The Legend of Sahyadri

by Vivek Kale

The grassland around us was lit silver under the moon light. Darkness prevailed as the moon waned behind Telbaila. The dark sky was ornamented with numerous stars, with an occasional streak of crashing meteor blazing the eastern horizon.
Moon setting over Telbaila, a giant blade-thin geographic feature of Sahyadri
At dawn the eastern skies were lit again, this time in a subtle shade of red. With the sun arrived the delicate golden rays that lit the entire grassland golden bright. And then winds awoke, caressing the grass merrily. A lone harrier glided in the sky, just few meters above the grass, and vanished beyond the bushes which dotted the golden fields.
Telbaila and the surrounding grasslands under the early sun
While the golden grass crowned the pinnacles, the shadow on the precipitous Harishchandragad cliff started shifting slowly downwards. The entire view was a drama set in a large amphitheater. We could see a pair of endangered vultures, resting at the ledge on the cliff, where they had made their home.  With improving light, the forest in the valley below became alive with calls of Grey Jungle Fowl. An occasional Langur boom reverberated in the valley.  The little peregrine falcon waited patiently for the thermals at the edge of the cliff.  As the light took over the shadows, warmth took over the chill.
The prayer hall of Bedse is one of the early rock temples carved in the giant monolith of basalt rocks in Pune District
The chill and tranquility filled in the ancient Buddhist rock temple of Bedse. Only the flutter of Blue Rock Pigeons perturbed the tranquility.  As the sun rose higher, leaving behind the horizon, the faint shadow of Stupa and its capital appeared on the domed wall behind. The sunlight appeared faintly as it passed through the thin fog floating in the sky, and pierced through the windows and doors on to the capital of Stupa. The light intensified dramatically to bathe the beams a fabulous golden, enlightening the soul, and mesmerizing all the senses.
The pristine evergreen forests adorn the foothills of Sahyadri, harbouring a variety of wildlife
As we sensed the faint song of the birds coming from distant hills hidden in the mist, something moved on a nearby tree. Mesmerized were we as we listened to this invisible Malabar Whistling Thrush, singing from its heart in the evergreen forest of Bhimashankar. We felt as if the forest is singing, lost in the whiteness of the mist. Further on the trail we heard the songs of Puff-throated Babblers in a mixed hunting party with Brown-cheeked Fulvettas. Deep in the darkness of the valley below on the Konkan plateau a pair of Oriental Dwarf Kingfishers was busy hunting geckos and crabs along the streams ready to flow, waiting for the monsoon rains to arrive.  Small saplings dotted the forest floor, ready to rise before the onset of monsoon.
Clouds march over a carpet of Senecio grahamii, a common herb on the plateaus
Monsoon arrived and the streams started flowing. Every dent in the ground was filled with water, and small puddles littered the landscape in no time. The mist we saw earlier in the morning had suddenly turned to water. A musical concert of frogs began on the ridge, in the forest, in the hollows of trees, in bushes everywhere around.  As we walked on the drenched trail full of Gaur pugmarks, through the layers of fallen leaves on the forest floor, happy leeches jumped upon us in such large numbers that we ran with the fear and happiness together. The forest was ornamented by green moss, mushrooms, fluorescent algae on tree barks, and numerous regenerating seeds on the floor. We left the legendary forest fort behind after climbing down the Junglee Jaigad. Thousands of streamlets had come together to form a large river with a deafening roar. I have felt a mixture of fear and joy together in such moments, and such secret revelations of evergreen rainforests have left a long lasting impression on my mind.
A Malabar Crested Lark scans the horizon in the backdrop of exquisite monsoon greens
And there are other, not-so-pleasant moments in nature that I have seen. Once I saw a lone Malabar Crested Lark with its wings spread in anxiety, defending its nest against the human visitors at Kaas plateau. These small birds that nest on the open grasslands surrounded by an array of beautiful herbs are not the only ones who are threatened. The rare and endangered plant species of lateritic plateaus such as Kaas are being pushed to extinction, just for the zeal and pleasure of people who come for picnics without respect or awe for this natural wonderland.

