Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sinnadorai bungalow, Iyerpadi in Valparai.

26th to 30th July 2015

Hot, sultry Madras.  Our son was home on summer vacation, and I was away from home with long days at work. A family get away beckoned, and it was then that I once again thought of Sinnadorai bungalow, Valparai.  I had to be in Coimbatore on work, and learning that this was just 3 hours from there was an added bonus.  

MNS Sripad had posted some lovely videos of the place, a tea estate manager’s bungalow now converted into a lovely remote hideaway.  Then,  I also discovered that Meenu my college mate was the manager’s wife and running the place.  Decisions made with rare family unanimity and speed, and we were all set!

The Alayar dam at the foothills has created a huge lake, and the place was choked with tourists.

Forty hairpin bends later and we were almost there.  Well, almost.  We decided to use Google maps, and were told to take a left on Balaji temple road…we proceeded, dutifully following instructions, rather pleased at this aid of modern technology.

 The voice soon said turn right.  The only problem was that there was no right to be taken.  Thankfully, a helpful local told us that we should retrace and follow the signboards  

As we got back on to the main road, we realised that “Sinnadorai Bungalow” was well signposted!  Somewhat sheepishly we followed the boards now, and descended into the heart of the tea country here.  Every hill was covered with tea and the ubiquitous Silver Oak trees.  We arrived at the check post for the bungalow, and my excitement grew as we wound away from the main road, and up and up to the bungalow.

We arrived to mist that gusted across the driveway.  Bulbuls chirped in the trees, spotted doves called and squirrels ran across!   It was like arriving in Paradise.   I could get used to this, I thought.

The most enamoured of the lot, quite surprisingly, was my son, who at this point thinks a tea plantation job a good career option!

Greeted with a several-course hot lunch, which we downed with great gusto, we sat in the verndah lunch room, and the skies opened up.  We watched the rain fall with delight, feeling like those legendary sheikhs from west Asia who would land in Bombay to enjoy the monsoon!

It was such a wonderful start to the holiday, a perfect wind down, to sit there watch the rain, and delight in the thought of a week ahead of this!

The main bungalow
The Sinnadorai bungalow here is on top of the hill and dates back to 1929, one of the earliest residences of the area.  Part of the Paralai estate of Parry Agro plantations, it has been renovated and restored beautifully and tastefully.  No TVs and wifi in the living room offered just enough connectivity to the outside world.

The Sullivan and Wells rooms, date back to 1941, when they were the quarters used by the house help.  

This is the view from the Sullivan.  The Paralai estate is organic, and I wondered if this explained the abundance of bird and animal life. 

The bench with a view
We stayed in the room called Sullivan with a lovely view down the valley, a beautiful bench where we spent a lot of time.  We also managed to tear the cloth of the two easy chairs and fall through!  I, giggling helplessly and unable to get out of the frame of the chair into which I had got myself wedged!

As I looked down on the rolling tea plantations, I reflected on how the British came and completely changed our way of life and even our geographies.  Plantations are now part of our consciousness, and so is chai.

The drink of the British, a drink that Gandhi asked Indians to avoid, a drink that was a sign of anglicisation, has now become more Indian than cricket.

Tea estates have long been considered "green deserts", seemingly green, but not really supporting a thriving ecosystem. 

With acres and acres of plantations that are not going to vanish, environmentalists are now working to develop these environments into more diverse landscapes.

"How Green is your Tea?" estimates that tea landscapes in the Western Ghats support more than 250 animal species.

The main bungalow at night
I should introduce you to the cast of characters at the Bungalow.

Thavam - the night watch, who reminded me of a lighthouse keeper in a PD James mystery set in some remote corner of the British Isles, with his gum boots and quiet air, vigilant for Gaur, wild dogs and leopards.  A calm presence, he pointed out the Gaur to us every morning.

