Friday, October 31, 2008

Heron’s Pool: A town, a house, a book and a ship

The town. Mundakayam is just starting to come on the tourism map of Kerala. It is a flourishing town on National Highway 220, almost halfway between two popular tourist spots – Kumarakom and Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.

Many places of great interest to travelers are easily accessible from Mundakayam. The natural beauty of the areas surrounding the town can be gauged by the fact that over a hundred movies have been shot there. It is also the entry point to Kerala’s High Ranges and the plantations.

Mundakayam is prosperous place and the people have a distinctive way of life. But !50 years back it was a thick forest inhabited by hill tribes. In 1843 Pastor Henry Baker ventured into the area where no white man had ever set foot before.

He found a number of herons nesting around a quiet pool and named the place Heron’s Pool. Translated to Malayalam, the local language, it became Mundikayam>Mundakayam (Mundi=heron, kayam=pool).

Many other sahibs followed Baker to seek their fortune in planting – tea, rubber, coffee, spices. The most famous among them was the Irishman J.J. Murphy.

The house. The quaint bungalow was the residence of the well-known planter and industrialist, late Jose Kallivayalil (my maternal uncle). Many important personages including political bosses, top officials, British nobility, and other nationalities had enjoyed Kallivayalil’s legendary hospitality there. Now his son Chacko and his charming wife Sheila have converted the place into a home stay with the name Heron’s Pool.

What is amazing about the 70+ year-old building is the amount of teak and rosewood with intricate work used on the walls, flooring, trellis, and furniture. The eight feet long dining table is made from a single piece of teak! The food there has been traditionally good.

Given below is a photo of the front veranda:

Photo by me. Copyright reserved. Click to enlarge.

The bungalow has a lovely cobbled nadumuttam (inner courtyard) with a large guava tree in the center. On one side is a veranda which can be used as a stage for cultural events.

The house is nestled in a plantation that has several types of cash crops. It is on NH 220, about 3 kilometers east of Mundakayam Town. Next to it is the Mundakayam Club established by J.J. Murphy in 1912. You can visit the website

The book. ‘Above the Heron’s Pool’ (ISBN 0 907799515) by Heather Lovatt & Peter de Jong is an interesting book which deals with the history of the High Ranges. Heather had lived in the area for many years. She has also written a reference book on the subject, titled ‘A Short History of The Peermade/Vandiperiyar District’ (CMS Press, Kottayam. 1979).

The ship. SS Heronspool was freighter of Ropner Shipping Company. In a valiant night engagement with the German submarine U48 off the Irish Coast she was torpedoed on 12th October 1939.


Also see Irish father of Indian cardamom, rubber and pepper planting

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Kerala Photos: Flowers and leaves

Photos taken by me at Lotus Club, Cochin.
Copyright reserved. Click to enlarge.
Also see:

Kerala photos: Leaves from Olavipe

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) – food from the Bounty

It is said that Lieutenant William Bligh of HMS Bounty discovered breadfruit trees in Malaysia and Polynesia towards the end of the 18th century. He felt that it might be a good source of cheap food for the slaves, collected samples and introduced them in other tropical areas.

For thousands of years the Polynesians were using preserved breadfruit as food during their long sailings. They used planks of the tree for boatbuilding and the latex from the tree for caulking boats.

Breadfruit is a staple food in many tropical areas. The tree can grow up to 20m height. It is a prolific producer yielding about 200 fruits per season. The fruit can be boiled, baked, curried, sautéed or made into paste.

But I like them best as thinly cut and fried chips.

The first two photos below are from Olavipe (Copyright reserved). The other two are public domain pictures from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to enlarge.

Also see:

Tamanu oil for skin restoration and regeneration and scar removal.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Diwali, the Festival of Lights

Happy Diwali

Lights at Olavipe by Karthiki
Copyright reserved. Click to enlarge.

Also see: Photos: Deepam (Light)
Add Image

Friday, October 24, 2008

From the Memory Box: Ponnozhukum Thodu – the stream where gold flows

Somewhere in the deep recesses of the human brain there are little memory boxes. The past is stored in them. Occasionally an invisible key opens them spontaneously. It could be a sound, a smell, a picture, a face that triggers the process.

