Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Gir: the last home of Asiatic Lions

Beauty of the Forest is revealed by the fauna it hosts. When we started to Gir from Ahmadabad as part of our West India Tour, only one animal came to our mind - the Asiatic Lion. It is justifiable too. But as we crossed Junagarh, the birds of Gir were the first to welcome us. The Birdman of India, Salim Ali once said that if not for Lions, Gir would have a Birds' sanctuary. It is a paradise for birdwatchers.

Gir is the last natural haven for the majestic Asiatic Lions. An early morning jungle safari is a must to appreciate the beauty and understand the importance of these big cats to the Gir ecosystem. In our trip, we made three sightings - a lioness crossing the forest road, a couple of lions resting near a waterhole and a pride feasting on their overnight kill. The magnanimity of the Lions was realised by the way they ignored the visitors. In a sense, the Giants knew that with a flick of their toes or a tiny growl, they can make us disappear into the forest. Puny humans..!

The perfect camouflage 
The other big cats living in the jungle are the leopards. They are unpredictable, agile, lonely and often shy. Perfectly camouflaged in the savannas of Gir, they are the most dangerous. Along with lions, they play the most important role of creating a sustainable equilibrium with the herbivores like Sambar, Nilgai and Spotted deer.

A Maldhari herder
Gir is blessed with a wonderful society which worships the nature. It is with their participation, we have a trifold increase in the Lion population. With the support from Gujarat Forest Department, their Eco Development Committees have reduced the biotic pressure and established a mutual dependence with lions. They understand the Lions as much as the lions understand them.

The final breathtaking experience we had in Gir was the night walk into the jungle. It made me realise the importance of conquering fears to enjoy the nature. Today I had the company of my friends and guards while venturing inside the forest, but it may not be the case always. So courage is the basic minimum required to experience the beauty of the forest. And in our battle against fear, darkness of night is the true ally. In dark, our instincts are sharpened and the journey is focused. With our mobiles turned off, we could listen to the silence of the forest, call of owls and sounds of crickets. The star filled sky was another wonderful sight we miss in cities. In front of the beauty of nature, everything else looks insignificant, and Wilderness is the true nature of our beloved Earth.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Tribute to Farmers

I watched a wonderful tribute video on this year's farmers' festival - Pongal. "What or which according to you is the most important job in the whole world?" RJ Balaji and Venky go around the city asking this question to people from various age groups. Surprisingly the answers they get are nowhere near the correct answer. Then after getting many clues, one by one realise that farming is the most important profession. Video ends with an upbeat song dedicated to farmers.

While agriculture had been the backbone of our economy even before we emerged as a free nation, what surprises me is the negligence accorded to farming especially by the rising neo-middle class in our cities. Today an average teenager in our nation has the least attraction towards the professions with utmost importance to the society such as teaching or farming. Even the traditionally agricultural families in our villages, who know the importance of farming, want their next generation to work in an air conditioned cubicle rather than on the open lands of villages. Agriculture has become so unattractive today that we see thousands of farmers abandoning their land to migrate to cities in search of the mirage of better life.

On the other hand, farmers today are adversely affected by the rapid changes in natural as well as cultural scenes. Being dependent on monsoon, small and medium farmers often face the failure of their crops and get themselves caught in the debt trap. Ultimately when the pressure breaches the threshold, they take their own precious life. Today our country, which worships land and respects food as God, is facing with rise in farmer suicides, and our urban society has decided to neglect it..! Worse is the mainstream media, which tries to capitalize by politicizing even the minimal attention accorded to the struggles of farmers.

In such a gloomy situation, the infant step taken by the Murugappa Group to educate the city dwellers with the importance of farming, is commendable. I wholeheartedly appreciate and thank it for making such a wonderful tribute to the most undermined profession in our nation. I hope this video will be a trigger for the like minded organisations to work on changing the attitude of society for the betterment of our farmers.

I salute the farmer, who stays hungry, to feed the hungry.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Inside Out (film)

Animated movies have a way of getting at the emotions housed inside certain stages of life. What happens when these emotions become characters in a movie? This idea of Pete Docter transmuted into the summer blockbuster of this year - Inside Out.