The Gaur are plentiful around here.  They wander through the tea estates keeping a safe distance from the tea pluckers and doing the useful job of keeping the undergrowth in check.  This part of the estate is organic, and I believe they like it better here.

Hello!  Alert and vigilant at our every move.  We retraced our steps as these three ladies were in our way.

We saw them almost everyday.  One senior male was a regular and a loner.  He had a broken horn and his ear was torn and he snorted his way up the slope in the mornings and into the forest, and came down again late at night.

Murugan - our guide on walks, whose love for the forest had to be shared, There was a wonderful positive air to him, earnest with his spectacles and ready smile.  So excited to spot the hornbills, and fill us in on the ecological history of the place.

Myophonus horsfieldii.  

Myophonus horsfieldii

The resident Malabar Whistling Thrush entertained us every morning and evening.  He sang only when in the tree, and when on the lawn he only let out a simple whistle.   He would hop onto the verandah in front of the bungalow when no one was around, and if we happened on him by chance he would let out an offended whistle and fly into the tree at the edge of the garden.  We loved to catch him in the sun, so we could admire the lovely blue in his wings.  Mornings were spent rummaging near the rose bushes for earthworms.

No wonder NCF's Shankar Raman calls them the Musicians of the Monsoon.
the “whistling schoolboy”. And yet, when one awakens on monsoon mornings to the symphony of its whistles, the name seems inadequate, and one wishes one had greater tribute to pay. In the great traditions of Hindustani classical music, it is the Raag Malhar that is associated with the rains; among our birds, surely then, this is the Malhar whistling thrush.
The whistling thrush has a fondness for flowing waters on the hill slopes. There it hunts aquatic snails, frogs, and crabs, staying open to what opportunity may offer, including worms and bird nestlings. Holding the prey firmly in its bill, the thrush batters it lifeless on a rock before consuming it, concluding their predatory bout with a piercing whistle, perhaps, or a dipping flight down the stream in search of more. With the approach of the monsoon, as the streams are recharged with waters, its song acquires a new zest and the bird begins to breed, even as other bird species in the rainforest are already done with their nesting and are out with their young. It builds a nest in little nooks and crevices along streams, among rocks and cut banks. When forests give way to plantations and rocks to buildings and bridges, the thrush, fortunately, is forgiving and may adopt a space under the eaves or a hole in a wall to nest. Yet, the streams and rivers are never far.
As long as the streams are alive, even with a vestige of flowing water, the thrush may survive in the ever-changing hillscapes. One may see it in coffee, cardamom, and tea plantations, swamps, and rocky, wet slopes, and hill towns.
One morning we caught the Whistling Thrush having a bath in the garden bathtub.


Two orange headed thrushes

Another neighbour who loved those earthworms was the Orange headed Thrush, a regular, rummaging about the leaf litter, picking up the worms and bashing them about before gobbling them!  These thrushes seems to live here as I saw them during our walks.

Zoothera cyanotus

Green Forest Lizard
Early morning walks were rewarded with an encounter with  a ruddy mongoose ambling across the path.  Sensing our presence,  it was up on its hind legs sniffing the air to determine if we were friend or foe.  With no threat detected it got back on all fours and moved into the undergrowth, before I could take a picture for posterity.  We saw him another evening too,  as curious about us as we were of him!

A Green forest lizard would regularly sun itself on the stone driveway, keeping  a wary eye on us.  Any sudden movement or loud sound, and in a flash it would be gone into the bordering hedge.
Our walks skirted the thick patches of shola forest that separated the estates, and served as refuge for the wild animals by day.
The shola forests, I was content to see them, comforted that atleast some of this precious resource is well.  Our continued existence dependent on their wellness, and I sent out a silent thanks to NCF and all those wonderful bodies working hard to preserve them.

The walks kept our appetites up, and a good thing that was!  Ashirvad the cook had a special magical touch - with his coconut souffles and caramel puddings irresistible.  I am not a great fan of caramel custard, finding them usually to slobbery and “eggy” - but this was different.  A beautiful, smooth texture and the lovely flavour of caramel.  It was wonderful that they stuck to south Indian food for the most part, with every item being well made, not too oily, and fresh.  Needless to say, we all overate.  