Yesterday I thought of Ponnozhukum Thodu. Ponnozhukum means ‘(where) gold flows’ and thodu is stream. What turned on the kaleidoscope into the past was a photograph on the Kallivayalil Family website ( That is Ammachi’s (mother’s) family. (See Oru Desathinte Amma.)

The picture shows a scene from the Ponnozhukum Thodu – rice fields, cattle grazing in the distance, an ancient structure that is called ‘madom’ in which the ground floor is storage space and above that is an old Kerala style hall.

Ammachi’s ancestral house, known as Konduparambil, is east facing, on a hillock. The view from there is beautiful. About a hundred meters from the house is the road which Ichachan (See: Remembering grandfather) had opened long ago to the public. After that are the rice fields.

A causeway links the road to the private bathing ghat with a thatched canopy at the thodu. Again a stretch of paddy fields. Beyond them were the hills, greenish to start with, slowly fading into a hazy blue in the distance and merging with the sky.

Summer holidays were customarily spent at mother’s house. That was the time for play and pranks and frolicking in the sparkling stream for hours on end. Some of the smooth pebbles and sand in the brook glitter like gold. That was how it got its name.

Later on, when I grew up, I came to know that the gleam was caused by manganese content. Sad end to a childhood myth. But it still remains Ponnozhukum Thodu, gold or not.

Thirty odd years back I took my two elder children to visit Emmachi (that is what we used to call grandmother). They wanted to bathe in the brook about which I had told them so much. Emmachi gave us thorth (native towels) and Pears Soap. For some reason it was always Pears Soap at mother’s house.

There was a warning as well from Emmachi: ‘Don’t let them spend too much time in the stream like you did. They are not used to this water.’ True. Bangalore where they were studying had no Ponnozhukum Thodu.

That was the last time I went to the stream. And the last time I saw Emmachi.


Also see: Gold color chips and a golden hearted Lady

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Merry Mallus and mosquitoes

A short post before I forget it.

On a recent trip to Kerala I noticed a perceptible decline in the mosquito menace. I mentioned this at the Lotus Club, Cochin one evening. I was told that shortly after festivals like Onam and Christmas there is a drop in the mosqito population of Kerala. Naturally, I was keen to know the reason.

The story goes like this. Some scientists noticed the phenomena and carried out a research. They found that after the festive seasons, the active mosquitoes die almost en masse. Further studies revealed the reason for this.

The deaths of the insects occurred from cirrhosis of the liver.

Now, how do these pests get the liver ailment which is attributed to excess consumption of liquor? From the alcohol content in the blood stream of the people they bite.

It would appear that unless the mosquitoes go on a fast during festive seasons in Kerala they have very little chance of survival. During Onam celebrations last month, reportedly the liquor consumption in this little state (22 million voters in 2004) was estimated to be worth Rs. 2500 million (Rs. 250 crore)!

It is said that the state has a per capita consumption of 8.3 liters of alcohol. This is the highest in the country.

Incidentally, the figures for Kerala do not include my intake. That comes in the Tamil Nadu statistics.

Also see:
Christmas spirit in Kerala
Kerala: Onam goes up in spirit

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Travel India: Sense and nonsense of air and train fares

My travel these days is mostly between Chennai and Cochin. Usually I go by train, Second Class AC lower berth. It is a comfortable overnight journey. But on 17th of this month I had to fly to Cochin and return by train, Third Class AC because no other tickets were available.

During the comparatively long (one and a half hours) ATR flight to Cochin I had a look at the fare structure given on the printout ticket. The break up is: Base fare 1860, Fuel surcharge 2350, Air traffic congestion fee (whatever that means) 150, and something marked WO, 225. Total Rs.4585. Quite steep, I must say. The concession senior citizens used to enjoy, is no longer there.

I had to shell out that much money because of a faux pas. I had asked for ticket by Trivandrum Mail. The departure time of this train from Chennai Central is 8.15 P.M. Just before starting for the railway station I had a look at the ticket and was mortified to find that it was for Trivandrum Express leaving at 4.15 P.M.! I had to book an air ticket online. The moral: always check the ticket as soon as you receive it.

