Rising along the eastern slopes of the Agasthyamalai range of the Western Ghats, the Tamirabarani river travels a short 125 kilometres before reaching the Gulf of Mannar near Punnaikayal. Passing through Tirunelveli and Thoothukkudi districts in Tamil Nadu, it spells life for those in the dry and arid plains along this part of the south-eastern coast of India. It is a river with a rich history, celebrated in ancient Sangam and Tamil literature and finding mention in the Mahabharata .
Fed by the Southwest and Northeast monsoons, it supports a rich diversity of life and culture. Evergreen forests clothe the mountainsides where the river is born and which are home to a diversity of unique plant and animal life. There are also many temples along its entire length that are crucial to helping support the conservation of wildlife.
Situated amid lush agricultural landscape lies Thirupudaimaruthur, a small village in Ambasamudram taluk of Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu. In this village, and on the banks of the Tamirabarani, is the 12th century-old Narambunathar temple that is dedicated to Shiva and believed to be one of the biggest of its kind in southern Tamil Nadu. The 17th century Nayak era murals on the temple walls are striking. In recent times, the village has acquired a new claim to fame – the many and diverse species of birds that roost and nest in trees in and around the temple complex.
This pictorial journey celebrates the river, the endangered forms of fauna and flora that depend on it, and the lifeline it extends to agriculture and livelihoods in the plains.
These include among others, painted storks, night herons, spot-billed pelicans, little cormorants and cattle egrets, making the temple complex an important heronry in the region. A number of large and old arjun, tamarind and neem trees in the temple complex, and young acacia and juliflora trees in the surrounding area have been used by these birds. Thirupudaimaruthur is in fact Tamil Nadu’s first and only conservation reserve, a category of protected areas that seeks to involve local communities in wildlife conservation and protection. The nearly three-hectare temple complex was declared a conservation reserve in 2005; the State government also allocated a sum of Rs.6.8 lakh a few years ago as part of a scheme for the ‘Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats’.
Heronries are sites where communally nesting birds such as storks, egrets, herons and pelicans thrive. The semi-arid plains of Tirunelveli district have historically been known to be important for these birds. In a detailed study of heronries in Tamil Nadu published in 2005 in the journal, Indian Birds , ornithologist S. Subramanya listed the presence of 97 such sites across the State. Tirunelveli, Kancheepuram and Ramanathapuram districts are reported to have the highest number of such heronries – 12 each. The heronry at Koothakulam, not far from Thirupudaimaruthur, has among the oldest recorded histories of bird nesting in the region – the first account about a heronry there appears in a 1907 article by C.E. Rhenius in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society . It has been suggested that some of these heronries such as the one at Vedanthangal in Chengalpattu district are even older; documentary evidence records the nesting of the birds there in the late 18th century; some scholars suggest that its history may well go back 4,000 years – to the Ramayana period.
A similar history for Thirupudaimaruthur is unavailable, but anecdotes suggest that birds have been nesting here for a long time. Narumbu, a 47-year-old resident of the village, and till recently ‘a caretaker’ of the heronry there, says he has seen such nesting ever since he was a child. He also remembers his grandfather telling him about nesting birds. One person believed to have played an important role in this is Justice Ratnavel Pandian, a former judge of the Supreme Court of India, and from Thirupudaimaruthar. A recipient of the first Rural Education And Conservation of Heritage (REACH) Conservation Award in 2010 for the conservation of the temple complex, Justice Pandian played a key role in getting the village community and temple authorities to agree to protect the birds and also create a conservation reserve. Shanmuga Sundaram, secretary to Justice Pandian, too recollects seeing nesting birds ever since his childhood, but is unaware of the existence of a deeper ornithological history.
Kanaka Sundaram, executive officer appointed by TamilNadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department, for the management of the temple, also acknowledges the role of Justice Pandian. “The villagers,” he says, “are proud of the nesting birds and no one harms them.” He laughs in response to a question about the filth and stink fish-eating birds might be creating within the temple complex. “The birds are fish eaters, aren’t they? You cannot expect them to become vegetarians! This is not a problem at all.”
The older trees the birds nest on are protected because they lie within the boundaries of the temple complex. Sundaram adds that the main task before the temple authorities is to keep a watch over the area and clean the area at regular intervals.
There have been no detailed studies of this important bird site, but the protection it has been accorded appears to have resulted in an increase in bird numbers and nesting activity. Narumbu estimates that the number of nests have increased from about 200, when the area was declared a conservation reserve in 2005, to nearly 500 now. All these efforts have paid off. The area has been accepted as an Important Bird Area (IBA), says ornithologist and former director of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Asad Rahmani. As the name suggests, the IBA programme seeks to recognise sites that are crucial breeding, feeding or congregation sites for important bird species. The first list of IBAs in India was published in 2004 and which was updated in September 2015. “Thiruppudaimaruthur has been being included,” says Dr. Rahmani, “because 300 pairs of the painted stork are reported to nest here on an average every year.” The painted stork is commonly found across peninsular India, with studies suggesting that it numbers between 15,000 and 25,000. However, the bird is listed as a near threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Thiruppudaimaruthur is all set to become the second such IBA in Tirunelveli district, the first being Koonthakulam. This would be another important feather in the temple town’s cap. The pun is unintended here, but one that is definitely not out of place.
The IBA programme adopts a site-based approach, which identifies sites of international importance for the conservation of birds and other biodiversity. It then collates and disseminates key information. The IBA programme was started in India by the BNHS in collaboration with BirdLife International and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, U.K.
The writer is an environmental researcher, photographer and author. His work on the Tamirabarani is part of a series on environmental issues in the river basin done as part of the FEJI-ATREE Media fellowship 2015.