WESTERN GHATS AREAS OF KERALA: MUNNAR, WILDLIFE AREAS AND THE CARDAMOM HILLS

WESTERN GHATS

Western Ghats is a range of gentle green hills and low mountains that run for more than 1,600 kilometers along India’s southwestern coast. The slopes are covered by forests, grasslands, small farms, rice paddies and tea, cardamon, coffee, cashew, pepper and rubber plantations. The average height is 900 meters. The hills and mountains slope steeply to the west and more gradually to the east. The highest peaks range between 1,800 and 2,400 meters. The mountains run parallel to the west coast of India in the southern-central states of Maharashtra and Karnataka and provide a natural barrier between Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the far south of India, helping to make sure the cultures there are separate and distinct.

Known for its spice-rich slopes and green swaths of rice fields, the Western Ghats occupy the western side of southern India. The Eastern Ghats — a less distinct and organized mountain range — are on the east side of southern India. The Deccan Plateau separates the northern part of the Western Ghats and Eastern Ghats. “Ghat” is Hindi word describing a stairways that leads into river used in sacred bathing. Anamudi, in Kerala, is the highest peak of the Western Ghats, with an elevation of 2,695 meters (8,842 ft).

The Western Ghats was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. According to UNESCO: Older than the Himalaya mountains, the mountain chain of the Western Ghats represents geomorphic features of immense importance with unique biophysical and ecological processes. The site’s high montane forest ecosystems influence the Indian monsoon weather pattern. Moderating the tropical climate of the region, the site presents one of the best examples of the monsoon system on the planet. It also has an exceptionally high level of biological diversity and endemism and is recognized as one of the world’s eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biological diversity. The forests of the site include some of the best representatives of non-equatorial tropical evergreen forests anywhere and are home to at least 325 globally threatened flora, fauna, bird, amphibian, reptile and fish species. [Source: UNESCO]

“The Western Ghats are internationally recognized as a region of immense global importance for the conservation of biological diversity, besides containing areas of high geological, cultural and aesthetic values. A chain of mountains running parallel to India’s western coast, approximately 30-50 kilometers inland, the Ghats traverse the States of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat. These mountains cover an area of around 140,000 square kilometers in a 1,600 kilometers long stretch that is interrupted only by the 30 kilometers Palghat Gap at around 11°N.”

Western Ghats Ecosystem

According to UNESCO: The Outstanding Universal Value of the Western Ghats is manifested in the region’s unique and fascinating influence on large-scale biophysical and ecological processes over the entire Indian peninsula. The mountains of the Western Ghats and their characteristic montane forest ecosystems influence the Indian monsoon weather patterns that mediate the warm tropical climate of the region, presenting one of the best examples of the tropical monsoon system on the planet. The Ghats act as a key barrier, intercepting the rain-laden monsoon winds that sweep in from the southwest during late summer. [Source: UNESCO]

“The Western Ghat at also help keep all of southern India going by absorbing rains during the monsoon and slowly releasing it through groundwater and rivers to the regions around them. Some places in Western Ghats receive almost 10 meters feet of rain a year. More than 60 rivers and hundreds of streams flow out of them. The Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery are important sources of water for drier eastern side of southern India.

“The Western Ghats region demonstrates speciation related to the breakup of the ancient landmass of Gondwanaland in the early Jurassic period; secondly to the formation of India into an isolated landmass and the thirdly to the Indian landmass being pushed together with Eurasia. Together with favorable weather patterns and a high gradient being present in the Ghats, high speciation has resulted. The Western Ghats is an “Evolutionary Ecotone” illustrating “Out of Africa” and “Out of Asia” hypotheses on species dispersal and vicariance.”

Wildlife and Plants in the Western Ghats

More than 1,400 plants, 23 mammals. 17 birds, 89 reptiles and 90 amphibians are found here and nowhere else in the world. Among the flagship species that are threatened are Asian elephants, tigers, the lion-tailed macaque and the Nilgiri tahr (a kind of wild goat).

According to UNESCO: “A significant characteristic of the Western Ghats is the exceptionally high level of biological diversity and endemism. This mountain chain is recognized as one of the world’s eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biological diversity along with Sri Lanka. The forests of the Western Ghats include some of the best representatives of non equatorial tropical evergreen forests in the world. At least 325 globally threatened (IUCN Red Data List) species occur in the Western Ghats. The globally threatened flora and fauna in the Western Ghats are represented by 229 plant species, 31 mammal species, 15 bird species, 43 amphibian species, 5 reptile species and 1 fish species. Of the total 325 globally threatened species in the Western Ghats, 129 are classified as Vulnerable, 145 as Endangered and 51 as Critically Endangered. [Source: UNESCO]

The Western Ghats contain exceptional levels of plant and animal diversity and endemicity for a continental area. In particular, the level of endemicity for some of the 4-5,000 plant species recorded in the Ghats is very high: of the nearly 650 tree species found in the Western Ghats, 352 (54 percent) are endemic. Animal diversity is also exceptional, with amphibians (up to 179 species, 65 percent endemic), reptiles (157 species, 62 percent endemic), and fishes (219 species, 53 percent endemic). Invertebrate biodiversity, once better known, is likely also to be very high (with some 80 percent of tiger beetles endemic). A number of flagship mammals occur in the property, including parts of the single largest population of globally threatened ‘landscape’ species such as the Asian Elephant, Gaur and Tiger. Endangered species such as the lion-tailed Macaque, Nilgiri Tahr and Nilgiri Langur are unique to the area. The property is also key to the conservation of a number of threatened habitats, such as unique seasonally mass-flowering wildflower meadows, Shola forests and Myristica swamps.

