Vagamon – the jewel in the crown of Idukki

Photos: Basil Paulo

Uluppuni is perhaps the best place to begin an ode to the roly poly hills of Vagamon. The spotlight fell on this steep, formidable range of hills during the hay days of off-road biking and jeep riding in Vagamon.

The tall lemon grass is ridden with jeep tracks although off-roading are now forbidden on the hills. The fervor and noise of riders behind, Uluppui is settling back into its habitual silence, the meadow mending its green coat ripped apart by wheel tracks. Those who take the trouble to walk all the way up are allowed on the hills. To those who do wonder why so many people do, the trekkers might say that it has to be seen to be believed.

The hills are so steep that people walking uphill appears more like an acrobatic stunt in progress. With practically nothing to hold on to but for the tall grass, the climb is quite a task, especially for first-timers. This qualifies Uluppuni as the haven for adventure trekking. Around the time paragliding was introduced as a sport visitors can indulge in at Vagamon, the hills saw a sudden inflow of adventurers to the serene meadows nestled on the fringes of the Westen Ghats.

The adrenaline rush prompted the extension of sporting activities to the lesser known hills of Uluppini. Touted as the ultimate off road destination, Uluppini quickly became the paradise of jeep and bike riders. The hills reverberated with the roars of ‘Commander’ jeeps seeking to better record-breaking bike stunts and so on. The authorities had to intervene when the stunts crossed permissible limits, resulting in mishaps.

The jeep drivers who undertook adventure stunts received a setback when Uluppuni was made off limits for riders. On an average, there used to be at least four or five trips uphill and the earnings had also shot up. Most of them have gone back to being driver-cum-tourist guides who help visitors navigate the scenic spots spread across the Vagamon hills.

Trekkers who go up the Uluppuni hills are rewarded with a breathtaking view of Idukki's green hills; the Kulamavu Dam appears like an oil painting tucked into the vast expanses of wilderness. Shutterbugs can revel in the abundance of picture perfect frames all around. The spot was the backdrop for some of the picturesque shots in the movie, 'Iyyobinte Pustakam.'

Plan your itinerary for one-day trips

A one-day trip to Vagamon needs a properly chalked out itinerary. That will help you cover the must-see scenic spots without going hungry as there are no restaurants in many of these locations. It is also important to time your trip between the time the early morning mist lifts and the foggy evening descends on the hills.

By default, the jeep safari that will take you on a guided tour of the hills starts from the Vagamon bus stop at 7.30 am and winds up at the same spot at 6 pm. The trip covers the famed pine forests of Vagamon, Palozhokum para, the green meadows, the suicide point, Tangal para, Mundakkayam view point, Kurisu mala, Murukan mala, the Kurisu mala ashram and Uluppuni.

Pine forests

To most Malayalis, Vagamon is synonymous with the pine forests that dot the hills. The setting of many a romantic scene in Malayalam movies, the landscape is so etched in our memory that the feeling of dejavu that overcomes one is no surprise. The shadows cast by the tall pine trees acquire a three-dimensional effect in the early morning light. Streams flowing down the hills and the sounds of birds add to the surreal quality of the experience.

'Devathoothan' and 'Thalavattom' are among the many movies where the magic of the pine forests translated into mesmerizing shots on the celluloid. Ardent fans of these pine forests believe that the conifers in Vagamon score over those in Kodaikkanal when it comes to their onscreen charm.

There is a newly imposed system of collecting a nominal entrance fee from visitors hoping to stroll through the pine forests. It has not gone down well with the locals, but the system is followed nevertheless.

The meadows

The rolling chain of green meadows is the most defining feature of Vagamon. Covered in tall grass, the meadows have also become the enticing backdrop of countless movie scenes. It is on the same route as the pine forests, so you can make it either the first or second destination.

Travellers who return to these meadows year after year say that little has changed about the place except for a newly constructed flight of steps leading from the slope to the second rung of the rolling hills.

The boating facility that has come up in the Tea Lake that lies smack in the middle of the tea plantations is a major attraction around here.

The floods that hit Kerala in August had isolated Vagamon for days. But the hills bounced back in no time, its beauty intact. The lull in the inflow of tourists lasted only a short while, say locals.

Palozhukum para falls

The Palazhokum para falls are otherwise known as the Shivaganga falls. The waterfall is also an excellent viewpoint and is located close to the pine forests enroute to Elappara. The falls owes its name to a myth that abounds in the region – that Lord Shiva had brought the mighty Ganga down to quench the thirst of his devotees here. Quite a large waterfall that rivals other falls in the vicinity, like the Cheeyapara falls in Munnar and Valanjaganam falls in Kuttikkanam, Palazhokum para lives up to the tall story about its origins.

