Kerala Moms

Kerala is independent territory, independent of food chains. You can eat what your mom wanted you to eat. And they make it so well that you’ll have no argument with it. On our drive back from Munnar to Kochi half a year ago we stopped for lunch on the way in a clean and well-lit restaurant. We picked the place because of the green wall which was the front of the restaurant. The food couldn’t be bad, we thought, if they have enough taste to cover the front wall will a vertical garden.

The toilet was clean, and had the endearing sign which you see in the featured photo. The menu had lessy errors than is normal in a roadside eatery. It turned out that apart from the fruit juices on the menu they could give us coconut water. We went with that to accompany a traditional Malabar Biryani: fragrant with spices. If I were a Vasco da Gama eating it on a far shore I would have set sail for Kerala immediately. The raita which came with it was mouth-burningly hot with green chilis; five centuries after the churn of new foods crossing oceans in holds of ships, Kerala’s inventory of spices has increased. The coconut juice helped in moderating the raita.

On the way out we’d stopped for breakfast at a more typical roadside place which promised the usual pan-Indian roadside menu. But the touch of Kerala changes things. Pineapple with potato tikka? Not found in the hot and dry northern plains, I’m afraid. Bindi masala and plain rotty are typical roadside spellings. The province of Munchuria has long become unmoored from the cold north, and has taken root in Indian kitchens. We looked at the menu and asked for what else they have.

While we waited for idli, vada, and coffee, I did my usual trick of walking up to the sweet counter and peering deep into it. The collection was small but interesting. Pedha, laddoo, and barfi is now found right across India. But there was a local coconut-based sweet packed into plastic bags. And there was that thing off on the side which looked like a cross between jalebis and murukku. Probably too sweet for the first thing in the morning. I went back to my idli and coffee.

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Country roads

I’d written earlier about a quick trip to Kerala to see the once-in-a-dozen-years flowering of the Neelakurinji. It was mostly a road trip, but I hadn’t written about the road. Driving from Kochi to Munnar takes you on roads through a continuously built-up area. One village gives way imperceptibly to another, a small town shades into villages. There is no transition, no discontinuity.

Every turn in the road looked vaguely like this: low houses, some palm trees, a church or a temple or mosque, businesses everywhere. It was a holiday so the roads were rather empty for nine in the morning. Businesses were also closed. This part of the country had been hit by a flash flood due to an over-active monsoon less than a month before, so we kept a close watch on the sky as we drove along.

There were some store fronts which seemed peculiarly Malayalee; the photo which you see above was one. We would come across a home depot of this kind every twenty or thirty kilometers. So much kitchenware on display! Was this part of the post-flood recovery, or was it common? I don’t know, and I would have to go back to find out. Or, if you have been there recently or more than a year back, you could let me know whether you noticed these shops too.

We’d driven out without breakfast, with just a coffee at a busy little roadside stall which was doing roaring business. When I drank my coffee I realized why. It was a very good coffee; milky and sweet, like the usual coffee here, but strong and aromatic. Now it was definitely time for breakfast. We stopped at a cluster of shops. The colourful advertisements on this glass box signaled lunch.

Chicken is a big thing here, as you can see from the signage in the photo above. Food and chicken are mentioned separately. Chicken normally sounds good to me but not as the first thing in the morning. We chose a shop which was clearly selling breakfast. Idlis, puttu, sheera and coffee could be seen. While the Family and Other Animals found a table, I walked around to the block. There was a hairdressing saloon with very appropriate photos on the door. If I wasn’t in dire need of breakfast I would have walked in to investigate.

Back at the breakfast table the orders had been placed. I asked for a plate of idlis and another coffee to be added to the order. As I leaned back I saw that this was a rather inclusive place. Kerala used to have a very small but influential population of Jews. They have mostly migrated to Israel about fifty years ago. Now about 55% of the population is Hindu, about 25% are Muslim, and about 18% are Christian. The picture on the wall was politically very mainstream, but was probably not entirely political. It could also signify that the dietary practices of all these groups were understood and followed. Business is business after all.

