The bright yellow and light green hues of the freshly painted gate welcomed me, paint tin, brushes, thinner and all. Dominic the gardener cum handy man cautioned me about the wet paint as he quickly moved out of the way when he saw my camera emerge.
The gateway hid behind it my snug little cottage where I was going to retreat into the lap of nature for the next 3 days, amidst this little piece of paradise called the Retreat Hospitium.
The Hospitium is a stay option for visitors and is a part of the sprawling and enchanting campus of the Retreat, Yercaud that houses the Roman catholic priests who belong to the order of the Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB).
The Retreat is located in the folds of the charming hillstation of Yercaud. Nestling in the slopes of the Shevaroy hills of the Eastern ghats, Yercaud is a picturesque town that lies in the Salem district of Tamilnadu which is one of India’s southern states.
Enter into the hallowed and hospitable environs with me and enjoy the bounty that my hosts have generously made available to those who wish to sojourn with them.
About Shevaroy hills and Yercaud –
The Shevaroy hills got their anglicized name from the local deity known as Servarayan. This range is a part of the Eastern ghats of India and rise to over 5000 feet above mean sea level (msl). Yercaud is the major town in this region and is a popular hill station destination for tourists because of its scenic landscapes, unpolluted environs, salubrious climate and ease of access from many nearby towns and cities.
About the Salesians of Don Bosco –
The Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB) is a Roman Catholic order of priests that was founded by Saint John Bosco who was an Italian priest. It gets the first part of its name from St Francis de Sales, a bishop from Geneva.
Apart from its other religious duties, its focus is on performing charitable work towards the poor and the young. Hospitality towards all, is also one of their key virtues and they are known for their social works that benefit all those in need, irrespective of any divisive factors.
The SDB are located in various ‘provinces’ across the world. Of the 94 geographical provinces, 11 of them are in India.
About Retreat Yercaud –
The Retreat in Yercaud is the home of the SDB priests and belongs to the Tiruchirapalli province. It is also a seminary, which is an Institute of Philosophy where seminarians (students who are studying to be priests) are educated in theology and philosophy in preparation for their ordination as priests. The students are called Brothers and the priests are called Fathers.
An expansive property, this is one of Yercaud’s most alluring and charming of locations. Situated at a height of 4300 ft above msl, at one time it was the only vantage point from which all of Salem could be seen, before the city expanded further in the plains.
The property was bought by the SDB priests in 1947, the year of India’s independence. It was sold to the priests by its last British owner, along with the little cottage that it housed. The current building or ‘house’ as it is termed, was constructed in 1950 and 2020 will mark 70 years of existence.
Credit for building and developing of this establishment goes to Father Sola, an Italian priest who lived here for over 30 years and brought about much development. He passed away in 1989 and is interred on the property.
This campus was one of the main houses of SDB in India before the establishing of the newer locations across the country.
Currently there are around 50 seminarians from various states of India, who are living on the premises and receiving the relevant education, apart from the teaching and administrative staff.
Father Raj is in charge of the place, ably assisted by Father Abraham who is the administrator and Brother Nepolean who is one of the teachers in the college.
All of them went out of their way to make my stay comfortable and I had an excellent time at this beautiful campus.
About Father Raj –
Father Raj Mariasusai is the current rector (head) of this house and is a multi faceted personality. A highly dynamic visionary who is liberal in his thinking and brilliant in his actions, he has been the motivator behind many of the revolutionary and developmental projects that have been taken up at the Retreat.
Kind, helpful and compassionate, he is highly approachable by one and all, right from the staff to the students to the youth and people from the town.
He is an author of many books, not merely confined to religion and he is also a person whom you can have an intelligent and enlightening discussion with for hours on end. There is much to learn from his insightful and secular views and it was my privilege to spend time with him and benefit from his outlook.
He is also the driving force behind making the Hospitium a practical reality and the ongoing project is a tapestry that is being woven from the threads of ideas that constantly roll out from his zealous brain 😀
The progress that the place has seen in the last 3 years, is a labor of love and his passion to do the utmost during his tenure, makes him work relentlessly towards his goal.
