Silent Valley – Image courtesy http://www.conservationindia.org

The early morning stillness was broken by the far off trumpeting of a herd of tuskers. I lazily opened an eye and focused my gaze on my strange new surroundings. The PWD guest house wasn’t exactly along the lines of The Holiday Inn, but was decent considering my ‘off-the-map’location.A cacophony of birdsong interspersed with the occasional cries of barking deer greeted me instead of the dreary hums and honks of Delhi’s traffic.I slowly walked over to the dingy windows .The early morning light was spilling across the glorious Nilgiris bathing it in its warm glow, the thickly forested mountains, a mosaic of various hues of green.It was surreal-a sight that no guide book or trip advisor forum had prepared me for.

It was sheer coincidence that brought me to this pristine valley, tucked away amidst the vast folds of the mighty Western Ghats.In retrospect,it was perhaps for a reason that I ended up here.
A reserved forest wasn’t exactly where I wanted to spend my precious time off work. My intended destination was a resort at Ooty, a couple of hours drive from Coimbatore,but a massive landslide reported enroute , had made the ghat roads inaccessible.I was in a fine pickle as my flight back to Delhi wasn’t in another two days. Googling ‘Places of Interest near Coimbatore’ didn’t come up with any suggestions that piqued my interest in the least bit. As I contemplated cutting short my vacation and heading back to Delhi, my cab driver Murugesan suggested that I visit Silent Valley National Park, not too far from Coimbatore.Although I wasn’t the type to embark on unplanned adventures at the suggestion of strangers, I’d always been quite the amateur naturalist all my life.The charm of traversing the unknown road and living amidst wilderness tempted me into agreeing.

Even back in Delhi,I had this queer habit of seeking out quiet nooks where flowers bloomed and birds sang, in an attempt to escape the stifling city life.Something as mundane as a roosting pigeon above my bedroom window or a litter of pups on the street would amuse me greatly.My own green patch of brightly hued flowers up on my boring third floor flat in Noida was my bit of heaven amidst chaos– it wasn’t much, just a few daisies and mini roses,but was my favorite spot in the flat. It was where I retreated after a long day at work to catch up on yet another passion of mine, that I hardly ever did justice to–writing.

As we set off from Coimbatore, I was in high spirits in anticipation of the adventure that beckoned. The winding roads took us through the ‘Anaikatti’ ranges and we were greeted with spectacular vistas at every twist and turn of the road, each more breathtaking than the previous. I could sense a change in the air–the smell of the hills mingled with that of the lush green foliage all around was invigorating, washing out all my travel ennui.As we climbed higher on the mountainous roads, the ground fell away on either side into a thickly forested valley.While I still had signal on my phone, I managed to do a bit of research along the drive about my destination.

The Silent Valley National Park is a unique preserve of tropical rain forests, perhaps the only one of its kind in Southern India. Topographically isolated,cut off on all sides by steep ridges and escarpments, there is little permeating influence from surrounding areas on these forests. The valley still continues to remain an ‘ecological island’,preserving the indigenous fauna and flora of the region.

All along the drive I was struck by the exuberance of life that expressed itself in the incredible chaos of trees,bushes,birds and insects. It was virgin nature–unsullied and pristine. Further along the road,almost all familiar sights of inhabitation disappeared. It was just miles and miles of forests, rocks and the looming mountains. The silence around me,albeit a little ominous,stilled my agitated mind, and I found myself humming an old melody as the car climbed higher.Nature indeed was an instant mood uplifter.

Murugesan was happy to stop the car whenever he heard my unbridled exclamations of pure pleasure. I stepped out with an intent to click a few photographs but ended up gazing at the grandiloquent symphony of Nature in sheer wonderment.No camera could do justice to the awe inspiring tapestry that nature had woven.

After an hour’s drive, we reached Attapadi , a tribal settlement at the foot of the valley.It was the forest’s buffer zone,a cluster of hamlets populated by the Irula, Kurumba and Muduga tribes.The river Bhavani encircled the Attapadi hills and flowed through the village.

The ever efficient Murugesan, who to my surprise was a kurumba himself (and a proud one at that) informed me that he would arrange with the ‘Mudha Moopan’ (First Headman) of their clan for a native who could show me around. He also made arrangements for my stay at the PWD guest house.He took leave of me at the guest house , agreeing to pick me up in a couple of days. The roads to Ooty must be alright by then, he assured.I thanked him and tipped him generously.A simple lunch of rice, dal , beans and a refreshing nap later,the forest officer arrived with my guide in tow.

