July 23, 2009

Talacauvery, Stairway to the Heavens

No one told me there was a stairway in the Brahmagiri hills that led up to the heavens, to the gods, well almost.

The most I had imagined of Talacauvery when we left Bhagamandala for the hills was a pilgrim centre not very different from the many dotting the countryside, drawing urgent pilgrim feet into traveling long distances to pay obeisance as much to the deity as to the faith of their forefathers. At Talacauvery the river Cauvery emerges as a perennial spring before strengthening into one of India’s mightiest rivers revered as one of the Sapta Sindhu or seven holy rivers and is considered to be the Ganges of the South.

In the time it took the bus to inch up the winding road in the hills to the birthplace of the Cauvery eight kilometers away, alternating between blind turns cut in the side of the hill and steep drops that descended rapidly to the plains below, my picture of Talacauvery was complete. I had imagined it. Now I only had to retrace my memory map once we arrived at Talacauvery to recognize the familiar contours I had never once seen before except in the urgency of my anticipation of the sojourn in the hills.

The Talacauvery I had imagined while I sat alongside the driver in his cabin, looking out the windshield at the narrow ribbon of a road stretching ahead, lay hidden from easy view in the forests of the Brahmagiri hills. The steep climb up the hill would have ensured not merely her sanctity but the integrity of her surroundings as well, beyond the easy reach of anyone but the most faithful of her devotees, certainly spared of those stopping by to dip their feet in the sacred water while on their way elsewhere. The elsewhere at Talacauvery ended in a steep drop of several hundred metres.

After all the Cauvery had chosen to break surface in the heart of the Western Ghats mountain ranges and it was only fitting that she surfaced to the silence of the jungle, punctuated by calls of birds flitting from branch to branch in the shade of trees where time moves to the whims of the divine and to the necessity of nothing.

However the reality as I was to soon find out on reaching Talacauvery was very different from what I had imagined. Shorn of any green cover we came up against an ostentatious looking arch under construction, presumably a praveshdwar (gateway) the kind I would imagine gracing erstwhile kingdoms with the architecture to carry it off, not the source of a river.

A viewing platform built on the edge of the hill swept over tiled homes below. A road passed houses as it wound its way through the trees. There was no one on the road. In the distance folds upon folds of mountains receded, nudged back by a fair way until the farthest mountains became faint outlines of blue, merging with the sky. Physical perspectives merge into one in the distance, the same cannot be said for those of the mind. I let the nip in the breeze pull my imagination free and sweep it away, toward the mountains.

Joy’s call cut my flight of thoughts short. It was time to pull away from the panorama and turn to the gateway and beyond. Matters of religion and faith beckoned and there was little time to spare.

Beyond the gateway a large open platform stretched all the way to the tank where the Cauvery emerges as a spring. There was little or no shade along the way. Buses ferrying pilgrims were parked at the entrance from where they walked barefoot over the tiled platform warmed by the noon Sun, hardly the bare earth and dense canopies I had imagined. And there were pilgrims everywhere, substituting the birdlife of my imagination. I might as well have stepped into an urban temple let alone one in the hills home to one of India’s major rivers.

A black cow regarded a small coffee shop, completing the picture. Few Indian temples can afford to have cows indifferent to pilgrims and wayside shops serving them. There was much awaiting us.

I looked at my watch. It was past noon as the Sun beat down on us.

“How much longer?” I asked the driver.

“We should be in Talacauvery in fifteen minutes,” he replied without taking his eyes off the road.

I swayed as the driver leaned on the steering, throwing his body behind the wheel as the bus rounded yet another sharp turn up the hill. To my left the hill fell away through dense outgrowth punctuated by a profusion of flowers, some evidently wild, others planted. December is a good time to meander in Coorg. It is pleasant and flowers bloom in abundance, and birdlife is rife with melodies issuing forth from trees in carefree abandon.

