Unwind in the white hills

Unwind in the white hills

Sometimes there are gods that cannot be seen clearly, but only imagined and felt, and perhaps it's in their not being seen that all the fervour and allure rests. So it is in the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple (BRT) Tiger Reserve or BR Hills, where the white clouds roll out magically, always cloaking the top of the mountains where the gods are believed to reside. This makes them Biligiri or the White Mountain. Here the gods are hidden, and nature is their veil. Only their benediction is seen all around - in the forests from which we harvest our oxygen, and in the valleys that cradle and nourish our rivers.

As surprising as it may seem today, there was a time when this land had only notoriety. In 1800, Francis Buchanan wrote in A Journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar, of how this place was "dreadfully infested by tigers". That phrase shocks us now; and accentuates how much of an oxymoron the huge amount of money we spend every year to protect the tiger today must seem against the pillage and plunder of the past.

Wildlife haven

Though most of that natural treasure is lost forever, there are areas where the pendulum has somewhat swung back. A glance at the protected area map of southern India would be instructive. Today, on the ground, and not just in legislation or on a piece of paper, there exists a belt of wildlife reserves and sanctuaries that are almost contiguous: stretching right from Kali Tiger Reserve in the west, to Bhimgad and then on to Kudremukh, Nagarahole, Bandipur, Mudumalai and Sathyamangalam, before going on to touch BRT and Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, right at the very doorstep of Bengaluru. This is a proud necklace of wildlife havens that Karnataka wears today, having the potential to be one of largest and most healthy tiger habitat and gene pool anywhere on earth. BRT lies at the eastern fringe of this belt, at the confluence of two of the most ancient mountain ranges the world has known - the Eastern and the Western Ghats.

For tourists, BRT is accessed through Kyathadevara Gudi (K Gudi) - a wondrous, little camp nestled in the tall deciduous forests typical of the region. You arrive in this lap of green after a scenic drive to the mountaintop. The broadleaf canopy envelops you all around - tall and erect, standing proud, if a little brooding; the blue-white mist playing around the moss-covered trunks and branches, swirling and ebbing, coming and going in its many moods, like a giant milky smokescreen stirred by the whims of an unseen and playful hand.

In BRT, it's these trees that hold winged treasures. Because of the shadow of the mountain and the general paleness of the light, it takes a while to see them, but you hear them straightaway. There is the streak-throated woodpecker; its puffy wingbeat floating in the silence of the mist, a riot of colour wavering among the branches, stopping every now and then to rattle intensely into the bark of a tree. The coppersmith is more steadfast; its metallic clink comes from each treetop, echoing ceaselessly over the great valleys. Parakeets screech as they dart across the canopy, a quiver of arrows of mind-boggling colour. The doves coo patiently; the softness of their call lulling you into sleep. And the interspersing silence is sometimes broken by the gentle whistle of the black-hooded oriole, sighting which is a delight - a suffusion of yellow and black against the dark green of the forest.

It is soothing to know that these are the sounds and sights that fill this wilderness today. Not so long ago this place was part of the fiefdom of the infamous brigand Veerappan, and those were disastrous times in terms of timber-logging and poaching, and the sounds of gunshots would be common. Today, the only signs of humans are in the small clearings at the fringe of the forest, where, in the distance, one can see the wood smoke curling up from brown thatch roofs and white mud walls. These are the Soliga settlements - people who have been in this land for times immemorial, with some burial sites in the region dating back to 3,000 years ago. Many of them are now forest guards manning the forest check-posts in extremely challenging conditions: away from their families, through scorching summer and bone-chilling winter, through the full fury of the monsoon and the never-ending fight against the summer forest fires, not to mention the dangers from bears and tigers and, above all, elephants. But they do it willingly, and most of them would want to be nowhere else but here. Their struggle to protect this land has been long and hard, but nature rebounded once the prey base recovered when the hunting and the logging were stopped. Today, a smile lights up their face when the image of a tiger shows up in a camera-trap; it is, after all, the ghostly fruit of their labour, the striped god on this holy mountain that they protect, though they seldom ever see.

Safe corridor

But BRT is more than just a charming forest. Located at the confluence of the Western and the Eastern Ghats, it provides the desperately-needed safe corridor for wildlife migrating across these major bio-landscapes. BRT is also the home of a proven and critical tiger source and breeding population that moves further south and east to Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve and Male Mahadeshwara Hills. This is not an isolated island it is a priceless, living bridge for megafauna like tigers and elephants which are umbrella species, and in whose well-being, reside the health of our forests and, in turn, the richness of our soils and the abundance of our rivers.

Standing at the top of the cliff where the Ranganatha Temple is perched inside the tiger reserve, the vastness of this rolling landscape comes home to you. At night, sitting silently on the verandah of the log hut, we watch the ridges faintly outlined in the blackness while around us the night comes to life from time to time - a sambar bells to an unknown danger, a barking deer coughs and an owl hoots hauntingly across the valley. These sounds, and this silence, is music. It is a thrill and joy of a different kind, a peace shorn of any pursuit and achievement that can be found only in communion with nature- our earliest companion and our first and foremost teacher.

It is often aptly said that you come to the forest to lose your mind and find your soul. For a place like BR Hills, this just could not be any truer.

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