I could see a very faint reflection of myself in the water. I tried to lean forward to get a better feel of the depth, but the surface was slippery. I stood still and let the coolness of the water to travel up to me. A voice behind called out in tamil ‘paathu ma’ (be careful).
The village well, was the place for socializing for the villagers of this mountain retreat ! Womenfolk exchanged notes on the happenings and discussed issues that concerned the village. This well, which was a steep 15 minutes walk from the living space of the village, was drying up due to the failed monsoon of 2012, and people had to walk further down a steep path for drinking water from a spring. They were hoping the well would be de-silted, cleaned and ready to receive this year’s monsoon rain.
For urbanites, who hardly know the source of their daily water and become impatient if the water from tap flows slowly, the effort expended by villagers to get one drop of water must be astonishing.
This charming village, Vellagavi, deep in the mountains of the Palani Hills, is 500 years old. One had to trek a steep path to reach here, and that’s what we, a group of CTCians had done that morning – trekking from Kumbakarai falls to here, with 2 litres of water each. Even while sweating profusely in the hot & dry day, we had to think before we took a sip, because the stream had dried up for the summer and we would be dehydrated if we finished our water too early in the trek. This made me appreciate the sources of water even more.
A village woman expertly slid her plastic bucket tied to the end of a rope, into the well and smoothly lifted the filled bucket up. She did this multiple times, to fill a single pot. No wonder their arms are toned ! Another woman came by and asked me to come further down to fill water in our bottles.
The spring is hidden somewhere in the mountains and a pipe has been drilled into a rock to channel the water for filling vessels. It was pure, sweet water and I drank it to my hearts content ! While the pots were filling, the lady and me chatted about our respective lifestyles ! She said they truly believed the well & spring are a gift from their village diety, for their benefit. Their life depended on it.
Bipasha, Pankaja & myself walked back up to the village and she and her daughter Vani balanced the pots deftly on their heads while climbing up the steps. Me and my friends were unbalanced with our 2 bottles each !!
We had reached the village that afternoon after a 6 hr trek, and just lazed around. A few from our group had gone to the temple at the peak and 3 of us had decided to stay back. I wanted to mingle with the villagers and go around the place.
Muthukumaran and his family were our hosts. He narrated the history of the village, as he knew it. Long ago, some king and his men were hiding in the forest to escape enemies. Long after the war was over, 5 men came back to this Vellagavi, married local women and settled in this village. ‘Gavi’ means valley. The 500 residents in the 120 houses here, were all descended from these 5 families.
The people here consider their village sacred, so much so, that no one wears footwear inside the village. We had removed our shoes at the village entrance after reading a board which requests visitors the same. It was actually nice walking in the rocky paths barefoot. Acupuncture for free !
Our hostess gave us another cup of the steaming, strong black coffee, laced with a hint of sweetness. It was refreshing ! We were seated in the ‘thinnai’, sit-out at the entrance of a house, and he continued his notes on the village. His house was part of a row-houses, sharing walls. All the houses in one row were occupied by immediate relatives, and it could well be considered a single house for all practical purposes. Each family owned some farm land, where they grew coffee beans, cardomam, oranges, mangoes etc. I listened to all this sipping the aromatic coffee, made from freshest beans from their farm !
His little daughter was involving us in a game of ‘matching colours’ with broken bangles. Ocourse, she won hands down every time !
It was sunset time and all the children were out improvising games and playing happily. No gadgets or toys, just natural things to keep them entertained ! A few tiny tots were packing leaves into a bundle and tying it to a stick – akin to a mule carrying load ! They did not seem to miss anything ! Happy kids !
Our friends came back after their short trek and we got down to the business of cooking. Well, CTCian Vadivel, our expert chef did the cooking while we ladies, Nivya, Aishwarya, Sasi & myself, ‘ably’ assisted him ! Bissibelabath was the dish of the day, after the soup ! We had laid siege to our hosts kitchen and flooded it with our cooking stuff ! They were very accommodating, helpful and even cheering us !!
My friend from the well, came over to take me to her house for a cup of coffee ! I had to stop my friends (the mother-daughter duo) from feeding me dinner too ! Such was their hospitality ! They have even invited me to their elder daughter’s wedding in Palani next month !
It had begun to rain heavily. Our group assembled for a late night dinner, or rather we had to wake some of them up for dinner as they had fallen asleep overcome by tiredness. The bisibelabath awoke them fully !
We just spread a tarp in the single large hall of the village house we had rented and slept . Some of them took their sleeping bags to the terrace or verandah.
It was a cold night and with just a thin bedsheet I was happily sleeping, the events of the day doing a rerun in my mind !
The overnight bus journey from Tindivanam, the midnight dinner somewhere in between, the early morning tea in Periyakulam, the car chase by Vadivel & Praveena’s husband to get the forgotten tarp from the bus, the share-auto short ride to Kumbakarai falls along a scenic way – a thrilling start to two days of learning & fun ! The slide in the sliding pool at Kumbakarai falls was the ice-breaker for the group as we the swimmers like Nithya & Lavanya helped the non-swimmers to slide & have fun ! The breakfast carried out by Murali & Vadivel at the start of the trail gave a boost to our energy they had arranged with our host in the village for 2 mules to carry the food provisions and some extra stuff that we needed the next day. Still we were left with lot of weight to carry in our backpacks, the majority of that being the weight of water. If anyone does not know about hydraulic power, they should just carry a few litres of water in a steep ascent ! The weather was dry and hot when we started the climb, but nature benevolently turned cool which prevented any dehydration in our group. Vallabh’s stretching exercises mid-way helped in avoiding major cramps.