It was a young girl,definitely from one of the local tribes. Clad in a simple salwar kameez, she gave me a wide smile. She had on her, a few odd looking pieces of jewellery, way too many bangles and rings on her ears and nose. Her skin was smooth and dark and her features,perfectly carved. Her long black hair was oiled and neatly held in a plait.
The forest officer caught me staring at the girl and cleared his throat uncomfortably- “This is Tamarai. She’s Mudha Moopan’s great grand daughter. Her brother was supposed to be your guide, but he’s sick, so Moopan has sent her instead.”

Turning to the girl he spoke something in their local dialect that sounded a lot like tamil. The girl nodded vigorously in reply. Then to my dismay,he left me alone with her. She stared at me smiling expectantly. I was in a fix. How did he expect me to communicate with her–not by sign language surely? I started framing a sentence in whatever little tamil I knew, but ended up wildly gesticulating in a vain attempt to convey that I wanted to go on a hike to the river.

“You want to see Bhavani River?”She asked haltingly in clear english, making me stop my ridiculous dumb charades midway and gape at her.

“Your english is good!” I exclaimed,a bit sheepishly.

“I study final year B.Com at a college in Palakkad. Spare time I work as guide.Forest officers call me when they need english speaking guide for foreigners.” she said in a way of explanation.

Though her discomfiture with the language was evident,her grammar and pronunciation were quite alright.I smiled appreciatively, ashamed at myself for my earlier bias.

“I am Madhu Verma from Delhi. I’m here for the next two days and will be happy if you could take me around.”

She gave me that wide smile again that showed off a set of pearly white teeth.

“Okay. We goto the river now.” She said enthusiastically.

Tamarai walked with the confidence of having the jungle in her blood, deftly skipping over rocks and gently pushing away the overgrown bushes. She was barefoot and trod lightly, pointing out various species of flowers and trees ,her bangles and rings making music of their own. I was taken in by the exuberance of both–hers and that that of nature that surrounded us.

Her knowledge of the forest and its ways was impressive.The trek itself wasn’t a difficult one, and all along the way, Tamarai regaled me with interesting anecdotes of life in the wild.As we tramped along I could feel the entire forest teeming with life. 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.

We were welcomed by the gurgling, frothing white waters of the river Bhavani. The Malleswaram peak, worshipped by Tamarai’s tribes as Lord Shiva,loomed large,almost menacingly on the other bank-A dark 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. We were silent, half afraid to speak up and break the spell. Even the grass was untrampled and defiant. Treading softly, I walked along the river bank, wetting my toes in the wonderfully cool waters and taking in the wilderness with sheer delight…Along black snake leisurely slithered under the cool shade of a tree–proud and majestic, at complete ease in its own kingdom unlike his counterparts in the city,always scurrying, hiding and living inconstant dread of men.It was almost evening as we headed back to the guest house. The forest was off limits after 6 pm. Tamarai promised to be back early next morning for the safari.

After dinner,I sat contemplating on the paradox of it all–nature that once made Man tremble at her elemental forces was now scaring her new found fragility–disappearing tropical forests, melting snowcaps, extinction of species, drought and famine.How I wished there was something we could do to restore the delicate harmony between Nature and Man which had been so wantonly destroyed.

I suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to write. And I did just that. My pen couldn’t keep pace with the thoughts in my head. I kept writing, late into the night under the feeble orange glow of a bulb, until my fingers ached,a languorous lethargy filled my senses and I fell asleep on the rickety chair , lulled by the gentle noises of the jungle.

I woke up refreshed and readied myself for the day’s activities. As promised, Tamarai was waiting for me by the Forest Office from where the safari to the core forest began in a semi open Jeep.There were a few other tourists as well. It soon became evident that they weren’t serious nature lovers. Ten minutes into the safari, with no animal sightings whatsoever, they began to lose interest. The jungle to most tourists is simply the thrill of spotting tigers and elephants and clicking ridiculous selfies.