Features of the Retreat –
This elegant property sprawls across 50 acres and is a veritable paradise. A sweeping driveway leads to the main building around 200 meters within.
This building houses the living quarters of the staff (priests), the seminarian dormitories, dining hall, kitchen, a beautiful chapel, administrative offices and classrooms of the theological college. A set of rooms have also been allocated to accommodate tribal children (more on them later).
The main building is also surrounded by the flower and herb garden, coffee plantation, fruit trees, playground, view point, walking trails, kennel, animal farm, chapel, a model of Mount Calvary, a sundial, the rooms of the Hospitium, the auditoriums and much more.
In the distance, the famous elephant rock stands sentinel alongside a section of the periphery of the campus and the view of this hill along with the stunning vista of the valley that leads to Salem city, are the highlights of the Retreat.
The Building and Ground –
The commitment to using local facilities and amenities being ingrained in their system, the very construction right from the start, made use of material available within the grounds itself. The stones for the erection of the building were obtained by excavating the land, which also led to multiple advantages of creating a football field and basketball court that naturally occurred as a result.
Also a small hillock was left untouched and stands today as a replica of Mount Calvary, where the stations of the cross have been set up among the boulders.
A statue of Don Bosco stands next to this in its enclosure and at the corner of the grounds lies a sundial called Barucci sundial, that is supposed to tell the time when the clouds are not playing mischief 😀
The view point to Salem city and the elephant rock are also in this highly ad’Vantage’ous section of the campus. Rustic wooden boards direct your attention towards areas of interest.
Fisher’s seat that probably bears the vestige of its colonial origin in its name, is a charming wooden bench where one can sit and gaze at this bounty of nature.
The parapet wall here is also a favorite spot for butterflies and exquisite Rock agama lizards who come out to sun themselves and place hide and seek with my camera.
Dominic the gardener tends to the plants like his own children and the riot of colors from the various flowers is a testimony to his dedication and ‘multicolored’ thumb!!!
Father Raj is also equally passionate about growing produce and constantly experiments with new plants. He has recently planted a popular variety of cardamom called Njallani.
He celebrated his latest birthday with the noble act of planting 50 fruit trees (that included avocado and figs), which are in addition to the several of them already growing on the property. Bounteously producing fruit, these trees are the highlight of the place and the fruiting season was one of the main reasons that I hastened to visit, despite my hectic schedule 😀
Another abundant and generous tree found here is the jackfruit and the varieties that I tasted were sweeter than sugar!!!
Apart from this, there are figs, oranges, pears and to my great delight, a couple of Loquat trees too. To my good luck they were in season and I tasted of their delicious fruit during my stay. I also ate the Surinam cherry here for the first time. A pale waxy green and tart when raw and sweetish and red when ripe.
Coffee Plantation –
Yercaud being coffee and spice country, a sizable portion of the estate is covered by coffee plants within the Retreat too. Pepper vines intertwine around the shade-giving Silver oaks and co exist with the rest of the system.
Nursery and herb garden –
A vibrant nursery and herb garden have been set up with the enthusiasm of Father Raj and Dominic the gardener and apart from planting several hundreds of new plants using the resources from their own estate, they also sell these saplings to the public who are happy to buy them.
The entire estate itself is home to prolific flora and fauna and one can spot many birds like bulbuls, doves, woodpeckers etc.
Rock agama lizards, many species of butterflies, squirrels etc are found enjoying the bounty of the forest in the safety of the premises.
Wildlife like the Indian Gaur, do trail in after dark, restricted from entering human habitat by the plantation fence. However if one is lucky, one can get a glimpse of them after twilight. I barely managed a distant and brief look as they came grazing into the football field at night and unfortunately the camera came away disappointed.
The kennels house the many dogs (seemingly friendly :-D) and there are also 2 Dalmations amongst the various breeds/mixed breeds.
