Archive for February, 2008

Masi Magam Festival in Pondicherry

Masi Magam Idol

21 February 2008

Small trucks laden with baskets of grapes; hand carts piled high with pineapples, green mangoes, and watermelon; and vendors of everything you might imagine and some that you would never imagine, started arriving the night before to line the small streets of Kuruchikuppam, Vaitikuppam and Solainagar in preparation for the Masi Magam festival the next morning.

Mini Portable Ferris Wheel Pakora Vendor Hair Extensions Drum Vendor

Masi Magam takes place in the Tamil month of Masi, on the day of the full moon. Idols (primarily of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva) are brought to the sea shore and ritually bathed while devotees gather to be blessed.

Masi Magam Street Crowd in Kuruchikuppam, Pondicherry Pavilions for the Gods by the Shore

The crowds were still thick as Mark and I walked through the streets of Kuruchikuppam and Vaitikuppam around 5pm. Most of the pavilions that had been set up by the shore were empty, the idols of gods already “bathed” and on their way back to their respective temples throughout Pondicherry and parts of Tamil Nadu, stopping at each house or business in town, along an established route, to give blessings and receive donations.

Masi Magam Idol with Priest

Suddenly, a man rushes onto the streets to clear the way for one of the idols making its way from the pavilion on a cart, this one drawn by human power. The priest riding on the cart mimics the idol, his tongue sticking out. A man in a yellow shirt pushes forward into the procession of musicians in a highly animated dance. The procession inches forward past us and stops as people surge forward to receive blessings. Behind the cart and attendant generator trolley, we become aware of isolated pockets of commotion. The man in the yellow shirt is in an ecstatic fit – tongue out and lurching wildly, each hand held by a different woman and surrounded by three more people who try and control his erratic and powerful movements. In the immediate vicinity, two other women are similarly restrained. One has her tongue out also, the other’s eyes roll.

Idol at Night   Another idol at night   Parade of Idols on MG Road

Later in the evening, around 8pm, we catch the parade of idols making their way along M.G. Road, pulled by men or by one or two bullocks, amidst the regular evening traffic, heading South. Another parade heads north on East Coast Road, lights flashing, generators blaring, and priest handing out flowers as parents thrust their children to receive the blessings.

The Destruction of Ousteri Lake

Boating on Ousteri Lake
Motor launch on Ousteri Lake

10 February 2008

The boat ride was idyllic – the new motor quiet, the winds calm, the lake beautiful. It would have been a perfect day, unless you knew what I now know.

Ousteri (or Oussudu) Lake is the largest lake in Pondicherry, located approximately 12 miles west of the town. For over a decade, environmentalists have tried to get the lake protected as a sanctuary, to no avail. The Bombay Natural History Society, a member of Birdlife International, has designated Ousteri an Important Bird Area (IBA) of India – over 20,000 birds belonging to over 40 species used to reside or winter at Ousteri. The Asian Wetland Bureau declared Ousteri one of 93 significant wetlands in Asia; and many of the birds recorded at Ousteri, including Spot-billed pelicans, Eurasian Spoonbills, Darters, Painted Storks, and Black-headed (or White) Ibis, are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. This lake was one of the largest breeding sites for the Common Coot in South India, and many of the resident birds, such as the Purple Moorhen and Little Grebe, nested amidst floating vegetation present in the lake.

Paddle boat on Ousteri
Paddle boat on Ousteri Lake

When boating was first contemplated by the Pondicherry Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC – a Government undertaking) about 10 years ago, professors and students at the Salim Ali School of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, NGOs and concerned citizens protested – nesting birds would be disturbed and may not breed. At that time, the Tourism Department compromised to allow only paddle and row boats in a specified area, cordoned off by buoys. At some point, the buoys were taken out, allowing paddle and row boaters complete access to the lake. And a couple of weeks ago, PTDC began its motorized launch and boat service. For Rs. 50 (approximately US$1.28), you could ride either the launch, which seats 35 passengers and a crew of 5 comfortably, or an eight passenger boat.

The launch takes picnicking passengers (who more often than not, throw their plastic and other wastes into the water) around a small island and skirts the opposite shore for 45 minutes before coming back to dock. Sadly, there were very few birds in sight. A few egrets, a handful of individuals of a couple of species of ducks and some pond herons – all of which scattered at the approach of the launch. Certainly not the thousands of ducks that people who have been coming to the lake for 30 years remember. One resident of the lake, who participates in the two annual surveys of birds (the Salim Ali Bird Count held in November and the waterfowl count for Wetlands International in January), reports that 2 species of waterfowl no longer nest in Ousteri. Large birds are poached, and illegal gill nets cause the deaths of diving birds (particularly Little Grebe or Dabchicks) captured in the nets.