Western Ghats Conservation

The Western Ghats has been designated a biological hot spot because they are rich in wildlife and plant life and are threatened by the encroachment from people. Of the 62,000 square miles of forest that once covered the mountains only about 5,000 square miles remains undisturbed. The primary threats are expanding settlements and agriculture, dams and mines. In some places large tracts of forest have been cut down for tea plantations and groves of eucalyptus trees to fire tea-processing factories.

According to UNESCO: “The property is made up of 39 component parts grouped into 7 sub-clusters. The serial approach is justified in principle from a biodiversity perspective because all 39 components belong to the same biogeographic province, and remain as isolated remnants of previous contiguous forest. The justification for developing a serial approach rather than just identifying one large protected area to represent the biodiversity of the Western Ghats is due to the high degree of endemism, meaning that species composition from the very north of the mountains to 1,600km south varies greatly, and no one site could tell the story of the richness of these mountains. The formulation of this complex serial nomination has evolved through a consultative process drawing on scientific analysis from various sources. The 39 component parts grouped into 7 sub-clusters together reflect the Outstanding Universal Value of the property and capture the range of biological diversity and species endemism in this vast landscape.

The 39 component parts of this serial property fall under a number of protection regimes, ranging from Tiger Reserves, National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries, and Reserved Forests. All components are owned by the State and are subject to stringent protection under laws including the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, the Indian Forest Act of 1927, and the Forest Conservation Act (1980). Through these laws the components are under the control of the Forestry Department and the Chief Wildlife Warden, providing legal protection. 40 percent of the property lies outside of the formal protected area system, mostly in Reserved Forests, which are legally protected and effectively managed. The Forest Conservation Act (1980) provides the regulatory framework to protect them from infrastructure development.

Integrating the management of 39 components across 4 States is a challenge, for which a three-tier governance mechanism is required that will operate at the Central, State and Site levels to provide effective coordination and oversight to the 39 components. A Western Ghats Natural Heritage Management Committee (WGNHMC) under the auspices of the Ministry of Environment of Forests (MoEF), Government of India to deal with coordination and integration issues is already functional. All 39 components in the 7 sub-clusters are managed under specific management / working plans duly approved by the State/Central governments. The livelihood concerns of the local communities are regulated by the Forest Rights Acts, 2006 and their participation in governance is ensured through Village Ecodevelopment Committees (VECs).

Cardamom Hills

The Cardamom Hills or Yela Mala are a group of mountains that are part of the southern Western Ghats. Their name comes from the cardamom spice grown in plantation in the hills. Cardamom is native to the Western Ghats are grows well in the hills' cool elevation and wet monsoon climate, which is also condusive to growing tea, pepper and coffee. The Periyar Sub-Cluster, which includes the Cardamom Hills, is part of the Western Ghats UNESCO World Heritage Sites. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Cardamom Hills cover about 2,800 square kilometers of mountainous terrain with deep valleys, and includes drainage areas of the west flowing Periyar, Mullayar and Pamba rivers. The Cardamom Hills join the Anaimalai Hills to the northwest, the Palani Hills to the northeast and the Pothigai to the south as far as the Aryankavu pass, The crest of the hills form the boundary between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Anamudi (8,842 ft (2695 m)) in Eravikulam National Park, is the highest peak in Western Ghats and also the highest point in India south of the Himalayas.

The Cardamom Hills are also called the Elephant Hills. They range in elevation between 300–2,700 meters (980–8,860 feet) and 2,695 meters (8,842 feet) above sea level. There are several named peaks over 2,000 meters (6,600 ft) in the mountain range including: 1) Anamala, 2,695 meters (8,842 ft) in Eravikulam National Park; 2) Meesapulimala, 2,640 meters (8,660 feet) near Munnar; 3) Kattumala, 2,552 meters (8,373 feet) near Idukki; 4) Devimala, 2,523 meters (8,278 feet) near Devikulam; 5) Kumarikkal Mala, 2,522 meters (8,274 feet) near Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary; 6) Eravimala, 2,400 meters (7,900 feet) near Munnar; 7) Nandala Mala, 2,372 meters (7,782 feet) near Marayur; 8) Kottakombu Mala, 2,144 meters (7,034 feet) in Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary; 9) Kottamala, 2,019 meters (6,624 feet) near Thekkady; 10) Karimkulam, 2,585 meters (8,481 feet) near Munnar.

