Monday, May 9, 2011

The Beauty of Central Western Ghats

The Beauty of Central Western Ghats

Dr Nandkumar Kamat

Recently I took a journey to Bangalore from Goa and back by road to attend a meeting as a non-official member of the Western Ghat expert panel appointed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF), Government of India, under well known biologist, Prof Madhav Gadgil.
It was an opportunity to study the cultural ecology of the central Western Ghats. So I chose to take the land route by car.
The Western Ghats spread across five states - from Tamil Nadu to Gujarat. A traditional division is - southern Western Ghats (mostly south of Palghat gap, Kerala), central Western Ghats (traversing northern part of Kerala to Goa and the northern Western Ghats (from Goa to Gujarat). I have worked extensively in the Western Ghat area of Goa. But I had always missed the central Western Ghat in Karnataka with its scenic rivers - Kali, Gangavali and Sharavathi.
Geologically these regions have always interested me because the Western Ghats were formed almost 20 million years after the cataclysmic volcanic genesis of the Deccan plateau 65 million years ago. I wanted to see how the Western Ghats transit to almost flat Deccan plateau. As rocks and soils change so do agricultural crops and practices. I aimed to see the variation in rocks, soils, flora and fauna and diversity of lentic and lotic water bodies and the types of developmental pressures in the region between Sirasi and Shimoga. Books offer only a static perspective of the central Western Ghats. But I could study their dynamics with my own eyes. The ghat section rises gently from Ankola towards Sirasi. This region is rich in dense forests.
At Devimane, on this road, is a spot considered sacred. An uniconic temple of Lord Siva has been erected there with a majestic viewing gallery. There is a sudden break in the roadside vegetation and one sees a breathtaking view of an ocean of dark green rolling hills in the deep valley of the Gangavali River. The precipice is so steep that nothing can be seen at the bottom of the valley. The pristine, unbroken canopy of the forests here would remind anyone of the jungles of Amazon. How much do we know of this impenetrable forest? I wondered while admiring the ocean of rolling hills. From whatever biologists have been able to study, the biodiversity of the Western Ghats shows that species found here are not found elsewhere in the world. This is known as endemism. It is very important in conservation of biology. Among 137 species of mammals 14 are found only in the Western Ghats. This means if their habitat is destroyed then these species will become extinct. So far 586 bird species have been catalogued -16 of these are unique to the Western Ghats. Was this mountain range Nature’s favourite nursery to evolve amphibians like frogs? If we look at the figures of amphibian diversity- 96 of the 131 species belong to only to the Western Ghats. Similarly 118 out of 288 species of fish found in the Western Ghat rivers, streams, lakes, ponds are not found elsewhere. Over 37 species of butterflies are unique to this region. The aesthetic essence and hypnotic beauty of the Western Ghats has been captured remarkably by Sandesh Kadur and Kamal Bawa in a great coffee table book called ‘Sahyadris, India’s Western Ghats - a Vanishing Heritage’ (ATREE, 2005, 2007). It is a collector’s item.
The road to Sirsi brings dense forest so close to you that while travelling you feel as if you are climbing to the top of an impossibly tall tree. If the forest can be so fresh and full during dry summer months one can imagine its splendour during the monsoon. After crossing Sirsi one feels the change in the landscape gradually. After Yekkambi, the typical dipterocarp trees begin to thin out. The undulating landscape acquires a distinctly plain, flat character. From Yekkambi to Akki Alur village the elevation drops by 100 metres within a distance of 25 kms. The Deccan Plateau begins somewhere around here because as we travelled towards Haveri, from where we could take NH-4 for 25 kms, there was hardly any difference in elevation. The visibility improves vastly. We could see an endless flat landscape without a distinct horizon, unlike in Goa.
The lateritic soil gives way to volcanic black cotton soil. It is so prominent between Haveri to Tumkur that the black brown colour of the soil makes you wonder whether it would be fertile at all. But this region is the backbone of Karnataka’s cash-crop based economy. The journey to Haveri from Ankola showed me the transition of the Western Ghats to the Deccan Plateau. It was a different and reverse story on the return journey via Shimoga on NH 206. We had entered Malnad. Everywhere one could see beautiful well maintained tanks and reservoirs. These attract thousands of migratory birds. Between Tiptur to Shimoga the entire road is carefully planted with thousands of banyan and tamarind trees. A continuous canopy of these centuries-old trees covers the road which takes you from the Deccan Plateau to the eastern face of the Western Ghats. The effect of the ghat is felt once you cross Arsikere and is prominent at Tarikere. But the real visual pleasure comes once you cross Shimoga and speed to Sagar.
The landscape changes to a typical Western Ghat dipterocarp forest. I could study some of the most stunning termite hills on this road. Their architecture was absolutely different from those found in the forests of Goa. From Sagar to Honavar the journey once again took us into the bowel of the thick forests dominated by Cariota palms and giant ferns. Hundreds of sharp hairpin bends make this road very dangerous for journey but you profit from the view of 253 metres fall of River Sharavathi at Jog Falls. On the road from Sagar to Honavar there is a viewer’s gallery from where we get a glimpse of backwaters of the Gersoppa Waterfall. Karnataka government is erecting a mini hydel project on this stretch. After reaching Honavar my self-enlightening and educative encounter with the central Western Ghats was over.

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