As we negotiated our way up the highest peak in Wayanad, the top seemed achingly near, ringed by a tiara of clouds. Our reticent VSS (Vana Samrakshana Samiti) guide from Meppadi made an odd clucking sound to get our attention and motioned below. We looked back and gasped at the sight. It was indeed a heart-shaped lake or, as locals quaintly called it, ‘Hriday Saras’! When we had sat by it half an hour earlier, it had looked more like liver, but from up here there was no mistaking its shape. We pointed to the top and asked, “Chembra?” Some more guttural sounds followed, which seemed like a “no”.

Anurag Mallick, Priya Ganapathy
The heart-shaped lake, as seen on the trek up to Chembra
The heart-shaped lake, as seen on the trek up to Chembra

There must have been five points when this strange monosyllabic interaction took place, and with each successive crest, Chembra seemed to elude us. It was a lot like our experience in Wayanad, where each step showed us a new aspect to this fascinating hill district of Kerala. The summit, at 6,800ft, was wreathed in clouds and it started to drizzle, so we made our slow descent down the grassy slope. Our guide disappeared for a while and returned with what looked like a wild orange. We greedily tore into its thick skin and bit into the flesh but it turned out to be grapefruit. “Bambli moos,” mumbled the VSS guard: pamplemousse.

The colonial stamp on the region was a recent one and, as one peeled away the layers, Wayanad seemed wrapped in several histories. The imprint of early man is evident at the Edakkal Caves, India’s most important prehistoric rock shelter, with Megalithic and Neolithic wall etchings such as the ‘Chieftain’ dating back to 4000 BC. It also has its ‘Kilroy was here’ equivalent. A scrawl in Brahmi script, “Palpulita nandakari bedungomalai kachhabanu nanduchatti,” loosely translated to “Nandu, who killed many tigers on this mountain, was here.”

Anurag Mallick, Priya Ganapathy
The tranquil, famous Thirunelly temple
The tranquil, famous Thirunelly temple

This was hallowed land where Lord Rama is said to have crossed over the Brahmagiri Hills from Coorg to Kerala, where he performed the pind daan for his deceased father Dasratha at the Thirunelly temple and shot an arrow that ‘pierced the mountain’, which was hence called Ambukuthy. There’s even a temple of Seetha Devi, Lava and Kusha at Pulpally. Jainism once prospered here and the wily Tipu Sultan converted a 14th-century Jain shrine into an ammo dump, which led to the place Ganpathivattom being renamed Sulthan Bathery after the sultan’s battery! Wayanad was a tactical stopover between his capital Srirangapatna and the Malabar coast. The legendary Van Ingen family, taxidermists to the Maharajas of Mysore, was based in Wayanad. Many of the estates and bungalows they once held are now resorts—including the Tranquil Plantation, not far from the tribal heritage museum at Ambalavayal.

The district has a large tribal population, chiefly the Kuruchiyas, Kurumbas and Paniyas. It was Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja of Kottayam (a local principality, not the south Kerala town) who mobilised them into a guerilla army and eventually perished fighting the British. If Tipu was the Tiger of Mysore, Pazhassi Raja was undoubtedly the Lion of Kerala. His memorial stands proud at Mananthavady.

Yet, Wayanad’s secrets hide in plain sight. Ruins of Jain shrines lie in scenic coffee, coconut and spice plantations. It was spices grown in the highlands around Wayanad that fuelled the lucrative trade in coastal centres like Thalassery and Kannur.

We dropped off our guide at Meppadi and continued to the misty ghats of Lakkidi near Vythiri. By the roadside we stopped at an unusual tree that was ensnared in chains—Wayanad’s famous Chain Tree. The story goes that Karinthandan, a young tribal, helped a British engineer find a safe route through the treacherous Thamarassery Ghat. Unwilling to share the credit, the Britisher killed him and Karinthandan’s restless spirit began haunting travellers near that spot. After a string of accidents, a priest was brought to perform a puja and pacify the spirit, which was supposedly chained to the tree. We sent a silent prayer for safe travels and wheeled offroad from Vythiri.

Anurag Mallick, Priya Ganapathy
A treehouse at the Blue Ginger Resort, Vythiri
A treehouse at the Blue Ginger Resort, Vythiri

Wayanad, the hilliest district in Kerala, is also its least populous. We lurched up the mountain slope to Vythiri Resort, which did more to put Wayanad on the map than the unassuming, dull brown Wayanad Laughing Thrush. Long before tourism opened up in Wayanad, it had been wowing travellers with its treehouses, swaying bridge, streamside cottages and local cuisine. Almost every resort in Wayanad is tucked away in an estate, on a mountain or by a stream. In nearly a dozen visits to the district, we’ve had the chance to stay at some really special spots. Over a waterfall at Meenmutty Heights, around boulders and caves at Edakkal Hermitage, in a colonial-era cottage at Tranquil, beside India’s largest earth dam, Banasura Sagar, at Silver Woods and Banasura Island Retreat, in cottages by a waterfall at Blue Ginger…you dream it, it’s out there!

