Branching out from the Temple City: Travels through Tamil Nadu (Part 1)

One of the most gratifying aspects of being in India this summer has been the freedom to travel around and explore places that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen were it not for this internship. Travel has always been one of my greatest passions—I’m the type of person who likes traveling to the most obscure and uncharted places possible just to see how people in such different places from my home live their own daily lives. You could put it this way: while many people have motion sickness, I often say I have “static sickness”.

Having been to Tamil Nadu several times before, several weeks at a time, I had already ticked off some of the more popular places off my list: Rameswaram, Kanyakumari, Trichy, Thanjavur, Coimbatore, and several others. Geographically, Tamil Nadu is divided into smaller regions called districts, of which there are currently 38. Each of these districts has a completely different way of life, things to see, and cultural customs. While all are united by a common Tamil language, one cannot experience Tamil Nadu to the fullest unless they’ve seen all of these districts. You thought India was complicated enough with all of its different states, didn’t you? Having already visited about 20 through previous trips, I made it the goal of this summer’s travels to visit as many of the remaining districts as I could.

Initially, progress on this goal was slow. During the month of June, we were hesitant to ask for days off since our projects were just starting and we were still getting used to the workflow at Aravind. We primarily spent these June weekends exploring different local sites, from the Meenakshi Amman Temple to local restaurants—this ended up being fortunate, because we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to fully explore a city as bustling and diverse as Madurai.

Now, I’ll take you through each of the trips we took during our summer, taking place during each weekend in July.

Trip 1: Kutralam Waterfalls (July 2nd)

When Celeste said that her 20th birthday was coming up during the first Saturday in July, on June 2nd, we knew we had to make our first trip to celebrate. As we were thinking of places to go, I suggested the Kutrallam Falls, in a mountainous area in southwestern Tamil Nadu on the border with Kerala. These falls are famous throughout the state and even India as a whole both because of their natural beauty and religious significance—these falls are believed to be an abode of the Hindu god Shiva and are therefore a famous pilgrimage site for worshippers.

Since we decided on this being a day trip, our journey started early in the morning on July 2nd. We booked the Pothigai Superfast Express, which departed from Madurai Junction at 4:25 am and would arrive at Tenkasi Junction, near the falls, at around 7:30 am. We left the Inspiration hostel by 3:15 to have enough time to figure out the station. We were able to find our platform and boarded the train, which arrived on time. We booked a 3-tier AC coach, so we comfortably slept for a few hours until the morning.

I awoke at around 6 am just as the train was crossing some small towns on the edge of the Western Ghats. This train route is famed for being one of the most beautiful in South India, and my experience definitely did not disappoint—the mountains, farm fields, lush palm trees, and several peacocks were perfectly lit in the golden sunrise.

After arriving at Tenkasi Junction, we initially couldn’t find our driver—only after several phone calls were we able to decide on a common meeting location. As was true on later trips as well, speaking Tamil made interactions like this infinitely easier.

We first had breakfast at a restaurant called Drizzle’s in the nearby town of Sengottai, recommended by our driver. I wasn’t expecting anything particularly out of the ordinary here, but the masala dosa I had was honestly one of the best I’ve ever eaten. Something about the blend of coconut in the potatoes with the perfectly roasted dosa was amazing.

After eating, we then set out on our quest to bathe in the waterfalls. My mom had suggested to first visit the Palaruvi Falls across the border in Kerala. After driving up windy mountain roads, seeing monkeys up close along the road, and taking in amazing views of the lush, forested valley below, we finally reached Palaruvi. I was initially nervous about whether I needed to speak Malayalam in order to buy tickets, but luckily they understood Tamil just fine. We then climbed aboard a small bus that took us up the mountain to the falls. The Palaruvi falls were amazing! There were so many monkeys climbing on the trees around us, and there was a lively atmosphere of people swimming and bathing in the small swimming hole at the bottom of the falls.

After Palaruvi, we then headed back to Tamil Nadu for our next falls, the Five Falls. These are a set of five relatively small waterfalls, which are the second-most famous amongst the Kutralam Falls. Unlike Palaruvi, these falls were divided into different sections for men and women, so Suhaas and I went on one side while Celeste went on the other. As is often true when many men are in an enclosed space, there was much shoving and pushing on our side as people jostled to get up close to the falls. In contrast, from what I could see, the women’s side was much more peaceful, as people were taking turns and even helping each other reach the falls. One drawback with these falls was that there was not much space for swimming, as the water at the base of the falls was only a few inches deep.

After finishing, we dried ourselves off and went to explore the bustling street market near the falls. By this point, all the swimming had made us quite peckish, so we bought snacks like spiral fried potatoes with a spicy sauce and noongu, the coconut-like tasting fruit from palm trees that is a favorite for Tamilians.

Our next stop after this was lunch. My project guide had suggested me to visit the Border Parotta Kadai, a local shop famed for its flaky, delicious parottas. Unfortunately, I guess many others had the same idea, because when we stepped inside, there was not a single space to sit (or stand, even!). We therefore decided to go back to Drizzle’s and had a nice lunch of biryani and different fruit juices.

