What is the phenomenon that turns the hills of South India from green to violet - once in every 12 years?
Come the season of Kurinji, and all the roads of South India lead to the Nilgiris or Blue Mountains, upon reaching which you will feel, that all of Nature or the Universe has conspired for you to behold this phenomenon – a tapestry of lush green transforming into an undulating ocean of violet. The panorama that the expanse of these flowers provide, with their shades of purple blanketing hills as far as the eyes can see, is one that must be a part of every traveller’s or nature lover’s bucket list.
Neelakurinji, scientifically known as Strobilanthes kunthiana, is a species of shrubs out of a total of 250 species of the genus Strobilanthes, out of which 46 of them are found only in the Shola forests of the Western Ghats of South India - across the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The name is derived from “neela” (blue) and “kurinji” meaning flower in the local language. “Kunthiana” in the scientific name comes from the river “Kunthi” that flows through Kerala’s silent Valley National Park, which was where the plant was first seen and thus named after. The wild flower grows at a height of 30 to 60 cm on hillocks, at an altitude of 1300 to 2400 meters.
The elusive flowers, for their ethereal beauty and unusual flowering behaviour have been an ubiquitous symbol of fascination for tourists, environmentalists and photographers around the world. The blooming has been documented in 1838, 1850, 1862, 1874, 1886, 1898, 1910, 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006 and latest in 2018, from July to October. The next flowering season shall be in 2030.
It is believed that the first settlers of Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu - the tribes of Paliyan and Puliyan, used the Neelakurinji flowering cycle to calculate their age. Every new bloom would account for an addition of 12 years by the members of the tribe to their age. Though bereft of any smell or medicinal value, a lot of mythological and cultural significance is attributed to the flower. In Tamil traditions, the Neelakurinji represents the awakening of a woman, as a girl is considered to attain sexual maturity at the age of 12. The Badagas, an indegenious tribe of the Nilgiri Hills as a part of their funeral prayers, chant verses asking for forgiveness from the plant. For another tribe of the Blue Mountains, the Todas, the flower is identified with much auspiciousness and is a beloved subject of poetry and romance.
So what is the reason behind Neelakurinji’s spectacular 12 year cycle?
Let us take you back to your high-school Biology class for a bit.
So, the live-span of plants can be divided into two types – Perennial and Annual. Perennials have a life cycle up to 3 or more years whereas Annual plants complete their cycle in one year (then there’s also ‘biennials’ that complete in two). In one growing season, Annual plants grow from the seed, bloom, produce seeds and die. Though perennials live for more than two years and usually flower every year and set seeds, there are variants or exceptions rather, that flower only once in their lifetime, set seeds and die. These exceptions are known as ‘monocarpic’, the variant of perennial that the Neelakurinji comes under (further categorised into ‘plietesials’). Another popular example is Bamboo, which takes more than 40 years to mature and flower. Different species of Kurinjis have different time-frames of maturing and thereby different intervals of flowering. The Neelakurinji matures and flowers gregariously in 12 years’ time and repeats this cycle every 12 years.
Which are the best places to witness the blooming of Neelakurinji?
If you are set on planning your 2030 tour to South India, you can catch the most stunning views of Neelakurinji blanketed hills in :
- Eravikulam National Park (Munnar, Kerala)
- Silent Valley National Park (Palakkad, Kerala)
- Ooty (Tamil Nadu)
- Kodaikanal (Tamil Nadu)
- Kotagiri (Tamil Nadu)