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Western Ghats, India – Introduction

From the book  ”The Western Ghats” by Mohan Pai (2005).

These blogs have been created to publish some of the key chapters from my book “The Western Ghats” published in 2005. The book has been out of print for some time and a number of people have evinced keen interest in the book and hence these blogs. 


The Sahyadris or the Western Ghats is a major mountain range of the world that runs for 1,600 km N-S forming what has been called “the girdle of the earth”. In terms of geological age, they are much older than the Himalayas.
The range is only next to the Himalayas on the Indian subcontinent and represents the tropical humid area rich in biodiversity. It is a precious gift of the Nature – priceless because the well-being of the entire southern peninsula hinges on the ecological stability of these mountains.
But this priceless asset, an inheritance, is being squandered away through mindless exploitation and wanton destruction. The rate of forest destruction continues at a staggering rate, threatening to turn this once lush green region into a lifeless, brown desert in the not so distant future.

In this book I have attempted to construct a profile of the Western Ghats covering different aspects – from the geological history to the tribes and the hill stations with the intention of showing what is it that we are in the process of destroying. It is high time that the common man is made aware of this irreversible damage which will ultimately affect the quality of life and his well-being and that of the generations to come.

I was born in a village at the base of the Sahyadris in Goa on the West Coast and spent all my life in the shadows of this great mountain range. When I looked for a publication that gives an overview of the Sahyadris, I did not find any. So I started collecting material from various available sources and put it together. This book is the result of that endeavour. I also undertook journeys and travelled the whole length and breadth of this range from Kundaibari Pass, south of the Tapti river to Kanyakumari with my camera.

Mohan Pai
September 7, 2005

Western Ghats, India – Ecological Survival

From the book  ”The Western Ghats” by Mohan Pai (2005).



Annaimudi Peak, Eravikulam, Kerala – Pic by Mohan Pai

It has been said that the interaction between man and nature is largely moulded by the interrelationship of man and man within the human society.
Ecology is the science of the relationships between organisms and their environment.

“The science of living beings in general, and especially of the human individual, has not made such a great progress. It still remains in the descriptive state. Man is an indivisible whole of extreme complexity. No simple representation of him can be obtained. There is no method of comprehending simultaneously in his entirety, his parts and his relations with the outer world.
We are beginning to realise the weakness of our
 civilisation. Many want to shake off the dogmas imposed upon them by modern society – those who are bold enough to understand the necessity, not only mental, political and social changes, but the overthrow of industrial civilisation and of the advent of another conception of human progress”
- Man, the Unknown – Dr. Alexis Carrel.
Malsej Ghats, Maharashtra – Pic by Mohan Pai
We cannot have ecological movement designed to prevent violence against nature, unless the principle of non-violence becomes central to the ethics of human culture 
- Mahatma Gandhi

The Sahyadris – also known as the Western Ghats comprise fragile but vital ecosystems of the Indian subcontinent. Rare, moist deciduous forest type, sub-temperate montane wet grasslands and shola forests, high species endemism, uniqueness of lowland evergreen forest in a monsoonal climate and biogeographical significance of this isolated area between the African and Indo-Malaysian blocks make the Western Ghats a very important biological resource. In fact the Western Ghats like the South American rainforests form the girdle of the earth and help maintain global ecological balance.

The Western Ghats also harbour a large diversity of human cultures – in the less than 20,000 sq. km. of Kerala Western Ghats there are more than 38 distinct tribal communities. This region, which is globally recognised as a hotspot area of great conservation concern is under constant threat due to many anthropogenic factors. And the tide of ecodegradation is sweeping over the entire tract destroying most of the biodiversity.

The hill ranges form an almost unbroken rampart on the fringe of the western peninsula parallel to the west coast of India for about 1600 km. They start immediately south of the Tapti river, the northern most point being, the Kundaibari Pass (21006N, 74011E) in Dhule district of Maharashtra and ending near Kanyakumari (80N) barely 20 km from the sea in Tamil Nadu. The entire range encompasses six States – Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Malsej Ghats, Maharashtra – Pic by Mohan Pai

The Western Ghats cover an area of approximately 1,59,000 with an average elevation of 900-1500 m. ASL. Rising up from a relatively narrow coastal strip(average width: 40 km), the hills reach up to a height of 2,695 m.(8,843 ft.) at Anaimudi Peak in Kerala before they merge to the east with the Deccan plateau at an altitude of 500-600 m. The average width of the mountain range is about 100 km.

The Living Fulcrum
The hill ranges force the moisture laden monsoon winds coming off the Arabian Sea to rise and receive in consequence heavy precipitation of 2,000 mm or more annually. The rainfall exceeds 7,500 mm per annum in some places on the western windward side (Agumbe, Karnataka). To the lee of the Ghats is the region of rain shadow and the eastern slopes of the Ghats where the rainfall decreases rapidly and are much drier than the western face.
The rainfall is heavier to the south and extends over 8-10 months a year; it is lower and restricted to 4 months of the south-west monsoon in the central and northern parts of the Western Ghats. These marked differences in the geomorphology, rainfall, water regimes and temperatures have given rise to several types of plants and animal species which makes the region one of the richest biodiversity spots or the Living Fulcrum.


Cheeyapara Waterfalls, Kerala – Pic by Mohan Pai

The Western Ghats are remarkable headwaters and the main watershed for the southern peninsula serving six states; sustained by the heavy seasonal rainfall from the south-west monsoon, from which all the major and many smaller rivers of the southern peninsula originate and flow east or west emptying into the coastal waters. All the river runoff in the southern parts of India is controlled by these hills and thus agriculture in the states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu is crucially regulated by the Western Ghats. The real merit of the Western Ghats forests in terms of their watershed value is incalculable and ought to concern everybody. These forests once destroyed are gone forever. No amount of scientific knowledge or investment in afforestation can get us back our rivers.
Vanishing Forests
The biggest ecological damage inflicted upon the Western Ghats is deforestation. Tragically for the country and the region, most of the forest cover in the Western Ghats has disappeared.
Ecologically fragile monsoon forests
The forest cover in the Western Ghats seems to have declined between 1972 and 1985 at a rate paralleling that for India as a whole, which implies a loss of over 2.4% annually.
The decline of the primary forest : the amount remaining seems to be no more than 8,000 sq. kms.
All but isolated pockets of original forest have been opened up allowing a takeover by deciduous species and bamboo among other forms of degenerate vegetation.
A study which estimated changes (2002) in the forest cover between 1973 and 1993 in the southern parts of the Western Ghats using satellite data reveals a loss of 25.6 percent forest cover in that period.
Reduction in forest cover and habitat fragmentation has had a very adverse effect on the wildlife of this area. Many species have become highly endangered almost on the verge of extinction – Lion-tailed macaque, Nilgiri langur and Nilgiri tahr.

Nilgiri Tahr, Eravikulam – Pic by Mohan Pai

Path to Economic Development
After independence, India launched itself on the path of modernisation and economic development and nearly six decades of this endeavour has yielded many impressive gains. But as the years have rolled by, there are more and more signs that some grave errors have been committed in the choice of path to development. For this path has led to large scale misuse of the natural resources imposing on the country, huge costs in the form of flood damage, siltation and reduction of life of river valley projects, shortages of fuel and fodder for the rural population and of raw material base for industries.
The hill areas of the Western Ghats have paid a heavy price for the planned development that has led to a considerable degree of intensification of the use of its resources; but without adequate attention to long term sustainability of this resource use pattern.
Its forest wealth is depleted, its reservoirs silting up, its horticulture plagued by outbreaks of new diseases; polluting the environment and bringing little benefits to the local population. The fragile ecosystems of the Ghats have tended to collapse under the assaults of exploitative development of the last few decades.
Tea Gardens at Munnar – Pic by Mohan Pai

Indirectly, the Western Ghats influence the well-being of the entire peninsula through modulating climate, river water flow, ground water recharge, adding fertility to river valley and delta soils, providing a wide range of natural produce for the really impoverished population.

Kamakshi Temple in the Sahyadris, Goa – Pic by Mohan Pai

Save The Western Ghats

Save the Western Ghats is an anguished cry that is heard throughout the southern peninsula, now for several decades. There are sporadic voices of protest from environmentalists and conservationists against the shortsighted developmental activities in this ecologically very fragile region. There have been gatherings and awareness marches in the past. But environmental activism, at best, is fire fighting by a handful of pressure groups or individuals.
The fact remains that half-hearted conservation attempts by the Governments and various agencies amount only to patchy efforts and the rate of deforestation has accelerated in recent years with a steady environmental decline of the whole region. The threat has all the more increased with the combined pressure of urbanisation, industries, mining, deforestation, submergence by dams, introduction of railways, large scale encroachments, poaching etc. The fragmentation of these forests form a major threat to species conservation, and lack of green cover will not only turn the area into barren hills but could result in the devastating cycle of floods and droughts in the downstream areas.
Unless the Governments, International Agencies and the people of the region wake up to the harsh realities, and take some drastic steps for the conservation of the region, this rich, lush, highly resourceful region will be lost forever with very unpleasant and adverse effects on the liveable environment of the subcontinent.
In the hills of the Western Ghats, we confront our future. These mountains influence rainfall, regulate run-off of water into downhill drainage channels and are the most important features of the landscape. Through rivers, the hills control the fate of the valleys and plains. The hills are by themselves rich and at the same time very fragile. Unfortunately they continue to suffer drastic degradation due to human pressure. They need priority attention and careful nursing. These mountains in their remote fastness still shelter the last remnants of our biological and human cultural diversity. Most of our unique representative ecosystems, the last of our endangered plants and animals, our least modified cultures, all find protection in the inaccessibility of these mountains. 

Soliga Tribal Minstrel, B. R. Hills, Karnataka – Pic by Mridula Pai

Western Ghats – Geological History

From the book  ”The Western Ghats” by Mohan Pai (2005).



The Western Ghat hill ranges, in terms of geological age, are much older than the Himalayas. The Geological history of the Western Ghats goes back to the time when the earth’s crust was being formed and makes a fascinating reading.
A nineteenth century Austrian geologist Edward Suess named it the Gondwana. Although the early events of Gondwanaland are lost in the haze of a distant past, many details are being put together to form a plausible explanation of what might have taken place.
The Gonds are a tribe that lives in the present day state of Madhya Pradesh. The area gave the world the first evidence that India was a part of a supercontinent later called Gondwana. The fossil plant Glossopteris was found here. Suess based his deductions on the fossil plant Glossopteris which is found throughout India, South America, Southern Africa, Australia and Antarctica.
Continents have been coming together and breaking apart again for the whole history of the earth. Before Gondwana, Pangaea(meaning ‘all lands’) made up of Gondwana in the south and Laurasia in the north. Laurasia (made up of North America, Europe and Asia) broke away from Pangaea at about 200 to 150 million years ago (m.y.a.) and the remaining part of Pangaea became Gondwana made up of continents that are now Australia, India, South America, Africa and Antarctica. During the Carboniferous and Permian period (300 – 260 m.y.a) much of Gondwana was covered by ice. During those times we have little evidence of animals actually living there. Once the ice melted in the late Permian (240 m.y.a.) and the Triassic (225 m.y.a.), animals were able to colonise most of Gondwana which stayed warm until 40 m.y.a., when part of it now known as Antarctica froze over again. The break up of Gondwana began during the time that dinosaurs were the dominant land animals (in the Cretaceous – 120 m.y.a.), but it was such a slow process that they were unlikely to be affected by it.

To understand land forms it is necessary to know about the earth’s composition. Deep within the earth at a depth range of 100 to 350 km from the surface, lies a viscous layer of the earth, the asthenosphere, which has fluid-like properties. Above this layer rests the rigid lithosphere which includes the crust. The lithosphere is ‘floating’ on the asthenosphere. The lithosphere is not a continuous shell, but is divided in plates(like a jigsaw puzzle). It comprises of seven major and several minor distinct plates. The plates are in constant motion relative to each other and this motion is the cause of most of the phenomena in the earth’s crust. At some places they are moving away from each other. Usually one plate bends down the other at such boundaries and the process is called subduction. The interior of the plate is stable and the edges are usually the site of intense deformation. Thus Plate Tectonics is a near-complete theory that explains most of the phenomena occurring in the earth’s crust. In fact it is one theory that has changed people’s perception of all the disciplines of Earth Science. The theory of Plate Tectonics did not emerge overnight. It evolved gradually since the beginning of the 20th century as many hypothesis were laid down. The important ones are Continental Drift, Apparent Wandering and Sea-floor Spreading.

