Off the Beaten Track in Tamil Nadu - Published in the March 2014 issue of the Education World Magazine

Off the Beaten Track in Tamil Nadu

The only state in India to host the Western and Eastern Ghats culminating in the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu boasts five Unesco World Heritage sites and a southern tip plunging into the sea at the point of confluence of the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean

Contrary to popular opinion, Ooty, Kodaikanal and Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry) are not the only holiday/vacation options that the south-eastern seaboard state of Tamil Nadu (pop. 72.14 million) has to offer people in search of rest, recreation and infotainment. It also boasts — perhaps not enough — five Unesco World Heritage sites and a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, and is the only state in India to host the Western and Eastern Ghats, culminating in the Nilgiris. With an impressive 910-km coastline, its southern tip plunging into the sea is the point of confluence of the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean

Therefore instead of over-hyped Ooty, you could take off to undiscovered climes like the hill station of Valparai from Coimbatore, or instead of just passing through Salem, you could venture a mere 22 km to the pleasant hill resort of Yercaud, or discover that Rameswaram is much more than its reputation of a pilgrim town.

Nestling within terraced tea gardens on the slopes of the Anamallai Hills range, skirting the Anamallai Tiger Reserve and the Indira Gandhi National Park, unhurried and relatively unknown Valparai (pop. 70,771) is easily accessible by road from Coimbatore via Pollachi in 150 minutes. The smooth tarred road has 40 hairpin bends. En route is the Aliyar Dam, a huge water body and the contiguous Aliyar Park, equipped with an aquarium, a small theme park, and a well-maintained garden — ideal for a picnic stop. As the road curves around the Indira Gandhi National Park, a keen eye may spot huge lion tailed black faced macaques, langurs, the Nilgiri Tahr deer or even a herd of elephants. And then, as the disparate greenery on hill slopes is replaced by rows of neat tea bushes, Valparai emerges, quiet and secluded.
Among the pleasures of this tranquil retreat is soaking in the beauty of the Anamallai Range and experiencing the sunrise and sunset from vantage points, embarking on night safaris for close encounters with leopards, panthers, gaur and elephants or bird watching treks in the surrounding areas arranged by hotels and homestay managements.
Excursions ex Valparai:
A recommended day excursion is to the Athirapally Falls between the Parambikulam Wild Life Sanctuary and Eravikulam National Park. It’s a scenic two-hour drive ( 67 km) from Valparai through lush forest with enchantingly diverse flora and fauna and melodious bird sounds, and along the way, the Sholayar Dam, the second deepest in Asia. Set aside a day to visit the foot of the waterfall.
Sixty km from Valparai, tucked deep within the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, is the beautiful hideaway of Topslip. Here, the Tamil Nadu state government offers residential accommodation in lodges and tree top houses, which are surprisingly comfortable, with modern amenities. Elephant safaris on huge tuskers take you into the heart of the unmotorable Anamallai Tiger Reserve. Guided treks on foot and river rafting are other options. Since Topslip is sited in the middle of dense bamboo and teak forests, it’s advisable to carry water bottles, snacks, mosquito repellants and basic medicines. Moreover, Topslip and the adjoining national parks are closed for a specified period between April and June, so it’s better to check with the forest department before planning a visit.
While at Valparai, make time to visit the village of the Muduvar tribe, so named because they carry their children on their backs or muduhu. Although not entirely cut off from civilization, the Muduvars (like the Todas of Ooty) are far removed from it. They eke out a livelihood by gathering honey and indigenous herbs from hill slopes which they sell to middlemen, who buy cheap and sell dear. The Muduvars are an endangered tribe and visits to their protected area require a permit from the forest department of Tamil Nadu, which is normally procured by the hotel or resort. For teachers and parents with children’s groups, a trip to the Muduvar reserve is an opportunity to touch upon history, geography, sociology and anthropology.

