Valparai Series – Part 4

Uralikal is a scenic Tata Tea estate on the shores of the Sholayar lake backwaters, some 12km from Valparai town. More accurately, that should be the “Upper Sholayar” reservoir with its dam near the border with Kerala. The Sholayar or “Lower Sholayar” lake and dam are just across the border in the neighbouring state.

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The water from these lakes is presumably used for power generation as there is a TNEB Power House at the Upper Sholayar Dam, with some rather amusing statuettes in the compound!
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Those intending to use public transport to come here should be sure to ask for the bus to the Sholayar DAM as there is another bus that goes to the Sholayar ESTATE which is NOT on the same route. It is not sufficient to just say ‘Sholayar’ while paying for your ticket as you might well end up miles away from your intended destination, for no fault of the bus conductor.

The same road from the U. Sholayar dam goes to the Athirapally waterfalls of movie location fame, barely 50km away.

On every visit, we had contemplated a day trip from Valparai to Athirapally but somehow or the other there was always enough to keep us happily occupied around Valparai itself. On our most recent visit we were determined to do the trip and even made the effort to check bus timings.

To our chagrin, we learnt that the bus would take an inexplicable three hours to cover the short distance to Athirapally. Now, imagine sitting in a bus 3 hours going and 3 hours coming. Given that there was just 10 hours of daylight, what would be left of the day? And with the poor monsoons of 2012, would there be sufficient water flow in the falls to justify such a tiresome journey? Thanks but no thanks.

An instantaneous decision was taken to relegate Athirapally to a separate trip from the Kerala side at another time. It does make a lot of sense to start the journey from Kerala, overnight at Athirapally, and enter Valparai via the Athirapally – Sholayar route. Exit via Aliyar – Pollachi – Coimbatore. Or vice versa. Perhaps, the next time, preferably just after a good monsoon.

Malakka Parai and Sheikal Mudi are some of the scenic estates around the U. Sholayar Dam. We have yet to see the latter. Wildlife sightings are common near the lake shore in the mornings and evenings though you could be shooed away by Forest officials if elephants are in the immediate vicinity.

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Currently, water levels in the Sholayar lake are shockingly low due to the failed monsoons of 2012.

Low Water At Upper Sholayar Lake

An underground tunnel carries water from the Lower Nirar reservoir to the Upper Sholayar lake, which in turn are connected to the Sholayar and the Idamalayar reservoirs. The neighbouring Parambikulam lake is also somehow linked. It sounds like a very complicated network of water bodies but there must undoubtedly be some sound logic behind this grand scheme.

For those who are interested, please click the link to see it all on an interactive Google Map:
View Larger Map

The Nirar Dam or Lower Nirar reservoir is picture postcard perfect with its deep blue waters surrounded by dense forest against a backdrop of the imposing Grass Hills.
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We caught the bus there intending to walk through the forest paths, but were not permitted to do so as it is a restricted area. The friendly guard may just have allowed us to go on ahead but elephants had been there the previous night, a watchman was trampled the week before, and by all accounts it was not at all safe right then.

One does not argue when elephants are around. As our faithful Nilgiris driver Jagdeesan always says, the most feared animal in the jungle is not the tiger; it is the elephant – even if you are in a vehicle which an aggressive elephant can easily topple over with a mere nudge of its gargantuan body.

Which reminds me of the time we strolled along the path to the Grass Hills – another restricted area, but there was no such notice board so it was onward ho …… until around 3km later when a patch of fresh elephant dung on the path resulted in a very quick about turn. If the leech is the forest’s first line of defence, then the elephant is the forest’s front line of attack. When on a jungle trek at the Periyar Reserve in Kerala a few years ago, our guides made us run as fast as we could in the opposite direction as soon as an elephant herd was sighted, that too some considerable distance away. The guides were local tribals who had spent their life in the forest and they were terrified while we foolishly, were not. It is dangerous to lurk in elephant territory. Period.

