Wild Elephants and Tribes in the Mountains

A family friend of ours, who studied and lived in Forest Row (a village in southern England, where my family moved when we first arrived in the UK) for ten years, had returned to the Nilgiri mountains on the edge of Tamil Nadu a couple of years ago. Since we were in the area, we wanted to pay him a visit. So we gave up on seeing the Palace this time round and loaded up the bikes to head for the hills.

First we reached Bandipur National Park. Suddenly villages, farmland and resorts selling safaris gave way to forests of small trees, thick undergrowth littered with rocks and the odd grassy clearing here and there covering the rolling hills. Sadly the only wild tiger we saw was the one painted on the sign at the entrance of the reserve. We rode really slowly (not just because of all the speed bumps) to try and spot any of the shy wildlife. A bus with lots of arms pointing, cameras hanging out of the window betrayed the wild elephants in the distance. We managed to catch a glimpse before they disappeared back into the greenery. I was so exited, I almost didn’t see the spotted deer that had stood really close to the road all this time.

Once you cross the border between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the reserve is called Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary. We had heard that you could go on a safari here or even a guided walk into the forest. The latter sounded really tempting and I was praying Aidan’s foot would improve by the time we got there. A few monkeys were watching our arrival from the branches spanning the road, but still no tigers in sight.

We found a simple but clean little room at St. Xaviers Lodge in Masingudi and Aidan’s foot was still killing him, so I had to carry all his luggage upstairs. So much for going hiking then….. The super friendly guy running the place told us that despite his boss having put up signs everywhere “No smoking, no drinking!” we were welcome to sit on the balcony with a view at the back and enjoy a few drinks. New Years Eve was approaching after all. He called his friend over to let us know all the different wildlife Safari options.

Turns out guided walks are illegal now. A couple of years some English guy had taken a guided tour and decided the next day, he now knew the mountains well enough to go out on his own, only to get killed by an angry elephant he got too close to. Since then government had imposed strict regulations. That would explain the almost paranoid signs every few metres along the road: no parking, no picnicking, no filming, no photos. Real shame! But I guess Aidan’s foot wasn’t up to it anyways.

The other options were a super expensive Jeep safari that goes off road into the forest. I asked if it was doable by motorcycle. But Indian’s don’t understand the concept of riding your bike off road on purpose, so he was sure the bikes wouldn’t make it. I concluded it was probably best we didn’t try it. Apart from getting into trouble with the forest department, we would probably not be able to make a fast get away from any pissed off elephants, if we were struggling the bikes over boulders and dragging them through mud. They weren’t enduro bikes after all. And finally there is a cheap Jeep safari along the river road. Noticing how we were traveling on a low budget, the guy admitted we could just ride that road on the bikes ourselves, free of charge, and advised how we would get there. Sweet!

He also told us how to find the temple on a hilltop with a pretty view that we were allowed to walk up to. But one look at Aidan and we resigned ourselves to limping to the restaurant instead. The super yummie all you can eat thali with a vast variety of curry sauce dishes to mix into our mountain of rice, papadums, yoghurt and a sweet for dessert made up for it somewhat. After that we made use of our permission to drink and spent the evening writing diaries.

Nehru had confirmed we were welcome to visit him the next day, so we would check out before any New Years Eve celebrations after all. But not before we rode down the river road we had been told about. Early morning was a good time to spot wildlife, so with Munki strapped in, we crept down the road at a snail’s pace. A couple of Jeeps went past, beeping loudly, scaring away any tigers or elephants we might have seen. And apparently there were pumas and sloths in these forests too.

We reached the lake and little village at the end of the road without spotting anything except a few birds and butterflies. The sleepy village was kind of pretty though.

On the way back we turned down a side road. It had been blocked with a few rocks but we were curious and rode around them. It soon ended by a little temple with lots of little shrines all over the place and a nice view over the valley.

