Located on the west-flowing Chalakudy River near the Vazhachal Forest Division and the Sholayur ranges, this 24-metre (80 ft) waterfall and the nearby Vazhachal Falls are popular tourist destinations.
Controversy about a state-proposed hydroelectric dam on the Chalakudy River above the waterfalls began in the 1990s and has continued through 2007.
The Chalakudy River, 145 kilometres (90 mi) long, originates in the Anamudi mountains (Western Ghats) and flows through the Vazhachal Forest toward the Arabian Sea. Forest wildlife includes the Asiatic elephant, tiger, leopard, bison, sambar, and lion-tailed macaque. Plantations in the area contain teak, bamboo, and eucalyptus. The river initially runs smoothly but becomes more turbulent as it nears Athirappilly. At Athirappilly Falls, the water surges around big rocks and cascades down in three separate plumes. Below the falls, the river remains turbulent for about 1 kilometre (0.6 mi) until it reaches Kannamkuzhi. Then it calms and flows smoothly until reaching the dam at Imburmuzhi.
Athirappilly is easily reachable from Chalakudy by taxi or by bus from the Chalakudy private bus terminal. Athirappilly is situated on the highways connecting Tamil Nadu and Kerala, amidst thick forest, so night riding is not advised.
The journey from Chalakudy to the Athirappilly Falls passes through a landscape of winding roads, small villages and lush green trees. Visitors can reach the top of the waterfall via a paved path that leads through thick bamboo clusters. A steep narrow path also leads to the bottom of the falls.
The falls attract visitors from across India, especially during the monsoon months (June-September). About 7 million tourists visit the falls and the Vazhachal picnic spot each year.
The scenic beauty of Athirappilly falls has always been attractive to filmmakers. Major portion of 1986 Tamil movie Punnagai Mannan was shot near the falls, the Falls itself playing a role in it. It made the Falls a popular one in Tamilnadu that it got the nickname "Punnagai Mannan Falls". The 2007 bollywood movie Guru used Athirappilly Falls as one of its locations. Rajiv Menon, the cinematographer of the movie, chose Athirappilly Falls as a background for one of its songs.
In 2005, the Kerala Ministry of Environment and Forests approved the project on the basis of a report by Water and Power Consultancy Services (India) Ltd. (WAPCOS), an environmental impact assessment (EIA) agency. In 2006, the Kerala High Court quashed the clearance and ordered another public hearing. The debate continued in 2007.