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Tigerless in Periyar

A twisted ankle kept Achal Dhruva away from the tiger trail in Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. Instead he rode on top of an elephant, went on a boat safari and almost bumped into a bear

It was love at first sight. She was incredibly beautiful and I was bowled over by the unflinching stare of her big brown eyes. Poetry in motion, I became ‘fida’ over her regal gait. She made the dhak-dhak queen Madhuri look like an extra. After all she is the real ‘Gajagamini.’

However, despite being the cynosure of all eyes, Jayashree was totally unruffled by the overtures of smitten souls like me. The reigning queen and star attraction of Periyar is one cool elephant.

The half-hour that I was astride her was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was also a split-wide-open experience. I had never ever spread my legs so wide as I did on Jayshree’s back. If you ignore the discomfort of your position and the hardness of her spine through the gunnysacks, shifting this way and that as she ambles along, the going is fun. The ride which winds through the foliage off the main road leading into Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary was a revelation about this magnificent beast. Despite her huge girth, Jayshree, who is a youthful 30, managed to walk down slopes with consummate ease. Perched behind Baburaj, her mahout, I waited in anticipation to see a tiger which never came.

A twisted left ankle had kept me away from the two-day trek in the tiger trail into the heart of Periyar. Despite the doctor’s instruction of complete bed rest for 15 days, I had hobbled my way to Periyar by the fifth day and it was worth the effort.

Periyar is heaven on earth for the wildlife lover. Over 1000 wild elephants roam in the sanctuary besides the tigers and leopards. One has to be really lucky to sight these big cats since they are elusive even at the height of dry season (April/May). On the other hand, with game like sambar, bison, boars, gaur, malabar flying squirrel, striped neck mongoose, different types of monkeys and over 260 species of birds in Periyar, the wildlife enthusiast will never be disappointed.

Periyar occupies 777 square kilometers of the Western Ghat along the cardamom hills. It is one of the largest and most visited wildlife reserves in India. Located close to the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border at a height of 750-1500 metres about 100 kilometres east of Kottayam, Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary has a vast artificial lake in its centre. The lake was created by the British in 1895 to supply water to drier parts of Tamil Nadu. In 1899, the royal family of Travancore, anxious to preserve its favourite hunting grounds from the encroachments of plantations, declared the area as a forest reserve and built the Edapalayam Lake Palace to accommodate their guests. This was expanded as a wildlife preserve in 1933 and once again when it became part of Project Tiger in 1979.


The four-hour bus journey from Kottayam to Periyar is a curtain raiser to what awaits you at the sanctuary. The road winds through undulating hills providing wonderful views across the Western Ghats. Having climbed through the rubber tree forests into Idduki district, the mountains get truly spectacular and the wide floored valleys are carpeted with lush tea plantations.

Kumily, a nondescript village four kilometers short of the park to the northwest, is a one street village which acts as a getaway point for Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. It offers a mixed bag of accommodation ranging from the luxurious Spice Village of the Casino Group of Hotels to neat budget joints like Coffee Inn priced at Rs 150 per day.

Life in Periyar is centered on the lake. A two-hour Boat Safari is a unique way to sight wildlife in Periyar. The boats take off in clusters of five to six, moving silently from one shore to the other, hoping to give the tourist a close glimpse of animals coming down for a drink. The best time slot to go on this safari is the 4 pm one, since the ’veggies’ come down for a drink before retiring for the night. If you are lucky you might get to see a predator make a kill.


Bisons in Periyar

Boating in the heart of Periyar

An eerie silence prevailed on the boat as we set off. Call it the calm before the storm but I could not have imagined the mayhem which broke loose about fifteen minutes of our embarking on the safari. All of a sudden there was an an excited cry on the right, “who raha, who raha” and in a blink of an eye the entire junta was on that side training their binoculars and cameras. The pleas of the distraught boatman to retain our seats and the threat that the boat would capsize fell on deaf ears. I too pushed myself through the milling crowd. I had come to see a tiger and inconsequential things like capsizing was not going to keep me away. But the entire ruckus turned out to be an anticlimax. On the shore was a lone boar sniffing the air at the water’s edge. A tingle of excitement ran down my spine as I viewed the animal through the binoculars. I could see his hair gently blowing in the wind. As he stared back at us, he shook his head as if to say, “These humans are crazy!”

On top of Jayashree, the star of Periyar

Though the tiger avoided us, it was a wonderful experience to see wild boars frolicking, deers jumping about gracefully and bisons grazing. As we wound our way back to the jetty, the lake in the fading light with the silhouettes of bare tree stumps sticking out of the water, took on a sinister form. The jungle at night is scary.

A night out on one of the watchtowers or the forest guest-house on the islands dotting the lake (arranged at the forest department) is not for the weak-hearted. It can be both an exciting and unnerving experience. I spent the night at the forest guest-house sitting on the verandah listening to the mysterious and enchanting voices of the forest. Suddenly, there was a loud grunt so close that I almost jumped out of my skin. The beam of the torch that I flashed in the direction of the sound cut through the darkness to reveal a gleaming pair of eyes and the outline of a huge figure. Before I could recover, the animal had retreated into the darkness. It dawned on me that I had seen a bear. I stayed awake all night hoping to catch another glimpse.

But the image of Periyar, which is etched forever in my memory, is one of love. Just after sunset, from the jetty below the forest guest-house, I saw two deers courting in the water on the opposite shore. A full moon rose behind them over a small hill.

Fact File

Boat Safari
Getting there:
Kottayam, 100 kms away, is the closest town to Periyar. A hour’s bus ride from there takes you to Kumily. Buses ply at regular 30 minute intervals. Periyar is a five-hour journey from Madurai while Cochin is six hours away. A mini bus from the bus stand at Kumily takes visitors to the reserve. There are also auto rickshaws

Periyar Lake