Mudumali National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary lies at the western edge of Tamil Nadu, in the south of India. One arrives there by traveling up to Ooty in the spectacularly beautiful Nilgiris Hills, and then down again on the other side to the forest.
Across from Mudumalai, on the western side of the sleepy Moyar River, is the state of Karnataka and Bandipur National Park, which then runs into Nagerhole National Park.
There was once a time when the whole of India was covered in forests. People built their villages inside the woods and lived among the trees in a sustainable forest. In one of the two great Indian epics, the Ramayana—much of the story takes place in the forest, where the great hero Rama has been sent as an outcaste, to live for years in the forest with his wife Sita, and his brothers. There many adventures ensue. (This is a way of summing up in five words a story that has played a dominant role throughout the thousands of years of Indian tradition. It’s as if we were to say, “Jesus was a carpenter who lived in the Middle East.” There is, of course, much more to the story of Jesus, and much more to the story of Rama too, which we will re-visit at another time.)
The forest is primeval. It is, in all mythologies in the world, a place of mystery and magic. Even though the forests of India now exist as protected areas, confined to only a fraction of the area they once covered, one can still sense this presence of mystery and something of the sacred nature of the forest. The core of the forest is closed to visitors, and one can only visit the outer areas.
The tree are elegant, slender, often with a white trunk extending up to leaves at the top. During my visit to Mudumalai, in January of 2010, I was fortunate to have as my guide, Mr. Kumaravelu, who works with the CPREEC (CPR Environmental Education Centre). He told me that these particular trees were perhaps 60 to 70 years old, so they are not thousands of years old, still they have an atmosphere of the sacred about them. It’s as if they remember all the distant past of India, as if they live in a unique world, filled with magic and miracles, set quite apart from the humdrum world of modern cities. They have a connection with another age—when animals could speak and humans could fly, and there were not such clear distinctions between the human, and the animal or the plant—when all spirits were simply spirits—all part of one spiritual realm.
It is amazing to see peacocks in the wild. I have taken care of peacocks in captivity, and here they are in the habitat where they are meant to be—at home in the forest. One peacock walks along the branch of a tree. His beautiful mate is on the ground below waiting for him, out of sight.
Wonderful too are the jungle fowl. Jungle fowl are simply chickens by another name. They are the ancestors of what we know today as domestic chickens, those creatures who suffer all the horrors and indignities of captive life in nearly every country in the world. But in Mudumalai they are at home, in peace, where they belong.
There is also an Elephant Camp at Mudumalai, where rescued elephants are kept by the Forest Department and are used for tasks in the forest, such as clearing non-native plants and brush. Each elephant has a mahout (an elephant trainer) who stays with the elephant and guides him or her in where to go and what to do. The mahout is inseparable from the elephant, taking the elephant to bathe in the river every day, bringing the elephant to the camp for food, leading the elephant to work on the tasks assigned. These forest elephants appear to be well-cared-for. They are out in the forest with other elephants, able to walk and get good exercise, and they seem to lead a relatively normal existence.
Manasi, a very young elephant, is spending her first day learning to eat grass. She was found orphaned. Until this point she has been bottle-fed, but now she will learn to eat by herself. I ask her care-givers what will be come of her, and they assure me that she will stay there in the elephant camp.
That is good because I’d been afraid that she might be sold to a temple. The temple elephants are treated badly and cannot live a natural life. Here in the forest, the twenty or so elephants at Mudumalai live and work together. They walk on the grass of the forest, among the trees and lead a happy life.
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