Nelliampati or Nelliyampathy is a hill station of coffee and tea plantations created by the British in mid 19th century on the southern mountain ranges of the Western Ghats bordering the Palakad gap or Palghat pass. From the 1860s there were coffee and tea plantations and factories created by the colonial enterprise. Civilization began on the mountains as part of the early Anamalai centres of Sramana culture. There are many relics of ancient human settlements and establishments as in place names and megalithic menhirs, caverns and sacred groves amidst the vast estates.
Nelli is the gooseberry tree that was the totem tree of the early Ezhava clans associated with Ezham the ancient Tamil word for Sangham or the Buddhist congregational society that is closely interwoven like fabric or intertwined and entangled natural world. Ezhavar simply means the people of the Ezham or Sangam (Sekher 2019: 61 – 62 ). There may be many ethnicities and ethnic amalgams within this social section outcasted by Brahmanical Hinduism. Ezhavar were having many socio-cultural rights and privileges in society till the 17th century; argues Elamkulam (651) because of their ancient cultural legacies of Buddhism like medical practice and writing (Balakrishnan 61). Narayanaguru and P K Gopalakrishnan have also defined the Ezhava as a basic people and not a caste within Hinduism (Gopalakrishnan 2007). Nelli and Vagai were also revered by the Chera clans in ancient Tamilakam. Pati or Pathy is an ancient ritual grove or shrine in Tamilakam like the Tirupati on Tiru Vengadam hills north of Chola Mandalam that was originally a Buddhist shrine till the middle ages.
Another ancient Mahayana shrine Palani is also in the east and in between we have Chamanam Pati that means the sacred ritualistic grove of the Sramana in Tamil. Chingan Chira and many other ancient sacred groves are on the northwestern side of Nelliampati. Chingan Chira is the huge pond created with an earthen bund by the early Asokan Buddhist missionaries and named after Chingan or Simhan the Sakya Simha. In the middle ages, it was violently Hinduized through hoary sacrifices of animals and even human beings and modified into the shrine of the blood-thirsty Hindu goddess Kali.
Pongilidi or smashing the sacrificed head of the Buddhist or Avarna into small pieces and eating it as the ritual offering before Kali was also prevalent in those cannibalistic middle ages till the arrival of the British and colonial modernity. Kavu Teendal and Bharani Pattus and similar drunken revelries and violence both symbolic and physical were prominent as in Kodungallur and Chertala Kavu Teendal and many other violent exorcizing rituals like Teeyattu, Mudiyetu and Choottu Padenis all over Kerala that reveal the violent and repressive Hindu cults and rituals related to the ousting of peaceful and nonviolent Jain and Buddhist monks and nuns from the ancient Pallys and modifying them into Hindu Brahmanical shrines and Kshetras with Tantric rituals. Nelliampati also witnessed such a hegemonic takeover and conjuring in the middle ages.
The ancient Pati or sacred grove shrine in Nelliampati from which it got its name is Nellikulam grove shrine and stream on the eastern slope and base of Padagiri the highest peak in Nelliampati. It is 1585 m tall above mean sea level (Valath 158). Padagiri is also called Nelli Kotta. There are other peaks rising above 1500 m like Vellachi Mudi, Valiya Bana Mala, Maya Mudi or Myal Mudi, Valvachan Mala etc. Till mid 19th century the region was covered in dense forests of various sorts deciduous, semi-deciduous, evergreen and shola grass lands above 1400 m on the peaks in particular.
Nelli Kulam is an ancient seat of Devi or Mayadevi now worshiped as a goddess in Hinduized ways. It is like Devikulam near Chakra Mudi in Munnar. Chakra Mudi is now distorted as Chokra Mudi and Boddhi Medu Mountains are called Bodi Mettu. Originally these Kulams or ponds were dedicated to Mayadevi in Buddhist times and later when Hinduized these were modified into that of Sitadevi to link these places to Rama and Ramayana and to Ramafy these discursive cultural geographies. It happened to Sabarimala that was originally Savari Mala or Chavari Mala the mountain of the Savari deer or Sambar deer in the ancient old Tamil Sangam texts.
