Barefoot Notes: Who does Sahyadri belong to?

It does not take long for a murmuring river to turn into a raging cascade, yet it is no match to the prowess of the tall terraces of northern Western Ghats. The rapids are strong to make crossing the river difficult, but not enough to complete the journey to the foot of the mountain. It falls, only to rise in countless little fractions of its former self as mist, dancing to the tune of the winds orchestrated by the mountains themselves. It is only when the waters rage on, fueled by the south-west monsoons, do they spill down the amber facades of the Ghats, touching their feet as they reform their ancestral channels.
Walking the leopard's path, with an inverted waterfall to the left, and other two forming Kalu river downhill
The range officer pointed to a high precipice from where a river came crashing down, and he said, that’s where we’re headed. Under a shroud of torrential rains, we could glimpse at the full glory of the fall whenever the clouds dispersed. To the right of this gorgeous fall of the Kalu River, an inverted waterfall rose into the skies, inching slowly to the ground with the intensity of the rains.

Mountains and rivers: call it love, or war, this union is as divine as it is magnificent. Kalu River begins its journey as an inconspicuous stream high over the plateau of Harishchandragad, a mighty natural fortress with one of the largest of man-made forts of the Western Ghats built by Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Gush through a deep gorge carved downhill, it makes its way to the westerly Konkan plains of Thane plateau to join Ulhas river, which forms the large Vasai creek north of the city of Mumbai as it spills into the Arabian Sea.
Mud flower? - A maze-work of harvester ants (Pheidole sp.), to avoid rainwater runoff from entering their underground nest.
We were walking under the shadow of these giants, one cast by the mountain itself, one by the south-west monsoons, and one cast by the history of this place. Our conversations hovered around the natural richness of this place as we spotted fresh leopard scratch marks, an indolent fan-throated lizard, a rabble of Common Crow butterflies, the finest architecture of the harvester ants, and a timid green keelback snake, and trailed slowly towards its cultural history.
An ancient Navagunjara
In the corner of the grove, a Hanuman idol, painted in saffron, rested in a temple, the only rock-carved, probably a century-or-two old, idol down this part of the ghats, and in another, the usual, mysterious chimera of animals that is associated with stone-forts of northern Western Ghats, the adopted sigil of Sahyadrica. We walked past the remains of blocks carved out of rocks once used as pillars to a temple. I subconsciously placed a hand upon it, and a thought caught my mind. I was imagining a world that was, of the stone sculptors, the architects, the priests and the preachers. How different was this place then – were there tigers here as there are leopards today, was this a different forest than it is now? My thought became stuck on one particular question: who does Sahyadri belong to? To the recent adopters of this land, to our ancestors who forged entire forts out of stone, or to nature, to whom we all invariably belong?
Treading the trail of Kalu river, with the Kalu waterfall in the background
We were conducting a workshop for local youth, at the behest of the forest department, on how to become the stewards of this landscape, to conserve it but also to create awareness among its visitors. They are to be the first formal nature guides of this region – similar to the nature guides you might have interacted with in tiger reserves of India. The forest department is investing intently on developing this area for eco-tourism, with a policy to actively engage local communities. Here, they are leading the way towards conserving this landscape by preaching about its cultural and natural history. The temple that I thought was abolished by forces of nature, was in fact still standing tall – in memory as in heart – hidden among the wilderness, and priests and the preachers, whom I thought were lost too, are alive among these communities.

What began as a knowledge-imparting process turned into knowledge-sharing. In the company of people rich in folklore – of tradition, medicine, and wildlife – we were in for a conventional workshop turned an adventure camp.

After barely making it to the base of the Kalu waterfall and exploring the foothills of the towering Naneghat, we turned our attention to another landmark of this landscape: Ganpati Gadad.
Ganpati Gadad
Ganpati Gadad is a little below the half-way mark (around 500 m) of a giant 1200 m tall portion of the Ghats which continues as Naneghat to the north. Beyond the precipice lies Junnar taluka of Pune district. Also called ganesh leni in Marathi (leni is a holy shrine, mostly in a cave carved out of stone), it is an isolated cave complex closely related to the more famous Lenyadri – a composite of cave systems of religious significance, lying about 20 km from Ganpati Gadad as the crow flies east towards the Ghats of Junnar.

Having scarce knowledge of where exactly we were headed at the time, we assembled with the trainees who’ve scaled these mountains for countless number of times. Turns out, they were our trainers and the most effervescent nature guides I’ve had the privilege of trekking with. The village of Sonavale lies a few yards from the base of Ganpati Gadad and has an active Ganesh Leni Charitable Trust (if you want to visit, contact Deepak on 9209285718) which looks after conservation of the traditions of the leni and its protection from unruly trekkers who damage or litter the surrounding.
Yours truly had to pose under the beloved mahua tree.
Our path, led by the members of the trust, began under the biggest – and the oldest – mahua tree that I have ever seen. Gazing up at this living giant, I felt a force that calmed me and put me in its awe, a feeling we get when looking at something spectacular, something of gigantic proportions – physical as well as metaphysical – something out-worldly: what do we call such a thing? Divine? God-like? This was my first thought, and as we clicked pictures to tell of our little tryst with possibly the largest mahua tree of Western Ghats, I wondered how many seasons it has seen. How many children has it seen play under it, how many animals fed on its delicious flowers and fruits, how many birds nested in its boughs. I did not just halt under this tree. My mind paused, only to absorb all the glory of its splendour, lest I never see it again.

