Our journey of exploration brought us to the lovely city of Bodinayakanur in the heartland of rural Tamil Nadu. Amidst strolling passengers, sleepy town folks and the early onset of dawn, we had to meet our friend Fayez at the Theni Bus stop at 4 am. In a twist of irony, our bus had reached one-and-a-half hours early. We had barely slept throughout the ride. A faint drizzle hung in the air and we decided to get some coffee at the bus stop while we waited for Fayez to pick us up.
Zooming past desolate roads in the morning, we finally managed to reach Fayez’s house. We almost instantly decided to go to the roof to catch the sunrise. And, it was a sight to behold! It almost felt as if the earth and the cosmos worked in tandem to put on a spectacular show for its inhabitants. The hills were immersed in a sea of crimson gold as the skies broke into a myriad of colours. There’s something about the hills that builds an intriguing sense of connection and curiosity the more you look at it; like a memory hidden in the crevices of a silent mind.
While one side of the Kurangini Hills was bathed in sunshine gold, there was a calm disposition about the other. And, within moments we were greeted with scarlet orbs of fluffy clouds hovering over a rainbow. It almost felt as if our eyes deceived us! This was probably the first time in our lives that we had spotted a rainbow at dawn. We felt nothing but positive energy radiating around us. And, we couldn’t have asked for a better start to our day and this leg of the journey with two of our most cherished dreams — ‘Rest of My Family’ and a beautiful artist residency project – Agartha.
After a quick and hearty breakfast of piping hot idlis, puri and coffee, we headed towards Fayez’s land in the forest which is located about 7 or 8 kms from the main town. On the way, we stopped by his father’s property and got a beautiful view of the surrounding hillock.
There’s a reason why Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru named this town ‘the Southern Kashmir’. Crowned as the cardamom capital of India, this land was once rich in mango, pepper, corn, maize, etc. This was once a thriving city that offered the majestic view of the palace built by the then king of Travancore. In fact, the British built the railways here to connect Bodi to major port cities in order to regulate the export of numerous spices. What was once the pride of the Southern territory has now been reduced to a forgotten memory. It almost vanished from the maps of India. And, strangely nobody remembers what it once was and what it once stood for. The railway station is now defunct and the palace shares its borders with local vendors and street hawkers.
After a quick pit stop, we headed towards the forest whilst crossing fields of symmetrical arecanut trees that swayed to the tunes of the earth in plain sight. The drive to the forest has some spectacular views drenched in an ocean of green. On our way, we also came across a tiny town that housed most of the silk cotton workers. This particular plant grows in abundance here and also provides a means of livelihood to many of the village folks. We were met with curious eyes and warm smiles on the roadside as we made our way forward. We also drove past a local hippie settlement with just a few houses and wondered what their story was. We crossed paths with one of the men a little ahead of town. With bloodshot eyes and ash smeared on his forehead, his feet carried him to paths perhaps known, perhaps unknown to him…
Since we couldn’t take Fayez’s 4×4 jeep, we had to settle for his friend’s Qualis to reach the farm. Throughout the journey, we had doubts about not being able to make it with the latter since the terrain was quite rough. Nevertheless, Fayez decided to give it a shot. We made it out of Bodi and entered the forest reserve area in no time. Soon, we passed Kurangini Kurangini town and almost reached half-way when we hit a few bumps on the road. The car was stuck in a little ditch and was dangling between two giant rocks. After some impromptu and clever thinking, we managed to pull the car out without a scratch and park it near a small waterfall. Although, there were quite a few intense moments, we managed to discuss recipes with lemongrass and berry jam all the while as Fayez reversed the car. This was a bit terrifying and hysterical at the same time!
