Category Archives: Environment

Natural environment in Tamil Nadu

Around the Kamarajar Sagar Dam

 

My morning walk takes me around “the lake”.    Nestling at the foot of the Palani Hills, Kamarajar Sagar Dam provides part of the water supply for the nearby town of Dindigul.    During the rainy season which is normally November and December the lake is filled from two rivers descending from the hills.    In good years the lake fills and the dam overflows.  That hasn’t happened for a while.

The lake is a paradise for birds, some resident including egrets, cormorants and spot-billed ducks and some occasional visitors including several varieties of stork the most striking of which is the painted stork.     Most mornings I can expect to see kingfishers, Indian rollers, bee-eaters, drongos, bulbuls, parakeets but these are just a few of the species around.   Then there are always the flocks of peacocks and hens, India’s national bird.

 

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At the southern end of the lake a grove of large native trees is the home to a colony of fruit bats.   These wonderful animals are becoming increasingly rare as the large trees they need for roosting disappear but the valley is fortunate to host a large colony.    In the months of July and August they can be seen in their hundreds in the evening sky heading to the mango and orange groves in the hills.

As well as enjoying the birds, a morning walk is also a good way to see how people live here.   Fishermen in coracles are catching the fish with which the lake has been stocked.  As the lake dried up almost completely last year it had to be restocked and fishing is still limited to a couple of days a week.

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Coracles – no fishing this morning

A small fish market materialises next to the pump-house when the catch is landed.    On the west side of the lake are paddy fields which are irrigated by an ancient canal system which takes water from the rivers before they enter the lake.   Last year there was no paddy because of drought but this year there seems to have been a good crop.   Towards the north end as the valley narrows there are large coconut and mango plantations.

Every day goatherds bring their flocks to graze on whatever grass they can find. Each afternoon Thomas can be seen with his herd of buffalo.  This year he says grazing is difficult and his milk yield is greatly reduced.

It wouldn’t be South India if there wasn’t a religious aspect as well.   Around the lake there are a number of sacred groves where local people find spiritual sustenance in nature.  It could be a simple shrine at the foot of a large tree or a small unspoilt area of forest where there are small temples which have been there for many years.

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A shrine underneath an old tree

The largest is now a full-scale temple to Sadayandi who seems to be a local incarnation of Siva.   This is now the location for many festivities including weddings and ceremonies to celebrate a child’s first haircut at the age of about 2 years old.

Every morning there is something different to enjoy.   For example the bird in the picture below is, I think, a bit lost – a reef egret some 100 miles from a reef.

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Through the Eastern Ghats

I have just spent the weekend visiting friends in Bangalore, which involved a pleasant and varied drive up highway 7 from Dindigul. NH7 is apparently the longest road in India, at 2369km, and one day it would be fun to start at Kanniyakumari and take it all the way through Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, to end at the Hyderabad Gate, at the entrance to Varanasi on the Ganges.

My journey was less than 400km. I started on the wide plains of the upper Cauvery delta, where the wind was extremely strong and many new wind farms have been constructed. The landscape is dry – red sandy soil and acacia bush – and bare rocky strangely-shaped mountains rise a thousand feet or so out of the plain. Suddenly, however, you hit a green belt – the area irrigated by the Cauvery river. Dense plantations of banana and coconut line the highway, and along the river itself are a number of temples.

The hills then start to appear – medium-sized hills covered in bush through which the road winds on its way to Salem. To the east are the Kolli Hills, or Kolai Malai – relatively unspoiled ranges rising to four thousand feet or so. I have not visited them, but the entry in Wikipedia is quite enticing. Salem, on the other hand, is not enticing at all, though it has a famous history and is strategically situated where a number of important routes come through the hills. The city has expanded to take in the ring road, so traffic is fairly nightmarish and it took me 30 minutes to struggle through.

North of Salem, the road soon reaches Thoppur and then abruptly climbs several hundred feet up to a new level. Monkeys – the common-or-garden ones which you see at the side of the roads in all the forested areas, not the more attaractive langurs, which stay on the hillsides – are everywhere and stopping for a quiet picnic was impossible. Motorists will insist on flinging food out of the windows.

From Thoppur, through Dharmapuri and on to Krishnagiri, the scenery gets wilder again and the hills more bizarrely shaped. Some are mere piles of boulders which look as though they are ready to tumble; others are smooth cones of granite; some have sheer faces; the accessible ones may have a shrine or a small temple on top. In between are paddy fields whose vivid green makes a stark contrast to the red soil and grey rock. At Krishnagiri itself, a huge rock with a Vijayanagar Fort towers over the town.

Then comes the final leg. The traffic from Chennai has joined us at Krishnagiri, and the Highways Authority are busy widening the road to 6 or 8 lanes and putting in a number of flyovers. You can imagine the scene. The road climbs to three thousand feet in a series of gentle curves to reach the plains around Bangalore, and around 40km south of the city centre, you enter an urban landscape. With no rain yet, and continuous construction, it was all a bit dusty.

