But for Mohammed Salim's prodding, I would have never explored Sirumalai, the way it should be. A businessman and owner of a resort in Sirumalai, which is just 25 km from Dindigul, Salim is keen on promoting it as a summer getaway on the lines of Yercaud. He feels it has the potential to be developed into a tourist spot and only a few individuals are working towards achieving this objective.
“If nothing else,” he urges, “at least come to enjoy the cool climate.” My interest is at once kindled. Realising it's the best way to escape Madurai's sweltering heat and relentless power cuts, I set out for Sirumalai taking the Natham-Dindigul Road. The journey uphill, on 15 km of ghat road that's narrow and uneven with 18 hairpin bends, takes around 40 minutes.
Even as you cross the Forest Department's check-post in the foothills, you feel the cool breeze in your face, characteristic of a trip to any hill station. Leave behind the lush vegetation, comprising mostly plantain and coconut groves as you climb the hill, and at 1,600 metres you are in the midst of cardamom, sandalwood and coffee estates.
Once at the top, you realise Sirumalai is not as small as its name suggests. It spreads over 60,000 acres, a third of which is private revenue land, while the rest is forest thick with rosewood, silver oak and gooseberry.
When the cool drinks stalls are replaced by kiosks selling steaming chai and hot soup, you know the mercury has dipped. I take the car till the last bus stop in the village atop the hill. The laughter of children and the chatter of labourers and farmers fall pleasantly on my ears. The nip in the air is refreshing.
The wooden and semi-permanent houses, many of them believed to be more than a 100 years old, are an eyesore. A clutter of freshly-painted signboards announces the availability of new cottages, resorts and a recently-launched boating facility, besides the sale of land. Men laze around on coir mats inside the dome-shaped bus shelter, some gambling, some chatting. The only two imposing buildings in this seemingly under-developed but resource-rich region are a residential school and a resort.
Salim tells me the hill finds mention in the Tamil classics such as the Silappadhikaram. Kannagi is believed to have stayed here when she came to Madurai. Sirumalai is also mentioned in the Ramayana. Legend has it that when Hanuman returned from Sri Lanka, carrying the Sanjeevi Hill, a piece of it dropped here and it came to be known as Sirumalai. Ancient books on Ayurveda cite Sirumalai as being home to many medicinal plants. Siddha medicine is said to have been developed in these hills by the sages a thousand years ago.
It's sad that 500 acres belonging to the Horticulture Department remain under-utilised. Only one-fifth of the area has been used to raise eucalyptus, silver oak, lemon and black pepper. The famous Sirumalai banana, popularly known as ‘malai vazhai' and used in the ‘panchamritham' made in the Palani temple, is grown here.
You can spot more colourful flowers and herbs in the wilderness than within the gated property. Adjacent to it is the land belonging to the Sericulture Department. Mulberry is raised on 10 acres, and two lakh tonnes of cocoons are produced annually.
It's impossible to miss the sounds of Nature — the chirping of birds and the buzzing of insects keep us company as we walk down a winding road that takes us to a privately constructed artificial lake where boating is being promoted. It is noon, and suddenly the place is enveloped in fog and the lake and the horizon seem to merge. There is a chill in the air, reducing visibility to 50 metres.
“The salubrious climate round the year, makes Sirumalai a perfect heat-buster for city-slickers,” smiles Salim, as we move on to the Saathiyar basin — the catchment area for the Saathiyar Dam in Madurai District. It offers a 360-degree view of the hills — from scrub to deciduous and semi-evergreen forest.
We go past private estates, spreading across several acres. I am told, perennial rivers run through these properties before flowing into the plains in a series of waterfalls.
The hill is divided into three main regions — Sirumalai, Sirumalai Pudur and Agasthiar Malai — inhabited by 5,000 families. Walk along the periphery of the forest in Agasthiar Malai and you discover it's a storehouse of herbs. There is ample scope for trekking here. For adventure-seekers, trekking routes are marked through the forests that are home to a variety of birds and animals.
With the afternoon sun disappearing behind a veil of clouds, we take a break at the resort digging into sumptuous Dindigul biriyani. It is followed by a visit to the Vellimalaiswamy Temple. The Selvi Koil Point offers a beautiful view of Dindigul and the Chinnamalai town below.
“In the dusk, the glow of numerous lights makes the view from the top more enchanting,” says Salim, urging me to stay on. But such indulgence is a luxury and I begin my downward journey, reluctantly.
Sirumalai is a village atop a hill in Dindigul District, 25 km from Dindigul city, 90 km from Madurai and 400 km from Chennai.
What to do:
Trekking, hiking or bird watching. Visit the recently renovated Vellimalai Temple or the Sanjeevani Hills. Walk to the waterfalls or go boating.
Where to stay:
The Wild Rock Country House (0451-2470454) is the only bungalow available for stay other than the Panchayat Union Guest House.
(Hidden 100 is a weekly column featuring lesser-known destinations.)