Now, about the train fare. My return ticket was reserved on Tatkal system. In this procedure, after the allotted quota for regular booking is taken up, one can obtain a berth by paying a hefty fee. The more the seats apportioned for Tatkal, the more money the railways make. The total number of seats on the train remains the same.

There is some unfairness about Tatkal. It does not differentiate between senior citizens and others. Everybody pays the same. The very concept of special consideration for the elders is nullified.

Last month onward journey by 2 AC from Chennai to Cochin booked through Tatkal, cost me Rs.1376. For return, again by 2AC, reserved from regular quota was only Rs.795. This month, for return from Cochin by 3AC, booked through Tatkal, the fare was Rs.1093. This does not make sense to me.

Tatkal arrangement could be useful in situations where one has to travel urgently on short notice. But it should not be used as a profit making procedure. Only a minimum number of seats should be kept apart for Tatkal. Again, a just fare structure would be: regular charge minus senior citizen concession plus Tatkal fees.

I hope the Railways would look into this.

Also see:

Bangalore: Flying in, flying out

The romance of railways

Monday, October 20, 2008

Photos: Clouds over Chennai

Photos by me. Copyright reserved.
Click to enlarge.
Also see:

Madras Matters

No Red Sails in the Sunset

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Spot the birds

Photos from Olavipe. Copyright reserved.
Click to enlarge.

Also see:
When did you last see a kingfisher?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Kerala food: Karimeen, The Fish of God’s Own Country

Karimeen (Pearl Spot or Pearlspot), which belongs to the Cichlidae family is a perennial favorite with the fish loving Keralites. It is a brackish water fish found in the lakes, rice fields, canals and ponds of South India and Sri Lanka but can survive in fresh water and highly saline water for short periods.

There are dozens of recipes for cooking karimeen. One interesting factor is that deciding how to prepare karimeen, to a great extent, would depend on the size. Over sized karimeen and the tiny ones are not good for the pan. Ideally, fish that number five to seven per kilogram should be taken for frying. Usually people end up paying more for larger fish which may not be suitable for the recipe in mind.

The photo (copyright reserved) above is a fried karimeen from Olavipe.

What does one do with karimeen that is larger than the one in the photo?

We bake them in the traditional way. Marinated full fish is kept in a chatti (earthen vessel) that is over fire, with banana leaves under and above the fish. The chatti is then covered with its lid and embers are placed over it. Every few minutes the fish is turned over and coconut oil poured on it. Properly done, there is no other karimeen preparation to beat this, according to me.

The size of of a mature karimeen, though it might impress people, is not a yardstick of the taste. Karimeen from the Vembanad Lake and Ashtamudi Lake are much more delicious than the ones from, say, Veli Lake near Trivandrum and Chilka Lake in Orissa. Also, cultured karimeen is less tasty than the ones growing naturally.

Some people confuse karimeen with pomferet and tilapia. The taste and texture of each are different. The pictures given below should help in identifying the different species.

Pomfret (image from Wikimedia Cmmons)

Tilapia (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Karimeen is a healthy food. Traditionally, coconut oil is used for cooking it. Both the fish and coconut oil contain Omega3 Factor which is cardiac friendly according to modern research. However, there is strong opposition to coconut oil from some quarters.

Use whatever cooking medium you prefer, but karimeen will still taste really good.

Also see: Kerala food: Kappa (cassava or casava, yuca, manioc, Manihot esculenta)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Photos: Mysore Palace Gates

Recent photos by Binita Kuruvilla.
Copyright reserved.
Click on images to enlarge.
Also see:

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Photos: Elephants and deers

Binita Kuruvilla was kind enough to send me these photos
she took on a recent trip to
Bandipur National Park, Karnataka, India.
I am sharing them with you.

Copyright reserved.
Click on photos to enlarge.
Also see:
Big game hunting: A tiger shoot
A Vodka Story.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Ecology: Ban the ‘suicide tree’?

When the whole world is talking about the importance of conserving existing trees and planting new one, the Indian Psychiatrists Society (IPS) has recommended that the government ban the ‘odollam’ (Cerbera odollam) tree.

