Hidden gems off the highway: a road trip through Tamil Nadu

Pack in flower and stone craft workshops and some wildlife sighting on your next road trip within the state

As we choose road trips within the state over air travel due to Covid-19, how about getting off that highway to include our traditional crafts? The craft councils have tried to support these artisans, but plan workshops and do your bit to keep these endangered crafts alive. PS: while on road trips, here’s a reminder that our sanctuaries are opening shortly.

Poetry in stone

Thoda Goundampalayam in Namakkal district, 400 km from Chennai

This village in Namakkal district is the heartbeat of the maavukkal (soapstone) carving industry in Tamil Nadu. K Kandaswamy, 60, has been working on soapstone since he was 10 and today, only about 20 families in the village keep the tradition alive.

During lockdown, many of his creations such as apple jars, plates and lamps were bought by craft lovers in Coimbatore, under the aegis of Crafts Council of Tamil Nadu (CCTN). Food blogger Shanthini Rajkumar (@pink.lemon.tree), a patron of his art, realised that the texture makes for great food props. “I enjoy cooking and serving in traditional cookware and it struck me that they look great in photographs too,” she says. A few decades ago, Kandaswamy was sent by the Crafts Council of India (CCI), headquartered in Chennai, to the Regional Design and Technology Development Centre in Bengaluru to learn new techniques. “While it did not reap immediate benefit, today that helps the artisan because there’s an explosion of interest in traditional cooking and utensils,” says Gita Ram, President, CCI.

Closer to Chennai, near the Ayyanar temple in DakshinaChitra, sculptor P Thirupathi, 36, works on stoneware utensils. His workspace at Thoda Goundampalayam is strewn with mortars and pestles, candle holders-cum-urulis and vessels to set curd in, besides the regular paniyaara kuzhi and kalchatti.

The lockdown was especially hard on these artisans — the CCTN assisted Kandaswamy by organising a sale of his stock and ensuring the money went directly into his account. CCI also stocks their products at Kamala store. For Thirupathi, it was especially tough as DakshinaChitra (where he retails) was closed for months. He now conducts workshops — you can sign up to watch how they make everything from chutney bowls to larger chattis that range between half a kilogram and 4 kg.

Lakshmi Ramachandran of CCTN says they are working on getting these artisans to design wall murals in stone, as seen in Sanjeevi Nagar near Auroville. “We have to try something new so they can sustain themselves,” she says.

Snapshots from the Thai floral workshop

Snapshots from the Thai floral workshop  
| Photo Credit:
Divya Chandran

Garland makers

Coimbatore, 500 km from Chennai

Floral curtains made with tuberoses, parrots crafted from fronds and rose petal art… these are just a few creations Coimbatore’s garland makers are known for. They grace stately weddings and high society events even in New Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad.

A Murugan, 46, of Sri Murugan Flower Decorators (9443390983), has been tying flowers in varied patterns and colour combinations for 30 years. The CCTN-trained artisan will not only show you around his shop in Gandhi Park, but also customise a workshop for ₹1,000. “What I know, I should pass on. If people bring flowers, I will teach them innovative methods of stringing them,” he says.

Why a holiday to learn floral art? Because it is deeply therapeutic to work with flowers and you help the artisans who have suffered due to the lockdown. Plus, you return home with a better understanding of our craft traditions. Some of the designs, with flowers tied in banana stem fibre, go back decades. Blooms like orchids, and petals of rose and gerbera came much later. “We source flowers from Ooty, Kodaikanal, Hosur and Bengaluru,” says Murugan, whose business is slowly picking up after months of low sales.

Why visit a sanctuary?

  • District Forest Officer Tiruvarur, Dr K Arivoli says sanctuaries are treasure troves of stories — of migratory birds such as the Siberian crane that flies thousands of kilometres, of an ecosystem that’s finely balanced by Nature.
  • “If you listen to these stories, you’ll naturally be drawn to sanctuaries and be involved with its residents and visitors. You will have more awareness about the universe we occupy. You just have to nudge people and show them what Nature offers; they’ll pick up and walk far ahead of us,” he says.