Continents break up and move apart at about the same speed that one’s finger nails grow – about 6 cms per year. A large chunk from Gondwana broke loose from its moorings in the Antarctica. This chunk fractured to form S. America and Africa to its west and Australia to its east. The central portion kept moving northwards. About 70 m.y.a. Madagascar is said to have separated leaving the Indian Plate to continue its migration in a north-easterly direction. This part became a temporary island before becoming part of the Indian subcontinent. In the beginning there is a stable “shield” area called the Deccan Plateau that occupies the triangular peninsula area of India(and which includes Sri Lanka). Most geologists regard this area as having formed a part of Gondwanaland.

As it moved up in this drift of about 10,000 km from approx. 30 degrees south latitude, the Indian Plate passed over a deep seated volcanic hot-spot in the region of today’s Reunion islands. The heat beneath generated basaltic magma which rose into lithosphere causing an uplift by crustal arching. It also tilted the Indian Plate in the easterly direction. The major rivers of the peninsular India would later flow eastward because of this tilt. A northerly tilt is also postulated to explain the expanse of older and deeper rocks in the Southern Western Ghats.

When the peninsular shield bumped into the Asian landmass around 45 m.y.a. after having undergone many uplifts and modi-fications, the Indian Plate lifted up the Asian Plate by subduction to form the elevated Tibetan plateau. The eastern portion of the Tethys sea caught up between the two moving landmasses was obliterated and its sediments raised up to form the Himalayas. These mountains not only define the subcontinent and separate it from the adjacent landmass; they also form the second major land form region of South Asia. The mountains that are formed are of the folded type, usually consisting of alternating ridges and valleys, all parallel to one another (though some complexity inevitably results) and generally trending in long bands parallel to the colliding areas.

The Deccan Volcanic Episode

The Deccan Volcanic Episode occurred in the late Cretaceous to the early Tertiary – the KT boundary – a period of turbulence, upheavals and extinctions. Lava from huge fissures flowed over the Deccan region. Most of the basalt erupted between 60-65 m.y.a. Recent palaeo-magnetic and isotopic age data seem to indicate the possibility that the magma outbursts giving rise to the vast extent of lava flows was of short duration of about 2 million years around 65 m.y.a. The absence of a typical cone and crater in the vast spread of basaltic rock points to a series of fissures out of which the confined magma poured out in sheet after sheet. Birbal Sahni, the renowned palaeo-botanist called it “this terrible drama of fire and thunder”.
The extinction of nearly 90% of the fauna and flora at the Cretaceous – Tirtiary boundary is a remarkable fact. A whole range of large reptiles (Dinosaurs) and ammonites became extinct at the end of Cretaceous. The magnitude and suddenness of the volcanic activity at that period, it is believed, created an abrupt change in environment, causing the extinction of plant and animal species. View from Arthur’s Seat, Mahabaleshwar – 1,000 m of successive basaltic layers
The Deccan basalts may have played a role in the extinction of the dinosaurs – gases released by the eruption may have changed global climate and led to the demise of the dinosaurs. Raiyoli in Central Gujarat is said to be one of the three largest dinosaur sites in the world.

The Deccan Plateau ranks as the world’s fourth largest (volumetrically) subcontinental outpouring of plateau basalt lavas extruded at unstable margins during active tectonic plate movements. The Deccan Traps occupying one-sixth of Indian landmass, consists of more than 2000 meters deep flat lying basalt lava flows and covers an area of over 5,00,000 sq. km. in west-central India. Estimates of the original area covered by the lava flows are as high as 1.5 million sq. km.
The volume of the basalt is estimated to be 5,12,000 cubic km. Trapp is a Swedish term for a terraced plateau (Ghats – steps or terraces). The term “Deccan Trap” was first used by Col. W. H. Sykes and the term “Trap” is used in the lithological sense of the rock basalt.

Formation of the Western Ghats

The Western Ghats are not true mountains but rather faulted edge of an upraised plateau. There is a contrast between the deep ravines and canyons along the scarp facing the Arabian Sea and the flat topped spurs intersected by mature valleys to the east. These are mountains of denudation rather than deformation.
As mentioned earlier the Peninsular India split from Gondwanaland about 150 m.y.a. and started moving north. The northward drift which lasted about 100 million years finally ended with the peninsula colliding with the Asian mainland 45 m.y.a. Major geological transformations took place as the peninsula moved northwards and drifted over the present day Reunion islands – localised volcanic centre in the earth’s lithosphere 200-300 km across, which has remained active for several million years.
It moved up in this drift and the heat beneath generated basaltic magma which rose into lithosphere causing an uplift by crustal arching. It was this event which happened some 120-130 m.y.a. that resulted in the uplift of the Western Ghats and tilted the Indian Plate in easterly direction. Subsequently, there were a series of volcanic eruptions until around 65 m.y.a. giving rise to the extensive Deccan Traps. These volcanic episodes to a large extent moulded the Northern Western Ghats.

Since the Western Ghats are a result of a domal uplift, the underlying rocks are ancient – around 2000 million year old. The oldest of these rocks are found in the Nilgiris and the High Ranges of the southern Western Ghats.
The uplifted crust of the earth bears a central axial region of weakness coinciding with the track of upliftment. Peninsular India broke along its line of weakness and the western segment drifted westward into the sea(a process known as faulting), giving rise to the present day hill chain of the Western Ghats and the west coast. The exposed face of the eastern unsubmerged plate was lifted up to form the scarp of the Western Ghats. This happened during the Eocene (between 45 and 65 m.y.a.), even before India became part of the Asian mainland. By the time the peninsular India ended its northward drift and collided with the Asian mainland, the Western Ghats were very much in place.
At this time the marked eastward tilt permanently changed the pattern of drainage. The western faulting led to ‘river capture’ and diversion of easterly drainage to the west in many instances. The river Sharavathy and Kali in Karnataka are classical examples of westerly diversion of drainage due to uplift and faulting. The Shara-vathy with its spectacular waterfalls and deep gorges has receded about 28 km due to headward erosion. The Western Ghats thus represent tectonically active region with high rates of uplift, high summit altitudes, steep slopes, deep gorges and large potential for erosion and correspondingly high sedimentation yields.

The uplift of the western part of the Indian peninsula had several repercussions. It explains the orientation of the big rivers of the plateau towards the east; it started a chain of very violent regressive erosion on the steep and abrupt western slopes, thus fashioning the Western Ghats into the state that we find them today, chiseled into steps following the basaltic beds(in the Trapp) and carved by deep valleys sometimes capturing some of the rivers of the plateau such as Sharavathy or cleaved by vertical cliffs as found towards Agumbe (Karnataka). The seaward progression of the edge of the continental plateau as compared to the ancient continental edge is perhaps the outcome of this erosion.

Northern Sahyadris, Selbari Range

The northern half of the Ghats from Tapti valley down to Goa is formed of horizontal beds of massive Deccan Trapp. The resistant character of the Trapp has accentuated the relief and the Ghats appear in the form of a steeply-cut wall facing the Arabian Sea. The scarp of the Ghats in this region presents a magnificent vertical profile of over 1000 m of successive layers. The view from ‘Arthur’s Seat’ just outside Mahabaleshwar is very impressive.

South of Goa, the horizontal bedded traps give place to steeply dipping gneisses and schists. In this section the Ghats lose their abrupt and precipitous character. The average height falls down to less than 2000 ft. The westerly flowing rivers in this section have effected breaches in the wall by cutting deep gorges and canyons. Waterfalls are common at the head of the rejuvenated rivers. The watershed separating the easterly and westerly drainage, which hitherto had followed more or less the crest line of the Ghats is pushed by nearly a hundred miles inland as near Hubli by Gangavali. The scarp again swings back to the coast south of Honnavar. It also gains in height forming the important peaks of Kodachadri 1343 m. and Kudremukh 1892 m. The Ghat scarp recedes again east of Mangalore where the Netravathi has extended its valley by headward erosion.

Bedthi River Gorge, Uttara Kannada

In Kodagu and south Mysore the Ghats expose Charnokites. Some of the highest peaks in the Ghats are to be found in this Charnokitic region. In the Nilgiris the average elevation is over 6000 ft., the highest point Dodabetta being 2637 m.(8,650 ft.) high. This aspect of the Western Ghats, which hitherto showed scarp-like face only to the west, changes south of Mysore. The hill masses, although continuous with the Ghats, appear more like tableland – lifted abruptly to elevations of over 2,440 m.(8000 ft.), presenting steep sided precipices on all sides.

Bababudangiri Range, Karnataka.
The continuity of the Western Ghats is lost south of Nilgiris, where there is remarkable gap called the ‘Palghat Gap’ separating the Nilgiri massif from equally high and precipitous massif of Anaimalai to the south. The gap is about twenty miles wide and at its highest point 300 m. above sea level.
South of the Palghat Gap are the complex group of hills forming the Anaimalai, Palni, the Varushanad, and Cardamom Hills mainly of Charnokites. The rivers follow straight courses and the drainage pattern is rectilinear. As we proceed south, in Kerala, the Ghats recede inland leaving a fertile coastal plain.

Western Ghats, India – Abode of Gods

From the book  ”The Western Ghats” by Mohan Pai (2005).



Ishwara Shrine atop Mulainagiri, the highest peak in Karnataka – Pic by Mohan Pai

There are a number of references to the Sahyadris in the ancient epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as in some of the Puranas. In Ramayana they are described as majestic, great mountain with its many brightly coloured peaks, its brightly flowering woods, and forest tracts of sandalwood. Both Ramyana and Mahabharata belong to the post Vedic period.
However, the Rig Veda, the most ancient text available, does not feature this mountain range as possibly during that time the peninsular part of India was a dense forest and remained largely inaccessible and unknown to the Vedic people.

Madhukeshwara Temple, Banvasi, Karnataka - Pic by Mohan Pai


Kishkindha Kanda and Yuddha Kanda in Ramayana and Ashvamedha Parva and Udyog Parva in Mahabharata have references to the majestic and lofty mountain ranges on the west coast. There are two names that feature for the Western Ghats – Sahya and Malaya. The name Sahya was probably applied to the northern segment of the mountain range in Maharashtra and Karnataka, and Malaya to the southern segment in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

The Legend of Parashurama

The legend of Parashurama is a popular story in the Hindu Mythology with different regional versions. According to one version, Parashurama, the axe-wielding avatar of Vishnu is the son of Sage Jamadagni and Renuka. Jamadagni is killed by despotic Kshatriyas because he refuses to part with Kamadhenu, his wish-fullfilling divine cow. In revenge, Parashurama traverses the earth twenty-one times and wipes out all the Kshatriyas.
Parashurama, struck by remorse tried to expiate his sins by performing yagnyas during which he gifted away all his lands to the Brahmins with no land left even to build a hermitage for himself. Varuna, God of the seas came to his aid and offered him to gain from the sea as much land he could span in one throw of his axe. Parashurama stood at Pethe Parashuram (near Chiplun, Maharashtra) and threw his axe as far as Kanyakumari. The sea retreated and the coastal tracts of Konkan, Kanara and Kerala were thus generated.
Parashurama populated his new lands with Brahmins as well as new plants such as the coconut, the banana and the jackfruit which now thrive throughout the region.

This legend is probably based on the lowering of sea level which resulted in the emergence of the coastal strip which is now referred to as Konkan and Malabar. There are very few shrines to Lord Parashurama – apart from Pethe Parashuram in Konkan, there is one shrine in Goa at Painguinim and two in Kerala at Payanur and Thiruvallom.

From the earliest times, the mountains have been considered the abode of Gods and revered and worshipped. There are hundreds of shrines and temples built atop the hills and innumerable caves and monuments dedicated to the divine all over the Western Ghats. Skanda Purana has a whole section called Sahyadri Kanda that provides description of over a hundred Tirthas (holy places in the vicinity of rivers) and eighty Kshetras (places of pilgrimage) in the Sahyadri range.


Vidyashankara Temple, Shringeri, Karnataka – Pic by Mohan Pai

The Tirtha phenomenon is a unique by-product of Indian culture. Rivers, mountains, shrines and holy spots on the banks of rivers have been sanctified by tradition and association and visit to these places has been considered for centuries as a paramount duty of a Hindu.

