Dwarapala photo bomb

In the middle of Munnar’s busy bazaar, I noticed the small temple which you can see in the featured photo. I was amazed by the dwarapalas. I’ve seldom seen a guardian of a temple with such enormous mustaches! I tried to position myself to the left, in front of the guy with the cobra and a mace, but a couple of auto-rickshaws displaced me. So I moved to the right, and found that I could just about get the mace in the mirror placed strategically behind the dwarapala. I took the photo and moved on.

Behind me The Night started laughing: the priest had followed me from one side to the other and positioned himself more or less in the center of the frame. I hadn’t noticed him photo-bombing me. On the other hand, it wasn’t exactly that. I think the photo improves with him where he is. Seldom do you get a third dwarapala in front of a temple, and that too with spectacles.

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Inexplicable

We’d spent an afternoon walking at a height of about 2000 meters above sea level, in a sliver of shola grasslands caught between tea estates. The day alternated between sunny and overcast, but warm. At one point I looked over what seemed to be a vast landscape where the last flowering was taking place before the heat comes down from the skies. You can see the stunted trees of the shola forest making a dark green border around the slopes. It was getting close to lunch time.

We drove into the nearest town: Munnar. I was not surprised by the crowds in the central bazaar. But what made me stop and look again was this small steel cabinet in the middle of the road. The gentleman in the purple shirt had a bunch of keys and was trying to figure out whether he could unlock it. I don’t know whether the door ever opened. When I came by next, the whole cabinet had disappeared.

A meeting over tea

On our way back from the Eravikulam National Park, we saw a massive black shape between the neat rows of tea bushes which line the slopes here. The bus driver stopped obligingly to let us figure out that the shape was not a rock but a lone bull Gaur. It had its head down and seemed to be rooting at the tea. I’d seen this before. Gaur move through the aisles in these plantations, and if they destroy tea, it is by accident. Their target is the smaller herbs and grasses that grow on the verge. There is something about tea that they don’t like. I’m happy that they leave the pekoes to us.

The genus Bos includes both the Gaur (Bos gaurus) and domestic cattle. It seems that their ancestors developed and migrated from Africa at the same time as humans. The single male that I saw is among the last of a species that diverged and evolved in the forests of India, and is now on the verge of extinction due to loss of habitat. What a sad end that would be to this marvelous and gentle giant!

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.

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.

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.

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!