The Sweet One and the Warm One

The Sweet One
Sudhagad Plateau
The rustling grass formed shapes of spirals in an otherwise uniform, sun-blasted lateritic surface of the Sudhagad plateau. As we emerged from the hot and humid forests adorning its foothills, we were witness to a vast field under a clear sky with a cumulonimbus budding over the horizon. From far we saw a Bonelli’s Eagle as it swooped low amongst ancient trees twisted and gnarled, to surprise the hidden doves and quails, of which there were plenty. Some of these ancient trees reminded me of Corbett’s banshee, screaming and wailing from the tree tops, but as the screams fell on my ear it was not the dread I felt, it was amazement. Then I looked at the reason behind the painful squeals, saw an unsettling grin it had carved, and thought otherwise. I quickened my steps as I fought myself from being attracted to this hidden (hideous?) face.
The banshee
Then quietness settled upon me. Not the lull before the storm quiet, it was of something pure and untouched by mindless activities. We came to a lone, bare tree standing over the edge of the plateau, forked at its base, both of its arms curved round each other and then, radiating outwards, gave out thinner branches resembling antlers. The edge of the tree marked a dried-up waterfall. Under it a small rodent which I couldn’t discern properly played around the boulders – its burrow, I reckon, was marked by a triangular entrance. I sat on a rock waiting for it to emerge, but it never gave me a chance to get a closer look.
Stag tree
Then we proceeded along the plateau dominated by tall grass lounging in the warm air. Large boulders were strewn across the plateau, perhaps the remains of majestic halls and tall pillars now free from the services of man.
A Pipit takes a respite under the stone
There is a reason why Sudhagad is called the sweet fort. One of the reasons is that even the gnarly face on the tree, in the end, provides a much deserving shade, as does a boulder surrounded by grass that forms no shadow.

A few hundred yards ahead is a small house with a low-shingled gable roof – a sign that when it rains, it rains a lot on this mountain – that belongs to an old lady. She was certainly not as old as the fort was when it was titled the sweet fort, but today if it is to be called a sweet fort; it is because of her.

We reached her house by noon, about time for lunch, and she so very kindly told us to explore the yonder hill with a temple and the gates from where once passed horses and kingly folk, until she prepared lunch. In the verandah, which quite frankly was the entire Sudhagad plateau, chilies bright in colour were laid out to dry a few yards from her house. Behind it are trees of Jackfruit, standing tall as her sentinels.
Ruins of Sudhagad and Tel Baila in the background
She was the only person other than the priest of the ancient temple that dwelt here. And although we do not know her age, she had come here decades ago with her parents and has lived here for a very long time, for she knew where all the springs and ponds are, and which path led where. Her accent was peculiar. I had never heard it before. It was pure, expressive, and extremely sweet. She asked us to return and to stay on our next visit – which I believe is very imminent now.
An Indian Bullfrog in a vernal pool
While trekking back we visited all the places she asked us to, from the spring that never runs dry to the pond full of flowers: frogs leaping from the banks, some swimming beneath the leaves. Flowers of Kumudini and Water Lilies adorned its surface, and dragonflies and damselflies danced amongst the rich plant growth. While the banks were heating up under the sun, the water was cool upon touch.
The sweet house
I will not deny that I was amazed by this lady. She was the epitome of the tribal communities who have lived over many generations in the Sahyadri, in Her extreme climes. In our little interaction, I did not sense any reverie in her eyes, or any regrets, for living quite isolated. She was most certainly glad to see us, and offered to us to return and stay on another visit. On the way down it started to drizzle, the last of the showers of the year. The cumulonimbus flowering in the far east finally relieved its burden. I deeply considered the life on this ancient fort. An elemental life. Life that is free, yet so exposed to nature’s fury. There are no neighbours here – there are wanderers who come, every week, and sometimes stay. But life here is not empty.

Time here need not be spent to get rid of it – it flows with the pace of nature. Passing-the-time is a concept born out of an urban living. Although time is, well, time – once gone it won’t come back; time here is largely measured by the waning of the sun and the moon, and only on a watch under certain circumstances. Our circumstance was to get home before sunset, just the exact same feeling you carry while you’re on your way home from work. But once here, it doesn’t matter anymore, for there is plenty to do.
Agriocnemis splendidissima and Kumudini
There is plenty to do in order to survive. In the process – a process which has taken thousands of years for these tribal communities – you voluntarily become wise. And you and I have miles and miles to walk to get there for which one lifetime is too short.

The Warm One
Buldhana on an evening
I think I have a penchant for losing my way – in a forest or in the city – and being lost amidst the words of left turns and right turns. It is adventurous, but then I have to make sure I reach the pick-up point hours before the departure so that I don’t miss the bus. On the way to Buldhana I spent two hours waiting on a busy three lane highway, trying to see the little number plate amidst the blinding headlights (and hoping I was not lost), while the bus-wallah who assured to be just over the bridge was actually the one to have lost his way! After spending two hours waiting I spent other couple of minutes in Buldhana – which seemed like hours – the next morning to find a hotel and settled, to my displeasure, into a shady place bleak and somber.

The air was cool when I first entered the city before the sun. Small hills and an undulating terrain contained within a thick fog, settled contently in-between. The sun, as it rose, was warm and red, and as the temperatures slowly increased, it scattered the fog out from the dell. It was my first visit to Buldhana, and although I knew the language very well, I had my own doubts of finding my own way in a new place.