On the way back Aidan suddenly pulled over to photograph a bird of prey he’d seen. But it turned out to be a peacock that got away before he’d dug the camera out. Meanwhile I found a pretty little water hole with two more peacocks. But they also got away. So here is a picture of the waterhole.

Then it was time to get going up into the Nilgiri mountains. After leaving the wildlife sanctuary, the road hairpin twisted its way so steeply up the mountain, Nila actually got a bit breathless, only just making it up there, mostly in first gear. It was an awesome road to ride though and the views were really pretty, if a little misty. The brush gave way to super tall trees, firs and damp moss. It was cold up here! So cold I had to pull over and put the inner lining back into my bike jacket.

There weren’t any road signs to Kollimalai, so I called Nehru, who advised to look out for the green roofs in the valley. When we can see them, there would be a steep road down into the valley and to his village. It was indeed steep and twisted tarmac, which had mostly disintegrated into gravel. Nothing we couldn’t handle though. Nehru and his cousins waited for us at the edge of the village and had us make ourselves comfortable at Nehru’s mum’s home at the edge of the main village.

It is a simple life here. People grow tea and vegetables like garlic, cabbage, beetroots and carrots. Of course some have jobs in town too, but a tea plantation can support a good simple life here with workers to harvest the tea.

There is tap water, but the pressure is too low to service showers and the like. So people collect it in jugs from the tap outside and fill containers in kitchen and bathroom, where it is used sparingly. To wash, they heat water in a pot and the squat toilet is flushed from a bucket. You walk bare foot in the house with a pair of flip flops outside the bathroom to use if the floor in there is wet. Food is cooked in clay pots over a semi open fire stove. The main room is usually bare. People sit on a piece of thick cloth on the floor when they eat. Though some have a bench or armchairs in the entrance where guests might sit while waiting for dinner. Some houses even still have a hole in the ground where grains are ground. A posher household may have a washing machine of the Indian top loaded variety. Since there is no tap with enough pressure, water is filled into it with a bucket and a buzzer goes off for a refill when the dirty water has been pumped out of the drain pipe.

After catching up over some tea (grown in this village) and piles of fruit, Nehru announced lunch was ready and took us into the cosy village to his brother’s colourfully painted house. It is one of a few little houses, built closely together around a tiny courtyard type village square.

Oh, and that’s not a skirt he’s wearing…. In southern India men wear a cloth wrapped around their hips a bit like a sarong. And like here, they sometimes fold it up so its like a short skirt. Underneath they wear a pair of shorts with pockets, sort of like functional boxers.

Not believing we would be happy to sit on the floor, they rustled up some plastic tables and chairs and served up a feast of byriani rice, curry and veg dishes. Kids popped in and out to get a cheeky glance at the strangers and wife and husband hovered about, filling more and more onto our plates and making sure we had everything we could want. I asked why they wouldn’t join us. They replied they would eat later. So all of this was just for us!

Afterwards we walked through the village, past the three little temples, unique to this tribe and sat in the grass. The kids kept running around us, playing with puppies and falling over each other while Nehru and his cousin told us a few things about this tribe.

Riding through, you wouldn’t notice anything different to any other village in southern India. The men wear a cloth wrapped around their hips, sometimes folded up into a shorter skirt with a pair of under shorts that have pockets for practicality, like anywhere else in southern India. But on a closer look you see that the cloths women wrap around themselves here are not saris. And wandering through the village, we got the distinct feel, that there are lots of sacred traditions here, which we were probably trampling all over. (We did find out later that shoes or footwear are not allowed in the central village. But worried about it being cold and our health, Nehru hadn’t told us that we should have been barefoot.)

About 4000 people belong to this tribe spread over seven villages. The Nilgiri region is special as there are about eight tribes here, who had been cut off from the rest of India until the British arrived. To this day they do not identify themselves as belonging to Tamil Nadu and they practice their very own festivals and traditions. Hinduism is part of their religion, but they have their own beliefs as well. They have three little temples under a giant tree at the side of the village. To us they looked like little well kept huts at first.

