MUSINGS, TRIP ACCOUNTS AND IMAGES FROM SOUTH ASIA
Archive for the ‘Western Ghats’ Category
Before I came to Sri Lanka and got to know Sri Pada so intimately I was drawn to a surprisingly similar, yet little known, mountain of great significance in the southernmost Western Ghats. Agasthyamalai, as I have written in the past, is no ordinary mountain. It is a mountain with unique physical, biological and spiritual dimensions. Many other mountains in the Western Ghats dwarf its 1,868-meter peak. Yet Agasthyamalai has an aura that transcends simple height and size. It stands sentinel amongst the craggy ridge that makes up the Ashambu Hills that lie south of the Shenkottah Gap. The area around Agasthyamalai is well know for its high levels of biodiversity and multiple habitats that are spread over Tamil Nadu and Kerala’s border region in protected areas such as Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) and Neyaar and Peppara Wildlife Sanctuaries.
Ten years ago I took a sabbatical year off from teaching to better explore and document the ecology, landscapes and culture of the Western Ghats, from Kanyakumari up to Mahbaleshwar. In particular I wanted to get to know the environs of Agasthyamalai better and realized that it would take patience and numerous trips to various state capitals and New Delhi to get the required letters. I may have lived in India for most of my life, be married to an Indian and speak bits and pieces of several Indian languages but my pale complexion always seems to raise suspicion in officials on the lookout for neo-colonial bio- thieves. Nevertheless, my efforts were rewarded and I ended up taking four or five different trips into the area during that year. An account of the most memorable trip was published in Sanctuary Asia and I later wrote an overview of the area forFrontline. However, I still have several images that have not made it into publications and that are worth sharing now. My motivation in revisiting those trips to Agasthyamalai came from ATREE, the Bangalore-based conservation research organization, that has used several of my images and writing in its recently publishedAgastyar newsletter on the area. This summer I met several member of the KMTR team, including Soubadra Devy, while visiting ATREE’s GIS lab and head office in Bangalore. Their focus in this issue is on the religious pilgrimage in the KMTR area, something that poses delicate conservation challenges given the emphasis on involving the community in conservation efforts.
Perhaps the most unique unpublished image that I have from the Agasthymalai summit trips is the mountain shadow taken on the summit of Agasthyamalai. These were my pre-digital days and it was taken with a cumbersome, awkward looking box (a Noblex panoramic camera) with a rotating lens to produce an uninterrupted 11 cm long negative or positive image. To this day it, along with many other medium format slide & color negative images, sits awaiting my attention. My initial focus has been to present our pilgrimage to the peak in black & white and I have hesitated to mix it with the color work.
I had actually witnessed the shadow that February on the lower slopes of the mountain as I ascended with pilgrims from the Kerala side. I was dumfounded to experience it having only read about Mountain Shadows in the context of Sri Pada and higher mountain ranges such as the Himalaya. But this image was taken after spending an unforgettable night with my companions from the Dhonavur Fellowship. We had been exposed to a violent storm with winds, lightening and heavy rain without any shelter other than a plastic tarp. Out of that experience emerged one of the most amazing and glorious mornings that I have experienced in the Western Ghats. Here is an extract from the Sanctuary Asia piece:
Dawn is a magnificent affair and makes the stormy night worth all its fear and discomfort. As the rays of the new day begin to fill the sky, they paint the cirrus clouds in fantastic hues of gold and scarlet. A kestrel is hovering over the precipice near the summit and Grey-breasted Laughing Thrushes are chattering in the trees by the Agasthya shrine. Looking north, we are blessed with a view of the dark evergreen forests of the Mundanthurai range. The azure mountains stretching beyond the Shencottah gap and up towards the Periyar Tiger Reserve are imposing.
Then something incredible happens. The sun, just a hair above the horizon, projects the conical shadow of Agasthyamalai into the light haze of the west, creating a surreal pyramid-shaped shadow that shifts as I walk along the summit. This is a phenomena often observed by mountaineers on high peaks at sunrise. It is well recorded on Sri Lanka’s Adam’s peak, but this is the first time I’ve seen it happening in the Western Ghats. The magical shadow doesn’t last longer than ten minutes and disappears when the sun slips behind a low cloud.