There’s now a whole new crop of resorts in Wayanad. After years of manning Tranquil Resort, Victor and Ranjini Dey have opened their own homestay, Amaryllis, at Deydreams Farm. It is named after the vibrant long-lasting flower, the first one they planted along the driveway when they bought the patch in 2008. The floral theme continues with garden rooms named Azalea, Begonia and Callindra while the tree villas Solandra and Poinsettia overlook the backwaters of Karapuzha reservoir in the distance.

For a closer view of Karapuzha, stay at Vistara by the Lake, with private balconies, immaculate gardens and an outdoor pool overlooking the reservoir. It’s pet friendly too! One place that’s neither pet-friendly nor kid-friendly (purely due to safety considerations) is Pepper Trail. Located in the historic Mangalam Carp Estate set up in the late 1800s by pioneering planter Colin Auley Mackenzie, it comes with two treehouses and two suites in a 140-year-old Pazhey Bungalow. That’s the thing with Wayanad—depending on your predilection, you can choose to be a couch potato or a super-trooper game for any adventure.

Trek to Banasura Hill or Little Meenmutty waterfall overlooking the 1,700 hectare Banasura Sagar. Dotted with 19 islands, the speedboat rides on the reservoir mark the start of hydel tourism in the district. Get a dose of responsible tourism with DTPC Kalpetta’s Village Life Experience tours that include visits to tribal hamlets, nature walks through plantations and paddy fields and learning how eucalyptus oil, tribal weapons, leather drums and pottery are made, ending with a tribal ethnic meal.

Anurag Mallick, Priya Ganapathy
The bamboo-processing unit at Uravu in Kalpetta
The bamboo-processing unit at Uravu in Kalpetta

Hike to waterfalls such as Soochipara (Needle Rock), Kanthampara and Meenmutty Falls or go on day trails or multi-day hiking, cycling and kayaking adventure trips with Muddy Boots. Spot packs of dhol on the hunt at Tholpetty or tuskers by the road at Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary. Lakes like Pookote and Karalad are already popular among tourists for boating or you could drop by at Uravu’s bamboo processing centre near Kalpetta, where handicrafts are fashioned out of bamboo like spice boxes, lampshades and rainmakers (hollow bamboo instrument with seeds cascading through it to mimic the sounds of rain).

While Wayanad hums to an ancient rhythm, it is indeed in the rains that it comes alive—when streams, waterfalls and grasslands revive and paddy fields turn into venues for mud football, coconut tree climbing and crab catching. So take the winding road to wonderland and make a splash in Wayanad.

The Information

Getting There

The Kozhikode–Mysore highway NH 212 passes through Wayanad via Vythiri in the west to Sulthan Bathery in the east. Kozhikode International Airport at Karipur is the nearest airport, 95km from the district headquarters Kalpetta.

Where to Stay

Vistara Wayanad, Ambalavayal(from 5,600; 9072111299, vistararesort.com)
Amaryllis, Narikund P.O., viaAmbalavayal (from 3,350; 9847865824, amarylliskerala.com)
Pepper Trail, Sulthan Bathery (from 14,000; 9562277000, peppertrail.in)
Banasura Island Retreat, Padinarathara (from 5,600;9495553311, banasuraisland.com)
Wayanad Silverwoods Resort, Kalpetta (from 6,750;9746475714, wayanadsilverwoods.com)
Vythiri Resort, Lakkidi (from14,000; 04936-256800, vythiriresort.com)
Blue Ginger Spa Resorts, Vythiri (from 6,000; 9287439315, bluegingerresorts.com)
Meenmutty Heights, Chellangode (from 3,750; 9656056215, meenmuttyheights.com)
Sunrise Valley, Kadassery (from4,300; 9526072777, sunrisevalleywayanad.com)
Greenex Farms, Chundale (from 3,000; 9846131560, greenexfarms.com)

What to See & Do

Uravu, Thrikkaipetta, 7km from Kalpetta (04936-231400, uravu.org)
Chembra trek, VSS Office, Erumakkolly, 2km from Meppadi
Muddy Boots (9544201249, muddyboots.in)

When to Visit

Anurag Mallick, Priya Ganapathy
Boisterous football fun at the Wayanad Splash festival
Boisterous football fun at the Wayanad Splash festival

Wayanad is great all year round, but some wildlife areas are closed in summer because of the threat of forest fires. In the rains, Wayanad Splash in July is a unique monsoon festival with offroad rallies and other events (wayanadsplash.com).

Resources

District Tourism Promotion Council (DTPC), Civil Station, North Kalpetta (04936202134, dtpcwayanad.com)
Wayanad Tourism Organisation, Vasudeva Edom, Pozhuthana PO (04936255308, 8547255308, wayanad.org)
Kerala Tourism (04712321132, keralatourism.org)