Kolli Hills is a small mountain range located in central Tamil Nadu in India. The mountains are about 1000 to 1300 m in height and cover an area of approximately 280 km². The Kolli Hills are part of the Eastern Ghats, which is a mountain range that runs mostly parallel to the east coast of South India. The mountains are relatively untouched by tourism and still retain their natural beauty. They were sometimes known as "Kolli Moloi", the "Mountains of Death", due to the many diseases there such as malaria.
Tucked away between the Pachaimalai and Kalrayan hill ranges of the Eastern Ghats in South India, Kolli Hills (or Kollimalai, in Tamil) is indeed a remarkable spot in Tamil Nadu. Unlike man-made Ooty and Kodai, Kolli Hills is traditional hill country, the land of friendly tribes, and a part of the erstwhile kingdom of Valvil Ori, a Tamil king who was renowned for his generosity and valour. Formed in the shape of an open square, these hills were also known as Chathuragiri, literally meaning square-shaped hills.
Located at an ever-so-pleasant altitude ranging from 1000 to 1300 metres above mean sea level, Kolli hills enjoys a salubrious climate throughout the year. This fertile pocket in Namakkal district is where exotic tropical fruits and medicinal plants grow in plenty. The land is still relatively untouched by time, with 16 quaint little tribal villages that once constituted the hill kingdom of Ori. Much of the charm of this hill country still remains. For if you can’t stand the milling crowds of Ooty and Kodai, this surely is one place where you can head to for a quiet holiday.
There are many such legends and interesting myths associated with these hills, which make it all the more interesting and worth visiting. The drive up the 70-hairpin bend Ghat road is truly an enjoyable experience. Contrary to ones expectations, the Ghat road here is quite wide and well-laid, thanks to the tribal welfare funds allotted by the government. The road winds through 13 miles of beautiful scenery and thick forests, where you could pause just to take in the fresh mountain air, or just stop and stare at the monkeys, mongooses or squirrels that frolic on the hillsides. But hairpin bends are frequent and plenty, so it would be wise to be cautious while driving.
The drive up the hill will take you to Solakkadu, the main town here, which is also one of the highest points in the hills. But for the few shops, bus stand, a Highways Department Guest House, a higher secondary school and the weekly shandy, Solakkadu is just an overgrown village. The viewpoint inside the Highways Bungalow compound is worth visiting, as one can have a spectacular view of the surrounding hills and plains from here.
The bi-weekly shandy (dawn market) on Wednesdays and Saturdays attracts fruit vendors and wholesale dealers from the plains. The shandy begins on the previous evening as tribals trickle in with their produce. Many walk all the way from their villages, and camp at Solakkadu for the night, for the actual business begins at 5.00 in the morning and is over by 10.00am. Plantains, Jackfruit, Pineapple, Orange, Pepper, Coffee and Honey are what Kolli Hills is famous for, though you may get a better deal from the vendors than the tribals themselves.
The resident Malayalis (literally meaning people of the hills) are a friendly, sturdy and hard-working people, who generally keep to themselves. They constitute about 95% of the total population of these sparsely populated hills. Researchers feel that these were not the people who lived here during King Ori’s time. The early natives were primarily hunters-gatherers, while the present tribes could have migrated from the plains, bringing farming and agriculture with them.
About 4 miles from Solakkadu, an undulating track leads to the Christian settlements at Valavandhinadu established here by Mr.J.W.Brand, a Christian missionary who lived on the hills between 1913 and 1929. His work was carried on by his wife for many more years, in spite of the poor response from the tribals. But these missionaries were solely responsible for spreading literacy in this area, by establishing many elementary schools.
The next biggest village in the vicinity is Semmedu, which boast of a primary health center, telephone exchange, a few shops, hotels and the Valvil Ori statue. Comfortable accommodation and restaurants are available near Semmedu, at the Nallathambi Resorts and P.A. Lodge. Semmedu also has a statue-memorial to the King Valvil Ori, and is the venue of the Valvil Ori Tourism Festival in August. The festival is primarily a cultural event, which had its origin in the traditional Adi festival when people from all the 16 villages in Ori’s kingdom came together and danced, sang and feasted in praise of their deities and king. They brought with them, the flowers and fruits unique to each region and got together as a community.
Recent times, this festival is organized by the Tamil Nadu Tourism Department to showcase the cultural heritage of this region. The schools and government organisations in the area take part in the cultural events, and the fruit show is a main attraction. A Summer Festival is also held here in May, which is primarily conducted as a source of recreation for the local community.
The best way to enjoy these hills is at a leisurely pace, as there is ample opportunity for trekking and generally relaxing. It would be ideal to stay at one of the good resorts at Semmedu and explore the hills. Summer would be the right time to visit. August is the season for fruits here, and the time for the Valvil Ori Festival. But it would be very windy in August, which could be discouraging for any outdoor activity.
One of the highest points in the hills is Selur Nadu, which is believed to be the place where King Pari, another generous Tamil King, gave away his chariot as support to the helpless jasmine creeper. An ancient culvert can also be seen here.
