About 3,000 ft above sea level, Araku is one of Andhra’s top hill destinations. It is a delightful place for valley views and an insight into the tribal culture of the Eastern Ghats.
We started out from the coastal city of Visakhapatnam (Vizag) from where the road climbs the Eastern Ghats, northwest of Vizag, through forests and plantations offering splendid views of valleys and hills. The first sight on this road is the Varha Narasimha Temple at Simhachalam, about 23 km out of Vizag, which is a splendid example of the architectural style that thrived at Bhubaneshwar, Puri and Konark in Odisha during the Kalinga and Ganga empires.
The temple was built in the 13th century by the Ganga dynasty, who built the famous Konark Sun Temple, which is a World Heritage Site, and the sacred Jagannath Mandir of Puri. The entrance is in the South Indian style with a gopuram gatehouse leading to the temple, which is surrounded by a pair of high walls. The temple is in the north and eastern style of Indian architectural, designed like a chariot, and the walls and platform are richly embellished with superb sculptures of mythical beings, animals and people. The Shikhara or spire tower, has a stepped design like Dravida temples.
After Simhachalam, the road entered forested hills and presently we came to the Jungle Bells at Tyda, a delightful nature resort run by the Andhra Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation with igloo-shaped cottages, wooden cottages and huts, some of them a/c, set among dense forests with flycatchers, minivets, orioles, etc, often seen in the immediate vicinity of the cottages. The nature resort is ideal for those who enjoy nature walks, archery and tribal dances.
After lunch at Tyda, we drove onwards to the Borra Caves which are among the largest in India. We walked into the cavernous entrance, which we were told is about 345 by 245 ft, and entered the cave which is about 40 ft high. Gosthani River originates in the caves and has created unusual speleothem formations as the seeping water from the roof of the cave dissolves the Karstic lime stone and trickles down to create the spectacular stalagmites and stalactites. The stalactites hanging like icicles are more than 10 ft long and some of the limestone columns are almost 20 ft high. From the bright sunlight outside, we were now in a twilight zone glad of the cemented walkway and halogen lamps laid out for tourists. Visitors were exclaiming at the sight of formations that look like deities and animals.
After the caves, the road curves through the forested hills and enters the coffee-planted slopes of Anantagiri. Since I always associate coffee with the Western Ghats of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, it was interesting to know that the Eastern Ghats of Andhra and Odisha also produce coffee. The Andhra Pradesh Tourism representative we met here told us, “The organic coffee cultivated at Araku and Anantagiri is gaining popularity as an aromatic Arabica. The coffee is grown by tribal groups that did not have access to pesticide and so the produce here is organic. Now, the Coffee Board, the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA), Girijan Cooperative Corporation and the A.P. Forest Development Corporation are some of the bodies that have promoted this coffee overseas as well as in the domestic market. The coffee became known when it won a cupping competition in the USA. The Nandi Foundation has also supported the coffee growers’’. He told us the Galikondalu is a superb point near Anantagiri to see the vista of Araku valley, and there are waterfalls at Thatiguda, Katiki and Chaaparai also visited by tourists around this coffee-growing region, but as it was getting late we continued to Andhra Pradesh Tourism Development
Corporation’s Punnami Yatri Nivas at Araku.
This property has become popular as a recreational place as it has a swimming pool and gardens. The staff told us about a Shante or Haat, a weekly tribal market nearby and we rushed there. The main tribal groups here are the Valmiki, Bagata, Khond and Kotia. There was not much activity at the mart when we got there, except for some local trading, and we headed back to the tourism complex where we were told that a dance called the Dhimsa was being performed for tourists at Araku on special arrangement. Wearing long necklaces and hair ornaments, the Bagata women formed a chain and danced to the beats of percussion instruments and other music.
The next morning we went to see the Museum of Habitat, which has dioramas, visuals, figures, artefacts, weapons and utensils that offer an insight into the life and rituals of tribal groups of the Eastern Ghats – we had met some of these groups at the weekly market, and others on trips to Odisha and Bastar. At the museum complex, we bought musical instruments like a Dappu drum, a singing stick, local crafts and coffee.
Our driver took us to see the Shimiliguda near Araku which falls on the broad guage line which goes through the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. At 996.32 above sea level, this was the highest broad gauge station in the world though now high broad gauge lines have come up in northern India. This railway station is part of the Kothavalasa-Kirandul line under East Coast Railway that was opened in the 1960s for transporting iron ore.
The driver told us that it is an engineering marvel with 58 tunnels, some as long as 520 meters, and 84 major bridges. The train ride from Vishakapatnam to Shimliguda is one of the most picturesque railway journeys in India – the spectacular five hour journey on the Kirandol passenger is a big tourist attraction. The rest of our trip was spent exploring Vizag town and its great beaches.