Athri Hills, Alwarkurichi, Thirunelveli
Athiri Malai (or Athiri Hills) is in Pothigai mountain range in the Western Ghats near the village of Alwarkurichi, in Thirunelveli district. These hills are named after Athiri Maharishi as he and his wife Anusuya Devi lived here. The trek starts from the Kadana Dam and ends at a temple for Athiri Maharishi and Anusuya Devi. It is believed that the mere brush of the breeze from these hills cures one of a variety of common ailments. Athri hills are tucked in the north eastern part of Kalakad Mundathurai Tiger Reserve. The Hills are clad in evergreen forests right from the base to its higher reaches. This contrasts the southern parts where low elevation starts with thorny scrubby jungles.
The gap in the Athri hill range allows more moisture from the western side to enter the region all year around which has resulted in dry evergreen forest even in the lower elevation. The dry evergreen forest is considered to be rich in medicinal plants, which has brought here many ‘siddhars’ (siddha medicine practitioners) in search of plants for their practice. The access to these hills is still through a bridle path which crosses the Kallar River and the lack of a good motorable road so far has kept it away from the glare of tourists.
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Athiri Maharishi Temple
The Athiri Maharishi temple lies in the middle of a dense forest and the present day temple was built by the joint efforts of a retired bank officer and the villagers of several tiny hamlets lying in and around the foothills of Athiri. The temple doesn’t have any of the features that you see on a regular temple. It looks just like a “Kudil” or a modest cottage of sages that has been transformed to a temple. You can very well imagine Sage Athiri and his wife Anusuya Devi resting here in their abode. There is also an idol for Korakkar Siddhar and it is believed that he performed his penance here. The shrines of Lord Vinayaka and Lord Murugan are placed in an open courtyard near the temple.
The temple is located at a height of 1500 ft. height in the Athri Hills. It is also believed that Sage Athri created the "Ganga River" for his ardent disciple Korakkanathar in the form of a spring in these hills. Even today, we see this perennial spring which bears water all through the year. At the center of the spring stands a Ganga Devi idol, which was installed by the Athri followers in his memory. Although the installation is estimated to be about 1,200 years old, other deities have been added over time. The villagers now call it Murugan temple and the legend of Athri seems to be slowly fading away.
Also, another deity, Karupusamy whose idol is about five km away from the site is hardly remembered. In 2004, the quaint place close to the spring was replaced by a concrete structure and also got consecrated with a pompous festival. “Thai Ammavasai” (The New Moon Day in the Tamil month of Thai) is considered as the most auspicious day to worship the deities of this temple: Sage Athiri, Anusuya Devi, Ganga Devi, Korakkanathar Siddhar and Vana Durga.
It is believed that the tree under which Korakkar, the disciple of Athiri Maharishi meditated stands at a distance of 10-20 feet away from the hill even today. When one meditates under in this tree, one is instantly transported to a divine haven of peace and tranquility. Usually people visit this temple on weekends, full moon and new moon day. During weekdays very few people visit the temple and they generally start the trek at around 9:30 AM. Since the trek is in a forest, forest officials maintain a record of all the persons visiting the temple. Forest Officials allow people to enter the forest only between 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM.
If you plan to visit Athiri hills and if it is the first time, officials may advise you to join other groups or persons who have been to the temple before as one might lose their way in the forest. Hence if you are visiting the hills for the first time, it is advisable to be there at around 9:00 AM as you can join other groups. It will take 2 hours to reach the temple. There is a Siva temple in Sivasailam village which is in the foothill of these mountains. The Nandi statue needs to get a special mention as it looks very real.
Temple in Sivasailam is a west faced temple and it is in straight line to the Athiri Maharishi temple. Strangely, below this temple in a lime stone cave formation lies a mosque which came into existence about 300 years ago. Today it attracts 2,000 people during Kanthuri festival. Recently a new mosque was added close to it. All the devotees visit both holy shrines without any conflict.
The stream that flows here originated on the Full Moon Day of the Tamil month, Aavani (August 15 – September 15). It is a belief that one will be blessed with abundant wealth if one performs a pooja at this temple on the full moon day of the Avani month. Hence, there prevails a stiff competition among devotees to offer poojas on this day. Along with Chitra Pournami and Masi Shiva Rathri, Aavani Pournami is also considered auspicious.