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Inside the brain of a 11 year old girl, named Riley, is a team of emotions - joy, sadness, fear, disgust and anger - working together to get her through daily life. The emotion Joy manages to control the headquarters, keeping track of the glowing orbs that represent Riley's memories. While other emotions want to take control of Riley's brain, Joy has to manage them too. After moving from Minnesota to San Francisco, an accident sends Joy and Sadness to a labyrinth of long term memory, and leaves Fear, Disgust and Anger to take control of Riley. She becomes emotionally wrecked as her parents do their best to help her adjust to the new surroundings. Meanwhile, venturing through the different realms of Riley's mind, Joy is determined to make it back to the headquarters along with Sadness, and return everything back to normal in the young adolescent consciousness of Riley.

This movie doesn't feel like it was haphazardly put together or drenched with unnecessary cultural references. Inside Out is truly genuine and crafted beautifully with lots of love and care. This is a very much imaginative film and the creative team and writers should be commended for their high effort. The idea of five emotions controlling an individual, the theme that every emotions are required for one's holistic growth, and the subtle message that sadness is as much important as joy, are few of the appreciable aspects of Inside Out.

As the objective of the story is narrative and it is classified as a kids' movie, Peter Docter and his team had a difficult task on how Inside Out would be presented. Neither too childish, nor too serious, Docter's screenplay has rendered a balanced treat that attracts both children and adult. Inside Out is also laden with tonnes of humorous jokes that would surely make both kids and adults laugh.

This movie also looks incredibly beautiful. Pixar Studios usually provide top notch CG and Inside Out is no exception. With vibrant colours and precise details, even subtle facial expressions are executed masterfully. The musical shortfilm of Disney-Pixar, titled Lava, is worth mentioning. Like the full animated film it is attached to, Lava is presented beautifully with pleasant tale of a lonely volcano looking for a volcanic partner. Pixar has not lost their touch in crafting these shorts.

Adults will be taken back to emotional struggles we had at that age and – let’s face it – sometimes still experience. Children will get the first film in a long time that treats their emotions as something complex and worth talking about. And it all happens in a colorful, energetic animation that may be Pixar’s funniest yet. Inside Out - right side in.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Nicholas Winton - the British Schindler

There is a saying that good people are hard to find. It is true. It is not because they are scarce, but because they don't boast about their goodness or seek attention. One such a beautiful yet humble person was Nicholas Winton. He was responsible for the rescue of 669 children during one of the darkest periods of history - the holocaust, and yet his story was never heard of until 1988.

Nicholas Winton, aged 29, was working as a stockbroker in London in 1938. Invited by a friend, Winton had foregone his ski vacation and visited Czechoslovakia after the ill fated Munich Agreement. After his visit, convinced about the impending war, He organized a Children Section of British Committee of Refugees from Czechoslovakia, without any prior approval. Through tireless efforts, he was able to transport 669 children in eight trains to London. Singlehandedly he managed to get sufficient fund as well as families willing to care for these refugee children. However, his rescue efforts came to an end once the war broke out in 1939.

He never shared about his wartime rescue efforts to anyone including his wife Grete, whom he married after the war. Half a century later, in 1988, Grete found a scrapbook in their attic, which had pictures and names of the Winton's children as well as a few letters from the parents of the children. Ever since his story got published in newspapers and aired in BBC's That's Life, he had been receiving thanking letters from the rescued. In fact, Winton had no idea that the audience of That's Life was full of the people he had saved and described it as one of the most emotional experiences of his life.

This great man passed away on 1st July, 2015. His story will live forever and keep inspiring people to do good even in the darkest of the time. His story will remind us that the world is full of good people.

“Nicholas Winton, we should learn from his motivation and from his courage and act, we must carry his spirit from generation to generation, then humanities future will be brighter.” - Dalai Lama

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Kaaka Muttai (film)

"Till yesterday, we ate only when we were hungry. Who changed our nature today, that we are in search for taste?"
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Kaaka Muttai is a story about two brothers nicknamed Chinna Kaakka Muttai and Periya Kaakka Muttai, living in the slums of Chennai. With their father in jail, they had to discontinue their studies and assist their mother by working as ragpickers. When a pizza outlet is built near their slum, they become fascinated by the idea of tasting pizza. The storyline goes on to show the obstacles they encounter and discriminations they face, in their journey.