I am sorry I don’t have any photos of the trip – I was busy driving and needed at least two hands. But I hope you enjoyed the description.

Nor any drop to drink

Before the monsoon

Before the monsoon

The dreadful floods and loss of life reported from Uttarakhand have drawn attention to the onset of the 2013 monsoon, which arrived on June 1st at Kanniyakumari (the expected date) but then moved far more rapidly north than is normal, catching the pilgrims going to Kedarnath unawares. The finding and cremation of bodies continues – wood with which to cremate the dead is being taken in by helicopters which return with survivors.

But here in the middle of Tamil Nadu we are anxiously awaiting the rain – at second hand. Apart from the odd shower, we don’t expect much rainfall on the plains until November, when the winds of the retreating monsoon pass over the Bay of Bengal, picking up new moisture, and depositing it to the east of the mountains. But our dams and tanks are thirsty for water.

It is said that water which reaches the sea in rivers is wasted, so the Cauvery, the Vaigai, the Pannaiyar and the Palar are rivers of sand up to a mile wide and remain like that for most of the year. But there is a huge network of canals and irrigation channels which snake out over the land from large reservoirs at the foot of the hills.

There has been rain in the Nilgiris, and I hear that the Kundah dam is filling up and they have been able to start power generation. But around Kodaikanal there’s hardly been a drop. I walked up to the river this morning and it is a mere trickle among the stones. Nothing is reaching our dam, and soon the level will be below the lowest outlet and Dindigul will have to rely on water from deep borewells.

After the monsoon

After the monsoon

The lake can fill very quickly once the river starts flowing – our neighbour saw it rise one year by three feet overnight – but just at the moment we look out onto grassland and the local herdsmen are taking advantage of this and bringing in goats, sheep and cattle to graze.

The other people taking advantage of the low water level are the sand and mud miners. Until yesterday, there were three diggers removing 6 feet of red sand – said to be excellent for brickmaking – which was going out in convoys of big lorries. Closer to the remaining damp patches, gangs of men were taking out dense black mud and loading it onto tractor trailers, destined for the plantations. River mud and sand is very fertile and much in demand, and there is a big “informal” economy around its extraction.

Steam up!

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Arriving on the overnight Nilgiri Express from Chennai at the station of Mettupalayam, at the foot of the Nilgiris, you can – if you’re in a hurry – take a taxi up to Coonoor and then on to Ooty. It’ll take about an hour and a half – longer if you can persuade your taxi driver not to overtake on hairpin bends. The problem, of course, is that hairpin bends are much the easiest place to get past lorries: on a left-hand hairpin the lorry always goes onto the right-hand side to get round in one go and cars can slip through on the inside. Downwards traffic takes avoiding action. Everyone knows this is the system, and of course it works – most of the time!

But if you are not in a hurry you can take the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, recently inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The rack-and-pinion train leaves Mettupalayam just after 7am and reaches Coonoor a little more than three hours later. An ordinary diesel traction locomotive then takes the train on from Coonoor to Ooty in another hour and a half.

The railway opened in 1899 with special coal-powered steam locomotives made in Switzerland. These have very recently been replaced by oil-powered steam locos made at the Golden Rock workshop in Trichy. The track from Mettupalayam to Coonoor climbs 1400 metres in 28km with a maximum gradient of 1 in 12 (the steepest in Asia) and a number of tunnels and bridges. In places the train is going so slowly that it is quite possible to get down and walk alongside for a while, and there are a number of stops to allow things to cool down. We recently went back to the Nilgiris and took a few photos of the train close to Hillgrove station, where it passes alongside the ghat road.

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From Coonoor to Ooty the track climbs another 500 metres, with stations at Wellington, for the Officer’s Academy; Aravankadu, for the Cordite Factory, then winding through the lovely Ketty valley (the other photos were taken at Ketty station) before reaching Lovedale, for the Lawrence School then passing through a final tunnel to run for a short while by the side of the lake then into Ooty station.

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You may have seen the train in the film A Passage to India, where Coonoor station had a starring role.

The Andaman Islands (2)

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The ocean around the Andaman islands is one of those blue colours which you get in tourist brochures and which makes you wonder how much the photo was tinted! Not so – the blue is intense and true, arising from white coral sand reflecting a blue sky through relatively shallow unpolluted water.

People have come here for diving for many years, despite the difficulties in getting here: and I see that recently the surfers have started to eye up the Andamans and their waves. It is nearly 900 miles from Chennai to Port Blair, and there’s nothing to the south-west except Antarctica, so the waves have a chance of building up.