As we drove along, breaks in vegetation revealed sloping roofs of Mangalore tiles. Homes were strung out sparsely. Set back from the road and fronted by neat gardens with arched gates layered in colourful blooms it was easy to miss the houses in the vegetation. Where constructed on slopes the red tiled roofs dropped away from view to be replaced by others as if in a slideshow. Gates sported names uncommon to a visiting eye; some led to homes, others to coffee plantations. Coorg is home to the Robusta and Arabica strains of coffee. In the distance the Brahmagiri mountain ranges rose from the earth in mellow folds of blue, watercolours on canvas. For the ride alone the road connecting Madikeri to Talacauvery is an indulgence.

Located in the Brahmagiri hill, 1,356 metres above sea level, Talacauvery (Talakaveri) lies 8 kms. from Bhagamandala and 48 kms. from Madikeri, the capital of Kodagu (Coorg). Pilgrims travelling to Talacauvery usually stop at Bhagamandala for a dip in the sacred confluence of the Cauvery, Kannike, and the Sujyoti before continuing up the hill to Talacauvery where the Cauvery springs from the earth only to disappear underground before surfacing again at Nagatirtha near Bhagamandala, upstream of the Triveni Sangam where she meets with the Kannike and Sujyoti before gaining strength on her mighty run through Karnataka and Tamilnadu, eventually meeting the Bay of Bengal at Poompuhar, having traversed close to 800 kms. along her entire length.

On the first day of the Hindu month of Makara Masa, in the middle of October, devotees in their thousands throng Talacauvery for a glimpse of the annual surge in the spring as the Cauvery rises in the Brahmakundike (holy pond) at a pre-determined moment. The day is known as Tula Sankramana and is celebrated with much fanfare as the day the Cauvery first took birth on earth, seeing in the surge a visit by Goddess Cauvery herself. The Kodavas, native to Kodagu (Coorg), observe Tula Sankramana as the first day of the Kodava calendar year.

A board indicating the Brahmakundike (holy pond) to be the birthplace of the river Cauvery exhorts devotees with “Don’t touch the holy water”. However pilgrims can bathe in the tank adjacent to the holy pond. A family of three takes a merry dip in the temple tank while a man collects the sacred water in used plastic water bottles to carry home.

Nandi, the faithful bull looks over the tank at the small temple dedicated to Lord Agastheeswara across the tank. Pilgrims loll on the steps descending to the water, awaiting the queue on the other side of the tank to thin before making their way to the small temple, to offer their prayers at the Brahmakundike. Some wade in the tank for a quick dip. A few others pace the stone steps, taking in the scene, thinking of nothing in particular. They are in no hurry. Gods are rarely fathomed by hurrying feet.

The temple to Lord Agastheeswara faces the brahmakundike (holy pond) where the Cauvery springs from the earth in a small square cut in stone between the shrine and the tank beyond and is located on the platform enclosing the temple tank.

Flowers from rituals performed float in the holy pond, tiptoeing to reflections of clouds above, and those of the brahmin priest and pilgrims seated on either side of the brahmakundike, offering prayers to the sacred spring.

Lord Agastheeswara is considered to be the link between the renowned Sage Agasthya and the river Cauvery. There two Brahmin priests attend to devotees offering their prayers at the Ugama Sthana (birth place) of the Cauvery, handing the devotees prasadam after helping them through the rituals. The pilgrims seat in front of the brahmakundike while the priest chants mantras. I queue up to offer my prayers.

Behind me schoolgirls in uniforms crowd the temple tank, their bare feet shifting uneasily on the Sun baked stone platform as they gaze intently into the tank watching bathing pilgrims.

Behind us the Brahmagiri peak beckoned. The long flight of steps burning a pale shade of white in the noon sunshine seemingly ascended to the skies, ending abruptly as if a ladder were suspended from an invisible thread trailing from the blue heavens above. I could sense the sharp edge to the air refreshing my lungs as I took mouthfuls in. We ascended the steps to the peak where the seven great sages known as the Sapta Maharishis once performed a yagna to the gods, pausing only to admire the tenacious flowers that bloomed in breaks between the stone steps.

