Colonel Wakefield wore a faint smile. “Anyone want to see a leopard?” We nodded, cold but still eager after hours of bouncing around the forest in a jeep. The Colonel shone his flashlight on a sign at the entrance to Nagarhole National Park. Indeed there was a leopard on it, a very nice leopard, a painted wood leopard. Not exactly what we had in mind, but it gave us a good laugh as we headed back to the lodge.
Nagarhole is a little-visited game preserve in the south of India in Karnataka state, two hours southwest of the fabled city of Mysore. It is home to a stunning array of beast and bird, from leopard, elephant, gaur, and yellowhorn to tiger, fish owl, peacock, and kingfisher. You can watch the charge of a bull elephant from an elevated hide, from a jeep, from a coracle on the water at dawn, or ride elephant-back into the bush at sunset.
The lure of leopards and tigers drew us here, but it is just one small attraction of the south of India, that vast stretch of the subcontinent from Bombay to Goa to Cochin to Madras. The south is ignored by many first-time visitors to India for two simple reasons: the Taj Mahal and the Himalayas, both of which are in the north. But the south offers an Indian experience sometimes lost in the obligatory pilgrimages to Agra or Varanasi: the India of villages loved by Gandhi, the spectacular unspoiled beaches of Goa and Kerala and Karnataka states, the wild subtropical national forests, the exquisite temples of Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram outside Madras, the cool hill stations of Ooti and Coonoor.
While tourism amenities in the south lag behind those of the north, Bombay is indisputably India’s most international city, and home to the world’s largest film industry. We began our trip through the south here, in this busy city where people move in a kaleidoscopic mix, from rich Japanese teenagers to the slum children of Salaam, Bombay, from spice merchants outside the Victoria Terminus to a Middle Eastern sheik who brings a strongbox of money to a turbaned Sikh cashier to pay his hotel bill. Black and yellow taxis rush through streets lined with garish movie billboards that make American advertisers seem timid. The famous Gateway of India, where George V landed in 1911, stands as a stately and somewhat incongruous reminder of the Raj on the waterfront where foreigners arrived at the turn of the century, and where boats now come and go from Elephanta Island, site of stonecut caves dating back to 450 A.D..
We boarded the boat in a mad scramble of women in exquisite saris and made the six-mile crossing accompanied by a middle-aged woman who was a full-time guide and a part-time schoolteacher. She grew up in the Punjab and was ten years old at the time of Partition in 1947. She spoke freely of the bloodshed it brought and the scars it left on her, and she held a deep bitterness for those who talked of India’s “peaceful” transition to independence.
Elephanta resembled a slumbering beast in the morning haze. We climbed her back to the caves, temples devoted to Shiva with powerful sculptures. The most remarkable is Trimurti, the three-headed Shiva, representing the unity of God in the form of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The only likeness of its kind in India, it seemed to emanate an energy so palpable that its image stayed with us for days.
Back in Bombay, we visited the house where Gandhi lived during his stays in the city. It has been turned into a wonderful, modest museum, whose scale, particularly the rough handmade scenes from his life, might have pleased Gandhi himself.
Probably the best place to get a feel for Bombay is Victoria Terminus, a fabulous place to visit even if you have no train to catch. Built in 1888, it was the first train station in India, and is covered with elaborate carved griffins and other beasts whose eyes have watched hundreds of millions of passengers over the years. Beggars and merchants and passengers swarm by in a boggling stream: unending dark eyes, flashing smiles and grimaces, betel juice-stained fangs, silk ties on businessmen, a thalidomide card player. A man with no legs sells toys. A crowd gathers around a wallet seller who chants the virtues of his plastic product arrayed by color. Intricate henna “tattoos” adorn the hands of beautiful women, auspicious signs for special occasions.
This is a place where the mundane becomes eternal, where the visitor has to come to grips with beggars and the meaning of life. What should you do? Does giving encourage? Is it a duty, as the Muslims say? Can you pretend to be Christ? Every time you are approached is unique: you give out of pity, guilt, sometimes love, duty, exasperation, disgust, haste. You finger the wad of rupees in your pocket, wondering about your destiny. Then a filthy beggar boy, whom you’ve just rejected, smiles at you and melts into the crowd, blessing you in your selfishness. Patterns of thought and belief crumple.
We made our way southeast to Bangalore, India’s fifth largest city and home of Kingfisher Beer. It is a favorite place for many Indians because of its temperate climate, booming economy, and many city parks. “Government Work is God’s Work” is carved into the stone of a state building, recalling James Cameron’s uniquely Indian image:
- ten thousand civil servants drift homeward on a river
- of bicycles, brooding on the Lord Krishna
- and the cost of living.
Looking for a way to Nagarhole National Park, we hooked up with a guide named Bhaskar and a Merle Haggard-loving driver named Bennie, who was newly wed and looking for a better-paying job.
