For some reason, the hues of green is different in Kerala. The leaves, the trees, they're this bright, plush and fresh green that you don't really see anywhere else. It soothes you on the beautiful drive into Periyar. Cities and buildings morph into mountains and valleys, into pineapple farms and spice plantations. Lots and lots of spice plantations. That's when you realise that there's more to Periyar than the famous Tiger Reserve.
Look out for gorgeous pepper plants creeping up the trunks of trees along the way. Thekkady, the town that is the gateway to the reserve, is surrounded by spice plantations. It’s filled with signboards inviting travellers to tour the farms and stock up on organic ingredients. Countless shades of green cover this forest reserve, an ecosystem abundant with animals, birds, insects and reptilian life.
Periyar’s vibrant flora and fauna make it easy to forget that the forest was not always this lively. In 1998, as the depleted tiger population and rampant debarking and smuggling of its cinnamon and sandalwood trees took their toll, conservationists stepped in and worked out an eco-tourism model to save the park. The men of the local communities were weaned away from poaching and trained to be forest guards and tourist guides instead. Many have never attended school but can talk in detail about the feeding patterns of the tiger butterfly, the ideal time and place to spot the grey headed owl and the frequented trail of the closest tiger. This has made Periyar one of India’s most successful community conservation projects.
The Periyar Tiger reserve has some really great environmental programs. From nature walks to Tiger safaris and boating trails, the reserve, spread over 777sqkm, has part of its buffer zone specifically allotted for tourism and environmental awareness. Try the Bamboo rafting trek, a long strenuous walk through the forest. Unfortunately, wildlife is very rarely visible. On a normal day, you will see bisons, deers, malabar frogs. If you are in luck, you get to see elephants, lion tailed macaque, Malabar pied Hornbill and if you're truly lucky, tigers.
The walk is lovely, with lunch and coffee breaks. Don’t be alarmed if a forest guide hands out a pack of tobacco before a walk. It is prudent to rub tobacco on your feet and legs before entering the bush. This simple trick, along with leech guards, offers protection from the jungle’s ubiquitous blood-sucking worms. Even if a leech does latch on, rubbing salt on it or burning it off with a lighted match will have them off in a jiffy. Leeches aside, everything about this tropical forest is a delight.
Once inside the jungle, the air feels so light, devoid of its usual heaviness caused by pollution. The only thing one can hear is the bustling sounds of insects, chirping of birds and occasional rustling up of leaves signifying movement of some animals in the distance. The onward trek to the Periyar lake is through a path bearing tracks of jeep tyres and on the way back one would be taken through different offbeaten paths which don't have any traces of human footprints. One will be amazed by the precision and expertise with which the rangers guide us through the forest. There is much interaction with them and their personal touches make it easy for even hardened city dwellers to be converted into forest addicts.
The man made Periyar Lake, with its mystic appeal in the reserve, is truly gorgeous, with numerous randomly shaped putrefied tree stumps rising out of the subtly greenish-blue water as if they were sea horses. The leisurely glide on the bamboo rafts on the Periyar lake is beyond magical.
For all those who want to gain an in-depth knowledge about the wildlife and flora and fauna of the Periyar Tiger Reserve, there is The Periyar Nature Interpretation Centre which is equipped with state-of-art audio visual facilities. With its interactive three dimensional models of bio-diversity hotspots of the world, Western Ghat, Kerala and Periyar Tiger Reserve and its series of modern quiz machines for evaluating your wildlife knowledge, the interpretation centre is a must visit. In the audio visual section one can come across different and interesting bio- acoustics and feel the sound of forest and wildlife.
You can catch a little more of the local culture in the evenings at the Thekkady Kalary Centre; the Kalaripayattu performances showcase talent from all over Kerala. The different forms of the combat are shown step by step. The warriors whirl and glide like graceful ballet dancers. They leap into the air with the dexterity of a gazelle, their arms and legs moving at a dizzying speed. They have the audience transfixed right from the first kick to the last bare handed grapple. However the best part is when the warriors perform with a ring of fire, deftly twirling and turning it and finally jumping through it!
The nice thing about Periyar is that though there's little to do, the fun treks and spice walks fill your day. With its laidback attitude and gorgeous surroundings, Periyar makes you pause. If that’s what you need, Periyar is just what the doctor ordered.