As one nears rugged Vattavada village in Idukki district of Kerala, several shades of green colour deck up the rolling hills. It's all vegetable farms around: the leaves of carrot plants sport a hue that is slightly different from that of onion shoots. Welcome to Vattavada. It's a quiet stretch in Idukki along the Western Ghats, with an extended coolness that one enjoys at the more famous Munnar hill station, that is not too far away. The people here are bilingual; one gets to hear both Malayalam and Tamil.
Vattavada may sound like a snack you get in the south of the country. True to the name, the place is tasty for the eyes — so to speak. It's a hub of vegetable cultivation: the farms here grow cabbage, carrot, beans, and potatoes, besides bananas and even wheat.
Stray into Tamil Nadu
Vattavada is 45 km north-east of Munnar, crossing Mattupetty, Kundala, Top Station, and Pampadum Shola. Along the hills, that's a leisurely drive of close to two hours. Interestingly, a brief stretch of the ride along Kundala belongs to Tamil Nadu; it's beyond the Kerala border. This doesn't reflect anything on the topography though: it's all tea gardens.
At Mattupetty, the famed gravity dam has mist hanging above the surface of the water that is obstructed by the concrete wall. Half a kilometre from the 1940s-built reservoir is Eco Point. The place is part of the dam; hence has a boat service.
This spot also marks the start of the trek to the famed Meesapulimalai hills. Further ahead is Kundala Dam and from there Puthukidi that leads to Top Station. In fact, Top Station comes under Tamil Nadu's Theni district. Further up is a culvert that would look like a relic from history. Indeed it is. In the times of British rule, this stone structure formed of the pegs of a rope way between Kurangani hills (in today's Theni district) to Munnar.
In fact, Top Station used to be the railway halt of highest elevation to tracks that led to Munnar during the Raj era. The spot is 1,700 above sea level. From here, the sight down the cluster of clouds is that of Tamil Nadu. A kilometre up is Pampadum Shola. Permission at the check-post is essential for further movement. Beyond is the land of elephants and wild buffaloes, forewarn forest officials.
The Tamil link
The residents of Vattavada are primarily those who had fled their homes from the Tamil territory during the invasion of Mysore king Tipu Sultan two-and-a-half centuries ago. The legacy continues: their culture is still Tamil. Their Malayalam has a pronounced difference in accent. The caste system is far more evident than it exists down the Kerala plains.
The weather is Vattavada is cooler than that of Munnar at least by 4 degrees. The mercury here sometimes dips to sub-zero levels. Predictably, the vegetables here are of the winter variety: cabbage, carrot and potatoes besides wheat among cereals. Of course, paddy cannot grow in such chill. Also, water is relatively scarce: overall it would take 10 months for the grains to appear, locals say. Vattavada also grows garlic. Indeed, its variety is different here: smaller and more pungent than the usual variety.
Houses and farms
A board saying Koviloor is the entry point to Vattavada. The houses are made of logs of wood, mud, and cow dung. They are seen in a cluster and then it is vast open agricultural grounds. Many own acres of land, the rest are farms on lease. The harvested crops travel on mules (which the locals call 'donkeys') to reach the Vattavada marketplace. The buyers are mostly wholesalers from Munnar and Theni. At times, smaller transactions go by the barter system.
The residents of Vattavada are a society of their own, what with a village executive of five 'ministers' settling local disputes. 'Mantha,' as their meetings are called, hear the arguments, pass judgements and decide punishments. The ministers are from the Mannadiyar community, which is invariably the slot for the elder as well. The Chettiars keep the accounts.
Marital relations typically happen between members of the same community. The alliances happen through a quaint ritual: the boy's family pitch a pole with a woollen piece in the front yard of the girl's house. If the cloth is accepted, it means the proposal is accepted. Subsequently, the groom would arrive to the accompaniment of his family whose members would hold plates full of flowers and fruits. In earlier days, there used to be another custom: the boy must go out for a hunt and come back with a deer. The animal's meat will form part of the feast.