We left Bangalore in a frenzy of traffic which from the back seat of our redoubtable Indian-made Ambassador resembled a Buster Keaton comedy. Vehicles crossed, passed, merged, and separated with no apparent order—auto rickshaws, bullock carts, pushcarts, mopeds, and horsecarts, cars, trucks, buses, and bicycles, women and children and hordes of men, all dove into the chaos with reckless abandon under the implacable gaze of wandering cows. It’s a miracle that more people don’t get hurt or killed, even though India already has one of the highest mortality rates in the world.
We headed southwest toward Mysore, Bhaskar always laughing when we nearly ran somebody over. We saw a sign with an arrow pointing right around roadworks, exhorting us to “Keep Left.” This brought Bennie and Bhaskar to tears. Over the next few days they would break out laughing, shouting “Keep left! Keep left!” and we would hear Bennie muttering it to himself when we were stymied in traffic. It became a standing joke in the car, the very embodiment of Indian bureaucracy.
Bennie had a deep curiosity about everything, which showed in his energetic questioning of us from the driver’s seat, at meal breaks in roadside cafes and over whiskey in our rooms at night. Sadly, we were not able to satisfy his longing to know more about country-western music, as he already knew far more than we did.
At every opportunity Bennie gave us keen insights into driving defensively. “Horn Please!” is written on the rear of all trucks, and Bennie happily obliged, taking us to the edge of doom every few minutes. But we had to admit he was an excellent driver, passing cows at high speed with millimeters to spare, always aware of what was on the road, always vigilant. After one particularly close shave, an anguished herder shouted after us, “You have steering, my bulls have no steering!”
We rolled through village after village. The landscape was dotted with strange granite formations, and Bhaskar pointed out the caves where a climactic scene from A Passage to India was filmed. (The real caves from E. M. Forster’s novel of the same name are in the Barabar Hills near Patna in Bihar.) The road ran through fields of rice and flowering sugarcane with its lavender, feather-like blossoms that took their color only in groups and only in the proper light.
The sun went down in reds and oranges as we passed the ruins of the fortress of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore. We were surprised to find a connection with our own history here—in 1770, Tipu Sultan showed his solidarity with revolutionaries in a far off land who were also trying to throw off the yoke of British imperialism by being among the first to send an ambassador to America.
But in Mysore, with its old colonial bungalows, one knows with deep certainty that the Raj is gone forever, a hiccup in the vastness of Indian history. There we stayed in a nearly empty nawab’s palace (the Lalith Mahal) and drank sweet coffee and listened to live sitar and tabla at dinner before venturing forth to visit the Maharajah’s palace, whose Sunday evening illumination of 120,000 bulbs was quite a spectacle. The next day we visited the temple of Sri Chamundeswari high above the city, where golden eagles soared and black-garbed pilgrims with painted faces piled out of buses and lined up to pay homage to Parvati, who killed the demon king Maheshasura in a ten-day battle. The pilgrims were mostly men, but there was a smattering of girls and old women (menstruating women are not allowed because many of the deities are bachelors and wouldn’t be able to resist them, according to Bhaskar).
From Mysore, we rattled farther south, past fields of rice, sunflowers, and cotton sprinkled with brilliant white egrets and ibises. Bullock carts with impossibly huge loads of hay lumbered along and everywhere village India revealed itself. We encountered a cow traffic jam which brought us to a halt and generated much discussion between Bhaskar and Bennie about how best to get through it, which finally proved to be just waiting until the cows moved. Every village seemed to have its own irrigation reservoir, and the land was cultivated from horizon to horizon until suddenly we reached the forest that marked the border of Nagarhole National Park.
The fragility of such sanctuaries was never so clear. Villages and fields run right up to the park boundaries, exerting enormous pressure on the wilderness. How long these islands of natural habitat for India’s wildlife can survive is up to strong management and a commitment to conservation by the state and national governments. There are no easy answers and no real consensus on the best way to preserve these areas and take care of human needs.
In the early evening we arrived at the government-subsidized Kabini River Lodge, where we met Colonel John Wakefield, a veteran of World War II in Singapore and Burma, and the Punjab during India’s bloody Partition. Over dinner he told us he was from Bihar state, near Bodh Gaya, home of the Buddha. “The Lord Buddha and I saw the light,” he said, glasses perched on his head. “He saw enlightenment and I saw the light of day.” He chuckled, sneezed, and his glasses fell onto his nose. After he left military service in 1954 he worked as a safari guide leading tiger hunts until 1970. Shortly thereafter he did an about-face and became a conservationist, and has been working in Nagarhole since 1978. The Lodge, he told us, was once a maharajah’s tiger hunting retreat where Lord Mountbatten was a guest. At that time, the story goes, tigers were so plentiful they could be shot from the verandah.
At dawn we paddled onto the lake in a coracle made from buffalo hide, a circular vessel that looked as though it would offer little buoyancy but rode easily on the surface with four of us in it. The sun worked to burn off the mists rising from the water and the boatman paddled us toward the far, forested shore. As we approached he spotted four grazing elephants and paddled in figure eights to draw us silently closer. We watched them for a long time while myriad colorful birds flitted across the water. Eagles soared above; a white-breasted kingfisher flashed its iridescent blue back as it dove for a meal.
We floated for hours in deep tranquility, listening to the birds, watching for big game, and letting wild India surround us. A deep roar resonated from far back in the bush and we were sure we’d heard a tiger. “Elephant,” the boatman whispered, shaking his head.
We pulled the coracle out of the water at an elephant camp, where two mahouts—elephant handlers—were bathing their charges in the lake. Their communication with the animals was remarkable—a few clucks and the elephant lifted a foot to be scrubbed, another guttural word and he lowered his head. The Colonel told us the Indian elephant is more intelligent than his cousins in Africa, capable of remembering 160 commands to the African’s very few. Almost all trained elephants are Indian. Both species have some fourteen hundred muscles in their trunks, which keep busy stuffing six hundred pounds of food into their mouths every day.
By midmorning the heat was on, and we spent most of the day relaxing, watching the kingfishers skim over the lake, napping in the cool of our high-ceilinged rooms. In the evening we rode into the bush on elephant back, a slow, lurching trip that offered a completely different perspective of the forest. Spiders as big as our hands hung in webs at eye level and we had to duck as we passed; a huge tusker poked his head out of the bush, gave us a look, and crashed off through the underbrush. We saw no big cats but got a good laugh out of the flatulent lead elephant, who emitted powerful clouds from his backside, which our trailing elephants dutifully carried us through.
We wore sweaters on our game drive that night, this time prepared for the forest chill. A group of Indian tourists who’d arrived that afternoon were in shirt sleeves, however, and we had to laugh at the Colonel’s knowing smile and the unspoken initiation to the ways of his forest. We should have advised them, but we would have spoiled his fun. We saw lots of spotted deer, gaur, and elephants, but no leopards or tigers. It’s not that they aren’t out there, just that spotting these big cats requires a little luck. The Colonel told us the actress Goldie Hawn had spent two nights there some years ago, and saw four tigers—the luck of the stars, perhaps.
We’d been carrying a bottle of scotch with us since we’d landed in Bombay, and when we said good-bye we presented it to the Colonel, knowing he was a drinking man. He tucked it under his arm like an Oxford don would a precious tome, smiled, and said simply, “This is hard to get here.”
We headed for Madras, India’s fourth largest city and gateway to the south, to visit the famous temple sites of Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram. Both are an easy day trip from Madras through a flat, green landscape covered with miles of rice fields dotted with spindly ice fruit trees that look like coconut palms after a hurricane. Kanchipuram is one of India’s seven sacred cities and one of its most spectacular temple sites, whose huge, ornate towers (gopurams) can be seen from miles away.
In the main temple we were greeted by a tiny man who proceeded to become our self-appointed guide. It helped little to ignore him, since he followed us around anyway, exhorting us to worship the sacred bull, the sacred mango tree (said to be thirty-five hundred years old and still bearing fruit), the sacred this or that. He bowed deeply to everything we looked at, even worshipping our camera when it flashed.
It was quite funny but also illuminated an essence of India—religious devotion, self-effacement, and resourcefulness. There isn’t enough to go around here, and the little man in his dhoti accompanied us for karma, company, goodwill, and a few rupees.
Indeed, there is no resourcefulness like that in India, where people find a million ingenious ways to make a living-a puppeteer at a Bangalore market, drawing children with his marionette on a pole and then selling penny candies to the parents; men with portable merry-go-rounds for tots; peanut sellers carrying portable braziers and wrapping the oily peanuts in yesterday’s newspapers along the Bombay promenade at sunset; a man selling rubber bands on the street in Madras; even the hustlers who sell trinkets in the cities and at tourist sites, offering ten items for the price of one because a sale is a sale and there is no welfare plan.
Other livelihoods driven by caste seem degrading until you understand that the alternative would be worse: women and children all over the south breaking rocks with hammers to make gravel; groundskeepers cutting lawns with scissors.
Our trip ended at the beach in Madras. Fishing boats made from beams lashed together set out onto the Bay of Bengal as the sun set behind us, beyond the subcontinent. We made our way among groups of men repairing nets along the long stretch of sand, watching our step (the beach is “dirty,” we’d been warned, and indeed it was, punctuated by steaming piles of human shit), exchanging smiles and occasional conversation with fishermen. A man wiping his behind in the surf rolled his lungi back to his knees and leapt up as we passed, saying “How are you, what is your name?” without missing a beat. Rather than shake his proffered hand we tented ours in the traditional Hindu greeting, said, “Namaste” (“I bow to the divine in you”), and continued our stroll, knowing we’d experienced an India as ageless and fascinating as the one we’d imagined.
About James O’Reilly and Larry Habegger:
James O’Reilly and Larry Habegger are the editors of the Travelers’ Tales series. They also write “World Travel Watch,” a column that appears in newspapers throughout the United States.