At Hogenakkal, the obvious thing to do is hire a coracle, called a ‘parisal' locally, and ride up to the awe-inspiring waterfall
Kannada and Tamil literature often liken the various stages of the Cauvery to a woman's lifetime. You only have to visit Hogenakkal to see how apt that is. The immense waterfall, with its deafening noise, cold spray and rising mist, is a gushing seductress as well as a ferocious rebel, as only a spirited teenager could be.
I remember being taken as a child on a coracle ride to see the waterfall up close, and throwing a tantrum asking the oarsman to turn around, out of sheer fear of the thundering water. Then, visiting the place more recently, I just stood transfixed by the awe-inspiring beauty of the whole setting — sheets of water falling down crevices among rugged rocks, with nothing but trees watching them.
Those rocks, I learnt later, were carbonatite and one of the oldest in south Asia.
The word Hogenakkal is an amalgam of Kannada words hoge (smoke) and kal (rock), referring to the ‘smoky' air the water creates around the rocks.
At this point where the river jumps from its origins in the hills to flow wide and deep in the plains, there is no tank built around the water; only further downstream at Mettur is the river dammed, the water being stored in the Stanley reservoir. And so, the Cauvery just exists, in its most energetic form at Hogenakkal.
Local tour guides would point out a certain point among the waterfalls as the border between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, but borders seem meaningless when you are sitting in a fragile coracle looking up at the force of the river.
Ride with character
Located 180 km south-east of Bangalore, Hogenakkal is best accessed by road. Plenty of government and private buses start at the Mysore Road satellite bus-stand to Dharmapuri town, a distance of 140 km, covered easily under two hours on a featureless national highway.
The journey from Dharmapuri up the hills has more character, though taking nearly an hour and a half to cover 46 km. Crowded buses groan but successfully carry tourists, farmers and traders with sacks of grains, vegetables and even poultry, up steep winding roads.
You could drive all the way from Bangalore, but travelling in grimy buses makes you appreciate the fresh, cold water at Hogenakkal even more.
Through the gorge
Once there, the obvious thing to do is hire a coracle, called a ‘parisal' locally, and ride up to the waterfall.
The oarsman has a few tricks up his sleeve, such as taking the coracle so close to the waterfall that you would be convinced it is the last thing you would ever see, or making the coracle go round and round as if in a whirlpool, in the calmer stretches. But, the ride in a gorge amid towering rocks and the sight of the waterfall at a distance is by itself a treat.
If the oarsman is willing, he would take you up the rocks on a trek, so you are finally at a place from where you can look down at the waterfall. It is also possible to reach this point by walk.
Little boys from the villages nearby put up a show of diving from the top of the rocks into the gorge for small change, leaving you in a moral dilemma between appreciating their skill and bravery, and pitying their need to perform such a dangerous feat.
The water at Hogenakkal is said to have medicinal properties, having flowed through diverse foliage and ancient rocks; it is fresh and clean at any rate, and so definitely warrants a dip, only after it has emerged from the gorge and is in the plains, though. It is possible to swim across the whole river in some places, just to boast that one has crossed the Cauvery.
Oil massages are another popular activity here, though one can only see burly men massaging others equally burly, and I have never been able to spot a masseuse or a woman getting a massage.
After all the activity, one certainly has earned the indulgence of freshly fried, heavily spiced fish, straight from the river, hawked by many vendors all over the place.