A trail along the Nilgiris' past
It was a trek that was both exacting and enchanting. PHILIP K. MULLEY and DHARMALINGAM VENUGOPAL retrace the 400-year-old Finicio trail from Kerala to the Nilgiris.
The mountains of South India fascinated the British.
A DAY after the International Mountain Day (December 11), 20 enthusiasts, led by the Save Nilgiris Campaign, an Environmental Non Governmental Organisation (ENGO), set out on the 400-year-old Finicio trail from Mannarkad in Kerala to Melur village in the Nilgiris carrying the message, "Mountains the source of Freshwater". The 2½ day trek, which passed through diverse landscapes as well as culturescapes, was exacting, enchanting, educating and, at the end of it all, exalting.
In early 1603, Giacomo Finicio, a Jesuit priest in the service of the Roman Catholic church in Malabar, was assigned to undertake a journey to Todamala (as the Nilgiris was known then) with a mission to bring the long-lapsed Christians (mistakenly believed to be Todas) back to the Christian fold.
Actually, a local priest and a deacon deputed to undertake an exploratory visit went up the Nilgiris in 1602 and met with the Todas but the mission authorities, not being satisfied with their oral evidence, ordered a second mission by a Jesuit priest. The choice fell on the Calicut based Finicio, "a man fully conversant with Malayalam, and ready for hard labour".
Fenicio was born in Italy around 1558. He was admitted to the Society of Jesus in 1580 and four years later came to serve in Kerala, where he remained until his death in 1632. Finicio was one of the earliest Indologists having authored The Book of the East Indians' Sect (1609), described as "the West's first authoritative description of Puranic Hinduism".
With a dozen men, including six Nair soldiers and four Christian servants, Finicio set out for the Nilgiris in January or February 1603. A cousin of the Zamorin, the Hindu ruler of Calicut, who had been a member of the exploratory delegation in the previous year also joined Finicio's entourage.
Following the past...the slopes at Kinnakorai.
Originally, Finicio appears to have decided to go up the hills via Nilambur and the Karkoor pass through present day Gudalur. But because of political unrest in the area, Finicio was obliged to stick to the route taken by the exploratory team in the previous year. His decision to seek an alternative route was understandable as he had been warned by the members of the first mission that "the journey was very difficult, that the way was very long, going over steep and rugged mountains, that it was haunted by elephants and tigers and at the top of the mountains it was so cold that at least some of us ran the risk of not returning alive".
Starting from Calicut, Finicio travelled south to Tanur and then due east to Menaracatem (Mannarkad), which lies half way between the coast and the Nilgiri mountains.
Relaxing near a mountain stream.
We began our trek at Chavadyur, at the foot of the Attapadi hills, a short distance past Mannarkad and Mukkali, the gateway to the Silent Valley, keeping as best as we could to the route taken by Finicio. In the distance the Malleswara peak towered over the horizon. On the first day, Finicio's party "did not find any village till night" but we were fortunate to pass by tiny settlements like Elachivazi and Chundapatti where we could refresh ourselves with hot cups of tea. We trailed along the Bhavani river with two of its streams, Koranguhalla (monkey stream) and Majjigehalla (buttermilk stream), crossing our path to feed the Siruvani river further down.
The Attapadi slopes were once the summer grazing grounds for the Todas and the Badagas of Nilgiris. Remnants of the Badaga villages still exist there. In the Nilgiris parlance, the area was known as Nelgot or Nelagaadu (level-land forest) However this rain shadow region has been severely affected by deforestation and other forms of environmental degradation in the recent past. A project to reforest the hills is underway.
That night we stayed at Mulli, a border settlement straddling Kerala and Madras (sic) state boundaries. Time has indeed stood still in this sleepy township. Once upon a time the mighty waters of the Kundhas (swollen river) used to descend to Mulli to unite with the Bhavani but not any more after they came to be tamed for hydel power upstream. Father Lefevre, a French missionary who has been running a hospital for the Irulas, mostly for snake bite, for over three decades, put us up for the night.
On the second day, Finicio and his party had to hurry along till the evening, lest night should overtake them in the forest where they "feared to meet the elephants". At the end of the day they reached the foot of a very high mountain over which their road lay. After midnight they climbed the rest of the mountain by moonlight "with great difficulty and much fatigue".
