Category Archives: Environment

Natural environment in Tamil Nadu

Tamil landscapes

The Indian peninsula, south of the great alluvial plains of the Ganges, is immensely old. It started off as part of the ancient continent of Gondwanaland, which broke into several pieces – modern-day Australia, southern Africa, Madagascar, southern India – with a few crumbs left over which formed the granitic group of the Seychelles. What is now southern India moved north-eastwards and bashed into the Eurasian plate, throwing up the Himalayas – a process which is still continuing. As it moved it passed over a volcanic hotspot (where Reunion Island is today), and lava intruded into the older rocks.

In the north-western part of the Deccan these lava flows are some 2km thick, and today cover an area of around 500,000 square kilometres. These are the Deccan Traps, from the Icelandic word for step, “trappa”, referring to the stepped nature of the terrain as the lava is well-layered.

I must admit this was news to me. The Deccan was a dry hostile environment which for centuries discouraged people of the north from moving southwards. Alexander the Great came to northern India at the same time that Arab sea-farers were starting to trade out of ports close to Kochi and Mahabalipuram, but there was little or no connection between north and south within India. I had always thought that the Deccan was in effect a trap for unwary travellers!

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The photograph is of the temple and fort at Namakkal.

The western edge of the peninsula, it is thought, was lifted up vertically by great stresses as the peninsula moved north-eastwards, but the underlying rocks are still granitic in type. These are now the western Ghats – the word “ghat”, of course, means a flight of steps normally leading down into a river, and it has been transferred to steep mountains rising from the plains, often in a series of steps. The ghats themselves rise to over 8000 feet (2500 metres) and are deeply dissected by river valleys. The hills plunge down into a rich red soil and the rock reappears now and again at intervals as isolated mountains and hills: some are unbroken monoliths as at Namakkal, Dindigul and Trichy; some are piles of weathered rocks heaped on top of each other to substantial heights, as at Gingee. Nearer the coast, the land gets drier and less fertile and you find salt pans and prawn hatcheries, for example, and the rise and fall of sea-levels has produced a number of layers of differing sediments.

One of the most curious links between geology and history is the rock known as Charnockite. In 1892, a geologist who was studying the tombstone of an East India Company administrator in St John’s churchyard, Calcutta, recognised that this was a hitherto undescribed type of granitic rock. The tombstone was traced to a quarry on St Thomas Mount in Chennai, but the rock is found in other parts of south India – particularly the Nilgiris – and in Sri Lanka, where it forms most of the central mountains. Why someone went to the trouble 200 years earlier to ship this rock over 1000 miles to make a tombstone, we shall never know. But it still marks the grave of Job Charnock, who died in 1692 and for over 300 years has been regarded as the “founder” of Calcutta.

Visitors to Tamil Nadu, therefore, are presented with an ancient and fascinating landscape which may also remind them of southern Africa and Australia, in form, colour and vegetation.

Floral tributes

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Continuing from the previous blog, one of the features of the hill stations are their gardens, and most of the larger towns have a botanic or public garden. The one at Ooty surrounds the old residence of the Governor and is more of a botanic garden: the one in Kodai is more of a public park, begun in 1908 by a forest officer from Madurai, Mr Bryant, and named after him.

Here during May and June the flowers are at their best. The rose garden has been carefully nurtured; the bedding plants went in in March when the nights were not so cold; and now Bryant Park is packed with visitors. It is the venue for the annual Flower Show which is now in its 52nd year and which follows the usual British flower show format – with some interesting Indian additions.

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So – you can expect to find displays of single and grouped specimens of roses, dahlias and carnations, but also Bird of Paradise and orchids. In the vegetable section you will find carrots, turnips, potatoes, tomatoes and onions, but also green chilli, banana on a stem and plantains.

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A curious section is for carved vegetables. When we were there in 2001, I vividly remember seeing carved statues of Ganesh and Siva, made from large turnips, I think. This year there is a splendid model of the Taj Mahal made from plantain stem and white radish.

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But the star of this year’s Show is an “Angry Bird” made from 20,000 carnations!

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To the hills!

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You may have seen that temperatures in India have soared. Delhi hit 45.1 the other day (over 113F) and one of our friends, who is visiting Orissa, said that the thermometer was hovering around 40 most days with a “comfort level” (as the weather men say) of 50! I presume they mean discomfort level.

