The state of Tamil Nadu rolls gently and smoothly south-westwards from Madras to Coimbatore. The terrain is mostly flat, save the occasional hills that rise and fall like soft sighs. The scenery is vintage South India: emerald green paddy fields, lush groves of banana and coconut, clumps of tall, dust-kissed trees. It is a landscape of timeless beauty, soothing and serene, and of all the beautiful places in the world, it is this that ignites a spark deep in my heart, that whispers to me, you are home.
Then, abruptly, past Coimbatore, this placid flatness ends. South of the Palghat Gap, rising sharply from the plains are the massive Anamalais, or Elephant Hills, that form part of the Western Ghats. They soar and dip from lofty peaks to verdant valleys, and the tallest point in all of South India, the Anamudi Mountain, rising to over 8800 feet, lies in this range. To the west of the Anamalais, in the neighboring state of Kerala, are its sister hills of the Nelliampathy Range. And in-between the two is a lovely, secluded valley, an ecological paradise that teems with a staggering variety of birds, butterflies and insects and a breathtaking array of animals including elephants, bison, wild boar, sloth bears, leopards, tigers, and the rare, indigenous Nilgiri Tahr and Nilgiri Langur. There is an equally stunning diversity of trees that form the mixed deciduous forest all around, interspersed with dense bamboo groves and open grassland.
This is Parambikulam, and this is where I was, early this year.
It started with an email from my sister-in-law. After all the family news and gossip came these words, almost as an afterthought:
By the way, we are going on an MNS trip to a place in the Western Ghats called Parambikulam. Want to come along? Warning: conditions are likely to be primitive; there will be Indian-style loos and only vegetarian food.
I wrote back right away. Of course I wanted to go along. I had heard and read so much about the MNS (Madras Naturalists’ Society) group, an endearingly batty assortment of people united by their love of nature, birding, and animals. Now I could finally meet them! And as for Indian-style loos and vegetarian food (these warnings were meant for my son, a die-hard fan of the Western-style loo (in which he spends vast portions of his day communing with his thoughts and his music) and even more die-hard meat lover), I had the solutions all worked out. 1. Make him watch the Wilbur Sargunaraj video (which he did, with appalled fascination) and 2. Do and say nothing about the food; he could learn the time-honored Indian approach of “adjusting”.
I have loved nature and wildlife since I was very young. My childhood hero was Gerald Durrell. I devoured every book he wrote, and his adventurousness, with voyages to remote corners of the world accompanied by the most eccentric of companions and full of the craziest ventures and escapades, seemed to me the ideal way to live life. I wrote to him, a breathless, sniveling letter, begging him to let me work for him in his zoo. I would do anything, I entreated, for absolutely no pay, sing to the animals, feed them, clean their poop, if only he would let me work by his side. Wisely, I told my parents none of this. Even more wisely, perhaps, Gerald Durrell never replied to my missive.
A few years back I went through a phase of intense boredom with my job and I seethed under a sense of great restlessness. I wanted to do something new, something different, something exciting. It had been a long time since I had indulged my interest in wildlife and nature. I had had my fill of the corporate world, the rat race, the excitement of technology and the thrill of the cutting-edge. I loved Manhattan, but I missed the connection with the rhythms of the natural world, the unique sense of awe and wonder that, for me, only nature and wildlife can provide. I felt I had lost all closeness and intimacy with that whole, wonderful, fascinating realm that remained pure and innocent of all the artifice and synthetic mechanisms and contrivances that human life was entwined in and choked by.
Living in a large city, my options were limited. I did the best I could under the circumstances, and became a volunteer zoo guide at the Central Park Zoo in Manhattan. I learned about the habits and habitats of the zoo animals, their quirks and eccentricities, a whole host of details, big and small. It was heavenly, a dream come true for me. And yet, after a year of being a zoo guide, after watching Gus and Ida, the polar bears, pacing up and down, their majesty somehow diminished in the enclosed area that was their home, after seeing the little Arctic fox scurrying along the edge of his pond, back and forth, endlessly, a far cry from the vast open spaces of his natural environment, I was no longer enamored of everything that went on in the zoo. This is a charming zoo, one of the best I have seen, and its scientists do wonderful work in conservation and animal studies. But I felt, very strongly, that nature belongs in nature. It should be left alone, as it has been for millennia, to struggle and survive on its own.
