Posts Tagged 'Western Ghats – India'

Western Ghats, India – Shivaji’s Forts

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



Geography has always played a decisive role in the history of a region. The geographical character and features dominated by the Sahyadri range prevented any real subjugation by alien powers of the Indian subcontinent south of the Tapti river, in the sense that northern India was; the geopolitical influence of these mountain ranges and their rugged and difficult terrain was immense.

The Deccan plateau is a landscape characterised by flat top summits, terraced flanks and precipitous slopes. These flat topped natural scarps rising above lower slopes which were then thickly wooded and surrounded by broken and uneven terrain were difficult to ascend. In many of these hills a sheer precipice of black basalt over 500 to 600 ft high ran almost all around making them natural strongholds.

The word ‘Fort’ originates from the French word ‘Fortis’ meaning strength. Even in Indian languages, they are called ‘Durg’ which is derived from the Sanskrit Word ‘Durgamam’ meaning inaccessible.

Bahamanis of Gulbarga who ruled for about 200 years were some of the first fort builders in the Sahyadris. Amongst local families Silahars of Panhala and Bhojraja in particular built many southern forts – Vishalgad, Vasota, Ragnya, Bhudargad and others. The Bahamani rule disintegrated by the middle of the 16th century and for a number of years chaos and anarchy prevailed. Out of this troubled times rose Shivaji who during his comparatively short span of life dominated the entire landscape of the northern Sahyadris and established his kingdom encompassing the entire mountainous region.

There are over 300 forts spread all over the northern Sahyadris from Salher in the north to the fort of Terekhol on the border of Goa. The forts and pinnacles of the northern Sahyadris are the sentinels that have witnessed a turbulent past and present us with a rich, romantic diversity of site, function, history, architectural style and cultural heritage. Here every peak seems to possess a fort and reverberate with its past of valour, daring, treachery and fluctuating fortunes.

Chhatrapati Shivaji – a painting

From 1294 AD the region was ruled by a succession of Mohammedan dynasties. This difficult terrain of the Sahyadris suited very well for Shivaji’s guerilla techniques, and enabled him to outsmart the mighty Generals of Aurangazeb and Bijapur. The ramparts and bastions of these forts depict the drama of the Sahyadris as well as Shivaji’s skills in harnessing these natural forces for his cause. He fought the might of the Mogul Empire in the north and that of Bijapur kingdom in the south and finally achieved a stunning victory and became the founder of the Maratha Empire. Shivaji himself in a letter to the Mogul Officials (Kutute Shivaji – copy of the manuscript is in the State Archives, Mumbai) brings out the importance of the rugged terrain and the fact that it is a difficult region for the Moguls to conquer.


The letter is reproduced below:
“Far-sighted men know that during the last three years, famous Generals and experienced officials have been coming from the Emperor to this region. The Emperor had ordered them to capture my forts and territory. In their despatches to the Emperor they write that the territory and the forts would be captured soon. Even if imagination were a horse it would be impossible for it to move in these parts. It is extremely difficult for this region to be conquered. They do not know this. They are not ashamed of sending false reports to the Emperor. My country does not consist of places like Kalyani and Bidar, which are situated in plains and could be captured by assaults. It is full of hill ranges. There are sixty forts in this region. Some of them are situated on the sea coast. Afzal Khan came with a strong army, but he was rendered helpless and destroyed.“After Afzal Khan’s death, the Amir-ul-umara, Shaista Khan, marched into my land, full of high hills and deep gorges. For three years he exerted himself to the utmost. He wrote to the Emperor that he would conquer my territory in a short time. The end of such a false attitude was only to be expected. He was disgraced and had to go away.
“It is my duty to guard my homeland. To maintain your prestige you send false reports to the Emperor. But I am blessed with divine favour. An invader of these lands, whosoever he may be, has never succeeded.”

Shivaji was a fort builder par excellence. It is said that he conquered 130 forts, built 111 and at the time of his death in 1680 possessed some 240 forts.
Among the many forts associated with Shivaji’s exploits the following are some of the prominent forts:

Shivneri :

This was a Nizam Shahi fort situated about 3 km from Junnar in the Malsej Ghat region. This is the birth place of Shivaji – he was born on February 19,1630 (some sources give the year of his birth as 1627).

Torna & Rajgad :

Both these forts are situated in the Bhuleshwar range. Torna was Shivaji’s first conquest in 1646 when he was only 16 years of age. Around the same year he also captured the fort of Morumbdev (later called Rajgad), 40 km southwest of Pune which served as the capital of Shivaji for 25 years before he moved it to Raigad.

Raigad :

Raigad stands separated by a ravine from the main range, to the west of the point where the Bhuleshwar range starts. It was here that Shivaji was crowned as king on June 6, 1674. It was a safe residence as the natural defences offered by way of ramparts and bastions were further strengthened by vertical scarps.
It commanded an excellent view and it enabled Shivaji to easily control Javli-Mahad area, right up to the sea. Raigad was the capital of the Maratha empire and he died in this fort on April 4, 1680.

Simhagad :

This fort called Kondana was Shivaji’s biggest achievement in his early career, which he captured by peaceful means in 1647 which later came to be known as Simhagad. Simhagad is located in the Bhuleshwar range, 26 km south of Pune. It was later surrendered to the Moguls and again recaptured in 1670 after a bitter struggle. The assault was led by the valiant Maratha warrior Tanaji Malusare. The fort was stoutly defended by Udai Bhan, the Rajput commandant of the Moguls. Both the leaders fought a duel which resulted in their death. The loss of brave Tanaji saddened Shivaji and he is said to have cried in anguish “I have won a fort but lost the lion”.

Purandhar :

Purandhar fort, at the end of the range which runs southeast from Simhagad is a strong fort that witnessed many a great battles in the Maratha history. The veteran general Jai Singh was sent by the Mogul emperor Aurangzeb to recapture the forts and territory occupied by Shivaji and leaving him no alternative but to surrender to the Moguls. Having arrived in Pune, Jai Singh marched towards the fort of Purandhar and the siege of Purandhar began on 30 March, 1665. There were fierce attacks by the Moguls and equally fierce defence put up by the Marathas. Although the Moguls were poised to capture Purandhar, but at the express request of Shivaji, the fort was allowed to be surrendered and the garrison permitted to evacuate the stronghold. There were 7,000, men and women, in the fort of Purandhar; of these, 4,000 were fighting men defending the fort. The siege of Purandhar is one of the most memorable sieges in Indian history.

