Bacchus-worshiping Malayali obediently queuing up at a Beverages Corporation liquor vend in the evening is a familiar sight in Kerala. If giant elephants line up for a sundown drink at a special spot everyday in God's Own Country, then it is a sight to behold.
Want to watch the action at the out-of-the-world, unheard-of Pachyderm Pub? Come to Idacholayaar rivulet at Anakulam, a small village near Mankulam in Kerala's Idukki district.
Warning: Here booze is not measured in the menial way of 'small,' 'large' or 'Patiala Peg,' but in gallons. You also can't order a 'Martini shaken and not stirred' here, only one brew is available. No separate premium counters here, all will have to sip from the same 'pitcher.' No bartenders or cocktail specialists, so no pourboire also.
The ambiance at the bar in the middle of the brook is set much before the start of happy hours. Local people and a few tourists, foreigners included, gather at Anakulam junction, some 50 meters from the river, right from 3 pm. The elephants here are infamous for not keeping a prescribed time schedule. Better to show respect to the tuskers by being present at Ground Zero much before their elegant entry.
Tiny teashops and roadside vendors normally keep spectators engaged for hours by sharing stories about this group of mammoth mammals and serving hot tea and snacks.
The favorite story doing the rounds in Mankulam is that a heady cocktail gushes out of a small spring-head beneath Idacholayaar that gives the jumbos a high. Sabu Mathew from Anaviratty, a Kerala government employee in the treasury department, vouches for this story.
Another piece of gossip is that hooch-makers in Mankulam, a hamlet notorious for illegal brewers, bury their wash (fermenting malt) in the riverbed and the trunk-wielding beasts are lured to this spot to taste the hidden magic potion.
A different tattle about Anakulam is that the village's altitude is just 63 feet above sea level and the water coming out of the springs in the riverbed has high salt content, making it the favorite beverage for the elephants. Roy Paulose, a 54-year-old man who owns a small shop close to the pachyderms' spiritual destination, supports this theory.
However, nobody in the region has any scientific explanation to give. People say Geological Survey of India (GSI) officials had collected water samples from this spot for laboratory tests but nothing has come of it.
The action at the booze parlor begins on a sober note. A herd of elephants, numbering around 20, majestically walks to the river just before dusk. They do not immediately rush to the watering hole like the typical tipplers in Kerala. First, they line up on the riverbank, strike a pose for the shutterbugs in the crowd, nod to the spectators as if acknowledging their appreciation and just wait. The wait ends only when the leader, who has been observing the scene from a distance, arrives with his head held high. He goes straight for the pond-shaped pool in the shallow brook, followed by rest of the herd.
The gang then does a Kohli & Co act by going for a huddle before starting their ritual. Surprisingly, all of them drink from the very same spot, all the more reason for people to believe that the water gushing out at this place gives the proboscideans a high. The way they gulp down the stuff is similar to the famous Malayali style — straight bottoms-up.
After around half-an-hour of binge drinking, the brew starts working on the jumbos. By then, darkness has set in and the real 'happy hours' for the spectators begin. Behavior of the entire herd changes suddenly and they start fighting with each other, sometimes they push each other just to have a few more gallons of the beverage. A little calf, hardly one month old, is the cynosure of all eyes, including the herd, as it breaks into sort of a bar dance. A few others also join the junior with some 'item numbers.' Their steps clearly give out the impression that the terrestrial mammals are totally inebriated and not in their senses at all. The naughty calf keeps the entire herd and the spectators engaged for quite some time.
As darkness thickens and smothers the daylight, you may wish to switch on the car's headlights to have a better view of the proceedings but the tipplers in the middle of the river will instantly turn their posteriors towards you and wag their tails with disdain as if asking you to 'get lost.'
(Anakulam junction has only one high-mast streetlight at present and authorities have plans to install one more for tourists soon).
More in store
Even as this 20-strong team, which has elephants of all sizes, age groups and gender, is busy with the pranks, yet another herd is anxiously waiting in the nearby forest for their chance to have a go at the nature's distillery. With the first group not leaving the 'bar,' the second gang also wades into the water slowly and joins their buddies at the counter. Those who are already on a 'high' make way for the newcomers to have a peg or two. With the number of 'drunk' jumbos touching around 30, the scene in the stream takes a new turn to utter chaos with the mighty tuskers flexing their muscles and shoving a few of the youngsters to the side, occasionally trumpeting loudly.
