Written by: Siddhartha Krishnan | 6 Min Read
We woke up to a bright sunny morning. All that traveling the previous day had battered our bodies a bit. A good night’s sleep was the perfect cure for it. We stepped out of our cottage to be welcomed by the cry of peacocks calling out to their mates. They wandered around the property as freely as us. Although shy, it was clear that they had lost their fear of humans. After a cup of coffee, we took a stroll to the neighborhood store to buy a few essentials. The sky was clear that day, and the fragrant smells of the foliage renewed our vigor.
Back at the hotel, breakfast was ready. ‘Chana Bhatura’ and ‘Puttu and Kadala curry’ was on offer. An unusual combination of North and South Indian dishes, but it worked well. The young tribal boy (not giving away names for the sake of privacy) who had told us about a tribal hamlet uphill was at our service. A conversation with him brought to light places deep in the forest which were off-limits to outsiders. He spoke of mesmerizing waterfalls, viewpoints, meadows, and river streams within the forest that far surpassed, in beauty, the places we had seen so far. We couldn’t substantiate his claims, but his description of these places sparked our imagination. Our only option was to create images of these idyllic locations in our minds.
However, the boy had agreed to take us to a Muduga tribal village later in the day, and that was decent consolation for us, considering we were only on a two-day trip to this mysterious, forested region. We didn’t have sufficient time to win the trust of the locals and explore more.
The area around the Silent Valley National Park is mostly dominated by the Muduga tribe. Some of the staff working in our resort were from that community. However, in Attapadi as a whole, it is the Irula tribe who are in the majority. Government estimates suggest the total tribal population to be around 35000. Approximately 80% of them are Irulas, 10% are Mudugas and 8% are Kurumbas. Each of these tribes has its unique culture, religious beliefs, and dialect which distinguishes them from each other and the settlers.
As per the Census of 1951, 90% of Attappadi’s population was tribal back then. Now that figure has been halved to 44%. This was due to the mass migration of settlers from other parts of Kerala and the nearby areas of Tamil Nadu. The steady migration of tribal people to different parts of Kerala and elsewhere was also a contributing factor, but not a defining one.
The principal sources of income of the tribal people are agriculture and livestock rearing. They grow plantain, coconut, and cereals. Minor forest produces like honey, ginger, and cardamom also contribute to their income. This region is also known for its coffee and areca nuts, but these are mostly grown by the non-tribal population. Although they now have access to all kinds of foods, their staple as hunter-gatherers initially consisted of wild roots, tubers, seeds, fruits, and meat. They have an understanding of medicinal plants and heal their sick using methods passed down by their ancestors.
The tribals of Attappadi dwell within hamlets called ‘Ooru’ which is a cluster of small houses. There are an estimated 192 hamlets scattered around Attappadi. It is to one of these hamlets we were planning to go to later in the day.
The young boy also spoke about how his ancestors traveled in the past. The distances we see on GPS were meaningless to them. The understanding of states and borders was irrelevant. They traveled on ancient trails left by their ancestors, who had a deep understanding of the forest and its dangers. They gave the forest the respect it deserved and took only what was required from it.
After breakfast, we drove to the Malleswaram Temple which we had not visited the previous day. Located in Chemmannur, at a distance of 5 km from Mukkali on the Mannarkkad – Anakkatti road, it is a place, I was told not to miss. The temple was included in the Swadesh Darshan Project of the Central Government, and the Shivaratri celebrations there are a major attraction. The festivities had recently concluded; the remains of which could be seen all around the clear, open land on the opposite side of the temple.
At Malleswaram, Lord Shiva is Mallan and Goddess Parvathy is Malli. Here, the Irulas are the keeper of traditions; they hold the right to protect the rituals passed down through generations. On a normal day, the Irula priests invoke the gods three times a day to bless their land and their ventures. Their pleas reach a crescendo on Shivratri night when a group of Irula priests, and young men, venture through an ancient trail to reach the top of a mountain called the Malleswaran Mudi—the highest peak in the Attappadi Forest Reserve at an elevation of 1664 meters. The Irulas believe the mountain to be a giant Shiva Lingam. On their way, sometimes, they are attacked by elephants. But they know how to fend them off, without being overly aggressive. The priests perform rituals at the top of the mountain and spend the night there; after which the festivities are brought to an end.
To us, the temple presented a humble image. Nothing grandiose or loud. We headed in, bowed before the deities, and sought their blessings. The Malleswaran Mudi could be seen clearly from the temple. We wondered how adventurous it would be to walk on that forbidden trail with the Adivasis and spend a night on top of the sacred mountain? What kind of stories would the Irulas tell us under a starry sky in the absolute wilderness?
