The High Ranges, The Western Ghats, India


An Article by Mohan Pai

Biodiversity

South of the Nilgiris

The High Ranges

Shooting Point, Anamalais – Pic by Mohan Pai
Immediately after the Nilgiris, the High Ranges begin south of the Palakkad Gap. Most of this high elevation hilly tract lies within the Idukky district of Kerala but some portion of it – its eastern flanks extend into Tamil Nadu (Thirunelveli – Kottabomman, Kamarajar, Madurai, Dindigul and Coimbatore districts).The area covered here extends approximately 9 20’ N to 10 20’ N latitude and 76 30’ E longitude.
This high elevation hilly tract covers the Nelliyampathies, the Anaimalais, the Palni Hills, the High Wavies, the Varushanad Hills, the Cardamom Hills and a few smaller radiating spurs. The Anaimudi Peak is located at the south western corner of the ridge. The Palni Hills or the Kodaikanal Hills extend due east from the north eastern corner of the High Ranges almost like a spur. Most of the area of Anamalais and Palni Hills are in Tamil Nadu.

 

This is the most important catchment area for Kerala and southern Tamil Nadu rivers. All the west flowing rivers – Periyar, Moovattpuza, Meenachil and Manimala receive all their waters from this tract. Some portion of Chalakudy and Pamba river is also in this tract. The Amaravathy, a tributary of Kaveri, and Vaigai originate from the eastern flanks of the High Ranges and flow east in Tamil Nadu.

The High Ranges and the adjacent hill tracts to the east in Tamil Nadu across the state boundary together extend over 7500 – 8000 sq km in area. It ranges in elevation from near sea level to over 2660 m and is exposed to an extraordinary range of climatic conditions. This area had a very long span of geological stability and hence and hence nurtured an exceptional ecological richness and diversity. The very difficult terrain and inclement weather conditions have sheltered the ecosystems in this hill ranges from severe human depredations.
It was the advent of the missionaries, military explorers, suveyors and adventurers from Europe that brought the area into wider attention since the early 19th century. Soon its suitability for tropical cash crops such as coffee, tea, cardamom, pepper, cinchona, rubber, cocoa and a host of sub-temperate fruits and vegetables enticed many Europeans to open up the interior forests and raise extensive plantations. Many river valley projects came up both for irrigation and hydroelectric power. For its total geographical extent, the High Ranges now have the maximum number of major and medium dams in the entire Southern Western Ghats. In fact now more than 75% of Kerala’s electricity comes exclusively from this tract.

Munnar Valley – Pic by Mohan Pai

Climate
There is a wide range of variation in weather parameters within the tract. Many deep valleys along the western edge have an annual rainfall well over 6000 mm. The rainfall decreases sharply towards the east. The rainfall decreases sharply towards the east with sheltered effect produced by the very high ridges in reduced rainfall (less than 600 mm) in regions like Chinar and Anjanad Valley.

All reaches of the tract below 900 m elevation are humid tropical with two monsoon seasons where the annual average temperature remains within 32 – 16 C. Range with only 2-3 rainless months. Elevation between 900 m and upto 1600 m have subzero at times during winter nights with high wind chill factor. Frost prevails regularly and these areas have much lower annual total rainfall, lower humidity and a uniformly lower maximum temperature.

Denudation of Forests
Beginning of the 19th century, probably the entire area was practically covered by natural closed canopy forest vegetation and high elevation montane grasslands. Then plantations were established by the European settlers in a series of waves throughout the 1880’s and the early 1900’s till almost the beginning of the Second World War. No worthwhile extent of natural forest area survived these early onslaughts in the Mount Plateau-Peermade Plateau areas. Further north, in the heart of the High Ranges, in 1877 almost 500 sq km of forests were leased out for what later to be the Kannan Devan Hill Produce Company.

Most of the remaining areas of the High Ranges, particularly in the valleys and western slopes remained forested, reserved as government forests. However, over the years, most of it has vanished into the reservoirs for dams, encroachments and even townships.

Mattuppetty Reservoir – Pic by Mohan Pai

The Sholas
The High Ranges have the maximum extent of shola grassland habitat remaining in any part of the Western Ghats. The Sholas are subtropical evergreen forests which are relict vegetation and harbour species which have outlasted the gradual climatic and ecological changes since the last glaciation, 30,000 to 20,000 years ago. These Pleistocene refugia are mostly restricted to the Western Ghats south of Coorg and are among the most endangered ecosystems in our country. Most of these grasslands have already been drastically modified. The loss of biodiversity from this region is unknown and the erosion still continues.

