Agasthyamala : A Adventure Pilgrimage
Agasthyamala or Agasthyargoodam is one of the highest peak in western ghats of Kerala with an altitude of 1868m. It is one of the rich biodiversity hotspots and soon will be declared as a heritage site. The hill gets its name from sage Agasthya muni and is known as Kailash of South. Agasthyamala is rich in medicinal herbs having around 2000 species. The medical plant is known as "Arogyapacha" is an extra-ordinary herbal plant-available here which is used by local tribes for a quick energy booster and having unique medicinal properties.
Although the yatra season had begun and the train was packed to the core, I somehow managed to reach Trivandrum in the wee hours of that chilly morning. After munching a few appams for breakfast I headed straight away to a place called Kottur and after a bumpy jeep ride reached a small sleepy hamlet of Kanni tribe settlement called Podium in the afternoon. It is cozily tucked away inside the Peppara wildlife sanctuary about 70 kms from the capital city.
We visited the Peppara Backwater and after refreshing under a perennial waterfall nearby I reclined over a rock overlooking the hill. The monolithic giant rock face of Agasthya Mala, Agasthyarkoodam, or Agasthyamalai rising above 6300ft was looming in the distance dominating the landscape. I was on an adventurous trek in south India, to that sacred hill situated in the heart of the sanctuary
My friend and guide Surendranan, for the next few days, narrated a few of the mythological stories related to the sacred hill and the sage Agasthya. Having read many mythological stories in the Chandamama monthly in the childhood days about sage Agasthya, I tried recalling them.
Pleased upon Parvathy's penance to achieve the consort hood of Lord Siva, the Lord himself appears before her and agrees to marry Her. The spiritual wedding was solemnized on Mount Kailasa. All the Devas, Bhootas, Asuras, Yakshas, Kinnaras, Gandharvas, etc, and other eminent gods including Brahma and Vishnu, came down from their respective extra-terrestrial realms to the earth, to Mount Kailasa to witness the wedding. Due to the weight of the population in the north the earth started to tilt. Lord Shiva then requested Agasthya Muni to rush to the southern part of India and balance the earth from further tilting. Sage Agasthya came down to a place which later on came be known as Chengannoor (old name not known) in Kerala and sat in mediation and then negated the further tilt of the planet. However, Agasthya muni had laid down a condition before leaving Kailasah that Siva and Parvathy would come down to the place where he would sit, and the marriage will be solemnized again there for his benefit to which all agreed. Finally the Bride and Bridegroom came to Chengannoor to be married again before Agasthya muni. But Parvarthy had her periods and the marriage was postponed. The red blood from Parvathy Devi's menstrual discharge fell on the ground and the mud there turned red. Thus the place got the name Chemmanoor - chem(red)-mann(mud)-ooru(place). Later the name got distorted over ages and now it is more known as Chengannoor, though there are people who call the place as Chemmannoor.
An important legacy worth mentioning here is a of a temple there; considered to be first built by Agasthya muni, where he sat in meditation and the marriage was subsequently re-solemnized; it is here that Siva-Parvathy’s idols are worshiped in that temple. One half of the temple is dedicated to Lord Siva and the other half behind Siva is dedicated for Goddess Parvathy. It is believed that They are available to Their devotees for worship, as husband and wife here. Interestingly it is believed that even today the idol of Parvathy has menstrual flow, though not regular. But if the priest observes blood (claimed to be tested true menstrual blood) in the 'odayaada' during 'nirmalya pooja', Parvathy's idol is removed and kept in a sanctum opposite to the temple within the premises and after a festival 'tripoottaraatu' (7 days) Her idol is placed back into the temple. The festival is celebrated only if Her menses occurs.