If one wants to taste the true essence of a Tamil film, then this movie is the pinnacle of it. It showcases the various problems of slum dwellers and how poverty forms a barricade for their opulent wishes. What is more beautiful is that they enjoy life even with the smallest things they experience, like drinking a crow's egg or catching a frog. In the scenes that shows the interactions between little slum boys and a higher class boy, it portrays the differences between the classes of the Indian society.

This film is director Manikandan's first feature film. Through his exquisite film-making and delightful take on slum life, he charms the viewers. He took a daring attempt to connect several social realities such as slum local politics, media sensationalism, social prejudice etc., and portray them in the most pleasant way, so that it guides people realise them without getting offended by the truth. He has sprinkled subtle messages in several scenes. To quote a few,
  1. Media doesn't care: There is a particular scene where a new team arrives at the slum because two children from that area had been involved in a controversy. When these two children are about to walk right in front of the camera, they are told to hurry away by a channel member, who doesn't even know who they are. In another scene, during a television debate, a logically speaking person is shut off by the anchor frequently. These scenes clearly shows the conventional media's insensitivity to the issues and over focus on coverage and TRPs.
  2. The Leftover Pizza and Not-Stolen Mobile: When a rich boy offers a leftover pizza to the slum boy, he refuses to take it. In another instance, they boy decides to steal a mobile phone from a train passenger but back out at the end. In both these scenes, the director tries to break down pre-conceived notions that poor children would do anything to get what they want. They have as much esteem and morality as anyone else.
  3. Mother's reaction and class divide: When the boys' mother learns about the slapping incident, she becomes concerned of the safety of the children rather than getting angry upon the pizza outlet supervisor. Had it been a middle class mother, anger would have been the first reaction. The director has actually brought in Maslow's hierarchy of needs where safety takes precedence over esteem. Hats off..!
Cinematography is one of the important technical aspects for an offbeat film like Kaaka Muttai and Manikandan’s camera work makes the movie even more realistic and enjoyable. Special mention to the frame where a tricycle is placed on top of a hut’s roof. The coal contained railway tracks and the long shot which covers the entire slum, are a visual treat through his lens.

Coming to the performances, the little boys Ramesh and Vignesh are the blood and skin of the movie. They have perfectly portrayed the nuances of being slum boys. Their expressions are natural and it shows that they have thoroughly enjoyed during the shoot. Iyshwarya Rajesh breathes life into the character she renders. At a point when she is in the race to shine as a lead heroine, she has to be respected for choosing the role of a mother of two kids. Ramesh Thilak and Yogi Babu provide occasional laughs with their sense of humor. While the other actors Joe Malloori, Babu Antony and the woman who played the grandmother of the boys have done a fabulous job on their part.

To sum it up, Kaaka Muttai is one of the best reality films I have watched so far. No wonder it has bagged couple of awards in National Film Festival. It has even broken the stereotype of award winning movies by blending genuine humor in the narrative. The credit in turning the Kaaka Muttai into a golden egg goes to the producers Dhanush and Vetrimaaran. Their beautiful find, Manikandan, has nailed it with his simple yet effective storytelling. Kaaka Muttai - masterpiece debut.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

O Kadhal Kanmani (film)

Are you young and single and never want to get into a relationship? Watching OK Kanmani would make you want to feel the pain of love.
Are you old and still fight with your better half? Watching OK Kanmani would make you want to cuddle your wrinkled spouse.
15 years after Alaipayuthey, Mani Ratnam is back on his turf with a pure and pleasant love story. After the failed experiment of Kadal, he could have gone out to make a commercial film roping in a star from the Top 10, or he could have made another film with a political backdrop, or he could have even gone over to Bollywood once again, where he would have found himself a bigger budget and wider reach. But no, he decided against all of this and set out to make something simple but memorable. Thus, OK Kanmani was born.