Cardamom Hills – Pic by Mohan Pai

 

Kerala Grass’
The cultivation of ganja (marijuana), started in the High Ranges has become a serious problem causing extensive deforestation and with disastrous repercussions for the whole country. Ganja cultivation has now spread to all reaches of the Southern Western Ghats.

The Tribals
The High Ranges have a fairly large population of hill men and forest dwellers. Among them the Muthuvas, the Mannans, the Malapulayans, the Ooralis, the Mala Arayas and the Malampandarams are the important surviving communities.
The earler inhabitants of the High Ranges whom we classify as tribal people are essentially of two categories – the true older forest inhabitants and the late migrants form the Tamil Nadu plains. The former were possibly occupying the western valley forests and the foothill forests. These people were in social organization and a culture more aboriginal. They used to hunt, collect forest produce for consumption and some for barter, while some groups practised shifting cultivation. They were gradually ousted from the more fertile low lands. As forests degraded due to the pressure of ‘civilized’ plains people and its diversity became depleted they could collect only less and less produce for their use. At present forests all along the western edge of Idukky district, near the noth western edge of the Periyar Tiger Reserve, and the extensive Anaimudi Reserved Forest area where the tribal survival and forest preservation are apparently in conflict.
Apart from these hill men, throughout the past these hills have been refuges or retreats for many groups of people from the plains. Hindu, Buddhist and Jain monuments occur in many locations, now mostly in ruins.

Author at the base of Anaimudi Peak

Protected Areas in the High Ranges

The Northern cluster in the High Ranges area has the Peechi-Vazani WS,Chimmony WS, Parambikulam WS, Eravikulam NP and Chinnar WS in Kerala and the Anaimalai WS (Indira Gandhi WS) in Tamil Nadu. The Thattakkad Bird Sanctuary extending over 25 sq km consists mostly of heavily distributed lowland forests and is located along the north western edge of the High Range forest belt in the Pooyamkutty valley.
The Southern cluster has the Periyar Tiger Reserve and the Grizzled Giant Squirrel Sanctuary in Kadyanalloor hills of Tamil Nadu.

Peechi – Vazhani & Chimmony WLS

Located in the extreme north west and extends along the lower foothills of Nelliyampathies bordering the Palakkad gap in Thrissur district. This 125 sq km sanctuary is contiguous along its south eastern boundary with Chimmony WLS (90 sq km) occupying the western slopes of Nelliyampathies. The moist deciduous forests of the Trichur Peechi Vazhani national park are a haven for a variety of wildlife that consists of many rare species of animals, birds and plants as well. The sanctuary is situated in the basin of the Peechi and Vazhani dams of Trichur.
This sanctuary was established in the year 1958 in Kerala. There is a rich variety of flora and fauna in this sanctuary. One can find more than 60 varieties of plants that include rosewood, teakwood and orchids along with plants of medicinal value. Among the wildlife, one can find animals like leopards, sambar deer, wild dogs, barking deer, spotted deer, bison and elephants.
You can also find many types of snakes and other reptiles here. There is a hill near the sanctuary known as the Ponmudi peak, which goes up to a height of 923 meters. Take a trek on this peak and look at the breath-taking view of the sanctuary from the top of the peak.

Parambikulam WLS

Spread over an area of 285 sq km, Parambikulam WLS shares an eastern border with Anaimalai WLS.The sanctuary lies in between the Anamalai hills and Nelliyampathy hills. Much of the sanctuary is part of Anamalai hills with peaks up to 1,438m (Karimala Gopuram) in the southern boundary of the sanctuary, 1,120m (Vengoli malai) in the eastern boundary, 1,010m (Puliyarapadam) in the west and 1,290m (Pandaravarai peak) in the north. Though the sanctuary is blessed with rain during both South West monsoon and North East monsoon, the former contributes maximum to the total precipitation recorded in the sanctuary. In addition, pre-monsoon showers are experienced during April and May.

