The dawn hour is misty and the mission of the driver down the road is to enrich one's layers of memories. Behind the wheel of the Honda CR-V is writer-columnist Sreebala K Menon, more renowned as a filmmaker. The destination is a south Kerala location that is of tourism value in the new age, but has banked on a slice from mythology to earn it.
The Hindu epic of Ramayana has Jatayu, who is a bird that had tried (in vain) to uphold the dignity of a young woman being abducted. The winged character went down fighting to the Lankan emperor Ravana, who had Lord Rama's wife Sita on his carrier that could travel up in the skies. In a modern society, Jatayu gains added vitality, given the increasing number of atrocities on women in the contemporary world.
Back to the Valmiki masterpiece, the Purana story speaks of how ten-headed Ravana was forced to chop off both wings of Jatayu, who had fought valiantly against the king. That leads the huge bird to fall down and lie on the ground to meet with death eventually. Legend has it that Jatayu fell at a spot in what is now southern Kerala. It's a rugged green expanse that has a huge rock. The place is called Chadayamangalam, which is a corruption of the word Jatayumangalam.
Today, Chadayamangalam features a gargantuan statue of a bird: Jatayu.
Chadayamangalam has an ancient cave temple called Kottukkal. It is a monolithic structure estimated to be 2,500 years old. The complex features two deities each of Shiva, Ganapati and Nandikeshwara besides one of the monkey-god Hanuman. Even the idols are carved from the same stone that makes the shrine overall. After paying a darshan, we moved to Jatayuppara.
The Jatayu Earth Centre is suddenly seen sporting strong police force around it. "All this for us?" we ask tongue-in-cheek the establishment's marketing executive, simply called Manu. "No, not at all. Today, Mizoram governor Kummanam Rajasekharan is on a visit here. We have to follow protocol."
We took a brief rest at guest room. Then after security check (by the specially trained Garuda force personnel), we reached the lounge of the complex. The facilities here are comparable to a star hotel or that at the terminus of an international airport. Soon, the crowd melted and we took a cable car that took up upward. The eight-seater, which takes eight minutes to reach the destination, is being run by a Swiss company.
If the rock above is a 1,000 feet above the ground, the statue is 200 feet tall and 150 metres wide. The 'bird' has its left wing clipped. The designer is sculptor Rajiv Anchal, also a movie director-producer.
The Jatayu here is the world's biggest sculpture of a bird, and has got into the Guinness Book of records. Its work was completed on a BOT (build-operate-transfer) basis, as was the case with the construction of the international airport in Kochi's Nedumbassery that was opened in 1999.
The Jatayu statue is not just about its size: no single piece of rock was cut to shape or erect it. Aesthetically, too, it has come out well: the bird has a pose and expression that shows the helplessness of Jatayu ahead of its death. Even the tiny dots on its wings are hewn well. When Anchal took up the task he finished in a decade, the artist had vowed that the work would no way affect nature.
Intelligently, many adjoining works too look like having been completed in rock, but actually they are done in concrete. You can enter the statue (the bird's body) that has a space of 15,000 square ft. It houses an audio-visual museum and a multidimensional theatre that is shaping up in its second stage.
Around the statue is a hub of cultural activities: a theatre stage, a Ram temple, a coffee shop, a helipad and a sump to store rainwater.
The water in the large pit is one that many believe helped Jatayu to retain life till it met Ram and his brother Lakshman searching for Sita. If the water here seldom dries, there is also a mark that is considered to be the footmark of Ram. As Sreebala began to shoot that stretch, some of the fellow visitors huddled around and said they had seen her on television.
"Is it?" she asks in return.
"Yes, Love 24x7 is your film, right?"
"No wonder, we seem to have seen you earlier."
Together, they sought a selfie to which Sreebala agreed. Once the session got over, she went to the coffee shop.
Out after refreshments, Manu asks Sreebala whether she is willing for a round of the Jatayu Adventure Park. The guest agrees and together they get into the car.
Paradise of adventurers
The adventure park has quite a range of physical activities that demands courage and yields fun. It provides 20-odd facilities that include Bahubali-model archery, shooting, rock-climbing, commander night, splitting into teams to fight between themselves and trekking.
Once through with these activities, there is a trekking down a narrow stretch of path bordered by boulders on both sides. Sreebala completed that as well and had her lunch, by when the time was 3.30 pm. She took a brief rest and then chose to resume journey: a southward journey to adjoining Thiruvananthapuram district's Kilimanoor, which gave birth to one of India's renowned painters: Raja Ravi Varma.
Into art world
The journey to the palace was comfortable, courtesy the smooth road and the car's air-conditioned interior. On the way, Sreebala spoke of a recent trip she had made to Rajasthan upcountry. She was particularly impressed with the folk singers of the desert state and shared colourful memories of the music sessions with them going up to late nights. "Here in Kerala, we don't have such a culture where we engage in singing and drumming together for long," she said. "Equally enchanting was our journey down the scrublands and deserts to the fort city of Jaisalmer."
In contrast to that scene, here we were travelling amid thick greenery. The road led us to a palace far modest than the ones you find in Rajasthan, but enchanting in its ways nevertheless. The abode of Ravi Varma (1848-1906) has an art gallery, a bungalow, a theatre auditorium and the nalukettu defined by four rooms on all sides of a courtyard. The palace is a hub in the Travancore royal history, given that it was the birthplace of Raghava Varma, whose son Marthanda Varma (1705-78) went on to rule Venadu with valour and made Thiruvananthapuram a prominent city.
The guide for us was Rama Varma, who is a noted classical musician. The house is occupied by the members of Ravi Varma's family, who do take care of the premises well.
Just as we were about to leave the palace, an old member of the family approach Sreebala with a doubt: "Aren't you the person who used to write a column titled '19 Canal Road' in a magazine two decades ago?" The question stumped Sreebala, who was impressed with the implication: there are still people who remember her writings of yore.
Back in Chadayamangalam, the sun was about to set. In the twilight our, we captured images of a great trio: Sreebala, her car and Jatayu. It became a foursome when Anchal joined in soon. Sreebala promised the park's maker of a return to the place.
As she got into the CR-V, the night wasn't very far.