Yercaud is my place to go in the hills when I need to get away. A cozy hill town, it is nestled in the Shevaroy hills amidst coffee plantations and forest and overlooks my hometown, Salem.
Every season in Yercaud is unique- colors of spring, mists and thunderstorms of summer, winter’s clear star-studded skies and always, the cool, pure mountain air. Over the years and over innumerable visits the charm of Yercaud never wanes and a couple of hours in the hills are all I need to feel refreshed.
Maha shivarathri, one of the biggest Hindu festivals was celebrated on February 13th 2018.
Maha Shivarathri is the great night of Shiva. People stay awake the whole night, fasting and offering prayers to lord Shiva and visiting temples which remain open the whole night.
In Tamil Nadu, people visit Shiva temples to see the abhishekam that is performed to the Shivalingam repeatedly during the four jamam of this sacred night. A jamam is a unit of time in Tamil consisting of 2 hours and 24 minutes and there are four jamams during the night. They usually bring offerings of milk, honey and so on that is used for the abhishekam. The last and final abhishekam concludes at dawn.It is an important night for people on the spiritual path. In major temples there are Thevaram recitals the entire night.
I was fortunate to visit a number of ancient Shiva temples with a group of friends on Mahashivarathri. We started our temple tour around 8 p.m and returned home at dawn bleary-eyed but happy… definitely a night to remember!!
Some pictures from various temples on Maha Shivarathri.
In Rasipuram, Nityasumangali Mariamman temple is located in the heart of the old town. The annual festival takes place in the Tamil month of Aippasi(Oct-Nov) and is celebrated for a period of two weeks. To the townspeople, Nityasumangali Mariamman is one of their own, a beloved daughter of each family and her festival is a time of re-union and family get-togethers.
I have been to this temple a few times but never during the festival and it is a really lovely temple where you can spend some time enjoying the peace and quiet.
Festival times are auspicious times and on Friday, November 10, during the ongoing festival I went with some friends in the evening to offer prayers at the temple. Rasipuramis usually a quiet place, partly urban, partly rural with a seamless blending of ancient and modern but now it was as if the whole town had come alive.
There was something going on everywhere and needless to say it was fun! Festival crowds, the fair grounds, festival shops, people dancing to the cadence of drum beats, it was all so lively!
Unusual practices can be seen in temples at times like this. In one part of the temple near the Dhyana Ganapathy shrine stood a pujari holding a whip made of coir rope in his hand. People stood in line and as each person stepped up he received some lashings from the whip (very gently, of course and probably as a symbolic punishment for sins), and then the pujari placed the whip on the person’s head and blessed him! I got a whip blessing too!
At the Murugan shrine,a boy pujari sat with a bunch of mayil peeli (pea-cock feathers) in his hand and blessed people after they worshipped Murugan by touching their heads with the long feathers.
In the open courtyard of the temple was the agni kundam which had been the scene of a most important temple ritual the previous day. This was the thee-mithior fire-walking ritual in which hundreds had participated holding a thee- chatti, (a pot with fire in it) in one hand.
On the evening of my visit, the agni kundamwas a bed of ashes and visitors bent down to take the holy ash from the pit and apply it on their foreheads.
There was a light drizzle when we visited the Ooty Government Botanical Garden on a Sunday morning in August. The weather forecast was for rain with a chance of thunder-showers. The light rain did not deter visitors to this most popular garden; most of them carried umbrellas or wore hooded jerkins and rain coats.
Ooty Botanical garden is one of the most beautiful places in the hill-station. It belongs to the colonial era, an expression of the traditional love of gardens of the British. The initial layout of the Ooty Botanical gardens was prepared by the Marquis of Tweedale in the late 1940s with the prime purpose of growing vegetables and supplying them to European residents at an affordable rate. In 1847 funds were raised to transform the venue into a horticultural society and public garden. The garden was designed by William Graham McIvor, a professional gardener from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England. McIvor arrived in Ooty in 1848 and it took ten years for the garden to be completed.
The gardens are laid out on the slopes of Doddabetta and the entrance is at the bottom of the hill, so you have to climb your way up to tour the ascending gardens. It is landscape gardening at its most alluring, the layered beauty of the bright green lawns, the flower beds, and shrubbery in a series of terraces against a backdrop of thick woods and some of the tallest trees making it a magical place.
Spread over 22 hectares it has several sections.There is a Lower garden, a New garden, the Italian garden, a conservatory built in 1912 and many nurseries.
The map of India is a carpet-bed design made with bedding plants of different colors. It shows all the states clearly and is a major landmark in the garden. Opposite the India Map is another main attraction of the garden, a fossil tree trunk from the National fossil Park at Tiruvakkarai in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu which is more than 20 million years old. It is a great favorite with tourists.