The location of Nelli Kulam at the base of Padagiri or the mountain enshrining the Sri Pada or Buddhist footprints as in many other mountains in South India and Ceylon from Malayatur to Sri Pada in Sri Lanka; confirms the Buddhist origin as many other place names related to Nelli around. As in Tirunelly shrine of Wayanad that was originally Tiru Nelly Pally or Sree Amalakee Vihara; Amalaka or Amla or Nelli has a special revered status in Buddhist cultures and related medical practices.
It is also distorted later in placename articulation in Malayalam into “Patagiri” (പാടഗിരി) to deliberately erase the Buddhist history of the sacred feet worship or the symbolism of Sri Pada or Kalady. The original golden idols and treasures were looted and reinstalled at the Nenmara Nellikulangara Bhagavati shrine by a feudal lord from a caste Hindu Sudra clan in mid 16th century called Kodakara Nair who was accented and supported by the Brahmanical regime by then. But even today, the Kodakara family men must come to the original seat at Nelliampati for all the initiations before each annual ritual festival to Nelli Kulam on the Nelliampati hills; which is still in the hands of the Avarna Ezhava household called Nellikulam in Nelliampati. This family is also known as Pootandu locally as there was a garden created by the British near the top.
It is similar to the history of Tirunelly or Tiru Nelly Pally or ancient Sree Amalakee Vihara in Wayanad close to the Deccan plateau which was one of the first Buddhist Pallys in Kerala to be converted into a Hindu shrine. The footmarks there amidst a lake are just modified and termed as Vishnu Pada with some slight and sly iconographic alterations and additions. In Tirunelly as well as in Nellikulam in Nelliampati the ancient Ezha Chembakams or temple trees of the Sangam are still growing as in all the ancient Kavus having Asokan Buddhist antiquity. Through out South East Asia these Plumeria Rubra or Alba trees are revered and used for worship in the old Buddha Pagodas and shrines. Sahodaran Ayyappan the lead-disciple of Narayanaguru a rationalist and neo Buddhist has written poems on this tree and its Buddhist legacy in his Buddha Kanda published in 1934 in his anthology of Verse (Ayyappan 133-35).
At the feet of the mountain too there are umpteen number of places associated with the Buddha and Buddhism. Kotakulam, Kotasery, Kotachira are place names at the base of Nelliampati near Potundy the site of a mud dam today. Kota (കോത) in place names is an ancient Dravidian southern or Dekhini Pali form of Gota or Gotama. It was also used by the early Chera kings as an honorific title like Makota, Kokota, Kotaravi etc. Many Kotamangalams and Kotakulangaras and Gotamapuras are there in Kerala even today. Kottayam was Kotayam (കോതായം, കോത്തായം, കോത്താഴം) the Ayam or pond of Kota till middle ages. Tiru Gotamapura shrine is still there as a Hinduized one under caste Hindu seizure and gradual approriation.
Kota or Gotama is the enlightened one himself as Gotama Buddha as he is called in Pali or Gautama in Sanskrit. Potundy could also be a later modification of Putandy meaning Puta Muni or Buddha Muni himself. Jina Muni is Sakya Muni the Buddha, testifies Amarakosa by Amara Simha. In many places it is modified into Pothan as in Pothanikad east of Muvatupuzha. ‘Ayyo Potho’ was the common address to Ariya Buddha in Tamilakam and Keralam, especially in mid-Travancore. Ayyappan is the Ariya Appan or Avalokiteswara Boddhisatva of Mahayana and Vajrayana in Tamilakam. There is an Ayyappan Thittu on the way from Potundy to Nelliampati from where Padagiri is clearly visible.
