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SERENE SRISAILAM

Glance at the center of page no. 91 of the Lonely Planet India & Bangladesh Road Atlas and you will see a small dot marking the position of Srisailam.

What the map however fails to convey is that you are looking at the setting for one of India's largest reservoirs; it's largest Tiger Sanctuary and one of its 12 Jyotirlingams. And, oh well, some of the craggiest, "dare-to-rappel-down-me" if you can heights in Andhra Pradesh.

Approximately 220 kms by road from Hyderabad, Srisailam is a temple town located on a 452 metres high hill in the Nallamalais. The hill itself is called Rishabagiri and used to be on the southern bank of the River Krishna. Thanks to a 512 metres dam across the Krishna, Srisailam now overlooks a huge reservoir.

Drive down from Hyderabad and once you are out of the city, an unending panorama of small reservoirs, fields of Sunflower, Tobacco, Chick Peas and Rice (depending on the time of the year) greet you. You pass small villages and nondescript towns with a Lambada Thanda here and a Toddy Tapper's hamlet there. 150 kms or so, and you are at Mannanur and the forest checkpost. The road has been ascending all this while and through thick forest for 20 odd kms and now you are on a spur of the Nagarjuna Plateau.

All around, you have the heights of the Nallamalais while the sunlight reflected from the depths of the reservoir entices you to stop and drink in the view.

Instant Nirvana can be yours here itself if you can search out for a viewpoint (the best ones are from the watchtowers) or even better find a precipitous trail where you can "airwalk". The first sight of the reservoir itself will take your breath away. The dam has been build across a natural gorge downriver of small valleys that are now all under water. So you will see a vast sheet of water with hills rising sheer and forest-covered or gently undulating and velvety green.

Before you grow roots, get away and further down you will start descending; on a ghat road that snakes down to a bridge over the River Krishna (a place with the quaint name of Eaglepella) to snake up to Srisailam proper. Do stop in the middle of the bridge and look downriver to get an amazing view of the gorge with rocky defiles towering high above you.

You have already been through parts of India's largest Tiger Sanctuary (it abuts into 4 districts) and are now at the thresholds of the Brahmarambha Mallikarjuna Swamy temple. A Shiva temple of antiquity, that may be traced back to the Buddhist period and perhaps even earlier to the Mahayana school of the Buddhism, which is known to have flourished during the 1st century A.D., and one of the 12 Jyotirlingas in the country.

The temple is certainly not on the scale of Tirupati but has a unique aura and sanctity of its own. The best time for Darshan is in the morning, just before sunrise when the Archakas "wake up" Lord Shiva to the chant of Vedic hymns and playing of Nadaswarams. Unlike other temples, here a devotee is allowed (even forced) to enter the Sanctum and the touch the sacred Lingam.

All around the main temple are a number of small shrines venerating the various Avataras of Lord Shiva, like Jalalinga, Vayulinga, etc. A bit away and beyond two flights of stairs is the temple where Brahmarambha Devi is worshipped. The temple complex also has a number of other shrines like the Panchapandava shrine and a number of Mutts, prominent among them being one established by the great Adi Sankaracharya himself.

And not surprisingly there's a Kalyanakatta too, where you can do away with your hair and vanity amongst Chenchus (man, woman and child) who are just discovering Chik shampoo in sachets.

Ask for the way to Patalaganga Ghat. Please do. The Patalaganga Ghat comprises of a series of steep, irregularly cut steps, which according to an inscription in the temple were build by a Reddi King of the Kondaveedu Reddi dynasty between the 15th and 16th century. Today, you will wander down through makeshift tables selling water sachets, tea kiosks, and chillum-smoking Sadhus to where the Krishna River (called Patalaganga here) flows. From here you can get a fish-eye level view of the dam proper and the hills rising out as man-made islands. If the climb down the tortuous stairs hasn't excited you enough, venture out into the waters in a Coracle. The first time I did so, the Coracle (round, Bamboo baskets- as big as beach umbrellas, tarred to be waterproof) almost capsized, the second time I had the boatman's docked-ear mutt chewing my camera-case to a pulp.

Maybe these were just statistical aberrations though.

Once you get used to the fact that the Coracle moves in a circle, your head spins for another reason altogether. All around you are forest-swathed hills, which seem to have been shaved by a giant hand all along the water's edge (the reservoir is rarely, if at all, full). And when the boatman takes you to the shore of one of the islands, you finally realize what total silence really means.

If not sated yet by the serene greenery and sacred environs, you can drive another 40 odd kilometers through amazing Ghat sections lined with dense Bamboo copses and Chenchu villages to Dornala.

5 kms on the way out of Srisailam, you will be at Shikaram, a temple located on the highest point of this part of the Nallamalais. Legend and belief has it that the devout can view the Shiva Lingam at Srisailam from between the ears of the Nandi in this temple. Sinful that I am, I could manage to make out the temple's Gopuram in the far distance.

Dornala onwards, the road detiorates a bit and for those stretches where it passes through the plains is used as a threshing floor. Do stop and buy your monthly quota of "Kaala Channa" or Red Chillies if you so wish!

Hereon, you can pass through some more ghats, the Tiger Reserve yet again and literally throw a stone at Ethipotala Waterfalls, to traverse the 130 odd kilometers that get you to Nagarjunasagar, the setting for the famed Sriparvata.

But that's another travelogue!



By Anand



   
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