Adventure begins where your well-laid-out travel plans end. And mine lay crumpled at my feet, trampled upon by nature.
Monsoons had arrived a tad early in Wayanad. The leeches weren’t prowling yet, and the mountains were dark and mysterious even mid-morning. The waterfalls were frothing and menacingly beautiful. The ground had already turned a slippery reddish-brown. In between showers, oil and grease built up on the tar roads hugging the boundaries of vast tea plantations and spice gardens. Yes, monsoons had checked in at Wayanad, and everything was glistening. Also, the popular spots were shut.
“Chembra Peak is closed for the monsoons,” said Sajan Padikkera Suresh, my host at Camellia homestay. “So is Soochipara falls and Kuruvadweep island.” They were top three on my list of things to see in Wayanad.
I sipped my second cup of coffee in the partially covered terrace of the two-storey homestay, a stout, pink building inside a coffee plantation overlooking Chembra Peak. The mountain, renowned for trekking, played peek-a-boo with low-hanging clouds.
“However, Edakkal is open,” said Suresh. As three doors closed, another seemed to be opening.
A 45-minute drive took me to Edakkal Caves, situated on the western slope of Ambukuthi Hills. The caves are 4,000 feet above sea level. That meant a roughly 30-minute walk up a steep pathway (at points I felt like a mountain goat on a 90-degree rock face) and climbing over 300 steps. It was like a stairway to heaven, and a pleasant climb—monsoon showers resulted in fewer tourists and ideal weather for the strenuous trek.
Edakkal comprises of an upper and lower cave. The lower cave is closed to the public since a rock fell to the ground after the 2018 floods in Kerala. “Its safety will be thoroughly studied before reopening,” an employee informed me.
Edakkal means “the stone in between” in Malayalam. The cave was formed when a single colossal rock split into two, probably during an earthquake, and another rock got wedged between them. According to my guide, the caves are 30,000 years old. About 96 feet long and 22 feet wide, the cave is not dark and dank as there is an opening in the roof, allowing in ample natural light.
Archaeologists believe the petroglyphs in the caves were etched between 4,000 and 1,000 B.C. The carvings are spread over 500 square feet, on the two walls of the cave. They include figures of humans, birds, animals, trees, numeric signs and so on. “Only 25 per cent of the etchings have been deciphered,” my guide said. There are also inscriptions on both walls in ancient Tamil Brahmi script and Sanskrit, dated between the second and fifth centuries.
I was lost in the sophistication of this art from thousands of years ago, when the guide’s voice pierced my reverie: “Come to this side, Madam. You should see this.” He pointed to a narrow gap, as wide as my palm, between two rocks in a far corner of the cave. I could see the Phantom Rock on the distant horizon. The rock did resemble the fictional character.
After taking in the spectacular bird’s-eye view of Wayanad from a landing at the upper cave, it was time to walk down—a tedious yet exhilarating descent.
Closer to the foot of the mountain, shops line the pathway selling myriad items from coffee to homemade chocolate to eco-friendly footwear. My eyes zoomed in on the bamboo rice payasam. Until then, I hadn’t heard of “bamboo rice.”
Bamboo rice is harvested once in 40 years. Towards the end of their lifetimes, bamboo trees bloom and produce seeds that are brownish-pink in colour. In Wayanad, tribal communities go into the forest to harvest this nutrient-packed seed. Bamboo rice is costlier than regular rice—anywhere between Rs150-200 for 500 grams. I picked up a little box of it and the recipe for bamboo rice payasam from a shopkeeper.
At the pathway’s end was a shop inviting people to try archery, “for only Rs10.” Outside was a poster of Govindan aashan (master), an expert archer and head of the Kurichiya tribe. I tried my hand, albeit with dismal results.
The travel gods can often present interesting choices. Govindan aashan was one. I wanted to meet him. The archery stall owner called the aashan’s house to inform them about an eager traveller wanting to meet the maestro.
Forty minutes later, I was sitting in the verandah of Govindan’s concrete house in Ambalavayal. Drinking copious amounts of kattan chai (black tea), I listened to the tales of the forest from the septuagenarian.
Wayanad is a land of forests that was earlier called Vana-nad, or “forest country”. Wild animals abound in these jungles and until a few decades ago, members of numerous indigenous tribes lived in the forests. The Kurichiya tribe is especially renowned for its members’ hunting skills, particularly using bows and arrows. “A good hunter can let fly three arrows within the span of the length of a bow, which is around five feet while running on the uneven forest ground,” Govindan said. It was impossible to wrap my head around that kind of skill.
The master’s training in the art of making bows and arrows and archery began when he was just four years old. “We never hunted for the sake of hunting,” he said. “We hunted only small animals for food once or twice a week. You can’t eat big animals, so why kill them?” Govindan is afraid that the archery, as he and his forefathers have practised it, would die with him—though he has passed on his skills to his granddaughter.
Wayanad is native to over 60 major tribes. Though most of them have been integrated into modern life, they still have strong ties to the forest. They live in colonies inside the forest or closer to the jungle. Just before dusk, I stand in one such colony of Kattunayakans, who speak a unique dialect—a mixture of Tamil, Kannada and others that I am unable to decipher.
Standing with me on a cliff in the shadow of the majestic Neelimala, Ayiappan, the head of the tribe in Vaduvanchal, points out landmarks in the horizon. I can see the Malabar region in the west, the Nilgiris in the east, the Mysore plateau in the north-east and the Ghats in the north-west stretching to Coorg. I feel like an eagle surveying the land from my clifftop.
Until recently, Ayiappan had to walk through the jungle to reach the colony. Now there is a steep, narrow concrete pathway—not conducive for cars though.
The Kattunayakans worship almost everything that comes from nature. But they repose their faith in the goddess, represented by a stone in a shrine up in the hills of Neelimala. “The forest and everything in it is our life, our family,” Ayiappan says.
Time seems to have stood still in these parts of Wayanad. However, many old ways of living are slowly being wiped away as the guardians of the forests assimilate into mainstream society. People like Ayiappan are still striking a balance by not giving up on certain practices integral to their lives, mainly marriage and death rituals. He pointed to the graveyard of the tribe hidden behind trees. The tribe’s burial rituals remind me of the Egyptian pyramids. They bury the body inside a chamber dug underground along with the deceased’s favourite things.
It began to rain steadily. I watched Ayiappan walking confidently back into his world even as I moved towards mine in the opposite direction. Sheets of water poured down from the sky as the car made its way through silent tea estates, and empty roads.
“Tomorrow let us go meet Ramesh, the tribal artist from Trikaipetta,” said Sajan Suresh. Ramesh documents the dying rituals and cultures of the tribals of Wayanad through his pen and ink artwork.
I nodded in agreement. Sometimes the best travel plans are the ones with no itineraries and lots of rain.