The town of Buldhana is small but not congested, and is spreading outward steadily. The buildings are trimmed to a certain level, allowing a wide view of the town from other significantly shorter buildings. Yet it is not as flat as that further into the Maharashtra hinterland. Buldhana is one of the thirty-five districts of Maharashtra, and lies in the Vidarbha region – where lie my roots.

Coming from a large overcrowded city gives one the pleasure of seeing empty streets and children going to school on their bicycles – a peculiar way of life in Maharashtra that the coming generations are certainly going to miss. I found a temporary abode after asking around a little. Interacting with people here occurred to be extremely familiar to me – the dialect of Varhadi they use is one of the sweetest of Marathi. It has been many years since I listened to this dialect which always fascinated me. In my childhood I used to try to mimic it but would gradually come to speak in the dialect typical of Mumbai city – which I think is the plainest (and boring) dialect without any accent.

The landscape of Vidarbha is generally uniform, with plains dominated mostly by grasses, and the short undulating terrains by dry deciduous forests. Amidst these live the Black Bucks, Chital, Sloth Bear, Leopard and, if you go further north and east-wards, the tigers.

The district of Buldhana, which many residents consider to be the least developed in the state (about which I will come to a little later), seems generally lost on the map because it is, as I have been told, not a ‘happening’ place. Tourists don’t visit, except to visit Lonar crater a few miles from the main Buldhana city. There are no major industries so no business men come here. The general consensus is that Buldhana is a lost city sandwiched between the increasingly urban western and eastern cities of the state. Coming from one of the most crowded (and polluted) part of the state, I beg to differ.
Lonar crater lake - created by a meteor impact on the basaltic rock
Buldhana is not stale, but silent. It may not be ‘happening’, but it is content. You may not find a pub or the best hotel to eat at, but the houses here – most if not all – are still what everyone in a major city yearns for – with a terrace, a verandah, and a garden, a traditional life most Indians once preferred.
Information board on Lonar crater
Every time I get a chance to interact with the residents of a certain place, the more I learn about humanity and its close association with nature. We’re told that Buldhana is broadly divided into two geographic areas – one is hilly, and the other plain. As with any place in the world, there has already been a significant drop in forest and grassland areas of the district. It was all fine a few decades before until more and more land was cleared for cultivation, and now the animals, which stayed within the forests, have taken over the fields.

Loss of hiding and feeding areas has forced deer, wild boar, and other animals to enter agricultural areas and damage the produce. It is apparent that the problem was created by farmers. Fortunately, the farmers also accepted the matter as did the government, and programmes were put in place to reverse the impacts – such as by afforestation. I was impressed to know that farmers are not entirely against the ideas of keeping forests intact, instead of increasing their land holdings for agriculture. But of course there remain a few who think otherwise.

Yet in the end when we discussed the future of our agriculture, it was not forests, or wild animals, or even the climate they were worried about. The answer they gave was the most expected – and we all sat as hopeless and bleak as a wilted flower in winter wishing for the sun. The young generation has been attracted by urbanization through the means of education and media. The mindset of the young have delineated from its former roots (as have mine, I admit). I’m afraid the question remains not about how or when we will see an impact on our agriculture, but when it does, what will we do.

Buldhana is one of the many small towns with the hopes of making it really big. It should indeed be the vision of every government and the people of the town – but being an underdeveloped district does not put it at a disadvantage. It in fact provides an edge to become what today’s cities failed to become – sufficient and efficient. I would not regard my town being backward, after all the basis on which we rank towns and cities is extremely obscure and differs from person to person. For us naturalists it is about maintaining as close a bond with nature as possible, but for some it is also about having as many industries around. In general, however, it is about providing the basic necessities for mankind without any prejudices.
Mobile towers are one of the first signs of development today. Surpassing even the provision of basic needs.
Making a town into a bustling city therefore is a matter of choice of its people, but a general consensus needs to be met with first (striking a balance is the key, after all), before laying the plans of development. This little town is unfortunately trapped between two worlds – the agricultural predominated by the previous generation, and the urban that is largely drifting away from agriculture.

I call Buldhana as the warm one because, except for its cool and pleasant weather, its residents gladly accept the fact that there are no industries and therefore it is a clean district to live in. And secondly because its farmers have become extremely sensitive to the issues related to deforestation and its ultimate get-back on our own plates.

Of course, only time can tell how warm a town can remain, but realizing the problem is the first step towards bringing about a change for good. 
Lord Hanuman of Sudhagad defeats the evil
It has taken us quite a long time to get where we as a species are today. Let us not forget that although we may live a far more sophisticated life away from so-called savage wild, we’re still directly dependent upon it. Still directly at its mercy. In truth, the savage we have created for ourselves, the rapid urbanization, is wilder than the wild – it has its own psychological and physical effects. And the more we try to further isolate nature from us, the harder it will be to survive.

The Earth-lion of India

Around the world it is infamous for a number of reasons. Some call it the curse of a king of old, some say it is the symbol of Satan himself, some call it a bad omen while some burry it to protect themselves from bad luck, some consider it to possess magical powers, and some call it the greatest prophesier.

Its personality (as perceived by humans) is as varied as the colours it adorns. It is probably the most highly specialized reptile on our planet, the Chameleon – literally Earth Lion (Chamai leon in Greek); and in this context, the Indian Chameleon, Chamaeleo zeylanicus.

