Under a sage's watch

Trekking

Under a sage's watch

Was there any need for you to do this? Could you not have very well stayed at home?” taunted a fellow traveller from our small group of 50-somethings from Bengaluru.

We were sitting on the steps leading to the Athirumala forest camp, dead tired, diligently extricating the leeches from our socks, so that we wouldn’t carry them to our sleeping quarters. We were out to climb Agasthyakoodam (or Agasthyarkoodam), the 1,868-metre-high mountain in the Western Ghats of South India, considered a reasonably difficult one to negotiate.

The name of the peak is derived from Agasthya Muni (Sage Agasthya), who is believed to have plied his medical practice in the region after having been sent out to the south by Lord Siva, supposedly to balance the world. True to the legend, the area is home to a multitude of medicinal herbs, many of which are not seen anywhere else in the world. The Kerala Forest Department permits treks to the peak in controlled numbers. The trek is generally undertaken as a three-day affair; those who are physically fit, a category we didn’t belong to, can cover it in two days.

We had reached the forest office near Bonacaud early morning, travelling about 60 km from Thiruvananthapuram, and completed the entry formalities. Bonacaud is the site of a huge defunct estate started during the British rule. The estate stopped functioning in 1995, rendering many jobless. Some of these locals are now being employed as guides cum porters for the trek.

One way, many worlds

It had taken us six-and-a-half hours to cover the 14-odd, tough kilometres from Bonacaud to Athirumala. A great feature of the Agasthyakoodam trek is the variety of terrains that it covers — evergreen forests, grasslands, shola forests, reed forests, rocky plateau and so on.
The trek path passed through a verdant forest from the start, and we encountered a number of gurgling streams along the way. After 4 km of a rather moderate trek, we reached the Karamana river, which is the first of the three major rivers we crossed during the trek. The Vaazhapindiyar river, reached after another 2 km, had a waterfall near the crossing point, which invited the trekkers for a refreshing bath.

The terrain dramatically changed after we crossed Attayar, the last of the rivers. We entered a vast expanse of grassland with a beautiful view of the imposing mountains covered with lush forests. The gradient of the climb increased simultaneously. A couple of shola forests broke the monotony of the grasslands. We then entered a thick forest with the track. We felt the backpack becoming heavier with each step, and it was a great relief to stumble into the Athirumala camp.

The temporary shelter at Athirumala is as basic as it can get. Four tin-covered sheds are available for trekkers to spend the night. Reeds have been roughly woven atop short poles to form raised platforms where one can sleep safely, away from crawling creatures. The rickety door would not close, and could at best be tied up with a string. We had brought along sleeping bags, which made our repose a tad more comfortable.

The summit of Agasthyakoodam lies about 6 km from the camp. Our guides gave us sufficient warnings that it wouldn’t be easy. The climb started soon, and our progress was at first through thick evergreen forests, then some reed forests, before we came to some open, rocky terrain. We saw many beautiful flowers in this stretch, which would fully be covered with flowers between January and March. The only disappointment was not being able to spot wildlife, save for a lone tusker, the sight of which was effectively used by our guide to quicken the pace of our tired legs.

Some 4 km into the trek, we reached the Pongala para (Pongala rock). Those on a pilgrimage to Agasthyakoodam make it a point to offer pongala (a form of rice pudding) to the idol here, before they undertake the climb to the summit.

The real climb started from this point, and the previous day’s labour seemed like a cakewalk. The track now alternated through thick forests and open, rocky terrain. Thankfully, some ropes were provided for the trekkers while negotiating steep sections. After a gruelling climb of 2 km, we stepped on the rocky summit of Agasthyakoodam to the thrill of having successfully completed an arduous climb!

Agasthyakoodam, being the tallest point in the vicinity, offers stunning views. We saw the lush terrain of Kerala on one side and the barren plains of Tamil Nadu beyond a couple of smaller mountains. The blue waters of the Peppara dam reservoir presented a pretty picture on the Kerala side. It was windy at the top and we needed to move carefully with firm steps. Our guide recited an incident in which a person was just blown off the summit.

Guardian of forests

There was an idol of Agasthya Muni in a sheltered corner of the summit. We were fortunate to witness an elaborate puja being performed on the idol by a team from the Tamil Nadu Forest Department who had arrived with many offerings. When I enquired with a senior officer the reason for the importance they accord to Agasthya Muni, he said that they consider him to be the protector of forests and wildlife of the surrounding regions.

Climbing Agasthyakoodam was on my bucket list for all of the 20 years that I had spent in the general neighbourhood of the mountain. That dream was realised only 18 years after I had left the place. When I mentioned this to a forest official, he echoed what a couple of others had told me earlier: “You will be able to come to Agasthyakoodam only when Agasthya bids you to.”

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