Memories of rain

The name of this post is the title of a book by Sunetra Gupta which I loved. The Family and I were still busy discovering each others’ tastes in books when she recommended it to me. After reading the book about a failing cross cultural marriage, I began to follow her advise about what to read. "But this is not that story", as Aragorn says at the gate of Barad Dur.

Early monsoon near Munnar in Kerala

This is a little post to commemorate the end of the monsoon for this year. We have travelled long distances during these four tedious months. The green that sprouts from the earth during this time is incredible. It seems that there is a twenty thousand year long climatic cycle [alternate link] during which the monsoons are good. During the peak of such times the Sinai desert and the Arabian peninsula bloom, and provide a path connecting Africa and the Eurasian continent. During two such long wet seasons humans migrated out of Africa. The first left only enigmatic traces in our DNA and the second wave colonized the world. This is not such a green period. We live in times when the Sinai and the Arabian peninsula are great deserts.

Late monsoon in the Sahyadris

You wouldn’t believe it if you drove in India in the last four months. Here are three views through the windshields of cars which I took in Kerala and Maharashtra during this monsoon. The interior of the car becomes humid and warm, and you need to turn on a blast of air to keep the windows from fogging up. And then you can look out into a world which has become strange and silent. Another year till we come back to this time again.


Weeds in Munnar

The soil of Munnar seems particularly fertile: fruits and vegetables grow very well, as does tea. Weeds which take root in pretty inhospitable soil all over the country do extremely well here. One extremely visible example is morning glory. I see it struggling to keep alive in empty concreted lots in Mumbai. Here it takes over everything. We drove through a forest where morning glory was beginning to suffocate a whole stand of trees (featured photo).

Lantana and morning glory

Elsewhere it is even trying to suffocate Lantana. That’s as tiring as seeing Iron Man and Captain America slogging it out.

St. George in Kerala

Statue of St. George killing the dragon in Muthuvaankudi in Idukki district of KeralaAs we drove from Kochi to Munnar we passed many churches. About a fifth of Kerala’s population is Christian. Several had a niche with a little statue of St. George killing the dragon. When I paused to look carefully, I realized that you could take this horse and the rider in shiny armour out of these niches, and substitute them into any Indian story without changing the details even a little bit. This particular dragon has a short neck, and looks like a winged crocodile, so it too could be put into any Indian collection of beasts. This particular example comes from the church in Muthuvaankudi in Idukki district.

St. George is believed to have been a historical figure in Lebanon. His arrival to India probably is contemporary to his arrival in Europe. A statue of his in Kochi was recorded more than 1400 years ago. The evolution of the iconography of St. George in India probably had no direct influence from Europe until the 17th century.

One knows that trade brought coffee and religion to Kerala. Curious stories from the incredible history of the spice coast continue to emerge, and leave you hoping for more.

Traffic jam at elephant crossing

Traffic in the village of Anachal

Every day we passed the village called Anachal; the word means Elephant Crossing (ana stands for Elephant in Malayalam, and chal is path). One day we came to a stop. There was a small traffic jam. Some of the branches in the trees lining the road had begun to push at electric lines. There were people up in the trees hacking at the branches with machetes.

Shankumar was told to move the car back and to the center of the road. Next to us was a line of autos. One was driven by a girl. This is so uncommon in Mumbai that I’ve never seen a woman taxi driver yet. Here it is common enough that the tenth taxi I saw was driven by a woman.

Vive la difference.

Malabar food

Menu for kerala style breakfastIf you think that south Indian food is quite different from north Indian, you are right. If you think that all south Indian food is roughly similar, then you are wrong. We landed in Kochi airport at 8 in the morning, met Shankumar, who was supposed to drive us to Munnar and back, and set out immediately. After half the journey was over, Shankumar stopped at a very clean roadside eatery for breakfast. It was exactly what we were prepared for: idlis and utthapams, sambar and coconut chutney with dosas. Along with this wonderful filter coffee. We relaxed into a holiday eating frame which was totally wrong.

Of course we knew that there was more: fish curry, appam with spicy stew, and various such things find their way easily into the menu west of the Nilgiris, and are harder to find east of the Deccan’s divide.

Quail in MunnarThe one thing we had forgotten completely was Malabar’s long history of trade across the Indian ocean. Many recipes were exchanged across the centuries. Today the tremendously aromatic Malabar biriyani is a tradition which stands independent of the several other biriyani traditions of India. Along with this we discovered that game which has become rare in northern India is more easily available here: quail, partridge and pheasant were all available. What a wonderful surprise this turned out to be.

