The coolness of Periyar’s heights (over 3,000 feet) has been very welcome. Up early, we caught tuk tuks to the entrance of the park at 7am. After reading Dervla Murphy's account of Periyar 35 years ago in On a Shoestring to Coorg, I was eager to see if it had changed.
After we donned our 15RS leech socks, we commenced by crossing a river in groups of eight, sitting or standing on a bamboo raft linked to each bank by a rope. Once we were all together again our guide chose one of the well-worn paths to take us deeper into the park. We passed elephant droppings of varying freshness and the guide pointed out scrapings in the mud of the lake shore. ‘Elephants were here just last night,’ he murmured.
Out in a clearing our guide froze and signalled for silence – this took some time to achieve as we had been passing all his information and instructions down the line, Chinese-whisper style. Before long we could hear some movement at the edge of the forest, and soon the dew-damp form of an elephant unblended from the trees and tangled undergrowth.
The guide told us we had to stay well clear as there was a baby with this group (plus it was mating season) and if we got too close the matriarch might become aggressive.
We made a large arc and positioned ourselves to watch them emerge. The baby was about six months old and barely up to his mother’s knee.
Moving on, the guide took us into the thick of the forest where he was able to show us some monkey, and even some leopard, scratchings on a tree.
Too soon our three-hour walk was over and we didn’t encounter a massive elephant bog like Dervla. We came away with our shoes and had no bare-footed misses involving snakes.
Fed and watered back in Thekkady, some of us decided to explore the powers of Ayurvedic therapies and medicine. Given my historical back and neck problems, I have always been wary of this sort of thing, but given this philosophy is so integral to Southern India, I thought I should try it. I decided to go with a ninety-minute Abhyangaswedam massage with sandalwood oil, plus a treatment called Sirodhara, which involves oil being poured onto your head chakra or ‘third eye’.
My masseuse was a delicate little flower of a girl who barely made it up to my armpit. The minute I was stripped she tied a little paper G-string on me, which I think was more about symbolically saving her embarrassment than preserving any of my modesty.
Once I was on the table face down, Little Flower turned into Attila the Hen. If my back was Mount Panorama her hands were multiple cars trying to break the lap record. I suspect she may have morphed into one of those eight-armed goddesses behind my back. There was nothing pleasant about it as she was using her knuckles to grate up and down my spine (to what purpose I wasn’t sure, as she was directly on bone). The music sawing away in the background resembled an Indian version of an allegro movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and she was keeping the same pace. The only pauses were for anointing me with more oil.
‘Pressure okay, Madam?’ she asked in a demure little voice murmured in my ear.
‘Er, a little less would be nice?’ I was desperately hoping this would be for my own good, but I was becoming increasingly perturbed and worried that I had inadvertently wandered into the S&M chamber by mistake. If I turned around and saw leather and studs I was going to be out of there like a shot, little strip of napkin and all.
I was as oily and slippery as one of Mr Abraham’s coffee beans but Little Flower wasn't going to let me fly off anywhere. Getting me to sit up, she latched her vice-like grip on my wrist as she rang every ounce of non-bone material out of my arm. Then she started with the Chinese burns. This was about equal in pleasure to the head smacking I had got earlier while still lying down.
After she had pummelled, twisted, pinched, hit and slapped me around, Little Flower lead me into a side room with a trapezoid-shaped cabinet with steam coming out of a hole in the top. Opening the front flap she indicated I should sit on the stool within. Oh-oh. She wound the seat down. Oh-oh. She wound the seat down as far as it would go.
So there I was with only my head sticking out, with her standing there looking at me for ten minutes. With her limited English and my non-existent Tamil, conversation wasn’t really an option, particularly as I was only left with facial expressions to help me convey any meaning at all.
Once out I was patted dry with a towel and expected to put my underwear and jeans back on (erk). The table had transformed into a large long tray in my absence and there was a bowl with a small tassel at its base suspended from a separate hanger. I was bid lie on the tray and was aligned so that my forehead came under the tassel. Cool oil started to flow gently from the bowl and this was spread through my hair. This actually was pleasant and I came very close to drifting away, but too soon it was all over and I was taken to have my hair rinsed.
‘Do not shower one hour,’ Little Flower wagged her finger at me. ‘Just relax and lie quietly.’
Relax, she said. I felt like I had fallen down three flights of stairs and already had the bruises of an assault and battery case. Pity the lustful man who accosts that girl in a dark alley...