The hills experience average daily temperatures of 15 °C in winter to 31 °C in summer (April–May). The annual rainfall of 2,000 mm to 3,000 mm in Periyar decreases to less than 1,500 mm in the east in Srivilliputtur Wildlife Sanctuary. On the western side, two-thirds of the precipitation is received during the southwest monsoon from June to September. The areas also receive rainfall from the northeast monsoon (October–December) and from pre-monsoon showers (April–May).

The Cardamom Hills are made up largely of several contiguous protected areas intended to restrict human access, protect specific endangered species and preserve some of the still undeveloped forest biomes. The central part of the hills comprise the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary covering an area of 777 square kilometers. The 350 square kilometers core zone of the sanctuary is the Periyar National Park and Tiger Reserve. Periyar is a major ecotourism destination. To the south of the Periyar Tiger Reserve are the reserve forests of the Ranni, Konni and Achankovil Forest Divisions. The Srivilliputtur Wildlife Sanctuary and reserved forests of the Tirunelveli Forest Division are contiguous with Periyar on the eastern side of the hills in Tamil Nadu in the rain-shadow area with mostly drier forests. Meghamalai Wildlife Sanctuary to protect several threatened species including: Bengal tiger, Indian elephant, Nilgiri tahr, lion-tailed macaque, slender loris, grizzled giant squirrel, Salim Ali's fruit bat, great Indian hornbill, Hutton's pitviper and Vindhyan bob butterfly.

Cardamom

Cardamom is one of the most ancient spices and one of the most expensive (only saffron costs more). A member of the ginger family native to the Western Ghats region of southern India, it has a warm sweet and aromatic aroma, with camphorous, lemony and eucalyptus undertones, and is particularly popular in the Middle East, where it used as a flavoring for coffee. It is also used in a variety of foods and drinks in India and northern Europe.

The ancient Egyptians chewed cardamom as a teeth cleaner. The Greeks and Romans used as perfume. Vikings that traveled through Russia to Constantinople brought it back to Scandinavia, where it remains popular today. Arabs ascribed aphrodisiac qualities to it and was mentioned a number of times in Arabian Nights. Today, cardamon is grown in India, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Southeast Asia and Tanzania. The wild version of the plant can still be found in southern India.

Cardamon comes from small, brown-black sticky seeds found in the pods of the cardamon plant. The pods are 5 to 20 millimeters long. The dried pods are rough wrinkled and have a texture like sandpaper. The pods are sold whole. The seeds are sold whole or ground. It is best to buy the pods or seeds whole. Ground cardamon quickly loses its flavor.

The cardamom bush reaches a height of 16 feet and has green flowers with a white, purple-veined tip and long tuberous, green leaves that are up to two feet long and six inches wide. The pods are found on leaf stalks that grow near the ground at the base of the plant.

Cardamon has traditionally been grown in partially cleared tropical rainforests, leaving some trees for shade. Today it is grown mostly on partially shaded plantations. The pods are collected before they open so the capsules don't split open during drying. They are dried under the sun or with smoke from burnt coconut husks, roots and branches, and sometimes bleached with sulphur fumes.

Munnar

Munnar (110 kilometers from Kochi) is a non-descript mile-high hill station surrounded by lush green tea, coffee and cardamom plantations. Located in the Cardamom Hills region of the Western Ghats, it is near forests, lakes, reservoir, and the highest peak in South India —2,695-meter (8,842-foot) -high Anamudi in Eravikulam National Park. Sight nearby include the remains of a stone age civilization, an Indo-Swiss dairy farm, Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary, and the Devikulam tea growing area.

Nestled at the confluence of three rushing rivers — Mudrapuzha, Nallathanbi and Kundala — Munnar literally means three rivers. Replete with picturesque greenery, valleys and mountains along with a plethora of unique flora and fauna in the nearby national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, Munnar is an exhilarating and peaceful travel destination. During the blooming season, every 12 years, the town is metamorphoses into an artist's canvas, when the beautiful and vibrant Neelakurinji flower carpets the land in hues of purple and blue. It is truly a sight to behold as the town.

The region around Munnar was once the summer retreat of the British Government and several maharajas of the Travancore Kingdom. It was once known as the High Range of Travancore. There is not so much to see in Munnar other than Mount Carmel Church, known for its colonial architecture and exquisite artworks, and Blossom International Park but the town has a nice, mellow atmosphere with a range of places to stay and eat. 2,695-meter (8,842-foot) -high Anamudi has a number of trails and is a popular destination for trekkers and backpackers. Access is available all year round, including the rainy season, when the Munnar is its most vibrant and fragrant.

Davin O'Dwyer wrote in the Washington Post: “As a town, Munnar has been blighted by thoughtless overdevelopment, with large hotels springing up in shambolic fashion. But traces of its history as a hill station, or colonial mountain town, remain, such as a few Christian churches and the High Ranges club, the latter persevering as if the sun had never fully set on the empire.” [Source: Davin O'Dwyer, Washington Post, March 8, 2014]

Top Station is one of the most stunning spots in Munnar. Situated at 1,700 meters above sea level, it provides magnificent views of Munnar and areas around it and is the highest railway station in the Kundala Valley. One can also get brilliant views of the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. Top Station deserves a special visit during the blooming season of Neelakurinji flower, when it blankets hills and valleys for miles. The station serves as the western entrance to the Palani Hills National Park. Stop at Echo Point on the way to Top Station. If you shout from this viewpoint, your voice will bounce off the hills and echo for several seconds.

