Roughly 20 years ago, Damian Kathkudha was wandering in the deep jungle of Karnataka state, in central India. He was on a mission to find the fabled waterfall known as Arishna Gundi, the name roughly translates as: ‘of turmeric colour’ in Sanskrit. As he trekked ever deeper into the lush and steamy jungle, he imagined the low growl – perhaps almost a purr – of a tiger watching his every movement and tracking his every step. The local people had warned him not to try to look for Arishna Gundi, as he would be eaten by a tiger or mauled by a leopard; they had never visited the place because of this fear of the terrifying Indian jungle cats. Damian was not unduly afraid: if such a thing were to happen then he hoped it would be quick. In the jungle canopy he could hear the crashing of monkeys and the cawing of parrots; in the undergrowth he thought he could hear the hissing of a king cobra waiting patiently for its lunch. As he walked further, he began to hear a new sound faintly in the distance: it was the sound of crashing water and he knew he was getting close. Heading now down the side of the mountain, he traversed huge fallen trees and dried up river beds. As the sound of cascading water became stronger, Damian’s own heart began beating faster in the anticipation of what he was about to see. He had been told that Arishna Gundi was a place of great spirituality; a beautiful waterfall hidden deep in the jungle, where the sun’s rays make the waters mist change into incredible colours, as if by magic. Now he was here, so close as the sounds became ever louder, but with each corner the waterfall would still not appear. Up and over an enormous rock and across a tiny primitive bamboo bridge, and then it revealed itself in all its beauty and breathtaking brilliance: a natural oasis, a gift from the gods to those with the courage to seek it. He had finally found Arishna Gundi and it was every bit as impressive as he had hoped.
As I sat in the kitchen of my aunt’s house in west London, one grey and cold January morning, I was captivated with this tale from Damian, who is my cousin. I had come to see him to say my goodbye’s and ask him if he had any recommendations of special places to visit in India. Now I guess when I look back I could say that I was a little in awe of my cousin Damian when I was young. He spent a large amount of time wandering in India, hanging out with holy men, probably dressing like them, and undoubtedly a genuine peace loving, chillum smoking hippy. In my book, that’s pretty cool, and he was the inspiration behind my decision to travel, along with my old friend Dan, to India at the age of 18. My parents were not exactually overjoyed with the idea - I didn’t fill them with much confidence at that age - however, I left with their blessings nonetheless. So as I sat next to my cousin and heard his recount of this almost mythical and very beautiful sounding waterfall, I had a deep resolve to find it and walk in his footsteps.
So 25 years later, I decided to plan how to find this place. It is not in any guide book; it is too inaccessible for that and very much unknown. As with most things nowadays, the web provided the answer: I found one account from someone who had been there and also something on Wikipedia about the closest town of Kollur, in Karnataka. Armed with this information, I planned to go there on route, whilst travelling with my friend Telly. On the bus in Thamil Nadu - a long way from Karnataka - we had the pleasant experience of meeting a French man called Andre and his guitar. As we chatted, it became apparent that Andre was also heading for Kollur, but not for the waterfall; he was going to stay in an ashram run by the Indian guru Thathatha. Thathatha was his teacher in all things spiritual and had, by Andre’s own admission, completely changed his life for the better through his philosophy and practice of deep meditation. India is the home of spirituality – where else in the world does one find Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity etc all living side by side and being practiced by over a billion people. So to meet someone like Andre, all dressed in white, flowers in his hair and love in his heart, is not all that unusual. I was interested to hear more, but he was soon onto another bus, and I told him I hoped to see him in a few weeks time in Kollur. On we travelled up from the south through Kerala and into Karnataka, and eventually found ourselves a bus to Kollur. It felt great to have made it this far. I had no idea what to do to find the waterfall when we arrived but reassured myself that there must be a way to get some directions. We arrived in Kollur, and found it to be an interesting and charming town with all the usual mix of heat, spice and dust in the air. It is very holy and has the enormous Mookambika temple to which Hindu’s come from miles around to pray. We found ourselves a room, settled in and then I set out looking for guidance; we were very close now and I felt drained but excited. The owner of the guesthouse told us that we would have to take a taxi ride for 5 minutes, to the bottom of the mountain, where a path would present itself and marked the beginning of the trek. It didn’t sound too hard, just follow the path and wait to hear the crashing of the water. We planned to leave the following day and went about the rest of the current day: Telly asleep, suffering from heat exhaustion, and me wandering down to see the river.