Animal farm –
The priests rear their own cows, sheep, pigs, rabbits, poultry, pigeons etc in a separate enclosure.
The dung from the cattle is used to produce Gobar gas and the milk and other dairy products are used for consumption as well as sale.
The simple but airy and bright chapel with its gentle divine aura, is where the brothers and fathers have their daily mass service. One can just sit in its calming and peaceful environs and spend a relaxing time. The highlight of the chapel is the large image of Jesus Christ behind the altar. This masterpiece of mural mosaic is a true work of divine art, being a composite collage of several bits of colored tiles skillfully set into a pattern that forms the features of the picture. This work of Balan Nair, a mosaic artist from Kerala, is said to consist of more than 1.65 lakh bits of colored elements.
There are 2 main auditoriums that can contain 300 and 100 people respectively. Apart from being used by the priests for religious prayer meets, retreats or even get togethers and cultural programs, these are also available to the public for private functions or corporate events.
There is one more small chapel called the Manger, which is more of a prayer hall or a place to meditate in peace and quiet.
Retail outlet –
Retreat Estate Organics (REO) is the outlet where the priests sell their home grown bio fertilized and natural agricultural produce like coffee powder, pepper, vegetables, fruits, honey and milk. They also sell saplings from their plentifully stocked nursery. Some of their products are in great demand among the locals as well as visitors.
About Retreat Hospitium –
So what exactly is a Hospitium. Well if you have not googled already, let me quote from the definition 😀 The term is derived from Latin and denotes the ancient Greco-Roman concept of hospitality which is considered to be a divine right of the guest to be cared for and the divine duty of the host to extend hospitality. As an extension, it also refers to the building complex that is attached to a monastery where pilgrims or other guests could find rest and shelter for a reasonable fee.
This concept is in keeping with the ethos of the SDB fathers of the Retreat, who intrinsically consider it their divine duty to care for those who are their guests.
At the Retreat, the hospitium was carved out of the part of their building that used to be used only by the Salesian priests during summer time when the college was closed for the holiday break. Constructed in 1988 to commemorate the centenary of Don Bosco, it was initially used only for the purpose of religious retreats, seminars and workshops and would lie unoccupied for the rest of the year. A necessity to make the premises and the social work self sustainable, led to the planning of earning revenue from this section and hence this was opened to the general public around 2 years ago, after the developments spearheaded by Father Raj.
The various components of the hospitium are –
Administrative office – that houses the reception area and other matters related to the hospitium.
Dining hall – This can seat 80 people and is used by the guests who stay there.
Kitchen and cuisine – There is a separate kitchen that is clean and bright and newly refurbished. This takes care of the food that is served to the guests.
Stay options –
The hospitium is divided into a block of rooms and a cottage that is separate and located away from the main block.
The main facility consists of 10 rooms on the ground floor and 22 on the first floor. It has its own separate gate and driveway and also its own entrance which is a newly constructed bridgeway. This gives it an exclusive access that does not interfere with that of the main building of the priests, despite being a part of the same construction.
These 32 rooms can accommodate 2-3 per room and in case of large groups, there is sufficient flexibility permitted to house more number of people. This is one of the great benefits of this place, especially for large groups or occasions like family reunions etc.
The rooms are mostly similar to each other and are neat and clean and furnished in a simple but sufficient manner with cots, bedware, attached bath and toilet and other basics. Geysers are provided in most rooms and a common geyser is also available for hot water.
2 of the rooms are called Executive or VIP rooms and are larger than the rest, with the bath and toilet separate from each other.
In addition to these rooms that are attached to the main building, there is also an exclusive villa 200 meters away, situated near the main gate. This can accommodate 10-12 people but this number is flexible depending on the situation and request. It is ideal for a large group or family.
My Cottage/villa –
So finally let us get back to where we started, to Dominic who has been waiting patiently along with the newly painted yellow and green gate while I have been digressing with my story 😀
My stay was arranged in the villa that is barely 50 meters from the main gate. This was used in the days of yore to accommodate the guests of the priests who were not allowed to enter the main building in those strict times. Nowadays of course, things are more liberal and the public is given access to many places within the premises. The villa has also been recently renovated and is a bright, clean and comfortable place.