Some of the important tirthas are located at the source of different rivers. Tryambakeshwar is located at the source of Godavari near Nasik and contains one of the twelve ancient and sacred Jyotirlingas in India.
The legend of sage Gautama who resided near Tryambak on the Brahmagiri hill is narrated in Brahmapurana and Naradapurana. Ramayana features Panchavati on the banks of Godavari near Nasik where Shri Rama stayed along with Sita and Lakshaman.

Bhimashankar Temple, Maharashtra – Pic by Mohan Pai

River Bhima rises 40 km north of Khandala and at the source of this river is situated another of the twelve famous Jyotirlingas of Bhimashankar. Bhima is referred to in the Mahabharata, Matsya Purana, Brahma Purana and Vamana Purana. Most of the famous Ashta Vinayaka temples of Maharashtra are located in the Sahyadris – Lenyadri, Siddhatek, Pali, Theur, Morgaon, etc.
River Krishna rises near Mahabaleshwar along with four other rivers – Vena, Kakudmati, Savitri and Gayatri. The Shiva (Mahabaleshwara) temple is about 5 kms from the main bazar of Mahabaleshwar hill station. There are legends associated with this spot in Mahabaleshwar Mahatmya.

Pandharpur situated 40 miles west of Sholapur on the banks of river Bhima also known as Chandra-bhaga is the foremost pilgrimage centre of Maharashtra that houses the famous shrine of Vithoba.
Alandi is situated on the banks of Indrayani river 12 miles north of Pune and has the Samadhi and shrine of the famous Maharashtra saint Jnaneshwar. On the mountain at Jejuri, high up the Karha valley is the temple of Khandoba.
Kolhapur is situated near the banks of river Panchaganga and is known for the ancient temple of Goddess Mahalakshmi.

Mahalakshmi Temple, Kolhapur – Pic by Mohan Pai

Goa has many ancient Hindu temples spread over at the foot of the Sahyadris. South of Goa there is Sringeri on the left bank of river Tungabhadra where Sri Shankaracharya established his chief monastery.
Saptakoteshwar Temple, Narve, Goa – Pic by Mohan Pai

Baba Budan or Dattatreya Pitha, a laterite cave, considered holy by both Muslims and Hindus is in the Bababudan range. The legend says that the Muslim saint Baba Budan came and settled down here and brought coffee seeds with him from Persia. This was the beginning of coffee crop in India. Close to Chickamagalur, on the tallest peak in the Western Ghats of Karnataka – Mulaianagiri (1,923 m.) is a beautiful Shiva shrine.

Nageshwar Temple, Saputara, Gujarat – Pic by Mohan Pai

At the foothill of the Western Ghats at Belur and Halebid near Hassan are the Temples of Channakeshava and Hoysaleshwara with finely executed carved sculptures. These were built during the 12th century and are the finest examples of Hoysala architecture.
North of Udupi, near the base of the Kodachadri hills is the famous temple of Goddess Mookambika at Kollur. Udupi in Dakshina Kannada is famous for Krishna temple founded by Sri Madhavacharya, the great Dvaita philosopher and teacher. Kukke Subramanya temple at the base of the Kumara Parvata is in Dakshina Kannada.

Mukambika Temple, Kollur, Karnatak – Pic by Mohan Pai

River Kaveri rises on the Brahmagiri hill in Kodagu (12035N and 75031 E) its source is a small pond and there is a shrine to Goddess Kaveri. The place is known as Talakaveri. There are several legends about Kaveri which are mainly recorded in the Agneya and Skanda Puranas.


Kukke Subramanya Temple, Karnataka – Pic by Mohan Pai

Sabrimala the famous abode of Lord Ayyappa is situated in thick forested area of the Western Ghats in the upper region of river Pamba in Kerala. The legend says that it was here that lord Rama while searching for Sita met Sabari, an ardent devotee and blessed her. The famous ancient temple of Lord Krishna is situated in Guruvayur, about 30 km from Trichur.
Kaladi, eight miles east of Alwaye, on the banks of river Periyar is the birth place of Jagatguru Sri Shankaracharya.

River Tambraparni arises in the Agasthyamalai hills. After a few kms from its source downstream, it reaches the Papanasam tirtha which is considered a very sacred place. The importance of the tirtha is described in the Shiva Purana and in the Kurma Purana and it is also mentioned in the Mahabharata and Ramayana. There is a temple of Subramanya at Palni hills on a rocky hill about 450 ft high.

Carved figurine, Belur Temple 

Buddhist Caves in the Western Ghats
The most famous Buddhist monument in the Sahyadris are the Buddhist caves at Ajanta and Ellora near Aurangabad in Maharashtra.
The 34 caves at Ellora and 29 caves at Ajanta remained shrouded in obscurity till one John Smith, a British Army officer, accidentally stumbled upon them while hunting tigers in 1819. These caves were built as secluded retreats for the Buddhist monks around 2nd century B.C.
Ajanta FrescoThe other important Buddhist caves are at the Bhore or Khandala pass at Karla, Bhaje and Bedse. The Buddhist cave at Karla is considered to be the largest and the most complete Chaitya cave in India and is also the best preserved. The caves of Bhaje and Bedse are also nearby and are believed to be as old as 2nd century B.C.

The Gandhar-Pali caves are located near Mahad junction on Mumbai-Goa highway in the Sahyadris. There are 28 caves in all which date back to the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. Chaityas, Viharas, wall sculptures, images of Buddha can be seen in these caves.

Golden Buddha, Namdroling Monastery, Bylakuppe, Kodagu – Pic by Mohan Pai

Jain Pilgrimage Centres

Ellora : Of the 34 caves that are carved, 5 of the caves to the north are Jain caves.
Shravanabelagola : This famous Jain pilgrimage centre is located 51 km south east of Hassan. The Gomateshwara statue 58 ft high is carved out of a mountain and said to be one of the tallest monolithic sculptures. It was carved out in 981 A.D. and consecrated in 983 A.D. There are several Jain bastis and monasteries in Shravanabelagola. There are 14 shrines on Chandragiri hill and Chandragupta Maurya, the Mauryan Emperor after renouncing his kingdom settled on this hill, along with his Guru Bhagwan Bhadra Bahu Swami. The great emperor is buried here.

Gomateshwara, Shravanbelagola

Karkala : Is another Jain pilgrimage centre in the Western Ghats. From the centre of the town rises 300 ft high Gomata Betta, crowned with 41.5 ft monolith of Bahubali. The statue was consecrated in 1,432 A.D.
Moodabidri : The Savira Khamba Basadi is the most well-known of the 18 Jain Temples here. There is also the 17th century Chowta Palace, the intricately carved residence of the Jain Royal family.
Kumbhojgiri : This centre is 35 km away from Kolhapur. There are around 24 temples dedicated to Jain Tirthankars within the complex, sacred to both Digambara and Swetambara sects.

Christian Pilgrimage Centres

St. Thomas, the apostle is believed to have travelled by the spice route on a boat and landed in Muziris (Cranganore) in 52 A.D. He converted Indias first Chiristians and built a church at Palayur. The Palayur is the oldest of the seven-and-half churches founded by St. Thomas, and is the oldest church in India.
Malayattoor, on the banks of the Periyar is a popular pilgrim centre for the Christians of Kerala as they believe that it was blessed by the presence of St. Thomas the apostle. About 10 kms from Vagamon is Kurusimala, a pilgrim centre for Christians, that recreates Christs final journey – the Way of the Cross – in a series of picture tableaux.

‘Bom Jesus’, Old Goa – Pic by Mohan Pai

Old Goa is famous for the Shrine of St. Franacis Xavier “Bom Jesus” where his entombed body has been kept.
Aurangazebs Tomb

North-East of Mumbai in the Western Ghats is a small hill station of Khuldabad, site of the tombs of Aurangzeb, last of the great Mogul Emperors and his son Azam Sham.
Aurangzeb chose Rauza on Khuldabads outskirts as his resting place where he wanted to be buried. Aurangzeb chose this simple town for the most feared of the Mogul emperors saved money for this simple structure through the sale of skullcaps that he stitched and copies of the Koran he personally wrote.

The Kailasa temple in Cave 16 at Ellora is an architectural marvel, the entire structure having been carved out of a monolith, the process having taken over a century to finish. The gateway, pavilion, assembly hall sanctum and tower, all hewn out of a single rock. What is amazing about it, is the fact that unlike other temple structures which are built base upward, the architect involved here, started carving from the very top and the sides. Gigantic though, it remains one of the most delicate and intricate ancient works of art.
Junnar, where the hill fort of Shivneri is situated was an old Buddhist centre and it still has several cells and chapels and believed to be as old as 3rd century B.C.

Western Ghats, India – Topography

From the book  ”The Western Ghats” by Mohan Pai (2005).



Hanuman & Shiva Shrines at Kundaibari Pass – the Western Ghats begin here.- Pic by Mohan Pai

The Western Ghats form an almost unbroken rampart on the fringe of western peninsula parallel to the west coast for about 1600 km and often hardly 40 km from the Arabian Sea.

They start immediately south of the Tapti river, the northern most point being the Kundaibari pass (21006N, 74011E) near Brahmavel in Dhule district of Maharashtra ending near Kanya-kumari (80N) barely 20 km from the sea in Tamil Nadu. They cover an area of approximately 1,59,000 sq. km with an average elevation of 900-1500 m. ASL, obstructing the monsoon winds from the south west and the orographic effect is considerable. Although the average heights of the Ghats is less than1500 m. ASL, in the southern reaches it rises 2000 m and to exceptionally higher peaks of 2,500 m and above.
Along its entire length, the Western Ghats range has only one total discontinuity, the Palghat Gap in Kerala where for more than 30 km there is a gap which has a floor height of less than 100 m ASL. This discontinuity is perhaps of tectonic origin through which a river may have flowed in ancient times. The peninsular plateau is highest in the south and west and slopes eastward, the eastern edge forming the broken up Eastern Ghats. The Eastern and the Western Ghats meet along the Moyar Gorge with the Billigirirangana Hills along the north-eastern side and the the Nilgiris in the south-west.
Based on the topography and geology, the Western Ghat region is divided into three distinct subregions:

Northern Western Ghats (Tapti river to Goa)

This region consists of the most homogeneous part of the Western Ghats, hugging the coast for almost 600 km. It corresponds to the western edge of the vast plateau formed by massive horizontal outflow of volcanic lava which cooled to form dark grey basalt.

The layer of lava often interlaced with non-volcanic debris – View from Arthur’s Seat, Mahabaleshwar – Pic by Mohan Pai

The escarpment is not a simple erosional feature; some geologists believe that it marks the location of a broad zone of en echelon deep-seated faults. Landsat imagery shows a large density of faults striking NW-SW along the trend of this escarpment roughly parallel to the coast, in which 33 hot springs have been noted and which have been interpreted as indicative of a fault.

Terraced flanks – the Ghats or steps, Maharashtra – Pic by Mohan Pai

The coastal zone here called Konkan, is a narrow strip about 50-60 km wide. It is made up of a series of more or less high hills, some of them like Matheran (700 m) almost reaching the height of the plateau and bears testimony of regressive erosion.

Central Western Ghats (Goa to Nilgiris)

The basaltic outpourings cease to the north of Goa. The Middle Western Ghats run from a little south of 160N latitude up to Nilgiri Hills. Towards the south, the Ghats consist of complex formation of pre-cambrian rocks. In the central Western Ghats, the rocks are predominantly of Dharwar system (among the oldest in India) and Peninsular gneisses.
The Western scarp is considerably dissected by headward erosion of the west flowing streams. The elevation generally range between 600 to 1000 m up to 13030N. The Ghats lose their graded appearance and form a steep barrier whose height becomes more irregular. They rise suddenly at Kodachadri (1343 m)and fall to about 600 m at Agumbe.

Mangi & Tungi – The Twin Peaks in the Selbari Range – Pic by Mohan Pai
The Iron mountains- Kudremukh range – Pic by Mohan Pai

From Kudremukh (1,892 m) up to Palghat Gap, the edge of the plateau is very often higher than 1,000 m. and the peaks become more numerous and higher – Pushpagiri (1,713 m) in the North Kodagu, Tadianamol Betta (1,745 m), Banasuram (2,060 m), Vavul Mala (2,339 m) at the edge of the Wayanad plateau.

