One doesn’t have to go all the way to the Scottish highlands these days to enjoy the sight of rolling hillsides covered with purple flowers. A 275-km drive from Bengaluru takes one to Chikkamagaluru’s Chandradrona Hills, which are presently carpeted with the beautiful neelakurinji flowers that make their appearance once in several years, making the efflorescence seem like magic. The violet and pink flowers on bushes sprouting from the red-ochre earth make for a stunning view. Not surprisingly, the hills are teeming with eager selfie takers who are blithely trampling on the rare flowers.
Neelakurinji, a shrub belonging to the Strobilanthes genus, is known for synchronous flowering once in one to 16 years. Endemic to the Western Ghats, the plants reach a height of about 60 cm and grow at an altitude of 1,300 to 2,400 metres. “There are many varieties of neelakurinji. The one found in Chikkamagaluru is Strobilanthes sessilis. Strobilanthes kunthiana is seen in parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala,” says taxonomist R. Parimala, who has travelled to different locations in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka whenever neelakurinji has blossomed over the last four decades. She has collected samples from each hill station for further study.
The flowers have been seen in Sandur in Ballari district, and in Kudremukh, Kemmanagundi, Devaramane in Chikkamagaluru in the past. Regular visitors to the Chikkamagaluru hill stations recall the blossoming of 2006. In 2018, they flowered in Kerala and in Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu.
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Parimala finds it strange that the flowers took 16 years to reappear in Chikkamagaluru when the efflorescence usually follows a 12-year cycle. “We cannot predict when they will bloom next. There are many mysteries associated with the plant that are still unsolved,” she says. A couple of months after the bloom, fruits form and the plants die.
Local tribal communities have a special connection to the flower. Hooraja, who belongs to the nomadic tribe of Hakki-Pikki, says that his ancestors believed that the goddess of the forest, Kaadadevi, appears in the form of the blue flowers once in 12 years. “The blossoming coincides with the time of the year when we hold festivals in her honour,” he says. The Hakki-Pikkis are known for preparing oils for different ailments from forest produce. “We don’t pluck the flower for any medicinal purpose. But we see the blossoms of neelakurinji as a shower of blessings of the goddess Havalani Mayi,” says Hooraja, who is from Angadihalli near Belur in Hassan district. The kurinji is known in the international market for the honey that comes from it: kurinji honey is considered exotic and a 250-gm bottle can cost Rs 1,350 or more.
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In Sangam literature of Tamil Nadu, the kurinji flowers stand for love. In Kannada literature, however, there is hardly any reference to the flower.
Chikkamagaluru, with its picturesque hills and coffee plantations, attracts thousands of tourists in the peak seasons. With the kurinji in bloom, the number of tourists has gone up exponentially, creating huge traffic snarls on the way to the three hills—Mullayyanagiri, the highest peak (1930 m) in Karnataka; Bababudangiri, known for its Sufi shrine which is venerated by both Hindus and Muslims; and Seethalayyanagiri.