It is with utmost curiosity and interest that I have been inspecting around trees and shrubs, for half-a-decade, to get a glimpse of this sole Chameleon of the Indian subcontinent, and on the dawn of a fresh winter morning, we met. As time passes it is only natural that the certain event you perceived in the past will happen sooner now than before. I have always carried this wish of seeing a Chameleon on all the explorations, in the back of my mind, and whenever someone told me they’d seen one in a specific location, I would become almost frantic to seek it out. It is a naturalists’ greatest pleasure to go on a sort-of a treasure hunt in nature, of seeking plants and animals which are rare or simply difficult to see, but most often you see it not when you seek it, but when you accidentally stumble upon it.

And on the dawn of a fresh winter morning in the Sahyadri, I stood over the edge of a Ghat that rose up to a plateau of the Sudhagad fort near Pali village, a sister fort of Sarasgad and a fort Shivaji Raje once adored. On this fort, which we scaled with the enthusiasm of a toddler running in a garden, I realized that its literal meaning, the Sweet Fort, is indeed true and holds true for its residents – upon which I will dwell later in the season.

As I stood over the edge of the Ghat, looking below into the valley, I glanced alongside the trees that stood over the edge, and found a startling green object that seemed most leaf-like for a moment. Then I looked again, and a long elastic band shot out of it and drew something into the leaf’s mouth. All this while I stood watching, my camera dangling by my neck. I gazed back into the distance and smiled to myself, and looked carefully back at the curious leaf.

It took me more than a few second to make out the shape of the creature I had always wished to see. An arched back, a serrated underside, bejeweled eyes, and studded emerald scales slowly stood out of the uniform greens around. A mouth, opening and closing, chewing onto something, further cleared my doubt. What’s amusing is that finding a Chameleon wasn’t even in the remotest corners of my mind on that morning. From then on it was only I and the Chameleon exploring one another.

It sat with its tail curled on a stick, its legs grabbing onto another, and its mouth busy munching upon a grasshopper.
On a fine October morning... Indian Chameleon (Chamaeleo zeylanicus
As I positioned myself on the sloping edge, the Chameleon felt my presence and quickly disappeared in a blink. I paused, stupefied. Surely it had seen me moving, but I wasn’t aware that it can disappear in thin air. After calling over a friend to find our shy friend, we discovered him hiding behind a leaf on its left.

The brilliant green he adorned was more than just a colour. It was one of his ultimate tools of trade – some take to fight-or-fright, Chameleons just disappear.

Talking about a Chameleon’s tools of trade is quite a list. To name a few distinguishing characters from other animals we know, the Chameleon can change its colour in a jiffy. Scientists are now beginning to understand this secret visual language. It is not just to camouflage as it was previously thought. Chameleons communicate with it. They flaunt it to woo their lovers; they jut it to warn a rival, and they change it to regulate their temperature – making them able to survive into the hottest deserts to the wettest forests where sun rarely ever shines.

Their tongue, as you’re aware, is expendable and is the ultimate weapon. It has been noted that smaller the Chameleon, longer its tongue, and vice versa (that is something worth looking at).
Going for a grab using its best zygodactylous foot first
The other adaptations unique for a Chameleon – whether arboreal or terrestrial, is their feet. These zygodactylous feet (two toes pointing forward, two backward) are almost hand-like, and exceptionally good not only for climbing trees but also for gripping it.
Using its fifth limb - the prehensile tail
Their tails also seem to possess a sense of their own. A prehensile tail is that which can hold onto something, something possessed by very few group of animals. Chameleons use it as their fifth limb as an extra precaution.
Looking back without having to move the head is peculiar only of Chameleons
The eyes of a Chameleon are probably its greatest adaptation. They move independent to the movement of the other, enabling them to perceive two things separately. While hunting, they lock both their eyes on the prey, and an excellent stereoscopic vision provides Chameleons a greater opportunity to hunt from far.
The Indian Chameleon in its element - climbing trees
What’s special about the Indian Chameleon is all of the above and more. It is the sole representative of the Indian subcontinent. The type locality is from Sri Lanka (hence the species name zeylanicus). They have now been recorded in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan as well. The Indian Chameleon does not dazzle in an array of colours, but sticks to the greens, browns and yellows. It is known to rely more on its colour for communication – showing anger or love, and for temperature regulation.

What’s even more intriguing, however – and a thought that has always puzzled me – is that it is the only representative of its kind in India. For this I went a few million(s) of years back in time but stood there still wondering why.
Climbing facing-down is easy for Chameleons
I’ve always considered India as the daughter of Africa, and Madagascar as the younger sister of India. Why, then, does Madagascar have over half of the yet-identified species of Chameleons, while India only one. One theory is that maybe chameleons evolved a little later in the evolutionary scale while India-and-Madagascar, both sisters, split, giving Madagascar a larger share of the species diversity. Unfortunately, the fossil records have not helped much in revealing their beginning on our planet. As per this wonderful article, the biogeographic history of this already-elusive reptile is still elusive.

To quote the article further:
“Fossils have only been found in Africa and Europe… The modern restricted distribution of the group in Africa, Southern Europe (southern Spain and Crete), Madagascar, Seychelles, Comoros, and Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan) suggests that the evolutionary radiation of chameleons may have been associated with the final breakup of Gondwana (an ancient continent once located in the southern hemisphere), during the separation of Africa, Madagascar, and Greater India, during the late Jurassic and Cretaceous period.”
Maybe – given their exceptional skills – they were packaged and dropped on our planet to exploit its invertebrate diversity. Maybe that’s why they are so elusive and surrounded by so many legends.

