Heritage Hills

Published : May 06, 2005 00:00 IST

A near-perfect view from Agasthyamalai's summit towards Kanyakumari and the lower hills of Nagercoil in the south. -

A near-perfect view from Agasthyamalai's summit towards Kanyakumari and the lower hills of Nagercoil in the south. -

On a map the collection of rugged mountains near the tip of India appear as a dark, insignificant blotch, just a shade different from the surrounding plains. It is certainly misleading, for the Ashambu hills that lie south of the Shencottah Gap support one of the richest concentrations of biodiversity in the whole Western Ghats chain. Crowning these mountains at 1,866 metres is a distinctive peak that holds a special place in the range. Pothigai or Agasthyamalai (also known as Agasthyakoodam in Kerala) has long been revered as a sacred mountain associated with the sage Agasthya. In more recent years it has been recognised for its phenomenal diversity of life forms. It is hard not to be swept away by Agasthyamalai's towering profile and magical aura.

Agasthyamalai is no ordinary mountain. Among the steep slopes of scrub forest, valleys of dense tropical rainforest, and jagged peaks, Agasthyamalai stands sentinel. It has a distinct conical profile that is nearly identical from both the eastern and the western sides. From either Thiruvananthapuram in the west or Tirunelveli in the east, it stands out as a distinguished peak among a range of sharp, craggy mountains. Relatively speaking, it is a lesser peak in the chain of mountains that make up the 1,400-km-long Western Ghats. Dodabetta in the Nilgiris (2,623m), Karnataka's Mullayanagiri (1,918m) and Anai-Mudi (2,694m), South India's highest peak, are all far higher. Yet, there is something about Agasthyamalai that transcends mere height, and size really does not matter in this equation. Agasthyamalai's profile bears an uncanny resemblance to Tibet's Mount Kailash and this has perhaps led to its aura and many myths.

Similar to Sri Lanka's Sri Pada or Adam's Peak (2,243m), Agasthyamalai towers above its neighbours in a dramatic fashion. Both these mountains share geological origins and a wealth of flora and are appreciated for their spiritual significance. Agasthyamalai's name is derived from the great sage who is said to have given the Tamil language to the Dravidian people. Sage Agasthya is associated with herbal remedies and is often depicted holding a stone crusher in one hand and a vessel in the other. The significance of this and the fact that the Agasthyamalai hills are known for their medicinal plants should not be overlooked.

The most pertinent myth regarding the mountain relates to Agasthya and the marriage of Ishwara (Siva) and Parvathi in the heavenly realm of Mount Kailash (6,740m). When the wedding was announced, all the gods, rishis and people migrated north to the Himalayas. As a result, the earth went off balance and became dangerously wobbly. With disaster looming, Iswara asked Agasthya to go south and balance the situation through meditation. He meditated and prayed on the mountain that now bears his name and once again put the world in balance.

The protected habitat that straddles both sides of the Tamil Nadu/Kerala border in the Ashambu hills hosts a spectrum of tropical vegetation. B. Seshadari, author of several significant books on Indian wildlife, calls the area one of "the richest and most diverse ecosystems left in India". The hills include scrub thorn forest on the drier, eastern (Tamil Nadu) face of the Ghats. Deciduous forest makes up much of the lower Mundanthurai plateau as well as parts of the western slopes affected by years of fire. Higher up, where rainfall is heavy, there is a dense belt of tropical evergreen rainforest that is home to much of the plant diversity. There are also large areas of grasslands in various pockets. The eastern side of Agasthyamalai is composed of the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR), a remarkable protected area nearly 900 sq km. The border between the two States is made up of a jagged high ridge (including the Agasthyamalai peak) that runs from north to south and then slightly eastwards. Immediately across from the KMTR, the Kerala side of the hills hosts the Neyyar and Pepara wildlife sanctuaries. Reserve forests in Courtallam and the Shenduruny wildlife sanctuary in Kerala south of the Shencottah Gap helps to make this a significant and magnificent protected area.

The Ashambu hills play a key ecological role from the point of view of both water and biodiversity. The hilly areas form a critical water catchment for both the eastern and western coasts. Thus, millions of farmers are dependent on the mountains as a source of water for their crops. While the plains are parched for much of the year, the hills can receive as much as 4,000 mm of rain depending on the location. The Tambaraparani is one of many significant rivers that have their origins in the forests of Agasthyamalai. The hills are also significant for their biodiversity. The hills contain a good portion of all the Western Ghats' 1,500 endemic plant species as well as 150 localised plant endemics. Many wild relatives of common food plants are found here, such as jackfruit, mango, cardamom, turmeric and banana. Several rare and endangered plants are found exclusively here, including the enigmatic Paphiopedilum druryi orchid.

Almost all of the Western Ghats' high-profile endemic animal species are found in and around Agasthyamalai. The rare brown palm civet (Paradoxurus jerdoni), the Malabar spiny dormouse (Platacanthomys lasiurus) and the Nilgiri marten (Martes gwatkinsi) are found in the Ashambu hills. There are five primate species including the lion tailed macaque (Macaca silenus), the Nilgiri langur (Trachypithecus johnii), and the slender loris (Loris lyddekerianus). Several small populations of the Nilgiri tahr (Hemitragus hylocrius), the elusive and rare mountain goat of the Western Ghats, are found on remote peaks in the Ashambus. The area is the southern-most habitat of tigers and has a significant population of Asiatic elephants.

Given the diversity of habitat, bird life is spectacular in and around Agasthyamalai. On several trips there I was able to spot rarities such as the Malabar trogon (Harpactes fasciatus), the grey breasted laughing thrush (Garrulax jerdoni) and the grey headed bulbul (Pycnonotus priocephalus). During the course of his study in the KMTR, the ornithologist T.R. Shankar Raman photographed the extremely rare oriental bay owl (Phodilus badius), previously thought to be restricted to northeastern India. The KMTR, in particular, is famous for its reptiles and amphibians, documented in several studies by the Wildlife Institute of India. Ashish and Shanti Chandra Nair, a Thiruvananthapuram-based zoologist couple, have also studied and written widely on the Agasthyamalai hills, some of the highlights of which are published in Ashish Nair's landmark book The Southern Western Ghats (1991). Today the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (A-TREE) is conducting several long-term studies in the KMTR.

THE Agasthyamalai hills are home to the Kanis, an indigenous, forest-dwelling community. The Kanis once practised shifting cultivation, but most of the 16,000-strong population was relocated when the area was designated a protected area in the 1970s. The Kanis retain a great knowledge of the forest and also a love and respect for the area that has not always been recognised. Their knowledge of medicinal plants is connected to the myths of Agasthya, who is thought to have bestowed healing powers to them as a way to prevent them from becoming a martial race. In the 1990s, much attention was focussed on the Kanis when they struck up an innovative deal to share the proceeds of developing the Arogyapacha (Trichopus zeylanicus) plant with a pharmaceutical company. This plant grows wild in the Agasthyamalai hills and is known for its invigorating properties, which reduce fatigue. The KMTR's best guides are the Kanis, and there is a hope that the members of the community can find their future studying and protecting the land of their ancestors.

The Ashambus are not completely free of disturbance or problems. There are several vast tea plantations and a handful of enormous hydroelectric dams in the middle of the KMTR. Uncontrolled religious pilgrimage into the KMTR as well as to the top of Agasthyamalai remains a potentially risky problem for the future. Non-native tree species such as eucalyptus have been widely planted and pose a threat to the natural biodiversity of the area. Several researchers cite the problem of illegal ganja cultivation and poaching as major concerns for the Ashambu hills. Poaching of animals and trees (sandalwood and other species) has been a problem in many areas.

The sanctuaries in the Ashambu hills enjoy excellent protection from the Tamil Nadu and Kerala Forest Departments. There is a clear recognition from both departments that this is a spectacular area that needs to be protected for its biodiversity and critical watershed services. Aside from traditional protection there have been moves to involve local communities in decision-making regarding conservation measures. The example of the Kanis is one such attempt, while there have been ambitious eco-development projects on the KMTR side. In the southern part of the KMTR the Dhonavur Fellowship, a private charity, owns and maintains a small estate within the sanctuary's borders. The property has some of the best-preserved examples of cane (Calamus rotang) and other plants, illustrating clearly how private citizens can be highly effective stakeholders in conservation.

References Anurada, R.V. (undated), Sharing with the Kanis: A Case Study from Kerala, India, Kalpavriksh. Johnsingh, A.J.T. (2001), `The Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve: A Global Heritage of Biological Diversity', Current Science (Vol. 80, No.3). Nair, Ashish Chandra (1991), The Southern Western Ghats: A Biodiversity Conservation Plan, New Delhi: INTACH.

The images in this photo-essay were taken during four trips to the Agasthyamalai Hills in 2001 and 2002, which were facilitated by the Tamil Nadu and Kerala Forest Departments and friends at the Dhonavur Fellowship.

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