As it has in Parambikulam. This wildlife preserve that lies largely in the state of Kerala, was established as a sanctuary in 1962. The original area set apart has increased three-fold in the years since and today covers approximately 285 square kilometers. There are three reservoirs within the sanctuary: Parambikulam, Thuncadavu and Paruvaripallam, that provide water to the neighboring areas, and several dams have been built here as well, supplying water, jobs, disgruntlement, displacement and pride in equal measure.
These hills and valleys were first explored and exploited in large part by the British. Douglas Hamilton, an officer in the British Indian army in the 19th century, was someone who embodied both the best and the worst of the British in India. He was one of the best known – and one of the best – surveyors of the hills and hill stations of South India, but he was also a major big-game huntsman who probably shot more game in the Nilgiris and surrounding areas (legitimately, the British stress) than anybody else. He wrote a comprehensive survey report, with beautifully detailed drawings, of the Anamalais, which gives an incomparably vivid picture of the beauty and magnificent diversity of those hills and valleys.
Hamilton was only one of many hunters who ravaged the hills. Sadly, this region, with its wealth of wildlife, was irresistible to hunters who, armed with rifles and guns, wreaked havoc on the vulnerable animals and birds. In the book “The Hunting Grounds of the Old World: Asia” (published in 1860), the author, Henry Astbury Leveson, writes about his hunting and shooting adventures in, among other places, the Anamalais. It makes for unintentionally hilarious reading, with its descriptions of his “shekarries” Chineah, Mootoo, Veerapah, Rungaswamy, Periatumbee and Googooloo (the mind boggles at what this last name might actually have been). Apparently Periatumbee was known to one and all as Gooroo, “on account of his having pretentions to priestcraft”, and accompanying this band of Tamilians was Naga, a “Mulliary”. If only one could have Chineah, Mootoo, or Gooroo’s account of the Englishman’s activities, it would make for priceless reading.
The evergreen forests of the Western Ghats are called the shola. This word comes from the Tamil word “solai”, meaning luxuriant growth of trees. The sholas of South India are part of the Indo-Malay tropical forest belt. The trees here are short, compared to those in other tropical forests. A unique feature of this shola is that it occurs amidst stretches of open grassland. This juxtaposition has intrigued and fascinated scientists, as it forms a unique ecosystem not seen anywhere else. It harbors an exceptional variety of fauna, including the Nilgiri Langur, the Hornbill, and the Nilgiri Tahr, an endangered mountain goat. Alas, this shola, which once stretched continuously for mile after mile through the Western Ghats was exploited and destroyed, with tea, cardamom and teak displacing much of the indigenous flora. Large swathes of the shola have been wiped out. Parambikulam and the surrounding areas are some of the few remaining areas where the original shola-grassland ecosystem remains intact.
Among the original inhabitants of these hills and forests are some of the oldest tribes in India, including the Kadars and the Muduvans. Reading accounts written by 19th century British travelers, one cannot help but cringe at their descriptions of these tribals: dwarfish, frizzy-haired, half-savage aborigines, with front teeth sawed to a sharp point. Apparently they were extremely trustworthy, a quality the British appreciated and rewarded.
The Kadars and other tribals have a deep kinship with and reverence for the forest and its life. They believe that cutting or deforming a tree will incur the wrath of the tree spirit. Their religion is a brew of Hinduism (they worship the goddess Kali), dead ancestor worship, and ghosts, evil spirits, mystical yakshini and gandharvas. Their language is called Kadar Basha, a form of Tamil, although the majority speak Malayalam. Traditionally, they were hunter-gatherers, and as a result, possessed a vast and intimate knowledge of the ways and routines of the forest community.