Odollam which can grow to a height of over 10m is found in India and South Asian countries. It has beautiful fragrant white jasmine like flowers.

It grows wild in the Kerala State of India. All parts of the tree are toxic. The fruit which somewhat resembles mango is a killer. The kernel embedded in the fibrous pericarp is highly poisonous.

Reports show that odollam fruit is responsible for 50% of plant poisoning cases and 10% of all poisoning cases in the State. In Kerala there are about 100 suicide attempts every day out of which 26 persons die. This works out to three times the national average. Tragically, almost 80% of the suicide victims are in the 15-59 age group. (See:

In certain areas of Kerala, odollam appears to be the preferred means of suicide. It is easily available. No money is required to be spent to buy poison. No trip to the chemist or pesticide shop. Just pull out an odollam fruit from the tree, take out the kernel and consume it. So much so, odollam has come to be known as the ‘suicide tree’.

The local names for odollam tree in different places include kattu arali; famentana, kisopo, samanta, tangena, pong-pong, buta-buta, bintaro, nyan, othalam, othalanga, pilikirbir, dog-bane, chatthankai, chiute, grey milk wood and sea mango

A team from France's Laboratory of Analytical Toxicology says, "To the best of our knowledge, no plant in the world is responsible for as many deaths by suicide as the odollam tree."

Odollam is also considered as a perfect murder tool. The lethal toxin called cerberin contained in the kernel of the fruit stops the heart functions. It is difficult to establish odollam poisoning pathologically. This is particularly so in the Western countries where Cerebra odollam is hardly known.

In spite of its toxic properties, odollam is used in Ayurveda, folk and Siddha systems of medicine. In Ayurveda it is considered to be effective for management of skin diseases including ringworm, vata, and rabies. Bark, leaves, fruits, and latex are used for medicinal purpose.

I came across a report saying that odollam kernels are exported from Kerala through Tamil Nadu. Allegedly it is used for the manufacture of bio-insecticides and deodorants. The highly poisonous fruit is de-husked by women with their bare hands to collect the kernel. Whether the government has looked into this operation is not clear.

What do you think? Should the Cerebra odollam tree be banned?

Images: Top, from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. Others from Olavipe, copyright reserved.

Also see: EARTH SAVE - Abraham Tharakan's Blog

Monday, October 6, 2008

Realities: The smell of Joseph

She cannot escape the smell of Joseph. They are not married but she spends every night in his room, sleeps on his bed. There is no sex between them though. It is only an arrangement to save money.

Joseph is the night watchman at the wedding center where she works. He does not need his room at night. She models expensive saris and fabulous jewelry till the shop closes - dressed up all day, continuously smiling at potential customers, turning and twisting all the time to show off the wares from different angles.

She needs a place to sleep. Joseph and she come to an arrangement of convenience. He would be on duty before she wraps up for the day. She would be out of the room and on her way to work before he returns in the morning. She pays Joseph an amount which is much less than what she would have had to pay for separate accommodation. And the man gains some extra cash.

But she cannot escape the smell of Joseph that hangs heavily in the room.

This is the theme of the well-written short story ‘The smell of Joseph’ by a first year engineering student, Ashwati Sashikumar. It was chosen for the first prize in the recent Sree – Malayala Manorama Short Story Competition by an eminent jury consisting of T. Padmanabhan, P. Valsala and CV Balakrishnan.

I am highly impressed and at the same time somewhat disturbed by this nicely crafted piece of fiction. As the jury mentions in its citation, it is different, and contemporary. To me, it brings to light certain realities of life, which, in the normal course, most people would not have been aware of.

Why does the heroine of the story go in for this highly susceptible but nevertheless basically honorable arrangement? Back home in a remote village there is an aging and sickly mother who needs medicines, younger siblings who have to be educated. That may sound mundane, but truth is sometimes so. It is a value system that is still found in Kerala and perhaps in other parts of India as well.

That is something noble – a silent sacrifice unknown to the world.

Next time I see a pleasant sales girl in a shop attending to the customers, I would wonder whether she too suffers from the smell of Joseph.

Thank you, Ashwati and Malayala Manorama for bringing us this story.

Also see: Short Stories By Abraham Tharakan