It all began with a message from Gman on Facebook sometime in May’12 asking me if I wanted to join him for a trek to Sathuragiri. My antlers went up after reading the “trek” part. I immediately said yes and started reading more about Sathuragiri. It turned out that Sathuragiri is the abode of the famous saints and devotees of Lord Shiva called Siddhars who were learned men of olden times and were saints, doctors, alchemists and mysticists. Siddhars like Agasthya are believed to control and transcend the barriers of time and space by meditation. A mountain to climb was good enough, but a mountain with a legend of magic and mystique got me all excited.
A 2 week campaign was launched to look for like-minded trekkers. It was tough to convince many of my 40+ old pals to gear up for this. Gman had roped in the enthusiastic Ratish and not just that, both of them got their sons as well! Satish too, did not need much convincing. I also got in Ganesh, a colleague who in turn got along his cousin and ace photographer Santosh. The team of 8 was ready. The date was set for 22nd July, a week after the new moon day when thousands of pilgrims come to Sathuragiri. Logistic planning was entrusted to Satish, who as usual pulled in some strings and organized the transport, accommodation and food.
The last week was spent in planning for the 2 day adventure. Sathuragiri turned out to be a forgotten town near Madurai lost in a bygone era. The small temple town on top of the mountain had no electricity. There was a generator for the temple and few shops but mostly out of diesel! There are no hotels or restaurants as well. The thousands of pilgrims, who come for the new moon, just hang around the temple in shanties and manage their requirements with the few petty shops. So we made a check list of food, beverages, bedding, medicines and torches to be carried. The tips on travel forums were ranging from the quirky to the ominous. Here are a few samples-
“For the first timer, it takes 6 to 7 hours to climb up to Top. Rest, can reach the top within 4 to 5 hours”
“Do not pluck flowers, leaves etc. on the way or break any branch of the tree. Everything belongs to the Lord. Each and every thing in the hill has got power”
“Do not climb alone or get down unless you are sure about the pathway. All animals except the Lion are there in the mountain”
“Chanting mantras will bring in strength and guidance to Top”
On 21st July, and we had a motely group of 8 arrive at Madurai. Gman and Aditya drove down in a taxi from Coimbatore. Ratish and Varun flew in from Mumbai. Ganesh, Santosh and I drove down from Bangalore. Satish flew in from Chennai and had booked us in the lovely Heritage Hotel. After freshening up, Satish suggested we have dinner at Konar Kadai the local favorite in Madurai. Only when we reached I realized to my angst that it was a 100% pure non vegetarian hotel specializing in all sorts of %$&#@* curries!
The irony was Mr. Satish himself was a Saturday vegetarian, so both of us ordered plain uthappam and chutney to the consternation of the waiter. Dinner for the rest of the gang turned out to be a gourmet affair.
We all left Madurai at day break at 530 am in a hired Innova, went past Srivilliputhur and reached Thaniparai by 7am. The journey was one filled with discovery and learning for me. The young Varun, all of 9 was a master of Gods of all ancient civilizations. I usually prided myself in my good knowledge of history. But I tuned into an ardent student as Varun explained to me the intricacies and politics of the Egyptian, Greek and Roman Gods. Shu, a primordial Egyptian god of Air was a revelation to me!
We all assembled at Thaniparai the base camp around 7 am. We engaged a couple of porters to get our entire luggage up the mountain! It was a moral dilemma of sorts. On one hand it looked harsh to load up these poor guys who had to trek up with this entire burden. The other point of view was that these folks had no other means of living. So we ended up using their services and started our trek swinging our free arms.
Sathuragiri owes its name to the 4 Vedas (chatur) who came together and formed the hill. Another school of thought claims that Sathuragiri is called because the hill is in the shape of a square (chathuram). The hill is home to 3 temples. Sundara Mahalingam and Santhana Mahalingam temples are separated by the Akasha Ganga River into 2 sides of its banks. Periya Mahalingam temple is where the Siddhars worshipped Lord Shiva and it is said that only those who are destined, can see this temple located right in the middle of a dense forest.
All the 18 Siddhars are supposed to have lived at Sathuragiri. Many believe they are immortals and are still living here. The Siddhars were masters of yogic practices and were able to overcome death by a combination of Pranayama the breathing technique and alchemy. They were able to help mankind by harnessing the powers hidden in material substances. The Sidhhars, who were saints, doctors, alchemists and mysticists, wrote their findings in palm leaves in Tamil and some of them are still preserved. They were also the father of Siddha medicine, a native system, which is still practiced in many parts of Tamil Nadu. The Siddhars were the ones who mastered the concept of pulse-reading or "naadi paarththal", to identify the origin of diseases.