In fact, we had arrived on the first day of an eight day festival, so the women were busy washing the white festival garments with the golden stripes along the side and sweeping the courtyard between the houses where the festivities would take place after sundown. As outsiders to the village, we would not be allowed to watch or even enter the village centre, though we were told there would be a bonfire around which they dance to singing and music played by drums, flutes and a horn. The musicians had made the instruments themselves.

The first night would be the men celebrating. The second, it was the women’s turn. Then on the third, the women leave the village at dawn to return at sunset, when the entire village would sing and dance. That third night, we might be allowed to watch, if we stayed that long. Normally strangers are not allowed at all. But as friends of Nehru’s it may just be possible. We are told that Nehru and his brother hold quite an important position within the tribe. But not one to brag, he did not elaborate.

After tea at Nehru’s cousin’s house (they brought the chairs and tables over from the other house, just for us) we returned to Nehru’s mum’s house and were served dinner with chapatti, specially made for us! They usually just eat rice here, but chapattis had come up in conversation, so Nehru’s sister in law had gone out of her way to make us a huge pile of them. Yum 🙂 

The next morning the mist and clouds had cleared and the valley was doused in brilliant warming sunshine. But I would enjoy none of it. When I woke up my bum exploded, and I spent the rest of the day running from bed to the toilet. Normally I don’t mind, but now this Indian squat affair flushed with water from a bucket really wasn’t much fun. Aidan curled up with me in bed serving as extra pillow while watching some crappy TV series on our laptop for the umpteenth time (we really need to get some new movies!).

Nehru brought first breakfast and then lunch over from his brother’s house. Aidan loved the yummy local cuisine, but I stayed clear, nibbling at some of the rice noodles.

Then Aidan got Khiimi out of the garage and rode into Ooty to fetch bottled water and some bread. We weren’t sure what made me sick, so maybe I shouldn’t have any of the village food or water for now.

The door to the garden was open, so two boys poked their head around the corner, only to disappear in a fit of giggles. When I waved they came in for a chat and to show me their wickid little clothes-peg guns.

They proudly told me about their tribe and its seven villages and reenacted the play fight they’d had earlier wearing Aidan’s super cool bike gloves. One of them has a gold stud in each ear, but I could never quite understand if it was his school o his family traditions that required it. They had a pretty horrific story to tell as well. A relative of theirs worked in a bomb factory. One day a lorry reversed into another that was carrying bombs to be shipped out and KABOOM! it all blew up killing everyone around. Even at a nearby shop the flames were still chest high they exclaimed with dramatic gestures. Despite that both want to work for the army too, when they grow up. One  as pilot, the other a high ranking officer.

We chatted away about the shenanigans they get up to, hiding in the forest till their parents are worried, daring each other to jump into a sink hole there and how they nicknamed each other Skinny and Skeleton. And how they were learning several Indian languages like Tamil and Hindi as well as English. Though the boys no longer learned German, since the German teacher had left the school. Here in Kollimalai they speak their own tribal language. The different tribes have different dialects, but all tribes from the Nilgiri mountains understand each other.

Then the older brother turned up on his swanky new bicycle, which his father told him not to lend to anyone, not even to the brother, lest they break it. He came in to fetch the other two for lunch. He asked me, whether I understood what his little brother and his friend were saying, disbelief written all over his face. So they proudly exclaimed we’d been talking for an entire hour.

In the evening I was feeling quite a bit better. Nehru came over to invite us to a little bonfire his cousins and friends had made in the grounds of the Hindu temple. That way we could enjoy a little bonfire too, even if we couldn’t join the festivities in the village. And since it was the women’s turn tonight, they were free to hang out with us. We’d have to go barefoot though, since the temple ground was holy. The short grass was dewy and ice cold on our feet, but the fire kept us warm quite nicely. Everyone was munching away on Indian sweets and snacks, served up in pieces of newspaper and I dared a few peanuts.

