A forest standing out between two human settlements in the Kerala-Karnataka border with people living entirely different lives on either side of it is like chalk and cheese. Both have them have their own distinctive language, dressing style, lifestyle and cuisine, among others. While one side of the forest is dotted with hillocks, mountains and ravines, the other is marked by expansive agricultural land. Even the climate is different as one side has rather nippy weather and the other side is pretty hot. While people live in thatched houses on one side, the other side of the jungle has concrete houses.
After travelling 20 km from Ponkuzhi in Wayanad in Kerala one can step into Karnataka and what’s striking in this short distance is how humans and landscape had been strangely furcated by nature. And during the 20 km drive, you will be passing through the Bandipur National Park, which has an even road amidst the verdant forest. The forest road, through which night travel is not allowed, is strewn with humps to prevent vehicles from over speeding as incidents of speeding automobiles killing wild animals were on the rise. The residents of Ponkuzhi converse in Malayalam and follow a typical Keralite’s lifestyle but when you reach Gundlupet things will change drastically. No one utters a word in Malayalam and the terrain is also totally different from Wayanad.
While Wayanad is lush green with forests, mountains and valley, Gundlupet has a dry climate with vast tracts of land with the characteristic red soil of Karnataka.
Wayanad is the only district in Kerala that shares borders with both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Keralites and Tamilians coexist in border places such as Pattavayal and Thaloor where one could find Keralites speaking Tamil and Tamilians who are fluent in Malayalam. But this is not evident in Ponkuzhi and Gundlupet as a thick forest has made two communities complete strangers.
The national highway is devoid of teeming traffic. The agricultural land of Gundlupet will be replete with flowers of all hues as Onam arrives in neighbouring Kerala. Able-bodied sun tanned workers could be seen toiling hard on agriculture fields. A drove of bullocks, some pulling a cart, with long horns and tinkling bells around their neck could also be seen ambling along the road. People sitting on the cart would be wielding a long stick to guide the bullocks under the hot sun.
Gundlupet is the first town one enters after exiting the forest area and would arrive at a fork in the road – one leading to Mysuru and the other to Ooty. One can reach the Gopalaswamy Betta temple after taking a right turn after travelling for a while on the Ooty road. The road leading to the temple may be narrow but it is smooth and picturesque with farmlands on both sides. The road, which was relaid quite recently after the temple became a tourist destination, will take one to a valley. A forest department’s gate will greet you at the valley and from there you can go up the hill only on a KSRTC bus.
The ticket rate is Rs 30 and earlier private vehicles were allowed to ply on the route but after the road was repaired only state-run buses can provide transportation service. As the bus huffs and puffs as it winds up the hill on the narrow road, you can get an awe-inspiring panoramic view of the farmlands and forest.
Once you reach the top of the hill, you can feel a nip in the air even if it is noon. The mist will partially cover the hill in the morning and evening even though it is sultry in the plains, but during winter and monsoon seasons, the hill would be gobbled up by the mist. The hill known as the Himavad Gopalaswamy Betta, is the highest peak in the Bandipur National Park.
The legend goes that sage Agasthya performed ‘tapas’ atop the hill following which Lord Vishnu appeared before the sage and promised to reside on the hill. The temple was built by King Ballala in AD 1315 and later the hill shrine was administered and maintained by the Wodeyar dynasty of Mysuru. Only a few people visited the temple about five years ago but now things have changed for the better. As the temple is surrounded by forests, there might be wild animals, including elephants, in the vicinity and the local people believe that wild jumbos visit the temple to offer obeisance to the deity.
One has to climb a flight of steps to enter the temple and could also find many vagrants, chanting ‘Govinda Govinda’, sitting on these steps and stretching their hands for alms. The temple had been built using huge stones and is painted in maroon and white colours. There is a precipice on one side of the temple and on the other side, you can see lush grass-covered hillocks.
The place of worship that is situated amidst the forest is a favourite destination of many travellers and many visit the temple to enjoy the beauty of the plains from the hilltop and not as part of a pilgrimage. The strong wind blowing from the forest is punctuated by the chanting of ‘Govinda’ and the blowing of a conch shell on the temple premises.
This Gopalaswamy deity atop the hills is considered as a saviour for mankind and wild animals.