Friday, September 16, 2005

Southern spice II: cascading rivers

The deep south, especially Southern Kerala and South-Western Tamil Nadu, is waterfall country. No, not the Niagara style behemoth falls, that make you gasp in awe. This is the land of those small, inviting waterfalls, which ask you, through their rumbling songs, to take a dip in them.

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Legends of the Tamil country hold the Sage Agastya (Munivar Agattiar) in the highest regard. He, the myth goes, was gifted the Tamil language by the Gods themselves, and was told to spread the good words. So, it’s not surprising (as you retreat in to the Southern most Western Ghats) to find a thousand spots where he is said to have meditated. One such popular spot is the Agastyar (Agattiar) falls, which actually falls just within the Kerala side of the border. The transition from the slightly drier Tamil Nadu to the greener and wetter Kerala is almost instantaneous; blink and you’ve missed it. The waterfall itself is rather overcrowded, with tons of people scrambling on to the bathing ghat, to feel the full force of the waters. Also, because this fall is a little downstream, and the forests above are increasingly eroded, the water is a little muddy. But, in spite of the scramble and the muddy waters, if you’ve never splashed about under a waterfall, this is great fun, and a great initiation into the art of splashing around under a waterfall.

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But if you’re talking of waterfalls in Tamil country, the undisputed queen (or is it king?) of them all is Kutralam. Buried in the western most part of Tirunelveli district, even mentioning its name conjures up images of cascading waters in the minds of Tamil folk. Very close to the waterfall is an ancient Shiva temple, Thirukutralanathar (“Lord of Kutralam”), built in the late 7th or early 8th century by Pandya or Chola kings, and a delight for architecture students. But myth has it that the original shrine is older, and was placed here by none other than that noble mover and shaker of old, Sage Agastya himself (who supposedly shrunk an image of Vishnu to create a Shiva linga, thus keeping all happy). But I’m getting distracted here. The highlights undoubtedly are the waterfalls themselves (there are a number of falls here in Kutralam). Around the waterfalls are a number of shacks that provide you with the delightfully pleasurable head massages, with herbal and other oils. Anointed thus with oil, you can regally (or not so) make a dash towards the (rather crowded) waterfall. The men happily strip down to shorts or trunks, and joyously leap under the falls. The women head purposefully under the waters, but fully clothed in salwars or sarees! (Vikrum’s post is well worth a read). These streams that fall are tributaries of the Thambaraparani river, and originate in the tropical forests up in the Ghats, where hundreds of therapeutic herbs grow. So, the waters that carry these herbs and minerals are believed to be therapeutic, and in earlier times inmates of mental asylums were brought down here for a curative splash.

You close your eyes under the water, and enjoy the incredibly heady feel of water cascading on to your head and bare back. But then you finally open your eyes, look downstream, and see it all. Foam, and plastic bottles (of oil and shampoo), soap wrappers, and little shampoo sachets float away. You look around, and you see people happily using these, and nonchalantly tossing them into the stream. And you wonder why it is human nature to spoil that which is beautiful.

Yet, this place remains magnificent. "Kulichaa Kutralam, kumbittaa Paramasivam…", as the song goes… (unfortunately, it doesn’t translate too well).

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There’s one gorgeous, relatively unspoiled waterfall I’ve found though. There’s the beautiful Mundunthurai wildlife sanctuary (a Project Tiger reserve), a short drive away from Tirunelveli, near Papanasam. Here, the Tambaraparani is dammed, creating a huge reservoir (a popular boating destination), that’s at the outskirt of the sanctuary. A little into the sanctuary is the Vanatheertham falls. Here, beautiful Ghat forests surround you, and the waters drop down a crystal-clear cascade. Splashing about here is a pleasure, and the few times I’ve been here, we were the only visitors. In the core sanctuary itself (or even while driving through), you’re almost certain NOT to see tigers, wild dogs or bears, but often do see endangered Lion Tailed Macaques, langurs, chital, Sambhar, and a snake or five.

