Ruins of an 8th century brick lighthouse dating back to the Chola Empire, sit near a puddle teeming with mudskipper fish. A squabble of seagulls circles noisily before settling down, and not far away, the Bay of Bengal shimmers in the rising sun. Early mornings at Point Calimere offer sightings of many winged visitors that hide in the tree canopy when the day warms up.
Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, was created as a sanctuary in 1967, essentially for the conservation of the endangered blackbuck antelope, endemic to the Indian subcontinent.
This ancient Chola region came to be known by its current name around 16th century, when the Portuguese set up trade connections with the nearby port town of Nagapattinam, about 50 km away. Some say Calimere is derived from the Portuguese words “calido” meaning warm and “mar” meaning sea.
The sanctuary includes a part of the Great Vedaranyam swamp, Muthupet mangroves, and Panchanadikulam wetlands, and is flanked by the Bay of Bengal in the east, and Palk Strait in the south. It feels like an island, with water on so many sides, and has a collage of tropical evergreen forests, sand dunes, salt pans, tidal mud flats, shallow seasonal ponds, and expansive, grassy coastal plains.
This potpourri landscape has 14 species of mammals, 18 reptile species, nine kinds of amphibians, and many land and water birds. It was rightfully included in the Ramsar List of important wetlands in August 2002. The flora is also biologically diverse. In addition to mangroves, there are tall, ramrod-straight, evergreen strychnine trees (source of homeopathic medicine, nux vomica), black-wooded Ceylon ebony, and an abundance of the gnarly, invasive species Prosopis juliflora.
Point Calimere spans 21.5 sq km and is located close to Tiruchirapalli and Thanjavur —the erstwhile capitals of the Chola Empire. The buffer area of the sanctuary is open to all who purchase a visiting ticket, but the core area of Calimere is accessible only with prior permission from the Wildlife Warden at the Forest Department office at Nagapattinam (04365-253092). Visitors must be accompanied by a guide, approved by the forest department, to visit the core area.
Near the sanctuary gate, there are grasslands with patches of thorny shrubs while the seaside of the sanctuary has golden sands and fishermen’s boats lined along the shore. This area also has a 13-metre-high, functioning lighthouse, constructed by the British in 1890, near the ruins of a Chola lighthouse. Throughout the sanctuary, watchtowers exist for birding enthusiasts. The highest point of the sanctuary has a religious shrine called Ramar Padam, or stone footprints of Rama. Devotees make a beeline for the small shrine during Ram Navami.
The sanctuary is a relatively safe place for blackbuck, and chital deer, since the only predators here are jackals and free-ranging stray dogs. Also frequently seen, are wild ponies, grazing in the grassy, open areas of the sanctuary. This is thanks to the British, who attempted to breed ponies in Calimere in the early 1900s, to use as pack animals in the nearby port of Nagapattinam. The experiment did not go as planned, resulting in a population of feral ponies with tawny hides and flowing manes. Deeper in the sanctuary, the woods are home to small civets, wild boars, and monitor lizards.
Marshy areas see a lot of bird activity, and screeching seagulls, black-necked storks, and painted storks can be sighted sunning their colourful plumage. During winter, residents like brahminy kites, rose-ringed parakeets, and bulbuls are joined by migratory birds. Flamingos, black-headed ibis, waders, and spot-billed pelicans can be seen in large numbers.
One morning, I was watching a villager offering prayers to the rising sun when I was granted a view of large creature with a distinctive snout — a bottlenose dolphin, playfully cavorting with the gentle waves near the shore. Dawn at Calimere offers beautiful photographic moments, especially near the sea.
Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary is open throughout the year, from 6 am to 5 pm.
October-January: This is the best time for birding as the backwaters and swamps are full of migratory water birds such as ducks, terns, waders and flamingos that arrive around mid-November. The northeast monsoon turns the landscape a pleasant green at this time of year, but fair warning: Vehicles are known to get stuck in marshy areas after a heavy rain.
February: Flamingos depart by late January, but February is still a good time to see other birds. The weather is pleasant with light breezes, clear skies, and day temperatures of around 25°C.
March-August: Summer temperatures range from 30°C to 37°C, occasionally reaching even 40°C. It is hot and humid, but a good time to see land animals such as blackbuck, boar, civet, and ponies.
Entry: Rs 50 per vehicle; Rs 20 per head for Indians; Rs 100 per head foreign nationals. ID proof required.
Travel: Forest Department jeep safaris are available on request at the forest office in Nagapattinam (04365-253092). Private jeeps, SUVs, and taxis can be hired from either Nagapattinam (58 km/1 hr 40 minutes) or Vailankanni (49 km/1hr 30 min). A roundtrip from Vailankanni costs between Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000.
The sarpanch of Vedaranyam (11 km/30 min) also arranges vehicles to Point Calimere on request.
Guide costs: Guides approved by the Forest Department can be hired for Rs 300-Rs 500 per safari drive.
Boat trips: Boat rides through the area can be arranged from Muthupet village (Rs 1,200-1,500) and offer the chance to observe waterbirds. (These are at Muthupet mangroves about 45 km/1 hr 30 minutes from the sanctuary.)
The nearest airport is at Tiruchirapalli (165km/4 hr by road) and the nearest railway station is Nagapattinam (58km/1hr 40 min). To explore the sanctuary you need to first reach Vailankanni. Taxis and SUVs to explore the sanctuary are available at Vailankanni town (48 km/1hr 30 min), and the closest village to the sanctuary is Kodaikarai (2.6 km/10 min).
There is a forest guest house called Flamingo House (or ‘Poonrai illam’) at Kodiakarai village (2.6 km/10 min). Prior booking is required. To make a reservation, contact the forest department office at Nagapattinam (04365-253092). For permission to visit core area, book the forest guest house, and hire a guide, get in touch with Wildlife Warden, District Forest Office, District Collectorate Campus, Nagapattinam (04365-253092).
Vailankanni (48 km/1hr 30 min) is a Christian pilgrimage town famous for the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health. Numerous accommodation options are available here. Among these, Church View Suites (doubles Rs 3,900), MGM Vailankanni (doubles Rs 3,010), and Udhayam (doubles Rs 1,950) are recommended. The town of Vedaranyam (11 km/ 30 min) is closer, but the lodges here are not the most hygienic.
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