In anticipation of the views to be had from atop the Brahmagiri peak the 500-odd steps gave way quickly as we passed wildflowers spouting on the slopes. The flowers ran diagonal to our ascent as if running away from the pilgrims making up the steps. Ruffled by the sharp breeze sweeping down the slope they nudged us onwards, to the peak while themselves disappearing over the curve.

Emerging from the last step the heavens opened up before us in a panorama befitting the gods. The Brahmagiri range in the Western Ghats mountain ranges straddles the border between Kodagu in Karnataka to the north and Wayanad in Kerala to the south.

Visitors took in the views in silence. A child played in the mud while the father reached into his bag for his camera. This was a moment the child would cherish in the years to come. This was where nature roamed in spirit.

The peak rolled all the way down before it was picked up by the next hill only to descend again, then lifted up by the next peak it fell over gently until the next hill picked it up again before running with it to yet another peak further away. I stood in silence and watched this relay race until the wave disappeared into strengthening shades of blue in the far distance. The blue mountains. I wondered if the Nilgiris were far away. From atop the Brahmagiri I could sense them in the blue folds in the distance, bringing memories from another time flooding back, from a long time ago.


Jaadi said...

A great write up. I had been to Talacauvery and Brahmagiri hills..it was refreshing to read and remember the travel. We were excited to climb the steps of Brahmagiri hills and expected some temple or monument to be present there. When we ended up climbing the steps, we found nothing and were surprised. Thought did they construct the stairs so that people could have a view? Was confused and we could not lay our eyes on any information about that particular place too. I do agree with you that the site was breath taking and that it was so windy as to remove all our tiredness after climbing the stairs. Now i know the significance of the place. Thanks

bobbie said...

A very beautiful post, Anil. Your photos are always so wonderful. It does, indeed, appear to be a Stairway to the Heavens.

Bonny said...

Fabulous post, April!! I've never been to that part of the world but one day I hope to make the journey.

Thank you for sharing your beautiful photos and your story wth us :)

Dewdrop said...

POwerful ceremonies and amazing views here. Beautiful!

Steve said...

As always, a super tour with excellent photos.

Tabor said...

Thank you for visiting my blog and thank you for this lovely tour of an important area in your part of the world. I especially like the photo of the young girls feet as that seemed to symbolize the whole pilgrimage to me.

ra said...

Your post brought back lovely memories. Had been there on a school trip some time in 1996-1997. It looks much drier now-it was fluorescent green then.

Granny J said...

Ă…lways I enjoy my visits to India that you make possible. Would that i had had a chance to travel there in the skin when I was younger, though there appears to be an entire new world to see.

Sarah Laurence said...

I love that opening photo! You can see at as stairway up to heaven or one down to the sea. What a magical trip! I love the black and white photo and the bare feet of the school girls. These are some of your best photos yet and you set a high standard in your blog.

Amber Star said...

The sky is so very blue in the pictures. Ours aren't that color anymore, due to pollution. When I was a child of 2 or 3 I wanted to be "the color blue". It was so beautiful. Alas, that didn't happen and I've had to muddle my way through life wondering why so many awesome sites are located high in the mountains. Altitude sickness is not fun and I am well and truly a flatlander. The term flatlander when used by someone from Colorado is a slur..but taken in good stride. In my case it is very true.

Another site in Mexico is Teotihuancan (Tay-oh-tea-wha-khan). I did climb to the top once, but the next time I was there I declined and let my friend go on up. She did not thank me for not warning her about the height and how hot it was. Here is a link if you would like to visit the place. http://archaeology.asu.edu/teo/ It definately was worth climbing once.

Darlene said...

I was with you the whole way on your journey to Talacauvery. Your beautiful photos and description made the tour very real and enjoyable. I could never climb those stairs, but they certainly do seem to end at the sky's edge.

A lovely post; thank you.

Anil P said...

