Have you ever wanted to meet the guy credited with the development of Tamil? If yes, take a hike to Agasthyarkoodam, a peak in the Western Ghats 1868m above sea level. It is the place where Agasthya, often called the founder of the Tamil language dwelled.
Agasthyarkoodam is situated in the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border in Trivandrum, inside the Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve. It has over 400 endemic plant species and is a genetic reservoir of several cultivated crops. There are also tribes that live deep within the forests in the region who rely on the biological resources in the range for survival. Due to these unique features, it was added to the World Network of Biosphere Reserves by UNESCO in 2016.
In Tamil Nadu, the mountain range is also referred to as the Pothigai hills. It finds mention in the account of Ptolemy, Egyptian cartographer as Bettigo, the mountain from where three rivers begin. One of the rivers is called the Thamirabarani flows from the east side of it into Tirunelveli of Tamil Nadu. It was once called Solen and used to be famous for pearl fishing. An interesting myth associated with Thamirabarani is that once, a string of red lotuses grew along the river, and Shiva appeared to Agasthya to teach him Tamil. Hence the name Thamirabarani. Agasthyarkoodam is also mentioned in the Tamil Sangam literature and is often linked to the Tamil Buddhist tradition. There used to be a meteorological observation station built by John Allan Broun, built-in 1849. However, the whereabouts of this station are now unknown.
Agasthyarkoodam peak is sacred to the Kani tribals who live deep in the forests and worship Agasthya on the summit near the Papanasam falls. Hindus claim that Agasthya was a rishi, one of the seven maharishis of Hindu mythology. He is known to be the father of Siddha Ayurveda. Agasthya is also considered to be the father of Tamil literature. He is said to have written Agattiyam, the earliest book on Tamil Grammar from the Sangam Era. At the summit of Agasthyarkoodam, there is a shrine dedicated to him. Thus, the peak is also an important Hindu pilgrimage destination for visitors across India. However, since 2019, a court order has stopped all religious ceremonies at the Agasthyarkoodam peak.
There are some really fun myths associated with Agasthya. In one of them, Agasthya was often haunted by his ancestors’ spirits, asking him to get married and have children, so they could be reborn in them. Sounds like that nosy ammayi who always asks when you’re getting married and when you’re going to have a baby, doesn’t it? Anyway, Agasthya got married to a very pretty princess called Lopamudra later. Note this point.
Another fun myth associated with Agasthya is that one time, he had to drink all the water in the ocean to help the devas find asuras who were hiding from them. While some believe that this has something to do with how the ocean became salty, the Ganges released the water Agasthya drank according to other myths. More stories about Agasthya can be found here.
Agasthyarkoodam was embroiled in a scandal recently due to the agitation of women against a ban on women trekkers hiking the mountain. Forest officials once said that women and children below 14 should avoid climbing the mountain because it was specifically unsafe for women. Women were not allowed to climb the mountain till recently. The movement against the ban started in 2016, under the banner of women organisations Pennoruma, Anweshi, and WINGS.
A trek organized exclusively for women in 2017 was stayed by the High Court when the members of the Kani tribe submitted a plea against women entering the hill. It was their stand that Agasthya was a brahmachari. However, the women activists claimed that the people who claimed to be representatives of the Kani tribals had sexist views. Besides, according to Vedas, Lopamudra was Agasthya’s wife.
Notice how mythology is often fragmented to perpetuate double standards and enforce female oppression.
Another reason Kerala’s forest department cited was that women would be unsafe in these forests, especially at risk from wild animals. Additional facilities could not be provided due to the fragile nature of the biosphere reserve. Yet, to women who have scaled even the Himalayas, who are conscious of the risks and limitations and are prepared to deal with it, these reasons sound absurd. In 2019, the High Court allowed women entry into Agasthyarkoodam. The first woman to officially climb Agasthyarkoodam after the ban was Ms. Dhanya Sanal. However, there are others who called the ban a recent phenomenon. There are several women trekkers who have climbed the mountain before the ban.
Agasthyarkoodam is quite a tough mountain to climb and is notoriously difficult to get access to it. Trekking is only open from January to March for about 40-50 days. Passes have to be booked from the Kerala Forest Department Portal. The price per pass is Rs 1000. Treks can range from two days to three days. Children under 14 are not allowed to trek. Interested trekkers should be vigilant when passes open, they often run out very quickly as only 100 people are allowed per day. The trek starts from Bonacaud. Trekkers then stay at a base camp of the Forest Department in the middle of the forests.
Agasthyarkoodam is a vibrant mountain, full of rare, unique plants and animals. The reserve is a pristine place where the tribal community dwells in peace with nature. It is the perfect place for a person to unwind and go on a spectacular, thrilling hike. Just prepare yourself to be inside a forest with little to no facilities for civilization. Also, make sure you get your hands on one of those highly coveted passes. Check out how to book passes here. To the happy wanderers pondering Agasthyarkoodam as their trekking destination next year, best of luck. To the others, what are you waiting for?