Monday, 19 December 2016

The Hills are Alive...

A surprise holiday always makes you give some thought to eke out an equal plethora of surprise drives!

And that’s exactly what we did, when the government of TN announced a ‘Cyclone Holiday’ for Monday, 12 December, in anticipation of Cyclone Vardah. Since the next day happened to be Milad un-Nabi, and hence a gazetted holiday, we – a ‘trek-crazy-collective’ - brainstormed the whole of Sunday night and yes! we were quite restive on an otherwise resty day! Soon we were on our toes, planning and scoring out all our options and in no time had our plans afoot! Yep! We’d decided to be outta namma Chennai for a two-day trek through three wonderful hills as part of the huge Eastern-Ghats-chains’-conglomerate.

Early next morning - in the chilly margazhi-eve blistering colds, on the auspicious day of the Festival of Lights – Thirukaarthigai Deepam – when households are beautifully arrayed in the agal villakus (lamps) – we ventured out at around 5 am, nine of us – all geared up, - arrayed in our linen jackets/blazers to ward off the prospective cold winds, - and got into our vehicles at 5.10 am sharp - two pretty little hatchbacks!

The rains were incessantly beating against our cars with all their intensity even as we were ‘inching’ our way along the Vellore-Bangalore highway, against all odds – in the cold of the dawny day – making mincemeat as much as possible – of  the most awfulest, most bumpiest, most craggiest, most unevenest of roads – which is sadly nay badly called the NATIONAL HIGHWAY!!! with Toll Plazas doing ‘daylight’ ‘highway robbery’ at every 40 km stretch – for their ‘excellent services rendered’! Saru, our comic relief – tells us all that this has been the case with these poor ‘apology for a road’, for the past five years or more! Never have we seen such pathetic NH anywhere in the South of India! ‘Anywhere’ promptly underlined! Repeated appeals have fallen on stone-deaf ears, say motorists on this stretch of the roads.

Bumpy terrains aside, we were thinking back about namma Chennai, and yes I should admit that, we weren’t in the least mindful of cyclone Vardah, as we were all of the ‘considered opinion’ that it could be just ‘yet another’ weakiest of Nadas, - the frail cyclone Nada - that had failed to enthuse the rain clouds to water-starved Chennai, in the first week of December! 

All along the Vellore ‘National’ Highway, we were witness to intermittent thundershowers and incessant rains pelting our windscreens with gusto and aplomb!!!

As we had already decided, our first detour for a leeway was for a cuppa coffee at Murugan Idly Shop that was the only anchor of hope in the troubled ‘National’ Highway!

Four cuppa hot chaais and five cuppa coffees!

After that, we pitstopped only for our breakfast towards the threshold of the Fort City – Vellore!

A minimal breakfast, and then we headed straight to the monumental Vellore Fort!

#Vellore Fort - a side view
Famous for its Vellore Mutiny!

The Vellore mutiny, as history would have it, was occasioned by military units of the erstwhile Madras regiment who were seething with anger at the British order forcing them to wear round hats instead of turbans, and to shave off their beards, remove all forms of caste markings and jewellery from their person. This order having offended both Hindus and Muslim sentiments alike, they all rose up in rebellion. The mutiny, unfortunately, lasted only one full day, as the violent mutiny was crushed by the East India Company’s military might. From then on, the British military took full control of the fort and used it as a bulwark and a garrison until India attained her independence.
#Vellore Fort

The Fort architecture is awe-inspiring, and each granite stone speaks volumes to the hard work that has gone into this huge buttressing of the insurmountable bulwarks, with a huge moat around its edifice, [that was originally supposed to have had thousands of crocodiles in it as a reptilic fortification!].

The ‘length and breadth and depth and height’ of this mighty fortress is beyond compare! Indeed, the Vellore Fort stands monument to the grandiose military architecture of the past rulers of India.

At the same time, some of the sights within the Fort were an eyesore too! It’s really a tourist’s curiosity that such a piece of ‘ozymandian’ monument which has stood the test of time for centuries, and curiously under the custody of the ‘Archaeological Survey of India’ is in a state of disarray and shambles!

