Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Trip to India’s Deep South

When someone talks of India’s Deep South, people connect it either with Kanyakumari or Kerala. While both these places are extremely beautiful in their own right, I believe that there are other lesser discovered places in India’s deep South that offer fabulous getaways and that need a mention here.

Golden Paddyfields ready for harvest
Thankfully for me, I belong to a village in India’s deep South called Kallidaikurichi (which literally translates into ‘at the foot of the hills’) and hence have been able to explore most of these places at length over my many visits to this region. This region is home to a tiger reserve, the Western Ghats, perennial rivers (a rarity in Tamil Nadu), lots of old temples, rich agriculture, waterfalls, delicious food, unique cultures, great countryside and authentic villages across the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu.

Scenic Karaiyar Dam
Below is a good preview of these places that I have explored many a time, but this time during the long Dussehra weekend, I took my friends along on a road trip to these lesser explored places in Tamil Nadu.

Karaiyar Dam, Seraiyar Dam and Vana Theertham Falls
Tucked amidst the mountains and forests of the Western Ghats, Karaiyar and Seriyar dams are one of the oldest in the state and support huge hydro electric power plants.

Colorful boats at Karaiyar Dam
They also offer beautiful scenes of the mountains and many waterfalls around it.

Local vendor selling star fruit and cucumber at Karaiyar
A famous picnic spot for the locals, one can go on a boat ride, explore the remote Vana Theertham Falls, have a local fish meal, do birding or watch the antics of the Grey Langurs that roam this belt in abundant numbers.

Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve
Grey Langurs at Agastyar Falls
KMTR has to be one of the least known tiger reserves of India. As far as I know, this place is home to more than a 100 tigers, but the tourist infrastructure is very limited here. But, for some, that might offer true wildlife adventure.

Grey Langur - its tail is longer then its body
You can get your permissions from the forest office in Ambasamudram, stay at one of the forest bungalows deep in the jungle, go on a jungle trek with the forest guide and see wildlife closer than ever.

Metal bridge in the Agastyar forests
And the best part is that there are no polluting jeeps or abused elephants. This is nature at its very best. Lion tailed Macaques, Elephants, Tigers, peacock, Birds endemic to this region, Nilgiri Langur, Gaur, Leopard and Gray Langur are some of the wildlife seen here often.

Old Courtrallam Falls, Main Falls, Five Falls and other Waterfalls
The waterfall town of Courtrallam
The people of South Tamil Nadu and Kerala swear by these waterfalls. Seasonal in nature, these falls are at their prettiest best during the South West monsoon. Facilities have been made for tourists (separate male and female sections with steel bars for protection) to have a shower under these 50 to 100 foot walls of pounding water.

Colorful local fruit, but not so great tasting
It is believed that a bath under these waterfalls cures many ailments as the water passes through herbal forests. I can’t guarantee that, but can say that a good oil massage followed by 60 seconds under this waterfall, a heavy meal and a long sleep will make you feel like you have been re-born into this world.

Five Falls, Courtrallam
All these waterfalls again carry lots of water during the North East monsoon, but since the water is colder, only the adventurous go for a waterfall bath.

Old Courtrallam Falls
Chukku Kaapi after the waterfall bath is a must-have. If you wish, you can stay in hotels/homestays that are spread across this green region. Note: Try and avoid weekends and festival holidays as these falls will get crowded then with local tourists.

Kasi Viswanathar Temple from the Saaral City of Tenkasi
Kasi Visvanathar Temple Gopuram, Tenkasi
Known as the Kashi (Varanasi) of the South, Tenkasi is surrounded by the western ghats on three sides and is famous for its monsoon showers, which is locally referred to as the Saaral season. This city is known for its famous Kasi Viswanathar temple that boasts of the second highest gopuram in Tamil Nadu.

Natarajar at Kasi Visvanathar Temple, Tenkasi
It is one of those few Siva temples to have sannadhis for Shiva, Amman and Murugan. The special thing about this temple is the breeze as soon as you enter its main courtyard. The temple is beautiful and so are the traditional shops located around the temple.

Agastyar Falls
Small town of Papanasam, the Thamarabarani river and the Papanasam Temple
I think this waterfall in full flow is the most picturesque waterfall in the country. A perennial waterfall that starts somewhere in the Agastyar range of the Western Ghats, its waters seed the birth of the Thamarabarani river. A mighty waterfall, its waters tumble in many tiers and at one of the smaller tiers, one can take a bath.

