I glanced sideways at the boisterous Mallu man driving the jeep along the winding mountain road. Like his passengers, he was peering out of the vehicle at the steep slopes around us, scanning them for wildlife, abetted by the pre-dawn lighting and the heavy mists.
If any elephants or bison were grazing upon the high hills we drove through, they were impossible to see thanks to the cotton-thick mists blanketing the tall grass and trees that covered the terrain. As the vehicle banged and clunked over potholes at high speeds, I held determinedly onto the railing for dear life, occasionally risking freeing my hands for a photograph of the scenery speeding past.
Some ways down the road, once the sun had risen above the horizon, the jeep rolled to a stop under a densely canopied corridor. My eyes began to search the trees for the reason of our stop to no avail – the driver pointed to what I had previously taken for a pile of rocks, proclaiming it to be a tribal temple. Upon a second look, I realized that the blocks of granite were hewn into rough rectangles, and while in no particular order, they were indeed surrounding a small garlanded icon.
In India, the word “holy” has an infinite number of meanings, some of which are beyond translation, or even Western logic. From tribals dwelling in bamboo huts making simple constructs to pay tribute to their gods to unimaginably wealthy kings of old building enormous temples covered with representations of their many deities, each more colorful than the last, the Hindu culture is simply too diverse and complex for me to explain, let alone understand.
After nearly two hours of driving on heavily potholed roads and on densely vegetated roads, I was thrilled to get out of the jeep and stretch my legs upon arrival at our destination – Gavi, an area inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve that is in fact not in Idukki District like the majority of the forest, but at the very edge of Pathanamthitta District, which is also home to Sabarimala – a major Hindu pilgrimage center nestled in the Western Ghats.
Gavi is one of the more proactive areas in India I’ve been to in terms of ecological responsibility – almost no trash can be seen along the roads, and none at all inside the forest. The government-operated activities support the local inhabitants and the continued protection of the forest. Tribal men and women work in the spice plantations – mainly cardamom, a cornerstone of the agricultural and economic structure of the area. In addition, all the guides who lead visitors, both domestic and foreign, through the spectacular forests and hills of the area are those who truly know the area – the tribal men who very often turn to guiding travelers as an alternative source of income to poaching. While the rehabilitation factor isn’t quite as significant as in Thekkady, it will be a positive alternative to illegal activities anywhere, and sometimes ‘encouragement’ isn’t necessary. Our guide was a man of fewer than thirty years, although he looked younger, named Ramachandra, after a Hindu god. It is common practice, not only by tribals, for Hindu parents to name their children after religious figures based on many factors, often astrological.
Following introductions, Rama (as he insisted we call him) led us up the mountain path towards a fantastic panoramic view across the hills – Sabarimala was visible from one viewpoint, pointed out and described as “very important temple”. Although his English wasn’t perfect, it was quite good, especially for a tribal man who probably picked up all the foreign language he knows from visitors. Many of the tribals in the area speak not only Malayalam, the language of Kerala, but Tamil (from Tamil Nadu) as many of their ancestors were originally from the opposite state, although in recent years (see: Indian Independence) the border has moved around, leaving pockets of Tamil-speaking folk in Kerala, mostly in Idukki District. We soon began descending into the forest, lured by the cacophony of a group of Nilgiri Langurs – black monkeys, which unlike their cousins the Bonnet Macaques, rarely leave their natural habitat.
Walking through the jungle is an experience too few are able to have, but the sounds and smells are always intoxicating, capable of reverting anyone to their most primal state. The roaring of millions of insects soon becomes white noise, the rich smell of humus and decomposing leaf litter soon fades to the background, and then one feels truly at home. With sharp eyes and perked ears, it’s still easy to miss sighting animals – even elephants, for all their tonnage are extremely nimble and very well camouflaged, visually at least.
The best way to find an elephant at close quarters is the smell – not exactly unpleasant, but surely not perfumed – the best way to describe it is as animalistic (more on this later). Within our first hour of hiking through the forest, we had seen little charismatic megafauna, but the natural beauty of the trees and plants was stunning in its own right. At one point Rama, who was walking ahead of us, picked up a brightly colored object, and holding it up, said “Monkey fruit -human poisonous, monkey eating no problem!”. For many people visiting India, language is a major barrier, and besides the famous accents and distracting head-wobble, grammar is often broken and imprecise. However, between Indians communication is always possible, sometimes even with the first try, and by living here a year I have accumulated some modicum of understanding.
