Nilgiris. The blue mountains. An epithet derived from the shrub, kurinchi, which flowers once in 12 years, covering the landscape in a carpet of purplish-blue. A mosaic of grassland with dense patches of sholas, or montane evergreen forests, covers the higher altitudes of this range and of many others in the southern Western Ghats.
I first arrived here as a graduate student in the early 1990s, and after heaving past the smoky town of Ooty, was greeted by the sea of blue at Avalanche. Little did I realise that I would not see the kurinchi flower again, that it skipped past the timelines of a PhD. On my very first exploration of the Upper Nilgiris, I was hooked. Maduppumalai, the shola of folds, with little rivulets of forest that flowed up the cracks in the hill; Bangitappal, an extraordinarily beautiful valley with a clear cold stream snaking through it, and little cowpats of sholas on the surrounding slopes; Sispara with its thick evergreen patches that tripped at the edge of the mountain, and dipped steeply into Silent Valley; Thaishola, indeed the mother of all sholas of the upper plateau, stretching hundreds of hectares across the hills, slowly segueing to the plains of Anaikatti. Beckoned by their breathtaking beauty, I decided to pursue my PhD in this montane landscape.
Nearly two centuries before, the picture pretty vistas of these rolling hills and the vastly more conducive climate compared to dust and sweat of the plains, had also instantly appealed to the British. Reminded of England, whether the dales of Yorkshire or the vales of the Lake District, itinerant Englishmen immediately set up camp there by the early nineteenth century. Adding a touch of scotch broom here and there to decorate (and later invade) the landscape, bureaucrats and businessmen then covered over the grasslands with tea gardens. The first of these were planted in the 1850s by prisoners from the Opium wars, brought in to lay railway lines and for other labour. Not content, they added the utterly exotic (and water guzzling) Eucalyptus that, sadly, the early Indian tourist actually associated with the look and smell of a hill station.
Ironically, though it was the grasslands that had attracted the British to the hills, their planters and foresters had a disdain for them, born out of both economics and ecology. For the first part, they provided no revenue at all. Hence their conversion to tea and timber. But equally, they believed that the high-altitude grasslands of the Nilgiris were man-made, a product of human colonisation of the hills a thousand years before. This debate played out in the pages of the journal Indian Forester in the 1930s, where Bor, an English forester, argued this point of view against Ranganathan, an Indian, who made the case that grasslands were a natural ecosystem in their own right.
While this argument remained unresolved for over a half century, the step-motherly treatment of grasslands would lead to the continued planting of acacia and other exotics by the forest department of independent India. Finally, in the 1980s and 1990s, evidence from peat bogs using analyses of pollen from the past, and chemical analysis of isotopes, would show that the grasslands had been around for 30,000 years or more, long before humans showed up. One of my students would then find grassland adapted frogs that had evolved 15 million years ago, around the time that grasslands had spread around the world, settling that debate once and for all.
The shola grasslands across the high elevations of the southern Western Ghats are enchanting, both aesthetically and ecologically. Apart from the Niligris, they occur in Anamalais (Grass Hills), adjoining Munnar, Palani Hills and in Agasthyamalai. Many researchers have wandered up and down these slopes fascinated by the landscape itself or the flora and fauna in it. Research has shown that forests have expanded and contracted with global warming and cooling in the geological past; and the grasslands are believed to be maintained by frost and fire. And evolutionary biogeography studies on various fauna including birds, frogs, lizards and snakes suggest that these high-altitude areas have served as cradles of diversification, with many species evolving in these landscapes.
My own work there was framed within the theory of island biogeography, which had been proposed a few decades earlier by MacArthur and Wilson to explain species diversity on islands. Expanding this to habitat islands such as the shola forests (surrounded by the ‘sea of grassland’), I explored small mammal communities in sholas of different types and sizes. Slipping and sliding down the steep, sometimes soggy, and always treacherous slopes of the sholas, we set hundreds of traps each day, and captured various species of rats and mice.
While forest rodents may not be Page 3 species, these forests and grasslands are in fact a treasure of rare and endemic species. From large mammals such as the Nilgiri tahr and Nilgiri marten, to birds such as the whitebellied sholakili (or Nilgiri shortwing) and the black and orange flycatcher, to a range of smaller vertebrates, these hills are rich in native biodiversity. Many species, such as the Nilgiri tahr, the Nilgiri pipit, the Salea lizards, Perrotet’s vine snake and the horse-shoe pit viper, as well as many bush frogs, are adapted to the grasslands in particular. The destruction of this habitat over the last century by both our colonial masters and later, their willing students, has affected these species the most.
Today, though, there is an increased awareness of the importance of these native habitats, both the unique sholas and the grasslands they nestle in. In general, wildlife has increased in the Upper Nilgiris. Elephants wandered up occasionally in the 1990s, but now they visit more frequently. Bears were unheard of, and of late they have been sighted. Boar are wandering by the roadside. And gaur, once a rare visitor to the southern edges, now roam the landscapes of the upper plateau like cattle. So much so that there have been a few selfie deaths, the surest sign of its being a mainstream phenomenon.
A few years ago, I revisited the hills through my book The adventures of Philautus Frog, the story of a bushfrog that descends from a tree to visit the “great sea” that he has heard of. Though he doesn’t ever reach there, despite help from various endemic friends, he does pass a hill at the western edge of the Nilgiris where it is rumoured that you can see the ships off the Malabar coast on a dark night.
Mountains everywhere are special, from the Andes to Alaska, from the Hindukush to the Himalaya. Everest, Machu Picchu, Khangchendzonga, Kilimanjaro — even the names evoke awe and inspiration. Literature and mythology suggest that we visit them to search for the meaning of life. Maybe there is some truth there. Climbing these mountains might give us a particular view of the world, but exploring them gives us insights into how it came to be what it is.