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A Rare Bloom Is Fading

The celebrated kurinji flowers only once every 12 years in a region of India. Experts fear habitat loss may end its magical cycle forever.

September 26, 2006|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

KODAIKANAL, India — On its own, the kurinji is a modest little flower, nothing you'd expect would send grown men into fits of rapture.

But blanket entire hillsides and valleys with it -- millions of blue and purple blooms as far as the eye can see -- and suddenly civil servants are transformed into poets.

"We were walking in early morning and it was covered by mist, and suddenly the mist cleared as if somebody lifted a curtain," said S. Theodore Baskaran, a naturalist and retired postmaster. "And suddenly there was this vast landscape of flowers in front of us, the whole landscape up to the horizon covered in blue.... It was a very dramatic and kind of a transcendental experience."

Such kurinji-induced euphoria is an infrequent occurrence, and not just because the flower is found in only one place on Earth: the chain of mountains in southern India known as the Western Ghats.

Unlike the annual bloom of poppies in Southern California's Antelope Valley, the delicate kurinji appears just once every 12 years.

Baskaran has witnessed its glories only twice in three decades: in 1982, when he stumbled across the flower for the first time, then again in 1994. This year, he looked forward to having an opportunity to fall under the kurinji's spell once more.

But anticipation among kurinji lovers has given way to dismay with the discovery that human intervention is robbing the flower of its natural habitat at a rapidly accelerating rate, through encroachment and the introduction of nonnative species in the high-elevation grasslands where it flourishes.

In many parts of the Western Ghats, the kurinji bushes that enliven the hills every dozen years are fighting to survive, increasingly squeezed by invading newcomers onto scattered, shrinking patches of land, like lakes of color steadily drying up.

For some, the swift devastation is nothing short of catastrophic, a rupture not only in the natural world but also in cultural tradition. The kurinji is celebrated in the ancient literature of south India, and some hill tribes revere it to this day. The members of one tribe even calculate their ages according to how many of the spectacular mass flowerings they've witnessed.

To watch the unraveling of such an established thread in the fabric of local life is painful, said John Britto, a botanist and Jesuit priest here in the state of Tamil Nadu.

"It's impossible to digest that fact and accept it. As a person of this land and culture, it would be a terrible loss -- a whole sense of cultural history being lost," Britto said. "We are wedded to the soil, to the land, to the plants, and that link between man and nature is getting lost. That's irreparable."

The takeover of the kurinji's turf is being led by acacia, pine and eucalyptus trees, foreign species that multiply quickly and guzzle water. Some of these were first planted in the 19th century by British colonialists, who wanted a ready source of firewood and regarded the native vegetation as ugly and useless.

Since then, and especially in the last two decades, cultivation of these trees has turned into an important industry -- acacia for use in leather-tanning, pine for making crates, eucalyptus for oil. Tea and cardamom have also become cash crops in the area.

The proliferation of commercial plantations is helping to destroy the mountain grasslands, a finely balanced ecosystem for which the kurinji serves both as a symbol of nature's abundance and as a bellwether of development's depredations.

"It's a flagship species. It's an indicator of loss of habitat," said Tanya Balcar, an Englishwoman who moved here more than 20 years ago.

"You can still find some blue bits. You can still find patches," said Balcar, who helped establish a nonprofit organization, the Vattakanal Conservation Trust, to try to save the grasslands. But "it's nothing like it should be or was."

Record of the kurinji's stunning effusions every 12 years dates back 2,000 years, when Tamil poets praised the flower's beauty and rarity.

"From my schooldays I read poems about kurinji," Baskaran said. "There are various references. They say that the honey collected from this particular flower is the best. A poet goes to the court of a king and says, 'O king, who serves the honey from the kurinji flower to guests, may you long live!' "

In Hindu mythology, the god Shiva's second son, Murugan, wore a garland of kurinji when he married; a temple dedicated to him, the Kurinji Andavar, sits on a hilltop here in Kodaikanal, with commanding views of the countryside below.

The kurinji plant comes in a number of varieties, blooming in shades from pinkish white to pale violet and in differing cycles, such as every three, four or 10 years.

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