He and Rani together worked the kitchen with the mixie and pressure cooker heard all through the day, as they planned and executed their menus.  Rani’s tomato chutney was a favourite of ours too and we consumed vast quantities of it, with everything, including toast!

Uma, the housekeeper was very crestfallen unless we polished off all the food on the table, of which there was plenty!  She accommodated our laggard, malingering ways with cheer and efficiency - I think we were late for every meal!

Panchavarnam was her cheerful assistant, and her spry, slight frame could be seen through the windows as she went about sweeping and cleaning up.

The Spotted Doves were also in plenty, waddling across our paths, reluctant to fly until we were real close.  They cooed to each other through the day, and their calls after a while, were like the passing car horns in Madras, not even registering after the first day.

The bulbul roosting tree

So too the red whiskered and red vented bulbuls which were in plenty in the lantana bushes in the little patches between the tea, and they roosted in a tree in the Bungalow, and so were very noisy in the evenings as they settled down for the night, saying their good nights.

Streak-throated woodpeckers, streaked through the gardens with regularity, and I enjoyed watching them peck their way around the tree trunks, now in view, now not.

In fact they were the only birds who seemed to care for the Silver Oaks, all others giving them a pass.

Squirrels ran around with abandon, chasing each other in what seemed like a very involved game of tag cum hide and seek! What is the evolutionary use of this extreme activity I thought? Or was it really an expression of fun and joy as I saw it?  And then they would also get very vocal and noisy, setting off an incessant chatter through the gardens.

Another vocal group were the peacocks.  Yes, pea fowls.

They were in abundance in the estate, and supposedly have prospered and multiplied in the last one year.  We heard them through the day and saw them everywhere - on the trees, crossing the road, on the roofs of homes, in the tea gardens.  We even saw one spread its fan and go into a courtship bum-wiggle, but the peahen was most unimpressed, poor fellow.

Scarlet minivets darted around in plenty, streaks of brilliant red and yellow as they caught the sun.  They were also chirpy and noisy, unlike the Barbets who were uncharacteristically silent I thought.  I only saw them, rarely hearing their familiar kutroo kutroo.

Strangely for anywhere in India there were no stray dogs.  None.  And the reason for this we learnt were the leopards who feasted on them.

My friend Meenu has a pet Lab and she keeps it indoors all the time, unless accompanied.  We came across evidence of the leopard - an eaten porcupine, scat - but did not see one.  But we heard a pack of wild dogs one night, and it seems that they had successfully cornered and killed a baby gaur.  

Rufous babbler
The other cheerfully noisy lot were the Rufous Babblers, who had a lot to say to each other in the tea bushes.  With their tails wagging at every loud chirrup, they always seemed to be scolding each other somehow.  It was delightful to catch them in the evenings when they were at their most vocal.

Of a more solitary nature were the Long-tailed Shrikes seen on the electric wires, their robber baron looks giving them a menacing air.  The Magpie Robins were also solitary, but their upright tails and cheeky boldness along with their calls made them appear cheerful.

The raptors seen most commonly were the Crested Serpent Eagles, and one morning we heard pair of them up in the sky.  They called and circled for a long time above us, suddenly falling into dives before levelling off.

As they called, there was an answering call from further east.  Were they all a family?  Was the juvenile being a laggard, I idly wondered.

The next day, we saw this one in the tree, and it called repeatedly.

Hill Neem - a favourite with the hornbills

One morning I saw a lone large pigeon in the Hill Neem tree across the front lawn.  I hurried to consult Grimmett and Inskipp, and yes it was an Imperial Pigeon!  The first time I was seeing this large Pigeon.  Subsequently we saw a whole flock of them up on a tree, and their call was magnificent and deep, like my Madras rock pigeons with the base and volume turned up!