Getting There: Munnar is well-connected to Kochi, Bangalore, Mysore and other larger cities in southern India. By Air: The nearest airport is in Kochi, about 110 kilometers away. One can easily avail cab services from there. By Road: Munnar has good, reasonably good roads connecting it to various cities and points in South India. By Train: The nearest railway stations are Aluva and Ernakulum, 110 and 125 kilometers away respectively. Ernakulum is well-connected to the rest of network in India.

Near Munnar

There are many waterfalls and tea, cardamom and coffee plantations in the Munnar area. Among the main sights near Munnar are Thommankuthu Waterfall, 18 kilometers away from the town of Thodupuzha, Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Tea Museum, established by Tata Tea; Pallivasal Waterfalls, accessible from Pallivasal village; and Kundala Lake

Marayoor (outskirts of Munnar) is a hamlet known for its natural sandalwood forests and sugarcane farms. Inside the Marayoor Forest Range is Muniyara, a prehistoric site with murals, relics and rock paintings from the New Stone Age. Archaeologists are currently excavating sites here. Ancient sites here include Dolmenoid Cists, a 2000-year-old burial ground with four stones, each placed on one corner and capped by a larger stone, and Ezhuthupara, with cave paintings. The Sandalwood Regeneration Experimental Plot is a forest with 65,000 sandalwood trees. Here you learn how sandalwood is processed. The sandalwood factory of the Forest Department and the children's park along with Thoovanam Waterfall and Rajiv Gandhi National Park are located nearby. River Pambar also passes through Marayoor and makes for a beautiful sight.

Carmelagiri Elephant Park (seven kilometers east of Munnar on Mattupetty Road near Mattupetty Dam) is a good place to check out the state animal of Kerala. Elephant-back trips are organized through rolling slopes, sprawling tea plantations and parks with towering trees and give a spectacular view of rough Munnar paths. One can also feed the elephants and talk to the mahouts about their behaviour and learn about their moods. The elephants are trained and well cared for by the mahouts.

Sabarimala (70 kilometers south of Munnar, 200 kilometers southeast of Kochi) is a well known pilgrimage center. Ayappa Temples is beautifully situated among dense forests and rugged mountains in the Western Ghats. The temple can be reached by a five kilometers walk from the town of Pampa. Aranamula is another major pilgrimage route in the area. There are also interesting temples in Kaviyoor, Mannadi and Kozhenncherru. Perumthenaruvi has a beautiful waterfall that drops into 160-foot-deep ravine. In Niranam there is a church believed to have been founded by the Apostle St. Thomas in A.D. 52

Tea Areas Near Munnar

Davin O'Dwyer wrote in the Washington Post: “In this part of the Western Ghats mountain region, the steep hillsides are covered with about 60,000 acres of tea plantations — an industry begun by the British, who established the plantations in the late 19th century. The result is a stunning vista: The vast swaths of tea bushes cling to the hills like a soft emerald carpet. The narrow pathways between the bushes, the trails followed by the tea pickers, lead to patterned grooves accentuating the topography, appearing from a distance as if some godlike cartographer had inked contour lines onto the mountain slopes. [Source: Davin O'Dwyer, Washington Post, March 8, 2014]

“We normally think of a physical colonial legacy in terms of architectural styles and urban design — the distinctive angles of the roofscape, the width of the boulevards, the patterns of the brickwork. But the colonizer doesn’t leave an imprint just in the city streets, and in the hills around Munnar, we see a different type of physical legacy, a landscape radically altered by the British. The emerald sheen of the hillsides comes courtesy of the empire’s insatiable appetite for tea. Intrepid colonists such as John Daniel Munro and A.W. Turner made their way up to the High Ranges, as they called them, and discovered that the altitude, gradient and orientation of the slopes were particularly suited to the cultivation of tea.

“And that wasn’t the extent of their impact. To provide enough wood to fuel the tea production process, eucalyptus seeds were smuggled in from Australia, and now the hilltops are covered with fast-growing, ramrod-straight eucalyptus trees, standing as if in severe vertical rebuke to the natural curves all around. As has happened so often in India, the imposed traditions of the occupier, from the Mughals to the British, have been subsumed into the local identity, assimilated with ease into the larger national narrative. Thus, Indians drink copious amounts of “chai,” usually sweetened beyond recognition, and the tea landscape, too, becomes absorbed into the local tradition, a proud part of the heritage rather than evidence of an alien legacy.

Anayirankal (on the outskirts of Munnar, on the way to Thekkady) is noted for its tea plantations. Stretching across miles of hills and valleys, the plantations are ideal for a refreshing walk. There is also a small hydro-electric dam here surrounded by green plantations that tourists can visit. While mornings are abuzz with the activities of the workers at the plantations, the evenings are quiet, spent in the company of cups of tea and a cool breeze. You can also go boating at the reservoir here. Herds of elephants come down from the jungles nearby to drink at the reservoir.

