Col. J. Pennycuick designed the dam on this river in 1895, when submerging virgin forests was considered a small price to pay to water the croplands in Tamil Nadu. The resulting lake was subsequently leased to the then Government of Madras for 999 years. So, ironically, while it is Kerala that lost its forests, the lien on the waters remains that of Tamil Nadu all the way through to 2885!
Seeing the damage done and the trauma to wildlife that he had learned to love, the Maharaja of Travancore decided to protect all the adjoining forests to the extent of around 600 sq. km. in 1899. He named the protected area Nellikkampatty and this was finally declared a Sanctuary in 1934, at his instigation. It was renotified as Periyar and enlarged to its present size in 1950. Periyar was declared Kerala's first and only Tiger Reserve in 1978.
Dravidian people who occupied the forests long before the British made their presence felt in India hunted the abundant game to be found in the forest. Their presiding deity was Ayappa, believed to be a young and vigorous forest god, who was gifted with the combined and awesome powers of Vishnu and Shiva. As many as four million pilgrims pass through the Periyar Tiger Reserve to visit the Ayappa temple each year. They believe Ayappa protects them from tigers and that is why they do not see the striped carnivores along their route!
The Kerala-Tamil Nadu interstate line from Kumily in the north, the Ranni and Kakki Reserved Forests and the Kottayam Division forests defines the boundary of Periyar. Located in the Western Ghats, which are geologically believed to be amongst the oldest mountain chains in the world, Periyar has a most unique diversity of both terrain and vegetation. The reservoir, bounded by hills, is the central feature and is drained by the Periyar and Mullayar river systems.
The Periyar River itself originates from deep within the near-virgin evergreen core area, 50 km. south of the sanctuary headquarters at Thekkady. It meets the Mullayar at Mullakudy, from where the lake starts. The river then runs on for some 244 km. before emptying into the Arabian Sea. A combination of rolling and steep hills, patchy forests interspersed with grasslands and marshy flatlands have crafted a dynamic ecosystem that is the key to Periyar's amazing floral and faunal diversity. Periyar comprises mostly tropical evergreen forest and semi-evergreen forest, occasionally broken by large areas of grassland predominantly in the central part of the sanctuary.
There are 209 species of common plants and trees here. Sturdy elephant grasses that have evolved to withstand fires are a reliable source of food for large herbivore populations. The moist deciduous forests are represented by teak Tectona grandis trees and by Terminalia. Evergreen and semi-evergreen forests occur along the wet areas of streams often alongside the tropical evergreens. As one boats along the lake, the forest composition changes from tropical evergreen to moist mixed deciduous and then to tropical savannah woodlands, which eventually fade into grasslands. Almost all the vegetation types can thus be seen on a trip of not more than a few kilometres.
Although there are 59 species of mammals in Periyar, it is the elephants that dominate the landscape and are the most visible to visitors. Eurasian otters provide hours of entertainment for visitors. Low off the ground, their practice of standing on hind legs to look out for danger is an endearing habit and they are a favourite with photographers. If you sit out at night near the forest rest houses, you are quite likely to see both porcupine and wild boar that come nosing around garbage dumps for something to eat.
One animal that competes with the tiger for prey is the dhole, or wild dog. These brown, bushy-tailed canines have an exceedingly well-organised pack life and their yips and whistles reverberate across the waters of the reservoir when they are out on a community hunt. Gaur or wild bison tend to live secluded lives in and around the grasslands areas, where they can be seen grazing peacefully along hillsides during boat rides.
Other ungulates that might be seen are the sambar, barking deer and mouse deer, which graze on the succulent grasses growing near the water's edge. With luck you might see a jungle cat, palm civet, jackal, stripe-necked mongoose or blacknaped hare in the same area. A small number of Nilgiri tahr can be sighted on the higher hills. Sloth bears are generally seen around Thanikuddi, where many tiger sightings have also been reported.
