Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Tiger Road

             Tiger roads were tracks across tiger infested woods, used by the then rulers, for game, and occasionally to get rid of man eaters. The sport gained momentum towards the end of 19th century and carried on to mid 20th century. In fact, India witnessed a massive wipe out of sixty thousand to seventy thousand of these gentle animals, in a short span of fifty years across 1875 to 1925. And the southern part of the big country, had its own contributions. In 1971, tiger killing was banned by Supreme Court of India and in 1973, 'Project Tiger' was launched. The hunting tracks were abandoned and left to the woods.

        And this story is about one such track, that still remains distinct, in the southern part of the country, and eventually on a tiger encounter, at close quarters...Let's start with a small history on the hunting ground...
               Be it the Wodayars of  Mysore Dynasty or the Tippu - the tiger himself - were all fond of the sport of tiger hunting, and the sector, then under the grip of Mysore strong hold, had these majestic cats in abundance. To the south of Mysore, the regions of Sathyamangalam, Nilgiris, Bandipur, Muthanga, Kabini, Nagerhole etc, were the hot spots, as these contiguous sectors then boasted of the pristine greenery, booming with all resources, the tiger population was in need.

            The first tracks ever, across these woods, should be credited to Hyder Ali, who rose to power in 1760 AD . He descended the Ghats, invading the Malabar region, now part of Kerala and of course, he would have widened the paths used by tribal people, messengers and hunters, as he had to take his cavalry along with. History says that the Vythiri - Thamarasseri segment, of the present NH 766, connecting Calicut and Mysore, was invented by Hyder Ali, which was later developed by the British.

      Hyder Ali Khan was succeeded by his elder son, The Tippu Sulthan, in 1782 AD. Then onward, Tippu crossed the Ghats, many a times, either to defend Malabar or in effort to invade Travancore, until his death in 1799. The British, killing Tipu Sultan, reinstated the Wodayar reign, which continued until independence of India. Thus during the second tenure of the Wodayars, the plot was clear, with several tracks crisscrossing the Tiger country, providing ample access to their gentle population.

     Among the then rulers, Krishna Raja Wodeyar and the last King, Jayachamaraja Wodeyar, were known patrons of tiger hunting.

Krishnaraja Wodeyar in whites                *This image is copyright of its original author
                      Jayachamaraja Wodeyar is known to have sought to hunting, only on reports of  a rogue elephant or a man eating tiger, and later he gave up hunting and served as the chairman of Indian Wildlife Board. He may be the last, who would have lead a hunting trail, along the tiger roads...

Jayachamaraja Wodeyar in the middle                    *This image is copyright of its original author

                Actually I came to know about the Tiger Road from Heeralal - a good friend of mine - who then served as the Officer in charge of  Muthanga Wild Life Sanctuary, of Wayanad district. When I rang him up finally, by around midnight, the delegation consisting of Biju, Gireesh, Sinesh and myself, had just crossed Nadukani, on Nilambur - Batheri route. On his directions, got to Muthanga, by around 1 in the morning and we were led to the mud cottages close to the Range office. Though late to sleep, woke up early to the chirping of birds and a short birding session followed.

Velvet Fronted Nuthatch
        Soon after break fast, set out to explore, storing sufficient to drink and eat. Traveled along NH 766 up to Mulehole and took the right deviation,32 into the Tiger Road. The mud track cut across NH here, and the left deviation leads to Kabini. The initial part went event less, apart from the sightings of Sambar deers and spotted deers, occasionally. Then we approached a junction, where the track forked. Took the right deviation which climbed to the camp named Gemmanahalla. It was a small old building on a hill top, with an attached watch tower.

        Once up the tower, you have the green vista surrounding, all beneath you. This would have served as midway rest and watch house for the game team. Spent a while there and left to hit the track.

            Noticing bird activity, drive went slow and had stop overs, where ever we sensed motion. Could spot Blue faced Malkoha, Darter, King Fishers and that kind, and I swapped my wide angle lens with 300 mm, F4, block telephoto lens, which is my favorite, for birds in action.

               At another such stoppage, as we were all out of the vehicle, I saw the guard who was with us, walking farther, sensing something ahead. Confirming the camera settings, we followed suite. We were moving in a line, the guard leading, myself closely behind and the others following. We stepped on a culvert over a small rivulet and as we crossed it, the man in front, in a quick move, drifted aside. And I found myself, directly in front of the tiger....

             He stood on a flat rock, by the side of the rivulet, staring at me, nearly 10 meters away. I am not a guy that brave; but still I wasn't in panic. As I watched, he turned to the left and had a gentle walk towards the thick bush on the other side. Then I thought of clicking. I slowly lifted the camera and as the vision cleared through the view finder, what I saw was his face, in full frame. He had just stopped.... Then, grinning wide, he delivered a thick growl. We stood there frozen....

     After a second warning, much more intense, he continued with the stroll, got into thick cover and laid there. His hind quarters was still outside the thicket, clearly visible.

 Feeling the thickness in air, Heeralal presented a lighter face, and soon we got back to the vehicle, not to disturb the animal further. As we drove ahead, up the incline, I could have one more glimpse of that magnificent face, through the thicket, cautiously watching.

               Had food on the way and took another track, back to Muthanga. Though there were many sightings, on return, which included Sambars, Gaurs and Dholes, shutterbugs were on the hang over and hence didn't attempt elaborate photo sessions.

