Peace of Mind

Rain step-danced on the rickety asbestos roof as we savoured the delicious vada pav. It has only been a few minutes since we escaped from the frenzy city that now lies 700 meters below, 12 miles away. We’re in the land that Sahyadri adorns so well during monsoon, it is only when you touch it you believe it’s not an illusion. It is probably her greatest possession for miles north or south.

The city-dwellers, like me, have chosen to come cherish this crown forest hidden away, literally, from prying eyes. No one questions anyone’s presence here – nor do they acknowledge it. It is a world in itself, whole – with gaming stations to liquor shops – a place where no vehicles are allowed, except for the neighing horses. If you’ve visited this place, you’d probably know I’m talking about the mighty Matheran – a hill-station we all love in our own ways.

Matheran, over the years, has grown into a city in itself. Hotels and so-called cottages sprawl along the very edge of the mountains, and horses, hundreds of horses, ply daily the neatly paved roads, their masters avoiding the mucky paths made particularly for the horses’ feet. A large cell-phone receiver, today, towers over the tallest evergreen trees probably a few years over hundred old. Such is the extent of development, that it is easier to find a soft-drink over a glass of water.

Yet amidst this bustling town growing rapidly from all sides, there are natural wonders that give Matheran its name – the crown forest, or literally, forest-over-the-forehead. This crown today is fast balding. The footfall to Matheran has increased tremendously – and it is only fair that people go out of the cities to cherish the bounty of monsoon. What worries me is the question: at what cost? People in Matheran on July 14, 2012 left behind hundreds of glass bottles in the cottages, a hundred more were thrown into the forests and the valleys. Monsoon has been, and has become more largely, a reason to irresponsibly party in nature’s lap, and ignorantly leave behind every piece of trash that will do more harm than good.

I do not know the future of Matheran, nor of its famed flora and fauna, but I know this: unless stringent rules are implemented on capping the growing hotel constructions, Matheran is going to be run over by unsustainable, ill managed plans that will be hard to be undone. I do believe it is not merely the impact of the footfall of tourists that will affect the biodiversity of this region – it is the tourism industry that is unwillingly encouraging tourists to be irresponsible, is what is going to strip ecologically significant areas like Matheran of their natural glory. If I shudder to think of the future of our crown forests, I get a fit thinking of what will happen of Mabaleshwar hillstation I visited last month.
Sahyadri
Since we were at Matheran for two days, we sought shelter in a small cottage overlooking Garbut Point, the room smelling of fungi and dampness. We got out as soon as we could, and explored the less-sought destinations that are suffixed “points”.

Our objective was a shared one. Everyone who had come, or has come, came to attain peace of mind. Ours was met with treading less-frequented places (where the biodiversity is conserved simply because the Littering Folk have not discovered some regions), and to hunt plants and animals in deep and dark forests, and to simply wander where we saw no humans, not even us, for we lost our physical being for couple of hours in the shrouded forests.
Fern (Pleopeltis linearis?)
We came to Matheran for peace of mind. Utter peace where silence formed an ideal backdrop to the twittering of Raorchestes bombayensis, the Bombay Bushfrog (also called Typewriter Frog); the rustle of scales of Ahetulla nasuta, the Vine Snake (also called Whip Snake); and the chorous of Duttaphrynus melanostictus, the Common Indian Toad; Ramanella montana, also called Jerdon’s Narrow-mouthed Frog, and numerable insects, birds and talking trees.
On the way to Panorama Point
It will anger the mighty Matheran if I say he did not welcome us kindly. The clouds were unfurled and a glassy blue sky was gleaming down at us, yet the sun was hidden – tucked away in the early eastern sky by a monstrous cloud cover. Rain was suspended as drizzle in thin air, flying up and down from all directions – an umbrella didn’t help keep us dry, but the rain, as snow, did not soak us, but merely settled and cooled our city-sickened body. We were headed to the north, and away, from the Matheran Township, towards Panorama Point.
The classic Panorama Point trail
Panorama point stands alone on the northern tip of Matheran, its path leading straight from a variety of habitats – from the dense cover of Memecylon umbellatum, the Ironwood tree, to freshly sprouting Strobilanthes callosus, the Karvy, to rocky cliffs and crevasses, to the wide-angle, 180 degree view from its tip.
The vast reaches of Sahyadri: from Panorama Point
Panorama Point is a less frequented place of Matheran. It is a naturalist’s paradise. One of my cherished finds here was a little epiphytic orchid dotting a broad tree trunk. It stood only at two inches, and contained a strand of little buds, green and dripping wet. The botanists say it is Eria dalzelli, I simply engorged on its beauty.
Eria dalzelli budding
Tree trunks when wet not only absorb soil, but also nutrients from the air, and these microscopic particles form a little niche, where algae, fungi, lichens, and epiphytic ferns, orchids, and some parasites take root. While the orchids only anchor themselves to the trees, parasitic plants like Tolypanthes lagenifer, a kind of the Mistletoes, seeks nourishment directly from the tree.