Down by the river I got a deep impression of something that is so typically Indian: natural beauty and man made garbage. All over India, from the mountains of the Himalaya’s, through the jungles, down the rivers and across the deserts, these two are side by side; like old friends. It is the tragedy of India and is getting worse as the population increases and more products are flooded into everyday life. Plastic bottles, plastic bags, paper, cardboard, cigarette packets and all the other things that make up litter were everywhere and clogging the river which was absolutely beautiful; even with all the crap! When is someone going to start cleaning this country up, I thought!? It is a mess in so many ways but magnificent in so many others. I was determined to find some untarnished beauty so made my way down the bank of the river away from humanity and its refuse. It didn’t take long to find a better spot and I sat there and watched Sadhu’s (holy Hindu monks) washing their orange robes in the water and having a good old natter. I was amazed when one immaculately dressed Sadhu threw a plastic bottle into the water. I asked him why he did it and he said no-one cares, not even the holymen who need the rivers and the mountains to provide for them in their life of non-attachment. One French woman I subsequently spoke to explained it very well: ‘India is a wonderful place for cleaning inside; cleaning the soul; but it’s a terrible place for cleaning the outside; what you see from your own eyes.’ This is spot on: they have invented so many ways to alleviate suffering and pain through yoga and meditation, but they haven’t yet invented the bin! It’s a tragedy that is not going to be fixed in my view. India will always be beautiful, but oh what I would give to see it before the plastic invasion. I thought with some jealousy of Damian being here 25 years ago when things would have been very different.
Leaving the river behind me, I wandered down a path and, through some trees, saw a strange sight: a western lady, all dressed in white, arms raised to the heavens and a look of happiness and, just a little madness, on her face. Intrigued, I jumped over the fence and found myself in the vicinity of Andre’s destination: the ashram of Thathatha. Soon more westerners in white, flowing robes and peculiar haircuts were swarming around me, and heading into a round building, adorned with gold and fantastic imagery: the central temple for worship. I chatted to a few people, mostly French and very nice, although there were some strange looking folks there. The following day, I brought Telly to have a look: he was pretty shocked, kept telling me it was a cult and that if I had any ideas of joining, then to ditch them, as he would come and, in his own words, ‘forcibly intervene and remove me.’ I had to laugh at that. I am prone to spirituality and a bit of madness, but this place did scare the hell out of me quite a bit! I didn’t hang around too long but asked a few questions to the local Indians about the waterfall. It seemed that no-one would go there because of the tigers, this despite the fact that there are only 1411 tigers in the whole of India, because we Brits shot them all for a laugh. I wasn’t going to be put off by some mystical, scared old sadhu….I was off in the morning and not even a tiger was going to stop me getting there. Besides I had Telly to protect me, and if one of us was going to be lunch, I was confident it was going to be him.