Nelliampati ranges prolong to the southeast and merge with the Parambikulam mountain ranges with Karimala (also Karu Mana) Gopuram as its highest peak at 1440 m. It is also called Karumana Gopuram in many narratives. In Kulotunga Chola’s Chidambaram rock inscription of 12th century CE it is the site of his flagpost erected to mark his victory over Chera and Pandia kingdoms on the Western Ghats (Valath 159). These ranges were civilizational centres during the Sangam age to the late middle ages as per the Sangam literary sources.
Valath also adds that this region was a civilizational one during early Cheras in the Tamil Sangam age. In Sangam literary works like Purananuru and Chirupanatupadai there are references to the Malai with Nellika or gooseberries like the references to the Malai with Savari or Chavary or Chavariman or Sambar deer or Mlavu; the Savari Malai now Ramafied as Sabari Mala or Shabarimalai.
There are mentions on the life and legacies of Chera king Atiyaman who gives the golden gooseberry or Pon Nellika to poet Auwaiar so that she lives longer than him; as he states that poets like Auwaiar must live longer than kings like him as they address the future as well. Valath associates this great Nelly tree to the Nelli Kulam or ancient veranal spring, pond and stream by the Nelli Kulam shrine at Nelliampati (Valath 160). The remains of the British bungalow of the 19th century were visible for Valath in the 1980s too on the Nellikkulam top by the Padagiri.
He also digs up the roots of the place name, Padagiri from Boudh Gaya. It is a place where the footprints were worshiped within 100 miles from the diamond seat of the Buddha under the great Boddhi tree. The Moola Sthana or original seat of Nellikulangara Poti or Bhagavati of Nenmara is also this Nelliampati shrine. Kodakara Nair; a feudal lord has conjured and transferred the goddess from this ancient mountain shrine into the Nenmara one at the base of this mountain. This was known as Nellikulangara Kavu of Nenmara, but now known as Nellikulangara Kshetram in Sanskritized way; like Kottiyur Vaisakholsavam is now known as Yaga Ulsavam in true Vedic and Vedantic fashion! According to Valath the original settlement was on the mountain and only in the middle ages many people have come to the plains. The mountain shrine is still with the Ezhava family of Nellikulam. The stream from this Nellikulam pond flows down as Nelliyar and joins the waters of Cholayar or Chalakudi river towards the south. In between, it also mixes with Manalar and Karaparayar locally. There are places like Cherunelly and Nellithara in the plains at the base still.
Nelliyar is also called Manalar as it swells and joins Cholayar through Karapara river and contributes to Chalakudi river. The name Nalliyar is almost extinct and anonymous today; and only Manalaroo remains in the tea factory name started by the British in Anglicized mode. One branch of the Manalar river going north also joins Perar or Paratapuzha now Sanskritized partly as Bharatapuzha. Valath mentions a huge natural cavern and the presence of leopards here (162). He also links Nelliampati to Parambu Mala or later Parambi Kulam which was ruled by king Pari during the early common era in the Sangam age. Kapilar the renowned Sangam poet has sung about the grandeur of the place. Nelliampati is a province or Amsam of ancient Parambu Mala he argues (162). Valath also cites his own article in Kalakaumudi in 1982 Nov 19 to explain that the natural cavern in Nelliampati is a Sangam age civilizational relic.
Sangam literary texts like Madurai Kanchi, Aim Kurunuru and Purananuru mention many such caverns as ‘Vidar’ or early Sramana monks’ abodes says Valath (163). Anamalai is known for its Jain and Buddhist settlements. The ancient Kadar tribe was having a Kudi or Uru (early human settlement) called Poti in Nelliampati (Kareem 1971). So it could be Nelliampoti as well; like Potiyil Malai or Bodhiyil Mala later Hinduized as Agastyakoodam. But Pati is also equally possible as it means a village in Kongu Tamil parlance like Patti and Pally affixes in certain other contexts in Tamilakam. In the Kerala District Gazetteer of Palakad the place name is also etymologically deciphered as Pali Ghat. There are also other elaborations linking it with early Pallavas who were Buddhists and also to later Pala empire in Bengal who were also Buddhists till middle ages.