Papanasam Shiva Temple and Thamarbarani River

Thamarabarani river at Papanasam
Papanasam literally translates into ‘killing all your sins’. It is believed that people who take a bath in the Thamarabarani river here and then offer their prayers to Lord Shiva at the neighbouring Papanasam Shiva temple, their sins will all be washed away.

Thavil artisan at work
The place exudes beautiful village charm if you meander away from the main state highway and towards the canals and paddy fields.

The Villages– Its Temples, Food, Kannadigan Canal and Rural Life
Traditional houses of Kallidaikurichi
Kallidaikurichi is known for its Appalams. Pattamadai is known for its handmade mats. Each village in this belt has a special story. Many of them - Kallidaikurichi, Ambasamudram, Subramaniapuram, Cheranmahadevi and others have been featured in many Tamil films. These villages are home to ancient practices and community, beautiful village temples, special food, green paddy fields, the famous Kannadigan irrigation canals and lots of oomph when it comes to rural life.

Walking through the small lanes of Kallidaikurichi
Let’s take my village, Kallidaikurichi as an example. The day begins with a bath in the Thamarabarani. Only the old who cannot make the walk to the river take a bath at home. The rest of the village goes to the river. After the river bath, people offer prayers to the river and canal temples en route. What follows next is good food, hard work in the fields and shops and a relaxed day in the village.

Nagasvaram and Thavil - traditional musical instruments of the south
The pace of life here is slow, but everyone knows the other by name. Temples are places of local gathering and always attract people in huge droves. One day it is the Pilayar Koil. The other day is the Lakshmi pati koil and then it is the Shiva temple. There is something happening almost every day.

Traditional Artist group at Lakshmi Pati Temple, Kallidaikurichi
Festivals are celebrated with gusto. All houses have a thinnai (portico) where people sit, talk about everything and while away time. The roads have changed from mud roads to concrete roads. The mode of transport has changed from bullock carts to cars. But, in spite of all these changes, the feel and culture of the village still remains.

Manimuthar Falls, Manjolai Tea Estates and Kudrevatti
About 30 minutes from Kallidaikurichi and deep in the Manimuthar range of the Western Ghats lies the Manimuthar Dam and the Manimuthar Falls. A very scenic belt, it comes alive during the rains and peacock dances can be seen almost everywhere. A great local picnic spot, it is also a great place for birding and to take waterfall showers. It is always less crowded than Agastyar and Courtrallam.

At a local railway crossing
Above Manimuthar Falls, lies the private tea estates of Manjolai and the beautiful hills of Kudrevatti from where you can see Trivandrum on a clear day. If you wish to explore these places on your own, you need to take prior permission from the forest officer at Ambasamudram. If you take a local bus, you do not need these permits, but then, you won’t have time to explore these places as there is only one bus to Manjolai and back. All this region also comes under the purview of the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve.

Tirunelveli – Halwa, Eateries, Nellaiappar and Shopping  
Crowd at Iruttu Kadai Halwa - iconic halwa store of Tirunelveli
Last but the least is the district capital itself that is known all over India for its famous Halwa. And hence, most Tirunelveli trips begin at the Nellaiappar Temple and the Iruttu Kadai Halwa shop located opposite it. The Iruttu Kadai Halwa is an iconic Halwa shop that opens every day at 5 pm in the evening (They make Halwa during the day) and sell their entire produce in less than 60 minutes. You can see people make a huge beeline well in advance to buy some halwa for themselves.

Nellaiappar Temple gopuram
The large Nellaiappar temple is situated in the crowded old town of Tirunelveli and is surrounded by all iconic stores of Tamil Nadu, which include Pothys, RmKV, etc. All these iconic stores originated in this city.

Shopping at Pothys, Tirunelveli
Shopping for traditional wear here is an experience in itself. And seeing the crowds in these shops prior to popular festivals like Navratri and Diwali is a sight that can be matched by very few shopping establishments around the world.

Arasan Bakery, Tirunelveli
When it comes to food, you will have to try out the biscuits, rusks, macroons and other bakery products at Arasan, one of Tirunelveli’s oldest brands. And Janakiraman for a delicious plate of vegetarian meals.

How to reach this region:
Staring at the beautiful Western Ghats from Karaiyar Dam
The nearest airport is Tuticorin (70 kms), but the one with the most connectivity is Madurai (190 kms). Buses and trains connect Tirunelveli with most of Tamil Nadu, Trivandrum and Bangalore. Public transport is available in the form of local buses, but it is better to have your own mode of transport especially if you are looking to explore the villages and the remote waterfalls.

Spicy Star Fruit at Karaiyar
P.S. All the pictures in this post have been clicked by my mobile phone (Nexus 5) camera. #mobilephotography

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