The interactions with our friend were brief. The habitat that we found him in is the most typical – but one of the varied places it is found in – the deciduous forests of Sahyadri. They’re also residents of the evergreens, the rainforests, and the thorny shrubs of Rajasthan.
In the dry-deciduous habitat of Sahyadri
I may sound arrogant of India’s advances in zoological explorations, but I’m sure India’s forests hide more Chameleons which are yet to be discovered – maybe they live high in the tree tops of the rainforests, or live amongst the leaf litter (see the tiniest one discovered earlier this year), or perhaps are so extremely specialized that they mimic the elements of the universe itself, that we've seen them but have left them unseen.

All the great skills bestowed upon the Chameleon are but a result of over a million-year old evolution – all a product of natural selection. Given a chance to evolve further down the road, it will become increasingly elusive for us to see – but that hope will not be fulfilled if we don’t stop believing in the superstitions that surround it.
The deciduous trees in the backdrop of agriculture fields and fragmented habitats
The direct threat to the Indian Chameleon is the disintegrating habitats – and although a Chameleon may go unnoticed in an urban forested area, fragmentation of habitats makes it increasing difficult for them to find mates and migrate to newer territories. Western Ghats and the dense forests of central India are some of the strongholds of this beautiful Earth-lion of India. And although I remain of strong opinion that it is not the only Chameleon of India, it will remain the King of all the ones we find in the future, if we ever do.

The deciduous trees have already shed their leaves. The temperatures are cool for the moment. I will be continuing exploring the Sahyadris, but I will be on a sabbatical chasing some other priorities this year, and shall return by the end of December. See you all!


Dear friends,

                 Wanderer’s Eye is now Sahyadrica. A name I closely relate with. Sahyadrica is derived from two words: Sahyadri·ica

                : [Noun] a mountain range along the western coast of India.
                : [Suffix] a collection of things that relate to a specific place, person, theme, etc.

                Kalidasa identifies Western Ghats as a maiden, ever so young and beautiful, draped in a green sari. Her sari is now slowly faded of its colour. Man is ripping her to pieces. The solution is not of building walls around her for keeping men at bay. The question is, how can we both coexist. How can man – her son and daughter – save her at the same time serving his self. There have been solutions proposed but I guess they’re not to everyone’s liking so far.

                Sahyadrica is widely used to describe a species first discovered in, or endemic to the Sahyadri region, sometimes more specifically to the region from Karnataka and Maharashtra. One of the reasons for this blog being titled Sahyadrica is just that - for it began in this very biodiversity hotspot.

                The intentions of this blog have not changed – it is a place to see what I see. Having said that, I believe that it is the responsibility of every dweller of their place, to open their ears and eyes and see the world around them – the little ants and the bees, birds and beasts, the trees and the out worldly bodies – the sun, moon and the stars. It is with this realization that I created this blog in 2008, and have been seeing and hearing, and discovering things which await everyone’s ears and eyes. Heed them!

                I just thought I’d put this up as an update for you all dear readers!

On a few wonders of Sahyadri

Sahyadri’s tabletop mountains are famous for their mighty cliffs. Some are tough to climb, some are too long to tread. Add to it the climatic variation, and they provide a different challenge in the dry and wet seasons. Monsoon is over now, but the wonderful results of the season can be felt everywhere. I’m glad to say we trekkers get to see all the avatars of Sahyadri as and when we get the opportunity. And yet, after all the peaks and passes and forts trekked in all the seasons, there are many cues and hints to things extraordinary and sometimes supernatural, that many of us miss.
Sahyadri Plateau from Lonavala
Let me take you on a walk to witness a few wonders of life in Sahyadri, which I believe are lesser known albeit being a phenomenon commonly experienced by many, but missed by chance, on a climb uphill on crumbling rocks.

Trekking in October has its own merits and demerits. For one, it is extremely sultry, and therefore one must carry all the necessary provisions, like a hat, lots of water, and nutritious stuff to eat. If you can carry a few extra kilos and bear the hot weather, you will be surprised for October also offers a great chance to stand on top of the hill under azure skies, to share this peak with your beloved friends, and to see the results of monsoon on one hand, and that of the increasing intensity of sun’s effect on the other.
Two faces of the mountains
October is a season of rapid transition. I call it the second spring of the tropics. There are plants that are flowering while some are drying out. And dry patches are quietly spreading its cracks outwards on the plateaus.
Groundsel (Senecio grahamii) and Balsam (Impatiens sp.) on the edge of Korigad
Something that one observes all monsoon suddenly becomes quite apparent by the end of it, perhaps because they are last of their kind to be seen during this season – the last blossom of monsoon. It begins as the wetness in the air starts to weaken, and the dryness grips the land like frost.

The most startling, and one of the last troupes of them, are the Utricularia, commonly called Bladderwort. It is a unique plant in the sense that they’re carnivorous – but amusingly, also depend on insects for pollination.
Utricularia purpurascens flower
These amazing flowers of Utricularia purpurascens stand straight up on tender spiraling stems, signaling insects to come. A few inches below, on the substratum saturated with water, are small bladders that, when invaded by an invertebrate, close down engulfing them. These bladders are too small though, and much of what they catch is barely visible to the naked eye.
Utricularia praeteria - measuring under 5 mm
What’s even more interesting is that this genus comes in an array of sizes, but retains most of the features of the Utricularia. Some flowers barely measure less than 5 mm, while other are over an inch in length.

