Dried prawns basking in the sunlight greet you as you begin the journey to the Pichavaram boathouse— the entrance to the mangrove forests. Once you enter, standing atop and looking down from the spiral watch tower, one sees the verdant forest floating on the murky water. Pichavaram, the world’s second largest mangrove forest, unwinds in glory below you. Spread over 1,100 hectares, Pichavaram is a place of great beauty.
Strong and willowy roots reaching up from the backwaters to be entangled by a crown of green leaves, Pichavaram plays host to tourists from around the world. The exotic range of flora and fauna found here is another reason for this being a bustling tourist place. People wait in queues before the TTDC office to board the boats.
They offer two types of services — row boats and motor boats. The boatmen wait patiently in their boats, their skin glowing with sweat, the years of hardship reflecting in their toned bodies. A little way into the water and you reach the clubbed forest. Give them some extra money and they will gladly row you to the inner secrets of the forest. Paddling through the dense jungle, cut from top at some places to give way to the boats to enter, you enter into the stillness of an impenetrable world, unbroken, except for the waters lapping at the sides of the trees or for an egret — found in abundance here — peeping from the branches in search of fishes in the water.
The place has more than 50 islands of various sizes, and 4,400 big and small canals. A mischievous otter or two rush past through the tangled roots. Crabs scamper through the clay, sensing the boat trudging along. The semidiurnal tides that occur here are characteristic of the mangrove forest. Turtles angle through the mud, drawing their heads back if they sense danger. Mangrove oysters line up at the roots, giving these a scary look at times.
The boatmen here are very jovial. “Take a photo from here. This was the place where ‘Kallai Mattum Kandal’ song of Dasavatharam was taken. Haven’t you seen the movie? We have many movies shot here,” he said amiably.
As the boat wedges out of the encircled forest to the open backwater, bright light welcomes you back, breaking the entangled spell of the mangroves. The backwater spreads out joining the Bay of Bengal, where it is separated by a lengthy sandbank from the sea.
The tsunami that struck the coast of Tamil Nadu on December 26 led to the destruction of some parts of the forest. The forest acted as a bio shield, slowing down the full impact of the waves and thereby protecting the Irula tribe living in hamlets near the mangroves. They suffered fewer human casualties and less damage to property compared to other areas devastated by the tsunami. The tribe was included in the Scheduled Tribe list following the aftermath of tsunami and they took up the work of restoring the forest. They paid their thanksgiving to the forest for saving their lives by planting millions of saplings and by shifting to sustainable fishing initiatives. And thanks to their efforts, the forest is now one of the most sought out places to visit in Tamil Nadu.