Deep in the woods
For a quiet walk through thick forests, says SOMA BASU
PHOTO: SOMA BASU
ENVELOPED IN SILENCE At Azhagarmalai
To be honest, this was not meant to be an RLT.
It began with a visit to the much celebrated Vishnu temple, Alagarkovil, 22 km northeast of Madurai.But to my delight, the trip ended in a trek on a relatively lesser-known route in the forests of the Azhagar hills. That's how Azhagarmalai became an RLT.
Alargarkoil is situated at the foothills on the southern end of Azhagarmalai and around it are the ruins of an ancient fortified town.
From the temple, there is a narrow path uphill which takes you to another temple in the wilderness, an abode of Lord Subrahmanya. The four-km distance can also be covered by road and it ends in a park of medicinal plants.
The park is managed jointly by the Forest Department and Bangalore-based Foundation for Rehabilitation of Local Health Traditions. You need prior permission to look at in situ conservation plants.
To the right of the park, a flight of 70-odd steps takes you to Lord Muruga's shrine, also famous for a small spring called Noopura Gangai. The water is considered to be as holy as the Ganges. According to myth, Brahma poured water from his kamandalam on Vishnu's feet during his `trivikrama avataram.' A few drops fell off Vishnu's `silambu' (anklet) and flowed out as the Silambu river.
Another three miles uphill is a waterfall, which derives its name from the ornament and hence is called Noopura Gangai.
Though it is supposed to be a perennial waterfall, the spring at the temple below is dry now.
But devotees get to bathe in a restricted supply of this holy water, which reaches them through six taps installed in the spring.
Funny as it may seem or sound, nobody seems to mind, as a continuous stream of devotees undergoes the ritual under watchful eyes of temple guards and monkeys. Yes, monkeys. They are there everywhere and you have to tackle them before finding your way.
But before taking the steps to Noopura Gangai, look up at the sky and you can spot colonies of flying fox (the Indian fruit-eating bat) hanging upside down from the trees.
They can be seen on any fruit-bearing tree, resting, nesting or flying over it repeatedly. There are hundreds of them almost forming a dark cloud against the sunlight.
After paying obeisance to the Lord, we encountered a bemusing sight on the temple terrace. Scores of men, women and children and not to forget our simian brothers were having a picnic. But, what was disturbing, however, was the mess they created all around polythene wrappers, plastic cups, empty water bottles and waste food strewn all over.
But if you overlook the foreground and look beyond, a lush landscape meets the eye.
Peeping over the wall, we spotted a muddy track cutting through the grass, shrubs, plants and trees. We decided to scale the wall and found ourselves inside a forest.
As we walked deeper into the forest, the path became prominent. Enveloped in silence, the only sound we could hear was the crunch of dried leaves under our shoes.
Suddenly, a team member hushed everybody up and asked us to listen to the chirping of a bird.
"That's a large green barbet," he whispered excitedly.
Pursuing ornithology as a hobby, he told us we were in the Silambar valley, which is free of biotic influence. "This place is hardly known, you will not see a soul here."
I learnt later that there are three routes from different valleys Silambar, Periyaruvi and Bison that all meet at the highest point in the area called Phalaianaiparai at a height of 880m. The trek from Silambar valley to this point through the Azhagar forest is the shortest at six km. Bison Valley, which has to be approached from the north-eastern side of Noopura Gangai, has a fair population of bison and is about eight km.
The longest trek is 12 km in the Periyaruvi valley. All the three paths merge at `End Point,' which is a plateau at the base of the peak.
The three routes are also partially motorable but to go deep inside the forest, the department's permission is required.
In our unplanned march though Silambar valley, we couldn't go too far either, given the restrictions.
But I learnt that the area has been identified for bird watching. The white browed bulbul, orioles, changeable hawk eagle, shama and barbet, besides the migrating birds during winter season, are sighted here regularly. Animal life is negligible.
With the sun setting, we too decided to return, especially since the possible presence of large snakes scared us.
We walked back in silence, through the jungle of banyan tree, the kiluvai tree, kunguliam and itchi maram. Perhaps it is a good way to round off a visit to the temple a quiet walk through Nature at its pristine best.
How to reach
From Madurai, take the Alagarkoil Road.
The ascent to the plateau from Silambar valley starts at Natham Road. For Bison valley, take Alagarkoil-Melur Road and turn right from Kidaritatti village.
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