Wayanad – Our Gateway to Offbeat Kerala

Wayanad high on the Western Ghats (Sahyadri) is an agrarian district in northeast Kerala in India. A search on the internet throws up images of lush green forests, high hills with swirling clouds, cascading waterfalls, serene infinity lakes and dams, vast spice and banana plantations.

If you are planning a vacation it would be fair to distinguish that many of the spectacular landscape pictures are from the monsoon or post monsoon periods and the ethereal expanse of clouds suspended above the countryside, visible from a peak is a sunrise spectacle. You should also appreciate the fact that Kerala is a popular state with tourists so you might find a considerable number of boisterous holidaymakers at each popular sightseeing spot.
Having said this, for us the lure of Wayanad had been lingering in our consciousness for many years and we finally ended up here in March 2020 after flying into Kozhikode.

Wayanad compared to other parts of touristy India was still pretty reasonable in terms of costs – hotels, food and cabs. The Chembra Peak and Kuruvadweep which had seemed fascinating to me as an offbeat traveler were closed to visitors because of safety and / or ecological reasons while the waterfalls, we were told by the helpful front office executive at our hotel, would not gift us with any mesmerizing views of milky, frothing, streaming waters but all it would present would be rather a sad trickle.  Since Ranjana and I aren’t morning people, the clouds also would have to swirl for us another fine day! Having earlier visited spice plantations, the idea of a visit there didn’t particularly enthuse us.
Though Wayanad is a beautiful destination by itself, we further wondered what it would offer us in terms of the hills, we who had been exploring the Himalayan mountainous regions with its incomparable beauty for the last 30 years.

Kerala – The Road Trip Everyone Does!

We had also been to Kerala earlier having spent a delightful ten days tripping from Kochi to Munnar, Thekkady, Periyar and Allepey. Memorable moments on a speedboat in Kochi at sunset after having spent a lazy afternoon at Fort Kochi area. Visiting a vast spice plantation enroute Munnar enriched by a very informative guided tour, intrigued to discover where all the Indian spices we have savored in our favorite dishes since childhood come from, specially fascinated to learn that cinnamon comes from the inner bark of its tree. Staying at a cardamom spice estate in Munnar, taking a tour of a rolling tea estate (I still remember the very genial Mr. Bose, the tea taster – his taste buds none the worse inspite of his advancing years, trying unsuccessfully to enlighten me with the finer nuances).

A visit to the Mattupetty dam and a short boat trip (with very uncomfortable life jackets) and staying a couple of days at Thekkady starting the experience with an elephant ride and enchanted by a martial art form Kalaripayattu performance in the evening though the best here was the boat trip on Periyar Lake sighting elephants and birds on the shores. The ubiquitous ayurvedic massages all along the trip. The fitting finale was the entire day spent cruising on a private kettuvallam on Vembanad lake the houseboat having picked us up from the jetty of our lakeside resort!

A kaleidoscope of our earlier Kerala trip!

Anticipation and Plans

So, at Wayanad what would excite us as a traveler? Were we going to experience serenity, first time experiences, adventure, nature, history and day hikes? What were we here for?

Well, Wayanad for us was the kick off for a two week long road trip across Kerala and Karnataka and we were here just for a couple of days. We wanted to have a relaxed start. Our idea was not to start ticking off the boxes on the list of the top 10 (or 35) things to do in Wayanad. We wanted a couple of experiences which would remain ingrained in our memories, unmarred by having been stuck at crowded tourist traps. For us less is always more!

Hence without any preconceived ideas we settled comfortably in the Toyota Etios, at Kozhikode Airport, we had hired for the next 2 weeks for a trip which would take us to Wayanad, Nagarhole, Coorg, Ranipuram and Nileshwaram on the Malabar Coast before we flew out of Kannur back to Delhi. We had chosen to stay away from Vythiri (the tourist hub at Wayanad) and happily gave it a miss as also the Lakkidi Viewpoint (a cramped enclosure on the highway) and the Pokode Lake which was too crowded to excite the nature or adventure lover in us.

Our Hideaway Cottage

Serenity Resort by the Banasura Sagar Dam, was to be our home for the next 2 days.  Banasura is the largest earthen dam in India and the second largest in Asia. We had chosen a lake facing cottage on the upper level which gave us beautiful views from our large balcony. The first day we were happy to just relax at the resort letting the place grow on us.

