You can be forgiven if you didn't know about Pichavaram mangrove forest, despite it being one of the world's largest mangrove jungles (along with the Sundarbans National Park in West Bengal and Bhitarkanika in Odisha). After all, it's not on the tourist trail. However, this remarkable and fascinating place is definitely worth visiting.
Significance of Pichavaram Mangrove Forest
The mangrove forest at Pichavaram is spread over 1,100 hectares and joins the Bay of Bengal, where it's separated by a lengthy sand bank. Apparently, the forest has more than 50 islands of various sizes, and 4,400 big and small canals. Astonishing! The small canals are sun-flecked tunnels of roots and branches, some hanging so low that there's hardly any room to pass through. Except for the swish of paddles, sound of birds and roar of the sea in the distance, all is silent and still.
Students and scientists from across India come to study the mangrove forest and its incredible biodiversity. Approximately 200 species of birds have been recorded, along with many varieties of seaweed, fish, prawns, crabs, oysters, turtles, and otters. There are around 20 different varieties of trees in the mangrove forest as well.
The trees grow in water that's three to 10 feet deep in different places. The conditions are quite hostile, as the sea's tides bring salt water in and out twice a day, changing the salinity. Hence, the trees have unique root systems, with membranes that only allow fresh water to enter. They also have breathing roots that grow up from the water, with pores that can take in oxygen.
Unfortunately, the mangrove forest was damaged by the devastating 2004 cyclone that hit Tamil Nadu. However, if it wasn't for the forest acting as a buffer for the water, the destruction inland would've been severe. The water from the tsunami has affected its growth, requiring protective measures to be put into place. Previously, villagers cut the tree roots to use for firewood. This has now been banned.
The unique setting of the mangrove jungle has featured in a number of south Indian movies including Idayakanni (1975), Sooryan (2007), Dasavatharam (2008), and Thupparivalan (2017).
It also used to be a hub for smugglers, due to its confusing maze of waterways.
History and Mythology
Pichavarm mangrove forest was originally known as Thillai Vana and has a significant role in the area's heritage. It's said that Lord Shiva entered the forest, where a group of rishis (sages) lived and practiced magic, in the form of a handsome but simple merchant. He was accompanied by Lord Vishnu in his alluring female avatar, Mohini. The rishis were enraged when their women became enchanted with Lord Shiva. They invoked snakes, tigers and demons to destroy him. Of course, it didn't work. In the end, Lord Shiva disclosed who he really was and performed the Ananda Tandava (the blissful cosmic dance) in his form of Nataraja.
This made the rishis realize that god could not be controlled by magic rituals, as they had believed.
How to Get There
Pichavaram is located about 30 minutes drive from the temple town of Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. It's a picturesque route past paddy fields, villages with colorfully painted houses, traditional style huts with thatched roofs, and women selling fish by the roadside. A taxi will cost approximately 800 rupees for a return trip and is the most convenient way of getting there. Alternatively, local buses run hourly between Chidambaram and Pichavaram, with tickets costing about 10 rupees.
Chidambaram can easily be reached by train in under four hours from Chennai. See train options here. The nearest airports are in Tiruchirapalli (three hours southeast of Chidambaram) and Pondicherry (two hours north of Chidambaram). Pichavaram is a convenient day trip from Pondicherry.
How to See It
The mangrove forest can be explored by row boat or motor boat. Motor boats are ideal for sizable groups, and you'll be able to go all the way to the beach through the mangroves in a couple of hours. However, these boats are too big to fit inside the narrow canals. If you're interested in venturing deep inside the jungle, you'll need to take a row boat. It's well worth it.
Boats operate from around 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. It gets very hot in the middle of the day though, so it's recommended that you go early in the morning or late afternoon. Boating is not strictly regulated. The Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation and Tamil Nadu Forest Department conduct official boating activities but local non-government boatmen are also available. Various packages are offered with costs based on boat type, number of people, distance, and attractions covered. You can expect to pay about 1,700 rupees per hour for a motor boat, and 300 rupees upwards for a row boat to go inside the mangrove jungle.
Do be aware that the boat operators all ask for more money for trips inside the small canals and to spots where movies were shot. You'll need to negotiate with them directly. How much you pay will depend on how much you want to see.
It's a good idea to carry food with you as there aren't many places to eat in the area. Bring a cap and sun protection too, if you'll be out during the day.
When to Go
November to February is the best time, particularly for bird watching. For a peaceful experience, avoid weekends and public holidays as it does get busy then. Also avoid visiting during the scorching summer months, in April and May, as the high humidity is extremely uncomfortable.
Where to Stay
Options for accommodations in the area are limited. Pichavaram Adventure Resort, in Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation's Arignar Anna Tourist Complex, is your best bet. There's a dormitory, as well as rooms and cottages. However, since there's no competition in the area, amenities are poor. There are better budget places to stay in Chidambaram. Try the Vandayar Hotel or Nataraja Residency.
What Else to Do Nearby
Chidambaram is renowned for its Shiva temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva as Nataraja. It's one of the top temples in South India and is distinguished by its Vedic rituals, set by the sage Patanjali. This is unlike other Shiva temples in Tamil Nadu, whose agamic rituals are based on Sanskrit scriptures. The temple priests, known as Podu Dikshitars, were said to be brought from the abode of Lord Shiva by Patanjali himself! A highlight is the daily yagna (fire sacrifice) that's performed as part of the morning puja (worship) in the temple's Kanaka Sabha (Golden Hall).