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Last Updated Tuesday October 24 2017 12:20 AM IST

The wonder that is Tirunelveli

Assistant Professor, KITTS
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Kalladaikurichi landscape Kalladaikurichi landscape - Wikipedia commons/K Hari Krishnan

A journey into the past, that too in company of your loved ones, makes one wish this life would never end. Such journeys have happened a few times before, but this one remains etched in the memory with the true colors of Tamil and the erstwhile Travancore cultures splashed lavishly along the paths we traversed. Never before had the lush green paddy fields and the village life been portrayed with such vivacity in any of the journeys I had made in the past.

It was on the day before the Christmas Eve that we made plans for the journey to Tirunelveli by car. After hasty preparations and keeping aside all chores including those at office, we drove straight to Nagarcoil. Just before reaching Nagarcoil, a brainwave made us take the path to Kanyakumari. It was past 3 pm when we reached there and decided to watch sunset before departing to our halt for the day at Tirunelveli.

The cool breeze of December was in stark contrast to the scorching heat that is typical of the plains in Tamil Nadu. In addition to the usual sunset point at the beach, the authorities have made arrangements just a kilometer away towards the northern side to watch the sun going down in all its grandeur. Sunsets leave a tinge of sadness in the minds of viewers, those that experiences akin to mine in Hampi and Gavi. This one at Kanyakumari was similar to the one at Murudeswar—located in Karnataka—which in contrast was a joyous one. The drive along the beach was also quite enjoyable, largely since some serious cleaning up operations are being done by the government. Sadly, this is not the case with many other destinations in the state that houses priceless monuments and natural attractions.

The drive along the highway to Tirunelveli was exhilarating and came as a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of the highways of Kerala where driving on the roads can drive you mad. After the overnight stay at my friends’ quarters, we departed to our next destination, Manimuthar. On the way, we had a taste of the typical ‘Government babu’ at the forest office in Ambasamudram from where sanction had to be obtained to proceed to Mancholai, a hill station beyond Manimuthar. It was obvious that the man wanted ‘something’ from us, since he tried his best to deny entry. I made sure his strategy would not work, and produced our ID cards, and after some cajoling, the passes were reluctantly issued.

Manimuthar falls Manimuthar falls - Wikipedia commons/K I Aroon Joshva Rusewelt

The drive from Tirunelveli touching Kalladaikurichi and deviating from Ambasamudram to Manimuthar offered a view of the typical Tamil culture of this region. The Thamirabarani River and its branches were visible at many places and in full flow thanks to the bounty rainfall this region received over the past months. Normally these areas are dried up by the end of December, but this time lush greenery told a different story.

Manimuthar dam Manimuthar dam pretty view - Wikipedia commons/Arikrishnan

Nearing Manimuthar, green paddy fields with many hues of green interspersed with banana plantations was not that of the typical Kerala villages in Kuttanad, nevertheless unique and beautiful in its own way. After a brief halt at the check post to Manjolai hills, adjacent to the smaller dam on the Manimuthar river, we proceeded uphill which proved to be a once in a life time experience. As the car climbed the narrow path uphill, the greenery on either side of the road was sheer poetry. William Wordsworth would have been a delighted man if he had got a chance to be here.

Manimuthar dam gates Manimuthar dam gates - Wikipedia commons/Delince

Our next stop was the Manimuthar falls resplendent in all its glory. This time, the rain gods had showered their blessings abundantly over this region resulting in all dams overflowing and rivers rejuvenated with fresh inflow. The cascading falls of Manimuthar is just a few kilometers away from the Manimuthar dam. Luckily for us, our friend Syam, an Engineer in Powergid Corporation, Tirunelveli had taken care of obtaining passes which are a must to enter the Manjolai hills. Many a tourist could be seen making their way back disappointed since they did not have prior information about this.

The path beyond Manimuthar is dotted with gurgling streams and smaller falls, which was a feast to the eye and mind. The lethargy born out of the steep climb and continuous driving soon disappeared as the salubrious weather pumped up our energy levels. This was not surprising since I have experienced this many times before during journeys to Gavi, Thirunelli and Thekkady to name a few. Each destination is unique in its own way in terms of the experience it offers, especially so when it is a forest region. The drive to Manjolai estates from the Manimuthar falls took about two hours with halts in places of mesmerizing beauty. Sadly our younger generation with a few as exceptions is not keen about such journeys, preferring shopping malls teeming with the hustle and bustle of city life. The fact is that they do not realize what they are missing. I am sure as one age, mindsets may change but it may be at a stage when mind is willing but body is not.

