had Kunal fabricating a south Indian version of the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Once we walked inside though, the emancipation of Bekal was all too apparent.

Holes carved into walls that served as gun stations, now had lovers peeking out of them to film their version of whatever song was in vogue. Grassy patches lined with manicured bushes and wildflowers had bangle adorned hands gliding through them as videographers shot attentively, casting furtive glances backwards to avoid an unsightly fall. The largest fort in Kerala, the beacon of advanced naval warfare for more than two centuries was now locale extraordinaire for lovers.

But we couldn’t afford condescension. We were all scavengers here.

As evening settled  and the whistles to announce the closure of the fort resounded, we stood on the eastern tower, gazing at the underground tunnels that led directly to the sea and the mossy shores that flowed into surf crashed rocks. A conversation ensued that escapes my memory. Something about the wandering ghosts of fallen warriors and the limitations of human foresight. Something pretentious, no doubt.

The next morning at breakfast, a curious variety of Kerala chicken biryani which bore a striking resemblance to its Kannadiga counterpart, yielded a tale of a mythical primordial creature. from a local professor we befriended at the restaurant. It resided In a temple of Lord Vishnu.

“Were we interested in visiting it” he asked.

“Is a crocodile a reptile?”

Ananthapura lake temple, is like a terracotta colored jewel box nestled inside an emrald green lake and flanked on all sides by laterite walls. The tales of its origin, as narrated by the pujari, were steeped in mythology and thus have questionable veracity, but the temple is definitely very old. We awaited patiently for the pujari’s tale to meander towards the legend of Babia – the guardian of the lake temple, the human-friendly crocodile who had lived in the lake for centuries.

“Oho-ho for that you have to be verrry lucky. Verrry few people have seen Babia and if you do, it is considered a blessing from Go-”

“There it is” shouted Kunal, interrupting the pujari’s monologue.

At the temple’s western periphery, floated the head of a mugger, a salt water crocodile. And just as suddenly it had appeared it submerged again without a warning, frustrating Kunal’s attempt at getting a shot of it.  In silence we waited for an hour for it to reappear. But Babia was gone.

We couldn’t fathom what drove such a magnificent creature to live in isolation, behave completely contrary to its natural predatorial instincts and survive on rice balls and fish, for the perpetuation of a temple’s myth. But if given a choice between believing in a miracle and a dastardly act of man as the explanation for the existence of an anomaly like Babia, we unanimously presumed it was the latter. We unanimously hoped we were wrong.  A small hotel perched dangerously close to the backwaters of a river, was to be our home for the night. A place that in Kunal’s words “at least gave crocodiles a shot at getting one back.”

We woke up at dawn the next morning with the singular intent of getting baked next to the backwaters. A boatman and his young apprentice rowed by. We asked them if we could join them to wherever their destination was.

Together we rowed silently, into the heart of the river. Cold winds flowed into our nostrils on invisible sheets of satin while we lay surrounded by a glorious loneliness that is not easy to find even in these parts. The boatman, Raghu, told us if there was one place that he would want us to see before we left, it was a bridge, the longest footbridge in the country that connected his village of Kottapuram to the mainland. With no particular destination of our own, and with the river flowing in just one direction, the Kottapuram bridge was the last that we saw of Kasargod.

From a distance the bridge seemed like a straight line that had been drawn on the grand canvas of the horizon, a few millimeters above the waters. The closer we got, the more the simplistic efficiency of its construct became evident to us. But hardly ‘the one place’ on any list.  The slashing clicks of Kunal’s camera as it suddenly went from stasis to overdrive alerted me that I was probably missing something that had captivated him. As i maneuvered a glance backwards I realized that Kunal was entranced by the pride it had invoked in the boatman, who was now beaming from ear to ear with a dazzling smile that was so infectious that I reciprocate to it, even now as I type these words and that dormant ephemeral memory resurfaces.

I felt an unrestrainable elation, needing to manifest it in an act of physical affirmation. I stripped down to my shorts and dived into the water. Maybe this was the legacy of these structures – the stubborn residues of finite lives, providing chapters in an infinite tale that nobody knows or understands, but reveal themselves suddenly through an inexplicable moment of pure emotion – the world’s most beautiful smile.

“For the crocodiles?” asked Kunal, uncertainly.

Sure why not. “For the crocodiles!” I shouted pumping my fist in the air.

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