Up early and out the room by 7am, we grabbed a taxi and soon reached the foot of the mountain. There was a large metal gate, which we shimmied around, and a red sun baked earthen path leading into the jungle. I was very excited, incredibly eager and just a little nervous. We were both keen to get the trek underway - and ultimately over - so we went hard at it straightaway. The path was very steep, flanked by dense, bright green jungle – almost fluorescent – and enormous exotic looking trees towered over us. Each time we heard a suspicious noise we stopped and stayed perfectly still; although we knew it was absurd, there was still the fear of attack by a wild animal. But mostly all we saw were monkeys, high in the tree tops, staring down at us with their funny faces, often with babies clinging to their bellies. As the heat of the day increased so did our energy begin to deplete and the sweat became increasingly uncomfortable. We were both finding the going tough and there was little conversation; the ascent was increasingly harsh and the sun hot as an oven. We were well into our trek, hot and sticky, when we heard a new and consistent noise in the distance. We stopped and stayed still, trying to minimise any sound, and became aware of crashing water. I was both happy and relieved to know that we were on the right path and now getting close. After two hours, I saw what I was looking for: no, not the waterfall, not yet, but the stone plinth that I had been told marked the descent down the side of the mountain, just as Damian had described it. Relieved to be moving downhill, our pace increased, and I found myself skipping down the mountain, my boyish enthusiasm and sense of adventure propelling me forward. There was now just a faint path that was easy to miss, and I became very aware of the feeling of following in Damian’s footsteps. Was he thinking the same things as I was all those years ago? What were his emotions? I came across an enormous tree that had fallen down the mountain and dragged its own roots up from the ground in the process. It was somewhat dangerous, but some thoughtful person had dug little steps into the earth to help our progress; it is unlikely, but perhaps Damian had done this, unaware of course that his cousin would benefit, almost three decades later, from his effort. On we went, up and down, over dried riverbeds and through narrow gaps in rocks, and the noise of the waterfall became increasingly louder. Then, through some foliage up ahead, I saw an opening into daylight and the crystal clear water of a jungle river; a hop, skip and a jump onto a large rock and I had arrived. There in front of me, in all its magnificence, was the waterfall Arishna Gundi. Having reached there 25 years since my cousin Damian first laid his eyes on it, I found myself beaming from ear to ear.
We settled ourselves on a rock and took in what we saw before our eyes: the waterfall was high, perhaps 60 – 80 ft from the ridge above, where the water flowed over the lip of the mountain. Perhaps 10ft below from where it emerged, there was a rock face that seemed to have been rubbed smooth by the constant pounding of water over many years. As the water met this rock face and slid down it, it created a very beautiful effect that was captivating to the eye. At the foot of the waterfall was an enormous pool of fresh water, surrounded on all sides by sheer rocks and ledges, with ripples expanding outwards from where it met the rocks below. It looked so fresh and pure; mist jumped up from the rocks and poured down from above, and the rocks shone as if they had been polished. The waterfall was enclosed on all sides by huge overhanging cliffs covered with trees, roots and shrubs, as well as hills of loose stones and boulders. The point where we were sat, silently observing, was where the water from the large pool released itself down the mountain as a river weaving its way through rocks and small lagoons. The view when one turned to face away and look down the mountain, following the rivers course, was very beautiful.
The time was 9.30 am, it had taken us a little more than 2 hours of hard slog, and the sun was now hidden behind the mountain above. This allowed us to get our energy back and dry our sweat drenched t-shirts on the rock on which we had settled. We had brought a number of items of lunch with us, as well as some music, speakers and books. Much of the initial hour or so was spent gazing at the water cascading down in front of us. It was an impressive site: at the lip of the waterfall, high above, you could see the sun very slowly starting to emerge and light up the spray and water vapour. As I watched the way the water fell from above, and then seemed to disappear in the air, I became very conscious of the constant flow of energy that this represented. It was a spiritual understanding: the constant flow of water, ever-present and everlasting, in the same way as the soul will always live on after the body, its vehicle, has long since died away.