When we finished eating, our driver then took us to Main Falls, the most famous of the Kutralam Falls. Remember the pushing and shoving I mentioned in the men’s section previously? Well this time, this was amplified 10 times. Again, there was no space to swim at the bottom of these falls, but instead there was just a narrow slippery pathway between the falls and a hard rock barrier a couple of feet away. Because these are the most sacred of the falls, there was an even greater excitement amongst the people to stand under the water. I was actually afraid of being suffocated in the crowd of people, so I thought of backing out. Still, Suhaas and I managed to squeeze through and we found a spot under the water. Up close, I was able to admire the intricate rock carvings behind the water. There were hundreds of detailed carvings of symbols related to the god Shiva, particularly of the Shiva lingam.

We spent quite some time in these falls, but we finally came out and returned back to our car. It was getting late, so we decided to make just one final stop—the Old Kutralam Falls. This waterfall used to be the main gathering place for religious pilgrims before Main Falls became more popular. Our driver parked the car at the base of a small mountain, and said we’d have to trek up 1 kilometer in order to reach the falls. Luckily, the sunny, windy weather was great so we decided to go for it.

Old Kutralam was amazing as well. Smaller than the others but with its own charm and certainly a more peaceful crowd on both sides, we were able to spend time bathing in these falls. The way the golden sunlight reflected through the water and cast the mountainside in a yellow-orange hue was also really beautiful, and we spent some time just walking around here taking in the natural scenery. After walking back down and stopping at some small ancient shrines along the way, we made it back to our car.

As much as we didn’t want to leave, our returning train would leave at 6:30 pm and we were quite a distance away from Tenkasi, so we decided to head back to the train station. However, we saw another falls on the way back, Tiger Falls, so we decided to visit that one before leaving. Tiger Falls was definitely more family-friendly and less intimidating, so we enjoyed closing off on this more relaxed note. Finally, we headed back to the car and dried off.

We then started heading to Tenkasi Junction (for good this time!), and reached back with time to spare. Our return train, also the Pothigai Superfast Express, arrived on time, and after sleeping for most of the way, we arrived back in Madurai around 9:45 pm.

Before heading back to Inspiration, we made one final stop, the Cinesuvai Restaurant for Celeste’s birthday dinner. This place was unlike any I’ve ever been to, with its decor all from movies, from an actual railcar for Chennai Express to a pink Volkswagen Beetle. After a delicious meal and ice cream afterwards, we finally headed back to Inspiration, satisfied that our first Tamil Nadu adventure was successfully complete.

Trip 2: Ooty (July 8th to 10th)

When the British colonized and ruled over India, many could not bear the hot climate, so they sought refuge in cooler, higher locations known as hill stations. Hill stations exist in many countries, but they are most abundant in India, particularly in mountainous regions like the Eastern and Western Ghats and the foothills of the Himalayas. The British set up their vacation spots in these mountain towns, one of which is Udhagamandalam (or Ooty, to meet the pronunciation abilities of the Brits), in The Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu. Ooty was a prized possession of the British colonists and became to be known as the “Queen of Hill Stations”, because of its picturesque scenery that is viewed by many as even better than other hill stations.

We knew Ooty needed to be on our list of travels since it’s such an iconic location in Tamil Nadu.

We decided to make this a relatively long trip, two nights in all, because it is quite far from Madurai and we wanted to have enough time to fully experience Ooty. We left Madurai at 3 pm on Friday afternoon on a sleeper bus that would take us to Coimbatore. I was initially hesitant of taking a bus for a 6-hour journey like this, but I was extremely pleasantly surprised—it was very comfortable and even more luxurious than the sleeper train from the previous week. The bus was arranged in two levels with single beds on one side and double beds on the other. We all slept for a couple hours and woke up when the bus stopped for a break. After buying some murukku and chai at the roadside stall, we then got back onboard and decided to relocate to one of the double beds to talk and take in the mountainous scenery on this route from Madurai to Coimbatore.

We reached Coimbatore around 9 pm and then took an auto to my grandparents’ house where we’d be spending the night. We had a dinner of several different dishes, from idiyappam (rice noodles) with kurma and coconut milk to kuzhi paniyaram (small balls made of a batter similar to dosa), and talked with my grandparents and uncle as well who had come to visit.

The next morning, we woke up at the break of dawn in order to make it to our ride that would take us up the mountain to Ooty. Perhaps the most famous train in India is the steam train that runs from Mettupalayam, at the base of the Western Ghats, up the mountain to the hill stations of Coonoor and Ooty. This train is operated by the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, so world-renowned that it is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Seeing this quaint steam train that has basically been unchanged since the mid-1910s definitely excited the childhood railfan in me, and I took lots of pictures in and around the train before we left.

Despite the journey being only 46 kilometers from beginning to end, it takes about 5 hours. This is in large part because the track is so steep—with a maximum gradient of 8.33%, it is the steepest railway track in the entirety of Asia. In fact, this train uses a rack-and-pinion system along with its traditional traction from the wheels in order to avoid slipping down the mountain.