Kolukkumalai Tea Plantation (38 kilometers away from Munnar) is said to be the highest tea plantation in the world. Located at 2,407 meters (7,900 feet), this hill-top plantation is accessible only by jeep. One can enjoy breathtaking view of the Munnar Valley and the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. There are opportunities for walkers and long-distance trekkers. A guided tour of the plantation and the tea factory is available. Tea is processed in a two-storeyed wooden building using a technique of processing that has been in use for decades. This traditional process is quite different than the modern, common CTC (crush-tear-curl) method. It involves seven steps - withering, rolling, sieving, fermenting, drying, fibre extraction, and grading. At the shop you can buy a variety of flavors like the Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP) and the Flowery Orange Pekoe (FOP).

Wildlife Areas Near Munnar

Pampadum Shola National Park (35 kilometers east of Munnar) is the smallest national park in Kerala state. Opened in 2003, it is home to several endangered species of flora and fauna and attracts travelers with its lush forests and a variety of wildlife and trekking trails. The name of the park means “forest where the snake dances”. The ideal time to visit the park is between August and

Pampadum Shola National Park is rich in exotic flora with around 22 species of trees, 74 species of herbs and shrubs and 16 species of identified climbers. The important mammals residing in the park include elephant, gaur, leopard, wild boar, sambar deer and common langur. The Nilgiri marten, the only species of marten found in South India, can also be spotted here. Around 14 species of birds, nine species of mammals and 93 species of moths have also been recorded. The best surprise is the variety of butterflies that will surround you. Around 100 species have been recorded at the park. Of these, many are rare like the Parantica nilgiriensis (Nymphalidae), which is listed threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Some notable birds found include the Nilgiri Wood-pigeon, Nilgiri flycatcher, white-bellied shortwing, etc. An exciting trekking trail takes travelers through the Munnar-Kodaikanal forest road to Vandaravu. If you want to stay in the wild for a day or two, there are log houses situated at Kuttikadu and Neduvarpu.

Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary (60 kilometers north of Munnar, 18 kilometers north of Marayoor, near the border of Tamil Nadu) is home to a wide variety of wildlife species and is rich of flora too, with nearly a thousand species of flowering plants, as well as dry deciduous forests and grasslands. From birds and butterflies to mammals and moths, one can witness nature in all its beauty and glory here. Chinnar Sanctuary also has the largest number of reptiles within the state, including the rare mugger crocodile. It is also home to the grizzled giant squirrel; numbering less than 200, it is one of the most endangered species in the world. The other animals that can be found include spotted deer, sambar deer, Hanuman langur and peacock. The sanctuary is the home of Thoovanam Waterfalls. For a panoramic view of the entire area, including a sight of the falls, climb to the top of the watchtower here; vast expanses of green forests extending to the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu and far away mountains can be seen. The sanctuary also has many trekking destinations.

Periyar National Park (50 kilometers south of Munnar, 200 kilometers southeast of Kochi) covers 776 square kilometers (300 square miles).One of India's most popular parks, it welcomes 12,000 visitors a day, mainly Indians, during the peak season, hoping to see wild elephants and rare lion-tailed macaques. Among the other animal seen here are tiger, sambar, barking deer, mouse deer, Nilgiri tahr, wild dog, porcupine, Malabar squirrel, flying squirrel, sloth bear, gaur, wild pig, darters, cormorants, ospreys, kingfishers, kites, great hornbills, grey hornbills, hill myna, oriole, monitor lizard, king cobra and flying frog. Tigers are rarely seen but wild boar, wild buffalo, elephants and lion-tailed macaques are often seen.

The park is most easily reached by boat on a lake in its northeast corner. The lake was created by a dam built by the British in 1895. Many visitors take a boat ride in the lake to observe animals on the shore. The tourist boats are noisy and scare away many of the animals. You are better off if you can arrange a private boat but of course that is much more expensive. Hikers are led on the Periyar Tiger trail by former poachers.

Eravikulam National Park

Eravikulam National Park (13 kilometers north of Munnar) sits on a 95-square-kilometer (37-square mile) plateau. Established in 1978, the park was created to protect the largest population of Nilgiri tahr. About a third of the 2,500 or so of these animals that are left in the world live here, The land that the park sits on is too cold for raising tea. Lower down you can find tea plantations that regularly have wild elephants stroll through them and forests where tigers and leopards still prowl.

The Nilgiri tahr is a species of mountain goat currently listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Other animals found in the park are the Indian flying fox, Asiatic jackal, sloth bear and small Indian civet. The valleys of the park are covered with shola forests and jungle. Turner’s Valley, which sits about halfway into the park, is the deepest point. Neelakurinji plants, which bloom once every 12 years, and Anamudi, the highest peak in South India, are located in the park. The park is closed to the public during January-February because it is the calving season of the Nilgiri tahr. .

