Serenity in silence of the valley
A park named thus due to the absence of cicadas in the forest, we take you inside Silent Valley National Park in search of its many wonders, including the Lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus), the park’s flagship species. So dense are this valley’s silences, that the Pandavas stayed here incognito for the last leg of their vanvas, giving the region its other name, Sairandhri Vanam after Draupadi’s assumed name at the time…
The wizened hand of Usanaar, our guide, flicked away leeches with the panache of a carrom champion. “Atta”, he cackled, flashing us a toothy grin, “hence Attapadi, or Abode of Leeches.” As we squelched through the moist undergrowth of Silent Valley National Park, battling bloodsuckers that clung to us like limpets, we felt fairly fortunate to be in the company of an experienced forest guide – “Limestone, kerosene, tobacco leaves, salt, snuff!” – who knew pretty much every weapon to keep ready in lieu of a leech attack.
He rattled off scientific Latin names with ease, the local Malayalam equivalent as well as English epithets, be it trees (“Churuli, or Mesua nagassarium, called Iron Wood of the Forest for its hard exterior) or scat (“Asiatic wild dog, locally called Whistling Hunter”) or fern (“Giant tree fern [Dinosaur pulpan], a 50-million-year-old living fossil!”).
We were deep in a remote patch of Kerala’s the Western Ghats, in one of the last tracts of undisturbed tropical evergreen rainforest in the world. Cut off on all sides by steep ridges and escarpments, Silent Valley’s topographical isolation has allowed some remote areas to develop into what scientists call ‘an ecological island’. With an ecological history continuously evolving over millions of years, this was a unique region with immense biological and genetic wealth – of the 960 species of flora, 17 are listed under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List.
First explored by Scottish botanist Robert Wight in 1847, this forest was named after the relative absence of cicadas. Of course, Silent Valley National Park throbs with other sounds of the forest. Far above, from the towering Culinea canopy, a clear, loud whoop rang out, indicating the presence of the Lion-tailed macaque, (Macaca silenus), the park’s flagship species. We moved through the dense vegetation marvelling at the wildflowers and orchids along the trail. Visitors are permitted only till Sairandhri, a 23km jeep ride from the forest gate at Mukkali, and we hiked the rest of the way through the wilderness.
On reaching the 30m-high fire tower at Sairandhri, we smiled at the signboard that said ‘Even Toddy cats have stopped drinking in the park’ before climbing up for a panoramic view of Kaumudi, Mukkalimudi and the Kunthipuzha River cutting through the valley. A short trek from Sairandhri led to the bed of the river, where a rusty steel suspension bridge provided the only means of crossing. A relic from the contentious hydroelectric project of the Kerala State Electricity Board, it was a symbol of the park’s conservation movement (refer to the box ‘The Battle of Silent Valley National Park’, Pg61). Between its notification as a reserve forest in 1914 and declaration as a national park in 1984, lay a sustained campaign that ran for decades by environmentalists, public, media and expert committees to protect this unique habitat.
A mosaic of lush biodiversity
The park harbours 25 species of mammals, 12 species of fish, 35 species of reptiles, 255 species of moths and 95 species of butterflies. Notable among these are the Malabar Rose, Malabar Tree Nymph, Malabar Raven, Buddha Peacock, Fivebar Sword Tail, Southern Duffer, South Indian Blue Oakleaf, Tamil Catseye and Blue Nawab. Mukkali, the southern entrance to the valley, is the only place in Kerala where all three species of Crow butterflies – Common Crow, Double-branded Crow and the Brown King Crow – can be found. Of the 170 species of birds, the most sought after including Jerdon’s Imperial Pigeon, Oriental Bay Owl, Shaheen Falcon, Sri Lanka Frogmouth, Great Hornbill, Black-chinned Laughingthrush and the elusive Malay Night Heron.