May in India is when the sun has passed over the southern states and is heading to its June 21st rendezvous with the tropic of Cancer, which crosses India from the Gulf of Kutch to Kolkata, passing almost exactly through Bhopal. There are no clouds to filter the rays. Modern buildings are all of concrete with flat roofs and just soak up the sun all day, radiating it out again during the night. [The colonial architecture, having to deal with the heat without electricity for fans and air conditioners, is a lot more sensible. High ceilings, wide verandahs and ventilation spaces at the tops of the walls.]

This is the month when those who can, head for the hills. From early May to the end of June the hill stations are crowded with visitors. In the north is the famous station of Shimla, summer seat of government in the pre-independence days, with places such as Mussoorie, Dalhousie and Nainital catering to visitors according to budget, as those who read Kipling will recollect.

In Tamil Nadu we have two main hill stations: Ootacamund and Kodaikanal. “Snooty Ooty”, or as it prefers to be known, The Queen of the Hills, is in the middle of the Nilgiris range with Coonoor a thousand feet or so lower down. Here the ghat road gives up its leisurely descent from Ooty and disappears over the edge of the cliff, dropping five thousand feet in just over twenty miles to Mettupalayam on the plains below.

Going up to the hills is just as exciting. Approaching Kodaikanal the town gets ever closer but the road doesn’t seem to want to start climbing. Eventually, about 30 miles short, the road changes from a good wide highway to something a bit more than single track but not always quite two-lane, and starts to climb. Six thousand vertical feet and two hours later you pass through a narrow notch and arrive at the dam which forms Kodai lake.

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Lakes were created in all the major hill stations, and at Kodai is used for boating with a delightful path around the shore for walking, cycling or pony riding. Fast food Indian style is everywhere – especially, at this season, spiced mangos.
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There are also numerous shops selling chocolates, perfumes, essential oils, cheap fleeces and balaclavas.

The hill towns are sadly over-developed, but many original bungalows still survive with names such as Rose Cottage, Burnside, Hilltop or Valley View. The temperature dips sharply at sunset and then the air fills with the scent of wood smoke as rich and poor light their fires. At sunset the road down also gets a bit hairy as people who have dallied suddenly realise they need to get home. A ghat road after dark is not for the faint-hearted!

There is so much more to say about the hill stations – but that is for another time.

Mango farmers beware!

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The mango season in India is beginning and a huge variety are coming into the markets. In the same way that every French citizen is convinced that the cheese from their own town or village surpasses all others, so in India everyone knows that their local mangos are the best. On railway platforms and at airport check-in; on the tops of buses and tied onto scooters, boxes of mangos travel up and down the country as concerned family members take or send the fruit to their relatives in not so fortunate places.

We find ripe mangos from the tree, and green ones as chutney, absolutely delicious. But they are also extremely popular with the Giant Indian Fruit Bat. By the dam wall of our lake is a grove of old trees which host a colony of these mammals – also known as flying foxes. Whereas a small bat is truly like a flying mouse (hence Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus), these have golden fur and fox-like faces.

I tried to get some photos to share with you though it is not easy, as they wrap themselves in their wings when roosting with just their noses peeping out. KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
They squabble amongst themselves all day, sometimes changing trees, but the main exodus is just after dusk. We sit on the roof of the cottage and first a handful, then groups, then a constant stream of dark shapes flies over. They are leisurely fliers – the wingbeat is quite slow – in contrast to the smaller bats who are also active at that time, darting and jinking for insects.

At the top of the valley are mango orchards which we imagine is the main destination for the fruit bats, though further up the slopes of the mountain are other fruit trees. I hope the farmers continue to tolerate their depredations – they are becoming rarer in India, and we are lucky to have the colony so close by.

Bird-watching in Tamil Nadu

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You don’t have to be a dedicated twitcher to get pleasure from bird watching in Tamil Nadu.  Whether you are in town, in the country or on the road there is always something to see. When we lived in Chennai I got considerable pleasure from sitting with my morning coffee on our upstairs terrace watching the visiting bulbuls and mynahs, the whiskery coppersmith barbet and the flameback – a species of woodpecker – who regularly tried to make an impression on our neighbour’s metal chimney.

In the front garden we saw kingfishers and flights of parakeets.   We sometimes welcomed small hawks. There was one memorable occasion when we played host to a very bemused owl who had suffered some kind of trauma – we never discovered what. We offered him some water and some mince as well as protection in an outbuilding.  He stayed for two nights and then vanished as suddenly as he arrived.

