Beauty of the Beasts
(This article was published in the June 27, 2009 issue of the weekly Sahara Time).
When we reached Kumily, a Kerala hill town in the Idukki district near Tamil Nadu border, it was almost afternoon. The air was cool but still pleasant. It was a family trip in our small car. We decided to stay at a hotel in Kumily and proceed to Thekkady next morning. There are places to stay in Thekkady. But our decision to stop at Kumily was to take a look at the quaint town. Kumily is known as a trading centre of spices. The areas around Thekkady and Kumily are famous for tea, coffee and pepper plantations. We came across some picturesque plantations and enjoyed walking against the backdrop of the plantations.
Copyright © Prabhath P, all rights reserved
I’ve always had a strange fascination for nature and especially for the forests where nature reigns supreme with her untamed wildness, which is drastically different from the urban setting of our daily life. Thekkady, one of India’s biggest natural wildlife sanctuaries, is near the Periyar river and is only 4 km from Kumily. Next morning, it would be a dream coming true for me when we step into Thekkady, I thought. My first ever visit to get glimpses of a truly wild area of nature!
During the British rule, the Mullaperiyar dam was built to divert the waters of the Periyar river to Tamil Nadu for irrigation. The dam caused the submergence of large areas of natural forests when an artificial lake was formed. The dam still remains controversial due to serious concerns about its safety. However, the authorities decided not to cut down the trees in the submerged areas when the dam was constructed. Nature has an intriguing resilience despite unwise human attempts to mess with the delicate ecological balance. Over the years, the wildlife adapted to the sudden appearance of the artificial lake and it became a point of convergence for wild animals and birds. In 1899, the forests near the lake were declared as reserve forests. The progressive Maharaja of Travancore appointed S.C.H Robinson as the first game warden. Based on the recommendations of this game warden, the Thekkady forests became a sanctuary in1934.
Boating on the lake
We set out from Kumily town and reached Thekkady in the morning. The drive to Thekkady was soul stirring as the road meandered through plantations, forest and the peaceful countryside. The main attraction for tourists is the boat ride on the artificial lake to watch wild life at close range and the refreshing beauty of the forests. To reach the lake, the car had to travel along a road that goes through an area full of tall trees with thick foliage. Though there were no big wild animals in that place, it was the gateway to the main forest Reserve. As we entered the green cover, I felt an invigorating rush of energy. There was a strange but pleasurable scent accompanied by the sounds of birds and insects. The air was very fresh. I felt as if I was more alive than I was ever before. If you felt that way when you entered the threshold of the forest, I wondered what it would be like to exist in the lap of nature completely untouched by human meddling. The Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary has basically four categories: the open grasslands where herbivores like deer and the elephant find their food, the deciduous forests with trees like teak that seasonally shed leaves, the semi-evergreen forests and the tropical evergreen jungle where majestic carnivores like tigers roam. Only a little sunlight can sneak into the dark inner areas of the evergreen forests.
We got into the boat and started the cruise through the lake. The gentle swaying of the boat and the hypnotic greenery of the forests made me feel the green breath of wild nature like Heaven on Earth. Dried up stumps and a few leafless branches of the trees that had died during the submergence caused by the dam, stood sticking out of the lake like ghosts that are reluctant to leave this beautiful Earth behind. Some birds were sitting on these dead trees as if in meditation. The decision to avoid cutting down the submerged trees was proved to be wise since the tree skeletons later became a place of rest and nests for the birds.
“Look! Elephants! There at the shore!” Somebody in the boat shouted. All the eyes turned to the other side of the lake. Some wild elephants were coming down from the hills of the forest towards the lake! I picked up my binoculars to take a close look at the elephant herd. I had seen domesticated elephants in chains in the city. It was my first ever sighting of wild elephants that walk free in the heart of the forests. It was an unforgettable sight. I felt happy and sad at the same time. I was happy because I was experiencing nature in her pure glory. I was sad because after seeing these elephants freely frolicking in the waters of the lake, the thought of humanity putting these free creatures of the wild in chains appeared to be sheer injustice.
Thekkady is estimated to have around 600 Asiatic elephants and 45 tigers. Other animals in the sanctuary include leopards, sambar deer, wild boar, Nilgiri langur monkeys, gaur, lion-tailed macaques, wild dogs, jackals, bisons, mongoose, Pangolin cobra, porcupine, flying squirrels and Nilgiri Tahr. There are also birds like Malabar Grey hornbill, kingfishers, egrets, darters and herons. During the boat cruise, I managed to spot a few monkeys and deer also apart from a variety of birds. As we left Thekkady, I was sure that it was one visit that will remain etched in my memory as my most favourite travel experience.
During the Thekkady visit, we didn’t try some adventurous ecotourism options because it was a family visit with my parents. Many intriguing ecotourism activities initiated by Thekkady Tourism Development Council are available. Nature Walk involves trekking through nature trails with trained trackers and guides. The Jungle Camp package offers camping in tents on the banks of the Periyar River inside the Reserve and visits to the Vanchivayal tribal colony and the Mullaperiyar Dam. The Tribal Heritage package includes a visit to the Tribal Heritage Museum inside the Mannan tribal settlement. The Forest Department offers elephant rides.
The sanctuary is 176 km from Kochi and 114 km from Kottayam town. The nearest railheads are Teni (60 km) and Kottayam. The Kochi International Airport (190 km) is the nearest. Kumily town (4 km) has budget accommodation. There are private hotels and Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) hotels in Thekkady. KTDC’s three star resort Aranya Nivas is located inside the dense forest. The best time to visit Thekkady is from September to March.