Hogenakkal – India’s Niagara

S Balakrishnan
The Hogenakkal Waterfalls is similar in two respects to the Niagara Falls, in that it is also horseshoe-shaped and is between to States. But here it is between two states – Tamil Nadu and Karnataka - of one country while there it is between two sovereign states – the USA and Canada. At Hogenakkal, River Cauvery drops down the Deccan plateau from a height of 66 feet, raising a misty screen and a continuous thundering sound. Hence it is called Hogenakkal in Kannada language, meaning Smoking Stone; Hoge = smoke and kal = stone. Is not smoking injurious for health? Maybe not for the kal, which word in Tamil also means the same – stone. 
Hogenakkal is at an altitude of 750 ft. and is 46 kms from Dharmapuri town (headquarters of a District by the same name) in Tamil Nadu, 300 kms north-west of Chennai. Melagiri hills form the backdrop here. The carbonatite rocks here are estimated as the oldest of its type in South Asia and one of the oldest in the world as well. As Cauvery drops down the rocky plateau in Hogenakkal over a vast area, it creates many waterfalls, major, medium, minor and mini. The horseshoe-shaped falls is the major one where bathing is not possible. The other waterfalls grant us the pleasure of bathing. Then Cauvery flows through deep gorge for quite some distance after which it is a smooth flow down the Tamil Nadu plains until it is arrested by the Mettur Dam. Built in 1934 in Salem District for irrigation and hydroelectricity purposes, the reservoir thus formed is called Stanley Reservoir that spreads around 59.25 sq. miles.
At Hogenakkal four things are special - oil massage for kids and men, a bath in the falls, a ride down the river in the local hide boat ‘parisal’, and savouring freshly caught fish. But it seems my bad luck follows me wherever I go, because I could not enjoy three of these specialties. As it was November and monsoon season, Cauvery was flowing in full might, resulting in banning of bathing in the waterfalls. As I am already suffering from cervical spondylitis I thought it wise not to go for oil massage fearing the masseur could aggravate it, especially when we arrive at a bargained rate after heated exchange. Why pay for additional pain? With my wife besides me, who doesn’t miss chances to bargain without bothering about the consequences to me, why take risk? As regards tasting fish recipes, strictly speaking as a vegetarian I should not even handle fish; further, that day being a Saturday we had (rather my wife had) planned a visit to series of temples in Dharmapuri Town. ‘This is our first visit to this place and God knows when you will bring me here again. So we must pay a visit to ALL the temples in & around this place’, she had proposed and so it had to be carried out. The fish slithered down the river thanking my wife and making faces at me!
Variety of freshly caught fish – both dressed and ‘undressed’ - are temptingly displayed by vendors as one wends down the way to the river and falls; as a vegetarian I can only secretly relish them when cooked but am unable to identify and name them! Dark red spicy masala applied on the fish pieces frightened my stomach and senses but were attractive enough for colourful clicks. Always while travelling, my sweetheart wouldn’t allow me to taste local recipes or those sold by street vendors. How much she cares for me, you might wonder!  Oh, no, it is just the fear of our schedule going haywires if my stomach goes haywires! How kind of her! Host of women would approach you offering to cook meals as per your order –both veg and non-veg. As you return hungrily after a rejuvenating oil massage and a refreshing bath at the falls/river, you can savour your pre-ordered food that is firewood-cooked under old parisals converted into sheds!  So, the only thing left to enjoy was a ride in the ‘parisal’ (coracle) which too could not be enjoyed in full spirit. No, no, please, take the word ‘spirit’ in the right ‘spirit’. Due to high inflow in Cauvery River, the local administration had also banned the ride by ‘parisal’, the unique flat-bottomed local country boat traditionally made of hide and bamboo and paddled with a single small oar. But this being their only vocation, the boatmen were openly (and clandestinely) operating the parisal. They rued that for months together parisal operation had been banned due to continuous high inflow and they had lost their livelihood. How could we allow even this enjoyment being forfeited? So we clandestinely (and openly) bargained with boatmen and fixed two parisals for our group of six adults and four kids. The parisal men settled for a hefty 1400 rupees for each boat. Though eight adults could be accommodated in a single parisal, we thought it wise to divide the risk 50:50. Because in these unofficial trips no life jacket either! On the other bank we noticed Karnataka govt. permitting parisal operation with life jackets.
As an astrologer had warned me of danger in water I am eternally scared of water. This warning from the back of my mind was nagging me. So I could only gingerly enjoy the scenic beauty – the roaring falls, the gurgling river, the rough & tough rocky walls of the ravine, azure blue sky with fluffy clouds, hills covered with green forests, floating parisals with happy & brave tourists, various birds preying on fish. As if to add pepper to my fear, at the middle of the river where water was swirling the parisal in rounds and rounds (for the enjoyment of the tourists!), the boatman dramatically announced ‘Now! We are floating above 120 ft. deep water!’ Twenty times my height! My heart missed a beat and I just froze.  As if to confirm his declaration, an official marking on the rocky surface boldly declared “120 ft.” in yellow paint. As Mettur Dam had reached its full capacity and water was not being released from it, the water level here at Hogenakkal had also automatically risen, explained the boatman, calling it as backwater effect. Needless to say, I was the first to jump on to the terra firma as the parisal touched the shore and shamelessly felt so secured! But my suffering was not over, it appeared. A policeman stood right on the landing spot. Luckily, he just shooed us away with contempt; maybe he has clandestine deals with these clandestine parisal boatmen. Happy that we landed safely, we paid off the two boatmen and thanked them profusely.
With just this adventure we decided to pack off. On our way back to Dharmapuri, we said hello to the dozens of crocodiles at the forest department’s crocodile park in Hogenakkal. They were lazily sunbathing with their mouth opened wide for birds to toothpick.
At Hogenakkal the river spreads out over a wide area of sandy beaches which can be witnessed when the water level is low. During such times parisals would go close to the misty falls. And it would be mighty magnificent, as you ride deep down the gorge, to see the rocky surface vertically rise 100 ft. and more above you! I am determined to visit Hogenakkal again during such a low tide season, sorry, low inflow season, to enjoy all the four pleasures at one go! When parisal ride is officially permitted, one can also witness parisals converted into floating shops selling snacks and beverages to the picnickers on the sandy bars. Ha, yes, beware of the monkeys at Hogenakkal, especially if you are carrying eatables. While the nearest airport is Salem (50Km), Bengaluru is the nearest international airport at 130km; hence IT people from there flock to Hogenakkal during weekends. So better avoid a trip during weekends/holidays. Accommodation is available at Hogenakkal and Dharmapuri.
Memories of my visit to Hogenakkal some 20 years back kept flashing by. We were on an official campaign trip to Dharmapuri when we all, a gang of 15 members, made a hurried trip just to witness the waterfalls. Unbelievable development and changes in the past two decades! We crossed over in the parisal to the other bank of Cauvery and sneaked into Karnataka, covered the rough terrain and stood dangerously high above watching the horseshoe waterfalls. It was scary and scintillating at the same time – maybe not as grand as the original Niagara (which I have not witnessed anyhow) but is not Hogenakkal our own Little Niagara?
The writer is based in Chennai and can be reached at [email protected]  or 9840917608 Whatsapp