The habitat is shared by another plant which blossoms toward the last days of monsoon – Exacum pumilum, commonly called Little Persian Violet.
Exacum pumilum
This beautiful little herb adorns the brilliant greens with their deep violet flowers. Although common, they are some of the most ephemeral plants of the region, choosing this specific period for calling all the insects for their services. Several other flowers in the shade of violet, Smithia purpurea, Ipomea sp., Impatiens sp., and Argyreia sp. also dot the landscape.

Amidst all this, in a patch of mud saturated with water and supported by the lateritic rock, is one of the most beautiful, and endemic, herb of the Sahyadri – Pogostemon deccanensis.
Pogostemon deccanensis
The inflorescence of this plant, again, is purple-violet in colour, and stands out strikingly from the green abounding it. It is delightful to sit by them and observe flies, bees, moths and butterflies go crazy after its nectar and pollen.

You may have noticed a trend in the colour these flowers wear. It falls in several shades of violet. This is where things get even more interesting. I find this colour of flower, which is the last in the spectrum of light, hard to comprehend. My eyes show the colour differently than my camera, and so all the colours you see in the photographs are in fact slightly different, and this colour complex is called purple-violet.

Now, why are there so many of the plants bearing purple-violet flowers, I wondered. There must be something about it that most of the flowers seem to adorn it in monsoon, and especially towards the end of it. It is a known fact that some flowers are so coloured to send out signals to attract the attention of pollinators in a competitive market, and these pollinators are attuned to particular traits of flowers to obtain food. As per a research article (fortunately freely available online), by Raine and Chittka (2007), the inexperienced bees of a species of bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) of Europe showed a stronger bias towards “most rewarding flower colour” that is violet, in the local flora. The colonies with the strongest bias for violet brought in 41% more nectar than the colony with the least strong bias. It should however be noted here that violet flowers in their study area produced more nectar than blue flowers – which was the next most rewarding flower colour.

From this study, I deduced two probable theories: that like the most common bumblebee of Europe, other insects in Sahyadri are also attracted to this colour because these flowers, like in the study site, produce more nectar than others, and are hence more common and diverse.
A moth feasting on Pogostemon deccanensis
Or, that the purple-violet flowers are so coloured because insects are simply more attracted to purple-violet colours, irrespective of the fact that the nectar content in them is higher or lower than, say, the yellow flowers which are also abundant during post-monsoon period.

It is worth noting here that although equally common, yellow colour is adorned by very few species of plants – Smithia sp. and Senecio sp. being the most common, and white is also adorned by very few species such as – Kaempfeira scaposa and Pecteilis gigantea, while I saw purple-violet adorned by at least six to seven species of plants.
A Handmaiden moth feeding on Senecio grahamii
Unfortunately I could not find many studies seeing the significance of flower colour and its probability of getting pollinated by insects (entomophily). Since the insects see in ultraviolet, it will be interesting to look at the colours they favour, which will help us add another feather to the cap of understanding the reason for flowers to adorn such vivid colours.

In the last article of Tracing the Monsoon, I said that grasses always flower en masse by the end of monsoon, whereas few that flowered early begin to dry out. The flowering of grasses (a single flower called a spikelet) is not regarded as beautiful as that of the flowers we discussed previously. But, I advise you to look closely and intently.
Inflorescence of grass showing anthers
Grasses are commonly pollinated by the element of wind (anemophily), and therefore you will see their anthers freely suspended by a filament, as in the above picture. These anthers carry millions of tiny pollen, and are akin to bags hanging up-side-down.
A Bee gathering grass pollen
These bags of gold are therefore easily exploited by the gold-hunters, or the pollen hunters – the bees, during anthesis (i.e. when the flower is fully open and functional). Grasses, especially which we consume, are still considered to be predominantly anemophilous, however researchers have for many years recorded insects from bees to tiny thrips assisting in its crosspollination.

Now how can I, as a part of the ecosystem help pollinate flowers – is something I was keen on doing this month. One morning when the sun was just beginning to peep from the tabletop Sahyadris in Lonavala, I found a little puff of smoke – very subtly – coming off from where I brushed by knee-high grass. I bent lower to explore the source of this smoke, and gently tapped on the back of the inflorescence of grass. And there it was.
Drops of pollen
The bags containing pollen opened at the touch, much like they would during a strong wind, and the pollen flittered out of it like dust of gold.
Specks of pollen flittering in the air
This is partly zoophily and partly anemophily at work – because although I disturbed the pollen out of their containers, it was the responsibility of the wind to take them to their destination – which is, if you see the purple feathery-structure on top of the flower in the above picture, the stigma of another individual.
Pollen dust of grass
I observed that the pollen only come freely out of the spikelet when the anthers lose a little of their moisture. The colour of an empty anther is different from a filled one. And the amount of pollen from species to species varies greatly, some form large puffs of smoke while others carry heavy pollen which literally sprinkle down like dust when the wind is still.

And as we trek along the Sahyadri watching purple-violet flowers and smoking grass (or grass that smokes) we reach the top which is often flat ground carrying ruins of the fort that stood in an age long gone by. Over here too lie a few wonders which one must seek if you happen to study nature.
The vernal pool of Korigad and the marks of the Littering Folk
Every fort carries a waterbody at the top, or the way to the top. Some of these contain water throughout the season, and some that are only full during a specific season, here monsoon, are called vernal pools. They carry an extremely unique ecosystem and are one of the least studied and underestimated, and one of the most threatened, ecosystems in India mostly because of our sheer ignorance.

