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Kannur - The Land of Theyyam


Kannur was earlier known by its anglicized name "Cranganore" or Portuguese name "Cannannore". It is known as "Land of Looms and Lores". It is the largest city of North Malabar. Kannur is singularly famous for the "Theyyam" performance-the magico-religious dance. It is believed that during its performance, its performer is possessed by the spirits of the gods and the performer thus is considered as God during that brief period (Theyyam is described below). It appears that the name 'Kannur' owes its name to the ancient village of Kannathur. A village with the name exists even today in one of the wards of Kannur Municipality. The village itself might have derived the name from one of the Aryan Gods-Krishna. Krishna is widely prayed to by people of Kerala especially women folk. Krishna is considered to be a manifestation of the important member of the Hindu trinity-Vishnu. According to the Hindu Mythology, in order to save the earth and humanity, Vishnu had to take ten different avatars. Each of these avatars was born on the terra firma as humans. With the possible exception of Rama avatar, every other manifestation seems to have retained extraordinary divine powers despite them being "humans". It may be said that among all the avatars, Krishna seems to have been one of the popular and prayed to by most of the people of India. The "Guruvayoor" temple in Kerala is one of the most prominent among many. He was depicted as a carefree and naughty god with a soft corner for the womenfolk. His dalliances with gopis (milk-girls) from his village of Mathura have been celebrated in music and paintings as "divine-play". Despite this playboy reputation, he is also respected as a powerful god who revealed the influential Hindu philosophical treatise "the Gita". H e was also the chief protagonist of the Hindu epic- "The Mahabharata". Thus, direct association with Krishna was a matter of great pride. Krishna is also worshipped in his child-form predominantly called "Kannan". Kannur could be the combination of two words- "Kannan" and "Ur" (means place or land). These two words combined would mean the land or place of Kannan lending Kannur with some association with divinity. Close Association between Kannur with Gods has given rise to its characteristic lores.

Kannur was an important port on the Arabian Sea and was merchants engaged in trade with Persia and Arabia in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Due to its strategic location, it was also made the British military headquarters on India's west coast up to 1887. In conjunction with her sister city Thalassery (anglicized name Tellicherry), it was the third largest city on the western coast of British India in the eighteenth century after Mumbai and Karachi. Contemporary Kannur is the most urbanized district in Kerala, with more than 50% of its residents living in urban areas. Its urban population is the second largest in Kerala after Ernakulam district.

During the British Rule, Kannur was part of the then Madras province in the District of North Malabar. Despite its close and intense associations with the Hindu religion, Kannur also has the distinction of being the capital city of only Muslim Sultanate of Kerala known as Arakkal dynasty.

Kannur continues to be of strategic military importance for India. It houses one of the 62 military cantonments in the country, the Kannur Cantonment, and is the current seat of the Defense Security Corps.


Kannur district lies between latitudes 11° 40' to 12° 48' North and longitudes 74° 52' to 76° 07' East. It is bound by the Western Ghats in the East (Coorg district of Karnataka State), Kozhikode (anglicized name Calicut) and Wayanad districts, in the South, Lakshadweep Sea in the West and Kasaragode, district in the North.

The district can be divided into three geographical regions - highlands, midlands and lowlands. The highland region comprises mainly of mountains where coffee, rubber, tea, cardamom and other spices are grown in plantations. It is also famous for timber trees like teak and has localized areas dominated by bamboo. The midland region, lying between its mountains and the low lands, is made up of undulating hills and valleys. Six rivers drain Kannur, the longest being the Valapattanam river with a length of 110 km. Other rivers flowing through Kannur district are Kuppam, Mahe River, Anjarakandi, Thalassery, Ramapuram and Perumba. This is an area of intense agricultural activity where rice and paddy are grown. Major part of the district comes under midland region with numerous hills and dales and it presents an undulating surface gradually ascending and merging into the slopes of Western Ghats. The lowland is relatively narrow and comprises of rivers, deltas and seashore. This is a region of coconut and paddy cultivation. Kannur district is very rich in vegetation. Natural vegetation is contained in thick forests. Plant communities, ranging from psammophytes and mangroves to evergreen forests are seen in this district.

Brief History: The earliest evidence of human habitation in the district is rock-cut caves and megalithic burial sites of the Neolithic age. There is no evidence of the Paleolithic man having lived in this region. Nevertheless, rock-cut caves and Megalithic burial sites of the Neolithic age have come to light in certain parts of the district The Thaliparamba-Kannur-Thalassery area abounds in rock-cut caves, dolmens, burial stone circles and menhirs, all of megalithic burial order. It can be assumed that the first batch of Aryan immigrants into the State entered the district through the Tuluva (part of the contemporary Karnataka state) region.