Pratapgad :

The hill station of Mahabaleshwar marks the start of the Shambhu-Mahadeo range of the Koyna region. On the west of the ridge is located the historically important fort of Pratapgad (1,438 m). This fort is one of Shivaji’s most brilliant defense structures built by him in 1656 with some clever manipulation of the terrain.

Pratapgad – Pic by Mohan Pai

Militarily it was an important fort as it controlled the Ambavani and Pir passes and was one of the strongest forts due to its vertical scarps. This grim fortress with its towers and battlements surrounded by high, basalt walls pierced with loopholes from whichonce sprouted Jingals – muskets fixed on swivel – still stands as an impregnable monument. The fort was once the scene of a dramatic act of double treachery. Shivaji met his opponent, Afzal Khan, the powerful Bijapur General, in a supposedly unarmed truce. They both embraced each other in a show of cordiality. Afzal Khan whipped out a hidden dagger and stabbed the foe, but the wily Maratha had taken the wise precaution of wearing a shirt of mail and concealed in his left hand a set of imitation tiger claws. He killed Afzal Khan with this weapon. A small monument and tower marks the scene of this vicious encounter at Pratapgad.

Panhala & Vishalgad:

Panhala range branches off from the main Sahyadris south of Warna valley. The range starts with the fort of Vishalgad, which is a historic fort captured by Shivaji in 1659 and is well protected by scarps, walls and bastions.
The range then goes eastwards to Panhala fort, which was captured by Shivaji in November 1659. Both Vishalgad and Panhala have been witness to deeds of valour and epic defense.
Since March 1660 Shivaji had been pinned down at Panhala for over four months in a tight siege by Siddi Jauhar of Bijapur. Shivaji decided to escape and taking advantage of the rainy season and dark nights, on 13th July 1660, slipped out of Panhala and made straight for the fort of Vishalgad, 64 km away. Shivaji’s outnumbered bodyguards were overtaken by the Bijapur forces at Pawan Khind (Ghod Khind) some eight miles short of safe Maratha territory. The epic defense of his Mavle escort enabled Shivaji to avoid capture but at the cost of his valiant leiutenant Baji Prabu’s life.

Memorial to Baji Prabhu at Panhala fort – Pic by Mohan Pai

Shivaji once again attacked Panhala and recaptured it in 1673. South of the Panhala range in the Amboli region has the southern most forts of Bhudargad, Pargad and Rangnya which was captured by Shivaji in 1657.

Salher & Mulher :

These two forts in the Selbari range running west to east dominate the landscape south of Mosam river. Salher is the highest hill fort (above 5,000 ft) in the Sahyadris and marked the northern most point of Shivaji’s kingdom which he laid siege to it and captured in 1671. Mulher is an ancient fort built in the 14th century and is also known as Mayurgad. The famous battle of Salher took place in early 1672. The Moguls had laid siege to the fort of Salher. Its capture had become a point of prestige for the Moguls. But Shivaji was determined to force the Moguls to raise the siege. In the ensuing battle Maratha forces defeated the Mogul forces led by their General Bahadur Khan and the entire equipment and booty was captured by the Marathas.
Apart from Salher and Mulher, this range of hills had nearly ten forts – Chandwad, Indrani, Kanchan Manchan, Dhodap, Ahivant, Achalagiri, Hanumantgad, Markand and Saptashringi.

Mulher Fort – Pic by Mohan Pai

Tryambak Range :
Harihar fort (1,120 m) is in the Tryambak range north of Igatpuri and is built on a triangular rock. Kalsubai, the highest peak of the northern Sahyadris at 1,646 m lies in this range branching off in the easterly direction. The range has the highest and difficult hill forts of Kulang, Alang and Madangad. Further northeast is the Patta fort (1,370 m) and on the main crest of the Sahyadris running southeast is Ratangad (1,296 m).

Budhargad near Kolhapur – Pic by Mohan Pai

The Sea-Forts :

There are a number of sea forts situated along the long Konkan coast which played an important role in the history of the Sahyadris. As the Konkan coast came increasingly under his possession, Shivaji started building a number of coastal fortresses in order to strengthen his modest navy and keep in check the Siddis of Janjira, the Portugese and other powers. He laid the foundation of the fort of Sindhudurg near Malvan on December 5, 1664 which became his naval base. He also built several other sea-forts such asPadmadurg, Vijaydurg, Jaigad and Devgad. Coastal Fort at Ratnagiri – Pic by Mohan Pai

Murud-Janjira fort which is situated 2 km into the sea from Murud, was constructed in the 11th century and was considered impregnable and witnessed many a battles. It was occupied by the Siddis during Shivaji’s time and even Shivaji was unable to effectively blockade this formidable fort.

End of an Era

After the last Maratha war and signing the treaty of 1818, the British controlled most of the Northern Sahyadri region and started establishing the British rule. Most of the forts were systematically dismantled by them for political reasons. They dynamited rocky stairs, fort walls, ramparts and approach routes to many impregnable forts to make them unusable. The damage done by these charges can be seen even today.
The techniques of war had also undergone a sea-change. The development of long range powerful artillery warfare effectively put an end to the value of these forts as defense strongholds and they did not play any further role in the history of the 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 Rivers

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



The heavy seasonal rainfall from the South West Monsoon has sustained a large number of rivers flowing either to the east or to the west of the Western Ghats range which is the main watershed of the peninsular India.
The Western Ghats are remarkable for being the headwaters of all the major and many smaller rivers of the peninsula. The principal rivers originate and flow eastward, journeying across the peninsula for hundreds of kilometers to pour their waters finally into the Bay of Bengal. On the western face of the Sahyadri scarp, numerous indentations have been made by a large number of short, perennial, torrential west flowing rivers which traverse the short distance through the narrow west coastal plains before discharging into the Arabian Sea through narrow inlets and creeks. Several of these streams form remarkable waterfalls.

