Friday, November 21, 2008

Kolli Hills

Kolli Hills
Kolli Hills is a small mountain range located in central Tamil Nadu in India. The mountains are about 1000 to 1300 m in height and cover an area of approximately 280 km². The Kolli Hills are part of the Eastern Ghats, which is a mountain range that runs mostly parallel to the east coast of South India. The mountains are relatively untouched by tourism and still retain their natural beauty. They were sometimes known as "Kolli Moloi", the "Mountains of Death", due to the many diseases there such as malaria.

Tucked away between the Pachaimalai and Kalrayan hill ranges of the Eastern Ghats in South India, Kolli Hills (or Kollimalai, in Tamil) is indeed a remarkable spot in Tamil Nadu. Unlike man-made Ooty and Kodai, Kolli Hills is traditional hill country, the land of friendly tribes, and a part of the erstwhile kingdom of Valvil Ori, a Tamil king who was renowned for his generosity and valour. Formed in the shape of an open square, these hills were also known as Chathuragiri, literally meaning square-shaped hills.

Located at an ever-so-pleasant altitude ranging from 1000 to 1300 metres above mean sea level, Kolli hills enjoys a salubrious climate throughout the year. This fertile pocket in Namakkal district is where exotic tropical fruits and medicinal plants grow in plenty. The land is still relatively untouched by time, with 16 quaint little tribal villages that once constituted the hill kingdom of Ori. Much of the charm of this hill country still remains. For if you can’t stand the milling crowds of Ooty and Kodai, this surely is one place where you can head to for a quiet holiday.

There are many such legends and interesting myths associated with these hills, which make it all the more interesting and worth visiting. The drive up the 70-hairpin bend Ghat road is truly an enjoyable experience. Contrary to ones expectations, the Ghat road here is quite wide and well-laid, thanks to the tribal welfare funds allotted by the government. The road winds through 13 miles of beautiful scenery and thick forests, where you could pause just to take in the fresh mountain air, or just stop and stare at the monkeys, mongooses or squirrels that frolic on the hillsides. But hairpin bends are frequent and plenty, so it would be wise to be cautious while driving.

The drive up the hill will take you to Solakkadu, the main town here, which is also one of the highest points in the hills. But for the few shops, bus stand, a Highways Department Guest House, a higher secondary school and the weekly shandy, Solakkadu is just an overgrown village. The viewpoint inside the Highways Bungalow compound is worth visiting, as one can have a spectacular view of the surrounding hills and plains from here.

The bi-weekly shandy (dawn market) on Wednesdays and Saturdays attracts fruit vendors and wholesale dealers from the plains. The shandy begins on the previous evening as tribals trickle in with their produce. Many walk all the way from their villages, and camp at Solakkadu for the night, for the actual business begins at 5.00 in the morning and is over by 10.00am. Plantains, Jackfruit, Pineapple, Orange, Pepper, Coffee and Honey are what Kolli Hills is famous for, though you may get a better deal from the vendors than the tribals themselves.

The resident Malayalis (literally meaning people of the hills) are a friendly, sturdy and hard-working people, who generally keep to themselves. They constitute about 95% of the total population of these sparsely populated hills. Researchers feel that these were not the people who lived here during King Ori’s time. The early natives were primarily hunters-gatherers, while the present tribes could have migrated from the plains, bringing farming and agriculture with them.

About 4 miles from Solakkadu, an undulating track leads to the Christian settlements at Valavandhinadu established here by Mr.J.W.Brand, a Christian missionary who lived on the hills between 1913 and 1929. His work was carried on by his wife for many more years, in spite of the poor response from the tribals. But these missionaries were solely responsible for spreading literacy in this area, by establishing many elementary schools.

The next biggest village in the vicinity is Semmedu, which boast of a primary health center, telephone exchange, a few shops, hotels and the Valvil Ori statue. Comfortable accommodation and restaurants are available near Semmedu, at the Nallathambi Resorts and P.A. Lodge. Semmedu also has a statue-memorial to the King Valvil Ori, and is the venue of the Valvil Ori Tourism Festival in August. The festival is primarily a cultural event, which had its origin in the traditional Adi festival when people from all the 16 villages in Ori’s kingdom came together and danced, sang and feasted in praise of their deities and king. They brought with them, the flowers and fruits unique to each region and got together as a community.

In recent times, this festival is organized by the Tamil Nadu Tourism Department to showcase the cultural heritage of this region. The schools and government organisations in the area take part in the cultural events, and the fruit show is a main attraction. A Summer Festival is also held here in May, which is primarily conducted as a source of recreation for the local community.