Four different types of monkeys are found in Periyar. These are the highly threatened lion-tailed macaque, the bonnet macaque, the Nilgiri langur and the common langur. The forest canopy, which is rich in fruit all year round, is also home to one of the most playful mammals in Periyar, the Malabar squirrel. As many as six species of bat have been recorded in Periyar.
Reptiles such as the monitor lizard can be seen basking on rocky shelves. Asian rock pythons and king cobras are animals of the deep evergreen forest. Flying lizards or dracos and the golden flying snakes glide from tree to tree. Another arboreal creature is the flying frog, which is able to glide thanks to extra webbing on its toes. The watercourses harbour at least 50 species of fish, including the blue-finned mahseer.
There are 264 bird species recorded in Periyar, many of them permanent residents. Fish eating Great Cormorants and Darters (also called snake birds) are common, and Periyar is also a haven for Osprey, Changeable Hawk Eagle and Woolly–necked Stork. If you can convince your boatman to switch off the engine and cruise for while, you will hear the sweet sound of Hill Mynas, orioles and drongoes, among many others. A most spectacular sight is that of Great Hornbills that swoosh noisily around the fruiting trees in the forest. Woodland birds include the White-backed Vulture, Eurasian Cuckoo, White-bellied Treepie, Malabar Trogon, Sri Lanka Frogmouth and the Velvet-fronted Nuthatch.
The best way to explore Periyar is by boat, but you also have the option of spending time atop watchtowers. At Eddapaliyam, right from the hotel, it is possible to sit back and enjoy the sight of gaur, elephant and wild boar as they come out to graze from inside the deep forest. Trekking is an option open only to the serious naturalist. For such visitors, the Forest Department provides guides who are local tribals.
From Thanikuddi you can walk to Mlappara (where away from tourist disturbance the forest takes on a much more natural character) provided you are willing to spend the night in a very basic camp. Spectacular views of a mighty river cutting through rolling grasslands and the Sivagirimalai mountains rising skywards are among the area's visual delights. Thanks to the thick forest there is very little silt flow into the crystal clear waters where schools of multi-coloured fish can be seen, including three types of mahseer, some exceeding 20 kg.
Mlappara is actually the gateway to the evergreen forest of the core area. The canopy is closed and the leaf litter on the forest floor is thick and damp. As you walk here your footfalls are cushioned and the smell of fallen logs overgrown with moss, fungi and termite mounds pervades the air.
Further on from Mlappara is Moolavaiga, where the river turns broad and placid with the river bed sandy and pebbled in small stretches. This is the heart of giant squirrel, Nilgiri langur, liontailed macaque and Imperial Pigeon country. Four kilometres away is Kumily a very tourist oriented village selling handicrafts and spices. Visit a spice garden on the park periphery. They cost about Rs. 350 per person per visit. Visit Thekkady's Wildife Information Centre where wildlife books and cassettes are available. Experience the Ayurvedic oil massage available at Thekkady. The ruins of an ancient Hindu temple can be seen at Mangladevi, 14 km. from Thekkady, but entry is restricted and requires permission.
Most wildlife sightings on boat rides occur early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Binoculars are essential, for most sightings from the boat are too far to really enjoy with the naked eye.
If you are interested in the botany of Periyar, pick up some of the informative booklets prepared by the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI), which should be available at the office of the Field Director. Tribals are particularly good at natural history, fishing, and even collecting wild honey from hill bees, which they do at night to avoid being stung. They climb to hives atop 30 m. high trees by carving bamboo spikes into the trunk. You could try and get a guide to take you along if you are so inclined.
Waterproof clothing should be carried because rain is always a possibility in a 'rainforest'. If you are walking in the deep forest especially in the heavy rains, remember the leeches. Wear boots, socks, long trousers and full-sleeved shirts. Of course, not much can stop a determined leech, but try tobacco snuff smeared on your shoes as a possible deterrent. Salt helps get them off.
You can exchange money at the Mukkadans Money Exchange in Thekkady.
Deputy Director (Periyar East), Periyar Tiger Reserve,Thekkady, Kerala– 685536. Tel.: 04869-222027; Fax: 04869-223750; E-mail: email@example.com
Tourist Information Centre, Museum Road, Thiruvananthapuram.