(Pic Credit: Serenity Resort Guide)

We took a short afternoon walk through their compact 2.5 acres plantation noticing jackfruit, pepper creepers and jamun (charmingly known as Malabar plum). The coffee bushes and mango, guava trees escaped our attention and the cashews (anacardiums) and Malabar tamarind (Brindleberry) were perhaps not pointed out to us. We negotiated a circuitous, undulating trail through the thick foliage of trees which finally brought us down to the shores of the Banasura Dam – beautiful and serene with the hills in the distance across the expansive waters, tree lined on both sides above an earthy escarpment where the erosion which had taken place during the last floods in August 2019 was evident.

A feast for the senses – from our vantage point a 270 degree splendorous view of the landscape, sound of the meditative ripples with bird calls from around, the fusion of the musty scent of the forest, sharp fragrances from the trees, the breeze from the lake carrying across the earthy whiff of the shore and its waters, the extended brush of nature intermingling in our consciousness.

Back at the resort we flirted with the idea of spending the evening shooting pool, having recently watched the classic movie – The Color of Money with stellar performances from Paul Newman (Fast Eddie) and Tom Cruise. However, we gave up the idea, instead wanting to extend the earlier oneness with the cosmos.

We settled in our spacious and private balcony with our late sundowners, soft strains of Mozart augmenting the peace encompassing us with the large expanse of, now dark, waters provoking a feeling of infiniteness and a realization of our miniscule existence. The property truly lived up to its name – Serenity!

The next morning, after a simple breakfast comprising idiyappam with vegetable stew, set dosa, eggs, toast, fruits and fresh juice we ventured out on a ‘sightseeing’ trip. As we developed a rapport with our driver Pramod, we perceived that his rugged countenance belied his quiet and accommodating nature and safe driving, as he adjusted himself well to both our unconventional and leisurely pace of travel. Since he spoke passable English he was a convenient interlocutor and interpreter for our conversations with the locals who spoke Malayalam. Thankfully we could give Google Translate a miss.

Kurumbalakotta – Why Did We Miss the Sunrise Trek?

We started our day excursion with a 12 km drive to Kurumbalakotta. This is supposed to be the popular place for viewing sunrises, a birds eye view of Wayanad notwithstanding the clouds at eye level camouflaging the earth below and also just the destination to rendezvous with half of Wayanad’s tourists at dawn!

A traveller’s demophobia provoked us to come here instead in mid-morning, by the time when the vociferant adventurers would have dispersed. We were a wee bit uncomfortable as the sun was up in the sky but blissful that we had the whole place to ourselves with nary a soul around. We enjoyed the beautiful short trek to Kurumbalakotta top, at 3220 feet, the monolith hillock in Wayanad, towering with a panoramic view of the green valley below.

All set for the exciting hike ahead to Kurumbalakotta top, Wayanad, Kerala.
All set for the exciting hike ahead!

Climbing up the dusty route on Kurumbalakotta trek in Wayanad with green vistas below.
Climbing up the dusty route with green vistas below.

Kurumbalakotta is at the confluence of the Western and the Eastern ghats and almost half of Wayanad district can be seen from atop the hill.
Kurumbalakotta is at the confluence of the Western and the Eastern ghats and almost half of Wayanad district can be seen from atop the hill.  

At the top of Kurumbalakota Rock!
At the top of Kurumbalakota Rock!
Mesmerizingly beautiful, the place offers a breathtaking spectacle.

Edakkal Caves – Transported To A Time Warp

Feeling refreshed we ventured further out on an hour-long drive through rural countryside, villages and banana plantations ending up at Ambukuthi Hills, ready for a time warp of a few thousand years. But the stairs had to be negotiated first. A moderate difficulty 45 minutes climb took us upto the two Edakkal Caves. The lower one was closed for safety reasons and we so we trudged up to the upper one.

