Tuesday, October 13, 2009

AGASTHYAVANAM BIOLOGICAL PARK, biosphere reserves to protect biological and cultural diversity

 Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve
Biosphere reserves are sites established by various countries under the UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) operated program called Man and the Biosphere (MAB). This program aims to create biosphere reserves to protect biological and cultural diversity of a region while promoting sustainable economic development. Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve (ABR) was established in 2001 under the UNESCO MAB program. This is a large site covering about 3500 square kilometres and spans across the forests of southern Kerala and Tamilnadu. The areas in Kerala under ABR include Neyyar wildlife sanctuary, Peppara wildlife sanctuary, Shendurney wildlife sanctuary, Achencoil, Thenmala, Konni, Punalur and Agasthyavanam biological park. Agasthyakoodam is the eastern boundary of Agasthyavanam biological park. On the eastern side Agasthyakoodam is protected by Mundanthurai tiger reserve (Tamilnadu).

Part of the Sahyadri ranges (Western Ghats) of mountains, Agasthyakoodam, at a height of 1,890 m above sea level, is the second highest peak in Kerala. Teeming with wildlife, the forests of Agasthyakoodam abound in rare medicinal herbs and plants, and brilliantly hued orchids. A bird watcher’s paradise, this legendary mountain is accessible by foot from Kotoor, near Neyyar Dam and also from Bonakkad. Trekking to Agasthyakoodam is believed to be healthy, the very air here is supposed to have healing properties. It is believed that sage Agasthya, the mythological character lived here.

Women are not allowed up the peak and permission is required to trek. The season from December to April is advocated for trekking, for which a forest pass has to be obtained the wildlife office in Thiruvananthapuram.

The forests around this peak are famous for the abundance of rare medicinal herbs and plants. It is also far away from human settlements, making it one of the pristine natural forests in Kerala. It hides one of the richest concentrations of biodiversity in the entire Western Ghats. Among the peaks of Western Ghats, Agasthyakoodam ranks as a medium peak. However, it has a magical aura around it and as you trek up the mountain, you feel refreshed and recharged. People believe that even the wind here has medicinal properties and will protect or cure you from diseases.

Agasthyakoodam Mountain from Athirumala One of the most interesting things about Agasthyakoodam is the rapid changes in landscape as you trek towards the peak. This trek will take you through moist deciduous forests, semi evergreen forests, grasslands and evergreen forests. Finally you will trek through dense evergreen forests and rock formations to reach Agasthyakoodam peak.

The original inhabitants of these hills are a tribe known as “Kanis” . Currently there are about 400 Kani families living around these areas. Kani settlements are located near the basins of streams of Karamanayar and Neyyar away from the core area of Agasthyakoodam. Some of the tribals work with eco-development committees organized by forest department. Recently they also started working as guides/staff for the Agasthyakoodam trek.

How to reach:
Head quarters: Kottur. 35 KM from the Trivandrum city, 45 Kms from the International Airport, Trivandrum. Trivandrum Central Railway station and the state owned interstate, interdistrict, and local bus station are lying closely on the two sides of the National Highway NH. 47 .Kottur is accessible by road from Triandrum via Pangode, kattakada, Paruthipally (35 Km.)

Where to stay:
Accommodation is available in the local lodges. Forest Rest House at Neyyar Dam, which is 12 km away from Kottur. Rates varies from Rs 100-450 / per double room. The Agasthya rest House (KTDC) is located at Neyyar dam with a beer parlour. Taxies are available for local journey.

Emergency Help: Asst. Warden, ABP Office: 0471 2272182

Agasthyakoodam Legends
Agasthyakoodam peak is also a pilgrimage destination for Hindu devotees who believe that sage Agasthya  meditated on the mountain. Sage Agasthya is one of the seven maharishis(Saptarishis) in Hindu puranas. There is a small shrine on the mountain top with an idol of Agasthya rishi and during Agasthyakoodam trekking season, people perform pujas here.

Agasthya sage is considered to be guru of Ayurveda system of traditional Indian medicine. Most of his statues depict him with a stone crusher in one hand and a bowl of medicines in the other. He is also considered as the father of Tamil literature and Siddha medicine.