Paved pathways lead up to the many levels of the garden. I had fond memories of the Toda mund at the very top of the garden from an earlier visit many years ago. And so we climbed higher and higher enjoying the breathtaking views of the gardens, stopping to rest and to take pictures, inhaling the eucalyptus scented air. At one place the air was heavily scented from the magnolia blossoms on a row of magnolia trees. It was a very pleasant walk.
At the very top of the hill slopes the paved pathways and landscaped gardens end and we followed a mud path that went up through the woods of towering pine and eucalyptus trees. This path takes you to the Toda mund which is a settlement of the Todas, the indigenous tribe of the Nilgiris. On reaching the grassy meadow of Toda mund, I was heartened to see that nothing had changed. At the far end of the beautiful meadow is the Toda temple which you can see from outside. It is built in a circular pit, a curved structure made of grass, bamboo and cane and stone,and has a tiny entrance. The front wall is decorated with symbols – of the sun, moon and the sacred buffalo.
There was a herd of sacred buffaloes under the shady trees at the top of the meadow. One or two stood up on our arrival, to inspect intruders like ourselves, and then went back to chewing cud. It is beautiful up at the Toda Mund. Traditional Toda dwellings are gone and the Todas live in modern houses. But the temple remains symbolic of a people who zealously follow their unique culture. Behind the temple the hills rise up, terraced farms forming layers of green on the hill-sides.
On the walk back to the Botanic gardens we took a different path, as the mud path was wet and slippery, stopping to chat and ask directions from the garden workers.
It was noon when we left the gardens. There is a Tibetan market just opposite the main entrance that sold knitwear. Here we were directed to a Momo restaurant further down the road where they serve Tibetan cuisine. Piping hot bowls of veg.Thukpa and hot momos were just right for a rainy day!
Situated on the slopes of Elk Hill, Rose Garden, Ooty is one of the largest rose gardens in India and its collection of roses among the largest in the world. April – May is the best time to visit the gardens for spectacular displays of roses.
According to the Tamil Nadu Horticultural department, “Centenary Rose Park, Udhagamandalam owes its genesis to the Centenary Flower Festival. It covers an area of 4.00 Ha comprising of five terraces. The Rose Garden is situated in the lower slopes of the Elk Hill in Vijayanagaram Farm on the North Western side facing the Udhagamandalam Town.
The Rose varieties planted in this Garden were assembled from different sources i.e., Bangalore, Chandigarh, Kodaikanal, Yercaud besides Nilgiris and more than 25,000 Rose plants of 3800 varieties have been planted. The collection includes Floribundas, Polyanthes, Miniatures, Hybrid Teas and Creepers. Gradually, it is proposed to increase the number of varieties to 50000 by introducing new varieties from different Centers in India and abroad. The Garden includes major attractions such as Arches, Bowers, Tunnels, Umbrellas, Green Houses, and Fountains and ‘Nila Maadam’ stone lanterns, rockeries, etc.”
The workers in the garden warned us that the flowers were few in this rainy season (August) and that season time was April –May. There were 4000 varieties of roses spread over five sloping terraces.
The garden has beautiful walkways and landscaped terraces on the sloping hillside and it takes an hour or two to see everything..well, almost everything!!..It’s so big. Situated on the hill slopes, it offers lovely views of Ooty. A great place to visit!
The Government Museum housed in Stone House, Ooty is a small museum and one of two state-run museums in Ooty. It has a delightful collection of stuffed animals and birds, mounted hunting trophies along with regular exhibits of ancient coins, metalware, rock samples, wood carvings, to name a few. It also showcases artefacts of the tribal communities of the Nilgiris, the Todas, Badagas,Kurumba and Irula tribes with separate sections devoted to each tribe.
The models of Toda hut and temple are interesting with diagrams of the architecture used in building them. This museum has to be seen at a leisurely pace to fully appreciate the exhibits on display. There are some rare and unusual exhibits like bamboo manuscripts which are manuscripts made on bamboo strips, and colorful puppets made from leather and used in traditional shadow play(Bommalaatam, Nizhalaatam).
There is a copper embossed plate with intricate details depicting Sethu Bandanam, an important occurance described in detail by Sage Valmiki in the Ramayana involving the building of a bridge across the sea by the Vanara Sena to reach Lanka and rescue Sita.
Considering the fact that the Ramayana is a documentation by Sage Valmiki on events that happened a million years ago and the Sethu Bhandanam event described in it has been corroborated by NASA’s satellite picture of the bridge beneath the sea, the importance of artefacts such as this copper plate is momentous. The exact period of the copper plate is not known. Parts of it are damaged but the sheer beauty of the embossed plate and the etching of myriad details is fascinating. These are details described by Sage Valmiki in the Yudha Kaanda of the Ramayana.