We also found a strikingly beautiful plant for a parasite, which rests underground for most of its life, but sends out its flower that give out a ghostly glow, the Christisonia calcarata, commonly called Spurred Christisonia.
Spurred Christisonia - Christisonia calcarata
It is a parasite on Strobilanthes callosus, Karvy, which flowers once every seven years.

While we sought plants that stood by the path, our attention was caught by the ones that most strikingly mimic the creeping vines – the Vine Snakes. It is with pride when one says he spotted seven Vine Snakes in two days – which we did, with eyes trained to distinguish the green, from the greens.
Vine Snake in its prime habitat
In all my visits to Matheran, Vine Snakes always bless us with their sightings. They are the silent watchers of the crown forest, stirring only when disturbed, or while hunting. On one of our nature-walks, we stood by a shrub where a young snake-ling stalked a Bombay Bushfrog.
Vine Snake
As we strolled on our way to Panorama Point, we also came across some curious insects, such as one very peaceful Jewel Beetle, Lampetis sp.:
Jewel Beetle - Lempetis sp. (fastuosa?)
It sat on a rock by the side of the road. Beetles in the family Buprestidae are commonly called Jewel Beetles, although not all Buprestids have jewel-like colours. This fellow is like the many grubs of Buprestidae family which are woodborers – they eat the plants from the inside, pupate, and emerge as wonders of the world.

In another road-side shrub sat the larva of the Firefly (a beetle in the family Lampyridae), who had its attention on chewing a snail:
Firefly larva feeding on a terrestrial snail: If poets knew about the pre-metamorphic lives of Fireflies, I wonder how their poems would sound.
The larvae of Fireflies are predatory, and specialize on hunting for snails. They can be considered as excellent controllers of snail populations, whose young ones are now feasting on the foliage. Whether they stalk the prey or wait for the snails to creep up to them, I do not know. But observations state that they are usually stationary, after all snails are not as slow as they appear to be, especially if they appear in their thousands during monsoon. It is a common sight if you observe in dense thickets along paths, where they commonly appear sitting over the leaf surface, their heads deep inside the snail’s flesh.

Speaking of beetles, the most diverse Order of our planetary system, I found a beetle which closely resembles the Triceratops. The comparison is silly, but the resemblance uncanny:
Platypria, the Triceratops of Class Insecta
Some beetles in the subfamily Hispinae of the Chrysomelidae (Leaf Beetles), are covered in protective spines all over their pronotum and elytra.

In evening we paid our tribute to most sought-after regions of Matheran – Charlotte Lake, Echo Point, and Lords Point, and held our breath as we saw the spectacles Matheran had to offer. The illusion of waterfall defying gravity – thanks to the upward drafts – was real.
Waterrise
A Waterrise (or water-rise) is a gravity defying phenomenon when water falling off a cliff rises up towards the sky. For a person standing up-side-down, a waterrise may appear as a waterfall.

The sheer cliffs of Sahyadri, also called the Deccan Traps as you go further east, form a blockage to the westerly winds blowing from the seas – sending them speeding upwards in speed reaching up to 38 knots. The wind provides enough leverage for waterfalls to actually rise up and fall back upon the land.
Waterrise from the cliffs of Matheran
It was a spectacle I froze in my memory. Going back to the moldy room, I’d need it to lull me to sleep.

