The most exciting thing about starting our journey to Periyar is that it is on a small private mini-bus and not the crowded public version. As the South India leg of the trip draws to a close, everyone seems to be feeling a bit worn out, and when it is suggested that for an extra five pounds each we could club together and hire our own transport, there is a unanimous vote in favour.
The long drive is broken by a few informal stops along the way, as something catches someone’s eye or our tour leader thinks we might be interested, but it is a long, hot journey.
As the evening draws near we begin to climb into the hills, and the landscape becomes verdant and more jungle-like, until at last we draw to a halt outside a house almost overgrown with garden. A spice garden, in fact, owned by the inimitable Abraham (who has some not insignificant growth of his own – see picture below) and his family (his father, aged ninety, has only recently stopped climbing the coconut palms on the property). With his quick sense of humour and encyclopaedic knowledge of horticulture, it’s not surprising that Abraham was chosen to appear on the BBC’s Around the World in 80 Gardens with Monty Don, a fact of which he is understandably proud.
The garden itself is crammed into a single hectare, overflowing with every kind of spice and plenty of other surprises – including a giant lemon tree with fruit the size of a rugby ball, as well as papaya, cacao, coffee, and several varieties of chilli, which spark the boys’ competitive spirit: birds eye chillies are dispatched in quick succession, though only our beloved leader can be convinced (coerced) to try what I think is a scotch bonnet. He is absent for the rest of the tour, bathing his tongue alternately with sugar and yogurt and curled in the foetal position on Abraham’s sofa.
We cannot see the entire garden, as it is growing dark and it is not unknown to find sloth bears or even the occasional tiger lurking at the end of it (not just a scare tactic – only a couple of years ago one of his workers was attacked by a bear here). Instead, Abraham’s wife has prepared a feast for us, eaten in traditional style on banana leaves, including delicious fat reddish grains of Kerala rice (apparently unobtainable outside of India, though I’m determined to try).
At last we arrive at our hotel, a row of two-storied wooden chalets on the edge of Periyar village. Hot water is only available for certain hours each day, but other than that very slight inconvenience it is lovely. My room has a decent-sized balcony, and my roommate and I promptly lower the tone of the neighbourhood by decorating it with fresh laundry.
The next morning we rise early for a visit to Periyar wildlife sanctuary. This is a rare sanctuary in that it is possible to walk, accompanied by guides, around certain parts of the park. Walking down the long driveway through the forest to the guides’ hut, we are accompanied by the occasional curious langur. On arrival we are issued with sock-like canvas gaiters, for the avoidance of leeches (I have come prepared with sachets of salt, just in case, and another girl has teatree oil, which apparently has the same effect).
The first challenge is to cross the man-made lake on the edge of the park. The lake is calm and the air is still, save for a pied kingfisher which patrols the edges, occasionally pausing mid-air and plunging dramatically into the water. To cross, there is a ferry of sorts: a raft constructed of bamboo poles, with an extra pole crosswise at each end which serves as a seat. The guides pull us across by way of a rope, using another long pole for guidance. Embarking and disembarking is an exercise in careful balance!
It is the dry season and the lake is low, which ought in theory to improve our chances of seeing elephants on our walk, but we have started late, well after dawn, and despite our guide’s efforts to get us through the park at maximum speed (which is no small challenge for the septuagenarian in our group), the animals are hiding.
We see elephant footprints, elephant poo, even elephant bones (from a fight to the death between an older male and his young challenger, unsuccessfully for the challenger apparently). But no elephants. It is, however, a lovely walk, with just enough challenge to keep it interesting (a bridge over a small river made only of four bamboo poles, for example), and the occasional langur for variety.
We return to the hotel for breakfast, and then there is the chance to try an Ayurvedic massage, a Kerala speciality. My therapist, Celia, trained for a year as an Ayurvedic nurse and has been practising now for nine. I’m not entirely sure what the difference is between Ayurvedic massage and the regular variety, except that the strategic use of towels to preserve a modicum of modesty doesn’t feature, and the oil has the distinct scent of camphor – though whether for the benefit of my cold or for Celia’s, it’s hard to say. Other than that, it is relaxing and soporific. The treatment finishes with a steam bath, which turns out to be the slightly Victorian apparatus in the corner: a wooden cabinet in which one sits on a small stool, head poking out from a hole in the top, while steam is pumped inside. It’s not an unpleasant experience, though being dried from top to toe by the therapist at the end, in the manner of a small child at bathtime, is a bit much.
After a relaxing afternoon, during which I forget entirely to buy any spices, I finally have a chance to see a demonstration of Kalaripayattu, the Keralan martial art that I had read about in the Dutch Palace in Fort Kochi. For a mere 100 rupees, we file into the gallery around the dirt arena.
To the beat of drums (which turn out to be canned, causing some unintentional comedy during the performance), the performers enter the arena and bow their heads at the shrine at the far end. This obeisance is repeated at the beginning and end of each demonstration, and the religious element appears to be an inextricable part of the art itself.
There are a series of moves, progressively more daring, and various weapons are introduced, from wooden staves to curled flexible swords unfurled with a flourish. For the finale, hoops wound with rags and doused in something flammable are set alight and held aloft, as members of the troupe somersault through them.
Afterwards, the audience is invited to join the performers in the arena, to pose for pictures with the weapons. I’m playing paparazzi with multiple cameras when our trip leader rushes in – there’s no time to lose: we have a cooking class to get to!