Vignette 1: Thinking back, I am quite convinced that the question I saw in the two-year-old’s eyes was just my overactive imagination, and all that there actually was in his eyes was a hungry desire for a small piece of gur. But sometimes I’m not so sure. It was late morning on a beautiful day when I was told it was time to meet two-year-old Parsuram and his friends, and I eagerly made my way to the Dubare elephant camp. The young pachyderm, many times my weight, was as winsome as any other child. He was maddeningly reluctant to go to the river for his bath, languidly stopping at every step to find something to engage with — the raindrops on a small green patch of grass, the leaf on a low branch of a tree, and the nervous thrill on the faces of people watching him from oh-so-close.
After being scrubbed to a shining black by the mahout and the visitors, he fanatically sprayed dust all over himself. Pushed and prodded to the feeding centre, he was exclusively interested in the small piece of gur, which he knew would come after the food. If it didn’t come he would not move, no food could substitute for it, no desire was greater. Parsuram waited with infinite patience for his gur. It was then that in Parsuram’s childish eyes I first saw the question that was to become for me the teasing memory of Dubare: Why did humans chart a course that has brought jungles, many other habitats, elephants and humans themselves to the brink of extinction? The sorrow in his eyes was the sorrow of being separated from his mother, of being tamed, and of the collective uncertainties shadowing his and our futures.
Vignette 2: The day remained gorgeous and pregnant with this question. It ended with a long and lazy chat with Uday. We gazed into the thick darkness encompassing the forest and the river, and he told me of the six South Indian languages he speaks, of moving south from the Konkan in search of livelihood, of his demanding workdays, far away from home and with little time for his wife and young baby, and the still harder work for lesser wages that his co-villagers put in at the nearby plantations. Somewhere near, in a basti, the Kuruba tribals were asleep — erstwhile forest dwellers who are now denied access to forests and have been relocated in a settlement close to the camp.
Uday chattered on as friends do in the dark, and evocatively contrasted our society’s attitudes with those of the Kurubas. He told stories about how they work only when they are hungry, and having earned some money, indulge till penniless again. They have no wish to hoard and accumulate. This is generally seen as being indolent and lethargic, but Uday envied this as a carefree attitude and a remoteness from the greed-dominated civilisation that surrounds them, and which Uday inhabits.
Vignette 3: Early next morning it was overcast as I gingerly made my way through the slushy ground and climbed on to the secluded machan arranged on a crocodile-bark tree at the far end of the resort. There was lush greenery all around and a bewildering variety of trees in view. I was not far from the cottage but it felt a completely different and far-off world. The sun occasionally glimpsed through the silken grey clouds drifting carelessly. The score was set with a continuous hum of crickets in the background, and birds called regularly to punctuate it. The leaves, provoked by the breeze, added another strain to the music of the jungle. With a little effort, I could detect yet another resonance in the background, that of the river’s movement, unseen but near. Everything seemed in complete harmony, but again echoed with a question — could it be a mistake that our ancestors gave up their lives in the jungle and settled outside to begin the project called civilisation?
Things to see and do
Jungle Lodges & Resorts at Dubare occupies a beautiful pause in the transition from forests to the outside world and a breather here can provide insights into both these spaces. I’ve come to think of it as a place “across the river, without a bridge to reach it”. To come here, you reach the left bank of River Cauvery, and the road ends. Period. It does not go across. It does not run parallel. The river itself is full of trees growing on its many islands, and across it you can see a forest. You cross these rich waters in a coracle, an unlikely wooden bowl of a craft, and enter this fascinating in-between world. Of the many attractions of the Dubare forest, where the cottages of Jungle Lodges are situated, the biggest, in more ways than one, is the magic of elephants. Every morning, the residents of the resort and some other visitors who come specifically for the ‘elephant interaction routine’ spend 2-3 hrs with these beauties. There are seven of these pachyderms, their ages ranging between 2 years (that’s our Parsuram) and 54 years.
When their mahouts bathe them, you can join in the fun. They love water. They lie back in the river and let you come daringly close to them, stroke them, pat them, scrub them, only sometimes getting irritated into making a move that scatters everybody around them in a thrill-laden squeal-filled panic. They don’t like to be rushed through this routine and, if not coaxed by the mahouts, prefer to inhabit some different, more elastic time dimension. After the bath it’s time for food and people cluster around them, looking into their colossal mouths for a glimpse of the other set of teeth with which they eat. They eat more than 200 kg of food every day, but all of them are addicted to their daily fix of the tiny piece of gur; they are fed 100 gms daily and it’s the high point of their lives! Their history is interesting.