Along with hundreds of pilgrims, we too began our trek up over the 7 km trail. Right at the beginning was a temple of Pilaavadi Kruppar below a Jackfruit tree. An interesting legend is associated with this temple. A Siddhar called Kaalanganaadhar was keen on building a temple in his home town. He engaged the services of a local mason and paid him with gold for his services. Now the Gold was actually made by the Siddhar himself using material from the forest as he was an alchemist. He was left over with some gold after paying the mason and so he decided to dig up a well and buried the treasure. He created Pilaavadi Karuppar as a guard to protect the treasures and that is how the temple came into being.
I have been to many treks in the past, but this experience was something different. We saw old men and women, children who can barely walk and even porters carrying huge cargo on top of their heads, all marching past us with a mission! There were even women carrying heavy drums filled with merchandise for the shops on top. Our heart skipped a beat every time the lady balanced the drum on top of her head and climbed a tricky cliff. It was heart rending to note that they do this for a mere 100 Rs. per drum. We all fell silent for a few minutes contemplating on the disparity of effort versus income that exists in this world.
The whole atmosphere was festive and several people were prodding those around who slowed down a little, to carry on with gusto! We too had a couple of newbies into trekking but then they put up a remarkable show after some tentative initial moments. The first pit stop came shortly after we crossed Vazhikai Parai or Slippery Rock. All I can say is that it has been aptly named!
It was here that I tasted the most refreshing drink in my life ever- Sokku Kapi. It is an herbal drink made from ginger, corainder seeds, pepper and elaichi. One small cup of Sokku Kapi had the same effect on us like the Magic Potion on Obelix and we were all refreshed and raring to go.
Agasthiyar was the Guru of all Sidhhars and legend has it that the Siddha system was handed over to him by Lord Muruga, the son of Lord Shiva and Parvati. He is believed to have lived in the 6th century BC and is also responsible for the first Tamil grammar called Agathiyam. His greatest creation is supposed to be Boopathi Kuligai, a concoction so powerful that it can even bring the dead back to life.
As soon as we left Vazhkai Parai, the sole of my left shoe fell over. It was a Woodland Shoe I had bought 9 years back. Nostalgic memories poured in my mind as I recalled the escapades my shoe and I shared in Waitomo Caves in New Zealand, Briksdal Glacier in Norway and Masai Mara in Kenya. Thankfully the innersole was still standing and I could manage to climb up with the shoes still on, even though I had a slight limp now due to the difference in the height between the 2 shoes!
Ratish had got hold of a fine specimen of a walking stick and was proudly holding it and climbing up at a brisk pace. Santosh was busy shooting off the plethora of flora and fauna around. Roses and Chameleons seem to have caught his fancy. Gman and I were just observing the different types of people walking up. Aditya and Varun were in their world of iphone apps but climbing up nevertheless!
We took a breather at Naval Oothu which is a holy spring full of herbal water. It is a natural spring and the water is magically refilled round the year.
After 4.5 hrs, by 1130, we had finally crossed a stream and entered Sathuragiri. There was joy and relief all around. Satish and Ganesh could not believe it that we made it in 4.5 hours while the travel blogs had talked of 6-7 hours.
We passed through a series of platforms where people had assembled pebbles on top of each other. It turned out to be a belief that tenants can also become house owners once they set up these pebbles in this arrangement at Sathuragiri!
Sathuragiri looked like a typical Temple town with a bazaar, albeit on top of a mountain. Hundreds of pilgrims were running around. The place has no electricity and a feeble BSNL only mobile connection. However it was refreshing to see a series of solar powered lamps on the street. Most people were camped in shanties. Thanks to Satish, we checked into the poshest piece of accommodation at Sathuragiri- the Tempe Store Room!
It was a great relief to catch up on our breadth in this cool surrounding. The lack of electricity was not noticed as the breeze was all powerful. We sat down on the floor and made plans for rest of the day.
It was just 10 minutes since we had sat down when Gman threw in a bomb that we he wanted to climb to Thavasi Paarai on top of Sathuragiri. You should have seen the look on our faces upon hearing that. We had just done 7 Kms of trekking over rocks and cliffs! We enquired with some local folks and figured that Thavasi Parai is right on top of the Mountain and one has to go past a dense jungle infested with all kinds of animals for over 3 hours. There were protests from many quarters especially from Aditya who made a pertinent point. He asked his dad, what he will get to see from the top. Gman’s response was you can see the Temple Store room from that elevation. Aditya was flabbergasted. He said what is the point of trekking up 3 hours to look at something in which you are already there! Varun also joined the protests. But Gman was firm and we all turned the corner and caught hold of a guide from the "Palingargal" tribe to help us on this dangerous trail ahead.
