Vellagavi - Where there is no road and no footwear

Thursday, January 24, 2013


Woman standing in front of her house and the colorful Kolam

The gravel was hurting my feet. After all, I was walking on the streets without footwear. I was walking in the village that doesn't wear footwear. The logic was simple — everywhere you turned, you would tumble into a temple. When we reached the place after a four-hour hike the previous night, a board that read ‘Please remove the foot wears' welcomed us. We obliged.

Vellagavi is a small hamlet located on a hill top, home to 99 families and 300-odd people. Along with the houses, there are 24 temples of all kinds located within the village. The houses were packed so close that you could count the number of lanes on your fingers. And, every lane ended up around a temple. The devotion in the people was quite obvious — the village was holy, the temples were holy, and they firmly believed in the gods above. The day we visited was the last day of a week-long of prayers held for rain; It did rain the previous day!

Road-less travel

On a higher ground, next to a grassy patch was a Muruga Temple with a brilliant view of the forests below and the mountains above. As we walked back from the temple, a retired headmaster of the primary school, Shanmugham, greeted us. I was shocked to know this village had a school and even a post office — although there is no road connectivity to this village.

One can reach the place only on foot on a steep trail — either through the jungle up from Kumbakarai or down the hill from Kodaikanal. The village has been in existence before the pre-Independence days, and it's a surprise that such an old settlement, so close to Kodaikanal, never got a road.

The headmaster was kind enough to invite us for a cup of coffee, and told us many more stories of his village. He said no one was spared from the ‘no footwear' rule. He went on to say that 15 years ago when a certain forest ranger refused to remove his footwear and entered the village, he was ‘duly punished' on his way down — he was attacked by a bison and lost his legs.

The lady of the house handed us hot cups of coffee. It was strong and black — with no cattle around, milk was a rare commodity there. All the essentials had to be bought from Kodaikanal. They live off the earnings from the estates and the produce, which mainly consists of fruits and coffee.

Tremendous hospitality

Later another family invited us for a scrumptious breakfast. Based on the tremendous hospitality they'd shown us, I assumed this village didn't see much tourist traffic. But I couldn't have been more wrong. Vellagavi is part of a village tourism circuit where, and gets frequent visitors from Kodaikanal, mostly foreigners. And, the incredible generosity is just part of their culture. I have found that people who live in trying terrains have been the most kind.

Hours later we said farewell, walked barefoot to the village boundary, put on our shoes and started the three-hour climb. As I walked towards Kodaikanal, I wondered when the last time was that I got invited for a cup of coffee by a stranger.

Far across the distance I saw mountains with dark clouds looming. Soon, the village and its charms were buried deep in my thoughts. But Vellagavi could do with a road.

This story originally appeared in The Hindu

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22 comments

  1. lovely article, Neelima... and what a beautiful village that must have been!! did you know about this 'no footwear' rule before you went?

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    1. Thanks Anu! It was a wonderful place, they had lots of stories to tell too. :) I knew about the rule but didn't know how or why.

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  2. Nicely written. This type of thing I want to read about India, mostly hidden and reflects the true essence of the nation.

    I was expecting some more pictures.

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    1. Thanks. I do have more pictures but was feeling lazy! Will post more soon. :)

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  3. Lovely piece, Neelima! It was a very feel-good read!

    One thing about walking barefoot that I've discovered (definitely not the first person to do so am sure) is that initially it hurts, but after a while when you get used to the new sensation, it feels so much more fun because your feet tell you so much and make walling so much more interesting!

    p.s. Would love to see more pictures! :)

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    1. Thanks! It was a very feel-good place too! ;)
      Wonderful people and incredible hospitality. Never during my travels have I been invited 5 times for coffee on the same morning.
      And yeah, that's a good observation. Even though I like the sensation of walking barefoot, I'd still hold on to my shoes. :)

      Will try to upload more pictures from this trip.

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  4. I am touched....India is full of unique places and people - just when you think you have had enough of the wonders, it surprises you with something new and exciting!

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    1. Exactly my thoughts Renuka! :)
      Which is why I haven't been able to stop myself from visiting every nook and corner of this country.

