I am weary, the changes — social, financial, environmental — have made me so. I know, I cannot fight change; I am depressed, my spirit sags. People who know me, don’t like the change they see and they go away. But I cannot leave, I am rooted. I look back at history, my past leaves me exhausted.
I am Agumbe, a small town in Shimoga district. People say sage Agumba lived here, and that I get my name from him. I used to feel proud, not because of association with the sage but because of association with the sunset point, the beautiful waterfalls that challenge trekkers — Kunchikal, Barkana, Onake Abbi, Jogigundi and Koodlu Theertha –– of the thick evergreen forests that shelter rare, endangered species of plants and animals.
Of the cool breeze filled with thick mist. Of the heavy rain and heavier clouds that cover me for months together.
I am beautiful, but will my beauty last? Or will my story become an allegory for death? My beauty never became a capital for tourism, but my hidden wealth may become the object of lust of Karnataka’s mining tycoons. Doddagudda, not far from me, is rich with iron ore.
In 1972, some people tried mining it.
The Central government, however, threw the proposal away. The present day rulers, though, have no sense of shame; they can go to any extent to help the mining tycoons.
At the beginning of the last century, I was a busy place. I was under the control of then princely state of Mysore, a junction between the British- ruled Mumbai and the Madras Province-ruled Mangalore. Those days there was no direct link between Mangalore and Mumbai. People used to come in bullock carts, stay overnight, and the leave for Mangalore or Mumbai.
Then Dewan of Mysore P N Krishnamurthy constructed a huge choultry, in 1906, to provide free shelter and food for the travellers. The stone and mortar choultry, roofless now, stands a testimony to the good civil work of those days and the negligence of today’s people towards heritage.
Travellers were supposed to catch charcoal run seven-seater motor vehicles from Agumbe to Harihar and then catch a train to Mumbai.
After the serpentine road, with 14 hairpin curves in the ghat section, was built, and after motor vehicles replaced bullock carts, running taxis from Agumbe to Someshwara down the ghat became the main economic activity. The other occupation was the manufacture of rail sleepers. The logs were cut in the forest. The sawdust strewn there helped the wild growth of cardamom. Strict forest laws ended the wood cutting business, and with introduction of mini-buses, taxi business too lost out. Soon, cane manufacturing became synonymous with my name. This business ended with the non-availability of cane.
Now there is not a single single such economic activity linked to me.
People tried, though. Laxminarayana Mallya established a rice mill in 1993, thinking that farmers from surrounding villages would bring paddy for hulling. It was a loss making enterprise.
Mallya, also set-up the first lodge here almost four years ago, exactly 100 years after Dewan Krishnamurthy started the choultry. He gets customers only on weekends.
Education changed me. With the starting of a high school almost 30 years ago, the youths now tend to go for higher education and finally migrate to urban areas. Ask Krishnamurthy Hebbar, who worked in the high school for 27 years as head master.
He has seen the population dwindle.
In 1900, my population was around 5,000, now it is 300.
In the last one decade, Naxal activity has made my life even more miserable.
Though the number of visitors have not come down, they are wary to stay with me. In 1900, Tirthahalli had 16 policemen to look after entire taluk.
Now, I alone have 60 police personnel.
I have lost my distinction as the “Cherrapunji of the South” after the government established a rain gauge centre in Hulikal in Hosanagar taluk.
With the change in economic activity and the climate, lifestyles have also changed. People no longer get ready for the monsoon. Earlier they used to store firewood and charcoal, vegetables, condiments, pulses and cereals for the six-month period well in advance. They used to have potsherd everywhere, even in schools to keep the room warm. They used to cover houses with knitted leaf mats to prevent walls getting damp. Now people have electric heaters and cooking gas connections. They can get condiments and vegetables of their choice any time. Plastic sheets have replaced leaf mats. Acacia plantations have replaced paddy fields. Elders have migrated to other places to stay with their children. Agriculture labourers get subsidised rice under the PDS, and employment under NREGS. They need not look for any other work.
I learnt that the government has been planning to have a direct road from Agumbe to Someshwar, avoiding the hairpin curves so that heavy vehicles can ply easily down the ghat. I am afraid, this is a plan to take iron ore directly to the ports in the coastal district of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi.
If it is true, I will lose my importance, and vanish one day.
Cherrapunji and Agumbe
Cherrapunji and Agumbe have many things in common.
Agumbe in Shimoga district, Karnataka is known as Cherrapunji of South as it used to receive the highest rainfall in the country, next only to Cherrapunji in Meghalaya. Cherrapunji receives an average annual rainfall of 1,143 cm, while Agumbe receives an annual average rainfall of 764 cm. It received the highest rainfall recorded in a month, in August 1946 — 450.8 cm. Though both are heavy rainfall areas, they face acute shortage of drinking water. While in Cherrapunji, women have to walk long distances to fetch water, in Agumbe every household has an open well where the water level is low enough to test the stamina of the people. Agriculture is also hindered in both the places because the top soil is usually washed away due to heavy rain. In winters, the temperatures hovers around 2 degrees to 5 degrees Celsius in both the places, and doesn’t go beyond 23 degrees Celsius save a day or two.
Both have lost their wettest area tag. While Cherrapunji lost its fame as the wettest place on earth to the Mawsynram in Meghalaya, Agumbe lost the Cherrapunji of the South tag to Hulikal in Hosanagar taluk.
Monkeys and snakes
The evergreen rainforest around Agumbe has been the home of the lion tailed macaque (a monkey species). And recently, after the well-known herpetologist Rumulous Whitaker established his Rainforest Research Station in Agumbe, this forest has come to known as the home of king cobras. But no one in Agumbe had ever dreamt that these two issues could one day lead to a series of problems.
If local administrations, anywhere in Karnataka, have a monkey problem, the catch the animals and shift them to Agumbe. So Agumbe has now become a hub of monkeys.
These rehabilitated monkeys, unlike the wild ones, have lived in the company of humans before. They wander within town limits and create nuisance for the villagers. They destroy vegetables and areca crop.
Similarly, king cobras caught anywhere in the state are sent to Agumbe. Till recently, people used to see a lots of cobras and water snakes in their premises and they were used to these reptiles. But, since king cobras are predators that prey on other snakes, their infiltration has caused other species of snakes to vanish from Agumbe.
The Malgudi of Malgudi Days
Shankar Nag, actor and director, saw Malgudi in Agumbe and recreated that imaginary town in this hill station. In 1986, he shot a series of episodes with the title ‘Malgudi Days’ based on RK Narayan’s works for the Doordarshan. Later, in 2004, another director Kavitha Lankesh shot a few more episodes of Malgudi Days here. All of Naryan’s stories are set in Malgudi, a town that he created. Though Narayan himself had often said that Malgudi was his imagination, many of his readers thought it might be Coimbatore or Lalgudi located on the banks of the river Cauvery or Yadavagiri in Mysore.