Durai & Vadivel had originally explored this route and we were benefitting from their knowledge of this trail and the village. This trek was long overdue and I had waited for a year to come here. When Nivya & me were thinking of organizing a ladies trek, we both were unanimous in our choice of the location – Kumbakarai to Kodaikanal !! Thanks to all who made this excellent trek possible !
The next day, very early in the morning, Aishwarya, Nivya & myself walked down to the well for refreshing. There are no toilets in this village and one has to depend on natural space for one’s morning ablutions.
More of our friends came down to the spring. The village ladies give water freely, unmindful of the hardships they undergo to get a pot of water. They helpedus in filling our bottles and infact tell us to take from their homes as they say we are notused to wells and springs !
The village was up and about early and there were geometric kolams and rangolis outside every house. It being Varuda Pirappu (Tamil new year), people were buzzing around, children wore new dresses and the elders were getting ready to visit the temple. A woman invited me home for some coffee and I clicked some pictures of her grand-daughter Mareshwari in new clothes. The little one posed merrily !
Next we got down to the very important business of making tea & breakfast ! Nivya & me had decided on black tea, but after overwhelming request for milk tea, it was converted into white tea with milk powder that we had brought ! There are no cows in Vellagavi and milk is a premium here. People bring back some milk when they go downhill to Periyakulam.
After being sufficiently fortified by tea & noodles, we packed our bags, did some stretches as demonstrated by Vallabh and got ready to leave. I interacted with a few more villagers and clicked a few pictures. We bade our goodbyes and my well friend came running to give me some Sita fruit. Such unsophisticated generosity really warms the heart. She had already gifted me a small pack of coffee powder and a few pods of cardomam, even though I had refused strictly. It was her way of extending a warm welcome. Vallagavi keeps its doors of hospitality open always, much like the cuture of ancient India…
At the entrance of the village a bunch of kids were creating rhythms in odd plastic and steel containers using fallen sticks from the trees. It was such raw and natural rhythms that it left us spell-bound ! Nature is the best teacher for these kids, many of whom may not even complete their schooling.
Some of the villagers too had already left/on their way to the ‘sandhai’ (weekly fair) in Kodaikanal, to purchase things for their homes/village for the coming week. They also carried produce from their gardens to be sold at the fair. Maybe some bartering also might take place. And ya, the only mode of transport from Vellagavi to Kodaikanal (or Periyakulam) is by foot. All along the route we met many villagers returning from the fair with heavy loads on their heads, but walking as if they were carrying feathers ! A lady had simply placed her child in a big cloth, held two ends of it in her hand and walked along the steep trail ! The baby slept peacefully, rocked by its mother’s smooth walk !
The only sounds were the sounds of the birds. There was one particular bird, I think locally called as ‘kottu kuruvi’ , which had a clear voice and sang melodiously, its voice making one to stop and listen ! The other sounds were the rustling of dry leaves under our foot as walked, and the breeze blowing through the trees !
We clicked pictures of the beautiful mountains all along the trek. We all regrouped at Echo Point, the farthest a ‘tourist’ from Kodai would venture ! This point was just a speck in a ‘traveller’s’ journey !
We were famished and the ready to eat panner sanjis that we had carried along were put to good use in a scenic eatery there, as we taught the cook to make bread-paneer-kurma instantly ! He might have been glad when we finally exited his stall,exhausting the sabjis after multiple rounds, washed down with his masala chai. We were running off for in between to pose for group pictures and he had to call out to us to come and eat !! Finally we made our official intros (CTC intros are always at the end, by which everyone are already friends !).
Next up was the dolphin’s nose, an elliptical rock jutting out to the open space. After some dramatic pictures there, we began our final stretch of trek to Vattakanal, the entry way to Kodai town. More beauty of this place unfolded on our path. Much of this 1 km trek from Dolphin’s nose to Vattakanal is paved by strong roots from trees, interlocked naturally and forming a neat ramp ! Nature knows the way !!
A van ride from Vattakanal to Kodai bus stand, picking up some home-made chocolates enroute, chai and then we started our return journey ! The nausea created by the steep descent of the bus in the ghat road, left me wishing that we could have trekked down easily !
We, a bunch of CTCians met as strangers and parted as friends, helping each other to accomplish a tough trek during the weekend, and learning a lot from one another in the process !
I have been to Kodaikanal a few times, but going by foot, avoiding all the ‘tourist spots’ gave us a better perspective of life in these hills.
All that we take for granted in cities, is not easily available in Vellagavi ! All that is available in Vellagavi is what urbanites rush to during vacations – fresh, unpolluted air, pure water, cool clime, natural housing, disconnected from the rest of the world ! They are indeed on permanent vacation !!
I will be taking my kids (and other willing kids) back to this village at the earliest opportunity, so that they can also perceive that a happy life is possible beyond all known comforts – mentally & physically. The sooner we learn this, the freer our minds become and the better our lives unfold.
Perhaps, when I peered into that well, I was seeing the reflection of a natural lifestyle, forgotten by majority of the world, and still preserved in places like this.