The people of Singapur, once a remote hamlet on the cliff of Pune district, are now happy. The road has reached them just like many other hundreds of villages located above and below the Western Ghat ridge. With the road has come the much needed development, but at what cost, is unknown to anyone. The forests are burnt alive patch by patch for harvesting millet on every slope of the hills, at every edge of the cliffs. The villagers resting under the only trees left on the slopes of Pate village at the foot of Bhairavgad near Chiplun, in Konkan, say “we want more millet!”
Ground-dwelling birds, such as the Malabar Crested Lark, are most threatened today primarily because their habitat,
the basalt plateaus, are considered to be barren or wastelands in some parts of our country, leaving a large
gap in studying and understanding the ecology of  such plateaus.
As the millet and rice fields have gradually started encroaching the Sahyadri, the hunger for food is competing today with the need for energy. To grind the millet we need energy. Surrounded by the wind mills all around us, we were at the top of Patta fort. The caves here have been painted by oil paint by locals, and the hills are covered by the windmills and the serpentine network of the roads, piercing through the forests and grasslands on the slopes and plateaus of this beautiful leopard country.

The slopes and plateaus other than the protected and unreachable section of Sahyadri today are fenced, pushing the wilderness to the walls of its own precipitous cliffs. The water streams now flow through the fences, often diverted or pushed towards megacities growing at the edge of Western Ghats, only to get polluted and misused.
Sahyadri is not only a biodiversity hotspot, but also a cultural hotspot, having seen the coming and going of
a number of cultures, traditions, and civilizations - and of all the early settlements, ours is the most threatening.
Though we feel the beauty of Sahyadri every monsoon in its true colors, sounds, and expressions, in the dancing wildflowers, in the gushing waterfalls and streams, in the amazing plants, insects, amphibians, birds, reptiles and mammals left around in forest, we are compelled to see its rapid degradation at the same time. And that hurts.
The profound wealth of nature has everything in it that we need. In the past few centuries, we have started modifying nature to create artificial structures with superfluous ideas, taking authority of naure into our own hands. There is no doubt that most of us are getting the pleasure and prosperity from our artificial creations, but at the expense of survival of nature, and in extension of mankind.
The gems of Sahyadri lie not in its minerals and ores, but in its grass
The elements of nature have been supporting human life for millions of years, with perfect symbiosis between various elements of nature forming a complex web of interdependency. Indeed, nature once depended upon man as man still does upon nature. We are now breaking the linkages between various species and exterminating some along with their entire ecosystems, which have been part of our own life-supporting system. Shifting from obligatory to facultative, we are perhaps slowly eliminating ourselves.

As we are slowly unbalancing the equilibrium with nature which was maintained in the past, we seem to be now divided at a political level; those for controlled development and those who want indiscriminate consumption of natural resources. Western Ghats or “Sahyadri” as we call it lovingly is not insulated from the ill effects of economic development. Like most of the biodiversity hotspots, it is affected by the human greed for the natural resources that it reserves, perhaps more than most hotspots of the world. Sahyadri is not only known for its biodiversity but it also has inspiring traces of our own earlier civilizations. Even today, Western Ghats support the entire civilization of south Indian peninsula with its natural resources: rivers, forests, and its innumerable animals. Let us try to preserve it as much as possible by striking a balance between economic growth, socioeconomic development and conservation of ecosystems.
Sahyadri are the birthplace of a number of economically important rivers. The least we can do to protect our own
interests is protect our lifeline - the rivers - and the mountains and the trees.
The awareness about our natural resources, rather ecological richness, and civic sense amongst our society is alarmingly low. I can only hope that the larger majority of mankind will re-appreciate nature in future by forgetting political boundaries and egos.

Let us hope that the legend of Sahyadri will survive and continue to co-evolve with all its elements and species forever.