When the government of Kerala took over the management of Parambikulam, it had a delicate situation at hand. As a wildlife preserve and sanctuary, its mandate was to put an end to all hunting and focus on conservation, preservation, surveying, documentation and education instead. Doing this collided directly with the Kadars’ traditional hunter-gatherer way of life. Rather than isolate and antagonize them, the government embraced and included them in its plans. Taking advantage of their generations of skills and knowledge, the government enlisted their support to help protect the very things they had hunted. They are now employed in surveying, habitat improvement, tourism work and monitoring of nesting trees. Our group had the fortune of having one of them, Selvam, as a guide, and his depth of knowledge and his quiet pride and enjoyment in his work were a pleasure to behold.
We arrived in Parambikulam via the Nilgiri Express from Madras to Coimbatore, from where we took a bus that climbed up the hills past Pollachi. As the bus groaned up the pot-holed, curving mountain roads, the paddy fields and coconut groves of the plains gave way to the deciduous forests and cooler air of the hills. The MNS group was high-spirited, warm and friendly, and although most of them knew each other quite well, and my son and I were meeting most of them for the first time, we felt welcomed and at home right away. There were students, housewives, doctors, businessmen, a lawyer, a writer (my brother!) and others (myself included) who defied conventional classification, but for this journey we were all nature and bird and animal enthusiasts. We ranged in age from eleven to over sixty, and the normal hierarchies of age and seniority played a minimal role here, as everyone readily shared and absorbed information from each other.
I soon realized just how out of my depth, how pitifully ill-informed, how fake a naturalist I was. We stopped at Top Slip, the Tamil Nadu side of the reserve to take care of some paperwork. Indian bureaucracy is keeping its traditions alive and well here! As Vijay, our group’s tireless and cheery leader “did the needful”, the others clambered out of the bus, happy to stretch legs and arms that were already sore from the bone-rattling ride. Soon there was a chorus of excited exclamations, binoculars were whipped out, and an argument broke out about what exactly had been sighted. Gazing up at where everyone else was gazing, I saw no flash of wings, no drooping tail, no glint of blue…..just an uninterrupted expanse of branches and leaves. But this group was not the sort to selfishly keep its findings to itself, hugging its secrets to its chest and refusing to share anything with anybody. Several pairs of binoculars were thrust into my hands as I was urged to look up, past that branch that leaned to the left, then a wee bit to the right, up, up, until: I saw it! The racket-tail drongo, with its absurdly long tail dangling down, a pair of feathers at the end, looking for all the world like a pair of miniature tennis rackets.
This was my first exposure to the passion and knowledge of the MNS group. Their excitement was infectious; alas their knowledge was not, and I remained, for the most part, only marginally better informed about bird minutiae at the end of the trip. It was information overload, and my brain refused to process and consolidate it.
Not to be outdone by Tamil Nadu in its bureaucratic convolutions, Kerala had its own version for us across its border; its procedures included an inspection by a man who stomped heavily into our bus and stared at each of us in baleful silence before stomping out. And then it was the final bumpy, twisting ride up to Parambikulam itself. Our digestive organs were given a vigorous workout, and my son, who had declared that he would neither eat nor use the toilet for the duration of the trip, was soon in a state of near despair, as he realized that both resolutions would have to be jettisoned (along with the contents of his bowels), and soon.
A couple of hours after we set out from Coimbatore, we finally reached the forest lodge at Parambikulam. In a clearing in the forest we saw a collection of dormitories that were, in a foolish and futile attempt to blend in with the surrounding forest, painted a vivid and decidedly un-nature like shade of green. Our group was put up in a large dormitory called Hornbill. To my son’s immense relief and delight, the “boy’s toilet” had one western style loo. To this he repaired immediately, and emerged a good while later, with a spring in his step, ready to tackle whatever came next.
I have inundated you with enough words. From this point on, I will let my pictures do most of the talking. On our first afternoon there, we drove through the forest, past a reservoir and dams and teak forests where we saw one of the largest and oldest of teak trees, the grand Kannimara Teak.
We spotted a herd of wild elephants, including the cutest baby elephant. While a zoo offers cheap and easy thrills in viewing animals, the excitement of spotting real wild animals in their real habitat is a joy of another dimension altogether.
We saw sounders of wild boar. Looking at these lean, hairy creatures (some sported perfectly coifed mohawks!), it required a stretch of the imagination to connect them with the plump, succulent, glistening specimens that Obelix relished so much.
