The sun rises slowly, changing its hue from red to gold to yellow before it turns the sky to fire. The charming egret is calm, sitting on a rock with one leg up, as if doing yoga; the restless heron is hopping around and the pretty kingfisher has just landed on its favourite spot near them. The air is crisp and cool. I am at the deck of a resort overlooking the river Siruvani, a tributary of the Kaveri. I want to walk down to the river and taste the water, as Siruvani is known for India’s sweetest water.
While I watch early morning birds going about their business, the coconut trees surrounding the river start shining yellow with the rising sun peaking through them. Beyond the lineup of trees, the mighty Nilgiri range shielding them also begins to brighten up.
I am here to explore the mysterious Anaikatti village in Kerala’s Palakkad district. Most of the village comes under the Forest Reserve, hence it abounds in nature’s bounty and wild life.
Sathish, the resort’s activity manager, says, “Ma’am we are going to The Silent Valley. I hope your shoes are comfortable as we will be trekking in the forest.” With a packed breakfast and enthusiasm we set out to unravel the habitat of the Valley, which was formally notified as a National Park in 1984.
In half an hour we reached Mukkali, 20 km north of Mannarkkad, at the entrance to the Attappady Plateau. After a 10-minute drive into the forest, we saw a pretty damsel lazying on a tree trunk—a Malabar squirrel, which refused to budge as we took her shots. It was all black and looked contented. Another 20 minutes drive all along the evergreen forests and I noticed another one in red and black fur, which looked much prettier. Next came the Nilgiri langurs showing off their gymnastics. Further deep in the forest, we saw the region’s most famous residents, the endangered lion-tailed macaques jumping around merrily.
The valley has interesting mythological connection. They forest was initially called Sairandhri Vanam and was so dense that the Pandavas lived here during their year-long agyata vasa. The river Kuntipuzha, which flows inside the forest, was named after Kunti. Sairandhri is another name for Draupadi.
Our first stop at Sairandhri was a 100-foot tall watchtower overlooking the valley. It gives a breathtaking panoramic aerial view of the entire forest with Kuntipuzha meandering through the bio-diverse jungle.
Next, we trekked down the mountain to a quaint suspension bridge across the Kuntipuzha, which is a reminder of the victory for the park in a contentious dam project.
From the towering Culinea trees to the flowering plants, a variety of orchids, Impatiens species, Strobilanthes, the only species of South Indian rhododendron and many other plants that do not normally occur in the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats, are found here. It is said hundreds of butterflies flock the valley in May and stay for two months. There is pin drop silence here, not yet a popular track for tourists. No wonder the Britishers named it Silent Valley as they thought there was no sound because it didn’t have crickets, Sathish explained with a smile.
At night we set out for a night safari. It was a full moon night and we spent midnight gazing at the sky while the place shimmered under the shining moon. If lucky, one can spot elephants, Indian Gaur (bison), otter, mongoose and an occasional leopard. But what we saw was more exciting—a procession of the Irula tribe. Men and women in typical costumes singing and dancing to the rhythmic beats, which made all of us to get down from the jeep and enjoy a jig following their steps.
Interestingly, Anaikatti stands for a ‘group of elephants’, which means you can see elephants in their natural habitat anytime on the road too. Numerous signs urge us to give the elephants first right of the way.
There are also many temples in the region. We visited Ranganathan Swami Temple and the cave temple at Kovanur, climbing 125 steps leading to the temple dedicated to devi Poonkol Thayaar. Here the site has about 60 paintings portraying the hunting of an elephant and a herd of deer, and images of a tiger, herds of bisons, a monitor lizard and hunters with bows and arrows. Perhaps more than 2,500 years old, all of them have been done in white caolin in outline or solid form.