While we were initially reluctant at having to spend this much time enclosed inside a small wooden train car, time quickly melted away as we took in the breathtaking scenery while the train wound up the side of the mountain. As the train chugged through colorful small towns, over sparkling streams, by majestic waterfalls, and near magical tea plantations and lush green conifer forests with steam wafting overhead, it started feeling more like a Disneyland ride rather than any other train I’ve been on.

Unfortunately, the journey did have to come to an end, and we eventually reached the Udhagamandalam station right on time. The weather outside was certainly a surprise. I knew it would be cold, but the temperature was actually downright frigid. The freezing rain coming down only amplified this. Nevertheless, it was a welcome change from Madurai weather. In fact, the weather felt more suited for London—I can see why the British liked this place.

Our first adventure was going to a safari park in order to see the local wildlife, from lemurs and peacocks to tigers. We first had to drive there, though. The route took almost 2 hours from the Ooty train station, as we slowly went up and down the mountain roads with countless hairpin bends made all the more slippery by the rain. We finally made it there, but dusk was quickly falling. Despite this, the safari jeep driver agreed us to take us in, and we climbed aboard the jeep to start our tour.

Wind whipping through our hair, we sped along the gravel path through the forest, spotting animals along the way. Highlights included some of the largest peacocks I’ve ever seen, cute Vervet monkeys, very large deer called Sambar, and an abundance of elephants. We even stopped in front of a small historic chapel along the banks of the Moyar River. The tigers proved elusive though, and because dusk was falling, we had to start heading back out.

Before we drove back to town however, we had one final stop—a small mountain from which we could see the valley with the town of Udhagamandalam below. We were intending to drive up in the jeep, but the mud was just too deep—we had to get out and walk. It was extremely foggy now, with a howling wind that made it hard to even hear each other speak. Through the fog, we spotted a gold shimmer of light at the top of this small mountain and decided to investigate. As we climbed up a little higher, we were able to make out this shape as a temple, so we decided to climb up to the top to take a look.

The trek up to the top was quite treacherous. The only way up were makeshift stairs made of slippery rocks, and we had to contend with the wind that was determined to blow us off the mountain. Still, we made it up, and were greeted with the site of a beautiful small temple dedicated to the god Murugan. After spending some time in silence to take in the views, and taking some pictures as well, we made our slow and cautious descent to the bottom.

We reached town later that night after winding back up and down those mountain hairpin bends, and were greeted with the bustling downtown streets of Ooty. There were clearly many shops dedicated for tourists, but the town still had its unique charm. We ate a hearty dinner at Adayar Anandha Bhavan (A2B) that warmed us up from the cold, and then headed to our overnight accomodation.

Through some connections, we had booked a place at Sabol Resorts, a collection of two- and three-bedroom clay-roofed cottages on the top of a mountain overlooking a lush valley below. Since we only got to our cottage after dark, we enjoyed a brief campfire outside and then quickly fell asleep.

The next morning when we awoke, we were greeted with a panoramic vista over the valley below that we were not able to see the previous night. The weather was also much warmer than the previous day, with the sun intermittently peeking out of the clouds. We explored the resort a bit more, including spending some time in the game room where Suhaas destroyed me both at chess and ping pong (still fun though!) and planned the places we wanted to see.

We first headed to the Ooty Tea Museum and Chocolate Museum, these two industries begin integral to the area’s economy and history. We were able to learn a lot about the process of making these, and were able to sample delicious dark chocolate as well as seven different speciality teas, from white tea and green tea to cardamom tea (hands down the best!).

After our museum visit, we then went to the other highlight of Ooty, the Botanical Garden. Having visited the world-famous New York Botanical Garden countless times during my childhood, I was doubtful about why this much smaller garden in Ooty was so special. I was pleased to have my expectations exceeded, and I’d say that this garden was definitely one of the highlights of this trip, as you can see by the vibrant pictures below!

Soon after our garden visit, we decided to start heading back down the mountain since we’d be driving this time and did not want any traffic to delay our arrival back at Coimbatore Junction for our train. On the way there, we stopped at Mettupalayam for lunch, where I was surprised to find another location of the Border Parotta Kadai we were unable to visit at Kutralam. Celeste and I bounced on this opportunity, and we had some amazing parottas here for lunch.

We then drove back to Coimbatore, where we made it to Coimbatore Junction on time for our train back to Madurai at 7:30 pm. Our train, the Coimbatore-Nagercoil Express was waiting there already, so after walking around on the platform for a bit, we were able to board and get some sleep as we headed back towards Madurai.

We arrived back in Madurai on time at around 12:45 am, and headed straight back to Inspiration to get enough rest for work later that morning.

This post has already gotten quite lengthy, so I’ll leave the remainder of our travels for the next one—stay tuned for that, and I hope you enjoyed getting a glimpse of our first couple of adventures across Tamil Nadu!

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About Aravind Krishnan