Once an exclusive hunting preserve of the Maharajas of Mysore, Nagarhole National Park was renamed after the late Rajiv Gandhi, but faces the same fate as Delhi’s Connaught Place and Connaught Circus, which are still called by their popular old names. So it is with Nagarhole. The park, situated in the Deccan Plateau, forms an integral part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. The Nagarhole River winds through it and finally meets the Kabini, the largest river draining the forest. A dam built on the Kabini has created a splendid lake to the south of the park, which separates it from Bandipur Tiger Reserve. To the south-east lies the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary while to the west, coffee plantations separate the park from Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary.
This entire stretch is one of the finest remaining habitats of the Asiatic Elephant. Huge herds hang about in Nagarhole, and it’s said that summer is the best time to see them.
It is held that Nagarhole National Park is worth visiting in the dry season, when wild animals are spotted in large numbers near the water bodies but don’t bet your money on it. Successive dry spells have shrivelled the water sources so much that the animals feel content lying in the shade, away from view. Then, as the pre-monsoon showers bring the forest alive with streams, the resident birds start their breeding activities and the air resounds with melodious calls. Sprouting grass in the meadows attracts elephants and gaur in large numbers. As rains intensify, the river resuscitates and the grandeur of Nagarhole slowly begins to unfold.
One of the oldest national parks in India, Nagarhole (literally, ‘Serpent River’) was created in 1955. It was managed by the Indian Forest Department, which also constructed rest houses and other accommodation facilities within the park. The park limits were increased to its present-day area of 640 sq km in 1974. Expect to see herbivores like the elephant, gaur, sambar, cheetal, muntjac (barking deer), chousingha (four-horned antelope) and wild pig. Nagarhole is also an excellent place to spot dhole, leopard, sloth bear and tiger. The park is part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, and is very close to both the Bandipur Tiger Reserve and the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, two of the most popular wildlife sanctuaries in India. Nagarhole forms the catchment area for three rivers: Nagarhole, Lakshmana Teertha and Kabini. The altitudes vary between 2,000 and 3,000 ft; the highest elevation here is Masal Betta Peak (3,150 ft). The Kabini River, the largest of its waterways, is to the south of the park.
Nagarhole, spread over a luxurious 640 sq km (combining core and buffer forest zones), offers great sighting opportunities along the tracks as a 100-foot area around either side has been cleared of vegetation, allowing an unobstructed view of the forest. The Forest Department maintains the view-line by clearing it of weeds and foliage thrice a year. At no point of time must you get down from your vehicle, a rule the department enforces with diligence. ‘I’m just taking a piss’ might well prove to be your famous last words. Herds of cheetal often bound across the trail and wait on the other side till you pass, flicking their docked tails in disapproval. There are many tigers and leopards in the park, but the dense jungles make it very difficult to spot them. Other carnivores include jungle cat, dhole (Asiatic wild dog), striped hyena and the jackal. Interspersed with the forests are swampy areas called hadlus, which are dominated by grasses and are the favourite grazing grounds of many herbivores.
The notable species are axis deer, Indian muntjac, mouse deer, four horned antelope, crested porcupine and the black-naped hare. The resident primates include the bonnet macaque. Other species are the sloth bear, pangolin, giant squirrel, giant fruit bat and the elusive slender loris. The tourism zone covers only 30 sq km. The Forest Department’s 1-hr 17- seater bus safari is too short and noisy but the only option available. For all rides and safaris, get to the RFO’s office (Tel: +91-8274-205020) at Nagarhole.
The Nagarhole forest is home to at least four prominent tribes — the Jenu Kurubas (traditionally honey gatherers), Betta Kurubas (mountain dwellers), Hakki Pikki and the Yeravas. If you are lucky enough, you can see how the Jenu Kurubas extract honey from the aggressive Indian rock bees. If you don’t have this privilege, here’s how. They select some choice leaves from the forest and chew it on the way to the hive. Then spitting out the secretion, they smear the juices on the body, which acts as a natural repellent. Then they emit a low guttural hum and climb up to the hive, where they disappear for a while and return, beaming, with a full bottle of honey.
They are simply the Houdinis of the jungle and you have to see it to believe it. During Bode Namme, literally the Begging Festival, celebrated every year from mid-April to May, Kuruba men dress up as women in loud garish clothes, go begging for alms, drink themselves silly and sing bawdy songs. During these two weeks of revelry, Kurubas are literally found scattered all over the landscape, in a stupor or sleeping out of sheer exhaustion. The Kodavas steer clear of this festival. You, of course, shouldn’t give it a miss.
Location: Nagarhole, or Rajiv Gandhi National Park, in south-west Karnataka, is bounded by the Kabini River to the south, the Wayanad Sanctuary to its south-west and the Bandipur NP to its south-east. They are all part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.
Distance: 222 km SW of Bengaluru; Journey time: By road 5 hrs
When to go: Practically throughout the year, but November to February is ideal.
About the author:
Anurag Mallick is a nomad at heart and writer by choice.