At Viralimalai, Olympia Shilpa Gerald spots peacocks walking up the street, strutting on the hillock temple and parading on rooftops
“Stop, stop, I’ve found one,” I cry out, rolling down the window. The car reverses a few yards and our photographer takes out his camera in a flash. Scanning the green fields fringed by coconut trees for a spot of blue, I triumphantly point out at a bird moving against the lush backdrop. But as the camera zooms in, I have an uh-oh moment. This is no peacock that we have been seeking; it turns out be a common wild fowl. The photographer is definitely not amused!
We are trundling past tea shops, bakeries and stalls strung with dewy rose garlands at Viralimalai, a small town in Pudukottai district, noted for a Murugan temple perched on a hillock and its population of peacocks. Having zipped down the Tiruchi-Madurai highway, I tell myself the weather is just right for our date with the National bird. The sky is overcast, there is a scent of rain, yet there is every hint that the clouds may play truant.
As we drive up to what looks like easily 200 and odd brick-red steps ascending up to the temple, there is someone at the bottom step to welcome us — a peacock, with a smart crest, and a bright plumage, which at closer look is sadly sparse. There are not many devotees at this time of the day but the steps are crawling with monkeys (hordes of them). Stuffing all my valuables into a backpack, I gingerly begin the ascent, more for a glimpse of the peacocks than for the deity.
On either side, there are rocks and caverns, which as legend goes, were abodes of sages who sat in penance. Skipping barefoot over centipedes and drenched peacock feathers, we find a small cave temple, that is as luck would have it, locked. On the way down, we chance across a peacock, tamely walking on the street, looking into the street stalls, nibbling among plastic bags left carelessly by tourists, and looking for all the world as if he owned the place. Some tourist literature on the Internet described this as a peacock sanctuary with birds by the dozen. Though the wooded hillock forms a natural sanctuary, the birds are scattered for a good 30 km around and to spot them is a matter of time and chance. “You may see more peacocks early in the morning when temple priests feed them,” says a flower-seller.
Determined to spot birds with a richer plumage, we go around the temple where weathered rocks are piled up haphazardly like logs. I stop in front of an interesting rock shaped like a frog looking up at the temple on the hillock directly above.
A screech pierces my ears. Guessing it to be a peacock’s cry, I look around. On the terrace of a house facing the hillock, a bird with an ostentatious train of feathers struts about. I run up the flight of stairs of a half-constructed building, only to spot more birds on three adjacent terraces.
“Come on now, what about a little dance?” I mutter, hoping to see the bird in all its glory. By now, conscious of its audience, the peacock swaggers up to the centre. And pop, flourishes a shimmering fan of iridescent feathers. Perhaps aware of the admiration, he proceeds to jiggle his feathers and cavort in circles. The clearly envious peacock next door who wants his share of attention, shrieks and performs a more vigorous jaunt, even hopping on to the railing of the terrace. Though no peahens emerge, the courting competition gets exciting as the birds pose, shriek and prance with two young birds on an adjoining verandah imitate them with comical results.
Reluctant to leave the pageant I move way after a quarter of an hour. Unless you’re a devotee or an avid birdwatcher, Viralimalai may not be worth a visit on its own, but it’s ideal as a halt between the bustle of Madurai and Tiruchi. We decide to take the more bumpy and equally more scenic Pudukottai road where trees form a bower overhead like yesteryear highways. No more peacocks come our way, but as the rain clouds grow darker and pastoral scenes of water, fields, goats, haystacks and wild flowers fly by, I’m content. How often do you get to witness a plumed parade that is thrown in your honour?