This is a cozy, secluded space with its own gate and fence that creates the impression of a private garden. A loquat tree loaded with delightfully ripe yellow fruit, is the first to greet you right at the gate.
Scrunch over the short gravel path that leads to the cottage as you walk between coffee plants, jackfruit and several other plants and trees.
An absolutely gorgeous avocado tree spreads its branches as if welcoming you into its fruit laden arms as you enter the home in delight.
A sit out with cane chairs provides a space for enjoying the outdoors. One can also exercise their imagination and come up with better ideas to use the chairs as photography props 😀
The cottage has a foyer cum dining room, a dormitory with 7 beds, a large main bedroom with attached bath and toilet, a pantry area and also several row bathrooms and toilets for the use of groups who stay in the dormitory.
The Main bathroom has a geyser and the others have a solar heating facility.
The pantry is equipped with cutlery, basic utensils, electric kettle and a few such kitchen essentials. There is also a drinking water dispenser that provides hot and cold water. A UPS provides back up in case of power failure.
Guests at the villa can opt to have their meals delivered to them in case of bad weather or inability to get to the main dining hall at night time or due to any other reasons.
Cuisine – While the brothers and fathers have their own dining hall and kitchen with simple but wholesome meals, the guests of the hospitium have an exclusive kitchen and dining hall. Although there is a fixed menu that is served for breakfast, lunch and dinner, there is provision for customized meals within the capacity of the chef and kitchen. The system is very flexible and variations in menus are possible with prior notice.
I was a guest of the priests hence I had my meals with them in their dining hall.
Things to do within the premises –
The Retreat itself is quite a haven away from the hustle and bustle of the town and one can just relinquish oneself into its verdant and pristine environs.
There are various ways in which one can revel in the natural beauty that the place magnanimously bestows upon you.
A trail has been carved through the coffee plantation and one can go on what they call a Coffee walk. Stroll through the path flanked by coffee plants and forest, to eventually reach the meditation corner at the other end.
One can picnic under the trees in the large football ground or walk around the estate all the way to the stream and wells and chat with the cheerful workers.
The Salem view point is an amazing corner to witness both daytime and night views where the during the latter, the lights of the city twinkle like millions of diamonds and the sky appears to have descended onto earth, stars and all.
The same corner gives you an exclusive view of the Elephant rock and also what they call the Elephant’s tooth. Said to be a piece of meteorite that fell onto the earth centuries ago, this ‘tooth’ is a part of a pair of white quartz rocks, the other one being a few km away.
A new leisure sit out is also under progress near behind the offices of the hospitium where one can sit and enjoy a camp fire or just relax in the midst of the the flowers and fruit trees on wooden benches. The roof of the office has been painted in bright rows of colors and also provides seating space.
The beauty of all the construction is that most materials are sourced from within the property itself and tree stumps, stones, and other existing elements have been artistically converted into objects of utility and art. In fact the Tabernacle/Altar in the prayer hall is the brain child of Father Raj and it has been fashioned from a naturally intricate dead tree trunk that was lying around.
A nursery experience is also being planned for children where they can learn all about plants and understand the importance of planting trees.
The Retreat also has sole access to the Elephant rock and guests trek through the property to get to the top of the mountain to what is called the Trigonometry view, where probably heights and other measurements of the land were calculated in the past.
This 20 minute trek is gentle for the most part and is a bit steep only for a tiny 20-30 meters. The 360 deg view is breath taking and is certainly worth the easy climb.
One can also get a reciprocal view of Fisher’s seat from where one had earlier gazed in awe at the elephant that has now been conquered 😀 A glimpse of the Retreat building is also obtained,though the trees cover most of it.
The little villages that lie along the hillside, also make for picturesque scenes.
