This is neither a sightseeing trip nor an exotic expedition. This is a journey that takes me down to my roots, to my native village, after more than two decades. Learning to let go of all the shackles of urban life, travelling without an agenda, with no tourist traps and maps, I see life pass by from a small verandah of the house, which in local architectural terms is referred to as thinnai.
It is early morning and there is a nip in the air. The milkman announces his arrival with a jingle of bells. It has rained the previous night and the village looks fresh. There are no cars or buses or even autos in the streets. A cyclist passes by every 15 minutes and a lone moped drives past at the cyclist’s speed. There is no hurry. Life passes by in slow motion.
I am in a village called Kallidaikurichi located in Tirunelveli, deep down in southern Tamil Nadu. The Western Ghats encircle the village. The ripples of the Tambiraparani river is music to the ears, and every evening, I find myself walking towards it as the villagers carry on their ablutions by the riverside. I sit by the shade of the trees in the evening and watch the sky change colours. The mountains bordering the lush paddy fields seem so close. I can count more than 50 shades of green.
I cross the river and drive around the neighbouring town of Ambasamudram and see it getting ready for the local festival. There are shrines everywhere, but I am drawn to the temple of the guardians, Vandimarichamman. There lie two deities with a local priest adorning them with flowers.
My journey takes me along to smaller hamlets where several communities live and die by the river, Tambiraparani, which provides their livelihood. In a nondescript hamlet called Pathamadai, there are three families who are weaving mats from a certain variety of kora grass that grows on the banks of the river.
“At one time,” says Sulaiman, “there were several families in the entire village weaving these mats, but now it’s just me and my relatives.” Sulaiman’s mats were once sought after all over the world and were part of every wedding. It was presented to the bride, etched with the names of the couple. Even today, generations of women keep their Pathamadai paai, or mat, as a treasure in their homes.
In another shop, I see several photographs stacked away along with boxes and bags besides mats. One of them shows Queen Elizabeth of England giving a citation to an old man, Sulaiman’s uncle, who has recently passed away. Their art would have been lost but for the river that has been nourishing it slowly. I buy a few mats and boxes from him and carry on to another village, where another community continues to thrive due to the Tambiraparani.
The potters of Karaikurichi, referred to as the man pannai society, say that the clay for their pottery comes from the riverbanks. I am inside a huge warehouse filled with pots of various sizes and shapes where a family is at work. The father is busy as his four-year-old son waits for him to finish every pot and gently holds it in both hands and leaves it by a corner. We chat for a while, as the man dips his hand in clay. I can see the glimmer of hope, fear and pride in the four-year-old’s eyes as he delicately balances the huge pot in his tender hands and walks with it towards his mother. I potter around the village for a while before heading back.
With mountains, forests, rivers, and waterfalls located right in the backyard of my village, I realise that I am actually in a tourist destination, which is lost to the world at large. Tambiraparani is joined by smaller rivers like Manimuthar, which plunge into a waterfalls. There are dams like Papanasam, Kodaiyar and Manimuthar that offer a scenic view. Not all of them are open to the public, however, as they are hidden in the dense habitat of the Kalakadu Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. We head to Ambasamudram to get the necessary permits from the forest department.
My journey takes me through the hot biodiversity reserve with endemic flora and fauna. It is home to several rivers, rivulets and reservoirs. The trees cast long shadows, wrapping us in a green world. Then, in a little clearing, I see it. With the mountains of the Western Ghats bordering it, the Manimuthar river, which has its source in the hills, flows here and cascades down as a waterfall. A herd of spotted deer cross our path, monkeys glare at us, and a crested serpent eagle poses for us. We drive uphill and cross the tea plantations at Manjolai until the Upper Kodaiyar Dam interrupts us.
We continue until we see open grasslands with a small tower in a corner. We climb up the steps and wait for the mist to clear. This is Kudrevatti, one of Tamil Nadu’s best kept secrets, which would give any hill station a run for its tourist tag. As the entire canopy of forests spreads itself, we see in the middle of the green cover a sea of blue. While Manimuthar Dam is clearly visible, Karayar Dam seems to be in a veil of clouds. The mist appears again as I return to my village. Sitting on the thinnai, I realise that the entire region is wrapped in a world of its own, untapped and unexplored. Sometimes, I think it’s better that way.