Another interesting legend goes like this – there were two demon brothers, Ilvala and Vatapi, who used to kill people who were passing by the forest in a special manner. Vatapi was good at changing to other life forms and the other, Ilvala knew the supernatural slogan Sanjivini Herb which, when invoked can bring back a dead person to life. They hatched a plan against Agastya that Vathapi would turn into a goat and be killed and fed to Agastya. After Agastya had eaten the meat, Ilvala would invoke the Sanjivani mantra to bring back his brother Vathapi to life, who in turn would rend Agastya's stomach and come out thereby killing him. By the plan, one changed into a goat and the other disguised himself as a Brahmachari who invited Agastya to a meal. Agastya knew beforehand about the plan due to his immense Vedic powers, but he resolved to teach both a lesson. After the meal, Agastya simply rubbed his stomach saying Vathapi JeerNo bhava; literally, may Vathapi be digested, while the other demon tried to bring his brother to life in vain. Agastya plainly informed the demon that his brother has been digested and could no longer be brought back to life.
The other facet of the great sage is that he is considered as the first and foremost Siddha. He is considered the guru of many other Siddhas. He is also called Kurumuni, meaning short (kuru) saint (muni). He made contributions to the field of Medicine and Astrology- especially Nadi Astrology which is immensely popular. He is said to have lived for over 5000 years, and that one of his medicinal preparations, Boopathi Kuligai, is so powerful that it can even bring the dead back to life.
Spread over 23 sq km Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve straddles the borders of Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram districts in Kerala, and Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari Districts in Tamil Nadu, at the southern end of the Western ghats. The Agasthyamalai Hills, also called the Ashambu Hills or Agasthyagoodum, lie at the extreme southern end of the Western Ghats mountain range along the western side of South India. The hills are notable as the habitat for over 2,000 species of medicinal plants among which 50 plants are very rare and declared endangered - those on the verge of extinction.
It is also called as the abode of the Vedic sage Agasthya. Hence it is popularly known as Agasthyamala. The hills are home to Parasitic plants like Magenta Ghost flower - Christisonia Tubulosaand variety of flora and fauna. Rare species of orchids such as Paphiopedilum druryi, Terrestrial Orchid namely Dendrobium herbaceum and Lady Slipper orchid too are found in the dense forests here.
The Agasthya mountain region is known to show exceptionally high levels of abundance among plants, many of which are restricted in their distribution. The mountain region receives intense rains for more than six months. A few evergreen trees like Cullenia Exarillata, Palaquium Elliptioum, Baccaurea courtallensis - Mootapalam in Malayalam, and in Kannada Kolikuki and Aglaia Elacagnoidea dominate the vegetation here. Studies have been conducted to document the flora in and around the jungle. The report reveals that there are over 170 species of plants in undisturbed forests, which includes over 75 species of canopy trees, 50 species of shrubs and nearly 25 species of lianas and herbs. Clinging on the branches of Cullenia and Elaeocarpus tuberculatus one may see exotic orchids of which there are 25 and more species.
We spotted a few butterflies such as Red Admiral, Blue Tiger, and Great Egg Fly butterflies. Agasthyamala has also the origins of many rivers like Kallada, Achankoil, Vamanapuram, Karamana and Neyyar River in the Kerala side and the Thamirabarani, Ramanadhi, and Manimuthar in Tamil Nadu side. Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve is under consideration by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee for selection as a World Heritage Site.
These hills contain areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance. The hills contain outstanding examples of ecosystems and communities of plants and animals representing significant ecological and biological processes. The hill is blessed with rare species of herbs and medicinal plants. A very rare and special herbal plant named Aroggya pacha (Trichopus zeylanicus) famously known as Plant of Eternal Health , is a speciality of Agasthyamala, and it attracts many researchers to this area. The sides and slopes of Agasthyakoodam is natuarally gardened with a special type of green herbs. Neelakurinji ( Strubhilanthus Kundiyanthus ) which usually blooms once in a 12 years is also found here. When it blooms, the entire area will be carpetted with the violet colored flower and it is an eye catching sight for the nature lovers.