As the day developed, the sun moved across in the sky above and slowly enveloped the waterfall, cliffs and pool in its radiant shine. Telly and I stripped down to our shorts, inched ourselves forwards into the fresh, cold water and swam out into the pool. It was a shock at first, but very refreshing and beautifully pure; you could swim underwater with your eyes open with no problems. As I swam towards the rocks where the water fell down, I could feel the wet mist on my face and inside felt very joyful and contented. Together we shouted and laughed, splashed water on each other and congratulated ourselves on our achievement. There was no doubt in our minds that it had been absolutely worth the effort. On reaching the rocks, where the water came crashing down from above, I pulled myself up and stared vertically into the torrent. It was difficult to see without squinting, as the mist and droplets of water got caught in my eyes as I tried to look up towards the overhang. It was a great feeling to be stood, balanced under such a force and staring right into its heart. I wandered from rock to rock, enjoying the cool mist on my body and the thunderous sound of the crashing water all around. As I pulled myself higher up and turned around, I got a great surprise when a rainbow, measuring around 10 ft and incredibly clear and colourful, presented itself in the water below. It was spectacular and I soon had Telly clambering up beside me to have a look. Of course, it was a natural effect of water and light, but, nonetheless, it did feel unreal and magical. Next, we clambered back down and sat under a smaller torrent coming from the main body of water. This gave us a very powerful back massage, and had such force that it made me scream and laugh, and I felt as if it was hammering away any tiredness from out of me. Exhilarated by our little trip out from the shore, we plunged once more into the clear, blue water and in a few strokes had pulled ourselves back onto our chosen rock.
From my position I noticed that there was a bird that stood on the edge of a rock near where the waterfall landed, and opened its wings to preen in the cool, wet mist and the sunshine. It was clearly very happy and spent a long time in the same spot, enjoying the waterfall in much the same way as Telly and I were. When we decided it was time for another dip, I would swim discreetly towards the bird, trying not to alarm it, but always within four feet it would close its wings and fly off over our heads and down the mountain. The amazing thing was that as soon as we were back out of the water and a safe distance away, the bird would swoop back up the mountain and retain its exact same spot, open its wings and bathe away once more. This happened at least five times, and was a cause of great amusement and not a small amount of wonder at the natural world. There were also many large butterflies in spectacular colours and patterns: orange, yellow, turquoise, jade, black and white; they would fly around our heads and land on our bags. What most impressed me was how they would flutter after one another in groups of five or more, and follow each other so perfectly: every little movement left and right was precise; like a game of follow my leader at ridiculous speed. The beauty of the waterfall was that you could watch this nature unfold in front of your eyes and you didn’t have to share it with anyone; the place was deserted and was ours for the whole day to enjoy. The only negative aspect was that it was home to a significant amount of rubbish left behind by fellow adventurers. As I mentioned earlier, this behaviour sickens me and here, up in the mountains surrounded by such spectacular natural scenery, I couldn’t believe my eyes. All people had to do was bring a plastic bag and take their beer cans and crisp packets back down the mountain. Don’t leave them here to spoil this special place. It was depressing to see but we couldn’t fix this problem and, once more, I thought with envy of Damian sitting here with a clean environment around him.
As the day moved into evening, I moved myself up onto a higher rock, and saw what I had been hoping to see. As the mist flowed down from the water above and bounced off the rocks below, it reacted with the sunshine, to create different coloured effects that were mesmerising. Arishna Gundi was finally living up to its name ‘of turmeric colour,’ as the colours swept down from blue to green, then red, yellow and finally an orange turmeric. It was getting late in the day and I was glad that the waterfall had revealed another of its secrets to us. Telly had been busy sharpening up a stake for tiger killing, and together we packed up, and set back off up the path into the jungle. We had debated whether to come again the next day and change our plans, however, we had made arrangements that we had to keep, so we said goodbye to the waterfall with a heavy heart. It was such a memorable day, and it felt so good to have achieved my mission of visiting this place, as my cousin did many years before me.
Finally, some of you may be wondering what became of my cousin Damian. Well, he spent more time travelling in India and developed his passion for music, especially the guitar. On his return to London he vowed he would make a living as a musician and, as far as I am aware, he is doing just that. His first band was called Obi, and wrote a couple of great albums called ‘Magic land of radio,’ and ‘Diceman Lopez.’ He has since had success as Katkhuda and Moss Star Diving club, and I have attached some links to u-tube and some websites if you would like to listen to him. His music is very peaceful, with influences of folk and country, and I am a massive fan.
Please see below for photo's and two video's of Arishna Gundi