In the night, as owls we emerged from the little room on the empty streets, to witness and hear another spectacle very few have heard of: the choir of amphibians.

Our start of the midnight orchestra begun with what sounded like someone sending a Morse code. But this sound was more than a mere code – it was a call of love.
The Bombay Bushfrog, Raorchestes bombayensis, setting the stage on fire
Elsewhere, other males made sure they were heard too. This little frog is as big as it gets – a little less than one inch. Including the vocal pouch, it goes well beyond two inches. Matheran is filled with the twittering of these frogs, and, besides the school-boy whistle of the Malabar Whistling Thrust, the Bombay Bushfrog is probably the most widespread sound of Matheran – it almost forms the identity of this crown forest.
Raorchestes bombayensis and his vocal sac
Frog calls of different wavelengths lured us from the dark way towards Paymaster Park. No creature seemed to be stirred, but their call was so loud, our voices were hushed, and we slowly walked to the source of the frog’s musical notes. Finding a frog from its call is a delighting experience. It is a game requiring close attention without sudden movements. It makes your hearing sharp and seeing strong.

After watching the many love struck Bushfrogs and Toads, we traced back to our little room.

On the porch light I counted 12 species of moths that were new to me, of which I photographed 9. I crashed having partially achieved a peaceful mind.
The crown forest
I don’t know if we woke up, for I found myself walking in the quietest of the woodlands – my soul escaped my body, my mind escaped all inhibitions, and I floated under the canopy, seeing-all, believing-all, wanting-more, never-satisfied. I wandered in silent woods, my friends in their own moods, and we sailed up and down to where the mountains took us, and I drifted off the path and entered into the forest. The ghostly flowers of Spurred Christisonia shone on the forest floor, orb-webs gleamed with droplets like tiny beads. I stood over the edge of the mountain, and staring out over the cliff where only white space was visible – with raindrops bursting on my face – I felt renewed. The charms of the crown forest worked their magic.
The lost sense
Having come back to myself, I also have something to confess: I bought peace of mind from ‘neath the canopy of the trees Matheran helped grow for over thousands of years, and I bought it for free. It is said you must seek it under the shades of the tree whereof no man hath any knowledge.
The fogged path
It was once anywhere and everywhere, now it is sold in very few places.

Tracing Monsoon: Part I: Following the Plants

It will be wrong if I say I have not spent time (a lot of it) looking at the nimbostratus clouds passing silently from the south-west, waiting for the horns to blow that mark the arrival of monsoon. This we must agree, that monsoon is the epitome of change. It is the most astonishing of all changes. The change is in the air, in the earth, and is ultimately wrought in the mind. And all of this may happen just as you sit and stare out of the window!

Monsoon this year did not arrive at its stipulated time. It thundered sparsely. There was no dance of the lights. May I say that Lord Varuna is not happy with what mankind has done to Mother Earth? That he is not in our favour anymore, and would abandon us when he knows we are completely, hopelessly dependent on him? We are all out praying, some loudly, some in their minds, some going to the length of marrying Hoplobatrachus tigerinus, the Indian Bullfrog, in hopes of impressing the Rain God.

Today, the interval between two continuous rainfalls stretches to over weeks, when it should have been raining incessantly. Just as I stared at the nimbostratus, passing lowly from the cumulonimbus, seeding empty hopes in my mind, I and my friends read news in utter disappointment.

The headings read:

“Monsoon may weaken earlier than thought” – The Economic Times
“Monsoon fails to keep date with Mumbai” - DNA
“Delayed monsoon arrival leads to gives [sic] 36% below average rains in 1st week” – The Times of India
“Less than normal rains in over 70% of the country” – The Times of India

Yet we were not surprised. It was last year when the news broke of a strong El Nino building up in the Pacific. It has been haunting us since then. I can only wonder what is going on in the minds of the farmers who need rains for better reasons, for which we must be equally worried.

