Thekkady India, Periyar Kerala
Tourism in Thekkady is mainly based on Periyar Tiger Reserve. Thekkady is a small village on the entrance of the Periyar. That is why this destination known in the name of both Thekkady and Periyar. This region is also known for its spice plantations and salubrious climate.
There is a peculiar charm in watching majestic elephants and bright-eyed tigers in an environment that is truly theirs, and it is irresistible. Perhaps that appeal is to be found more in Periyar Tiger Reserve than in any other sanctuary in Kerala.
By the greenish blue waters of its lake, dotted with tree stumps, lies a veritable animal kingdom. It is unlikely that you'll return without a close brush with animals, some a suspicious as the barking deer, some as uncaring as the Nilgiri langur. It is equally remarkable manner in which 'protection' has replaced 'poaching' as the catchword in these forests.
The sprawling Periyar Tiger Reserve, which falls in the southern segment of the Western Ghats in the Cardamom Hill at an altitude of 900m -1800m, is the largest sanctuary in Kerala. Declared a protected area way back in 1933 by the Maharaja of Travancore, the sanctuary covers an area of 777sq km.
The road from Kottayam ends at Kumily on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, there is only one entry point to the Periyar Tiger Reserve and that is through the small village of Thekkady, 4km from Kumily. You can reach it either by bus or atuorickshaw, both of which ply between the two villages.
The starting point of the reserve is the boat house, roughly 2km from the entry gate. This distance can be either covered on foot or wheels. All treks, boat rides and walks begin from this point. The Eco-tourism Centre is at Ambady Junction, where you can sign up for a trek and many other activities in the reserve.
The reserve's core area of 350 sq km was declared as Tiger Reserve in 1982 and it is zealously kept inviolate. The best way to see the sanctuary is by taking a ride on the man made Periyar Lake.
Things to See and Do
There are several eco-tourism programmes in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, which include day and night trekking camping and bamboo rafting. All of these present exciting opportunities to spot animals and birds. Contact the Eco-tourism Centre (Tel: 04869 224572) at Ambady Junction, Kumily, for signing up for these programmes. All these are popular and booked months in advance, so make your reservations well ahead.
There are three kinds of forests in the sanctuary: evergreen, grassland and moist deciduous. Different species of animals can be seen in each type of forest. Many plants species are to be found too, the celebrities being trek, rosewood, bamboo and orchids.
If, in sanctuary, sighting animals is a matter of chance, seeing a tiger is a rarity. One has to be satisfied with pug mark sightings most of the time.
At Periyar, you may have better luck of spotting a leopard or those lower in the food chain such as the gaur, samabar or chital (spotted deer).
The gaur, a majestic animal with huge horns, is seen in its largest size in the Western Ghats-it can weigh up to a ton! Sambar is the largest among deer, and is easily sighted, either singly or in small groups. Chital usually moves in large groups.
Cats and Dogs
The wild dog is a carnivore that hunts in packs and can bring down a large sambar with ease. They operate during the day time and you are often lucky enough to spot them in the reserve.
The sanctuary is also home to a number of smaller carnivores such as small cats, mongoose, marten and ratel. It is near impossible to see the jungle cat because of its active only at night. However, if you are lucky, you may see smaller cats such as the fishing cat and even the elusive rusty spotted cat.
This area is also home to the small Indian civet and the brown palm civet, which live on fruits. The large ruddy mongoose is another animal to watch out for. In winter, it acquires a brick red coat and thus is easily recognisable.
The celebrated primate of this sanctuary is the lion-tailed macaque, which is quiet and keeps to high branches. But you are certain to see the Nilgiri langur, especially close to the boat house. It announces its presence with drumbeat like calls. Common langurs are even easier to spot. The bonnet macaque, the monkey you see in many towns, can also be found here.
A rare specious of this forest is the Nilgiri tahr, which is a wild goat that lives in the craggy mountain side, and graces grasslands too. A small population has been sighted near the Mangaladevi Temple which is accessible to tourists.
Periyar is the proverbial paradise for bird watchers. The forests inside the reserve and the lake attract many kinds of birds. Some are residents while others are migrants. Ask specifically for a guide familiar with birds.
If you do not have time for a trek, walk from the main gate to the boat jetty early in the morning and you will spot at least 50 species. In the lake, you can find three varieties of kingfishers, the common, the white-breasted and the pied. In the forest, you will see woodpeckers of different varieties, nuthatches and minivets. Venturing off the road or into the forest without a guide is forbidden.
By the Lake
A recurring image of Periyar is that of its vast lake, surrounded by hills, a herd of elephants bathing or playing at the edge of the water. The lake makes Periyar's wildlife accessible to us-it is from the safety of a bamboo raft that we get to watch elephants and other animals.
However, this safety has come at a price. Large areas of prime forest were submerged in the water to create it, and you still see the evidence in the form of the tree stumps jutting out of the water. The only consolation is that in summer, the lake is a precious source of drinking water to animals.
The reservoir has developed into an aquatic ecosystem, with number of creeks, promontories and small islets, which serve as a habitat for wildlife. Hills rise around the lake, filled with grass that is food for elephants, gaur and samabar.
Go on a raft on the lake, the raft makes no noise, and hence disturbs animals to the minimum. Visitors have actually sighted tigers during boat trips! Herds of wild elephants are sighted very frequently. It is along the shoreline of this lake that otters, snakes and turtle live. The dead trees jutting out of the water offer perches for birds.
The boat jetty is near the Wildlife Information Centre.
Tribal Heritage Museum
Five tribal communities live in the Periyar area. The reserve organises a Tribal Heritage Programme that lasts for two hours, as part of which you are taken to a tribal hamlet and also to the Tribal Heritage Museum. Traditional fishing gear, hunting implements and indigenous medicinal plants are on display here. A tribal guide will show you around.
Located about 12km from Thekkady, past dense forest at the northern boundary of the reserve, is the ruin of this stone temple. The deity is Mangaladevi or Kannaki, the protagonist of the Tamil epic Sillapadhikaram.
Short tours to tea gardens surrounding the Periyar Sanctuary and spice plantations are organised by the Kerala Tourism Information Centre (Tel: 04869 222620) near the main entrance gate to the sanctuary at Kumily. They take visitors to the Connemara Tea Factory, 15km outside the sanctuary. If you take the tour before 2pm, you can witness processing at a tea factory. They also take visitors to the spice plantations near the sanctuary.
In Thekkady, you are literally in the heartland of spices. The best quality fenugreek, nutmeg, black, white and green pepper, rolls of cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, coriander and cloves can be bought here.
You can also buy a sample of all these, packed in neat little labels, at stalls in Kumily. Some of the better shops include Kerala Spices and Cee Pee Spices, both at Thekkady Junction, Indian Spices at Avanchal Junction, Spice Court near the Sweet House Bakery in Kumily and Crescent Spices near Kumily's Private Bus Stand.
Tea of various grades and quality can be bought here. Also buy banana chips freshly fried in coconut oil. To your 'must-buy' list, add some good quality T-shirts with exclusive Periyar Tiger Reserve motifs, of tigers and elephants.