Koonthamkulam or Koonthankulam is a tiny hamlet some 20 km southeast of Nanguneri in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. It is a community reserve for migratory birds from all over the world for most part of the year. Wintering birds from the northwest reach hear by October and return to their homelands in Siberia or Europe by July. December and January form the peak season and thousands of Flamingos and Bar-headed Geese could be seen in the vast water bodies of Koonthamkulam-Kadankulam sanctuary. It is supposed to be the southern most migration point for these beautiful avian friends.
From the place name and its etymology it could be assumed that the place name came into existence in ancient Tamil Sangham/Changam age that is often traced from BC fifth to AD fifth century. Kulam/pond and Kaad/forest are two distinguished place markers in ancient Tamilakam. Place names including the geo-hydrographical marker Kulam or big pond/small lake are typical of the Sangham age in the Tamil country during this early Dravidian formative age.
Ecological and cultural meanings are associated with place names in the ancient Tamilakam. Koonthamkulam and Kadankulam signify two earliest human settlements by the big ponds or waterbodies. The ancient shrine by the Kulam/tank and the Naga and other animal sculptures by the lake prove that it was an ancient sacred shrine and grove that conserved the environment and the migratory birds that came to the Kulam/pond in particular. The ancient granite idols of serpents and mammals connect it with the Chamana/Amana tradition of conservation. Conservation reached its zenith in South India during emperor Asoka’s time. Sangham literature celebrates the cultural legacies of “Vampa Moriyar” meaning the legendary Mauryas.
The local Tamil people still use the word Saranalayam for the sanctuary. It was popularized by the Buddhist monks who made ponds/tanks and improved paddy cultivation and human habitation by it. They also made protected sacred groves or Saranalaya or Sangha Arama for the endemic flora and fauna close to their Sangha Vihara/Chaitya. Saranam meaning resort/asylum/retreat/choice is a key word in the Buddhist ethical practice of conservation. These cultural and ecological evidences confirm that Koonthamkulam was an ancient Chamana/Jain or Buddhist sacred grove and pond that conserved birds and minor mammals along with medicinal flora.
The villagers protect the nesting birds. They never use crackers for the local festivals in their small temple shrines and punish those who harm the birds or chicks by shaving their head and parading them on donkeys. Shaving the head is part of the Chamana initiation into renunciation and getting rid of ego and false identity that are often associated with human hair. It is still practiced in Palani and Tirupati two former centres of Buddhism Hinduized in the middle ages. Anyway the tradition of conservation is in their culture still. They benefit from the manure that makes their fields fertile and see birds as bringers of good luck and alterity.
Mr Bal Pandian and the late Mrs Vallythai Bal Pandian who are well known for their selfless spirit of conservation of migratory birds in Koonthamkulam are part of this ancient legacy of ethical conservation in peninsular India that has its roots in the ancient Sangham Sramana tradition of Buddhims and Jainism. Vallythai even sold her jewellery once to feed the Painted Storks and Pelicans for a whole migratory season. Bal Pandian is still dedicating each moment in his life towards conservation and protection of birds and their habitat here.
He is often hailed as the “bird-man” of Koonthamkulam by the mainstream media. But he is rather much more than half human and half bird. He is more human than the mainstream philanthropists as he has the greater insight and wisdom that only by conserving the environment and fellow beings like birds and fauna we humans can survive and hope to face the ecological catastrophes in the near future. He is more human than our mainstream humanity in the sense that he has invested his whole life and energy for the preservation of life and its numerous manifestations in his immediate environment. He is not just a bird-man but a greater human being who acts for the whole humanity and the planet, for our greater futures and posterity at large. He imbibes and acts in the greater ethical legacy of conservation that begins with Buddhism and Jainism in South India. He is a truly enlightened being, a little jina or a Boddhisatva.
Yesterday, 24 Oct 2012 I got an opportunity to visit Koonthamkulam. As I was returning after a brief observation in and around the tank Mr Bal Pandian appeared from thin air and introduced himself. I have seen a few documentary films on Mr Pandian made by Suresh Elamon and other friends. He took me to his small forest department quarters and showed the beautiful photographs of birds taken by him. After a brief talk I had the privilege of birding with Bal Pandian in Koonthamkulam which is indeed a great honour for me.
His quick and agile movements and sharp identifications in the field are remarkable. With his Olympus binoculars he is a real sage and true master in the field who could enlighten and correct lesser mortals like me. He told me that seven Greater Flamingos have arrived that morning from European regions and he and Mr Chandrasekhar from Chennai saw them during their morning bird-walk.
We saw a few Spoonbills, Comb Ducks, Wood Sandpipers, Spot-billed Ducks, Garganey Teals, Pintails, Glossy Ibises, White Ibises and Darters in the lake. In the adjacent paddy fields a few Eurasian Marsh Harriers were active. Little Ringed Plovers and Yellow-wattled Lapwings were plenty in the fields. Yellow-throated Sparrows and Grey Partridges were also quite common here. Collared and Spotted doves were fairly visible here.
Bal Pandian has already won 37 awards and honours for his unique efforts in conservation from various institutions including the people’s elected governments. He cherishes his moments with the former Kerala Chief Minister and current leader of the people and the opposition Mr V S Achuthanandan a few years back in Trivandrum when he was honoured by the Govt of Kerala. He showed me the photograph with V S and Binoy Viswam.
Mr Pandian has been regularly monitoring bird activity and nesting behaviour at Koonthamkulam for the last 30 to 40 years. His field notes and diaries on nesting behaviour of certain birds in the region have even corrected the early observations by Salim Ali himself regarding subcontinental India. This true genius and Boddhisatva in conservation of peninsular India must be awarded with honorary doctorates by the higher academia for his unparalleled conservatory efforts for the last four decades. I am eager to have another illuminating birding session with him in December at the peak of the migratory season in South India when hopefully thousands of Greater Flamingos, Grey Pelicans and Bar-headed Geese would enliven the water-scape in Koonthamkulam if nature showers its mercy.