Paradise found

Print edition : November 06, 2009

A SCENIC LOCATION at Yelagiri in Vellore district.-S. THANTHONI

KOLLI Hills in Namakkal district and Yercaud in neighbouring Salem district have been classified as lesser-known tourist spots, but they occupy pride of place on the tourism map of Tamil Nadu.

These emerging tourist centres are unique yet similar in many ways. Both form part of the Eastern Ghats. But unlike the dry and rocky hills that mark the rest of the Eastern Ghats, the two are known for their gorgeous greens and awe-inspiring woods. Wondrous waterfalls, precious medicinal plants and a salubrious climate are among their other common features.

More than 90 per cent of the inhabitants in both places are Tamil-speaking Malayali (people belonging to the hills) Scheduled Tribes. Commercialisation and pollution are far less here compared with several other hill stations in the State, though ecological problems do exist.

Though these two hill stations have tremendous tourism potential, the governments strategy has been one of taking measured steps to preserve the ecology and natural beauty. Another reason for the cautious approach could be the keenness to safeguard the tribal population and their cultural traditions. Under the guidance of Tourism Secretary V. Irai Anbu, District Collectors and other officials belonging to the Revenue, Public Works, Tourism and Local Administration departments are striving to implement various tourism-promotion schemes.

Located at an altitude ranging from 1,000 to 1,300 metres above sea level and covering an area of around 441 square kilometres, Kolli Hills is believed to have been inhabited from prehistoric times.

It is 55 km from Namakkal and includes a 26-km ghat section from Karavalli, the village at the foothills. There is no gainsaying that the drive on the ghat road, with its 70 hairpin bends, provides an enjoyable experience.

Tourists can enjoy trekking, rock-climbing, bird-watching, cave exploration and swimming in the hill station.

The places of interest include the 12th century Arapaleeswarar temple, dedicated to Siva at Periakoviloor, not far from the magnificent Akasagangai waterfall, which cascades from a height of 76 m. According to experts, inscriptions of the Chola period are found at the temple. A megalithic burial site has also been unearthed here.

An added attraction is the newly found waterfall near Semmedu in the Kolli Hills. It has been named Masilla falls in view of the purity of its water. The view points at Solakkadu, Seekuparai, Akasagangai and Selur Nadu enable tourists to get a birds-eye view of the entire range.

The Kollipavai, or Ettukkai Amman temple, the Arapaleeswarar temple and the Periyasamy temple attract a large number of devotees and pilgrims on full moon and new moon days. During the Valvil Ori festival in the first week of August, thousands of people throng the hill station.

The authorities have already completed 16 major works, at a total cost of Rs.1 crore, under schemes for 2008-09 aimed at improving basic infrastructure facilities in the hill station. The Central government sanctioned Rs.3.27 crore for tourism promotion in the hill station under the Destination Development Scheme for 2008-09.

Located at an altitude of 1,515 m, Yercaud is on the Shervaroyan Hills in the Eastern Ghats and it takes 20 smart hairpin bends on the ghat road to get there. The hill station, which is 32 km from Salem, apparently got its name from the picturesque yeri (lake) that was once surrounded by kaadu (forest). The temperature never rises above 30Celsius and never falls below 13C. This has ensured round-the-year visits by tourists.

Boating in the Emerald Lake, the breath-taking view of the hills from Pagoda Point, the 27-metre high waterfalls at Killiyur, the Bears Cave near the Norton Bungalow, the rose garden, the greenhouse and the silk farm are major attractions. The Shervaroyan-Kaveri Amman cave temple of the tribal people attracts thousands of Malayali pilgrims during the annual festival in May. The bisons are another attraction.

Tourism development works at a total cost of Rs.1.118 crore, earmarked for 2008-09, have been completed; works are on for the current year at an estimated cost of Rs.3.81 crore. The hill station, which covers an area of 383 sq km, has over 39,000 inhabitants spread over nine panchayats.

Though the State government has been appealing to tourists to ensure that the hill stations remain free of plastic and garbage dumping, the response so far has not been encouraging.

Grabbing of land belonging to the tribal people, tree-felling and the abandoning of traditional farming practices pose serious problems in both the hill stations. But the government has not lost hope of creating public awareness so that the ecosystem of these hills can be preserved.

Yelagiri Hills have plenty to offer. Situated 1,050 m, the hill station has ideal weather throughout the year. The maximum temperature is about 33 Celsius and the minimum 12C.

A 14-km ghat road that starts from Ponneri junction on the Vaniyambadi-Tirupattur road with 14 hairpin bends leads to the hilltop. The small hill station, which has a population of about 6,000, all tribal people, living in 12 villages, still retains its rustic charm. Athanavur and Nilavur are the main villages.

A colourful shandy with a distinct rural flavour assembles every Friday on the main road in Athanavur. Produce from the plains, including vegetables, jaggery and pottery, jostle for space with hill-grown produce. The main road also has several lodging houses, including the Yatri Nivas.

Until a few decades ago, Yelagiri and Javadhu Hills and the Sathyamangalam forests up to Mysore accounted for 60 per cent of the worlds sandalwood trees.

What attracts tourists to Yelagiri is its proximity to Bangalore (a two-and-half hour drive) and Chennai (four-and-half hour drive). At Nilavur, 6 km from Athanavur, is another park and boathouse. The Tourism Department has expanded a pond into a small lake, with boating facilities. Nilavur has a lovely rural ambience with quaint homesteads and fields where crops such as samai and tur dal are grown.

Hasu Infotech (India) Private Limited has set up 10 kudils here. These kudils have a back-to-the-basics concept. There is no television and no plug points either. Tourists have to sleep on mats on the floor, said Saravan Ramasamy, chief executive officer, Hasu Infotech. Both Yatri Nivas and the Tourist Information Centre provide mountain terrain bikes.

The Yelagiri Adventure Sports Association (YASA) is promoting paragliding, trekking, rock-climbing and other adventure sports. A paragliding festival, held from September 11 to 13, attracted participants from across the country.

The Yelagiri Hills Nature Conservation and Cultural Society is actively trying to conserve nature.

There are seven trekking routes on Yelagiri Hills: Mangalam to Swami Malai, Tourist Information Centre to Koosi Kuttai, Puthur to Perumadu waterfalls, Kottaiyur to Pulicha Kuttai, Nilavur to Amma Kuttai, Nilavur to Jalagamparai waterfalls and YMCA to Karadi Parai.

S.G. Sudhagar, the Tourist Information Officer of the Vellore District Collectorate, took the Frontline team on the 5-km-long Puthur-Perumadu waterfalls trek. He said tourists preferred the Mangalam-Swami Malai trek beginning at 4-45 a.m. because they could enjoy the sunrise.

The real estate boom, the mushrooming of lodges and the accumulation of garbage is causing concern.

K.S. Ramamurthy, president of the Society for the Development of Economically Weaker Sections, said: Unlike the Nilgiri Hills, Kodaikanal and the Shervaroyan Hills, which are wide in range and permit expansion in all directions, Yelagiri is a depression surrounded by hills. It has limited scope for expansion. Unplanned growth and overexploitation of groundwater will disturb the ecology.

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