Chithirai Pournami (new moon in the first month of the Tamil year) is the main festival of this temple which draws 2,500 people who camp inside the forests for a night. With mounting pressure from the forest department the camping has been abandoned recently. Apart from this, on every full moon and new moon days about 200 to 300 people gather here.
Unexplained Mysteries of the Athiri Hills
Every year during the Tamil Month of Chithirai (April 15-May 15), a strange unexplained natural phenomena is observed here. During the hot summer month, there are showers of fragrant rosewater from the two Amirthavarthini trees in front of the Athiri Maharishi Temple. It is believed by religious scholars that 35 Siddhars reside in the forests of the Athiri Hills in various forms and it is these Siddhars who are responsible for the soothing rosewater showers.
It is believed that the Siddhars worship Lord Shiva by raining rosewater on his temple. Research by the officials of the forest department, says that the reason for these showers are the tiny insects found on this tree. The insects suck rosewater from the barks of the trees and shower it as rain.
No one has ever found out the reason for this mysterious phenomenon to occur only on the same few days every year (The last five days of the Tamil month Panguni and the first five days of the Tamil month Chithirai). It also occurs only on two specific trees located to the east and west of the temple. It is truly baffling to try to explain how these tiny insects are able to shower huge amounts of rosewater.
Purity of the Waters of Athiri Ganga:
The holy water from the stream Athiri Ganga never becomes stale when it is taken back home and left in one’s Pooja room even for years. However it has been noticed that if one touches the holy water with an impure hand, it at once turns stale and begins to breed maggots.
This temple is located in a reserved forest area that comes under the jurisdiction of the “Kalakad – Mundanthurai Tiger Sanctuary”. The trek begins at the foothills of the Hills from the Kadana Dam and culminates at the temple for Athiri Maharishi and Anusuya Devi. It can be reached within two hours on foot. The trail is picturesque with the magnificent Western Ghats in the background. The trek is not very steep and even beginners can handle it easily. Apart from few short stretches that are steep, the rest of the path is pretty straightforward.
Halfway through the trek you have to cross the Athiri Ganga River. The water is so crystal clear that you can see the pebbles and fishes in the stream. A rope is tied to two trees on either bank. People can hold the rope to cross the river without difficulty. As you go deeper into the forest the foliage becomes denser and darker. You can spot huge number of butterflies and large red and black centipedes crawling on the ground.
· People can visit the temple only between 9.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. Forest officials note down the name of everyone who visits the temple.
· Navigating through the forest paths can be tricky for first timers. So it is advisable to join other groups or people who have visited earlier. Be there around 9.00 a.m. so you can join other groups.
· You cannot carry plastics, cameras, liquor bottles with you as this area falls under Reserve Forest cover.
· Devotees usually visit the temple on auspicious days like full moon day and new moon day and on weekends.
· Do not litter.
· Make sure to wear the proper attire and footwear as you will have to walk through deep vegetation.
· Also it is advisable to include a basic first aid kit in your backpack in case of any injury.
· Carry a powerful torch as parts of the trek are covered by the dense canopy of the tall evergreen trees and are dark.
If you are coming from Thirunelveli, then you can reach Azhwarkuruchi through any bus to Tenkasi, via Cheranmahadevi. Once you reach Azhwarkuruchi you can hire an auto to take you to the Kadana River Dam, the starting point for your trek to Athiri Maharishi temple. From Tenkasi or Ambasamudram, you can reach the Kadana Dam through mini-buses that go on this route. From the town of Alangulam, you can reach Azhwarkuruchi through Pottal-Pudhur by taking a left turn at Idaikal Vilaku.
Alwarkurichi is located at about 14 Kms from Ambasamudram, 24 Kms from Tenkasi, 11 Kms from Papanasam, 24 Kms from Veeravanallur, 60 Kms from Thirunelveli, 130 Kms from Thiruvananthapuram and 200 Kms from Madurai. Buses plying from Thirunelveli to Tenkasi stop at Alwarkurichi. Nearest Railway stations are located at Tenkasi, Veeravanallur and Ambasamudram. Nearest Airport is located at Madurai and Thiruvananthapuram.