Bombay Shola, the small path of indigenous high altitude tropical evergreen forest, is a naturalist’s delight located near the bustling center of the hill station of Kodaikanal. It provides a habitat for endemic birds, a dazzling variety of plants and large creatures such as Indian gaur (Bos gaurus) and Malabar Giant Squirrels (Ratufa indica). For residents and visitors alike it is a place of solace, a place that takes one back to a time before the lake, the buildings and crowds of humans. These are some of my reflections on the forest from walks over April and our summer in Kodai. For further reading on the forest see my November 2010 article inFrontline.
Study of a shola tree (west and east views) on Lower Shola Road.
The road home from the Marion Shola cliffs passed by the Mushroom Ridge, one of those places closely associated with happy memories of adventure during our high school years. The name is derived from a granite ridge’s peculiar shape. It runs parallel to the larger escarpment near to Berijam lake and Madigatan Shola. Most people glimpse it from the fire tower on the road to Berijam lake. It also sits amidst significantshola patches.
Back in our school days several of us Loch End hikers observed the ridge on forays out into the hills. The ridge offered a tantalizing opportunity for adventure. Having somehow obtained permission from our dorm parents and hitched a ride on a logging truck we decided to explore it one Saturday in early 1986. We returned for a 2nd trip in 1987 and later I came back in 1993. On all the trips I never got a view of the drop without mist. Perhaps it was for the better since the ridge falls a thousand meters or so to the lower forests. In fact, on one of the early trips I dislodged a boulder while making a composition and nearly decapitated my friend Matthew as the rock tumbled downwards. In 1996 the ridge was covered in kurinji growth (Strobilanthes kunthiana). We all survived and I still marvel at the liberated times that allowed us such interaction with the natural world that we were blessed with in the Palanis. In 1996 the ridge was covered in kurinji growth (Strobilanthes kunthiana). There are many tourists visiting Berijam these days but the Mushroom ridge happily remains out of reach and much the same from our school days.
On the first trip we had spent four days on the cliff area between Ibex Peak (the 2nd highest peak in the Palanis at 2,516 meters) and Vandaravu (the highest peak in the Palanis at 2,535 meters). In the second trip we made our way to Marion Shola via Berijam and then surveyed its cliff and marsh areas for three days. Marion Shola is an old favorite haunt and camping spot for people familiar with the Palanis. In days past its bungalow was an important stopping off point on the 80 Mile Round and has been the destination of many happy camping trips for generations of hikers. It once commanded a panoramic view southwards over rolling grasslands to the dramatic cliffs of the escarpment. Plantations of various non-indigenous trees now block this view.
My parents brought us here on one of our first camping trips in 1980. The inimitable rascal and con artist Perumal was supposed to help us organize packhorses from Berijam, but he failed to show having taken a chunk of money as a down payment. That story joins the legions of famous Perumal tales and it provided an interesting anecdote as I brought my own family on our very first camping trip together. The road from Berijam Lake to Marion Shola is badly pot-holed and virtually abandoned. Trees have fallen over parts of it and several times we had to saw and hack our way through thickets. Elephants seem to like using it and I was astonished to see more than 20-30 piles of their droppings on the way (in days past elephants were extremely rare in the upper Palanis). Granite milestones still mark what was once the road between Kodai and Munnar (built as an evacuation route in the 1940s in anticipation of a Japanese invasion). We based ourselves at the Marion Shola bungalow, which though dilapidated is still standing and provides shelter during heavy showers.
Once again Bob & Tanya from the Vattakanal Conservation Trust played a key role in organizing this trip, securing permissions and ensuring that any findings would find their way to the Forest Department. Their range officers and other officials in the area are indeed very interested in the potential for restoration in the area. Two officers visited us during the trip to talk about specific grasslands restoration ideas.
The issue of grasslands invasion by non-native species was once again brought to our attention. Near to the bungalow the grasslands parallel to the cliff are being overtaken by eucalyptus and wattle. At Prayer Point a place (see images) where we have traditionally come to see the cliffs, wattle trees have grown out over the edge of the cliff. We had a sighting of the herd of Nilgiri tahr that is regularly seen here. We had last seen and photographed them on our Kurinji trip in 2006. This year’s Tahr census reported some of the healthiest populations from here and the nearby Pass Peak.