The guys told us some more about their customs and the village. Unlike in most of India, the women in their tribe are free to go anywhere and talk to anyone they wish, even without any male family member to accompany them. The marriages remain within the tribe and are often love marriages, rather than arranged, which is rare in the rest of India. The women do move into the man’s house, if he has his own, or join his family’s household as everywhere. But this tribe tries to provide a house for the new family wherever possible. And since there is no dowry here, raising a girl costs no more than raising a boy. In India hospitals do not tell parents to be whether the child is a boy or a girl, as many will attempt to self abort if it is a girl. But in this tribe, both are welcome.

Divorce is also possible in the tribe. If a couple do not get along, they have several options. They can try work it out, which is seen as the best option for their children of course. Or they can divorce, in which case the woman returns to her parents house. This may be at one of the other seven villages of course, making it more difficult for the child to see both parents. So there is a third option. They can choose to live separately in separate houses even, but in the same village. That way both can raise the children. If one wants to remarry, they do have to then get divorced first of course. The matter is not a private one, however. The entire village becomes involved in helping them reach the best solution.

That all seem very free and almost western. There are of course lots of unspoken little rules and customs, which are deeply ingrained into their behaviour. There higher ranking people than others within the tribe and village and the elders are respected at all times. The women’s role is to cook the food and run the household, while the men take up a job to earn money. And then there are little things, completely unfamiliar to us. For example certain food is only put in certain containers, if you put your feet up on the chair, it will be cleaned with certain herbs; food from the outside the village is ‘unclean’ and should not be put in the dishes.

Eventually everyone had to leave for dinner. Nehru was going to bring some over for us. But we weren’t hungry, so told him not to worry about it. We just curled up in our room with the biscuits Aidan had bought and fell asleep pretty soon. Around midnight I woke up with a start and ran to the loo. Apparently I wasn’t better after all! I spent the rest of the night dashing to the toilet. By the morning the water bucket had run out and the pipes were almost clogged with loo paper. I prayed for Nehru’s mum to get up and refill the water bucket. I’d do it myself, but I didn’t know whether to use the tap or water from the big containers outside and what if a certain bucket had to be used for this and I chose the wrong one? So I clenched my butt and fell back asleep.

When Nehru arrived with breakfast, I was still running to the loo every five minutes, a weak and dehydrated ghost of my usual self. This wasn’t right. Time to go see the doctor. Someone who has a car was found to drive us to hospital, where we queued for Nehru’s favourite doctor. It’s a private hospital and so ‘a bit nicer’ in Nehru’s words. But to me it looked just as grimy as any other place in India. The doctor took my pulse and blood pressure and then decreed that I wouldn’t need a glucose injection just yet. He told Nehru all the things to feed me to get my energy back, but for now I felt too sick to eat. I’d start with water. The doctor also prescribed ‘the same pill they give Indian people’ which apparently weren’t antibiotics. Such hard measures wouldn’t be necessary yet, as I only had infectious diarrhea, not dysentery or something else nasty. (I Googled it later…. they were antibiotics of course!) The doctor was paid in cash and the pills were fetched from the pharmacy around the corner.

Back in Kollimalai I curled up in bed, Aidan on pillow-duty again and drifted in and out of sleep as we watched more crappy TV. When I woke up, I tried to eat a little and drink that horrid re-hydration stuff. I was vaguely aware of Nehru bringing some dinner for Aidan, but just kept sleeping. I finally woke up around nine or ten. It was dark and Aidan was gone. I could hear the erratic drum beat in the distance, the horn piercing the air every now and again. Bummer! The festivities were on in the village again and today was the day we were allowed to watch… I’d missed it! I considered going down there to sneak a peek, but I wasn’t sure if that would be offensive. We weren’t really supposed to be there, so it was one thing to turn up with Nehru, quite another to just waltz in by myself. So I just went back to sleep.

