January 22, 2013
I had been to Parambikkulam Tiger Reserve of South India a couple of times particularly in a bid to observe as well as take some pictures of the shy giants of the Western Ghats, the
gaur. These gentle animals were for long considered as buffaloes (bison) by even a good number of forest department hands, while factually they belong to the family that also boasts of our good old domestic cows.Although I had been able to watch some of these
in close quarters, every time they ensured that I was not given the luxury of ample time in their company, which I desperately needed to carry out my work.
The herds I came across in both Parambikulam and Periyar Tiger Reserve were mostly comprised of cows, and rarely I got the sight of a full grown bull. So most of my ventures ended up with mere dung examinations and a number of photographs (most of which were
distorted) when I, along with my talented snapper Arun Prakash, was headed for Nelliyampathy, I hadn't the slightest of ideas what was in store for us on the green hills that we thought were simply part of a tourist destination flaunting its enthralling plantation
It was a local tea-vendor at the cool hilltop that gave us first of the hints that we had from the mystic place that had from the moment we had started driving uphill, began shrouding us with an air of extra-ordinariness. On our disclosing before the old man
serving us an earthy tea, our curiosity in tracking and closely observing a herd of gaur, we noticed a vivid expansion of his brownish pupils as if having had an opportunity to express himself a bit deeply. Dear friends, he said, you definitely can't be at
a better place, providing you have the guts to take them. His words were certainly sounding more than what it conveyed first time; and more, the chilly night breeze howling through the silhouettes formed by the gigantic trees against the late evening sky's
dark blue evanescence, was adding some special effects to them, although a bit eerie.
The first impression did the work. The tea-vendor was drinking with us pretty late into the night. The phantom breeze had started surging as he started unveiling one of the most horrendous folklore of the area. "If you are here to watch the gaur, you definitely
will; rather let me assure you that you will be accosted by one..a dreadful one." "See no man will be as sober as me when I say these words". "But why on the earth should a bovine solicit us, at least considering the fact we are entirely strangers in a strange
land?", Arun just couldn't hold back his curiosity. "A bovine? Is that all respect you have for it gentlemen? Then let me make it clear, I fear you might not be facing cattle class, rather howbout meeting a ghost the next night?...The ghost of planter Hall...a
bereft soul deprived of the care of his dream woman a long time back" "And let me inform you that it was only a while back a local witchdoctor was mauled by it to his doom".
The handsome blue-eyed British planter, Arthur Hall had travelled to the Nellies (Nelliyampathy Hills) after getting the crucial nod from the then ruler of Kochi Rama Varma XIV. At that time, the Kalri Kovilakam had almost acquired the custodianship of entire
Nelliyampathy. Naturally, the planter had to meet the then chief of Kollangode as part of procedures. It should have been there he came across the elite royal lady of Vengunad, Dhathri Thampuratty. It will be fair to guess that if the beauty of the queen hadn't
impressed the solid Briton, her feistiness absolutely would had. For she was the person that brought the family that was reeling under an imperious Ittapu Thampuran's (uncle to Dhaathri) tantrums back into prominence, through a court battle. Furthermore, the
lady had defied a standing ban on Kalari martial arts in 1800's to reconstruct the Kalari palace in 1890, but this time for playing host to leading artists, dancers, philosophers and musicians of the day.
Through out our trek, the next morning the main subject of our conversation was 'how Hall must have acquainted with Dhathri and what might have transpired thereafter to turn a noble man into a vengeful soul in the body of an elegant beast' at least in the heart
of a few people including our friendly tea-vendor, who . Then at the top of a plateau where from the slits on the rocky surface and in between sporadic massive boulders, grew green and juicy grass, we heard the first sounds that resembled the hoof-beat of
an ungulate. The sounds were vivid but somewhere appeared a bit feeble that hardly could be linked to a one tonner beast. But still we had to be careful. Particularly since the tea-vendor had warned us of a rogue loner bull that had all the traits of any of
those infamous loner tuskers of the Ghats. Although, we were secretly thrilled that we would be in just a mater of time hitting upon a decently built gaur, the one that might be carrying with it the legend of Hall, I would be lying if I say that there we were
For a moment I was thinking about a plan B in case the animal behind the boulder, comes out, sees us and launches a decisive charge, and I did not waste any time in tipping Arun about it gesturing towards another huge boulder towards our left with rough sides,
which would help in a smooth climb. Nevertheless, I don't think he should have had the least of concerns there, because for him even the mightiest of gaurs were timid as we had back in Periyar Tiger Reserve. But this can be a fallacy, for attitude of animals
such as elephants, gaur, leopards, tigers and bears towards human beings can vary in different geographical locations. The leopards of Valparai and elephants of Peppara are good examples for this assessment. But here a small head graced with a pair of small
twisted horns that came from behind the boulder insisted that I had no more speculations. The speculations will be laid aside at least for the time being as a Nigiri Tahr (wild goat) is undoubtedly the jewel of the rocky plateaus of the Ghats.
