In this small, bustling village, by the side of the national highway to Thiruvananthapuram, jewellery stores, hotels and small shops selling clothes compete for space.
Long-distance buses popping in and out of a sprawling stand nearby, restaurants doing brisk business and a heady rush on the roads indicate signs of modernity gradually enveloping Chadayamangalam, located 50km from the state capital. And yet, amid all the progress, the single thread tethering this village to fame is the myth of a valiant bird.
There is no historical or written evidence of its authenticity, but the locals here staunchly believe that Jatayu, the aged eagle from Hindu epic Ramayana known for his steadfast resolve to uphold the honour of women, fell to death on a huge rock that sits in Chadayamangalam, a little away from the present national highway. The story goes that when Jatayu saw Sita, the wife of Lord Ram, being abducted by the demon king Ravana, it wasted no minute to swoop into the sky to rescue Sita. Despite its age, it is said that Jatayu waged a courageous battle in the sky but was eventually defeated by Ravana who clipped one of its wings. Falling from the sky, the valiant bird is said to have landed on its back on a rock where, in its dying moments, it met Lord Ram and conveyed the news of his wife’s abduction. After receiving ‘moksha’ (salvation) from Lord Ram, Jatayu passed away. The myth of the Jatayu is so intrinsically associated with the village that the people say it used to be earlier called Jatayumangalam before it, evolved over the years, into the present Chadayamangalam.
And now, steeped in this very myth, is the proposed opening of one of Kerala’s most ambitious eco-tourism projects. For at the exact spot where Jatayu is said to have fallen, a massive concrete sculpture of the bird is nearing completion and when it opens to public in March, it will become the world’s largest bird sculpture. In a state still struggling to draw tourists despite its scenic locales, people behind the project say it will be an important milestone in Kerala’s tourism map.
A symbol of valour
On a day not far back, atop the rock locally known as ‘Jatayupara’, a soothing breeze lingered in the air as workers gave final touches to the sculpture. The view from the top, needless to say, is stunning; a sort of dark-green canopy of vegetation all around synonymous to the general image of Kerala. Rising 1,000 ft above sea level, Jatayupara is the biggest rock in the area, with several smaller rocks scattered around. If one used a binocular to look in the western direction, they could spot the vast blue expanse of the Arabian Sea.
It’s in this beautiful setting, beyond description, that the magnificent sculpture of Jatayu has been fashioned out of concrete within a period of more than ten years.With its wings, one clipped, spread from one end to the other across 200ft, the bird lies on its back with its head and talons rising 70ft into the air from the ground. The feathers on its wings and neck are distinct and sculpted with perfection, almost giving the viewer the impression of the bird rising from the rock. The expression on the visage is crucial; a sense of pain and agony reflected in the bird’s ‘dying moments’ as it opens its beak in a sort of cry.
“From my young days, I have had a fascination for Jatayu. It’s a heroic character,” says Rajiv Anchal, the architect and the chief investor behind the project. “In my final year at fine arts college, when I was asked to submit a model, I drew one of Jatayu.”
Years later, Anchal, who is also a film-maker, was approached by the then Kerala government regarding the building of a sculpture atop Jatayupara. Back then, the idea was to promote it as a stand-alone sculpture. But later discussions between the government and Anchal’s firm resulted in the eking out of a destination tourism project with multiple dimensions added with the sculpture emerging as the main attraction.
What sets it apart from most of its contemporaries is that it is functional. Yes, through an opening under the wings of the bird, tourists can enter the inside of the sculpture and walk through the dark corridors, climbing up to the bird’s eye. Almost five storeys high, tourists can take a peek of the hillside through the eyes of the bird. There are also plans afoot to fix screens on the walls inside, where virtual reality images would be projected. A mini-theatre is also being constructed where people can watch films based on the Ramayana.
Adjacent to the sculpture is a small temple dedicated to Lord Rama. There are also interesting engravings on the rock such as a small crevice said to be the ‘beak-mark’ of Jatayu and what is claimed to be the ‘footprint’ of Lord Rama.
For Anchal, the sculpture is the realisation of a dream he has carried in his heart for a long time. “We had to face a lot of challenges and opposition. But there was always an iccha-shakti in my mind. I would like to think there was a spiritual force aiding me. It helped me succeed.”
A BOT model to emulate?
The sculpture is the main revenue driver and one of four components which collectively form the Jatayu Earth’s Centre. The second major component is the adventure park where large groups of families or friends can indulge in a variety of games from paintball to archery, rock climbing, rappelling and zip lining.
The third component is the wellness centre where tourists interested in Siddha treatment can opt for the same in caves, part of the natural ecosystem. Night camping and trekking through a private forest culminating in a moonlight dinner on top of a rock forms the fourth and final component of the rock-themed nature park.
Completely funded by private investors, a majority of whom are Malayali expatriates based in the Gulf countries, officials say nearly Rs 100 crore has been pooled to fund the project. Anchal’s Guruchandrika Builders and Property Pvt Ltd is the biggest investor which has leased the 65-acre land from the government for 30 years on a build-operate-transfer (BOT) model.
“There are no ultra-rich investors in this project. Only one or two out of 140 investors may have put in more than Rs 1 crore. Initially, there were doubts about whether this project will take off, but I think we have demolished the notion that Kerala is not investment-friendly,” says Jayaprakash Vasu, in-charge of investor relations. He feels the project costs will break even within two-three years. Around 4,000 tourists a day are expected to stream into Chadayamangalam once the project opens its doors to public.
Park officials say successive governments have been nothing but cooperative in aiding the project and have helped in building approach roads and supplying electricity.
Since the climb to the top of the rock involves over 2km of walking, a cable car facility is nearing completion that will take tourists directly from the parking ground to the peak. Usha Breco, a private company in charge of the facility, has been undertaking trial runs over the past few weeks. A total of 16 cable cars, which each can seat up to eight people, have been imported from Switzerland and hovers over giant rocks as climbs to the top, offering tourists breathtaking views.
Ticketing will be completely online with the aim of 100% digital transactions. “This is our way of keeping our books clean and transparent. When it’s digital, there is no scope for cheating or fraudulent activities,” said Jayaprakash. An entry charge of Rs 250 per person is likely to be levied.
Ecology conservation is key
Officials behind the project say conservation of the natural ecosystem was always at the heart of their work with additional care taken not to disturb the surroundings. Even as major infrastructural developments took place, trees were planted and a large check dam was built which can accommodate 20 lakh litres of rainwater. In an area where water scarcity is a serious problem, rainwater from this tank was used extensively in construction works. In the future, the water can also be kept aside for domestic use for houses in the neighbourhood.
Park officials also voiced their support for organic paddy farming in the area with large acres of land being brought under cultivation.
Changing the face of the village
The name of Rajiv Anchal is now synonymous with the local people here. They are upbeat about the tourism potential that the nature park will attract when it officially opens in March 2018. While some 50 people from nearby areas have got jobs at the adventure centre, more employment opportunities are likely.
“Oru padu perum. Kore perkku joli kittum (Many (tourists) will come. A lot of people will even get jobs,” hoped Vishnu, a local.
“Some people have even opened hotels with the name of Jatayu,” he said smiling.
When asked if he believed in the myth of Jatayu, he replied without a hesitation, “Of course. On top, you can see Ram’s footprint. The beak-mark of Jatayu is also there.”