We then set forth on our journey towards the land that required us to trek into the forest for about half an hour. In Fayez’s words, “I did not buy the land. I freed it from the bonds of money.” Bumpy rocky pathways soon paved way for lush green forest that was thriving with energy. The lower part of the land was lined with thorny silk cotton trees. We left some of our bags with Kaniyamma, a lovely woman who stayed in the forest, just below Fayez’s land before entering the intense patch of the trek. Chirping birds, ricocheting tones of crickets and the sound of rustling leaves were an indication that we were now entering a habitat that was always meant to be natural and not beleaguered under the guise of wilderness.
There’s humbleness and the solemn promise of unity in the whispers of a forest. Here, every passing moment becomes a memory and every joyful vision a reminder of what we have and may or may not cherish tomorrow. No matter how strenuous the journey, there’s beauty at every step. And, perhaps the greatest lesson of all — there’s true harmony in peaceful co-existence. You feel small and humbled and at the same time grateful for being able to feel alive and soak in moments of serenity that the forest has to offer. There’s silence in the cherished camaraderie of earthly companions who have taken the form of trees, flowers, birds, insects and animals. There’s a pulse, a heart beat and a rhythm that keeps it alive. Maybe it is in this synergy of life and existence, that we seek our solace in the arms of nature.
Through dwindling forest patches, narrow pathways filled with jackfruit and pomelo trees, we made our way further into the land. Yellow and blue butterflies fluttering around tiny shrubs have now become a common sight. And, as we walked higher, the sound of gushing water stopped us in our tracks. We came across a lovely waterfall situated very close to Fayez’s house on the land. We walked further and finally reached our much-awaited destination.
Right before our eyes was a small mud house in the forest with unlimited supply of water and a spectacular view. We decided to rest on a giant rock right outside his house whilst listening to nature conducting an orchestra with its artistes. We spent a few hours just soaking in the absolute silence of nature, far away from the humdrum of the city life. With no sign of human civilisation visible from the land, coming here is not just travel in space but with the ancient Kurangini hills in sight it also has an effect of travelling back in time; as if to a pre-historic era before mankind took over the planet.
After about an hour or so, we decided to clean up the place a bit before we headed down. The trek down was nothing short of spectacular. As we crossed the waterfalls, Fayez began clearing weeds and other overgrown plants blocking the pathways with his dau. It made us think how starting and setting up a property all on your own is a hard and testing journey; one that requires a strong, clear vision and determination.
Towards the end of the trek, as we reached the off-road trail, we came across a small house where we met SounderRajan. At first glance, he placed his hands on his heart and greeted us with a warm smile. He owned a small piece of land in the forest and grew pepper, coffee, silk cotton and lime. He also told us that he did some timber work to make extra money. That explained his hefty physique. Although he looked big and burly, there was something about his slightly docile nature that we were instantly drawn to. He invited us into his lovely home and told us that he had been living here for the past five or six years. He had two sons one of whom worked as a cable-man and laid lines and the other made furniture. He loved spending time in the forest and preferred to live here rather than the town. He also mentioned that he knew the entire process involved in working with silk cotton and promised to take us to the place where it is processed by workers.
As we decided to part ways, Sounderrajan observed us struggling with our luggage and offered to carry some for us. The simplicity of the village folk and their warm nature tends to overwhelm you from time to time. Although, to an urban mindset the act of offering help or caring for one another might seem extraordinary, to a simple villager it is nothing but a way of life. And, what better way to celebrate our existence than acknowledge our humanity within us!
On our way back, we stopped at Kaniyamma’s place to pick up our bags. But her house was locked. SounderRajan informed us that she could be tending to her plants just a bit further. As we waited for her to come back, we Iooked around her house to catch a glimpse of her life. Like all traditional mud houses, the kitchen was built right outside the house. There were utensils stacked neatly in one corner, and many empty silk cotton pods on the other. We could almost imagine her sitting on the verandah in the evenings with cotton pods lost in her thoughts.
