The High Ranges of the Western Ghats are cloaked in blue mist when we start on our journey to the village of Kumily, the gateway to Periyar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala’s best-known animal reserve. Shadowing the crest of the Western Ghats, the road connecting Munnar to Kumily cuts through a sea of green known as the Cardamom Hills; it is one of south India’s most scenic mountain routes – just over 100 Km of seemingly unending chains of hills and wide vistas over tea and spice plantations.
As their name suggests, the Cardamom Hills are almost entirely given over to what Keralans call the ‘Queen of Spices’. The world’s third most expensive spice after saffron and vanilla, green cardamom is native to the cool elevations (1000 meters or more above sea level) of the monsoon forests of the Western Ghats where pepper, the so-called ‘King of Spices’, and coffee, are also grown. A versatile spice used in both sweet and savoury dishes, cardamom was an article of Greek trade as far back as the fourth century BC, before becoming one of the most popular Oriental spices in Roman cuisine where it was prized not least for its ability to clean the teeth and sweeten the breath after garlic-laced meals. Unlike pepper, which is a delicate creeper, cardamom grows in sprawling bushes of long, waxy, lance-shaped leaves.
As the mist clears, we pass through entire sun-drenched hill sides of these imposing tropical plants, their colour changing from jade to olive at every turn in the road. We stop for lunch where the landscape opens into plunging views over a water reservoir and the plains below, an unmissable spot for any photographer and a welcome pause in our journey.
A village at the heart of the spice trade, Kumily will be our base during our exploration of the Tiger Reserve that makes it famous. Originally the hunting ground of the Maharajah of Travancore, Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary covers a vast area of forest in the heart of the Cardamom Hills and is home to a range of wildlife including elephants, sloth bears, antelopes, bison, sambar deer, dhole (wild dogs) and Malabar giant squirrels as well as over 300 species of birds.
Its most famous – and shyest – residents are leopards and tigers. While sightings of these magnificent animals are rare, the abundance of other fauna and sheer beauty of the park’s flora make it a well-worth stop on our itinerary. The Sanctuary stretches around the picturesque Periyar Lake which, together with the Periyar River, provides a permanent source of water for the animals.
Covered mostly by rain forest with typically tall trees reaching up to 50 meters in height, the park contains around 1,700 species of flowering plants, including at least 145 different kinds of orchid. We explore the park first by boat, with a two-hour sunset boat ride on Periyar Lake, and then on foot, with a full day of bamboo rafting on the lake and trekking into the forest. During the boat trip we spot a family of elephants as well as otters drinking at the water’s edge and a whole host of exotic birds perched on the half- submerged tree trunks that are scattered throughout the lake. But it is on the trek, the following day, that we come closest to the other-worldly atmosphere of the forest.
Starting at the edge of the reserve early in the morning, it’s not long before the tree canopy closes above us, shutting out the sun – quite suddenly, it feels as though we are completely enclosed by the forest, walking deeper and deeper into an enchanted world where proportions lose all meaning. Colossal trees covered in lianas dwarf us and countless butterflies of all sizes and colours dart in the penumbra while the screeching of monkeys echoes all around us.
We are half-way to the lake when the rangers accompanying us point to two, distinct pug marks in the sandy terrain by a stream. They are huge and fresh enough to suggest that the elusive Royal Bengali tiger that left them might not be far at all. She’s a female, the rangers tell us, and she walked right in the middle of this path no longer than two hours ago.
Later, we embark on bamboo rafts, taking it in turn to row on the still waters of the lake, until we reach a small green peninsula. Low, wide and without a motor, the rafts glide through the submerged forest affording us a completely different view of the lake from that seen on the boat ride yesterday. It’s wonderful to be alone, not having to contend with engine vibrations, and able to stop and reposition at will to get the shots that each of us is looking for.
We are all elated, starving hungry and ready to put down our cameras when our guides bring us a delicious lunch of rice and curried vegetables. As the sun begins its descent across the sky we set off inland again, to make our way home. The vegetation is quite different in this part of the forest, where in place of tall trees there are large bushes of long, black-rimmed leaves. The bushes sway in the wind and it is – quite literally – like being in a sea of foliage. This is plainly ‘tiger land’ and the thought that there could be one crouching half a meter away and it would be impossible to see her, makes us fall silent.
Night is beginning to fall when Periyar reveals its last surprise – a sighting of the majestic Great Indian hornbill, the State Bird of Kerala. With a bright yellow and black casque surmounting its enormous bill and a wingspan of 1.5 meters, the hornbill cuts a distinctive silhouette against the evening sky. When it flies past us, we listen in disbelief to a sound resembling that of a helicopter in the distance: what we can hear is the noise of its round-edged wingbeats pounding the air – its ‘signature sound’ in the animal world.
Back in Kumily, after a long hot shower, we congregate in the Clubhouse Bar to mull over our adventure in the forest and the images it brought. No, we didn’t see any tigers, but at the end of this long and beautiful day, we raise our cold beers to the consideration that, though we did not see them, the tigers must have been looking at us. Girish, the naturalist from Periyar Wildlife Reserve who has come to join us, tells us as much as he patiently answers our questions about the forest and its inhabitants – Tigers, in particular, which are thought to number around 35 in Periyar.
On the Clubhouse’s walls, black and white photographs of proud hunters posing next to their quarry are curiously tasteful images of distasteful acts testifying to the large-scale slaughter of tigers that occurred under colonial rule. Just across the lawn, the Conservation Center chronicles a very different history of efforts to ensure the survival of the animal that perhaps more than any other, is synonymous with India. Deeply embedded in Indian mythology, the cultural and symbolic relevance of the tiger in India is equal to its ecological significance in the wild where, as top predator in the food chain, the tiger functions as an indicator of the health of the ecological systems of which it is part.
If habitat loss, poaching and the illegal trade in body parts that drives it, are the greatest challenges to tigers’ survival now, were tigers to disappear, they would not only be the first large predator species to vanish in historic times, they would be a vital loss to the conservation of many other rare and threatened species and the ecosystems they inhabit. Perhaps this is why the Atharva Veda, one of the key sacred texts in Hinduism, refers to the tiger as the first of all creatures.
For those who want to, there’s time to learn more about tigers, or a pool game, before supper. We are all looking forward to what the road has next in store for us. Tomorrow, we will head for the Backwaters, threading our way through spice gardens, coffee and rubber plantations, past the weekly cattle market and villages huddling in green gorges, to the silvery maze of lakes, rivers and canals that divide the foothills of the Western Ghats from the Kerala coast.
For more information, visit: