Kabini may be a popular safari destination today but nobody knows it better than the tribes that once called it home. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY experience the Spirit of the Kabini with its original dwellers
“I remember playing with tiger cubs as a child. I would string necklaces of kaare kai (berries) around their neck or limbs and cuddle them. They were our toys. Today’s parents give their children tiger dolls! I must have been six or seven then,” Puttamma recalls, with mirth in her eyes. Enthralled, we sat in the small hut of this Kuruba tribal woman in Brahmagiri Haadi, a hamlet on the fringes of the Kabini Reservoir.
Thrumming her little leather drum, she sang about the rain, the animals and the forests. She belonged to one of the many tribal communities displaced from their forest habitat when a dam was built across the Kabini River for irrigation in 1974 and their lives changed forever.
With a faraway gaze, Puttamma continued, “When a tigress killed a gaur, it would guard the carcass for three days and eat her fill. That was when my brothers would stealthily bring her tiger cubs home for me. We would play and pamper them before putting them back where we found them, in time for their mother’s return.” She spoke of a different reality, a different time; how life had been sixty odd years ago, and for centuries before.
The Kabini river forms a boundary between Nagarahole and Bandipur national parks. When it was dammed, the huge reservoir created to the south of Nagarahole inundated many villages, ancient temples and tribal hamlets. The Kurubas were relocated to the edge of the forests. “They claimed that we stay in the forest and eat up all the animals. So they chased us out. Neither are we in the jungle any more, nor are the animals, but mankind is consuming everything in its path. When we go to the forest, we don’t see half the numbers of animals that we used to.
We all coexisted in complete harmony. If a Kuruba woman died at childbirth, other mothers would breastfeed the motherless infant as their own. If a child was orphaned, all would take turns to feed and look after it. We wore no clothes except the broad leaves of sal (teak) that we stitched together with twigs. We lived like the animals and knew everything about them, their smells, their behaviour, their movements. In fact, we were just that – pranigalu (animals).”
In the dry summer months when there was no genasu (yam and other tubers) in the ground to eat, they would catch fish from the river, roast it on the banks and drink lots of water. They would gather in large groups and bring out the drums and bamboo flutes as they would sing and dance the whole night right up to dawn. “There’s a song from those nights to beseech the God of Rain, to open the heavens and pour down for our food and survival.
When we spotted elephants, we would sing – ‘The elephants have come with their little babies, they see us but don’t do anything, come O moon in the sky and watch over us. Flocks of peacocks have come to eat termites and insects on the anthills, come O moon in the sky and watch with us’.” Puttamma seemed to have a song for every occasion.
We were on a Spirit of Kabini tour in a haadi (settlement) of the Betta Kuruba tribe, originally hunter gatherers who hunted wild animals and collected honey. They also wove cane baskets. Our Kuruba Safari Lodge guide Kishan clarified that they were called bett (cane) Kuruba for this reason and not because they stayed on bettas (mountain tops), as is popularly believed. Those who specialized in extracting honey were called Jenu Kurubas. Kurubas survived on genasu (yam), tubers, wild fruits, berries, jenu (honey), mamsa (wild meat), meenu (fish) from the holay (river) and kaad koli motte (jungle fowl’s eggs).
Puttamma explained how they would locate a fresh kill and wait for the tiger to have its fill. They would then take the meat, wash it well, smoke it over fire and cook it. A gaur can weigh upto 900 kg and a tiger can only eat about 40 kg of meat! Like the Masai tribe, the Kurubas had learnt to coexist and live off the creatures of the forest. Kishan surmised that their fantastic knowledge of plants and their medicinal and nutritional benefits perhaps came from observing elephants and other animal behavior.
Being the youngest of her siblings she was called ‘Putti’ (small one) and over time Putti-amma became Puttamma. She was originally named Bommi, after the Kuruba deity Bomm devaru. “Wherever there’s a mound of mud or stone, we place a leaf or flower over it and that became our god”.
However, these forests, the elephants and all its creatures are looked after by the twin deities Gundrumaramma and Mastiamma, patron goddesses of the Bandipur and Nagarahole forests. Mastiamma’s original shrine at Mastigudi like many other relics has been submerged. We saw the relocated Chola temple of Koteshwaralaya and the ancient Nooraaleshawara shrine before returning to our wildlife resort at Beeramballi village.
