Besides the world’s oldest teak plantation and the teak museum, Nilambur in Kerala is also known for its vast rainforests, sparkling waterfalls and extensive plantations of bamboo, rosewood, and mahogany.

A cosy nook with crystal springs and limpid pools in Amarambalam forest
Features Travel Monday, July 11, 2022 - 20:07

When we think of the teak town of Nilambur in Kerala’s Malappuram district, the images conjured are of varying shades of green, India’s first teak museum, world’s oldest teak plantations, and the rock shelters of the erstwhile ‘cavemen of Kerala’. Nilambur delivered on this promise, greeting us with unending swathes of greenery as we approached the picture postcard town. 

This visit brought back pleasant memories of my arduous treks into these same dense jungles, more than 25 years ago. We were on a mission, in search of the Cholanaickens, a nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe who used to stay in caves or rock shelters, living on berries and root tubers. We hacked our way through thick thickets of cane, rattan, bamboo and other shrubs that frame the lonely forest path, leading us to many a vaulted passage. Traversing and trudging along hilly and wooded tracts, steep and slippery paths, crossing rivers and streams, braving torrential rains and leech bites, we reached their unexplored realm.

During our rambles in the jungles, we camped in caves by the riverside, wrapped in a fire’s warmth to escape the pervading dampness, seeking protection against weather and wildlife. We had a trace of tribal hospitality, when treated to a glass of honey and boiled tuberous roots. While sipping the honey, we realised how dangerous the occupation of honey collection can be — climbing up a fragile ladder with a basket fastened to the back, and smoking the bees out of their nests during nocturnal expeditions into the forest. We were amazed by their expert knowledge of their biological environment and instinctive awareness of the flora and fauna. Now, you can catch a glimpse of the tribal lifestyle at the tribal settlement in Manjeri and other places.

Crossing the turbulent rivers of Nilambur, more than 25 years ago

Tribal people rafting down to their rock shelter at Poochapara
Tribal people rafting down to their rock shelter at Poochapara. Pic: Susheela Nair

Dogs are inseparable companions of people of the Cholanaicken tribe in their food-gathering sojourns. Pic: Susheela Nair

During our recent visit, we explored a few of the district’s highlights and found that Nilambur has many claims to fame. Currently, Nilambur has become the favoured destination of politicians of all political parties, especially Rahul Gandhi and his ilk. They head to the Teak Town Resort in Nilambur for rest and relaxation, post hectic election campaigning in the neighbouring districts.

Apart from the world’s oldest teak plantation and teak museum, Nilambur is also known for vast rainforests, sparkling waterfalls, clusters of kovilakams (grand mansions of the erstwhile rajas of Nilambur), and extensive plantations of bamboo, rosewood, and mahogany. One has to travel by the 60-km Shoranur-Nilambur railway during the monsoon to soak in the pristine beauty of the luxuriant foliage, verdant plains and overarching trees lining both sides of the track, as it chugs past stations with evocative names.

Teak Museum in Nilambur
Teak Museum in Nilambur. Pic: Susheela Nair

The Nilambur-Shoranur rail line, with trees lining both sides of the track
The Nilambur-Shoranur rail line, with trees lining both sides of the track

Even today, the versatile Nilambur wood is used to make dashboards by the quintessential British car manufacturer Rolls-Royce. The British used them to make railway sleepers when they built the East African rail network in Kenya. The teak’s enduring beauty and strength is discernible in the ancient kovilakams, steeped in traditional mediaeval Kerala style architecture, flaunting their wood works. Malabar teak had also powered the huge British shipbuilding industry.

Our Nilambur sojourn started with Conolly’s Plot, the oldest teak plantation in the world. It sprawls over an area of 2.31 hectares, beside the Chaliyar river at Aruvakode, from where we were ferried across the river. It was here, in 1846, that the then Collector of Malabar, HV Conolly, planted over two acres of land with teak trees. Conolly’s Plot houses a rare attraction, the oldest living teak tree, Kannimara, which stands at an imposing height of 49.2 metres.

The biggest teak tree in Conolly's Plot. Pic: Praveen Elayi

Our visit to the Teak Museum, a one-of-its-kind thematic museum devoted to the multi-faceted wood type, was an enlightening experience. As we entered the museum through a magnificently carved door, a number of eye-catching exhibits such as an intricately designed clock, a traditional granary and a model of an uru, an ancient sailing vessel, grabbed our attention. A model of ‘Kannimara Teak’, the oldest naturally growing tree located in Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, a life-size replica of the trunk of the largest known teak growing in Malayattoor forest, and an extensive root system of a 55-year-old teak are some of the star attractions here.

“The Teak Museum was established by the Kerala Forest Research Institute in collaboration with the Kerala Forest Department. This unique museum has documented various aspects and features of teak — its history, cultivation, management, utilisation and socio-economic background, all under one roof. Once you are done touring the museum, make sure to visit the Bioresource Park,” says CTS Nair, Consultant, (Natural Resources Management) and former Chief Economist, Forestry Department, FAO.

There are many places in and around Nilambur for nature and wildlife lovers. Renowned for its astounding variety of flora and fauna is the famous rainforest called Nedumkayam, situated about 18 km from Nilambur town. Nestled in the land of fresh perennial springs and lush green mountains, Adyanpara is famous for its waterfalls, and its wooded environs shelter an impressive variety of rich wildlife and a mind boggling variety of birds.

Nedunkayam rainforest. Pic: Saji Kumar, Kerala Forest Department
Nedunkayam rainforest. Pic: Saji Kumar, Kerala Forest Department

After our brief sightseeing sojourn, we reached the Great Hornbill Resort, a sylvan retreat where we recharged our weary bodies and frayed nerves. Adding to the verdant ambience are the running brooks and mossy nooks, gurgling with crystal springs that formed limpid pools. The back massage in the gushing stream was soothing to our tired and jaded nerves, making us feel rejuvenated. There is never a dreary moment here and we flitted from one activity to another. Birding, cycling, bonfire and trekking are all part of the wilderness escapade.

Cycling in Amarambalam region
Cycling in Amarambalam region

As night fell, the forest came alive with the medley of bird calls and insects. It was indeed a wondrous sight to see the dazzling and mesmerising flights of thousands of fireflies, illuminating and coordinating their flashes across the protected stretch of forest at Amarambalam. We felt we were being transported to an Avatar movie-like bioluminescent world. “You are lucky to witness this strange phenomenon. It happens only for a few days in a year in summer,” said Arjun Prasannan, Marketing Director of the resort. It was indeed a fitting finale to our brief sojourn to the teak town.

Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer, and photographer based in Bangalore. She has contributed content, articles and images on food, travel, lifestyle, photography, environment and ecotourism to several reputed national publications. Her writings constitute a wide spectrum, including guide books, brochures and coffee table books.

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