Leaving behind the scorching heat of the smoke-belching chimneys and the brown plains of the textile and steel town of Salem, it was a pleasant climb to the charming hill station of Yercaud. The air got nippier as our bus tackled the hairpin bends on the winding mountain road leading to this hideaway. The change in scenery was palpable, giving way to coffee estates and towering silver oaks. Perched amidst the mountain slopes at a height of 4500 feet above sea level in the Shevaroy Hills of Salem district, Yercaud is not as commercialised as other hill stations like Ooty and Kodaikanal. However, it is known for its quaint charm and salubrious climate.
The sparkling, placid waters of the beautiful lake greeted us upon our arrival at this hilly retreat. Yercaud derives its name from the Tamil words eri, meaning lake, and kadu, meaning forest. The lake is the star attraction here. One can take an amble around it or hire pedal or row boats, provided by the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation. After our boat ride, we sat by the waterâ€™s edge and munched roasted peanuts.
The boathouse on the lake
Like all hill stations, Yercaud harks back to the British era. It was a summer retreat of Robert Clive, who frequently took weekend breaks in Yercaud. But it was MD Cockburn, the then Collector of Salem District, who introduced coffee to Yercaud from South Africa. He also built the Grange, an imposing castle-like building which was selected as a possible refuge for Europeans in 1857, in anticipation of an uprising in Salem. Five generations of the descendants of Alfred Dickens, whose lineage connects with the legendary English writer Charles Dickens, also lived in Yercaud. Prominent among them is Anna Patricia Dickens, the former BBC actor, who was born in the Tipperary estate bungalow.
The Tipperary bungalow
Yercaud is punctuated with seminaries, novitiates and residential schools started by missionaries, who found it a congenial place and escape from the scorching heat of the plains. As we explored the place, we saw school children clad in uniforms and blazers. They have become an integral part of this hill stationâ€™s scenery. Prominent among them are the Sacred Heart School for girls, started by Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny in 1894, and the Montford School for boys, an architectural marvel. Yercaud is also home to the Holy Cross Novitiate House, started in 1945 by the Brothers of Don Bosco. The Holy Trinity Church, close to one-and-a-half centuries old, is a must-have on your itinerary.
We explored walking trails leading to several promontories offering stunning views. These panoramic lookout points have their own peculiar charm. Our guide amused us with interesting yarns spun around them. From Pagoda Point or Pyramid Point, we saw the ruins of an old temple and the dramatic sunset in the Shervaroyan Hills. The spot was supposedly once a Stone Age fortress shrine, before the existing temple was built. And, on a clear day, the Mettur Dam can also be spotted in the distance from Pagoda Point.
The Gentâ€™s Seat, with an outcrop of rocks, is situated adjacent to the TV tower of Yercaud. It gives dizzying views of the hill ranges, plateaus and the plains below. There is also a Ladyâ€™s Seat, named for a British woman who would relax here after her morning walks, or so the story goes. As we looked through the telescope mounted here, Salem town loomed large with its mines, steel plant and the glowing buildings.
The Montford School, an architectural wonder
The Shevaroyan temple is said to be the highest viewpoint in Yercaud, though some claim that it is actually Cauvery Peak. According to the Malai-alis, the tribal community of the Shervaroyan Hills, the temple was built in memory of their legendary God, Shevaroyan, who lived, died and was buried here. They claim that there is a sacred tunnel leading from the shrine to another part of the hill, and a second one opening into Bearâ€™s Cave, a cave-like structure formed by two massive boulders. As bears used to frequent this cave long ago, it came to be called Bearâ€™s Cave. The temple dons a festive look when tribal people from surrounding villages congregate to participate in the annual festival. Just outside the temple, we fortified ourselves with Aattukaal soup, a concoction of ginger, garlic, pepper and a wild root-tuber like thing.
The sacred Shevaroyan temple
Like many hill stations, Yercaud too abounds in spacious, beautiful gardens. Prominent among them is the Botanical Survey of Indiaâ€™s garden with its rockery, green house and orchidarium. The Horticultural Research Station and the State Agriculture Farm, with its variety of orchids, is a haven for botanists. The National Orchidarium is definitely worth a visit. There are innumerable species of orchids, some of which grow only in Yercaud. Here, one can also get acquainted with endangered plants, including the rather ominous insect-eating pitcher plant. Another interesting plant found in Yercaud is the green tree fern.
When you get tired of the regular tourist circuit and long for a closer communion with nature, put on your trekking shoes and wander along the labyrinth of wooded pathways and trails. A two-hour trek through a coffee plantation, lush-green foliage and towering silver oaks leads to Kiliyur Falls, which tumbles from a height of 300 feet. The peaceful environs are an enchanting picnic spot. Another option to look around the hill station is to hop on to a local bus which takes you around the neighbouring villages, cruising past orange and coffee plantations and bauxite deposits.
The cofee plantation at the Tipperary estate
Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer and photographer contributing articles, content and images to several national publications besides organising seminars and photo exhibitions. Her writings span a wide spectrum which also includes travel portals and guide books, brochures and coffee table books. All photos by Susheela Nair.