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.

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?

Fruits and bananas

Carts full of bananas  and other fruit

A few days ago I was one of the naive people who believed that bananas were just another fruit. That was before I went to Mylapore and realized the errors of my ways. There are fruits: grapes, pomegranate and papaya. And there are bananas. The English language has no words for this variety. One can say yellow banana, green banana, fat green banana, red banana, short yellow banana, thin long green banana, and so on. But the variety is really too large for the language to capture. I wonder whether Tamil has the words to capture the variety on display here (as a comment to this post informs me).

A singularly Chennai sight

If you have time to see only one thing in Chennai, I was told that it has to be the temple called Kapaleeshwarar in the district called Mylapore. I had to visit Chennai on work, and between work and traffic, unfortunately, just had time to see one thing. So I went to Mylapore in the evening of the day of Holi. I found later that the major temple festival, which occurs in the month of Falgun, had just ended the day before.

Kapaleeshwarar temple in Chennai from the west, across the tankI arrived a little before sunset. West of the temple is a large fenced tank used for ritual bathing. I walked around the north edge of this tank looking for a way in. I walked right around without finding an open gate, then turned the corner to the western end. Through a locked gate here, I took the photo on the right. The tank is pretty big, and the imposing western gopuram (gate), draped in green, is seen as just a blip on the horizon in this photo. The only open gate seemed to be on the eastern edge of the tank. I walked around to the south and through the bars of the fence took the photo of the structure in the tank at the top.

Guarding slippers at the Kapaleeshwarar temple in ChennaiThe gate on the eastern edge of the tank was open, but someone inside was shooing people out. I was bundled out along with other visitors and the gate was firmly shut behind us. All around were the remains of structures erected for the temple festival, which were now being dismantled. The temple has two gopurams, of which the western one is shorter. Although there was a lot of activity here, I walked around to the other entrance. This was busier; many more shoes were left around each entrance. A couple came by; the lady left her sandals and went in while her husband stood guard. He was the only sentry; most people were not very concerned about losing their footwear. I guess those who were just paid up a few rupees at the stalls which kept your shoes for you.

Nandi atop a gate at the Kapaleeshwarar temple in Chennai

The eastern gopuram was the taller of the two; it is supposed to be around 40 meters high. The 15th century masonry structure was shrouded in green sheets. The intricate statuary on it peeped out from the gaps in the cloth. Among the remains of the temple festival was a lattice work of bamboo over a side gate. An image of the sacred bull, Nandi, looked about calmly from under this strange cage.

View of the Kapaleeshwarar temple from the east in ChennaiThrough the open gate I could see one of the main shrines inside, perhaps the one to Shiva. As I took a photo I realized that two peahens had wandered into the frame (you can see them walking on the highest horizontal bamboo pole in the photo alongside).

The temple is dedicated to the lord of fate, Shiva, and his consort Shakti. The story is that she wooed Shiva here in the form of a peacock (mylai in Tamil), giving her name to the surrounding district called Mylapore. The temple keeps peacocks as a memorial to this story. This photo seemed to round off the visit quite nicely for me, and I left for that quintessential Tamil meal called the tiffen.

The area around the temple is full of little, and big, shops of all kinds. Many sell things you might need in the temple, but others sell kitchen equipment, and clothes. There was a tailor’s shop near a little book store. Many shops serve coffee and tiffen. The most famous of these is Saravana Bhavan. When I lived in Chennai in the late 1980s this was a small and famous shop. Now it is a famous chain of shops. As I walked up to it I saw trucks unloading food. I decided to give it a miss, and walked into a small family-run establishment nearby. The coffee was good, the bonda crisp on the outside and melting inside, the chutneys and sambar providing just the piquancy needed. Simple local food cooked well is a great way to finish the little bit of tourism you can squeeze into a working day.

Kutpai Valparai

Valparai is situated in the middle of tea estates and at the edge of a protected forest. This makes it easy to spot birds and mammals. Since butterflies do not normally travel very far, the monoculture of the estates reduces the visible diversity. As the last of my posts on Valparai, I just list the birds, animals and butterflies we saw.

Mammals

During the time we were there, elephants, leopards and civet cats were spotted; we were just not lucky enough to see them.

Nilgiri tahr
Nilgiri tahr

malabarsquirrel
Malabar giant squirrel

Lion-tailed macaques are not larger than two feet (60 cms). Apparently they live up to 20 years.
Lion-tailed macaque

Malabar langoor
Malabar langur
  1. Wild pigs: we saw these as we passed through the Anamallai tiger reserve on the way to Valparai.
  2. Indian gray Mongoose: quick glimpses, but one stood still long enough for The Family to catch it on her phone.
  3. Hares: saw lots of them at night
  4. Lion-tailed macaques: saw one band at close quarters. In this region they appear to be habituated to humans.
  5. Malabar langurs: saw a band feeding near a road. Very shy, they flee when they see humans.
  6. Gaur: many family groups visible grazing in the tea estates. In this region they are totally habituated to humans.
  7. Barking deer: shy creature. Saw one crossing a tea field.
  8. Malabar giant squirrel: heard them very often, and saw them feeding and sleeping on trees near the road.
  9. Nilgiri tahr: saw them on the Pollachi-Valpari road near the 8th bend. There are posted tahr crossings at the 9th and 13th bends.

