Travels through Thekkady: From Kumily's cardamom hills to floating on the Periyar

Editor's note: This is part two of a Kerala travel series. Read part one here.

The bus station in Kumily is at the brink of an important trade route, with a toll naka located one family masala dosa’s distance away.  The walk from here to the Periyar Sanctuary barely makes us break a sweat. But on the way, every once in a while, a whiff of cardamom conjures fleeting images of wild plantations, like panicking specks of dust suddenly sighted in a beam of sunshine. And in this aroma lies Kumily’s great seduction. At one time this place was the great pursuit of the western world. The discovery of  America, Vasco Da Gama, The East India Company, before they became history, were stories about men and women of industry who set out, seeking the legendary wealth of Kumily’s spices. And the musk of these spices is omnipresent here. It is on the curve of its highways, on the sprinkle in its tea, in the flavour of its water, and on the breath of its people.

The mile long stretch of road that leads to the Periyar National Park has the welcoming vibes of a typically tourist friendly neighbourhood. Kashmiris invite you to their boutiques in three different languages of which English is the most oriental. Terracotta and faux wood motels ooze jungle allure, and duplexes typical of Kerala’s ‘simple in design, smashing in colour’ style of gulf money architecture, line either side of the street. A white man in a felt hat strolls by smoking a spliff and waves ‘Hullo’. Any pre-journey jitters are washed off.

 Travels through Thekkady: From Kumilys cardamom hills to floating on the Periyar

A view of the Periyar forest and the lake. Image courtesy: Sanjiv Nair

The host at the homestay we had signed up for is a quiet and cool man by the name of Shibu. His mannerisms are economical, his eyes are steel grey and his features are pinched together, as if to maximize the sheen of his dense moustache. His highly rated homestay, Kerala House, makes as innocuous an impression upon entry as a sand dune in the Thar. But when we entered our room, we were reduced to dehydrated desert walkers who at the brink of death had come upon a spring of water, spilling our baggage onto the floor and staggering with disbelief to the balcony. Shibu was used to seeing men reduced to mules at the sight of what the room overlooked, for without judgment or any discussion on payment, he permitted us time to soak in the view. I remember my friend describing the room to be ‘of the kind that life aspirations are built around’. In retrospect, that observation feels like an understatement.

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Shibu's mannerisms are economical, his eyes are steel grey and his features are pinched together, as if to maximize the sheen of his dense moustache. Image courtesy: Sanjiv Nair

The Periyar forest is as old as the land. A hundred and twenty years ago the Mullaperiyar dam was constructed to build sustenance out of the raging Periyar river, that would flow indifferently past famine affected lands. This dam drowned a basin in the forest and created the 26 square kilometre Periyar Lake at its centre. Naturally, the evergreens and moist deciduous trees of teak, rosewoods, sandalwoods, jacarandas, mangoes, jamuns, kinos and bamboos, sacred figs, banyans and tamarinds, in the Periyar National Park are especially robust in color and vitality, for apart from the Kerala sunshine and rain, they draw nourishment from this magnificent open air reservoir at its nucleus. The forest’s undulating landscape of rolling hills and fertile plains with these magnificent trees that look like gigantic multi colored broccoli sprigs stitched into the terrain, have perennial companionship with cotton clouds that just don't want to leave this eden of the south. This divinity, in its entirety, is the view from our room, from the balcony adjacent our room, and from the memory of my heart, that has left a little bit of itself in some tiny little corner in that room.

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The Periyar lake shimmers invitingly against the red soil shores like a rich smear of deep green jam on perfectly browned toast. Image courtesy: Sanjiv Nair

A herd of bison keep us company that evening, chewing on the grass that flanks the woods, rubbing their hide against the navel high wall that separates us from the grass. We blissed out and discussed plans to take over Kerala House and live there forever and ever.

There are many ways to infiltrate the Periyar forests. There is a nature walk, a cloud walk, a green walk and a border trek which are all hiking and trekking trips of varying degrees of intensity. There is tiger trail safari that includes camping inside the forest and a Jungle Inn that allows visitors to reside in watch towers deep in the heart of the National Park. And then there was what we opted for, the jungle scout, a post-midnight walk through the forest. Shibu had scheduled us for the 1 am hike, as per our instructions. A strong shot of coffee was needed for the kill. The French Cafe, a place as Gallic as a mundu, and as much a cafe as a pumpkin farmer’s backyard, provided us with our poison.