Towards 11030N, the Western Ghats composed of hard Charnokites, rise abruptly in the Nilgiri horst where they join the Eastern Ghats. The Nilgiri mountains constitute an elevated plateau dominated by two of its highest peaks, the Dodabetta (2,637 m) and Makurti (2,554 m) overlooking Palghat Gap from a height of more than 2,000 m.

On the Mysore plateau, whose average elevation range from 700 to 900 m we find reliefs formed by tectonic events such as spectacular horseshoe of the Bababudan hills which extends from Hebbe through Kemmanagundi and Attigudi to Mulainagiri (1,923 m) which is the highest peak in Karnataka.

Brahmagiris near Iruppu, Kodagu – Pic by Mohan Pai

The other tallest peak is Bababudangiri (Chandradrona Parvata 1,894 m). The width of the coastal zone is also more variable here than in Maharashtra. It is about 40 km wide at the latitude of Goa and then suddenly narrows near Karwar where the Ghats dip into the sea with peaks emerging as picturesque islands.

The Ghats dip into the sea near Karwar – Pic by Mohan Pai

This advance of the relief is carved by deep valleys of the Kalinadi, Gangavali and Sharavathy. The last drops from a height of 250 m creating the famous Jog falls.
To the south of 140 N, the coastal zone now called South Kanara, widens once more to about 80 km. The coastal region after Kodagu known as Malabar is not more than 30 km wide up to the latitude of Kozikode. From here it widens out to about 60 km till the Palghat Gap. The coastal hills in the entire region, particularly to the north of Mangalore are mostly tabular relief hardened by iron oxides. These reliefs are practically bare and present a characteristic landscape.

Charmadi Ghats, Karnataka – Pic by Mohan Pai

 Southern Western Ghats (South of the Palghat Gap)

The Western Ghats are separated from the main Sahyadri Range by the Palghat Gap which is about 30 km wide and they appear abruptly as the Anaimalai-Palni block whose high plateau attain a height of 2,695 m in the Anaimudi peak, the highest point in south India.

The Nelliampathis – Pic by Mohan Pai

This block is a composite range ismade up of the Nelliampathy plateau (drained by Chalakudi) to the west, the Anaimalai plateau (largely converted into tea plantations and distinctly elevated to the east) in the centre and the Palni horst overlooking the peneplain of Tamil Nadu from a height of almost 2,000 m. 

Anaimudi – the highest peak in the south 2,695 m(8,843 ft). Bill Aitken called it Black Moby Dick – the Great Whale. Author in the foreground
To the south of this west-east oriented block, the Ghats display further changes. Here they form an elevated plateau slanting towards the west – the Periyar plateau, thus named after its most important river. The eastern part of this plateau forms Elamalai range, better known as Cardamom Hills because of its plantations. This central range attains its peak at Devar Malai (1,922 m) and terminates in the east by sheer cliff 1,000 m high. From this, the SW-NE oriented Varushanad massif is detached and continued by the Andipathi, which together with Palni hills embraces the Kambam Valley.
South of Devar Malai, at about 90N, the Ghats are once again interrupted by narrow Shencottah Pass (alt. 160 m). From here they continue as a narrow ridge with steep slopes to the west as well as to the east, until about 20 km before Kanyakumari. This last bit is very rugged and its highest peak is the Agasthyamalai (1,869 m). Three regions may be distinguished here; Agasthyamalai proper, Mahendragiri to the south and the Tirunelveli hills on the eastern slopes. The coastal zone (30-50 km wide) constituting Travancore is made up of convex shape hills with rounded summits. Here we do not find the tabular reliefs of South Kanara and Konkan since their formation at this latitude is probably more difficult due to short, dry season.
The vegetation types are characterised by low level tropical evergreens turn to Shola grasslands on the cool wind swept slopes of the higher ranges. Primary or secondary moist deciduous forests cover the lower western hills. Moist deciduous forests are also common on the eastern slopes in the rain shadow area. Dry deciduous and even scrub vegetation characterises the eastern slopes where the humidity is low and the winds are high.
The Imperial Gazetteer of India – 1907 gives a very vivid description of the region which is reproduced below:
Western Ghats – a range of mountains about 1,000 miles(1,600 km) in length, forming the western boundary of the Deccan and the watershed between rivers of peninsular India. The Sanskrit name is Sahyadri.
The range, which will be treated here with reference to its course through Bombay, Mysore and Coorg and Madras, may be said to begin at the Kundaibari pass in the south western corner of the Khandesh district of Bombay Presidency, though the hills that run eastward from the pass to Chimtana and overlook the lower Tapti valley, belong to the same system. From Kundaibari (21006N, 740 11E) the chain runs southward with an average elevation which seldom exceeds 4,000 ft., in a line roughly parallel with the coast, from which its distance varies from 20 to 65 miles. For about 100 miles up to a point near Trimbak, its direction is somewhat west of south; and it is flanked on the west by the thickly wooded and unhealthy tableland of Peint, Mokhada and Jawhar (1500 ft) which forms a steep barrier between the Konkan lowlands and the plateau of the Deccan (about 2000 ft). South of Trimbak the scarp of the western face is more abrupt; and for 40 miles, as far as the Malsej pass, the trend is south-by-east changing to south-by-west from Malsej to Khandala and Vagjai (60 miles), and again to south by east from here until the chain passes out of the Bombay Presidency into Mysore near Gersoppa ( 14010N, 74050E).
On the eastern side the Ghats throw out many spurs or lateral ranges that run from west to east, and divide from one another the valleys of the Godavari, Bhima and Kistna river systems. The chief of these cross ranges are Satmalas, between the Tapti and Godavari valleys; the two ranges that break off from the main chain near Harishchandragarh and run south eastwards into the Nizams Dominions, enclosing the triangular plateau on which Ahamad-nagar stands, and which is the watershed between the Godavari and the Bhima; and the Mahadeo range, that runs eastward and southward from Kamalgarh and passes into the barren uplands of Atpadi and Jath, forming the watershed between the Bhima and the Kistna systems. North of the latitude of Goa the Bombay part of therange consists of Eocene trap and basalt, often capped with laterite, while farther south are found such older rocks as gneiss and transitional sandstones.
The flat-topped hills, often crowned with bare wall like masses of basalt, or laterite are clothed on their lower slopes with jungles of teak and bamboo in the north; with jambul (eugenia jambolana), ain (Terminalia tomentosa) and nana (Lagerstroemia parviflora) in the centre; and with teak, blackwood, and bamboo in the south.
On the main range and its spurs stand a hundred forts, many of which are famous in Maratha history. From north to south, the most notable points in the range are the Kundaibari pass a very ancient trade route between Broach and the Deccan; the twin forts of Salher and Mulher guarding the Babhulna pass; Trimbak at the source of holy river Godavari; the Thal pass by which the Bombay-Agra road and the northern branch of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway ascends the Ghats; the Pimpri pass, a very old trade route south between Nasik and Kalyan or Sopara, guarded by the twin forts of Alang and Kulang; Kalsubai (5427 ft), the highest peak in the range; Harishchandragarh (4691 ft); the Nana pass, a very old route between Junnar and Konkan; Shivner, the fort of Junnar; Bhimashankar, at the source of the Bhima; Chakan, an old Musalman stronghold; the Bhor or Khandala pass, by which the Bombay-Poona road and the southern branch of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway enters the Deccan, and on or near which are the caves of Kondane, Karli, Bhadja and Bedsa; the caves of Nasdur and Karsambla below the forts of Sinhagarh and Purandhar in the spurs south of Poona; the forts of Raigarh in the Konkan and of Pratapgarh between the new Fitzgerald ghat road and the old Par pass; the hill station of Mahabaleshwar (4717 ft) at the source of the Kistna; the fort and town of Satara; the Kumbharli pass leading to the old towns of Patan and Karad; the Amba pass, through which runs the road from Ratnagiri to Kolhapur; the forts of Vishalgarh and Panhala; the Phonda pass, through which runs the road from Deogarh to Nipani; the Amboli and the Ram pass, through which run two made roads from Vengurla to Belgaum; Castle Rock, below which passes the Railway from Marmagao to Dharwar; The Arabail pass on the road from Karwar to Dharwar; the Devimane pass on the road from Kumta to Hubli, and the Gersoppa Falls on the river Sharavati.
On leaving the Bombay Presidency, the Western Ghats bound the State of Mysore on the west, separating it from the Madras district of South Kanara, and run from Chandragutti (2,794 ft) in the north-west to Pushpagiri on the Subramanya hill (5,626 ft) in the north Coorg and continue through Coorg into Madras.

In the west of the Sagar taluk, from Govardhangiri to Devakonda, they approach within ten miles of the coast. From there they trend south-eastwards, culminating in Kudremukh (6,215 ft) in the southwest of Kadur district, which marks the watershed between Kistna and Cauvery systems. They then bend east and south to Coorg, receding to 45 miles from the sea. Here to numerous chains and groups of lofty hills branch off from the Ghats eastwards, forming the complex series of mountain heights south of Nagar in the west of Kadur district. Gneiss and hornblende schists are the prevailing rocks in this section, capped in many places by laterite, with some bosses of granite. The summits of the hills are mostly bare, but the sides are clothed with magnificent evergreen forests. Ghat roads to the coast have been made through the following passes: Gersoppa, Kollur, Hosangadi, and Agumbe in Shimoga district; Bundh in Kadur district, Manjarabad and Bisale in Hassan district.

In the Madras Presidency, the Western Ghats continue in the same general direction, running southwards at a distance of from 50 to 100 miles from the sea until they terminate at Cape Comorin, the southern most extremity of India. Soon after emerging from Coorg they are joined by the range of the Eastern Ghats, which sweeps down from the other side of the peninsula; and at the point of junction they rise up into the high plateau of the Nilgiris, on which stand the hill stations of Ootacamund (7,000 ft), the summer capital of the Madras Government, Coonoor, Wellington, and Kotagiri and whose loftiest peaks are Dodabetta (8,760 ft) and Makurti (over 8,000 ft).
Immediately south of this plateau the range, which now runs between the districts of Malabar and Coimbatore, is interrupted by the remarkable Palghat Gap, the only break in the whole of its length. This is about 16 miles wide, and is scarcely more than 1,000 ft above the level of the sea. The Madras Railway runs through it, and it thus forms the chief line of communication between the two sides of this part of the peninsula.


South of this gap the Ghats rise abruptly again to even more than their former height. At this point they are known by the local name Anaimalais, or elephant hills, and the minor ranges they here throw off to the west and east are called respectively the Nelliam-pathis and the Palni Hills. On the latter is situated the sanatorium of Kodaikanal. Thereafter, as they run down to Cape Comorin between the Madras Presidency and the native state of Travancore, they resume their former name.

North of the Nilgiri plateau the eastern flank of the range merges somewhat gradually into the high plateau of Mysore but its western slopes rise suddenly and boldly from the low coast south of the Palghat Gap both the eastern and western slopes are steep and rugged . The range here consists throughout of gneisses of various kinds, flanked in Malabar by picturesque terraces of laterite which shelve gradually down towards the coast. In elevation it varies from 3,000 to 8,000 ft above the sea, and the Anaimudi peak (8,839 ft) in Travancore is the highest point in the range and in southern India. The scenery of the Western Ghats is always picturesque and frequently magnificent, the heavy evergreen forest with which the slopes are often covered aiding greatly to their beauty. Large games of all sorts abounds, from elephants, bisons and tigers to the Nilgiri ibex, which is found nowhere else in India.

Before the days of roads and railways the Ghats rendered communication between the west and east coasts of the Madras Presidency a matter of great difficulty; and the result has been that the people of the strip land which lies between them and the sea differ widely in appearance, language, customs, and laws of inheritance from those in the eastern part of the Presidency. On the range itself, moreover, are found several primitive tribes, among whom may be mentioned the well known Todas of the Nilgiris, the Kurumbas of the same plateau, and the Kadars of Anaimalais. Communications across this part of the range have, however, been greatly improved of late years. Besides the Madras Railway already referred to, the line from Tinnevelly to Quilon now links up the two opposite shores of the peninsula, and the range is also traversed by numerous ghat roads. The most important of these latter are the Charmadi ghat from Mangalore in South Kanara to Mudgiri in Mysore; The Sampaji ghat between Mangalore and Mercara, the capital of Coorg; the roads from Cannanore and Tellichery, which lead to the Mysore plateau through the Perumbadi and Peria passes; and the two routes from Calicut to the Niligiri plateau up the Karkur and Vayittiri-Gudalur ghats.