There are about 150 others like Murugan who tie up with wedding planners. Their unusual combinations can, in a way, also be attributed to the CCTN, more specifically to two elderly women Kamala Sivasubramaniam and Indra Venkatswamy, who spearheaded the show ‘Pushpanjali’, an offering of flowers, in Coimbatore more than 15 years ago. The two women loved garland making and experimented with patterns. Venkatswamy’s daughter, Vijayalakshmi Rudrappan (who runs wedding decor enterprise, Krishna Parijata), remembers visiting Thailand with her mother a few years ago. Later, the CCTN arranged for local artists to train with Phubast Chesdmethee, a floral designer and consultant from there. In 2018, he taught them to work with shenbagam (champak), erukkampoo (calotropis) and nandhiyarvattai (pinwheel jasmine). “We innovated. In Thailand, they work with a needle and thread. Here, we work with our fingers and naaru,” says Rudrappan.

Sujani Balu, vice-president CCTN, says that with a little training, they “seamlessly incorporate the new with what they already know”. Venkatswamy figured out how to get the effect of spirals on rose petal garlands by alternating colours.

Murugan makes spiral maalai, mayilkann maalai, chain maalai and rudraksha maalai for weddings. While the number of weddings has come down, work on backdrops is still on thanks to Zoom celebrations. With the closure of the flower market due to COVID-19 restrictions, the artists have been accommodated at the spacious grounds of Devanga Higher Secondary School.

Hidden gems off the highway: a road trip through Tamil Nadu

5 sanctuaries to visit

According to the State Forest Department, Tamil Nadu’s protected areas include five national parks, 15 wildlife sanctuaries and bird sanctuaries each, two conservation reserves and four tiger reserves — Anamalai, Kalakkad-Mundanthurai, Mudumalai and Sathyamangalam. It is also home to three well-known biosphere reserves — Nilgiris, Gulf of Mannar and Agasthyamalai.

Many are wondering if the time is right to head to one of these reserves, but in a post-pandemic world, you do not want to fly long distances for a holiday or head to overcrowded destinations. The ideal scenario would be a driving holiday to a lesser-known, tranquil sanctuary. Travel enthusiast Shrikumar Arjunan, currently in Kanthalloor in the Western Ghats, says Tamil Nadu is the only state to have both the Western Ghats and Eastern Ghats. “These are home to varied landscapes – from evergreen rain forests to dry desert-like regions. We also have access to amazing seaside sanctuaries such as Vallnadu, known for its blackbucks.”

Our pick of sanctuaries:

1. The Grizzled Squirrel Wildlife Sanctuary, Srivilliputhur: Set up to protect the near-threatened grizzled squirrel, other common sightings include tigers, elephants, flying squirrels, gaur, lion tailed macaques and the Nilgiri tahr.

Hidden gems off the highway: a road trip through Tamil Nadu

2. Vallanadu Blackbuck Sanctuary, Tuticorin: Located on a hilly track, and visitors usually get to see the blackbuck graze on the slopes. Also sight spotted deer, the jungle cat and wild hares.

3. Point Calimere Bird Sanctuary, Nagapattinam: It is actually an island surrounded by salt pans, the Bay of Bengal and the Palk Strait. Comprising long sand bars, intertidal forests and mangroves, it is a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. More than 200 bird species – spoonbills, sandpipers, grey pelicans, flamingos – have been recorded here. You can also spot mammals, reptiles and amphibians such as the bottlenose dolphin.

Hidden gems off the highway: a road trip through Tamil Nadu

4. Kanyakumari Wildlife Sanctuary: Besides the tiger, you can find the gaur, elephant, Indian rock python, the lion-tailed macaque and sambar deer.

5. Muthupettai mangrove forest, Tiruvarur: Migratory birds seen here include the Eurasian coot, Eurasion spoonbill, greater flamingo, Eurasian pigeon, white ibis and glossy ibis. The bar headed goose is the star, and you can sight the birds till February.

Thank You

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