A summer in Beechanahalli
Traversing the teak forests, we finally reached Bavali. There was no crowd there. The bridge built by the Mysore Lion Tipu Sultan to enter Kerala, remained the sole spectator. A gigantic pipal tree with its roots hanging down from its huge branches and deeply set in the ground gave shade to a large area in this small village. Years ago, this place, situated on the border of Kerala and Karnataka, was infamous for arrack business. When arrack was banned in Kerala, Malayalis used to pitch their tent here day and night for the arrack variety from Karnataka called ‘moolavetti’. This place then had several country bars that did business worth crores from arrack selling, mainly for Malayalis. After getting drunk, people used to lie down under the Pipal tree. Their minor altercations have even led to murder attempts. Slowly, this village also embraced total alcohol prohibition. The last bar shut up shop two years ago. Once a crowded and active place, the Bavali village now leads a quiet life.
The scorching heat has affected the lives of people in this village too. Shops are opened early in the morning and people purchase grocery before the sun turns hot. With no rain for months, the fields have dried out and cracked up. Frail and haggard-looking cattle were seen grazing on these rock-hard fields where not even grass would grow. As we continued our journey from the tarred road to a path laid in red sand, we’ve also crossed the border of Kerala and entered Karnataka. People here spokes both Kannada and Malayalam. Now, the typical low-floored and hay-thatched village houses could be seen.
Scenes from parched villages
By the time we reached the shore of Kabini, it was pretty hot. River Kabini has lost a lot of weight and is red in colour now. From a distance, the sparkling from the water collected in the craters on the rock surface looked like glistening silver vessels. The catchment area and the villages along the river looked worn out in the sweltering heat. The river has become so thin that one could cross the river simply by walking. This is appalling considering the fact that the river wells up during rainy season in such a way that one cannot see the other side. One of the three east flowing rivers in Kerala, Kabini is the gift from the land of Kannada. Kabini regains life during rainy season and takes water to many villages in Karnataka that do not receive rain most part of the year. The water is stored in the mammoth Beechanahalli water tank on Karnataka’s side. However, in Kerala, people panic and run around for water when summer is around. It’s a pain to see people running around for drinking water, including adivasis, while Kabini is lying just in front of the eyes.
For the people living in the catchment area of Kabini, summer brings along with it deprivation and scarcity. Even if there were paddy fields and agricultural land spread along the catchment area, they were left barren for lack of water. The farmers said the soil was so good that it could give great yield, but what was the use since there was no water. After the water level in the river has gone down, there was no job for ferryboats. After crossing Kabini, we reached Byrakuppa. It was too hot there that it felt as if we were thrown in a frying pan. Byrakuppa village was infamous for Ganja and gambling. It was Malayalis who made this village popular. People come in ferryboats and gather around here for gambling. While some people had lost everything in gambling, there were those who gained a lot.
When somebody arrives from outside, there are pries to understand their requirement and take them to the respective places. Liquor prohibition has brought some peace to this village as well. However, the number of people using Ganja has not come down. If you go a little ahead on the broken road, people speak only Kannada. If you ask in Malayalam, they will respond in Kannada.
The wailing forest
Huge trees with dead dried out branches seemed looking up in the sky and weeping. Trees were bear with little leaves to give shade. Monkeys were seen roaming around big trees looking for shades. This stretch of forest in Karnataka is the place where you come across some or the other animal all the time. But nothing could be seen in the vicinity. The sight of the green-less forest that could be burnt completely with a spark would pain anyone. The elephants here have migrated to other forest area in search of water and food. As we continued on our journey passing the huge arc board ‘National Tiger Reserve’ and the villages, the heat became unbearable. We could see hardly any vehicle coming from the opposite side. During this peak summer, very few people travel via this hand post even from as near as Mysore. The frequent speed breakers on the road, though not very wide, have given troubles to the riders. The road was so narrow that it was difficult to even turn the vehicle in case one saw an elephant on the road. That may be the reason why many people refrain from taking this route.