As the sun began extravagantly deluging the hills with its blessings we decided to retire to our shelter, since the wild friends too would be doing more or less the same. Then in the afternoon hours we shall have enough time to roam around the fringes of coffee
plantations and the adjacent bushes with a view to get closer to a foraging gaur herd. We launched our second outing on a colourful not when a giant squirrel (Malabar giant squirrel) rushed in from nowhere and playfully stringed above us munching on some forest
fruit. The squirrel too was a loner much like the tahr we had come across in the morning. Felt strange since I have always maintained that tahr never foraged without company. On the other hand, gaur bulls are pretty inclined to straying out of the herds often
only to return during the time when cows in the herd get into heat. The herds that congregate and focus on small pockets during dry season, they often disperse into the hills during the monsoons.
As the rains have been largely unpredictable in the recent times, one couldn't just guarantee how the herds in Nelliyampathy would behave. Nonetheless, the matured solitary bull in the stories of the tea-vendor will be afraid of none as its formidable size
and power can only be rivalled by the redoubtable tiger. Here too there are many cases of tigers being wasted by gaur. We had reached the fringes of the coffee plantation where starts the forest vegetation, when we heard a soft whistle from one of the dense
grass thickets distributed ahead of us. Then we could see a couple of sturdy whitish horns with dark tips amidst the tall grass. Yes it is gaur... a bull, and it is alone much suiting the descriptions given by the tea-vendor. We kneeled down behind a bush
to make sure that it does not have a glimpse of us, which might urge him to make that decisive charge. Although bulls are known to charge even without provocation, such behaviour can be more expected during dry seasons when they are made more short tempered
than usual by the scorching heat and badgering parasitic insects.
Here the bull does not appear to be wandering in search of a receptive cow, instead looks content with what he has at his disposal in that moment - fresh, juicy and green grass. We waited for more than ten minutes behind the bush anticipating his moves. This
was a massively built animal that could be weighing anything between 700 and 900 kg, the protruding ridge on its forehead was quite high. The pale yellowish white shade dominating its horns and the thin hair growth on its back indicate that the animal is ageing.
It was just about 30 metres between the animal and the spot we were occupying. Arun was so engrossed in snapping the grandeur of the animal that he simply lost the itchy sensation of a battalion of leeches clinging on to his body tasting his vital body fluid.
Damn parasites!!! It was a pent up swear, even which was more than enough to attract the bull's attention. And lo! there he stands fully out of the thicket seriously staring at us. "Shall we bolt?", whispered to me a seriously intimidated Arun. "Wait", said
I. "Let us watch it for some more time if he shows signs of charging we shall take to one of those silver oak trees marking the boundary of the coffee plantation."
Exchange of stares went on for a few more minutes. Minutes that appeared to be hours since everything ran through our minds during the time from the brownish eyes of the tea-vendor to the prominence of Dhathri to the elegance of planter Hall. Then someone had
to make the first move and much to our delight it was the gaur that digressed and started focusing back on his rich food, Now we have the liberty to step out of the bushes infested by leeches to the nearby rock boulders from where we can have a clear view
of the ghost of Hall, which had almost began drifting away from us, heading for the denser greens of the Nelliyampathy forests; leaving us a different story to tell the tea-ventor of Nellies. Then what if he says the one seen by us was not the rogue of his
tale? Arun hardly waited to muse on that, "In that case, we will have to comb these forests once more, as simple as that"