An Unforgettable Trek to the Swamimalai Temple

It took truly agonising words spoken by the person I loved heartily to start an inconceivable journey – a journey to recover debris of lost esteem and self-love.

My mind had been abuzz with bitter thoughts when he yelled at me: “I had the pleasure of knowing the most toxic person on this planet. And it was you.”

It felt like my life was unravelling like an ‘unsinkable’ Titanic; his words felt like a menacing chunk of ice

And then, one night, I missed my train and boarded another.

No one I know takes the unreserved coach – the class that carries almost 65% of the passengers on the Indian Railways. While the Mangalore Express left platform number six at 5 pm sharp from Chennai Central Railway Station, the next train available for my destination was the Bangalore-Jolarpettai Express, slated to arrive at 5:55 pm.

On an unreserved ticket, you’re lucky if you get a place to stand considered how crammed compartments can get.

Contrary to my expectations, I hogged a space in a ‘Lady’s Only’ general coach. I sat underneath the upper berth occupied by three school girls, their hair adjusted into neat ponytails and their spontaneous conversations tuned to a well-rehearsed puppet ensemble.

Yelagiri, about 282 km from Chennai, is a small and charming hill station nestled amidst four mountains. The hairpin bends on the ghat road drive from Jolarpettai railway station offer a visual respite. The view of the mountain slopes and the green forests that cover the hills along the winding roads provide an ideal weekend getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The meandering path to the Swamimalai Temple trekking base point from Silentwaters Home stay in Yelagiri was lined by eucalyptus trees — the arresting greenery to the ubiquitous metallic roads in Chennai. The brick houses of Mangalam village, painted in spirited blue, green and yellow colours looked like cubist paintings.

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A 22-year-old villager, Nandini, wearing a floral maxi dress, smiled sheepishly, displaying a streak of motherly affection. She asked without hesitation, “Sister, do you have water with you for the trek?”

“Thanks for the concern,” I said, before I drew closer behind the fields in the village. The fields were filled with grasslands that rippled with yellow flowers visited by bumblebees. As I ambled across the muddy tracts for five minutes, my inner Bilbo Baggins screamed in exuberance, “I am going on an adventure!”

The breathtaking view of the clouds playing merry-go-round the Swamimalai hills stretched into the distance. Water trickled down the leaves of tall ebony trees into silken spider webs. The dew-spangled spider webs presented a creepy sight – a vision triggered by the fear of cluster of small holes, Trypophobia. I was determined to stay focused and not look up at the trees.

The one-way path had been cut with proper directions to guide you to the summit. The distance uphill was 3 km, interrupted by the hurdles of uneven patches. Climbing awkwardly laid stone stairs, I leapt and navigated rocks covered with tree roots.

When the path became even, I met three villagers collecting forest produce. The uphill trek had thrown my lungs into despair. Panting heavily, I asked one of them, “How far is the summit?”

He remarked, “You have another 2 km to go. But with your pace, you will reach in three hours.”

I felt forlorn and abandoned.

The flora became dense as the road grew narrower. I relapsed into a torpor induced by the rustling of the winds and the chirping of birds. I was roused into sudden fear as I saw a snake slithering into the smattering of bushes on rocks. In order to distract myself from the inescapable fear, I drew my attention to the constant babble of monkeys overhead.

Brushing past the low-lying plants that edged the path, I decided to drown the jungle noise by playing Glen Campbell’s ‘Southern Nights’. The song made me feel less lonely with as I felt surrounded with other people who had screaming thoughts too.

The final stretch was steep, punctuated with boulders. Instead of just clinging on to loose rocks with finger tips, I scrambled on all fours, relying on both hands and legs for support.

After a treacherous climb of six hours, I had finally arrived at Swarmimala summit, which is marked by a tiny temple docked in the rocks.

The 4,338 feet-high summit was beyond rewarding as I saw warped cumulus clouds descending on the grey and blue mountains at a distance. Closing my eyes against the overcast sky, I felt like crying, but didn’t.

For a moment, the phrase the ‘most toxic person on this planet’ didn’t thunder into my head.

That phrase didn’t exist for me anymore.

Aatreyee Dhar left corporate labour to study print journalism at Asian College of Journalism. She cracks down on Bamans and MRAs when she is not seeking out a story elsewhere.  

Featured image credit: Sabhari Natha/Unsplash