Words SAMARPAN BHOWMIK Photographs VINOBHA NATHAN
It’s rare these days to find a destination that isn’t over-popular and frequented by many. specially so, if the destination in question has something unique to offer. Nestled in a lush valley in Dindigul district (known for its famous biryani), about 60km from the temple town of Madurai, lies the village of Athoor. With centuries-old festivals still celebrated at millennia-old temples, the village is significant to the faithful, but there’s another attraction here worthy of a visit.
About 6km from the village, a 400-acre monsoon rain-fed waterbody known as Kamarajar Lake attracts over 150 types of birds, including 30 migratory species. The beautiful valley is dotted with coconut, palm and mango plantations, perfect for walking around on birding trips.It is recommended that you go with one of the local guides, especially if you are an inexperienced birder. There are a number of eco-resorts and homestays around Athoor that can help arrange these, and local hospitality is known to be warm and welcoming.
Rise at the crack of dawn to have the best shot at spotting colourful plumage. Step into good walking shoes and set out. Head towards the lake for the best possible sightings, especially of migratory birds. The marshland has electric-blue kingfishers, herons, both white and purple, long-neck darters (also known as snake birds), and flocks of dazzling cormorants. There are also some stretches of private land that require permission to enter, but these can be easily accessed by the local guides.If you keep an eye out, it’s also possible to spot different kinds of nests – the shallow baskets of the red-vented bulbul, the scrap-filled pouches of the sunbird, and the colonies of the weaver – in the shrubbery. By the end of the walk, your camera roll will look like a calendar, and all that effort early in the morning will be completely worth it.
Once you’re done with the birdwatching, explore the region on foot. There are the various plantations and, then, there’s the lake. Pack a picnic to have by the shore, as fishermen in their coracles go about their daily business on the water. If you aren’t the sort to put yourself through an early-morning excursion and would rather lie in on a vacation, you’re still in the perfect place. Even without venturing beyond the verandah of your room, you’ll feel like you’re in the middle of a sanctuary. There will be constant visits from sunbirds, rufous babblers, and common hoopoes with their black-and-white plumage. If you want to feel “Disney princess-like”, scatter some seeds a little way from the verandah and watch peacocks, spotted doves and squirrels come right up.
If you want to simply while away time, Athoor’s ideal for that too. There’s hardly anything to break the silence but the chirping of birds ringing through the lull of peace that hangs over the valley. You could spend hours lounging about with a book, or honing your skills with the camera. If you prefer taking photos of people, ask your stay to arrange for a guided tour of the local villages. Aside from a glimpse into the lives of the locals, there are a lot of micro-scale industries here and you could witness some interesting crafting processes as they happen.
Unlike most such idyllic retreats in a progressively crowded world, Athoor is not commercialised yet. Plan a visit before it becomes too popular. Take a road trip down to Athoor or, better still, take a train. After you spend a few days in the valley, the sense of peace is sure to linger for quite a while.