Sethu bandhanam in epics 2.1. Valmiki10 describes the construction of ‘Sethu’, which was built in a record time of 5 days under the leadership of Nala, the son of Viswakarma, in his Ramayana in 25 verses. Rama asks Nala to construct a dam on the sea to Srilanka, as advised by Samudraraja. Nala agrees and Vanaras who looked like high mountains went in all directions and brought mountain like rocks and stones. They brought trees, either cut or uprooted. The vanara sena uprooted rocks which resembled huge elephants, using machines and brought them to the seashore with the help of carrier vehicles. “The dam constructed by Nala who was as skilled and talented as his illustrious father, looked like milky way” says Valmiki. The joyous roar raised by the vanaras on completion of the dam silenced even the deadliest noise of the mighty ocean.11 92
While the museum, though small is very interesting, Stone House itself is filled with history. Its history is intrinsically connected with the history of Ooty. It was the home that John Sullivan built for himself and his family in 1822, the first European dwelling to be built in Ooty.
John Sullivan, the Collector of Coimbatore set out to explore the Nilgiris in 1819 after obtaining an order charging him to investigate the “origin of the fabulous tales that are circulated concerning the Blue Mountains to verify their authenticity and to send a report to the authorities”.
He first reached Kotagiri where a small British settlement was established. Ooty was still ‘undiscovered’. In April 1822 Sullivan arrived in Ootakamund, bought land from the Todas at ‘roughly a rupee an acre’ and started work on his Stone House so called because it was built entirely of stone, which he completed the following year. It was called Kal Bangala by the tribals, kal being the tamil word for stone.
In a letter he wrote to Thomas Munro,the Governor of Madras, he says, ….this is the finest country ever…it resembles I suppose Switzerland more than any other part of Europe…the hills beautifully wooded and fine strong spring with running water in every valley.
Sullivan established the hill station of Ootacamund, the first hill station of India. Convalescent British soldiers were sent here to recuperate and it became a home away from home of the British community residing in India.He also created Ooty lake by damming a stream to meet the water requirements of the new town.
Most important is the fact that John Sullivan was a progressive and liberal person who insisted that the Todas be given freedom to manage their own affairs. He was called ‘a friend of the natives’.
Sullivan was instrumental in cultivation of fruits, vegetables, barley and tea in the hills. The Ooty we see today is a legacy of this enterprising Englishman.
Stone House with its small rooms and bay windows has stood the test of time, a beautiful legacy of British architecture and British colonial India.
There was a long holiday for Vinayaka Chaturthiin the last week of August and a visit to Ooty was planned rather suddenly. We were on our way by three in the afternoon on Friday, 25th August, had reached Mettupalayam in the foothills by six or seven and arrived in Ooty by nine p.m. slowed down a bit by all the vehicles on the winding mountain road..all holiday makers like ourselves. It looked as if everyone had the same brainwave that we had.. namely a holiday in Ooty!!It was after dark that we negotiated the mountain road and passed many mountain villages. What made the journey memorable was that the villages were decked with festive lights and we passed many colorful Ganesha pandals.We passed many village temples as well which were open at that late hour and could see people going home from the temples. It was Vinayaka chaturthi after all… and I remember thinking how nice that we were travelling on this special day and could see all the happy scenes.
Ooty is one of the most popular hill stations of India. Much has been written about this beautiful town in the Blue mountains – The Nilgiris. This post and the next few ones are my memories of a wonderful holiday and I hope you enjoy reading about them.
On Saturday morning after breakfast,the first place of visit was Doddabetta, the highest peak in the Nilgiris at 2636 MSL( 8,650 ft.),8km from Ooty. The flat summit has a reserve forest area around it and is accessible by road. This is a most popular tourist destination in Ooty.
The spectacular views of Ooty from the observation tower are out of this world and on clear days many important places near Ooty can be seen. The place has a cafeteria for snacks and tea. It’s a lovely place where everyone tends to linger, to enjoy the 360 degree views, the strong winds,the mists and the August drizzles and to take pictures.
On the way back from Doddabetta peak we were given discount coupons to be used in Benchmark Tea factory and Museum. So our next stop was Benchmark Tea factory which was located about 4km from Doddabetta. Tourists are given a guided tour of the factory where you can read about the history of tea and other interesting information in the beautifully illustrated pictures around the museum. You can see the tea leaves being dried and processed. You can sample nine different varieties of tea free of cost. Chocolate is made here and visitors can taste a free sample. You can buy varieties of tea and chocolates and eucalyptus oil at the retail counters in the premises.
Late afternoon we went to the beautiful Ooty lake and went boating. Then it started to rain! And then one of the pedals on the pedal boat came off and back we came to the boathouse. While TTDC did ask us to take another boat we had had enough boating for the day.
These are some pictures on the history of tea taken inside the Benchmark Tea museum.