Valath argues that Padagiri is a Buddhist centre in the analogy of Gaya and associated Guru Padagiri that is close to it (164). Mahakasyapa who lived before Gotama attained Nirvana on Guru Padagiri near Gaya (Dey 73). Nundo Lal Dey cites Fah Xian or Fa Hian the Chinese Bhiku, historian, translator and travellor of CE fourth century who travelled on foot to India; to prove his point that it was not the disciple of the Buddha who was the chairperson of the first Buddhist council or synod but a pre-Buddha (73). This craggy mountain is also shortly called Gurpa hills like the Gurugav or Gurugram of Haryana-Delhi border near Indrapadh or the pathway of the victorious one. It is also called Kukuda-padagiri in many Mahayana texts. It is believed by the Mahayani Buddhists that the future Buddha Maitreya would also teach there. The huge granite peak at the summit of Nelliampati mountain is also known as Nellikotta and Nellikalam in further distinction to Nelli Kulam. Valath argues that it was originally Nelli Kottam. The cascade and stream forming a pool at its base on the east is called Nellikkulam or Nelly Kulam pond and shrine by it.
Place names like Kaikatti, Chandragiri and Muniappan shrines are also having Jain antiquity argues Valath (164). The serpent above the Teerthankara like figure of Muniappan is a Lanchhana or esoteric mark of Parswanadha he concludes. But there are possibilities of the Muchilinda or Sesha protecting the Buddha himself. The sign of the unfolded palm or Tiru Kai or Abhaya mudra was also a common gesture of the Buddha idols. Simple correlations of the Kai to Jainism may not be compatible always as there are many later appropriations and admixtures (Sekher 2021: 26-48).
Valath also traces the history of coffee and narrates the life story of Baba Budan a Muslim pilgrim from Mysore who on his return route from Mecca visited South Abyssinia in Africa and took some beans from the village called Caffa and planted them in Mysore and created the first coffee gardens in India in 16th century CE (165). The smuggling of seven coffee beans in his beard by the prudent Sufi Budan is narrated by many (Wild 25-89). In Karnataka near Chikamangalur, the Sufi shrine is there and the Chandragiri hills are now called Baba Budangiri. This Sufi is a real Buddha of coffee in India! The coffee of Nelliampati was transported to Palakad on animals called Poti Kaala or Poti Maadu and then to Beypore port through rail. The Pattambi-Kadalundi railway line was established for such cargo movement by 1861 itself (Valath 168). In the 1880s there was a bullock cart road established and it became a motor road only in 1931. This road to Nelliampati has completed 90 years of existence now in 2022. Some parts were lost in the 2018 floods but it was ably restored by the paramilitary forces soon after.
Ayyappan, Sahodaran. Padyakritikal. Edited by Pooyapally Tankapan. Kerala Sahitya Akademi Trichur, 2001 (1934).
Balakrishnan, P K. Keraleeyatayum Matum. DCB, 2004.
Dey, Nundo Lal. The Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval India. London: Luzac and Co., 1927.
Elamkulam. Elamkulam Kunjanpillayute Tiranjeduta Kritikal. Ed. N Sam. University of Kerala, 2005.
Gopalakrishnan, P K. Keralatinte Samskarika Charitram. Kerala Bhasha Institute, 2007.
Kareem, C K. ed., Kerala District Gazetteers – Palaghat. Kerala Gazetteers Trivandrum, 1971.
Sekher, Ajay. ed., Buddhism and Kerala. Sankara University Press Kalady, 2021.
—. Putan Keralam: Kerala Samskaratinte Boudha Aditara. Kerala Bhasha Institute, 2019 (2018).
Wild, Antony. Coffee: A Dark History. New York: Fourth Estate Press, 2004.
Valath, V V K. Keralatile Sthala Charitrangal – Palakad Jilla. Thrissur: Kerala Sahitya Akademi, 2005 (1986).
Dr Ajay S. Sekher; Feb 2022. 9895797798. firstname.lastname@example.org