Monsoon flora of Eravikulam National Park

The main reason to go back to Erivakulam National Park again was to see the flowering of Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes Kunthiana, in the featured photo), which happens once in 12 years. But this time I remembered to take my macro lens so that I could take a few more photos. I managed to take passable pictures of some of the flowers in the rain. Balancing camera and lens while holding an umbrella and making sure that the optics remains dry was a major challenge though.

I’m able to identify very few flowers down to species level. Some of them I can identify up to genus. Many, especially the small ones, whose flowers lie at the edge of visibility, I could not identify even in my many field guides. Please help out if you are an expert.

The very rare Neelakurinji

The weekend that we spent in Madurai was originally set aside to visit Munnar to watch the rare flowering of Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthianus). Over dinner with old friends we talked about having to cancel the trip to Munnar because of the monsoon flooding of Kerala. One of them suggested that we go to Munnar that weekend since the flood waters had drained away. The Neelakurinji flowers once in twelve years, so this was an attractive proposition. All six of us agreed to take the Friday afternoon off, so that we could fly to Kochi in the evening and drive to Munnar the next morning.

As the designated “naturalist”, I had to brush up on my knowledge of the phenomenon. The Neelakurinji is a grassland flower, as media photos of meadows covered with purple flowers show. But these photos came from earlier flowerings. I was not sure how much damage had been done by this year’s record rain. The genus Strobilanthes has several species which have mast seeding: meaning all bushes flower in synchrony after many years. The Karvi (Strobilanthes callosa) flowered in 2016 and will flower again in 2024. The Strobilanthes agasthyamalana is said to flower once in 16 years.

Plants which flower so seldom have to make sure that each flower stands a very high chance of pollination. A study of the 2006 flowering found that the flower was sculptured to increase this efficiency. The mass flowering attracts the Indian honeybee in large numbers (look out for neelakurinji honey later this year). In unfertilized flowers, the receptive surface of the stigma faces the entry path of the bee, and moves away when the bee exits, and the flower remains fresh and produces large amounts of nectar for two days. From the mid-19th century CE there were reports that jungle fowl migrated to flowering meadows to eat the seeds of the plants. This mass migration has not been observed after the removal of forests in the Munnar area.

When we arrived in Eravikulam National Park, the sky was overcast, and the sun, already low near the horizon, was beginning to look decidedly tired of keeping us in light. There were a few flowering bushes, but nothing like the photos and videos which the media were displaying, without telling viewers that they were shot in 2006. The honeybees are most active just before noon, so we didn’t see them at work. It had rained hard since the middle of week, and the rain set in again while we were in the park. We had a sighting of the Nilgiri tahr in a meadow dotted with Neelakurinji. It seemed to avoid the Neelakurinji as it browsed. I wonder whether there are toxins which the plant secretes.

From the point of view of a tourist spectacle, this was a disappointment. As a budding wildflower enthusiast (bad pun, I know) I was happy to have seen this plant which one has so little chance of seeing, since it dies after flowering. I had a good time with my macro lens peering into the two meter high bushes where this flower grows. We later found that there is only one more spot near Munnar where the flowers were visible this year. Because of the extreme rain in August, few bushes flowered, and because of the renewed late rain in September, many flowers were not pollinated. I wonder whether this is a crisis for the species. I guess we will know by 2030, when it is next supposed to flower.

Unseen flowers

This has been a year of canceled trips for me. The latest cancellation is a long-planned trip to Kerala. Once every 12 years there is a mass blooming of the Neelakurinji flower (Strobilanthes kunthiana) in the region of Munnar. We had planned to go to see these flowers. Unfortunately this year there was a freak monsoon storm which destroyed roads and parts of Munnar town, flooded large parts of Kerala downriver, and killed many people. I understand that this is possibly the worst monsoon flood in a century.

In this bad time we did not want to cancel our trip in a hurry. Often recovery is helped by providing business. Unfortunately now, with about a week to go for our trip, we are forced to cancel. The flood damage is so heavy that the state government has requested tourists to stay away. Kerala will take time to rebuild and rehabilitate. The state needs help. Here is a link to the main portal where you can offer to help if you wish. I believe that this government portal possibly entails the minimum of administrative overheads, so almost all the donated money will reach those who need help.

Kerala’s new year just passed: Onam. We joined the community in a traditional meal, the Onam Sadhya (featured photo).

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.

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.