Many weeks ago, my friend mentioned he had returned from a trek to Sathuragiri near Madurai. That was the first time I was hearing about the place. I later read about it and strangely, like Velliyangiri, it is also called “Kailash of the south”! That means only one thing! So I wanted to visit this place. A couple of weeks back, I planned with the same friend to visit this place on the 3rd July weekend.
The plan was to meet at the point where the main road leads to a suburb road that eventually leads to the foothills of the ghats. This point is five kilometers away from Srivilliputhur, the birth place of Andal. From Coimbatore, there is no easy option through train. The best bet is to take a train to Madurai and then go to the hills by bus. But even from our meeting point, we had to take two buses and so it is tedious. The other option is to take the same train to Sathur. It’s closer than from Madurai, but has the same problem. Only SETC (TNSTC) buses go to our meeting point. I had to take a bus to Rajapalayam and SETC does not offer online booking. How I booked the ticket was a separate story, but I got it done. I booked the return ticket by train from Sathur.
On the day of travel, 2nd July 2010, I called my friend to get a status of his preparation activities. Oh, BTW, he is at Bangalore! You know how when it starts with “Well......” you know what it means? :). My friend wasn’t coming - he had an unplanned emergency! Suddenly, fear gripped my heart at the proposition of making this trek to an unknown place all alone. This one pointed interest to visit this place bifurcated into a dilemma. I anyway returned to my home to start my final packing preparations, but my friend’s absence introduced a seed of confusion that didn’t go away easily. I anyway finished packing - and finally decided that I will make the trip. The inward propulsion to go to that place was too strong. I had a strong feeling that the regret if I let go of this opportunity would be high. Instead of viewing this as one daunting trip end to end, I had to break this into smaller steps. So...
Step 1 - Haul myself to the boarding point, Singanallur bus stand, Coimbatore
There was this fancy trekking bag I got, thanks to Chennai Trekking Club which now housed my essentials for the next two days. I was standing at the bus stand near my house and this dillemma was still not gone fully. I was wondering how it would be to get a 15G to Gandhipuram. The trip to Singanallur has to happen in two steps as well - to the town bus stand and then another bus from there. I did not know which bus to take from the town bus stand. I boarded the 15G. As the bus neared the town bus stand, the bus right in front of this bus was going to Singanallur. I unboarded this and rushed to that bus as it was departing almost immediately. As the bus was travelling, even the side views of the oft travelled roads seemed new because of what was going on inside me. The bus to Rajapalayam was to depart at 11PM and this time was close to 9PM or so. There was plenty of time to spare. When the bus arrived at the bus stand, I surveyed it to see how and where I would be boarding. The bus stand is essentially divided into two zones - one for buses leaving to destinations in the Trichy zone and the other for the Madurai zone. Rajapalayam belonged to the latter - it’s about 75 kms from Madurai.
I went out of the bus station to have my dinner and found a cheap looking vegetarian mess which was not so cheap after all. After dinner, and at about 10PM, an hour to departure, my dilemma was strongest. A push, and I could have gone either way depending on the direction. So I called Radha to explain my predicament.
“Why do you not want to go? You want company for the trip?”
“No, some unknown fear!”
“If you want company for the trip, there is reason to come back. It’s not good to take a step backwards because of fear.”
Well, that was all it took. Those words cleared my dilemma for good. She also added,
“Go with a prayerful mind. Even if you don’t make it to the top or lose your way, it would be worthwhile!”
So done deal! One pointed focus again. Which means...
Step 2 - board the bus and get to Krishnan Kovil
This was a trip of many firsts. This one was travelling in a PTC like bus all night in an uncomfortable position. Anyway, before that, I wanted to confirm with the conductor if this was the bus I was supposed to board.
“Seat number 29?”
I guess he answered the question even at my premise. I got in the bus, but seat 29 was already taken. All seats were just as uncomfortable, so I didn’t bother waking up the man there. I went and took a seat behind. Window seat! :) I didn’t want to leave my bag on the upper shelves of the bus, so I had it on my lap. The conductor was extremely polite! I love it when people work like this! He is proof that people doing this job need not be mean and nasty.