Why was this the only tree that was spared from the axe when all the trees in this cove were hacked and felled at least once in their lives? I was told that every axe-man who’s ever walked under its shade has refrained from hacking at it because of its menacing size. I had wished for a more spiritual reasoning. Could this tree’s calming presence have any effect on a person's mind? I cannot tell for sure, but this tree is protected from ever being hacked by the impact it has on anyone wielding an axe. Talk of divine intervention – if something like this exists, I have found it within this tree, and that would explain why the giant trees are often associated with divinity.

The mountain we were to tread shadowed this tree by many magnitudes. Ganpati Gadad was built in a convex arc within it, probably a natural cavity formed by an ancient cascade that exposed the bedrock – the igneous Deccan trap – which was then chiseled by hand. There are about seven caves, built side-by-side, at places one-upon-another, with a few water tanks and what appears to be granaries or storerooms. The main cave, which lies above the smaller caves, is the largest, containing two smaller rooms on each side. It houses idols of Lord Ganesha, with stone pillars composed of intricate symbols and designs bearing the weight of the mountain.
An ephemeral waterfall flying over the edge of Ganpati Gadad.
Roughly around the centre of the caves a waterfall tumbles down into the valley, but the cave system remains dry throughout the wet season. Long ago, there was a wide platform in front of the caves which has since caved in.

Ganpati Gadad, for being so isolated, has a rich history. It is said that these man-made caves were already here when many of the villages down the Ghats were established. It is not known when it was built, but we can speculate that it was constructed around the same time the caves of Lenyadri were built between first and third century AD – nearly 1900 years ago. Ganpati Gadad itself is free of any scriptures, but Naneghat, only about 10 km from this place, is an archaeological treasure.  Georg Bühler (1837–1898), a scholar of ancient Indian languages, said, “the Naneghat inscriptions, which belong to the oldest historical documents of Western India, are in some respects more interesting and important than all of the other cave inscriptions taken together” (Mirashi, 1981).
The main cave at Ganpati Gadad, maintained by local communities.
Before being rediscovered as a holy shrine and a trekker’s delight, I was told that Ganpati Gadad was home to a large colony of bats. Now, only a handful few, such as the lesser mouse-tailed bat, remain. Before being discovered by bats, it was inhabited by man – priests and possibly monks – as well as wayfarers.

Along with Naneghat, Ganpati Gadad lies in the part of the Ghats which formed a trade route between the low-lying Konkan region and the Deccan plateau of India above the Ghats. It possibly joined Lenyadhri from where traders also once passed through. Whatever the ships brought to the shores of Vasai, or up Ulhas river to Kalyan, was hauled up – on foot by wayfarers as well as on horses and carts – the Ghats. This region was a literal gateway between the sea and the mountaintops.
An ancient stone directing the path of the trade
route to traders and porters. It was possibly one of the many placed
along the way up the Ghats. This one is possibly displaced.  
Then came the reign of Marathas when giant forts were built atop the ridges – Harishchandragad to the north, Jivdhan that towers over Naneghat, and Machindragad and Gorakhgad further south, this was a strategic location for military as it was for trade.
NH 222 leading up to Malsej Ghat
Times have now changed. Today, the forts and the caves that once cradled a civilization – or helped in formation of one – are all empty, as are the ancient trade routes, save for the occasional visitors who trek along to relieve history or the herdsmen who migrate from Deccan to Konkan. Interestingly, the trade still exists. The National Highway (NH) 222 passes through Malsej Ghats, a gap between Harishchandragad and Naneghat, linking, like before, the Deccan with the Konkan.

Yet if this age is of any significance, it won’t be remembered for its highways. This is a time of reminiscence and preservation. What I learnt from my short visit to this part of the Ghats is that history is still alive in the region, natural as well as cultural, and that there are people, in this fast-paced age of virtual living, still living with the leopard, still harvesting wild bounties, still herding livestock, still growing paddy, still preaching to the ancient stone gods that guard the natural endowment they adopted from their ancestors, who swear an oath not to a king but to nature herself, not 100 km from Mumbai.
Remembering the ancient cultural and natural history of Sahyadri, from under the mountain.
Coming back to my question: who does Sahyadri belong to? Definitively, there is no answer. Man has come and gone time and again, but there is one thing that has remained constant throughout history as it will in the future: nature; in background as a misty waterfall trailing the contours of the mountains or in the foreground as a tender sapling adorning the mountain’s waist.
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There is, of course, a long way to go. With tourism of any kind – ecologically conscious or conventional – it is bound to increase footfall and waste, and its management is going to slowly resemble that of commercial tourism. How we tackle this will determine whether tourism will indeed save this part of northern Western Ghats from the wildfire that is unplanned development.

This is where we come in. Hundreds of groups go trekking or for picnics in the recesses of the Ghats and other natural spaces every weekend. If nature beckons you, hear her out as well.

Here are ten things (some are responsibilities, some are suggestions) to remember before venturing into nature:

Responsibilities:

1. Loiter, not litter. Do not litter, do not throw anything what-so-ever if you’re out trekking or just chilling with a basket full of foodstuffs. No plastics: these things often choke small rivulets which are destined to form giant rivers. No papers, not even that banana peel or that mandarin peel or seed: they form a part of a diet of an animal which does not eat it, or, they sprout and, at times, end up becoming invasive in the area. Leave behind nothing.

2. Don’t break, cut, trap, or capture anything. It is not wise to take away anything – even a flower – away from nature. If you think about it deeply, that flower is not going to serve you any purpose whatsoever. That leaf you plan to press in your book is not going to bring you any luck. Why break something and take it away from where it belongs? A flower serves a more important purpose on its stalk than it does on your head or in your pocket. Photograph it. Bring back only memories.

