Travel

The stream that never dries

Life lived at a different pace Photos: SUBASH JEYAN  

Eight years is a long time in the life of a highway, one realises as the motorcycle settles into the poise of an equilibrium that comes with a sense of belonging with the road. I am heading to Puliancholai, near Tiruchirapalli, and as the lazy arcs and the long straights come and go in a rush of blurring tarmac, still familiar after all these years even beneath the cosmetic makeover of six-laning, what stares at one is the extent and nature of change.

NH45, like most highways today, has an air of distant arrogance about it in fulfilling efficiently the one purpose it was built for: transporting goods and services across a nation in a developmental hurry. The villages and towns have been neatly cordoned off and there's a loss that comes with that. No place for an ambling cyclist here, riding to the next village. That familiar tree, or that refuge of a restaurant where one could rest one's highway legs briefly with the luxury of a casual conversation and chai, are all gone. There are motels now, a little confused about themselves. And schools and colleges. Plenty of them. A bewildering variety of them. Engineering colleges, arts and science colleges, medical colleges, dental colleges. And aspiring townships with luring names that promise prosperity, riding the real estate boom, metros-in-waiting, promoted by billionaires-in-waiting.

As one turns off the highway at Perambalur and gets into SH142 that would take one to Thuraiyur and eventually to Puliancholai, it gets a lot more familiar as daily life begins to spill over into the road again with a vengeance. Smaller roads with more space for life as well as commerce. But no escaping the huge educational complexes here too. And the poor cousins of government schools as well. As you pause to take photographs, the boys stand and pose proudly even though they are obviously late for school. And seeing a stranger taking photographs, the girls take a different route to the school, avoiding you. And lest you forget that change is a still a contested process, there's also the disturbing presence of a riot-control vehicle in the distance.

Puliancholai itself is a small village at the foothills of the Kollimalai range, the starting point for a 15km trek up the hills. The forest and tourism departments have a couple of well-furnished guest houses which you can book in advance and apart from those there's just a handful of houses and a hotel run by a Gulf returnee. He prepares a tingling chicken curry that sears its way all the way down to the stomach — and refuses to take any money for it. “The panchayat will pay for it and we are happy that you are going to write about Puliancholai,” he says. I don't know what to say.

There's a stream coming down from the hills running through the village. “It never dries even in the hottest of seasons,” says the panchayat president. “It comes from a huge waterfall 15 km up in the hills, the source of which no one has traced so far,” he adds an element of mystery to the everyday.

That waterfall is my destination the next day. There's a forest guard to accompany me since the trail is not clearly marked all through and one could easily get lost. There are also people in the village whom you can engage as guides. The trail is used by tribals living in a village up the hills to transport forest produce down to Puliancholai.

It's a tough trek. Unrelentingly steep, without any flat stretches to let you catch your breath, it's a trekker's delight but you better be sure that you are fit enough. I realise my fitness is not quite what it used to be. About four kilometres up the trail, I realise I'll have to leave the trek for another day. I promise myself I'll come back. As consolation, the forest guard takes me to the riverside temple a couple of kilometres from the village. “The deity is very powerful,” he says. “On weekends a lot of goats are sacrificed here as offerings.”

The ride back is a lot more sobering. The villages and towns pass by: Silavattam, Saram, Kallapiranpatti, Rettanai, Eranji, Sengunam.... names that evoke memories of a childhood and a way of life once lived and had thought was long gone. Change is relentless. But one is too much a part of it to realise what one has really gained. Or lost.

Getting there: Puliancholai is accessible by road from Trichy (70 km) and Perambalur (55 km). There are buses plying from both these places. The nearest town is Thuraiyur (17 km). For accommodation at the Forest/Tourism Guest Houses contact the Block Development Officer, Thuraiyur, Tel: 04327252257. Bookings must be made in advance. The lone local hotel is the only source of food.


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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 5:07:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/travel/the-stream-that-never-dries/article2758249.ece

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