ANAIKATTI: At first glance, it’s an unremarkable bridge – narrow, pedestrian, built over a fast flowing rivulet. Its only when you hear the backstory the enormous import of the site becomes apparent.
The bridge is the core site of where the Silent Valley dam was supposed to be. In the 1970s, a rather small group of environmentalists took on the might of the Indian state, then led by no less than the often authoritarian Indira Gandhi, as it planned the dam at the site – a spectacular gorge.
The Save Silent Valley movement, as it came to be known, protested vigorously and this finally resulted in cancellation of the project, a major victory which became a symbol of success for the green movements around the world. A national park was created of the park in 1985, and a rigorous core area was imposed.
Today it is the core of the Nilgiri International Biosphere Reserve and is part of The Nilgiri Sub-Cluster, a part of the Western Ghats World Heritage Site, recognised by UNESCO in 2007.
Its significance comes from the fact that it is one of the last undisturbed tracts of South Western Ghats mountain rain forests and tropical moist evergreen forest in India. Heavily forested dissected by a deep valley, the first Western investigation of the watersheds of the Silent Valley area was in 1857 by the botanist Robert Wight.
IN PICS: SILENT VALLEY
Did you ask if it is really silent? Well, current local lore says the British named it Silent Valley because of a perceived absence of noisy cicadas. When I went, yes, the forest buffer zone was magically mesmerising – dense canopies, usually towering birches and silver oaks with a heavy undergrowth – spot coffee and pepper plants amongst a diverse foliage. Far away, an occasional tribal village can be spotted – though you are unlikely to see anyone. I went in fall, and there was a steady stream of falling leaves. Uncannily, it was such a silent spectacle that for me, this facet alone would have justified the name.
|♦ The park is located in Palakkad district, Kerala
♦ The nearest town is Mannarkkad, 18 km away; the nearest airport is Coimbatore 74 km away
♦ The park has a core zone of 236.74 square kilometres
♦ Silent Valley is home to the largest population of lion-tailed macaques, an endangered species of primate.
An occasional lion-tailed macaque – for whom this reserved forest was created, can be spotted, and with luck the Niligiri langur. I was also fortunate to see a sleeping Malabar giant squirrel – its as big as a monkey! However, the forest is also home to larger quadrupeds – including the tiger, leopard, wild boar, sambar, elephant, a variety of deer, pangolin, porcupine and many more, but they are now only in the core areas, which is blessing in disguise – it saves the forests, but keeps tourists away.
There are also hundreds of species of birds and insects in the park. In January and February, migrating species of butterflies lend an extra touch of magic.
Incidentally, the Kunthipuzha valley has never been settled by humans, though neighbouring valleys do have small hamlets. The Mudugar and Irula tribes are indigenous to the area. I could spot distant villages in the buffer zone.
|♦ If you want to visit, you have to reserve your spot in a jeep at the park entrance at Mukkali
♦ The park is completely enclosed within a ring of hills, and has its own micro-climate
How much is open to visitors? Relatively little, actually. From the park gate at Mukkali four wheeled drives (usually jeeps) drive to a viewing tower. The climb maybe a little nerve-wracking, but the views from the top just gladden a forest lovers heart.
Nearby is a trek that leads to the iron bridge that was the site where the dam was to be. With average fitness, you should be able to do in two to three hours.
Surprisingly, even though it is arguably India’s most sought after state for tourists, Kerala, the forest itself seems to have fallen off the map. The visitor centre itself is neat but rudimentary. There is a museum near the watch tower – rich in information but with no frills. The facilities inside seem to be from another era.
None of that will matter once you are inside the forest (though one hopes they will improve), for today there are few patches of forest as dense and picturesque as Silent Valley.
TEXT & PICS: Suman Tarafdar