Bucks, Flamingos and certain Tigers
The outline map of Tamil Nadu state looks like a face in profile, with its prominent
" nose" poking inquisitively close to the tippiest tip of our little neighbour ,Srilanka. This nose tip is called Point Calimere . Its tamil name Kodikarai is apt and descriptive as it means " the last shore", a definitive endpoint in ancient times.
On our first visit, sometime during the late 60s, we found the place eerily frozen in Chola time. Remote, jungly, sparsely dotted with tiny clusters of primitive habitations , where ebony skinned, palm-climbing men wore little more than a thong ( or, a "nappy", as the youngest co-traveller observed in all earnestness) and the twig gathering women went topless. But the great expanse of dry evergreens, mangroves and marshlands bore the name " Point Calimere Reserved Forest ", a newly created protected wildlife sanctuary. There was a small checkpost with the usual , rustic barricade of a log weighted at one end with a big rock, the other end tethered with rope to a post. Loosening the knot of the rope tilted the log upwards, allowing passage for the jeep.
The forest trail was short. Clumps of casurina , accacia and other fire-wood worthy trees.Very soon we were on the sandy openland.
With the sun beating down mercilessly, the sun-dazzled sand creating watery mirages and the meager vegetation hardly offering any decent shade, what wildlife could one expect ?
In no time at all we had the answer. What a glorious, though incongruous , sight ! A great herd of chital ( spotted deer ) materialised, almost from nowhere, and started browsing on the green stumps of some cactii sprouting across the sand. As the jeep neared them, they darted and vanished into the same nowhere. It seemed like a thoroughly mixed up montage by a confused artist. Deer, in our minds, belonged in lush tropical jungles, not on baking seashores !
More was in store. The driver, suddenly swerved and started speeding towards the short shrubbery, pointing excitedly, "There ! There !"
I still remember the dreamlike sequence : a dozen slender, beautiful creatures streaming out of the bush and, with ballerina-like grace and liquid movement, leap across our path . Black Buck Antelopes. They streak past, as though powered with springs in their hooves, to a safe distance from us and gather in a group to investigate the intrusion into their haven. Magnificent forms. Regal bearing. Lofty glances.
Wonders did not end with that. As the jeep wandered across the baked marshland and dry casurina groves, we had to pinch ourselves to believe we were not seeing things. Galloping away at the sound of tyres were horses( technically called Feral Ponies) . Manes waving wildly, muscular bodies glistening with robust health, the horses looked awesome . Somehow it was very difficult to think of horses as un-domesticated animals. But there they were : Wild Horses ! Now when i use the figure of speech " wild horses cannot drag me there" i can truthfully say i know what i am talking about !
Bonnet Monkey, Wild Hog, Gray Mongoose, Civet Cat , Monitor Lizards and Jackals also live here. We could catch sight of only some of these.
We dove up to a spot by the surf where an old brick structure stood. We din't fully believe the driver's claim that it was the remnant of a light house Rajaraja Chozhan built. He padded his claim with the fact that Kalki's epic tale "Ponniyin Selvan" mentioned this light house of Kodikarai. However that may have been, we were not too impressed by the little ,broken wall and turned towards the Bay Of Bengal for better entertainment. ( Years later, i discovered that the driver's " tall story" was absolutely true ! The Light house that Rajarajan built, or what little was left of it, finally got swallowed up by the Tsunami of 2004 . There is now a modern light house in addition to the one built by the British.)
At the Beach, we not only found interestingly coloured crabs and burrowing mollusks, but also a great variety of water fowl.
Among seashells we collected were some button like, solid semi-spheres with a whorl like pattern underneath. The driver informed us they were called " Ravanankann" ( ravana's eyes") Eerily, they did look like eyeballs. He had already enlightened us that the palm sized balls of light weight thorny spikes ( apparently an example of seed dispersal by wind) scattered all over the beach, were called " Ravanan Meesai"( ravana's moustache). When one of us held up a small cuttle-bone, we were almost sure he'd call it Ravanan's teeth ! He din't ; he called it Kadal nurai ( sea foam) very useful to clean glass with.
The star attraction of Kodikarai was said to be The Flamingoes. We saw none then, but vowed to come back at the right season to watch them.
We did . And made more trips after that too .
By the begining of 90s, the sanctuary had been expanded to include The Great Vedaranyam Swamp ( with its saltpans)and The Talaignayir Forest to become "The Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary ". This sanctuary is now a great favourite of Bird watchers and is a renowned Habitat&Species Management Area, notified by International Union for Conservation of Nature. In addition to the 130 species of migratory birds that come from far and wide, there are the Olive Ridley Turtles also coming in to lay eggs. Their arrival , i am told, creates great excitement among Nature Lovers , Eco Warriors and Turtle Watchers in this part of the world. These devoted people go and lie in polythene tents in the bug ridden sand the whole night long to catch sight of the Ridleys waddling in at the dead of night to burrow their nests. The world is a beautiful place !
By mid90s, a different kind of migration began to be noticed in Kodikarai. One that caused great concern and anxiety instead of joy. Pink Flamingos are welcome, but Tigers in camoflage clothing ? Srilanka being less than 50 kms. away, maritime security in these godforsaken shores lax or non-existant, boatloads of people started crawling in as strife in the little island escalated. Refugees, deserters, desperadoes,all. Once, our car was denied entry to the sanctuary because Eelam people were setting camp in the casurina groves ! Tut-Tut.....On a subsequent visit, a regular visitor piped up that the deer herds were begining to seem rather decimated. I guess Tigers like venison......The Jain commission notes that Sivarasan and his gang used Kodikarai as entry point in their mission to exterminate poor Rajeev Gandhi.
There almost was a reverse emigration from this coast to the Lankan shores once in ancient, epic times. Sri Rama and his army are said to have reconnoitered this area to study the feasibility of building their sethu from Kodikarai. The project report was apparently rejected by Rama's engineers for whatever reason and they moved to Palk Stait. A hillock with a mantap sheltering a pair of stone feet imprints , called Ramar Padam, stands in Kodikarai as testimony to this story. From atop this hill, the outline of the Lankan shore is clearly visible.
Within the sanctuary area lie two quaint places of worship, popular with the neighbouring townships : Sanyasi Muniswarankoil and Modi mandapam.
Vedaranyam has better security arrangements now. Watch towers for birdwatching have been put up. Poaching is now under control. Fresh water troughs have been thoughtfully dug at many places for thirsting wildlife and these are dutifully filled during cruel summers. A nice guest house called, predictably, "Poonarai Illam " ( or Flamingo House) is now run by the government. When the Tsunami battered the Nagapattinam coast, though there were many human casualities, animals were largely spared. The endangered Black Buck still roams proudly here. May its tribe increase.
Have been curious about the origin of the name Calimere. Heard different theories. Different derivations. The abovementioned, all- knowing jeep driver believed it is an anglicised form of the tamil "Kallimedu" ( Cactus Mound). Some reports trace it to the Portugese Calido Mare ( Warm Seas ). And then there's the usual " mentioned in ancient GrecoRoman writings": Ptolemy or Pliny or someone had called the place " Calligicum ". The present form and spelling is totally British.