All set to bloom
S. THEODORE BASKARAN
The legendary Kurinji is due to add colour to the mountains again.
AN EVENT: The Kurinji in bloom. PHOTO: S. THEODORE BASKARAN
THE Muduvar tribe, which inhabit the mountain ranges around Valparai (Tamil Nadu) and Munnar (Kerala) in the Western Ghats, calculates its age with the blossoming of the Kurinji. This legendary flower blooms once in 12 years and is due to enliven the mountainscapes, once again in the coming year.
In the Western Ghats, at an altitude of about 1,600 metres, in the region of sholas and grasslands, the kurinji flourishes as a gregarious shrub. From the High Ranges to the Sayadhri Mountains, different varieties of the Kurinji flourish in valleys, in slopes and in gorges. All of them have a periodicity from eight to 12 years. After blossoming, the plant wilts. Though most of the varieties are blue, there are some yellow varieties too.
Geographers refer to the ranges south of the Palghat Gap as the Palni ranges and those to the north as the Nilgiris. In the Palni ranges, in Mattupatti and Gundumalai around Munnar, the Kurinji grows in abundance. In the area around Anaimudi also the plant thrives. Anaimudi (in Kerala) or the Elephant Peak is the highest point in South India, being several metres higher than the better-known Doddabetta near Ooty. And the area around it is now called the Eravikulam sanctuary. The Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary (in Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu) is contiguous to this sanctuary.
Though this flower has been a familiar subject for poets and for the hill folk, in modern times, two British botanists who explored the Palni ranges Robert Wight in 1836 and Capt. Beddome in 1857 documented the details and let the wider world get to know about this plant. The Kurinji found in the Palni and the Nilgiri ranges has been christened Strobulanthus kuntianum. The Catholic clergy in the Shenbaganur seminary in Kodaikanal kept careful notes of the flowering of the Kurinji
In the Nilgiris, it was only from 1858 that we have records of the years of the plant's blossoming. A resident of Kotagiri, Mr. Cockburne had details of those years. His father was a pioneer settler in the Nilgiris and his mother (Cockburne's grandmother) had talked to the Kotas and Todas and had written down data on Kurinji. Thus data from three generations is available. Around the Nilgiris, this flower is called Nilakurinji and is abundant in the Mukurthi sanctuary. In recent years, the Pondicherry-based Salim Ali School of Ecology has been studying the blossoming of the Kurinji.
In Tamil Sangam poems (c.3-5 A.D.), there are quite a few references to this flower. In works such as Agananuru, and Maduraikanchi, the plant is referred as "Karungal Kurinji", meaning the Black stemmed flower. When it is in bloom, the honey gathered from the beehives in the vicinity was valued highly. One poet praises a king as "the one who rules over a country where the Kurinji honey is in plenty".
Symbol of hills, forests
The Sangam groups of literary works divide the landscape into five categories. The mountainous area was known as Kurinji, after the flower. Murugan, the god of the Kurinji area, wore a garland of Kurinji flowers when he married the tribal girl Valli. This blue flower that blossoms stands as a symbol of hills and forests. The other forms of landscape described are mullai (jasmine) which stands for forests, marudam (a tree) which stands for pastoral area, Neythal (an aquatic flower) which denotes coastal area and Palai (a tree) which represents arid area.
In poetic works, each of this form of landscape stands for an emotion or a state of mind. The Kurinji symbolises clandestine love or premarital romance. At least one literary work, Ainkurunooru has 100 poems dedicated to each of these forms of landscapes.
The home of the Kurinji, which had remained inviolate for millennia, was damaged beyond repair in the last 100 years. Range after range of pristine forests was cleared for tea and cardamom plantations and for timber. To promote the leather-tanning industry, wattle was planted in the heart of Kurinji country. Eucalyptus was grown to supply raw material for rayon and paper. Trees totally alien to this land were brought in and introduced, devastating the ecosystem. Hydroelectric projects submerged vast stretches of virgin rain forests. Now in the little space that is left, in steep valleys and gorges, the Kurinji bushes are battling for survival, like many other life forms of the area.
`Save Kurinji' campaign
In the last few years, in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, there have been efforts from different quarters to save what is left of the Kurinji's home. The "Save Kurinji Campaign Council" (SAKCIL), founded by Rajkumar, a bank employee, is active in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.
The High Range Wildlife Association, led by a former planter Chengappa and The Palni Hills Conservation Council based in Kodaikanal have been campaigning too. The late taxonomist Dr. P.K. Mathew of the Society of Jesus, Tiruchirapalli, headed a committee of the PHCC to draw up plans for the Kurinji's conservation.
The Kurinji's campaigners conduct an annual padayatra from Kodaikanal (Tamil Nadu) to Munnar (Kerala). The aim is to declare the 95 sq. km expanse between Kodaikanal and Munnar, at a height of 1,600 m, as a Kurinji sanctuary.
As a part of these efforts, Chennai-based plant artist O.T. Ravindran has been pleading for a stamp on the Kurinji to be released. He sent a proposal to the Ministry of Communications for a stamp on the Kurinji, along with one of his famous paintings of the Kurinji plant, when in bloom.
The campaigners point out that we are dealing with more than just pretty scenery. The Kurinji has become a symbol for the bio-diversity of the Western Ghats, which has been declared one of the 18 "Hotspots" of the world. And it is in Kurinji land that both the Vaigai and the Amaravathi rivers originate.
Hence the plea to protect it.
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