Category Archives: Environment

Natural environment in Tamil Nadu

Mango farmers beware!


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


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 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



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!

End of the road

The Central Government have just agreed the funds to lay a new road out to Dhanushkodi. This is a very interesting part of Tamil Nadu with a long history which ended in tragedy in 1964.

Many people looking at the map of Southern India are struck by the long finger of land and then a series of islands and islets which stretches out to Sri Lanka. This is the famous Adam’s Bridge, or Rama’s Bridge – a link between the two countries across the Palk Strait. In Hindu mythology, the Ramayana tells how Lord Rama’s army of apes built the bridge so that Rama could cross to rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of the Lankan king, Ravana. But in the early 1800s, a British map-maker used the name Adam’s Bridge, referring it is thought to a myth that Adam used the bridge to reach a mountain in Sri Lanka (assumed to be Adam’s Peak) where he underwent a penance.

Geologists, geographers, historians, antiquarians, oceanographers – all disagree as to whether this was a man-made or natural causeway, and if natural, how exactly it formed. What is a fact is that Dhanushkodi was the last town on the Indian side. It was a temple town, it had schools and a hospital; it was an important port with customs and immigration facilities for trade with and travel to and from Sri Lanka, and it was the end of the railway line. The “Boat Mail” ran from Egmore Station in Madras to Dhanushkodi, from where a steamer took passengers across the Palk Strait to Sri Lanka and an onward train to Colombo. You could buy through tickets.

But on the night of December 22nd 1964 all that suddenly and violently ended. An extremely strong cyclonic storm with huge tidal waves crossed the area, destroying Dhanushkodi completely, and washing away a six-coach train whose wreckage was not discovered for 48 hours. Over 1800 people perished in the storm which was the state’s worst natural disaster until the tsunami of 2004.


Since then trains have ended their journey at Rameswaram and the tarred road stops a little further on. Fishermen, pilgrims and visitors to the ruins of Dhanushkodi and “land’s end” beyond must now either walk through the sand dunes for some kilometres, or take one of the many four-wheel-drive mini-lorries which drive through sea – the sand is quite hard. This is the way I visited with two friends in November 2005. We hired a mini-lorry and hung on as it ploughed through the shallow water and over spits of land. On arriving in Dhanushkodi you are visiting a ghost town. The ruins of the water tower and a portion of the station building stick out of the sand: the front elevation of the church remains intact. Everything else was either washed away by the tidal waves or buried in sand.Image

[I’m sorry about the wobbly picture but we were on a lorry too!]

The journey was great! It really won’t be the same if they do actually get round to remaking the road.

A Tamil town


Yesterday I drove the 25km into Dindigul, our nearest town, and also the nearest reliable ATM. Dindigul is not on the tourist routes: if you go direct from Trichy to Madurai you can now do this on the new highway without coming anywhere near Dindigul; if you come down from Bangalore and Salem to the south, Dindigul has a fine new bypass and all you will get is a sight of the rock. The picture is a poor view taken at the wrong time of day – when the sun is setting the rock goes deep red, like Ayres Rock. But more on the rock in a later blog.

I want to try to give an impression of our town. First of all, some facts. Data from the 2011 Census of India are available on-line, and from these we find that Dindigul city has a population of around 210,000 people. It is the municipal headquarters of Dindigul District, which contains around 2.2 million people, some 3% of the population of Tamil Nadu. [Tamil Nadu had 72.1 million people in 2011]. Various websites say that Dindigul is famous for locks and tanneries; for cheroots; for fruit and vegetables; and Dindigul biriyani is a famous dish all over the south.

But it is a confusing town to get around. The roads don’t quite seem to lead to where you would expect: the Palani road, for example, ends in a T-junction and you then struggle through a narrow lane which finally gets to the New Palani road. The Karur road is not now the main way to Karur. I navigate on key shops: the road of the metal shelf makers leads onto the road of the safe-makers and thence to the station; the road past the massage-oil shop leads onto the street with the coffee shop and then the supermarket; the road with the big petrol bunk has the best fruit and veg shop; and so on.