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It is a simple story that features two couples: one, young, who seem to have escaped their conservative dens are living far away from home and two, older couple, who seem to have preserved their values even while living in a cultural melting pot like Mumbai.
The youngsters, Aadhi (Dulquer Salmaan) and Tara (Nithya Menon), are both independent and ambitious individuals with promising careers. They both are of the view that the system of marriage is flawed and vow to never be tied down to a marriage. However, they find themselves attracted to each other, decide to be in a live-in relationship till they both part ways for their respective careers. Soon enough and as expected, they fall in love.
On the other hand, the older couple, Ganapathy (Prakash Raj) and Bhavani (Leela Samson), is still very much in love after years of marriage. The story-line moves in a way that the older couple become the backbone to the younger couple's relationship, which becomes crucial during the climax.

Dulquer-Nithya pair's charm and chemistry combined with the performance of Prakash Raj and Leela Samson, give life to otherwise plain storyline. Dulquer with his own style, looks dashing and is perfect for the role of Aadhi, a carefree yet passionate guy. On the other hand, Nithya can very well be called as Kanmani of the film, as she speaks with her love filled eyes and beautiful performance. Prakash Raj, with his natural way of acting with maturity, adds vital seasoning to already charming film. Leela Samson as his wife Bhavani, an Alzheimer's patient, turns out to be the germane selection of Mani Ratnam. Kudos to the director and the actor quartet.

A.R.Rahman, P.C.Sreeram and Sreekar Prasad are the background heroes of the film. As usual, Rahman's songs and BGM give goosebumps to the viewers. Aptly placed, songs of this film could be stand alone attraction for fans. The classical bit of "Theera Ulaa" and the male voice of "Naanae Varugiraen" are worth mentioning.
Sreeram's camera surprises the audiences right from train station scene at the beginning. Even the cut vegetables look ravishing through his lens. I was so immersed in the screen when I noticed the creative camera angles during "Paranthu Sellavaa" song, which was taken within the walls of a single room.
Sreekar's neither too lengthy nor too short editing serves as a silent backbone for OK Kanmani. One can hope that his innovative editing, like the one in the fast paced "Mental Manathil" song, continues in his upcoming films.

Mani Ratnam's touch to the film is visible in the due importance given to picayune. A Daliesque clock in Architect Nithya's room, Prakash Raj grinding spices physically and usage of traditional Tamil vessels are few examples. To sum it up, OK Kanmani is a feel-good urban love story with a simple premise backed with strong performances, exquisite visuals and soulful music.
OK Kanmani - a classy romantic by Maniratnam and Co.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Story: An Act of Kindness

A four year old boy was in the market with his six year old sister. Suddenly the boy found that his sister was lagging behind. He stopped and looked back. His sister was standing in front of a toy shop and was watching something with great interest. The boy went back to her and asked, "Do you want something?" The sister pointed at the doll. The boy held her hand and like a responsible elder brother, gave that doll to her and the sister was very happy.

The shopkeeper was watching everything and was getting amused at the matured behavior of the boy. Now the boy went to the counter and asked the shopkeeper, "What is the cost of this doll, Sir!" The shopkeeper was a cool man and had experienced the odds of life. So he asked the boy affectionately, "Well, what can you pay?" The boy took out all the shells he had collected from the sea shore from his pocked and gave them to the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper started counting them as if he were counting currency. The little boy asked him worriedly, "Is it less?" The shopkeeper said, "No, No… these are more than the cost. So I will return the remaining." Saying so, he kept only 4 shells with him and returned the rest. The boy happily kept those shells back in his pocket and went away with his sister.

A servant in that shop got very surprised watching all these. He asked his master, "Sir! You gave away such a costly doll just for four shells?!" The shopkeeper said with a smile, "Well, for us these are mere shells. But for that boy, these shells are very precious. And at this age he does not understand what money is, but when he grows up, he definitely will. And when he remembers that he purchased a doll with shells instead of money, he will remember me and think that world is full of Good people. My simple act of Kindness could make him one such."

Saturday, January 17, 2015

I (film)

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A little too much predictable, revenge romantic thriller, shockingly from the magnanimous Shankar. Fortunately he is saved from humiliation by Vikram's performance, Rahman's music and Sreeram's camera. In both romance and thrill departments, the plot is flat. A Mister India aspirant body builder Lingesan (Vikram) has a huge crush on supermodel Diya (Amy Jackson). Lingesan becomes Lee, as he gets a chance to act in advertisements with Diya. As time passes they fall in love and emerge as a successful pair in modelling. In the meantime, five persons - a bodybuilder, a model, a stylist, a businessman and a secret villain - who were affected by the skills and honesty of Lee, use the 'I' virus to deform his appearance and destroy his future. The story moves on as to how the hunchback Lingesan takes his revenge and unite with the love of his life Diya.

