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Courtallam falls
All Wet!
... under the Courtallam falls

A Ganesh Nadar

E-Mail this travel feature to a friend The Tamil month, Adi, begins in the middle of July. It is a month of cloud-kissed mountains, thundering waterfalls and sizzling hot green chilly bhajiyas.

And all roads lead to Courtallam. A visit to the falls at Courtallam in the rains is a must.

On weekends you'll find every tourist van, every tourist bus south of Madurai converging on Courtallam. You'll find high court judges jostling with rickshaw drivers under the famous falls.

Courtallam is easily accessible from the Tenakasi railway station (just 20 minutes away). In fact, you can see the falls from the railway platform.

We left home at 4.30 am. The van took us first to the Manimuthar dam. The water of this dam is held on three sides by the mountains and man has built a half mile-long dam on the fourth side. We stood high up on the dam. A stiff breeze blew. The water was far below. It looked shallow. The actual depth was 55 feet. On the other side there were huge children's parks with statues of lions and deer, where no children played. The parks were not properly maintained and were disappointing.

We were taking this dam and waterfall expedition very seriously. And before heading onto Courtallam we popped in at the Papanasam dam. Built during British rule, at the height of World War II, the dam (5.4 metres wide, 265 metres long and 240 metres high) took five long years to build.

Now this dam was impressive. The serene lake, the huge mountains on which passing clouds rested for a while, were truly majestic. On the other side we saw water cascading down with a thunderous roar. The earth shook under the onslaught. The water hit the rocks and then flew high up like smoke from a hot spring. The force of nature was awe inspiring.

It was possible to take a boat across the lake for just Rs 6. The boatman warned us that we should not think of swimming. We shook our heads and shuddered. Swimming in the lake is prohibited because the crocodiles inside do not like humans.

At Papanasam dam photography -- for some unknown reason -- is strictly prohibited. Many an intrepid photographer has had his film forcibly exposed. I didn't risk mine. But I would loved to have brought home a photograph of Papanasam; so picturesque was the scene.

At another end of the lake there is a tunnel through which water flows to another river and another new dam. The Papanasam dam is also called the Tambiraparani river dam and has a total catchment area of 147 sq km. The mountains around here are green and thick with huge teak trees. Monkeys of various breeds roam around freely. When we sat down to lunch, the monkeys sat with us.

From Papanasam it is just an hour's drive to Courtallam. The scenery was breathtaking. The first waterfall you bump into is called Agasthiyar falls. There was a huge crowd jostling under the water. You just had to push your way in, like in a Bombay local, to get a spot. Again like a Bombay local you didn't have to make the effort to move out. You were pushed out automatically by the crowd. Anyway it wasn't easy to stand for long under the water. It felt like being hit on the head by a dozen wild monkeys.

Legends has it that when Shiva was to marry Parvati the entire population of South India went north. Shiva felt that the North might sink downwards with the weight of the crowds. So he sent Agasthiyar South to balance the weight. When Agasthiyar complained that he wanted to see the marriage, Shiva blessed him and said, "You'll see it live there." That's the first time 'television' apparently came to earth. People believe this waterfall was the place where Agasthiyar sat. Hence its name.

Courtallam fallsWe drove to the next falls. At every waterfall we had to pay Rs 10 for our vehicle. The next was called Old Courtallam falls. Here the cops were out in force. Women and men had separate places under the falls! Water fell from a height of 200 feet. If it fell directly I don't think our skull would stand it. Therefore steps had been cut out into the rocks. So the water's free fall was broken at six places. So when it finally reached your head its force had been reduced. Again the 'Bombay local' type pushing in and being pushed out was the tradition.

The third waterfall was the most beautiful and appropriately called Five falls. The cops, this time, had segregated two falls for women and three for men! Here loud speakers blasted songs and ads, continuously, over and above the roar of the waterfalls. There was a huge bazaar just outside selling lichees, eggfruit, mangosteen. Rare fruits that are not available in the plains.

The water in these falls is reputed to have curative powers for a number of skin maladies and mental disorders. People who have been declared insane are advised to bathe here for three months. Apparently many a soul has come back to reality in these waters. How? Elders explain that the mountains abound in numerous plants which are used in the preparation of Siddha medicines. The water brings down these plants. The medicines percolate in through the pores and cures you.

At the Five falls the smell of coconut oil and castor oil was overpowering. People poured oil on themselves and then stood under the water. Within seconds the oil vanished. The oil lovers were happy, but others wrinkled up their noses in disgust.

The cops kept screaming. And then the songs and ads stopped for a moment. There was a special announcement. People were requested not to journey to the Main falls or the Tiger falls, as heavy rains in the catchment area had resulted in the overflow of water. The waterfalls were bringing down mud, boulders and trees and thus bathers were not allowed. As the last two falls were out of bounds we jumped around for a bit longer at the Five falls. By the time we finished, we were famished.

Chillies the size of carrots are available here -- they are called Ooty chillies. These chillies are dipped in channa atta or chick pea flour batter and deep fried. Hot chilly bhajjis after the cold falls. Mmm...

At 4 pm it was pouring. The rains from Kerala had crossed the border and were coming down hard in Tamil Nadu. We ran to our van with our drenched babies and headed away from the falls and out of the rainfall to safer climes.

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