The monsoon though, like always, hit us with a surprise on June 9th, when it sprinkled enough to lighten the weight of dust settled over the leaves for over eight months. It did not thunder, and the wind was calm. It was not until July 2nd, that we saw trailing lightening, followed by loud thundering and incessant rains for several hours at an end.

In June, with scant pre-monsoon showers, we started with the ritual visits to Yeoor Hills in the first two weeks. And then we made a visit to one of the higher reaches of Sahyadri, to Mahabaleshwar Hill Station, and to the coastal regions of Kanheri Caves, Karnala Bird Sanctuary, and Peb Fort near Matheran.
Shikra
And as the Crested Serpent Eagles and Shikras soared high in the skies – their sweetest melody echoing in the valley – we spent most of our time chasing Tiger Beetles and Dragonflies, and hunting for Orchids in the undergrowth, for of all the multitudinal changes that take place as the first drop hits the ground, it is in the undergrowth where the transformation is, almost, magical.
Curculigo orcchioides and Adiantum ferns
The magic lies in the commingling of first rains and the desiccated soils. What’s special of this initiation by the pre-monsoons is not the sprouting leaves, but flowers that precede greenness, some flowering only in the pre-monsoon period of hot and humid climate.
Nervilia crociformes
While I tried my best to be on the lookout for such ephemerals, it is a real challenge to race against time and see them in all their glory. One missed sighting, and the flowers vanish, leaving behind the lush green vegetation which camouflages in the surrounding foliage.
The typical habitat of Chlorophytum borivalianum at Kanheri Caves
And that’s exactly what happens when there are a multitude of ephemerals blooming at the same time, at locations hundreds of kilometers apart. Some of the flowers, like Nervilia crociformes, an orchid seen only at higher altitudes of Sahyadri, to those common at lower elevations, such as that of Chlorophytum tuberosum and borivialinum, presented ample opportunity to be seen and relished upon, while some like Pancratium triflorum remained elusive, although I did see plenty of the plants sans flowers.
Chlorophytum tuberosum
And as soon as these ephemerals bloom, their most closest symbiotes, the bees, flies and other insects provide their faithful services of pollination – without which these plants wouldn’t fertilize, and without which an entire ecosystem built upon the little ephemerals could crumple.

These plants are rather common locally, but remain hidden because of their specialized habitats. One such large plant belongs to the Amaryllidaceae family. I wouldn’t be wrong if I called it the most beautiful flower of Mumbai – Crinum latifolium.
The typical habitat of Crinum latifolium
These large, stalk-less, long leaved plants grow on plateau regions with a rocky terrain, and blossom with the pre-monsoonal showers.
Crinum latifolium flowers in rain
A friend and me had taken an offbeat road on our exploration at Yeoor Hills one day, and we followed the animal tracks to a small valley surrounded by age-old mango trees, and lianas dwindling and twining at their feet. And as we marched on – with horseflies on our backs – we stumbled upon a hillock, a monolith rising straight up from the deciduous woods of Yeoor.

As we scampered our way up, with our feet placed carefully in the crevasses’, we found a paradise that is, quite unsurprisingly, well known to the tribal people of this region: a paradise full of Crinum lilies – plants praising the arrival of monsoon with utmost respect and regard – plants bowing gently, yet displaying their vigour and gladness with brilliant colours and subtle fragrance.

Monsoon undoubtedly has an overwhelming effect on the plants, and it is only during this season that we may sense their senses – that they’re alive, and they’re all-knowing, for if they weren’t, they wouldn’t know when to blossom, they wouldn’t know when the rains fell. If you ever wish to trace monsoon – here’s a hint – follow the plants.

We sat amidst these natural gardens, rocks protruding here and there, curiously cut into cubicles – perfect to sit and seep in the fragrance in the air and the rain on our face – the breath of monsoon.

A step down from the plateau was a field gleaming in freshly blossoming herbs – Scilla hyacinthine.
Scilla hyacinthine at Scilla Hill, Yeoor
It is after their abundance that we baptized this monolith Scilla Hill. These plants, carrying deep-purple patches on their leaves, shot out long, tender raceme inflorescence of pink-to-purple flowers from large boulders tumbled randomly. They added an indistinguishable appeal to the otherwise broken features of the terrain.
Scilla hyacinthine flower
Scilla Hill made us realize that there is plenty to explore in our neighbouring woods. It may be a little plant you’ve never seen before, or a place you’ve had no time to look at in another season. Such is the magic of monsoon that you feel new yourself, a feeling that all naturalists feel but find hard to comprehend.

