Tamil Nadu Five great eco trips

The Madras Crocodile Bank, Karuna Farm, the Dune Eco Village and the colonial bungalows of Chettinad and Tranquebar offer some interesting ways to explore the state
Tamil Nadu Five great eco trips

The Madras Crocodile Bank
They proudly and justly introduce themselves as one of the largest reptile zoos in the world and one of the oldest environmental NGOs in Asia. The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology, founded by the legendary conservationist Romulus Whitaker in 1976, has been working to conserve reptiles and amphibians in the Indian subcontinent, and is now home to over 2,500 reptiles in eight-and-a-half acres of land. (Elsewhere, in the Agumbe Reserve Forest in Karnataka&rsquos Shimoga district, Whitaker was instrumental in setting up another conservation effort for furthering research on king cobras read more about it at www.agumberainforest.com).

The interactive nature of a visit here is one of the particularly visible achievements of the effort. The Croc Bank nestles in a coastal dune forest and includes breeding colonies for water birds and a safe nesting beach for Olive Ridley sea turtles that arrive down this coast annually. &lsquoJaws&rsquo, an unusually large croc who could not be contained alongside his fraternity, has a special pen all to himself (you can watch him being fed on Sunday afternoons at 4.30pm). The bank is home to 14 species of the 23 crocodilian species living across the world, some of which are critically endangered. It also has breeding programmes for some endangered species.

There&rsquos also the famous underwater gharial exhibit, the only one of the sort in India, for a mesmerising chance to see gharials cruising alongside other aquatic life, including schools of fish and freshwater turtles, in what&rsquos a huge, nature-like aquarium.

Feeding demos happen five times on Sundays, and animal talks (on snakes, crocs, tortoises and lizards) are organised every weekend.

The weekend night safaris, which bring cool sea breeze to the sultry heat of coastal Chennai, have to be booked a couple of days in advance.

Crocs are very active nocturnally and it&rsquos a fortuitous time to catch territorial disputes and breeding rituals (Mondays closed Rs 10 for kids below 10, Rs 35 otherwise www.madrascrocodilebank.org).

Dune Eco Village and Spa, Pondicherry
Onsite eco farm at the Dune Eco Village and Spa, Pondicherry Dune hotels began as an eco village and spa hotel that quickly became a favourite with seasoned travellers to Pondicherry, which is no stranger to highly recommendable boutique hotels. Interiors designed with a pleasing mix of ethnic Indian sensibilities and dashes of international flourishes, including a fondness for quirky art, compliment lovely surprises like a badminton court, cycles waiting to be used by guests outside every room, and an expansive organic farm that supplies the in-house restaurant notable for local and French Creole specialities. The Dune&rsquos seven acres of farmland (guests are encouraged to visit) diligently follows bio-intensive intercropping and crop diversification on a raised bed system to produce as much variety as possible for the aptly named Fun Restaurant and the Seafood Bar. There&rsquos one acre given over to fruit plants like banana, guava, gooseberry, papaya and pineapple, and there&rsquos a pretty coconut plantation too. They even follow a technique discovered in Madagascar in the 1980s to grow rice in one acre, and demonstrate how 25% more rice can be grown with less water. Naturally, they also practice vermi-composting for all the organic waste generated by the restaurant and staff cafeteria (demos for generating higher quality compost may be had). They harvest, ferment and spray ten species of bio pesticide plants, which they grow in a separate field. They also offer 3-month long art residencies so that artists may feel creative at a peaceful studio in a natural setting. The Dune sees itself as a place that welcomes people of all nationalities to meet and explore the rich culture of southern India. Artists are encouraged to use local resources, work with local craftspeople, and create their own unique spaces onsite. Elephant Valley, their Eco Farm Hotel set in 100 verdant acres of the Palani Hills in the Western Ghats, 20 kilometres from Kodaikanal, extends the same philosophies to a different geography and just as successfully (www.duneecogroup.com).

