Tag Archives: Kerala

Thangassery… a Gem on the Seashore

After visiting my friend Dilly at Thangassery, I had this question that I could not find an answer to… why hadn’t I visited the place earlier? Dilly and I have been friends for donkey’s years, I knew of the beauty and historical importance of the place… maybe it is true that there is a right time for everything!


Located near Kollam in the south western state of Kerala in India, Thangassery is a beautiful seashore town with a unique cultural heritage. Established as home to the Anglo-Indian community (which includes all people of European descent), its contributions to the cultural milieu of the region are invaluable.


The word ‘thangassery’ means gold town or gold village, referring to the distant past when spice trade was conducted here using gold coins. It was also known as ‘Dutch Quilon’ till the 20th century.

Thangassery has a long history, going back to the colonial times when European powers jostled for domination in the Eastern territories. The first European power to appear in Thangassery were the Portuguese, who leased the area of Thangassery from the queen of Quilon (currently called Kollam) in the year 1502, to be used as a trading post. The dilapidated remains of Forte de São Tomé (Fort St. Thomas), built by the Portuguese in 1518 to protect their enclave, can still be seen in Thangassery.


The fort that rose up to a height of 20 feet, is under the care of Archaeological Survey of India and is currently being restored.

After almost a century and half, the decline in the Portuguese power in Europe and the colonial territories led to a Dutch victory at Quilon. In 1661, Fort St. Thomas and Thangassery passed into the hands of the Dutch, who developed the area further. After another century, the fortunes of the British were on the ascendant and the Dutch had to surrender Thangassery to the English East India Company in 1795.


Many of the Portuguese and Dutch soldiers and traders had married locally and settled in Thangassery. This cultural mixing has always enriched the life of Thangassery in many ways. The grid pattern of the roads existing in Thangassery town even today was established by the Dutch. The only other place where I have seen such a perfect grid of roads is my own town, NYC! 🙂


There are several food items that have come out of this mixing of cultures, where local ingredients available in the tropical climate of Kerala find a place in traditional Portuguese and Dutch recipes and get reborn as amazing items. And I thought I had tasted them all. Imagine my surprise when I discovered ‘orappam’, a kind of white halva with a definite coconut flavour, that belongs right at the top with the best of them!


Thangassery lighthouse, established in 1902 and still functional, is one the attractions of the place. The view from the top of the lighthouse is worth every one of the 193 steps you have to climb to get there.


Starting with the tranquil basin of Kollam port protected by the Thangassery breakwater, extending 1.1 mile into the sea…


your eyes will sweep over the vista of the Arabian Sea in a 270 degree arc to land again on a rocky shoreline studded with graceful coconut palms.


Moving further, your gaze will settle on the green landscape dominated by the church steeple…


to end up back at the colouful fishing boats pulled on the shores along the Thangassery Beach Road.


A view that you will never tire of, I can guarantee!


The circular wooden staircase of the lighthouse itself is a work of art.


Standing at a height of 144 feet, the lighthouse has a luminous range of 26 nautical miles. The lighthouse has been in continuous use since its inception.


One of the oldest printing presses in India from where the first book in Kerala was published in1578; Mount Carmel Anglo Indian Girls School, the first convent schools for girls established in 1885; the Infant Jesus Church, a Portuguese-built church that goes back centuries… Thangassery’s claim to fame are many. Still, old timers here are quick to point out the changed circumstances in the town. Large scale migration of the younger generations seeking better fortunes has taken its toll on the local community. Old life styles are disappearing with the influx of outsiders into a hitherto close-knit community.

Though many believe that the golden years of Thangassery are long gone, I found the place charming and delightful. My only regret is that I did not make this trip a long time ago!

I have posted a bunch of photos from Thangassery here…



01 Feb 2015

A brand new year… with no elephants!

If there is one event that signals the winter festive season in New York, it is the lighting of the Rockefeller tree. This season it was to be on Dec 3rd. And of course, I wanted to go and watch the tree come alive in all its glory. But alas, it was not to be. NY police barricades to control street protests against police actions that question even the motto of ‘Courtesy, Respect, Professionalism’, had effectively prevented any public access to the tree lighting ceremony. Did the shadow of the conflict between the police and mayoral institutions put a pall on the city’s annual festivities? Or was it just my imagination?

Anyways, I was happy to escape from the cold, literally as well. Adding to my thrill was an invite from an old old friend (no, the friend is not old; only that our friendship goes back a long way!) had invited me to go visit her in her hometown in Kerala. The plan was to combine some local sightseeing with all the catch-up from the past few years. An excellent start to a new year!

The first stop on our travel was Periyar National Park and Tiger Reserve at Thekkady, on the border of the southern Indian states Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Formerly known as Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, it was declared a national park in 1982.


We had booked rooms at the Periyar House, within the boundaries of the park. What awaited us at the entry gates to the park was bad news… no vehicles are allowed inside after 5.30 pm! And we were about three hours late! The security guards assured us that this was for our own protection as the wild animals tend to wander at night, and may not like our presence. They told us stories of how a herd of a dozen elephants had gone up to the doors of the Periyar House on New Year’s eve.