Birds

I’m not good at birds; I spot some only when there are birders with me spotting away. The Family is good at it, and she says we missed many of the smaller birds. We also heard birds which we did not see: the raquet-tailed drongo was one. So there are large holes in our lists. Still, we had nine lifers; this is birder-speak for seeing a species for the first time.

greathornbill
Juvenile great hornbill

Malabar parakeet
Malabar parakeet

Mountain imperial pigeon
Mountain imperial pigeon

Chestnut-headed bee-eater
Chestnut headed bee eater

Plum-headed parakeet
Plum headed parakeet (female)

Streak-throated woodpecker
Streak throated wood pecker

Scimitar babbler
Scimitar babbler

Long-tailed shrike
Long tailed shrike

The usual suspects

  1. Magpie robin
  2. Oriental turtle dove
  3. Spotted dove: fairly widespread
  4. Red-whiskered bulbul
  5. Red-vented bulbul
  6. Common crow
  7. Common myna
  8. Hill myna

Somewhat less usual

  1. Malabar whistling thrush
  2. Streak-throated woodpecker
  3. Flame-backed woodpecker
  4. Long-tailed shrike
  5. Rufous babbler
  6. Scimitar babbler
  7. Chestnut-headed bee-eater
  8. Great hornbill
  9. Gray hornbill
  10. Jungle fowl
  11. White-breasted water hen
  12. Lineated barbet
  13. Malabar parakeet
  14. Brahminy kite
  15. Mountain imperial pigeon
  16. Brown fish-owl
  17. Spotted owlet
  18. Small blue kingfisher
  19. Plum-headed parakeet
  20. Crested serpent-eagle
  21. Black-shouldered kite
  22. Indian pond heron
  23. Little egret
  24. Scarlet minivet
  25. Besra
  26. Crimson-backed sunbird
  27. Grey-headed bulbul
  28. Grey-bellied cuckoo

Butterflies

We didn’t really stop to look at butterflies, so the chances are that we managed to list only what we knew well.

Tamil spotted flat
Tamil spotted flat

Red Helen
Red Helen
  1. Many bush browns and grass yellows
  2. Common tiger
  3. Glassy tiger
  4. Danaid eggfly
  5. Common crow
  6. Red Helen
  7. Great orange tip
  8. Tamil spotted flat

Contrary to my fears before I left, we were not beset by leeches even once during our walks. I’m sure they lurk in various places. It is just that it is possible to see whatever we did without coming into contact with these pests even once.

Breakfast and butterflies

Tamil spotted flat

In Valparai breakfast was always late and large. Our mornings started a little before sunrise. We would gulp down a quick cup of tea and a couple of biscuits before leaving for a round of bird-watching. The real breakfast would start at about nine, after we got back. It always began with a ritual serving of fresh fruits. I was really amazed at the skill with which the kitchen produced bananas sliced into two precisely equal longitudinal halves. I tried this at home, and failed miserably. Then there were idlis with the famous Tamil gunpowder and coconut chutney, perhaps dosas or adai with sambar or appams with stew, and any amount of toast with eggs. Everything was very well done. Even the bread was surprisingly good.

On our second morning we arrived at breakfast to find a dark butterfly fluttering around our table. The Family asked me for an identification, and I was a little stumped. I hemmed and said it was not a moth but a butterfly, one of the variety called skippers. The only way to be certain is to look at the antennae: skippers have ones which are shaped like hockey sticks. But I couldn’t get beyond that. Very tentatively I said “rice swift”, knowing this was wrong. I took a photograph for later identification. ID wasn’t so easy: it could have been the weirdly named “restricted demon” except that it had too few spots. After a couple of other false leads I finally saw the pefect match. It is the Tamil spotted flat. It is common in the Nilgiris.

It fluttered repeatedly against the window glass, so I decided to do a good deed and opened the window to let it out. It fluttered on to the flower bed just outside. A bulbul darted in, picked it up and flew off. The Family and I looked at each other, and settled in for breakfast.

Competitive grazing

In Valparai we saw four different kinds of wild plant-eating animals: the huge Gaur (aka Indian bison), the shy barking deer (Indian Muntjac), the rare Nilgiri tahr, and the Nilgiri langur. There were also domesticated cows and buffalos, and a very small number of domestic goats. If all the grazers eat the same food, then the one that eats fastest could starve the others to death. There is the unlikely possibility that the common food plant grows really rapidly, so no species dies out. The more likely possibility is that the different animals eat different plants. In fact, as I looked this up I found that biologists use the word grazing for eating grass, and browsing for eating shrubs and bushes. So avoiding conflict by eating differently is well recognized.