The midnight safari had two other participants. A British woman and her friend who could have been Eastern European but I am not really sure. A forest guard with a Shylockian stinginess towards conversations was our guide. Equipped with torches that shed as much light as a glow worm’s behind and with trouser socks (which is not the scientific term for it I am afraid) to protect us from leeches, we headed into the forest on a tar road. And on a tar road we spent twenty percent of our time. And very close to a tar road on which we would often hear trucks blare by, was where we usually used to be when we were not on the tar road. The two times that we weren't around either we spotted a family of porcupines, running away with their skirt of lethal quills up in the air like can-can dancers escaping a particularly feisty audience. The other time we spotted sambhar herds staring at us frozen like a taxidermist’s trophies. I thought I heard them laugh at our feeble torches as we went by. As far as the atmospheric thrill of a midnight hike under a moonlit sky, through the verandah of the jungle, was concerned we felt a little less at threat than we would have before jumping into a cold water shower. A few more words on where we were, what flora if not for the fauna we were surrounded by, a bit more participation would have made a world of difference. After a while we just wanted to get back. The British woman on our way out of the National Park invited us to their home in England where they promised us that we could see more animals in their backyard. I shouted back “that’s because your forefathers shot all of ours you ba****ds” and ran, wearing those embarrassing knee length trouser socks that were attacked by as many leeches as there are sambhar deer on the moon. I didn't really do either of these, but I really wish I had.

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There are many ways to infiltrate the Periyar forests. There is a nature walk, a cloud walk, a green walk and a border trek which are all hiking and trekking trips of varying degrees of intensity. Image courtesy: Sanjiv Nair

The Periyar river has a hotly disputed history, of which you might hear different versions depending on which side of the Kerala-Tamil Nadu divide you source your stories from. Water wars in a fast changing climatic landscape grow worse by the day, with both sides having just cause and neither in a particular hurry to agree with the other’s point of view. But the first great institutional battle for the Periyar was fought by one Lieutenant General Pennycuick for the construction of the Mullaperiyar dam a hundred and thirty years ago. It was to earn funding for the construction of the dam soon after the great famine of the (then) Madras province of 1876. The tale of its construction is a story for another time, one fraught with danger, deception and a profound amount of tragedy, but in the existence of the dam is testimony of an iron willed engineer and his desire to do good unto a people that were not his own but had suffered far too much for far too long. And in all the time that the river has flowed, his name is legend, to those who live close by.

At dawn, as we wait for a dual storied ferry to take us for a ride on the Periyar Lake, I am told of Pennycuick’s story by a man from Cumbum valley in Tamil Nadu, which is on the other side of the Natural Park. He tells me of a Pennycuick Temple in his village. Of an active fanclub of John Pennycuick, of a ceremonial dish called Pennycuick Pongal. And of people from his village, much like this man himself, who are still being named John Pennycuick in his memory.

The attendant on board the steamboat ferry serves tomato coloured life jackets to all those who enter. With soot and grime stains around the shoulder, this protective vest smelt dangerously bacteria ridden. But there is an impatience in us to set sail that constipates objections. The lake shimmers invitingly against the red soil shores like a rich smear of deep green jam on perfectly browned toast. It is docilely quiet, and deceptive for we are told it is also dangerously deep. Migratory birds perch and fawn and preen on the black rotting remains of submerged trees that rise like skeletal fingers from the water’s surface, clawing at an unfair past that condemned them to death by drowning for no fault of their own. At the shores of some stretches of the land we see herds of bison feeding on grass, and boars that scamper into the jungles purposefully as if they were running late for work. The woods at some places seem so thick that light, if it were to ever make its way in, would struggle to find a way out. Fishes occasionally pluck at the water’s surface making sounds like tiny water canons that always manage to make the tourists turn and check. We were all alert in communion to that one exceptional moment - a tiger out on prey, a crocodile that no one knew of, or even an elephant out for a swim — that never came. No matter. It was exceptional nevertheless. The rest of the day we spent catching up on sleep that came easy under the spell of the Kerala House serenity. In the evening Shibu had us lined up for a ringside view of war.

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The Periyar lake is docilely quiet, and deceptive for we are told it is also dangerously deep. Image courtesy: Sanjiv Nair

The Kadathanadan Centre has the deceptive dimensions of a large house. A small door that emerges after climbing a flight of stairs, glows from an ember hued lighting coming from within. The murmurs of a crowd that you could not have fathomed from outside accompanies it. We join those who wait inside, taking our seats adjacent the aluminium tubings of a fencing, below which is a pit, the red color characteristic of the local soil. The pit is rectangular and roughly the size and depth of a swimming pool. At the corner farthest away from us was a hillock shaped seven tiered constellation of lamps. This is the Puttara. Once the Puttara is lit, and prayed to can the demonstration of the oldest martial arts form known to mankind, the kalaripayattu, commence.

