Fairies of the Mountain Stream: Avifauna in Mathikettan Shola National Park and Bodhi Hills, Under Erasure

Malabar Whistling Thrush (Choola Kaka) by a stream at Petotty in Mathikettan Shola

Mathikettan Shola National Park lies in the western slopes of the Bodhi Hills towards the south of Bodhi Medu or Bodimettu and Anayirankal lake to the south east of Munnar on the Western Ghats in Idukki district of Kerala. This dense evergreen mountain forests or Shola can be reached from Santanpara on the Munnar – Kumaly highway. The Shola office and interpretation centre by Kerala Forest Department is located in Petotty, three kilometers to the east of Santanpara. They offer dormitory and log-hut camping. The schoolboy whistling of the Choolakaka or Malabar Whistling Thrush would be the first striking welcome note of the Shola and its myriad misty streams.

Crested Serpent Eagle in a Shola patch near the highway in Santanpara west of Mathikettan Shola

The Shola is called Mathikettan in the sense that you would loose your wits once you enter this huge and extensive Shola. The region is called Petotty probably as it is a valley or vessel (Totty) of Pekuyil or Hawk Cuckoos on the ghats. The cuckoos crying out “pee… pee… ho…” are also called Brain Fever Birds. These place names may also be part of the otherizing, distorting discourses related to Bodhi Medu which has been skewed and reduced to Bodimettu, and Bodhinayakanur to Bodinaikanur as part of erasing the history of Buddhism from place names.

Indian Yellow Tit or Black-lored Tit at Petotty in Mathikettan Shola National Park, 2 June 2019 evening

Chakramudi the peak west of the Bodhi Hills just east of Pallyvasal or the gateway to the Vihara is also distorted to Chokramudi to erase the Buddhist cultural legacies of the region from popular imagination and comprehension. This is a peak near the current Lockhart gap, rising up to 2200 m where once the Dhamma Chakka (Chakra) or wheel of ethics was placed by the Asokan monks and nuns as it was a highest point on the ancient trade-cultural route between ancient Tamilakam and Chera land or Keralam, part of a provincial silk route between Kanchi and Vanchi. But somehow place names like Tripadamalai, Nagamalai, Suryanelli etc. are surviving in the area around Anayirankal lake reservoir.

Bodhi Hills from Chaturangapara Medu. Steep drop of around 1000 m to Tevaram and Bodhinayakanur below

Ana or elephant is another icon of the Buddha as Gajotama as epitomized in the highest peak in Tamilakam in Anaimudi. The Anamalais also continue the Gajotama analogy. Lion or tiger or simply Puli in common parlance is also a key icon used from Asokan times onwards to refer to the enlightened and compassionate one as the distinguished and exquisite elephant, bull, tiger or lion eventually the Sakya Simha. Meesapulimalai and its eight-fold peaks poignantly represent the eight-fold path of the enlightened one.

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo at Petotty CHR in Mathikettan Shola National Park

This sensitive part of the Bodhi Hills is culturally and ecologically nuanced and vulnerable to the increasing pressures of habitaion, developmental work, plantation and quarrying. The fragile grassland tops of Santanpara, Rajapara Medu and Chaturangapara Medu that act as an eco curtain that separates the hot dry climate of Tamilakam from Keralam, are under the threat of granite quarrying, wind mills and road building.

Uchikuthmudi and other peaks in Mathikettan Shola National park, declared in 2003. In colonial times the Travancore princely state declared the region as a reserve forest in 1897.

It is also part of the Cardamom Hills Reserve or CHR. Old endemic tress are still conserved in the CHR areas because of restrictions to felling. Increasing use of pesticides, especially the banned Endosulfan in different trade names and illegal constructions or tree felling are causing damage to the unique ecosystem that is the spring source of water for the entire south and central Kerala as mountain tributaries of many rivers are originating in the Shola.

A territorial Shikra at Petotty in Mathikettan Shola National Park

The overdose of pesticide residues in the Sholas of the ghats reaches the wetlands in Kuttanad through the rivers originating from the Sholas and poisons life in the plains. The recent ecological survey done by Dr Dilip K G of CNHS and Dr Ajay Sekher has once again confirmed the harmful effects pesticides in this shola affecting even bird diversity and the overall health of the ecosystem. The eco survey was done on June 2 and 3, 2019.

Prof Dilip K G at Rajaparamedu overlooking Tevaram and Bodhinayakanur below. Bodhi Hills and Mathikettan Shola towards north in the background.

The extensive presence of Hill Myna, Malabar Whistling Thrush, Serpent Eagle and Hawk Cuckoo is evident in the survey. The absence of Hornbills is another striking fact that reminds us of the scaring presence of pesticides and other chemical fertilizers in the unique wooded ecosystem.

