Home to the legendary Kannimara teak, Parambikulam is a haven for nature lovers

From one of the world’s oldest teak trees to the IUCN-listed yellow vine, from elephants to langurs, the marvels of nature awaiting the visitor at Kerala’s Parambikulam are innumerable.
Boat ride to an island in Parambikulam
Boat ride to an island in Parambikulam
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It was a nippy morning in Parambikulam Tiger Reserve. Lounging in the balcony of the Tree Top Hut in Thunakadavu, I sipped my coffee listening to the dawn chorus of birds and watching animals coming out to quench their thirst at the water’s edge on the farther bank of the placid lake. Everything seemed picture-perfect in the fresh light.

Running contiguous to Tamil Nadu’s Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary, Parambikulam is spread across the Anaimalai range of Tamil Nadu and the Nelliyampathy range of Kerala. Nestled deep in a valley, it is a haven for naturalists, wildlife photographers and tourists. The pride of the sanctuary is Kannimara, one of the world’s tallest and oldest teak trees, and the first ever scientifically managed teak plantation. There are also some species exclusive to the sanctuary like the Parambikulam frog (Zakerana parambikulamana).

Treetop hut in Thunakadavu
Parambikulam has an interesting history. The introduction of a tramway in 1907 was one of the major highlights. The erstwhile Cochin Forest Tramway was a 65 km metre gauge train running through dense forest from Chalakudy to Parambikulam. It was used to cart valuable timber from inaccessible areas to Chalakudy, from where it was to be transported by road to other places. Consequent to the felling ban by successive governments, the tramway came to a halt in 1946.

In 1985, Parambikulam metamorphosed from a 48 sq km tract of reserve forest to a 285 sq km wildlife sanctuary. In 2010, it was declared a Tiger Reserve with a total area of 643.66 sq km. The sanctuary also plays host to three dams that serve as fresh water storage reservoirs. An interesting fact is that these three dams – Parambikulam, Thunakadavu and Peruvaripalam – were constructed by the Tamil Nadu government across the Chalakudy river for hydroelectric power generation. One unique feature of this sanctuary is that the irrigation project is connected to the Aliyar dam in Tamil Nadu through a series of reservoirs interconnected with underground tunnels, channels, river courses and canals, linking each one of the dams in the sanctuary. The 5 km underground tunnel connecting the Parambikulam and Thunakadavu reservoirs, passing through the rocky Vengoli Malai, is an engineering marvel.

Thunakadavu is the first dam that you come across when you enter Parambikulam. Its catchment area is an ideal place for wildlife viewing. A 7 km detour from Thunakadavu took us to the Kannimara teak, a living relic of the once luxuriant natural teak forest. En route, we sighted a wide range of animals along the grasslands bordering the sides of the road. I spotted a blue kingfisher perched on a broken branch and grey langurs with their young ones hopping from tree to tree, giving out low hoots. A herd of gaur snorted and fled at our approach. We also heard the startled cry of a spotted deer shattering the silence and the sounds of elephants walking on dry leaves. Deep inside this sanctuary can be spotted lion-tailed macaques, king cobras, tiger, leopard, civet cat, pangolin, porcupine, jungle cat, Nilgiri tahrs, cane turtle and Ceylon frogmouth.

A kingfisher perched on a branch
The mammoth Kannimara teak tree has become one of the major tourist attractions of the sanctuary. With a girth of 6.57 m and a height of 48.5 m, the sight of the tall, old teak tree left us gaping in wonder. Said to be over 450 years old, it stands towering above the other teak trees in the heart of Parambikulam. It takes five adults to encircle it with their hands outstretched. The tree was awarded the Mahavriksha Puraskar by the Government of India in 1994-95. It is worshipped by the tribals who consider it the abode of celestial beings.

Kannimara, one of the world's largest living teak trees
The floral diversity of Parambikulam is equally astounding. The sanctuary supports 285 species of endemic, rare and endangered flora, and 1,320 species of flowering plants, which include 70 species of orchids. Most of the threatened south Indian medicinal plants find a safe place in Parambikulam, including sarsaparilla, sundew, snakeroot, and yellow vine (Coscinium fenestratum), an IUCN-listed medicinal plant.

A spotted deer
With a rich diversity of bird life, both resident and migrant, Parambikulam is a great birding getaway. Once the favourite haunt of the legendary ornithologist Salim Ali, it offers birdwatchers endless moments of discovery of winged specimens of great variety. The sanctuary harbours more than 250 bird species ranging from the common myna, grey headed myna and treepie to the Malabar grey hornbill and the Great Indian hornbill.

The placid Parambikulam lake
Undoubtedly the best way to enjoy the sanctuary is to drift down the Parambikulam reservoir on a boat to the island of Veettikunnu, in the evening or morning. Chances of sighting herds of pachyderms grazing near the waterside are high. If you are lucky, endangered freshwater crocodiles, otters and turtles will make a special appearance.

A trip to Parambikulam is not complete without a meal at Iyer’s Hotel Everest. Don’t miss the rice and fish curry combination, which is a steal for its price. The eatery is a big hit with the locals who make a beeline to this nondescript place for regular sappadu (meal). As I left the forest, I remembered Pavithran’s chai kada (tea stall), which used to be a favourite haunt of visitors to Parambikulam. As we sipped tumblers of steaming tea and immersed ourselves in the jungle sounds till midnight, I remembered Pavithran regaling us with tales of Parambikulam right from the British days. Having paced the forest for more than half a century, the septuagenarian knew every root, turn and mound. Though he is no more, his jungle tales still linger in my mind.

All pics by Susheela Nair

Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer and photographer contributing articles, content and images to several national publications besides organising seminars and photo exhibitions. Her writings span a wide spectrum which also includes travel portals and guide books, brochures and coffee table books.

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