3. Don’t play loud music. It is quite ironic to see people playing music on speakers while on a trek. You’re here escape the cacophony of the daily world, if you bring your chaos to the mountains, you’re only holding back to that state of mind – and ruining others’ and that of the wildlife around that you could possibly see. Don’t yell either, unless you need help.

4. Don’t carve or make graffiti! If you want to express your love in some way, tell it to that person or write it in your diary. A tree is no object to be cut open for your unashamed selfish love. The caves of Ganesh Gadad are diseased with graffiti, often written with markers, whiteners, and even oil paints! This is not only unbecoming of you, but also illegal.

5. Respect the local culture and the people. Whenever out trekking, you may have to interact with local people who come from a different cultural background. Respect their lifestyle and don’t pass comments. If they want to welcome you with flowers, accept it. If they want you to start your adventure by receiving blessings of their deities, generally while passing on your way, do it. Don’t be mean and rude to those whose home you’re treading. If you want to decline food, do so politely.

Suggestions:

6. Don’t go wandering alone if you’re with a group. While this is the responsibility of the trek organiser, it is your duty to abide by the rules. Wandering off on your own little adventure, if you’re a part of a trekking group, is a silly thing to do, lest any calamity befalls you.

7. Do your homework about the place before you go. Going on a trek is like going for an interview, although it is more exciting to be on the former than the latter. Even so, do a little bit of homework before you’re visiting that place. It will help you prepare better for what’s to come. Going unprepared also has its own quirks, but if you do not have a regular habit of trekking, a homework is good way to begin. Inquire, if possible, about the place, whether you’ll need to hire people to guide your way up, and strike a decent deal with them.

8. See and observe. When you’re finally out, don’t just look at your path, see around, observe this world that is so different than yours. Get lost in its beauty, register everything you see.

9. And, write about your experiences. If not for anyone, for yourself. Ten years from now, it will serve as a beautiful reminder of your adventure – perhaps even coaxing you to go on your next. 

10. Don’t bargain with tribal people selling something along the roadside. Often during monsoon, tribal ladies and gents may sell delicious forest fruits along the roadside – these fruits are completely organic, pure and unadulterated. Try these if you want to, but don’t bargain unless it’s some preposterous cost being offered. In my experience, their prices are always modest, and we must respect this. Don’t bargain with them, for this is your contribution to their lives whose home you are visiting without invitation or without giving anything in return. I experienced eating alava (Meyna laxiflora), the most pungent smelling fruit I’ve ever tasted, for the first time here (I came to like its unexplainable taste after a while). It was being sold by tribal ladies along the highway that climbs up to Malsej Ghat. It didn’t cost them much in harvesting it – not economically – but it took them a lot of effort to get to it which can’t be easily translated into money. Remember their effort, and oblige them their offer. There are many fruits, like alava, which we won’t get to taste again until the next season.

On the Book of Revival

Looking at a tract of forests, I hardly believed that this was once an open, degraded patch of land reminiscent of a rainforest that stretched beyond the mountains. The photographs we saw, and the photographs we took, showed a stark contrast: in the beginning, it was a bramble of invasive herbs and shrubs, suffocating native trees and forbidding their growth. Fifteen years on, a canopy of tall trees races skywards in a thunderstorm-like profusion, chasing the heights their ancestors once achieved in another age. What began as a story of lost faith appeared to be rising in hope, and the plot of the story we missed in between, of upheaval and invasion, resurrection and renewal – a crucial mass of any story – we were fortunate to listen to from the caretakers who helped revive this story.
The forest, to the left, was restored 15 years ago to create a contiguous patch of corridor joining the rainforests beyond.
The stalwarts have now passed the quill to nature, and this fragment which borders a road on one side and rows of tea plantations on the other, now writes for itself. A small signage alerts us that this story we are witness to is as much of wild animals as it is of the trees, and an ant tells me that she, as much as the elephant, has a claim to this story, a revival of a lost book.

The plains burn hot under soles. After losing count of the coconut orchards on the plains of Palghat, we zip across NH 209 as the tall terraces of the Western Ghats loom distantly in the southern horizon. Like titans, dark and brooding whose heads are held up high, they grow in stature for every mile we cover. It was long ago that I strained my neck to look up to a mountain demanding respect and awe, praise and prayer. In these mountains lies a story whose dimensions are beyond our comprehension; a story being written by forces of nature that we cannot entirely understand.
Approaching the Elephant Hills of the southern Western Ghats.
The strata of the Elephant Hills are distinct. If it were a book, it would be written in at least five different volumes, each covering a multitude of stories that cannot be read in one lifetime. The only way to browse through this book is a two-lane road which wearily guides us through it. It first climbs through the mixed deciduous forests of the foothills, slowly rising, meter-per-meter, to the semi-evergreen pockets of river-carved slopes where the air begins to cool down, at which point it passes through the sheer cliffs where the grass is grazed by the Nilgiri Tahr, to the gentle slopes of evergreen forests that deepen the shadows, gradually giving way to the tall-canopied, blue-green hued rainforests that crown the mountains. It goes all the way beyond the frost-line that forbids tree-growth and nurtures nimble grass strands on the precipice. If it were a book, it would be an epic of unproportionable scale.

Man made his first mark in this book more than a hundred years ago, although his presence in the book was made more than a thousand years ago when tribal communities settled in these natural galleries. Today, every volume of this ancient book is marked, in an insoluble ink, by man. Perhaps the most significant mark was left by timber fellers and then by pioneering planters of coffee and tea, creating a mosaic of land-use patterns never before seen in the book. And as a black strip was drawn across its pages for our ease of traversing, we introduced many more stories, exotic as well as anthropogenic, mending the great epic for our desires.
The mountains are like books, every page written by its residents -
human and non-human alike.
Every time you pass through this black strip, you will be witness to a history lost in present era, in the form of fragments and remnants of rainforests – the original story – amidst a sea of tea plantations – the new story – witnessing the endemic and threatened wildlife – the original storytellers – who, out of necessity or reluctance that I cannot tell, traverse through the new story to get to the old story where they try to continue their writings. I still wonder how this book holds and not fall apart.