Jaadi: Thank you. The steps seemingly ascend to the skies. It almost feels like folks went up there to meditate. The Sapta Rishis did ages ago, to perform Yagna.

Now, it is more for the 360 degree view of the hills in the vicinity as also for the religious significance.

From the top of the hill windmills can be seen on the slope of a hill not far away, to the left. A fence keeps out people. Actually the fence shows up nicely in the backdrop of the blue mountains.

The breeze is sharp. In the winter, the time I made the trip, it is pleasant as well.

Bobbie: Thank you. Yes, the steps up the Brahmagiri hill ascend to the heavens, to the Gods almost.

Bonny: Thank you. It's a journey you will enjoy.

Dewdrop: Thank you.

Steve: Thank you.

Tabor: Thanks. The school girls, barefeet as is the custom when entering Hindu temples, were queuing up for offering prayers at the small temple on the stone platform enclosing the tank.

Ra: Thank you. You must have visited Talacauvery in the monsoons, or immediately after, the rains will have turned the hill top green.

The hill top is shorn of any construction, and is leveled so pilgrims and tourists can walk around. The reddish tinge to the mud indicated the layermust have been turned over by workers recently.

Granny J: Thank you. Yes there's an entirely new world to see.

Sarah Laurence: Thank you. It helps that the steps are a shade of white. A line of white sets off well against the blue skies.

The black and white picture shows a tonsured pilgrim in the backdrop of Nandi, Shiva's faithfull bull. At Bhagamandala, eight kilometres off Talacauvery, Hindu pilgrims travel to the Triveni Sangam to offer respects to recently departed ancestors, the men shaving heads in the mourning period, applicable if closely related.

In other instances, devout pilgrims shave heads when setting out on certain pilgrimages, like at Tirupati.

Nice to know you enjoyed the pictures. Thank you for your kind comments.

Amber Star: The sky was very blue. It helped that we visited Talacauvery at the onset of the winter. Moreover Talacauvery is in the hills, high up. And yes, there is little or no pollution except for the buses pilgrims travel in.

Strangely none of us felt any strain going up the steps. We went up in little hurry, taking in the views backward as we went up. The fresh air was 'oxygenating' in a way. And the anticipation of the sight that awaited us from the top was motivation enough.

Sites up the mountains kind of rise above the mundane, and are literally closer to the heavens, and are less likely to be polluted or crowded in the times to come. And the 360 degree view they afford when praying, as if encompasssing all in one's prayers. Sages in ancient India might have chosen remote locations for their penances or Yagna to avoid being disturbed.

With Hindus I would not be surprised if in ancient days walking up the mountains to reach prayer sites or temples was actually considered necessary as in trying the faith of the devotee by way of subjecting them to hardship to test their resolve in their faith and their desire to 'reach' the almighty.

Maybe these were some of the reasons for locating religious sies up in the mountains.

Darlene: Thank you. It's a pleasure to learn you enjoyed the journey. They do seem to end at the sky's edge like you said.

Sherri said...

Your words create poetic imagery for me.
"I took mouthfuls [of air] in" I so enjoy filling my lungs to their fullest whenever I'm in such natural surroundings. So spiritual and envigorates my soul.
"Gods aren't fathomed by hurrying feet" Powerfully and wisely said.
"Moment the child would cherish...Nature roamed in spirit" I feel most alive and most present and most whole when I'm in nature. It is those simple moments in our life that are most profound and memorable to our spirit. That picture captures this moment beautifully.
"the ride alone...is an indulgence" Some on my most cherished moments during my trip to India were in the car looking around at all.
"tenacious flowers" a literal and symbolic example of the capacity for power and resilience of life.

Lucky Dip Lisa said...

Thanks for your visit and for the effort you put into writing such an informative post! I love the first photo of the stairway. Great angle.

Celeste Maia said...