The long and winding road from Semmedu to Selur Nadu is dotted with beautiful scenery. Banana and coffee plantations with their red and green coffee berries glistening in the sun, tall silver oak trees with glossy pepper leaves wrapped around, guava and orange trees laden with fruit and a host of other tropical plants typical of this region, are a feast to the eye.
There are many spectacular points on the way where you could pause to have a bird’s eye view of the hills and the quaint little tribal villages nestling in the bowl-like valleys. Some of these villages still do not have electricity. Faraway, in the uninhabited hills, are thickly wooded Sholas, similar to the ones found on the Western Ghats. These are the last resorts of the sloth bear, panther, porcupine, deer, fox, hare and a variety of wildlife that once roamed the entire hills.
Another village on the way is Vaasaloorpatti, where the Government Fruit Farm is located. It is a beautiful place where paddy (the traditional quick-yielding dwarf variety indigenous to this region) is cultivated in the valley and a variety of hybrid and native fruits such as jackfruit, oranges, coffee, pepper and spices are grown on the slopes here. At Vaasaloorpatti, the Salesian Sisters of Mary run a free dispensary and maternity hospital for the tribal women. Hill Dale Matriculation School, the only residential private school in Kolli Hills is also located here.
Not to be missed on the way to Vaasaloorpatti from Semmedu is the Tampcol Medicinal Farm at Vaalavandi Nadu, run by the Tamil Nadu government. The farm is surely worth visiting, as Kolli Hills is perhaps better known for its medicinal plants than anything else. A wide variety of medicinal plants and herbs used in Ayurvedic, Siddha and Unani medicine are nurtured, cultivated, gathered and sent from here. Even the most common medicinal plants, acquire a special value when grown here, as the medicinal plants from Kolli Hills are generally considered to be more potent and effective. For example, the Chitharathai (galanga the lesser), an effective remedy for cold, grown here is sold at Rs.400 per kg. Athimaduram (Jamaica liquorice), Karpooravalli (Coleus aromaticus), Thoothuvalai (Trilobatum), Tulasi (Ocimum sanctum), Kizhanelli (Phyllanthus amarus) and a host of other herbs, besides a variety of spices are also cultivated here.
Since ancient times, Kolli Hills has always been famous for its medicinal plants. It is believed that the Sithars (ancient medicine men) lived, researched and meditated here in the caves inside the sacred groves. Many such sacred groves are believed to be found in the forests here (near the Agasagangai falls) even today, and the adventurous go on trekking expeditions, to the caves where the Sithars lived. Stories abound of people chancing upon the stone mortars used by the Sithars to prepare their medicines and concoctions.
The moss covering the inner walls of the Sithar caves is believed to have unique healing properties. The sacred groves are guarded by the local temple deities, and the felling of trees is prohibited here. There is also a popular belief among the locals here that a person could lose his mind while entering certain areas of the dense forest where the Sithars lived. No one knows where exactly these areas are, but these pockets, known as Mathikettan Solai are believed to completely wipe out a person’s memory, for a period of time. A common explanation to this phenomenon is that it could be due to the effect of the concentration of so many highly potent medicinal plants in one place.
Perhaps the biggest attraction in Kolli Hills from a tourist’s point of view is the spectacular Agasagangai waterfalls and the nearby Arapaleeswarar temple at Valapoor Nadu. This ancient Siva temple has inscriptions dating back to the Chola period. One has to climb down the 700 and odd steps leading to the waterfalls from here. The waterfall presents a truly spectacular sight, as the water cascades down 200 feet, covering all around with a fine spray. It would be just enough to stand nearby and get drenched. The climb up the steps can be pretty strenuous, and it is therefore wise to visit the falls only if one is capable of climbing back.
Kolli Hills is thus a naturalists haven - a treasure trove of medicinal plants, and the native home of traditional hill country and people. But like eco-systems elsewhere, these hills too have been invaded by modern farming practices and invasive methods. Tapioca, cassava and hybrid varieties of rice, which were introduced in this region recently, have overtaken the traditional paddy varieties, minor millets, pulses and fruit farms in terms of profitability. The M S Swaminathan Research Foundation has taken efforts to arrest this genetic erosion and rescue the traditional crop varieties.
The local practice of burning the land after each yield has proven to be detrimental to the soil. The wiping out of traditional farmlands and orchards, has contributed to the near extinction of the mountain bees that produced the superior quality honey that Kolli Hills was once so famous for.
There has been an alarming rate of decline in the wildlife found here. Kolli Hills was once known for its Sloth Bear, which used to reside in the Sholas and visit the fruit farms occasionally, lured by the smell of ripe jackfruit. These bears were considered as pests by the local community, and were killed. Ever since King Ori’s time, hunting had always been a major preoccupation in this region. And even now, the Malayali tribes place a premium on hunted meat, which forms a major part of their diet. This explains the almost complete disappearance of the wild boar, porcupine, deer and hare that were once found abundantly in this region
As far as modern day communication is concerned, Kolli Hills is still rather remote. Though the hotels at Semmedu and the government offices have telephones, reliable communication is still non-existent here. You will have to book your copy of the day’s vernacular newspaper, while the English dailies are rarely sold here.