With all that talk of elephants, we saw them just twice in Valparai. Once was from the bus on the way to Cinchona. They were chomping on bamboo in a forest patch in a tea estate across a deep trench. Locals were admiring them from a culvert on the road. We ought to have got off the bus then and there but by that time it had moved on. The other time we saw them here was from afar as they were entering a marsh in a tea estate.
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Not very clear I know even with editing, but suffices as a memory.

Chinna Kallar is a hamlet in the wilderness near a small river of the same name, some 16km from Valparai town, in the valley between TN and Kerala.
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The road from Cinchona ends here right at the base of the Grass Hills. Chinna=small Kal=stone Aar=river. Predictably this picturesque river was full of round rocks with teeny little rapids. The Lawson Falls is a small waterfall on the Chinna Kallar river, best seen from a hanging rope bridge.

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Not a good photo, somehow with the light and shade it did not come out quite right.

Getting there involved traversing a leech infested meadow of ferns. W11

Such pretty ferns, such abominable leeches! I was horrified to discover six of them trying to wriggle through my shoes within a span of seconds. Even now as I write this, the memory is ugghh, ugggh and ugghhh. It was after this leechy experience that we started using the anti-leech potion recommended by the good tea ladies of the Cinchona estate who face these slimy terrors on a daily basis.

Chinna Kallar is a restricted area. Permission to go to the falls has to be obtained from the Forest Dept. in Valparai town. When we went, the solitary guard at the falls was least bothered about our presence, he was desperately trying to clear the undergrowth before the visit of the big boss from Coimbatore later that day.

Personally I felt that there was nothing so extraordinary about Chinna Kallar. It is restricted presumably due to the elephant presence. The Forest Dept. obviously should not be held liable for mishaps caused to people who voluntarily intrude into the elephant’s domain. Besides, considering the behaviour of the many high spirited picnickers who come to such places, one can well imagine how this pristine area would be thoroughly ruined.

From Chinna Kallar we walked back to Cinchona along the main road, a lovely route passing the Nirar Weir (Upper Nirar), tea and forest with plenty of fairly fresh dung on the road but not an elephant in sight. They must have been lurking there somewhere but it was perhaps better that we did not come face to face. En route, some estate workers hospitably offered us snacks. They were curious and surprised as to why we should choose to walk in an area that was nothing out of the ordinary for them. Most visitors came by car, they said. They cautioned us about the elephants.

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A Map Butterfly basked on the gravel tarmac of the road. That was a first sighting for me.
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The Western Ghats is a repository of a myriad species of butterflies including India’s largest, the black and yellow Southern Birdwing. Needless to say, Valparai is a good place for butterflies as well. We saw our fair share though most were too fast for our lens.

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Again, not a good shot but gives a glimpse of two biggies – the Southern Birdwing and the Malabar Tree Nymph.

Lime Butterfly
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Not a Cat Among The Pigeons, Here is the Pigeon Among The Grapefruits. Saw this grapefruit tree on the Chinna Kallar road. The tree may have been planted once upon a time but it is certainly growing wild now.
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Let us move away from creatures for a moment. I love this heritage Police Station, built in the British days. It is no longer used. An unaesthetic PWD’esque structure right next to it is the operational building.
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A stone cottage near our guest house was colourfully bedecked with a pretty orange Bignonia venusta garland that grows so well in this salubrious climate. There are many such quaint cottages like this in Valparai, remnants of the British past.
Valparai - Bignonia venusta creeper on cottage

The exotic Thunbergia mysorensis creeper is found in the wild in the forests of the erstwhile Mysore state, ergo the name. They are cultivated in the hill stations of the south, where they bloom in profusion. I have these in my terrace in Mumbai but they rarely flower, and certainly not like this even when they do.
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Valparai is a peaceful place, with a substantial Christian population. The Murugan temple and the CSI church are prominent places of worship on the main road. There is a mosque too somewhere nearby, we could hear if not see it.
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This is the Sacred Heart (I think) church near our guest house, just next to the girls high school.
Valparai - Pretty church

Christmas is celebrated with much gaiety and Christmas Thatha (grandpa) plays a prominent role in the festivities.
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The best known is the Annai Vailankanni church within the Peria Karamalai estate. It is much visited for its reported boon bestowing powers. We have not been there but plan to do so on our next trip.

