Pongal Poo, Tamil for rhododendron

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Rhododendron niligiricum, the southern species of rhododendron, inhabits the highlands of the Nilgiris

Rhododendron niligiricum, the southern species of rhododendron, inhabits the highlands of the Nilgiris

Makara Sankranti, when the sun transits into the house of Capricorn on its northerly trajectory across the firmament, marks an auspicious and festive occasion all over India. In southern India, particularly Tamil Nadu, it is celebrated as Pongal, a four-day harvest festival. The holiday spirit sets in four days before and lasts a good four days after. If you happen to be travelling in Tamil Nadu or Pondicherry during this time and require official papers or permits to be attested, don’t expect to get any work done. Even bribery doesn’t bring a Tamilian out on Pongal. Now it’s up to you to test that claim.

In the vast hinterland and plains of Tamil Nadu, Pongal has many leitmotifs – rice and sugarcane, cows and bullfights (Jallikattu), jaggery, pots overflowing with milk, and yellow flowers. Up in the highlands of the Nilgiris above Ooty, in the land of the Badaga and Toda people, infestations of exotic blue gum, scotch broom, wattle and pine give way to the last stands of shola – thickets of dense, dark evergreen forest interspersed with rolling grassy meadows.

Rhododendron in a Nilgiri shola

Rhododendron in a Nilgiri shola

In January, the wind chill here can chafe the skin and night temperatures drop well below freezing. Fool that I was, I underestimated the Nilgiri winter. Arriving on a January morning well before sunup, I shook like a convulsive reed in my inadequate woollens. It took three glasses of scalding Nilgiri tea to bring me to some kind of homoeothermic equilibrium. An astute cap seller sold me a Rs 25 fleece number that I retain mostly for nostalgia’s sake. Attired poorly thus, I went on an excursion to Kolaribetta, one of the higher peaks in the Mukurthi region at well over 8,500 feet. Even at midday under a bright lemon sun, the wind teased and taunted, and it was biting cold in the shade.

The scenery was stunning and the countryside otherworldly. But what stopped me in my tracks were the bright pink flowers on short, hardy trees with waxen upward-facing leaves. They reminded me of a tree I had seen in the Himalaya. On asking our guide, a local forester, I was told that this was Pongal Poo, so known for it blooms for a brief period during Pongal. The rest of the year the tree is flowerless.

The flowers against the meadows of the shola

The flowers against the meadows of the shola

It was Rhododendron niligiricum, the southern race of the rhododendron, and the trees were in rapturous bloom with bright pink flowers. This race occurs only in the highest elevations of the Western Ghats and here, at over 7,000 feet, conditions were just right for it. For me, it was a happy discovery to experience a touch of the Himalaya in this ethereal landscape.

Happy Pongal to all my friends! Remember to say it with flowers.

Read a kaleidoscopic post on Rhododendrons at The Green Ogre

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