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There’s also a little bit of Kerala in this part of Tamil country. Somewhere between Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari, nearing the Kerala border, is the 16th century Padmanabhapuram palace. This was the palace of the rulers of Travencore (who ruled over a large chunk of Kerala, and a small dab of Southern Tamil Nadu). The palace was used by them till the early nineteen hundreds. It’s a perfect example of Kerala architecture, combining stone and wood effectively, with sloping, tiled roofs. There are little chunks of luxury inside, like a bed made out of dozens of different types of medicinal or fragrant wood, and there’s a large, beautiful tank (fed by what used to be perennial water sources), where his and her royal highnesses used to bathe in style. There’s also a relatively modern “music hall” built just over a century ago by the musician-king of Travancore, Swathi Tirunal. As I was walking in the palace grounds (which still belongs to the government of Kerala), I came across a large, smooth and round stone kept on a pedestal. A local guide told me that the stone was used to test applicants for the Royal bodyguard. Any one who wanted to enlist in the Royal guard had to lift the stone above his head, and place it back on the ground, one hundred times in five minutes. I tried to lift the stone, and my skinny muscles complained as they lifted the 25-kilogram rock over my head. I did it twice (in the stipulated 5 minutes), and gave up. It seemed clear to me that I was not quite Royal bodyguard material. The King’s chief advisor, perhaps?

(The first part of Southern Spice is here).

16 comments:

Charu said...

I haven't visited Kutralam myself - but my favorite waterfall is hogenakkal - the smoking rocks! on the TN-karnataka border. and each state claims it as its own in tourism ads - great place to be in all thru the year - and those rides on the coracles are something else....

Kaps said...

I have visited both Hogenekkal and Kutralam. Some of the falls are slightly slippery and there is a huge crowd when u visit Kutralam on weekends.

IMO Hogenekkal doesn't have too many places to take bath. However it a good spot for an outing / oil massage.

Sunil said...

in Hogenekkal, the highlight is the boat ride, up close to the falls itself. But you can't have a bath there....

Yup, Kaps....totally agree with you...but the trick is to not visit Kutralam on weekends....and to go just before or after "season"...

Veena said...

Sunil,

This is so the season to be in Kuttralam! We used to go there when it rains in Trivandrum - across the Ghats, the waterfalls would be fully gushing. Have you been upto the falls that's above the Five Falls? I believe you have to get some permit to go there but its amazing and there's not much of a crowd there.

And hey, Padmanabhapuram palace is too cool! It used to be on our regular field trips from school - we used to go there every year! And I remember so many Mallu movies shot inside the palace.

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
Another very nice travel piece. You really excel at writing about places you visit.

Sunil said...

Veena....yes indeed, it should be just after peak season right now! I haven't gone all the way up.....but those who have have told me it's really wonderful up there. Lots of great hikes in the area though. And yes......the palace is indeed a "hotspot" for mallu movies.....and i think one of my all time fav. mallu movies (which i hope to revisit in this blog sometime..Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha) was shot there...

Michael....thanks, that's a very nice compliment :-)

One More Reason said...

Great piece.

The shampoo bottles are such a shame. Thekkadi in Kerala is another sad example. Lack of awareness. If I were a billionaire, I would run environment awareness ads 24x7 :)

Sunil said...

Yes indeed onemorereason.....it's terribly depressing to see such callousness towards the environment....

Srikanth said...

Great travelogues, Sunil! They paint a very enchanting picture.

Sorry for this nitpick, but I think it is Tamiraparani (தாமிரபரணி), morphed from the Sanskrit Tamraparni (ताम्रपर्णी) - the river with the lotus leaves.

Sunil said...

yes Srikanth.......technically, you are right, about both the pronounciation as well as the origin. But then, the river is pronounced (by various different people) as Tamiraparani, Tamirabarani, Thamiraparani, Thambiraparani, Thambirabarani, Tambaraparani..............:-)

Srikanth said...

:) Point taken! I guess, the same thing happened when Ekāmranātha became Ekāmbaram.

Sairam said...

Awesome travelogue Sunil , i can smell the man-vaasanai

R.Nandakumar said...

great post. padmanabhapuram is now on my wish-list!

Sunil said...

Srikanth....most likely!

Sairam, Nandakumar, thanks....

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