Almost all visitors to Valparai make a bee line for the better known Balaji Ko-il (temple), a clinically clean “Birla temple” with trademark marble floors and walls, the only concession being the vimanam constructed in Dravidian style. Getting there involves a short uphill walk from the main road into the Birla owned Peria Karamalai estate.

Big wigs and anyone with an estate connection may drive all the way up. We had given the temple a miss on previous visits. On our recent trip we decided to finally pay our respects. By paidal yatra a.k.a walking.
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An discouraging notice at the gate of the estate strictly prohibits photography and even ‘handling of cell phones’ in the temple. For some peculiar reason, photography is not allowed even from the outside of the temple with several watchmen diligently making sure that nobody breaches the rules. These pics were taken from the mountain above. The more interesting walking path is from here but everytime we tried to attempt this route, we were dissuaded by the local estate workers as bison herds had occupied the path!
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The temple was not particularly inspiring. The priests were – let me put it this way, just doing their job. Suffice it to say without any disrespect intended or implied, that the bustling noisy Murugan temple in Valparai town had far more character than the Balaji Koil.

Somehow, we are not drawn to places of worship unless they are of significant antiquity and architectural interest. God resides as much in this dense shola forest than in any structure created by man. But to each their own and peace to all.
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The exotic sounding Nalla Mudi Poonjolai viewpoint is at the edge of a cliff overlooking Anai Mudi in the High Ranges of Kerala. (Anai Mudi reportedly at 2695m AMSL, is the highest peak in peninsular India.)

To reach the Nalla Mudi view point, one has to walk through where else but the Nalla Mudi tea estate. A rather stern looking Forest guard stopped us with a Sorry, No Entry, Elephant problem. He was not however as fierce as he looked and easily succumbed to our pleading that we had come so far from the distant planet of Bombay, so how could we go home without seeing this place?
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There was nothing so great about Nalla Mudi Poonjolai. The weather was hazy so the sighting of Anai Mudi was more in the realm of imagination. Nor did we see any elephants.
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All was not in vain though as we caught a glimpse of the swamy who claims to have seen God here some decades ago and has parked himself here ever since, elephants and Forest Dept. notwithstanding.
The Man Who Saw God At Nallamudi Poonjolai - Valparai

Read all about him in this article from The Hindu:
http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/metroplus/article2372987.ece

The walk back to Mudis from where we caught the bus, was past tea, tea and more tea with pleasant interludes with the locals every now and then.
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It is time to end my tale now with a few random memories of wonderful Valparai. May it always remain so.

Ever Green Tea
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The quintessential Tea Bungalow. This one is the aptly named Woodhouse Mansion in the Puthu Thottam estate. It is available for hire.
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Humbler abodes of estate workers
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As the caption says, that is the priest of the Munirsamy Koil on the roadside at Paralai. He showed us the best place to see the bisons. Next to him is our dear friend Dharmaraj, the Monkey Watcher who would faithfully give us a call whenever any wildlife was around and thanks to him we were privileged to see the Great Hornbill several times.
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This is a photo of the first ever Lion Monkey we saw at Valparai, thanks to Dharmaraj.
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The first Hornbill too, again courtesy Dharmaraj who told us where to look for them and for sure, they were there.
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And the Swamy’s pet Bison
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Some pictures of the evening sky. Like other places at an elevation, sunrise and sunsets were stunning. Every day was different.