Davin O'Dwyer wrote in the Washington Post: Eravikulam National Park “stretches over some 37 square miles above the line of vegetation, the green giving way to yellow-tinged, tough grass and exposed rock. The treetops and tea plantations are arrayed on the hillsides below, and from here you get an unrivaled view of the rolling countryside, with pockets of mist occupying some valleys while occasional lost-looking clouds skim the highest peaks. Looming over the reserve is Anaimudi mountain... It’s a forbidding hunk of rock, earning the nickname Elephant Head with its imposing outline. [Source: Davin O'Dwyer, Washington Post, March 8, 2014]

“One of the chief attractions of Eravikulam is the Nilgiri tahr, a rare mountain goat that was nearly extinct a century ago but now numbers approximately 3,000, about half of them in this reserve. Unlike the wild elephants that you can glimpse in certain wide pastures in the valleys below, the Nilgiri tahr are happy to approach the pathway, mingling with visitors in nonchalant fashion. Signs warning people not to stray off the track are in English and Malayalam, which uses a script peculiarly apt for this part of the world. The voluptuous letters, all round curves and looping twirls, beautifully match the landscape. Fittingly, the word Malayalam itself means “hill region. Every dozen years or so, the tough grass suddenly turns bright blue as the native Kurinji flower blooms across the hillside, adding another dose of color to the landscape, almost as if nature is offering occasional respite from the pure greenery below.”

Palakkad

Palakkad (150 kilometers northeast of Kochi) is situated at the foot of the Western Ghats and features dense forests, lush paddy fields, waterfalls and rich history. Popularly known as the granary of Kerala, this fertile stretch of land is where several legendary battles were fought against the British regime and where nature never stops giving. The dense forests of Palakkad shelter many species of flora and fauna and is home to reserves, national parks and bird sanctuaries. Highlights include the Mayiladumpara Peacock Sanctuary and Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, where tigers are sometimes seen at water holes. The place derives its name from the Malayalam words pala (a kind of tree) and kadu (forest). Pala trees are known for their sweet-scented flowers.

Palakkad Fort (in the heart of Palakkad city) is surrounded by a moat. A track parallel to the moat acts as a jogging and walking track, where people are most plentiful in the relatively cool morning and evening hours. A temple of Lord Hanuman adjacent to the fort is also popular. There is a museum of history and archaeology inside the fort. The foundation of the Palakkad Fort was laid by Hyder Ali of Mysore in 1766. Later, the fort passed into the hands of the British, who modified it in 1790. Currently, the fort is preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

Getting There: By Air: The nearest airport is Peelamedu Airport, 43 kilometers away from Palakkad. By Road: Regular buses to Palakkad from other major cities of the country are easily available. By Train: Palakkad is well-connected to other major cities of the country via regular trains.

Near Palakkad

Parambikulam Tiger Reserve (three hours, 50 kilometers as the crow flies, southeast of Palakkad) lies in the Nelliampathy–Anamalai area of the Western Ghats. Formerly known as Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, it houses one of the world’s first scientifically managed teak plantations and is home to the world's oldest and tallest teak tree, which is almost 50 meters high, as tall as a 17-storey building! The reserve is home to more than 30 tigers and several sightings are reported every season. It is also home to several other animals, birds and fish. Other than wildlife safaris, the reserve is known for its natural beauty, with undulating hills and jungles. It is possible to a lake. There are a few tribal settlements inside the reserve, where tourists are often offered lunch.

Dhoni Falls (in Dhoni village, about 12 kilometers from Palakkad) is a popular trekking area. The waterfalls is not very wide, but the area surroundings it is quite beautiful. A three-hour trek from the base of the hills leads to the reserve forest, through which one can access the waterfall. The forest area around the falls is rich in wildlife like elephant, tiger, deer and others. The best time to visit this serene spot is from June to October during monsoons, when the waterfalls is in full flow. Swimming in the waterfalls is not allowed.

Kalari Kovilakom: the Palace for Ayurveda

Brown wrote in the New York Times: ““For pilgrims with deep pockets wanting an authentic immersion into this ancient medical system, including a radical purification and detoxification treatment known as pancha karma, the Kalari Kovilakom — which markets itself as combining “the indulgence of a palace with the austerity of an ashram” — is the real deal.“But with the reimagining of this historic rajah’s palazzo by the Casino Group — Keralan hoteliers who have shrewdly rechristened themselves CHG Earth — the ante has been considerably upped. [Source: Patricia Leigh Brown, New York Times, August 13, 2006]

“There is a sign at the entrance to Kalari Kovilakom, the more than 150-year-old palace in the state of Kerala, India, now known as the Palace for Ayurveda, that says “Please Leave Your World Here.” But, having encountered elephants ambling along the highway from the airport, you already have. You have taken the Order, the humble oath of four-star asceticism. You have agreed to forsake all known forms of vacation decadence (rice gruel for dinner, anyone?), to give up meat, alcohol, caffeine, leather accessories, naps, sunbathing, swimming and mindless frivolity in order to purify and balance your whacked-out Western body and soul.

