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The Neelakurinji Hillsides

The rain started soon after we started climbing the ghats towards Munnar. The sky turned ominously dark adding to the gloom of the dying day and the pain in the driver’s voice as he narrated incidents of how he and his family suffered in the deluge and flooding that had destroyed several parts of Kerala only a few weeks ago. He pointed out landslides and destroyed homes but it was impossible to see anything clearly through the heavy downpour. Proud that locals had rallied and volunteered help everywhere, he kept repeating that the relief had been forthcoming irrespective of religion or caste.

Navigating the wet torturous roads we wondered if our trip to see the beautiful Neelakurinji shrubs which are known to bathe the hillsides in blue-mauve every 12 years would be successful or had we been too ambitious in visiting at the end of September, when the rains were still pelting the countryside. But the next morning was crisp and sunny and we set out before 8 am for the Eravikulam National Park.

Getting there was possible only through Forest Department shuttles. A wise decision, given our Indian penchant for noisy driving and going easy on rules. Within the park itself no vehicular traffic was allowed. The sanctuary is also home to the endangered Nilgiri Tahr mountain goat. The constant patrolling by the staff ensured that the zone remained litter free, and no one plucked the flowers or tried to chase the Tahr.

The Neelakurinji (strobilanthes kunthianus) or as the locals call it Kurinji Poo, is a shrub that flowers every 12 years and this phenomenon has been documented since 1838! They grow at an altitude of over 5,000 ft and need a temperate climate. Infact the Nilgiri mountains get their name from this fabled blue floral carpeting. Of the 250 known strobilanthe varieties, 46 are found in the Western Ghats, and Munnar is recommended as one of the best places to witness the coloured expanse. Blooming occurs only with the receding monsoon, so the best time to visit is between August and November.

Our initial excitement at seeing the short, compact bushes filled with shades of blue and mauve, was tempered as we climbed the slopes, realizing that the flowering was in patches, and nowhere as abundant as the mauve-shaded sweep we had seen images of and expected to see in reality. Regardless, it was still breathtaking. The clusters, though dense only in parts, were in full bloom giving the mountainside an ethereal blue-grey tinge. Small birds and brightly coloured butterflies flew overhead alighting intermittently on the shrubbery, while mountain goats could be seen occasionally amidst the rocks at a distance. Across the valley were stupendous vistas of green terraced tea gardens and shola forests beyond. As we were descending we had a delightful surprise. A tahr decided to cross the road barely a couple of feet from us. And as if she/he was aware of the “ooh”s and “aah”s her appearance had generated, she posed for a couple of seconds before jumping gracefully into the bushes.

Sadly the Neelakurinji are obviously declining. Mary-Rose Abraham writes in the National Geographic that they are “under threat of never blooming again…. a triple threat – plantations of eucalyptus and acacia, agriculture and tourism – have stripped the grasslands…”. I hope she is proved wrong. I hope the Save Kurinji Campaign is successful in preserving the natural habitat and that magical little flower continues to blossom. Unfortunately, we will know the veracity of her prediction only in 2030. So why wait another12 years? Head out to the Nilgiris before end November and witness the magic for yourself.
Printed in DNA, Nov 11, 2018

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