After half an hour of tough negotiations, the guide finally turned over and agreed to take us not only to the Thavasi Paarai but also to Periya Mahalingam Temple where only the destined make it. We had gone past a few shrubs and bamboo forests when Ratish sat down clutching his ankles. We feared he had sprained his ankle.
The next few minutes were tense as were wondering the pros and cons of proceeding. Gman’s persuasion and Siddhar’s blessing worked and Ratish seemed fine to carry on. We passed some really scary terrain with evidence of the wild life and after huffing and puffing managed to reach Thavasi Parai by 4pm.
The Thavasi Parai cave was shocking to say the least. It had a 2 feet tall opening.
We were supposed to crawl in for the next 10 feet and then a larger section of the cave opens up where the Sidhhars meditated. The guide was very clear and said he had no intention of accompanying us inside if that thought crossed our minds. He feared wild animals rested there especially during monsoons. And some frogs make it their home as well! We saw a group of young men crawl in and come out after 15 minutes with strange expressions. After hearing their account of the crawl in the dark, we decided we will ditch the thought of entering the cave. We just peeped into the darkness and made our way towards the Periya Mahalingam temple.
There had been a forest fire triggered by a reckless tourist’s cigarette 3 days back. The entire landscape was charred and gave a surreal look. The breeze at this altitude was extremely powerful and we all had to clutch the nearby trees as we passed steep cliffs which led to a sheer fall down the valley. The guide had a concerned look on his face as he reminded us that we had to cross this stretch before dusk to avoid any wild encounters! We needed no further prodding and even little Varun pushed his limits and we rushed past the trail at a good pace.
We reached Periya Mahalingam temple by 5 as the light was fading. The temple was a Swayambu Lingam. The root of the tree ran past on top of the lingam and looked like Jadamudi (hair) of Lord Shiva. The whole sight of the Lingam in the middle of this dense forest created a highly spiritual surrounding and looked like an ideal ground for meditation. We resisted the thought of meditating here and took to our heels to get away from the forest before the Sun Sets.
We reached back to Sundara Mahalingam Temple by 630. We made our way past the shops selling Saambirani the intoxicating the natural incense. We were amazed to learn that on new moon day of Aadi Amavasai, as many as 15 lac devotees come to this temple.
After a good Darshan, we made our way to the Santhana Mahalingam Temple on the other bank of the Akashi Ganga River. Here we found sanctums for 18 Siddhars, Lord Ganesha, Lord Muruga, Navagrahas, Santhana Mahadevi and Santhana Mahalingam. We also had a look at the Satta Muni Cave located in the premises.
Mission accomplished we proceeded for dinner, which was at a small shop lit by hurricane lamp! The menu was a simple affair comprising Plain Dosa, Sāmbhar and Chutney. But the taste was delicious. I also had a bottle of Bovonto, the cola of moffusil Tamil Nadu!
The whole hill turned pitch dark by 730pm and we could only hear the chatter of the pilgrims. As we made our way to our humble abode, we heard an angry grunt. Ganesh identified it as a Bull on a rampage! It was upset and running around scaring all the pilgrims settled in the shanties around. We closed the door and spent the next few hours recollecting the adventure of the day in darkness.
We wanted to leave at 5 am, but ran into a problem. The porters had to climb up from Thaniparai and could make it only by 7. They used a short cut which was too dangerous for amateurs. So we decided to start our descend at 630 to ensure we get our luggage back by the time we reach the base in 3 hours.
The way back was more scenic as there were hardly any more pilgrims at that time and we had the nature to ourselves. We decided to take a detour to Korakkar Cave half way on the trail down to Thaniparai. Korakkar was a Siddhar who was a master of medicine, philosophy and alchemy. He was also known as Gorakhnath. The cave was located besides what once must have been a gushing river. Legend says that Gorakkar used the material from nearby forests and using alchemy was able to create a substance in this cave which helped him fly.
As we proceeded back to the base camp, my other sole broke away! Remarkable, the location was not far from the place where the first one had taken off. The feeling now was more of less like walking bare feet. I felt the pokes of every sharp rock and pebble on the way down.
The adventure came to an end by 10 am when we reached Thaniparai. The porters made is soon and we all headed our way back to Madurai. After freshening up, we all parted ways after one of the most remarkable journeys we all ever had.
Sathuragiri was not just a trek. It was an experience comprising a mixture of nature’s beauty, tranquility, contemplation, spirituality and fun. We made up our minds to return to Sathuragiri after the monsoons.
For travelogues on other treks of mine, visit Great Trekking Ideas.