“You are here to immerse yourself in ayurveda, the 3,500-year-old herb-based healing tradition that still flourishes in the daily life of India. Within the palace’s teak-columned halls, with exquisite images of gods and goddesses carved into the ceiling, you are less tourist than nun. Your Patagonia clothes, bought at great expense in anticipation of premonsoon humidity and soaked in a toxic cocktail of insecticide as per your doctor’s instructions, have been exchanged for compulsory no-frills attire meant to relax the mind. These were whipped up overnight by a tailor who came to your room — garments, as one guest from London observed, “that made us look a bit like ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ ”

“The palace lies in “the land of the cloud-capped hills” in the remote Palakkad district against the Western Ghats, the otherworldly mountains bordering Tamil Nadu. Kalari Kovilakom is not exactly a hotel, not exactly a hospital and not exactly a spa, but a weird hybrid with a Mother Superior aura (in accordance with strict ayurvedic principles the establishment requires a minimum 14-day stay...from about $5,000, including meals, treatments, airport pickup, yoga and requisite ayurvedic garb; (91-4923-263737 or 263155; www.cghearth.com).

Checking Into Kalari Kovilakom

Patricia Leigh Brown wrote in the New York Times: “Catatonic with jet lag, I arrived at Kalari Kovilakom as the first installment of a two-week trip to India in which I would dip in and out of Ayurveda World. Traveling solo...Unlike my Kalari brethren, who were committed to at least two weeks of pancha karma — albeit without the more extreme purges involving induced vomiting and blood-letting with leeches — I was a fallen woman from the start. To supplement strange hot green decoctions of herbs sipped like tea, I secretly mainlined Peet’s coffee from San Francisco with a portable REI French press in my room, an unspeakable act of moral weakness that was ayurvedic suicide. [Source: Patricia Leigh Brown, New York Times, August 13, 2006]

“I hid this from Dr. Rudram Amma Sreelatha, one of two staff doctors, who had a hibiscus on her desk, as she began, as is customary, with a lengthy consultation to determine the elements, or doshas, of my native constitution — a process she refers to as “diagramming the person.” “Are you tired or fresh when you wake up?” she asked with probing eyes. “Do you remember your dreams?” “What were your childhood diseases?” “How is your sexual life?”

“Then it was on to Raj Shekhar, the palace’s gifted yoga instructor. “Do you prefer foods that are sweet, sour, salt, bitter or chilly?” he wanted to know. “How is your thirst?” “Have you had any traumas in childhood?” Five years of therapy had suddenly collapsed into a single morning. And it wasn’t even lunchtime.

Ayurvedic Treatment

at Kalari Kovilakom

Patricia Leigh Brown wrote in the New York Times: “Ayurvedic doctors like Dr. Sreelatha diagnose illnesses and imbalances through darsana, observing the way a person moves, walks and behaves; sparsana, touching; and prasna, interrogating. “We are not treating part by part and organ by organ,” Dr. Sreelatha explained kindly. “We consider the body and soul.”

“Soon I found myself spread-eagled in a muslin loincloth as the beatific 24-year-old Sreeni Gopi lit a candle, said a prayer and anointed the crown of my head with sandalwood paste. With another therapist — there are usually two or more — she began kalari uzhichil, a massage that harks back to kalari payattu, the traditional Keralan martial art that once flourished at the palace and employed ayurveda for optimum health.

“On a table shaped vaguely like a human being, hollowed slightly to capture oil, my spine was a cobra unfurling. Then Ms. Gopi led me to what appeared to be a gigantic cabinet, actually an herbal steam bath. Sweat mingled with oil as I sat in a Victrola cabinet of steam. “My vata imbalance — sapping my creativity and “native pitta fire” — melted away under ladlefuls of warm water mixed with green gram, a slightly exfoliating lentil. The goddess, in the act of bathing, had returned me to an infant state.”

On her daily treatments, Brown wrote: “She was Glinda in a sari. Early that morning, she had glided ethereally across the courtyard with her fellow healing goddesses, their feet bare, their flowing white garb edged in gold. The bird trills reverberated off the palace walls. “Please sit,” she said prayerfully. Soon, thick warm sesame oil infused with medicinal herbs began to permeate my meager muslin thong. She breathed heavily, karate-chopping the oil with the edges of her hands. She gently pummeled me with poultices, hot bundles of herbs resembling bouquets garnis. In the background, I heard oil sizzling. I felt a strange compulsion to go fry myself in a wok.”

Daily Life and Guests at Kalari Kovilakom

Patricia Leigh Brown wrote in the New York Times: “ Daybreak finds K. Narayayanan Nair, an ayurvedic chef whose first language is Malayalam, the native language of Kerala, standing barefoot in the kitchen roasting chappatis over an open flame — a scene that would not be found at Canyon Ranch. His vessels are copper, stone and clay. “Aluminum can harm the nature of food,” he explained. “Very bad for stomach.” [Source: Patricia Leigh Brown, New York Times, August 13, 2006]

“Mornings unfolded simply, with music from nearby Hindu temples the reveille of India. Yoga began in a deeply shaded sanctum; the heat seemed almost a living being. Breakfast, a steamed rice-flour pancake with a plantain cooked with coconut and brown sugar, arrived ceremoniously on a brass tray, eaten, as is traditional, with the hands. Afterward guests (or were we patients?) drifted maharajah-like across marble floors, polished and fragrant with lemon grass oil.