On the 2nd day we explored westwards to a promontory labeled on survey maps as “rocky knob.” The 80 Mile round hike takes a short cut that cuts off this fascinating section of cliff and, thus, most people are unfamiliar with it. In May 1990 I had camped here with my schoolmate Matthew and we had explored the cliff area and pockets of shola. At one edge of cliff dense shola tumbles over the edge down to the lower plains near Bodi. The “secret shola” is still very healthy and on this trip we found what looks like a path at the top. The survey map has a marked trail descending to the plains through the valley. We will leave this task to the able talents and explorations of Bruce Dejong who was searching for the path on our earlier expedition to Ibex Peak. Unfortunately the grassy cliff path has been almost consumed by wattle and pinus trees. We returned to Kodai convinced that this area is in urgent need of restoring action.
To anyone who knows the southern Western Ghats it is incredulous that they are frequently referred to as “hills” rather than mountain ranges. All of the large ranges in the Nilgiri, Palani, Anaimalai, Highwavy and Ashumba ranges have cliff faces, peaks and escarpments that make them anything but “hills.” I was reminded of this over the summer when I had a chance to revisit the southern escarpment of the Palani Hills on a series of treks and camping trips. The treks involved revisiting areas that I had hiked to, both as a student at KIS and wondering soul in subsequent years. On the 2011 trips I teamed up with friends from school and the Vatakanal Conservation Trust to try to provide a brief assessment on the state of native grasslands. What we found was both illuminating and alarming. The cliff area between Kodaikanal and the Kerala border remains one of the most outstanding scenic landscapes in the Western Ghats. However, the invasion of native grasslands by self-seeding non-native tree species is happening at a faster-than-expected pace. As a result the area’s sublime ecology is in danger from disturbance that will be too great to reverse if some sort of restoring action is not taken.
To date, much of the Palani Hills is under “reserve forest” which affords the range with basic protection but not the kind of glamour, finances and support from state agencies and non-governmental organizations that nearby wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and project tiger reserves get. Complicating factors like the booming tourist industry in Kodaikanal, the presence of large-scale non-native plantations and significant anthropocentric impacts in some areas have made notification difficult. Efforts to get the Palanis notified continue at the state and national level and have been a subject of online documentation. Some of these points were highlighted in my 2003 Frontline article “on the danger list.” Now nearly 10 years later I am interested in exploring issues that would contribute to better conservation of this area’s landscapes and biodiversity.
In June when the South West monsoon moves up the western coast of India, the rugged spinal ridge of the Western Ghats intercepts the rain- laden clouds. The eastern plains remain relatively dry, bathed in warm sunlight with spectacular views of cumulus clouds over the neighboring state of Kerala. In the Ashambu Hills around the sacred peak of Agastyamalai the South West waters the evergreen forests that make this one of the most important biodiverse areas in the country. The monsoon feeds numerous streams and rivers. They cascade down from the evergreen forests though dry deciduous scrub forests into the arid plains that stretch from Kanyakumari northwards through Papanasam and to Srivillaputur and beyond. Several falls have attracted pilgrims and visitors for hundreds of years, something in evidence through the Jain and Hindu inscriptions on the rock sides. Today a visit during the monsoon season is both a pilgrimages as well as a visit to a bustling water theme park where identities of caste and creed are temporarily washed away.
Courtallam is the most important spa in the area. It is a place I have visited over the last 20 years and that provided inspiration for photographs that attempted to bridge the ecology and human interaction of the area. There are several falls here and it is awash with tourists from Tamil Nadu and some of the neighboring states. It still remains off the radar screens of most Lonely Planet wielding tourists and thus offers an intriguing glimpse into southern traditions. Unfortunately the pressure of the masses is hard to miss and one must put up with serious rubbish and trashy streams in these areas. Bonnet macaques terrorize anyone with food. There is a permanent police presence helping to sort people out (males in one set of falls women in another) and keep giddy young men in line.
Further south near Papanasam, where the sacred Tambraparani river meets the plains from the Kalakad Mundanthruai Tiger Reserve (KMTR), there are a series of falls. Notable is the Agastyar Falls, named for thepeak that gives birth to its waters on the high and remote border with Kerala. This was once a roaring falls that has now been harnessed in a hydroelectric plant and thus reduced to a trickle. Thomas and William Daniel painted the falls in the late 18th Century. There dramatic aquatint of the falls was part of the Oriental Scenerycollection. It is now an ideal location to take children rock hoping and exploring, which is exactly what Lenny, Amy and I did on our visit in June. We clambered over boulders and across dried rock faces to the base of the falls and looked for evidence of rock carvings that are visible in the Daniells’ painting. Sure enough they are there at the base of a small Vishnavite temple. Nearby a stunning panel of Rama carves Hanuman, Lakshman and Sita is carved into the granite side of the slope.
