When the hills beckoned

TRAVEL

SPIRITUALITY MEETS SCENIC BEAUTY: Entrance to the  Himavad Gopalaswamy betta.Photo by authorWildlife sanctuaries in India - what do they remind us of? Vast expanses of verdant beauty full of varied types of fauna? Or dwindling reserves of nature thanks to indiscriminate logging, speeding vehicles and other animal unfriendly attitudes and activities? Well, a recent trip to the Bandipur and Mudumalai national parks and Gopalaswamy betta revealed all this and more.

Geography and history

The Bandipur National Park is situated at the foothills of the Western Ghats in Gundlupet taluk of Chamarajnagar district, in southern Karnataka. It is around 220 kilometres south of the State capital and 80 kilometres from Mysore on the road to Udhagamandalam (Ooty).

Bandipur is contiguous on its south-western side with the Wayanad Wildlife sanctuary in Kerala and Mudumalai National Park to its south in Tamil Nadu. All of these along with the nearby Nagarhole National Park in Karnataka to the north-west of Bandipur are part of the Nilgiri biosphere, forming the largest protected area in southern India. While the river Kabini (a tributary of the Cauvery) skirts the northern boundary of Bandipur, the Moyar flows to its south. The altitude of the place varies from 680 to 1,454 metres and its temperature is anywhere between 10 and 28 degrees Celsius. 

According to historical records, a wildlife sanctuary was established in the Bandipur reserve forest in 1931 over an area of 90 square kilometres.

As it was considered to be too small for effective conservation, the Bandipur National Park was formed by extending the Venugopala Wildlife Park.

Named after the presiding local deity, the latter was created by the then Maharaja of Mysore and spread across 800 square kilometres.

In 1973-‘74, when the Government of India launched Project Tiger for the conservation of the national animal, it identified Bandipur as one of the key locations. At present, the national park covers an expanse of around 870 square kilometres.

“The ban on traffic after dark seems to have reduced the fear in some animals. That is probably why more of them are visible,” a forest watcher remarked as I was overjoyed at spotting langurs and rhesus macaques (monkeys) at almost touching distance.

These creatures seem omnipresent in India. But observing them in their natural habitat warding off insensitive people who threw half-eaten packets of potato wafers or made faces at them from their cars and buses, was a different experience. As our bus drove on slowly, we saw groups of chital (spotted deer) of different sizes busily eating or simply moving around gracefully. Next was a sambar (large hairy deer) walking into the woods, silently. Animals seemed comfortable with us for we soon found the gaur (Indian bison) and some elephants gently going about their work. Of course, the big cat proved elusive!  

Crossing over to Mudumalai towards the evening, we trekked past tea gardens, touch-me-not plants, silver oaks, butterflies and umpteen shrubs and flowers in heavenly hues with misty hills in the environs.

The government statistics released between 1997 and 2011 state that there is a minimum of 75 tigers and over 3,000 elephants in Bandipur. The forests are also home to species like sloth bears, pea fowl, crocodiles, antelopes, pythons, mouse deer, panther and osprey.  

Bandipur’s tall peak

While returning, we stopped at the scenic Himavad Gopalaswamy betta (translates to foggy hill of Lord Krishna in Kannada) near Hangala village about 10 kilometres from Gundlupet and 75 kilometres from Mysore.

At a height of around 1,454 metres, this is the tallest peak in Bandipur. It houses a Krishna temple believed to have been built in 1315 AD during the reign of the Hoysala king Veera Ballala III and maintained by the Vijayanagara rulers and Wodeyars of Mysore. 

A single-tiered gopura (ornate tower) rests on the boundary of the structure while the parapet wall of the façade of the mukha mantapa (inner porch) contains a sculpture of dashavatara (the ten incarnations of the Hindu God Vishnu) with the centre-piece portraying Krishna. The garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum) contains an idol of Krishna in a dance posture under a tree, holding a flute, with his consorts, Rukmini and Satyabhama and friends on either side.

The panel also has many figures contemporary to Krishna’s avatar including cows and cowherds, towards the right. Legend has it that Vishnu blessed the place and promised to reside there due to sage Agastya’s intense penance. 

Grassy slopes dotted with ponds surround the spot which is supposedly frequented by pachyderms.

Importantly, visitors must deposit edibles and plastic with forest department officers who check vehicles and bags thoroughly before the ascent. Atop the hill, people are allowed for only 1.5 hours per head.

Movement is restricted to the vicinity of the shrine which is usually open from 9 am – 4 pm. “These rules help to ensure safety, cleanliness and prevent unlawful activities,” a policeman points out.

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