This scientist cycled more than a thousand kilometres to explore Kerala’s lighthousesJanuary 29, 2022 12:33 IST
Ayyappan Nair covered the Kerala coast on a bicycle to visit and photograph the lighthouses in the State
After more than a thousand kilometres on a bicycle, covering the coastline of Kerala later, Ayyappan Nair is raring to hit the pedal again.
Discussing how he photographed 20 of 21 lighthouses in the State, Ayyappan says he was was overwhelmed by the warmth of strangers he met on the way. “The trip has motivated me to learn about the heritage and syncretic culture of the State, which has drawn traders from Egypt, ancient Arabia, China and East Asia,” he says.
Cycling began in 2017 as an effort to reduce his carbon footprint and a fitness routine. After working in California and New Jersey, he had returned to Kerala four years ago. Eventually, riding became a passion for this molecular and cellular biologist, as he realised it enables him to take a closer look at people and places than any other form of transport.
Gradually his five-kilometre rides became longer, stretching to 25 kilometres and more. “Cycling gave me relief from the lockdowns and a reason to step out to ride on nearly empty roads.” he recalls. So when Priya Balakrishnan, a friend and seasoned traveller, suggested he explore the coastline and visit the lighthouses in the State, he jumped at the suggestion.
Mapping out the route, he decided to do it in two phases — Vizhinjam to Vypeen, about 250 km, which he calls the V2V ride, and Kochi to Kasaragod, approximately 650 to 700 km ride.
Planning the trip
Ayyappan emphasises that a trip like his involves meticulous planning to make the ride smooth and comfortable. It is important to know your limits and stay hydrated and rested. Planning where to stay is equally important and so is deciding what to eat and things to carry on the bicycle.
“Mine is an Indian-made steel bicycle with 24 gears that I have been using for three years. The kind of bike does not matter if you know your bicycle well. I had to take my age into account. So, the gears definitely helped,” avers Ayyappan, who is in his fifties. He adds, “I had about 25 kg as luggage. Next time, I plan to travel lighter. But an extra bicycle chain, puncture kit and tool kit are mandatory. I also carried electrolytes, glucose, bananas and peanut candy.”
He began his ride at 5.30 am everyday, and would ensure that he would reach his place of stay by noon. “That gave me time to rest, write, explore the place and have lots of interactions with people. Every day, I would ride about 65 to 70 km.”
Starting his journey from Thiruvananthapuram, he covered roughly 250 km in the first phase. The 36-metre lighthouse at Anchuthengu, approximately 12 km from Varkala, was the first lighthouse he visited. Built by the British in 1684, the fort there was the first permanent post of the East India Company on the Malabar Coast.
His next port of call was the lighthouse at Tangasseri in Kollam district, built in 1902. “Kollam was considered one of the four entrepots for global trade in the 13th century, so the lighthouse was actually a new addition,” he says. Ayyappan smiles when he recounts how the officer-in-charge of the lighthouse at Kovilthottam, about 18 km from Kollam, told him that there were 21 and not 20 lighthouses in the State. “A new one had been built at Valiyazheekkal, near Kayamkulam. The pentagonal 41.26-metre structure is supposedly the first such lighthouse in the country.”
Each of the lighthouses he visited, he says, was located in picturesque locales. His favourite is the one at Kannur, which “is well maintained. It has a walkway and the views of the cliff, the sea and the lighthouse are stunning.” Although he intended to cover every lighthouse in Kerala, he had to leave one out: the lighthouse at Mount Dilli is located inside the Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala in Kannur and is off-limits for the public.
In Alappuzha, he explored Kerala’s oldest lighthouse, first lit in 1862. This and the one in Kannur have museums attached, but Ayyappan was unable to visit them as they were closed to the public, probably due to the pandemic.
From Alappuzha he rode to Fort Kochi and took the ferry to Vypeen to see the 46-metre lighthouse, the tallest in the State. Although, it started functioning at Fort Kochi in 1839, it was shifted to its present location in Puthuvype in 1979.
He returned to Thiruvananthapuram on a bus with his bicycle and rode to Vizhinjam, 16 km from the city and clicked snaps of the spectacular lighthouse perched on the cliffs. He had covered about 350 km in the first phase, as he had taken time to explore the places he halted at.
After a month of rejuvenation, Ayyappan began the second phase of his trip from Ernakulam. Crossing the Periyar in a ferry, he rode about eight km through the historic town of Kodungalloor to visit Azhikode lighthouse. Then came the lighthouses at Chettuva, Ponnani, Beypore, Kozhikode (now defunct), Kadalur, Thalassery, Azhikkal and Nellikkunu.
It was at Kappad beach in Kozhikode that Vasco da Gama landed in 1498. Legend has it that the Portuguese explorer knew that the coast was near when he spotted a light shining in the Shri Narasimha Bhagavathi temple on a monolith.
Explaining why he is fascinated by lighthouses, Ayyappan points out that they speak of Kerala’s bustling maritime trade with merchants from different parts of the world, mostly for pepper and spices. “We talk about the ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’. In those days, Kerala was very much a ‘New World’. There were immigrants from all over the world and the economy was booming.”
He adds: “The ports on the coast of Kerala ranks among the historic ports in the world. Unfortunately, not enough has been written on them... Many people outside Kerala don’t know that the Malabar coast was once one of the key centres of international trade.”