These pools are inhabited by a number of organisms – from microscopic algae to invertebrates to fish and frogs, and are a favourite site for birds to rest and nest.
The molt of an Aeshnid dragonfly in a water reservoir on Tung Fort
Perhaps the most common invertebrate of these ephemeral pools are the Odonates. Dragonflies as large as Annax immaculifrons, to the smallest of the Sahyadri – Agriocnemis pygmaea, all call it a home when young.

On a trip to Korigad, which has a large vernal pool not more than six feet deep, we found something natural but extraordinary.
A band of fairies or fishes?
Like little fairies, or fishes as you see it, they glided into the waters a few inches below the surface. On getting a better view of this pod of creatures, I put their numbers anywhere between thousand to million.
A view of the then-unidentified-submerged-objects
It was something I had never seen before, in such large numbers. A quick photo taken from a distance revealed that they had stalked eyes and tiny antennae, and they were continuously flapping in the same place.

As a group of these approached closer, I was pleasantly surprised to find one of the most enigmatic and extremely ephemeral animals that call Sahyadri their home, but are completely unheard of outside the few groups of people – the Fairy Shrimp, probably Streptocephalus (dichotomus).
The Fairy Shrimps of Sahyadri - probably Streptocephalus (dichotomus?)
It is their sudden and “bountiful” appearance that fetches the name Fairy Shrimps, as quoted by Amutha, Subhramanian and Bupesh (2007). They are under an inch in length, carrying orange coloured cercopods. Their numbers were so huge at the vernal lake in Korigad that it snaked under the water for several meters, much of which was invisible in the haze. Fairy Shrimps belong to the order of Anostraca, and are known for their rather interesting, up-side-down life.

They are called the most archetypal crustaceans of the vernal pools, swimming as if gliding effortlessly by the movement of their phyllopodia, filter-feeding on the suspended organic matter. Their lives are short, lasting only about a fortnight, in which they breed and lay eggs. These eggs are drought-resistant and can last from months in case of some, to years or even decades.

One may call them insignificant in this big, big world, but these Fairy Shrimps are also an indicator of a healthy ecosystem, and are a source of nutrition to many waterfowls and fishes around the world. They are a flagship species of the vernal pools, a habitat about which is so less known, there is no legal protection offered to it, albeit being a prime hotspot for many unique and endemic species to flourish.

I wasn’t able to find information specific to the fairy shrimps of Sahyadri, but there are a few passing records I found in Rocky plateaus: Special focus on the Northern Western Ghats and Konkan by Aparna Watve, by Padhye, Ghate and Pai (2011), and a detailed study on Streptocephalus dichotomus by Amutha, Subhramanian and Bupesh (2007) in Tamil Nadu.

We’ve reached to the top now. There is no relief as that provided by a body of water, cool and rippling, where you can sit by observing such flickering life, skittering frogs and their tadpoles. The last band of clouds that are holding onto the mighty Sahyadri provide a spectral display of light and shadow. This world seems disconnected, almost lamenting the age gone by when man treaded it without plastics and other polluting objects.

I have sat here for many hours, observing ripples starting in the middle of the pool and spreading outwards, dragonflies fighting over the best perch, and frogs leaping from the banks. It is a place of solace and stupor.

In places of such historical significance, there are stories told by those who live at its foothills. Such stories have been passed on for generations, some of whose families have also served the Kings in the years of yore.

The stories of spirits and other such supernatural entities are ripe and easy to pick. A wind fanning the leaves of Banana, the rustling of the grasses, and the rhythmic love-notes of Cicadas, when heard walking alone in these lands, deviates ones thoughts towards the eerie. One may lose his tracks during such an event.

Although I’ve never experienced the supernatural, my friends have communicated with old – and wise – entities in the form of mavlas (Maratha soldiers) and elderly folk, walking barefooted in the forests at night. The Sahyadri are full of them, I’ve heard – and the imaginative carvings done centuries ago nag at our fantasies.
An interesting artifact at Mahuli Fort
This photographed artifact lies near a ruined entrance to Mahuli Fort, and resembles a big horned cat with long whiskers, a trident-shaped-tail, and wings much like a griffon. Many forts also adorn carvings of the monkey god Hanuman, the goddess Lakshmi, and Ganesha. Even today they are worshipped by the villagers and fresh flowers are offered every morning. This diversity of artifacts (except that of gods), unfortunately remain from being explored and described, and often go undocumented.

If you’ve ever walked alone in the forest, the thing that one fears most is the unknown that may lie on a bend. Some patches in the forests are devoid of sounds, even the wind does not blow here. In such parts you feel like you’re being watched. We’ve had such experience before, and found the eyes that did not move – even after it had been more than a hundred years. These eyes belonged to the stones, and remain there without ever blinking.
A hundred (and more) year old face in the rocks
Fortunately for me it looked very wise and happy to see us.

Now that you’ve travelled this far, dived deep into the lives of little animals and fantasies of the people that dwelt here, it’s impossible to not stand on the edge and look beyond.
From the peak of Tung Fort, overlooking Pavana dam reservoir and another range of Sahyadris
Stand and gaze. Close your eyes, and let the depth of the landscape consume you. With this image captured by your eyes forever, you will find the following week go by fairly easily. I did.

