Covering an area of over 130,000 square kilometers, India’s southern-most state has a variety of landscapes, terrains and habitats. There are beautiful, wave-lapped golden beaches and emerald green paddy fields; lush tropical forests and cool mountain ranges. There is a staggering variety of flowers, trees, birds, mammals, marine life, insects and reptiles, a nature-made counterpoint to the cultural and historical riches of the state. It is mineral-rich, with abundant reserves of lignite, quartz, feldspar, bauxite, limestone, graphite and granite.
Tamil Nadu has a rich diversity of plants, animals, birds, insects and aquatic life, a good proportion of it native to the state. It has taken an active role in the conservation of this natural heritage, and has set up and developed active eco-tourism and management programmes.
Ancient Tamil poetry describes five geographical landscapes in Tamil country, each evoking a particular emotional state and imagery. These are Kurinji, or mountainous regions; Mullai, or forests; Marudham, the fertile croplands and plains; Neidhal, or the seashore, and Palai, the desert or wasteland. All of these exist in Tamil Nadu, and are a lovely framework to explore the natural landscape of the state.
There are several mountain and hill ranges in Tamil Nadu. Foremost among these are the Anamalais, or the Elephant Hills, that rise sharply from the plains past Coimbatore. Geologically, they are formed from metamorphic gneiss, with veins of feldspar and quartz, and a scattering of reddish porphyrite. The Anamudi Mountain, at over 2600 meters high, is the tallest point in all of South India. The Anamalais are part of the Western Ghats, the ridged edge of the Deccan Plateau, that run along India’s western flank. This is one of the most bio-diverse spots in the world, the habitat for a staggering variety of flora and fauna. The Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park, Tamil Nadu’s largest wildlife sanctuary, is in the Anamalais. It is a birder’s dream come true with over 300 bird species, including the Great Pied Hornbill and the extremely rare Frogmouth. Animals include tigers, leopards, elephants, Nilgiri tahr and flying squirrels.
Further north, and also part of the Western Ghats at the meeting point of 3 states - Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu - are the Nilgiris or the Blue Mountains. With at least two dozen peaks that rise above 2000 meters, they are probably best known as the home of the hill stations of Uthagamandalam (Ootacamund) and Coonoor, that are popular retreats from the searing summer heat for people from all over Tamil Nadu and beyond. One of the first wildlife sanctuaries to be established in India, the Mudumalai National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, is in the Nilgiris, and is home to several threatened and endangered species like elephants, chital, gaur, tigers and leopards. Like the Indira Gandhi Park, the Mudumalai Park is also a tiger reserve, and the government is active in protecting and conserving the habitat and lives of the tigers in these reserves.
The Western Ghats receive abundant rainfall and provide fertile ground for the coffee, tea and spice plantations that thrive on its hillsides.
In addition to the Western Ghats, Tamil Nadu also includes the tail-end of the Eastern Ghats, an irregular and broken chain of hills and mountains running along eastern India. The Eastern Ghats end, somewhat tamely, near the Vaigai River in Tamil Nadu. The Shevaroy Hills and the hill-station of Yercaud in the northern part of the state, are perhaps the best-known of the Eastern Ghat ranges in Tamil Nadu.
Roughly one-sixth of Tamil Nadu is forested land. Variations in climate, altitude, soil, water, topography and other factors result in the different forest types that are found in the state. There are wet evergreen forests and moist deciduous forests, dry deciduous and shola, grasslands, scrub forests and even mangrove forests.. Precious trees like sandalwood, teak and rosewood grow in these forests, and are a vital part of the state’s natural heritage.
Within these forests is a stunning variety of flora, and with well over 5000 species of plants, Tamil Nadu ranks first in India in floral diversity. These include endemic species, endangered species, medicinal plants and wild relatives of cultivated plants. The forests are also home to a variety of aquatic habitats that harbour hundreds of fish, amphibian, reptilian, insect and bird species.
With such a wealth of natural riches, Tamil Nadu has established many sanctuaries and parks to protect, conserve and manage the life within them. The state has ten wildlife sanctuaries, largest among which are the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary and Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary. Others include the Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary in Nagapattinam district, where the endangered blackbuck lives, and whose swamps are home to many avian species; and the Srivilliputhur Grizzled Squirrel Wildlife Sanctuary in the southern part of the state. There are five National Parks, including Guindy National Park that lies smack in the city of Chennai, and has the rarest vegetation type of the Tamil Nadu forests, the tropical dry evergreen variety. Among the smallest of the National Parks, it plays a huge role in nature conservation and education.
