After a wait of 12 years, neelakurinji flowers will return to Western Ghats

‘Carpeting’ of the neelakurinji flowers in the Eravikulam National Park in Kerala | Photo: Balan Madhavan
Of the 12 cardinal sins that are said to guarantee one a spot in the fiery halls of hell, gluttony is the one most likely to take me there. I find myself unable to resist appams fresh off the stove, served with spicy motta (egg) curry and hot cardamom tea. “Chechi [older sister], you do know we have to drive uphill,” a cousin reminds me. That makes me stop at my fifth appam.

Our agenda for the day is a visit to the rolling hills of the Eravikulam National Park, about 15 km from the tourist hotspot of Munnar in Kerala. Then, we’d drive down the ghats for a boat ride on the Periyar river. While the latter also gives its name to a national park that features an elephant and tiger sanctuary, Eravikulam is home to a species of endangered mountain goat with an exotic name: the Nilgiri tahr.

When we finally reach the park after over an hour’s drive from Adimali, a small town in the foothills of Munnar, the most unexpected bit isn’t the scenery — the views from Munnar have long been described as “breathtaking”. Instead, it’s the queue that starts at the ticket counter and snakes its way out of the waiting area and extends to the end of the road, with people unmindful of the constant light drizzle. This is nothing, says the lady ahead of me. “Just wait till August,” she says, munching on country carrots  sold by enterprising hawkers on the prowl. “Neelakurinji thirich varunnu.” The neelakurinji is coming back.

A bud of the neelakurinji flower that is expected to bloom by August | Photo: Balan Madhavan
Kurinji, known as Strobilanthes kunthianu, is a shrub with over 40 species in India alone. Mentioned in classical Tamil literature, the kurinji is part of the threatened ecosystem of the Shola grasslands. But what makes the neel (blue) variety special is that it blooms only once in 12 years. After mass blooms in 1994 and 2006, the neelakurinji is expected to return in all its spectacular glory this August.

“Since we’ve had very heavy rainfall this year, I’d say the full blooms will happen by the end of August and after,” says Balan Madhavan, a senior fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. The blooms are expected to last till October.

In 1994, when Madhavan was doing a photo-documentation project for the forest department, he remembers the Eravikulam National Park’s green landscape transforming itself into a tourist magnet almost overnight. “It was as if someone had thrown a blue carpet over the mountains,” says Madhavan.

While a standalone neelakurinji flower is pretty, it’s the “carpeting” (some call it “blanketing”) feature of the plants seen en masse that paints a majestic sight. There was a time when every 12 years these flowers would envelop the mountains from Kodaikanal to Munnar in blue. But, today, after the boom in tea and cardamom plantations, along with the urbanisation fuelled by tourism for “honeymoon hill stations”, much of the grasslands for these blooms is lost. But, under the protection of the Eravikulam National Park, the plants survive. 

The endangered Nilgiri tahr at the park | Photo: Balan Madhavan
On either side of the road to Munnar are tea plantations and small waterfalls, and in the distance are green hills which routinely have their heads buried in a sea of floating clouds. You may spot the neelakurinji elsewhere in the montane ecosystem of the Western Ghats, but the highest concentration of these blooms can now only be seen at Eravikulam. 

Though the national park always sees a fair amount of tourists trying to catch a glimpse of the stocky Nilgiri tahr, 2006 saw lakhs more pour in to see the neelakurinji. “We’ve decided to limit tourists to the national park to 3,500 daily,” an officer of the Munnar forest department tells me.

For the past two blooms, tourists have been trying to take the plant home. But since it can only bloom at an elevation of 1,500 metres, the need for eco-friendly regulation is paramount. The tourism department has already opened ticket bookings online (munnarwildlife.com). One can also visit a few months later, to collect jars of fresh “kurinji honey”, which, I’m told, is especially dark after honey bees have a “feast of a lifetime”. 

By then, the clock for the next bloom will start ticking again. By then, too, the landscape will darken as the kurinji dies on itself, leaving only stumps and the Nilgiri tahr behind. However, they will continue to be revered by the adivasi population in these parts; it is claimed that when the god Murugan married a tribal woman called Valli, he sported a garland of kurinjis. It’ll also always be used by locals to mark the passage of time: the wait is nearly over.

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