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Wild peacock chase!

Viralimalai: but where are the birds? asks SOMA BASU

Pic. by M. Moorthy

ALL RIGHT, it was the lure of peacocks. It wasn't the famed Muruga Temple that took me to Viralimalai. My indifference to the Lord taught me a lesson. I spent the day on a `wild peacock chase', hearing stories about the divine status of the national bird but hardly seeing any in this small temple town near Tiruchi. The tourism brochure (never, never believe in it) misled me by describing Viralimalai as famous for its peacock sanctuary. As an RLT junkie, I jumped at the idea and on to a taxi.

This was not going to be my first date with peacocks, but my interest was fired by the thought of seeing them in dozens at one place. In my mind, I equated it with the famous penguin parade in Melbourne. Close to Viralimalai, there were boys selling peacock feathers sealed in cellophane paper, waving frantically to potential customers. They asked for Rs. 100 but settled for Rs. 20 without so much as a protest leaving me with the suspicion that I had paid too much. From the main road to the narrow street leading to the village, I saw more feathers than I wanted to. But where were the peacocks? "There," said the forest office, pointing to a garbage dump. Two peacocks were chasing each other in the bushes on the other side of the dump. Obviously, I wanted to see more.

"Wait, wait, they will come," he assured me. But hours rolled by and there was no sign of the birds.

I wandered around aimlessly till the truth dawned on me when Forest Ranger Jagan Mohan asked: "What peacock sanctuary are you looking for?" After some prodding, he admitted that until about 18 months ago, there "was a sanctuary." There were about 150 birds, most of them residents on the temple hillock.

Thanks to the Forest Department's supply of grain, the number rose to 400, forcing the Department to stop feeding and letting the birds on their own. The birds then decided to move along and now the estimated population of 500-plus is scattered over Pudukkottai district. Result: Viralimalai's claim as a home for peacocks is a gross exaggeration.

However, the temple priests continue the practice of feeding and a sizeable number turns up each day. I ended up counting the 210 steps on the small, rocky hill that takes you to the 18th century temple. Ringed by thick wooden arches, its facade boasts of colourfully carved peacocks.

Marvellous stories

A devotee regaled me with marvellous stories about the place. A unique practice here is that a cheroot is offered to Lord Subrahmanya along with the neiveidyam and later given as prasadam to devotees. The story goes that a worshipper who chain-smoked was a regular visitor. On one such visit, he was cut off from where he came by heavy rain and flash floods. With no food and unable to get his nicotine fix, he prayed to Lord Muruga who appeared and voila ... provided him with a cheroot and a matchstick. Ever since, the community offers cheroots to the Lord.

The boulders one sees on the Viralimalai hills are believed to be more than rocks. They are said to be the agglomeration of bodies of yogis who sat in penance and attained samadhi. Apparently, the peacocks here know which one is a `yogi rock' and which one is merely sedimentary. They select only yogi rocks to dance upon and shed their feathers.

A devotee pointed towards a rock with a peacock perched on it. And then there were two on the street below...one more on the steps...and three more by the temple wall.

The truth is I saw only eight of them. Not much for a peacock sanctuary... but then I should have gone to Viralimalai for the temple in the first place, yes?

How to get there

Nearest railheads: Tiruchi and Pudukkottai. At a distance of 40 km North-West of Pudukkottai and 33 km South of Tiruchi.

Located on the Madurai-Tiruchi road, the place is well connected.

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