Remarkable culture and history of Kabini Forest (Nagrahole National Park)

Remarkable culture and history of Kabini Forest (Nagrahole National Park)

October 8, 2020
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Kabini – A tributary of Cauvery

Kabini or Kapila River, also known as Kasbani River, is an important tributary of Cauvery one of the major rivers of India. Kabini flows near the town of Saragur forming a huge reservoir, and the backwaters around the reservoir are rich in wildlife which is famously known as the Kabini reserve forest. It is situated in the south-east of the famous Nagarahole National Park, in  Mysore District. When we refer to as the history of Kabini, we are exploring the forests of Nagarahole National Park and the ranges of the park that are considered to a part of the Kabini area.

Kabini Dam and wildlife area is in the south of Nagarahole National Park.

Kabini Forest – A part of the Nagarahole National Park

The Nagarahole National Park was set up in 1955 as a wildlife sanctuary. It derives its name from Naga- meaning snake and hole- which means streams (in Kannada). It was declared as a National Park in the 1980s and as a tiger reserve in 1999. Situated in between the borders of Mysore and Coorg districts, it is located to the North-West of Bandipur National Park.

The two National Parks are separated by the river Kabini. To read about whether you should visit Kabini or Bandipur, check out our Kabini vs Bandipur Blog!  Nagarahole National Park is 90kms from Mysore and 224kms from Bengaluru. It is globally known for its success stories and is being considered by UNESCO for selection as a World Heritage Site.

Did you know? Nāgarahoḷe is mostly mispronounced. It shouldn’t sound like “hole”. It’s “Holey” where the “la” should sound like the “la” in “Misal Paav” in Marathi.

The history of Kabini is rich and full of stories. It has been the playground of kings. Nagarahole and the neighbouring Bandipur used to be a hunting reserve of the kings of the Wodeyar dynasty, the former rulers of Mysore. The royals of Mysore also used to capture elephants from the forests of Kabini, using a trap known as the ‘Khedda’ system.

The Khedda system was practised widely in Assam, Karnataka and other parts of South India to capture a herd of elephants. Female elephants were used as bait. The herd of elephants were scared by sound and fire and were forced to go through a funnel-shaped route into an enclosure, and then the gates were shut. The trapped elephants were drained of their energy by famine and combat with tamed elephants. Later, their legs were tied, necks were deeply cut and leather straps were inserted in the cuts. The idea behind this was to make the elephants submit to their bonds through the pain.

This inhuman act was first introduced in Karnataka by George P. Sanderson, a British naturalist who worked in the state of Mysore in the public works department. He captured wild elephants that were destructive to agriculture and used them in captivity.

This cruel practice was discontinued in 1973, after the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, which declared the Asiatic Elephant to be a highly endangered species. Under the protection of this act, elephants are thriving in Kabini. These gentle giants are frequently spotted by visitors on a boat safari or a jeep safari.

During the searing summer months, hundreds of elephants make their way to the Kabini forests, in search of water and fresh pastures. Watching them gather in hundreds on the shores of the backwaters, during summer, is a magnificent sight to behold!

Kabini and the Mysore Dasara

Every year, during the world-famous Dasara festivities in Mysore, elephants form the core of the procession on the Vijayadashami day. The Golden Howdah, which has Goddess Chamundeshwari in it, weighs 750kgs and is carried by the lead elephant. The elephants are occasionally made to walk the 70km distance, from Kabini forest to Mysore. The Dasara elephants were caught using the Khedda operation.

Mysuru: Scion of erstwhile royal family of Mysuru, Yaduveer Krishnadatta Chamaraja Wadiyar during the inauguration of Dasara 2018, in Karnataka’s Mysuru on Oct 10, 2018. (Photo: IANS)
A captive Elephant that leads the Dasara procession, Jumbo Savari. (Photo: Dave Lonsdale)

In recent years, this Dasara procession has faced a lot of pressure from activists and campaigners, to end its use of elephants. Leaked footage from 2018, of a captivated elephant, swaying in distress drew the attention of international press agencies. The lengthy and highly accusatory expositions that followed reported on how the elephants have to go through two months of rigorous, and often brutal training, in order to perform in the procession.

The Tribes of Kabini

There are 75 tribes in India that are classified as primitive, out of more than 500 tribal groups which exist at various stages of socio-economic and educational level. The primitive tribes are often at the lowest economic strata of society, with low literacy and stagnant or declining populations.

The Jenu Kurubas, one of the primary inhabitants of the Kabini forest, are one of the two primitive tribes found in Karnataka. When the Wildlife Protection Act came into force, the day to day life of the tribal communities living in Nagarahole was adversely affected due to the government restricting their entry into the forest owing to its conservation efforts.

Read this: Historical Perspective of Kuruba Community (July 2014)

Lifestyle and food habits of the Tribes

The Jenu Kurubas are excellent tree climbers and are skilled in the use of bows, arrows and slings. The tribal community can be found in scattered communities throughout the jungle. They are strongly attached to the forest and worship it as one of their deities. Their food, dress, homes, worship etc. are all linked with the forest.

For the longest period, they have lived in the depths of the forest, in isolation and in complete harmony with nature, which is why they are widely regarded as the experts of the jungle. They have sustained themselves by collecting honey, wax and feeding on other forest roots and tubers. With the help of their strong sense of smell, they would locate a fresh kill from a tiger, wait for it to have its fill and would then take the remaining meat. They would wash it well, smoke it over the fire and cook it.