A herd of Gaur feedingWe frequently saw family groups of Gaur grazing among tea bushes, heads down, except when they looked up to keep an eye on us. In forests we found Gaurs to be more cautious, but here on the tea estate they seem to be used to humans. On watching closely, it appeared that Gaur did not touch the tea, preferring to eat grasses, and perhaps other plants, which grew around the tea. I walked among the tea bushes at one point and found that the paths had little other than grass. So this cousin of cattle was eating mainly grass, although they are known to eat a variety of plant material. Maybe they don’t like tea; I don’t much like Nilgiri tea myself.

Barking deer: Indian MuntjacThe barking deer (Indian Muntjac) is a very shy creature. We were lucky to spot one from a road above a sunken meadow. It did not bolt because it never noticed us. It moved through a patch of tea, over the grass, which it completely ignored, looking for something else. An article in the journal Mammalia explains that 80% of its diet comes from shrubs, flowering bushes and trees. Grasses make up only a small part of its diet. The Gaur and the Muntjac occupy the same range but eat differently. This is the classic strategy of two herbivores in the same geography: one grazes, the other browses.

Nilgiri tahr We saw a family of Nilgiri tahr which munched on grass for a while, but then started eating flowers of Lantana bushes growing by the road. An article in the journal of the BNHS claims that this is common. The tahr eats mostly grass, but also a wide variety of flowering bushes. It avoids competition with other herbivores by the fact of being nimble and eating in places where the others cannot reach.

Langurs follow the same strategy. They browse leaves high up on trees, and so avoid competition with other wild herbivores in these places. Domesticated cattle are not so lucky: they eat the same plants that Gaur eat. Sometimes they are seen feeding side by side, and apparently there is occassional conflict. The Gaur is huge: often over a ton in weight and its shoulders are man-high. In a conflict, it is bound to win over domestic cattle. This does not appear to be a serious problem in Valparai, since most people here are involved in tea production and not farming.

A dead white man

Statue of G. A. Carver Marsh (b 13 Aug 1862, d 1st Feb 1934)
Statue of G. A. Carver Marsh (b 13 Aug 1862, d 1st Feb 1934)

Dead white men, dead white males, or dead white
European males (DWEM) are the famous deceased
European males that are often the focus of
academic studies of history and Western culture.
(Wikipedia)

Nilgiri teas are the least aromatic of the Indian teas. On our trip to Valparai I kept coming across the various ways in which the plantations which grow this insipid leaf had devastated the rain-forests of the Nilgiris. We stayed in a bungalow built for the manager of one of these estates, so I keep my complaints a little muted.

But as we left Valparai and began on the 40 hairpin bends which cross the Anamallais, The Family spotted a viewpoint with this statue. Had we found the culprit: the man responsible for this ecological devastation, the Hitler of the hills? The inscription at the base of the statue identified the man as G. A. Carver Marsh. Clearly famous in his lifetime, his memory is slowly fading. I am unable to find his full name. And of the many things he must have been known for in his lifetime, I can only find the following reference in the book Madras Miscelleny by Muthaiah S., “The Anamallais may have been opened up by G. A. Carver Marsh, perhaps the only pioneering planter remembered in South India by a statue (at a road bend near his Paralai estate) but it was three planters from Ceylon, E. J. Martin, O. A. Bannantine and Unwin Maclure, who first planted tea there”.

Such is fame. All the blame I was laying on this dead man must now be redistributed. When you dig deeper, you see that coffee plantations predated tea in this region. So perhaps the blame gets diluted further.

Even such a clear case of devastation cannot be traced back cleanly to a single original cause. The best one can say now it that it was the economics of a mercantile empire which destroyed this region. What then is Mr. Carver Marsh to be remembered for?

A shy johnny

Malabar langoor The Nilgiri langurs we came across were very private. There was a large tribe of them foraging on trees by the road near Valparai. As soon as our car stopped, the nearest ones fled further into the forest. I got off and tried to photograph the ones in the next tree, and they fled as well. This happened over and over again. I got a couple of shots of one by hiding behind a thick bush and sighting through a narrow opening between its thorny branches. The only clear shot was of one sleeping on a high branch of a tree very far away (below).

A sleeping Nilgiri langur
A Nilgiri langur sleeps on a branch of a tree as far from a road as it can get. I guess it finds this posture comfortable.

These monkeys have a glossy dark body with a light golden brown head, and would look lovely in photos. The morning light was just right, but the subjects were shy. This was so frustrating and strange! The lion-tailed macaques we saw would walk right next to us without even looking at us. So it could not only be the indirect conflict of lost habitats which was influencing the behaviour of the langurs. I just had to google this.

The answer was simple: exactly as I’d thought, they were traditionally hunted, as they continue to be. Traditional medicine uses their body parts as medicines and aphrodisiac. Since the passage of laws protecting them the trade has gone underground and presumably trade volumes of so-called medicines have decreased.

An important reference seems to be the 2011 studbook, but arkive is a good place for a shorter description. I learnt from the studbook that the classification of langurs is still an open question. There may be as few as 5000 individuals, and even the higher estimates still give a total population of no more than 15000. It is a pity that this beautiful monkey is so hard to see.