It was past 1 pm when we reached Manjolai. A few rack shelters and shops could be seen. This place gave a mystic feel shrouded in mystery and mist as seen in some movies where time seems to stand still. The relaxed pace of life coupled with the invigorating air was pure magic. We wished there was a place to stay, which was not possible anyway as only guest houses of plantations were available and prior permission was needed.

Kothayar dam Kothayar dam - Wikipedia commons/Muthuraman99

After having tea and some exotic banana of local origin, we drove further amidst tea estates before halting to lie down along the edge of the road using newspaper sheets for bed spreads. The sun could be seen right on top of our heads but the warmth coupled with the cool air was sheer bliss. We could have spread-eagled on this hill top forever, but for the fine of Rs. 5000/- hanging like the Domiciles sword above our heads. The forest official at Ambasamudram had warned us that a fine of Rs.5000/- would be slapped if we did not return before 5 pm. It was already 3.30 pm and after a brief walk around, we turned back towards Manimuthar. If we had proceeded uphill past Manjolai, a two hour drive would have taken us to Kothayar dam, yet another place of breath taking beauty nestled amongst the Western Ghats.

Peacocks, Pheasants and Wild cocks were seen abundantly along the path. We were lucky enough to spot a huge monitor lizard just beyond the falls which in fact posed for several snaps. Peacocks have a habit of flocking together at a particular place and we were surprised to find the same batch at the same place during the return journey. The rains had washed up sand along the edges of the river abundantly. Being a protected area, there was no scope for sand mining hence the pristine beauty of the river was all evident. Most rivers in Kerala paint a gloomy picture of uncontrolled pillage causing destruction of natural environment by sand mining.

After reporting at the check post near the smaller dam, we drove further downhill to the much larger Manimuthar dam constructed in 1957. The dam is quite a splendid one and the views from the watch tower are stunning. One could view the mango groves, lush green paddy fields and banana plantations interspersed with coconut trees below for hours without getting bored. The National Adventure Foundation nearby is another place of importance and offers a number of outdoor activities including micro light air craft flying.

It was getting late and we decided to get back to Tirunelveli without any delay. Walking out from the exit point of Manimuthar, I had a taste of the delicious ‘Paruthi Pal’ sold of the local kids made of cotton seed, coconut milk and few other ingredients. Despite the warnings from my wife, I took a swig, escaping unscathed towards the end of the day. During the drive back to Tirunelveli, we pondered over the lineage of Travancore with these regions as the car passed underneath an arch built by a king of the erstwhile Travancore kingdom.

Ambasamudram, Kalakkal, Kalladakurichi all were, at some time or the other, part of erstwhile Travancore. The drive back along the road lined with huge trees and flanked by paddy fields, now under the shroud of darkness had given us a totally different experience during the onward journey. On the way to Manimuthar, we had stopped there to give my daughter a feel of the countryside, reminiscent of the same in Kerala a few decades ago. A woman sowing seeds, the traditional methods of plowing and leveling were valuable lessons for her as these were taught only through pictures and writings in her school books. A parrot family perched atop the tree we stood under was another endearing picture etched forever in our minds. It was 9 pm when we returned to our resting place for a sumptuous lunch thanks to the excellent cook our friend had provided.

Banatheertham falls Banatheertham falls, Karayar dam, papanasm tirunelveli - Wikipedia commons/Arikrishnan

The morning of the next day of our itinerary was in place, and destinations were decided as Agastya falls, Karayar dam and Banatheertha falls. Agastya falls was in mind ever since I heard about it. The above statement is true in every sense because after an exhilarating trek to Agasthiyarkoodam, the second highest peak in Kerala during the month of April 2013, anything linked to the word Agastya left a deep impression in my mind. The wonderful bio-diversity coupled with stunning views remains etched with every minute detail till date, and I am sure will remain so until my memory is sound.