Following the stream upwards once eventually get to the enormous Karaiyar reservoir, a man made lake that is surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery in the Western Ghats. Here motorized launches take pilgrims and bathers across the lake to Banerthetum Falls. It’s a bit of a circus as one clambers out of the boat on to the sandy shores, crossing a deep stream to makes one’s way up to the falls. The pilgrims are friendly and are curious about what I am doing there on my own with two kids and a backpack full of camera gear. A sign reminds visitors that they are in a Project Tiger area. At the top of the first falls and below the higher falls we join a throng under the pounding water of the Tambraparani.
Further south we spent several restful days with our friends at the Dhonavur Fellowship. I appreciate the efforts of ATREE to document the area in their very useful guide Treasures on Tiger Tracks. Their field staff were preparing for the festival at the Sormuthaian Kovil, an annual event that puts a great deal of anthropocentric pressure in the heart of the Mundanthurai plateau. It is a good time to explore the surrounding area, take in the breathtaking scenery of the Mahendragiri range and explore the Nambi Kovil temple. Like other pilgrims the kids and I enjoy bathing in a variety of cool streams and rock pools. Our visit is fleeting and we soon turn northwards to follow the monsoon back up to the Palanis.
The area around the south Indian hill station of Kodaikanal is well known for its natural beauty, salubrious climate and views over the arid plains to its south and north. In the previous post I explored some of the negative impacts of the new wave of vehicle-based tourism in places like Devil’s Kitchen. Here I share several vignettes from the hills that celebrate aspects of the landscape and ecology. These images were taken over the summer of 2011 and are composed of composite (stitched) multiple digital images. Future posts will look at conservation efforts and plans to restore some of the ecologically damaged areas.
For many visitors Palani hills and Kodaikanal have long evoked ideas of deep mysticism and mystery. A place that often conveys these emotions are the cavern’s in Pillar Rocks known as Devil’s Kitchen or more recentlyGuna Caves. The area is located on the southern escarpment of the Palani Hills where weathered charnockite pillars protrude out of the cliff face. Historically these cliffs were covered in a mix of native grasses and shola(montane evergreen) forest. Because of the unique topography and climatic conditions on the edge of the escarpment the area hosts what was once one of the most unique and finest shola examples near Kodaikanal. When the Palanis were settled by Americans and Europeans fast growing, non-native tree species were introduced to the area changing the views that were sketchedby early visitors such as Douglas Hamilton. Theshola at Pillar Rocks, like many in the outer hills, was largely left intact.
Prior to 1990s the caverns and gnarled shola of Devil’s Kitchen were a favorite, yet little known, hiking spot for Kodai school students and the few hippies and others who resided year around in Kodai. The area was dangerous with numerous caverns enclosed by dense vegetation. In fact there is a memorial at the entrance to the shola remembering an unfortunate trader from Madurai who fell to his death in one of the crevices in the 1950s. A highlight of the trip was to descend into the deepest cave, actually the split between the third pillar and the main cliff face, into the “kitchen.” The hike involved some serious scrambling and a short rope descent before you traversed a dank, pitch-black tunnel and emerged in a forest-enclosed outlet (popularly known as the chimney).
In 1992 a Tamil film named Guna was shot within the caverns. In making the film the producers damaged several once-pristine areas but the worst was yet to come. Once the movie was released people wanted to see the site and it quickly became a favorite spot for tourists making the rounds from the Golf Course to Moyer’s Point. The Forest Department now reluctantly manages this flow but the numbers on a busy weekend are astounding. A minor bazaar with shops selling corn, candy and what not marks the entrance to the caves. There is rubbish strewn all over, vegetation has been trampled and areas have been blocked off with massive steel frames and grates. Pesty bonnet macaques (Macaca radiata) scavenge for food while the calls of the Malabar Whistling Thrush (Myophonus horsfieldii) are drowned out by the shouting and hooting of visitors. The Devil’s Kitchen area and its vandalized habitat by chaotic mass tourism underline the challenges of managing sensitive habitats in a hill-station with growing numbers of visitors. For old Kodai residents like me, it is a very personal and sad development that illustrates the worst side of the tourist boom in the hills.