Eravikulam National Park

Originally established to protect the Nilgiri Tahr, the Eravikulam Park is situated in Devikulam taluk of the Idukki district. It was declared as a sanctuary in 1975, and considering its ecological, faunal, floral, geo-morphological and zoological significance, it was declared as a National Park in 1978. It covers an area of 97 sq km of rolling grasslands and high level shoalas. The park is breath-takingly beautiful and is comparable to the best of mountain ranges in the Alps.The area is undulating, dotted with grass hillocks and sholas. Anamudi (2694m), the highest peak, south of the Himalays, is situated in the south of the park.The area receives heavy rains during both the monsoons. This is one of the wettest areas of the world. During the winter months of December to February, the occurrence of frost is quite common.The major portion of this area is covered with grasslands, but there are several patches of sholas seen in hollows and valleys..Tiger, panther and wild dogs are usually sighted in both the open grass land sholas forests. Civet cat and jungle cat also live in the sholas. Sloth bear, Nilgiri langur and wild boar are generally found in sholas and their fringes. The Atlas moth, the largest of its kind in the world, is seen in this park. The population of the world famous Nilgiri Tahr is 1317 according to the 1991 census.

 

Nilgiri Tahr – Pic by Mohan Pai

Chinnar WLS

Lying at Devikulam taluk of Idukki district, Chinnar was declared as a wildlife sanctuary in 1984. It is located in the rain shadow region of the Western Ghats. It is the second habitat for the endangered giant grizzled squirrel in India. With an area of 90.422 sq. Km, Chinnar has the unique thorny scrub forest with Xerophytic species.The undulated terrain with rocky patches increases the scenic splendour of the sanctuary. As the altitude varies from 500 to 2,400 meters within a few kilometer radius, there is a drastic variation in the climate and vegetation. The highest peaks are Kottakombumalai (2144m), Vellaikal malai (1863m) and Viriyoottu malai (1845m). Unlike in most other forests of Kerala, Chinnar gets only about 48 rainy days in a year during October-November (Northeast monsoons). The forest types comprise thorny scrub forests, dry deciduous forest, high sholas and wet grasslands.

Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary

The one and only sanctuary of its kind in Kerala, the Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary was constituted in 1983. Situated in Eranakulam district, this bird sanctuary is a feast to the eyes and music to the ears. Several kinds of birds usually found in South India are seen here. The famous ornithologist, Dr. Salim Ali, was the architect of this sanctuary. He is reported to have identified 167 birds and his student, Dr. Sugathan, 207. In addition, the Bombay Natural History Society has identified 253 kinds of birds. Spread over an extent of 25.16 sq.kms, Thattekkad attracts nature lovers from far and wide. As is common on the Western Ghats, the terrain is undulating and elevation ranges between 35m and 523m. The tallest point is the Njayapilli peak (523m high).
Lake : the sancutary is the catchment area of Bhoothanthankett dam. Maximum depth 15m. The flora consists of tropical evergreen forests, tropical semi-evergreen forests and tropical deciduous forests. There are patches of grasslands also.

Fauna

The elephant is an occasional visitor. Leopard, bear, porcupine, python and cobra are sighted.BirdsIndian roller, cuckoo, common snipe, crow pheasant, jungle nightjar, kite, grey drongo, Malabar trogon, woodpeckeer, large pied wagtail, baya sparrow, grey jungle fowl, Indian hill myna, robin bird, jungle babbler and darter.

Cheeyapara Waterfalls – Pic by Mohan Pai

Rare Birds

Crimson-throated barbet, bee-eater, sunbird, shrike, fairy blue-bird, grey-headed fishing eagle, blackwinged kite, night heron, grey heron, Malabar shama, common grey hornbill and Malabar hornbill.

 

Idukki WLS

Idukki Wildlife Sanctuary which came into existence in 1976, spreads over an area of 77sq. Km. within Thodupuzha and Udumbanchola taluks in Idukki district. This wild life sanctuary with a plenty of elephants is blessed with different kinds of flora and fauna. The world famous Idukki arch dam and the vast lake increase the importance of this place. Before the formation of Shenduruny as a wildlife sanctuary, the area was under the Thenmala Forest Division. Both clear felling and selection felling were once practised in this area to a large extent. Large tracts of forests were clearfelled and such areas were converted to plantations. Besides, the widening of the Thiruvananthapuram – Shencottah road (T.S.Road) during the 40’s also enhanced the deterioration of the Shenduruny forests. Despite all these disturbances the fauna status of Shenduruny valley was found to be some what well, especially in the eastern mountainous zone. So, according to the recommendations by the Quilon Circle Committee report, the Government declared Shenduruny as wildlife sanctuary on August 25, 1984.