Orange County Kabini, which opened a decade ago, has been recently rebranded as Evolve Back Kuruba Safari Lodge. Designed like a haadi or small Kuruba settlement with thatched palm roofs and mud-plastered walls, it takes its inspiration seriously. There are Kuruba dances by a poolside campfire and naturalists sharing Jungle Tales on alternate days, a Night Trail to see the nocturnal world of insects, a Responsible Tourism Walk on the lodge’s eco-initiatives and an early morning Nature Trail for birds, butterflies and everything in between.
Our guide Shanmugham outlined the entire politico-botanical spectrum from Congress Grass (parthenium) to Gandhi gida or Communist grass (Eupatorium odoratum), named so because it is everywhere, though it might be a bit of a misnomer now. Shanmugham has been diligently documenting the monsoon flowers of Kabini and claims to be the first to spot Kabini’s famous black panther here. His favourite wildlife moments sound like Kung-Fu chase flicks – tiger chasing leopard, leopard chasing deer, dhol chasing leopard…
Beyond the resort’s rustic exterior there’s every luxury imaginable – plush private pool villas and Jacuzzis being upgraded, top notch cuisine at the Honey Comb restaurant, kebabs and local fare at Kuruba Grill, cocktails like Wild Kabini River at The Waterhole bar, an Ayurvedic Spa, a scenic Reading Room on the water’s edge with sunset cruises, coracle rides and bullock cart rides. As the only resort on the far side of the reservoir, it affords the most spectacular sunsets on the Kabini. Guests take a boat across to Jungle Lodges & Resorts (JLR) near Karapura for safaris.
Kabini is a historic area that served as an exclusive hunting reserve of the Maharajas of Mysore. It was the site of the legendary Khedda operations, where entire elephant herds would be stockaded into a khedda or ditch. Select ones were caught and trained for timber operations and the Mysore Dasara. The first attempt to capture elephants in this manner was made by Tipu Sultan’s father, Hyder Ali in 18th century.
Despite using his army, the Sultan of Mysore failed to capture any wild elephants. A stone inscription records his disgust with a warning about the futility of the task and his curse upon anyone who tried it in future. Like many other relics, this too is lost in the murky waters of Kabini.
For nearly a century, no further attempts were made until the first British khedda operation by Colonel Pearson in 1867. Ironically, it was unsuccessful. When another British officer from the Canal and Irrigation Department, GP Sanderson took a shot at it in 1873, he met the same fate. However, his second attempt in 1874 at Kardihalli in the Kakanakote forest on the banks of the Kabini River was successful.
The unique feature of a Kakanakote khedda was the river drive, first conceptualized by Sanderson in 1891 in honour of The Grand Duke of Russia’s visit to Mysore. In a vast operation that involved thousands of people who beat drums and drove the elephants across the Kabini river into the stockade. Special visitors galleries were set up for distinguished guests and royalty to witness the drama. Over the next century, 36 khedda operations were held until it was finally banned in 1971.
Khedda may be a thing of the past, but people still come in droves to watch a grand elephant spectacle. Post winter, the reservoir waters are released for irrigation. When the waters recede, dormant grass shoots begin to sprout, turning the tract into a giant grazing ground, attracting elephants and other herbivores in their hundreds.
The forested Zone A is larger and covers part of Nagarahole’s Antharasanthe wildlife range while the lakeside Zone B covers DB Kuppe range – the preferred route in summer. Unlike most other parks, Kabini does not shut down in monsoon and the jeep and 16 and 20-seater safari vans and boats are equipped with a canopy come rain or shine.
All safaris in Kabini start from the Golghar, the river-facing gazebo at JLR. The boat ride accesses parts of the lake not reachable by jeep for sighting elephants and crocodiles. Nearby, the Viceroy’s Bungalow doubles up as a bar and conference hall where wildlife movies are screened.
In the verandah decorated with black and white pictures of kheddas and hunts, is the favourite chair of ‘Papa’ John Wakefield, long time resident director and ambassador at JLR Kabini. A simple memorial was erected after he passed away seven years ago while a tree marks the visit of Hollywood actress Goldie Hawn.
Kabini’s other wildlife legends include Mr. Kabini or the Bhogeswara Tusker, with ivories so long, they scrape the ground. The biggest leopard with the largest territory is the Water Tank Male or Torn Ear. We saw a tusker in mast, an ambitious jackal chasing a deer herd and the splendid tigress Backwater Female grooming herself. Increased protection has led to a spurt in tiger numbers with 221 in the Bandipur-Nagarahole tract alone.