The area today known as Kannur was previously part of the Chera (a strong southern dynasty) kingdom, which ruled most of Kerala during the first several centuries CE. The Chera king was Kulashekhara Varman. Cheras ruled Kerala between 9th and 12th century with their capital at Mahodayapuram and Kannur was part of this empire. During this time, a line of rulers known as the Mooshaka Kings held sway over Chirakkal and Kasaragode areas (Kolattunadu) with their capital near Mount Eli (or ezhi). It is difficult to say if the Mooshaka kings were feudatories of the Cheras or an independent dynasty. By the 14th century A.D., the old Mooshaka kingdom had come to be known as Kolattunadu and the rulers known as Kolathiris and had come into prominence in north Kerala. The Kolathiris had acquired political and military power and had become a force to reckon with by the time of the arrival of the Portuguese towards the end of the 15th century. They were political and commercial rivals of the Zamorins of Kozhikode. Later Kannur was made the capital of the Kolathiri Rajas, whose kingdom had trading relations with Arabia and Persia in the 12th century and 13th centuries. In his book on travels, Marco Polo recounts his visit to the area in mid 1290's. Other visitors included Fa-hien, the Buddhist pilgrim and Ibn Batuta, Moroccan writer and historian. According to local legends, the ships of Solomon had anchored along the coasts of Kannur to collect timber for building the Temple of the Lord. Kannur also finds mention as Naura in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greek work of great antiquity.

There was intense rivalry between the then contemporary rulers of Kerala to dominate the lucrative spice trade. To control the trade meant control of the coastlines where the ports were located. These rivalries triggered off constant wars. Despite the obvious dangers of letting-in colonial powers in their territory, the rulers didn't stop their petty skirmishes. It was these gaps that every colonial power exploited. The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama when he passed by Kannur in 1498 also used the opportunities and got into an alliance with the Kolathiri kings. Though Vasco Da Gama, the famous Portuguese navigator, did not visit Kannur on his way to Kozhikode in May 1498, he established contacts with the Kolathiri ruler. His ships which had left Kozhikode on August 29, 1498 were contacted by the boats sent by the Kolathiri and Gama was invited to visit the palace. The aim of the Kolathiri was to gain wealth and power with the help of the Portuguese, the same way his rival the Zamorin had acquired with the help of the Arabs. In winning the alliance of the Kolathiri, Vasco Da Gama, in turn, had successfully exploited the jealousies of the native princes and won for the Portuguese a virtual monopoly of the pepper trade. He was able to get his permission to build a Portuguese settlement in the premises of Kannur. Francisco De Almeida was sent from Portugal with specific instructions to erect forts at strategic points. He started constructing the Kannur Fort in 1505 and it was named St. Angelo.The settlement was just the beginning and it is here that the iconic St. Angelo's fort was built. On March 16, 1506, the Portuguese effectively intercepted an armada of Turks and Arabs, whom the Zamorin had launched against Kannur. The Portuguese navy under Lorenzo Almeida engaged the Zamorin's fleet in battle and the Portuguese ships won a decisive victory. This naval victory resulted in the establishment of Portuguese naval supremacy in the Indian seas.

As the power of the Portuguese grew, the Kolathiri and the Zamorin started feeling the jitters. Despite intense rivalry, the Zamorin was able to convince the Kolathiri of the real motives of the Portuguese in India and the perils inherent in his policy of befriending them. To accentuate their alienation with the local princes and chieftains, the devoutly catholic Portuguese followed a policy of religious persecution and forcible conversion. Finally Portuguese were seen as a common enemy and an alliance was sealed between the Kolathiri and the Zamorin. In 1558, the Kolathiri came openly into the field against the Portuguese by providing active support to the Kunjhali Marrikkar (the rebel naval captain) of Kozhikode. The Kolathiri and the Zamorin fought a common war against the Portuguese and they besieged the fort of St. Angelo at Kannur, in 1564. But the Portuguese continued to maintain a precarious foothold at Kannur till 1663 when the fort was captured by another European colonial power-the Dutch in February that year.