Chiyaan Vikram is the saviour. His physical and emotional transformations, from Lingeswaran to Lee to Hunchback, are commendable and even a level ahead of his multi-role performance in Anniyan. Make-up work for the hunchback and the beast song adds score to his acting efforts. Kudos to WETA. Chinese gardens in P.C.Sreeram's camera and A.R.Rahman's music, are a treat for eyes and ears, certainly a wholesome experience.

Though she is best suited for a role as a model, at times Amy Jackson's portrayal is emotionless and void of romance. Clearly there was no chemistry present between Amy and Vikram. Thanks to Shankar, this negativity was eclipsed by the mediocre screenplay. Unlike his previous blockbusters, no dialogue has the electrifying effect, no scene is memorable. A terrible disappointment.
Verdict: Shankar made an Exodus in I.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A promising future ahead...

The ongoing Test series between Australia and India has had everything that a series between these two sides normally has. Controversy. Drama. Emotion. Tempers have flared. Words have been said. Batsmen have been hit. Both sides have displayed overt aggressiveness in every match, if not session. Now that the Border-Gavaskar trophy has been regained by Australia, it’s time to reflect on the series so far and also what both sides can take forward from this series.

Although scorecards do not show any hope, India played good competitive cricket. With the ever calm Dhoni retiring from Test cricket, the young Indian team is to be led by aggressive Virat Kohli. In the post match interview after the Boxing Day test, Ravi Shastri said that the scoreline doesn't matter when the team's attitude is right. Such remarkable is the change in attitude of the team as well as the new captain.

The team toured Australia in 2011-12 was completely different. Even before the third test, the aged players were beaten and bruised. There was no competition at all for Australia. But today's Indian team has the talent and determination to take Indian test cricket to new heights. They are so competitive that Australia had to work hard to win the matches.

Australia is one of the toughest places to tour. Opponent is of high quality, and the public could get under your skin. But still, Australians appreciate genuine talent and love competitive games. The touring Indian team provided exactly this kind of competition. Under, all the batsmen, to their credit, have made some crucial runs overseas at some stage or the other over the past 12 months. The bowling, though, has let them down time and time again. How quickly they learn from their mistakes and start delivering outside Asia is going to determine team India’s future prospects.

While India have undergone a complete transition, Australia are just about beginning to undergo a transition themselves. Experienced heads like Ryan Harris and Brad Haddin won’t be around for too much longer, and the selectors will have to start searching for replacements. The injury to Michael Clarke has resulted in the appointment of a new leader in Steven Smith, who has gone from a bits and pieces cricketer to a dependable Test batsman. Smith might have to take over the reins on a permanent basis in the near future, with Clarke publicly stating that he is unsure of how much longer he could play. While it is always going to be difficult to replace players of such ilk, Australia should be well-placed considering the impressive displays of some of the younger players.

David Warner and Smith have enjoyed an amazing year, and they can be pillars of Australian batting in the coming years. Josh Hazlewood impressed on his debut and Joe Burns has an impressive first-class record for Queensland. Mitchell Marsh looks more than a capable candidate to replace Shane Watson. The Australian selectors have done well to blood in some youngsters, and they should continue to do so to avoid falling into an abyss like the last time a plethora of greats retired back in 2006-07.

South Africa are aeons ahead of any other Test team at the moment, and it is exactly why India and Australia have to improve themselves, to challenge and try to be the world’s best.
Two cricket loving nations. Two young leaders. A glimpse into the cricketing future of India and Australia suggests there are some exciting days to come.

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Winter trip to Kodaikanal

Kodaikanal. If translated literally, it could mean several things - a place to visit in summer, the end of forests, the forest of creepers or the gift of the forest. Can one word have so many meanings? Well, yes. That is the beauty of Tamil, that is the beauty of Kodaikanal.