Our second day was no less challenging. After walking five kilometres on the Mulli-Geddai road we took off nearly vertically into the moist evergreen forests. The gradient increased with every step. Giant lemon grass, wild pepper, gooseberry and jack fruit trees lined the ancient foot path. A wash in a stream mid way and a cup of hot black coffee we were offered in a nearby forest village of Irulas called Muthalmannkombe restored our energies for the next and toughest part of the trail. The climb up Mooperkadu was through dense tropical evergreen forests which we had to crawl on fours to climb. Finicio probably meant this stretch when he mentioned "some of them (mountains) were so steep that we were obliged to slide down on our seats". The whole stretch of these steep slopes were once upon a time known as the "ravine of the monkeys" because only monkeys could climb these ravines with ease. The climb continued unrelentingly well into dusk all the way to the Sultana estate, where our second night's stay had been arranged.
In the Nilgiris, moist evergreen forests occurring up to 1,800 meters were the first to be lost to large scale plantations of coffee and tea during the British period. The Sultana estate which lies on the Sundapatti ghat (latter renamed Sullivan ghat, after the founder of modern Nilgiris) was one such.
It was heart rending to see the sad state of neglect these plantations are in now following the collapse of the market for both coffee and tea in recent years. "It does not make sense to invest in plantations any more," says M. Lakshman, Executive Director of the Devashola Tea Estate Co. Ltd which owns Sulatana Estate. An agricultural graduate, Lakshman is seeking diversification into other fields including eco-tourism. The trekkers' cottage he has refurbished recently stands on a rock overlooking the Sundapatti ghat commanding a panoramic view.
After walking all night, Finicio's party was too tired and hungry by midday on the third day but they still had to climb a mountain before they reached their destination. After some rest they started climbing and finally reached the Badaga village of "Meleuntao", or Melur. The original village of Melur was most likely on the site of the present Melur Tea Estate and an earlier name for the place was Melunatta which sounds closest to Finicio's "Meleuntao". Finicio, however, returned by "a shorter and less difficult road", probably via the Kottakallu corridor, guided by the Badagas.
Though steep, our third day's climb was mostly through tea gardens. After passing through seemingly endless tea gardens skirting Tudurmattam and savouring the grandeur of the scenery on all sides, we reached the Badaga village of Manjakombe by late afternoon to a rousing reception by the village elders. After a sumptuous repast and a meeting at the community hall we concluded the trail at the lawns of the Melur Mahalinga temple amid pre-historic chromlechs which stand in mute testimony to a by-gone age. The trekking party, which included four women and two 60-plus men, covered over 50 km in 2½ days.
Rev. Metz writing in 1857 said, "Meloor has so mild and genial a climate and is surrounded with such scenery, that the late Mr. Sullivan who was the first collector of the Neilgherries (as Nilgiris was spelt then) in one his letters to me, wrote: that if he could do as he wished, he should like to spend his old age there. However the grandest part of the scenery is to be obtained from a hill near Manchakombe beyond Meloor ..." Finicio stayed on the hills for two months and having failed to convert even a single Toda left the hills promising to come back, which he never did. Nevertheless, the report on his visit dated April 1, 1603, (the original is with the British Museum) written in Portuguese is considered enormously important for both historians and ethnologists of the Nilgiris. Finicio had observed the Todas meticulously and provided in his report a detailed description of them and their unique way of life including their origin, gods, dairy houses, priests, dress, food habits, dwellings, women and jewellery. The report also provided a clear description of the crucial relationship that existed between the Todas and Badagas more than four centuries ago.
"Barren mountains and valleys without a fruit tree or wild tree except in certain damp places where there were a few wild trees. The whole country is a desert and the land and the climate are very cold". This was how Finicio described the landscape of the Nilgiri plateau. Obviously, he was referring to the grass lands and shola forests which originally covered the whole of the plateau. It was the same mistaken notion that made the early British settlers to have these lands declared as a "wasteland" and have the lands assigned to themselves, often unscrupulously, for raising huge plantations of tea and coffee. After independence too, the government repeated the same mistake and used these grasslands to raise indiscriminately, eucalyptus and wattle plantations. Only in recent decades has the invaluable role of these grassland and sholas as the natural rainwater harvesters and "water towers" come to light. What remains of them deserves to be protected at all cost.
As we concluded the trail, a thought that haunted all of us was: what would some one taking the trail 400 years hence see? Water towers or barren mountains?
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