Tucked away in the Western Ghats, is a pristine valley that the world has left behind…It’s home to numerous threatened species, including the Lion-tailed Macaque,the Nilgiri Langur and is a naturalists’ delight. The Silent Valley (located in the Nilgiris ,Palakkad district,Kerala) ,true to its name is the single silent survivor of the tropical evergreen rainforests that once covered a larger portion of the Nilgiris and have long since vanished. It was declared a National Park in 1984, after a prolonged period of uncertainty over a certain power generation project that was proposed over the ‘’Kunti puzha’’ (River Kunti) that runs through the forest’s heartland. The project was abandoned by the Government after a feasibility study conducted implied a vast ecological damage. So thankfully, what we have today is around 240 sq kms of virgin nature, almost holy in its exuberance of life and unfathomable in the mysteries concealed in its luxurious green foliage…
It was New Years’ eve and Swaps had come down to Coimbatore to spend New Year with us. We’d planned on driving down to Ooty. But as things turned out, we couldn’t go ahead with the plan as we were told that the roads were in a terrible state on account of the heavy rains and landslides were reported at Coonoor (enroute Ooty). We ended up in a fine pickle. An entire day stretched before us and we had nowhere great to spend it! That was when the snoring travel bug in me woke up with a yawn and gave me a violent nudge – And out came my suggestion that we make a day trip to The Silent Valley 🙂 A reserved forest was not exactly where Swaps and Viv wanted to spend New years’, but they agreed to humor me after all the enthusiasm I showed @ the thought of actually spending an entire day in a national part amidst wilderness – what an adventure, it would be!!
We set off from Coimbatore, though I wouldn’t say ”nice & early”, next morning and were in high spirits along the scenic drive towards Palakkad. The road took us thru the ”Anai katti” Range and we were greeted with spectacular views at every bend and turn of the ghat roads. The silent valley is around 40 km from the Anai katti ranges. The entire area is within striking distance of the elephant territory and if you’re really lucky (or unlucky, as the case might turn out to be) , you just might have the pleasure of a tete-a-tete with a stray wild elephant or two! !On the way, we passed the Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON),established by the Govt of India, in honour of India’s finest Ornithologist and naturalist ,Padma Vibhushan Salim Ali. I made a mental note to come back here later for a longer visit. After numerous stops and long sessions of photography, we were in the Attapadi tribal area.
Now, Attapadi – a cluster of tiny hamlets, is inhabited by the Attapadi tribals, who are traditionally, self-sustaining indigenous people (adivasis) . This area was once identified by the Kerala Govt as the most backward community in the state. Over the years, numerous development programmes have improved the lot of the tribals here. There are over a 100 hamlets in Attapadi. The population of the valley is mostly Muduga, Irula and Kurumba tribal people with a small section of settlers from Tamilnadu and Kerala. It is said that, the Malleswaran peak (in the silent valley) is worshipped as a gigantic Shivalinga by the adivasis who celebrate the Sivarathri festival there with great fervour. As we drove along, we passed a few funnily built houses, temples with statues of policemen (as sentries) and a board that actually read ‘’TRIBAL YOUTH CLUB OF ATTAPADI’’! Somehow, all I could think of was young men clad in animal skins and head gear made of feathers and leaves, jumping and dancing around a fire, singing in an alien tongue 😉 My bad! All thanks to Indian movies, the very word ‘tribal’ evokes such prejudiced scenes in my stunted imagination 🙂
The Attappadi Reserve Forest is actually an informal buffer zone bordering the Silent Valley National Park to the West. We could make out that we’d entered the forest zone, by the very feel in the air. The air was cool, fresh and strangely invigorating.. A few more miles and we were at the base camp of the silent valley, Mukkali. The core forest region is around 19 kms from this camp. There was a tiny office set up with a few chattering staff, who seemed to be extremely busy with a big bunch of college kids who were there on a day trip. We had to loiter about aimlessly till the staff bundled the entire group off into the forest department jeeps and finally turned their attention to us. Viv and Swaps left the talking bit to me as the staff weren’t comfortable with either tamil /hindi / English.We were told off by a stern looking official, as walk ins were not welcome and prior booking was necessary for day trips to the park. I used my best Malayalam on him and with a lot of helpless, dejected looks interspersed with numerous ‘’pleease chetta…’’, convinced him to allow us into the park 😉 Sadly enough, we could not go for the actual 5 hour guided trip into the heart of Silent Valley as it was already late afternoon when we reached the camp and it wouldn’t have been possible for us to get back to the base camp before 6 pm, after which the forest is off-limits. We instead opted for a 2 hour guided trek to the River Bhavani , a tributary of the Kunti river.
Our young, and enthusiastic guide Jobin , impressed us with his thorough knowledge of the forest and its flora and fauna…The trek itself wasn’t a difficult one, and all along the way, Jobin regaled us to funny anecdotes of wandering stray elephants that were more scared of people than they of them! We were asked to watch out for snakes along the path (Swaps went into ‘’worry mode’’ after that!)I could somehow feel the entire forest alive and teeming with life, though we hardly crossed paths with any animal all along the trek. It was uncanny, the way I felt that the forest itself was a pulsating living being, silent and ever watchful….Oddly enough, I wasn’t scared, Exhilarated is a more appropriate word to describe what I feltJ J We were welcomed by the gurgling, frothing white waters of the river Bhavani and I was euphoric. The Malleswaram peak loomed large on the other bank, like a blue black giant watching over the bubbling river. The lush green rainforest across the river marked the green gateway into the unknown. The place was eerily calm, no birds sang , no cicadas cried out. All of us were silent, half afraid to speak up and break the tranquillity. I now realised where the forest got its name from… No leftover traces of tourists – no cigarette stubs, plastic litter or Styrofoam cups… Even the grass was untrampled and defiant. Treading softly, we walked along the entire river bank, wetting our toes in the cool, clear water and taking in the silent wilderness with delight…
We were all strangely silent on the trek back to the base camp. That was when our guide Jobin surprised us saying that he was a college student at Mannarkad (a neighbouring town) and hung around the park during holidays and weekends doing odd jobs, working as a part time guide so he could complete college… my heart went out to the boy and I silently sympathised with him. After a while, as if my thoughts had percolated into his, Viv took out a 500 rupee note and gave it to the shell shocked boy. Later, back in the car, Viv said, ‘’If anyone today deserved that 500/-, it was that boy’’. Its moments like these, that inwardly make me glow with pride and affection towards this wonderful guy whom I’m married to :-p and yawning wide, I stretched myself out comfortably and drifted off to sleep hoping to dream of a primeval life within the silent valley, chasing lion tailed macaques and dancing round fires!!!!!!