After about ten minutes or so, Kaniyamma came home with a big smile. She kept asking us if we wanted to have some tea/coffee or whether we would like to have lunch with her. We politely refused as we didn’t want to bother her but she kept insisting. We have experienced nothing but unconditional love and acceptance in the villages. We also realised that those who’ve had to struggle to earn their freedom/rightful place in the society are not caught up in the web of malicious social structures that dictate terms of urban existence. These are simple people with simple desires. Perhaps, living a life of fulfillment is all that matters to them. Neither do they require an ostentatious lifestyle nor are they interested in indulging in meaningless modern desires. Despite their constant struggles and hardships, they manage to live in the moment and find joy in their darkest times.
In conversation, we asked Kaniyamma if she likes living in the forest where there are hardly any people unlike a city. Does she prefer living here or in town and what makes her happy? To that she replied, “What do I know about a better lifestyle. You’ll be able to answer this question better because you keep travelling. This is all I know. This is all I have.” It took her a while to understand why we were asking her such questions and eventually she said, “I love living in the forest. The weather is nice. We have enough water. The city gets too hot and I go there only if I need to pick up some supplies or attend any function.”
We clicked a few photographs and she posed unabashedly for them. When we showed her some of her photographs, with an excited smile, she said her shirt looked very nice in the pictures. We informed her that we planned to start construction on our land very soon. To that she said that her sons could help us build our home. After a while, we decided to take leave and continue on our trek down. The temperatures soared significantly as we touched base with the rocky terrain below. The relentless Tamil Nadu heat burnt our backs as we walked towards the jeep.
Halfway through, we heard someone call out Fayez’s name. But noone was in sight. In a few moments, we noticed a man perched on an enormous thorny tree plucking fresh peppercorns and collecting them in a makeshift cloth-sack. His name was Jose and he had been living in the forest with his family for almost 28 years. His father owned some land in the forest which was then handed over to him. Fayez told us that he owned almost 150 acres of land. He was quite popular amongst the townsfolk and was going to run for chairman sometime next year.
We chatted with him for a while. His infectious smile and carefree attitude caught our attention almost instantly. He was narrating old tales in an animated manner and even showed us scars from his childhood when he was attacked by a wild boar. We asked him if he did anything else apart from working on his own farm. To that he said, he will do anything except robbery. We share a good laugh with him. He told us other stories of being in close proximity to 12 bisons almost five days ago. But Bisons being timid creatures dispersed in a matter of few seconds. He also told us that the forest department had released two bears – a male and female – into the woods a few years ago in order to save them from extinction. Legend, had it that these bears escaped into the Kurangini Hills and perhaps migrated to different forests. But, Jose said that he had seen them a few weeks ago. They are perhaps the only forest creatures with pierced ears and gold earrings. And, he found that quite amusing.
Jose told us that he had about 1500 foreign tourists visiting his land every year since the area has some of the most beautiful trek routes in South India. Not a single Indian tourist was even aware of any of these routes. Trekkers come from all parts of the world to spend some time in the mountains and trek the forests. In fact, there’s one particular tourist from Europe who comes every year to climb the mountains and meditate for an entire day before heading back home. It is amazing how people from different countries have found beauty in some of the most secluded places in our own country while we Indians remain oblivious to these nature’s treasures. We have somehow become more obsessed with an urban Western lifestyle so much so that a gradual natural progression towards change and a better life is gauged with the number of malls and skyscrapers we’ve built for ourselves.
After a lovely discussion with Jose, we decided to part ways and head to town for lunch. Once, we reached home, we realised that we were completely exhausted. Although the serenity and humbleness of the hills and forests may give you a lifetime worth of adventures, the mountainous terrain is quite daunting at times and requires determination and a strong will to continue on your journey.
We had a long discussion with Fayez on hemp. He told us about his thorough attempts at trying to get hold of industrial hemp seeds and it never worked out. He was convinced that there was an international conspiracy to make sure that industrial hemp seeds aren’t readily available for hemp as a plant can replace a lot of existing products. He showed us numerous conversations he had with various people/companies over e-mail from across the world inquiring with them about the possibility of procuring these seeds. However, nothing ever worked out!
