Tucked inside Kerala, God’s Own Country, Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary and Tiger Reserve is one of the best places to see elephants up close.
A hushed silence enveloped the boat that was bubbling with noise a while ago. To our right, a herd of elephants were standing at the edge of the water.
A few of the adults were already in the water while others were trying to guide the cubs that seemed more interested in chasing each other. One elephant stood a little apart, that was the matriarch somebody whispered.
We were in Periyar Tiger Reserve tucked inside Kerala, the state on India’s southern end, popularly known as ‘God’s Own Country’.
The evening before we had driven down from Madurai.
Past Kumily, a town dotted with innumerable spice shops and budget hotels, the car climbed up a small uphill road, past plantations and several resorts and drew up at Thekkady village.
We decided to postpone the spice shopping for the return journey.
At the end of the village, on way to the Periyar Lake was our place of stay, the Periyar House, one of the three properties that Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) runs here.
The most attractive part of the Periyar Tiger Reserve is the huge lake that offers an opportunity to watch elephants and other animals up close from the safety of boats.
The forest department runs several boat trips daily at fixed hours. Usually, the boat rides last for one and a half hours.
We arrived early at the forest entry gate to buy our entry and parking tickets. Then it was a mad rush for the boat tickets, everyone hoping to get a seat on the upper deck. Our entry passes and boat tickets duly checked, we took our seats, thankfully in the side open upper deck.
Our boat glided carefully past the fossilised branches that rose from the water like gnarled fingers, reminding us that the lake was formed when the Periyar River was dammed and its reservoir inundated prime forest land.
The Periyar Lake was formed in 1895, after the erstwhile Travancore state permitted the Madras state to construct the Mullaperiyar Dam across Periyar River to provide irrigation facilities.
Realizing the importance of wildlife preservation, in 1933, Travancore appointed S.C.H. Robinson, a retired Land Commissioner as the Game Warden, on whose recommendation, an area around the lake was declared as the Nellikkampetti Game Sanctuary in 1934.
After independence, the area became known as the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.
From the boat, we watched cormorants and darters sitting on the stumps, sunning themselves.
We continued our journey past the extravagant KTDC-run luxurious Lake Palace Hotel, which was perched atop an island in the middle of the lake.
We spotted several families of otters on the far bank.
Rising from the shore, the open grasslands receded into semi evergreen forests.
Apart from elephants, we saw sambar and wild boar.
But one has to have an unusual dose of luck to catch a glimpse of the tiger.
According to the forest department, there are 62 species of mammals, 315 species of birds, 45 species of reptiles, 16 species of amphibians and 38 species of fishes in the sanctuary.
To our delight, a pair of Malabar Giant Squirrel would frolic in the trees within the Periyar House.
Besides boating in the lake, there are also a few more options to explore the forest.
Those adventurous can go sailing on bamboo rafts (a combination of rafting and jungle trekking) or take a nature walk with an experienced guide.
Information: Periyar remains open year round. Best time to visit is between October and April. Dec-Jan there is a nip in the air. March to May is dry.
Remember, local people refer to the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary by the name of the village, Thekkady.
From Thekkady, Madurai, the nearest airport, is about 140km and Kottayam, the nearest railway station, is about 110km away.
KTDC runs three properties: Periyar House, the lake-side Aranya Nivas and the luxury Lake Palace Hotel. Besides there are several upmarket resorts in the area.
The first ride, which usually starts at 7.30 am is in high demand in season. So be prepared to stand in a queue. One has to first buy an entry pass and parking ticket at the forest entry gate and then queue up for boat tickets. Retain all when you go for the boat ride. The last boat ride is at 3.30pm.
For more details, check: https://www.keralatourism.org/; http://periyartigerreserve.org/home.php.