The duration of the wet season varies from about three months in the north to over nine months in the south. The rainfall ranges from 2,000 to 7,500 mm per annum in some places on the western, windward side but rapidly decreases on the eastern, leeward side to about <>

The source of Hiranyakeshi river – Amboli Ghat – Pic by Mohan Pai

The three major rivers that originate in the Western Ghats and flow to the east and traverse a great distances right across the peninsula are:-
1. The Godavari 2. The Krishna 3. The Kaveri
They are all mature, that is, they are so ancient that they have reached the base level of their erosion. Their valleys are wide and shallow, and they flow through flatlying alluvial tracts through which they meander at a sluggish rate, or through uplands and plateaus where their velocities are greater and into which they occasionally cut narrow defiles and gorges.
Vivid Rock formation – Sintheri Rocks, kaseri River, Uttara Kannada – Pic by Mohan Pai

There are other smaller streams that also originate in the Western Ghats and flow east to join the Bay of Bengal. These are Tambraparni (arises in the Agasthyamalai Hills) and Vaigai (originates in the Varushanad Hills).

 River Sharavathy – tailrace

The Godavari

The Godavari arises in the Tryambak plateau near Nasik about 80 km from the shores of the Arabian Sea at an elevation of 1,067 m it meanders south-eastwards through fairly steep banks of lavas, and then, from its confluence with the Manjra through gneisses and Gondwana sediments until it arrives at its delta, traversing over 1,465 km it flows through Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.
It reaches Bay of Bengal through an extensive delta beyond Rajamundri in Andhra Pradesh where it divides into branches – western branch is called Vashistha Godavari and the eastern branch is called Gautami Godavari. It projects about 35 km into the sea with a front of 120 km with many distributaries. Its northern part is made up of low-lying marshes extending into a 15 km long spit forming the Kakinada Bay.
Its main tributaries in the upper reaches, the Purna and Manjra, flow roughly parallel to the Godavari before draining into it. The Godavari has many tributaries such as the Purna, Manjra, the Pranhita (Penganga – Wardha), Indravati, the Sabari, Darna, Kadwa, Mula, Karanji, Madhurnala, Devanala, Hebbala. etc.

The Krishna

The Krishna is the second largest river in the peninsular India. It begins at an altitude of 1,360 m near Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra 64 km away from the Arabian Sea.
It is augmented by several tributaries along its 1,400 km course, until it reaches Machilipatnam on the east coast of Andhra Pradesh. The delta area of the Krishna begins from Vijayawada and occupies an area of about 4,600 sq. km, and also extends about 35 km into the sea with a shoreline of about 120 km it has been progressing gradually to south due to vast amount of sediments brought and spread by the river and its distributaries.

Several rivulets and rivers arising in the Western Ghats go to form its tributaries – the Koyna, Varna, Panchganga, Doodhganga, Bhima, Musi, Paleru, Maneru, Ghataprabha, Malaprabha and Tungabhadra.

The Kaveri

The Kaveri is the third major river of the peninsula. It originates near Talakaveri at a height of 1,340 m in the Brahmagiri range of Kodagu district in Karnataka at the very edge of the Sahyadri range overlooking the Arabian Sea. As peninsular rivers go, this is a comparatively small river only about 800 km long.
Talakaveri, the source of river Kaveri, Kodagu – Pic by Mohan Pai

It flows mainly through the Dharwarian crystalline rocks during its passage through the Eastern Ghats and the Tamil Nadu uplands where its gradient is quite gentle. The river cuts across the strike of the country rocks and appears to be an ancient river whose meandering course has been superimposed on a topography which has become youthful as a result of recent uplift.
A dam has been constructed near Mysore – Krishnaraj Sagar where it meets Hemavati and Laxmantirtha rivers. After 25 km from Srirangapatna, Kabini and Suvarnavati rivers meet with it. The river creates waterfalls at Sivanasamudram (101 m high) and then enters a long picturesque gorge.

River Kaveri at Srirangapatna – Pic by Mohan Pai

On the border of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu it meets with Simsa and Akrawati rivers. In Tamil Nadu it flows in easterly direction but from Hogenkal waterfall, it flows in south direction. It cuts through the Eastern Ghats and emerges from the hills at the Stanley Reservoir formed by the Mettur Dam. At 45 km from Mettur it meets its main tributary – the Bhavani and when it enters Tiruchirapalli district it meets with Noyil and Amravati.
Here it is the widest of whole of its path and hence called Akhand Kaveri. After Tiruchirapalli it divides into two branches. The delta starts from below the island of Srirangam in the river, where it issues its largest deltaic channel, the Coleroon and joins the Bay of Bengal at Poompuhar. The southern branch is called Kaveri and joins the Bay of Bengal at Tranquebar.
The Kaveri delta is quadrilateral in shape covering about 8,000 sq. km area; it consists of several terraces which indicate that it was subject to uplift and erosion at various periods of its formation. It has an almost straight front of about 130 km along the Bay of Bengal and on the south it takes an almost right angle turn towards the west at point Calimere from where it faces the Palk Bay for another 60 km.
The major tributaries of the Kaveri which arise in the Western Ghats are : The Hemavathi, Harangi, Kabini, Lakshmantirtha, Moyar and Bhavani.


The river Tambraparni originates on the eastern slopes of the Western Ghats near Agasthyamalai in Tirunelveli district at an altitude of 2,000 m.
The Tambraparni basin is situated between latitudes 8021 and 9013 N. Vanatheertham waterfalls (40 m) is located close to the origin of the main river. Among the many tributaries which join it are: Peyar, Ullar, Karaiar, Pambar, Servalar, Manimuthar, Gadana, Pachaiyar and Chittar. The river Tambraparni after the confluence of Chittar, travels another 53 km and enters the Gulf of Mannar near Palayakayal.

The river Vaigai arises in the Varushanad Hills of the Western Ghats and initially flows north-east through Kambam and Varashunad valleys and then flows eastward into the Vaigai Reservoir at Narasingapuram. Near Sholavandan it bends south east, passing Madurai town on its course to its mouth on the Palk Strait which separates the south-east coast of India from Sri Lanka. The total length of the river is 250 km.