The forests of Tamil Nadu, teeming with a variety of wildlife, boast three tiger reserves: the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, all within the Western Ghat mountain ranges. These mountains and forests are home to some of India’s oldest tribal communities who have lived there for generations and subsisted through gathering and hunting the forest’s offerings. Now that these areas are protected, and that any hunting is forbidden, the government has handled what could have been a potentially difficult situation by involving the tribal people in their education and conservation efforts. Taking advantage of their immense wealth of knowledge about the life of the forest, the forest officials enlisted their support to help protect the very things they had hunted. They are now employed in surveying, habitat improvement, tourism work and monitoring of nesting trees.
The Western Ghats are known for their shola forests. The name for these evergreen forests comes from the Tamil word “solai”, meaning luxuriant growth of trees. The sholas of South India are part of the Indo-Malay tropical forest belt. The trees here are short, compared to those in other tropical forests. A unique feature of this shola is that it occurs amidst stretches of open grassland. This juxtaposition has intrigued and fascinated scientists, as it forms a unique ecosystem not seen anywhere else. It harbors an exceptional variety of fauna, including the Nilgiri Langur, the Hornbill, and the Nilgiri Tahr, an endangered mountain goat. Alas, this shola, which once stretched continuously for mile after mile through the Western Ghats was exploited and destroyed, with tea, cardamom and teak displacing much of the indigenous flora. Large swathes of the shola have been wiped out. The parks and sanctuaries here are some of the few remaining areas where the original shola-grassland ecosystem remains intact.
CROPLAND AND PLAINS: MARUDHAM
Much of eastern Tamil Nadu is fertile cropland. Emerald green paddy fields ripple gently into the horizon, interspersed with dense groves of banana, coconut and mango. The tropical lushness everywhere is one of the most soothing, loveliest sights anywhere. The heartland of this agricultural luxuriance are the plains and delta of the great Kaveri River.
Originating from the forested heights of the Brahmagiri Hills of Karnataka, the Kaveri, South India’s most sacred river, flows south-eastwards across Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, across lush vegetation and through twisted gorges, cascading in a series of spectacular waterfalls, for over 700 kilometers before emptying itself into the Bay of Bengal south of Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu. Once it descends into the plains, it spreads its largess through several tributaries, forming a vast and fertile delta, the Rice Bowl of India.Ancient systems of irrigation and modern hydroelectric dams combine to make the over 72,000 square kilometers of the Kaveri basin one of the most bountiful areas of India.
The Kaveri River enters Tamil Nadu in the district of Dharmapuri and announces its arrival in the most spectacular way at the Hogenakkal Falls, India’s Niagara. Here, a drop in the elevation of the land, combined with the growing volume of the river, results in these breathtaking falls with their huge plume of mist and booming roar. The waters here are thought to have healing properties, as the river has flowed through forests filled with medicinal plants. The richly wooded forest all around, the towering trees, the rocky outcrops in the river and the exhilarating mist make this one of the most beautiful places in Tamil Nadu. The carbonatite rocks in the area are believed to be among the oldest of their kind in the world.
The wild river is tamed after its thunderous incarnation at Hogenakkal. The dam at Mettur, an engineering marvel that harnesses the Kaveri’s waters for irrigation and electricity purposes, subdues and tempers the river as it widens and grows in its journey through the plains, joined by the River Bhavani, Noyyal, and others. After sweeping past Thiruchirappalli, the river divides itself as it flows around the sacred island of Srirangam. Near here is the Kallanai, also called the Grand Anicut, an ancient dam built on the river around 2000 years ago by the Chola king Karikalan. And a little further downstream, near the majestic temple city of Thanjavur, the now expansive river breaks up into innumerable channels that wend their way through the fertile paddy fields of the plains, forming a massive delta. Here, the lovely Kaveri has been a silent witness and spectator to the rise and fall of the great Chola Empire, the incomparable music of Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshithar and Syama Sastri, the ebb and flow centuries of life.
Tamil Nadu has approximately 1000 kilometers of coastline, the third-longest in India. Most of it runs along the Bay of Bengal, and a small portion, at the southern extremity of the country, touches the Indian Ocean as well as the Arabian Sea.
It is a beautiful coastline, with golden sands, and groves of wispy casuarina as well as mango, coconut and banana. There are beautiful temples and abandoned forts along the coast, but the natural beauty and coastal ecosystems are fascinating and lovely in their own right. There are lagoons, mangroves and coral reefs, in addition to the beaches and estuaries. Some of the most important coastal areas from an ecological and nature standpoint include Pulicat, with its lagoon, the mangrove forests of Pichavaram and Nagapattinam and the Gulf of Mannar in Ramnad District with its coral reefs.