My second trip to this serene hill station started from the deep south city of Tirunelveli, in the winter night of 26th December, 2014. Making rendezvous with the rest of the touring party in Palani, we started climbing the Kodai hill the next day. The plan of the tour was for two days - a day of sightseeing and a day of trekking - an utterly insufficient duration to completely enjoy an hill station in winter, but still with better planning and a dedicated tour guide, we were able to visit most of the places of interest and have utmost fun.

Day 1 - Sightseeing
Beginning of the tour was the Kodai lake, an artificial lake credited to Sir Vera Levinge. We chose for pedaling boats, although rowing boats and public ferry were also available. With two in a boat, one can freely explore the beauty of this star shaped lake filled with tranquility. Cool breeze from the misty mountains on a winter day in a lake. What else could I ask for? The next spot was the Upper Lake view, from where the same lake could be seen from a distance. The enormity of the blue lake with its unique shape and white trails of boats was a visual treat.
From there we moved on to the Coaker's walk, a long stretch of view points running along the edge of steep slopes from where one could see the Dolphin's nose, pambar river valley and the birds eye view of the town of Periyakulam and other hill villages along the mountains in a cloudless clear sky. It could well be the paradise for nature photographers. Unfortunately, a mist covered winter day spoiled the pleasure of viewing all these beauties. But still the walk treated us with local fruits and dishes sold along the sides of its narrow path.
Moving on to the suicide point, our tour guide gave an interesting information that the suicide point, that is open to public access, is a ruse and the real suicide point's name is changed to avoid suicide fatalities. As in Ooty, suicide point here is a major attraction (I still wonder why!), that it was the most crowded place to be visited by us. The more deadly Guna Cave was fenced and prohibited from public access, may be to avoid accidents. Probably due to its portrayal in the film Guna, it has also become a major attraction next to the suicide point. Both these points could be potential photographic spots if they are not so swarmed by tourists.
Pine Forest of Kodaikanal is small but beautiful, with hundred to thousand year old pine trees. If one avails the horse ride service, the whole forest could be covered in hardly about 15 minutes. We preferred to walk than take the horse ride. Once we went into forest, we felt kind of lost our track amidst the evenly spaced trees. However tracing back is easier in this small forest than one thinks to be. While returning back to the hotel, we could see the pillar rock, a giant monolith with steep cliff tagged with a thin water falls, quite a mesmerizing view.
One aspect of visiting an hill station in winter is that one can have a challenging and thrilling night walk. A ten kilometer walk with various view points where we could see the lights of towns downhill was the first such experience for me. The dark road, with the sounds of strange animals and insects rhyming with the howling cold wind, could kindle the deepest fears of anyone, for a moment convinced me that the stories of ghosts in the hills are true.

Day 2 - Cycling and Trekking 
At the insistence of our tour guide, the second day of the trip started with a brisk session of cycling around the Kodai lake. From kids to old-timers, there was a large number of cyclists pedaling around the lake in the morning mist. Joining them, our fun gang could experience the morning freshness of the hill rejuvenating our hearts and body.
Once the cycling session was over, we started our trek towards the Dolphin's nose. Walking through the dense tropical forest, crossing rivulets, getting drenched in small falls, climbing small cliffs and rises, it took two hours to reach the Dolphin's nose. It is a flat rock projecting over a breathtaking chasm of almost two kilometers deep. When we arrived there, the mist played spoilsport covering the valley and hiding the actual depth. To our surprise, once we were standing at the edge of the nose, mist cleared slowly and made us realize that we were standing on a cliff of two kilometers high. It was an adventurous as well as dangerous moment, where any person would certainly experience the fear of falling. After enjoying our time in the high cliff, we started returning to the hotel through steep slope (I realised what an uphill task really is..!), thereafter bidding adieu to the princess of hill stations.

The beauty of Kodaikanal is not confined to the places mentioned in this post. Several aspects of the hill is not explored here. Lying in the edge of a vast rainforest, Kodaikanal is one of the spots where the human-nature interaction has been sustaining for centuries. Village life in the hills and tribal life deep inside the forest are illustrations of such sustainable interactions. The whole town and adjoining tourist spots are in fact a sample of what lies to its west. It is the start of the great Western Ghats, that shelters millions of unique fauna and flora. It is the paradise for wildlife enthusiasts, photographers, conservationists, ornithologists etc,., and certainly Kodaikanal is the Gift of these Forests.