The Nilgiri ranges (translated in English as blue hills) that straddle the state boundary between Kerala and Tamil Nadu on the Western Ghats in South India are getting ready for the magical blooming of Neelakurinji plants next year – the plants that give the hills their name. It is a feast for the eyes when whole hillsides turn purple-blue as the gregarious flowering herbs blossom to complete their 12-year-long life cycle. The plants, known to botanists as Strobyllanthes kunthianus, soon wither away, dispersing seeds across the mountain slopes.
Though there are several varieties of Neelakurinji plants that blossom at different intervals ranging from yearly to 18 years, it is the one with the 12-year-cycle that has caught people’s imagination because of its sheer area that it covers.
The plant is an unassuming hardy herb that grows in unobtrusive clusters on the hill slopes of this tahr (Nilgiri tahr) country and more dense along the edges of the shola forests (of high-altitude evergreen vegetation). Though these plants grow in clusters, they are hard to notice as they vie for space with the other herbs and grasses. But they are abundant on the hills spanning Munnar in Kerala’s Idukki district and Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu’s Dindigul district.
On the Kerala side, Munnar is a breezy three-hour drive through the soothingly green countryside from the coastal city of Kochi. After leaving the plains, the driver will have to negotiate a steeply climbing road with a series of sharp bends. While the road winds its way through rubber plantations in the lower reaches, plots with pepper stands begin to appear as the climb gets higher. Shrubs laden with other spices like nutmeg and star spice zoom past the car window. On the upper reaches enriched by the aroma of cardamom there is a marked snip in the air as it gets refreshingly crisper. Hills carpeted by panoramic tea plantations begin roll by. The ceaseless carousal outside the window is an absorbing show of picture slides of different hues of green.
The tea town of Munnar is nestled at the base of a shallow valley like a sliver of cream sticking to the bottom of a teacup. Beyond 1,000 meters and above Neelakurinji plants line the edge of the tea plantations and it is easy to miss them unless they are in bloom. The herbs peep out of the grass carpeting the rolling hills in the upper ranges and may not be noticed until they burst in blooms in August. The blooming continues until the end of October and odd plants that break into blooms could be sported right December.
The Kerala tourism authorities including the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation are preparing for the season that usually begins in August and lasts until after October. The forest department and tourism authorities are collaborating to ensure a great experience for the visitors. Several hotels and resorts also offers special Kerala tourism packages. While in Kerala you could consider trying out Kerala ayurveda which is a great way to feel rejuvenated.
The weather begins to get better by August and it could get pleasantly cool by September. Beyond that the visitors will need winter clothing, though it never snows. Blazers are a must as the breeze could get strong at times and intermittent drizzles are the norm. Trekking up the hills is the best way to watch the flowers up close. In fact there will be hardly any plants close to the main road. So the visitors must get ready for some hard trekking experience.
Eravikulam National Park, the entry of gate of which is in Rajamala, about ten kilometers from Munnar town, is perhaps the best place experience the charm of Munnar. This dedicated tahr sanctuary and the more frequently than not the visitors get to see the tahr up close. The herds will have any number of recently weaned fidgety kids that bound about the slopes.
The protected area also supports a good population of wild Asiatic elephants that saunter into the nearby tea estates. Many lucky visitors get to watch them up close, munching away the tufts of grass they pull out of the ground. But the selfie-mad visitors must beware getting close to them because these elephants are not shy of humans and there have been reports of attacks. They are best given the respect they deserve, keeping in mind that we are on their territory and their will must prevail. Occasionally visitors may come across different kinds of deer or even a wild buffalo herd that are shy animals, loving to put quite a distance between them and approaching humans. So for watching them for longer periods, it is better to remain as unobstrusive as possible.
Munnar has a range of hotels suitable for different budgets. But it is prudent to have them booked in advance to avoid frustration .The hotel rates also skyrocket during the period and unwary holidaymakers could see a hole shot through their pockets. There are quite a few home-stays and those the less formally inclined could explore one of these.
The Team Museum is a reviving stop for aficionados of the morning cuppa. One would be amazed to know the history of this native Chinese drink made from the shrub that humans befriended first as a medicinal plant and then as a recreational beverage from sometime in the seventh century.
There is plenty of time to plan and book your trip for a rare experience of the mountains blooming blue. Catch it now, or who knows you will never have another opportunity again.