Periyar Tiger Reserve

Periyar Tiger reserve lies in the districts of Idukki and Pathanamthitta. The protected area covers an area of 777 km², out of which a 350 km² part of the core zone was made into the Periyar National Park and Tiger Reserve, sometimes dubbed the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. The park is often called by the name Thekkady also. Thekkady is located four km from Kumily, approximately 100 km east of Alappuzha, 110 km west of Madurai and 120 km southeast from Kochi.

Periyar Lake – Pic by Mohan Pai

 

The Periyar protected area lies in the middle of a mountainous area of the Cardamom Hills. In the north and the east it is bounded by mountain ridges of over 1700 metres altitude and toward the west it expands into a 1200 Meter high plateau. From this level the altitude drops steeply to the deepest point of the reserve, the 100 Meter valley of the Pamba River. The highest peak is the 2019 Meter high Kottamalai.The sanctuary surrounds picturesque 26 km² Periyar lake, formed by the building of Mullaperiyar Dam in 1895. This reservoir and the Periyar River meander around the contours of the wooded hills, providing a permanent source of water for the local wildlife.The temperatures vary depending upon the altitude and it ranges between 15° Celsius in December and January and 31° Celsius in April and May. The annual amount of precipitation lies between 2000 and 3000 mm. About two thirds of the precipitation occurs during the south west monsoon between June to September. A smaller amount of precipitation occurs during the north east monsoon between October and December.

Elephant herd

 

Approximately 75% of the entire area is covered with evergreen or semi-evergreen rain forest. They are typically tall tropical tree species reaching heights of 40 to 50 Metres. Scarcely 13% consists of damp leaves forest, 7% of Eucalyptus plantation and 1.5% of grassland. The remainder (around 3.5%) of the protected area is covered by the Periyar artificial lake as well as the Periyar River and Pamba rivers.Altogether 62 different kinds of mammal have been recorded in Periyar, including many threatened ones. There are an estimated 24 tigers in the reserve. Tourists also come here to view the Indian elephants in the act of ablution and playfulness by the Periyar lake. The elephant number around 900 to 1000 individuals. Other mammals found here include gaur, sambar (horse deer), barking deer, mouse deer, Dholes (Indian wild dogs), mongoose, foxes and leopards. Also inhabiting the park, though rarely seen, are the elusive Nilgiri tahr.Four species of primates are found at Periyar – the rare lion-tailed macaque, the Nilgiri Langur, the common langur, and the Bonnet Macaque.So far 320 different kinds have been counted in Periyar. The bird life includes darters, cormorants, kingfishers, the great Malabar hornbill and racket-tailed Drongos.There are 45 different kinds of reptile in the protected area out of which there are 30 snake, two turtle, and 13 lizard species. Among those are Monitor lizards that can be spotted basking in the sun on the rocks along the lake shore. Visitors who trek into the Periyar national park often see a Python and sometimes even a King Cobra.

Dhole (Wild Dogs)

 

 

Hill Stations in the High Ranges

 


Kodaikanal
The first permanent homes in Kodaikanal were erected by a group of American missionaries, who had been based in Madurai who suffered many deaths from a fearful attack of cholera. They built a bungalow in Sirmalai hills, but its altitude of 4,000 ft gave some relief from the after effects of cholera, but not from malaria. They appealed to the British to help locate a more suitable site and soon the first two crude bungalows, named Sunnyside and Shelton, had appeared in Kodaikanal basin and six American families moved in. Soon British neighbours settled around them and Kodaikanal was on the map of South India.
Kodaikanal because of its situation is protected from the heavy monsoons which deluge nearby ranges from May to September. As light rain falls throughout the year the region is spared the occasional dry spells and water shortages which affect the Nilgiris. The scenery with its grassy rolling downs and beautiful little shola woods and perennial streams flowing through them attracted the Europeans.

 

 

Munnar
Munnar, at 1,652 metres (5,420 ft), is a small town surrounded by the Anaimalai Hills and tea estates. It stands at the confluence of three rivers – the Muthirappuzha, Nallathani and Kundala. Moonu in Tamil means ‘three’ and aar ‘river’.

