Although the yatra season had begun and the train was packed to the core, I somehow managed to reach Trivandrum in the wee hours of that chilly morning. After munching a few appams for breakfast I headed straight away to a place called Kottur and after a bumpy jeep ride reached a small sleepy hamlet of Kanni tribe settlement called Podium in the afternoon tucked away inside the Peppara wildlife sanctuary about 70 kms from the capital city.
Refreshing under a perennial waterfall nearby I reclined over a rock overlooking the hill. The monolithic giant rock face of Agasthya Mala rising above 6300ft was looming in the distance dominating the landscape. I was on an adventurous trek to that sacred hill situated in the heart of the sanctuary.
My guide Surendran, for the next few days, narrated a few of the mythological stories related to the sacred hill. Having read many mythological stories in the Chandamama in the childhood days about sage Agasthya, I tried recalling them.
Pleased upon Parvathy's penance to achieve the consort hood of Lord Siva, the Lord himself appears before her and agrees to marry her. The spiritual wedding was solemnized on Mount Kailasa. All the Devas, Gandharvas.. and other gods including Brahma and Vishnu, came down from their respective extra-terrestrial realms to the earth, to Mount Kailasa to witness the wedding. Due to the weight of the population in the north the earth started to tilt. Lord Shiva then requested sage to rush to the southern part and balance the earth from further tilting. He came down to a place which later on came be known as Chenganoor in Kerala and sat in meditation and then negated the further tilt of the planet. However, he had laid down a condition before leaving that couple would come down to the place where he would sit, and the marriage will be solemnized again there for his benefit to which all agreed. Finally both came to Chenganoor to be married again before Agasthya. But Parvarthy had her periods and the marriage was postponed. The blood from Devi's menstrual discharge fell on the ground and the mud there turned red. Thus the place got the name Chemmanoor - chem(red)-mann(mud)-ooru(place). Later the name known as Chengannoor.
An important legacy worth mentioning here is a of a temple there; considered to be first built by Sage, where he sat in meditation and the marriage was subsequently re-solemnized; it is here that both idols are worshiped. One half of the temple is dedicated to Lord and the other is dedicated for devi. Interestingly it is believed that even today if the priest observes blood during 'nirmalya pooja', The idol is removed and kept in a sanctum opposite to the temple within the premises and after a festival tripoottaraatu her idol is placed back into the temple.
The other facet of the sage is that he is considered as the first and foremost Siddha. He is called Kuru muni, meaning short saint and mentioned as Saptarishi in Hindu mythology.He made contributions to the field of Medicine and Astrology- especially Nadi Astrology which is immensely popular.One of his medicinal preparations, Boopathi Kuligai, is so powerful that it can even bring the dead back to life.
Spread over 23 sq km Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve straddles the border of states , in the Western ghats. It is also called the Ashambu Hills or Agasthyagoodum . The hills are notable as the habitat for over 2,000 species of medicinal plants among which 50 plants are very rare and declared endangered - those on the verge of extinction. It is also called as the abode of the Vedic sage Agasthya. Hence it is popularly known as Agasthyamala. The hills are home to a variety of flora and fauna. Rare species of orchids such as Paphiopedilum druryi, and Lady Slipper orchid too are found in the dense forests here. The region receives intense rains for more than six months. According to study reports report there are over 170 species of plants in undisturbed forests, which includes over 75 species of canopy trees, 50 species of shrubs and nearly 25 species of lianas and herbs..
We spotted a few butterflies such as Red Admiral , Blue Tiger and Great Egg Fly butterflies. Agasthyamala has also the origins of many rivers like Kallada , Achankoil , Vamanapuram , & Thamirabarani to name a few.. Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve, is under consideration by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee for selection as a World Heritage Site.
These hills contain areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance. A very rare and special herbal plant named Aroggya pacha (Trichopus zeylanicus) known as Plant of Eternal Health , is a speciality of Agasthyamala, attracting many researchers to this area. Neelakurinji flower which blooms once in a 12 years is also found here.The entire area will be carpeted with the violet colored flower and it is an eye catching sight.Indeed!
Also, this place is home to many endangered species of animals like Lion-Tailed Macaques, , Nilgiri Marten, Nilgiri Tahr, Malabar Spiny Dormouse, Great Pied Hornbills.Reptiles found here include the Green Calottes, Skinks is found in the Western Ghats only. Europeans are said to be the first to establish tea gardens around the base stations of hill at Brimore, Bonacaud and Ponmudi.
Next morning we started the trek a bit early with some Avial and bananas for packed lunch . The initial walk was through jeep track crossing settlements of tribes in the hills. After crossing numerous streams and quenching our thirst we reached the base of the hill by noon. The view of hills surrounding the Agasthyamala including hills of Ponmudi, Bonaccaud and the bird’s view of Peppara dam back waters was awesome!.Making our way through the thick elephant grass we reached a clearing. We found mounds of elephant dung here. Surendran told that elephants come to munch grass and bamboo here, and sometimes trespass villages and create havoc.
After having lunch by the stream we climbed the hillock and walked under the canopy. We had to shed blood as the trail was infested with blood sucking leeches!.After climbing for more than 3 hours we were on a trail which forked after walking for an hour and finally reached the place called Athirumala which served as base camp for the trek. There is a forest rest house here amidst the forest overlooking the Agasthyamala hill and other hills. The forest department has ensured the safety of the inmates by digging deep trenches around the rest house. We were totally exhausted after walking the whole day. There is also a facility for cooking if the inmates want to conjure up their own delicacies. The night was windy and very cold. After having a quick dinner.We slipped into the cozy sleeping bags and retired early.
Next morning after having tapioca for breakfast we left to Agasthyamala. The initial path was through beaten path crossing numerous streams. The mist had enveloped the peak and seemed as though we were walking in an air conditioned forest. After more than an hour of brisk walk we reached a place called Pongalapara, an open place where the North ridge to hill starts. The climb over the slippery rock face with water flowing by from the open crevasses was arduous indeed!.The wind blowing made walking exhausting. The palm trees on the west face of the hillock were swaying continuously. We cautiously managed to reach the tip of hillock with difficulty just holding the tiny pinch holds of the rock face. A small mistake seemed to be fatal.!. The whole hillock was covered with dense fog revealing the black hillocks in the vicinity which seemed as if competing to grow. The bird’s eye view of Neyyar dam and the forest was beyond words. There is an idol of Sage Agasthya here in an open place. Devotees come here to offer puja and to seek blessings. According to local custom women between age 14 to 50 years are not allowed to visit the hill strictly!
We spent some time and offered puja to the seer. Our guide cautioned about the deteriorating weather condition and the steep descent on the ridge. Though we had an intention of staying for a long time, reluctantly we left the place and reached the base camp by evening. It is strictly not advisable to visit the place during monsoons or in bad weather conditions.
After spending the night in the forest rest house, next day we hit the trail and reached Podium by afternoon. The forest guards and the Ranger were patrolling in search of a herd of Pachyderms who had created havoc in the nearby fields the previous night. They cautioned us not to step out of the settlements and to be watchful!. After requesting a jeep driver and paying him some extra money we somehow managed to reach Kottur by evening. Finally we were out of danger!
Text and Pictures : R.Vishwanath