“Not a damn animal around!What a waste of money and time.”one of them remarked.
“I’m almost asleep. Wake me up when we’re done!”joked another.
The disparaging remarks continued all the way back to the base camp.
When you’re witness to the grandeur of Nature, older than mankind, where all things begin and end, a little respect would have been appropriate.The world does not end if you don’t spot a tiger. Sadly very few realize that.

As we walked back to the guest house,Tamarai  was unusually subdued. Perhaps the insensitivity of our thoughtless group had upset her. She wistfully remarked-” ‘Tread softly, listen with patience and the jungle will bare her soulful music to you’. It is a line from a song my grandfather taught me.”

Tamarai’s parents were goat herders, as were the majority of her tribe. A few were into farming and honey gathering. Their lives were so intertwined with the jungle and the river. Her great grandfather, MudhaMoopan was a legendary figure among her tribe. He was the present head of their clan and a great herbalist, an encyclopedia of medicinal herbs and plants.I was intrigued.I asked Tamarai if I could possibly meet him. She was surprised,but pleased.After lunch, I accompanied her to her tiny village.The Sun was now high up in the sky and mercilessly beating down upon us. It wasn’t much of a village–just a cluster of few thatched houses with crumbling mud walls,a well and an ancient temple, almost in ruins. As I walked along , I could sense the curious gazes directed at me, from behind half-open windows.

With his withered features, strange looking turban and mundu-veshti (traditional attire), I could’ve spotted Mudhamoopan,even without Tamarai’s assistance. He could’ve been well over a hundred years, but looked not a day more than eighty. Frail looking and shrunken he was, but for his eyes that shone with the wisdom of ages.He was quite friendly, rapidly speaking to me in his native tongue, which Tamarai translated for my benefit.

MudhaMoopan spoke about the life of their lot, the hardships they faced and the apathy of the outside world. Their tribe was once identified as the most backward in the state of Kerala and numerous government schemes were implemented to improve their lot.Sadly, they were all failures due to lack of understanding of the Government about the day-to-day challenges the tribe faced.Our society had advanced in leaps and bounds over the years,but failed to carry along with it,these gentle people who still led their primeval lives with patience and humility,in complete obscurity.

“The world views us as uncouth, dirty, ignorant destroyers of the forests.But the forest is our Life, the Mountains,our Gods–If they were to perish, then we perish with them.We take from Nature simply to meet our need and not to feed our greed. That is what differentiates us from the rest of the world. And what we take from her, we give back in our own humble ways.” he concluded, leading me to a clearing where a dozen women were planting saplings. A few half-naked children ran around chattering excitedly,watering the newly planted trees. I sat there until the last hole was dug,the last sapling planted and plentifully watered. The tribal women sang an old folk song which roughly translated thus:
We plant in your rosy womb a tiny seed,

Watch over it as it grows forth,Let us have its sweet fruit and nectar.

O bless us Goddess Nature, With joyous bounty abound.

Show mercy on your errant children, And let not your fury unfold!

Tamarai and I, headed back, each lost in our own vortex of thoughts.It was my last night at the valley–Murugesan would be there in the morning with the car to pick me up. I felt a sudden pang,when it was time to say goodbye to Tamarai. The very act of paying her seemed to me, very hollow. In truth,she had rendered me services that I couldn’t pay for in monetary terms. Somewhere along the way, our arrangement had taken on a more personal nature.
All the same, I took out a few notes of thousands from my wallet and held them out to her and saw her eyes widen in surprise.She gently reached out and took a single note from my outstretched hand. Her eyes proud and defiant, seemed to be telling me  “Just pay me for my services.I have no need for pity.” We spoke nothing for a long minute.And just like that, she left-a flash of colour, a tinkle of bangles.

The next morning, my journey back to Coimbatore began. As the car descended the mountains, just around the turn of the road was a clearing so picturesque, that I urged Murugesan to stop the car at once. The view of the valley from here was breathtaking.The mountains were bathed in dappling pools of golden sunshine.The river flowed steadily,winding sinuously around the valley.The air was pregnant with the fragrance of wild flowers.The peace and power of the place was overwhelming-I could’ve stayed on forever.I lay down on the soft,springy grass, eyes focused heavenwards where a lone eagle swooped lazily–What was I searching for up there I wondered, when I’d already discovered paradise down here?I sent up a fervent prayer to the blue skies and hoped that this heaven of wild and green things, with their eternal whispers of reason, would be passed intact to posterity.