Monday, March 17, 2008

Penchalakona falls in the monsoon

October 2007:

When MNS announced a trip to Penchalakona, I was totally clueless, never having heard of the place. With descriptions of waterfall, dense forest and good birding, I was enticed, dragged my husband along, and set off with fourteen other members of the MNS.

Dates were chosen with great thought. A weekend in October, after the rains was thought to be ideal, since the waterfall - which is not perennial - would have water.

After reading this write-up in the MNS bulletin, I was all excited:

"The proposed itinerary:
October 27 2007—Drive to Kandaleru dam, birding in the scrub jungles. After lunch leave for Penchalakona. Bird watching on the outskirts of the Temple village Watch for the full moon rising over the hills. Look for nightjars and owls. Next day trek to waterfalls and the hills. Look for the Yellow throated Bulbuls.
On Oct 28,2007—leave for Somasila dam after breakfast. Leave for Chennai in the evening.
The Penisula Narasimha Swamy Sanctuary is placed between two important passes Badvel–Nellore road and Kadapa–Rajampet road. The velligonda hill range of lush green luxuriant forests interrupted with hillocks of igneous rocks is a paradise for the rich and variegated life forms of animals and plants. The sanctuary is connected by two water bodies—Somasila and Kandaleru.
The flora is Dry evergreen forest type with species like Acacia sp, Cassia sp, Pongamia sp, Carissa sp, etc. Other trees that can be seen include Mangifera indica (mango), Syzigium cumini (jamun), Mahua, Pterocarpus marsupium (Indian Kino), Gloriosa superba (Glory Lily), Cochlospermum religiosum (Yellow silk cotton), Red sanders.
Birds that can be seen here include Rose Ringed Parakeet, White Eye, Pied kingfisher, Pied crested cuckoo, Open-billed Stork, Black-winged stilt, White-bellied drongo, Ashy drongo, Bronzed drongo, Black-headed oriole, Yellow throated bulbul.,Shama.
Other fauna reported include Leopard, Wild dog, Wolf, Sloth Bear, Chinkaara, Black buck, Slender Loris, Giant Indian Squirell. Marbled frog, Burrowing frog, common toad, common brown vine snake, common krait, Starred tortoise."

So, we set off by the Vijaywada-bound Jan Shatabdi for Gudur, and I was pleasantly surprised by the train, its seats and the concept of the Jan Shatabdi.

Cloudy skies, and light drizzle as well as the occasional heavy downpour accompanied us throughout our trip, and ths reduced the birding, but then we enjoyed the waterfall as a result.

Playing with crap on the Gudur tank bund!

Sorry, but that's what they do. The dung beetles I mean. Spend their lives playing with dung. These particular two were spied on the Gudur tank bund. It must have been paradise for them - the place was full of cattle and goat dung.

Scarabaeoidea - try saying that! Well that's their official name. I think I'll stick with DB.

So there we were standing on the tank bund looking for water birds, when I spied these two near my feet. I stared in fascination at the teamwork between the two, as they rolled dung to somewhere. So these then are the "rollers". Rolling dung to their nests. One male and one female? Could be. Female DBs are smart. They allow the guys to roll, and just go along for the ride!

Supposedly, there are also "tunnellers" who immediately tunnel and bury the dung when they find it. Then there are also "dwellers" who just luxuriate and live in it. YUK! I said to myself, when I read this They must really have some bad karma!

They are also picky, I discovered. Yes, please to dung of herbivores, and no thank you to dung from omnivores! Amazing isnt it, the food preferences of some people!

I had to admit that these creatures are useful. they put away the dung, clean up the place you know, and convert the dung into something useful in the process. So next time you find a lot of crap - from a herbivore - around, dont wrinkle your nose, but look for that DB.

And if you are in the jungle, look for the Elephant DB - the largest of its kind. Honest! Dont believe me? See for yourself -

From Gudur, we set off by road to Kandaleru. By now, a drizzle had set in and the sky was completely overcast and there was a dull light. While we were on the highway, the road was like a dream and we made good time. But once we got off the highway, we really had a bumpy ride. Since I was in the rear of the Qualis, every bump was experienced and all the breakfast had in Gudur was quickly digested!

The earthen dam that enclosed the reservoir, has created a water body that stretched from horizon to horizon, filled by the current monsoon rains. It was a spectacular sight, and also reassuring for us Chennaiites, since it is an important water source for the city.

It was rainy and windy, and there was no prospects for birding, but we hung around just taking in the sight and envying the dam officials who had a lovely bungalow perched up on a hillock, overlooking the reservoir. We wandered down to the banks, which was ringed by scrub.

Suddenly, the rain stopped and there was a slight lifting of the clouds, and then the birds were back!

My favourites were The White-browed fantail flycatcher and the Pied Kingfisher.

The B&W copter

Or that's what I called the Pied Kingfisher.
I had a lovely display of this bird, famous for its ability to hover. Suddenly there was this little black & white fellow, in the air above us, on the banks of the reservoir, with a rather prominent bill. “Pied kingfisher!” an excited stage whisper to Sekar.