I am so happy you came to my blog and left a comment, thank you.
I have spent the last hour reading and looking at your blog which is beautiful. You take really good photos. Your "stairway to heaven" made me so nostalgic! I love coming to your country, we have been several times, but never to this area which is absolutely breathtaking.
I have included your blog among my favorites so I will be visiting here often.
Nice "meeting" you!

Anil P said...

Shireena: Thank you. In wild places, and sometimes not so wild, nature roams in spirit. More so when it is breezy, and high up in the sky.

I feel the same when amidst nature. I believe it is the sense of the elemental that envelops us.

Mouthfuls of fresh air explode in the head sharply, rendering the senses with a keener edge with which to embrace nature afresh.

Lisa Sarsfield: Thank you. The stairway, yes.

Celeste Maia: Thank you, it's a pleasure to learn you've enjoyed reading the posts here.

One can travel to Coorg from Bangalore or Mysore. Talacauvery is about 48 kilometres from Madikeri, the capital of Coorg / Kodagu.

I read with interest your post on Allentejo, identifying with the windows you posted, a sight familiar in Goa.

Nice "meeting" you too. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Loved this post! I visited Talacauvery during one of my annual school excursions. This brought back a flood of memories, thanks!:)


ellen abbott said...

I've never been to India but would love to go someday. thank you for this little travelogue. I have a good friend who is originally from Goa, still has family there.

Thank you for visiting my blog Anil. I hope to see you again.

mo.stoneskin said...

Beautiful photos, and I'm very jealous, especially having never been to India. On the other hand, that coach ride next to a steep drop would scare the life out of me!

Anil P said...

The Key Bunch: Thanks. We had a group of school children visiting Talacauvery when we were there. Looks like it is a popular spot for school trips.

Ellen Abbott: Goa is a great place to visit. Visit Goa between November and mid-March, ideal. Thank you.

Mo.Stoneskin: Thank you. The drops are steep at places, other places they disappear into vegetation. I kept my eyes locked onto the landscape in the distance, the drops become less intimidating that way.

What About The Girl? said...

Your writing is impeccable. Your pictures MOVE me.
You provide us a wonderful praveshdwar to one of the heavens on earth.

Lori ann said...

How very interesting Anil. Is it quiet where we see most of the people? do you hear music? your descriptions are so wonderful I really do feel like I am there.

I also love be where nature roams in spirt. Beautiful words.

take care,

Anonymous said...

This is a super post and story. Over 500 steps! that would have kiled me. The images are wonderfully clear and I'm hapy to see there are coffee plantations around this area.


dharmabum said...

i don't think the Nilgiris are too far away. I once rode on a motorcycle from mysore to ooty, taking a detour via wayanad along the way. it was a beautiful experience.

i learn so much about my own country from your blog. thank you for this.

Uma Gowrishankar said...

Anil, your writing is refreshing as ever. There is an unhurried pace in your writing that is tranquilising and soothing. Kodagu is my family's favouirte haunt. It seems to be close to your heart as well, you seem to travel there quite often. I remember your earlier post on Madikeri. That was a wonderful post as well!Let's toast to Coorg and coffee.

Anil P said...

Girl From Cherry Blossom Street: It's encouraging to learn of how you feel about the photographs. Thank you.

Lori Ann: Atop the Brahmagiri hill, sounds were quickly whisked away by the stiff breeze.

However, at Bhagamandala where we had stopped before making our way to Talacauvery, a gentle breeze carried songs eulogising Cauvery from a player playing across the street, waxing and waning in the breeze, soothing me no end.

Wrapped up in the scene unfolding it is possible to feel the stillness, and hence the silence of the moment. Pilgrims tend to murmur in the presence of gods in high places. Thank you.

Caffeinated Traveller: Thank you. 500 is an approximation.

The weather was pleasant. The skies were blue. The breeze was refreshing. The views of the mountains were stirring. And we were in no tearing hurry to get to the top. Consequently we felt little or no strain getting to the top. I cannot remember breaking into a sweat either.