There are now three distinct parts of the old story: degraded, restored or under restoration, and undisturbed forests which retain most of its natural finesse and are more-or-less pristine. The new-age human writers are trying to hold together the old story by keeping the cord of the book strong: by restoring degraded forests, connecting isolated fragments, and strengthening the remnants. On the other hand, they are also working to combine the old story with the new, by reinstating the faith among people for the original writers, and, in a world where natural revival is but a little bud on a large tree, are the binders of the old and the new story.
Cullenia exarillata, a mighty rainforest tree amidst a rather disturbed forest fragment.
Rainforests hard to describe. You see them in different perspectives from different angles. You will perceive it differently than I do. You would describe it differently if you were standing in the middle of it and your description would be different if you were viewing it from the skies. You would call it something in the day, something else in the night. It would be described differently by smells, sounds, textures, colours, and emotions. A rainforest is as much Kafka as it is Tolkien, it is Leopold as it is Thoreau. Perhaps the words of John Keats in an Ode to a Nightingale capture the essence of rainforests although written in a distantly-related context:

But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild
 - John Keats, Ode to a nightingale, 1819.

Standing in the middle of the old and the new pages, I was overwhelmed by the forces that drive this story. When I looked up, I saw a Malabar giant squirrel feeding on jackfruit, dislodging seeds to the ground where they would begin own story. By a dense strand of trees, a troop of lion-tailed macaques and another of Nilgiri langurs catapulted from one tender branch to another. Beyond the valley, a flock of hornbills fed on inconspicuous fruits, allowing the seedlings to see a wider world. Every morning, a pair of Malabar Whistling Thrush would sing notes from their ancient scriptures, recited even today after thousands of years and more.
The story-tellers of the undergrowth. Clockwise: Epipogium roseum, a Tachinid, a Stratiomyid,
a tiger beetle (Jansenia venus), and a Rhagionid.
The most secretive of writers lurked in the undergrowth. A weevil that once laid an egg in Litsea stocksii when it was blooming has now grown into a nail-sized grub, encased in the empty shell of the seed, its story cut short by that of the weevil. And there was Epipogium roseum, an orchid with its own unique story of living a saprophytic life on the rich rainforest floor. And there were flies – the Tachinids with their rapturous attention to parasitize the leaf-munching Scarab beetles, the Stratiomyids with their efficiency of churning leaf litter to nourishing humus, the Rhagionids – the oldest recorded Brachyceran flies of Gondwanaland (Mostovski and Jarzembowski, 2000) – hunting along the understorey forests, and the high-altitude tiger beetles, Jansenia venus, formed some of the many understorey storytellers of a rainforests.
Clockwise: Trap-jaw ant (Anochetus cf obscurior), Golden wood ant (Polyrhachis alluadata), Diacamma sp.,
and Jerdon's jumping ant (Harpegnathos saltator)
Then there were, among the most beautiful of rainforest residents, the golden wood ant (Polyrhachis allaudata), which went about exploring trees and leaves, grass and ground. The rare trap-jaw ant (Anochetus cf obscurior), with its trap-like jaws that are kept open and snapped shut while catching prey, are something of a specialty of rainforests. Among the leaves was a scout of Diacamma ants running in-tandem to find food – collecting tales of their adventures of hunting, and there were Jerdon’s jumping ant (Harpegnathos slatator) – the most inquisitive of ants – whose curiosity is as keen as that of a myrmecologist’s, wandering as lone rangers up a tree or down a forest floor exploring nooks and crevasses. All of them, from ants to elephants, moss to trees, individually and as a community, are scribbling stories in a language compiled in a book by nature.

And there were others who’re writing their own tangential stories. The most persuasive of all were the bracken fern (Pteridium sp) which spread as wildfire after a fire has devoured a tract of land. It expands its flame-like leaves in a toxic green conflagration, rendering the land useless for grazers, browsers, and challenges the revival. It can also be seen along disturbed forest edges, seemingly in low numbers but in an ever-frenzy state of temperament. Lantana camara, Eupatorium, and Wedelia are among other exotic invasive shrubs. Perhaps the most intriguing of stories is of silver oak (Grevillea robusta), umbrella tree (Maesopsis eminii) and Eucalyptus spp., all of them introduced intentionally; silver oak to provide sparse shade to the tea plantations, umbrella tree to provide dense shade to coffee plantations, and Eucalyptus to be used as fuelwood for plantation colonies. Among these, the umbrella tree found its way into the diet of a number of wild species, from hornbills to langurs to ants, and have since dispersed across the landscape as missionaries.
Top: Tea plantations overlooking the rainforests beyond.
Bottom: A view from under coffee plantations.
In all this, the story of coffee and tea is something of a hallmark. When timber felling began in this landscape, a pioneering colonialist envisaged the hills and plateaus as a site for tea and coffee. A planter was then tasked with the plantation of coffee, for which the forest floor had to be wiped clean – a beetle that infested a seed, then, looked minuscule to the scale of damage done to the rainforests. Another was assigned with clearing entire hillsides to plant rows of tea and to replace the native trees with silver oaks.

