Baralikaadu | Senjerimalai | Coimbatore

Two weeks ago, I made a 4-day trip to Kovai(Coimbatore) as both my wife and I were free. My in-laws were happy because it has been years since we had visited them together, and the reason for that being our cats. We obviously cannot leave them unattended. Now that my niece is living with us, it is possible to occasionaly step out for a few days while the cats are well taken care of. So, in case, you are planning to have cats as pets, ensure to consider this point. Anyways, On Saturday, the 23rd of April, we left Bangalore at around 3pm. We made one quick food stop at Anand Bhavan Delight near Salem. I had discovered this place during our recent trip to Kumbakonam and had loved the food there. We reached home by 10:30PM. 

My mother-in-law, known for her amazing culinary skills, had prepared some tasty pardi payasa. The paradis (tiny steamed rice wafers) were uniform in shape and had blended well with the rich coconut milk and jaggery mixture. A perfect touch of cardamom and ghee enhanced the flavour. I am sure it helped my tired body to relax after those long hours of driving. 

Next morning, we were ready to leave home by 7AM. My wife, my mother-in-law and Tejas, my nephew, drove with me. My father-in-law, brother-in-law, my sister-in-law and their second child Varnika, who is not even a year old, drove in their car. Tejas, who is 6 years old, sat next to me silently observing my driving. After a quick stop for breakfast, we continued our journey towards Baralikaadu. Having woken up very early, Tejas had dozed off in a while. 

Baralikaadu (60km form Kovai), a small tribal village is located at the foothills of Nilgiri mountains. At Karamadai, we took a left deviation and entered the reserved forest area (Nellithurai and Sundapatti R.F). Tickets have to be booked in advance on the Baralikadu Eco Tourism website.  The price is Rs600 per person. After making an entry at the forest check post, we drove the winding roads uphill to reach Baralikadu eco-tourism meeting area. 

This place took me by surprise. It was extremely beautiful and peaceful out there. We had probably driven only 30 minutes from the nearest town and it felt like this place was lost in time– undisturbed and unpolluted by the selfish humans. As the chaitra masa was approaching, the nature had painted itself in a lemon green tinge, emanating freshness. In a small seating area centred around a banyan tree, some visitors had already gathered. The swings tied to the branches of the tree reminded me of my childhood. We had a banyan tree in the house and we used to swing by holding onto the loosely hanging roots of the tree.  

Sukku kaapi (Dry ginger decoction), made of main ingredients like dry ginger and black pepper, blended with some other spices and sweetened with panam kalkandu (Palm sugar candy) was served to everyone arriving. Those who had booked had to reach there by 10AM. Many were delayed and by the time we were ready to leave for a coracle ride it was already 11:15AM. Since the lake by the meeting area was dry and covered with weed, we had to drive 2.5km ahead to reach Pilloor dam. 

By the time we got on to the coracle, it was already noon. Everyone complained about the idea of taking us on a coracle ride under the scorching sun. While women covered their heads with the loose end of their sarees or dupatas, the men like me, who had foolishly forgotten to carry a cap, had to burn under the raging sun. But the fresh breeze and the cool water below made the ride bearable. We rode up to the pump-house and then closer to the dam flood gates. Occasionally the kind villagers rotated the coracle and impressed the tourists who were whooping with laughter. Some old men who felt dizzy requested the villager to stop.

After that fun ride, we returned back to the meeting area and had our lunch. It is here that I learnt that the villagers who were entertaining us all along, belonged to the irula tribe. 

Traditionally, the main occupation of this Dravidian ethnic group from the Nilgiris has been snake, rat catching and honey collection. They speak Irula language which is closer to Tamil and Kannada. 

The villagers had prepared a lot of food for us. We were served chapati, sabji, Biryani, rice, Sambhar, rasam, curd rice, raagi mudde, keere chutney (Green leaf chutney) and kesaribaath. The food was descent and tasty. They also had a chicken curry for the non-vegetarians. 

Once everyone had had their lunch, the villagers in-charge of us politely asked us to get into our respective cars and drive towards river Bhavani. One of the locals got into my car to direct us, as we were leading. During the journey of almost 13km, I had a small conversation with the local. I was curious to know more about the tribe and their lifestyle. Their docile nature that I had observed all through the day made me feel empathetic towards them. 

From that young man I learnt that there are more than 90 villages in the region. Some of these mountain villages are deep in the jungle and cannot be reached by road. One has to walk several kilometres from the dam. Some land is allotted to them by the Government where they can farm. However, they do not own this land and therefore cannot sell it. Irulars are also famous for their naati vaidya (local herbal medicine). When asked if I could visit one of those remote villages, our guide told us that we could, but only through contacts. The police is very strict and the local whom we are visiting is held responsible for us. They also are carefully monitoring that the villagers do not turn their knowledge of herbal medicine into a business. That kind of explained the presence of a police inspector in the meeting area. He was silently observing the group during lunch time. It was evident that they are always keeping a watch on the tribe. Maybe, they are also ensuring the tourist's safety.  

While speaking to our guide, I also realised that the lifestyle of Irula people is obviously changing. He spoke about how they were educated but could not find jobs. His sister who has a B.Ed degree is working as a warden in a hostel. She is unable to find a job closer to her hometown. The available Government jobs are mostly away from home. The docile nature of almost all villagers present there reminded me of the Tamil movie “Jai Bheem”. The movie, inspired by real events, demonstrates the plight of the irula community. I am motivated to read more about them and understand their history and their current struggles. 