Tracing Monsoon: Part IV: An Ode to Graminoids

Their birth is marked by very few, yet we all eagerly await them. They are one of the few organisms that, if I may use the phrase, carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. But they lack shoulders, or bones. Scientists studying them call it agrostology, taxonomists identify them as Graminoids, but we all call them grass.
A carpet of grass in Western Ghats
We’re talking about grass which we all ignore simply because we’re too used to seeing it. In fact it is there right now not more than five meters from your home, unless you live in Antartica – but there too grows grass. Graminoid is a term used for three types of monocotyledonous plants with peculiar behavioural and growth pattern: the true grass (Poaceae), the sedges (Cyperaceae), and the rushes (Juncaceae). So what we call grass may either really be grass or it may be a sedge or a rush. That’s just one of the secrets of grasses (More on Graminoids and how to distinguish them can be read here).

I only recently started wondering about the life of grasses, although I’ve admired them for quite some time – but the reasons why we all must like grass are simple and obvious. Certainly there are a number of scientists and taxonomists, and also zoologists and ecologists who understand the value of grass (there are other people of importance too, but they will appear a little later). The scientific community knows that it is one of the latest miracles of evolution on our planet, and, here’s the other surprise: have literally shaped the way several animals, and in particular all grazing ones, evolved. The first true grazers (i.e., animals subsisting primarily on grass year round) are no more than 10 million years old, and a predominance of tropical grazers as is familiar to us in Africa today has a history of only a couple of million years (Janice, C. M. 2008).

Grasses not only helped a group of animals evolve, they also helped them outcompete with others, and so it was one of the few that helped change the history of Earth (from tooth to gut, literally). But I wouldn’t mind calling it the only one that revolutionized our life and made us what we are today.
Rice after an early morning shower
Rice. Wheat. Barley. Oat. Rye. Maize. Sorghum. Sugarcane. Bamboo. They are all one of the most important crops grown worldwide, and form a major part of the diet (or serve as other resources) of many regions. They’re found in every home, and they are all grasses. On a trail you take through the woods, grasses dominate the ground flora in several places. On a walk along the concreted pathway, you may notice but unintentionally forget to remember the grasses that take root in the most inhospitable of anthropomorphic environments.
A caterpillar enjoys a fresh green blade of rice
My association with grasses, and indeed of most, if not all, naturalists’, was never direct. It is only when we see a caterpillar of a butterfly which feeds on grass, or a bird which picks up the grains, do we acknowledge grass, but never with just as much awe as we would the subject that feeds on it. It was no wonder that I found grass, which is the most commonest of all in all the places I’ve been to so far, to be, ironically, the most difficult to identify and appreciate.
But let us leave taxonomic identification of grasses with the agrostologists. There are some subtle cues which help us study (and in the process admire) the life of grasses – their life is simple, but we often miss when they sprout, blossom, fruit, and die. In the context of Monsoon in the Sahyadris, we’re going to trace this subtle aspect of grasses.

Grass at the beginning of monsoon is like grass at the beginning of spring – dry, dusty, and dissolute. It breaks as you brush by and crumbles into infinite specks of dust. All along the steep slopes and rocky cliffs grasses are seen as drab brown carpet for the most part of the winter and summer months. They add a touch of desolation and a sense of inhospitality to the place.
Grass in June, Karnala Fort
The early monsoon rain greets the Sahyadri, and just as suddenly, without one’s notice, little buds start taking root. The grasses, as is the law of nature in the Sahyadri, are always preceded by the ephemeral orchids, lilies and other herbs. The forest floor is full of them for the month of June, and the first half of July. As they begin to fade away, it is grasses that mostly dominate the landscapes thence.

By mid-July, the landscape is lush green. The monsoon ephemerals mingle with the grasses, and they both combine different hues of green-and-blue to form an enigmatic mottle of dark and light patches. The colours are so vibrant that they seem to glow in the moonlight too. The monocultures of grass, especially of rice, are saturated with water which has aided in rapid growth of the crop.

The growth pattern of grasses is not constant throughout the Ghats. They are now well over ten inches tall in some places, while in others they’re barely over two inches off the ground. Certain species grow extremely swiftly, and cover hillsides in isolated or dense bushes.

In the middle of monsoon, when most of the ephemerals have completed their life, the grasses, along with ferns, balsam and begonias, have taken the lead. They now dot every part of the ground they can possibly cover.
Grass flowers on the outcrop of Kanheri Hills, Sanjay Gandhi National Park
Grasses are sturdy and can take root in the smallest crevices in rocks without soils. The large basaltic outcrop at Kanheri Caves in Sanjay Gandhi National Park is one of the best places within the city limits to observe grass, just as you would observe butterflies and birds on a walk in this protected area.

As we near the end of monsoon, the weeks from August to September sees a rather swift growth in grasses. It may be that we never noticed them when they were young, but now they’re in their prime, and having reached the maximum size – in some up to ten feet in length, they’ve begun flowering.
Coix is one of the large, beautiful genera of true grass common along the foothills of Sahyadri, especially along the Konkan coast. Grasshoppers and Earwigs are fond of its leaves and inflorescence, and devour them with delight.

In October most of the grasses have spent their energy successfully. They’ve flowered, and, with the aid of wind and insects, have been successfully pollinated, mated and produced seeds. Some already turn brown, while others last a little longer until the sun saps all the moisture from the surface of the earth. And so we come to the end of one of the billionth lifecycle of grasses.