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We went there for a week’s relaxation and bird-watching. I had marked off in the bird book the endemic species and in 6 days we managed to see 2! We weren’t straining ourselves! Many birds could be found around the lodge where we were staying, and could be viewed from the veranda with binoculars in one hand and a gin and tonic in the other, which is infinitely preferable to lying face downwards in a mosquito-infested swamp or freezing to death on a Scottish moor.
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The resort – Barefoot at Havelock – was on Havelock Island, which is one of the few islands open to tourism, and had a resident elephant which swam each day off the beach. The elephant had been employed by loggers when it was younger, and the animals were persuaded to swim from one island to another following the work teams. However Havelock was not completely logged in earlier centuries and we were stunned by the height and variety of the trees.

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One photo perhaps needs explaining – the tiny sand crabs created the most complex designs we have ever seen. Twice a day – between the tides!

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The Andaman Islands (1)

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The Andaman and Nicobar Island chain stretches from just above the northern tip of Indonesia (Banda Aceh – where the 2004 tsunami originated, as I mentioned in an earlier blog) to south-west of Rangoon, now Yangon. The Andamans can be visited from Chennai or Kolkata, but the Nicobars are off-limits to tourists due to the Stone Age tribal communities which still live there – you may remember seeing aerial footage of spear-shaking men (on North Sentinel Island) trying to scare off a military helicopter which was checking up on their island post-tsunami.

In passing, one of the groups which do communicate now and again with anthropologists explained that they survived the tsunami since they recognised the animal behaviour and followed them as they fled inland. This is perhaps an ancient memory of previous tsunamis passed down through the generations, in stark contrast to the modern folk near Kanniyakumari on the southern tip of India who went out onto the seabed to collect stranded fish as the first wave retreated and were caught and killed by the second.

The Andamans appear in Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, where a mysterious death occurs at Pondicherry Lodge and Sherlock Holmes traces the story back to an Englishman and three Sikh accomplices who stole a fortune in Agra, were caught, and sentenced to penal servitude for life in the islands. An Andamanese, armed with a blowpipe and deadly poisonous darts, is the loyal servant of the Englishman, Small, who is trying to regain the treasure.

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The British use of islands as jails is well-known all over the world. St Helena, for the Boer prisoners of war; Seychelles for exiles and political prisoners, such as Kabaka Mwanga of the Buganda and Archbishop Makarios; and Port Blair for those who fell foul of British rule in India. We have friends in Chennai who, as Indian freedom fighters, were sent to Port Blair and the notorious Cellular Jail.

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We visited in 2006 – here are a few photos of the jail – and one surprise for me was to learn that during the Second World War the Andamans were occupied by the Japanese. The Cellular Jail is now a national monument, and among the exhibits are souvenirs of the occupation – a newspaper advertising lessons in conversational Japanese, for example, and currency notes – and pictures of Subhas Chandra Bose, who was controversially allied with the Japanese, raising the Indian flag of Independence for the first time on Indian soil.

Rain and water

The newspapers are reporting that the monsoon has arrived dead on time – on June 1st it arrived at Kanyakumari, or Cape Comorin – the Land’s End of India where “the three oceans meet”, according to the tourist literature. Wikipedia unkindly points out that this is inaccurate, and that Kanyakumari only actually borders the Laccadive Sea – not the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal as well. And to add insult to injury, Kanyakumari is not the most southerly point of India, merely the most southerly point of the Indian mainland. Indira Point is much further south, but since this lies at the tip of the Nicobar Islands (just across the water from Banda Aceh, where the 2004 tsunami began), and since the Nicobars are off limits to visitors due to the Stone Age tribes who still live there, Kanyakumari is the furthest south most of us are likely to get.

Anyway – the monsoon has arrived on time and is now working its way up the west coast. Alexander Frater’s book Chasing the Monsoon describes really well the joy and relief felt by Indians as the rain arrives and the atrocious heat of May is washed away.

Not in Tamil Nadu. All we get is the cloud which spills over the Western Ghats, accompanied by the odd shower, certainly not monsoonal torrents. Not many people realise this. My Delhi colleagues used to say “bet you’re glad the monsoon has arrived” and were amazed when I said “not in Chennai. We need to wait until November for our monsoon rain!”

But the rivers, lakes and tanks of Tamil Nadu will now start filling up, slowly but surely, as the water comes across the borders from Kerala, Andhra and Karnataka. This is assuming, of course, that the water is allowed to come. The Cauvery River Tribunal, for example, has been sitting for decades to try to recalculate what the shares of the river’s water should be for each State, but every time there is a drought (like early this year) the farmers try to stop the dams being opened to feed the canals leading into Tamil Nadu. Since this can include suicides – usually jumping off the dam into the water coming out of the sluices – it is a serious matter.

I hope that when I get back to our cottage in 2 weeks time the river which fills our lake will be showing a little movement. The lake is now at its lowest and the local government are busy digging out 50 years of silt – excellent for the plantations, so the local farmers are queuing up to buy as many loads as they can manage.

A photo of an empty lake is a bit boring, so here is one which I took earlier, as they say.

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