Residential accommodation. Valparai is an off-the-beaten tourist track, so accommodation options are limited but extend across the price spectrum from budget to luxury.
Budget hotels (Rs.850 per room/night): Green Hill Hotel, Hotel Holiday Break and Hotel Treat. 
Mid-priced: (Rs.1,600-3,600): Valparai Krishna Inn, Green Hill Hotel and Briar Tea Bungalow. 
High-end(Rs.5000-8,000): Sinna Dorai’s, Monica, Sirukundra and Stanmore bungalows offer luxury raj era accommodation. Maintained by plantation companies (Parry Agro, Woodbriar Group), they offer a good opportunity to experience life on a tea plantation.
Residential accommodation at Topslip (Rs.500-2,000) is administered by the field director, Anamallai Tiger Reserve (Tel: 04259-238360).
Dining options. Valparai is a small town with basic restaurants which offer local cuisines. It’s advisable to make AP (American Plan) hotel bookings with all meals provided.
Visiting seasons. The best time to visit Valparai is October-March when the weather is cool and pleasant. Summer (April-June) temperatures range between 15-25oC .

High up at 4,970 ft above sea level in the Shevaroy hills of Tamil Nadu, Yercaud (pop. 41, 832 ) is an ideal and convenient weekend getaway from Bangalore and Chennai. A pleasant hour-long drive from hot and crowded Salem through 20 hairpin bends ends at the Yercaud Lake which gives the hill station its name — yer (‘lake’) and kadu (‘forest’). Unsurprisingly, all activity in this charming hill station is centred around the lake.
Inhabited initially by Tamilians from Kanchipuram who fled Telugu invasions, Yercaud appeared on the map in 1842 when the governor of Madras Presidency, Sir Thomas Munroe, discovered the Shevaroy Hills. Later between 1820-29 David Cockburn, collector of Salem planted imported coffee beans from Arabia, and pears and apples from South Africa for the first plantations and orchards. Yercaud is literally perched atop the hills affording astounding views of the valley from all vantages. The weather is always pleasant even in summer (April-June) when the temperatures range from 24-27oC. Winters can be wet and cold but for discerning visitors, they add to the charm of Yercaud.
Excursions ex Yercaud. 
Multi-level challenge treks are organised by the Chennai Trekking Club and some local groups. Experienced trekkers can take on the 90 ft Killiyur Falls — result of an overflow from the Yercaud Lake. The waterfall is the reward at the end of a testing two-hour trek offering the greatest challenge during the monsoon when it is dangerously slippery! The less adventurous can opt for a picturesque drive on the 32 km Loop Road which goes deep into the forest under a canopy of trees.
On the lake, there are advanced boating facilities and from the Lady’s, Child’s and Gent’s Seats one can take in some spectacular views of the Shevaroy Hills and the immense valley below. Also worth a visit is the National Orchidarium which houses a range of flora including the legendary insectivorous pitcher plant. At the silkworm farm, you could learn how silkworms are reared, silk yarn spun, and purchase rare cuttings and saplings from the Rose Garden. Yercaud has quaint by-lanes like Cockburn Road and Tipperary Road, lined with pretty colonial cottages.
Getting to Yercaud. 
Salem is the closest railhead. It is 203 km from Bangalore and 335 km from Chennai. Roads to Salem from Bangalore and Chennai are well-maintained and the distance can be covered in three and five hours respectively. Private and state transport buses and cabs ply at regular intervals between Salem and Yercaud.
Residential accommodation. 
Budget hotels (Rs.480-2,000 per room/night): Royal Resort, Silver Holiday Cottages and VSV Resorts. 
Mid-range (Rs.2,300-5,000): Hotel Shevaroys (perhaps the oldest in Yercaud), Golden Nest Resorts, Green Berry Resort, Clifton Inn and Vihal Estancia. 
High-end (Rs.5,000 upwards): GRT Nature Trails, Grand Palace Hotel and Spa.
Club Mahindra’s Lake Forest Hotel (Rs.2,920-5,640) and Sterling Resorts’ Rock Perch (Rs.3,190-7,000) are open to time share members as well as to non-member visitors. Another residential option is Grange Resort housed in the eponymous plantation where coffee was first grown. It offers state-of-the-art facilities and adventure trail rides including motorbiking on dirt tracks.
Yercaud is a round-the-year destination. However, since monsoons run from June to September, the peak seasons are March-June and October-February.

