It was mid-morning on the day before Deepavali. By then we had taken a train and a bus to reach Pichavaram, after a quick stopover at Chidambaram. I still hadn’t heard a single cracker burst. “We have bought crackers, but with Amma in the hospital, we’ve decided not to burst them until she recovers,” our boatman Natraj voices through his lisp. The odd quietness followed us as Natraj paddled us through a web of canals.
Pichavaram is a mangrove forest that’s about three hours from Chennai by road. Spread over 3,000 acres with over 4,500 canals, it is an ideal spot for a Triwizard tournament challenge or a Tim Burton movie. But in this case, Kollywood is way ahead. Natraj lists out movies like Idayakkani, Sooriyan and Dasavatharam, which have been shot here. This puny old man, who has been riding boats in this area for the tourism department for over 15 years, was an animated, talkative character. As he maneuvers the boat, he shows us the spot where he stood as a kid, while his dad pointed into the waters and said, “Adho theriyaraare, avardhaan MGRu” (The man over there, he’s MGR). But the movie-making caught his eyes more than MGR’s aura, going by his insights on the visual gimmicks that movies play. He shoves the oar into the water to prove that it is just thigh-deep and says the scenes where people struggle and drown are shot here but are not true. Perhaps a sour grapes story of not making it into the industry?! “I was very much in the Sooriyan movie,” he swears, “but if you watch the movie, you might not spot me!”
When Natraj doesn’t talk movies, he talks politics, “I used to be a Congress supporter, an ardent follower of Moopanaar, but now the entire belt here supports Amma and so do I.” Needless to say, the freebies have click baited the locals. To the extent that the villagers were even fasting and providing offerings to the village temple for the beloved Chief Minister’s speedy recovery. As I ask him about his income, he shiftily says that for every ride he gets a meager 130 rupees from the department (we paid him extra to take us into the inner canals). But he claims that he has everything, including the land that was given by the government post the 2004 Tsunami. “Tsunami came and we all became rich.” he says. The irony though is that the mangrove forests are said to have saved the villages around this area from destruction. A major function of mangrove forests across the world, saving the land from water’s fury. Sadly, this very function coupled with deforestation, exploitation, and pollution poses a threat to the ecosystem.
The Pichavaram forests in some areas, especially in the periphery are manmade, while the inner denser areas occur naturally. This is easy to tell apart, the former looks tamer and maintained, while the inner canals have wild mangroves forcing one to bend completely to even pass through. In one place, the boat was caught in the branches, and we waited for a couple of minutes before the waters flow pushed the boat ahead. The forest department seems to have weighed the importance of the ecosystem and have tried to maintain them. Pichavaram is listed as a moderately dense mangrove forest by the forest reserve, being an area that hosts 14 exclusive varieties of mangrove species. On either side of the forest cover runs the Vellar and the Coleroon estuaries, leading to the Bay of Bengal. This means much of the agricultural waste mixes into the waters here. The rich alluvial soil and waters also mean fishes, prawns and crabs. We spot two women from the Irula tribe, wading the shallow waters, catching prawns and crabs.
The Irula tribal community populates the hamlets in Pichavaram; fishing and harvesting forest produce are major sources of livelihood. Some of them even contribute to the mangrove conservations efforts by form of labour. Natraj involves in some friendly banter with the women, while we curiously look at how they manage to wade through the waters fishing.
We had almost completed our two-hour ride, and I had one last pertinent question for Natraj, “So is there a haunted tree in this forest?” Recently, a tamil TV programme had claimed that Pichavaram houses a haunted tree that causes gory deaths. The channel of course, made it dramatic with the host on a mission in pursuit of the tree. Natraj laughs it off saying, “Come to my place, I’ll show you several trees that make eerie sounds”. But he also interrupts our collective laughter with a dark smile, “Even if there was one I wouldn’t tell you, else you wouldn’t come back would you?!”
P.S: If you are visiting, avoid peak summers as the water levels will be too low and the land too marshy for boating, and rainy season as it may not be too safe. Hire row boats if you want to ride through the denser canals.