Munnar’s Purple Carpet Season

Set at an altitude of 6000 ft, in Kerala’s Idukki District, Munnar was the favoured summer resort of the erstwhile British rulers in colonial times.

With its unending expanse of tea plantations, pristine valleys, mountains and forests, its exotic species of flora and fauna and its aroma of spice floating in the cool air, Munnar was and is indeed special —a part of Kerala that cannot be portrayed in a single canvas. Somewhere I had read that “Munnar is as relaxing as a cup of tea on a cool evening!” Which makes perfect sense as it is surrounded with undulating slopes covered with green tea bushes.

However, it is now time to add yet another colour to its canvas! This is a special year for Munnar and by the end of July, visitors will throng to this hill station, not to see tea bushes , but the ‘Neelakurinji’ flower (botanical name strobilanthes kunthiana) that covers the slopes of the Anamalai hills near Munnar, like a natural purple flower carpet—a phenomenon that occurs once in 12 years. 

This special flower after which the Nilgiri Hills were named, is not only beautiful but also very unique. The blue-purple flowers had last blossomed on Munnar’s hill slopes in 2006 and happily, this happens to be the 12th year after the last showing—the right time for another phenomenal feast of blue-purple blossoms! 

The Kurinji plant normally grows to a height of about 50 cm or even a little more, while the flowers bloom only from mid July till the end of October—which means that in three and a half months, the plants will die and fade away completely and appear again after 12 whole years. Each shrub is known to reproduce once in its lifetime and dies after flowering. It takes 12 whole years for its seeds to sprout again for another feast of blooms.

Munnar was named because of its strategic location at the confluence of the three rivers— the  Muthirapuzha, Nallathanni and Kundala. In Malayalam, ‘Moonu’ means three and ‘Aru’ means river and both combined created the name of southern India’s most beautiful hill station. Munnar continues to be essentially a tea town, where the largest buildings are tea factories and the most pervasive fragrance is that of tea being cut, torn and curled in the tea factories. 

Needless to say, the Kerala government is very busy indeed—making sure that all the guests who have chosen to visit during this period, have a great experience. Expectations are high as more than a million travellers from abroad are expected. At the Kurinjimala Sanctuary, located within the Idukki District’s sprawling Eravikulam National Park, a number of measures have been implemented to ensure that the rare Kurinji plant is protected during this period when huge numbers of tourists descend on Munnar. 

Guidelines issued by the state government include: no plucking of flowers or plants as these are an endangered species; since the plants grow above an altitude of 1,500m, plucking plants for cultivation will not be fruitful; the flowering areas are strictly no-plastic zones.    Interestingly the Neelakurinji flower also blooms in the Eastern Ghats, but to date Munnar in Kerala, has recorded the highest number of plants spread across almost 3000 hectares of hills. 

The plant is seen as a major sustenance for bees and butterflies while the honey from the Neelakurinji is considered medicinal. The preservation of the plant is thus a very important task and there are a number of groups and NGOs who are working specifically for its protection. 

Another attraction at Munnar, is the majestic Nilgiri Tahr, an endangered species. This mountain goat is found in this hilly region and seen wandering in and out among the Neealkurunji bushes and flowers—a great photo of purple carpeted hills as a background with the Tahr  posing for a shot. These stately looking goat-antelopes were rescued from the edge of extinction by the tea planters who then handed over their guardianship to the State Forest Department. Thanks to the vigilance of their protectors, they are not as wary as they used to be. The Eravikulam National Park is a good place to look and photograph them.

(For more information: The Kerala Tourism Department at www.keralatourism. org/neelakurinji)

Columnist: 
Shona Adhikari