The days were filled with butterflies and the nights with moths, of various sizes shapes and colours.

The evening light was beautiful and magical.
And the sunsets were spectacular on the days when there were no clouds in the horizon, and the Bungalow and our room was well located to enjoy the beautiful skies and the layers of hills and mountains, each with different depths and shades.

Dusk, and the magpie robin would signal the end of the day, even as the bulbuls crowded in to the trees in the bungalow for their nighttime roost.

All of this faded into the background that one morning when we saw the Great Indian Hornbill. Murugan had taken us on a walk into the neighbouring coffee plantation with the hope that we would see them.  (My naturalist luck is pretty abysmal - I always miss the tiger, don’t see the Trogon, arrive just after the owl took off, etc etc - and therefore I assumed that this morning would also be the same.)

Some heavy swooshing in the trees and I saw a pair of Malabar Grey hornbills.  Not bad I thought, Some Pompadour pigeons, a shortwing, Malabar squirrel and a black bulbul, and I was pretty satisfied.

Then suddenly there was a big movement of a branch, and i assumed it was a monkey jumping from tree to tree, but then I saw a yellow casque!  Try as we may, that is all we saw for about ten minutes. The bird was right in the middle of the tree, we did not want to disturb it, and so we waited, keeping an eye on that  unmoving casque.

Murugan in a low tone said it was a juvenile and probably the parents were around.  Sure enough there was a harsh call, so loud it must have been heard in the next estate, and with a whoosh that would put Batman to shame, the Parents appeared on the scene!  What a sight it was, as they moved from tree to tree, eating fruits, showing themselves, and the majesty of their wingspan.

Our first sighting of these magnificent hornbills.  (Buceros bicornis)

When we returned, we were told that they do visit the trees of the Bungalow, but only when very quiet..... I thought we were quiet enough!
We had a run of the whole house for our entire stay, and sprawled ourselves across the library with book choices from Pamuk and Amitav Ghosh to Bhagat and Collins.  It was quite a luxury I admit and a bonus of travelling off season.

And so we  spent that last week of July, walking, birding, reading, eating and sleeping.

It was time to leave, but not before we had a last look at the Grass Hills.  It was a clear, sunny day, and the hills were revealed.  The Shola grasslands could be seen in the distance.  Meenu mentioned that the grasses were a good 6 ft tall, and I was reminded of Bahminidadar at Kanha.

The Grass Hills, in the background, from the garden of the Manager's bungalow.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

What a temple can do to a forest

What a temple can do to a forest | Business Line

What a temple can do to a forest

The faith of multitudes is setting out an increasingly difficult challenge for forests, wildlife and wildlife management 
August 11, 2015:  
I’m in the Mundanthurai part of the Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, standing on a rocky outcrop looking over the River Karayar and the Sorimuthian temple that stands by it. The waters that come cascading down the mountains form shallow pools just below me before they gurgle quickly past and beyond the temple. Some pilgrims sit meditatively in the shallow pools of clear water; others are engaged in boisterous fun. 
A gust of cool breeze blows through on the hot afternoon, and a man on a rocky patch in the middle holds up his wet saffron dhoti that flutters in the wind like a giant flag. A group of women is fast asleep under the shade of a giant tree along the temple road and a couple of men are cooking a meal on make-shift stoves a short distance away.
The temple complex, as I enter it, is more empty than full. Two rows of people are sitting along the edges of a patchily lit corridor, waiting to be served their afternoon meal. I take a couple of quick pictures, turn the corridor to face the lord, do a quick namaskaram and walk along the wall to the back. There’s more activity in the adjoining temple here. 
An old man standing by the side gestures to me to come over: “I’m from Tirunelveli”, he says, “but settled in Madurai”; this is the temple of their family deity. “That side is non-veg” he says pointing to his right, “our side is veg.” 
We smile as our attention is drawn to a mother and a grandmother doting over their little infant who’s quite enjoying the wash she’s being given. The grandmother fills water in the cup of her hands and pours them over the little one, who looks happy and contended. 
The women notice their little one’s being admired, and proud shy smiles light up their faces. As I turn around to leave, another little infant is being brought in by another proud family.
Adi-amavasai festival