The West-flowing rivers

The western side of the Sahyadris is characterised by a very large number of short perennial/non-perennial torrential west-flowing rivers.
From Gujarat to Kerala these short, swift west-flowing rivers plunge over the precipitous escarpments to discharge their waters into the Arabian Sea. As they plunge towards the coastal strip they often pass through deep gorges creating spectacular waterfalls, some with a drop of over 200 m when the rivers encounter geological faults.

Magod Falls – River Bedthi plunges in two steps -Uttara Kannada – Pic by Mohan Pai

Among them may be mentioned the Bedthi Falls (137 m) also known as Magod Falls, Jog Falls (253 m), Chalakudi Falls (56 m) and several falls ranging in height from 20 to 300 m on the Anaimalai – Palni – Elaimalai hill chain.
The west side rivers which flow into the Arabian Sea do not form deltas, but only estuaries, which are channels where the fresh water of the rivers mix with the tidal sea waters. The possible reason why deltas are not formed is that they flow through hard rocks and therefore unable to form distributaries through the coast. The coast had been advancing seawards during historical times in these parts as is proved by the fact that Surat – now an inland town – was a port on the sea only a few centuries ago.
The west side streams are too numerous to be listed. Kerala alone has 44 west-flowing streams.
Periyar River, Kerala – Pic by Mohan Pai
The main west-flowing rivers of the Western Ghats are listed below :
Gujarat : Purna, Auranga, Par
Maharashtra : Surya, Vaitarna, Damanganga, Ulhas,
Savitri, Vashisthi, Gad, Kajavi, Kodavali
Goa : Mandovi(Mahadayi), Zuari, Tiracol, Chapora, Talpona
Karnataka : Kali, Gangavali (Bedthi), Aganashini, Sharavathy, Kollur-Chakra-Gangoli, Sita, Mulki, Gurupur, Netravathi
Kerala : Chaliar, Bharatpuzha, Periyar, Pamba

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

Western Ghats, India – The Forests

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




“There was a time when meadow, grove
and stream,

The earth and every common sight
To me did seem Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it had been of yore;
Turn whereso’er I may,
By night or day, the things which I have
Seen I now can see no more.”

– William Wordsworth

As in many other tropical regions throughout the world, deforestation and forest degradation due to various factors such as extension of cultivated lands, grazing of livestock, extraction of forest products, commercial plantations, road and railway building, hydroelectric projects, atomic reactors and poaching continue unabated in the Western Ghats.

There have been various estimates and guesstimates about the loss of forest cover in the Western Ghats.
* A recent study (year 2,000) says that the Western Ghats, one of India’s most prestigious “biological hotspot” has lost one-fourth of its forest cover in the last 22 years. The study which estimated changes in forest cover between 1973 and 1995 in southern parts of the Western Ghats using satellite data reveals a loss of 25.6 percent in that period. The decrease in forest can be attributed primarily to increase in plantations and agricultural areas due to population growth with Kerala observing the most rapid changes.

The study also renews the debate that despite conservation measures adopted by various agencies, the rate of deforestation has accelerated in recent years. The data shows a whopping five fold increase in forest loss from the periods 1920-60 to 1960-90. The threat seems even bigger if one considers the fact that the study does not include forest degradation and habitat fragmentation that also eventually contribute to forest loss.

The southern stretch of the Western Ghats an area of approxi-mately 40,000 sq. kms, has experienced the most significant forest loss during 1973-95. There has been a loss of 2,729 sq. kms of forests with an annual deforestation rate of 1.16 percent.
(Study by ATREE, NRSA and University of Massachusetts, USA)

* According to U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, the area alloted to plantations in India has been increasing at an average of 15 percent a year. At this rate, if all plantations were taken from existing forests – even the sparsely covered tracts – would be destroyed in less than a quarter century.

* An earlier report by TERI, New Delhi has made the following assessment:
Very little has been documented recently about the status of the forest cover in the Western Ghats, except that it seems to have declined between 1972 and 1985 at a rate paralleling that for India as a whole, which implies a loss of cover 2.4% annually. If we extrapolate from 1986 to 1989, this means a total loss of 34% from 1972 to 1989.

Still worse is 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 by shifting, cultivation, allowing take-over by deciduous species and bamboo among other degenerate species.

* Another study reports (Menon and Bawa 1997): Nearly 40% of the natural vegetation in the Western Ghats disappeared between 1920 and 1990. Of these 76% were converted to open or cultivated lands and 16% to coffee plantations. The rest was due to conversion to tea plantations or hydroelectric reservoirs.

* Recent studies (Ramesh and Swaminathan 1999) indicate that in the Western Ghats of Karnataka, nearly 12% of the forests have been completely lost in the past two decades. During the same period in a region like Kodagu, coffee cultivation has increased by nearly 100% with a concomitant loss of 18% forest area.

* In the state of Kerala alone, in a period of 30 years, there has been a 47% decline in evergreen/semi-evergreen forests(Prasad 1998).
Less than a century ago 40 percent of India was forested. Large tracts of deciduous and tropical rainforests in the Western Ghats region were destroyed over the past century as the British expanded India’s railway network across the country. Then, between 1951 and 1976, some 15 percent of the nations’s land were converted to cropland and much of this came from natural forest.

Forests are strained by the increasing demand of their resources. As human and livestock population swell and forests shrink, the relationship between rural communities and forest has become increasingly precarious. Nearly 90 percent of the wood taken from the forests is used as fuel. And India’s forest provide fodder for some 100 million head of cattle that trample and denude under-growth as they graze.

Yet, India’s natural forests provide it with some extremely vital services: They protect topsoil from wind and water erosion, regulate temperatures, replenish aquifers, store genetic diversity, offer recreational relief and provide a number of products other than wood – including medicine and food.

Deforestation leads to several changes in the landscape. The degradation and fragmentation of forests, which generally precede deforestation, considerably affect the biodiversity of the region. In the Western Ghats, low elevation evergreen forests dominated by Dipterocarp constitute the most threatened habitat. Its continuum along the Western Ghats has been fragmented due to selective logging, increase in permanent settlements, and rubber plantations. Consequently, several typical low-elevation species have almost become extinct, several have become rare, and some species have taken refuge in the sacred groves.

