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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Munnar - Very high above the hills

During their stay in India, the Britishers, unable to cope up with the harsh summers, found their way up in the hills and exploited  cooler places  congenial for holidaying  thereat. It would be wrong to suggest that they discovered them as all those places were known to our monks and ascetics who had their dwellings in such places for seeking spiritual pleasures. They were required to traverse through the wild.   The infrastructure created by the British only served their own limited purpose. Such places came to be known as Hill Stations. There are several such cooler places in the state of Kerala. However only “Munnar” has the distinction of being a hill station. This place is situated 130 kilometers East of Ernakulam (Kochi – Cochin) on the Western Ghat mountain ranges. The area around Munnar is around 6500 to 8500 above sea level and therefore has cool and salubrious climatic conditions through out the year. Munnar in the local dialect stands for “three rivers”.

The land around Munnar is supposed to be owned by “Punjar” Royal family. Centuries ago, the ‘Pandyan’ dynasty ruling at Madurai, had to flee to avoid persecution at the hands of ‘Cholas’ who conquered their kingdom. The Pandyans finally reached Munnar and lived in peace. The Punjar royal family are descendents of the early Pandyan settlers. One John Daniel Munroe was the Commissioner in the service of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore. During 1877 he obtained on lease an area of over 1,36,000 acres from the Punjar Royal Family for the purpose of establishing Coffee plantations. Subsequently the terms of lease were modified to include tea and other crops as well. At the outset Munroe established an Agricultural Society followed by a company “Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Ltd”. In 1976 Tata Finlay acquired the plantations of Munroe. Now that company is known as Tata Tea. A  legal battle is ensuing between the Tata Tea and the Punjar family as the later is striving to get back all its land.

Since one of my sister-in-law was brought up at Munnar, I know that it was a small sleepy town. It is only in the last two decades that it got transformed into a major tourist centre. The environment had to pay a heavy price for the developments that have ensued. A plethora of resorts/hotels have mushroomed for which thousands of trees were felled. The Government of the State belatedly realised the harm being caused to the environment and ordered demolition of many un-authorised structures.

As told earlier, this area was identified and acquired for the development of plantations. Tea and Coffee plantations cover the major portion of the territory. Additionally at Munnar and adjoining rural areas, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Ginger, Garlic and Black Pepper are extensively cultivated.  There are lakes, streams, a dam and several National Parks within a radius of 20 kilometres of Munnar. The flora and fauna and bio-diversity of the area attracts thousands of tourists annually and a good number being foreigners. One more important event being the blossoming  of Neela Kurinji (Strobilanthus) in the mountains and valleys once in 12 years and some times even once in 7 years. Its said to be blue every where but looks purple or violet.. This flower has medicinal properties and is used as a traditional medicine for several ailments.
Photo:http:// myhappyjourney.com
Around 15 kilometres from Munnar  the Ervakulam National Park is the protectorate of the endangered Nilagiri Tahr (a kind of mountain goat). This particular specie is native to India and is found on the higher edges of the Western Ghat ranges. Initially they were spotted in the Nilagiris (Ooty) and hence the name. Incidentally Nilagiri stands for Blue Mountains and the association is with the flower named above. All over the country the Nilagiri Tahr number a bare 2000 and the largest herd of around 800 are resident at  Ervikulam. Normally they are found in groups and their habitat is 6000 feet above the mountain ranges. They are very strong physically and weigh around 100 kilos. They are also not shy of tourists. They may come nearer to you without any fear and will pose for you unhesitatingly. They are under threat and their population is dwindling. One main reason being the greedy humans who hunt them whenever possible. The second reason being their inbreeding. Because of clusters of human population on the hills, they are unable to keep in touch with their distant folks scattered  on the mountains.

Since exhaustive information is available on Munnar in the wikipedia and the net, I am cutting short. The main motivating factor was to show the Nilgiri Tahr encountered by us during our short visit. 

Photos: PN Sampath Kumar

Friday, January 7, 2011

Pichavaram Mangrove Forest - Second largest in the World

In tropical and sub tropical countries where ever a river meets the sea, back waters and estuaries get created. In certain places there could be swamps as well. These places are ideal grounds for a type of evergreen vegetation known as Mangroves. They have the capacity to sustain in saline waters. They also have a queer root system which partly remain in the air and some penetrate deep in the waters. The roots hanging above the water surface also have the capability of drawing its oxygen directly. Their seeds also have the ability to germinate when they are still on their branches. The water body surrounding the Mangrove Forests, affords a conducive climate for a variety of marine life, including various species of fish and prawns.

World’s largest Mangrove Forest formations are found in the Indian Sub Continent. They are the “Sundarbans”, 60% of which is in Bangladesh and 40% in India, the home of the famous Bengal Tigers. The second largest Mangrove Forest is also in India known as “Pichavaram” created at the confluence of Vellar and Coleroon rivers on the Bay of Bengal. This is spread over an area of 2800 acres (11 square kilometres).

The availability of different habitat types such as channels, creeks, gullies, mud flats and sand flats and adjacent sea shore offers ideal habitat for different species of birds. There are at least 177 species of birds inhabiting 

the area. Amongst others, one can view birds like Watersnips, Cormorants, Egrets, Storks, Herons, Spoonbills and Pelicans. The season between November to January is considered to be most fascinating for bird watchers as during that period the bird population is maximum, inclusive of  migratory birds from different countries. Apart from the eco-diversity of this forest, the mangroves were  instrumental in protecting the hinterland during the devastating Tsunami in the recent past.

Traversing through hundreds of channels leading to the sea is an experience which can not be simply explained in words. The Tamilnadu Tourism Development Corporation has a boat house at the spot offering boat rides through the groves. It is preferable to opt for the slow moving boats instead of the mechanised ones. The sea front is equally beautiful. The sea water creates fascinating patterns on the sands more akin to modern art.

Pichavaram is reachable from Chennai via Chidambaram (Railway Station). From Chidambaram Pichavaram is at a distance of 16 kilometres. Although accommodation is available at Pichavaram as well, but it is better to make Chidambaram the base for one can have the option of different types of accommodation as well as food.