Next to me sat an old man, and he was a chatterbox! Apparently, he was a frequent traveller. He was going to get down at Kallipatti - which is about 10 kms before my stop. After the initial chat euphoria, he went to sleep. As the bus departed, I was watching the scenery outside. It was mostly dark and with the window shades down to keep the cold away, most views were fuzzy. After an hour into the journey, the lights inside the buses were off. Sleep was mostly intermittent because the bus stopped thrice in the period. After Kallipatti, where the old man got off, I knew it was a matter of time before Krishnan Kovil. So that would mean...
Step 3 - from Krishnan Kovil to the ghat foothills
To get to the foothills, the journey has to happen in two legs. First leg to a place called Wathrap. This is about 5 kms from Krishnan Kovil. From Wathrap, it is another 8 kms to the foothills of Sathuragiri mountains - called Thaniparai. This has to happen either through a share auto or bus.
I got down at 5am at Krishanan Kovil. I was drowsy so I had a tea nearby. The chai-master mentioned that there were buses to Wathrap every five minutes. At this time, I also got a message from my friend. He was up! I knew earlier that he was feeling bad at having backed out without warning or offering time. I didn’t want him to. But he was the one who had made this trek before, so I did require some guidance. I spoke with him briefly to get some assistance and directions. He messaged the same information to me. Working in IT, you always send minutes of any conversation. Old habits die hard!
The bus to Wathrap came in 10 minutes. In the mean time I saw buses plying to Sivakasi. These weren’t public buses, but belonged to Standard fireworks! The stop had also grown in size with people. I asked the conductor to inform me when Wathrap arrived. The early morning breeze was cool and I was enjoying my window seat! Almost immediately after the bus started, the terrain changed from plain land to mountainous. Occasionally, the bus would cross a bridge that once housed a flowing stream or river. We’ve really finished off most rivers in this state. I realize this is one of the symptoms of desertification.
After some kilometers of this travel, we hit Wathrap. The contrast is difficult to miss. Congested roads with cramped buildings on either side. I knew I had to get down, but I let the driver inform me. Apparently he thought it was too obvious and didn’t inform me. So the driver drove on and I sat on until the bus reached its destination - Maharajapuram. So I asked the conductor
“Is Wathrap here?”
“Wathrap was few kilometers away. Why are you asking here?”
“You were supposed to inform me!”
“You were supposed to look at name boards outside!”
Which I did and ignored! Anyway, looking at my trekking gear setup, he realized where I was going.
“Are you going to Thaniparai?”
“Stay here - there is a bus to Thaniparai from here.”
Even better! As he mentioned, there was a bus to Thaniparai in five minutes. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help being awestruck at the growth of civilization in a remote place nearly 10 kilometers inside a main road that is five kilometers away from the nearest town. And buses ply here! And there is another bus to another place that is five kilometers deeper inside. If we made a bus network map of Tamil Nadu, I think it would criss cross the entire state - a network which even the impressive railway network cannot match!
I was quite enjoying this. Wearing shorts, a T-shirt and fancy trekking gear, I must have been a sight to the people here. Inside the bus to Thaniparai, there was more than one pair of curious eyes that cast a passing glance at me. One villager struck up friendly conversation. He took the liberty of calling me from my seat to sit near him. So I asked him what I was interested in:
“How long is the trek uphill?”
“If you start now, you can reach there before its sunny. It’s about two hours. Are you staying there overnight?”
I couldn’t help noticing that most ladies in the bus had a water pot with them. I was wondering if this was the source of their daily water usage. Did they have to travel by bus to collect water and go back? I also couldn’t help wondering if the Government knew about these places. Will their tentacles reach here? What about electricity, ration and other essentials? Did they care?
“Why are they having these water pots?”
“Oh, they are carrying water for the mango saplings!”
