It was a heady experience watching the Chalakudy River come crashing down the hard granite rocks into a cloud of foaming spray in the lush environs of the Sholayar range. There was something magical about the unbeatable views of the undulating hilly regions which stand sentinel to the falls.
The captivating cascades of Athirapally.
The ceaseless music of the myriad falls and the hush of the densely wooded forest surrounding it, lend a special charm to the small hamlet of Athirapally which has been drawing holidaymakers and filmmakers.
Unexplored in the eighties, Athirapally Falls was a fatal attraction claiming the lives of many tourists who have ventured to take a dip. From a filmy location and a suicide spot, Athirapally has metamorphosed into a popular tourist paradise.
A favourite filmi spot.
It was heartening to see the sign boards of caution put up by Forest Department and also the active participation of the Eco Development Committee, Vana Samriksha Samithi and Kudumbashree Self Help Groups in the maintenance of the tourist spot and sensitization of tourists.
Rosey-eyed honeymooners lounging against the backdrop of the falls.
Standing atop the 80-ft falls, I could visualise the super hit song Enna Satha Intha Neram in the opening scene of the Tamil movie Punnagai Mannan which had the falls as the recurring motif depicting the intense love and agony of Kamal Haasan and his paramour. This movie catapulted the lesser known locale to tinsel fame that it came to be christened as "Punnagai Mannan Falls".
Mudalvan, Guru, Raavan and Baahubali were other blockbusters filmed in these pristine surroundings. Mani Ratnam and his filmy entourage filmed Raavan till an elephant ran amok and killed a mahout while Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan stood aghast.
One cannot forget the evocative shots of Prabhas and Tamannaah cavorting clandestinely against the backdrop of the falls in Baahubali.
This magnificent falls also formed the enchanting visuals of Kerala Tourismâ€™s ad campaign in the late eighties beckoning all and sundry to Godâ€™s Own Country.
Athirapally falls in full spate.
Since then the small hamlet of Athirapally with its myriad falls has been attracting holidaymakers who come in droves to witness natureâ€™s headlong tumble into the depths below.
It originates in the Sholayar River and traverses through the Vazhachal falls and plunges down a yawning chasm before creating the glorious spectacle of cascading water and flying spray.
We went on an exploration spree of the areas around the falls. After an ardous trek down a winding, boulder-strewn path under overarching trees, we landed at the foot of the falls only to be rewarded by the invigorating sting of its spray.
One could feel an eerie silence and stillness in the wooded pathways leading to the whispering woods and mossy nooks gurgling with crystal springs.
Accompanied by a guide, we set out on a jungle safari through the forest past tea plantations to Malakkapara and Valpara. As our jeep prodded through the windswept, rain-drenched woods, we soaked in the sights and sounds of the forest.
To the east of Athirapally is the lesser known Charpa falls which plunges down to the road during the torrential rains. The multi-layered flow of this roadside falls with the engulfing mist is an impressive sight.
We followed the river for another 5 km and reached the Vazhachal Falls, just past the Peringalkuthu Dam. Though not as spectacular as the Athirapally waterfalls, Vazhachal has its own charm being in close proximity to the dense green forestland.
Dense green forestland near the falls.
Although this spot is called Vazhachal Falls, it is not a waterfall in the true sense. The river tumbles over myriads of rocks down a slope at this spot thus creating a profusion of foam and a waterfall like impact.
River tumbles down a large slope dotted with myriads of rocks.
Near the waterfall is a medicinal herb garden, with plants that can cure arthritis, skin diseases and blood pressure. Further east from Vazhachal on SH 21 are the Anakkayam Falls.
We drove past tall trees, swaying bamboos and grassy expanse. The forest looked magnificent with post monsoon foliage, teak, sandalwood and myriads of flora.
The Chalakudy River flows gently through it all, past dense forests teeming with swaying bamboos, grassy stretches, myriads of flora, chirping birds, frolicking Malabar squirrels, slithering snakes, fluttering butterflies, black-faced langurs, screeching insects and the shrill call of the jungle fowl.
The undulating hilly regions and dense forest which stand sentinel to the falls.
Athirapally and its green environs is a haven for adventure and nature enthusiasts. The vegetation swoops down like a dark canopy and it is very common to sight a herd of elephants grazing amidst the bamboo clumps.
With a huge and amazing variety of birds and plants, the forest is an ornithologistâ€™s delight and if you are lucky, you will be rewarded with the prized sighting of the Great Indian Hornbill. The place resonates with birdsong, orchestrated by hundreds of winged creatures, especially the mellifluous song of the Malabar Whistling Thrush.
The scenic road winding along the backwaters of the Sholayar Dam is equally fascinating.
Scenic backwaters of the Sholayar Dam.
Further east from Vazhachal on SH 21 are the Anakkayam Falls and then the Malakapara Tea Gardens, just before the highway moves on towards Valparai and Pollachi in Tamil Nadu.
Sprawling tea gardens and water bodies.
The ride to Malakkappara is a riot of green. Beyond the tea estates is the famed Indira Gandhi National Park. The descent itself is dramatic. From the very top, we could catch glimpses of the picturesque waters of the Aliyar mini-hydel project.
I returned ruminating over the fate of the impending threat looming over the fate of Athirapally if the proposed Chalakudy Hydel Project comes up. I could imagine the plight of the Kadar tribes who would be rendered homeless and the 140 hectares of prime forestland, which would be submerged.
All photographs by Susheela Nair.
After a stint with the mainstream and niche media, Susheela Nair is a Food, Travel, Lifestyle Writer and Photographer contributing articles and images to several national publications. Her writings constitute a wide spectrum which also includes travel portals and guide books, brochures and coffee table books. She heads Essen Communications which has a repertoire of multi-faceted services and activities like media co-ordination work, organizing tourism related seminars and curating photo exhibitions.