The serene crystal waters of the Kunthipuzha, however, gave little indication of its turbulent past. Butterflies pirouetted by the riverside and tiny fish danced in the shallows. The Lion-tailed macaque’s calls drew closer as we scanned the canopy of Culinea trees, where it shared space with Nilgiri langurs and Giant Squirrels. And sure enough, we saw a troop of macaques silhouetted against the backlit green leaves. We pulled out our binoculars only to see them staring back through a mane of white fur and shiny black coats. To us, it was worth every bit of the trip.
We hiked to the local viewpoint for an all-around view. The peaks of Perumalmudi and Velliangiri Mala rose against the mountain folds and somewhere in the distance, a Lion-tailed macaque let out a loud, long whoop.
Good to know
Though trekking is not promoted within the national park, the buffer zones abound in numerous treks of varying distances and difficulty over undulating terrain. The Eco Development Committee organises short hikes like the Bhavani river trail (6km) to the tributary of the Cauvery, the Karuvara waterfall trail (8km), which goes past an Irula tribal colony and the Keeripara trail (10km) to scenic grasslands. One-day treks start from Sairandhri to Poochappara, Nellikkal, Punnamada and Pandarakadavu, covering 15km to 20km. Longer hikes of 30km lead from Mukkali to Valakkad, Poovanchola, Poochapara and Soochipara, along abandoned bridle paths and camps at anti-poaching centres.
Location: In the northeastern corner of Kerala’s Palakkad district overlooking the plains of Mannarkkad (45km). The Western Ghats Silent Valley has Nilgiri and Nilambur forests to the north and Attapadi forests to the east.
Climate: 30°C in summer. Dips to 8°C in winter.
When to go: August to March is the broad season; the best time to visit is November to February.
Contact: 04924–222 056, 94473 73736; firstname.lastname@example.org
Where to Stay
Malleeshwaram Jungle Lodge, Pettickal, Attapady,
Contact: Dominic Xavier ( 94465 72540, 94470 50701)
Email: email@example.com; www.malleeshwaram.com
This jungle lodge, in a 10-acre patch adjoining large tracts of forest and tribal hamlets, offers thatched huts and a stunning 360° viewpoint. Have an eco-holiday with trekking, waterfall visits, rock climbing, birding, wildlife sighting, studies in tribal anthropology, hamlet visits, campfires and trips to Silent Valley National Park.
Inspection Bungalow, Mukkali
Basic accommodation near the park entrance with three double rooms for ` 600/day and two 8-bed dormitories at ` 100/person, booked at the Wildlife Warden’s office in Mannarkad (04924–222 056). There are also two huts that can be booked at 04294-253 225 (Rs. 1,000 for the stay, Rs. 3,000 full packages for stay, food and trekking).
By air: The nearest airports are Coimbatore (74km) and Kozhikode (92km).
By rail: The nearest railhead is Palakkad Junction at Olavakode (60km)
By road: Drive 40km from Palakkad to Mannarkad, pick up permissions at the Wildlife Warden’s Office and continue 20km to Mukkali, the park’s entrance. From Coimbatore, the route to Mukkali via Anaikatti is 65km while the access via Palakkad and Mannarkkad is 120km. Hop on any bus to Mannarkkad from the KSRTC bus stand on Shoranur Road in Palakkad
(0491–252 7298, 252 0098).
Cover Pic: Spanning across 237.52sqkm, the Silent Valley National Park is a unique preserve of natural, moist evergreen forests. These forests are a mosaic of varied habitats and an amazing array of biodiversity, some of which is endemic to the region | Photo: Abhishek Jain
Text: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy
Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy are travel and media consultants with a keen interest in nature and wildlife. They have explored the habitats of rhinos, survived murderous leeches and escaped charging elephants to get the travel stories they want to tell. Their experiences have been published in various guidebooks and magazines, including their contribution in the recently launched Michelin Green Guide to Chennai and Tamil Nadu.
Have an interesting article you’d like to share with us? Send articles at firstname.lastname@example.org and get a chance to be featured on our blog site! So what are you waiting for? Hurry!
Have something to add to this story? Tell us in the comments section below.