Soon after, Rama signaled us to stop from ahead, and advance slowly. Although he seemed alert, he was not excited the way he would have been had he spotted a large animal in the bush. Moving towards him, cautious not to step on anytwigs, we soon saw what he had called us over for – a small snake basking in the dappled sunlight. Our guide said he didn’t know the name of it, but upon further investigation I determined it to be a young trinket snake. Advancing further into the forest, we soon reached a wide flowing pond fed by a small cascade. We paused here for a snack, and taking my boots off, I walked into the crystal-clear water, a welcome refreshment in the intense heat of the mid-day sun. Soon after I had begun cooling off I noticed that there were many species of odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) that I had never seen before. For those of you that don’t know, I have an avid interest in them, and I have accumulated a collection of photographs of several dozen species native to Kerala, and hope to take more in other parts of India. So, walking barefoot through mountain-stream water, I chased dragonflies and damselflies back and forth across the pond, much to Rama’s entertainment. I was so engaged that perhaps half an hour passed before our tribal companion had the heart to insist we move again. Fortunately, I had noticed (although it would have been hard not to) the enormous tadpoles relaxing at the bottom of the pond – Ramachandra easily scooped one of them up in his hands, allowing me to photograph it before we continued on our way.
We began our ascent into the hills, and within another forty-odd minutes we were back at the road. Walking along a cardamom plantation, Rama surprised us by offering to show us a cardamom processing factory (in Kerala, a factory is
any form of production facility – in this case more of a workshop than an industrial-size one). Inside, the process of drying and curing the seed pods was described to us, and we saw a room full of tribal women sorting the cardamom for grading. Somewhat more educated, we continued on our way back to the government facility, where we had a simple lunch of chapati, rice and sambar. Following a brief period of respite, we boarded a rowboat and went across the lake to a spot where a waterfall fell down the rocks, only to flow into the still waters of the unnamed lake. As the temperatures were high, I decided that swimming in the lake was a good idea – so stripping down, I waded into the cold waters and paddled out into the center of the lake.
Swimming was followed by tea, and shortly afterwards we were on our merry way. I mentioned before that I would bring up the odour of elephants again – and come up they did indeed. We were about halfway through the drive back to Thekkady when I noticed the distinctive smell of elephants. The driver noticed as well and pulled his car to a slower pace, advancing slowly while looking to the side to spot the source of the wafting scent. After only a few seconds he saw – only to continue driving at a quicker speed. Confused, I turned around to see why he had advanced, only to notice he had parked the car. He explained briefly that the jeep’s white colour could make the elephant aggressive, and the noise would only help aggravate it. We approached slowly – the elephant was behind
tree cover on a slope, and it appeared as though it wanted to cross the road. We soon realized that there were in fact two elephants, and one of them was a tusker, potentially quite dangerous. Another jeep rumbled past, and noticing us standing without a car, stopped their own to find out what was going on. Our driver began arguing with the other for him to move so as not to disturb the elephants – the jeep was still running (quite loudly). The European passengers of the opposite jeep began piling out, disregarding the argument (which was in Malayalam, so perhaps they didn’t even notice), making an unfortunate amount of noise. At this point I had given up on photographing the elephants with any success, as the tourists were likely going to scare them off. I hadn’t counted on the elephants being disturbed enough to become aggressive – something I’ve never seen before, although my elephant experiences are somewhat limited. The combination of the brightly colored jeep, the loud noises of both the vehicle and the tourists, and very possibly the smell of so many humans at close proximity drove one of the elephants to trumpetting – in wild elephants, often a sign of rage and possible rampage. Needless to say, everyone dispersed rapidly.
The previous scene shows how carefully certain situations need to be handled. Fortunately no one was hurt and the elephants were not driven to full aggression, but the experience has opened my eyes to how damaging people can inadvertendly be. Anyone who travels to delicate ecosystems should be fully educated, or at the very least informed on how to behave in situations such as these. While not quite the same as feeding and teasing monkeys, it is is similar in the sense of disturbing wild animals that would otherwise be living their natural habitats without concern for human activities.