And another pleasant surprise was the local coffee: coffee grounds are boiled with molasses and cardamom to make a wonderful morning’s shot of caffeine. This is another recipe which is a reminder of Malabar’s trading history. People from Kerala were responsible for smuggling coffee out of Arabia. Once they got it home, of course, they spiked it with local ingredients. Discoveries like this make a memorable holiday.

Rose Garden? Of course!

Something like Aloe VeraDon’t even think about it. Yes, we all know that there is a rose garden in Munnar. We have all read the great reviews. But don’t promise one. It has no roses. It is full of people bumbling about, looking cross, although there are absolutely spectacular flowers. All because someone promised them a rose garden, and they don’t think a garden without roses is what they were promised.

Anthurium seen in Munnar

The one thing in Munnar which I had low expectations of, and which therefore stunned me totally was this garden off on the eastern part of town. The entrance to the garden is at a pretty narrow spot in the road, and the people entering and leaving cause a bit of a traffic jam. On the steep slope below the road is the garden. There is a little charge for entry, but it is well worth paying. rosegarden3 The flowers here are unusual and you are unlikely to be able to find a better place to spend an hour in the town.

I’m not an expert gardener. I know my roses and lilies, marigolds, vinca and zinnia. I can tell an Iris from a Pansy, and I’ve learnt the difference between a peony and a petunia. Otherwise I talk of blue flowers and yellow flowers.rosegarden4 Close to the entrance was a whole bunch of flowers which I think of as Anthurium. I’ve only seen a couple of varieties before: both with a yellow spadix, one had a red spathe, the other white. Here there was such a variety of colours of both that it was clear that some of them are hybrids. They must be breeding them here.

Lady's slippers: flower seen in MunnarWe walked past flowers which I cannot name (a couple of pictures above), and then reached a lower aisle where every flower was labelled. We stopped to admire the flower here (called "Lady’s slippers"), which is possibly an orchid. The plant is a creeper. There was a little walk where the plant had been allowed to form a roof over a lattice covering the walk, making a green tunnel. The flowers hung in bunches from the green walls, looking really pretty.

Zebra hawthoria seen in Munnar

Further on we came to the cacti. We’d seen several before, but there were some spectacular Hawthoria among them. The specimen above was labelled Hawthoria fascita but could well be Hawthoria attenuata. The usual way to distinguish the two is that the attenuata has stripes on both sides of the leaf. The attenuata also develops this nice red colour if it is in the sun long enough.

Orchids in Munnar's rose gardenThe final section of the garden had orchids. We’ve seen a spectacular orchid garden in Gangtok. This selection was smaller, but there were some very nice ones here, including the Cattleya shown on the left. The walk through the garden took us about an hour.

What not to do in Munnar

Shankumar, who drove us around Munnar, had good advise on what not to do. Twice he suggested that we skip something we had planned to do. Both times we over-ruled him, and then found that he was correct. The first was not a big disaster. We decided to stop at a place called the Hydel Park close to Munnar, although he told us that there was little to see there. He was correct, we stopped briefly and continued on our way.

The second cost us a few hours. Every guide to Munnar talks of Top Station, where once in a dozen years the neelakurinji blooms. Now this was not such a year, but we decided to take the two-hour drive to Top Station. The drive is nice, through a dense forest. We could stop now and then to admire the view through the woods to one of the three rivers which come into Munnar. Eventually we left the river behind and climbed a winding road for another hour.

When we crossed the state border into Tamil Nadu and reached Top Station it was clear that we had made a mistake in coming here. The little village was crowded. As we walked towards the view-point the crowds increased. On both sides of the road the view was blocked by stalls of food. Plastic garbage was everywhere. At some point on the road there was a state government tourist booth where we had to pay a nominal sum. We asked why the place could not be cleaned, and we were told that it is cleaned every day after the tourists have left.

This was patently false, since plastic garbage cascaded down the hillsides as far down as we could see. We paid and walked the rest of the way. There were no food stalls here, but the heaps of garbage continued. If there is any Strobilanthes here, it is already buried in the plastic. It will not bloom again in two years. It may be better to look for it in the meadows we passed on the way, or to go to Erivakulam National Park, where the bush certainly grows.

Whenever a nice viewpoint is declared to be a "spot" tour operators bring bus-loads of people there. An industry springs up to feed them. Garbage accumulates to destroy the very beauty that originally attracted people there. Eventually fun fairs, restaurants and other noisy entertainment is set up to justify bringing tourists to this place. We have seen this repeatedly in hills across India. If you want to save Top Station refuse to go there.

Prehistoric Kerala

After our chance encounter with the Kudakkallu, the megalithic umbrella stone, I surfed the web for information on prehistoric Kerala. The first place to visit was the informative website of the Archaeological Society of India. The pictures of Kudakkallu I found here and through an image search were quite different from what we had seen: the tallest which the ASI talks about is less than 3 meters high, whereas what we’d seen was about 10 meters in height.

Eventually, we had to fall back on professional journals. An article from 1976 in the Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute explained that after sporadic discoveries through the 19th century, systematic studies of the stone age in Kerala date only from the 1970s. A reference in a more recent book also explained that we saw a menhir, whereas the ASI records dolmens. There seem to be sites from the Mesolithic, Neolithic and later Megalithic times. One of the articles we found drew our attention to Marayoor as a place rich in prehistoric remains.

Dolmens at Muniyara near Marayoor and Kovilkadavu

Marayoor is about two hours from Munnar. The route winds through protected sandalwood forests. It is this that makes it so difficult to visit some of these rock paintings and dolmens. We reached the village a little before noon. Right in the center of the village, in front of the large Panchayat office is a big signboard listing all of the prehistoric remains one can see in the neighbourhood. Unfortunately there are no directions. The auto drivers have no idea where any of these things are. We got some information from a few very helpful people we met at the offices of the forest department, which stands nearby in a little lane next to the Panchayat office. It turned out that of the four main sites for rock paintings: Attala, Ezhuthala, Kovilkadavu and Manala, the first two are probably inside sandalwood forests, and therefore inaccessible without prior permission. We’d read that both these sites had been vandalized and damaged, so perhaps it wasn’t a big miss.

A dolmen in Muniyara near Kovilkadavu and MarayoorWe were directed to dolmens (called Muniyara locally). These are perhaps 3000 years old, and protected by the ASI. Later we found that these are very close to the Thenkasinath temple in Kovilkadavu village. Perched on top a huge rock (see photo above), they are fenced off from casual vandalism. We climbed up to them. They are burial chambers. A photo of the least well-preserved one is shown here: you can see the upright stones with a horizontal roof laid across it. The chamber is less than a man’s height. The stone is cut into large sheets. Apparently iron tools are needed to do this, and that’s part of the reason for the dating.

A rock painting in Madathala in Chinnar wildlife sanctuary

To get to the dolmens we’d driven on State Highway 17 past Marayoor town until a petrol pump, and then turned right. Now we backtracked to the petrol pump, and proceeded further along State Highway 17 into Chinnar wildlife sanctuary. We got off at Alampetty Eco-camp and asked about a walk through the forest to see rock paintings. This was possible for a small fee. We had two forest guides with us. We walked past a dolmen. A further half hour’s walk brought us to a rock face protected by an overhang. On the rock face there was the red ochre painting which you see in the photo above. This is part of the Madathala complex of sites.

Rock painting in Madthala inside Chinnar WLSThe two deer were painted a little above my height, and were in good condition. This area has both the chital (spotted deer) and the bigger sambar. I thought the painting looked like chital. A photo of another painting at my eye level is shown alongside. This is not very clearly visible; has it been painted over? Probably one can see the rump of a wild pig here. We are not experts in ancient art. The Family and I have seen paintings like this before only in Bhimbetka. The painting on a rock face, the use of red ochre, painting over an older painting, and the lack of physical context in the painting, probably means that they are not as old as the paleolithic and the ice age, nor as recent as the neolithic with its discovery of more colours. These are probably mesolithic, which in India could mean about 12,000 years old.

General view of the Madathala rock painting regionThere was a signboard here which said a little about this area called Madathala. One of our guides could speak a little English; he pointed out caves in the far cliff you can see in the photo here. He said that there are paintings in some of those caves, although they are hard to reach unless you are equipped for a climb. He also told us that there are more easily accessible rock paintings in the area, but they would take longer to get to. Unfortunately we had little time. We decided to come back again.

The day had been hot, and I could feel a mild sunburn. Although we had spent a large part of the day tracking down the sites of the dolmens and paintings, we had eventually spent quite a while walking in the sun. The next time we come here we will have to arrange for the permits in advance so that we get to see the places we missed this time around.

