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Low profile heat buster

Sirumalai: cheap, cool, convenient, says SOMA BASU

WANT TO escape the blistering heat? Head for Sirumalai. Just 25 km from Dindigul on the Natham-Madurai Road, this "low-profile summer getaway" is cheap, cool and convenient. Exactly the kind of heat-buster I was looking for on a scorching morning, as the heat seems to disappear with a magical whoosh the moment I crossed the Forest Department's check post in Sirumalai alley.

The Saathiyar basin — the catchment area for the Saathiyar dam in Madurai district — offered a panoramic view of the green range. With each of the 18 hairpin bends on the narrow and uneven hill road, the weather turned cooler; the landscape changed too, from scrub to deciduous and semi-evergreen forest.

Sirumalai is not as small as the name indicates. It peaks at an impressive 1,200 metres and spreads over 60,000 acres. A third of this greenery is private revenue land on which grows coffee, cardamom, black pepper, banana and lemon. The rest is ruled by the forest.

Though a potential tourist spot with the appearance of a mini-hill station, Sirumalai has not been developed, keeping holidayers at bay.

The grazers, farmers and labourers working in the private estates, have to go down to Dindigul for every basic facility — medical or educational. As a result, hourly State and mini buses run from Dindigul to Sirumalai Pudur. Beyond this point, Matadors and jeeps are the only vehicles traversing the mud and rocky tracks.

On the way up, my spirits soar as the clouds float in from the hills bringing the season's first showers. The mercury dips further as a cool breeze cuts across, making children prance about and village elders smile and look relieved. Scant rainfall has led people here to build an artificial lake (theppam), which presently looks like a dirty sink. If developed and maintained properly, it could become an attraction for picnickers.

Without an agenda and in the absence of specific places earmarked for "sightseeing," I wander around taking in lungs-full of unpolluted air. The falling rain does not bother me and I enjoy splashing with a band of semi-naked children following me. We stray into the sericulture department's territory, where mulberry trees are grown on 10 acres producing 2,15,000 tonnes of white cocoons annually.

Next, the kids take me into the horticulture zone. Only 90 of its 500 acres are used to cultivate eucalyptus, silver oak, black pepper trees, the famous Sirumalai plantains and lemon trees. At dusk, the Selvi Koil Point unveils a view of the beautifully illuminated Dindigul and adjacent Chinnamalai town down below, which appear oval-shaped.

As I relax and enjoy the uncommonly good weather in Sirumalai, I seem to forget the heat, grime, dust and sweat of city life.

An occasional group of people is the only intrusion into the silence. The only other sound is an uninterrupted chorus from numerous forest insects. The cool weather grows on me so much that I do not fret over not sighting any wildlife. Three trekking routes are marked through the forests for keen backpackers.

Sirumalai is home to a variety of birds, bison, bear, panther, barking deer and the slender loris. Rosewood trees, besides silver oak, nellikai and katakai trees, grow in these thick forests.

If you are unable to book into the Panchayat Union rest house for a weekend retreat, even a day's drive up from Dindigul is worth the break in the hills.

Be sure to pack food or eat in Dindigul. A shopkeeper tells me about the benefits more tourists would bring to the area. Perhaps he is not aware that Sirumalai is on its way to being declared a reserved forest area, which means: restricted entry.

As I leave, I miss the smell and sound of Nature, the cool environs, and the feeling of peace. The 20 km descent throws me back into the unwanted furnace sooner than I desire.

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