An arduous climb to the 3,750-step hill temple of Nainamalai leaves Subha J. Rao dizzy but delighted

Somewhere near the hill shrine of Nainamalai lives Babu. He has carved his name on almost every cacti leaf I spot. The prickly plump leaves, marked with Babu’s name, wilt under the early morning sun but valiantly hang on. We leave the foothills at 6.30 a.m., a good three hours later than the local villagers would have. At first, we hear the odd rumble of a lorry on the distant highway to Namakkal. Then, absolute silence.

Over-fed monkeys walk around disinterested, even as mounds of puffed rice line the steps. Orange-and-white butterflies dance around nectar-filled yellow flowers. After the first 1,000 steps, the surroundings are a blur. My feet search for the next step, and the one after that. But the temple, said to be built during Thirumalai Naicker’s reign, is nowhere in sight.

People head down in a trickle as we pant up. They, along with thousands of other devotees, must have climbed up the steep steps, pounded into the ground by time, the previous night. A little help from the cool breeze that blows across the valley, some puffed rice and years of practice would have helped them along — most of them have been doing this every year in the month of Purataasi (Tamil month).

They would have shot up like billy goats. The husband and I, on the other hand, struggle. The son clambers up and runs back to escort us. Finally, we have company — a family from Chennai is visiting the family temple after decades. An elderly woman in a purple sari walks using a stick as crutch. She speaks of a time when she and her cousins climbed Nainamalai easily.

Half way through and we are almost ready to give up. Suddenly, there’s a vision in blue. A toothless paati stops, pats my head and says, “Endhiri daa, ukkaradhe” (Get up, don’t sit). We manage another 500 steps, before an uncle and nephew duo eggs us on, saying the temple is very near.

By now, the sun is merciless. We make slow progress. There’s no telling how much further we have to climb. Finally, at about 9 a.m., the temple shimmers into view. You’re so grateful you can cry. It takes another half an hour only to get there; it’s the longest 30 minutes!

We collapse on a stone thinnai. A friendly thatha paati run a pori and sherbet kadai there. The tumbler is dirty and small flies buzz around. But, the overly-sweet lime-tinged serbet revives us.Fortified, we walk the last 100 steps to the shrine. Alagappan, 70, a helper at the temple, smiles in welcome. He’s been bounding up the steps since he was a child, to graze the family’s goats. Even now, it takes him about an hour to climb up.

There are just about 20 people there in the shrine. There’s little evidence of last night’s rush; the place has been swept clean. The presiding deity Varadarajaperumal and the goddess Kuvalayavalli gaze benignly from their respective camphor-and-vermillion-scented sanctum sanctorum.

One of the priests N. Ramesh, 49, has been coming here since he was eight, assisting his father. He says the temple is called Nainamalai, because Naina rishi, the guru of Thirumalai Naicker, did penance here. There’s even a sculpture of his in one of the elaborately carved pillars.

There’s not really much to see in the temple, but the silence is addictive. The view is great from that height — the highway snakes like a grey ribbon in the midst of all that greenery. Rest your feet a bit before making the return journey; the legs get all wobbly. We make it to the foothills in about an hour and a half.

From the highway, I glance back to see what we have accomplished — Nainamalai is a near-vertical hill. Despite the aches and groans, the sense of achievement leaves us smiling.