October – May is the best time. For elephant watching, the hotter months of March - April are excellent. The other water sources in the forest are low or dry and the elephant herds spend more time at the reservoir. With the grasses shorter, the other animals too are more easily seen.
Winter: 150C Summer: 310C Mean annual rainfall is 2030 mm. The southwest monsoon lasts from June to August/September, with maximum rainfall in July-August. High rainfall also occurs during the northeast monsoon in September-October.
Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) hotels within the park offer a range of accommodation, from dormitories to luxury suites. Make reservations beforehand.
Periyar House, inexpensive, has rooms at Rs. 550 including two meals. The hotel has its own restaurant, car hire, money exchange facility, doctor on call and ayurvedic massage parlour. Tel.: 04869-222026/222447; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Aranya Nivas – There is a restaurant and bar and a garden. Rooms: Rs. 1200-2100A/C suite: Rs. 2300-3500 (not including meals). Tel.: 04869-222023; E-mail: email@example.com
Lake Palace – More secluded and less noisy, it used to be the Maharaja's game lodge. You can reach the place by boat from the Thekkady jetty at 4 p.m. The suites range from Rs.5000-7500/- including meals. Tel.: 04869-223887/223888; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Club Mahindra, Tusker Trails, Amalambika Road, Thekkady, Idukki District, Kerala – 685536. Tel.: 04869-222401/222273; Fax: 04869-222106.
Spice Village Outside the sanctuary (on Kumily Road, en route to Thekkady village), the place has cottages for about Rs. 5000, bungalows for around Rs. 7500 and standard rooms at Rs. 4000 per person, per day, plus ten per cent tax (meals included). The hotel offers a conference hall, sports facilities and safari trips. Tel.: 04869-222314; Fax: 04869-222317
Carmelia Haven A reasonably priced option offering a different atmosphere with decorative tree houses, priced at Rs. 1,500 per person, including meals. Rooms built like caves are priced at Rs. 2650 per person, per day, including meals. The more elaborate caves can cost as much as Rs. 5600 per person. Tel.: 04868-270252/270272; E-mail: email@example.com
Lake Queen Tourist Home Run by the Catholic church, clean rooms are available at less than Rs. 200.Tel.: 04869-222084/86.
The Wildlife Preservation Office, Kumily has resthouses at Manakavala, Mullakudy and Edappalayam at Rs. 300. A cook is on the premises, but provisions must be brought. For bookings, Tel.: 0486-322027. Observation towers for overnight stay cost Rs. 100. Food and bedding must be brought. Contact the Wildlife Information Centre: Tel.: 0486-322028. In addition, there are four Forest Department rest houses, although only two are in regular use.
By Air: Madurai (145 km.) and Cochin (190 km.)
By Rail: Kottayam (114 km.) on the Ernakulam-Thiruvananthapuram line.
By Road: From Madurai or Cochin cars can be hired. Kottayam is the nearest major town, 115 km. to the west. Buses leave every half hour for the four-hour journey. From Thiruvanthapuram (271 km.), two direct buses leave daily for the eight-hour journey. Buses between Ernakulam and Kumily leave every half hour for the six-hour journey.
Within the reserve: Diesel boats cruise the waters, enabling visitors to watch wild animals from a distance without alarming them too much. A small part of the forest is also accessible to those in search of more adventure in the way of long jungle walks.
The main facility is two-hour boat tours at Rs. 25/- on the lower deck and Rs. 50/- on the upper deck on the boat run by Kerala Tourism. Tickets for the Forest Department boats are at Rs. 15/-per person. Charter boats are also available.
Most boats are navigated by expert pilots, and if you are lucky to get a particularly enthusiastic and talented one you will be able to approach birds, otters and turtles quite close to their tree stump perches. You might even be able to venture inside the smaller creeks, from where the densely wooded forests are also more visible.
If you wish to have a more serious natural history trek or camp inside the forest ask for a guide from the Wildlife Information Centre.