At Edakkal Caves (Wayanad, Kerala) with engravings dating 6000 years back to the Neolithic Age (New Stone Age).
At Edakkal Caves (Wayanad) with engravings dating 6000 years back to the Neolithic Age (New Stone Age). Not a cave in the true sense it is supposed to be a space formed by a rock which had split from the main body, covered by another one forming the roof overhang. (Pic Credit: Saji, The Guide)

Rays streaming in through a narrow slit between two huge rocks in Edakkal Caves, Wayanad, Kerala.
As we entered crouching and then down into a wide space, we discovered that the rock shelter was anything but musty and dark as one might have presupposed but on the contrary the sun lit up one of the walls with the rays streaming in through a narrow slit between two huge rocks.

The petroglyphs (carvings on stone) on the walls caused our imaginations to fly and the immediate images which flooded the mind were those of cave people in animal skins crowding the shelter with a fire at the entrance and a wild boar getting a smoky roast. While they waited for the meal to be cooked some were perhaps making hunting implements, others tunics from animal skins while the artistic ones documented and drew happenings from their daily lives on the soap stone walls.   

The walls have four different sets of rock art from different periods dating back 6000, 2500-3000 and 2300 years.

The picture here shows a tribal chief. The other engravings were of a woman, cart, instruments, weapons, an elephant, a peacock.
Also a sentence in Tamil Brahmi and Sanskrit each from a later period translating to – ‘A famous king Vishnuverma lived here’ AND ‘A man killed lots of tigers here’ if the guide, Saji was to be believed.

The engravings have been dated to 6000 years back to the Neolithic Age.  Since this was the New Stone Age which is mainly characterized by the development of settled agriculture and villages the images got confused – perhaps this had been a hunting lodge and not a family dwelling.
It would have been interesting to have met a local historian and archaeologist to unmuddle our thoughts. Reason for returning!

Out of the ten odd sites in India, perhaps the most well-known being the Bhimbetka rock shelters, this was our first visit to a cave depicting ancient petroglyphs. An overwhelming experience for sure!

Rock Engravings in the Edakkal Caves, Wayanad, Kerala.
Rock Engravings in the Edakkal Caves.
Apart from human figures, there were several symbols and undeciphered motifs. In the golden light of the sun, the drawings looked even more interesting.
(Pic Credit: Saji, The Guide)

From this lofty vantage point at the entrance of the Edakkal Caves we could view a wide panorama of the lovely countryside which stretched to the horizon, faintly and mistily blue.
(Pic Credit: Saji, The Guide)

Halcyon Afternoon at Karlad

Not spoilt for choices, we had a quick modest lunch and then took a different way back towards our resort with plans to check out Karlad Lake enroute where D.T.P.C (District Tourism Promotion Council) Wayanad runs an adventure camp. It was a beautiful lake without the large crowds one is bound to encounter at Pookode Lake and Banasura Sagar Dam. Ringed by trees and water lilies and birds in the water it was picturesquely idyllic. At a very reasonable Rs.250/- for an hour we hired a two person kayak and lazily paddled around the lightly rippling waters taking in the peace of the lake and the verdant surroundings as the late afternoon sun drenched us with its warmth.

Kayaking in Karlad Lake, Wayanad, Kerala.
Kayaking in Karlad Lake, Wayanad! Lilies were in bloom and their flat pad-like leaves covered the water like pieces of a puzzle. The visage of the lake was veneer-clear and tranquil, the shore and beyond a thick verdant woodland! (Pic Credit: The Adventure Instructor)

Was such a lovely experience…the serene lake and the tiny island in the center of the lake surrounded by water lilies and a cormorant perched on one of the branches!

The lake was a perfect mirror for us. From above, that watery world was so clear and perfect it could be another dimension, waiting for someone to dare enter it. But with each paddle dipped into it, the ripples distorted that submerged kingdom, locking us into our own, forbidding us entry. (Pic Credit: The Adventure Instructor)

‘ A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows.’  
Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854.

Arcadian Contentment

Our resort was just a 20 minutes’ drive from here and we were back to our rooms in quite a jiffy. After long warm baths Ranjana and I were ready to spend the evening on our cottage verandah (remember the one which overlooks the Banasura waters) reminiscing on the days experiences and going through the pictures. The resort staff indulged us with serving a hot dinner on the balcony.
Instead of Mozart we had Kishore Kumar oldies from the seventies playing today with Ranjana humming along with the songs, as the hours mingled with the soothing darkness! 

Article Authored By: Achal Bindraban.
Page Design By: Ranjana Achal.
Pictures By: Achal and Ranjana, unless otherwise credited.

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