About Author: Vivek Kale

Vivek is a visionary with a true passion for nature and a special bond with Sahyadri. His passion towards the science and arts, with correct level of visualization, has grown higher and higher with his wanderings in the Western Ghats, from hills to valleys and from forests to grasslands. He expresses his ideas through his visual journal, “Me Sahyadri” (Marathi for “I am Sahyadri”), using two mediums, a monthly photo- magazine and audio-visual films.
Vivek's initiative, Me Sahyadri, a bilingual online journal aims to raise awareness about Sahyadri's vulnerable treasure
His bold work speaks for itself; however he considers it to be a small attempt to spread awareness. According to Vivek, the scientific information is learnt conventionally by us through textbooks or using documentaries. His idea behind “Me Sahyadri” is to have a perfect cocktail of art, natural history and social science.
Vivek has released several video documentaries of Sahyadri, and he is probably the only person to enable people like
us to look at our mountain with awe and wonder.
You can view his works here: http://sahyadrigeographic.com

This work is © Vivek Kale and has been published with his permission. No part of this article, including photographs, can be used without prior permission of the author. Please visit the author’s website for more information.

An Ode to Rain

There is something within me
that is a desert,
a dying plain of cracked mud,
an empty cup
that forever thirsts
for another sip
of rain.
                                                                – Stephanie Rachel Seely, An Ode to Rain

Kalidasa would not have chosen this year to write Meghdoot. The famed southwest monsoon of the Indian subcontinent is at its five year lowest as of June. A strong El Niño is being blamed for such an anomaly, holding back the most beloved weather of the world from us just like it did in 2009. If anyone had asked you about India’s monsoon of the previous year, you may have responded with a satisfactory smile. It was beautiful. The rivers were flowing to the brim and the agricultural production was far better. I’m not sure what the government figures tell, but the farmers of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh were more-or-less happy with the yield if you forgive disease and pest outbreaks in certain regions.

The monsoon of the year 2013 was considered to be the effect of La Niña, a feminized form of a weather condition which leads to cooling in the regions of the Pacific Ocean (originating along the coast of Peru), giving the southwest monsoon its strength to pour heavily upon the subcontinent. La Niña literally means “little girl” in Spanish. In other regions, La Niña gives rise to severe storms and hurricanes or to drought conditions in some parts of South America and East Africa. What is happening this year, or is still being predicted, is that we are facing the backlash of the plenty of the previous year. The fury of La Niña is often followed by the brute of El Niño, meaning “little boy” in Spanish, which is exactly opposite of La Niña. The New Zealand Herald has explained these phenomena well.

Both these climatic events are crucial shapers of the weather of our planet, and are equally responsible to make or break our heart. This year, we are about to face El Niño, that little boy which scientists warned us about many months ago. From the peak of the summer, in April-May months, news of the status and the probability of this weather condition have been in the forefront in media. News report that India will suffer with below-normal rains this year, impacting agriculture and the gold market, as empty clouds streak the sky sullen. No drop of moisture remains in them to make grandeur fallout. Economic Times reports that the rainfall deficit for the country is predicted at 37%, even before El Niño has developed. No rain, no food, no gold.

What causes such a cascade of crashes by a singular event is a solemn thing. Edward N. Lorenz, professor of meteorology, in one of his finest papers, asked: Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? More commonly referred today as “the butterfly effect”, this part of the chaos theory says that the smallest change at one place can result in large differences in a later state (Wikipedia: Butterfly Effect). In the words of the author, “if a single flap of a butterfly’s wings can be instrumental in generating a tornado, so also can all the previous and subsequent flaps of its wings, as can the flaps of the wings of millions of other butterflies, not to mention the activities of innumerable more powerful creatures, including our own species”.