En route we saw the small halting points put up by the Karnataka forest watchers to observe the forest. In many places along the way we saw information boards warning against parking vehicles in the forest area. The forest regulations are ten times sterner here than in Kerala. If a stranger is spotted in the forest, he or she could even be shot below the knee! Everyone seemed to know of these stringent rules because the vehicles we saw on the road all steadily followed the rules. Flouting of forest rules like stopping vehicles and throwing stones at the animals may be possible in Kerala, but not here. Cameras were installed in many places in this stretch to observe people and vehicles. Although it’s a national park, the authorities couldn’t find any solution for the problem of water scarcity affecting the forest every year.
Despite constructing several ponds and saving up water during rainy season, the scorching summer had taken a toll on the forest. When summer begins birds and animals migrate to Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, which is situated several kilometers away. Even if fireline was built along the forest belt, when forest fire breaks out, in a few hours the entire woods get burnt. The sight of a burnt forest would be certainly heart wrenching.
Bella, the village of mahouts
After a drive of around 14 kilometers through forest we reached a small village named Bella with around 30 houses, all painted in green. Bella is an elephant sanctuary. We saw thirsty elephants along with baby elephants lined up around the borewell. It was where Kumki elephants were trained to chase wild elephants away into the forest. This century-old sanctuary is still being protected and preserved by the Karnataka forest department. The village had a lot of stories to share on wild and domesticated animals. At a time when the man-animal conflict is a regular news in the media, the camaraderie the animals and people share here stands out. For generations, the mahouts and their family members have been accustomed to the lives of wild animals.
Even in this fast-paced modern world, a bunch of people who have dedicated their lives for elephants and who knew the creatures like the back of their hands indeed was a unique sight in the wild forest. Bella is located in the southern tip of Karnataka. It was the wild animal hunting spot of Mysore royal family, which later became the sanctuary. There was a time when the main activity around here was training and domestication of wild elephants.
During the heyday, Bella elephant camp was home to over hundreds of domesticated elephants. Today, there are 14 elephants including baby elephants. Fifty-year-old Raja, Kumaraswamy, Arjunan and Saradhi are the darlings of the village. Till evening they roam around in the forest and come back here to have ragi before going to sleep. There are around 30 people here to take care of elephants which include 11 main mahouts. Around 50 families of Kattunaikkar community live here under the shelter of the sanctuary.
The elephants from Bella are used for Dussehra celebrations and the procession of Mysore Maharaja. In order to preserve the memories of the erstwhile rule of the Maharajas the forest department has retained this sanctuary. It is also a favourite tourist spot.
There were junior mahouts at the camp. To treat the wounded elephants and chase the problem elephants, the forest department sometimes seeks the help of elephants from the sanctuary. During the British period, several wild elephants were domesticated here. The elder mahouts would tell you the expertise involved in the taming of elephants – how the elephants are trapped into the pit and slowly tamed.
Coracles to reach the other side
We continued our journey to the next village where we saw vast ginger fields. The sun was red-hot above us. Despite the sweltering days and nights, labourers had no break from work. It’s the time to cultivate ginger and harvest vegetables. The labourers could be seen in the fields from early morning till evening. They only took two hours of break from work in the afternoon. Although the summer was harsh, there was no dearth for water in their farming land. The vast outlets of Beechanahalli dam had plenty of water even during this summer. Though the water level had come down a bit in some places, the villagers said, there was enough water in the reservoir to use even for five years. Pointing towards one of the lakes, Nagan, a villager said, “That lake is our only source of help.” When we reached near the water body, Puttanna, a ferryman for several years, was there waiting for us. His job for the last 30 years has been to ply people from one shore to the other. By the time the coracle reached the other side there were many fish sellers. The fish caught from the dam were for sale for very cheap price. In no time, almost all the fish caught there were sold out. Tourists were lesser in number because of the scorching summer. Cottages were almost empty. Along the dam, there were groups of wild elephants. We saw elephants swimming in these waters to get some respite from the scorching heat.
As the sun started fading into the western forests by splashing red colours, we were preparing for our journey back. The checkpost in Bavali would close at 6 in the evening. We had to reach there before that. We saw bison moving in line along the path. The green patches and cool ambience of Bavali welcomed us on our way back. As we neared home, passing through Mananthavady, several shots from a summer holiday flashed before the eyes. As the summer rain started pouring in the company of lightning and thunder in Kerala, we wished, if it were raining in those villages as well!
(Translated by Renitha Raveendran)