The Karnataka Forest Department used to own domesticated elephants, kept in various camp sites, for purposes such as timber-logging. With the Asiatic elephant declared an endangered species, and logging banned, these elephants fell out of work. The Dubare camp now became a place that provided elephants with a stretch of protected environs in the forest. Cashing in on the fascination humans have for elephants, the camp provides tourists excellent opportunities to enjoy close interactions with and also have a great learning experience among elephants. The revenue earned from the tourist inflow mostly helps in the upkeep of the elephants.
From the naturalists here you can learn loads about their lives: their names; their quirks; the romantic fling Maithili — already pregnant, but amorous as ever — had the previous night with a wild tusker; the wounds left on Ekdanta after his argument with other wild tuskers…. And that they are living an extremely threatened existence. Apart from human beings, elephants have no predators. It was the combined effects of the end of the last ice age and the spread of humans and their civilisation that saw the disappearance of elephants from most of the globe. Now they are restricted to some habitats in Africa and South Asia, and the rapid human colonisation of forests and grasslands makes their survival suspect. The forests of South India host a major population of elephants, and the adjoining plantations are sites of frequent conflicts between humans and elephants.
At Dubare, some efforts are being made to educate humans about the elephants’ side of the story. Beyond the resort is the abundant swell of the post-monsoon dry deciduous forest. Every dawn and dusk visitors can go into the forest, in a jeep or on foot. The forest looks well capable of concealing its mysteries and surprises — even herds of the usually tender, sometimes rogue, big black beauties: the wild elephants. In fact, you would do well to let the jungle hide its secrets and free yourself of the pressure of ‘sightings’, that singular event when you see big and ferocious animals. It’s the trees and plants, and birds and insects, and the smell and the feel… that make a forest; and unless you are willing to enjoy them, a jungle visit is not likely to enthral you. The wet season is not the ideal one to spot the bigger mammals like tigers or bison because there is ample water in the forest and they need not come to a specific waterhole. But it’s the perfect time to see the luxuriant groves of bamboo, a messy jumble down below rising into long sweeping arms above.
There is a bewildering variety of flora — the broadleafed teak with its light-brown trunk, the whitish bark of the Nandi tree and the spectacular flowering tree, the flame-ofthe- forest that bursts into bright orange flowers towards the end of winter. Then there are the birds, local and migratory, in the winter. Eagles, peacocks, kingfishers and partridges are seen commonly. One of our trips, late one afternoon, proved unusually lucky and we saw a pair of barking deer and a herd of spotted deer early on. On our way back, as light was failing, the jeep suddenly lurched to a halt and right across the path only a few steps away stood a bison, as frozen in amazement as us. Both parties stared at each other, and then it was gone — a swift step into the undergrowth and though we knew it must be close by, there was no distinguishing it from the surrounding darkness. For a different, loftier perspective into this charming world, you can climb on to a machan.
There are two choices of machans here: a trembling bamboo ladder leads 30 ft up the perch on a rosewood tree; for those who might get a touch of vertigo, there is another post which feels more secure and the ladder leading up to it more solid. You could also lie in hammocks hung out near the river’s edge and hours could fly by under the shifting light and shade filtering through the stately yellow teak. Or, you could watch the gurgling water in the river sitting on the stones or the tree roots next to the water’s edge. The early morning quiet carries the sounds of washing, of pots and pans being scrubbed in the village across the river. You may visit coffee plantations nearby, and in February and March enjoy flowers on the blossoming trees. There are plenty of places for day trips close by. Madikeri, the famous Coorg hill station, is not far and the views from the Raja’s Seat here are famous. Or you can try Talacauvery, the birthplace of the Cauvery River, for its tranquility and Nisargadhama, a famous picnic spot in a bamboo-forested island in the river.
By Amit Mahajan
Amit Mahajan has earned money as an engineer, reflexologist, travel writer, translator, and has done a few other odd jobs. He hopes to add to the list, if he needs to keep earning.