With these thoughts in mind, we headed back to the resort.
We opted for a light lunch that day and thereafter took a short nap. At 4 pm we were fresh as daisies to venture to the Muduga Ooru. We took a left on the interlocked road leading to Mukkali Junction to head uphill. This road is only used by the tribal population and outsiders are strictly prohibited as confirmed by the boards that we saw on the way. The forest got thicker with every passing mile. To be honest the seclusion did feel a bit scary. However, our young guide assured us that we were safe. “As long as you are with me, you are safe”, he asserted.
The road snaked through the hill until we reached a meadow. Two old looking tribal men were sharing a beedi a few meters ahead. We got out of the car and took jittery steps towards them. They didn’t seem too pleased to see us. One of them called out to the boy and gave him an earful. A negotiation followed. It went on for a while.
We felt helpless because we couldn’t contribute in any way to pacify the irate natives as their language was alien. Moreover, we weren’t sure if opening our mouths was a good idea in the first place. However, a cheeky grin suddenly appeared on the old man’s face, suggesting that he was pulling the mickey out of us all this while. We were shaken; not having anticipated such dry humor in the middle of a jungle.
The boy led us to a mud path that led to the village. A few curious dogs rushed towards us, sniffed, and then went about doing their business. The old man who had his eyes on us broke into a dirge. At least that’s what it sounded like. The boy didn’t seem too bothered. “He’s had a tipple. That’s all. Moreover, he is not native of this village”, he assured. We smiled; more out of relief than anything else.
As we went past a cluster of small dwellings, we realized that the natives were shy. They maintained minimal eye contact with us. Their clothes weren’t too different from the settlers, and their language sounded like a mix of many languages. Some of the words, though, were familiar. The government had built one-room concrete houses with solar panels installed on roofs. The houses also had adequate water supply.
The boy told us that in the past his ancestors used to live in improvised bamboo huts. Back then, temporary shelters were the only option because as foragers they were under constant threat of being attacked by wild animals or being ravaged by bad weather. Now these structures are built to shelter poultry and goats. We had spotted a couple of them at the entrance of the Ooru.
Jeeps with government permits were the only mode of transportation for the natives, and on our way up we did see a few pass by. Over the years, measures have been taken by the government to educate the tribal population and employ them in government jobs; so that they could be brought into the mainstream. But this was a choice given to them and not a compulsion. So many had opted not to.
Despite the calm, I could sense the discomfort. It was apparent that the Mudugas didn’t want to be disturbed by us city dwellers. Some unwanted past experiences could have been the reason behind their wariness.
A short walk took us to a clearing. We soon realized that what we were standing on was a football ground. It was netted on all sides. The panoramic view was quite stunning. To our left and right were step farms belonging to the Mudugas. During summers the danger of being attacked by elephants is quite high. The pachyderms come down the hills in search of water and plantains often leading to a man-animal conflict.
“Isn’t that the Malleswaran Mudi?”, I asked the boy exuberantly, pointing at a familiar looking peak. The boy nodded in agreement. I wasn’t expecting to see the mountain from there. It was the clearest view of the sacred mountain that we had got until then. It was then that the boy told us that the Irulas believe that Shiva or Mallan was from their lineage and the Mudugas believe that Parvathy or Malli was from their tribe. Their marriage was an alliance between two tribal communities. I didn’t know what to make of it. But it made for a fascinating story!
As I drove back to the resort, I promised myself that such unconventional destinations will be on my travel list going forward. That night under a starry sky at the resort, my cousin and I were in high spirits. We made a list of places that we needed to visit. After a few drinks, such lists were inevitable. But somehow, I felt, that another visit to Attappadi was on the cards.
The next day we left for Palakkad after breakfast. We reached close to noon and after a nice, wholesome meal cooked by Amma, I crashed onto my bed to take a long nap. There was just one more place that I had to visit to culminate my holiday. A reservoir with a spectacular sunset point.
Kava Island Reservoir in Malampuzha is not a place known to tourists. But it had gained popularity among bikers and locals over the years. I drove through the meandering roads of Palakkad flanked by florescent green paddy fields on both sides. My cousin, whom I trust more than GPS when in Palakkad was there to guide me, and my parents were enjoying the sights of nature from the rear seats. It had been a while since they had been out.
Onion, plantain and chili fritters, and hot cups of tea perfectly complemented the wonderful sunset that we witnessed that day. I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to my short holiday.
About the author –
Siddhartha Krishnan is the author of Two and a Half Rainbows – A Collection of Short Stories. He is also a passionate blogger, and on his website, www.whatsonsidsmind.com, you can find his travel diaries, food stories, book recommendations, and movie reviews.
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