Also, this place is home to many endangered species of wild animals too, like Lion-Tailed Macaques, Bengal Tiger, Nilgiri Marten, Nilgiri Tahr, Malabar Spiny Dormouse, Great Pied Hornbills, Gaur, and Sloth Bear. Reptiles found here include the Green Calottes, Skinks (The Common Blue-tailed skink is found only in the Western Ghats), and snakes like the Bamboo Pit Viper, Shield-Tailed Ocellate, Vine Snake, Rat Snake, and the Cobra
Agastyamala is home to the Kanikkaran people, one of the oldest surviving hunter-gatherer tribes in the world. Agastya was a Dravidian sage and is considered to be one of the seven Rishis (Saptarishi) of Hindu mythology. The Tamil language is considered to be a boon from Agasthyar.
Europeans, particularly those from England, are said to be the first to establish tea gardens around the base stations of Agasthyarkoodam at Brimore, Bonacaud, and Ponmudi.
The next morning with the guidance of Surendranan I started the trek a bit early with some Avial (a dish made from vegetables ) and bananas for packed lunch. The initial walk was through jeep track crossing settlements of Kanni Tribes in the hills. After crossing numerous streams and quenching our thirst we reached the base of the hill by noon. The view of hills surrounding the Agasthyamala including hills of Ponmudi, Banccaud, and the bird’s view of Peppara dam backwaters was awesome!. Making our way through the thick elephant grass we reached a clearing. We found mounds of elephant dung here. Kannan told that elephants come to munch grass and bamboo here, and sometimes trespass villages and create havoc.
After having lunch by the stream we climbed the hillock and walked under the canopy. We had to shed blood as the trail was infested with blood-sucking leeches!. After climbing for more than 3 hours we were on a trail which forked after walking for an hour and finally reached the place called Athirumala which served as a base camp for the trek. There is a forest rest house here amidst the forest overlooking the Agasthyamala hill and other hills. The forest department has ensured the safety of the inmates by digging deep trenches around the rest house. The caretaker and wireless operator cautioned us not to venture into the bushes and go beyond the trenches during the night. We were totally exhausted after walking the whole day. There is also a facility for cooking if the inmates want to conjure up their own delicacies. A quick hot dinner was served by the caretaker. The night was windy and very cold. We slipped into the cozy sleeping bags and retired early.
Next morning after having a cup of Black tea and Tapioca for breakfast we left to Agasthyamala. The initial path was through a beaten path crossing numerous streams. The mist had enveloped the peak and seemed as though we were walking in an air-conditioned forest. After more than an hour of brisk walk we reached a place called Pongalapara, an open place where the North ridge to Agasthyamala starts. The growth of moss makes the rock face slippery with water flowing by from the open crevasses. In was really an arduous climb indeed!.The wind blowing at a speed of 40 -50 kms per hour made walking exhausting. The palm trees on the west face of the hillock were swaying continuously. We took some risks and managed to reach the tip of a hillock with difficulty just holding the fixed rope, the tiny pinch holds of the rock face. A small mistake seemed to be fatal.!.
The whole hillock was covered with dense fog revealing the Ainthuthalai Pothigai the 5 peaked hillocks in the vicinity which seemed as if competing with each other.
The bird’s eye view of the Neyyar dam and the forest was beyond words. There is an idol of Sage Agasthya here in an open place. Devotees come here to offer puja and to seek blessings of the divine seer.
Young girls below age 14 and old women above 50 years are allowed to visit the place strictly!
We spent some time on the hillock and offered puja to the seer. Our guide Surendran cautioned about the deteriorating weather condition and the risky descent on the ridge. Though we had an intention of staying for a long time, reluctantly we retraced the path and cautiously reached the base camp by evening. It is strictly not advisable to visit the place during monsoons or in bad weather conditions. It is better to go with a guide as there is no clear path.
After spending the night in the forest rest house, the next day we hit the trail and retraced the path and reached Podium by afternoon. The forest guards and the Ranger of Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary were patrolling in search of a herd of Pachyderms who had created havoc in the nearby fields the previous night. They cautioned us not to step out of the settlements and to be watchful!. After requesting a local jeep driver and paying him some extra money we somehow managed to reach Kottur by evening. Finally, we were out of danger!