Since Kabini is wedged between the two parks, the intersecting tiger territories, results in great sightings. The all-star gallery includes packs of dhol, gaur, over 300 species of birds and the sole elusive black panther that has been spotted only in the last few years. Rumour float about its relocation from elsewhere by the forest department but people swear by sightings in adjoining Coorg.
The cluster of resorts in Kabini are all distinctive. Adjacent to JLR, is Water Woods – a small yet lovely waterfront property right on the banks. Luxuriant massages, swinging hammocks, home cooked food sourced from their vegetable garden and fresh fish made into succulent tikkas by their poolside restaurant overlooking the waters, make it a popular escape.
A little ahead, wildlife enthusiast Nawabzada Saad Bin Jung’s The Bison Resort has exquisite waterfront luxury tents and bush tents that blend the sensibilities of East-African wilderness camps with the romance of Raj era hunting lodges, complete with theme bush dinners. The wild tract abuts the lake on one side and the forest on the other, advantageous for elephant sightings right from the property.
Another eminent Kabini personality is tiger conservationist TGR ‘Tiger’ Ramesh whose resort Cicada Kabini was acquired by Coffee Day. Now run as The Serai, it offers waterfront villas and residences. However, away from the lake and facing the jungle is Tiger’s secret lair, his old home in Kabini, that was sold and renovated into Kaav.
Literally ‘sacred grove’, the really private 6-room property has four rooms in a complex with a common living and an upper deck facing the forest and two really plush tents on stilts nearby. Overlooking the disused old forest department road, you can spot bison and big cats right in your backyard.
Manager Pavithra Kumar or PK is as excited at the sight of the Ornamental Tree Trunk Spider, as he is of leopards mating, a leopard dragging a chital kill or the black panther draped on a tree. He has documented these chance wildlife encounters in Kabini and over 40 species of spiders on the Kaav property alone. Just a brief walk around the house with pocket torches yielded Jumping Spider, Two-tailed spider, Giant Cross Spider, Giant Wood Spider and Tent Spider in minutes.
From peering at their patterns through a magnifying glass to a high-powered telescope to spot Saturn, PK literally opened our eyes to new worlds. The days are dramatic in Kabini’s forests and skies, the nights more spectacular. Kabini at any time is Nature untamed.
Kabini is 224 km (4½ hours) from Bengaluru and 88km (2 hours) from Mysuru. Take the Outer Ring Road at the Columbia-Asia Hospital Junction to bypass Mysuru City and drive towards HD Kote on the Mysuru-Mananthavady Road. From Handpost towards Kabini. If coming from Calicut, the road between Mananthawadi and Kabini via Bawali is closed from 6 PM – 6 AM every day.
Wildlife safaris are done by boat on the reservoir or by jeep in the tourism zone of Antharasanthe (Zone A) and DB Kuppe (Zone B) ranges of Nagarahole National park. There are two drives a day of 3 hrs each, at 6:30am and 3:30 pm (reporting time at your resort is usually 30 min prior). While the safari cost is billed into the JLR per person tariff, most other resorts have an all-meals package and charge for the boat or jeep safari separately (Rs.1650/person), including a transfer to/from JLR.
When to go
The forest and weather is at its best between October to March with good animal sightings from Feb to May. The Gundre jatre takes place during Ugadi.
Where to Stay
Evolve Back Kuruba Safari Lodge
Bheeramballi Village and Post
HD Kote Taluk
Ph 08228-269100, 080-25127000
Kabini River Lodge
Nissana Beltur Post, HD Kote Taluk, Karapura
Ph 08228-264402/03/05, 9449599754
19, Karapura, N Belathur Post Office
HD Kote Taluk
Ph 080 4673 2010, 99459 21303
Kaav Safari Lodge
Malalli Cross, N Belathur PO Kabini
HD Kote Taluk
Ph +91 9995803861, 9900613595
The Serai Kabini
No.60/1, Nishana, Karapura Village
Antarasante Hobli, HD Kote Taluk
Ph 08228 264444, 9945602305
The Bison Resort
Gundathur, N Belathur PO Kabini
HD Kote Taluk
Ph 080–41278708, 65590271, 7022155961
Red Earth Kabini
Badane Kuppe (Near Hosamalla)
Via Antharasante, HD Kote Taluk
Ph 8884733188 , 7022264116 , 8884733500
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in October 2017 as part of a wildlife Cover Story in Outlook Traveller magazine.