The town grew at the base of the rock which was fortified by the Nayakas from Madurai during the 17th century and then passed to the Mysore army in 1745 and was governed by Hyder Ali from 1755. The British took control of it in 1799 after the battle with Tipu Sultan at Srirangapatnam. Round the base of the rock are a few remnants of the British era including a sadly neglected cemetery. But the value of the town now is that it is very well situated for trade, sitting in a gap between an isolated mountain called Sirumalai and the Palani Hills, which mark the easternmost end of the Western Ghats. [Sirumalai means “little hill” in Tamil, which is an understatement. I estimate it measures 20km by 15km, and rises to around 1800 metres].

As you might expect, there are few historic buildings left apart from religious ones. People are focusing on trade, and there is no room for emotion. But nor is there any desire to wilfully knock down something which can still do a job, so the Sunday doctors operate their charitable clinics from temporary cabins inside an old warehouse, modern glass-and-concrete stores rise between brick and stone houses from the 1950s, and here and there are single-storey cottages from 100 years ago or earlier.

The fruits and vegetables are excellent. Some come down from Sirumalai and a lot from Kodaikanal, so there is a good variety of produce from hills and plains. Yesterday I bought my first mangos of the season which I had for breakfast this morning.

Our big tree

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe big tree which shades the rear of our cottage has been losing its leaves and old dry seed pods for the last two months. [The first time this happened I panicked and thought it was dying!]. Each time we swept the drive and pathways another gust of wind came and dumped a new load of leaf litter plus small but very sharp stems which cause us not a little agony since we go barefoot. Other trees are doing the same – many of the frangipani trees are now totally bare of leaves; and our teak trees are looking very decrepit indeed.

But up in the tea plantations the jacaranda are in full bloom. I remember them from southern Africa blooming just in advance of the rainy season – the central square in Harare outside Meikles Hotel was a lilac carpet of fallen blossoms. And this morning I was having my tea on the roof as usual when I noticed a feathery pale yellow blossom on the floor beside my chair. Yes – the big tree had not only put out new green shoots but is also flowering. This is a very brief but lovely time – it’s all over in a week – since the blossoms have a sort of jasminey scent which drifts over the cottage in the light morning airs.

I asked Thirupathi this morning the name of the tree – in Tamil it is Vaahai Maram – maram means tree. An internet search tells me we are the proud possessors of a very healthy East Indian Walnut, Albizia Lebbeck. Any Seychelles friends reading this blog will know it as Bois Noir.

Heavens Above

February 9/10 2013

This is a “no moon” weekend and, as such, a very auspicious date. On Sunday, up in Allahabad, it is the main bathing day for the Maha Kumbh Mela and of course it is also Chinese New Year. I am sure this is not a coincidence. And on Saturday and Sunday quite a few large groups were gathered at the Sadaiyandy Temple down the road (more on that in another blog) together with the goats to be sacrificed and then stewed. But for us, last night and the previous two have been fabulous for star-gazing. There was no cloud cover at all, and, while we are not in an official “dark sky” area such as they have in Galloway in south-west Scotland, we have very little light pollution here.

I downloaded the star maps for our latitude and longitude for 9pm and 4am from an excellent free site By 9pm we had finished dinner on the roof with our friends from Bangalore, and then, with the map as reference we tried to pick out the major constellations. Luckily Orion was directly overhead in the dead centre of the celestial bowl and we could take lines from his sword, or belt, or shoulders and make some semi-informed guesses. Jupiter was clearly visible and Uranus was setting to the west. At 4am to our delight the Southern Cross was clear as a bell due south of us and Saturn was coming into view over the mountainside to our east. Then at 5, as the call to prayer came from the mosque across the lake, the sky started to lighten and by 6 the stars were all but gone.

It was cool on the roof before dawn. But this is not the real chill of northern India at this time of the year, or of the hill stations. This is the clammy chill you get when the temperature drops to around 19 degrees but the humidity is so high that, just before dawn, a light dew falls.