Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 11/1/05 12:31 PM

Travel: Kerala Kalamandalam

Distant drums

 Sheila Kumar visits the Santiniketan of the  South, the Kerala Kalamandalam
 in  Cheruthuruthy

As we drive into the green hamlet of Cheruthuruthy, the first sound that wafts over the air,

over the rippling waters of the river Bharatapuzha, is the rhythmic pulse of the chenda drums.


A sound ubiquitous to all major temple festivals in ‘God’s Own Country’, the drums beat

incessantly and before I know it, my fingers have taken up the drill.


Where is the sound coming from, I ask a local and receive a dumbfounded look. “Why, from the

Kalamandalam, of course,” he says. That’s when I realise that Cheruthuruthy is Kalamandalam,

the crucible of traditional music and dance forms of Kerala.


Cheruthuruthy is about 50 km south of Palakkad and a decent drive along a long and winding road.

Here, tea stalls are aplenty. Along with the glass tumblers of piping hot and sweet chai, one can

munch on one of Kerala’s treasures – the long, golden bananas called nendrepazhams

(indeed, a taste of heaven) – or choose from a variety of locally baked delicious biscuits.


Part of Shoranur town, Cheruthuruthy sits on the banks of the swift, deceptively

docile Nila, a tributary of Bharatapuzha. Its waters flow in a straight line here,

lazy loops there, sometimes turning treacherous.


We are staying at River Retreat, Cheruthuruthy’s only hotel. A delightful red-brick building,

it was once the summer residence of the Maharaja of Cochin.


The rooms are cozy, all modern conveniences in place, heavy old-world furniture

polished to a high gleam and the service extremely friendly. We discover a common

balcony that overlooks the river.


Once the heat of the day has lessened, all hotel residents sit there, feet up on the fret-worked

iron railing, staring at the ebb and flow, the little islets now glimpsed, now run over by the river.

To the far side, men balance on their haunches, fishing lines sunk in the water, chatting

desultorily; on the bank opposite, a rusted red chimney of some mill protrudes, rising from the shrubbery.


We have saved the main event – the visit to the Kalamandalam – for the last. So we enquire

if there are any more attractions in Cheruthuruthy. Locals tell us in devout tones about

the Irunilamkodu Temple.


Photo: Sheila Kumar

Curiously, no one is too sure of the identity of the deity worshipped at the shrine. It could be Lord Shiva,

it could be his son Subramaniam.


The legend goes, that when a cheruman logger woman sharpened her sickle on a big rock, a small part

of the rock fell off and the remaining portion bled. The rock was an idol and the woman had chipped off

its nose. The idol was consecrated at that spot and sandalwood paste is the most important offering here,

to complete the idol`s nose.



I head there, on one side of the shrine, I see a 75-foot-high boulder. As I make my obeisance and

turn to leave, the guide tells me that worship at the shrine will be incomplete if I don’t climb the

steep boulder and touch the shivling of unknown antiquity on top of the crest. I decide to go.

Halfway up, I turn to look over my shoulder and nearly swoon – it’s a sharp vertical drop.

When I finally reach the crest after a half-hour trek, it offers a magnificent view: the lush

Agamala forests, the paddy fields and coconut groves. I take a long breather before I make my

way down the rough path.


I’m told there is a traditional pot-making centre in the small potters’ colony. The pottery made here

is for local use; matka for water, shallow dishes used as plates, deep kadai for cooking rice and fish stew.

For the Ayurvedaphiles, there is the Nilayoram Resort tucked way inside the winding lanes. I’ll confess

that I am less than impressed by its landscaped gardens, the rooms that reek of kozhambu (herbal oil)

and the staff that knew almost nothing about the place.


There is no getting away from the fact that Cheruthuruthy, while great for a couple of days, is

actually a transit stop for those visiting Kalamandalam.


So we head for Kerala’s premier art academy. As we drive in through its dusty gates, the first impression

is of total serenity. Palms wave their fronds, splotches of seasonal flowers add colour, and over the air

wafts the sound of drums. As clear is the sharp click of the baton the dance teachers use to keep taal.


Kalamandalam was founded by the famous poet Vallathol Narayana Menon in 1930. Today, it’s run

by the state government. Over 300 students take courses in theatre, dance and music that will equip

them with a Bachelor of Performing Arts degree.


The administrative buildings and the kalari (classrooms) look like a mass of numbing concrete.

Just inside the gates, though, is a new building housing the art gallery and museum. The stunning

koothambalam(theatre) is an ornate, pillared and regal sprawl. Most evenings, it’s

the performance area. Kathakali, Mohiniattam, Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam are taught at

the Kalamandalam, as are the chenda, maddalam and mridangam (types of drums) and

the dance forms special to the state like Koodiyattam and Tullal.


This 30-acre campus is a self-contained township. It has a natyagraha, a regular high

school, hostel, a college library, a room for archives, recording studio, staff quarters

and an employees’ cooperative society.

As befits a university, apart from the performing arts, scholastic studies are also undertaken.

The really interested tourist would not feel left out.

The Kalamandalam holds three-month crash courses in select disciplines and holds Kathakali,

Koodiyattam , Mohiniattam recitals for tourists, under a ‘Day with the Masters’ offer;

the fee to watch it ranges from Rs 1,500 to Rs 6,500.


As we leave, we take with us some montages: a Kathakali classroom full of boys practising

their eye movements without moving their heads; supple and incredibly graceful young girls

in blue and red saris doing the Mohiniattam; boys dressed alike in starched off-white dhoti

and mundu with gold zari at the hem, heading for a mridangam class; and, of course, the

compelling, addictive beat of the chenda. The drumbeats, in fact, see us out of Cheruthuruthy.



When to go The best season to visit Cheruthuruthy is from August to March


How to get there
Air The nearest airport is Nedumbassery Airport, Kochi (85 km).

Indian Airlines, Jet Airways and Air Deccan fly in and out from here

Rail The nearest railhead is Shoranur Junction (3 km)
Road Two hours from Palakkad


Where to stay
Nilayoram Resort Rs 3,583 for double occupancy (Best time for Ayurveda therapy is June to September)
The River Retreat Rs 1,050 to Rs 1,950


The River Retreat It is located on Palace road, Cheruthuruthy, Thrissur, and

has 140 rooms.

Location: On the bank of Bharathapuzha, Cheruthuruthy, ‘River Retreat’ offers

14 centrally air-conditioned furnished guest rooms. Situated amidst

serene surroundings, River Retreat is two-hours from Cochin, Calicut

and Coimbatore airports and three minutes from Shoranur Railway Junction.

Facilities: Front desk business centre, concierge elevator, parking available

for buses, banquet, restaurant, safe deposit box, lounge coffee shop,

24-hour room service.

International Hostel: Rs 900-1500. Government Rest House and Guesthouses:

It’s a short distance along the Shoranur road from Kalamandalam.

For about Rs 100 per person, it’s worth the stay. Tel: 0488/462760


Featured in Harmony Magazine November 2005




Agamala forestsBharatapuzhaCheruthuruthydanceIrunilamkodu templeKeralaKerala KalamandalamRiver RetreatVallathol Narayana Menon

Sheila Kumar • November 1, 2005

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