We caught glimpses of herds of jittery chital deer and for one glorious moment, locked eyes with a regal sambhar deer before he panicked and disappeared into the woods.
We laughed at the playful Nilgiri langurs as they leapt effortlessly from tree to tree, so surefootedly, so gracefully.
We saw so many beautiful birds, and butterflies. There was such excitement when we saw (did I really see them? Those brown lumps?) the rare and elusive Sri Lankan frogmouths, this sighting one of the highlights of our trip. We giggled over the large lumps of elephant poop and the delicate sloth bear scat.
And then there were the things we did not see; we saw a leopard pug mark, but alas, no leopard. An evening spent patiently waiting for a sighting of bison yielded a lot of bad jokes, tall tales and laughter, but no bison. And I know that our birders were disappointed not to spot some species they were dearly hoping to see, but all the wonders that we did see more than compensated for what we did not.
We spent two nights and almost three days in Parambikulam. After our first sortie into the forest by bus, we continued to explore different areas of the reserve on foot. Every day, we went for long walks, morning and evening, clad in our ridiculous and bulky leech socks (which Selvam, our guide, was most amused by; this was not leech season, he insisted, but having invested in them, and fondly imagining that they made us look like bona fide explorers, we continued to wear them).
We trekked over rocky cliffs and past dense bamboo groves; through the shola aglow in the early morning sunlight and by canals and waterways, where we saw an elephant fade away into the dusk. The most prevalent myth of all, that of the silence of wilderness was busted, time and time again. We humans were the silent ones – the only sounds that came from us were heavy breathing and the occasional cracking of twigs underfoot. Above and all around us was a veritable symphony of birdsong: chirps, cheeps, peeps, tweets, whoops, trills, arpeggios, squawks, calls, responses and so much more I don’t even have the vocabulary for.
It reminded me of an unforgettable walk I went on, on a warm summer’s night last year in Groznjan, Croatia. We had just finished dinner, with a salad made of wild greens and herbs foraged from the countryside, bread from across the border in Italy, a large pot of pasta, and bread pudding bound together with one carefully hoarded egg and scented with lavender from the neighbor’s garden. The mood was festive, everyone was in high spirits and wide awake. The clock struck midnight and suddenly Sam, an irrepressible folk music singer from England, jumped up and said, “let’s go on a nightingale walk!” A few minutes later we were off, up the gravel path away from Groznjan towards the deep, dark woods beyond the neighboring villages. It was a moonless night and thousands of stars twinkled and sparkled overhead. Conversation dropped to a few whispers and soon, that stopped too, and the only sounds from us were the crunch of gravel underfoot and the soft wheeze of our breathing, rising and falling evenly. All around were dark shadowy shapes and after over half an hour of walking steadily uphill we veered off into a tiny, narrow path that led deep into a wood. Here we stopped, and sat or lay down, right on that rough, gravel-strewn path, blanketed by the soft, warm summer air and the gently twinkling stars overhead.
And, in total silence, we listened.
What a din there was, in that wood, in the middle of that moonless night! Nightingales called and replied, just feet away from us. Other birds chattered away, scolding, calling, gossiping, exchanging news. There was the steady humming and whirring of hundreds of insects (I think!) busy at work. A wolf howled, a beaver barked. Things that human eyes were too feeble to detect, scurried and rustled about near us, through the undergrowth, busy with their nocturnal activities. An owl hooted, and the sudden swish of wings close overhead startled us.
We lay there for almost two hours, absorbed in the sounds of the night. If you can go out and listen to the countryside after nightfall, do it. You will never forget it.
Back to the Parambikulam trip. On our way back to Coimbatore, we stopped at an elephant camp in Top Slip. I am not sure what purpose these elephants serve, and I can only hope that they are treated and looked after well.
A quick, delicious lunch at Pollachi, and then we were back in Coimbatore, back in the Nilgiri Express, and, early the next morning, back in Madras.
It was such a fun and enjoyable trip. What I will never forget are the warmth, generosity and friendliness of my new-found friends of the MNS.