Alternating between a cup of the most delicious coffee and chai, I faced the unscrupulous diner’s dilemma. This n-player game theory envisages the predicament of diners who decide to split the check equally among everyone so that the expenses remain relatively low compared to what it would be if they were eating alone. Some decide to order an expensive dish because the cost of the dish would be smaller for the person ordering it, however, cumulatively, they all will end up paying a certain additional amount. Logically, this means that they are getting by worse at the cost of one or two expensive dishes than they would have had they all ordered a cheaper meal. In other words, they all ended up paying an extra amount which lightened their pockets even when they mostly ate cheaper food.

In an ecological perspective, this dilemma can be viewed as thus: there are only two items at the table, coffee and tea, and their purchasing cost is the damage they do to an already threatened ecosystem. A group of friends are sitting by the table thinking whether to order tea or coffee. Coffee-drinkers say that coffee is a cheaper option because it grows under the canopy of trees, making its expense on the ecosystem lesser than tea which grows only under a sparse canopy. The tea-drinkers argue that coffee also requires clearing of the forest understorey, making what looks like a rainforest from top to be devoid of any natural regeneration below. In essence, both come at a significant cost, putting them in a dilemma. No matter what they drink, there are going to be repercussions. What would they order? I call this a drinker’s dilemma, and thought for long as I sipped my choice of drink, wondering if it had any impact on the ecosystem I was learning to revive and conserve.
Left: A profile of tea plantation showing sparse tree cover and undergrowth.
Right: A profile of coffee plantation with a canopy cover of umbrella tree (Maesopsis eminii) and sparse undergrowth. 
Fortunately, there are trade-offs. If the coffee or tea they order comes from an old plantation site, if native trees cover is retained, if it is grown organically, if the planters ensure no further spread of plantations or destruction of existing rainforests and contribute to wildlife conservation, the coffee or tea they drink would have little, if not zero, impact on present day ecosystems if we exclude the historic expense to the rainforests.
Worth a cup: what appears to be an out-of-place herd of gaur is actually at home socialising and feeding in the undergrowth
of an organic tea plantation site, with a man trying to keep his cattle from venturing too close to them.
There is a leeway to promote organic coffee and tea under the Rainforest Alliance. There are instances of private planter companies engaging in restoration, conservation, and human-wildlife conflict mitigation, all of which, or in part, make coffee as well as tea less expensive on the ecosystem. With this, the drinker’s dilemma of whether to go for coffee or tea can be resolved, what remains is the perpetual coffee versus tea debate which no game theory can fix!

While exploring and learning the intricacies of restoration from the stalwarts of India’s rainforest restorers, we came to realise that a site of restoration never reaches the scale of an undisturbed site. This has a lot to do with abiotic dynamics as it has to do with the biotic community that replaces the original. Think about it like this; could you, if you erased a chapter from your book, rewrite it word-to-word again?

In this ancient book, hidden in the cloud forests, there are still stories to be found – as much as they are to be conserved – whose narrative yet remains unknown. The one I narrate here is of an ant in the corner of a tea estate. Brachyponera is an inconspicuous, small black ant in the subfamily Ponerinae. About six species have been recorded in India so far, with one, B. luteipes, documented in Tamil Nadu (Bharti et al, 2016).

As is my wont, any insect would distract me even in the most interesting of conversations, and a worker Brachyponera that scampered between my feet was no exception. I found it rather curiously shaped: it was longer and stouter than the cosmopolitan black crazy ant (Paratrechina longicornis) or the wood-dwelling white-footed ghost ant (Technomyrmex albipes). The fellow I was looking at also had a rather prominent, large head.
Brachyponera sp., carrying "something" in its mouth.
After closer inspection I realised that it was carrying something in its mandibles, perhaps transporting food or pupa from one location to another. I then tapped gently on the ant and instead of finding one dead ant – I apologise for doing so, but the ant was unhurt and the tap was to gently loosen what she was carrying – it transformed into two ants scampering on the ground. Losing my focus on the conversation which continued with me crouching on the floor, I sought another ant to tap – and it, too, transformed into two! And then third. Three ants turned to six. All these individual ants had a normal-sized head. Surely it wasn’t food that they were carrying, neither pupa or a recently metamorphosed ant – since these would have been lying stationary. Were they, then, piggy-backing another fellow ant? It was implausible, but not too far-fetched.

Ten years ago, Guenard and Silverman (2011) also observed this piggy-backing behaviour in a closely related species of this ant, Asian needle ant (B. chinensis), a native of south-east Asia, and titled it ‘tandem carrying’. This behaviour, the authors later studied, was earlier recorded from Japan in 1988, however it remained unknown until as recently as 2011 when their findings were published.
Tandem carrying: a worker 'carrier' ant gives a ride to its companion to the site of food. The rider attains an up-side-down
foetal position so that it can be carried safely (and comfortably?) by the carrier.
Tandem carrying is one of the strategies of foraging observed only in Brachyponera. Other, more common, ways are solitary foraging, as observed in Jerdon’s jumping ant; tandem running, as observed in some Diacamma sp.; group foraging, as observed in Pharaoh ants (Monomorium pharaonis), the small red ants we see commonly in kitchens; and mass foraging, observed in army ants (Aenictus sp.) as they go about in large numbers scouting for food. Tandem carrying is quite a tender-hearted strategy of foraging, and the term probably comes from ‘tandem babywearing’ – a convenient way parents strap babies by the belly to carry them around. A worker ant does exactly that, except that instead of carrying babies, they carry their sisters!