I didn’t probe further. Meanwhile, the bus had arrived. The bus stopped a few meters away from the foothills as the road narrowed further. My amicable friend was walking with me.
“Did you know there was a flood here?”
“Yes! That night, we had eaten goat meat and were sleeping when the floods hit these ghat slopes. We lifted nearly 48 bodies.”
That was scary. And goat meat meant there was some festival and these were sacrificial goats. So these were still ubiquitous here! He continued...
“There is no water here. It has to rain for the waterfalls and the catchment areas to fill.”
That was disappointing. My friend had mentioned about a small waterfall before the ascent where I could bath. I asked my guide
“There is no waterfall here?”
“Trust me! There is no water. I live here and work here!”
An arch greeted devotees who were to take up the trek uphill. Unlike Velliyangiri, there is no restriction for ladies to trek. And there were quite a few of them I would see during the trek and at the hill top as well. Our guide and I had to part ways since the ascent had to start now. It was 6:45 am on Saturday morning and the ascent was about to start. This was...
Step 4 - from the foothills to the temple
It didn’t take long to figure out that the ascent was going to be difficult. The terrain was as hard as the Velliyangiri terrain. My bag was nearly 4 kgs - fortunately, the weight was distributed evenly between my shoulders, hips and chest because of its thoughtful design. About two or three folks were already starting the ascent so I followed them briefly to get on the path. I noticed some folks were carrying heavy luggage on their head - either as labor or for business on top. In retrospect I type - I am amazed how they managed to do this!
The trek is 7kms in length and the altitude to scale is nearly 900m. I made a couple of decisions - no needless talk up hill, made easy by the fact I had no one I knew! Another was to defer any photographs until I started the descent. Finally, to keep the chant going inside constantly (Dhyan Yatra folks?). That chant helped immensely. I seriously wouldn’t have completed the trek without it! I had half a litre of glucose drink to last for the trek, hadn’t brushed my teeeth or taken a bath in the morning. It appeared I could do all this only after going up. With the overnight bus travel, the longing for a fresh water bath was high. I think there is going to be a slight difficulty for us humans after the world runs out of fresh water in a few decades! Anyway, the weather was pleasant so it was an ideal time for the ascent.
A common scenario that always occured during the ascent and descent was that a group of people would overtake me when trekking, only to me find them resting a bit later. Vice versa as well! I was anyway keeping very slow pace deliberately, partly because of the weight and partly for the chant. These mountains are considered sacred by the people living here. It’s called the “Abode of God” - God being Shiva here. Needless to say, He apparently has set foot here which means these are ancient mountains as well. The two lingams on the top, and the third more precipitous even higher - all appear to be naturally formed instead of being consecrated. I might be wrong about all this! Thus, people are very serious about two things - not using soaps and shampoos in the event there is water, and not using plastics. I was pleasantly surprised to see little plastic debris on the path which is the usual sight.
On the way up, there are a few small water sources which are marked by boards. I couldn’t find water there because there hadn’t been recent rains. “kuthirai” and “naval” (don’t read in English - naaaval) “Uttru” (water source). Both were dry. It would have been more fun and refreshing if they were sprouting! So in essence, all through the trek till we hit the top, there is no water, save for the bottles you were carrying. One important trekking lesson is to use water very judiciously and take only small sips - just what is needed to serve that moment’s needs. I think the glucose helped me as well, given I hadn’t eaten in the morning.
There are a lot of makeshift temples on the way. Some are naturally formed lingams. I am very sure about this - there are hidden caves and spots if you knew the place and terrain well. We were following a straightjacket paved path which was hard in its own right. At the basement, there is a Devi temple (Amman - not Jordan’s capital), then twin lingams, then another twin lingams called “irattai lingam” which appear to be naturally formed. Further higher, there is the “vana durga” shrine. One more temple just before we reach the top.