““It’s not Mauritius or Bali,” observed Patrice Gilbert, a Parisian pharmacist who was completing two weeks of pancha karma with his wife with a farewell dinner of artfully prepared gruel. “It’s a treatment. The most important thing is the quiet, because you are inquiring within yourself. It’s a silent release.” Allergic either to oil or austerity I promptly broke out in a rash. But Kerala was filled with ardent ayurvedists.

“There was Sue Muir, a 54-year-old headhunter from Warwickshire, England, who was seeking relief from asthma and found it with nasal inhalation treatments and “very expensive pummeling.” There was Florence d’Hauterive, a Parisian 50-something human resources executive, who has been to Kerala six times for ayurveda simply to unwind (“I’m not an ashram-type person,” she said of the voluntary severity of a hotel similar to Kalari Kovilakom. “I got so depressed I almost ran away”).

“And there was Dr. Irfan Sheikh, an Indian-born English pediatrician who, frustrated by the inability of Western medicine — known in India as “English” or “allopathic” medicine — to address chronic pain, began incorporating both acupuncture and ayurveda in his practice. He was in Kerala having ayurvedic treatments to “kick start” his own immune system after cancer surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. “They offered me anti-depressants,” he said of his Western colleagues. “But I wasn’t depressed.”

Wayanad

Wayanad (75 kilometers northeast of Kozhikode, 75 kilometers west-northwest of Ooty) has been called the land of spices. Coffee, cardamom and tea plantations envelope the landscape with lush emerald greenery and fill the air with fragrances and aromas. Perched on the southernmost tip of the Deccan plateau, Wayanad boasts dense forests that are one of the 20 reserves in UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

A bridge to neighbouring states, the hills of Wayanad are connected with Bandipur (Karnataka) and Mudumalai (Tamil Nadu) to form a massive landmass that helps the wildlife of the region to freely move around in their natural surroundings. Among Wayanad’s attractions are picnic spots next to mountain streams, serene lakes and cascading waterfalls. There are places for mountain biking, camping, trekking, speed boating, zorbing and ziplining. For wildlife enthusiasts there wildlife safaris, forest trails and treehouses. Wayanad is also home to Edakkal Caves, where some of the oldest signs of human settlement in India are preserved.

Getting There: Wayanad is accessible from of Mysore, Bangalore, Ooty and Coorg as well as places in northern Kerala. By Air: Kannur International Airport, 58 kilometers away, and Kozhikode International Airport, 120 kilometers away, are the nearest airports to Wayanad. By Road: Wayanad is connected through Meppadi village on the road between Ooty and Nilambur. By Train: The nearest railhead is Nilambur, 90 kilometers away.

Wayanad Area

Chembra Peak (visible from almost all parts of Wayanad) is the highest mountain in the region and a haven for trekkers and nature lovers. It lies at a height of about 2,100 meters above sea level. Trekking to the top is a challenge. On the way trekkers pas waterfalls and lush green surroundings. The peak offers a panoramic view of entire Wayanad and some parts of Kozhikode, Malappuram and Niligiri districts. The Chembra Peak can be visited anytime during the year but during the monsoon season the descent can be quite slippery. An hour long trek from the peak will take you to a heart-shaped pond.

Neelimala is one of the most picturesque viewpoints in the Wayanad area. Flanked by beautiful and aromatic coffee and ginger plantations, it reached by a popular hiking trail that offers splendid views of the Meenmutti Waterfalls and the Western Ghats. The hiking trail is blessed with some beautiful flowery plants and as you climb higher, the landscape changes to a large grassland. The slopes are often shrouded in mist. There are some interesting boulder formations.

Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (outskirts of Wayanad, straddling the states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu) is protected forest areas of the the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary is home to rich biodiversity. Sheltering a mix of South Indian moist deciduous forests, West Coast semi-evergreen forests and trees of teak and eucalyptus, the sanctuary houses fauna like tigers, panthers, langurs, bonnet macaques, bison, sambars, monkeys, Malabar squirrels, bears, monitor lizards, elephants, crocodiles, flying lizards, turtles, skinks and the rare slender Loris. The sanctuary is an integral part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. The Muthanga and Tholpetty eco-tourism spots are located in the sanctuary and offer wildlife experience to visitors. The best way to explore the sanctuary is through jeep safaris, where you can sight grazing deer, herds of elephants and if you are lucky an elusive tiger drinking from one of the many waterholes in the area.

Nilambur (60 kilometers east of Kozhikode, 60 kilometers west of Ooty, 148 kilometers west of Coimbatore) features undulating roads, stretches of coconut trees, swathes of paddy fields, dense forests of mixed vegetation, and long arms of rivers and backwaters. Approaching Nilambur, in Malappuram district, the road passes through teak plantations on either side. The town is home to the world’s first teak museum (established in May 1995 at the campus of the sub-center of Kerala Forest Research Institute) and Conolly’s Plot, the first man-made teak plantation in the world (established by the British in the 1840s to provide high quality teak for a variety of purposes). The lovely Bio-resources Nature Park and 143-meter-long suspension bridge across Chaliyar river near Conolly’s Plot, are worth a look.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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