I pause and look around to take in the scene — the surrounding hillsides are clothed in thick forests that are rich in diverse species of flora and fauna; the Karayar flows fast and smooth by the temple — before it joins the Tambaraparani, a lifeline to the teeming masses of the Tirunelveli plains below, and the small crowd that’s milling around here appears to be minding its own business. 
It’s not ‘tranquil’ here, but the atmosphere is certainly comfortable and relaxed. It is, I am told however, like a calm before the coming storm — the 11 day long festival that is celebrated here in the Tamil month of Adi, with adi-amavasai (new moon, August 14 this year) being the most important. It’s a festival that’s become increasingly popular over the years — and now draws upwards of 2 lakh pilgrims who stay in the forests here for between four and seven days.
Environmental impact

The cumulative environmental impact this will have in a fragile rainforest ecosystem can well be imagined and there’s good evidence too. A 2008-09 study carried out by the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) reported, for instance, a five fold increase in the vehicular traffic here in the festival period, leading to over 1400 cases of animal road kills (mainly invertebrates like millipedes and at least six species of snakes). 
While the festivities are restricted to an area about 500 hectares, the research showed that the ripple effects extend to an area with a radius of nearly 4.5 kms from the temple. A particularly impacted plant is the endemic Euphorbia susan-holmsii cacti that grows on the rocky patches here. Less than 20 individual plants survive around the temple site and researchers feel that the plant could go locally extinct on account of the lopping and cutting, and the soil erosion caused by activities of the pilgrims here. Clearing the forest understory for setting up camp, burning of leaf litter and lopping of the trees for fuelwood are the other impacts on the forest.
A particularly serious issue is the pollution of the river. Hundreds of kilograms of plastic and other waste, remains of slaughtered animals and human excreta along with the bleaching powder used to maintain hygiene, all get washed into the river water. 
One of the worst affected is Agasthymalai Kani Kudiirruppu, a small Kani settlement located just downstream; the residents reportedly suffer from outbreaks of dysentery, skin rashes and food poisoning for months after the festival is over. The impacts are seen further downstream as well, in the town of Vikramasinghapuram for instance, and in the plains below.
The implications of the festival are indeed widespread, and wildlife and environmental organisations, the forest department, and the health and district authorities have been working together over the last decade to deal with them. 
Real challenge

Nearly 50 people representing the district authorities, line departments, the temple trust, NGOs, education institutions and village forest councils participated in a meeting called by forest department on July 28 to discuss this year’s festival. 
It is here that the Vikramasinghapuram panchayat president expressed the town’s concerns over the pollution of the river and the impact on its denizens. The forest department also issued a press release, listing the activities that will not be allowed inside the reserve during the festival — such as pilgrims should not carry plastic bags; liquor is banned; and weapons, pets are not allowed.
KMTR is, in fact, only one of many significant temple and pilgrimage complexes within wildlife habitats across the country such as the Periyar Tiger Reserve (Kerala), Bandavgarh TR (Madhya Pradesh), Ranthambore TR (Rajasthan) and the Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra. And in a country where a certain religiosity seems to be growing exponentially, faith is setting out an increasingly difficult challenge for forests, for wildlife and for wildlife management. The efforts being made in KMTR may just be the baby steps we all need to learn from.
“The festival is not a problem”, says A Venkatesh, Field Director of the tiger reserve, “it is the organising of the festival that is a challenge.” There is also the very insightful and thought provoking observation made in the larger context of forest pilgrimages by ATREE researchers Allwin Jesudasan and Rajakamal Goswami. 
Their research showed that for many of low-income families from the hot, dryland villages bordering KMTR, the pilgrimage is as much a moment of leisure, as it is a cheap and viable alternative to expensive hill stations such as Udhagamandalam or Kodaikanal. 
The same would apply in the case of forests that have been accessible historically, but have now become out of bounds due to wildlife protection legislations. The issue then becomes an even more complex one. The pilgrims and pilgrimages may be part of the problem; a way forward can only be found if they become part of the solution as well.
The writer is Member, Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group. The article is first of a series being done as a part of the FEJI-ATREE Media Fellowship-2015. 
(This article was published on August 11, 2015)

