Travel: The Great Malabar Squirrel
"The water is shallow and swampy and boating is not possible. However, the deep blue sky, reflected in the crystal clearness of the waters was a joy to behold"
The shapad at Palakkad railway station is the best food I have ever eaten at a railway cafeteria in India. After enjoying the red matta rice with injipuli (ginger curry with tamarind), I boarded a local bus to Karripode village 15 kilometres away.
I always prefer to take the Konkan Rail rather than fly to Coimbatore airport, as nostalgic memories of olan, kalan, ishtu (stew in Malayalam) remind me of my childhood train journeys and food memories of the famous Olavakode railway cafeteria at Olavakode junction, rechristened Palakkad Junction in recent years.
I checked into Anthure Homestay at Karripode as it is the only option for tourists, who want to visit parakund. We enjoyed a vegan breakfast of idlis with coconut chutney tempered with curry leaves and mustard seeds. I dug into traditional Kerala delicacies like elisseri (pumpkin cooked in a coconut gravy) and sambar with hot dosas at Manikutty's thattukada at Adicherra, before trekking to the hilltop at Kunnankadu forests for a bird’s eye view of the greenery.
Karripode village on the fringes of the Neliampathy Hills took less than 30 minutes from Palakkad.
I passed the historical village of Chittur along the way and was welcomed by a group of cattle egrets flying in formation. I soon found myself in the middle of thick evergreen forests and verdant rice fields surrounded by endless rows of coconut trees, with no habitation in sight as far as eye could see.
After thirty minutes of cruising through the jungle in an open jeep, I saw a large water body in the distance. I was informed by my guide that the water body is not a lake but a fresh water spring surrounded by rocks. The water was crystal clear.
I drove to the edges of this giant lake to find hundreds of birds. It is a pleasure to watch a multitude of colourful birds at close quarters, as they flock to the edge of the water. The water is shallow and swampy and boating is not possible, so one had to be content watching the birds from a distance. However, the deep blue sky, reflected in the crystal clearness of the waters was a joy to behold. Watching the crimson sunset over the parakund (In Malayalam 'para' means rock and 'kund' is pond) was equally memorable.
I ventured deeper into the jungle to spot the Giant Malabar Squirrel. After an hour of driving through the jungle I could see a glimpse of this magnificent creature. Giant Malabar Squirrels are black in colour but have two large elliptical brown spots, one on each side of their body which makes them look incredibly attractive to behold. The squirrels live on peepal trees and use their sharp teeth to eat mangoes, papayas and jackfruits.
Giant Malabar Squirrels are shy creatures and disappear at great speed on hearing the sound of approaching humans. Hence the ideal strategy to spot these gentle and shy friends, is to alight a short distance away and stealthily walk towards them in a non- menacing way and shoot with the zoom lens.
Karripode, situated on the border with Tamil Nadu is a sanctuary for the Giant Malabar Squirrel and several other colourful birds like the Malabar Hornbill. This extraordinary area gets partly inundated by about two feet of water in the monsoon months (July-September). Once below sea level, this area was raised by earth movements which cut it off from the Eastern Ghats.
It was broken up by later earth movements into flat farmlands (where people can be seen growing matta rice) and higher grounds with sandy, salt-free soil. The Giant Malabar Squirrel depends on the thorny scrub of the higher ground area for its feed. The other wildlife at Karripode includes blue bull, wolves, hyenas, desert foxes, jackals, wild-cats, and caracals.
I took a dip in Therukolam, the golden lake, where all temples of Karripode hid their gold underwater, after Karpaswamy (family diety of the village) protected the gold from Tipu Sultan’s army by dropping the gold into the middle of the lake in large treasure chests, protected by bhutatans (ghosts), who are rumoured to protect the treasure to this very day, as narrated by the locals.
(Murli Menon is a travel writer, stress management consultant and author based in Ahmedabad)
(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)