One of the major forms of human interference to vegetation and flora in the Western Ghats is the building of dams. According to published sources, there could be hundreds including small and big dams, with Maharashtra alone having 631 dams(Nair and Daniel 1986).

Hill agro-systems in the Western Ghats are today dominated by estates chiefly of tea, coffee, rubber and monocultures of various tree species, including the oil palm that was introduced lately. Available estimate indicate that above an altitude of 1,500 m in the Western Ghats, there are 750 sq. km of tea plantations. A total ofnot less than 1,500 sq. km are under coffee and 825 sq. km under cardamom. It has also been highlighted that the Nilgiri district with a total area of 2,549 sq. km has around 1,000 sq. km under various forms of cultivation.

The impact of growing coffee in the Western Ghats has been studied to some extent. According to legend, the Arabica variety was introduced at the beginning of the 17th century by a Muslim pilgrim – Baba Budan, who brought seven coffee seeds from Yemen and planted them in his hermitage in Chickmagalur, Karnataka.

Coffee plantations were then introduced in Kodagu with large scale planting of coffee near Mercara. Growing in partial shade and the traditional system adopted by people have together favoured a greater diversity of native trees in the coffee dominated agro-systems of Kodagu.

Casurina plantations first appeared in Uttara Kannada district around 1868. Teak was first raised as monoculture in 1840. The first teak plantation in Kerala was established in Nilambur in 1844. Over the years, eucalyptus, cinchona, wattle, rubber, clove, cardamom, etc. have displaced extensive patches of natural forests throughout the Western Ghats.
Apart from introduction of commercially important plants, there have been invasions by a number of aggressive alien plant species during the past 200 years in the Western Ghats. Important among these are Lantana camara (var aculeata), Eupatorium odoratum, Mikania cordata, Parthenium hysterophorus, etc. Wattle (acacia) once introduced for the extraction of tannin in the higher hills is today a major threat to the Sholas and grasslands at these altitudes. The impact of these exotic plants has been subject of lot of debate.

Large number of ornamental plants of temperate origin have also run wild in the higher elevations of the Western Ghats. Hundreds of such species have been reported both from the Palni hills and from the Nilgiris. Human influences had an adverse impact on the diversity of flowering plants in humid forests of the Western Ghats. In the Uttara Kannada district lack of coppicing ability in conjunction with their use in the wood/matchwood industry has led to disappearance of several evergreen species.

With villagers concentrating on harvest of trees in the height class of 4 – 8 m as poles and commercial interests mostly extracting trees above 16m height, there was a reduction of around 45% in all height classes between the sites of low and high level disturbance.

Unique landscapes such as Myristica swamps gave way to cultivation of rice. Along with the swamps many species of the swamp trees disappeared locally. Selective logging in the Western Ghats has had differential influence on biodiversity. When evergreen forests are thus disturbed, the woody plant species diversity has shown a gradual decline. This has been accompanied by the selective loss of certain species of greater economic value and an overall reduction in forest biomass. Other organisms have responded to human disturbance of evergreen forests rather differently. Selective logging (consequently lower tree and canopy density) has locally increased the diversity of butterflies, lizards and birds in the Western Ghats.

Top Soil & Siltation

Deforestation leads to a very sizeable loss of the top soil. It is only the forests on the slopes that prevent the run-off which takes place after heavy rains and allow water to percolate into the earth. Loss of tree cover means the top soil that is held in place by the roots of the trees becomes loose and the run-offs carry the top soil to the bottom of the river causing siltation.

Where the top soil is lost, there can be no vegetation; most deserts for instance, are what they are because the wind has blown away the top soil, and no trees can grow there any more. We cannot really ‘create’ top soil, for top soil is the product of innumerable layers of leaf litter and dead vegetable matter which disintegrate and mix with the earth. It can take anything from 500 to 1,000 years to build up one inch of new top soil. No amount of money can buy new soil. 

River Bhadra at Kalasa, Karnataka – Pic by Mohan Pai

Most loose soil from the hill slopes gets to a riverbed very fast, for in a heavy shower it travels down with the rain water or run-offs and settles down at the bottom of the riverbed, raising by a little bit, the level of the riverbed. This rising of the river bottom is called siltation and it is this which is the root cause of the floods which now we face every year. Floods are only one facet of the damage.

River Pravara near Wilson Dam, Maharashtra – Pic by Mohan Pai.

As the river bears with it its load of silt and mud out to the sea, harbours too are silted up, making it necessary to continuously carry out expensive dredging opera-tions.

The cycle of losing valuable soil, the siltation of riverbeds and consequent flooding has a strong adverse impact on the environment of the region. What is worse is that we are not only losing the invaluable soil, but large quantities of underground water as well.

River Valley Projects

The hydel potential especially of the west-flowing rivers is being utilised round the year by impounding seasonal waters behind high rise dams situated at strategic locations. To utilise the available head, water is channeled through penstocks to turbines in power houses. Penstocks in earlier projects as at Sharavathy in Karnataka and Khopoli in Maharashtra were on the surface.

Wilson Dam, Bhandardara, Maharashtra – Pic by Mohan Pai

In recent years penstocks have been laid in steep tunnels bored into rocky mountains. Idduki in Kerala and Nagjahri on the Kali have covered penstocks. The power houses also have gone underground as at Idduki and Varahi where they are within the mountain. Hydel generation is considered to be clean and relatively cheap. The environmental costs of hydel projects are, however, high though not easily quantifiable. The environmental issues of hydel projects are site specific but many are common. The following is a list of some common issues:

1. Submersion of large scale vegetation by the reservoir.
2. Degradation of forests due to quarries, roads, power lines and housing colonies.
3. Disturbance to wildlife during construction and change of the habitat after the construction.
4. Siltation of the reservoirs due to inadequate catchment area management.
5. Possibility of reservoir induced seismicity.
6. Cumulative impact of a series of dams and reservoirs in close proximity.
7. Displacement of people and lack of proper rehabilitation.
8. Impact on riparian communities when the pattern of river f low is changed or the water of one river basin is diverted to another basin.
9. Increase in salinity due to ingress of sea water, especially when water of a river is diverted to another basin.
10. Cumulative impact of all developmental activities in a particular region of the Western Ghats.

