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Getting the Most out of Kozhikode

Since tourism in Kozhikode has never been a major industry, it takes local smarts to get the lowdown on the city, learn about its historically significant places and know how to bargain properly in its best markets and shops. The best local guide is Mr. Mohan, and you'll need to book him in advance to accompany you as you explore by car (which you must arrange); he'll charge around Rs 500 for half a day; call him at tel. 94-4607-8996, or have the folks at Harivihar make all the arrangements.

Not Quite Kung-Fu Fighting -- While in Kozhikode you can watch students perform Kerala's spectacularly acrobatic, high-flying martial art form, Kalaripayattu at C.V.N. Kalari Nadakkavu (E. Nadakkavu, Nadakkavu P.O., Kozhikode 673 011; tel. 0495/276-9114 or -8214; www.cvnkalarikerala.com; cvnkalari@sify.com). The school holds open classes 6 to 8:30am and 4 to 6:30pm -- with prior notice, foreigners with some martial arts training are allowed to join these. Ayurvedic treatments are given during the day.

Kannur & Kerala's Northernmost Coast

If you're looking for a safe, practically untouched sunbathing and swimming spot, head for Muzhapilangad Beach, 15km (9 1/3 miles) south of Kannur, where you'll probably have much of the 4km (2 1/2-mile) sandy stretch all to yourself. Remember though that you need to be a little more modest about your beachwear than you would at home or in Goa -- particularly when ambling to and from the beach; women should not wander around in bikinis or, heaven forbid, go topless. Closer to the city, which the Europeans called Cannanore, the Portuguese built imposing Fort St. Angelo (free admission; daily 8am-6pm), a monumental laterite edifice from which visitors can view the fishing harbor below.

Around 70km (43 miles) north of Kannur lies Bekal, Kerala's largest fort, thought to date from the mid-17th century, though there is no accurate account of its construction. While the structure itself is vast and impressive, it's the views that really take you breath away -- looking inland from the top of the watchtower you should be able to see the Western Ghats, while from the fort's ramparts you'll get a good idea why this was considered such a useful spot from which to keep watch over the coast. The fort (tel. 0467/227-2900 or -2007) is open to visitors daily between 9am and 6pm; admission is Rs 100 (ticket sales until 5pm only). The future of the area is reaching a tipping point as developers are in the process of starting up half a dozen hotels in the immediate vicinity of the fort -- while this signals much-needed investment, it also means that the time to visit is now. South of Bekal the tiny market town of Nileshwar is where boats are stationed for trips along the Valiyaparamba, northern Kerala's very own backwaters, which remain uncluttered and totally undiscovered compared with the touristy backwaters of the south (admittedly, there isn't quite so much to see, either). Trips along the river can be arranged through Neeleshwar Hermitage.

For an experience that might touch you spiritually, a worthy visit in this part of Kerala is to Anandashram, also known as "The Abode of Bliss," a thoroughly tranquil center for meditation and worship in the town of Kanhangad (tel. 0467/220-3036; www.anandashram.org; papa@anandashram.org). The ashram was founded in 1931 by Swami Ramdas and Mother Krishnabai (lovingly called Beloved Papa and Pujya Mataji); they've both passed on, but continue to be venerated at the ashram where their teaching -- that "to love all is the true Bhakti of God" -- is the central tenet of life for thousands of devotees. One of the central activities here is for rows of devotees to wander through the grounds chanting the holy phrase "Ram Nam" -- it's an attempt to spread the holy vibrations throughout the ashram in order to help disciples attain a higher state of mind. The ashram has a continuous program of chanting and readings, starting at 5am and going on until 9:30pm each day.

Although more specifically "Hindu," also worth visiting is the nearby Swami Nithyananda Ashram, where there are 44 meditational caves created during the first quarter of the last century, this time by another famous guru who spent most of his time in nothing but a loincloth. The caves can be visited between 5:30am and 5:30pm, and afterwards you can take a look at the north Indian-style temple perched on top of the caves. Unlike the majority of Kerala's temples, foreigners aren't banned from entering here.

Placating the Gods with Theyyams -- Peculiar to the tribal region of northern Malabar, this ritual dance form evolved as a means of placating ancient village gods and ancestors. Combining temple ritual, rustic ballads, and folk art, theyyams are essentially representations of the collective consciousness of the village. Heavily made-up men with masks, elaborate costumes, spectacular jewelry, and often 2m-high (6 1/2-ft.) headgear essentially become oracle-like incarnations or manifestations of the godhead or of a valorous ancestor. The ceremony begins with a song of praise, performed in honor of the presiding deity; this is followed by a dance strongly influenced by Kalaripayattu, the traditional Kerala martial art thought to predate the better-known Far Eastern forms like kung fu. Theyyams traditionally last an entire night and include a great deal of music, singing, and lighting of torches -- oil lamps are ceremoniously brandished as shields and swords, and you may witness hypnotic music, prophetic moments, and even fire-walking. Theyyams are usually held between November and April (the sacred season), usually in a specially allocated temple or family compound. If you stay at a place like Neeleshwar Hermitage, staff will always know when and where performances are happening and will happily arrange all the details for a visit. To ensure your chances of seeing a performance, visit Sri Muthappan Temple at Parassini Kadavu, 18km (11 miles) north of Kannur, which has early morning and evening performances throughout the year. However, you'll need to be a bit more proactive if you want to track down an authentic theyyam that isn't staged for visitors, and if you do attend one, it's a good idea to stay on through the entire all-night ceremony. It's usually only after midnight that the bigger, more elaborate costumes are put on, and the performance becomes increasingly aggressive, building to a heart-stopping crescendo.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.