A hundred places in two years… Our reporters scoured the nooks and corners of southern India to visit forts, palaces, cave temples and sleepy seaside villages to write about places that have fallen off the tourist radar.
I must have gone to Nelliyampathy at least four times. It was always soaking in the weather, the typical tea plantation ambience, cosy eateries, the mist, drizzle and all that. What remained hidden on all these trips were places like Mattumala hardly 10 kilometres from the centre of the town. It was really worth the rough trek or the other option of taking the torturous jeep drive. Dhoni. The name of the place intrigued me. I tried asking people I met on the way and at this quaint village, with its reserve forests, gurgling waterfall why this village got this name. I tweaked this question and tried asking some if they knew of someone called Dhoni. The answer was the same sheepish smile, a nod that did not mean anything.
What I realised during the few trips in search of hidden places was the quiescent info that was revealed to you. It was not just history, a whole lot of stories, anecdotes, plausible local history that would have perhaps gone unrecorded.
At Mattumala, as the jeep climbed vertical turning you upside down the driver reeled off info on the deserted labour lines, estate bungalows fast going to seed, the once thriving estates now reclaimed by the forest department…On top of the peak, surrounded by shola forests, the bounding Nilgiri tahrs stopping to stare at you, the forest guard reminds you of the rich wildlife that this place boasts of.
Dhoni in the afternoon was quiet. The four kilometre trek along the narrow jungle trail to the waterfall was sweaty, tough. There was a strange silence, no chirping birds, chattering monkeys that one often hears inside the jungle. There was nothing magnificent about the waterfall with a striking heart-shaped grotto on the rock-wall.
And by the way I did meet one person who knew why the place was called Dhoni. It was earlier called dhwani (echo) for the sounds usually echo through the silence, which got modified into Dhoni.
People make Hidden 100s worth its while. And one met all kinds of them on these trips to hills, valleys and waterfalls. They ranged from ticket collectors to panchayat presidents to proud local men. It is their little stories and histories that give these travelogues its flesh and blood. In their diverse histories rest the tales of the land we have stepped out to explore. For some, the place in itself is their identity. For others, they are telling the stories of places that have grown to be home.
A look back at Hidden 100 brings to my mind one person in particular — K.P. Chandrangadan. We never found another passionate one like him during our later adventures. The zest with which the 70-something enthusiast took me and the photographer around Madayipara in Kannur brought out his intense love for his hometown and so too his anguish at its mindless and slow annihilation. Going around the various points of reference on this hillock when the afternoon summer sun was anything but kind, our steps might have slackened, not his. Anecdotes, history or legends were never in short supply. It was much past his lunch time when we dropped him home. But this was his chance at taking Madayipara to a bigger segment of readers, he said.
Those like Chandrangadan may not happen twice. But wherever we went, we always found locals willing to help, guide, hop into the car and show us around places which a fresh pair of eyes can never seek out. The settlers who have made their home on the hilly slopes of the Western Ghats told us about making a dream happen on untamed lands. They dream again for a tomorrow when their little places will make a reputation for itself on the tourist map.
Sea of Silence
Discovering Chethy was like coming upon a little piece of secret. There were no sign boards with directions to the place, so one depended on asking around. All the responses, very strangely, that we got were the same- a look of disbelief and a silent pointing to the road ahead. Nobody - man standing near the toddy shop, women sitting by the roadside, children in uniform returning from school – used words to answer. Everybody answered in sign language. It was like being in a silent film. But there was general curiosity on both sides. The rural setting was truly engaging and I realised that I with my goggles and floral umbrella, the photographer with his hi-tech camera would be like aliens in this lovely landscape. Words or speech or conversation was not required. Silence communicated well enough. It prevailed even over the sea, sand and surf and we returned discovering the picturesque sea side village of Chethy, where no one spoke to us.
Andhakaranazhi was full of suspense from the beginning. With a name that means lagoon of darkness, it held an attraction. The lagoon was quiet in the afternoon. The water had come into the land and near that I presume illegal sand mining was on. That’s because our photographer was firmly asked to not take pictures. But the able-bodied men told us of the tsunami disaster when they lost three of their men from the village. Just then a group of people descended to immerse the ashes of their dead ones. A religious puja was conducted. Among the dead and the tediously living a happy poster declaring love was most heartening. The photographer and I shared sandwiches and a bottled drink sitting on the steps of an ugly walkway. We came away with a story of a place struggling to come to terms with its name.
It is no mean task to take notes on a churning stomach. Through 14 hairpin bends up to Shenbaganur and down 30 km of a dirt track in Sathyamangalam, my predominant search was for a convenient spot to hurl. Since you can’t write a Hidden 100 about upset tummies, I wrote of rain-drenched hills and dry-deciduous forests, soaked deep enough in poetry to distract from Nature’s other calls. Even so, I did hear a tiger snarl and hawk eagles whistle, and watched endangered red-headed vultures spiral each other in tall columns toward the sky. I followed elephant dung to the forest edge and trailed a murdered eagle’s feathers strewn across treetops. It was nothing short of surreal to rumble through a still forest for 12 hours hunting for signs of life through the silence. From such intense markers of the present, I was transported 7,000 years back, during my short time in Shenbaganur. First among the stone homes of the Paliyar and Puliar tribes who once lived in the Palani Hills, and then among the palm leaf manuscripts of Joseph Beschi in the early 1600s, Shenbaganur was a quiet lesson in history. That’s sort of what Hidden 100s are about - a stepping out of your close knit present into someone else’s radically different sense of time.