Birds and beasts around Munnar

The Nilgiris are wonderful for dedicated bird watchers. We do not count ourselves in this tribe, although The Family always carries a pair of binoculars with her on these trips, and we carry Grimmett’s Guide to Indian Birds to refer to at nights. We also make bird lists, but cannot agree whether to add crows and sparrows to the list. After long arguments, we have come to the considered agreement that we will separate our bird list into two parts:

The usual suspects

  1. Red-vented Bulbul
  2. Red-whiskered Bulbul
  3. Common Myna
  4. Jungle Myna
  5. Hill Myna
  6. Indian Robin
  7. Oriental Magpie Robin
  8. Black Drongo
  9. Blue Rock Pigeon
  10. Oriental Turtle Dove
  11. Common sparrow
  12. Common crow (not so common here)
  13. Indian pond heron
  14. Little egret
  15. Cattle egret
A pair of Black and Orange Flycatcher. Photo by Antony Grossy, Wikimedia Commons

Less common

  1. Pied Bushchat (in Erivakulam NP)
  2. Black and Orange Flycatcher (on SH 17, south of Erivakulam)
  3. Blue Robin (on SH 17, south of Erivakulam)
  4. Yellow-crowned Woodpecker (in Chinnar WLS)
  5. Kerala Laughing Thrush (on SH 17, south of Erivakulam)
  6. Yellow-crowned woodpecker Leiopicus mahrattensis

  7. Black Bulbul
  8. Yellow Bulbul
  9. Raquet-tailed Drongo
  10. Long-tailed Shrike *
  11. Brown Shrike
  12. Small Minivet
  13. Scarlet Minivet *
  14. Jungle Babbler
  15. Scimitar Babbler *
  16. Malabar Parakeet *
  17. Purple Sunbird
  18. Gray Jungle Fowl
  19. Greater Coucal
  20. Pied bushchat Saxicol caprata

  21. Rufous Treepie
  22. Indian Cormorant
  23. Hoopoe
  24. Common Teal
  25. Brown-headed Barbet
  26. Chestnut-headed Bee-eater *
  27. Malabar Whistling Thrush *
  28. Velvet-fronted Nuthatch
  29. Eurasian Blackbird

We’ve moved more birds into the list of common birds. The ones in bold are lifers: our first sightings of these birds. The birds which are starred are ones we had also seen in Valparai. There are surprisingly few in common. In Valparai we went out early every morning, and again in the evening, with a local expert, to look for birds. In Munnar we did nothing of the sort. Our walks through Erivakulam NP and Chinnar WLS were in the middle of the day. In spite of this, we have a longer bird list from Munnar. The difference is just that Valparai is almost entirely tea plantations, whereas there are large forested areas around Munnar. This is an object lesson in how monoculture destroys ecology.

2016-05-04 15.28.30Spotting mammals requires time and tenacity. We were not in Munnar for the wild life. However, some wild life came to us. I’ve already talked of the Nilgiri Tahr in Erivakulam NP. Apart from multiple sightings of this rather endangered animal we saw two grizzled giant squirrels during our walk through Chinnar WLS. These are rare animals, confined to a few forests, but easily visible in their habitats. We came across a few Gaur, but nothing else. An elephant had passed across the path we took through Chinnar WLS, as we could see from the pug mark pointed out by our guides. One of the oddest things we saw were the humerus of a Gaur laid out next to the same path (see the photo here).

Fog and Rain

Tea gardens in MunnarPeople say that Munnar is pretty. When I saw the rolling hills covered with tea bushes, mist drifting in the valleys, I thought to myself this indeed looks pretty. It is the kind of place where you could walk easily across two hills. Even a movie camera can roam between those lush green bushes. You could have a whole chorus line of pretty women and handsome young men dancing right there. Didn’t they do it already in Chennai Express and Life of Pi?

But the really beautiful part of Munnar is harder to see. It was raining one day as we were coming back from a trip to Marayoor. Shankumar pointed out a waterfall in the distance. We stopped and admired the wilderness that you can still see in parts of the Nilgiris. We could hear nothing but the sound of rain. In the distance, and at an immense height above the road, water tumbled down a bare rock face. The fog was lit up by the setting sun. Everywhere below us was a dense forest. The water tumbled through rocky channels and emerged as a stream, parts of which we could see. this is a fragile ecosystem which is disappearing fast. For a brief time we had a glimpse of the Nilgiris as it might have seemed to people a few centuries ago: a wild and frightening beauty. You could send a movie crew in there and they might never come back!