Name of the peak & location Height(m) (ft)

1. Anaimudi 2,695 (m) 8,839(ft) Anaimalai Hills, Kerala
2. Dodabetta 2,637 (m) 8,649 (ft) Nilgiri Hills, Tamil Nadu
3. Makurti 2,554 (m) 8,377 (ft) Nilgiri Hills, Tamil Nadu
4. Vembadi Shola 2,506 (m) 8,220 (ft) Kodaikanal Hills, Tamil Nadu
5. Vahul Mala (Camels Hump) 2,339 (m) 7,672 (ft) Southern Sahyadris, Kerala
6. Banasuram 2,060 (m) 6,757 (ft) Southern Sahyadris, Kerala
7. Kottai Malai 2,019 (m) 6,622 (ft) Varushanad Hills, Keral-Tamil Nadu
8. Mulainagiri 1,923 (m) 6,307 (ft) Bababudan Hills, Karnataka 9. Devar Malai 1,922 (m) 6,304 (ft) Kerala
10. Badabudangir (Chandradrona Parvata) 1,894 (m) 6,212 (ft) Karnataka
11. Kudremukh 1,892 (m) 6,206 (ft) Central Sahyadris, Karnataka
12. Agasthyamalai 1,869 (m) 6,130 (ft) Kerala-Tamil Nadu
13. Tadianamol Betta 1,745 (m) 5,724 (ft) Kodagu, Karnataka
14. Pushpagiri 1,713 (m) 5,619 (ft) Kodagu, Karnataka
15. Mahendra Giri 1,654 (m) 5,425 (ft) Kerala-Tamil Nadu
16. Kalsubai 1,646 (m) 5,399 (ft) Northern Sahyadris, Maharashtra
17. Salher 1,567 (m) 5,140 (ft) Northern Sahyadris, Maharashtra
18. Ballalrayan Durga 1,504 (m) 4,933 (ft) Central Sahyadris, Karnataka 19. Gopalaswamy Betta 1,454 (m) 4,769 (ft) Karnataka – Tamil Nadu
20. Pratapgad 1,438 (m) 4,717 (ft) Central Sahyadris, Maharashtra
21. Kodachadri 1,343 (m) 4,405 (ft) Karnataka
22. Andipatti Hills 1,301 (m) 4,267 (ft)Tamil Nadu
23. Sadura Giri 1,271 (m) 4,169 (ft) Varushanad Hills, Tamil Nadu


The scarp of the Ghats in this region presents a magnificent profile of over 1,000 m of successive volcanic layers, which on erosion have produced a typical trappean landscape, forming a formidable well-dissected wall looking over the narrow west coast plains, buton the eastern side descending in steps one below the other. It is in this region that the full significance of the term ���ghats��� (steps of a stair-case) becomes clear. The layers of lava are quite often interlaced with non-volcanic debris. Sometimes these form intertrappean deposits holding plant and animal fossils. The elevation is generally between 700 and 1,000 m, but some of the pinnacles attain greater heights; the tallest are the Kalsubai (1,646 m) near Igatpuri, Salher (1,567 m) 90 km north of Nasik and the famous Mahabaleshwar (1,438 m).

Wester Ghats, India – Geopolitical Division

From the book  ”The Western Ghats” by Mohan Pai (2005).



The Western Ghats range extends from river Tapti in Maharashtra in the north to Kanyakumari in the south, approximately 1,600 km in length and passes through six states of the Indian Union covering an area of about 1,59,000 sq. kms. The states girdled by the Sahyadri range are : 1. Gujarat 2. Maharashtra 3. Goa 4. Karnataka 5. Kerala 6. Tamil Nadu
Area & Talukas of the Western Ghats Region as per Hill Area Development Programme (Planning Commission – 2001):

Area Coverage:
1. Maharashtra : 58,400 Sq. km 2. Karnataka 44,300 Sq. km.
3. Tamil Nadu 28,200 Sq. km. 4. Kerala 28,100 Sq. km. 5. Goa 1,073 Sq. km.
Total 1,60,000 Sq. km.
The great river Tapti, flowing in a deep trench from the east cuts through Surat and the eastern country is mountainous. This is the northern extension of the Western Ghats and further south, the Ghats are forested and the small district of the Dangs is in this area.
Saputara – Pic by Mohan Pai

The west flowing rivers which originate in the Western Ghats are: Purna, Auranga and Par.
Three districts of Gujarat are in the Western Ghats ecoregion : 1. The Dangs 2. Surat 3. Valsad
The Western Ghats range begins at the Kundaibari Pass (2106N���74011���E) in Dhule district of Maharashtra and runs almost continuously 720 km north-south, the foothills reaching to within 6.4 km of the Arabian Sea. Elevations increase northward to the peaks of Kalsubai (1,646 m) and Salher (1,567 m).
There are a few passes through which roads and railroads link the coast with the interior. The eastern slopes of the ghat descend gently into the Deccan Plateau and are sculptured by the wide, mature valleys of the Krishna, Bhima and Godavari rivers.
Malsej Ghat – Pic by Mohan Pai
To the west is the narrow Konkan coastal lowland, which reaches its widest extent near Mumbai. Numerous minor hills of the Ghat range dominate the relief.
Two major east-flowing rivers originate in the Western Ghats section of Maharashtra – the Godavari arising in Nasik district and the Krishna which begins at an altitude of 1,360 m near Mahabaleshwar.
There are many small, swift west-flowing rivers, most of them less than 80 km long. They are : Ulhas, Surya, Vaitarana, Damanagang, Tansa, Vashist, Savitri and Shastri.
Twelve districts of Maharashtra are in the Western Ghats ecoregion: 1. Nasik 2. Thane 3. Dhule 4. Nandurbar 5. Pune 6.Sindhudurg 7. Raigad 8. Satara 9. Ratnagiri 10. Sangli 11.Kolhapur 12. Ahmednagar*

Sahyadris at Mahabaleshwar – Pic by Mohan Pai

Goa is the smallest state in the Western Ghats region with a coast-line of just about 100 km which extends 64 km inland and is dominated by the Ghats on its eastern part which rise to 1,034 m (3,392 ft) at Sonsagar.

Low-elevation Sahyadris at Goa – Pic by Mohan Pai


The hills give way in the west to an undulating area dissected by rivers and the coastal plain itself consists of beaches fringed with coconut palms. Goa���s two largest west flowing rivers are Mandovi and Zuari.
There are several minor streams which are : The Tiracol, Chapora, Sal, Galgibag and Talpona. The whole of Goa is included in the Western Ghats ecoregion.

Karnataka is situated on a tableland where the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats converge into B R Hills and the Nilgiri Hills complex.
Although the Ghats run parallel to the coast for a length of about 267 km, the width of the coastal lowland varies.

The Ghats dip into the sea and form islands at Karwar – Pic by Mohan Pai

It is about 80 km wide near Mangalore but practically non-existent in the north near Karwar where the range dips into the sea with peaks emerging as picturesque islands. A series of cross-sections drawn from west to east across the Ghats, generally exhibit, a narrow coastal plain followed to the east by small and short plateaus at different altitudes, then suddenly rising up to great heights. Then follows the east and east-north sloping plateau.
Among the tallest peaks are Mulainagiri (1,923 m), Bababudan or Chandradrona Parvata (1,894 m) and the Kudremukh (1,892 m) all in Chickamagalur district and Tadianamol Betta (1,745 m) and the Pushpagiri (1,713 m) in Kodagu district. There are a dozen peaks which rise above the heights of 1,500 m.

Bedthi River Valley, Uttara Kannada – Pic by Mohan Pai

The coastal region consists of two broad physical units – the plains and the Ghats. The coastal plains represent a narrow stretch of esturine and marine landscape. The abrupt rise at the eastern flanks forms the Ghats. The northern part of the Ghats are of lower elevation (450-600 m) as compared to the southern parts (900-1500 m).

The major east-flowing river is Kaveri with the east-flowing tributaries which include Hemavati, Laxmantirtha, Kabini and Suvarnavati. The swift west-flowing streams are : Kali, Gangavali (Bedthi), Aganashini, Sharavathy, Kollur-Chakra-Gangoli, Sita, Mulki, Gurupur and Netravathi.

Eleven districts of Karnataka are in the Western Ghats ecoregion :1. Belgaum 2. Uttara Kannada 3. Shimoga 4. Udupi 5. Dakshina Kannada 6. Chickmagalur 7. Hassan 8. Kodagu 9. Chamrajnagar 10. Mysore 11. Dharwad*

Kerala is a narrow strip of land on the south west coast of the Indian subcontinent bounded by the Western Ghats on the east.

Mattupetty Dam, Kerala – Pic by Mohan Pai


There are three geographical regions:
1.The Highlands consisting of a number of peaks with heights varying from an average height of 900 m to well over 1,800 m. Anaimudi peak – 2,695 m (8,842 ft), the highest point of peninsular India, crowns the Western Ghats.
2. The Midlands made up of hills and valleys.
3. The lowlands or the coastal areas which are made up of the river deltas, backwaters and the Arabian Sea.
Over forty four rivers cut across Kerala; it is said to be land of rivers and backwaters. These rivers are quite small and more or less filled by the monsoon water. Among the rivers that flow into the Arabian Sea, the more important are the Bharatpuzha, Chalakudi, Periyar and Pamba.

All the fourteen districts of Kerala are included in the Western Ghats ecoregion : 1. Kasargod 2. Kannur 3. Kozhikode 4. Malappuram 5. Wayanad 6. Palghat 7. Thrissur 8. Ernakulam 9. Pathanamthitta 10. Idukki 11. Kottayam 12. Allapuza 13. Kollam 14. Thiruvananthpuram.

Tamil Nadu

The Western Ghats, after a run of 1,600 km through six states of the Indian union, end in Tamil Nadu just 20 km short of Kanyakumari. The Eastern and the Western Ghats meet in Tamil Nadu and run along the whole length of the western boundary of the state at a distance of 80 to 160 km from the Arabian Sea.
The Ghats are a steep rugged mass with an average height of 1,220 m rising to 2,637 m at the highest point – Dodabetta near Ooty. The Nilgiris and Anaimalai are the group of hills with the maximum height followed by the Palnis. The Palghat gap and Shencottah gap are the only two breaks into the long chain of ghats that border Tamil Nadu.

Tea Gardens in the Nilgiris – Pic by Mohan Pai

 The main rivers which arise in the Western Ghats and flow east in Tamil Nadu are the Kaveri, Tambraparni and Vaigai.
Nine districts of Tamil Nadu are covered in the Western Ghats ecoregion :
1. Nilgiris 2. Coimbatore. 3. Theni 4. Dindigul 5. Virudunagar 6. Tirunelveli 7. Erode* 8. Madurai* 9. Kanyakumari

* The report of the Working Group on Hill Area Development Programme for the Tenth Five Year Plan (2002-2007), Govt. Of India, Planning Commission, June, 2001 considers Ahmednagar (Maharashtra), Dharwad (Karnataka), Erode and Madurai (Tamil Nadu) as districts of the Western Ghats region.

Western Ghats, India – Biodiversity

From the book  ”The Western Ghats” by Mohan Pai (2005).



The term biodiversity encompasses the variety of all life on the Earth. It is identified as the variability among living organisms and the ecological complexes of which they are part, including diversity within and between species and ecosystems.

Biodiversity manifests itself at three levels:
1. Species diversity which refers to the numbers and kinds of living organisms.
2. Genetic diversity which refers to the genetic variation within a population of species.
3. Ecosystem diversity which is the variety of habitats, biological communities and ecological process that occur in the biosphere.

Brahmagiri Forest, Coorg – Pic by Mohan PaiBiological diversity affects us all. It has direct consumptive value in food, agriculture, medicine, industry. It also has aesthetic and recreational value. Biodiversity maintains ecological balance and continues evolutionary process. The indirect ecosystem services provided through biodiversity are photosynthesis, pollination, transpiration, chemical recycling, nutrient cycling, soil maintenance, climate regulation, air, water system management, waste treatment and pest control.


Biodiversity is not distributed equally among the world’s 170 countries. A very small number of countries, lying wholly or partly within tropics, contain a high percentage of the world’s species. These countries are known as megabiodiversity countries. Twelve countries have been identified as megabiodiversity countries. These are : India, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Madagaskar, Zaire, Australia, China, Indonesia and Malaysia. Together, these countries contain as much as 60 to 70 percent of the world’s species.
Tea Gardens of Munnar – Pic by Mohan PaiIndia is one of the 12 megabiodiversity centres of the world. The country is divided into 10 biogeographic regions: Trans Himalayas, Himalayas, Indian desert, Semi-arid zone, Western Ghats, Deccan peninsula, Gangetic plains, North-East India, islands and coasts.


Fisher Women of Devbagh – pic by Mohan Pai

In India we have 320 million hectares of land and 200 million hectares of exclusive economic zone in the sea, within which are distributed some 1,20,000 known and perhaps 4,00,000 as yet undescribed species of microbes, plants and animals.
Biogeographically, the hill chain of the Western Ghats constitutes the Malabar province of the Oriental realm running parallel to the west coast of India. Rising up from a relatively narrow strip of coast at its western borders, the hills reach up to a height of 2,695 m before they merge to the east with Deccan plateau at an altitude of 500-600 m. The average width of the mountain range is about 100 km. This bioregion is highly species rich and is under constant threat due to human pressure.
The rain forests of the Western Ghats are unique vegetation forma-tions as they exist in an environment where there is considerable seasonality in distribution of the rainfall. These forests are found in the areas where the rainfall is distributed from 4 to 10 months, as a consequence, there are 2 to 8 dry months in a year. Of this, most of the precipitation takes place during a 3 month period of June to August.

The orographic effect of these mountain ranges brings in considerable variation in precipitation. The total rainfall along the coast is in the region of 3,000 mm and it touches its maximum around 7,500 mm per annum in certain places on top of these ranges and there is abrupt fall in the rain on leeward side. The high altitudinal zone also gives rise to a kind of forest which has primarily Lauraceous vegetation.

The tropical rain forests of the Western Ghats have considerable diversity in vegetation types both with respect to their altitudinal locations and also because of edaphic and altitudinal variations. There is a school of thought that the parent rocks in these areas have given rise to such good soils which are rich in nutrients and have a very high moisture holding capacity which has given rise to these rainforests.

Global Biodiversity Hotspots in India

Hotspots are areas that are extremely rich in species, have high endemism and are under constant threat due to human pressure. Among the 18 Hotspots of the world, two have been identified in India; the Eastern Himalayas and the Western Ghats. These are particularly rich in floral wealth and endemism, not only in flowering plants but also in reptiles, amphibians, swallow-tailed butterflies and some mammals.


Of India’s 15,000 plant species with 5,000 endemics (33%), there are 4,050 plants with 1,600 endemics (40%) in a 17,000 sq. km strip of forest along the seaward side of the Western Ghats in Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Forest tracts up to 500 m in elevation, comprising one fifth of the entire forest expanse are mostly evergreen, while those in the 500-1500 m range are semi-evergreen. There are two major centres of diversity, the Agasthyamalai Hills and the Silent Valley/New Amarambalam Reserve basin. (Source : Teri, New Delhi)

Flora and Fauna

The area has an estimated 3,00,000 hectare (37%) under forest cover and is characterised by a rich diversity of flora and fauna.
* The region has about 4,500 species of flowering plants. Of these about 1,700 are endemic to the Western Ghats. Nearly a third are rare or threatened and several are believed to be extinct.

* Amphibians:
Over 117 species belonging to 21 genera are recorded in the forests and coastal areas of this region, of which 76% are endemic to the region.

* Invertebrates:
A large variety of insects including some of the spectacular butterflies and moths occur in the dense evergreen highland and lowland forests. It is estimated that India has over 1,400 species of which the Western Ghats harbour nearly 320 species including 37 endemics and 23 others shared with Sri Lanka. The area is host to a large variety of fresh water mollusca, some of which are specific to the region.

* Fish: The fish fauna of both fresh water montane and lowland river streams and water bodies as well as coastal lagoons and backwaters are very many and varied in this region. There is large commercial coastal fishery of finish and shell fish in this region.

* Reptiles: Dense forests of the region are the home of the King Cobra and Rock Python apart from other smaller reptiles. Many species of tortoises including the endemic cane turtle, and terrapin are also found in the Western Ghats. The marsh crocodile or mugger was once widely distributed in swamps and larger water bodies of the forested areas.

* Birds : About 508 species of birds occur in the Western Ghats (590 if sub-species are included). Among these about 16 species are endemic. Many endemic birds are exclusive to evergreen and Shola forests.

* Mammals: The forests of the area have large herbivores such as gaur, spotted deer, sambar, barking deer, elephant, etc. Carnivores are represented by tiger, leopard, jungle cat, leopard cat, fishing cat, Malabar civet, brown palm civet, small Indian civet, two species of mongoose and wild dog.
Several genera of mammals are endemic and representatives include slender lorris, the Lion-tailed macaque, 2 species of mongoose, 2 species of civet, Nilgiri langur, Nilgiri tahr, grizzled giant squirrel and the rusty spotted cat.

Biosphere Reserves in the Western Ghats. 

The concept of a biosphere reserve emerged from the Man and Biosphere programme sponsored by the UNESCO during the early seventies. Prior to this, conservation efforts had a tendency to focus on a few animals like the tiger, while ignoring the overall diversity of living organisms. They also did not successfully reconcile the need for development with conservation. The Biosphere Reserve is an attempt to rectify these lacunae and make conservation more meaningful given the socio-economic realities of the region.
Lion-tailed Macaque

Biosphere Reserve is an international designation term made by the UNESCO for representative parts of natural and cultural landscapes extending over large areas of terrestrial or coastal/marine ecosystems or a combination thereof.
The network includes significant examples of biomes throughout the world. The Biosphere Reserve finally aims at conserving and use of resources for the well-being of people locally, nationally and internationally. So far about 360 Biosphere Reserves have been established in about 90 countries.
In 1978, an advisory group of the Indian National Man and Biosphere programme identified 12 sites ranging from Nanda Devi in the Himalayas to the Gulf of Mannar in the Bay of Bengal, representing the diverse biogeographic provinces in the country. Of this the project proposal for the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve was first prepared in 1980, but it took six years for the reserve to be officially established.

Covering an area of 5,500 sq. km in the states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the Nilgiri Biosphere reserve has been designed to encompass extremities of habitat. From 100m above MSL in the Nilambur plains, it goes up the vertical slopes of New Amarambalam to the rugged heights of Makurti peak (2,554 m) and drops in the east to 250 m in the Coimbatore plains. The western slopes get over 5,000 mm of precipitation annually while the sheltered eastern valleys receive less than 500 mm. Corresponding to their altitudinal and climatic gradients, the natural vegetation changes from tropical wet evergreen forest along the western slopes to montane stunted Shola forest amidst the grassy down on the upper plateau and on the east, progressively drier deciduous forests ending in thorny scrub. This setting is home for a variety of animals – the Lion-tailed macaque in the evergreen forests, the Nilgiri tahr in the grassy downs, the black buck in the dry scrub and the tiger and the elephant throughout the region.

Paniya Tribal Woman, Wyanad, Kerala – Pic by Mohan Pai

To the north, the Biosphere Reserve begins in the Nagarhole National Park of Karnataka and the adjoining Wayanad sanctuary of Kerala. The moist deciduous forests and teak plantations of Nagarhole harbours abundant population of gaur, spotted deer, sambar and wild pig which support a sizeable number of carnivores such as tiger and leopard. Nagarhole is perhaps the best place in south India for sighting these large cats. The forest cover along the Kabini river has been reduced due to the construction of an irrigation dam. It was along the banks of this river that elephants were regularly captured for nearly a century by the Khedda method until 1971. Even today an evening ride on coracle along the riverbanks during the dry months may be rewarded with the sight of over a hundred elephants.

South of the Kabini, the dry deciduous forests of the Bandipur National Park were declared as a Project Tiger area in 1973. Contiguous with Bandipur lie Madumalai sanctuary of Tamil Nadu and portion of the Wayanad sanctuary in Kerala. The natural vegetation of this tract is moist deciduous forest. The fauna is similar to that of Nagarhole with elephants in large numbers.

East of Madumalai, the vegetation over the Sigur plateau and the Moyar river valley lying in the rain shadow of the Nilgiri massif, becomes drier. Thorny plants such as Acacia dominate. In addition to the fauna of the deciduous forests, striped hyena, jackal and four-horned antelope are seen here. The black buck has disappeared from the Sigur plateau but a viable population of 300 to 500 is still found in the Moyar valley. They can be easily seen in the evening along the foreshore of the Bhavani reservoir.The Moyar valley is the junction of two great hill chains of the peninsular India – The Eastern Ghats and the Western Ghats. A portion of Talamalai-Satyamangalam plateau has been included in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve as representative of the Eastern Ghats.

Over the eastern slopes of the Nilgiris, the forest cover extends southwards as a narrow belt into Balampatty and Siruvani hills. The Siruvani reservoir on the Kerala side provides water to Coimbatore city. A good stretch of evergreen vegetation covers the higher reaches of Siruvani hills. Adjoining these hills to the north-west, the Attappady valley is mostly under cultivation. The large tribal population here has been practising shifting cultivation for a long time. As a result, the forest covers over the surrounding hills have largely degraded. A well preserved stretch of evergreen forest with Dipterocarpus, Mesua and Palaquium is seen west of the Attappady Reserve, extending into the Silent Valley, New Amarambalam and through a narrow corridor into Nilambur.
The endangered Lion-tailed macaque of the Silent Valley fame is highly adapted to such evergreen habitats. The controversy regarding the proposed dam across Kanthipuzha in the Silent Valley was laid to rest with the entire area being declared as a National Park in 1986. But the Government of Kerala has proposed Pathrakkadavu Hydro Electric Project in the Kunthi river, once again threatening the Silent Valley.

Tribal Hut, Wyanad, Kerala – Pic by Mohan Pai

Perhaps the largest pristine evergreen forest in peninsular India is the New Amarambalam Reserve, which has escaped the axe simply because its steep terrain is inaccessible. This is home to Chalamekans, the only genuine hunter-gatherers in the peninsula. The upper Nilgiri plateau has been altered by human activities into one vast stretch of cultivated land and settlements around Udhagamandalam (Ooty).
Both slopes and valleys here grow tea, coffee, cinchona, fruits and vegetables such as potato. Extensive plantation of Blue gum (Eucalyptus), Wattle (Acacia) and Pine have also been raised. These have resulted in enormous loss of top soil. To tap the potential for generating hydro-electric power, a series of dams have been constructed across the Bhavani river and its tributaries.
A major portion of the upper plateau has been excluded from the Biospere Reserve. Only the western and the southern ridges, which retain some natural Shola and grass land vegetation along with monoculture plantations have been included. A sanctuary has been declared to protect the Nilgiri tahr.

Western Ghats, India – Ecological Past

From the book  ”The Western Ghats” by Mohan Pai (2005).


Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic times


The earliest human settlement in the Western Ghats have been traced back to the Palaeolithic or the Old Stone Age period – over 10,000 years BC.
Stone tools were discovered from the river valleys of Bharatpuzha (Palghat district), Beypur (Malappuram district) and Netravathi basin (Dakshina Kannada district).
Palaeolithic artifacts have been found at Kibbanahalli (Mysore district), Lingadahalli and Kadur (Chickmagalur district) and Honnalli (Shimoga district).

Tribal Woman, Wayanad, Kerala – Pic by Mohan Pai

Mesolithic or the Middle Stone Age (10,000 – 3,000BC) witnessed the transition of hunter-gatherers into food growers. Many Mesolithic sites have been discovered from Mandovi river in Goa to Kerala. They are located at Karwar and Ankola (Uttara Kannada district), Netravathi valley (Dakshina Kannada district) Nirmalagiri (Kannur district), Chevayur (Kozikode district) and Tenmalai (Kollam district). Charcoal found from the trenches in Tenamalai, indicates that the people could have burned forests.

The Deccan Plateau during the Neolithic or the New Stone Age (3,000-1,000 BC), was practising primitive agriculture and pastoralism. In Hallur (Dharwar district) close to the Western Ghats, cattle, sheep and goats were domesticated (1500 BC) and millet and horse gram were cultivated 300 years later.
The Jorwe people of Inamgaon – in the western Deccan Maharashtra, had irrigated rice during 1400-700 BC. The Jorwes brought marine fish and shells from the Konkan coast, 200 km to the west, which shows that the Neolithic people had some knowledge of the Western Ghats and the coast.
Many Neolithic sites have been found in the Western Ghats at Tambdi Surla (Goa), Anmod (Uttara Kannada district), Agumbe (Shimoga district), the hill slopes of Sita river (Karkala) and many others in Kerala. The Nilaskal site in Agumbe, being close to the sources of west coast rivers Sharavathy, Chakra and Haladi, was strategic to Neolithic people giving them an easy access to the coast.
Neolithic people with their stone axes descended from the Western Ghats of Dakshina Kannada to the coast in the last part of second millennium BC and resorted to cultivation, probably by slash and burn method. Hill cultivation (presumably shifting) in South India is probably older than the spread of iron tools, about 3,000 years ago.
During the Megalithic period (1000-0 BC) iron implements were widely used. Iron implements date back to 1500 BC in Hallur. The west coast of south India was intensely settled during this period and the Megalithic period witnessed intensification of forest clearance by agri-pastoralists. Many excavated burial chambers in laterite plains have been found in Malabar, Dakshina Kannada and also in Siddapur.(Source : Subhash Chandran, 1997)
The Nilgiris were colonised by the Todas, as early as 200 BC.

Vedic Civilisation

Vedic civilisation was largely confined to one of the most fertile tracts of the northwest part of India that includes the present day states of Punjab, Rajasthan and north Gujarat.
Drained by seven rivers (Sapta Sindhu), this region was referred to as the cradle of Indian civilisation. This ancient civilisation of India appears to have had an extended period of development from 5,000 BC to 2,000 BC when a great period of drought seems to have put an end to it. Because of the drought, the Vedic people migrated eastwards and occupied the Gangetic valley region forming parts of the present day Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Orissa. Many enterprising people migrated southward both by land and sea and colonised the west coast around Ratnagiri, Goa, coastal Karnataka and Kerala.
These people are even today called Saraswats and Goud Saraswats, a name reminiscent of their original homeland on the banks of the Vedic river Saraswati in north-west India.

Harappan migration ?

According to some historians the Indus civilisation did not perish suddenly. The later Harappan Phase survived in Saurashtra, Gujarat and north Maharashtra up to 1,200 BC.

The biodiversity rich forests, the abundant water resources, the productive estuaries and the sea, could have attracted the drought stricken Neolithic and Megalithic agri-pastorals from the Deccan, as well as the Harappans.

Sacred Forests
Forest clearance was inevitable for farming and yet, there was an overwhelming belief in the sacredness of the woods. Secondary species and heavily savannized tracts were interspersed with lofty evergreen patches, the menasukans or pepper forests, where the people tended to the wild pepper. The relics of such kans occur to this day in Uttara Kannada and Shimoga. They were important tracts of pre-colonial forest conservation in the Western Ghats. Myriad relics of such groves, exist even today all over the Western Ghats. They may be called Devrai in Maharashtra, Devarkadu in Kodagu and Kavu in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, these forests in pre-colonial landscape, served many functions like the conservation of biodiversity and watershed, moderation of climate and promoted varied wildlife.

A Sacred Forest in Goa

Hunting was subjected to many community regulations. The sacred forests ranged in size from a few hectares to few hundred hectares. The kans of Sorab taluk in Shimoga district, for instance, covered about 13,000 hectares or 10% of Sorab’s area.

Colonial Era


The British occupation of the Western Ghats, from the early 19th century altered forestry operation and traditional forest management gave way to state forestry. The forest working plans for the evergreen belt of the southern Western Ghats concentrated on the extraction of commercial deciduous timber like teak. As large areas of teak were harvested, adequate regeneration did not follow and the rising demand for teak and its depletion in nature compelled the foresters to launch massive vegetational changes in favour of teak monoculture.
The British began large scale forest exploitation and wholesale vegetational changes and transformation into commercial plantations of coffee, tea, wattle and eucalyptus.
Such commercialisation of the high altitude areas such as the Nilgiri plateau, Southern Tamil Nadu and the High Ranges in Kerala marginalised the small tribal groups engaged in hunting, gathering and shifting cultivation.


The state policies favoured the new immigrants who controlled natural resources, and extracted and traded them in the markets. The spurt in commercialisation of natural resources and commodity production also attracted an exodus of migrant labourers with overall serious ecological consequences on the region. The destruction of the forest cover of the Western Ghats has been the result of a nexus between unregulated exploitation by commercial interests, beginning with ship building, railways and the hydel projects in British times and going on to mining, plywood and polyfibre industries after Independence and equally indisciplined harvests by the progressively impoverished rural masses.


From the Edict of Shivaji

“The Armada of our kingdom requires durable hardwood for their hulls decks and masts.
Teak and other appropriate trees of our forests may be felled for this purpose after applying to His Majesty and obtaining the royal permission. If, any more be required, they may be purchased from neighbouring kingdoms.
The Mango and Jackfruit trees of our kingdom also provide suitable timber for naval purposes. But they should not be touched, for it is not as if these trees can be grown in a year or two. People plant them and bestow upon them long years of care, as they would on their own children.
If such trees were to be felled, would not the people be inconsolable? An edifice built upon anyone’s sorrow soon collapses, taking down with it the architect too. In fact the ruler has to bear the guilt of tyranny. Also absence of such trees causes irreparable damage. Hence under no circumstances are such degradations to be allowed.
Perchance, if a very old tree has ceased to bear fruits, then it may be taken with the consent of the owner after persuasion and payment of compensation. Coercion shall not, under any circumstances, be pardoned”.
- Courtesy WWF – INDIA, Newsletter- April 1997

Western Ghats, India – The Forest Wealth

From the book  ”The Western Ghats” by Mohan Pai (2005).



What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a minor reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.
__ Mahatma Gandhi

Although they receive vast amounts of rain, the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats are not rainforests in the strictest sense. In the tropical rainforests of the Amazon, for example, rain falls steadily and predictably throughout the year. This ensures that the niches which flora and fauna occupy are always available; and this in turn enables an enormous variety of species to survive. So the diversity of the monsoon forests in the Western Ghats cannot be compared with that of the Amazonian jungles.

Moist deciduous forests – Mahadayi Valley

The tropical monsoon forest contains trees of smaller stature than those found in the rainforest. The trees of the monsoon forest have a more open canopy than the rainforest, creating a dense, closed forest at the floor, or what we think of as a tropical jungle beneath. The thick surface undergrowth makes it difficult to navigate through the forest. Jungle growth is also found along streams, and in openings created by humans.

The southern Western Ghats has the best preserved and most extensive climax vegetation in the peninsular India. Some of the tropical moist forests in southern Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are among the best representative areas of Indo-Malayan rainforest formations.

Forests – the mother of rivers

There is an umbilical connection between healthy forests and water regimes. Forests are nurseries and cisterns for our life giving rivers. Forest areas in the Western Ghats give birth to all the major and minor rivers of the peninsula. Most of the rivers spring from some unknown forest of the Western Ghats and yet there is a wholesale destruction and wanton pillage of forest areas that give birth to the rivers.
Because of the slope the rain water cannot stay to soak into the earth, it flows downhill rapidly taking some of the earth with it. This run-off on the hillsides will only be halted, and water will percolate into the earth where there is good tree cover. In fact a forest traps rainwater and channels it into underground streams. The fact that so many mountain springs have dried up in recent years is not due to some inexplicable form of bad luck. It is the direct result of the reduction in the number of trees on our hills.

Relationship Between Climate and Vegetation

The climate of the Western Ghats shows two rainfall gradients and a temperature gradient.

The West-East Gradient

The west-east rainfall gradient is determined by the effect of Ghats escarpment. The reliefs of the Ghats act as a barrier to the eastward movement of the cloud masses brought by the summer monsoon rain-bearing winds of the south-west monsoon.

Bisale Ghat, Karnataka – Pic by Mohan Pai

These masses bring prodigious amount of rainfall over the western slopes of the Ghats. For instance in Agumbe (height 645 m) which is situated at the edge of the Ghats, the mean annual rainfall is 7,460 mm, and in some years it exceeds 12,000 mm in only 130 rainy days. Overall the western slopes receive 2,000 to 7,500 mm of rainfall. Once this obstacle is crossed, the rainfall decreases rapidly to <800mm>

Aerial View of Evergreen Forests – Mahadayi Valley

The South-North Gradient

An important feature of the Western Ghats is that they form more or less continuous chain of hills with a latitudinal extent of almost 12 degrees. This has few parallels in the tropical world(eastern part of Madagascar and Queensland in Australia). The monsoon, the very pulse of India, adds yet another dimension : the duration of the dry season gradually increases from two months in the southern parts of the Ghats to over eight months north of Mumbai. This gradient is determined by the arrival and withdrawal of the summer monsoon. The monsoon generally arrives towards the end of May at the southern tip of India, in the first week of June at Tiruvananthpuram, five days later it reaches Karwar, in another five days it has already crossed Mumbai and by middle of June it is beyond Kutch. Thus it takes only 10-15 days to cover the Indian peninsula from 80 N to the Tropic of Cancer.

The monsoon begins to retreat by the end of September in north India but it takes nearly 15 days for the front to withdraw from Kutch to Ratnagiri which it reaches in the beginning of October, in another 15 days it covers 400 km, the distance separating Ratnagiri from Coondapur. The front passes through Mangalore at the beginning of November and Kozikode in a fortnight, and reaches Kanyakumari only in early December. Thus the withdrawal is spread over a period of nearly two and a half months. The advance and specially the gradual withdrawal of the monsoon leads to a reduction in the rainy period from south to north and consequently a concomitant lengthening of dry season.

This gradient is one of the key factors for understanding the variations in the floristic composition along the Ghats. The distribution patterns of the species clearly show that many species cannot thrive under prolong dry periods. Thus several species are not found north of the Shencottah-Ariankavu pass, while others disappear beyond the Palghat Gap. Hence, the number of endemic evergreen species which are generally confined to a moist environment diminishes from south to north in the Western Ghats. In the northern part of the Ghats, this gradient also determines the climatic limits beyond which the evergreen formations gradually give way to deciduous forests. Evergreens survive only under special edaphic conditions or at the higher elevations, where dew and mist provide additional moisture.

Temperature gradient

The temperature gradient is mostly related to increase in altitudes. The influence of the decreasing temperature with increased altitude is explicit only in those regions of the Ghats where the altitude is sufficiently high i.e. from 700 or 800 m upwards. Generally the mean temperature of the coldest months ranges from 230C at sea level to 110C at 2,400 m. However, it must be noted that for the same elevation, the temperature may differ considerably from one place to another, depending on exposure or slope. This decrease in temperature influences the kinds of changes: a) structural change from tall forests (canopy higher than 30 m) to stunted forest (canopy lower than 20 m or sometime 15 m). b) floristic change as some species are unable to adapt to very low temperatures which are optimal for others.

Uttara Kannada Forests – Pic by Mohan Pai

Climatic Variations and Endemics

The high degree of endemism in the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats can be attributed to the isolation of the Ghats from other moist formations and the prevailing drier climatic conditions in the surrounding areas. This isolation seems to have facilitated the process of speciation (formation of new biological species) leading to the phenomenon of vicariance between sister species derived from a common ancestor, one of which thrives in the evergreen forests of the Ghats and the other in the adjacent dry regions (for example Diospyros assimilis in the moist evergreen forests and D. Ebenum in dry forests).
South of Kodagu, the Western Ghats are comprised largely of high ranging hills with several enclaves which formed ideal refugia for certain species when the climatic conditions became drier . Within the Ghats, the variation in the degree of endemism is mainly determined by
a) the increase in the number of dry months from south to north and
b) the decrease in the temperature with increase in altitude. These two gradients also explain the numerous cases of vicariance encountered within the evergreen continuum. Local topographic variations add another dimension to the floristic diversity and endemism.

Bamboo Brakes – Muthodi, Karnataka – Pic by Mohan Pai

Vegetation Types

In the Western Ghats, based on the ecological factors and floristic composition, 4 major forests and 23 floristic types have been distinguished. These types are closely related with the temperature and rainfall regimes. Wet evergreen, dry evergreen, moist deciduous and dry deciduous are clearly distinguished by the mean annual rainfall, whereas low, medium and high elevation wet evergreen types are distinguished by the decrease in minimum temperature with increasing altitude. In addition to forests, high altitude grasslands are another unique ecosystem in the Western Ghats.

