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

Lantana and morning glory

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. Morning glory taking over a tree 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. 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 wandering 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

Dhaba in Top Station on road from Munnar to

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 s 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!

Once in a blue bloom

Neelakurinji plant: the flowers bloom next in 2018The highest parts of the Nilgiris are home to the Neelakurinji, which blooms once in twelve years. This simple looking blue flower apparently give the Nilgiris its name. The western ghats are full of Strobilanthes which bloom after many years. The neelakurinji is the Strobilanthes kunthiana, and is expected to flower again in 2018. I may not have seen the flower, but I did see the plant (photo above).Unknown flower on Anamudi

In spite of this, the Eravikulam national park near Munnar is a big draw. We learnt that you are bussed up to a trail where you walk through the forest; no cars are allowed. You park your car in a huge parking lot 14 Kms from Munnar along State Highway 17, and stand in queue for tickets. Alternately, you could pay in town for an option to buy a ticket the next day, and bypass the queue. We did this, and then took the bus up.

We did not expect the treeless open meadow and a climb along the steep metalled road along the flank of Anamudi. It was hot and I was soaked immediately. Fortunately we had enough water to last the 2 Km trek up.Two unknown wildflowers on Anamudi But the wonder was the cars and autos which came down the path. Apparently the road is open to locals, and the Tatas, who own a part of the land above the Sanctuary. The Family couldn’t be bothered at 9 in the morning. Let’s walk, she said.

Unknown flower on Anamudi The path was fenced to prevent walkers from trampling the flowers which grew alongside. Someone had started labelling the plants without much enthusiasm. A patch of neelakurinji was labelled, as was a patch of the white kurinji a few paces on. But a couple of hundred meters on the labels straggled to an end. We were on our own. Although the weather was so warm and humid, technically it is spring, and therefore the flowering season.

Unknown wildflower in AnamudiIt was too warm to bend down to take photos of the really small flowers among the grass. I concentrated on those at roughly eye level. The sanctuary is supposed to have many species of butterflies, some special to the area. I did not see any; perhaps they were all in the bushes we were fenced away from.

We heard many birds in the shrubs behind the fences.Unidentified wildflower on Anamudi I stopped at a particularly tuneful song. Peering through the growth we saw something which I did not recognize. Further on we saw a pied bushchat fly above us and sit on an electric wire. Yes, there were electric wires in this protected forest. Soon after I took the photo above, I saw what the hordes had come here for.

A Nilgiri tahr with paparazziOne of the rarer sights in nearby Valparai was the Nilgiri Tahr. The Eravikulam NP apparently has the largest population of this highly threatened species of mountain sheep. A young one was grazing by the path. As various people tried to take selfies with it in the background it came on to the path. The paparazzi now mobbed the poor kid. As word spread, families ran to take photos. One set of children ran up to touch it. Although the parent didn’t say anything, there was a murmur of disapproval from the crowd.afartahr Those of us who have spent some years doing trips to the wilds, birding, watching wildlife and walking in mountains have learnt from each other how fragile the mountain ecosystems have become. The behaviour of the crowd here showed us that the message about conserving endangered wildlife seems to be slowly sinking into the average Indian tourist as well. There is hope then that the fragile mountain ecosystems may last for our grandchildren to experience.

Whiich is this flower, growing in AnamudiI did not realize that we were almost at the end of our walk. I paused to take a photo of some flowers. The Family was bored with my pace and walked ahead. Without her pacing, I slowed down even more, so that when the next few Tahr appeared near the fence I was the first to see them. I moved away again as the paparazzi gathered.

One more turn, in the road and I came to an open gate.eravikulamflower7 A forest guard was standing nearby warning people that this was the end of the walk. The land beyond it apparently belongs to the Tatas. I wondered whether Tata, or any other company which owns forest land nearby can decide to convert it to plantations. When I asked someone later, I was told that this is not easy any more.

The rolling hills covered with tea plantations are a mockery of the shola forests which once covered these slopes. Even in these little remaining patches, the immense biodiversity is visible to any person who cares to look a little close. I just wish I had some way to find the names of these flowers.

Market and Field in Munnar

In the middle of the crowded bazaar area of Munnar we saw a long blank wall, plastered and painted the mellow cream of a Vermeer. The wall was simultaneously forbidding and attractive. Forbidding because it was high, completely featureless, and had no decorations on it at all. Attractive because the colour of the plaster glowed invitingly in the sun. Above a narrow door in the wall was a signboard that said “Vegetable Market, Munnar”

Vegetables heaped up in the market in Munnar

The Family and I can never resist a food market. Without a second thought we walked in through the door. It was late in the morning; the crowds of daily shoppers had left. The ranks of stalls in the municipal market were full of vendors waiting for small buyers. The aisles were clean, unlike many markets just past the rush hour.