Pine valley

What makes Pine Valley special is that it showcases the enchanting view of the pine forests uphill. It is from the valley that the rows of trees become visible in all their glory. Located near the hi-tech bull mother farm functioning under the Kerala Livestock Development Board (KLDB), the valley is abuzz with a few shops and hotels. The stone-paved road lined by pine trees on either side urges one to take a stroll, reliving the familiar visuals from movies.

Suicide point

Like all viewpoints that live with the notorious tag, the cliff and the deep trench earmarked as Vagamon's 'suicide point' offer a most spellbinding view. The spot has received a facelift of late with sculptures adorning the place and a newly constructed road going all the way to the top. Tiled walkways and railings are also coming up along with an amphitheatre, view point, and watch tower. The ambitious project aims to make the spot a major tourist attraction in the near future.

Three hills and religious harmony

Thangal para is one of the three hills that form part of a trinity that symbolises religious harmony. Kurisu mala and Murukan mala complete the circuit – all of them within a 10 km radius of the Vagamon town. Seasoned travellers to Vagamon will advise you to finish off lunch before heading to the hill trinity as the climb may prove to be arduous for first-timers.

Thangal para offers the toughest challenge to hikers. It is believed that a sufi saint from Afghanistan, Sheikh Fariduddin, had lived and died on this hill nearly 800 years ago. The huge boulder poised precariously on the hilltop is said to be the stone he had used to grind his pan; it is supposed to have grown into an enormous boulder over the years following his demise. His tomb is right next to the huge rock. Apart from tourists, the hill is visited by pilgrims who come to pray at the tomb.

From the foot of the Thangal para hill, you can trek right up to the next hill in the circuit – Kurisu mala. The route offers a great view of Mundakkayam town, known as the doorway to the high ranges of southern Kerala. In fact, the place has earned the nickname 'Mundakkayam viewpoint' because of the sheer number of people who stop by the road to enjoy the scenic beauty.

The road from Thangal para ends in the valley of Kurisu mala. There is a coffee/tea shop that awaits visitors and a few other shops which are pretty much the only distractions in the green and quiet surroundings. The famous Kurisu mala ashram, established by the Belgian Cistercian monk Francis Acharya, continues to be a major centre of activity and pilgrimage.

The monk was instrumental in the construction of the Erattupetta-Vagamon road which opened an accessible route to the hills back in the 1950s. Negotiating the difficult terrain and the hanging cliffs during the construction work claimed the lives of over a dozen workers. The 20-foot-tall memorial tower standing at the Teekoy junction, which marks the start of the road, is dedicated to the memory of those who sacrificed their lives for the construction of the road.

Central to the pilgrimage to Kurisu mala is the 14-step catholic devotion called Way of the Cross or Stations of the Cross that symbolizes the journey of Jesus to the place of his crucifixion. The first Sunday after Easter, also known as the New Sunday, and the 40th Friday which marks the completion of Lent and fasting, are the days devotees throng the Kurisu mala hill. Standing at a height of 3500 ft above sea level, the hill boasts of the sobriquet, 'nadunokkan mala' which translates to ‘the hill from where the entire land can be viewed.' Murukan mala, the third of the trinity, is also visible from Kurisu mala.

Set in the verdant hills, the Kurisu mala monastery which houses monks of the Cistercian order, is a must-see place in Vagamon. The dairy farm run by the monastery is another huge draw.

The Vagamon experience

A day outing to Vagamon, linking all the major tourist attractions on the hills, is a little hectic but undoubtedly rewarding. A more enjoyable and exciting alternative is to visit the 10 major scenic spots over two days. By squeezing a stay over into the itinerary, you can wait to see misty evenings shroud the beautiful landscape and soft early morning light gently unveiling the roly poly meadows all over again.

Vagamon is often described as the jewel of Idukki and rightly so. Spread mostly over the Peermade taluk of Idukki and spilling over to the Meenachil and Kanjirappally taluks of Kottayam, Vagamon is set along the boundaries of the Western Ghats. The hills slope down into the beautiful valley of Teekoy.

The weather is amazing, hovering around 10-230c even in summer, which gives Vagamon the nickname, 'Scotland of Asia.' It features among the '50 most attractive places to visit in India' listed by National Geographic Traveller. Vagamon is 65 km away from Kottayam and 93 kilometers from Kochi International Airport.

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