Malabar Whistling Thrush by a stream in CHR region near Santanpara. 3 June 2019

A lonely Mountain Imperial Pigeon was also spotted towards Jnandar area east of Petotty on the morning of June 3. Further close studies, field observations and surveys are required to create an environment and culture of conservation as far as this life giving Shola regions are concerned. Strict monitoring regarding banned pesticide use is also essential. The mining and quarrying must also be stopped in the fragile ecosystem that prevents the onslaught of drought from the eastern slopes of the ghats.

A Grass Hopper at Rajaparamedu

Let us hope that this ecologically, culturally and historically significant fortress between Tamilakam and Keralam survive the encroachment of construction and plantation. Let us dream that the fairies that sing from the mountain streams day in and day out survive the large scale interventions and clearing. Let us listen to the vanishing music of the thrushes, parakeets,mynas and cuckoos…

Malabar Whistling Thrush at Petotty in Mathikettan Shola National Park

The Land of the Vagai Trees: Biodiversity and Bird life in Vagaman and Ulpuni the Submerged Valley on the Highlands

Alpine wild date-palm called Chiteentu (Phoenix Pussilla)at Ulpuni in Vagaman, May 2019.
Edible and cherished by humans, birds and bears alike. See the darkened ones that are ripened.

Vagaman got its name from the celebrated Vagai blooms from the Sangham or Chankam age onwards like the Kurinji blooms that named the Nilgriris or the blue mountains. Vagai was once the totem tree of certain early clans of the Chera dynasty in Kerala. Vagai Perumtura on the river Perar got its name from this iconic clan tree of the early Cheras in Vanneri. Some of the Vagai trees are still surviving in pockets like Ulupooni or Ulpuni region in Vagaman above 1000 m. They are also called Eeyal Vakai.

‘Eagel-top Ulpuni/Vagaman’ by Ajay Sekher 2019, Acrylic on Canvas. 30*20 cm

Ulpuni means the vessel within. It is a quiet and submersed shola grassland bowl or green shola vessel submerged or anchored within the Vagaman highland plateau. It is a biodiversity hot-spot and is teaming with endemic rare alpine flora and fauna amidst the pressures of plantation, construction and tourism industries.

A Nightjar at Ulpuni in Vagaman around 1000 m above sea level at dusk, May 2019.
A Pipit at Ulpuni in Vagaman near the Palette People Art Residency.
Bonelli’s Eagle soaring high above Ulpuni grassland tops in Vagaman, Early May 2019
Two Bonelli’s Eagles flying together in Ulpuni, Vagaman. May 2019, there were three in this group.
Bonelli’s Eagle above Ulpuni in Vagaman. Early May 2019. Near Palette Art Residency Ulupooni.
A Pipit on the grassland sholas at Ulpuni, Vagaman. May 2019
Dusky Crag Marten in Ulpuni, Vagaman. May 2019. It is nesting there in a building.
The nesting pair of Dusky Crag Marten by the Palette Art Residency building at Ulpuni in Vagaman, May 2019.
Lesser Caucal at Ulpuni in Vagaman, May 2019.
The last remaining patches of shola grasslands in Ulpuni, Vagaman. May 2019
‘Pipit at Ulpuni/Vagaman’ by Ajay Sekher 2019. Acrylic on Canvas. 30*20 cm
Alpine and endemic ferns in the shola relics in Ulpuni, Vagaman. May 2019.
Lichens and mosses on shola trees that absorb water and create streams and springs in Ulpuni, Vagaman, May 2019.
Wild guava groves and fruits aplenty on the western ghats. Ulpuni in Vagaman. May 2019
Ficus (Kallal) shoots in dew at Ulpuni, Vagaman. May 2019
Vagai (Albizia) blooms from which Vagaman got its name at Ulpuni, Vagaman, May 2019.
A shola shrub in bloom at Ulpuni, Vagaman. May 2019.
Crested Serpent Eagle above Ulpuni grasshills in Vagaman, May 2019.
Construction and plantation erasing the shola forests forever, causing the climatic change on the western ghats grassland sholas at Ulpuni, Vagaman. The local bodies and people must show caution against such large scale alterations in the geography and ecology at large.
‘Beast Fable -Kottamala/Ulpuni’ by Ajay Sekher 2019. Pen and Oil Pastel on Paper 10*20 cm
A Pipit at Ulpuni in Vagaman, May 2019
Ulpuni grassland shola valley from the grassland top (Motta) near Palette People Art Residency (see the two green roofs below), early May 2019. