Thursday, March 6, 2008

Kesar (Saffron)

the World’s Most Expensive Spice

If you visit tourist places in Goa and Kerala, you can visit spice gardens.
Some plantation owners have improvised their spice gardens into tourist attractions.
You can see a variety of plants where different spices come from.
The guide will answer your questions and clarify your doubts.
Your host will serve you authentic local meals in virgin surroundings and arrange a traditional dance.
We Indians use a lot of spices in their daily food.
But most of us do not know where the spices come from.
Someone suggested that I should write about the spices in my blog.
So here we go.
This one on Kesar (Saffron) is another in a series on Spices of India.
India produces the world’s best Kesar (Saffron).
What is Kesar (Saffron)
Kesar is derived from the flower of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), a domesticated species of crocus in the family Iridaceae.
The three stigmas and the style (stalk connecting then to the rest of the plant) are dried and used as spice.
About 1.5 lac (1,50,000) flowers are required to get one kg of Saffron.
Where it comes from

The world’s best Kesar comes from India, from Kashmir to be precise.
This is the reason, in India, you can see the plants only in Kashmir.
Some spice gardens do plant Kesar for their visitors.
The annual global production of Kesar is about 300 tons.
Iran produces more than 81 percent of the world yield.
Other producers are Spain, Greece, Azerbaijan, Morocco and Italy.

Culinary Uses

Kesar is widely used as a spice for colouring and flavor.
It imparts a distinctive aroma and a beautiful golden colour.
It is used in a wide array of recipes all over the world.

Medicinal Uses
Kesar has several therapeutic properties.
It is used for stomach ailments and as an antispasmodic.
It helps digestion and increases appetite.
It relieves renal colic and reduces stomach aches.
It is used for flu-like infections, depression and hypatomegaly.
It regulates women’s menstruation and helps conception.
Since antiquity, Kesar is believed to be a general tonic, an excellent sexual stimulant and an aphrodisiac.

Uses as Dye
In ancient times, Kesar was a very rare and expensive substance.
It was used as a dye by the Royalty.
It was considered a sacred flower in ancient Crete.
Greek gods and goddesses wore gowns dyed with Saffron, so did Buddhist monks.
Kesar is also the colour of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Domesticated Plant

The entire Kesar comes from the domesticated plant which originated in Crete.
It is sterile and its purple flowers do not produce viable seeds.
The corms (underground bulb-like starch-storing organs) are dug up, broken apart, and replanted in June.
After a period of dormancy during the summer, five to eleven narrow and nearly vertical green leaves - up to 40 cm (16 in) in length - emerge from the ground.
Purple buds appear in autumn.
In October, the buds open into brilliant lilac flowers.

Kesar crocuses bloom within a narrow time span of one or two weeks.
After they flower at dawn, the flowers wilt quickly by the end of the day.A
nd therefore, they have to be collected fast.


Pampore - 14 km away from Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir - is the place where the world’s best Kesar grows.
If you go there , you will be greeted by a stone bearing the inscription, “World's Best Saffron Grows Here” .

Unfortunately, the yield of Kesar in Pampore has steadily and gradually decreased by more than a half in about 15 years.
Something needs to be done.
If you are a connoisseur of good and exotic food, try to take Kesar tea (preferably without milk) or Kesar milk.
Both are good and healthier substitutes of tea and coffee.

How to use Kesar

Soak filaments of Kesar for a few minutes in a little warm water (4 strands per cup of finished product).
Rub well till dark golden color develops.
Add to tea, or milk, or sweets and bring the concoction to a boil.
Simmer for 5 minutes.
Cool in fridge, if necessary.
Add a few strands of Kesar on the surface for decoration.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Point Calimere

Unique Wildlife Sanctuary

According to the Ramayana, Lord Ram himself stood at this point and carried out reconnaissance of Ravana’s kingdom in Sri Lanka just 48 kms. away.

A stone slab at Ramarpatham (meaning Rama’s feet), the highest point of Point Calimere, bears the foot prints of Ram.

Now it is a unique wildlife and bird sanctuary.


Situated at the southern end of Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu, the sanctuary may be divided into three divisions:
· Point Calimere Forest;
· Great Vedaranyam Swamp, which includes the mangrove forests at Muthupet, and
· Talaignayar Reserve Forest.It is a marine - coastal wetland with a wide diversity of habitats , including dry evergreen forests, mangrove forests, and wetlands.