The Retreat opens its doors to tourists from outside so that they can also enjoy the exclusive views. A very nominal fee is charged. Some resorts like Sterling Yercaud, also include a 2 hour trip with their in house guide to this place, as a part of the Local experience packages that they offer their guests.
Things to do outside –
Yercaud is a tourist destination and has its own set of well known attractions.
Some of the popular places to visit are the Big lake where one can go boating or visit the adjoining deer park or just hang out at the interesting shops and stalls that line the periphery of the lake, selling local fruits, vegetables and medicinal herbs. There are many eateries around the lake where one can enjoy traditional delicacies too.
Of interest is the Aatukaal kizhangu or Lamb trotter tuber (botanical name – Drynaria quercifolia) that is found mainly in this region and is a root that resembles a lamb trotter not just in appearance but also has similar medicinal properties to treat joint pain, inflammation etc.
The silk farm is a sprawling space that showcases the various stages of silk production and also live exhibits of silk worms.
Bear cave, Kiliyur waterfall, Lady’s seat and gent’s seat (pagoda point) which are vantage points offering stunning views of the landscape and sunset, orchid garden, botanical garden, the Servarayan temple located at the highest point at 5300 ft above msl, are some of the other places of interest in and around the Yercaud town.
Phone and internet connectivity at the Retreat –
Connectivity is reasonably good and I had no real issue with phone signals.
WiFi is available, though I did not utilize it.
Social and environmental commitment –
The primary focus of the SDB priests is the noble task of performing charitable acts and social work. Upliftment of society by helping children, youth, women etc is what they strive for. The proceeds from the hospitium are completely utilized for these works and there is a constant need for more revenue.
The town of Yercaud and the surrounding Shevaroy hills is populated by a large number of tribal communities. They also occupy over 60 villages that are scattered across the terrain.
Plenty of village and community development programs are undertaken to help the women and youth.
The SDB aims to empower them by working towards giving them an effective livelihood through formal and technical education and job placement.
Some of their programs are as below –
One of the major works that the SDB priests have undertaken is to provide accommodation and related facilities for several school going tribal children. Currently they have housed 65 boys from the ages of 10-17 years, belonging to classes 5th – 12th.
These boys used live in distant villages and it took them nearly 2 hours to get into town. As a result, there were many school dropouts. Now they stay in the rooms provided in the Retreat and their food and relevant expenses are borne by the SDB. The boys go back home only on weekends.
This a a wonderful service by the priests and has had huge impact over the years in making sure that several hundreds of children were able to easily receive education in the various schools in Yercaud town.
The facility to house such children was started 25 years ago and is named SOTCHO (Sola Tribal Children’s Home) after Father Sola. Sotcho is a well Thought out acronym (please do not miss the hindi pun :-D)
The brothers and fathers also provide tuition for students who live in Yercaud town. They go into town during the week and help children of higher classes with additional support by way of classes to enable them to improve their academic performance.
Evening study centers have also been arranged where the priests arrange for tutors to assist the children in their studies.
They also provide counselling and career guidance through awareness programs for youth who have completed their schooling, in order to prepare them for technical, professional and college education.
Job placement guidance is provided for the tribal youth.
They visit prisons and give counseling and rehabilitation assistance to the released prisoners.
The brothers go into 22 villages on the weekends and organize recreational facilities. The people from the villages also come to the Retreat where sports, games, tournaments etc are organized for them.
Likewise, they conduct several women’s empowerment programs like organic farming training etc. In addition to this, a Chennai based wig making company has employed the local women to produce hair pieces. The women are given training in Chennai and the priests have provided a generous space for the production facility within the premises. The women come there everyday and work from morning to evening and earn their livelihood. Interestingly, the owners of this company were once guests of the Retreat and made the offer after witnessing the extraordinary work that the priests were doing for the community.
Visitor profile –
The Retreat is suitable for almost any kind of traveller, be it a family, couple, single occupant, large groups, businessmen, etc. The place has something or the other for everyone. Bird watchers, nature lovers, artists, photographers etc will find this to be a real treasure trove.