The best way to enjoy these hills is at a leisurely pace, as there is ample opportunity for trekking and generally relaxing. It would be ideal to stay at one of the good resorts at Semmedu and explore the hills. Summer would be the right time to visit. August is the season for fruits here, and the time for the Valvil Ori Festival. But it would be very windy in August, which could be discouraging for any outdoor activity.

One of the highest points in the hills is Selur Nadu, which is believed to be the place where King Pari, another generous Tamil King, gave away his chariot as support to the helpless jasmine creeper. An ancient culvert can also be seen here.
The long and winding road from Semmedu to Selur Nadu is dotted with beautiful scenery. Banana and coffee plantations with their red and green coffee berries glistening in the sun, tall silver oak trees with glossy pepper leaves wrapped around, guava and orange trees laden with fruit and a host of other tropical plants typical of this region, are a feast to the eye.

There are many spectacular points on the way where you could pause to have a bird’s eye view of the hills and the quaint little tribal villages nestling in the bowl-like valleys. Some of these villages still do not have electricity. Faraway, in the uninhabited hills, are thickly wooded Sholas, similar to the ones found on the Western Ghats. These are the last resorts of the sloth bear, panther, porcupine, deer, fox, hare and a variety of wildlife that once roamed the entire hills.

Another village on the way is Vaasaloorpatti, where the Government Fruit Farm is located. It is a beautiful place where paddy (the traditional quick-yielding dwarf variety indigenous to this region) is cultivated in the valley and a variety of hybrid and native fruits such as jackfruit, oranges, coffee, pepper and spices are grown on the slopes here. At Vaasaloorpatti, the Salesian Sisters of Mary run a free dispensary and maternity hospital for the tribal women. Hill Dale Matriculation School, the only residential private school in Kolli Hills is also located here.

Not to be missed on the way to Vaasaloorpatti from Semmedu is the Tampcol Medicinal Farm at Vaalavandi Nadu, run by the Tamil Nadu government. The farm is surely worth visiting, as Kolli Hills is perhaps better known for its medicinal plants than anything else. A wide variety of medicinal plants and herbs used in Ayurvedic, Siddha and Unani medicine are nurtured, cultivated, gathered and sent from here. Even the most common medicinal plants, acquire a special value when grown here, as the medicinal plants from Kolli Hills are generally considered to be more potent and effective. For example, the Chitharathai (galanga the lesser), an effective remedy for cold, grown here is sold at Rs.400 per kg. Athimaduram (Jamaica liquorice), Karpooravalli (Coleus aromaticus), Thoothuvalai (Trilobatum), Tulasi (Ocimum sanctum), Kizhanelli (Phyllanthus amarus) and a host of other herbs, besides a variety of spices are also cultivated here.

Since ancient times, Kolli Hills has always been famous for its medicinal plants. It is believed that the Sithars (ancient medicine men) lived, researched and meditated here in the caves inside the sacred groves. Many such sacred groves are believed to be found in the forests here (near the Agasagangai falls) even today, and the adventurous go on trekking expeditions, to the caves where the Sithars lived. Stories abound of people chancing upon the stone mortars used by the Sithars to prepare their medicines and concoctions.

The moss covering the inner walls of the Sithar caves is believed to have unique healing properties. The sacred groves are guarded by the local temple deities, and the felling of trees is prohibited here. There is also a popular belief among the locals here that a person could lose his mind while entering certain areas of the dense forest where the Sithars lived. No one knows where exactly these areas are, but these pockets, known as Mathikettan Solai are believed to completely wipe out a person’s memory, for a period of time. A common explanation to this phenomenon is that it could be due to the effect of the concentration of so many highly potent medicinal plants in one place.

Perhaps the biggest attraction in Kolli Hills from a tourist’s point of view is the spectacular Agasagangai waterfalls and the nearby Arapaleeswarar temple at Valapoor Nadu. This ancient Siva temple has inscriptions dating back to the Chola period. One has to climb down the 700 and odd steps leading to the waterfalls from here. The waterfall presents a truly spectacular sight, as the water cascades down 200 feet, covering all around with a fine spray. It would be just enough to stand nearby and get drenched. The climb up the steps can be pretty strenuous, and it is therefore wise to visit the falls only if one is capable of climbing back.

Kolli Hills is thus a naturalists haven - a treasure trove of medicinal plants, and the native home of traditional hill country and people. But like eco-systems elsewhere, these hills too have been invaded by modern farming practices and invasive methods. Tapioca, cassava and hybrid varieties of rice, which were introduced in this region recently, have overtaken the traditional paddy varieties, minor millets, pulses and fruit farms in terms of profitability. The M S Swaminathan Research Foundation has taken efforts to arrest this genetic erosion and rescue the traditional crop varieties.
The local practice of burning the land after each yield has proven to be detrimental to the soil. The wiping out of traditional farmlands and orchards, has contributed to the near extinction of the mountain bees that produced the superior quality honey that Kolli Hills was once so famous for.