A view of the Agasthyamalai range A view of the Agasthyamalai range from Upper Kodayar - Wikipedia commons/Seshadri K S

Thamarabarani River originates from this peak even though Tamils may veto this remark. Ambasamudram and Manimuthar can be seen from the Agasthiyarkoodam peak. My dream of visiting these places was realized during this trip and will remain as one of the most cherished journeys I have ever made. A bio-hotspot and figuring among the top bio-diverse places on earth, Agasthiyamalai biosphere Reserve is a dream destination for wild life enthusiasts and trekkers.

Agasthyakoodam trek route Agasthyakoodam trek route - Wikipedia commons/Varkey Parakkal

We deviated from Ambasamudram towards Agsthiyar falls which was about 40 kilometers away. Ambasamudrum is the gateway to seven great destinations in Tirunelveli namely Thenkashi, Manimuthar, Manjolai, Agasthiyar falls, Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger reserve, Karaiyar and Banatheetha falls, all nestled in the laps of the Sahyadrees (Western Ghats).

Papanasam temple Papanasam temple - Wikipedia commons/Bastinotonyroy

Agasthiyar falls is part of the Thamarabarani river along whose banks are located the Papanasam and Arulmigu Sorimuthu Ayyanar Temple. The former has Shiva and the latter Ayyappa as chief deity. In fact the Ayyanar temple is closely linked to Sabarimala in Kerala and is one the five major Ayyappa temples. Agasthiyar falls is located three kilometers away from Papanasam and offers pilgrims a chance to wash away their sins. In fact Thamarabarani River is considered the holiest of all rivers in Tamil Nadu.

Agasthyar falls Agasthyar falls - Wikipedia commons/Bastinotonyroy

Just a few hundred meters from Agasthiyar falls are the Agasthyar Munivar Temple and the Kalyana theertham. The former is devoted to Agasthya, one of the Saptarshis in puranas. Just beyond this, is the Kalyana theertham, a deep water body among huge rock faces, where Agasthya is believed to have watched the marriage between Shiva and Parvathi. Mani swami, a local was more than happy to describe the stories associated with that place, which says that during the marriage between Shiva and Parvathy at Kailas, the earth tilted towards the northern side since all gods and saints had gone there to attend the marriage. Foreseeing the impending danger, Shiva instructed Agasthya to travel towards south in order to maintain the stability of the earth. When Agasthya implored Shiva to give him a chance to view the holy marriage, Shiva said that he would appear with Parvathy at this place and he also gave a live view of the marriage there; hence the place acquired the name Kalyana theertham. Quite a story! But the inscriptions and images carved on rock faces here make logic fade, and I felt myself floating into the realm of a bygone era.

Such experiences have happened to me before but I am sure in this age of clinical precision and logical reasoning, these places offer man a resting place to unload his sorrows and sins, and return back with a rejuvenated mind and body. This place will remain attached to my soul, I am sure. Imagine we had travelled about 250 kilometers around the Agasthya biosphere reserve to reach here. Saint Agasthya, who is considered a Siddha, made medicines using the herbs and plants of this region and is believed to have roamed this place in search of them.

In addition to the Agasthiyar falls, gently sloping rock faces offer the tourists a great place to enjoy the wild beauty. Sadly, the place is littered with leftovers and plastic, which are not being disposed effectively. If this problem of cleanliness is looked into, these destinations, will definitely rank among the ‘top must see destinations of a lifetime’.

Thamirabarani river Thamirabarani river: Wikipedia commons/Pandiaeee

Moving further up the road, past the ducts carrying water downhill from the Karayar dam to propel the turbines generating electricity, we reached the entry point from where the dam could be reached by foot. Monkeys were seen everywhere, and people who were experienced, armed themselves with long sticks broken off from branches to scare the monkeys away.

The Karayar dam also known as the Thamarabarani Dam was built in 1943, and was in full capacity at 142 feet, thanks to copious inflow. The slight blue haze added to the mesmerising atmosphere with mountains flanking the reservoir from all sides. Our dream of the boat journey to Banatheertham was shattered since the boat services were stopped from here to the falls due to some issues between forest and electricity departments. The motorised boat ride from here to Banatheertham falls takes about 40 minutes and one can get a great view of the falls from which Thamarabarani originates and flows into the reservoir. However we could get a distant view of the cascading waters from the boat jetty at Karayar. It was in the backdrop of the falls and many scenes of the evergreen song ‘Chinna chinna asai’ from the famous movie ‘Roja’ were shot there, and hence this falls is also known by the name ‘Roja Falls’.

