The forest has its secrets
This article was originally published in the launch issue of the National Geographic Traveller magazine, India.July 2012
The forest is omni-present, whichever way you choose to approach Mananthavady in Wayanad district, Kerala. On one side is Muthanga, a wildlife sanctuary with teak trees, giant bamboo, swamps and tall grass that merge into Bandipur and on the other are Nagarhole ( Rajiv Gandhi National Park ) and Tholpetty. While there are more than enough slick holiday resorts tucked into the forest beside its sky blue lakes, I am looking for the mythic `Vayalnad’ (land of paddy fields ) that exists beyond the four walls of a holiday home, waiting to be explored.
Wash away your sins in a forest pool.
For those coming in from the Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary side, the Thirunelli Temple is on the way to Mananthavady. Said to have been built by Lord Brahma, it sits atop the misty blue Brahmagiri hills where stone relics were discovered in 1947 and later carbon dated to as far back as 1500-100 BC. From the stone aquaduct installed by a Nayanar queen near the temple, you can walk down to the purple lotus blossoms in the Panchatheertham ( five channels ) tank where the Shanka-Chakra-Gada-Padma-Pada of Vishnu are carved into a rock. A quick dip in the Papanasini, a pretty forest pool fed by a rivulet further uphill, absolves one of all current sins while ancestral rites and the immersion of ashes go on all day. At the Thirunelli Temple, I discover a Bamboo Rice Payasam that is truly a gift from the Gods. It is made with jaggery and the extremely rare Bamboo Rice that is harvested only once every six years.
Between Thirunelli and Mananthavady lie Pakshipathalam, the Iruppu Falls and the Kuruva Island, where trekkers can spot a wide variety of birds, animals and rare plants.
Notes : Open from 5:30 am – 12.30 pm /5:30 pm – 8:30 pm. 31 km from Mananthavady Take the deviation near Kattikulam. Some temples require men to take shirts off in the precincts.
Pay homage to a hero
Wayanad is also where the Pazhassi Raja ( Kerala Simham ) a dashing figure with heroic attributes was born into the western branch of the Kottayam dynasty. He spent his life fighting the Mysore army under Tipu Sultan from 1773 to 1790 and then the British till his death in 1805. The shadowy forests of Wayanad offered the perfect cover for the guerilla warfare techniques he employed, emerging and dissolving into the mist only to reappear and launch a stealth attack on the unsuspecting enemy. Wayanad is like that. It allows you to be visible to others, or silently disappear into yourself at will.
But the mighty warrior king who once freely roamed the forests with his tribal Kurichiyar followers now sleeps quietly under the Pazhassi Kutheeram, a memorial in Mananthavady, a small town with a bustling market and curious, friendly people who are always eager to know who you are and where you came from. The Museum here has a few artefacts, coins, information about Wayanad’s history and letters from British officers complaining about him and his daredevilry.
Notes : Open from 10 am – 1 pm / 2pm - 5 pm.
Somehow my to-do checklist becomes a mere formality. I find that Mananthavady determines the schedule and sets the pace. It is no different anywhere else in rural Kerala.
Hobnob with the locals
A little later in the day, I try to keep up with 87 year old PP Krishnan Iyer as he skips nimbly like a mountain goat through a tour of his neat little Tamil home with its open courtyard, red oxide floor, low rooms, steep stairways and dark wooden beams. Maami’ ( aunt in Tamil ) makes piping hot black coffee while Mama tells us about his ancestors, the Tamil Brahmin Iyers from Thanjavur who migrated here over 250 years ago to serve as cooks for the royal family of Kottayam. It is hard to believe that we have met them only fifteen minutes ago.
He lives in the Paingatteri Agraharam, a quaint little settlement of about thirty five old houses in Mananthavady that are built in the traditional Tamil row house style. While curious neighbours only gawked at strangers, Mama went one step further and invited us right into his home with great gusto. “ Would you like some coffee ? “ he said as he ushered us into his home.But then Mananthavady has a large heart.
The Korome Mosque
This is reinforced at the atypical Korome Mosque. Minus the traditional Saracenic minarets, it has the graceful roof of a Nair tharavad, with beautiful carved and painted woodwork on the façade and within. ”Ladies not allowed “ says Ustad Faisal regretfully, as he shows the men around. The fact that they are not Muslim does not disturb him just as Mama was completely unperturbed at the sight of me sitting in his kitchen, sipping out of his stainless steel glass.