But then we saw many vehicles being let inside. Those are forest guard trainees and they live inside the park as well, we were told. We couldn’t imagine any wild animals that would selectively attack only visitors, leaving the forest guard trainees alone. So we decided to argue our case. After much telephoning over the next hour, finally we were allowed to enter, with the warning that we should get to the guest house and go in with the least amount of noise.

View from Periyar House

Along the mile-long drive to the guest house, we looked around with anticipation… to no avail. No elephant, no tiger, not even a wild squirrel! Was it a harbinger of things to come?

Periyar National Park covers an area of 300 sq. miles, most of it covered by evergreen forests. The central attraction of the park is an artificial lake, formed when a dam (Mullaperiyar) was built across the Periyar river. A boat ride on the lake is a ‘can’t miss’ activity when you visit the area.

I have seen innumerable photos of elephant herds frolicking in the waters of the Periyar lake, brought back by visitors. So it was with heightened anticipation that we got on the boat the next morning. And, if we were lucky, we could even see a couple of the majestic Bengals… of course, of the tiger variety, not Cincinnati! After all, the area has a population of over 40 adult tigers!


The enchanting view of layer upon layer of mountain ranges surround you as you embark on the boat ride. Stumps of the trees that got submerged when the lake was created can still be seen sticking out of the waters of the lake.


Water birds find these tree stumps ideal for nesting.


For the entire boat trip, our eyes scanned the shores looking for animals come to drink from the lake. No luck whatsoever! All we saw were a few wild boars on a far shore, that too, only for a couple minutes. As we got off the boat, I could hear mutterings… ‘maybe it was too hot for the animals’, ‘maybe another day’… yeah, maybe another day.

Though 35 species of mammals live in the area, the only ones we saw were bonnet macaque monkeys and Nilgiri langurs.


The bonnet macaques, called so due to the tuft of hair on their heads that resembles a bonnet, are very common here.


We even had one visit us at our room window, probably looking for a snack!


The area is well known for its 143 species of orchids, in addition to a wide variety of other flowering and medicinal plants.

The concept of ecotourism is taking strong roots in Periyar National Park with programs being run with involvement from the local communities. Among the wide variety of activities are bamboo rafting, nature walks, guided treks, adventure trekking and camping.


For me, surely there is gonna be a next time… elephants willing!


21 Jan 2015

Elephants, Elephants, Everywhere…

Imagine 70 elephants, some as young as 4 years and some as old as 80, living on a campus… where you can visit them and watch them in their day-to-day life… chewing on palm leaves or having a bath in the nearby pond. This magical place is Anakkotta, in Kerala, the south western state of India. The elephants are housed in a huge coconut grove and fed and taken care of by mahouts.


The elephants at Anakkotta belong to Guruvayur temple, dedicated to Lord Krishna of the Hindu pantheon. Among all the offerings made to the temple, devotees who can afford them, offer elephants too. The price tag for a medium sized young elephant would be around $ 40K, which I found out after some research… not that I have been shopping around for an elephant! 🙂


The elephants are extremely intelligent animals with legendary memory powers and have individual personalities. The elephants at Anakkotta – meaning elephant fort – are all named and answer to their names. What is more, many of them have their own fan base!


Elephants to participate in the daily rituals of the temple are picked from those living at Anakkotta. Also, temples that do not have their own elephants rent elephants from Anakkotta for their festivals. The caparisoned elephants at a temple festival are a truly wonderful sight.


Elephants have featured prominently in Indian cultures from ancient times, being irrevocably linked to their religion, myths, and history. Studies based on rock paintings have shown that domestication of elephants in India extend back to 6000 BC. Seals from the Indus Valley civilization, dated between 2500 and 1500 BC, indicate the existence of domesticated elephants at that time. Ancient literary works like the Rig Veda and the Upanishads also contain references to domesticated elephants. And elephant ivory was one of the items of trade between Indian and other civilizations around the world, since ancient times.


A baby elephant at Anakkotta

Elephants formed one of the four branches of pre-modern Indian military (elephants, chariots archers, and infantry,) and the practice spread across south-east Asia and westwards into the Mediterranean. The world’s first book on veterinary medicine, written in ancient India, deals mostly with elephants and horses, which were most important for the military capability of any kingdom.

India is home to 50% of the wild and 20% of the captive elephant populations in Asia.


Anakkotta is one of the largest elephant sanctuaries in the world. As the elephants belong to the temple, the temple management takes care of their day-to-day care. Though their food mainly consists of palm leaves, cooked rice and bananas are part of the diet as well. One of their favorites is jaggery, the unrefined cane sugar.


Elephants are very fond of the water. They get their daily baths at the pond at Anakkotta. The mahouts scrub them with coconut fiber brushes and thoroughly wash them.


During his bath, this guy has kept his trunk (his nostrils) away from the water…

However, the moment it is out of the water, the elephant with throw trunkfuls of dirt on its back. Apparently, it is to repel the insects that might be buzzing around. Whatever works for you, right? 🙂



Note: My bro says there are three things that you never tire of watching… Elephants, Trains, and the Ocean! And I’m a huge fan of all three!

29 Aug 2014