Out of the floating population that visits the hills, a majority are wholesale traders and planters who have plantations here. While most of the people on business make fleeting one-day visits, people from the surrounding plains do come here on extended holidays. And like elsewhere, the gradual rise in the influx of tourists and vehicular traffic has begun to show on the pristine environment. A visit to the stream near the Arapaleeswarar temple could be an eye-opener of sorts. The rocks near the stream are littered with all kinds of garbage, and it is difficult to find a clean rock to step on, leave alone the suffocating stench. Public consciousness and social awareness seem to be the need of the hour to preserve these valuable hills.
But in spite of all these modern ills, Kolli Hills is still one exclusive place where time has stood still. A quiet little haven in the hills where you could retreat, rejuvenate and re-charge yourself.
The hills are said to be guarded by Kollipavai, the local deity. According to legend, the sages chose Kolli hills when they were looking for a peaceful place to do their penance. However, the demons invaded the hills to disrupt the penance when the sages began their rituals. The sages prayed to Kollipavai, who according to the myth chased away the demons with her enchanting smile.
The Kollipavai is still worshipped by the people here and her smile is revered. The mountains have several mythological legends associated with them, and often come across as an eerie place in contemporary tales due to the unexplored and less traveled terrain. The hills are also known for many fatal diseases such as malaria, which has led to them being called "Kolli Malli", the "Mountains of Death".
Kolli Hills is a major mountain range and is an outline of the Eastern Ghats. It is eighteen miles (28 Kilometers) long (north south) twelve miles (19 Kilometers) wide (east/west) and the Kolli Block covers 441.4 square kilo meters. It falls within the following coordinates: - Rest Longitude 78º 17'05" to 78º 27'45" and North Latitude 11º 55' 05" to 11º 21'10". The name Kolli Malai refers to the mountain's once hostile nature; the unsuspecting and unaccamatised aliens, attracted by natural beauty. Viewed from plains of Namakkal the mountain appears as a flat-topped mass. The mountain has been inhabitated from prehistoric times. It is much celebrated in the Tamil Literature of the Sangam period; at least eleven poets mention it in their poems.
It is also believed that Chanakya, the author of Arthashastra was born in this area before he had migrated to the North India to pursue education at Takshashila.
As per Census 2001, t he population of the Kolli Hills is 36852. There are 14 village panchayats and 275 hamlets. The population predominantly consists of scheduled tribes called Hindu Malayali whose spoken language is only Tamil. In two pockets SC population is found around 700.
Cultivation of Jack Fruit, Guvava, Hill Banana, Pineapple, Pepper, Coffee, Cardamom, topioca, honey and rice are the main agricultural activities.
The government reserve forests are seen in Ariyur, Puliyan Solai, Selur and Vazhavandhi Nadu. An area of 200 hectares is in the process of reforestation. Tigers and elephants which were once common in it are now extinct; only small animals such as black bears, hares, porcupines, and wild dogs are seen.
Legends have it that the hills were part of the famous Madhuvanam (Honey Forest) reserved by Sugriva of the epic Ramayana. The Maximum elevation ranges from 3500' to 4500' with the tallest peak Vettakaramalai, is rising to 4663' above sea level.
The hills formed a natural boundary between the Kongu Nadu and Chola Nadu. At the beginning of the Christian era the Mountain and its habitants were ruled by Mazhavars and the King Vaivil Ori was much celebrated among them. Legends have it that he was a great archer and released a arrow by him pierced first and elephant, then went through the open mouth of a tiger, then a deer and the a pig and then hit a monitor lizard killing instantaneously all.
A statue was erected to honour the king in 1975 by Thiru Kalaingar M. Karunanidhi, Honorouble Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and the Government sponsored festival (VALVIL ORI VIZHA) every year named after him. Apart from known abode of the Saints, the Buddhists, the Jains set up a number of retreats, those fell prey to time. A stone image of Theerthangarar reminds the existence of the earlier Jain influence. The famous Shiva Temple called Arapaleeswarar Temple dating back to 12th century situates at periakoviloor near the famous waterfalls Akasa Gangai. Reportedly an ancient and powerful deity called Kolli Paavai of Ettukkai Amman is also at Kolli Hills. It attracts large pilgrims on full moon days originally a Jain retreat.
The glory of Kolli Hills and the Charity of the King Valvil Ori is liberally sung by the Sangam literature like Agananooru, Purananooru, Kurunthogai, Pathitrupathu and Natrinai.
Numerous streams originate from Kolli Hills. The major rivers traversing the hills are Aiyar, Varattar etc.
At present Kolli Hills could be reached through a Ghat road which was having 70 hairpins bends. The village at the foot hill is Karavalli. From Namakkal to Kolli Hills the distance is 55 KMs. The Ghat road is alone 26 KMs. The district administration taking steps to form another Ghat road called Nariankadu – Mullukurichi road which, when formed will have only 2-3 hairpin bends.
Thanks to the tourists who helped provide information
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