In the forests, of trees that send their roots seeking the warm comforts of Earth, rain hardly affects them except by replenishing the diminishing groundwater. Yet trees as individuals, and forests as super-organisms, behave in a very curious way – something which I believe brings them closer to us. They sing. They dance. They play to the tune of monsoon. If you’ve not done it in your time, I don’t believe you’d relate with the trees.
Forests of Kanheri Hills, Sanajay Gandhi National Park
The deciduous forests were only sprouting in vivid shades of greens. Fog filled in the empty spaces between the trees. They creaked and croaked, swayed back and forth, and there a glittering rain fell on the tender young leaves. We were on the plateau of Kanheri Hills that house a number of caverns built in the age where once dwelt the Buddhists. It was the 17th of June, the day it rained, as rain is defined, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in Mumbai but in the heart of the city – the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. I, for once, had forgotten my umbrella on the path, but I did not regret not having it (although I found it on the way back).

As days passed, week-long dry spells haunted all of us, drenching all our hopes in bouts of sweat, until that day, incidentally on a weekend again, when the clouds unfurled on the peaks of Karnala fort on June 24th. The forest floor was saturated with water, and with the right amount of humidity and the cool air, it is a boon to all the perennials, as well as saplings of giant trees.
Gardenia gummifera and a fly
There were several trees in blossom as well, from the grand, Gardenia gummifera, whose fragrance spread to every corner of the little stream we explored. One of the most delicately designed flowers belonged to a shrub called Turraea villosa, whose petals were dripping wet from the rain that fell ruffianly for several minutes, and leaving behind a humid clime ideal for all sorts of things to glimmer.

The monsoon, yet, was as unpredictable as it always has been. On our trek to Peb Fort near Matheran, we were pelted with no rains, but sun’s rays, which the clouds could not win against. On that unusually warm day of July 1st, we waded through long-grown grass trimmed by cows, past flowerless plants of Pancratium triflorum and fruiting Chlorophytum tuberosum, to a completely different set of flora in bloom.
Fields of Trachelostylis lawiana
One such perennial is (probably) Trachelostylis lawiana (then Fimbristylis lawiana), a sedge endemic to peninsular India, abundant in the northern Western Ghats. It prefers secondary habitats and grazing lands, which are plenty at the foot of Peb fort. According to the Assessment Information on IUCNredlist.org, this grass can have more than hundred individuals per meter squared in grasslands during early monsoon.

As we passed fields of Trachelostylis lawiana, we entered fields filled with rainwater, and crops growing out to the sky.
A paddy field
It was with pleasure that we sat by this paddy field, tilted and twisted our cameras for photographs, and observed dragonflies and damselflies as they busied themselves for the upbringing of the next generation. The algal growth in these shallow pools was a sign that rains have not completely failed to keep its million-year old promise.

The farmers had sown seeds. It will be another few months until the next harvest of the paddy. Yet the same cannot be said for Kharif crops (crops grown in summer). The delayed monsoon may affect the sowing pattern of coarse grains. This is unfortunately because of deficient rains in the central and western India (as per Times of India).

It has been said that the rains will be sufficient in the months of July and August, although the effects of El Nino were to be set in only in the latter half of monsoon. The first week of July was not what it used to be, but monsoon has picked up pace, and it rains consistently. It is quite fascinating to trace the progress of monsoon and the life it brings with it. It comes in waves. Once a generation has completed its lifecycle, another shall take its place. The pre-monsoon ephemerals will now give way to others. Now Begonias, Commelinas, Balsams, and Habenarias will dominate the landscapes.
Karnala Fort
Monsoon is here, at last. Clouds are playing hide-and-seek in the minarets of Sahyadri, and rain is filling in every empty puddle. It is a phenomenon that is not uncommon, but worthy of every praise.