Pulicat Lake, India’s second largest brackish-water lake or lagoon, is at the northern limit of Tamil Nadu, straddling both this state and Andhra Pradesh to the north. The lagoon, with its varying degrees of salinity, is stunningly rich in biodiversity. The Pulicat Lake Bird Sanctuary lies here, a welcoming home to many species of aquatic and terrestrial birds. To its waters, teeming with phytoplankton and zooplankton, flock over 15,000 greater flamingos every year. The sight and sound of the vast numbers these pink-tinged beauties is simply unforgettable. Pelicans, kingfishers, herons and painted storks are just a few of the other bird species that can be found in Pulicat.
With its abundant marine life, fishing and fisheries are the main commercial occupations in the area.There are over 3 dozen marine species here, including a teeming population of prawns, crabs, catfish and mullet.
Around 250 kilometers south of Chennai, in the district of Cuddalore, is the Pichavaram Mangrove Forest, the world’s second largest. It is an amazing place, a world like no other, with large numbers of islets that disappear and reappear with the tides, linked by an ever-changing network of canals, channels and creeks, all under a canopy of green trees. It is a unique ecosystem here, with trees that have aerial roots, seaweeds and seagrasses, rare varieties of aquatic life, and a healthy population of birds of over 200 varieties, including waterfowl, cormorants, egrets, storks, herons, spoonbills and pelicans.
The mangrove ecosystem is extremely complex and can be divided into several zones, depending on the location and soil composition, among other factors.
Further down the coast are the coastal wetlands of Vedaranyam in Nagapattinam District. With tidal flats, salt pans, salt marshes and mangroves, it is another area of biological complexity. It is an important wintering ground for migratory birds from northern India and other parts of Asia, and even from as far away as Europe and Africa. In addition, animals like the black buck, spotted deer, wild boar and civet cat can be found here. Salt manufacturing, fishing and salt water prawn culture are the main businesses here.
Going still further south is the area around the Gulf of Mannar, extending from Rameshwaram down to Kanyakumari. This area is in Southeast Asia’s first marine Biosphere Reserve, and encompasses nearly 2 dozen islands and a variety of ecosystems and terrains including estuaries, mudflats, mangroves, beaches, rocky shores, seagrass beds and coral reefs. Marine creatures like seacows, dolphins, sea cucumbers and sea anemones thrive in the nutrient-rich waters. It is also rich in bird life, and is another stopping point for migratory birds.
Of course, the most popular of the seaside attractions are the beaches, of which there are many in Tamil Nadu, given the length of its coastline. Marina Beach, right in the capital, Chennai, is, at 12 kilometers in length, India’s longest urban beach. Gazing out to sea, it is almost possible to forget the vibrant, noisy city to the west; almost, not completely, for the beach is an urban one after all, with all the urban trappings and charms of countless vendors, kite fliers, screaming children, cooing couples, elderly walkers and boisterous students.
Just forty kilometers south of Chennai, a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city, is Covelong Beach, with its endless expanse of pristine sand, with the tropical allure of coconut and palm trees.
A little further south is the ancient Pallava port town of Mamallapuram, with its Shore Temple and beautiful monuments scattered along the sands and the beach. It is breathtaking there, a meeting place of natural beauty and history, a sight very few places in the world can match.
And all the way down, at the very end of India where the coast is lapped by the waters of three oceans that merge there - the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean - is the multi-colored sand beach of Kanyakumari, the ancient temple town of the Virgin Goddess. Another place where mythology, history, religions and nature have converged and lived together.
WASTELAND OR SCRUBLAND: PALAI
The scrub or thorn lands of Tamil Nadu occupy a small area of the state, primarily around Tirunelveli, which lies on the leeward side of the mighty Agasthiyar Mountains of the Western Ghats. Here, the relatively scanty rainfall has resulted in a type of landscape that comes close to the barren wastelands described as Palai in Tamil poetry.
Only small patches of this scrubland remain, as most of it has been cleared for grazing and other activities. Environmentalists have been crying themselves hoarse, trying to stress the importance of preserving this landscape and its ecosystem and the wealth of flora and fauna it harbours.
The vegetation of this area used to be primarily dry deciduous forest, but over the centuries has degraded into thorny scrub-like vegetation. In Tamil Nadu, the thorny acacia planiforms are the most common tree type and are often referred to as Carnatic umbrella thorn forests; these have short trunks and low crowns, and the landscape presents itself as one with open, low vegetation.
Arid and barren though this landscape might seem, it is actually rich with a variety of birds and animals, including jackals, rodents, squirrels, black buck, slender loris, the great Indian bustard, the yellow-fronted barbet and Ceylon jungle fowl. A large number of rare and potentially valuable medicinal plants grows here. The region once teemed with tigers and elephants; sadly, with the destruction of their habitat, they no longer do.
It would be a crying shame to destroy what little remains of this landscape. One can only hope that the Palai wasteland does not become a true wasteland, its original ecosystem destroyed forever.