A Day out in Munnar: Post XVI - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India


After having written many ‘long’ articles I will now need to post in rapid succession some brief overviews of a large number of activities so that I can catch up to the present moment. You will have realised by now that my posts are not happening in chronological order. This post was started the day after my first post on Munnar a few weeks back. Here is part two.

I had dinner with another guest of the High Range Club, Nicholas Drayson, last evening. It turns out Nicholas is a noted naturalist author (not naturist)and novelist. I would like to add my own commendation to what i have read but I have only just begun one of his earlier novels he gifted me and thus cannot comment yet. He is currently living on a houseboat in the UK and has decided to do some of the writing for his new novel in India during the English winter. I invited him for a day out further up the mountains which he accepted. 


Our morning goal was Top Station on the Kerala/ Tamil Nadu border. It is the highest point, 1600m, on the interstate road. The road up to Top Point switchbacks and winds its way through extraordinarily beautiful scenery,  lakes, temples, forests, and the the every present tea bushes. The very rare Neelakurunji flower grows here. When it flowers it covers the mountain slopes with violet blossoms. Unfortunately it only flowers every twelve years and the next time is not until 2018.

Munnar Day Out I

Munnar Day Out II

Munnar Day Out III

Munnar Day Out IV

Munnar Day Out V

The high mountains are sparsely populated being mostly covered by the tea plantation itself. I imagine most of the small hamlets are composed of tea  pickers and their families. There are a few small Hindu temples and the occasional tiny church along the way, usually seen off in the distance. Yet there exists in profusion small roadside Hindu shrines. I love these. Every one we visited turned out to be Shivite (worshippers of the god Shiva). Shiva is a pre Vedic god of the Dravidians who became associated with Rudra of the Rig-Veda to become the great Creator, Sustainer and Destroyer God of India. The Shiva lingam (phallic symbol of fertility and creation)as well as his son, Lord Ganesha, were found in a number of shrines. Lord Ganesha is the remover of all obstacles and the god of Wisdom. In the photograph below you can just see the nose of his rat mount Mooshika poking out from the bottom frame.

Lord Ganesha

Munnar Day Out VI

Roadside Hindu Shrine

At the Roadside Shrine

Munnar Day Out VII

Lord Ganesha Again

Next to this image of Lord Ganesha are two Nagakal, images of the snake gods the Naga.

Nicholas Drayson and Lord Ganesha

Of course at the end of the morning after reaching Top Point the clouds rolled in spoiling any chance of a view. The driver was thrilled, as he had never seen the clouds that thick. I was not so excited. I must admit, however, that it was rather eerie wandering past huddled groups of Indians selling coconuts or snacks or simply resting in the mists while listening to the wind and exotic bird song.

Munnar Day Out VIII 

For our afternoon trip we had to come back to Munnar and take another range up the mountains. This range is much less used and much therefore had fewer people, cars, or dwellings. Our goal this time was Eravikulum National Park, the last stronghold of the world's rarest goat – the Nilgiri tahr. Their natural friendliness to humans brought them to the brink of extinction during the colonial era when everyone went crazy about hunting everything that moved. The future Duke of Wellington, when on leave from fighting Tipu Sultan, remarked on the pathetic nature of the creature’s self preservation instinct. They continued to gormlessly wander through the British camp even though the soldiers would shoot them, often without even having to leave their tents. Since Independence they have been brought back from the brink of extinction and there are herds of them here. This was accomplished partially through the extensive conservation work of the American biologist Clifford Rice.

Nilgiri Tahr

Of course when we got there we found the park was closed for six weeks as it was breeding season for the goats. The fact that we has asked several officials in Munnar about the park and were given instruction on how to get there not a one mentioned it was closed. I have begun to get used to this remarkable trait of only responding to what is asked and not entering into the ‘spirit’ of why the question is being asked in the first place. I am consistently being reminded of the Inspector Clouseau scene about the dog: “Does your dog Bite?”.

Nicholas and I then agreed to drive even further up the mountain to try our luck at the remote Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary.



Along the way we passed more and more roadside shrines that had increasing numbers of Nagakals (Naga Idols). The Nagas  (snake gods) of Kerala were the original rulers who were made to give up the land to the Brahmins by Parasurama One of the Avataras of the god Vishnu). As a result Brahmins (and Nairs) are supposed to keep Sarppakkavu, serpent groves, for the snakes to live in. If a family cannot maintain their grove it is a dishonour and they must atone for it and pass maintenance over to the temple.

It is odd to see an increasing number of shrines to cobra gods as we get further and further away from an urban center. Of course, if you think about it, it makes perfect sense even if it does give you an uneasy felling that you must keep suppressed until back in a town with an ample supply of anti-venom.

Naga Lingum I Think

Munnar Day Out IX

Munnar Day Out X

Another Roadside Shrine

Along the way we passed through the famous sandalwood grove outside of the bazaar town of Marayoor, the only town between Munnar and the Tamil Nadu border. It is the only sandalwood forest in Kerala and covers almost 92 square kilometres and contains 60,000 trees. The forest is fenced off and has constant survelance by guards but still the trees get felled by poachers on a regular basis.

Sandlewood Tree in Marayoor

When we finally reached the wildlife sanctuary we were told that it had stopped its walks some two hours ago and because of panthers, wild elephants and the possible tiger we could not get out of the car a walk anywhere at all. So back we went without even the chance of a glimpse of the almost mythical White Bison of Manjampatti (probably an albino Indian gaur). Although there were two forlorn looking monkeys sitting on the wall somehow channelling my feelings with their drooped depressed faces. This monkey, for those really paying attention, you have already seen.

Forlorn Monkey

They were right about the wild elephants. I saw them first and told the driver calmly to slow down as there were wild elephants on the road up ahead. He ignored me while listening to his Michael Jackson Thriller CD for the 23rd time. I tried again with no luck so I had to resort to yelling “Elephants! Stop!”. That worked but resulted in the slamming on of the breaks and him being momentarily overcome by his shock of seeing them (although we had been warned there were wild elephants along the roadside). Wild elephants can be very dangerous especially if you meet a lone bull elephant on the road. These were females. I thought we would wait until they moved off the road. Instead it was like we were in Scotland with a herd of sheep we kind of drove 'through' them.

Nicholas at a Waterfall

So although technically, none of the things we tried to do ended up working out it was a wonderful day out. Nicholas was a delightful conversationalists and we talked in depth about life, the universe and everything in the way that strangers are often able to do much more easily than friends. He also taught me an important grammatical lesson: poisonous is the word used when something you eat poisons you, while venomous describes a creature that has poison in its bite or claws (or any character played by Betty Davis).

The landscape was beautiful and we had the leisure to see it. We stopped and saw idols of snake gods, drank fresh coconut water straight from the coconut, went for walks, talked and basked in the coolness and the beauty of this delightful piece of India.It was a treat for me to spend some time with a well educated, friendly, and down to earth man for a few hours in the midst of this whirlwind of a trip. I often find this is the case when travelling - sometimes you overlap with someone for a day or two and it somehow acts as a point of focus that allows new pattern or directions for thoughts and feelings to meander allong. 

I especially loved coming across this football (soccer) field in the middle of nowhere and watching the boys from God knows where playing away the late afternoon light.

Boys Playing Football (soccer)

Munnar Day Out XII

Did you notice the waterfall is the photograph above?