This strategy, the study showed, works like this: if a lone forager comes across a food item that is too large for it to carry, it traverses back to its nest. That of our ant was located between rocks, hidden under leaf litter. It communicates with its sisters and then gives a ride to one. It is not known how they do it, but the rider attains a ‘foetal’ position and is lifted by the carrier in its mandibles, exactly in a way it would transport pupa – up-side-down. The carrier, who is familiar with the pheromone trail leading to the food item, carries the rider to the spot. The rider alights, probably thanks its companion, and they both get to work.
Brachyponera ants towing a large-sized earthworm to their nest. The rider alights, and helps the carrier in carrying food.
The argument for this strategy is that it conserves the energy of one ant at the expense of another. While the total sum of energy saved would be higher than if both the ants were to scout for food, the carrier ant must suffer greater energy loss – perhaps even at the cost of its life – than the rider. If this is just a mathematical strategy of energy conservation used by the ants after millions of years of trial-and-error, then there is no reason why it would not be adopted by other species. But, if I stretch the narrative a bit more, this shows altruistic behaviour by the carrier, at an expense of its energy, to not only conserve its rider’s energy but also collectively of the entire colony’s. If so, then this is yet another example of genetically-induced sentience among what we commonly – and often incorrectly – consider lower lifeforms.

The tandem carrying behaviour has been noted in Japan in B. nakasujii and in USA in B. chinensis, and this happens to be a first for India, but questions remain on the identity of the ant. Dr Guenard, the co-discoverer of this foraging strategy, told me that Brachyponera is a complex genus requiring detailed observations to identify the species, hence any guesses at this ant from Tamil Nadu will remain obscure for now. He also said that tandem carrying might actually be common in this genus.
On the nature of daylight - a coffee plantation is often used by elephants as corridors.
Only a few seconds before this photograph was clicked, a lone tusker passed under the morning haze.
This ant, among many others, hints at the magnificence of the rainforests, that their narrative is as much a part of the landscape as that of their counterparts, the elephants, and how little we know about them. There are pages to be added, new narratives to be explored, and it appears to be a perpetual book of nature that gets rewritten, reworded, often torn or renewed.
Seeds of evergreen tree species rescued from roadsides and given a chance to prosper in rainforest nurseries.
Clockwise: Elaeocarpus tuberculatus, E. serratus, Litsea stocksii, and Diospyros nilgirica.
To find that there is a book on revival being compiled, seed-per-seed, hectare-per-hectare, in harmonious co-existence between man and nature, is a hope that this grand epic earnestly needs. With leech-socks or without, in boots or in chappals, in heat as in rain, nature requires as much of restoration as it does of conservation, for we can only conserve so much, but restore so much more.

A tree among trees

This article was submitted to the M Krishnan Memorial Nature Writing Award 2017, organised by Madras Naturalists’ Society every year, and won a special mention. It is largely inspired by the writings of M Krishnan (1912-1996) who was an exceptional naturalist and a nature writer who could, with a spell of his words, cast a fresh perspective on what many of us perceive as the most mundane acts of nature, toppling over our outlook and revealing something of a miracle that nature is. I am borrowing an excerpt from a Wikipedia entry under M Krishnan which has a lot to do with this article.

In 1967 he asked several university graduates to name two red-flowered trees or an exclusively Indian animal. Nobody passed his test and he wrote:

is there something radically wrong with the education and culture of our young men and women that they should not know the answers to these reasonable questions, or is it that I have become a monomaniac and am therefore unable to perceive how unfair my questions are?”

A tree among trees is about a beautiful tree I once sat under, a glimpse into its seemingly mundane but a colourful life. It is one of the many red-flowered trees of India visited by a number of animals during a short period of a year.

A tree among trees

It is not soft on touch, or smooth either; neither is it the shapeliest, nor does it revel in the middle of its own orchard. It is the shortest of the lot, pockmarked by axes and mined by insects, and it is, one might even say, the most timid tree of this little copse. Its trunk is short and bent southwards – rising barely four feet off the ground – and is split into two arms, one hacked short by firewood collectors and the tallest other bearing the majority of its bulk of branches and leaves. A small river-fed stream carves its way to the nearest river from its south, and its neighbours are Saja (Terminalia tomentosa), Jamun (Syzygium cumini), the great Bargad (Ficus benghalensis) and the tall Semal (Bombax ceiba), and its nearest sibling stands twenty yards from it, at the edge of a perennial pond.

For the longest time of the year it remains concealed in its own nonchalant aura; I think that it prefers to remain solemnly reserved – always keeping to itself – except for a window of a few days a year when it celebrates its life in a bright, brilliant – pompous even – conflagration. Flame-of-the-forest some call it, for it fans its flames right at the beginning of summers, but it has its own name in central India: Parsa, the locals know it as, and it is more widely known across the country as Palash or DhakButea monosperma.

My tryst with this tree happened one monsoon morning when I took the desire path created by the cattle to explore the secondary forest. This nearly twenty-acre patch is reminiscent of the more pristine mixed deciduous forests of Kanha Tiger Reserve not half a mile from this copse. Bisected by a stream that runs diagonally and at certain places forms a fifteen-foot gorge, it is flanked by Jamunia River to its south, a kuchha road to its west and north, and a tract of private lands fenced and left fallow to its east. It is still largely untamed and wild boars often cross over from the denser forests further eastwards. I chanced upon this tree, which lies at the north-eastern edge of the copse, while following silver-braided flies dancing in its shadows: a swarm of males with reflective abdomens which they spread-out in flight – imagine a peacock displaying his train of feathers while in flight – were trying to impress females that were sitting at the base of this tree. Close to where the females delighted in the sights of the dancing males sat a two-tailed spider, his body flat against the bark. With eyes placed high on the tip of his head, he was eyeing the inconspicuous females with rapturous attention. I waited, camera in hand, to see if I was in for a tiger-and-the-deer chase, but the spider appeared to be in no hurry to make its kill. I ran my hand on the surface of the tree, and gazed up to its canopy of leathery leaves as streams of sunrays glimmered through. The floor was damp with the last night’s rainfall, and in places littered by dung which was being packed into balls by the dung beetles. An Indian palm squirrel pranced around this copse, using the tips of the tender branches as spring to hop from one tree to another.

