Earth Sublime

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Pichavaram – Unique Mangrove ecosystem

Pichavaram was the magnet that had attracted us to Chidambaram and the next morning we were off to explore this precious ecosystem. The12 km drive from Chidambaram is a peaceful one as one meanders through a water canal that runs along one side of the road and green fields on the other. And finally the sign board proclaimed - Pichavaram. Recognising the potential for tourism, the government has taken steps to provide some facilities like a restaurant and a sort of shelter where people can wait their turn for the boat ride in the Pichavaram backwaters. There is also a watch tower from where one gets a good view of the entire place.

We reached the place by around 9.30 am and at that time there weren’t many tourists milling around. We came across a seller selling what looked like a fruit. Once the outer covering is removed, the inside of the fruit tastes rather juicy, somewhat like how jelly tastes. (Palmyra palm -Borassus flabellifer) And it seemed the very thing for summer going by the brisk business that these sellers made. Boats can be hired from the office here – a one hour ride costs Rs. 100 while a 4 hour ride costs Rs. 600. We decided to opt for the latter as the ride would include a visit to the sea as well. So we set out at around 10.10 am with our boatman who called himself Ezhumalai. Motor boats are not allowed here as it would pollute and spoil the beautiful mangroves. Ezhumalai rowed at a leisurely place and bit by bit we lost sight of the waterfront. The waters are just about 3-4 feet deep and there were tiny ripples on the water’s surface.

As we went deeper and deeper into the waters, we could see clearly the mangroves. On enquiring its name, Ezhumalai rattled off the words “Rhizophora apiculata, Rhizophora muconata and avicennia” – the scientific name of these trees and proceeded to inform us that this type of vegetation could be found in only two places in India – the Sunderbans and in Pichavaram. And finally we were able to get a good look at the mangroves. Half submerged in water, it seemed to rest as if on its branches while the leaves looked green, shiny and rather appealing. On closer inspection we noticed that the tree sprouts a stem which grows and embeds itself into the ground or should we say the waters.

Just the way the branches of the banyan tree grow and pierce the ground to become roots below. No beginning and no end. That’s what even the mangroves looked like.

Ezhumalai told us that he would take us through thick mangrove forests for which we would have to cough up another Rs. 150. The Pichavaram backwaters is spread across an area of 20,000 acres crisscrossed with more than 5000 waterways, both natural and man made. True to his word, Ezhumalai took us through a narrow dense waterway with mangroves on either side where even the sunlight could not penetrate. In fact, we had to be careful of the overhanging branches. It was rather silent here which was broken by the cooing of a dove which remained hidden but for its incessant calls.

The ecosystem here sustains not only flora but also avians. We saw a Brahminy kite as well as a large egret perched on the branches waiting to get at the fish that are to be found in large numbers in the backwaters.

As we came out into the open, we noticed a few boats that were anchored close to the trees. Actually, a few fishermen were fishing out here. The sun bore down heavily upon us and we kept ourselves from getting dehydrated by drinking water and fruit juice. Finally, we reached the edge of the backwaters and alighted from our boat. Now for miles and miles we could see sand and the sea also came into our view. Just imagine, only this sandy stretch separates the sea from the backwaters. Isn’t it another one of nature’s wonders?

Ezhumalai took shelter under some thorny bushes and we went to explore the place. No shrieking, shouting crowds here. Save for one soul, the only other person was sleeping blissfully. Actually, it was interesting to see the shelter he had created. The two ends of a blue sail had been tied to two sticks in such a way that it warded off the sun and provided a cool shelter as well. The sail billowed merrily in the breeze and the person slept on, obviously enjoying a nice snooze. The sand was hot to the touch and there was no question of walking barefoot. We saw some coconut palms in the distance and decided to rest there as there was no other shelter here. It was only here that we encountered a family who seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Raghu was quite happy to photograph the many dragonfly swarms found near the coconut and palmyra palms. After some time, we trudged back and saw a few fishermen throwing their nets into the sea.

It was time to bid the place good-bye. Ezhumalai rowed leisurely and to the soft strumming of Eric Clapton’s guitar, we made our way back. As we neared the waterfront, we saw a few children swimming in the backwaters and enjoying themselves thoroughly. Where there was only a small crowd in the morning when we had started out, now large crowds thronged the place and boats full of tourists were setting out into the backwaters.

We decided to climb up the watch tower and the sight from here was wonderful. We saw the backwaters stretching for miles and miles dotted with the mangroves. At one place, there was a nursery where the mangrove saplings had been planted. In fact, students from Annamalai University and M S swaminathan foundation often come here to study this unique ecosystem and much research is done here as it is believed that the mangroves have medicinal properties as well. Actually, the entire place had borne the brunt of the Tsunami that wrecked the east coast in December, 2004. But places where the mangrove vegetation could be found escaped unscathed. In fact, close to the waterfront, there are rows and rows of houses that have provided rehabilitation to the affected.

We lunched here and then drove back. All along the canal, we saw the thorny palm trees, the fruit of which we had enjoyed in the morning. It was time for a good afternoon nap and we did just that.


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