Shoddy, water-based acrylic distempering on stone has taken the sheen away from the cultural edifice at a couple of places! At some other places where the ancient-hewn-stones have had their stony frame broken off at the edges, they have been patched up crudely with the shoddiest of cement and then white-washed all over, to give the blandest of finishes to such an exemplary architectural marvel of the past, instead of ‘doing them up’ with a fine lime mixture, as is traditionally the case!

The Jalakandeswar Temple inside Vellore Fort
More so with the beautiful Jalakandeswar Temple that stands tall within the fort, and an exemplary tribute to the engineering marvel of yore. Under the garb of renovation, shoddy plastering and painting have taken the sheen out of this beautiful temple, which is crying and vying for attention from the ASI!

And nope! We’re neither heritage activists nor archaeologists critiquing the custodians of our art! Just wonder-amazed citizens wishing that the pristine sculptures and monuments of the past are restored to their dazzling past glory!

Well, a question that flit us by all the time was the fact that, when there are at least a dozen specialist heritage conservation groups that are doing yeoman service to the architectural structures of the past, why should priceless Indian art and architecture be wiped out under the garb of renovation at the hands of naive novices?

The renowned Jalakandeswar Temple inside Vellore Fort

It's time conservation laws were enforced strictly!

Age-old Banyan trees inside Vellore Fort
Moreover, tipplers, beggars, pedlars and parrot-astrologers are a common sight all over the place! It was surprising to see the way that leads to the Fort Museum, which has the huge-centuries-old banyan trees lining up the road, filled with thousands of liquor bottles and tipsy men reeling still under the impactful influence of the intoxicants!

Is ASI listening?

Well, after the Fort visit, we drove straight past ‘bridges and houses, hedges and ditches’, to our next hilly sojourn – the foothills of the beautiful Yelagiri Hills.


Screamed quite an inviting signpost at the foothills of Yelagiri!

It also gave clues to the two famed trekking points in store – Swami Malai Hills and Jalagam Parai Hills!

The roads were well-laid and it’s indeed a pleasure to any driver who is eagerly looking forward to having a steep drive up the gradient slopes! All along, the Highways department had erected signboards in black n’ yellow asking those on the downward drive to give ample leeway for those bound on the upward drive!

We had to cut through at least a dozen hairpin bends, and interestingly, each hairpin bend has been christened the name of renowned Tamil personalities of yore!

The first bend was called the ‘Bharathiar Valaivu’ (valaivu = bend), followed by the Thiruvalluvar Valaivu, Ilango Valaivu, Kambar Valaivu, Kabilar Valaivu, Avvaiyaar Valaivu, Paari Valaivu, Oari Valaivu, Aai Valaivu, Adhiyaman Valaivu, Began Valaivu, etc. up along this wonderful scenic highway, the roads were exemplary by all means! It made our driving a whole lot easier! Kudos to the district admins for the initiative in giving the tourists the benefit of a ‘memorable drive’ up and down the hills!

As the village lore goes - bees and trees are inextricably intertwined – the wild bees of the woodlands atop the gigantic trees all along the mountain trail were indeed a wonderful feasty treat to the beholder!

#peeping simians
Our entry into the Yelagiri human-habitation-zone was welcomed with waving hands waving out festooned pamphlets by the number! Young boys by the dozen arrayed in tees, were playing the hospitable hosts [to the tune of private resorts], by giving us a welcome smile and gently coaxing us into the colourful pamphlets - aka information brochures - that detail what’s in store for a tourist! A whole lot of private adventure avenues have sprung up in the recent past, to curry to the current!

We took a pedal-drive down the chill lake in the equally chilly and inclement weather, with an overcast sky and rain droplets pitter-pattering on us all through the pedaling process!

#Yelagiri Lake [30 feet deep..]

Straight from a beehive... #Jawadhu Hills

#Nature Park, Yelagiri Hills
Quite close to the lake you’ve got a Nature Park that’s an added attraction in recent years! Although it has a huge enclave beautified with the choicest of trees and flowers, and gardeners manning the place, and a small entry fee to keep the beautification process intact, one could find some sloppy and shoddy finish at many places in the park. The aquarium and the music fountain are dancing for, oops… crying for attention! Most of the fishes are the yellow mollies, white mollies, red-sword-tails, the angel-fish, the blue glass guppies, the tank cleaners-aka-scavengers were the usual ones in store!