This beautiful poetic assertion of the mathematician-cum-meteorologist is derived from some complex mathematical models run on some complex computers of his time. The relevance of the butterfly effect is quite crucial to understand the weather phenomenon that affects farmers, and the gold markets. What it literally means, and how Lorenz came upon it perchance, is quite interesting. An excerpt from the essay on the butterfly effect from the University College London tells the story:

“[…] in the early 60s Lorenz was doing computer experiments on a 12-dimensional weather model. One day he decided to run a particular time series for longer. In order to save time he restarted his code from data from a previous printout. After returning from a coffee break he found that his weather had diverged sharply from that of his earlier run. After some checks he could only conclude that the difference was caused by the difference in initial conditions: he had typed in only the first three of the six decimal digits the computer worked with internally. Apparently, his assumption that the fourth digit would be unimportant was false.

Lorenz realised the importance of his observation: “If, then, there is any error whatever in observing the present state – and in any real system such errors seem inevitable – an acceptable prediction of an instantaneous state in the distant future may well be impossible.” Indeed, the error made by discarding the fourth and higher digits is so small that it can be imagined to represent the effect of the flap of the wings of a butterfly. In fact, Lorenz originally used the image of a seagull. The more lasting name seems to have come from his address at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, 29 December 1972, which was entitled ‘Predictability: does the flap of a butterfly’ wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?’.”

In the backdrop of this story, somewhere there is a butterfly flapping its wings, leading El Niño to cause below-normal rainfall in India, leading to rain-fed rivers running dry, impacting agriculture and the agriculture-dependent businesses, and ultimately leading to inflation of food and fuel prices, and, somewhere along the line, leading to a fall in the market for gold, besides leading to a change in the political climate. These events can be predicted, and have been predicted just as Lorenz discovered five decades ago, but Lorenz in his poetic anecdote has told us something far more substantial: the role of the activities of innumerable more powerful creatures, including our own species.

If the rain gods are not happy, it is not because of the flapping of a butterfly, but that of mankind. Collins et al (2010), in their paper “the impact of global warming on the tropical Pacific Ocean and El Niño", say that the mean climate of the tropical Pacific region continue to change in the coming century as a result of past and future projected emissions of greenhouse  gases. Latif and Keenlyside (2009) also show that the equatorial Pacific, during the past half-century has shown a clear warming trend, consistent with global warming. Several models have been run to study the correlation between El Niño and global warming, and all the models have shown different predictions (Wikipedia: El Niño). It is said that it is difficult to predict the relation yet, however some studies show that climate change could double the frequency of super El Niño events (source), and 2014 is just one of the initial pages of a long book written by El Niño with the consent of man.

It is too early to predict the wrath of the rain gods, but it is a sign nonetheless. Fields are parched, and the first round of paddy has failed in many regions across India. Whether you are a believer or not (of god or climate change, you choose), human activities truly reflect on our planet. In other words, one paddle of your bicycle, or a push of the accelerator of your vehicle, can impact our planet’s climate.

You can keep a watch on monsoon of India from the following websites:

Sahyadrica turns six! It was on June 28, 2008 (a fine La Niña year) that I first started with Wanderer’s Eye. I have been refraining from celebrating Sahyadrica’s birthdays for it reminds me of my age. This platform is a part of my life now (and I should accept growing old); it is, after all, a place to see what I see! My primary intention was to separate this blog from any human intervention, and I had almost always abstained from posting pictures of humans, and I continued that stint for almost two years before I had to give in. Earlier it was a blog dedicated solely to nature – mostly for insects and spiders and plants. It was later that I understood the role man plays in nature, of how important it is to keep man in the view of viewing nature.

After six years and 131 articles, Sahyadrica, if not wiser, has cut down on its obsession of hyphens (and will learn to reduce its commas in the next), and has definitely piled information which you have accepted. I thank you all!

I am glad to announce that Sahyadrica will now be displaying works by others. Writers, thinkers who write, philosophers who write, researchers, photographers, poets, and amateur journalists, and those who just love to explore – on the neon-screen, city-streets, or in the wild, will be using this platform to share knowledge – but more importantly, share passion and emotions towards our natural wealth. This is to let you share what you see. Let the world be a part of your eyes, and the world will probably wake up sooner than later.

Currently Sahyadrica does not accept unsolicited material.