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Thirunelli - Pakshipathalam / Munikkal caves in January 2008

Thirunelli is one of the most beautiful places I've been. The first time I went there during last year's monsoon, I was mesmerized by its beauty. A beautiful temple with a beautiful backdrop provided by mist covered green hills on three sides. But, monsoon was not a good time to trek in those hills and I had to come back post monsoon. Even before this, I had scaled Brahmagiri from the Iruppu side and heard stories about the mesmerizing trek from the Thirunelli side.

Thirunelli is abt 25kms off Mananthavady in Wayanad district, Kerala. I started on a saturday, from Bangalore, hit Mysore by noon and then continued on the HD Kote / Kabini / Mananthavady road. The stretch between Kabini and Bavali (abt 25kms, which goes through the heart of Nagarhole) had been broken pretty badly for the last few years. Now, there is construction and relaying of roads along this stretch and I had to take a deviation through a village, which will finally lead back to the same HD Kote - Bavali road. In spite of the delays and numerous photo breaks, I somehow managed to reach Bavali before dark! @ Kattikulam, few kms past Bavali, Thirunelli road goes to the right. Another 20kms and I was in front of Panchatheertham rest house in Thirunelli!

Earlier, upon enquiry with the forest department they had suggested Pakshipathalam, also called Munikkal caves in Karnataka, which I couldnt visit even during my previous trek to Brahmagiri. Pakshipathalam in malayalam loosely translates to the 'den of birds'. I was more interested in climbing up Brahmagiri, but didnt want to miss Pakshipathalam / Munikkal caves once again. According to them, trek to Brahmagiri from Thirunelli is steep, but the distance is not much - hardly abt 3kms / 1-2hrs. The one to Pakshipathalam is more gradual and is abt 7kms 2-3 hrs. But, I kind of missed the piece which says the two are almost mutually exclusive and was under the impression that I'll get to cover both!

Next day morning, after breakfast from a hotel near the temple and packing 'puttu' and 'kadala' (steamed rice cake and chana curry) for lunch, I was @ the forest station / bungalow by abt 8.30. I was already assigned a guide named Narayanan and paid up Rs. 800 (this is per head) for trekking permit / guide fee. The forest station / bungalow is located on a jeep track, going towards the right, almost 1kms to Thirunelli temple. The trek path started from the side of this bungalow, and can also be accessed from the temple along the Papanasini stream. Infact, during my last visit to Thirunelli, I had been upto Papanasini (which is a holy place where people come from long distances to perform the last rites) and had spotted the trek route to Brahmagiri. At about 9, we took the walkway through a 'not so thick' reserve forest area, towards Pakshipathalam / Brahmagiri.

Me @ a stream
Me @ a stream

This reserve forest area was mostly populated with bamboos and small shrubs and the route involves couple of rivulets. Narayanan told me that streams are available all the way till Pakshipathalam and hence water should not be an issue. Infact, I had carried very little water and hardly had any snacks or the usual add ons like milk / bread for emergency and was wondering that this would easily be one of my most unplanned treks :-) The streams in between were most welcome!

Almost half an hour later, the canopy cleared and the majestic Brahmagiri hills were again visible on one side. We went around a few hills and then started climbing up steeply before reaching another valley. At this point we could see the far away hills (including one which I believe is the Wayanad ranges hosting Chembra) and Thirunelli town deep down the valley. It was here that I realized we are not going to Brahmagiri and it was not a welcome feeling. All this while, I wanted to climb up Brahmagiri from Thirunelli side and I almost did it and is now going around and away from it :( Well ... at this point, I was actually thinking of coming back the next day to hit Brahmagiri :-)

View from watch tower
View from Watch tower

Next destination was the watch tower and we were there @ abt 10.30. It looked pretty tall and did offer a good view of the surroundings. The acrophobiac in me did pop out a bit while climbing up the steps, but the tower was stable enough and didn't sway much. Once on top, Narayanan shouted loudly that he could spot a wild bison (katti in Malayalam) and showed it to me too. I had a tough time realizing that the huge black boulder towards the top of the hill ranges was actually a moving animal :-) But, by the time I could pull out my fake telescopic-looking lens he disappeared on the other side of the hill.

Far away hills
View of far away Hills

Brahmagiri peak
Deja Vu! The peak poping out is Brahmagiri!

