Imagine that you stumble upon a dense forest, filled with streams, surrounded by misty mountains and you suddenly become nostalgic as it reminds you of a home, far away. You immediately end up owning the place and settling down here. The story of Yercaud is no different. Discovered by David Cockburn, the Scottish Governor of Salem and Sir Thomas Munroe, the then Governor of Madras Presidency, Yercaud is a blend of two Tamil words – Yeri, meaning lake or stream, and Kaadu meaning forest but there are more places to see in Yercaud than just lakes and forests.
Cockburn, often referred to as the Father of Yercaud, introduced coffee plantations to the Shevaroy Hills here. It is believed that these men who stumbled upon the land decided to convert it into a summer retreat. The story goes that there were no roads then and the British women and children were sometimes carried in “sedan chairs” by the Indian porters while the men trotted on horses. They eventually built roads, constructed bungalows, set up convents and churches and grew coffee and spice plantations and fruit orchards and Yercaud became a colonial town. Some of these Yercaud attractions still stand today as you explore the stories around the places to see in Yercaud.
Located in the Eastern Ghats, in Tamil Nadu, Yercaud is surrounded by dense forests and coffee plantations, and it is still reminiscent of the colonial era. I am on a road trip here and every detour introduces me to a different facet of the hill station. There is the British town with its bungalows and coffee plantations which form part of the tourist Yercaud attractions, but it is also home to the tribes who live in the villages around the town.
There are cave temples, guardian shrines in forests, and old pagodas which make for fascinating places to see in Yercaud. I drive through dense forests with waterfalls and streams and stop at some scenic viewpoints where I hear interesting legends. The journey, they say, is the destination and it starts by navigating the 20 hairpin bends across the mountains as I drive from Salem to Yercaud.
Yercaud is probably one of the few towns where you can see a blend of British, Scottish and Irish cultures. The Montfort School here is one of the oldest and prestigious schools in India. The century-old Sacred Heart Church takes you back to the colonial era and it is definitely one of the Yercaud attractions.
The Grange, which housed none other than the legendary Robert Clive tells you several stories. One of them speaks of a homesick Robert Clive who tried to commit suicide, but the gun did not fire. The Grange became a fortress during the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. Fortified by the British with canons, even the underground cellar was apparently stored with enough food to last a six-month siege.
But Yercaud’s story is much older than its colonial history. Excavations show that it dates back to prehistoric era. The tribes who live in the forest worship their deities – Servarayan and Cauvery in a cave temple. As you drive around the town today, you will experience a quaint melange of cultures – from the colonial legacy to the local Tamilian traditions.
I am standing atop the Servarayan Hill at a height of 5326 feet. Looking down I can see the entire landscape wrapped in mist. There are 67 villages huddled around and their guardian deity is nestled in a cave right atop the hill. Legends fill the air.
The 2000 year old Servarayan temple, one of the places to see in Yercaud is nestled deep inside a wet dark cave that is naturally brimming with water and is dedicated to God Servarayan and Goddess Cauvery, representing the hills and the river. Legend has it that the cave is over a mile long and it can lead up to Coorg and the River Cauvery. No one, however, ventures beyond to explore the route. The locals believe that the deities, Servarayan and Cauvery are believed to have been married and that Servarayan brought Cauvery up here.
Come summer and the villagers flock here to celebrate the temple festival in the month of May. Thousands of tribes and locals gather here and the hills literally come alive with music, food and traditions.
I continue my journey. There is always something mystical about stones piled together, forming pyramids. I wonder if this was a tribal ritual or if there was a shrine here. My driver says that the tribes had created four piles of stones of varying shapes and sizes to commemorate a traditional ritual or an event.
But he also mentions that these “pagodas” were created British as markers, so that travelers coming up the ‘ghats’ could see them and follow the course of the mountain roads to their destination. The stories keep changing by the minute and so do the views as the mist masks and unmasks them. You can see valleys and villages circled by mountains.
Pagoda point, as it is called, lies on the Eastern side of the Yercaud Hills and is also known as Pyramid Point. Today there is a Rama Temple, which beckons both locals and tourists. Rock climbers and trekkers often throng to this scenic point to quench their thirst for adventure. Many more offbeat Yercaud attractions are hidden in the scenery.
My road trip takes me into the heart of dense forests where only silence greets me. The trees converge around you as the sun’s rays stream through the leaves. The pristine forest is filled with trees that are as old as the hills and all that you can hear for miles is just the rustle of leaves and the call of the birds. There is always a fascination for “The Road Not Taken” and a road trip through Kottachedu Teak Forest, one of the lesser-known places to visit in Yercaud takes you into a verdant world.
As you drive through the lush tracts, you wonder if you are still in Yercaud. The woods are off the tourist track and they form a part of the old route from Salem. It is believed that this part of the land was once abandoned by the tribes ages ago because of the plague and the teak forest was planted much later.
The bamboo groves add to the wilderness. Old temples lie hidden in the forest. The birds flit around and you can probably see deer darting in the woods. There are rivers and dams giving you company.
However if you like road trips, then you must not miss the green corridor of the 32 km loop road. The journey begins at the Yercaud Lake, which gives the hill station its identity. Soon the forests present themselves and then you are cocooned in a green fabric of coffee plantations.
I stop for a minute to feel the fragrance of the blossoms as I stand there drenched by the mist and rain. The locals greet you with some crisp vadais, while I listen to the call of birds and lose myself in the scenic views.
No hill station is complete without a visit to its scenic view-points. The rocks of Yercaud have amusing names and one of them is the Lady’s Seat. One of the legends say that an English lady would often sit on this rock designed like a seat for hours, and lost in contemplation, she would write. But another story says that this was a popular hangout for the British women for their little picnics. There is also a Gent’s Seat a little further away along with Children’s Seat. which are the popular Yercaud attractions.
However I lose myself in a cul de sac with a vantage view, that has an Irish connection. Tipperary Point is completely isolated and gives you some of the fantastic views of the mountains. But it is the silence that still rings in my ear as I feel like I have the mountains all to myself. Gazing down into the hills, I see two rocks dazzling in white that stand out amidst the verdant greenery. Referred to as White Elephant Tooth, I am told that it is a popular hiking route. The spectacular rocks are believed to be the pieces of a meteorite, which fell on earth centuries ago.
There is an estate nearby that dates to the colonial era and is now closed to public. Some ruins of old buildings greet you. It was believed that the Tipperary Estate was once an upscale hotel that catered to the elite British. As you stand there and imbibe the silence, you wonder how time can change everything – even a glamorous hotel to a nondescript building.
There are several other trekking routes – Killiyur Falls and Karadiyur View while you can also try cave exploration at Bear’s Cave. While some believe that there is treasure hidden in the caves, legends say that none other than Tipu Sultan hid here from the British.
Finally I end my tryst of Yercaud staring at the reflections of the forests on the azure waters of the Big Lake. A natural lake unlike those found in other hill stations, I lose myself amidst the tourists as they make a beeline for the boats. I however dig into some delicious chilly bhajjis and watch the sun’s setting rays caress the emerald-tinged waters and reflect upon the myriad hues of Yercaud’s culture.
Yercaud is 30 kms from Salem and 216 kms from Bangalore and 366 kms from Chennai. It is best explored by road and Salem is the closest rail head. The best time to visit Yercaud is from October to June when the weather is pleasant. Most of the festivals are celebrated during this period. The summer festival in May coincides with the annual festival of Lord Servarayan. It has a seven-day exhibition of flower shows, dog shows, boating races and a village fair. What are your favorite Yercaud attractions? Can you recommend more places to see in Yercaud?