Agasthya Sage idol at Bonacaud forest station

According to one of the legends, Everyone including maharishis moved to Himalayas during the wedding of Lord Shiva and Parvathi. This caused the earth to tilt to one side and Lord Shiva asked Agasthya to go to south and balance the earth again. Agasthya came to the southern mountains and he liked the place and stayed on. There are plenty of other interesting legends about Agasthyamuni.

Agasthyakoodam Trekking
Agasthyakoodam peak and surrounding areas are protected reserved forest under the control of Kerala Forest Department and entry is restricted. Forest department allows a controlled pilgrimage/trek during January to March of every year. This pilgrimage starts on the day of the Makaravilakku festival in Sabarimala temple and ends on the Sivarathri day. Usually this means that the trek will be available for about 60 days. Only 100 entry passes are issued each day of the trek and the entry passes are given on first come first serve basis.Usually entry passes run out on the first day of the booking. Alternatively you can also trek to Agasthyakoodam during the offseason, but you need to pay more (Rs.4000+ for a team of 5). This article is focused on the trek experience during the pilgrimage season.

People attempt Agasthyakoodam trek with a wide range of interests. Some are interested in the physically demanding trek alone, some are interested in exploring the flora and fauna around and for some it is a pilgrimage. This article is a comprehensive guide to Agasthyakoodam trek including trekking tips, online booking information and what you can expect on the trek. Note that children and women are not allowed for this trek. There are religious as well as practical reasons for this.

Agasthyarkoodam Trekking Online Booking
Till 2013, booking for Agasthyarkoodam pilgrimage trek was a tedious process. Usually a couple days before the start of the trekking program, forest department would publish the date for getting entry passes. The entry tickets were issued from the forest office in PTP Nagar, Trivandrum. People will queue up from midnight for getting the entry passes and there is a huge demand for passes for the weekends. The booking process involved 2 stages. In the first stage, you will need to find an available date and then a application form will be issued to you with the date of trek entered. Maximum of 3 persons were allowed in a single pass. You need to fill up the form with details of the trek team members including details of their identity proof documents. You also need to attach copies of the identity proof. Finally you will submit the form at a second counter and pay the fee. Forest department will issue the entry pass later that day or the next day. Needless to say, getting passes was a nightmare.

From this year (2014), you can book Agasthyakoodam trekking entry passes online! The link for booking trek tickets will be available on the official website of Kerala forest department on the opening day of booking. In 2014, this facility was rolled out through Kerala eService Delivery Portal and you can register an account for the portal anytime. For example, if the trek program starts on 15th January, the ticket booking will usually open on 12th January and the details of the dates would be published somewhere around 10th January in all major newspapers. Forest department website also provides a link for getting ticket availability status!

Up to 15 people can be booked on a single ticket and you need to pay Rs.500 per person. The trekking fee must be paid online, but only a limited number of banks are enabled for online money transfer. Before booking ensure that you have the following information available for each member of the trekking team,

Name, age and contact number
Type of identity proof (Aadhar, Driving License, Election Card etc.)
Identity proof number
Once you book the ticket and pay the money you get an option to print the entry pass. Always save a copy of the ticket before you print it. You can also access the entry pass later by logging into Kerala eService Delivery Portal and then selecting View Status Application => Track Application Status option from the left menu of the homepage.

The entry pass also contains an affidavit which the team leader of the trekking group must sign. On the day of your trek, you need to report to Bonacaud forest station at 7AM with the entry pass/affidavit and the ID proof originals of all members of the trekking team.

Alternatively you can get tickets through Akshaya centres or by going to the PTP forest office in Trivandrum. They all use the same system and hence it would be wise to book on your own from the comfort of your home.

Checklist for Agasthyarkoodam Trekking
Following is the checklist I use whenever I go on the Agasthyakoodam trek (or for that matter any overnight trek). Since you will be most probably going as part of a team, there are things that only one member of the team needs to carry for the entire group. This is indicated separately (G) in the following checklist. Please note that alcohol is strictly banned and the forest staff will check your luggage for it when you report for the trek.  

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