Millennium Post

Yercaud - 'Smart man's Ooty'

Yercaud - Smart mans Ooty
Post Ooty and Kodaikanal, if you are on the lookout for a place less commercial and more serene, Yercaud, situated at 4,500 feet above sea-level, among the orange and coffee-flavoured plantations of the Shevaroy Hills in the Eastern Ghats, is the place for you. Relatively unseen and unexplored in contrast to the other hill stations of Tamil Nadu, this is the place to seek salvation for your soul as you tread the wide open slopes, amidst golden sunflowers, purple morning glory and wild roses of all hues, scattered in profusion on the hillsides. Often referred to as ‘poor man’s Ooty’, Yercaud qualifies as one of India’s cheapest hill stations. But with its potential for bountiful discovery, to label it cheap would be truly insulting. Perhaps, ‘smart man’s Ooty’ would be nearer the mark. Yercaud is how the British got around the tongue-twister Yericaud, Tamil for ‘lake-forest’. Spread over 383 sq. kms. it is small enough not to tire you out and yet amaze you at every bend. Monkey families engaged in lively antics greet you as the road snakes past hill slopes, providing a playground for the sun and shade to frolic. If the coffee estates escape your eyes, as they catch their sleep in the cool morning breeze, the nose cannot miss the heady aroma in the fresh air while the factories roast their pods in this secluded part of coffee country. The 31 kms uphill drive from Salem past takes over an hour and one has to negotiate twenty fairly smooth hairpin bends. But do not panic. As you rev up your engine and move into first gear, your eyes will concentrate more on the amazing beauty around. On arrival, set out to explore this quiet homage to nature. If you prefer comfort or luxury, hire a rickshaw or taxi to hop from site to site, with the local driver serving as your guide to show you around.

The main attraction in Yercaud is the Big Lake, where you can hire 2-4 seater pedal boats and 4-seater rowboats. Or take a quiet walk around it as you munch on spicy Madras bajjis. Control your love for angling as there is no fish in the lake. In adjoining Deer Park, you can find spotted deer. Neighbouring Anna Park, the lake’s well-groomed garden, is particularly crowded in May, when a weeklong summer festival takes place, with flower exhibitions, dog shows and fairs. For the 300-feet high picturesque Killiyur Falls, fed from a stream from the Big Lake, take one of those small roads on the right, further ahead from the park. However, recent deforestation and reduced rainfall leaves it practically dry in winter. Closer to the town is the Small Lake, fed by seven wells, sharing its banks with the well-renowned Montfort Anglo-Indian Higher Secondary School, over a hundred years old. The school is worth a visit for its old world granite architecture, sprawling gardens and a majestic church, Gothic in appearance with high wooden ceilings, beautiful glass-stained windows and intricate pews. It is open for public viewing only on Sundays. The Rose Garden, run by the State Horticulture Department, is the place to buy saplings of ornamental flowering plants and indoor species. The roses may not be in bloom year round, but when they do, it is quite something to look out for. Other interesting shrubs and creepers greet you as you walk along the winding footpaths past trees. The Lady’s Seat overlooking the winding road offers a spectacular view of the Salem plains below. Reach the vantage point after dinner to digest your meal, gazing at the twinkling lights of Salem in the distance and put yourself in a lovely tranquil mood. For a closer view, there is a mounted telescope which, when swung right shows you the Mettur Dam, on the winding Kaveri, spilling greenery onto the lush coconut groves on both sides. Great shots can be had in the late afternoon, when the sun’s rays are reflected in the water. Close by is the Gent’s Seat, yet another viewpoint, with its name reflecting some corny sense of gender equality. The Rajrajeshwari Temple can be your next halt to pay homage to the deity much revered by the local people. Carved in black stone, she stands decked in a colourful saree and silver ornaments. From here it is a long winding scenic drive atop the hills to take you to the Shevaroy Temple, the highest point in Yercaud, at 5,326 feet above sea level. The surrounding beauty is ideal to halt for photographs. The temple, inside a cave, is dedicated to the local deity Shevaran and his consort Keveriammma. The tribals celebrate their annual festival here, each May. En route, near the old Norton Bungalow (one of the oldest in Yercaud), on private property, is the Bear’s Cave, believed to be the entrance to an escape tunnel of a long-gone Raja. It now lies covered over with vegetation and rocks.

Plant lovers should not miss the Botanical Gardens, home to hundreds of plants including rarities like the pitcher plant and the Kurinji flower which blooms once in every 12 years, and the orchidarium, reputed to be the third largest in India (after Kolkata and Shillong), with over three hundred species of orchids, of which about 30 are exclusive. Another must-see destination is Pagoda Point, offering magnificent views of the hills and valleys, dotted with tiny hamlets amidst parcels of paddy fields, akin to patchwork on a green winter quilt. The serenity of the hills will tempt you to bask in the sun with a hot cuppa of coffee or even hotter soup from the local shops. Gaze at the emerald glens as far as your eyes can go. Or perhaps indulge in any of the hobbies for which you seldom find time – read a book, paint or write a poem. Do not miss the Grange, an imposing castle-like building built by the former British Collector of Salem, M Cockburn. It is famous for housing a distinguished guest from Madras – Robert Clive, who frequently took weekend breaks in Yercaud. Perhaps his rejuvenating breaks had much to do in winning the Battle of Plassey for the Empire. In the coffee plantations, you may see the berry pickers at work. Stop for a chat or ask them to pose for the camera. Herbariums specialising in traditional medicine – eucalyptus, lemon grass, almond oil, honey and black pepper – for a healthy mind and body, dot the hills. Many of these products cost a lot less as compared to shops in downhill Salem. Local perfumeries make good business by selling preparations from jasmine, rose and sandalwood and spas offering aromatherapy using local herbal oils are very popular. The British left Yercaud years ago although touches of the bygone Raj remain in the colonial bungalows amidst ghostly pines and silver firs and in the headstones of tranquil graveyards where many a Mr John and Miss Smith rest in peace. The days are too short in the hills and all too soon, evening sets in.

As the orange sun goes behind the horizon, a white mist wraps around the vales, the trees and you. You know it is now time to retire for restful sleep to awaken to the cock’s cry next morn – with lots of energy for yet another eventful day in
beautiful Yercaud.
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