I was so delighted. He actually “stood on his tail”, as Salim Ali describes, before swooping down to the water, and then taking off with a cry.

After a huge lunch, we drove on to Penchalakona.


On approaching, we had a grand view of the falls from the road, near the entrance to the Karunamayi ashram.
Click on the picture and enjoy a full screen view
We lingered here for a while drinking in the view, and wondering about this mysterious ashram (more on that later!) before moving on, into the "town" of Penchalakona. The high street consisted of the Narasimhaswamy temple, three roadside tiffin and meal shops and another three souvenir shops, selling a complete range of made-in-China bric-a-brac.

Herds of cows loitered around the temple, but what was most depressing was the plastic strewn across the roads and the fields. With the drizzle, the cow dung, plastic litter and the fruit droppings from the ficus tree combined to make a most unpleasant mess!

Accommodation was in the private choultries near the temple. Now, there were 2 such choultries facing each other, across the road. One was more "up-market" supposedly, while the other was "economy". What I found most interesting was that the Deluxe one was full, while we got acco in the economy one!!

After settling in to the accommodation, we went for a short walk to explore the territory. We found the lovely stream flowing through the town.

As we climbed up a stony path beside the river, we had a lovely view of the falls itself as well as the mountains around, which were dense with scrub jungle, looking green and washed in the rains. We resolved to explore the stream the next morning, as the light was fading.

The spooky ashram in Penchalakona
5:30 pm.
We strolled across to this HUGE, incongruous set of buildings in the middle of the forest area, away from the temple.

We were informed that this was the ashram of Mata Karunamayi, of worlwide fame. Much intrigued, we walked in (after paying a Re 2 entry fee I was told).

The "ashram" had electric wired fences and security cameras staring at us....
Deja vu
"You can check out anytime, but you can never leave
Welcome to the Hotel California!"

Huge statues, a water garden, a bhakta cleaning a room. Lights going off in a meditation room. An edifice built for amma to give darshan.
I wanted to leave in a hurry.

Amma was giving a lecture and darshan in one of the halls. Some of the more curious types decided to go in. The rest of us hung around. Sullen security guards looked at us suspiciously.

A gent strides up and asks where we are from. He's amma's brother. (Business manager?) Talks about the fame of amma - spread far and wide - Atlanta branch - devotees from all over- homams everyday -rooms available - surya namaskarams in the morning - meditation room for spiritual upliftment.

By this time, those who sought darshan have returned agog with excitement. Each with sundal in hand, which was prasadam - very tasty.
"She gave it to us personally"
What did she say, I asked. Oh I dont know, replied one. She read from notes. (What???)

I was completely bemused - you mean people actually fall for this stuff? Here she is, talking about love, brotherhood and sharing, ON FOREST DEPARTMENT LAND? Surreal, clean premises. Poverty and filth outside.
A cocoon of nonsense.

I had had enough. Scooted out into the real world. Aah what a relief to be back in the dirt of Penchalakona town.

Dinner was at one of the three tiffin shops. Raja decided to try his rather meagre Telegu on those who ran the shop, making the owner's daughter giggle with his "ledhus". Can you imagine going into a town like this and asking for oil ledhu dosais?! That's optimism for you, from Raja!

Post-dinner discussions on the ashram went on long and late, with many a spooky story being related by Vijay and Sudhakar of other such experiences! Sheila and I concluded that religion was a good business model these days!

Sunday 28th morning: We set off on our walk upstream, to locate the plunge pool of the falls. With thick undergrowth on either bank, we had to wade upstream for the most part, and after a couple of bends, we left behind traces of the town. I walked with my shoes as I thought it was better to have wet shoes rather than torn soles! A wise decision it was!

It was a rewarding and fulfilling walk, as we clambered over boulders, waded through clear, cool water, ducked under a thin waterfall, while all the time the roar of the falls got louder. With a thin drizzle overhead, there was hardly any birdcall on this walk.
We reached the plunge pool after a while and it was well worth the trouble, to see the water thundering down into the pool and rising in a mist and spray to drench us all. Some of the men “plunged” into the pool, but I didn't take my camera out, as it was raining quite heavily now. The local guide looked worried that the river bed would be unpassable soon.

So, we hurried back, only to find the rain stop when we reached the lower levels! But this meant that we were rewarded with bird activity. Suddenly, the forest was alive with sound, and the members had a good half an hour of sightings – woodpeckers, oriole, sunbirds, babblers and parakeets.

After breakfast, we went for a walk in the scrub jungle around, along with the rain, and saw Acacia, Cassia, Glory Lily and red sanders. Mr Ramakrishna remarked that this was a non-thorny scrub jungle, which is somewhat unusual. There were good specimens of ant nests in the leaves of a mango tree as well.

The Yellow throated bulbul and Shama remained elusive.