The English East India Company had humble beginnings in Kerala. It got its first foothold in the district when in the closing years of the 17th century; it acquired a site at Thalassery for the erection of a fort and a factory. In spite of the many difficulties it had to face in the initial stages, the trade of the English East India Company prospered during the latter part of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century, due to their liberal trade policies. Further, unlike the Portuguese, they refused to interfere in the religious and caste affairs of the local population. In the latter half of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century Kolathiri's dominion started disintegrating due to dissensions in the royal family. It gave the British the opportunity to acquire political power in around the territories. With the ascension of Haider Ali on the Mysore throne, a new "native" army was on the prowl for expanded territories. Haider Ali conquered Malabar in 1773. In January 1788, Tipu Sultan descended on Kerala with a large army and founded a new capital at Feroke for his Malabar province. In the latter half of the 18th century, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, rulers of Mysore, conquered much of Kannur which was then British territory. The British branded Haider Ali and Tipu sultan as arch enemies competing for their territory and thus their trade. With strong and competing motives, conflicts between these parties were but a natural progression of ambitions. In 1792, at the conclusion of the Third Anglo-Mysore War, the British had decisively defeated the Mysorean forces in Kerala. The treaties of Srirangapatanam, signed on 22nd February and 18th March, 1792, formally ceded their possessions to the British. They took over Kannur and the surrounding region, and made into the new Malabar District. This district was made a part of the British India's Madras Presidency. The British Government divided the province of Malabar into two administrative divisions - the Northern and Southern, presided over by a Superintendent each at Thalassery and Cherpulasseri, under the general control of the Supervisor and Chief Magistrate of the province of Malabar who had his headquarters at Kozhikode.

The defeat of Tipu sultan was symbolic of the death of native resistance. Though Tipu was a great warrior, his own thirst for dominance had resulted in constant invasions of neighboring areas. Despite shades of magnanimity in his personality he didn't hesitate in forcibly converted many natives to Islam. But he effectively cultivated an image of a "secular-radical" warrior. His defeat symbolized ominous times to come and come it did. The British were the new rulers and the rulers within the region understood this very well. The victors get to keep all the spoils- in order to consolidate their possessions, the British were able to "enter" into agreements with the Rajas of Chirakkal, Kottayam and Kadathanand and all of them acknowledged the full sovereignty of the Company over their respective territories. The "company" was now crowned the King of Kerala (at least most of the parts).

The symbolic importance of the St. Angelo's Fort:

It was built in 1505 by Dom Francisco de Almeida, the first Portuguese Viceroy of India. It is situated along the Arabian Sea about 3 km from Kannur town. It was not trade alone that was in the minds of the Portuguese when they wanted to built a settlement in Kannur. They were planning for a longer stay and knew that dominating the native population wouldn't be an easy task. As every colonialist knows, it is important to overwhelm a population and dominate their minds if they were to be subjugated. Thus, in order to fortify their position in both on land and the minds of these natives, the Portuguese used architecture. Architecture has proved its power in overawing the masses; be it a palace, fort, churches or other secular structures. Size does dominate and it has been proven over and over again. Thus, the Portuguese led by Don Francisco de Almeida, the first Portuguese viceroy for India, built the St. Angelo's Fort north of Kannur in 1505 on a promontory jutting into the Lakshadweep Sea. Though not massive in size compared to other forts in India, Its strong walls do give the impression of strength. Guns were placed at strategic points that were visible to people. The fort has become apart of local lores and became symbolic of colonial power and dominance over the natives.

The fort as the first colonial structure acquired a certain element of legitimacy and became the symbol of authority. It was almost like "he who owns the fort owns the land". Thus its ownership became the ultimate objective for all colonialists. Its ownership changed hands several times. In 1663 the fort was captured by the Dutch, signifying the transfer of power to them. However, the fort was strongly identified with the Portuguese power and in symbolic dismissal of the importance of the Portuguese power; the fort was sold to the Arakkal King in 1772. As habitual colonizers, the British understood the symbolic power of the structure and conquered it in 1790 and transformed it into one of their major military stations on the Malabar Coast.

Even today, it is a fairly well preserved monument stands with pride and its big guns still menacingly watch out for intruders. A painting of this fort and the fishing ferry as a back ground has been displayed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. When the head of Kunjhali Marakkar (the iconic rebel naval captain) was defeated, his dismembered body and exhibited here sending as strong message to the inhabitants and their rulers.

