Maniappan : Tribal King
Karpanna : Black brother temple
Sittilingi is approachable by train, bus & car from both Chennai & Bangalore. It is 220 kms from Bangalore & takes about 5 hours via Hosur, Krishnagiri, (take a left from the highway here) Kariamangalam, Morappur, Harur,Theerthamala & Kotapatti, the closest town, a mere 8 km away, where a last hot cup of stimulating coffee may be had. The forest begins soon after, a 5 – 6 km stretch of parched jungle. Enter & drive right through giant bamboo whodunits of mind boggling scale & size – mile after withering mile. Tall, sapped & dying stalks interspersed with bushes of keekar & lantana.The very forest seems asleep. Or dead. There is not a living creature anywhere around. Still & soundless the forest suddenly vanishes & makes way for a valley. Green, as far as the eye can see. Emerald green & wedged between low, blue hills – the Kalrayan range.
It has been a therapeutic drive in many different ways. Past little towns & tiny hamlets with tongue twister names, temples to powerful tribal kings, small ornate churches, an abundance of roadside mango stalls, elephant crossings, swaying palms, outlandish outcrops of rock & boulder.
Cruising along the highway to the strains of old Bollywood numbers the 5 hours have gone by in a flash.
‘You understand any of this’? I ask in shocked surprise.
‘Yes’ replies Murugesh.
‘I must congratulate you then. This is poetry. Ek dum high brow”.
Never imagined I would live to see a young Tamil, a driver, rock to Zafar & Azmi – “ na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon……../ yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai?”
Sittilingi valley, is greenest of things green. Rural, pastoral, agrarian. It is idyllic. (17 villages in all, 1 Dalit, 2 Lambadi, rest tribal)
Dr Regi George & his gynecologist wife Lalitha moved here in 1992 & set up ‘Tribal Health Initiatives’ an organization that promotes tribal health & addresses societal & environmental concerns. This dedicated duo have over the years given fully of themselves, with positive results while, managing to keep their work both secular & apolitical.
The ‘Farmers Initiative’ introduced farmers to organic methods of farming, the crops being several varieties of rice, ragi, lentils, corn, millet, turmeric & vegetables. This is marketed under the brand name SVAD, mainly in the south.
There is a fully equipped medical facility with trained staff where every contingency involving in/out patients is attended to. Everything from surgery, to ICU, to Lab tests, to medicines & health care. Even yoga & meditation. Not only that, THI trains & employs nursing & support staff from the general area. As for the sprawling hospital complex – it is like none other in that it is aesthetically designed using local material, keeping tradition in mind. Man & nature in harmony.
I quiz Lalitha about ‘Porgai’ the pet project she manages after hospital hours. ( ‘Porgai’ translates to ‘pride’ in the Lambadi dialect.) How does she reconcile the two? Her medical profession with managing an art & design store.
“Isn’t it one & the same,” she avers with a smile. “The sick & ailing have to be healed so there is a hospital. The healthy require sustenance & work to stay healthy & happy. So we have ‘Porgai’. Creative work is health/preventive care – you will agree”
Centuries ago the Lambadis came here from north west India, bringing with them their distinct culture, language & art. Lifestyles changed over time and with it was lost the elusive ‘stitch,’ a heritage of Harappan origin. Caught in the whirlpool of daily toil there was no time for beauty or art, hence the craft began to die a slow natural death.
Until it was revived by the Regis with the help of older Lambadi women who remembered a stitch or two from their childhood. Collective memory took over, the endeavor paid off & ‘Porgai’ is a witness. It not only provides sustenance but empowers the women folk, restoring dignity & pride in their craft. It keeps families together preventing forced migrations to ugly urban centers. Above all, it keeps them healthy for in the valley the air is pure & clean with no shortage of either food or water.
(Sittilingi boasts excellent roads, school, health facilities, electricity, connectivity – you name it.
And ‘Porgai’ sells exquisite clothes & linen woven with organic cotton & embellished with Lambadi embroidery. It has a tie up with a young designer from Bangalore who incorporates the traditional to create the modern & trendy.)
Murugesh, makes a keen observation.
“ You must be bored” I console him. “ Bear with me for just another day”
“ No”, says he. “Not bored.
How clean everyone looks. How happy.
Also. No religion. No politics”.
That’s it. No religion. No politics.
(The entire valley had only one church & a temple.)
PorgaiDown the village street
Clean air longevity