The coastal water is the breeding ground, or nursery, for many species of marine fishes.

Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary (PCWBS)

Point Calimere region was first identified as an area of high conservation importance by late Dr. Salim Ali, the world famous ornithologist, in 1962.

The Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary, with an area of 24.17 km², was created on June 13, 1967 for conservation of Black buck (Indian antelope), an endangered and endemic species of India.
In 1988, the Sanctuary was enlarged to include the Great Vedaranyam Swamp and the Talaignayar Reserve Forest, and renamed the Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary, with a total area of 377 km².

In November 2002, the sanctuary and some adjacent areas (excluding the reserved forest) were designated a Ramsar Site - a wetland of international of importance.


Fourteen species of mammals have been reported in the Sanctuary.
The most graceful are the sleek and beautiful black buck.
When I visited the Sanctuary, the black bucks did not allow me to come close.
They kept a respectable distance.
When I advanced towards them, they retreated.

Other large animals are spotted deer, wild boar, jackal, Bonnet macaque, mongoose, monitor lizards, black naped hare, Civet cat and semi wild ponies.
There are large colonies of flying foxes in the Point Calimere forest and in the mangrove forest at Muthupet.
Dolphins and turtles often come quite close to the shore.


The sanctuary has one of the largest water bodies in South India and is rich in both resident and migratory birds.
A total of 257 species of birds have been recorded of which 119 are water birds and 138 forest birds.
Some of the major water bird species are the greater flamingo, the lesser flamingo, spot - billed pelican, grey pelican, spoonbill sandpiper, Asian dowitcher, white bellied sea eagle, brahminy kite and osprey.
The land birds include paradise flycatcher, Indian pitta, Rosy starling, Blyth reed warbler, crested serpent eagle and brown shrike.
Since 1959, the Bombay Natural History Society has been conducting regular bird migration studies in the sanctuary.
So far, over 200,000 birds have been captured, studied, ringed and released.
Bombay Natural History Society has set up a new field station in Kodaikadu in 2007.


The vegetation of the Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary is diverse, ranging from dry evergreen forests, mangrove vegetation, salt marsh to grasslands.
If you are interested in plants, you can see carnivorous or insectivorous plants, such as, Drosera burmanii and D. indica.

Places to see

You can see the footprints of Lord Rama at Ramar Padam.
You can have a beautiful view of the sanctuary and the larger mammals and birds from the watch tower located near the shrine.
The historic ruins of a 1000-year old Chola light house were wiped out by the Tsumani of 2004.
A modern lighthouse built in 1890 guides the mariners.


Point Calimere is the apex of the Cauvery River delta, and forms a right-angle turn near the coastline.
The area is littered by salt pans. They may create ecological problems, but they do attract a large number of birds.

It’s a wonderful sanctuary.
You will see the graceful black bucks, a variety of birds, plants, dolphins, etc.
The forests of Point Calimere are one of the last remnants of the dry evergreen forests that were once typical of the East Deccan dry evergreen forests eco-region.

You can visit Thanjavur, just 90 km away, the seat of the celebrated Chola kings from the 10th to the early 14th century. The entire South India is open to you beyond that….

Sunday, March 2, 2008


Second largest Mangrove forest in the world

Almost two and a half decades ago, when I was working in Chennai, I first heard of the Mangrove Forests of Pichavaram - 14 kms. from Chidambaram.
I did not really know what Mangrove forests were and what Pichavaram was like.
I requested my friends to organize a visit.
After my visit, I wrote about Pichavaram in the Swagat (inflight magazine of Indian Airlines) and a number of other magazines.
To this extent, I take credit for increasing its popularity.
Since then, I have visited Pichavaram several times.
My last visit was a few months after the Tsunami of 2004.

Pichavaram is a unique success story.

Mangrove Forest

Pichavaram Mangrove Forest has been created by the backwaters, inter connected by the Vellar and Coleroon river systems.

The Mangrove Forest is followed by an extraordinary sand bank which makes a lovely sandy beach.
The total area of Pichavaram Mangrove Forest (including 50 small islands) is about 1470 ha.

The Pichavaram Mangrove Forest, the second largest in the world, is the healthiest mangrove forest in the world.

Mangrove Trees

Mangrove trees are unique.
Try to visualize trees standing on stilts. And you have a rough likeness of what a mangrove tree looks like.

The mangrove trees grow in coastal areas of the tropics and sub-tropics, at the edge of waterways; and in estuaries, creeks and channels in the delta regions, where the water ebbs up and down twice every day.
The sea water rushes in and out, through the waterways, twice a day, changing the salinity of the water from that of sea water to fresh water.
The trees and other creatures have developed unique systems to survive and thrive in these harsh conditions.
The trees have developed unique stilt like roots.
The roots have pores through which the trees breathe oxygen when the water level is low and the roots are exposed.
The roots have specialized membranes which act like filters allowing only fresh water to enter.
If some salt passes through, it accumulates in the leaves, which later drop off to get rid of the salt.
Seeds could hardly survive in such hostile conditions.
The mangrove tree has developed a singular solution.
The seeds germinate on the tree itself and develop into cigar shaped seedlings.
When mature, the seedlings simply fall off the tree, penetrate into the soil and develop roots.
This ensures a high survival rate.

Soil and other debris accumulate between the roots, actually reclaiming land, and creating a unique eco-system.

Unique Creatures

The complex root system provides accommodation to a myriad creatures,including algae, barnacles, oysters, sponges and bryozoans.
The mudskipper fish comes out of the water on to the banks for short spells.
The archer fish can shoot out a jet of water, much like the fireman’s hose, striking down small insects.
All kinds of crabs and crustaceans live amidst the mud banks.
The habitat can also host commercially important species of fish and crustacea providing livelihood to the locals.


Pichavaram is the bird lover’s paradise.
The rich aquatic life attracts all kinds of birds.
You will find - the local residents, the immigrant residents and the genuine migratory birds that come annually to mate and breed.
Over 177 species of birds belonging to 15 orders and 41 families have been recorded in Pichavaram.
The peak season for birds is from November to January.

The Tsunami and after

The Tsunami hit the shores of India on December 26, 2004 at 08:32 in the morning.
At that time, I was having tea with a friend in Chennai.
I received a phone call from my friend in another city to enquire if I was all right.
Only then I learnt that the Tsunami had hit the eastern shores of India.

Cuddalore, where the Mangrove Forests are located, was heavily affected by the waves.
572 bodies were recovered and many were missing.
Several fishing hamlets simply disappeared.
Silver Beach and the historically important Cuddalore Port were devastated.
However, Fort St. David survived without damage.

The Income Tax Office in Cuddalore was slightly affected.
I immediately made arrangements to ensure that our staff were safe and received immediate help, if needed.
The loss of lives was too tragic.
But relief started pouring in.My office in Chennai also collected and sent relief material for the local people.
The management of relief operations in the district was handled by the local authorities and villagers themselves.
They did a remarkable job.

The Tsunami proved that mangrove trees act as buffers and prevent damage to the hinterland.


Mangrove forests are gigantic biological sinks with an unrivalled capacity to absorb and assimilate chemicals and recycle them into nutrients.
Late M.G. Ramachandran used Pichavaram for his film Idayakani.
Later, when he became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, he developed the place.

However, till the early 1980s, policy makers and planners throughout the world, considered mangrove wetlands as wasteland.
This resulted in over exploitation and conversion of mangrove wetlands for other purposes.
Only after 1980s, the importance of mangrove forests has been understood and replanting programs have been started all over the world.

Inspite of this, over half the world’s mangroves have been lost in recent times.
But Pichavaram is an exception.
There has been new mangrove forestation to the extent of almost 90%.
Who says we cannot improve our environment.
We have done it.

Several reports, including a few by some scientists, mention that Pichavaram was declared a Reserve Forest in 1897.
This cannot be correct.
I think the correct year is 1987.

See this unique place and the magnificent beach.
And you can see also Chidambaram Temple, the temple without a deity, and the Annamalai University, famous for its B.Ed. programs.

Saturday, March 1, 2008


Unique Temple of the Formless Shiva

I have visited Chidambaram several times for three reasons.
· To meander through the Mangrove Forests of Pichavaram to the beach beyond.
· To visit, attend or give lectures at the Annamalai University.
· And to visit the Chidambaram Temple.