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  5. Hi Neelima,

    Vellagavi was one of the earliest settlements on the southern side of the Palani Hills. In fact, all the foreign explorers (British and American), who ventured into these hills had to pass through Vellagavi, which was and still is connected only by a bridle path. Once they reached the top, they fell in love, corrupted the name to ‘Kodaikanal’, built a road from Vattalagundu and forgot Vellagavi, thankfully. Tourists to Kodaikanal can get a nice view of Vellagavi hamlet from Coaker’s Walk, Green Valley View (Suicide Point) and Pillar Rock Viewpoint. The residents of Vellagavi must walk up to Dolphin’s Nose, then to Vattakanal and finally to Kodai town to sell the fruits and vegetables grown around Vellagavi. Kodai is my home and what grows there is my food! I wish you had posted more content about Kodi and Vellagavi – not that I don’t know, but I just would love to read what you have to write. The Vellagavi residents, typically dressed in white shirts and white dhothis, carry basket full of produce and walk up that steep climb to Kodi, not gasping for breath all the while, and sometimes with even children in tow. It is quite a strenuous walk, to be honest, even without our backpack! Thankfully, no road is built to Vellagavi. Can you imagine the extent of damage that would be inflicted to the environment while building a road? It would then change the life and lifestyle of these gentle people, forever. Not to mention the pollution it would cause (smoke, litter and what not!).

    Thanks Neelima…and keep writing!

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    1. Hi there!
      You have painted a lovely picture of Vellagavi too. I stayed there only for one night and a morning but I was amazed and touched by the people there. Since then I have been wanting to go back to spend more time with them.

      But I certainly do feel it is unfair of us to ask for the village to remain without a road, what is to happen in case of emergencies? Unless the village is self sufficient in all ways or unless the villagers don't want one, it is just sad to see a place with 300 residents without a road.

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  6. A very interesting post Neelima, never even knew about this place... The commments from Ozzy has made the place even more inviting...

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    1. It is a very interesting place which still retains the old world charm. All the stories and hospitality only makes one love the place even more. :)

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  7. I think the charm of this place will be lost if a road is built - but I understand it's selfish thinking on my part...

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    1. Exactly my thoughts! In the beginning even I used to think for a place to be remote and pristine so I could get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Only quite later I understood how selfish it was of me to think that way.

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  8. WOW ! All the times we went to Kodaikanal as kids and this is the first time i'm hearing abt this place. So where did you have to keep your shoes?? And do the villagers own no footwear ??

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    1. We carried our shoes in the backpack and put it back on after crossing the village border. The villagers own shoes as well, but they do not use it within the village. They also wear it after crossing the border.

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  9. Hi Neelima... Jagan again :) U know what ? the First ever trek in my life was from Kodaikanal to Kumbakarai via VELLAGAVI.... That inspired me for where I am right now having done many more treks after that and no looking back... That was on 2nd June 2007... When we were in that village, we heard from them that the women over there carry Potted water everyday from Kodaikanal for daily use.. start at 3 AM in morning and be back before sunrise(Not sure if that still continues)... It was 6 PM when we reached the village and they were not letting us continue the downhill trek since they were concerned abt our safety...We were humbled when they offered shelter to our group of 48 people for the night... We had to finish the trek the same day and we went ahead really feeling warm... It was a wonderful village and super wonderful set of people..

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    1. 48 people??!! Wow, how would so many people fit in that tiny village! When we went they had water from a well, so I guess they don't do that anymore, going to Kodai for water. For milk and such they still have to go to Kodaikanal. But, yeah, a wonderful place and lovely people. No wonder it got you hooked to trekking and such. :)

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  10. Never heard of any such village.

    Would love to see more pictures. Curious to know what this village looks like...

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  11. thank u Neelima Vallangi and this my village no transport facility all people going to kodaikanal 8 km walking any problem

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  12. Wonderful place ! I appreciate your enthusiasm for travelling across India. You have narrated your experience so nicely that I feel I am in that village Vellagavi. Thanks for such a nice information. I also love travelling.

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