In this quaint little woodland that morning in June when the rains began, I looked upon this tree as nothing more than a substrate to the more volatile life-forms that abound it: from the cattle that would scratch their bodies against it to the little rodents and the flies that would run or fly around. Whenever I entered this copse I laid my hand around its tallest branch to get a good footing on the slushy mud-path churned up by the hoofs of cattle. Its girth was larger than my grip, it felt stronger against my hold; I like to think that I felt it pulsate from the inside, while it was cold and hard and rough on the outside. Of course, I felt no flicker of movement from within the tree, certainly not likes of the capricious birds that were gallivanting around. It moved gently in the monsoon breeze, effortlessly but also stiffly. For most of the day, indeed for weeks, it would just stand still and let whatever that wishes approach it.

Dhak-ke-teen-paat, is an old saying which literally means three-leaves-of-Dhak. It stands for ‘unyielding’ – someone who cannot mend his ways or something that is always in the same state of things. The leaves of Palash are trifoliate, one each on the opposite sides and one at the apex, and they will always be in triplets, unyielding to the dusty storms when they unfurl or undying in the summer fires or unbending from the attacks of insects, their strength perhaps was the origin to the phrase. They also age slowly, much like our skin, and wither away quietly unlike the rustling decidere of Saja and Mahua and the great Bargad. If you stretch the meaning of the phrase to the tree itself, it does somehow seem to take its own time to move ahead in life – the nurseries do not culture Palash saplings because they are painfully slow to grow. It does not, they say, serve the purpose of reforesting an area within a short, stipulated time that almost always outwits the pace of nature.

This tree is quite possibly one of the oldest of this copse, likely older than its sibling by the pond. I know this because this pond has a long cultural significance to the neighbouring village. Here dwells their goddess, and my friends who’ve been visiting to worship the goddess since they were kids have seen this tree right there, which I assume makes it at least 25 years of age when we met. Despite being the smallest, it would have been one of the first to regain this degraded forest. In ecology, Palash trees are indeed hailed as pioneers of the plant kingdom – they are one of the early trees to get hold of the soil that has lost all its former rich nutrients – they are the first settlers, sending down roots and leading the way to rebuild a forest. They may be slow in growth – not growing five feet above the ground until they’re five years of age – first appearing as a lanky little toddler with only two seed leaves at the top, and then growing into a trifoliate profusion to resemble a plump shrub. Even at that young age they can bear the brunt of stampeding cattle, people hacking at their tender arms, forest fires, and insects incessantly nibbling at their leaves all monsoons. Given time and space, Palash is one of the most promising trees to naturally reclaim a tract of land with little protection.

Its leaves – the unyielding ones – are tough as old boots. When I first made contact with this tree, its foliage was a bluish green. They were leathery, but they lacked that lustre which was more like a coarse paper, slightly softer than sandpaper. The leaves of this one were being nibbled by small insects with an azure-blue carapace glistening like the deep blue of the summer skies. These tiny little jewel beetles were eating the upper layer of the leaves, leaving behind a haphazard chewed-upon pattern that would scar into a brown flake. On its veins sat the horned treehoppers that had pierced it with their hard, needle-like mouthpart to suck out its sap. A horticulturist might worry that this tree was under an attack. The tree seemed defenseless, but not quite.

When it was but a seedling, this tree inherited a very peculiar trait from its parent. It wasn’t an aposematic colour that would warn off herbivores, nor did the tree try to hide its signature green colour that attracted them, no, it stood, like a brave soldier, facing its attackers. Its secret lied in chemical deterrents such as tannin and alkaloids that ran through its vascular system. In Palash, they are present in the trunk, branches, flowers, and in the leaves, which makes them taste unpleasant to a large array of herbivores. It is especially disliked by the larger, hoofed wild herbivores than insects which quickly adapt to its taste or selectively eat layers of the leaves. Of course, when I touched this tree, I did not know this. It was a tree I could hold onto conveniently as I passed through the slushy patch of the forest. Very few birds would visit it during this wet season and the rodents would prefer the denser undergrowth or the high reaches of the taller trees, leaving the Palash and me to be on our own.

The Palash trees tend lose their bluish sheen to that of a dull grey when the winds turn and the air becomes dry. The humidity is zapped by the increasing coldness, signalling the coming of winter. The first sign of it is seen in the undergrowth: as soon as the grasses seed they begin to dry out root-to-tip. Grasslands turn to gold, and a song of the season of autumn, sung by birds that arrive in central India from the northern regions, fills the air.

There is a small hillock on the other side of Jamunia that looks over this copse. From here the trees appear as little soft-board pins rooted onto an undulating canvas of browns. The Palash is barely visible, but one can tell where it lies from the positions of the tall Semal and the great Bargad. In the morning the fog is thick enough to blank out everything in view – a grand drape that keeps everyone in anticipation before the performance begins – and it unfurls with the rising sun that bathes the entire landscape in its golden light. Little puffs of fog mixed with the woodstove smoke from villages rise like performers, their downy arms caressing each and every tree in a gentle embrace, waking them up from their winter sleep as birds begin to sing. And every day, as days shorten, a secret affair of fog and trees takes places in the woods. What does the fog whisper to the tree, what does the tree say to the fog in return, I wonder. Their conversation is perhaps forlorn, for as it gets colder the trees lose their charm. As we celebrate the New Year’s, the trees lament by shedding their leaves. The Palash looks dreadful during this season. Its leaves drop, branches break, and it appears to be in agony at the loss. A woodcutter’s axe left a gaping wound one morning, and it oozed a sap that startlingly looked like mammalian blood. There was nothing I could do to dress it up. All I could do was let it feel the warm embrace of a human – to let it feel the other side of human force which it has often felt through the swift blows of the cold axe.