Since time was running out we decided to turn back. The drive downhill was a great one, as we visited the Ayyanar temple nestled deep in the forest with abundant view of the flora and fauna. Lion tailed macaque, peacocks and pheasants were sighted. The Kalakkad– Mundanthurai tiger reserve through which we drove on, has about 75 tigers according the latest census but we could not catch glimpses of any. Not surprising, since tigers are elusive creatures and prefer to stay away from human sight.

It was 8 pm when we reached Tirunelveli just in time to visit the famed Nellaiappar temple in the heart of the city. The monumental wonder is believed to be more that 1000 years old and is one of the biggest temples in Pandiya nadu’. This temple is a complex of two huge temples, one for Lord Nellaiappar (Shiva) and the other one for Kanthimathi Ammai, located at the side linked by the Mani Mandapam, and is larger than the Madurai Meenakshi temple. The Nada mani mandapam has two huge pillars carved out of a single stone. Each giant pillar has a cluster of as many as 48 small pillars which produce musical sounds when tapped gently. The fact that a single piece of rock can produce different musical keynotes stands as a testimony to the unique understanding of the “physics and mathematics of sound” by our forefathers. In all, there are 161 such small pillars that make music in the Nada mani mandapam. In south Tamilnadu, though there are several temples that boast of such pillars, like those at Azwvar Thirunagari, Tenkasi, Kalakaadu, Kuttralam, Shenbagaramanallur, Suseendaram, Thiruvananthapuram and Madurai, the pillars of Tirunelveli stand out. There is no doubt about the fact that this is an architectural rarity and a sublime beauty to be cherished and preserved. Historical writings and some interviews with the local community revealed the deep rooted connections that Travancore had with these regions. Kallidaikurichi is a town on the right bank of the Thamarabarani river in Ambasamudram Taluk of Tirunelveli District. Like any other Indian rural town, this town too is steeped in tradition and rich in heritage, struggling to hold on to its past glories. Here modernity coexists peacefully with the bullock carts and rickshaws of yesteryear.

Kallidaikurichi is on the border between the Pandya and the Chera countries of the past. The aerial distance from between Kallidaikurichi to Thiruvananthapuram is less than seventy six kilometers. A determined and sturdy person can easily cover this distance on foot through the forests and hills. The boundary between the Pandya and Chera Kings was subject to frequent changes, this way or that way, depending on who was more powerful between the two of them, at any point of time. At times, the Pandyas drove deep into Kerala reaching up to Karunagapally. At other times the Cheras went up to Madurai and beyond. At one point, the Cheras held in their hands the entire south India, alomost for a brief period of five years.

Kallidaikurichi got accustomed with these changes and readily absorbed the characteristics of both streams of culture and language. Thus a liberal sprinkling of erstwhile Travancore culture was evident during this visit.

Kallidaikurichi, endowed with a rich heritage, is dotted with many ancient Hindu shrines in each street. These are of ancient temple architectural styles—highrise gopurams (ornamental gateways of temples) with intricate sculptures, heralding the past glory of this region. 

Muthuswami Dikshitar, the Great carnatic composer, whose songs abound with geographic and iconographic references, sings of the curative properties of the river Thamarabarani which is the lifeline of this region. Kothai Aditya Varma came to the throne of Venad in 1469 and ruled till 1484. He is also known as Chempaka Aditya Varma. He ruled over a territory comprising the present districts of Quilon, Trivandrum, Kanya Kumari and Tirunelveli except Tenkasi Taluk. Senncottai, which is now in Tirunelveli district, and Kanyakumari were part of the erstwhile Tranavancore Kingdom.

During the drive back to Thriuvanathapuram, my mind pondered over the answers I found, which to an extent quenched my thirst for the lost lineage of Travancore with these regions. What struck me was the extraordinary spirit shown by these ordinary people to preserve their lineage and culture. Right from the day we reached Kanyakumari, to the day of return during December when the scorching heat took the back seat for a change, the experiences taught us to be more humble. A man becomes wiser when he travels and accepts others. These journeys have taught me a truth which we seldom realize. “In spite of all the advances made by the modern man, none of them comes even close to the sacrifices made by the people of the bygone eras. They sacrificed their life and soul in molding a culture on whose shoulders we stand to find light at the end of the tunnel when everything seems lost”.

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