Thalassery Fort-symbolizing the humble beginnings of the British:

This fort symbolizes the humble beginnings of the English unlike the grand entry of the Portuguese. They arrived in Thalassery in 1683 and erected a shed (temporary building) here to enable storing the goods they had acquired to trade. They shifted their commercial capital to Thalassery from Kozhikode in desperation as the then dominant power; the Dutch had obstructed their trade. By 1700, the British built the Thalassery Fort on a small hill called Tiruvellapadukunnu and by 1708, they had acquired the confidence to strengthen it by increasing its height and building bastions. The fort is a square structure built of laterite and is distinguished by its massive ventilated walls and strong flanking bastions. It was also used to imprison rebels. Behind the fort there is a cemetery where the members of the colonial community were buried. Though the cemetery is in a dilapidated state, even today one can read the writings on the tombstones. The famous St. John's Anglican Church is located behind this fort.

Theyyam-a brief Sketch:

Theyyam is a unique art form of art prevalent in the Malabar region of Kerala. Northern Malabar region traditionally called the Kolattunadu comprises the Kannur and the Kasaragode district and is the epicenter of Theyyam. Theyyam is traditionally known as Kaliyattom. Kaliyattom is performed annually as a part of a religious practice. A combination of animism, totemism, and primitive tribal beliefs, its sustenance has also been powered by the consistency of belief in its representation as "the dance of the Gods". The performers' use of bright colors on their faces and their costumes, powerful & aggressive performances in the backdrop of loud and rhythmic music makes it a visual delight. This dance form is masculine in its depiction called "thandava" though most of deities propitiated are mother goddesses.

Theyyam has a radically distinct form of worship from Hinduism. The shrines around which the performance happened are marked by the absence of idols. The object of worship was the sword, shields and other accessories that were used by the theyyam performers during their performances. This helps us understand the religio-martial significance of Theyaam performances.

Theyyam truly belongs to the genre of folklore considering that it has sustained itself on the involvement and support of the inhabitants of the Malabar region. This ancient art form represents the collective aspirations of the people who believe that during the performance the body of the human that performs Theyyam becomes the vehicle for the appeased god to descent in their midst. Theyyam is not just an art form, it is a religion. It is the art form of the people, by the people and for the people.

Theyyam performance seeks to bring the gods to the earth temporarily. The body of the performer or "deham" becomes a medium for the earthly descent of gods. After the necessary rituals, the dancer goes into a trance and it is believed that the spirit of gods have entered into his body. For the next few minutes, the dancer becomes the divine and is treated as one. This dance form is the outcome of severe caste system in Kerala. With the people from the lower castes not allowed into the religious mainstream including visiting temples or reading holy scriptures, this was their religion and their way of worship. Describing theyyam is out of the scope of this work however it may be stated that theyyam also represented the only way of dissent in those constraining times.

Prominent places in Kannur:

Muzhappilangad Beach: it is located 15.Kms from Kannur and 8 Kms from Thalassery. Black rocks protect this long clean beach from the currents of the deep, making it shallows waters a swimmer's paradise. This is the only drive-in beach in Kerala and one can drive entire length of 4 Kms.

Ezhimala: was the capital of the ancient Mooshaka kings and is an ancient historical site. It is conspicuous by its isolation among a cluster of hills forming a promontory. It is located 38 Kms north of Kannur. A flourishing sea port and centre of trade in ancient Kerala, it was also one of the major battle fields of the Chola-Chera war of the 11th century. Local lores attribute a visit by Lord Buddha to Ezhimala. The hill is noted for rare medicinal herbs. Bordered by sea on three sides, the importance of Ezhimala has increased since the building of the Indian Naval Academy.

Pythal Mala: is located 65 Kms from Kannur Town. This enchanting hill station is situated at a height of 4,500 ft. above sea level. It is near the Kerala-Karnataka border and is rich in flora and fauna. To reach the top of the hill, one has to undertake a 6 km trek.

Snake Park at Parassinikkadavu: The Snake Park at Parassinikkadavu is situated 18 Kms from Kannur town. It Is one of the most well-known snake parks in the country. The park is dedicated to the preservation and conservation of snakes, some of which are facing extinction. It houses a large collection of venomous and non-venomous snakes. It also has a facility to prepare anti-venom.

Mappila Bay: is a natural fishing harbour, lying near and visible from the St. Angelo's fort. A sea wall projecting from the fort separates the rough sea and inland water. The bay was famous during the Kolathiris' regime as the commercial harbour that linked Kolattunadu with Lakshadweep and foreign countries for trading. Contemporary Mappila bay has been turned into a modernized fishing harbour, developed under an Indo-Norwegian Pact.


© Sanjai velayudhan

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