By Nakul Mohan Heble
Schooled in Singampatti!
It was our last day at the Agasthyamalai Community Conservation Centre (ACCC), a beautiful field station at the feet of the giant peaks of southern Western Ghats. After several days of unbearable heat in the plains, the monsoon winds had finally hit the western coast of India. The rains were eager to push past the towering peaks and the surprising change in weather was a welcome relief. It brought us high winds and sheets of intermittent rain. This change hadn’t done anything for me though. I was still unsure about what I wanted to write as part of my field notes for a course in ecological field methods at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE).
That evening, as another spell of rains began, I noticed something peculiar. The field station caretaker, Muthaiyah, slowly took his footwear off, turned towards the mighty Agasthyamalai and prayed with folded hands, his trademark torch still between his palms. With the little Tamil I know, I struck a conversation with him about the weather, naively expecting him to partake in the superficial joy that the rains had brought us students. Instead he told me how some of his relatives from Singampatti, a village next door, had gone to the mountains a few weeks ago and offered their prayers to the Gods for a good monsoon. He told me how a few years of drought had been devastating for the farmers in the landscape. The rains were a welcome sight for his eyes and for several of the residents who live in the rain shadow regions of Thirunelveli and Kanniyakumari districts of Tamil Nadu. It had rained very little in the plains though. Most of the rains fell in the mountains visible in the distance. As I gathered later, the prayers were for a steady flow of blessings that they would receive over the next few months. Muthaiyah’s prayer from the plains was his way of thanking the Western Ghats for not just letting some of the rain clouds cross its high peaks but to receive them in ample quantities in the wet evergreen forests of the Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR).
What’s a wet evergreen forest got to do with human beings?
On our first day at the field station, we were to visit Kakachi, a dense wet evergreen forest patch in KMTR. As the last person got into the bus, the driver touched his chest, kissed his forefinger and gave a tiny glance upwards and we were off. The bus exited the gates of the field station and we got our first view of the landscape. Everything to the east of the southern-most part of the Western Ghats was drylands fed by the perennial rivers born in the hill ranges we were heading towards. What was probably once a rain shadowed dryland had now been transformed into a booming agrarian economy thanks to the construction of the Manimutharu dam. People could now grow paddy and bananas, both high-income crops in this region. Once we reached the dam check-post, we followed the Manimutharu River that flows down from the hills around and beyond Manjolai, a high altitude tea estate. Every bit of rain that falls in these rich evergreen forests is soaked up and released slowly into the dam. The water that gets stored here is used by villages for irrigation further downstream.
As we trundled along the pothole-ridden road, we entered the tea estates of Manjolai and headed towards the “one-mile corridor” at Kakachi. This is a corridor famously noted by ecologist Steven Green back in the 1970s as a strip of dense forest that connects two large tea estate patches. The ride itself was worth remembering. As with any quick climb into the mountains, the air got cooler and the flora, dense and diverse. Harder to notice were several small streams that would sometimes flow along the road or under them via small canals. They were heading towards the dam with a strong sense of purpose. We crossed a well-guarded gate at the entrance of the tea estate where the guards also double up as salespersons for their products. With the estate behind us, we passed by an ecological desert of a golf course in the middle of the forest, and beyond that, Kakachi beckoned.
The brakes of the bus squealed in excitement, as we stopped at a bend. The driver turned off the engine letting us acclimatise to the sounds of the forest. As we got down, we stepped momentarily on freshly laid bitumen only to step directly into some of the most well-preserved forests in the Western Ghats. A few metres in and we had left the world familiar to us behind. Regular visitors to this patch of forest, (apart from the lion-tailed macaques of course) have been Dr. Soubadra Devy, Dr. R. Ganesan and Dr. T. Ganesh of ATREE who, along with a number of students and researchers, have been working on a long-term monitoring project in these parts for decades. We students, armed to the teeth with adventure paraphernalia, were being guided by much more experienced scientists who had learnt to navigate these forests in a simple pair of Hawaii chappals.
As I let my senses adjust to what I was enveloped in, the enormity of the forest became apparent. Wet evergreen forests are truly a world apart. The soil squelches under one’s foot as one walks on old leaves that slowly decompose. Underneath all of this, a layer of humus makes for a perfect medium for the roots of trees to pass through. Trees, tall and wide with intricate buttresses, rise around and above us. Lianas snake through the undergrowth making their way to the canopy. The forest speaks to the one who cares to listen. And if one listens closely, one can hear the endless rush of the roots under our feet to soak up nutrients and a gush of green above, soaking up whatever sunlight it can find. Wet evergreen forests in this part of the Western Ghats receive rains from both the south-western as well as the north-eastern monsoons. The forest soaks up all this water and releases it slowly into the plains. The result is spectacular. Millions of streams form and as they flow down, merge together before they reach the dam. A river from the rains.
Forests and folks
After a long day of collecting data, trying our hands on the canopy climbing gear set up by the ACCC team, and a quick tea break at Manjolai, we headed back to the plains. Driving down into the plains, sometimes, is a sombre event. Mountains swallow the sun for the night and roads begin to straighten. The cool crisp air of the mountains is replaced by a warm evening breeze mixed with the heady scent of distant firewood that often burns inside rural kitchens. Cutting through acres of fertile fields, the bus goes into high gear and stays there for a long period of time. Endless fields of green slowly fade into the night. This is a landscape that is made possible only by the grace of these mountains.
It is then that the relationship between forests and human beings became slowly clear to me. I had failed to see this clearly in Muthaiyah’s devotion when I saw him pray to the mountains that day. The lives of people who live in the shadow and grace of the Western Ghats are intricately tied to the forces of nature. Any disruption is bound to have a cascading effect. There is no doubt that as much as it is important for us to conserve the forest for its own sake, it is equally important for us to do so for the people who live inside and outside of it. Indeed, forests and folks go hand in hand.
 A gesture that many in India make, irrespective of their religion, seeking blessings for a safe journey.
About the author
Nakul has moved from being a researcher at ATREE to a student. He joined the PhD programme at ATREE in 2017. His doctoral work involves understanding the interactions between the forces of climate action, development and human well-being. An abridged version of this article was published in ATREE’s Agasthya newsletter. All pictures have been taken by him.