At around 7:30 pm, we decided to head out and grab some grub. We met up with Jose once more in town. Over a cup of coffee, he was telling us about his time in Bodi and how he loves to visit Kerala once a month. He is almost 51 years old but doesn’t look a day older than 35. A proper explorer at heart, his true love is the forest and nature. To him wilderness doesn’t exist as a concept. Nature is bound to be wild and free. Away from the hustle and bustle of a city life, he has built a home in the heart of a land where he was born, where he grew up and perhaps where he’d like to take his last breath. He was telling us about the tribals residing in the forest and how they have always believed in being self-sufficient. This particular tribe is called Muthuvakudi. They procure everything they need from the land they occupy. Apparently, there are four different tribes residing in neighbouring areas.
Only basic items like salt, sugar, oil,etc used to be brought from main towns. Jose told us that the tribals no longer grow their own food because most of their produce is destroyed by wild boars. So, they now have to buy their supplies from markets in town. There are about 50 families residing in the area. They have been divided into two sections where the older folks live on the highlands and the younger lot have occupied lowlands. This is because the older generation consumes drugs and alcohol in abundance which doesn’t really sit right with the younger lot. Some of them still practice black magic. Neither of them are interested in education nor are they interested in moving out of the forests. They take incredible pride in not seeking help from anyone outside. They refuse to accept help from those who are even willing to give them any for they believe they are quite self-sufficient; a lifestyle that comes with strong tribal ancestry. Jose also told us that there’s a school nearby (for tribals) that has one headmaster, one teacher and one student. The tribals aren’t interested in sending their kids to school at all.
They hunt and eat everything except for monkeys since they worship them. If there’s a murder committed or banditry of sorts in the areas they’ve occupied, the entire village moves instantly for the land has now been tainted. Apparently, the government also helps them rehabilitate to a different location within the forests in case they decide to move. I asked Jose if their decision to remain within the forest has anything to do with them being shunned by village folks since they are categorised as scheduled caste/scheduled tribe. Jose said that this is what they’ve known their entire life and this is what they want to do. They do not want to be away from nature. They are people of the earth. It made us wonder if they are the ones who require help or are we the ones who need to be redeemed. They are probably one of the most educated human beings who are able to understand and connect with the earth. Jose said that there are a few elders who are probably the last surviving members of the family who can still make natural/ayurvedic medicines from plants growing in the forest. After them, the art of making natural medicines may not survive. Jose also suggested that we should document their art so that it is not lost forever.
He told us that he could get us in touch with a few silk cotton workers and could take us through the procedure and art of making silk cotton from scratch. He also said that proper protective gear isn’t given to the workers at times and as a result they suffer from various respiratory issues and even asthma. The monsoons have been erratic and that has affected the yield too. At the time of harvest, unprecedented rains destroyed the crops this year.
Our initial reason for wanting to interact with the tribe was to introduce the skills involved in the art of making furniture using Lantana. This would also provide them with an alternate means to earn their living. However, Jose’s description of the tribal people left us with a feeling that they are neither interested in learning new skills nor in education. But it only made us more curious about them. We were determined to interact with the entire settlement and find out more about them.
After dinner, we decided to go on a long drive towards an alternate highroad that leads to Munnar. We spent an hour on the roadside staring at the dark silhouette of hills and the striking night lights of Theni town. The winds howled in the night and occasionally blaring horns passed our way. But it didn’t matter for we were cocooned in our own space, living in a moment that we truly cherished with nothing but hope in our hearts. For, we were creating unforgettable memories with every passing moment of our lives…
Project ‘Rest of My family‘ is an attempt to connect back, re-discover our relationship with and understand our responsibility towards the larger family that we are a part of — the rest of our human family. Hence, it is titled Rest Of My Family.
Through #RestofMyFamily, we will focus on highlighting the social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help….
Find more about the campaign here: http://igg.me/at/restofmyfamily/x/539502