You venture into a forest the minute you leave what is left of Kothamangalam’s boundaries and drive out of the Neriyamangalam bridge. Flanked by thick greenery on either side, the road winds up the hills to misty Munnar and Marayoor and to the less-seen serenity of Kanthalloor beyond, which also happens to be Manorama Traveller’s dream destination.
The road less taken winds up to a land unsullied by the crassness of tourism overdrive. The local folks call it a paradise on earth, the kind of place where milk and honey flows. Kanthalloor, which is in Kerala's Idukki district, is any fruit lover’s paradise. Its rich haul of apple, orange, strawberry, gooseberry, blackberry, egg fruits, passion fruit and more is proof enough of its paradise tag.
As you drive up to the hill town of Munnar, the air turns cool. The waterfalls along the way can be felt from afar, much before they thunder into view and drench you to the skin with their jets of water if you are up to it. With the Western Ghats fortressing the place and covering it with a canopy of green, it is a joyride all the way up along the 180-km drive from Ernakulam to Kanthalloor.
The place begins to cast its spell once the drive takes you from the mushroom-green of Pallivasal’s vast tea estates to the Munnar road and more stretches of tea. The serene sheets of green go all the way till the drive reaches the sandalwood forests of Marayoor.
Folks call this place Marayoor for its blend of sandalwood scent and the sweetness of jaggery, for which the place is famous. Though Marayoor sharkkara is much sought-after for its purity and sweetness, those round balls of jaggery are in reality made in the sugarcane fields of Kanthalloor.
Cross the Kovilkadavu bridge across the river which flows from the forests of Chinnar and it is right into Kanthalloor that one drives in. Far from the madding crowd, the diminutive village, hemmed in by evergreen forests reminds one of the past transcending into the now, going by the great number of dolmens dotting the place.
The megalithc Muniyara dolmens are burial chambers, which have been subjected to much research by anthropologists who have descended on Marayoor and Kanthalloor fascinated no end by these pre-historic burial cists.
It is next to impossible to drive through the forests once you reach Kanthalloor junction. The path is strewn with deep pits and boulders.
The next stop is the Kulachivayal colony where Kanthalloor’s native tribes live. This is the only world they know. Sons and daughters of the soil, they have inhabited the place for years now. Over 50 families live here in one bedroom-one-kitchen houses and almost all of them are related by blood.
Baluchamy, a native, ideally represents his people. Though he too owns a house, he sleeps the nights deep inside the forest in a small hut by the side of a mountain slope; so strong is his bonding with the land and the forest.
Baluchamy says he was born into the “Muthuvar” tribe. He too, like his peers, believes that the deity who presides over the temple at Mudimala is the one who heads their tribe. To see the deity, you need to purify yourself for 15 days and, observe all the rituals before you can have as much as a peek inside the temple. Baluchamy swells with pride as he recounts his “pilgrimage”. His faith is simple and deep and the man’s eyes shine with reverence as he narrates how he came down the mountains bearing the holy water from the streams atop after seeing his god.
The tribes folk look at the Traveller and his pals with trepidation. They have a natural dislike for outsiders and don’t trust them. Their womenfolk never talk to strangers. Such freedoms are forbidden in Kulachivayal.
Take the narrow mud path below Kulachivayal which opens out into a wide space covered with lemon grass. There in the middle of the land stands what looks like a small tree house beside which is a tiny thatched hut with its sides polished with mud. It apparently belongs to Pazhaniswamy who is quite a tribal artist and inventor.
Pazhaniswamy has no formal education. His schooling ended with a class-four pass. He lived doing odd jobs and was often seen in the company of his father helping the old man brew oil out of lemon grass. With his parents turning old and feeble, Pazhani took it upon himself to continue the oil business.
He did not stop with this. The man remodeled his kitchen and hearth and found ways to extract oil with a lot more ease. Soon enough, Pazhaniswamy’s magic oil found its way to Marayoor markets. The oil is an excellent cure for aches and pains and minor wounds. Today, Kanthalloor’s lemon grass oil has earned a name for its purity and original quality. One litre of the oil costs Rs 2,000.
If corporate builders and architects were to see Pazhani’s house and rest room, they would be stunned for words. His native architecture is amazing. His structure stands on wooden beams and rafters, all naturally sourced from the forests. The mud walls and dry grass for roof thatch look every bit chic. Folks around him credit Pazhaniswamy with “inner vision”. His fenced vegetable garden and the small figurines dotting his yard would vouch for the man’s rare aesthetic genius.
Kanthalloor’s scenic beauty has always fascinated Malayalam filmmakers with Sathyan Anthikkad and Blessy portraying it vividly in 'Rasathanthram' and 'Brahmaram' respectively.
It is a mountain of rock that lies north to Pazhaniswamy’s abode from where one can get a 360-degree view of Marayoor, the perfect setting for movies, where sandalwood tress, rocks, acres of them, mountain slopes and lush forests make up the natural backdrop.
Kanthalloor’s season begins in November and ends by May when visitor footfalls are aplenty during daylight hours.
For the local traders Kanthalloor is Kerala’s Kashmir. It is a veritable apple orchard. Oranges, strawberries, blackberries, egg fruit, passion fruit and a host of other fruits grow bountifully here. Among vegetables, cabbage, radish, peas and tomato are farmed in abundance.
Most of Kanthalloor and Marayoor farmers are settlers who made their way to this once forlorn land in sake of greener pastures. They tilled the fertile virgin soil, planted and reaped to turn it into the proverbial land of milk and honey that it today is. Visitors have to pay a small fee to access the farms and their produce. The place never disappoints, for visitors go back loaded with ripe golden mangoes, oranges, apples and passion fruit.
A peep into Marayoor’s sugarcane units is a must. The famous Marayoor jaggery is made from the juice extracted from the cane. A lot of its taste depends on the expertise of the man who makes it. The jaggery sells well in Ernakulam, Kottayam and Tamil Nadu.
Sights to behold
Kanthalloor is a shutterbug’s canvas. Women with forest twigs on their head, men with farm implements as well as sugarcane fields, jaggery units, sandalwood trees, forest growth and undulating valleys are sights worth capturing on camera. What’s more, it’s the ultimate selfie destination. Some of Kanthalloor’s engaging sights include the elephant park near Keezhanthoor where a lot of rock caves and dolmens are present. The burial cists are preserved by the Forest Department.
The evenings are a sight to behold, when the place gets covered in a haze of red just before the sun dips, only to be covered by a shroud of mist by nightfall.