While there are various conjectures about the origins of this approximately 250 year old building, Faisal and Ayub who show us around confirm that it was always a mosque, built by an Athillan Pappan who had a distinct, local style. At this point Athillan Ayub asks “ Would you like some tea in my family home ? “
Hospitable Mananthavady triumphs again. I am introduced to his family and heritage home over steaming `Suleimani chaya ‘ with a dash of lemon. ` This house was also built by Athillan Pappan, “ he says, showing us Pappan’s signature inscribed in Arabic in a corner.
Notes :Visit anytime between 10 am and 5 pm. Ladies not allowed inside.23 km from Mananthavady town, via Kakody. Dress modestly.
Enjoy local cuisine
Heading into the soft Mananthavady sunset filtering in through the impossibly slim Areca, coconut and squat Banana plantations, I remember the batter fried Pazam Pori‘ ( Vazhapazham banana fritters ) and Sukiyam ( dumplings stuffed with a sweet golden gram paste ) served with milky Coorg coffee at Gonikoppal earlier this morning. That was when I figured the weekend was going to turn out just right.
People are eager to talk, generous with information and constantly invite us to their homes for tea when we stop to ask for directions. A boy at the India Coffee House in Mananthavady (where we found a delicious meal of chicken, fish curry, rice, Kalan, Kadle Curry and Banana Flower poriyal for lunch) tells us his brother is a Kalaripayattu martial artist and tries to arrange for us to see a practise session.
Look the Devi in the eye
Long evening shadows are soon chased away by the Nelluvillakku ( metal lamps ) in the mystical ValliyoorKavu Temple just outside Mananthavady. The Kavu ( sacred grove ) contains an Ashoka tree that is special to the locals who believe Sita once sat under it. The Ramayana motif runs rife through the area, bridging the short distance between myth and reality.
But right now the evening belongs to Vana Durga, the presiding deity who shimmers with an intense energy in the light of the oil lamps. At dawn she is worshipped as the Jala Durga and in the afternoon as Bhadrakali. The Namboodri says that she has existed here in her manifested form ( a smooth stone ) as far back as the Dwaparyuga and that the temple gets its name from the `Valli ( creeper ).The temple is also frequented by Kerala’s tribal people - groups such as the Paniyars, Kurumas, Adiyars, Kurichyars, Ooralis and Kattunaikars whose lives are full of folklore, ancient rituals and forest Gods with an emotional spectrum that ranges from benign to malevolent.
Notes : 5:30 am – 12.30 pm / 5:30 pm – 8:30 pm. 5 kms from Mananathavady. Festival season : February/March.
Get a taste of rural life
The Bamboo Village is a homestay programme in Thrikkaipetta where Mary and her husband Aldo along with others in the village have opened out their no fuss homes to guests. The project is managed by Uravu and Kabani, organisations working in the area. The Uravu store makes fine bamboo products and one can also take back the essence of Mananthavady - coffee, vanilla, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, healing oils and other herbs/ spices at throwaway prices in the market.Guests get to tap rubber, plant paddy and share socio-religious aspects of village life. A portion of the income goes towards the village development fund. At the Bamboo Village, you get to spend the morning lazing, chatting, eating fruit and meeting local people while coffee beans lie toasting in the sun.
Tap into primal nature
After Mary’s homecooked breakfast of delicious Idli’s, Puttu and black coffee, it is time to attempt the steep climb to the pre-historic Edakkal Caves where ancient man first made a mark in these parts. The pictorial inscriptions are said to go as far back as 8000-6000 BC but these simple expressions of long forgotten men and women are still clearly defined. The cave has a quiet energy. I feel a powerful connect with the past as I sit here quietly up in the bowels of Wayanad.
“There’s nothing in Wayanad except the forest “ everyone said before I left Bangalore. But thats because they never went looking for Wayanad in the forest.
Notes : Edakkal entry ticket : Rs. 30/- per person Via Ambukuthimala, Ambavayal.
Between Thrikkaipetta and Ambavayal ( from Kalpetta ) visit:
Pookote Lake ( 5 kms )
Chembra Peak :17 kms
Kanthanpura Falls : 22 kms