The forest is supposed to house all animals except lions. There are many rumors and stories about bears prowling in the area. As a result, it is advisable and safe to use the standard path, and to complete the trek before dusk. I feel there may be validity in these claims. As we trekked up, on either side which was thick canopy, we could hear strange animal noises through them. I am no jungle expert, but these weren’t familiar noises! Remember there were no recent rains, I also saw fresh dung on our path on one or two instances. For about 30 minutes in the trek in the middle, there are plenty of monkeys who were not so subtle trying to get your food. It left more than one startled and scared trekker!
Another aspect of the Sathuragiri mountains is the genuine sacredness with which the devotees hold it in their hearts. It is said, on these mountains, “When you are hungry, some one will give you food. So it is when you are thirsty!”. The devotees do their part to keep up this miracle. I actually saw an old man hand over what was left of his water to another trekker who wanted water. It was genuinely joyful to trek among these people. If only we lived like this outside the mountain ranges as well!
About an hour or so into the trek, I saw this old man I referred to above and I Namastaed him. He handed over a handful of something to me. My first impression was that he was giving me something to eat. I saw later that they were seeds. He asked me to throw them on the mountains. He then told me, “We are walking on shade that was planted by some one else!” He was doing this exercise through the trek until his cover full of seeds ran empty.
At the mid point, or probably a little before that, there is a small detour to “korakkar caves”. I presume it refers to the name of the Siddhar who used to meditate there. I took the detour and visited the cave as well. There was a spot to the right were one or two people could sit. It is said that these Siddhars would be visible in meditation at that spot. As I mentioned earlier, I am sure there are more such spots in this place.
I had to sit down at many places when the journey became too tedious. I took careful sips from my glucose bottle when my tongue went dry. My T-shirt was wet with sweat and there was no water elsewhere. I only later realized that I was the only fool with 4 kgs of load (save those business men - they were carrying the load for a purpose). My left ankle was earlier suffering from pain and it aggravated after the trek began. So slow and careful steps were the only possibility. It worked for the best. There were two “vazhukku parais” (rocks that are hard to chisel into steps, you have to find strategic supporting points to scale them) during the entire trek. They weren’t too hard. So what was mentioned as a two hour trek by my guide unfolded into four hours at the end. I still doubt if the trek could have been completed in two hours even without luggage and a brisk walk!
After three hours into the trek, I was tired and slightly famished. I really wanted some form of deeper refreshment. I didn’t know how far I had to go and sitting down for rest helped only so much. Well, it started raining! Those cold water drops on the body were very joyful. So I resumed walking. That bag had accounted for rain also on the design so the contents did not get wet. I happily walked for the remaining duration. It was more like a steady strong drizzle. I let my tongue out like a snake often to catch drops of this shower from the heavens. Suddenly, there were bell sounds. I realized that the temple was nearby. As I later found out, these uneven, spread out bell sounds came from cows grazing. All of them had bells around their necks and it was a pretty sight!
So, at 10:45 am, 4 hours from 6:45am, the ascent was complete and I was near the temple entrance! That meant...
Step 5 - At the two temples
I liked the fact that the visit to the temple was marked by tinkling bells from the cows. Apparently, a lot of old timers were visiting this temple. It was touching to see old men and women make this trek. Only devotion could have spurred them to make to the top like that!
The first sight to the right was the makeshift bathing ghat. Just what I wanted. A large water tank was being filled with a pipe. The water is supposed to be medicinal in quality and was good for the human system. So again, no soaps or shampoos. I wasn’t sure where the ladies would have their bath. But really needed this bath! There were also some showers (the standard bathroom style showers) but apparently weren’t being used. The bath was really enjoyable, even without soap! I changed to a more traditional veshti (dhoti) and kurta for the temple visit.
Slightly ahead, an old woman was making sukku kaapi. Whether it was the trek or her deft hands, the drink was refreshing and delicious! It was here that I met one person from a group of five from Madurai. I asked them if they were going to trek back down the same day. I myself had reached very early than planned. I was anticipating to reach by 3PM and then stay overnight at the temple. Now that I had a 4-5 hour headshart, I decided to trek down the same day as well.
