After serving on a jury at a public hearing on the treatment of India’s Muslim minority, my partner and I made a brief, two-day visit to Wayanad, a district in northeastern Kerala renowned for its biodiversity. It was a welcome change from the hearing in Kozhikode on March 11 when the jury heard accusations of illegal prosecutions, torture and prolonged incarceration of Muslims.

Wayanad is a mountainous plateau on the crest of the Western Ghats. Government ecology experts reported in 2011 that there are many species native only to the district. It was described as a “magical destination for the eco-diversity adventurer.”

Travel literature describes Wayanad as a popular tourist destination: “’With sub-tropical Savannahs. exotic legends, mysterious mountain caves, hidden riches of a bygone era and a breathtaking array of diverse landscapes, Wayanad’s rugged terrain captures the wild and wonderful,” said one account. There are dense forests, woodlands, hills and valleys filled with natural attractions. The area is also known for its coffee, tea and rubber plantations with spice gardens.

With a population of more than 800,000, Wayanad is home to the largest number of the tribes in Kerala.  The district has the highest number of the tribal people in Kerala and some of the oldest tribes are still untouched by civilization. It’s claimed by some that organized life existed in Wayanad 1,000 years before Christ. The district spreads over more than 2,100 square kilometers at an altitude ranging from 700 to 2,100 meters above sea level. There are four ecologically complex zones: Mananthavady, Kalpetta, Sulthan Bathery, and Vythiri.

Wayanad is the small district circled in red. Source: Google Maps

After traveling 55 kilometers along a winding mountain road from Kozhikode, we stopped at Vythiri where we met the district magistrate of Wayanad. He was an excellent travel guide but wasn’t an expert on biodiversity. He recommended the Priyadarshini tea estate guest house at the Mananthavady tribal plantation cooperative, which was set up in 1984 by the government of Kerala in a bid to stamp out bonded labor.

The estate features a tea factory, a museum, a forest reserve and a resort. It’s ideal for a casual vacation but also offers trekking to view animals, watch sunsets and sunrises from hilltops, and a chance to observe tribal life up close.

We visited the Mananthavady Tribal Plantation Cooperative and met with youth at work and saw tribal art and architecture. This was also a chance to familiarize ourselves with local tribal culture. The tribal youths were informative, and a tribal development official accompanied us wherever we went.

Worth a visit:

Mananthavady — Has several attractions, including Kuruwa Dweep, a 950-acre uninhabited island, home to many species of birds, orchids and herbs; the Boys’ Town, an Indo-Danish herbal garden, and a gene park; Tholpetty wildlife sanctuary with a wide variety of animals; a 300-year-old mosque noted for its wood carvings; the Thirunelly Vishnu temple; a bird sanctuary at Pakshipathalam; a Shiva temple at Thrissilery; and the Pazassi tomb of local king who organized resistance to the colonial East India Company.

Kalpetta — Chembra Peak 1,200 meters above sea level is the tallest peak in Wayanad, ideal for trekking; the Banasura Sagar dam, considered the largest earthen dam in India and second largest in Asia; and a project aimed at potential use of solar energy; the Meenmutty waterfall, the Sentinel Rock waterfall, and the Kanthanpara waterfall.

Sulthan Bathery — Has the Ambalavayal Heritage Museum; a Jain temple; the Edekkal caves; the Chethalayam waterfalls; and the Muthanga wildlife sanctuary.

Vythiri — Gateway to Wayanad and characterized by lofty peaks, streams and verdant forests. It has Pookot Lake, a freshwater aquarium, a children’s park and so on.

Priyadarshini Tea Estate
The Priyadarshini Tea Estate.

I was born in Kerala’s Kottayam district but I moved to Tamil Nadu with my parents and then to Madurai and Chennai for higher education. I joined the civil service in 1964 and my contact with Kerala diminished.

With only a two-day stay, we were unable to visit all the spots we would have liked, among them: Kuruva Dweep; Boys Town; Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary; Varambetta Mosque; and Thirunelly Temple. We did, however, go to the Banasura Sagar dam in the Vythiri subdivision for a motorboat trip on the reservoir. This was an enjoyable trip but too short. We would like to thank our hosts in the tea garden, friends in government, our local guide Srilal, and all the others who helped.

Kadayam Subramanian is former director of the Research and Policy Division of the Indian Home Ministry and former director general of police in northeastern India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India.