And, as parks are ostensibly associated with lovers, every nook and corner was taken! Thus huge, magnificent and beautiful trees became ‘forbidden trees’ for tourists like us, as the cupid-stricken, eros-bitten lovers gave farsighted cold, bland stares and gobbledygook gestures that signalled even from afarrr and quietly communicated disparaging innuendoes for all and sundry who trespass into ‘enga area!!!’  

The Popian (Alexander Pope!) ignition reminding us of his immortal lines, “Fools rush in, where angels fear to tread” made us beat a hasty retreat… and with the NCC commands coming to our rescue in no time,

Saamne Dekh, Tez Chal….

And here we go! J

On the Swamimalai trek and the fundas we all had have been twittered by the twitteraties amongst us! Don’t fail to have a look at them!

… … (cutting things short)

After a day’s time at Yelagiri, we came down to town, and had our night’s rest at a good resort nearby!

Only now, even as we were glued to our L.E.D screens expecting yet another weakiest Nada like failure from Vardah, we were in for a rude jolt. We were witnessing live on our led screens trees being uprooted by the dozen, - #Vardahfury - a TCS Bus with its employees on board, toppled in no time, and the whole of Chennai coming to a standstill, plunging into darkness! All along the trek route we almost had nil connectivity, and hence we got our newsfeed only at the foothills! Adding to this news, was yet another devastation that shook us all – MCC’s forest cover had gone for a toss! Around 450 trees uprooted and an equal number badly damaged! What a rude jolt!

We immediately rang up our friends in MCC and elsewhere in the city assuring them of our help and support, and we decided to return to Chennai rightaway to be of help to our city in her moment of distress! But but! We were cautioned against coming to the city, as all along the way trees had fallen in thousands all along the way and that the city was in complete disarray as electricity supply was down and internet connectivity was almost down to a zero!

Deepa, who couldn’t make it for our ‘ghat sojourn’ this time around, managed to send us the message across: “pls pls don’t ever try coming to Chennai for the next two dayz. It’s awful here”. TC!’’

Fingers crossed, we all were praying for the speedy recovery of namma Chennai and its bestest of the hospitable folks!

#Bhima Falls, Jawadhu Hills
Also we decided NOT to venture down to Chennai in the unmotorable roads, and decided that we’d  remain for a couple of days more in our mofussil homestay, planning for some local sojourns around the ghats!

So here we go!

Early next morning on Tuesday, 13 December, after a 90 minute drive, we were right on target cruising on the lonely yet invigorating beautiful ghat roads up up up… towards the Jawadhu Hills!

En route we had many delights in store, and one such fab delight was Asia’s largest observatory – the Vainu Bappu Observatory – that houses the largest telescope in Asia, and the second largest in the world. The lesser the light, the better the celestial vision! Since Kodaikanal couldn’t provide ‘lesser light’ during the nights, astronomers at last selected this sleepy village which rarely has any night-time disturbances! [Even during day time vehicle movement is a rarity here!].

Started in 1968 in Kavalur, Jawadhu Hills, by an astronomer Dr. Vainu Bappu, the location was chosen because of its proximity to the earth’s equator ‘in order to cover both the northern and southern hemispheres with equal ease’, the brochures tell us.

After paying a visit from outside to this monument, [as visitors have to take prior permission to have a look at this giant telescope], we moved on to the Bhima Falls, one of the scenic highlight of Jawadhu Hills. The Hills are equally known for their cultivation of Sandalwood trees since time immemorial, and hence, the Forest Department has imposed many restrictions on locals trespassing into the ‘protected zone’, tourists venturing into certain forbidden zone, and shepherds prevented from grazing their cattle in these protected places!

The unassuming rustic life, that lacks the sophistication of the city, and filled with the aroma of the herbs and the ‘enthrall’ of the flora and fauna alike on either side of the hills, are indeed therapeutic to body and soul alike!

To be contd…

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