Once an exclusive hunting ground of the Maharajas of Mysore, Nagarhole National Park was renamed after the late Rajiv Gandhi, but faces the same fate as Delhi’s Connaught Place and Connaught Circus, which are still called by their popular old names. So it is with Nagarhole. Located on the Deccan Plateau, the park is an integral part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. The Nagarhole River meanders through it and eventually meets the Kabini, the largest river that drains the forest. A dam built on the Kabini has created a beautiful lake to the south of the park, separating it from Bandipur Tiger Reserve. To the southeast lies the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary while to the west, coffee plantations separate the park from the Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary.
This entire stretch is one of the best remaining Asian Elephant habitats. Huge herds hang out in Nagarhole, and summer is said to be the best time to see them.
It is determined that Nagarhole National Park is worth visiting in the dry season when wild animals are spotted in large numbers near the water bodies but don’t gamble on them. Successive dry spells have shriveled up the water sources to such an extent that the animals feel content lying in the shade, out of sight. Then, as the pre-rainforest showers enliven the forest with streams, the inhabitants begin their breeding activities and the air resounds with melodious calls. Grass sprouting in the pastures attracts elephants and gaur in large numbers. As the rains intensify, the river is revived and the grandeur of Nagarhole slowly begins to unfold.
One of the oldest national parks in India, Nagarhole (literally ‘Serpent River’) was created in 1955. It was managed by the Indian Forest Department, which also built rest homes and other accommodations in the park. The park limits were expanded in 1974 to the current area of 640 square kilometers. Expect to see herbivores such as the elephant, gaur, sambar, cheetal, muntjac (barking deer), chousingha (four-hooved antelope), and wild pig. Nagarhole is also an excellent place to spot dhole, leopard, sloth bear and tiger. The park is part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and is very close to both the Bandipur Tiger Reserve and the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, two of the most popular wildlife sanctuaries in India. Nagarhole forms the catchment area for three rivers: Nagarhole, Lakshmana Teertha and Kabini. Altitudes vary between 2,000 and 3,000 feet; the highest point here is Masal Betta Peak (3,150 ft). The Kabini River, the largest of its waterways, lies south of the park.
Spread over a luxurious 640 square kilometers (combination of core and buffer forest zones), Nagarhole offers great sighting opportunities along the tracks, as a 100-foot area around both sides is clear of vegetation, allowing an unobstructed view of the forest. The Forest Department maintains the viewline by clearing it of weeds and foliage every year. At no time are you required to get out of your vehicle, a rule the department enforces with diligence. “I’m just peeing” might be your famous last word. Herds of cheetal are often tied across the trail and wait on the other side for you to pass, disapproving of their docked tails. There are many tigers and leopards in the park, but the dense jungles make it very difficult to see them. Other carnivores include jungle cat, dhole (Asiatic wild dog), striped hyena, and the jackal. Interspersed with the forests are swampy areas called hadlus, which are dominated by grasses and are the preferred rangelands of many herbivores.
The notable species are axis deer, Indian muntjac, mouse deer, four-horned antelope, crested porcupine, and the black-naped hare. The primates of the inhabitants are the hood. Other species include the sloth bear, pangolin, giant squirrel, giant fruit bat, and the elusive slender loris. The tourist zone covers only 30 square kilometers. The Forest Department’s 1-hour 17-seater bus safari is too short and noisy, but the only option available. For all attractions and safaris, visit the RFO office (tel: +91-8274-205020) in Nagarhole.
The Nagarhole Forest is home to at least four prominent tribes – the Jenu Kurubas (traditional honey gatherers), Betta Kurubas (mountain people), Hakki Pikki and the Yeravas. If you are lucky you can see how the Jenu Kurubas extract honey from the aggressive Indian rock bees. If you do not have this right, you can do so as follows. They select a few choice leaves from the bunch and chew it on their way to the hive. They then spit out the secretion and smear the juices on the body, which acts as a natural repellent. Then they let out a low guttural noise and climb to the hive, where they disappear for a while and return, radiant, with a full bottle of honey.
They are simply the Houdinis of the jungle and have to be seen to be believed. During Bode Namme, literally the Begging Festival, celebrated every year from mid-April to May, Kuruba men dress up as women in noisy clothes, beg for alms, drink themselves crazy and sing bawdy songs. During these two weeks of revelry, Kurubas are scattered literally all over the landscape, asleep in a state of stupor or sheer exhaustion. The Kodavas steer clear of this festival. Of course you shouldn’t miss it.
Place: Nagarhole, or Rajiv Gandhi National Park, in southwest Karnataka, is bounded by the Kabini River to the south, Wayanad sanctuary to the southwest and Bandipur NP to the southeast. They are all part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.
Distance: 222 km SW of Bengaluru; Travel time: by road 5 hours
When to go:Practically all year round, but November to February is ideal.