After lunch, we proceeded to the Somasila dam, where again the water was full.
The second batch of visitors – Mr Ramachandrandan, Mr Mrityunjay Rao and Mr Ramakrishna – saw all the gates being opened, and water gushing out at great force. They also saw the Penchalakona falls in greater strength, since they stayed an additional night, and therefore caught sight of the falls fed with more rain.

The stream was also full, and so there was no way we could have waded up, the next day.

From Somasila, we continued on to Gudur station, to catch our train back. By now, it was raining hard and the roads through the villages were in a complete mess. Progress was slow, and our initial good cheer slowly changed to mild anxiety about the speed we were travelling at. Anxiety then changed to panic, when we reached a closed railway crossing, and were helplessly stuck.

Our driver made a few calls on his cellphone and then announced that we were not to worry, as the train was running late. Finally, the railway crossing opened and then we were back on the highway! We could see the lights of Gudur in the distance, and we arrived at the station to see our train on the platform already! Yells of "Hurry, hurry!", "Grab your bags", "Move It!", came from the two Qualises as we clambered out. A couple of the travellers had no tickets as yet, but they dashed madly to the counter and did board. Sheila had forgotten her umbrellas in the van! Hats off to Vijay and Sudhakar for ensuring that we all got on, the drivers were phoned and thanked and umbrellas were to follow with Mr Ramakrishna!

All this excitement, made us rather giggly as we settled into our seats.

Flushing snacktrays!

This rather interesting set of instructions to operate the snack tray caught our eye on our return. I never did think it was rocket science to open the tray, but the Railways is obviously not taking any chances.

Given that we had a two hour ride, no reading material with us, and not even a portable DVD player (like our fellow passengers), we occupied ourselves in trying to follow the instructions.
To Open
1. We couldn't "pull the knob" as we were instructed - it just moved left or right like any regular holder.
2. There was no instruction to hold the tray while doing step 1. so the tray banged down on us. So that meant that Step 2 also did not work.

Now we had it open anyway, and very happy too. So we decided to check out the "To Close" instructions.
To our consternation, it was on the underside. What to do? Teamwork was needed. Sekar kept his tray shut, and Raji and I read off his instructions.
Step 1 - that was easy - we just had to hold the tray.
2. Lift it up (yeah, that's fine), and flush it with seat backrest. What?! Raji says," Ay, where's the flush ya?" At that point, the Railways lost us....

While we rolled around in laughter, Sekar says, "Dont laugh, read the warnings in red!"

Oh come on, IR, Indians are smarter than this dont you think?

The hilarity didnt stop there. We reached Basin Bridge on time, and all set to get off shortly, when the train decided to halt there for half an hour or more. When we get the go-ahead to proceed to Central, the display board in the coach lights up.

We are informed that "You are now approaching the centre of your destination. You are travelling at 5.36 kmph." Oh wow, we are all impressed. Of course, the effect had to be spoilt. We ground to a halt, and the board pipes up again, "You have reached your destination. You are travelling at 10.42 kmph."

Since the entire coach was jobless, there was a roar of laughter, with Raja's booming voice leading the pack. I think all our fellow passengers thought we we rather "high spirited"... more light headed I think!

Getting off and further adventures awaited us. It was now POURING! The station was leaking in several places and as we reached the cab stand, there was not a soul in sight. Wading in knee-deep water, we got an omni who for the risk of taking us wanted to be rewarded with Rs 500 for a rip that normally takes Rs 100! We bundled in - there were 6 of us and our bags - and we got home!

So, we lucked out on our trip. A day earlier and we would nt have seen the falls as strong as we did, and a day later and we would have been stuck in Gudur, as the depression strengthened and Madras shut down!


  1. Lovely looking site, Ambika. Only suggestion is that the colour of the wording below Madras Ramblings makes it hard to read - or it could be my nearly half a century year old eyes! Enjoyed all the photographs.

  2. Dear Ambika,

    Very nice! Made great reading and if wasn't for my office that keeps me
    so busy, I would possibly participate more!



  3. Thank you for the posting. But why are you envious about God? The reason for this enviousness is your own ignorance. I'm interested to know what great service your are doing to human kind. What is your knowledge about body, mind, self and God?

  4. Dear Anonymous

    This is for the most part a nature blog, a tribute to the wonders in the world around us, creatures big and small and a celebration of life.

    I re-read my post carefully, but could find no reference of envy of God?

  5. Nice writeup and photos. I 've been to Penchalakona twice , but couldn't see full water falls. Do you have more photos of the waterfalls ?

  6. Thanks Sukumaru. there are some more photos, somewhere...but not very different from these.

  7. so;beautyfull;pantastic meaind blowing

  8. beautiful photos but in rainy season its difficult to go to the starting place of waterfalls

  9. Yes, during the rains, the whole stream swells and since it is like a ravine, the waterfall will be impossible to get to, I'm sure.

  10. Wish you were less patronising when you were writing about non-nature subjects,especially the ashram.