Past the watch tower it was a leisurely walk. With majestic hills on all sides and Thirunelli town looking further and further away I felt like am among the clouds. Our path was stil going around the hills, entered another shola, crossed though one more stream and finally reached another valley covered with grasslands. I filled up my water bottle from the stream and the water was the coolest I ever had. In between we crossed two thick parallel lines formed by clearing the grass. The grass in between these lines were burnt presumably as a defence against forest fire. This was the Kerala - Karnataka border and we just crossed over to Karnataka! Few minuted later, I felt very familiar with the surroundings (almost a deja vu feeling) and turned arond once to spot the Brahmagiri peak right behind me. I was in the same route between Iruppu and Brahmagiri peak which I had taken two years back. Only that the grass was a li'l more dry this time compared to the lush greenery I'd seen in Oct 05.

Pakshipathalam from the valley
Pakshipathalam is @ the base of the granite hill seen at the far end

Way ahead towards the left side was a huge black granite hill, which I knew was Pakshipathalam. We had to follow the route to Iruppu for some distance before taking a diversion to the left to hit the Pakshipathalam. The route went down, disappearing inside a shola forest, and crossed over another stream before going up again towards Pakshipathalam. It was already 12.30 by now and we decided to stop for lunch, opened up the 'puttu' and 'kadala' and had a very tasty lunch. After lunch, I was chasing a few 'floaters' running around in the water, rued not bringing the tripod and finally gave up saying the light was not good enuf :-)

Brahmagiri from Pakshipathalam
Closeup view of Brahmagiri from the foothills of Pakshipathalam

Kerala - Karnataka border running through the shola
Cutting though the Landscape

After this it was time for a li'l climb up and cross over the border once again :) There were a few beautiful spectacles around us: a couple of trees spotting multi colored leaves (much like fall colors), a pointed hill a little below, a huge boulder staying on top of the hill, a lonely tree right next to the border, the mighty Brahmagiri hills standing tall from the rest of the landscape and the border running all along the landscape looking like a scar! Apart from this there were numerous flowers and small insects all around us and I was busy with my macro lens :-) costing us lot of time. By the time we reached the foothills of Pakshipathalam, it was abt 1.30.

View from Pakshipathalam
View from Pakshipathalam ... peak @ top right is Brahmagiri!

Inside the cave
Light coming thro' the rocks

Climbing up this granite (presumably monolithic) rock was a good exercise too, but well worth the panoramic view at the top. A few rounds of snaps and we were heading towards the caves! The caves were nothing short of confusing, with areas almost pitch dark and small openings to take us in and out of the boulders. It did live up to the later half of the name Pakshipathalam (pathalam ~ hell or underworld) but not so much for the first half (pakshi ~ bird). Infact, I didnt even spot a single bird there ... not even a crow! Narayanan claimed that birds may have flown away and one should come early morning to spot them. I would surely remember it next time :-)

Crawling in and out of the boulders and small cracks can actually be more tiring than climbing up the hill! I was exhausted by the time we reached back the open ground, somewhere on the rear side of the hill, with the 'lone tree near the border' visible from there :-) It was almost 3.30 by then and time to get back!

The return trek was swift except for a couple of short breaks mainly for filling the water bottle and for opening up the biscuit packets. I was busy doing a few things:
  1. Planning for the next day and also for a Brahmagiri trek. I wanted to go somewhere else for the next day, but decided that I should climb up Brahmagiri from Thirunelli side. Narayanan assured that the permissions are available all the way till March and I had time.
  2. Shooting small flowers and tender leaves, most of them turned out to be horrible pictures :(

A little while after the 'Deja Vu' point, I noted the trails forking, with the one to the left heading towards Brahmagiri peak. Since I had already taken this route once, I've technically completed the Thirunelli - Brahmagiri trek ;-) Ofcourse, it may be interesting to climb up the Brahamgiri peak right from Thirunelli. Narayanan, infact showed me the path heading upto Brahmagiri almost towards the end. Indeed, the two trek routes were almost mutually exclusive!

Watch tower
Watch tower from a distance

At abt 5 we could hear the music from the temple and abt 5.40 we were back in the bungalow, immediately called up couple of my friends and conveyed the next trek route :-) By 6 I was back @ Panchatheertham stretching my legs!

Next day turned out to be interesting too with a visit to the Kuruva island (towards Pulpalli from Kattikulam) and a return journey via the Appappara - Kutta - Srimangala - Gonikoppal - Hunsur road. This road actually may be a better option for people to hit Thirunelli from Bangalore. Appappara is midway between Thirunelli and Kattikkulam, Srimangala is the nearest town to Iruppu and Hunsur is abt 40kms from Mysore in the Mysore - Madikeri road.

Well ... like many other places Thirunelli seems to have lost a bit of its charm post monsoon. It was much more mesmerizing in October. But still, this temple premises is one place I didnt feel like photographing (though I could obtain permissions to take photos after paying Rs. 25 in the counter) and instead preferred to keep it in the memory :-) I would surely be coming back here to freshen up some of those memories!

© 2019 Sandeep Unnimadhavan