My evening swim at the Madras Club was accompanied by the shrieks of parakeets and occasionally by some small bats (OK not birds but they were flying) snatching a drink from the pool as I swam up and down. The gardens at the Club contain some very large old trees providing a home for many birds including hoopoes and woodpeckers.

On long drives a study of the telephone wires will reveal drongos, bee-eaters, Indian rollers, swallows and swifts as well as an occasional hawk.  In the paddy fields of course you find the Paddy Bird or Pond Heron as well as hosts of egrets and cormorants.  Egrets come in several varieties including little, great and intermediate – what ignominy for an egret to be “intermediate”.

Every trip provides the opportunity to tick off a few more birds from the book.

Orange County Resort produced not just a spectacular crop of birds but Ganapathy, a very knowledgeable guide who was so delighted that we were interested in the birds as very few visitors seemed to notice them.

You don’t have to go far off the beaten track to find outstanding wetland reserves with water birds of astonishing size and variety – Vedanthangal near Chennai is a short detour from the main highway.  Winter breeding species include painted storks, pelicans, spoonbills and ibis who are so close that you feel you can almost touch them.

We now spend part of the year at a house at the foot of the Palani Hills where there is a group of excellent homestays.   Visiting ornithologists have identified 185 species of birds in the valley – we haven’t seen all of them by any means but you can knock off 20 or 30 without moving far from your chair.  As I have been writing this a lovely little sunbird has paid his daily visit to our window to check his reflection. And I can hear the red wattled lapwing and the peacocks calling through the open door.

To become a bird watcher in India all you need is some patience, a reasonable pair of binoculars and a copy of the Field Guide to the Birds of India. Enjoy.

… or whether the weather be hot …

Today (April 17th) is the day when the sun passes directly overhead our cottage in the south of Tamil Nadu. This is according to my Table of the Declination of the Sun, which I downloaded from http://www.starpath.com. We are situated 10 degrees north of the equator, so today at solar noon (which is around twenty past twelve Indian time) there will be no shadows cast. And from tomorrow the sun starts to shine on the back of the cottage and the front terrace gets a little bit of shade.

It is already hot. The drought conditions due to the deficient 2012 monsoon have left the countryside parched with less than a third of the agricultural land being used. Water “arguments”, shall we say, between the southern states, are getting hotter too. Many of Tamil Nadu’s key rivers for irrigation rise in Kerala or Karnataka, and the water sharing agreements are based on ancient formulae calculated when the demands of each state were quite different.

The dam in front of the cottage is rapidly emptying. The water is piped to Dindigul for drinking purposes, and water rationing has been in place there for some time. In Chennai too the city authorities are re-opening the deep wells to the south of the city which were last used during the drought years of 2003 and 2004. We were living in Chennai at that time, and had no running water to the house for 3 years! I bought a tanker of water every 2 weeks for household use.

Mid-April is the start of the Tamil month of Chittirai, followed by Vaikaci – the two hottest months of the year when the temperature on the plains during the first two weeks of May can get into the low to mid 40s. This is not as hot as a Delhi summer, but quite enough! May is the month when the hill stations of Ooty and Kodaikanal are crowded with people fleeing the heat, and I will blog later about the flower show at Kodai.

Naturally, the sun passes back overhead at some stage – in fact towards the end of August – but it is not nearly so hot. The monsoon has started by then along the west coast and the clouds spill over the mountains into Tamil Nadu – sometimes with rain, though not always – giving welcome shade. It is a very pleasant time to visit if you can’t make the winter season from December to March.

On the streets of Chennai

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The Chennai traffic police reckon that there are 18 different types of conveyance using the roads. This partly accounts for the congestion and rather stop/start style of driving. I have so far seen the following road users:

1.         The Urban Cow. More noticeable at night, they stroll around the streets rummaging in rubbish bins. They all seem to belong to someone, and seem to be able to navigate the streets to and from home. Like all other traffic users, they change lanes without signalling.

2.         Bullock carts. Usually 4 wheel carts for heavy goods. The horns of the beast are often painted red or green, and decorated on the tips with bells.

3.         Horses. We have men on horses for two main reasons: either it is a groom going to a wedding, such as the one at the hotel last Sunday, or the complete opposite, a lad taking horse down to the beach to offer rides where they gallop bareback up and down the sand trying to whip up custom. In the first case, the procession goes at walking pace – the wedding we saw was preceded by the Jaleb Punjab Band – “full brass band and orchestra” – who gave quantity of sound in preference to quality, then male relatives dancing, the groom on horseback, sitting on red and gold cloth and shaded by a red and gold umbrella, followed by female relatives dancing with in this case torches made of fluorescent tubes tied to sticks, all linked together with a cable to a car battery, so they couldn’t move far apart.