Clouds in a clear blue sky lit up by the setting sun
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The red tint in the sky lasted barely ten seconds before it changed to a twilight grey. We were lucky to capture the red.
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Another day, another sunset
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The sky at day break
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And eventually it is time to go down those hairpin bends once again
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There is so much more to this beautiful place than what I have conveyed but I do not wish to overload the viewer.

Thank you for watching and do visit Valparai if you can.

Quick links to the previous chapters in this series:

www.ghumakkar.com/2013/…/valparai-series-part-1-an-introduction/

www.ghumakkar.com/2013/01/29/valparai-series-part-2/

www.ghumakkar.com/2013/02/07/valparai-series-part-3/

23 Comments

  • SilentSoul says:

    What a beautiful update Gitaji. great photos specially of butterflies and tea gardens.

    btw the forest guard looks more like brother of veerappan…LOL

    • Gita AM says:

      Thanks Silent Soul

      “Brother of Veerapan” hahaha, I am sure that guard would be secretly quite pleased! He was actually very friendly.

  • Archana says:

    Gita,

    I am smitten by this post! It is a very well composed write-up. The details are apt, the photos are glamorous and overall, it is a complete post.
    Great work!

    Cheers!

  • One of the greatest post as usual by Gita AM.
    It is like wading in the nature.
    Now it is very tempting to visit Valparai.

  • Nirdesh says:

    Hi Gita,

    Awesome post in capital letters!

  • venkatt says:

    Gita, This is the most exhaustive and complete post on attractions in and around Valparai I have gone through. Well done. Beautiful pics as well. The capture of Balaji temple is indeed a very rare photograph. I have gone there a couple of times and security men are really adamant about banning cameras and mobiles, which in a way is not a bad thing. “God resides as much in this dense shola forest than in any structure created by man. But to each their own and peace to all”-I loved these lines.

    • Gita AM says:

      Thanks Venkatt

      My Valparai blog on Travelpod is much more comprehensive and may be useful for intending first time visitors as the accommodation options are also listed.

      Yes, finally the Balaji temple could be ‘ticked off’. Have you been to the Vailankanni church there? The location looks good from above, right next to a small water body.

  • Vipin says:

    Mind blowing captures, Gita Ji! I am very fond of lakes, many thanks for sharing the beautiful lake and other natural marvels with us…your posts are truly a nature lover’s delight, it just makes you go crazy about visiting these places…let’s see how soon!

    • Gita AM says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Vipin.

      If you like lakes, do visit the Avalanche, Emeralde and Upper Bhavani lakes in the Nilgiris; they are stunning.

  • Nandan Jha says:

    This is just out of this world. Thank you Gita. This is just too good. wow.

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    For once, words fail me, Gita. Simply superb. Valparai has become a must-see destination, thanks to you. Please don’t make us wait for too long for your next travel tale.

  • Superb….excellent post
    Tx for sharing.
    look forward to read more from you

  • Gita AM says:

    “Error establishing a database connection”

    is the message I get for every comment I reply to. It requires repeated attempts to manage to get something posted. Very frustrating!

  • Nandan Jha says:

    @ Gita – I have now put all the four parts together under a new series. Hope you are able to comment now. Wishes and Congratulations again for being the Author of ‘Ghumakkar Featured Story of the Month’, for Feb 2013.

  • Muniraj Gopal says:

    Hi Gita,

    great write up ! What makes it special is the obvious love you have for the place. I have been toying with the idea of visiting Valparai for the past couple of years. You have made up my mind !

    Can you send me the contact details of accommodations please?

    Thank you in advance. Hope you keep writing about your travels.

    Cheers,
    –muni

  • Karthik says:

    Hi Gita,

    Very nice posts !! capturing the essence nicely and elaborately.
    I had the opportunity to visit Valparai 2 days back and was really in awe of the place. Unfortunately I could not spend much time as my visit was unplanned and had to return.
    Thanks to your post, i did have a vicarious feeling of the places that I missed.

    Cheers,
    Karthik

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