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Rao Jodha Desert Rock park

11th Jan 2015

As we finished our tour of the fabulous and awe inspiring Mehrangarh fort, Shobha and Sheila mentioned the Rao Jodha Park, where Pradeep Krishen was behind an effort to "rewild" the areas around the fort.

it seemed like an interesting place to visit, and so off we went to the Visitor Centre, located below the fort, where we met enthusiastic Sachin, a naturalist involved in this project.  It was humbling to see his passion and knowledge about what was being done.

In 1890 or thereabouts, this was how the rocky outcrop appeared.  (Painting by GF Lamb, from the British Library)
It seems that in the 1930s one of the previous rajas of Jodhpur decided to green the hillside, and scattered seeds of Prosopsis juliflora, all across his state.  We now know that this imported mesquite is hardy and drought resistant and while it provides an endless supply of fodder and firewood, it takes over the countryside, not allowing anything else to grow.

Sachin told us how in 2006, the Fort Trust began this nature park project and the biggest challenge was how to eliminate the Prosopsis whose roots go deep into the stone.  After many failed methods, they finally got a set of sandstone miners, who actually chisel in and physically remove the plants.

It is an ongoing process and not complete by any means.

The map with the layout of the park can be seen here.

Just past the Visitor's Centre is  a set of experimental gardens, with different soil types and different plant types.

The ramparts stretched upwards, and even in January, it was now hot as the midday sun more than warmed us.  It was a bad idea on our part to come here just before lunch, because (atleast for me), a lot of what Sachin said was eaten up by my need for lunch, and therefore I am in no position to recount the names of all that we saw!

Was this the Goondi - Cordia graham ?  If it is, it has red fruit which is gelatinous and full of water 

Sachin explained that the Jodhpur area had volcanic rock, and the sands in the various parts of desert Rajasthan were different from each other.  We admired the beautiful hues of the molten rock piled up.

This was the rock from Jaisalmer - more yellow, which would explain the differences in the colours of the two forts - Jaisalmer and Mehrangarh.

I do not recall the name of this shrub.....
But this I recall is bui - Aerva javanica - a desert cotton shrub which we subsequently saw in the Thar, used to fill pillows and mattresses in this part of the world.

This too I don't recall.

Unknown yellow
We were in the desert in the late winter and many of the flowers which would be seen in spring - say Feb/March - were absent.  The Rohido (Tecomella undulata) is for early birds like us, flowering in late winter, its bright red blossoms unmistakeable.

Also referred to as Marwar Teak, the wood is highly prized and I think it is protected.  

Another unknown beauty

The lake near Jaswant Thada is also part of the Park, and was home to many migratory birds.  We saw wigeon, pintails, coots, water hen, cormorants and kingfishers while we waited.
Photos by Sheila

On the next morning, Shobha, Raji and Sheila went back to the Park and went down to the trail by the old water aqueduct.  These are the pictures Sheila took.

It was cool and quiet, they said, and it was a refreshing walk, with Sachin once again filling them with details!

The characteristic thor - Euphorbia caducifolia - which is a succulent but not of the cactus family.  The base provides protection for little creatures from predators, so its a good place to hang around if you want to see some smaller wildlife.

Lovely views of the fort

Some parts of the duct had water.

I would love to visit again, in a different season, and next time I promise myself to take better notes!