4.         Horse drawn carriages. These seem to be reserved for weddings, though there are some horse buggies around. I saw a wonderful old photo of a woman’s grandparents in their phaeton, with two grooms and two running footmen, up in the hills. It was taken on the last occasion the carriage was used before the car arrived.

5.         Pedestrians. The pavements are not people-friendly at all, and in places disappear completely. Where they do exist, they are a suitable site for beggars; salesmen; stalls selling tea and coffee, sugar cane juice, and snacks; shoe polishers and repairers; cows; and of course parking.</pIMG_9156

6.         Men pulling and pushing things. 2, 3 and 4 wheel carts abound. I have seen big wooden barrows like the market porters use, a sort of giant supermarket trolley, 4 wheel carts with a man harnessed rather than a bullock – any combination you can imagine.

7.         Bicycles. A popular form of transport, though we never had the courage to get ours out of the drive. Driving consists of going for the smallest advantage, turning across the oncoming traffic, taking traffic lights and one way signs as merely advisory – and bikes are way down the pecking order only ahead of pedestrians. Bikes are designed for 2 people – one on the rack – and sometimes 3. Single occupancy bikes are a waste of an opportunity to transport someone else.

8.         Other pedal driven things. The best is the cycle rickshaw, which takes two in comfort unless you have a western-sized bum. It is tricycle based. There is a cargo equivalent, where the seats are replaced by a flat wooden platform. I have also seen tricycles with two wheels at the front, and hand pedalled invalid carriages.

9.         The auto rickshaw. This is a ubiquitous three-wheeler which is the main form of transport. It seats two in comfort behind the driver – which means that many more than this can pile in in practice. We saw 7 students get out of one outside the university – apparently they were not going for any records – and one of Eunice’s staff told us that the ones which do the school run have an extra shelf seat for the little ones, and by hanging the school bags outside can take up to 15 kids. If you see what looks like a motorised Xmas tree, take care. It has a little 2 stroke engine, but can get up to quite a speed. I took one the other day which had a leather interior and a 4 speaker Pioneer stereo system, which took me down the main drag at 50 kph. Of course the main disadvantage is that you are seated exactly at the level of the average bus exhaust.

            The auto rickshaw has two variations. In one, the seat area is converted into a van, which is amazingly useful for the small alleys, and the other where it is converted to take an articulated 2 wheel trailer.

10.       Motorised two and three wheelers. There are so many varieties of these. Ordinary scooters and motor bikes are very common and thank goodness here in the south that their owners don’t trade them in for cars. The scooter was once advertised by Government as an ideal family vehicle, and a good reason to limit your family to 4. The elder child sits in front of dad, who naturally drives, and the baby is held by mum who sits side-saddle on the back. I am amazed that all the trailing bits of sari and scarf don’t get tangled in the wheels more often, though they all have sari guards fitted. Then there are the pedal vehicles which have been motorised, like the fish carts (which carried the fish from the beach in the old days). The driver sits high off the ground, and can supplement the motor with pedalling when the going gets tough. These can also become people carriers, with the addition of seats and maybe a roof. I saw one with 7 school kids in the other day.

11.       Cars. All shapes and sizes. The classic vehicle is of course the famous Hindustan Ambassador, which was a Morris Oxford in earlier life. Bench seats, with a certain style. You can get air conditioned ones too. It is considered bad form to actually bump into another vehicle (although bikes don’t count much) so despite the total lack of lane discipline and much jockeying for pole position at the lights, there are few scrapes. Crossing the central white line to gain a few yards advantage, irrespective of oncoming traffic, is normal. 

12.       Vans, lorries and buses. The buses are the kings of the road, with a ground clearance of about 2 feet so you need to be pretty fit to get on board. They tank down the road with horns blaring, and people hop off and on wherever they can – particularly at the traffic lights, when they get off in the middle of the road and then have to run the gauntlet of all the traffic filtering left. Mind you, horns are used by everyone all the time. It is more to make a noise to let people know you are there, as it has no discernible impact on the way people actually drive. They even hoot when stopped at the lights.

I think that’s more than 18, if you break down the sub-groups. But I am sure that there will be more weird and wonderful road experiences just around the next corner – after all, this is just Chennai city!