If the show inspires you to say cheers to the creatures from your 'car-o-bar,' remember that the cops often patrol the area and driving back in the night after a few pegs would be very unsafe.
After hours of dance and prance, the gentle giants abruptly go into a 'Nirvana posture' (they stand in the middle of the river without even moving the ear flaps) late into the night. Surprisingly, the elephants bloat significantly after they gulp down a few gallons of the brew and their silhouettes appear huge in the night. According to Joy Thomas of Mankulam, the elephants strike the 'tableau pose' only after getting totally sloshed.
If you get bored in between the inebriated performances, there is a check dam some 500 meters beyond this spot where you can test your swimming skills in ice-cold water. The water is crystal clear here and not very deep.
Trail of destruction
Even though people gather here every day to watch the heavyweights, villagers around Mankulam region are angry over the elephants' destruction spree. The pachyderms raid fields in the night and damage coconut and jackfruit trees and banana plantations. Recently, a shop at Anakulam was damaged by the marauding jumbos. Following several complaints, the forest department had started work on fencing the river banks but the project is caught in bureaucratic tussle.
According to the villagers, the rivulet and the forest on one side are under the Malayattoor forest division and the Anakulam road is under the Mankulam division. Both the divisions are involved in a territorial war and the fencing work is caught in this battle of babus.
Jumbo biz opportunity
Despite the anger, people here have also seen a business opportunity in the unique jumbo pub. Some of them have already opened small roadside vends to sell organic local commodities like pepper, ginger, cardamom, coffee powder and food items. Several of them, especially the food stalls, are doing a roaring business with more and more tourists flocking the spot.
How to reach
Landlocked Anakulam's nearest railway station is at Alwaye and the airport at Nedumbassery.
If you come by train, get off at Alwaye, head towards east around 20 km (14km from airport) to Perumbavoor, which is a town full of migrant laborers from Bihar, Assam and Bengal. Another 20 km, you are at Kothamangalam, where you touch NH85. One of the oldest churches in India, Saint Mary's Jacobite Syrian Cathedral, is situated in this town. The church is believed to have been built in AD 498. The Saint Thomas Church built in 1455 is also another pilgrim center here.
Drive 18 km further to the east, you reach Neriamangalam, where you cross the Periyar river and you can click a few pictures of the arch bridge built across Periyar in 1935 by the Travancore Maharaja. Neriamangalam is the gateway to high-ranges and is known as Cherrapunji of Kerala due to the heavy rainfall the region gets every year. Travel 13 km on NH85, the scenic Cheeyappara and Valara waterfalls await you. Next town is Adimali, some 17 km from Valara.
If you continue on NH85 for 14 km, take a left turn at Kallar Vattiyar for Mankulam. You will cross Kurishupara, Viripara and reach Mankulam after 18 km. Go another 8 km, you are at Ground Zero. However, the drive from Kallar to Anakulam is boring as you will see only cardamom estates on the roadside. If you wish to club your trip to Munnar, then go straight to Munnar from Kallar (16km), take a left turn after the KSRTC bus stand for Lachmi Estate (not Laxmi or Lakshmi). This route is so scenic that you may wish to spend the whole day in the tea gardens on both the sides. The only dampener is the bad condition of the 36 km road. You will cross Viripara and Mankulam before reaching Anakulam.
The return journey may be tougher in the night and you won't see any human being on the road after sunset. But, you will definitely meet wild animals.
Keep in mind
Remember, there is not a single petrol pump on this route and the road is narrow. A good camera is a must if you want to take back home the beauty of Idukki district.
Please stock up enough snacks and other food items if you are traveling with family as you will hardly see any good shop on this stretch.
What to buy: Shop for spices like cardamom, pepper, nutmeg and tea powder.
Nearby tourist destinations: Munnar, Thommankuthu, Meesappulimala, Parunthumpara, Pampadum Shola, Panchalimedu, Thoovanam, Vagamon