Published in Deccan Herald Travel on Nov 3, 2018
A weekend road trip to Denkanikottai, Aiyor Forest
This time my travel instincts are honed towards something closer home. I have been sniffing out places say, within striking distance, time at hand being limited to just about a weekend. I go back to some long forgotten reminders, names of places that I have noted down for future reference. Among quite a few, Denkanikottai just across the Karnataka border with a tiny sally into Tamland, holds my attention. Well-suited for a quick road trip of approximately 80 odd kilometres and then some wanderings of another 20 or so, into the neighbouring and thoroughly enchanting bamboo lined countryside.
So there we are at the stroke of six in the morning driving out with the wind in our hair. And some beneath the wings...
The names are interesting and need some practice speaking them. Hence I have done some preparatory exercise. Also some reading up.
Situated at a height of 3000 ft. above sea level, Denkanikottai seems to have some interesting history to it. Under the rulership of Kantirave Narasaraja of the Badami Chalukyas until the mid seventeenth century it passed on to Hyder Ali and then on to the British. The fort of Rayakottai (which is in Denkanikottai taluk) was captured by the British in the Anglo Mysore war.
And then... well... the British left.
Moving on, the surrounding halo around and further ahead is lush forests and the prime habitat of elephants forming a part of the 450 sq kms. of the Cauvery Elephant Reserve. In the Aiyur forest bungalow, where we take shelter (having spoken to the Forest Range Officer at Denkanikottai and wheedled him into providing us accommodation at short notice), we meet the newly appointed Unit Officer Praveen Kumar. We are eager to know about our chances of spotting elephant herds. He says he’s been around a month on his beats and has not spotted any. The consequence of good rains, he says. The animals tend to stay inside the forest. There is plenty of water and food available.
But then he also speaks of a 150-200-strong group of elephants that arrive around Diwali time in a huge migrating herd from across Karnataka, enter Tamil Nadu at the Aiyur forest. They then branch out into smaller groups of 20-30 and go across the neighbouring countryside. They are in party mood and have to be kept from straying into farmlands nearby. Having done their rather mammoth, pun intended, tour they come together in the state of Andhra. Now of course it is Telengana and A P. But they don't know that.
Praveen says they are kept away from straying from their route by bursting crackers and beating drums… He doesn't look too happy at the prospect. But then after seeing that massive spectacle he needn't bother about sighting a couple of them every now and then, I feel…
The Aiyur forest was initially the haunt of Kenneth Anderson, the hunter, conservator and wildlife documenter and writer who has written several volumes on the wildlife in this area. We see the KA house where he used to stay on his frequent trips.
Driving out of Denkanikottai and into the forested hillsides we see thickets of Bamboos by the hundreds, now dry and skeletal having reached the end of their tenure of 40-60 years and been harvested of their rice,(by the locals and the Irular community who are the original inhabitants of the area and whose staple food it is or at least used to be till the markets took over) adding an ethereal beauty to the scene. This is new to me. I’ve not seen such abundance before.
There is teak, rosewood, sandal and the Pungam famed for its bio oil. The forests are rich in medicinal herbs as in its flora and fauna. They are home to Deer, Wild boar, Panther, Sambar and Bear. So we are told by the old forest guard Samappa who hitches a ride with us from Denkanikottai and via Aiyur forest, Kovaipallam to Kodakkarai where we are intending to meet with the Irular tribal community. He is emphatic that we will not get to see any of these animals because of the plentiful rains and they don't need to come to the watering holes in search of water. And right he is...at least at Samieari, a stunningly beautiful water body surrounded by a ring of bamboos. Having taken photographs of the lake with some cattle seated around, we drive on.
The road branches off to Bettamugilalam but we ignore that for now and head towards Kodakere/Kodakkarai depending on whether Kannada/Tamil (though everyone here seems equally comfortable in both so much so that one can't make out the ethnicity). The roads are butter smooth, the drive a pleasure except for the hairpin bends that are slightly difficult to negotiate.
These roads Samappa says are about six months old. Accessibility is of vital importance. I’m reminded of the interiors of the Mon district of Nagaland, where Konyak tribals are cut off from civilization due to an utter lack of infrastructure. The kuccha approach roads that we took were a nightmare, and a prolonged one...
Interspersed with the post-monsoon bright emerald paddy fields of Kodakere, amidst thickly forested mountainsides, the scene is an eyeful and utterly compelling. Environs have not been meddled with. No tourist population is visible. The villagers have been left to themselves more or less and they have done a pretty good job of keeping things as they are.
We stand atop the watch tower and look down at the hillsides heavily blanketed in the verdant green of thick jungle. All is quiet. The valley below is Kovaipallam.
Samappa is obliging with information having put the thought of sighting wildlife out of our heads. I must give it to him though. He says “Bettamugilalam” real fast. He twirls it with his tongue letting the alliterative tail cascade in perfect sequence, while we struggle to negotiate each vowel after the correct consonant.
He is also talking now on the cell phone to the ‘Talaivar’( leader) Muniraj, of the Irular community. The signal comes and goes every now and then (we are in the middle of nowhere) and the process is laborious. Irular belong to the six primitive tribal communities of Tamilnadu, these being Kurumbar, Thodar, Paniyan, Kattunayakan and Kothar.
The term Irular is derived from the word ‘Irul’ meaning darkness hence Irular means ‘people of the dark’. This might denote the colour of their skin or their preference for darkness in carrying out their traditional functions. Irulars, are supposed to be endowed with keen eyesight which might be the result of being habituated to darkness or having not been exposed to excess light . By occupation they are hunters, snake and rat catchers and are used to sourcing forest produce, tubers such as ‘Maravalli Kizhangu’, Mahali (sarsaparilla) roots, greens, honey and herbs for their livelihood.
The next couple of hours that I spend with the Irular community is a unique experience indeed.
And one that belongs to a very different world...