Meaning of the word Chidambaram

The word Chidambaram is derived from the two words ‘Chit’ meaning ‘consciousness’ and ‘ambaram’ meaning ‘sky’ (akaas) and signifies the sky of consciousness, which is the ultimate state one should attempt to attain.According to another version, the word Chidambaram is derived from Chitrambalam which is derived from two words ‘Chit’ and ‘ambalam’ meaning Stage for performing arts.

The Deity

Chidambaram Temple is unique because the main deity which is worshipped there is the Akash Linga or the formless form of Lord Shiva. Here, Lord Shiva is worshipped in the form of ether (one of the five forms of matter) which has no form.As you can see on the left side of the photograph, there is no deity at all.The wall is covered with leaves of gold foil strung on strings. (Of course, there are a lot of other deities).

The Chidambaram Temple is also dedicated to Lord Shiva in the form of Nataraja - the Cosmic Dancer.The beautiful image of Nataraja is extremely popular amongst artists.


We do not know much about the past of Chidambaram.But worship in this temple has continued uninterrupted since time immemorial.The Temple was definitely in existence in the 6th century A.D.Successive generations of the Chola, the Pallava and the Vijayanagar kings patronised the temple.

The Chola King Aditya 1 started guilding a portion of the roof of the temple with gold.
But the work was completed by his son.


Long ago, there used to be a Thillai Vanam around Chidambaram. (‘Vanam’ means forest and ‘thillai’ is a species of mangrove trees - botanical name Exocoeria agallocha - which now grows in the Pichavaram mangrove forests nearby.) There are 2nd century A.D. sculptures in the temple depicting the Thillai trees.It appears that the coast was much closer to Chidambaram.
A group of ‘rishis’ (saints) lived in the Thillai forests. They believed in magic and believed that even God could be controlled by rituals and ‘mantras’ or magical words.
Once, Lord Shiva was strolling through the Thillai forests in the form of ‘Pitchandanar’, a nude mendicant asking for alms.He had extraordinary beauty and radiance.He was followed by his consort. The wives of the rishis were enamoured by the handsome mendicant and his consort.
On seeing this, the rishis became angry and sent scores of serpents by performing magical rituals. Lord Shiva lifted the serpents and donned them as ornaments on his matted locks, neck and waist.
The enraged rishis sent a fierce tiger. Lord Shiva skinned it and tied its skin around his waist like a piece of garment. Still more infuriated, the rishis sent a powerful demon ‘Muyalakan’. Lord Shiva stepped on the demon’s back, immobilized him and performed the √Ānanda thaandava (the dance of bliss or happiness).Then he discloses his true form. Only then, the rishis realized that Lord Shiva was beyond magic and rituals and surrendered to him.Govindaraja Shrine
The Chidambaram Temple complex also has a shrine of Govindarajaperumal (form of Lord Vishnu) and his consort Pundareegavalli Thaayar (form of Laxmi). It is rare to have shrines of both Shiva and Vishnu in the same temple.
Temple car

The Chidambaram Temple car is one of the most beautiful of temple cars in Tamil Nadu. This car is used to carry the statue of Lord Nataraja around the town twice a year.

The Gopurams

The temple has 9 gateways.Four of these have towering ‘gopurams’ or pagodas each with 7 levels in the East, South, West and North. The eastern gopuram has sculptures depicting all the 108 postures (karnams) of Bharat Natyam - an Indian form of dance.

Reaching there

Chidambaram is 240 km south of Chennai and about an hour’s drive from Pondicherry.There are plenty of trains from Chennai.The road is also very good.
The coast is about 11 kms from Chidambaram.


The temple complex spreading over 40 acres is full of exquisite statues.There is the Shivganga, the traditional tank.Chidambaram is also worshipped as the temple of Nataraj – the Cosmic Dancer.There is an annual dance festival.The top most Indian dancers deem it a privilege and honour to perform here.

Nataraj, the image of the Lord Shiva in the dancing pose has been copied all over the world.

All the major temples in Tamil Nadu are administered by the Government. Chidambaram is the sole exception.The huge temple complex looks like an undefeatable fort and has been used as such.

You can visit the Annamalai University, which pioneered the concept of distance education in India. You can also visit the Pichavaram Mangrove Forests.