How do the Tribes live now?

For the past  decades, there has been a gradual decrease in the number of tribal communities who staunchly follow their traditional beliefs. One of the reasons for this is believed to be the increased involvement of the Indian government in their internal affairs, seeking to integrate these communities into mainstream society.

Unfortunately, due to a loss of livelihood, tribals occasionally do join hands with poachers, who consider them an invaluable asset due to their extensive knowledge of the forest and need for paltry sums of money. This has been greatly remedied over the course of the last decade and a half, as these members of the forest’s indigenous tribes are being placed in the employ of the forest department, to safeguard the forest and its residents and ward off poachers, in exchange for a steady livelihood. Only time will tell if this measure will prove to be sustainable.

Read this: “Don’t fund our eviction”: honey-collecting tribe pleads with US government, Jan 2020

Numerous efforts have also been taken, both by the government and the NGOs, to relocate the tribes to the periphery of the forests. The idea behind this move is to conserve the existing flora and fauna, which were under threat due to the changed lifestyles of the tribal people.

Read this: Two decades later, Jenu Kuruba families still await rehabilitation, June 2017

Kabini and Religious Worship

Remains of the submerged Mastigudi Temple in the backwater area of the Kabini Reservoir. (Photo: Jayanth Sharma)

Dedicated to Goddess Mastamma, there is an ancient temple situated on the banks of the river Kabini, called the Mastigudi Temple. The name Mastamma can be broken down into 3 separate root words – Maha + Sati + Amma, implying “The Great Wife”, referring to Goddess Parvati. Even though the temple’s name is synonymous with that of the Goddess, the main idol there is of Lord Ganesha. The temple is said to have many spiritual powers. In the olden days, people passing through the forests would seek blessings and pray for their safe journey.

The famous Kannada film, “Gandhada Gudi”, was filmed in Kabini forest. Dr Rajkumar, the protagonist of the movie, used to visit this temple every day during the shoot and seek the Goddess’ blessings. While filming the climax of the movie, the antagonist (Dr Vishnuvardhan) accidentally shot Dr Rajkumar, wounding him. Locals believe that Dr Rajkumar escaped with his life because of the Goddess’ blessings! So maybe, miracles do happen!

Talking about this movie, it is important to note that this 1973 popular cinema was amongst the first to highlight issues of Wildlife Conservation in India. The story is all about an honest forest officer who protects his range from poachers.

Construction of the Kabini Dam

Pic: Kiranmadhu E (Wikimedia)

The Kabini Dam, built across the river Kabini in 1974, is near the village of Beechanahally. It supplies water to 22 villages and 14 hamlets. The dam is also one of the prominent sources of water to Bengaluru. It is spread over an area of 55 hectares, covering forests, rivers, lakes and valleys.

After the construction of the dam, the huge reservoir created to the south of Nagarahole submerged many villages, ancient temples and tribal hamlets, including large areas of the national park. Many communities and villages were relocated to the edge of the forest and the Kabini reservoir. The Jenu Kurubas were one such community which had to relocate outside the forest area.

After the construction of the Kabini dam, the Mastigudi temple remains submerged for the most part of the year, becoming accessible only during summer, when the water recedes.

Wildlife Conservation in Kabini

Tourists enjoy a wildlife safari in the backwater area of the Kabini Reservoir, Nagarahole National Park

Unlike the royals who trophy-hunted, Shri Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar, the 25th and the last Maharaja of Mysore was very passionate about the protection of wildlife. The Government of India constituted a central board for wildlife in March 1952 and Shri Jayachamarajendra Wadeyar was appointed as its first chairman. Under his regime (1940-1950), Venugopal Wildlife Park within Bandipur was closed to all timber operations and Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary was established in 1943, following the suggestion of the prominent ornithologist, Salim Ali.

It is believed that former Karnataka State Chief Minister, Sri Gundu Rao, was inspired by Royal Chitwan National Park’s Tiger Tops Jungle Lodges and realised the opportunity Karnataka had to create a similar experience for wildlife lovers, having so much variety of flora and fauna. The Govt. Of Karnataka in association with the Tiger Tops Jungle Lodges set up Jungle Lodges and Resorts which later on became a 100% subsidiary of the Government of Karnataka. Thus in 1980, Karnataka opened the famous JLR property of Kabini River Lodge to tourists. Kabini in the Nagarahole National Park is home to a variety of wildlife including Tigers, Leopards, Elephants, Sloth Bears, Sambar, Spotted-deer and many more species of wildlife.

The recent images of the elusive Black Panther circulating on the internet have put the forests of Kabini in the limelight.  Other than the famous black panther, Kabini is also home to a rich diversity of animals, including gaurs, elephants, leopards, tigers, bison, spotted deer, sambhars, monkeys, crocodiles and about 250 species of birds. The history of this forest and the culture surrounding it is equally rich. From being home to indigenous tribes to the hunting grounds of the Wodeyars, Kabini has a lot of stories to tell.


The onset of modernisation brought about large scale deforestation and environmental pollution on the entire planet. Humans have been selfishly choosing a materialistic lifestyle and consumerism over nature and wildlife. Kabini is no exception to this. From nurturing man as her own to getting betrayed by him, from seeing the rise and fall of an ancient temple, from being used as a hunting ground to being declared as a reserved forest, Kabini has witnessed it all. Having stood the test of time, She still invites us with open arms, shows us what She has got and sends us back with a tinge of wisdom. She has a lot to share, but are we ready to listen?

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