All for the story
It’s always last minute, these Hidden 100 stories. But, thankfully, I like travelling, even if it’s in the peak of summer and on roads that have not been roads for a while now. I like meeting people such as the old Sanskrit scholar at Kilimanoor palace, who proceeded to give me a half-hour discourse on Vedanta, his nephew, who was kind enough to brew us black tea and talk about his memories of the palace’s heyday, and yes, even the crabby caretaker at Anchuthengu fort, who demanded money if we wanted to take photos. I actually like slipping on moss-strewn paths (twice) and climbing tens of steps and jumping walls, fighting my way through dense foliage, wading through muddy paths, getting drenched in the sudden drizzle, and being scared out of my wits after finding myself in a room full of bats (which, incidentally, from afar sounded like parrots!)…All part of the quest to get that story.
However, the problem is that when you come across historical monuments that have not been given much TLC, you can’t help be affected by what’s already been lost to time. I’m no heritage conservation expert but even I can make out how the original laterite stone of the fort has been patched up with cement! “Such walls can’t breathe,” I tell the photographer. My conservation architect sister would have been proud.
Up in the clouds
I walked in the clouds twice. Actually I walked above them as they hovered below. Bone jarring trips on nausea-inducing, winding, non-existent roads negotiated in cabs driven by maniacal cabbies were worth being on top of the world. Then there were stories. I liked the myths and their several versions, they made these places magical. If there was the story of Lord Rama’s foot on a rock at Ramakkalmedu (which gave the place its name) then there was the sad story of the kuruvan and kuruvati who were sacrificed to appease ‘forces’ which weren’t pleased with the construction of the Idukki Dam. Then there were the magical beings of Ilaveezhaponchira - the place where leaves don’t fall – and the pond there which the Pandavas built for Draupadi…so many stories jostling for a telling. The romance and the magic vanished with the crackling of police wireless’ sets at Ilaveezhapoonchira. Policemen being the only ‘beings’ at topstation. I also learnt a bit too much about dams. Caught a glimpse of the arced Idukki Dam and since I had seen it I was terrified when the Mullaperiyar Dam made news. Wondered why there were so few windmills at the extremely windy Ramakkalmedu. And also how Tamil Nadu had so many. And the best part? No plastic waste.
Shilpa Nair Anand
Pause and listen
There were no rolling hills or gurgling waters or soothing breezes or therapeutic silence. Only grey roads simmering in the sun, people, dust and unending bouts of traffic. To find a Hidden 100 within the city is exciting nevertheless, something like unwrapping a present you had forgotten existed.
Pallipuram Fort, one of the oldest surviving European monuments in the country built in 1503, is just about an hour from Ernakulam city, but ensconced in its own private universe, among ageless trees and strange green-coloured flies, unwilling to open up easily to visitors. From the only Hidden 100 I did, I learnt that every place has a story to tell, or stories. All you need to do is pause and listen. A protected monument, it carries a customary plaque bearing a short gist of its history, which locals decorate with their own personal fables. The landscapes that you paint inside your head with these are as beautiful as those outside.
Hidden 100, I believe, is about connecting you to places and people that are far away from our mechanically-precise worlds.
Sleepy places where the trains reluctantly stop for a minute, and quaint, quiet lanes that peacefully co-exist along busy national highways have always fascinated the reluctant explorer in me. For the Hidden 100 column, I discovered two such places located close to bustling cities and yet caught in a time warp that put them in another world.
Chitharal, situated off the national highway to Kanyakumari, was my first destination. One Sunday, I found myself huffing and puffing up the hill and cursing myself for choosing such a destination. Rock by rock, step by step, I trudged my way up and reached the caves. It was a lonesome place – serene but secretive. There were no visitors and yet their presence was everywhere – in the desecrated rocks covered with graffiti and the plastics floating the pond. Far below, the slumbering villages lay blanketed in mist while wisps of smoke curled from kitchens far away. It was a surreal moment, a philosophical moment when I thought about how time left its mark on everything, including faith and spiritual matters.
Munroe Thurutthu, a lovely island near Kollam, is an unspoiled bit of haven, hidden away from prying eyes by a lake and a river. K.K. Bhramanandan, a former panchayat president, and Roshan M. Nair, a higher secondary school teacher, revealed the historic and scenic highlights of the places. But they were puzzled why no filmmaker wanted to set a film in this charming place crisscrossed by canals and waterways. Sandmining in broad daylight was an eyesore although it looked so harmless now. I wondered how long the island would remain pristine and green.
If Chitharal was a sign of how visitors could vandalise a place despite it remaining quite cut off from the tourism trail, perhaps Munroe Thurutthu was better off being away from it.