The other day The Hindu published a photograph of the blooming neelakurinji flowers on the Neelgiri Hills. The very name of the Hills suggests something to do with a blue hue. The blooming neelakurinji flowers have a light blue hue and they bloom in millions giving the hills that distinct bluish colour. Perhaps, that is why the Hills have been named "Neelgiri". The flowers do not bloom every year, nor even in alternate years; they bloom approximately every twelve years and they do so in different regions of the Hills in different years.
Neelgiris are the southernmost end of the Western Ghats, also known as Sahiyadri Ranges in Maharashtra, that runs for 1600 kilometres parallel to the west coast of India covering five states of Maharashtra, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. The Ghats are one of the ten hottest biodiversity hot spots of the world. The Nilgiri Hills, constituting the southern edge of the Western Ghats close to Kanya Kumari (earlier Cape Comorin) are flanked by Kerala in the west and Tamilnadu in the east The hills have an elevation of around 3000 ft barring a few peaks that could be as tall as 6000 or 7000 ft.
My wife and I were in Munnar on the Neelgiris in the autumn of 2003. Some parts of the Hills bloomed that year. We couldn’t manage to see the sight but were shown a few flowers by the workers of the resort we were staying in. Munnar is a hill station in Kerala at an elevation of around 5000 ft on the Neelgiris just about 120 kilometres away from Ernakulam in Kerala which is in the east and practically on the Arabian Sea. Since we travelled from Bhopal we, instead, approached it from the west via Coimbatore, a very decent Tamil Nadu town. After staying there for a liitle less than a week and a brief trip to Ooty (formerly Ootacamund and now Oudhmangalam) we took a taxi for Munnar. After covering 100-odd kms, the road hit the Western Ghat at the Indira Gandhi National Park. The journey was uneventful until we came up against a small herd of elephants. They had blocked the road and we had to wait for them to move away. As the climb for Munnar commenced the journey increasingly became interesting. Soon we came across tea gardens which only meant we had arrived close to Munnar. The landscape with green hills and valleys progressively became more and more beautiful.
We had booked ourselves into a unit of Mahindra Resorts which was about 500 feet above Munnar town and the studio apartment that was allotted to us was further up, say about a 100 or 150 ft. With its elevation it commanded a beautiful view of the tea estate which, we were told, belonged to the Tatas.
There isn't much to see around Munnar. It is a place where one could really unwind and relax, taking in loads of fresh air and the exquisitely beautiful landscape. Package tours are, however, available which take one to the nearby Tahr sanctuary. Tahr is a species of goat that is endemic to the Neelgiris. At one time it was on the verge of extinction. The efforts of the government in creating the Rajamalai National Park have yielded good results and the species now seems to be thriving. We were able to sight several of them but only from a little far away as the animals are very shy. Our aim-and-shoot Canon, a film camera, had no zoom lens but the pictures are clear enough to give an idea of the animal and its habitat.
The package also takes one to the Munnar market where a shopping complex has been created for visitors. One can shop to one's heart's content and buy Neelgiri tea or the famed Kerala spices. The spices are genuine and much cheaper than the prices that one confronts up north.
Our neighbour in Bhopal had a grandson working in one of the estates in Munnar area as manager. He came calling and showed us around various plantations. Our young man had taken us to the Devikulam Lake which was at a higher elevation. It had lovely surroundings and was serene with very calm waters. He fished for trout but after patiently waiting for the line to get a tug he could get two small miserable fishes. He also took us to the factory of his estate where we happened to see the entire process and the treatment the tea leaves get before they are packed off to the market. Somehow Neelgiri or Assam teas do not match the flavour of our famed Darjeeling Tea. Even the Sri Lankan Tea, which I have had occasion to taste in our Oberoi hotel in Colombo, cannot match it and yet it stole the market-share abroad from Darjeeling Tea a few years back. To cap a long day the young man took us to his bungalow for the night thus giving us the experience of spending, if only a night, in a plantation bungalow with all its creature comforts.
While we had a pleasant stay, yet there was a little discomfort at the scarring of the Western Ghats. There are miles and miles of tea gardens that must have been created after clearing the dense tropical forests causing disappearance of numerous species of flora and fauna. The exploitation of the Ghats continues till today and the environmentalists are up in arms. There is a well-defined movement which is named “Save the Western Ghats”. The integrity of the Ghats is crucial for people living below them in the east or the west as numerous rivers originate in it and flow down either to the Arabian Sea or to the Bay of Bengal hundreds of kilometers away, providing sustenance to the people. But not many politicians are inclined to protect the country’s environment. For them development and consequential votes happen to be more important.