R. Krishnamurthy recalls a Coimbatore awash with greenery and teeming with wildlife
There was a time when Marudhamalai was the hill station closest to the city. It was cool and green. As children, we would pedal up to the foothills, crossing the deep Yaanaipallam. Once, when in Class III, I went up with my cousin, and took a tumble there. We returned home, nursing bruises and a damaged cycle.
Atop the green-carpeted Marudhamalai, there used to be a perennial sunai (spring). The water was sparkling, sweet and chill. What a joy it was to bathe there! The hill was home to many tribals who cultivated millets in small holdings.
A trip to the hill shrine was nothing short of a picnic. Even after I started working for the Agricultural College and Research Institute, I would pack pulisaadham and thayir saadham and pedal up in my Raleigh cycle to the foothills. It would take me 30 minutes to reach there. From there, I would trudge up a rugged path strewn with stones and boulders to reach the hilltop. In the 1960s, Chinnappa Thever constructed steps and mandaps where pilgrims could take rest.
Coimbatore was often chilly those days. Most of us wore sweaters from June to mid-February. June was also when the South West monsoons hit hard. How it rained! The first day of school was always marked by wet roads, puddles and slush on our new uniforms.
Muthannan Kulam would swell with the rainwater. Its waters fed the fields on Thadagam Road, Ponnaiyarajapuram and Sami Iyer Pudhu Veedhi. Yes, the same traffic-choked stretch was once full of fields of paddy and sugarcane. In 1946, there was a flood in the Noyyal and water entered Chetty Street, near where I lived. We waded in knee-deep water.
In 1952, there was acute drought. Even the Ananathaiyan Well on Raja Street ran dry. Where would people go? Some lucky people had a Siruvani connection, and they allowed the others to fill water from their taps. Even then, the Siruvani Dam did not dip low. Thick shola forests sustained the water level.
Our lifestyle and cuisine were so different. We consumed a lot of millets. During World War II, there was severe rationing of food items. We got six ounces of rice per person for a month. Purchases had to be made in the black market, where we got one measure for one rupee. When Rajagopalachari abolished rationing in 1952, we got three measures for one rupee.
Once I joined the Forest Department, I learnt the importance of Nature. We worked alongside the tribals to keep the forest safe. Thadagam Road, Sathy Road and Mettupalayam Road were among the greenest. There were no brick kilns near Thadagam; it was all field and forest. Bhavani Motor Service ran charcoal-fuelled buses to carry passengers and produce from the fields. The route to Siruvani was a paradise. We would sight elephants, deer, Malabar Giant Squirrel and gaur. Once, while travelling on the Dhimbam ghat, we saw a stick moving. It was an elephant playing with a stick. It did not look very friendly, and so, we waited till a truck came by and followed it to safety.
The Vellingiri hills were intact, full of bamboo. You could sight huge herds of elephants on the slope of the seventh hill.
Despite roaming the forests for years, I sighted a tiger just twice. On December 9, 1981, my wife and I were travelling from Top Slip. At about 4.30 p.m., I saw what looked like a wild dog in the distance. It turned out to be a tiger! We froze and the camera remained unopened. It stared at us for a full five minutes and jumped into the valley; a herd of deer sent out a warning cry. On December 25, we heard the tiger died of bacterial infection. It was found wedged between two rocks.
I feel lucky I got to roam the forests as widely as I did. Someone said that forests are fixed deposits and that humans must only enjoy the interest. Sadly, we have swallowed the very deposits. Nor have we recognised the abilities of tribals, the original children of the forest, and the other people living in the fringes of the forest. I still remember Krishnan, who worked as a gardener in Top Slip. He would accompany me everywhere, barefoot, with just a packet of salt to ward off leeches. He would know the native and botanical name of every tree in the vicinity.
(As told to Subha J Rao)
R. KRISHNAMURTHY Born in 1936, he served with the State Agriculture Department from where he was deputed to the State Forest Department as research officer. He moved back to the Agriculture Department, from where he retired as deputy director of Agriculture (agricultural chemistry). He is an avid photographer and writer and his works have featured in many publications, including Pentax magazine, Japan; Practical Photography, UK; and Modern Photography, U.S. He has a collection of over 2,000 transparencies on Nature and wildlife.
In Top Slip, a gaur calf got mixed up with some cow calves. It was raised on a farm, tied to a pole, like the others and fed bottle milk. Soon, officials figured out, it was a gaur. From cool Top Slip, it was moved to hot and sultry Vandalur Zoo. There, the domesticated gaur calf died!