Beyond The Tourist Trail: Unearthing A Haunting Legend In Wayanad

In the heart of Wayanad, amidst shifting landscapes and changing times, lies a tranquil sanctuary where the scent of spices mingles with rain-soaked soil and coffee blooms, inspiring the prolific creativity of a writer
Love lake at Chembra Peak, Wayanad
Love lake at Chembra Peak, WayanadPhoto: Shutterstock

The invigorating scent of the spices still wafts through the air, mingling with the earthy aroma of rain-soaked soil and the sweet fragrance of blossoming coffee blooms. The smell of coffee blooms can rival jasmines or honey locks. This quaint hill station is unusually hot. Temperatures are touching 28 degrees in summer, something unheard of in these parts. I am on my usual sojourn to Wayanad. I set my eyes on this beautiful slice of earth for the first time as a boy of ten. I still remember my first visit with my sister. I was accompanying her to her husband's home. My brother-in-law's family had dwelled in this place for three centuries. They lived amid a coffee plantation, and for a person born and raised in the coastal city of Cochin, this new home was a magical world for my sister. It was love at first sight. I decided to own a piece of this paradise then, but it took me another 23 years to achieve it. I have my own home here now, nestled in the valley of the towering Chembra Peak, and this is where I come every month to write my stories.

Thirteen of my 16 novels were written here, and most of my screenplays, too. There is something magical about this place. It has changed a lot in the last 40 years since I saw it first. Gone is the powdery rain that drizzles for days, replaced by sudden, furious downpours that drench the undulating landscape in minutes. Summers are hot now, and fans and air conditioners have slowly come to homes. The quaint thatched roofs of houses are now substituted with modern concrete ones. Yet, as I sit, peering out of my writing corner on to the shifting tableau of the moody Wayanad valley below, the spirit of the place remains untouched.

The coffee blossoms continue to bloom, their intoxicating scent luring bees and butterflies in droves, just as they did all those years ago. The small, bustling town of Kalpetta has metamorphosed into a thriving city, its streets echoing with rambunctious laughter and lively chatter of tourists from Bangalore or Chennai. But up here in the hills overlooking the valley, time seems to have paused. There's a tranquillity here that hasn't dissipated, a stolid constancy that refuses to bow to the upheavals of modern progress. The ink in my pen is drawn towards paper more than ever, inspired by the call of whistling thrushes during daybreak and lulled by the rhythmic symphony of crickets under the moonlit sky at night. My stories are from these tranquil days and serene nights; this enchanting harmony between nature and me proves fertile soil for my creativity. What has not died in this ancient land are the lores and legends. There are a dozen tourist places in Wayanad, with the usual hill station lakes, boating, safari and waterfalls, but I love visiting a roadside tree most.

The columnist's writing cottage in Wayanad
The columnist's writing cottage in Wayanad

One can see it as soon as the vehicle enters the district after negotiating the hairpin bends from the plains of Calicut. Look to your left, and you will find a chained tree, a burning oil lamp and sometimes, a lone traveller or a tribal woman praying before it. If you are in a hurry, you may miss it too. These places are to be taken slowly and in small slices. Stop by the roadside and ask for the Karinthandan tree. If you are lucky, you may get a garrulous local who will tell you the story about the ghost chained to this ancient fig tree in broken English or Hindi. The tale goes that Karinthandan, a tribal youth, was the first to discover the hidden trails of Wayanad. While establishing their rule in India, the British came to his tribe with promises of riches and prosperity. They enticed Karinthandan to show them the riches of the verdant forests and the abundant wildlife. After he shared all his knowledge and secrets, the treacherous foreigners killed him. Legend claims that his spirit still roams these trails, lost, betrayed and wrathful, causing harm to any who dare tread on his paths.

Yet this spectral figure has never terrified me; I have found solace in sharing stories with it

People claim to hear eerie whispers and feel an unsettling chill even in broad daylight near this chained tree. Yet this spectral figure has never terrified me; I have found solace in sharing stories with it. I am unsure if I believe in ghosts, but Karinthandan's legend is more than a ghost story for me. It is a reflection of human greed and exploitation; it mirrors our colonial past, where native populations were ruthlessly exploited for their knowledge, only to be discarded later. The tree stands tall, an embodiment of ancient wisdom fused with a tale of betrayal. Every time I pass by, I stop, pay my respects to the spirit that is said to languish here, and share the stories I am crafting with it. The rustle of leaves in response seems like his approval, his blessing for my tales.

As the years pass and the landscape of Wayanad changes, it only adds layers to my stories. Every new coffee shop that opens in town, every old bridge that falls to ruin—they're all part of the rich tapestry of this place that fuels my imagination. But as time marches on relentlessly, a nagging thought niggles at the back of my mind. Will Wayanad lose its soul to the relentless tide of modernity? Will concrete buildings replace the coffee plantations, and will technology drown out the call of the thrushes? With a sigh, I remember my first visit to this place. I see my sister smiling brightly beside her new husband, and I stand beside them, a wide-eyed little boy enchanted by the lush hills. As much as things have changed since then, I realise a lot has remained the same, too. Despite all its transitions, this hill station has retained its inherent charm and mystique. This sleepy little place had changed the history of the world. But even as the political climate heats up, life goes on in Wayanad. Farmers still tend to their spice gardens under the watchful gaze of mighty elephants that roam freely in this part of Kerala. Women move with grace and agility through the tea plantations, their fingers plucking tea leaves with practised ease. Children play near shimmering waterfalls, their innocent laughter resonating through the hills. And the lores and legends live on. Ghosts continue their charming and graceful journey, riding the gentle breeze that whispers the ancient stories into the ears of those who choose to listen.

Anand Neelakantan is a bestselling author of 17 books, doubling as a columnist, screenwriter, and public speaker

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