Then there is the pollution: raw sewage runs into the lake, untreated; household and industrial wastes are dumped either near the lake or in the dry lake bed in summer. (Local villagers living near the lake have not used the water in the lake for over a year and a half – they say it is not clean.) And the illegal soil and pebble mining: canyons of red soil have been illegally taken out of the area surrounding the lake to feed the construction of institutions, industries and residential colonies springing up in what was recently agricultural land surrounding the town of Pondicherry.

Weed Scraper
One of the “weed scrapers” 

On top of all this, the lake is shrinking due to siltation, being choked with weeds, and losing its feeder channels due to industrial development in the catchment area. (The launch employs two men to scrape the aquatic weeds off the motor with large sticks, and every once in a while, the boat slowed and motor struggled as weeds overpowered the blades.)

Bird Watching Towers
Bird watching tower at Ousteri

Two lone towers that were built for bird watching before the change in tourism policy stand unused on the shore. And the huge sign board that listed the types of birds seen at Ousteri has been taken down.

Laksha Deepam at Sendrakillai, Tamil Nadu

Laksha Deepam

8 February 2008

There is a tropical dry evergreen forest (TDEF) in the village of Sendrakillai (in the state of Tamil Nadu), 60 kilometers south of Pondicherry, that serves as a sacred grove for the 2,000 people of the village. There are five temples in the sacred grove, and this grove, unlike the two TDEF in Pondicherry, is protected and used in a sustainable manner by the villagers.


Niranjan Kumar and a fellow student were the first people to study this ecosystem in December 2006 in their final year at the Salim Ali School of Ecology and Environmental Sciences at Pondicherry University. They categorized 54 species of trees and 48 species of liana (woody climbers) in the 12 hectares grove. The forest is the main source of medicinal plants and trees, edible fruits and tubers and firewood for the village. There is a family of nadivaithyam (traditional healers) that treat the villagers using plant extracts from the forest. (There is no hospital in or around the village.)

Entrance to Main Temple
Entrance to main temple in the sacred grove

There are two horses and guards that lead to the main temple of the sacred grove. The temple portico is flanked by two dogs. The villagers believe that if you whisper your prayers into the ears of the horses or dogs, your prayers will come true within the week. (Before he left the village, Niranjan prayed for a good job in an NGO and he landed up at Shuddham!)

Filling the deepam Boys filling deepam 62nd year 62nd year - lit

On the last Friday of the month of thai (the harvest month which begins with the Pongal festivities), Tamilians celebrate Laksha Deepam – one lakh (a hundred thousand) lamps. (This is the 62nd year that this village has celebrated Laksha Deepam.) The deepam are filled with a mixture of five different oils: nallennai (sunflower), pinnaennai, vilakuennai (neem), malataennai (groundnut or peanut), and thengaennai (coconut).  (One of the oils prevents the wicks from being blown out by the wind.)  20 years ago, one family sponsored the entire festival. Now, they collect donations from the village and surrounding areas for the celebration.

Lighting the deepam

Families participate in both the filling and the lighting of the deepam as the sun begins to fade. As the figure of the god is brought along the path from the village into the sacred grove, accompanied by a drummer, firecrackers light the sky and assault the eardrums (some of the firecrackers only produce noise).

Vendors set up their wares in a carnival atmosphere (with mobile rides – mini ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds and games – balloon shooting and ring tosses) and families come from neighboring villages by bus, trucks, and on foot to offer their prayers and to celebrate  into the night.

Invasion of the Hairy Creepy Crawlies


These creatures, pictured above, have been on the march for the last 5 days, appearing seemingly out of nowhere to invade my space. I have found 2 in the bathroom, one under the strap of my sandals, one crawling on a floor cushion, more-than-I-can-count on my terrace and in the stairwell, one on Ajit Reddy’s shoulders and one near his feet, falling from the rooftop … I’ve made too many trips from my room or the office downstairs to take these creatures outside. Since these creepy crawlies are hairy, with some type of irritant at the tips of their hair, I’m now shake out my sandals before putting them on. I wonder how long before we see a flurry of butterflies?



Today, 2 February, I saw the fantastic creature pictured above – the biggest butterfly I’ve seen to date – feeding on the blackberry flowers that hang over my terrace in Pondicherry.  Could the hairy caterpillars that I no longer see all over the building have turned into this red beauty?  Or the more modest butterfly below.



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