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India Culture Beat: World’s 2nd-largest mangrove forest at Pichavaram, Tamil Nadu

For most of us Indian coastal city-slickers, mangroves are nature’s protective mechanisms in the tropics that work to human advantage by maintaining the balance between sea and shoreline. Never mind that what we actually see of them along our city shorelines is their ruthless decimation in the interests of land reclamation for ever more apartment buildings. Those that survive are festooned with filthy plastic bags, rags and other urban wastes, and swamped in the stench of rotting human excreta and stagnant mosquito breeding grounds.

Mangrove ‘forests’ are distant phenomena for us. Until Amitav Ghosh brought alive the tidal islands and fragile eco-system of the Sunderbans, and the even more vulnerable lives of its human settlers in his exquisitely crafted book The Hungry Tide, most of us of the older generation probably never went beyond associating the largest mangrove forest in the world with the Royal Bengal Tiger. With tigers and lions rapidly becoming extinct in India, young IPL cricket fans may be forgiven if they think that Sourav Ganguly is the only Royal Bengal Tiger.

Well, I had the surprise of my life when, on a recent nostalgic journey to the ancient temple town of Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu, one of the cities of my ancestors, I discovered that the second largest mangrove forests in the world were just 15 km. away! Funny thing is, I have grown up on stories of Chidambaram: its ancient Siva-Nataraja Temple, the exquisite Tamil poetry that it inspired, and the modern university that stands on land endowed by my grandfather. My story-teller was my mother:  she was born there, graduated from its university, and celebrates all the Nataraja festivals wherever in the world she may be.  But I had never ever heard her mention the mangrove forests!

Quite clearly, the grand 1500 year-old temple – that uniquely and exquisitely celebrates the rhythm of the cosmos symbolized by Siva’s Ananda Tandava (dance of bliss) in the same breath that it reminds devotees that God is formless (the Chidambara Rahasiyam) – is so overwhelming, that one has to have a singular environmental focus to discover that Chidambaram is severally blessed and sacred.

After our visit to the Temple, we drove down a narrow winding country road with cropland stretching away on either side, until we arrived at the village of Killai, the final human habitation before the mangroves. We were pleasantly surprised to find our car stopped by a villager manning a crude ‘toll’ gate, receipt book in hand. He pointed to a sign-board on the house wall behind him that announces that the village is the official custodian of the local environment; it also requests visitors to observe simple norms of environmental protection. Our local guide told us that the village uses the revenue from tourists to keep the environs clean.

A short walk from the car to the jetty brings us to an incredible vista. A gigantic expanse of water stretches up to the horizon reflecting the cloudless blue sky, the surface rippling with tiny waves. Rising out of the water are several brilliant green islands, thick with glistening trees.  Here and there we can see that the ‘lake’ gives way to winding canals lined by thickly forested banks. What is peculiar, not only about the  the scene before us, but also about the jetty where we stand,  is the total silence.  And this, despite the presence of several people, including children, waiting their turn for the boats.  I realize that I have not seen a single vendor hawking foodstuff or souvenirs, nor indeed any eatery since we left Chidambaram city.  By now we can’t wait to get into our boat to explore this silent and seemingly timeless landscape.

Pichavaram is the ancient name given to the roughly 3000 acres of wetlands that lie between the land and the sea in this part of central Tamil Nadu. Here, a network of over 4000 gently flowing canals loop around nearly 1500 islands of dense mangroves. These are backwaters, into which the sea flows and ebbs with the tide, mixing saline water with the fresh waters of the Vellar and Coleroon rivers that flow into the sea near here. Together they form a unique estuarine eco-system that supports several species of mangroves and marine life, and local and migratory birds. Thickly leaved trees grow tall and strong here, their dense roots firmly wedged in just a few feet of water and silt. The strange sight of huge brilliant-white patches in the glistening green foliage proves to be white nesting water birds.

We drift down the canals in our rowing boat steered by a local fisherman. Even the softly lapping oars seem intrusive in the silence of the canals, and we rest oars every now and again – to marvel at the dense crisscrossing of roots, witness the awesome flight of a cormorant, egret, heron, or any of the numerous birds from out of the undergrowth… But mostly just to soak in the stillness of this altogether different world that we have entered. The heat of the fierce mid-afternoon April sun is totally neutralized by the delicious breeze that comes calling across the water expanse. And as the evening sky lights up the water with shades of orange and pink, the feeling of being suspended in time is total.

It is hard to fly high for very long in India without coming back to earth with a thud. As we near the jetty, we notice the intrusive telecommunications and electricity towers on the banks that we had missed in our earlier eagerness to set sail. Our boatman tells us that the vibrations from these towers have pushed the birds deeper into the undergrowth. He remembers a time – before the high tension wires came along – when the tree tops were even thicker than they are now with sitting birds.

These development disasters notwithstanding, the Tamil Nadu government is also doing some good things here. It has terminated the permissions given earlier to resorts and eateries. So, although the abandoned buildings of some erstwhile resort give the shores a shabby look, one feels grateful that there are no human beings populating them. A conscious policy of afforestation and conservation is slowly improving the density and spread of the forest. Forgotten traditional fishing practices that protected against overexploitation of marine resources, and earlier kept local fishing communities self-sufficient, are gradually being revived among the native communities and taught to new settlers. The cutting of mangrove trees for firewood by both old and new residents, and the commercialization of prawn fishing by new settlers in the area, is also being addressed.
(For more on this, see “Fishing by turns”, by S. Subramanian of the Fisherfolk Organisation for Advancement, Chennai.

In all the centuries that the magnificent Nataraja temple has stood in nearby Chidambaram, there has been no record of tsunami-like waves or cyclonic storms causing damage to the region. Even the recent tsunami that devastated vast stretches of the Tamil Nadu coastline found that in Pichavaram its fury was blunted and its power neutralized by the firm wall of criss-crossing roots that the mangroves support. There is still a long way to go for the full regeneration of the Pichavaram forest, and even now the local mangrove species teeter precariously between ‘vulnerable’ and ‘endangered’ status.  In the meanwhile, one hopes that the pristine beauty of the region does not prompt unthinking tourism promotion strategies such as entertainment “festivals” –  in the name of  ‘raising revenues for environmental protection’ –   that might flood the gentle waters with loud and boorish city crowds.