Club House at Munnar – Pic by Mohan Pai

The highest peak in South India – Anaimudi 2,695 m is just 20 kms from Munnar. Munnar was the favourite summer resort of European settlers for centuries but has taken place on the tourism map of India only recently. It was the best-kept secret among hill station destinations.
Until the second half of the 19th century, Munnar was part of an inhospitable and inaccessible area of thickly forested mountains. Its sole inhabitants were a tribal community called the Madhuvans, expert hunters and gatherers, who practised slash and burn cultivation. They still retain their customs although the pressures of modern life are eroding them. Officially Munnar belonged to the Poonjar Rajas of the state of Travancore.The first European to venture into the area
appears to have been the Duke of Wellington, when, as Colonel Arthur Wellesly, he marched across the ghats to fight Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore in 1790. With Tipu’s defeat, though not at the hands of Wellington’s column, British influence in Kerala became supreme. Malabar was annexed from Mysore and the Rajas of Travancore and Cochin were subject to British interference.

Tea Gardens of Munnar – Pic by Mohan Pai
The year 1887 marked the beginning of the opening up of the High Ranges. John Daniel Munro of Pimmede, an officer of Travancore state and superintendent of the Cardamom hills leased the hill tract from the government. Munroe explored the area by following elephant paths and began to bring planters, mainly Scots, to join him in clearing the jungle. Life for pioneers was hard.
In the 1890s, The Finlay Muir company moved into the hills and persuaded some of the proprietary planters to work for them. The company came to control almost all the estates in the area and its name is still preserved in the Indian company, Tata Finlay Ltd, which now owns them.Finlay Muir’s arrival did not make life any easier on the plantations. The hills were still inaccessible, except from the Tamil Nadu side. And so Tamil labourers were brought up to man the estates. Planters experimented with rubber and chinchona before settling for tea which was transported by ropeways from Top Station outside Munnar to Bottom Station where it was packed in Imperial Chests shipped out from Britain and despatched to Tuticorin harbour. In 1908 a light railway was opened to take the tea from Munnar to Top Station, but it was destroyed by floods in 1924. In 1931, the ghat road from the Cochin side to Munnar was finally opened and Top Station was no longer needed to transport the tea.

Muthirapuza river – Pic by Mohan Pai

 

There are roads to Munnar from Cochin, 224 km to the west, and Thekkady, 117 km away. There is also a mountain road which links Munnar with Kodaikanal only 92 km to the east. This road is extremely beautiful and lonely. Munnar has now become quite a popular hill station with many tourist resorts.

Thekkady
Thekkady, at an elevation of 3,300 ft above sea level has become a popular tiger reserve and is set around Periyar lake. Periyar lake itself is an artificial lake formed during the construction of the Mullaperiyar dam in 1895 – that explains the dead tree trunks and branches sticking out of the water. These trees were submerged in the waters of the dam. The Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary is spread over 777 sq. km, roughly half of which is dense evergreen forest, savannah grassland and moist deciduous forest.
The sanctuary was declared a tiger reserve in 1978 under Project Tiger, and so the name Periyar Tiger Reserve is sometimes used to denote the place as well. Thekkady Junction is the central part of the Periyar sanctuary, and has a number of tourist resorts.

Nelliyampathy
Nelliyampathy is another hill station destination which is becoming popular of late. This is a small, tea-and-orange hill station situated 75 km from Palakkad and 40 km south of Nenmara, the nearest town.
Nelliyampathy is in the midst of evergreen forests and orange plantations. The forests are part of the Sahya Range of the Western Ghats. There are a number of hill resorts at the top including one run by Kerala District Tourist Promotion Council.
Nelliyampathy Reservoir – Pic by Mohan Pai

Pre-historic artefacts have been found around Kodaikanal, indicating that it was once the home of now forgotten people who left behind mysterious megalithic structures, burial grounds, and tombs containing copper and brass implements and ornaments. In 1834 the collector of Madurai, built a house at the head of Shembagannur pass and the development of Kodaikanal began. Kodaikanal is situated on the upper crust of the Palni Hills at an elevation of 2000 m.

References:

Sathis Chandran Nair “The High Ranges” published by INTACH 1994, Information & Public Relations Dept, Government of Kerala, Wikipedia, Mohan Pai “The Western Ghats” 2005.

 

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2 Responses to “The High Ranges, The Western Ghats, India”


  1. 1 Dr. Jaymala Diddee March 20, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    I read the blogg posted by the author. I can barely wait to purchase the book and also make contact with the author. Being a retd prof. of Geography from University of Pune I am currently working on a UGC funded Major research project on An Atlas of the Maratha Empire where maps narrate the story of how the Marathas expanded their state. I have a strong conviction that there is so much Geography behind Maratha history esp. The sahyadris have affected the course and direction of maratha history.This book is out of stock-pl. help me to get a copyof this book


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