Tok-tok-tok, resounds the beating axe, hacking at unsuspecting trees and ridding them of a chance to do what they were meant to: to reach the skies. But the hackers of this copse are no timber mafia or land pillagers; they are firewood collectors and hut builders out to gather a stack to keep themselves warm. They lop the trees so that they can be harvested again and again every year as they mature. This is what stunted the Palash and almost all its neighbours, except the great Bargad that is considered holy, and the tall Semal that has softer wood. I would cringe if that sound came from where the Palash stood, and stare vacantly if the woodcutters with their nimble axes passed by it. That mattered not at this time of the year. It was time for this tree to prepare for its ultimate ceremony that would see it light up the woods with its cheerful aura, a time when it could mesmerize even the shrewdest of the woodcutters.

The anthesis occurs like lighting of lamps. One by one, the flowers blossom towards the end of January, and within a few days just when it being to get warmer, the Palash is engulfed in its own flame. Birds as timid as the sunbirds, as effervescent as the leafbirds, as raucous as the starlings, converge on this tree to obtain the treat it has on offer. It only seeks one thing in return – to spread its pollen to as many flowers as it can. As many as 20 species of birds came to feed on its flowers – carrying a tiny saffron bindi on their foreheads – from the migratory Lesser Whitethroat and the Greenish Warbler, to the large residents, the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo and the Alexandrine Parakeet. There was a particular reason why all the birds suddenly noticed this Palash in the corner of the copse.

The two go back a long time. They coevolved to allude to one another, the tree striving to attract the birds with colours and the birds evolving to see better in the lower frequency of light – the colour in shades of yellow and red – so that they could easily spot these bright flames in the forest during their flights. They developed the most efficient barter on this planet: to take food in return for transporting pollen to enable the plants to successfully commingle with others and pass on their progeny. This fair trade is not foolproof, though, and the trees know it only too well, and hence they prefer to flower en masse to negate the losses of failed pollination that they incur. One particular bird not very efficient at this is the Lesser Goldenback Woodpecker. Although they are primarily insectivorous, pecking out wood-boring insects from tree trunks, they are also fond of nectar, and use their extremely long tongue to lick the nectar that is retained at the bottom of the Palash’s flowers without having to thrust their head into the petals, excusing themselves from partaking in the pre-arranged barter.

To ensure successful pollination, the flowers of Palash have evolved in a very peculiar fashion to appeal to birds like the Jerdon’s Leafbird and other passerines. They typically have a basal petal which is flat, an erect down-turned upper petal which hides the stamen and the stigma, and two wing petals which grow from the opposite sides, with the nectar lying right in the middle of the upper and the basal petals. When the bird juts its head inside to reach for the nectar, it forces the upper petal to expose the long stamen which deposits the pollen onto the bird’s head, giving all Palash feeders a mandatory saffron bindi – a pollinator’s mark – on their foreheads. They transfer this pollen from flower-to-flower as they go on feeding, and deposit it from tree-to-tree, enabling different individuals to interact intimately.

For two months of a year the tree is visited by hundreds of birds – from individuals to flocks of over thirty. Time goes by like it does for children at a funfair. In March the earliest flowers that successfully fertilized give out small, velvet pods containing a single seed. In a few weeks they turn green and large enough to fit in one’s palm. The birds leave as flowers wilt, chasing their own conscience to wherever it takes them. As summer progresses, the pods, fully mature and packed with all the traits required to survive in this harsh world, fall to the ground or blow away in the hot winds. A cycle is complete.

April is when one feels the summer get a grip over central India. With most trees having shed their leaves a lull begins to settle upon the landscape. The melody of birds is restricted only to the shaded groves. Yet nothing ever comes to a standstill in a wilderness. Around the middle of April, when the Palash seems to have spent every shard of its energy, it begins sprouting new leaves. They sprout as small, soft, tanned little buds covered in a down which within a few days unfurl into their signature trifoliate leaves. The leaves turn to a dazzling green as they mature, and within a week the Palash dons its new crown that gives off a silvery sheen under the summer sun.

The scorching month of May is the breeding season of drongo. They time their nesting so that their fledglings can gorge upon the winged termites that emerge with the first rains, and when the Palash’s leaves turn bluish green again. While the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo prefer the tall trees in dense forests, the Black Drongo of the countryside are not so choosy of their nesting sites. One summer morning as I sat under this tree long after the flowers and the pods were blown away, I saw a pair of Black Drongo construct a nest on its tallest branch.

The Baiga have told me that once you approach a nesting pair of drongo, they can single you out from a crowd of people anywhere close to their nest again, squawking and chasing until you’re out of sight. It meant that I had to move away from its shade, and then I realized: it did not matter who I was – a wanderer or a bird, an insect or an axeman – the Palash always stood there, offering shade and nectar and leaves to nibble onto, or branches to hack through. Its character was resolute, but I like to imagine that the tree delighted to have found a more reliable friend – certainly more than a human – in this pair of drongo that would attentively snarl at or even try to peck the pesky woodcutters if they approached their tree. Someone came to call the tree their own, and it meant that I had move out of its embrace – much like its seedlings – like one among its children.