Karuna Farm&rsquos natural lifestyle experience
They don&rsquot even want to call it a holiday. It&rsquos a &lsquonatural lifestyle experience&rsquo, which it most certainly is, considering their deep commitment to ecologically sustainable living. Guests at the Karuna Farm leave the world behind (even though high-speed WiFi has become available quite recently, sadly or otherwise each of us must judge for ourselves). They don&rsquot scrimp on basic amenities but have opted for an alternate lifestyle willingly in order to &ldquoharmonise with nature taking care of body, mind and spirit&rdquo for an economy that&rsquos based on the wonderful idea of &ldquoneed not greed&rdquo. Karuna doesn&rsquot draw electricity from the national grid, fully equipped instead for solar energy and hydroelectric power. Their organic farm follows a biodynamic approach to cultivation, relying on climate and water resources available naturally through the year, which yields a significant part of what they consume, including 20 varieties of fruits The setting, of course, is nothing short of divine. Situated about ten kilometres from Kodaikanal in Prakasapuram village, the farm is surrounded by lush forests that yield superb jungle walks and daylong or longer treks. It&rsquos especially harmonious to walk back from nature, hungry and tired, into the comforting joy of a life that is materially balanced. They are happy to share information on sustainable living, and encourage guests to stay and understand how they already have a model for an ecologically safer future up and running. The cottages are clean and comfortable, have solar lights and a room heater, and an attached bathroom, but they warn guests not to expect hotel-like services. There&rsquos also a fully equipped kitchen in each cottage, making it easy to feel entirely at home. This is, however, a no-alcohol and vegetarian-only campus. Dinner and the morning yoga class are free for all guests (www.karunafarm.in).

Neemrana Tranquebar
Here&rsquos an example of how a sleepy coastal village with &lsquonothing&rsquo in it became a cherished destination where visitors revive the local economy by simply relaxing. The historic bungalow occupied in various periods of history by the Danes and the British was in such a state of ruin that only an extraordinarily dedicated team could have even considered restoring it. It stands today with imposing columns, a gorgeous spiral staircase, windy verandahs and impossibly tall doors, all of it immaculate. There&rsquos a 14th century temple to the left and an old fort to the right, and all of it a stone&rsquos throw away from sweeping views of the ocean. The bungalow has been restored painstakingly with extensive assistance from the Pondicherry chapter of Intach (the project was executed under the late master conservation architect, Ajit Koujalgi) into one of the most iconic Neemrana properties anywhere in India. It&rsquos tucked away in the tranquil deep south of coastal Tamil Nadu and it means to leave undisturbed the peaceful and rhythmic ebb and flow of Tharangambadi (the original Tamil name for the settlement). Sip tea, enjoy leisurely meals, go on long walks, eat cake and crepes at the cafe run by local village women, explore the fort, and go for a swim in the pool. Just be. Till the Neemrana came along, Tranquebar was only a pit stop on a day trip. Today, people stay...and stay...and come back (from Rs 5,000 for doubles www.bungalow-on-the-beach.neemranahotels.com).

The revival of Chettinad
It&rsquos the story of a highly successful mercantile community, which travelled the seas to build unbelievable fortunes and returned with incredible treasures (logs of Burma teak tied to boats and allowed to float behind ships on the long journeys home, bags of rubies, the finest silks, spices in jars, and gold by the sackfuls). Their story always remains centred in Chettinad, a semi-arid cluster of less than a hundred villages scattered about a part of Tamil Nadu nobody mentioned except whilst ordering a chicken dish no self-respecting Chettiar matriarch would tolerate within a mile of her. It&rsquos not a legacy that&rsquos forgotten because these villages are home to enormous mansions, sometimes so large that they stretched over two streets and required two postal addresses, and their community needed every member of it to return to them for any family event, whether birth, death or wedding. They stand in silence now, these sentinels of time and of great beauty, for times turned hard and business wasn&rsquot what it used to be. Two doyens from still affluent business families, concerned that their fabulous traditions were going to be forgotten, decide to bring the world back to Chettinad.

They restored their summer retreat, a colonial bungalow near the town of Karaikudi, and opened its elegant doors to guests. They brought out a book on the enchanting Chettiar heritage, and revived local crafts. They arranged for guests to look inside the grand, privately held mansions, and they served authentically prepared food fit for the gods. Soon, word got around and more hotels opened, some of them restoring mansions that families were struggling to maintain, and Chettinad was back on the map as a fine destination with great places to stay and much to explore.

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