Published: November 23rd 2006October 7th 2006
Neelakurinji grows to a man's height on the hills past the tribal settlement in Marayur.
The road to Munnar is lined with signboards on Neelakurinji and Nilgiri tahr. The Kerala forest department is on a double-edged drive to advertise and create awareness on the rare flower that blooms only once in 12 years. Official estimate expects 5 lakh visitors to this popular hill station this season. Forest and tourism department have joined the Idukki district administration to form task teams to manage the mega event.
Munnar town is in festivity. The town survives on tea and tourism. Hotel managers, taxi drivers, roadside vendors…everyone is working overtime cashing in on the first Neelakurinji season after tourism became a buzzword in Kerala. The town is brimming with people. Rooms are almost full. After all, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Neelakurinji aka Stobilanthus kunthianus is a gregarious shrub that grows at an altitude of about 1600 metres, in the mountainscape bordering Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The species is one among the 40 varieties of Kurinji found in the Western Ghats.
Sabu Thankappan and his crew are shooting a documentary on the cultural significance of the rare flower. We decide to follow the official tourist itinerary to Eravikulam National Park, where the endemic Nilgiri tahr grazes amid
Tribesmen say honey is the best when Neelakurinji blooms.
Neelakurinji. The forest department runs its buses up to the park for the visitors. The queue at the entrance of the park winds endlessly. After an hour, we get on the bus.
It drizzles. Rows of tea bushes form waves in the descending white mist. A tea estate is tucked away inside the national park. Mist gathers as we go uphill. Green, black and an overwhelming white. Gireesh and Ajith wait with the camera for any hue of blue. Children sleep in the chill, only to regret the loss years later. They will lie to their friends how fantastic the flowers were.
Blue ahoy! The shrub blooms in pale blue dots on either side of the road. Excited visitors point through the windows. Sleeping children resist their parents’ prodding. Camera captures the fleeting flowers. At our destination, another long queue waits for the return journey. We get down from the bus and trek the blue mountain. Rain doesn’t dampen enthusiasm. Lovers disappear in the mist.
Nilgiri tahrs, however, are not so excited. The ungulates are comfortably away somewhere. A sunny day would have been more photogenic. But rain adds more charm to Neelakurinji. The flowers play hide-n-seek
An entire hill turning blue is a spectacle worth documenting.
in the mist. Disappointed visitors crib that it is just another blue flower. Some of them are put off by the rain. We walk on. An eco-guard assures us of more splendid sights uphill.
Density of blue increases as we proceed. Then a blue-violet hill reveals itself from the mist. From mist-covered peak to the valley, a carpet of pale blue flowers. The just-another flower has transformed itself into a breathtaking sight. Ravi, an eco-guard, bars curious visitors from venturing into the flowerland. His job is to see that no harm is done to the eco-sensitive hill ranges. Plastic is his main enemy.
Ravi, who belongs to the Muthuvar tribe inhabiting the hills of Munnar and Marayur, says that his tribesmen worship the first flower. He is from Idamalaikkudi, one of the remotest tribal hamlets surrounding the national park. Each hamlet performs a ritualistic worship as the tribal chief notifies the advent of the twelve-year wonder. The flower is divine for these tribesmen.
Neelakurinji lore is associated with Murukan, the presiding deity of the mountaiscape. Murukan was born with a Kurinji braid tied to each of his 12 hands. Muthuvas believe that is the reason for the
Wave on hills
Kurinji hills are a thing of the past, but the shrub still retains a foothold.
flower to bloom in 12 years. The god later married a tribal girl, Valli. The garlands were made of Neelakurinji. Classical Tamli literature tells us how the divine lovers roamed amid the blue flowers.
Kurinji as a mindscape connotes first love in Sangham literature. Poetic convention attributes different shades of love to the five landscapes named after the prominent flower. Kurinji, the hills, has clandestine love as its theme and Neythal, the coast, separation. Mullai, the forest, is the wait for the beloved and Palai, the desert, is the separation of married couple. Marutham, the field, is the least romantic - nuptial jealousy.
Neelakurinji has a special place in the psyche of every mountain tribe. The blue flower gave Nilgiris (blue hills) its name and Toda tribesmen their songs. The unique tribe living around Ooty celebrates the Kurinji season with their special songs and dance. They wear their traditional robes with blue flower patterns woven to it. They collect Kurinji honey and make it a means of living. It is a harvest festival for them.
Next day, we go hunting for more Neelakurinji visuals. Beyond Munnar and Eravikulam lies Marayur. From the town, we spot Neelakurinji glowing on a rocky mountain. An hour’s trek awaits us. The forest range officer deputes a guide to lead us. We climb through a village of Tamil labourers and a hamlet of Muthuva tribesmen before reaching a hill wrapped in blue.
The feel is completely different from Munnar. The shrub grows to a man’s height. The thick growth presents a sea of waving flowers. Wherever you look, Neelakurinji dominates. It’s already noon. Mani and Sasi, our companions, tell us that Neelakurinji is bluer in the morning. With each ray, it becomes pale. Sometimes, it’s a bleached blue. Still the forest of flowers is awesome.
Once upon a time, the hill ranges from Munnar in Kerala to Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu would turn blue every 12 years. Now, eucalyptus plantations and ganja cultivations have taken its place. Still the exotic flower refuses to die out in certain areas. The splendour of Neelakurinji demands physical effort from the spectator. The sight is earned by those who conquer mountains. Others take the easy route, crib about the strain and return without memories.
Neelakurinji is more than a thing of beauty for the tribesmen on the hills. Muthuvar used to calculate their age with the life cycle of the blue flower. It’s just one of the many laws of the forest, says Harichandran Kani, the chief of Kammalankudi hamlet, which we passed on our way uphill. Neelakurinji blooms in 12 years. Yet another variety of Kurinji blooms in 18 years. Bamboo flowers once in 60 years. The unwritten canon is endless.
Many rivers that flow to Tamil Nadu and Kerala have their origin in the shola forests adjacent to the Kurinji hills. With eucalyptus and pines supplanting Kurinji shrubs, the streams dry out. Thus saving Kurinji is saving the water source. That’s why these tribesmen leave the shrubs alone till the flowers wilt and the last seeds fall on the ground. Then they collect the twigs and wait for 12 years for the bees to collect Kurinji honey.