Around midnight an ice cold Aidan slipped under the blankets. He said he didn’t wake me as barefoot in the cold was no place for a sick person. I’m not quite sure I forgive him. After all, how often do you get a chance to witness a tribal festival? Aidan told me about it:

At a little after nine thirty Nehru and his cousin arrived to grab a couple of bushels of twigs from behind the house, and I followed them down into the village. Since I knew the village rules by now I was barefoot, and the night air had cooled the grass to near freezing. Luckily I could see the glow of a huge bonfire in the centre of the village, from where snatches of drumming and chanting were floating up to me. We arrived at the village square where the bushels were thrown onto a pile, tucked to one side to feed the fire throughout the night. Surrounding the fire, shoulder to shoulder in a ring, the men of the village circled in a step-step-spin-step, occasionally rising in unison with a cry, to the beat of three drums and the constant wail of two flutes, known colloquially as ‘Kol’. From my point on the edge of the square (I couldn’t come any closer since I wasn’t wearing the requisite all-white traditional dress – a symbol of humility and a  temporary rejection of caste and financial state) I tried to follow the steps in the dance. The older gents certainly had it down, though the younger guys would occasionally mis-step and bump into each other, collapsing in a heap of giggles before getting back in line. Despite the solemnity of the occasion, it was quite a laid back affair, and participants seemed to be free to drop out of the circle at will for a rest or a chat, while the musicians would sometimes just stop drumming mid-song to hand over their instrument to someone else.

Resting on a grassy bank behind the square were a handful of beautifully ornamented silver curved horns, known as ‘Kob’, and a separate pack of men hung around occasionally picking one up to blast out a war-like double note. Apparently it’s quite an honour to be chosen as a musician, and involves year-long practice on lesser instruments – usually made from bamboo – in preparation for one week of using the purpose made ones which are hand-built in the village and last for generations . For example to play the ‘Kol’: a sort of cross between a flute and an oboe, the musician must learn circular breathing in order to hold the warbling note indefinitely, while also running up and down the scales at speed. 

As the men’s dance finished and the remaining participants split off into groups to chat, the women and girls took their place in the ring to begin their separate version. One of the villagers who’d sat down next to me helped to explain the nuances of the ritual. While the hypnotic circling and bobbing of the dancers didn’t seem to change much, the steps involved in each dance were different, and each had a specific set of musical rules to accompany it. The trick, it seems, was to watch the feet. When I occasionally glanced up to watch the intense focus on the women’s faces as they touched heel to toe and circled in unison, I noticed stern stares from several of the older men.

As the night went on, I caught more and more of these looks, and I started to wonder if my staring was inappropriate, or even if my presence at the ceremony wasn’t as welcome as I’d thought. Eventually, as the ritual was drawing to a close, one of the older, white haired drummers put his instrument down and made a beeline for the spot where I was sitting, in the shelter of  a little wooden porch. As he towered over me, he broke into a huge smile and reached for my hand. “How do you like our dancers?” I did my best to convey how much I was loving my unique experience. Once the ice was broken, several of the other men were free to slide over and say hi, including a guy who was introduced to me as the village’s best mimic of wild animals and birds.

Before I could ask for a demonstration, a tight circle formed around the fire and a heated discussion began. The final day of the festival was open to outsiders, and a stack of invitations had been printed. The politics between local tribes were delicate, and the right ambassador had to be chosen to deliver the invitation to each village. The message had to be taken to the tribal elders first, and no village could be forgotten. I was led to believe that wars had been fought in the past due to such sleights. Amusingly though, the ambassadorial responsibilities happened to go to those villagers who owned motorbikes. Once the instruments had been put away I wandered back out of the village with Nehru, sharing a beedi and discussing the experience, before sliding into bed at around about midnight.

Of course taking photos was out of the question, so like me, you’ll just have to imagine it. The next day it was time for us to leave for Kochi. Our friend Kerry would arrive there soon, and I had been sick for far too long…. Little did I know the pills I was taking every morning made me quite drowsy and a little dopey… fun ride down the mountain 🙂

Munki ready to go ;)

Munki ready to go 😉

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