The trail ends where the temples begin. The trail clearly bifurcates to two. The right side houses the “sundara” mahalingam (the beautiful one!) and the left side houses the “santhana” mahalingam. The left side involves a 15 minute mini-trek to the actual diety. Both temples have “annadhana” madams (duh, I am facing trouble with Tamil words that have different meanings in English! - “madam” literally means stay area). It goes back to the ancient culture where eating joints were setup so seekers who came out of devotion did not have to worry about their meals. Such a beautiful arrangement. I was nothing short of awestruck that this culture is alive in its true spirit here at these temples. Three times a day, seven days a week, food is offered to devotees, no questions asked. Of course and obviously, donations are requested (not verbally, just a notice board sits there as reminder) and are always given. People often bring raw grains to donate to the “madam”s. Sadly, at many places, such initiatives are either commercialized or because of charlatans, have died out. I consider it my privilege of having been able to have my food here. The sundara mahalingam also has a stay area if you need to stay overnight. It is common knowledge to people who arrive here often and is not openly publicized or announced.
There are scheduled poojas at both temples. At the sundara temple, they happen at 10am, 12pm, 4pm and 7pm. The sundara temple is beautiful! The lingam is not erect but tilted at about 40 degrees - give a clue to its natural formation. The santhana mahalingam is deeper inside. It also has a cave that is held as a sacred space because “sattanadha” munivar (sage) meditated here. The entrance to the cave is closed with lamps, but I could see that there is a passage that goes deeper. It is advised not to meditate surrounding this space - I do not know why. At this santhana mahalingam temple, after the pooja was over, the poojari smeared sacred ash (vibhooti) on my forehead. I bent down and touched his feet, he remarked with a stern “Hmm”. Pointing to the lingam he said, “bow down to Him!”.
Visiting both temples, it all completed by about 12pm. The stay area, I used to complete my shUnyA! I then had food at the madam. This was my first meal of the day. They served rice, sambar and rasam - and achchar (urugai) as accompaniment. I then took the blessing of the madam in-charge. He again smeared sacred ash on my forehead and gave me prasadam. So by 1pm, it was all done and I was ready to get down. I think the beautiful devotees is what I will remember most from this trip. So...
Step 6 - the descent down
I was more laid back and relaxed for the descent. I also pulled out my camera and was clicking away. This is the reason you will see the photos in descending order! Needless to say, it was easier than the ascent. I was happy at how everything turned out and was walking joyfully.
Some time into the trek, I met a man who requested for alms. My first impression was that he was looking for money. My purse was tucked deep inside my shoulder bag and I shook my head and nodded away. Only a few steps ahead I realized we were on the Sathuragiri hills and devotees weren’t supposed to go empty handed after requesting for something. I felt utterly stupid and rushed back up to him. I also had this weird feeling that this was an enlightened sage trying to test me and I just failed the test miserably!
I asked him, “I have some biscuits, do you want them?”
He nodded gratefully. I then remembered I also had packed rice.
“Did you eat in the morning?”
“I am only coming up now.” - I took that to mean no!
“Do you want some rice?”
I then searched for the rice packet and handed it to him.
“Is it chappatti?”
“No, lemon rice!”
He took the rice and then walked away. I was still feeling pangs of regret at what happened. I do not know how I would have felt if I had walked on!
Later in the trek, some one called me and offered two chocolates. I accepted gratefully and happily. This is a really strange hill!
I also saw a steady band of folks coming up at this time, and I occasionally got inquiries of how far it was to the top.
By 4:45, 10 hours from the time I started, I was back at the foothills. My glucose bottle just became empty in time. I was sort of surprised that I managed with half a litre of this for the entire trek. There was of course water available at the top! There were no buses at the bottom at this time, so I took an auto back to Wathrap. And another bus from there leaving Wathrap!
1) Also take a look at the official site. I am not sure who is maintaining this though! It has a picture of the sundara mahalingam deity.
2) I want to rewrite this in thamizh also. It suddenly looks like a daunting task!