In winter, however, the grasses that are half dead, take another avatar that lasts only in the wee hours of morning.
Grass in December
The early mornings of the ephemeral winter in the Sahyadri are ideal for dew formation. And grasses are aplenty, and apt, for their grandeur display. And so grasses give just as wonderful a view as they did a few months ago during monsoon.
A Preying mantis mimicking a stick, or grass
But summing up the life of grass in a mere four paragraphs does not do justice to the life they’ve led. There are several factors, atmospheric and biological, that occur. There are interactions at all possible niches, between all possible animals, before grasses take a long rest until the next monsoon.
Paddy field at the foothill of Sindola Fort
The human-grass relationship is one of the strongest in the world. In the Sahyadris where every puddle is filled with rainwater, our thousands of years of agrarian culture have taught us to dam the water, and plant rice. This, I think, is closest a man can come to monsoons and grass. The interconnection is very close, but also very vulnerable. A little shift in the monsoon pattern and the paddies may fail. For instance, rice is especially vulnerable to the last phase of monsoon. As most varieties of rice fruit around August, the hot and dry phase of September and October are crucial for harvesting and storage of the grains. If the rains continue to lash through, the crop may begin to decompose prematurely, leading to a phenomenal loss. Grass, however, is not just food for us. It is fuel for our fire, furniture for our homes, a shelter on someone’s head.

But ecological benefits of grasses surpass all of its economic services. Indeed, if you deduce all of the grasses’ ecological benefits into monetary terms, grasses surpass everything man has ever built himself. For starters, they hold soil in place, they help retain moisture and water, they control the ambiance of a place, and they provide nutrition to birds and mammals, domestic and wild alike.
Grass inflorescence
Grasses share a closer bond with the elements of nature and animals such as insects and birds for its survival. Many are anemophylus: the wind carries the pollen across the landscape, successfully planting several and thus aid in fertilization. Some are cleistogamous: they are self-pollinating. In some species, especially that of rushes, insects like flies, bees and beetles also aid in their pollination.
Eristalinus visiting a sedge at Yeoor Hills
One of the common visitors of sedge (family Cyperaceae), are the flies. I’ve found flies in the genus Eristalinus, family Syrphidae, to be the most common visitors of grasses during the months of June and July. Besides flies, beetles in the family Chrysomelidae and Elateridae are also commonly seen on grass inflorescence.
Pheidole sp. - Harvester Ants
Even in death, Grasses are crucial for birds to build their nests with, and provide seeds to feed on. Harvester ants exclusively feed on the grains gathered from grasses. It is why they are called Harvester Ants. The husks and other remains of the grass are quite systematically discarded in one place outside the nest.

Yet as with everything, grasses look their best in monsoon.
Trachelostylis lawiana on partly degraded land
A simple and dainty sedge which grows along the Sahyadri is Trachelostylis lawiana. It prefers pasture fields and disturbed habitats. This endemic sedge is locally very common, but its preference to secondary habitats, where it is subject to extensive grazing by domesticated animals, is quite surprising. Its growth is perhaps propelled by the grazers that keep the landscape trimmed, which would otherwise grow into long and dense grasses measuring one or two feet in length, impeding the growth of the little Trachelostylis, barely measuring four inches.
A pasture field on Peb Fort without boundaries
The grasslands all over the world are a subject of grazing by domestic animals, burning, and, quite paradoxically, tree plantation drives. Grasslands happen to be one of the largest ecosystems, and are the most underestimated and exploited in the world.

Most of the grassland habitats along the Sahyadri occur over the Deccan Traps and the hinterland. The very few ones of the Konkan plain have been converted into paddies, and the ones on top of the Traps are being converted into “forestland” by planting monocultures of trees. This was especially the case on the “bare” mountains – mountains that were once dominated by grasses.

These monocultures replace completely the native ecosystem with, more than often, the exotic plantations. And as years go by the resident grasses are replaced by more resistant species of grasses. Another kind of monoculture is related to our food. Fields of grains and especially sugarcane also have a devastating effect on the biotic as well as abiotic factors of the region.
Sugarcane fields in Kolhapur
In the month October in 2011, I had the opportunity to visit the Krishna River Basin in southern Maharashtra, just up the Deccan Trap where the peninsular plateau begins. The plains here are extremely rich, and therefore sugarcane is a booming industry, however, sugarcane being a nutrient intensive crop, the land has been spoilt by fertilizers like urea, and has rendered them useless when it comes to growing other crops.

The biological diversity of this region is as a matter of fact quite poor. Only a few birds like the Baya Weavers, who are an adaptable bird species of the Ghats, and others that rely on small wetlands, reside in this region.

When I think about grass now, I think of it not as a gift to mankind, or to the wildlife, but of priceless value for many of the terrestrial animals. I see grass as food for the tiger as much as it is for us. Grass has found its mark on planet Earth by being one of the simplest, yet the most resilient of all the flora and fauna of the world. It is one of the edifices of our planet. It is a plant that will be the first to grow on a land exploited for its resources by man, yet lands devoid of trees are not wastelands just because only grass grows on it.
The grass-rich slopes of Sindola Fort, Western Ghats
Grasses have had a mark on me, thanks to their omnipresence, and thanks to people who’re helping the lost prairies grow back on sand mines, who’re doing every bit to save the grasslands, and who’re digging deep to discover new ones. Many of the flagship species of India, such as the Great Indian Bustard, the Florican, the Wolf, and the Striped Hyena, all exclusively rely on grasslands.

On the treks in the Sahyadri, you’ll see that it is grasses that are the most dominant in numbers of all living things. And indeed they must be, for along Sahyadri’s steep slopes and lose soil, where no tree can get a hold, it is grasses that keeps the mountains from crumbling.