Apart from this, it is also a suitable destination for prayer retreats, seminars, workshops, business conferences, corporate meetings, etc.
It is of note to mention that the hospitium is a secular facility and is open to people irrespective of religion despite being a part of a religious campus. It has seen happy guests from a range of communities including Jains, Hindus, Muslims, Christians etc.
Also the hosts are very particular that the profile of the visitors matches their sensitive eco system. Merely commercial profits are not the goal. Guests who can understand the virtuous works that are being performed and those who respect human values and are conscious of the decorum that the place deserves, are welcome. Co existing with tribal children who live on the premises, a deference for the environment and a great love for nature, is the understanding that is desired of visitors.
At the same time there is a liberal atmosphere and one hardly feels conscious of the spiritual aura of the place (in case that is unsettling for them for any reason :-D)
Best time to visit –
Being a rather unspoiled hillstation, Yercaud enjoys pleasant weather through the year with temperatures ranging from 10 – 30 deg c. Anytime is a good time to visit and it is a highly sought after destination, given its proximity to several cities within a 300 km radius.
Summers from March to May are moderate affairs with temperatures that hover around 30 deg c and this being holiday time for most Indian schools, one can expect a deluge of families.
The winter that goes on from October to February is considered the peak season for tourists.
The monsoon from June to September also has its own charm and the streams and water bodies fill up and the hilly landscape comes alive with fresh green.
What you should carry –
Light clothing will suffice in summer time.
During the rainy season, one would need raincoats or umbrellas.
In monsoon and winters, some warm clothing would certainly help because it can get quite chilly in the mountains.
A pair of sturdy walking shoes would be required at any time of the year. Carry mosquito repellent creams, though they do provide electric repellents in the rooms.
Of course do carry your camera because you will go crazy shooting all the beauty around you.
The facilities are quite basic and simple. While toiletries and towels are provided on request, it is a good idea to carry your own for convenience.
Bed linen, blankets etc are all provided.
Getting there –
Private cars or cabs are convenient ways to get to Yercaud from the major cities of Madurai, Tiruchirapalli, Coimbatore, Bangalore etc that lie within a 300 km radius.
Salem is the nearest well connected city and it lies on the plains, 35 km from Yercaud. It can be can be accessed by private vehicles, bus, train or flight. The road is uphill and has 20 hairpin bends but it is in such excellent condition that one does not feel any discomfort. The view of the mountains above and the Salem city below is the highlight of this stretch.
Salem bus stand and railway station are well connected to many important towns and cities.
Salem domestic airport is 40 km away and operates a limited number of flights only to Chennai.
From Salem one can get to Yercaud by cab or public buses that run quite frequently through the day. App based taxis operate and an approximate fare is Rs 1000/- one way.
Yercaud bus stand is around 2 km from the Retreat and cabs or autos are available.
The Retreat also assists in arranging transport from and to Yercaud bus stand or Salem.
The other airports near Yercaud are –
Tiruchirapalli – 170 km, 4 hours
Coimbatore – 180 km, 4.5 hours
Bangalore – 235 km, 5 hours
Madurai – 280 km, 6 hours
Booking and contact –
Retreat’s Hospitium, The Retreat Yercaud, 636601, Salem district, Tamil Nadu, India
Phone – 91 97893 25334/+91 4281 223138/+91 4281 222238
Email id of Retreat Hospitium – firstname.lastname@example.org
Please be aware that bookings are only on direct contact. No booking portals have been authorized, despite showing the place on their sites.
The Tariff is between 500-1000 per head and is flexible based on several factors. Hence direct booking is the only method that is permitted.
The proceeds are all utilized to perform the social and charitable works and hence many guests also turn benefactors after seeing the noble work that is being conducted here.
Please Note – I have voluntarily written about the Retreat Hospitium because of the great social service that the priests are doing. The narrative is based on the inputs that I received from various sources as well as my own experiences.
Jul 30th-Aug 3rd, 2019