In recent years my explorations in South Asia have brought me into close contact with the meteorological and metaphorical super-phenomenon of the monsoon. My focus areas of the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka are both dramatically impacted by the South West (summer) and North East (winter) monsoons. The significance of these seasonal rains on the landscapes, ecosystems and cultures cannot be overstated. Water is at the heart of the issue. The connection between healthy natural forests in the hills, water and the wellbeing of human communities is a critical link. It is a theme that has been highlighted by conservationists in the Western Ghats for the past three decades.
I had an opportunity to visually explore these themes in the summer publication of the India International Centre’s IIC Quarterly. The twelve images are from my work in the Western Ghats between 1992 and 2010. A few of the pictures have been exhibited and published but there were several unpublished images in the photo-essay. The images emphasize natural landscapes and human elements have mostly been left out in this selection. The Quarterly carried essays by Jairam Ramesh, India’s Minister of the Environment and a range of other notable writers and thinkers. I wrote a short essay on the monsoon to accompany the photographs. Here is a short excerpt from the beginning:
…In the summer months, as the earth’s axial tilt and trade winds shift, India impatiently awaits news of the arrival of the season of rain. Its timing, the predictions of its strength and how much water it will grant to farmers make the monsoon a rare geographic gem of interest to a wide segment of South Asia’s population. The heroes making these predictions are the atmospheric scientists and meteorologists of the Indian Meteorology Department. One imagines them pacing up and down the shores of Kovalam beach looking into the heavens for signs of the shift in weather patterns, though it is more likely that they are staring at computer monitors filled with satellite imagery and mathematical models in their offices in Pune. When it arrives, the monsoon comes after a long period of intense heat, paucity of food crops and general unhappiness amongst people living with the elements. The monsoon’s arrival is often dramatic bringing an explosive rush of gushing rainfall, cool relief and a revival of life to the region. It is metaphorically projected through the exuberant release of passion and erotic energy that are popularly choreographed in innumerable Bollywood dance sequences….
(PART III IN A SERIES OF THREE)
The back road from the Valparai plateau to the Kerala plains offers one of the best opportunities to experience a Western Ghats tropical rainforest from the comfort of a vehicle. I’ve been hearing about the road and Athirappilly Falls near Chalikudi for many years. Shekar Dattatri had brought it to my attention when he recalled some of the shoots of nesting Great Pied Hornbills in Chalikudi for the 1988 film Silent Valley. This short trip to the Anaimalais finally offered a small window of opportunity to visit the area. My only regret by the end of it was that driving all the way down and back up on the same day is a poor idea if you want to get out take pictures and explore. Nevertheless our day trip finally gave me a sense of the area and helped fill in some gaps on my sense of the geography of this part of the Western Ghats.
Lenny , John and I set out from Valparai in a light drizzle. The road winds its way through mazes of tea estates, settlements of worker’s colonies interspersed with forest patches. Some of these are the patches where NCF is working on restoration. We drove by a small herd of gaur, not bothering to stop knowing that they are across from our home in Kodai on a daily basis. The road winds by Sholayar dam (both upper and lower sections), which eventually feeds power and water into Kerala. After an hour of tea estates you cross the state boundary and head into the Vazhachal Division forests. The impressive canopy height is immediately apparent and the trees tower over you. Of course, it was wet and there was an evocative monsoon gloom over the forest. It felt very much like the forest that one encounters in Sinharaja in terms of structure, plant composition and climate. The road condition is not great but, on the other hand, you can take normal cars down it with patience. There were only a few other vehicles that we encountered and for the most part we were alone.
After several hours of puttering through fine forest and descending down hairpin bends the Chalikudi river came into sight through the misty foliage. Being in full flow it was a grand sight to behold. Steep granite cliffs rose about the raging water as it cascades in torrents over numerous rapids. We knew we had reached our destination when we encountered parking lots, signboards and restaurants that cater to the many tourists visiting the area from Cochin (only two hours away to the west).
Athirappilly Falls is located at a curve in the river and marks the end of the natural forest and beginning of vast coconut and rubber estates. It is a picturesque waterfalls that has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. There has been a proposal to dam it above the falls that has gained some traction in the last few years. The Chalidkudy River is already dammed six times further upstream. Given the history with the Silent Valley proposalss and subsequent anti-dam movement in Kerala it has felt like déjà-vu for many conservationists. My sense was that things have cooled down but the incident has reminded us that the large-dam builders are not an extinct species in southern India!