Sunday, February 06, 2011

Oh what a paradise it is!

The Wayanad district in Kerala has many interesting sight-seeing spots. Despite minor irritations, Shevlin Sebastian feels refreshed and enthralled

Photo: The author at Pookot Lake

At Pookot Lake, at Vythiri, in Kerala’s Wayanad district, paddle boats are available. But Joshi, the man at the counter where boats can be hired, puts off visitors with his surly and unfriendly attitude.

It is strange how, with unfailing regularity, the district tourism promotion council puts staffers, who seem to have no people skills, to deal with tourists.

I take a walk along the edge of the lake. There is a large forest on both sides. The chirping sound of birds and the sweet smell of flowers pervade the atmosphere. Large coiled roots of trees can be seen. Some tourists swing from it. It reminds me of comic strip hero, Tarzan, swinging from branch to branch, shouting, ‘Kreegah Tarzan Bundolo (‘Beware, I kill’).”

At the Lake, what is a disappointment is the poorly-maintained aquarium section. All tanks have only pebbles. There are no plants at all. Some air filters are not working. There are no labels to identify the fishes. To top it all, the hall is poorly lit.

On the road to the Soochipara Waterfalls, there are tea estates on both sides. Women workers, with brown bags on their backs, filled with tea leaves, are walking towards the collection point. Tea, coffee, and rubber are the main sources of income in the district, apart from tourism.

At Soochipara, Rs 25 is charged extra if you have a camera. What is the logic of this, except to fleece tourists on a flimsy reason? But a deposit of Rs 20, if you are carrying a plastic bottle, makes sense, because tourists have a tendency to litter the place. But now most are compelled to bring the bottle back to reclaim the deposit.

The walk to the waterfalls is one long downward journey. In the first half, it is a broad cobblestone path. But then it narrows down to a series of steep steps, with no railings, and it is clearly risky, especially for elderly people.

At the fall, the water is gushing down from a height of 100 feet. But not everybody is impressed. “The Athirapally waterfalls [on the Chalukudy river] are much bigger,” says tourist Nina Kurian. But regular visitor, Abhilash, a manager in a nearby resort, says that during the monsoons, the water gushes down from several sides and it becomes a magnificent curtain of water. “In December, the flow is much less,” he says.

Children frolic in the chilly water. One eight-year-old girl, who has just stepped out, is immediately enveloped in a towel by her mother, but that does not prevent her teeth from chattering constantly. Incidentally, the habit of littering remains strong. In a rocky crevice, a soiled diaper can be seen.

Going up the steps, his body shaking and visibly panting is R.P. Jain, 70, a retired senior government servant from Delhi. “It is too difficult,” he says. “The tourist department should provide more amenities. Most of my friends are unable walk down these steep steps.”

Jain, along with his wife, is part of a large group of Jains, who are on a trip to see temples in south India. In nearby Kalpetta, the district headquarters, they prayed at the Sree Anantha Natha Swami temple, and met with the local Malayali Jains.
“There are 400 families in Kalpetta,” he says. “It was a nice experience.”

While passing through Kalpetta myself, I stop at the Mahatma Gandhi Museum and Library. This was set up to commemorate Gandhi’s historic visit to Wayanad in 1934. Supposed to open at 9 a.m., the watchman, Mani, arrives at 10 a.m. and, without expressing any apology, unlocks the door.

It is a simple and wonderful museum. A bust of Mahatma Gandhi at the centre dominates the hall. As the bhajan, ‘Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram’, plays on the sound system, the numerous photos from Gandhi’s life resonate with viewers.

Here he is picking up salt from the beach at Dandi. There is a photo of the infamous Pietermaritzburg station where Gandhi was thrown out of a first-class compartment. There is one of Gandhi with the great comedian Charlie Chaplin. An image shows him sitting on a verandah and speaking with Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore and Englishman C.F. Andrews. Another picture reveals a sombre-looking Gandhi walking through the riot-torn areas of Noakhali in 1946.

On another day I go to Kuruva Island. To reach the island you have to take a rowing boat or a bamboo raft (changadam), with a boatman standing on it and pulling at a rope above him. When I reach the island, on the other side, I see a yellow banner hanging from a tree. It is a notice by the Kerala forest department which states that bamboo rafts do not have fitness certificates. I wonder why this notice is put so far away from where the tourists are embarking on the bamboo raft.

Anyway, the island, with an area of 950 hectares, beside the Kabani river, has a wonderful ambience. There are so many large evergreen trees, towering bamboo groves, numerous shrubs, orchids and birds. It is cool, soothing and tranquil. Scrambling about on the various branches and making screeching sounds are numerous monkeys. They are a threat, especially if you are eating something. They swoop down at high speed, grab the morsel, and are gone within the blink of an eye.

At one side the river breaks into embedded rocks, causing miniature waterfalls. People step into the cold water. Some have a dip. It is pleasant and enjoyable. We feel so far away from the noise and pollution of our crowded cities.

The next stop is the Banasura Sagar Dam, which is the largest earth dam in India. Which means it is made of compacted mud. Surrounded by grassy hills, there is a refreshing wind blowing at all times. A Nature Park at one side is a popular stop for visitors. A swing has been attached to the trunk of two trees. I feel bad for the trees as the branches sway unnaturally under the weight of the person on the swing. It is unnecessary suffering inflicted on nature.

But at Lakkidi, where I stay, there is no suffering. The hotel is next to a mountain, and in the early mornings, when I open the window, strands of mist float into the room.

Oh what a paradise it is!

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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