Cashew apples and apricotsThe stalls in front were full of vegetables: beans, bitter gourd, pumpkin, yam, cucumber, banana flower, snake gourd, and more. After tasting the food in the region, we were expecting this variety in the market. Still, there were things which surprised us. We are used to eating unripe banana as a vegetable, cooked into a curry, and to green mango cooked in various ways. But here we saw a heap of unripe apricots. Are they cooked? Next to it was a pile of cashew apples (see the photo above). The fruit of the cashew is astringent, and not widely eaten. Are cashew and apricot cooked in this part of Kerala? We didn’t know, and did not receive a clear reply.

Beet root and something elseThe vendors were very friendly. They were happy to show us things, but we speak no Malayalam, and they spoke little Hindi or English. So we were left uneducated very often. For example, at the stall where I took the photo alongside, I could not figure out what the green fruits are. The stuff behind it was beet root, and the lady selling them nodded in recognition when we said beet root. But we could not catch what she said for the unknown thing. My best guess from what she said is that these are unripe jackfruit. It turns out to be breadfruit.

One major difference in tastes between The Family and me is our attitude to dried fish. She has no problems walking away from it,Dried ish in the market in Munnar whereas I am snagged. I examine them, imagine them thrown into a curry, or even simply into a pot of boiling rice. I spent a long time here, recognizing a little, and wishing I had a kitchen where I could try out the rest.

Munnar stands a kilometer and a half above sea level, so most of the fish comes from Kochi. Trout has been seeded in some of the dammed lakes here only very recently. So dried fish must be a staple. In most places in India, food made with dried fish is not considered good enough to be served to guests, so they remain unknown to tourists. I asked in our hotel, but got the blank smiles that normally answer such questions.

The Family had drawn ahead of me towards the fruit section of the market. Bananas are special in the south of India,Heps of fruits in the market in Munnar as I’d realized from responses to an older post. I spent some time asking the vendor about the uses of various bananas, and he got me to taste a couple. They were different from each other, and from what I’ve eaten earlier. In this season they yield some space to mango.

You know an Indian by her attitude to mango. There are those who love one variety, and will sneer at others. There are those who love to try out a new variety. But all will eat every mango that comes their way. We went through the selection on offer and took one of each. The local red variety which you see in the photo above is very flavourful.

In trips to the Himalayas we’d learnt of the growing popularity of organic farming in those regions. After we left the market we asked a local farmer about organic farming in this area. He was passionate about preserving the land, and said that he had given up on fertilizers. What about productivity, I asked. He said that a plot of land which might give a kilo of vegetables would give about a hundred and fifty grams with natural compost. He was still okay with it, because people are willing to buy it.

But here is the problem. If the productivity of land were to fall back to one seventh of what it is now, then the amount of food that comes into the market would decrease in proportion. Even if food were distributed equally, one seventh the amount would sustain perhaps a little more than a seventh of today’s population. In actual fact, the consumption of food in India, and the world, is already very inequitable. With lesser amount of food produced, the prices will grow more than proportionately, and the number of people who could afford it would be far less than a seventh of the population. A switch to organic farming by present methods would then lead to tremendous hunger.

The world is complex and overcrowded, and there are no simple solutions.

Heading for the hills

Map of the Munnar-Valparai-Kodai area

April is pretty cruel over most of the Indian plains. Just the right time to head to the hills. Unfortunately the Himalayas are a little too far for a quick trip, and the Sahayadris are not high enough to provide a respite from the hot and humid weather in Mumbai. Our thoughts turned to the region where we spent a nice weekend about a year back. We just heard about Valparai, booked a hotel, and went off. So now, we looked at the map and realized that we had found an area ripe for summer.

The hot plains towns of the south, Kochi on the Kerala coast, Coimbatore and Madurai in Tamil Nadu, form a tringle of entry points to the wonderful hill towns of the Western ghats. The most well-known of these are Munnar in Kerala and Kodaikanal and Valparai in Tamil Nadu. Forests, now protected, rise from the plains at the foot of the Ghats to the elevation of around 1500 meters, which is about the altitude of most of these hill towns. They still hold spectacular species of animals like the Nilgiri Tahr and lion-tailed macaques, along with such a variety of birds that just thinking of them puts a shine in The Family’s eyes. When you peer deeper into the map you find more half-forgotten names from your long-ago school days. There is space here for a lifetime of summers. We will be scratching the surface with a weekend’s trip.

So where do we go? Kochi to Munnar or Madurai to Kodaikanal? Any tips?