Coffee grows well in the upper reaches of Coorg. And it grows in plenty. Coorg is known for its coffee.

Dharmabum: Actually, they aren't. From afar the blue is striking. Nilgiris, the blue mountains.

Many years ago I trekked in the Nilgiris for five days. In the jungles on foot I never saw scorpions the size I saw in the Nilgiris, and nor in the numbers that proliferated there. They were big.

I hope to visit Wayanad some day.

Thank you.

Uma Gowrishankar: Thank you. It's a pleasure to know you enjoy the pace of writing, meandering along, moving in the pauses.

I was quite taken in by Coorg, hope to return to Madikeri again some day. There's much to experience off the beaten path.

India is to be found off the beaten path.

unpretentious said...

awesome pics..i had been to talaicauvery once..doubt if i could have described it as you have:)

using one of ur pics as my desktop bg:)

kenju said...

Another excellent post, Anil. As always, I feel as if I've been there through your words and photos.

Sara at Come Away With Me said...

Hello Anil, thank you for visiting and commenting. It reminded me of your blog, and so I have come again to visit. I always enjoy your stories and wonderful photos. I'm adding you to my blogroll so I don't lose track of you again!


Anil P said...

Unpretentious: Thank you. It is a place to visit. Talacauvery seems to be a popular destination for pilgrims and tourists alike.

Hope it will be a cheery scene on the desktop :-)

Kenju: Thank you.

Sara: Thank you :-)

Lakshmi said...

the blue skies are welcoming

Vasudha Narasimhan said...

loved this blog...good work...
please do visit mine at


karen said...

Hi Anil, it took me a while to read through this whole fascinating post! Your photos are as evocative as ever. I do love those mountains - they are in short supply around here!

Sydney said...

I can't add much but to say that your photos are stunning!

Coffee Messiah said...

What a fantastic journey and the photos, simply beautiful.

So there is life outside the usa! ; )

Cheers and Thanks for your postings. They're a breath of fresh air for me to see life other than our own, with our crazy struggles.


Anil P said...

Lakshmi: Yes, they are. Blue skies are always welcoming.

Vasudha: Thank you. I did. It is very well written.

Karen: It is so easy to get lost in the faraway of the mountain ranges.

Sydney: Thank you.

Coffee Messiah: Actually there's a lot of life outside of the USA :-)

Thank you. It's surprising isn't it how the everyday aspect of living can sometimes be refreshing as much in its pedictability as in its occasional surprises.

Travel is cathartic, in more ways than one.

Lucy said...

I feel slightly light headed with vertigo now!

So many heavenly blues, not least the simple deep blue of the girls uniforms over the beautifulrepeating rhythms of their feet, and of those thistle-like flowers.

I love that enigmatic ending too... a beautiful post, vintage Anil!

Anil P said...

Lucy: Thank you. The Nilgiris would make for another post, sometime!

The heights in Talacauvery are liberating, aided no doubt by the deep blue skies.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful photos. Wonderful scenes of life.


Anil P said...

Paz: Thank you.

Val said...

'Gods are rarely fathomed by hurrying feet' can I quote you?

Chithira Menon said...

even i had visited thalacauvery...its sure beautiful ...bt climbin those steps in an empty stomach is none 2 b desired of...n we did it...:)

Anil P said...

Val: Sure you can.

Chitz: It is beautiful in the only way that mountains are, more so where they're not over run by tourists.

dr.antony said...

I was rushing through your older posts.This one is beautiful.I can make the trip in my mind's eye.Every word, well chosen,and every idea stirs you up.Like a conjurer, you have brought up things from no where.Pure magic of words!

Anonymous said...

How you find ideas for articles, I am always lack of new ideas for articles. Some tips would be great

Anil P said...

Dr.Antony: Thank you. It was the magic of the place.

Anonymous: Let all the little things matter and you'll soon see a whole you can write about.

Anonymous said...

was here in nov2002....wish i had captured more moment with a better camera..but was a student on pocket money

u revived a thousand memories