Wet Evergreen Forests

Wet evergreen forests are mostly confined to the windward side of the Ghats where the rainfall exceeds 2,000 mm.
By taking into account the distribution pattern of certain characteristic species, which reflect the climatic variation, the forests are further subdivided into 15 main floristic types – low (0 – 800 mm), medium (600 – 1,450 mm) and high (> 1,450 mm) elevation types. In the low elevation type, they are tall dense forests with four strata and emergent layer – canopy height often reaches 35 – 45 m.
The deep valleys on the western windward side nurture closed canopy, stratified evergreen forests. These are arranged in a series of tiers. Each tier receives a different amount of light; the tallest trees are bathed in perpetual sunlight, smaller trees and shrubs receive dappled light. The forest floor is almost in complete darkness. The canopy is supposed to be closed because the contiguous crown of tall buttressed trees merge to form a veritable roof.

Occasionally, giant trees termed as emergents push through the canopy to obtain dominant position. Light, temperature and humidity differ at different heights beneath the canopy. Two or more strata of shade loving trees find the appropriate level at which light intensity and relative humidity are best suited for their metabolic activities.
The density of growth in these hot and humid jungles is so great that over 70 tall trees can exist in one hectare. These trees may be 35-45 m high and have evolved small narrow leaves to minimise moisture loss through evaporation. The lower growing plants have larger leaves in order to maximise the benefit of the little light that manages to penetrate. At every level, leaves tend to be narrow with drain-like tips so that the monsoon water flows off efficiently. This makes it possible for the leaf to remain relatively dry and breath.
The forests are in leaf throughout the year and hence termed evergreen. These trees shed their leaves at a slow and steady rate throughout the year, which results in continuous decay and decomposition on the forest floor which is full of leaf litter and decaying wood on which mushrooms, lichen and fungi thrive. In the relative gloom of the forest floor herbs are frequent with good representative of gingers and orchids. Climbers and lianas supported by sturdy trees, spiral towards the canopy in search of better light and fresh air.

Dry Evergreen Forests

The steep eastern slopes of the Ghats where the rainfall is less than 1,500 mm harbour dry vegetation types. However, in the relatively moist valleys and along streams, forests are evergreen and distinct in floristic composition with its counterpart on the western side. Physiognomic structure of these forests varies according to moisture level of the soil. Generally they are short forests, with a canopy seldom higher than 12 m, and with two strata.

Moist Deciduous forests

Moist deciduous forests, which are in primary nature, are found in the rainfall zone of 1,500 mm to 1,800 mm; as a transition between wet evergreen and dry deciduous forests. Large extent of these forests occurs in the Wayanad, Mysore and Karnataka plateau. Moist deciduous forests also occur within the potential area of wet evergreen formations, where the rainfall is more than 2,000 mm. Its very presence in the zone indicates their secondary nature after a possible degradation of original wet evergreen forests. On the leeward rain shadow side as well as on the coastal lowlands there are fairly long dry periods. Moist deciduous trees survive the rigours of the dry months by shedding all their leaves simultaneously to avoid loss of water through transpiration.
During the leafless period the trees carry on their reproductive cycle by spectacular flowering followed by abundant fruiting. With the pre-monsoon showers, a flush of fresh leaves appears to herald the beginning of a fresh annual cycle. A number of good timber trees are found in these open canopy forests.

Dry Deciduous forests

Dry Deciduous forests are confined to the rain shadow areas of the Ghats. Based on the topography of the Ghats, floristic types of dry deciduous formations vary.

Grasslands (The Sholas)

In the Western Ghats natural grasslands are found above 1,800 m in Bababudangiris, Kudremukh, Nilgiris, Anaimalais, Palnis and Cardamom hill ranges. The grasslands which are also called as shrub savannas or the Sholas are characterised by number of herbaceous and shrubby species mixed with grasses.

Kudremukh SholasPic by Mohan Pai

The Shola are subtropical montane evergreen forests that harbour species which have outlasted the gradual climatic and ecological changes since the last glaciation 30,000 to 20,000 years ago. The exact course of evolution of the Sholas which is a mosaic of grasslands with stunted evergreen vegetation in sheltered hill folds is not certain.
One point of view attributes the expansion of grasslands to recurrent fires brought in by the early inhabitants. Using fire they cleared forests and these cleared areas became grasslands. Another point of view attributes the grasslands to climatic conditions in those elevations preventing emergence of closed canopy, multi-tiered vegetation.
Plant communities on reaching grass community level are arrested from proceeding further in succession.

Grasslands then become climatic climax. It is possible that the climax vegetation i.e. montane evergreen forests, did occur elsewhere along the crest line earlier but have been slowly regressing and receding due to climatic changes particularly due to the post Pleistocene dessication and warming. These Pleistocene refugia are mostly restricted to the Western Ghats south of Kodagu and are among the most endangered ecosystems in India.
The grassy meadows of the Sholas are at their best towards the end of south-west monsoon. Thousands of gentians, orchids and violets stud the carpet of grasses with a rapid succession of flowers. The trees are generally stunted and do not form strata. A stream generally runs through these forests. There is a thick layer of humus that holds water and filters it into the limpid streams. The stream waters the forest and the forest protects the streams.

Seaside Vegetation & Mangroves

The marshy areas, the swampy places where the sea comes in high tide, or where a river finally empties itself into the ocean, these are the places where many kinds of fish come to spawn. Often these areas are very large; trees do not grow here, for salt water washes over them, or floods them regularly; the loose muddy sand shifts easily, and the only plants which can take hold are mangroves with their long spreading roots. The mangrove bushes prove their worth during a storm, for they break its force; in a rough sea the mangrove belt acts as a buffer and prevents erosion and keeps the coastline in tact.

The mangrove vegetation has to survive on the scorching, shifting and saline sands. Trailing stems, fleshy leaves, salt excreting glands are some of the aids for their survival.

The mangroves in the slushy estuaries have special features to overcome the difficulties of their habitat. The mangrove trees and shrubs anchor themselves against the push and pull of the tides by stilt roots.
Air in the marshy soil is meagre. The trees often turn their breathing roots upwards in search of fresh air. The seedlings of mangrove trees remain attached to the parent plant until they have a chance of surviving on their own. They fix themselves like darts in the marshy saline slush to avoid being washed away by the sea until they have a chance of surviving on their own.
If we remove the mangroves, the coast is exposed to the danger and damage from storms and rough seas.

A number of factors have been responsible for the depletion of wetland areas, mainly the mangrove forests, along the coasts. Intensive aquacultural development, deforestation, pollution from tankers, domestic waste, agricultural run off and industrial effluents are some of the factors. Most of the surviving mangroves are now confined to West Bengal and the islands in the Bay of Bengal.

Sacred Groves and Sacred Trees

Many traditional societies all over the world revered and worshipped nature and considered certain plants and animals as sacred. India has a long tradition in protecting nature – both plants and animals considered as sacred. Forests have been the lifeline for tribals and other forest dwelling communities since ages. Communities all over India followed the practice of setting aside certain patches of land or forest dedicated to a deity or village God, protected and worshipped.

The forest deities are generally of a primitive nature. Sometimes in the form of unshaped stone lumps smeared with red paint – Kalkai in the Konkan, Kenchamma in South Kanara. They are amongst the fiercest of deities; and breaking even a dead twig in a sacred grove is sure to invite the wrath of the deity. Sacred groves are to be found all over the country and abundantly along the Western Ghats and the west coast and in several parts of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Goa.

Sacred groves ranged from 50 hectares or more to a few hundred square meters. Some sacred groves have remained in tact till recent times as in the Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts of Karnataka. These pockets have contributed to the preservation of tropical biological diversity, for several new species of plants which have disappeared from everywhere else have been found to be preserved in the sacred groves.

Sacred groves in different areas are locally known by different names. In Kerala there are hundreds of small jungles called Sarpakavu. There are the Ayyappan kavus dedicated to Lord Ayyappan, the most famous of which is Sabrimala. In Maharashtra, they are known as Devarai, Devarakavu in Kodagu, Kavu in Kerala and Kan in Uttara Kannada.

In spite of the depletion of forests, some sacred groves still remain in-tact. The sacred groves have contributed to the conservation of nature though in a small measure. There are also sacred ponds attached to temples in many parts of India.

Some of these have been responsible for the protection of certain endangered species of turtles, crocodiles and the rare fresh water sponge.
Many plants are considered sacred from historical times – the peepul tree(ficus religiosa), the banyan tree(ficus bengelenses) and khejadi tree which were traditionally revered and therefore never cut. More than a hundred such species are considered sacred.

These include sandalwood tree, betel nut palm, coconut tree, juniper, champak, lotus and tulsi. This traditional and cultural attitude, though based on religious faith, has made a significant contribution to the protection of various species of trees and plants in India.

Author in the Sahyadris

Vanishing Species – Slender Loris

An Article by Mohan Pai

(Loris tardigradus malabaricus)



Hunted, trapped and killed for

medicinal and magical properties!

The Slender Loris is a small adorable looking creature with large ‘dish’ eyes. It’s a nocturnal primate found only in the tropical rainforests of Southern India andSri Lanka. They are able to live in wet and dry forests, as well as lowland and highland forests. They prefer thick thorny vegetation wherein they can easily escape predators and find the large assortment of insects that is the mainstay of their diet.
Loris tardigradus malabaricus is a subspecies of the slender loris which is only found in India. Their greatest concentration is found in the Western Ghats.

The Slender Loris is considered highly endangered and is listed in the IUCN Red List

 The slender loris is about the size of a chipmunk, with long, pencil-thin arms and legs. It is between 6-10 in. (15-25cm) long and has a small, vestigial tail. It weighs about 10.5-12 oz. (275-348g). The slender loris’ round head is dominated by two large, closely set, saucer-like brown eyes. They flank a long nose which ends in a heart-shaped knob. The eyes are surrounded by dark-brown to black circles of fur, while the bridge of the nose is white. It has a small, narrow lower jaw. The ears are large and round. Its coat is light red-brown or gray-brown on its back and dirty white on its chest and belly. The fur on its forearms, hands and feet is short. The slender loris has small finger nails on its digits. The second digit on the hand and foot are very short. They move on the same plane as the thumb, which helps them grasp branches and twigs.
The slender loris is an arboreal animal and spends most of its life in trees. Their movements are slow and precise. They like to travel along the top of branches. For the most part they hunt by themselves or in pairs at night, although they will come together and share a food supply. They live alone or with a mate and an infant. They will sleep with up to seven other lorises in a hollow tree or sitting up in the angles of branches. They are very social at dusk and dawn, playing, wrestling and grooming each other.Mating occurs twice a year; in April-May and October-November. Gestation is 166-169 days, after which one, and occasionally two infants are born. During the first few weeks mothers carry their infants constantly. The infant will grasp its mother around the waist with both its front and hind legs. After a few weeks the mother “parks” the infant on a branch at night while she forages. The babies move around carefully at first but by two months they are maneuvering around quite well. More mature lorises who sleep in the same tree may visit them at night to play and eat with them. Females will reach sexual maturity in 10 months and 18 months for males. The slender loris has a life span of 12 to 15 years.
  The slender loris is for the most part insectivorous. This means they eat insects, but they will also eat slugs, young leaves, flowers, shoots, and occasionally eggs and nestlings. They can stretch and twist their long arms and legs through the branches without alerting their prey. The slender loris eats a lot of noxious and bad smelling insects. They particularly like the acacia ant whose bite can numb a human arm. They also like toxic beetles and roaches. The slender loris will engage in urine washing, or rubbing urine over their hands, feet and face. This is thought to soothe or defend against the sting of these toxic insects. Native people have always believed that all parts of the slender loris have some medicinal or magical powers. This has contributed greatly to the decline of the slender loris. Destruction of their habitat is another reason for their decline.It is not clear how many slender lorises survive in the wild. Because of their small size and nocturnal habits, it has been difficult to do an accurate count. Until recently not much attention has been paid to the plight of the slender loris, but new interest has been shown in their species and studies are under way. The Indian government has laws protecting the slender loris, but its effect is difficult to guage.

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