During my Kerala visit in December 2015, along with my elder brother and sister-in-law, we visited our cousin Raju at Kattappana in Idukki District. He cultivates cardamom and pepper, the main cash crops of the region. Kattappana, the largest town of Idukki District, is the main trading centre for cardamom and pepper. The Spices Board of India has its office here and also a Spices Park. There are many tea-estates too in the area.
The drive from Kottayam (3m above sea level) to Kattappana (1100m above sea level), is about 100 km and the road winds its way through the Western Ghats, revealing an uncanny mystic beauty of the countryside side all around. At the lower levels of the hills is mostly rubber plantations and as you gain altitude, the cultivation turn into pepper, ginger, cardamom, coffee and tea. The natural beauty that the drive offers will surely mesmerise and captivate the beholder and the only colour one gets to see is Green.
During our Sainik School days in the 70s we often trekked to Munnar, Thekkady and Idukki. In those days, the area in and around Kattappana had only jeepable dirt track connecting a few villages and homes were not electrified. The scenario has changed a great deal today with all homes electrified and most villages connected with black-top roads.
At lunch, Raju said that we must see the suspension bridge at Ayyappan Kovil (Temple of Lord Ayyappa) on our way back. After lunch, Raju took on to the wheels and we drove to Thoppippala, a village along the Kottayam-Kattappana road. In the 80s, Raju ran a jeep taxi service in the area with a rickety jeep. The jeep used to carry about two dozen people with the stuff they bought from Kattappana Market to their homes in the remote villages, connected through the dirt tracks. I was once a passenger in his jeep and the way he negotiated the hair-pin bends and near 60 degrees slopes still lingers in my memory.
The car veered off from Thoppippala, to a stone-topped dirt track through the reserve forest, home to teak and rose wood trees. Only the local jeep drivers can drive through such a road and with the expertise of Raju, the ride was very smooth. After driving about 5 km, we reached the suspension bridge, the longest one in Kerala State. The bridge about 200 m in length and about a meter wide, facilitates the locals to cross the Vellilamkandam River which flows under it.
The need for the suspension bridge arose as the catchment area of the Idukki Dam, constructed in the 70’s with Canadian aid, covered Ayyappan Kovil Village. The area was home to about 500 families then, who were relocated as the entire area got submerged during the next monsoons (June to October).
The old alignment of the Kottayam-Kattappana road traversed through this submerged area and the old road with a bridge is visible when the waters recede. The suspension bridge provides a stunning view of the mountains of the Western Ghats with its forests and plantations. The beauty of the surrounding region is exquisite and any visitor would be drowned in its pristine glory. I couldn’t help feeling that the tagline for Kerala Tourism, “Gods Own Country” must have been coined by someone who visited this area.
The area does not attract many tourists, possibly due to its limited accessibility and hence not disturbed and littered. Some locals run a raft boat made of bamboo for tourists, but has not yet been commercialised. The suspension bridge is undoubtedly an attraction that should be visited before it becomes popular amongst tourists. The area surrounding the suspension bridge is undoubtedly a paradise for the romantics, an adventure terrain for the outdoor enthusiasts and a serene land for a nature lover. The best way to reach here would be to hire a jeep at Kanchiyar on the Kottayam-Kattappana road and drive to the suspension bridge through the forest track.
About 5 km from the suspension bridge is located Kovilmala (Temple Hill), the only area in Kerala to be ruled by a ‘King’. The current King, Raja Raman Mannan ascended the throne in 2012. He is an economics graduate from Maharaja’s College, Kochi and worked in the Forest Department before he ascended the throne. The area attracts a lot of visitors, especially with the recent media coverage about the King and the tribe. Mammootty, Malayalam movie star visited the King and the tribe in 2012. The King discussed the current situation of his community with the superstar and sought his support for higher education of the children of his tribe. Mammootty promised that he would do his best to help the tribe.
The Mannan Tribe is a peace loving community which has joined the mainstream. When they were with Travancore Kingdom (pre-independence), they had the sole right over harvesting wild cardamom and other spices and hill produces, which were the key sources of income. Today, the tribe has lost its special rights over cardamom and spices and is generally dependent on collecting forest produce for their livelihood. Some of them have taken to other jobs and agriculture.
The tribe, currently around 50,000 and dwindling, has a rich legacy. Goddess Meenakshi, principal deity of Madurai Meenakshi temple, is their deity. There are many folklores about their association with the Pandya kings who ruled from Madurai during 13th century. Later they are believed to have enjoyed the patronage of Poonjar and later Venad Kingdoms. Annexation of Venad by Travancore brought the Mannans under their control. Travancore kings gave Mannan Kings special titles and the right to wear bangles and carry a cane as mark of their position. As per the Kerala State Government’s policy of allowing the tribe to preserve its customs, the position of king is accepted on certain matters. The Kerala government had built a house for the former Mannan King Ariyan at Kovilmala. The funeral of former king was held with state honours.
The King is respected in public society as the leader of the tribe. He is believed to be the protector, administrator and spiritual leader of the tribe. The King commands a lot of respect and also settles disputes among members. He has power to ostracise members of the community who fail to obey orders. The king is assisted by nine ministers who help him arrive at decisions and implement them. When it comes to criminal and civil disputes, they follow the Indian laws.
Despite claims of government officials of spending huge amounts of money for the upliftment of the Mannan tribe, locals say a majority of Mannans still continue to lead a primitive life. Large sections of the community are addicted to liquor and there are reports that Ariyan, the king who recently died, had developed liver complications from heavy drinking.
In case you plan for holidays in Munnar or Thekkady, you must take a detour and visit Kattappana and Kovilmala. There are many resorts that have sprung up in the area to cater for tourists. These resorts are pretty comfortable and mostly located adjacent to rivulets or streams. The area, having temperate climate, can be visited all through the year. The monsoons (June to October) brings in a lot of rains and in case you do not enjoy the showers, these months may be avoided.