There has been an alarming rate of decline in the wildlife found here. Kolli Hills was once known for its Sloth Bear, which used to reside in the Sholas and visit the fruit farms occasionally, lured by the smell of ripe jackfruit. These bears were considered as pests by the local community, and were killed. Ever since King Ori’s time, hunting had always been a major preoccupation in this region. And even now, the Malayali tribes place a premium on hunted meat, which forms a major part of their diet. This explains the almost complete disappearance of the wild boar, porcupine, deer and hare that were once found abundantly in this region.

As far as modern day communication is concerned, Kolli Hills is still rather remote. Though the hotels at Semmedu and the government offices have telephones, reliable communication is still non-existent here. You will have to book your copy of the day’s vernacular newspaper, while the English dailies are rarely sold here.
Out of the floating population that visits the hills, a majority are wholesale traders and planters who have plantations here. While most of the people on business make fleeting one-day visits, people from the surrounding plains do come here on extended holidays. And like elsewhere, the gradual rise in the influx of tourists and vehicular traffic has begun to show on the pristine environment. A visit to the stream near the Arapaleeswarar temple could be an eye-opener of sorts. The rocks near the stream are littered with all kinds of garbage, and it is difficult to find a clean rock to step on, leave alone the suffocating stench. Public consciousness and social awareness seem to be the need of the hour to preserve these valuable hills.

But in spite of all these modern ills, Kolli Hills is still one exclusive place where time has stood still. A quiet little haven in the hills where you could retreat, rejuvenate and re-charge yourself.
General Information and Historical References
The Kollihills became taluk and forms a part of Namakkal district. Semmedu is the headquarters for the Kolli hills and Semmedu is connected by road to Namakkal and Salem. Nowadays the Bus service is provided up to Arapaleeswarar Temple.
BSNL (earlier DOT) established the first Telecommunication networks (LDPCO) in 1977 and after wards the Telecom facilities are continuously expanded depending upon the requirements at Kolli hills.
Flora and Fauna
Forests here are extremely rich and diverse. Higher up the slopes, notable patches of tropical evergreen forests occur and the famous Ariyur Shola is one such. These forests are home to several species of endemic trees and plants. Kolli hills is said to have the largest expanse of evergreen or shola forest cover anywhere in the entire Southern part of the Eastern Ghats. Several coffee plantations, fruit orchards and silver-oak estates occur in this region.
Wildlife such as Sloth bear, barking deer, slender loris, Indian pangolin, jackals, mongoose, palm civets and many reptiles including endemic species like the lizards Hemiphyllodactylus aurantiacus, Calotes calotes, and snakes such as those of family Uropeltidae, the endangered Python molurus and a number of birds are found in Kolli Hills.
Farming and Vegetation
Apart from its historical significance, the mountains are covered with evergreen forests, but increasing areas of forests are cleared for farming. Important farm products of the mountain ranges include coffee, tea, jackfruit, pineapple, black pepper and other spices. Rice and other minor millets form the staple food of the tribal people who inhabit these mountains.
The jackfruit grown on these mountains is well known for its taste and fragrance and is often soaked in wild honey that is also harvested from these mountains. The mountains are covered by lush green vegetation in the spring and monsoon, and are streaked with streams which add to the natural beauty.
There are three reserved forest were controlled by Government of Tamil Nadu, namely Ariyur Solai, Kundur Nadu, Pulianjolai.
Religious Significance
The mountain is a site of pilgrimage, because of the Arapaleeswarar temple, which is believed to have a secret path to the Shiva temple in Rasipuram. The Shiva temple is said to have been built by Valvil Ori in the 1st or 2nd century when he ruled this area.
Tourist spots in Kolli Hills can be found in the below link:

Hotels that are available in Kolli Hills can be found in the below link:
Kolli Hills can be reached by road from Chennai, Salem, Namakkal or Tiruchirapalli. National Highway 45 from Chennai is the road to take till Ulundurpettai, from where you will have to branch off on the road leading to Salem. A further southward diversion at the main town of Attur, will lead to Malliakarai, Namagiripettai and Belukkuruchi, at the foot of the Kolli Hills.
If approaching from Salem, you can take the Rasipuram-Namakkal road via Kalappanayakanpatti, and reach Nadukombai from where the Ghat road begins.
The nearest railway station is Salem, 100kms from Kolli Hills. The nearest Airport is at Tiruchirapalli, 90kms from here.