River Bhavani had dried up for the most part. But there was some water flowing, and between rocks it had formed several pools. Everyone got down to the river to take a bath. It was a much-needed respite from the blistering heat. 

After spending close to 1.5 hours, we drove back home. On the way, we took a deviation to visit Then Tirupati Tirumala Srivari Ananda Nilayam. This is a new temple built by a textile company owner. The entry to the temple passes through several factory outlet stores selling garments. This modern temple seemed more like a business model than a place of devotion. 

We had dinner in a restaurant on the way and reached home by 8:30PM. Baralikaadu was a pleasant surprise. I carried back the calmness of the place.

Next day, I decided to take it slow and requested that we plan an outing only after lunch. In the morning, I took a long walk in my favourite place in Kovai – Racecourse. 

My mother-in-law prepared Menthey rice which is my favourite. A few fenugreek seeds are soaked in water for few hours, mixed with rice and cooked really well. Freshly extracted coconut milk is added to the rice, heated and mixed well. Salt is added as per taste. This delicious rice variety is relished with some homemade pickles. We had three options to choose from -  Karande (Cranberry) pickle from Udupi, some nelikayi (Gooseberry) pickle that my mother-in-law had prepared and another flavourful mango pickle (mustard based) received from a relative. That was a scrumptious meal.  

Over breakfast table, My father-in-law and I discussed politics. Before 2014, Politics was not something people would discuss at home. Now, it has become a common thing in every household. With opposed thoughts, it can create heated arguments between friends and relatives. I tried to understand the dynamics in Tamil Nadu. 

For lunch, we had some tasty Beetroot rasam with a generous amount of garlic seasoning. We also had Kootu made of mixed vegetables and chana dal. She had also prepared some special tender coconut payasa. Needless to say that they were all extremely delicious. 

At around 3pm we drove towards Pollachi. The route passes through fields with windmills and approaches a never-ending stretch of coconut farms. Pollachi is known for its coconut farms. Senjerimalai is located 45km (1.5 H) from Kovai. At the centre of the town is a small hill and on top of that hill is Manhiragiri Velayudha Swamy temple, dedicated to Lord Murugan. 

From the top the hill, as far as our eyes travelled, we could  only see a canopy of coconut trees. 

The temple served some sweet Pongal and curd rice as prasada. We climbed up the rock next to the temple and sat there, watching the sunset. 

To the west, I saw another hill and a temple. Upon searching on google I found out that it was Chinnamalai Sundararaja Perumal  temple. We decided to go there. But before that, we stopped at Balathandayuthapani cave temple below the hill. This small cave houses a beautiful idol of Lord Murugan. The place is being renovated and will probably loose its authenticity. 

The road to Perumal temple passes through more coconut farms. There is a road all the way to the top of the hill. After a quick darshana, we headed back to town. We had dinner at Shanthi canteen. This canteen is something unique. This industrialist (who owns several businesses like textile, gears etc) is a genuine philanthropist. The canteen serves excellent hygienic food. The quality of the food is not compromised. Take any dish and it will not cost you more than Rs15. Many locals come here to eat. I enjoyed some idlis and tasty Sambhar sadham. Sambhar sadham is my new favourite. I discovered this during my previous trip and now I am a big a fan of it. Shanthi social services also runs a hospital next door, to help the poor. 

Back at home, we visited Preethi’s uncle who lives next-door. I always enjoy my conversations with him. He is a very interesting person. Having studied psychology, he has worked as a psychologist, taught in a university and now works as a HR manager. We discussed a lot on education, creativity, gardening and of course politics. 

Next morning, I went again to Racecourse for my morning walk. My mother-in-law had prepared cauliflower roast for breakfast – one of her specialities. Finely diced cauliflower and onion is fried lightly as to retain the crunchiness and garnished with some pepper. This mixture is sprinkled over the dosa batter that is first spread over a pan and cooked. The cauliflower roast is enjoyed with some coconut and pudina chutney.  

For lunch, she prepared Vatha Kuzhambu, another one of my favourite dishes from Tamil Nadu. It is made of Manthakkali (nightshade berries). We also had red Harive soppu Sambhar (Red Amarnath leaves). Oh! I forgot to mention about the delicious carrot Mysuru pak she had prepared which I shamelessly gobbled several and even packed some for home. 

My wife and I stepped out to shop for snacks, sweets and rice from nearby stores. At around 1AM, we began our journey back to Bangalore. On the way, we stopped at Texvalley in Erode. This place is amazing. All the textile manufacturers from Tirpur and vicinity have their factory outlet here. You will find great export quality clothes for throw-away prices. The only thing is that there are too many stores and you will have to really look for the good ones. 

This was a short but a pleasant trip to Coimbatore and we spent some quality time as a family. But the highlight of this trip was my mother-in-law’s cooking, as you might have already noticed in my writing. I am always surprised by the variety of dishes we have in India. On every trip, I discover one or more new dishes. As I always say, India and Indians cannot be described in a few generic statements, as some outsiders easily tend to do. 

My Video on Baralikaadu: