Once Upon A Biome


The world in which each of us lives does not necessarily yield the world in which we all live together. Where does your world end and mine begin?

I live in a world grown from tall trees, tiny tender plants and a scintillating diversity of creatures, which is covered in cloud and drenched in rain for a greater part of the year. Out of my window, I see the Banasuramala mountain gracing the southern horizon, rising over 6,000 feet, and rolling forests to the west. Small farms make a scruffy patchwork on other sides. I see the rise of the shola grasslands of the Brahmagiris in the north-east. The rounded hills and snaking streams, each born of millions of seeps from tree roots, making their way east through the Kabini, and then the Kaveri. My world is also full of ferns. I frequently awaken to the sound of heavy wind blowing through a forest canopy.

But, my world used to be like this. I believe it’s possible that soon, within my lifetime, this rain-drenched world, at the edge of a forest in the mountains of southern India, might not be here anymore. Mighty forces are at work. So, I must modify my first sentence. The world in which I live today doesn’t necessarily yield the world in which I lived all these years, nor the world that is to come.

I’m on an eru-maadam, or tree platform, in a forest in Wayanad, Kerala. It’s made of bamboo, silver oak trunks, jute rope and coir string — made almost entirely with materials from this place. It sits 12-metres high on a meen-mutti tree growing over the Kallampuzha stream. Paniya people used to come here for their rituals, since the beginning of time, they say. It is now densely covered in Ochlandra travancorica, or oda, a slender species of bamboo typical of the streams of Wayanad. For more than 15 years, we have protected this stretch of the stream. Village folk can come here to harvest bamboo, to fish, to graze their cows, and to swim and bathe, but no one can clear it for annual crops like bittergourd, nor use dynamite to fish.

This canopy is a dwelling place. On it grow more species of plants, even a tree. Many orchids, a creeper with red flowers, mixed communities of mosses and liverworts, as well as lichens live here. Several ant species race around while three racket-tailed drongos join me, their trills and whistles, cocky and full of energy. Bamboo reeds grow upwards to mingle with the leaves of this tree. In the intermingling canopies are oakleaf ferns, their basket-like sterile fronds heavy with compost. The tree, plants and animals are at home on the stream’s banks.

We have just held a meeting here. My friends and I sat together for a couple of hours to discuss the previous week’s work and related news. We are members of a neighbourhood conservation group. Two of us are Paniyas, two are Kurchiyas, and two are settler migrants. The exciting news was the encounter with a herd of bison on their way here, a sighting of a Nilgiri marten making its nest last week, news of a single elephant in the next valley, and also pugmarks of tiger a week ago. Hornbills and crow pheasants, as well as barbets and leaf warblers called as we spoke, our own speech punctuated by their caws and whistles, and chortling cries.

When people ask me about the Western Ghats, the mountain biome in south India where I live (also the region of my work and primary concern), I often wonder, which Western Ghats are they interested in? The environmental hotspot with waterfalls, species — rich forests, and cold heights, full of frogs, orchids and butterflies, or the decimated 93 per cent? The one featured in glossy coffee-table books and surround-sound drone-filmed footage, or the green deserts and gouged-open slopes, and dammed, desecrated rivers which don’t reach the ocean? The splendid water tower or the invaded last forests? The diverse indigenous and traditional peoples or the diaspora doing menial work in the Gulf? Do they want to know about how rich and lush and full of plants and animals it still is or about the species that are going extinct, owing to a slew of factors such as Ayurvedic pharmaceuticals, climate change, highways, resorts, mega projects and plantations? Do they want to know about how these mountains with their forests create water, or, about how their waters are stolen?

It’s always a problem for me to tell people about these mountains: my home.

Shall I tell them about Western Ghat geology and how these mountains were formed? One hundred and fifty million years ago, India was part of Gondwanaland, the supercontinent that included South America, Africa, Australia, Antarctica and Madagascar. Imagine this huddle of continents, clustered together in the lap of the primeval ocean, bearing our ancestral floras and faunas. Now picture it breaking up over tens of millions of years and drifting apart, each jagged plate carrying a few of the plants and animals as it slipped away. Imagine the Indian plate, a huge and triangular chunk of land, moving, sliding slowly on a 40 million year long ocean journey, to eventually dock into the underbelly of the gigantic Asian landmass. Imagine the earth wave that followed, heaving up the Himalayas, tilting up the Ghats, rocking and bucking the ancient Deccan peninsula over the course of several million years.

Or shall I narrate a little human history? A not-so-safe subject. For instance, the Kurchiyas are a hunter-cultivator tribe, who have been in Wayanad for a couple of hundred years, brought as fighters by the Malabar chieftain Pazhassi Raja for his rebellions against the East Indian Company’s invasion of these mountains. Fierce battles were fought in the forest where I live; a massacre of English troops took place here. Skirmishes, ambushes and traps have been laid under these ironwood trees, in these ushnameghala kaadukal or rainforests of Wayanad.

Pazhassi’s final resistance lasted five years. He was killed, in a gunfight, not too far from here, owing to a betrayal of his whereabouts by Swaminatha Pattar, a Tamil Brahmin in the court of the Zamorin of Calicut. Later, the same slick pundit connived with the English and betrayed his chief. Thus, colonial rule was established in Malabar.

There are so many perspectives on this small mountain biome, with its rivers supporting some 245 million people — from wanting them up, to wanting them down, the need to conserve them and the greed to destroy them. The thoughtlessness and travesties behind the ports, airports, railways, highways, neutrino projects and tech parks, and the thoughtfulness and sage wisdom of the many indigenous and traditional peoples. I could talk about CK Janu, a brave Adiya tribal woman, and the Muthanga struggles she led to reclaim the forest, or the colonial plantation history that alienated most peoples from the land, followed by various fickle policies by successive governments of independent India which worsened the alienation. About emerald-green tea plantations offering scenic backdrops to honeymooners taking selfies, or tea plantations that want to be forests, with ancient regenerative secrets fibrillating impatiently between their roots.

Of course, life is still sublime in some parts of the Western Ghats. It is still a paradise. A king cobra nests in the valley. Malabar giant squirrels chitter in the canopy. Fireflies light up the night, vying with the stars. Gliding frogs line up on lily leaves. Musical sweet water streams flow from the toes of trees. If it’s fertile and fecund today, it could be like this tomorrow as well.

I do love my home in these mountains. We all do — the frogs, the elephants, the rivers, the humans and the trees. We will pass on this love to others, in the slim, yet bright, shining hope that they too find communion in all that is vital, beautiful and real. We hope that they then roll up their sleeves and get to work, protect what needs to be protected, fight what needs to be fought, and leave alone what needs to be urgently left alone. So, I modify my first sentence. The world in which we live necessarily yields the world that is to come.

Suprabha Seshan lives and works at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, and is working on a book Rainforest Etiquette in a World Gone Mad, forthcoming from Context, Westland Publishers.

Originally published in The Indian Express. Republished with the author’s permission

Copyright © 2018 The Indian Express [P] Ltd. All Rights Reserved


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