After an innocuous bout of stretches and somersaults that we weren't sure why we were applauding, a very martial, aggressive and overall crappy soundtrack began to thunder within the confines of the chamber. Even the lamps had begun to flicker. And thus began one of the most impressive hours of action choreography that I have ever seen. Medieval weapons made of wood and metal crashed relentlessly on each other. Knives were slashed, swords were parried, shields were shattered, bodies were spun and flung and contorted in ways that made my spine sizzle. And now the thrash of applause that had increased in frequency and temerity was feeling more and more justified. Soon, even the ringside became a prop for battle as the most skilled of performers ran over vertical walls to  land telling blows concluding mock battles. Audience members were invited to provide hurdles to create even more dangerous platforms for the martial artists to perform their stunts. And just when we thought the place couldn't possible get any more explosive, the lights were turned off. And in the darkness that heaved from the exertions of these phenomenal athletes, fire was introduced.

At the end of the show the audiences were called to interact and pose with the performers. I really wanted to. I couldn't. I have interviewed presidents and celebrities without breaking a sweat. That evening I was frozen, petrified to speak to them. Thirty two years of life on this planet, and I had finally known what it was like to be starstruck.

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To soothe the nerves I hit a bus stand bar packed to the rafters with hard folks who peered at the out of towners like barroom brawlers in a Sergio Leone flick. A word of advice to those who follow in our footsteps. Walk in, like you own the place. Walk out, before they find out otherwise.

The conclusion of our stay in Kumily was in the company of a wildly idiosyncratic old man. Abraham’s Spice Garden is nearly seventy years old. It is a completely organic garden that has a minor ecosystem of its own. Ask Abraham how does he keep it organic, and depending on which side of his cigarette break you catch him, he might either run you through the process of making natural fertilizers. Or tell you about all the varieties of spiders that the garden employs to wage war on bug infestation. Humor his jokes and the hour long trip shall run slightly longer, for his trees are like his children whom he has nurtured from sapling to a pedigree of tree he is proud of.

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The conclusion of stay in Kumily was in the company of a wildly idiosyncratic old man — Abraham. Humor his jokes and the hour long trip shall run slightly longer. Image courtesy: Sanjiv Nair

He shows us the yesterday, today and tomorrow flower, each day represented by the color of its petals, the plant with leaves that pray to Ram and another with lemons large enough to have bogged down Hanuman. I was tempted by a chilli he prevented me from tasting with a slap on my wrist like I was an errant child walking into a gunpowder hold with a matchstick. Instead he fed me a smaller relative of the chilli, the size of a mosquito from which he asked me to take the tiniest bite possible which I did with no compunction, for what Indian backs out from a chilli challenge. The devil’s eye is no chili my friends. It is a nuclear explosion, one that has a half-life period of hours of ulcer-inducing heat. I was red for the next ten minutes, which Abraham spent with a childlike grin on his face, as he fed me leaves of cinnamon and mint which I still carry with me as protection from the apocalypse. I then pointed out to him a palm sized flower, one that you will find everywhere in these parts, piquing your curiosity with its color of hot pink fringes on vanilla white petals. Abraham tells me I have a penchant for destruction, for the flower that I was most curious of was called the Angel’s Trumpet. It is used as a component for neural medication. But it is also abused as a hallucinogen that can transport you to permanent limbo due to irreparable brain damage. Also known as Dhatura, this flower has spawned a mind control powder that is becoming the 21st century’s greatest variant of the date rape drug.

Abraham takes us to a closet-sized chamber where the cardamom is dried. A metal contraption the size of an auto rickshaw guzzles ripe cardamom and turns them consumption ready. And after this last pitstop he bids us farewell. He looks a tad disappointed that his son is guiding the next batch, a group of young Italians, of whom two are the most beautiful women I have ever laid eyes on. “Aah well,” he says and lights another cigarette, and with that he sends us on our way with our mind overridden with thoughts of making it to our train in time and our breath smelling like a valley of flowering cardamoms.

My next journey was to a beach town, where we dragged the sea onto the sand, bunked with a bleeding junkie, raced a bike with the sea on one side and the backwaters on the other while  discovering the similarities between a Brahmini Kite and a surfer.

The author is a freelance writer and contributes to several lifestyle and travel magazines. He tweets @jokesapaat

Updated Date: Dec 10, 2016 16:29:25 IST