Submersion of Vegetation

The water impounded by the high dams generally submerge large tracts of evergreen forests of the western valleys. Linganamakki reservoir of the Sharavathy hydel project in Karnataka submerged 326.3 sq. km, mostly covered by luxuriant forests.

Harangi Dam Reservoir, Kodagu

 In order to increase the quantity of stored water, auxiliary dams were constructed. The waters from Savehakkalu and Chakra further reduced the forest cover in Shimoga district of Karnataka. The Periyar basin in the High Ranges of Kerala has a series of 12 large dams which directly or indirectly resulted in destruction of about 4000 sq. km of rainforests and grasslands. Kali river with 6 major dams has submerged about 32,000 acres of prime forests in Uttara Kannada district. As hydel projects are being multiplied more forests are being lost. The compensatory afforestation programmes in arid areas do not compensate for the loss of rich evergreen and moist deciduous forests of the Western Ghats.

Colonies, quarries, roads and power lines

At peak construction activities, the work force at Sharavathy was around 50,000. Housing colonies were set up after denuding the surrounding hills. During the Kali stage, the township of Ambikanagar in Uttara Kannada was located in an area that still then was covered by dense forests. Before handing over the area to Karnataka Power Corporation, the forest department removed all the trees and handed over a totally denuded area. A similar denudation occurred at Ramanagara, the rehabilitation area for the Supa reservoir oustees .

Supa Reservoir on Kali Nadi, Karnataka – Pic by Mohan Pai

Degradation of wildlife habitats

The Western Ghats have a rich fauna. Herds of elephants, gaur and deer, flock of birds, many species of reptiles and amphibians, to mention a few, have inhabited these forests. The blasting of rocks, the rumble of heavy machinery, the incursion by humans have greatly reduced the fauna of the Ghats. These activities have also fragmented the forests to a large extent.
The change in river flow patterns so essential to spawning and migration of fishes has resulted in a drastic reduction of aquatic fauna. The lack of fish ladders in most dams confines fishes to particular areas and prevents normal movements. Studies have shown a marked reduction in aquatic fauna.

Siltation of reservoirs

The slopes of the Western Ghats are steep. The rainfall is heavy during the monsoon. Once the forest cover is lost and the grasslands are disturbed, run-off and soil erosion is high. Other activities in the catchment area increase the silt load. The Kali river valley schemes afford matter for a case study. In addition to 6 large dams, this area has nine active mining operations with scarcely any measure for controlling mine run-off and soil erosion from tailing dumps. Each of the mines contributes to the silt-load of the river. The water holding capacity of each reservoir is being reduced by this siltation.
Reservoir induced seismicity
Seepage and pressure built up by a large mass of water are known to induce seismicity. In order to monitor seismic movements and dam vibrations new techniques are being adopted. The double arch dam at Idduki has a number of sensors embedded in it. Most dams in the Western Ghats do not have such monitoring devices. Reservoir induced tremors and earthquakes in the Koyna region were felt several hundred km away from its epicentre. Had the dam collapsed, several downstream towns would have been washed away.

Cumulative impact

The environmental issues relating to hydel projects become more pronounced when a river has a series of dams or, when several basins in close proximity are taken up for power generation. The Sharavathy and Kali basins have a concentration of hydel projects. The series of dams and reservoirs alter the riparian ecology and biodiversity. The biota of a natural river bank cannot survive on the artificial shores of a reservoir. The cumulative impact of several projects has to be examined. As indicated earlier, the Sharavathy with its many dams and reservoirs destroyed extensive forests in Shimoga district. The Kali project has ruined a rich game sanctuary. The Koyna project resulted in seismic disturbances.


Mattupetty Dam Reservoir , Kerala – Pic by Mohan Pai

Silent Valley in the Western Ghats is a concrete example of abandoning the project due to prudence. The plans to submerge the Silent Valley caused a lot of agitation among conservationists. The scheme was to build a dam 390 ft high and 720 ft wide which would be used for the generation of 120 MW of hydroelectric power and would irrigate 5,000 acres of land. In this instance the conservationists were quite sure that the amount of damage that would be done by constructing the dam would be out of proportion to the advantages gained. The balance sheet was simple. The evergreen rain forests of the Silent Valley which would be submerged by the dam, was the kind which has evolved over thousands of years; there were few comparable areas of such forest left in India, and, once it went, it would mean that we had lost not only the forest itself, but hundreds of plant species which had not yet been studied. Fortunately the pressure from conservationists resulted in project being dropped. However, there is a recent move by the Government of Kerala to reopen the Silent Valley Project with a dam on Kunthipuza river.

Displacement and resettlement

Several studies have been made on displacement of people due to land acquisition and land submersion. The hydel reservoirs in the Western Ghats have displaced many thousand of people especially tribals and agriculturists. For example, the Kali project in Karnataka displaced 1,665 families, The Savehakkalu and Chakra projects displaced 227 families, the Varahi 1,361 families.

The trauma of displacement is made more painful by the inadequacy of the legal and financial provisions. Especially the displaced tribals go without any compensation. The socio-cultural environment of displaced communities is shattered. Their means of livelihood are undermined. Skills have to be learned once again as they shift from non-market economy to a competitive market based economy.

The responsibility of resettling displaced people is that of various departments of the State and Central Governments. Legislation to ensure justice to the displaced is weak and outmoded. There is a strong feeling among the displaced that “Peter is being robbed to pay Paul”.

Impact on riparian communities by changes in river flow

At the peak of the S-W Monsoon, the crest gates of the dams are opened to release excess water. The sudden release have affected the people living along the river banks. The situation can be so critical that the army has been called upon to rescue the marooned people. Sometimes the hydel projects are so designed that water from one river basin is diverted to another.
For example the double arched dam sealed the Periyar. The water in the reservoir is being diverted to the power house at Moolamattom. The tail race from the power house meets the Muvattapuzha river, leaving the Periyar with highly reduced flow. This has adversely affected the communities along the Periyar banks. A similar situation has resulted by the westward diversion of the waters of the eastward flowing Koyna river.