         From my side, it was a kingly affair - Shooting a tiger, from the tiger road, neither up an elephant nor on a cart; but on foot, not shedding a drop of blood, neither his nor mine...

     From the tiger side, the king of our woods, the scenario is pathetic. They were more than a lakh, a hundred years back..... The kingdom on strain. The dynasty on decline.  And just about 2200 of them remain in this noble land.....

    Hopefully..... Let them stroll, fearless...Along The Tiger Roads.....



Thursday, March 2, 2017

Varayattu Motta - The Inviting Summit

          Ponmudi is a well known destination, to the east of Thiruvananthapuram district and it is thronged by nature enthus, during week ends; peak being lone of its kind, nearest to capital city, with smooth vehicle access. We too frequent the place, during early hours of the day, in search of birds and during those visits, the towering green hillocks, a bit west to the upper sanatorium of Ponmudi, had always been a fascinating sight, especially in the golden light. It was actually Kumarettan, who runs a small food joint at Kallar, the base of Ponmudi hills, who briefed us on Varayadu Motta - the abode of Varayadu (Nilgiri Tahr) - while we were raiding on his Dosas, a fine morning. He added that, not many has been up there, though the mount stay inviting....

       And some days later we again found ourselves, in front of that delicious cuisine, all set to hike the toughest one near by. Thankfully, the department had relieved Mr. Alexander, a forest watcher, who joined us to guide. Packing more of those Dosas, for later use, the five member team consisting of Anoj, Nasar, Thomsun Saburaj, Alexander and the author, set out, with the doubting eyes of Kumarettan following us.

      Drove past the Golden Valley of Kallar and hit the first left deviation, from the main road, leading to the small hamlet of  Mottamoodu, around five kilometers farther. Parked our vehicle there and started the hike. Initial stretch went along some plantations of lesser elevation and the gradient started gaining. A crested serpent eagle took off from a nearest branch and we were into thick woods, leaving the plantation behind.

                    Within an hour of hike, the ground leveled, with grassy undergrowth, under the canopy of Gall nut trees. Morning rays weren't harsh, and the hike so far, was pretty easy.

                      Another half an hour walk, was along grass levels and we could then have a closer view of our destination, the towering mount, right to the east. Though the wooded Ponmudi valley, to the north east was a soothing sight, the mount stood challenging,....

         Spotting a distant waterfall in the valley, called out for a break and engaged the shutters for a while.

       We were then very close to the base camp, a tin roofed tiny shed, by the side of a small rivulet of tear like flow. 

         Drank from the flow, soothed legs a bit and got geared, for the next part of the hike. A short walk for about 15 minutes, along the base of the mount, took us to the start of the hard part of the trek. Even the view of the peak, from there, was frightening, as the gradient looked so steep and the summit of Varayatu Motta,so high. Adding to it, Alexander, our guide, was so discouraging and he judged outright that the hike is a mission, totally impossible for chaps of our kind - pot bellied and mid aged. Despite all these, decided to give a try, not intending the apex really, but just to see, how high we could. As the climb pursued, climbers dropped at regular intervals and finally, at about half the way up,our guide Alexander gave up, declaring he is finished.

                  Now just two remained, myself and Saburaj, with little energy in stock. Alexander strongly insisted not to continue, and we could see for it ourselves, that there was no way up, and more steeper the terrain went. It was all just green ahead, with intermittent growth of a stuffy shrub, with roots that deep, and the stem iron hard..

         I remember, we didn't exchange a word. Leaving all baggage, including drinking water with Alexander, we headed further, with the cameras clinging to our body, which had just the wide angle lens in lock, In fact, we were clutching on those plants and lifting us up and I felt my knee beneath my chin regularly.

              Thus proceeding, as we were about to clear the top, we saw another peak behind, which wasn't visible from the base. That was a heart break. I was so weak and thirsty and I decided to give up. Sabu, read my face and went on this line....We would never make it again, Its just another fifteen minutes, Can't you hold on....And I rose to feet....

                        The next few moments were some among the hardest in my life. After a while - I am still unaware how long it took - as the watch tower of Ponmudi Upper Sanatorium came into view, it was a blurred image. Lying atop, sky gazing, it took minutes for me to come back to life. 

               We were not to spend much time atop, as we were running out of resources. A short clicking session and went on with the descent.

               It was harder than the ascent, in the sense, a misstep would cost you a lot.
           Spreading fatigue added to the misery and indeed luck was on my part that I could crawl down to Alexander, without much bruises. And dear, there sat Alexander, with empty bottles, draining all the liquid we had....

             As we reached the camp shed, I was staggering.Fell into the rivulet and laid there immersed, gulping heavily. But that didn't help. Dehydration was of advanced level and I started vomiting. I feared I would collapse, and hence decided to start the return trek immediately. Took sufficient water and went on sipping slowly, as I walked. That worked and was back on track soon.

        Got behind the wheel, by 6 in the evening and as we cruised for the joint, hunger struck, I tilted the rear view mirror a bit, and there appeared the majestic mount....Inviting indeed.....


Pappilai Amman - The Deity Distinct

         Raj Vridhachalam, the man behind many of my trails, was the one to brief me on Pappilai Amman, the deity of a jungle shrine, deep i...