Sited 160 km from madurai, rameswaram is more than a mere temple town for devout Hindus. In the epic Ramayana, it is identified as the locus where Lord Ram’s simian army built Adam’s Bridge between India and Sri Lanka, for the invasion of Ravana’s kingdom. It is also the sacred location where Lord Ram prayed to Shiva, atoning for the sin of killing the Brahmin Ravana. Since according to Hindu scriptures, a pilgrimage to Varanasi is incomplete without a visit to Rameswaram, it attracts visitors from all over the country.
However, Rameswaram the temple town (pop. 82,68) on Pamban Island boasts other attractions such as the Pamban rail and road bridges that connect Rameswaram island to the Indian mainland. The 100-year-old Pamban Rail Bridge over the ocean, is one of the ten most dangerous bridges of the world, sited in a whirlwind zone. On some stretches, wind speeds could drive a speeding train off the track! Therefore, an anemometer erected at the centre of the bridge automatically alerts train drivers when wind velocity crosses 55 km/hr, warning them to reduce speed to a crawl. Work on the 6,776 ft long rail bridge commenced in 1902 with excavations conducted by the Khurai families of Gujarat, experts in constructing Himalayan bridges. It took 12 years to complete the Pamban Rail Bridge — India’s first cantilever bridge. Until 2007, only narrow gauge trains ran on this track. However on the suggestion of former President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Indian Railways strengthened the bridge track, and today broad gauge trains easily cross the bridge. Centenary celebrations of the Pamban Rail Bridge, awaiting  Unesco’s World Heritage status, will commence later this month (February).
Dhanushkodi is the other must-do in Rameswaram. As recounted in the Ramayana, after the defeat of Ravana, his brother Vibheesana, fearing more strife, is believed to have requested Lord Ram to sever links between Sri Lanka and India. To this end, Ram struck the land with the end (kodi) of his bow (dhanush) and it came to be known as Dhanushkodi. Dhanushkodi is said to be the starting point of the Ram Setu (Ram’s Bridge) and at the point of confluence, it is lashed by the waters of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Geographically, it is the southernmost tip of India and a mere 15 km from Rameswaram. The last half hour journey to Dhanushkodi is across a deserted stretch of wet, slushy mud in which ordinary vehicles tend to get stuck. It is advisable therefore, to travel in a four wheel drive vehicle driven by an experienced local driver (Rs.1,300).
For first time visitors as well as returnees, the visual impact of the tip of India — a raw, stark and untainted landscape — is awesome. The wind velocity could knock you off your feet, with the roar of the ocean and wind absolutely deafening! Even the staunchest atheist or agnostic can’t help connecting the other-worldly experience of literally standing on Land’s End, as in mythology. At another level it’s the ultimate adventure trip.
Ten minutes from Land’s End is the ghost village of Dhanushkodi. The Pamban Rail Bridge used to end at Dhanushkodi village, until on the midnight of December 22, 1964 a 20 ft high tsunami washed away the track with an entire train of 115 passengers, and the village itself. The relics of the village and the raging wind bring home the helplessness of man in the face of nature’s fury. Since that awful night in 1964, Dhanushkodi village has been declared a ghost habitat unfit for human inhabitation.
And finally, there is the iconic house in Rameswaram where India’s most loved scientist, statesman and former President Dr. Abdul Kalam was born and raised. His elder brother sits in the verandah and patiently responds to visitors’ queries, often recounting a past when Hindus and Muslims co-existed in such harmony that the chief priest of the temple would daily stop by their house to spend a few minutes with his close friend, their father, who had once unhesitatingly jumped into the sea to retrieve the Ramanathaswamy idol. Visitors must also take in the waves-bereft Rameswaram beach. Legend has it that Lord Ram stilled the waters so that his simian army could build the Ram Setu bridge.
Getting to Rameswaram
The most convenient option is by road from Madurai (174 km).  Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation (TTDC) buses ply between Madurai and Rameswaram and trains from Chennai, Bangalore, Madurai, Trichy and Tirunelvelli. Madurai is the closest airport.
Residential Accommodation. 
Budget hotels (Rs. 450 -800): Sriram Island Hotel, Maharaja, the Tamil Nadu Hotel (run by TTDC), and Hare Rama Hare Krishna. 
Mid-rung (Rs.1,300-3,000): Hotel Royal Park, Hotel MCM Towers and Blue Coral Cottage.
 High-end (Rs.3,600 upwards): Daiwik Hotel.

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