Increase in salinity due to ingress of sea waters

When there is reduction in flow of a river due to diversion of its water, the river in its lower reaches is not sufficiently flushed by the monsoon rains. Thus there is acute scarcity of fresh water at Ernakulam because of ingress of sea water after the construction of Idukki dam.

Cumulative impact of developmental activities

There are different activities going on simultaneously in the Western Ghats. Besides the hydel projects, irrigation projects are also implemented. Surface mining is taken up both within the forest and outside them. The controversial Kaiga Nuclear Power station, the only nuclear plant in a forest in the world is located at Kadri in the Kali river basin. There are traditional activities of forestry, agri-culture, horticulture. Plantations of coffee, tea, cardamom, pepper, rubber and ginger are being expanded. The cumulative effect of all these activities seriously threatens the ecosystems of the Western Ghats and undermines the resource base in this mountain range.

Irrigation Projects

In order to conserve seasonal waters of the east-flowing rivers, innumerable dams both big and small have been constructed in the Western Ghats and in the peninsular India. These are classified as large, medium and small irrigation projects. Only the large and medium irrigation works are being considered here. The Western Ghats merge with the Deccan plateau on the eastern side. They descend gradually from the ridge forming shallow valleys. Where the rivers flow through a narrow neck formed by the hills, dams are constructed to impound the water which is then conveyed over long distances by canals. The submergence of these valleys is of great consequence.

The moist deciduous forests are rich in timber species like rose-wood, teak, venteak. The fauna is varied and abundant. Many of the wildlife sanctuaries are located here. Plantations of coffee and tea, gardens of areca and pepper, orchards with a variety of fruit trees thrive well in these valleys. Flourishing agricultural communities have occupied the area and harvested cereals and pulses. Several studies have been carried out on the impact of these irrigation dams in the Western Ghat. Some of the environmental issues associated with these dams are common to hydel projects. Some are specific to the projects in the shallow valleys in the rain shadow area of the Ghats.

Deforestation and the Global Carbon Cycle

Carbon dioxide ( CO2) is the major gas involved in the greenhouse effect, which causes global warming. All the things that produce CO2 (like car burning gas) and the things that consume Co2 (growing plants) are involved in the “global carbon cycle”.

Tropical forests hold an immense amount of carbon, which joins with oxygen to form CO2. The plants and soil of tropical forests hold 460-575 billion metric tons of carbon worldwide. Each acre of tropical forest stores about 180 metric tons of carbon.

Deforestation increases the amount of CO2 and other trace gases in the atmosphere. When a forest is cut and replaced by cropland and pastures, the carbon that was stored in the tree trunks (wood is about 50% carbon) joins with oxygen and is released into the atmosphere as CO2.

The loss of forests has a great effect on the global carbon cycle. From 1850 to 1990, deforestation worldwide (including that in the United States) released 122 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere, with the current rate being 1.6 billion metric tons per year. In comparison all the fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) burned during a year release about 6 billion tons per year.

Releasing CO2 into the atmosphere increases the greenhouse effect, and may raise global temperature. The role of fossil fuels burned by cars and industry is well known, but tropical deforestation releases about 25% of the amount released by fossil fuel burning. Tropical deforestation, therefore, contributes a significant part of the increasing CO2 in the atmosphere.

Western Ghats, India – The Tibals

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


… may his tribe increase

The hill tribes or Adivasis (original inhabitants) as they are called, account for barely 5% of the area population in the Western Ghats. The tribals have coexisted with nature for centuries in quiet harmony with rich traditional knowledge and cultural life.

The changing times have told on the lives of the tribals and they have to make a hard choice; accept development with its positive and negative features or perish. In recent years with the reduction in forest area, imposition of forest regulations, construction of dams etc. the lives of the tribals have been highly disturbed. Hunger, ignorance and exploitation have forced them to leave their traditional forest living and take to crimes, migrate or seek employment in rural and urban areas.

Interior of a Toda Tribe Hut in the Nilgiris – Pic by Mohan Pai

The profiles of some of the major tribes of the Western Ghats are as follows:

The Tribes of the Nilgiris

Before the British opened up the high pastures of the Nilgiris in 1818 to the western civilisation, they were the preserve of four tribes: The Kotas, who gave their name to Kotagiri, made tools and music; the Badagas, who cultivated the land, the forest dwelling Kurumbas who collected honey and wood and also performed sorcery; and the Todas, who with their herds of sacred buffalo, provided milk and ghee. 

Toda Woman in traditional shawl – Pic by Mohan Pai

The Todas

The Todas have unique traditions revolving around their buffalo and their temples, which are dairies. Unlike their neighbours on the plains, in feature or build, they are tall athletic and well-proportion built and variously described as being Italian, Mesopotamean, Arabic or Jewish origin (it has been suggested that they are the lost tribe of Israel or descendants of Alexander’s army). Their traditional dress is Roman type toga, covered by a shawl, and their language is Dravidian in origin, which supports the theory that they were part of the Dravidian flight southwards from the invading Aryans. The idea does not explain however, their physical appearance which is so different from their shorter neighbours on the plains below; when and why they sought refuge in the Nilgiri plateau must remain a mystery forever. The Todas consider they were created by gods to be the lords of the Nilgiris, and have been here beyond human memory. The Todas live in hamlets called munds. Their huts have an entrance less than a metre high, and closed by a solid block which slides across to close the entrance.

Toda Hut- Pic by Mohan Pai

Inside these bamboo and rattan structures is a raised sleeping platform, a fireplace and a cooking slab. Toda life centres around their cattle and dairy produce – milk, curds and ghee -forms the basis of their diet. When a tribesman dies, several of his valuable buffaloes are bludgeoned to death so he will have solace of their company and the nourishment of their milk on his journey to the kingdom of death.

Toda Temple – Pic by Mohan Pai

The Todas practice polyandry, a woman marrying all the brothers in the family; inbreeding and syphilis led to a long and steady decline in their numbers until recent times, when the advent of drugs and better medical care has helped stabilise their population. Today there are about 60 Toda settlements around Ooty. 

Author at a Toda Village

The Soligas

The forest regions of Yelandur, Chamarajnagar, Nanjangud and Kollegal which include Biligiri Rangaswamy and Malai Mahadeshwara hill ranges in the southern part of Karnataka are inhabited by nearly 20,000 indigenous people called Soligas. The Soligas have co-existed with the forest for centuries in quiet harmony. Though primarily semi-nomadic, in recent years with the imposition of forest regulations, the Soligas have taken to more or less sedentary existence in small forest villages called podus or doddi or hadi. To an outsider what impresses most is their traditional knowledge, cultural life and a life in harmony with nature.

Soliga Tribal Sttlement, B. R. Hills – Pic by Mridula Pai
The Soligas live in small huts at appropriate distance from water sources in fairly safe places to protect themselves from wild animals. All through the night they keep fire near their huts so as to ward off wild animals and protect them against cold.

The staple food of Soligas is ragi. The crop cultivation practices are quite primitive and their agriculture is known by the name kalakodu besaya. The Soligas depend extensively on a number of non-timber forest products that are collected by the entire family.

The Soligas have their own medicine system known as naru beru aushadhi(roots and tuber medicine). They also depend on Thammadi (the priest) who worship their Gods and Goddesses and give them vibhuti (sacred ash).

The Soliga marriage is simple and by elopement. The boy and girl normally in their teens love each other and elope to the forest and may land up in some remote podu. The local Soligas provide them food and water. They are then brought back to their podu and a Nyaya(inquiry) is held. They are fined Rs. 12.50 and then blessed by the elders. A simple marriage ceremony is held thereafter involving a community feast. In some cases, however, no ceremony is held and the boy and girl live as man and wife in their podu. The Soligas appear to be acutely aware of their environment. Their concern for environment appears to be a product of their necessity and intuition. Years of close association with nature might have made them realise her secrets and inner life. Their life-line being forest, by sheer necessity too, preservation of forest has been ingrained in their culture.

Hallaki Vokkals of Uttara Kannada

Halakki Vokkals are confined to the coastal talukas of Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka. They are agriculturist living on farm lands located at the outskirts of towns that are sandwiched between the Western Ghats on the east and the expanse of the Arabian sea to the west. 75,000 Halakkis live in Koppas under direct control of their community heads. Mud walls and floors of their thatched huts are elaborately decorated with Hali White rangoli against black or red background). They have a rich folklore.

Their women (Gowdathis) are graceful, light in colour and very pretty. The hair are parted in the centre and brought back into a pendulous bun. Their nose, ears, necks arms and ankles are loaded with ornaments made of brass, copper and silver. They have a great fancy for blue, yellow and red beads, and wear them in large numbers around their necks in the form of strings. Women are extremely hardworking and a bridegroom has to pay Tara (bride price) to his father-in-law prior to the wedding.

The Siddis

Siddi schoolgoing children near yellapur- Pic by Mohan Pai

The Siddis are the descendants of African Negroes, who were brought to India mainly by Arabs, the Portugese and the Dutch. They are chiefly found in the forest areas of Ankola, Mundgod, Haliyal and Yellapur taluks. They live in small clusters constituting a distinct settlement of a village or independent settlement. Their occupation is agriculture and they also collect honey and go hunting. They speak Are-Marathi, a mixture of Marathi, Konkani and Kannada.

Tribals of Wayanad
Wayanad district is predominently a tribal district and the major tribes are : * Paniya * Adiya * Kuruchiya *Kathinayaka * Kuruma tribes.

The Paniya

Paniya Woman – Pic by Mohan Pai

The Paniya, a major tribal community in Kerala live in the hills of Wayanad. The headman of Paniya settlement is called Kuttan, and the head of the family is Mudali. The Paniya priest Chemmi wields authority over a group of settlements.

They practice monogamy and widows are allowed to marry. The Paniyas were bonded labourers employed by the planters.


Wayanad Tribal – Pic by Mohan Pai

The Adiyas

This is another of the slave tribes and the community is divided into subgroups called the Mandu. The headman of the Mandu is called Peruman. Polygamy is not a taboo among them and sex offender is not ostracized.

The Kattunayakans

This is a primitive tribe and the Kattunayakans literally live in jungles and are mainly engaged In collecting forest produce and honey. They do not mingle with other tribes. The headman is called Muthanwhose decisions are always final. The Kattunayakans worship animals, birds, trees and other Hindu deities and firmly believe in black magic and sorcery.

The Kuruchiyans

Author with Wayanad Tribals

The Kuruchiyans are an agricultural tribal community and they are excellent archers who joined Pazhassi Raja in fight against British. They live in small though clean houses and do not encourage drinking alcohol except on festive occasions.

The Kuruma

The Kuruma tribals are supposed to be the original inhabitants of Wayanad. They are also good archers and had joined Pazhassi Raja in his fight against the British.

Subsistence economy in the Western Ghats is gradually dwindling for much of the hill dwelling tribals have sought employment in the local private and government sectors. The proportion of people classified as scheduled tribes is less than 5% in the four biodiversity rich states viz Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In fact the population classified as scheduled tribes in the states of Goa, Tamil Nadu and Kerala is hardly 1%.

Distribution of the Tribes of Northern and Central Western Ghats (Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa)

Bhils are considered to be amongst the oldest settlers in the country. They derive their name from the Dravidian word Billu, which means bow. Bhils are thus seen with bow and arrow which is their traditional weapon. They live in isolation, go for hunting, fishing, practice shifting cultivation and have escaped to a large extent the influence of Brahmania (upper caste) culture. This tribe was able to maintain political independence to a great extent and it remained the most turbulent amongst all the tribes.

Warli Tribe has become famous because of their traditional folk painting art. The Warlis are mainly residents of Thane district of Maharashtra spread out in the villages of Dahanu, Talasari, Mokhada, Vada, Palghara and extends up to the Gujarat border. Their tribal paintings are different from other folk and tribal art. They do not narrate mythology in primary colours as did the Madhubanis instead they are painted on mud, charcoal, cow dung based surfaces using only white colour, and are decorated with series of dots in red and yellow. Their paintings are influenced by the seasonal cycle as their life around them is directly reflected in the paintings.

Goa tribes include Gaude, Velip, Dhangar and Kunbi.

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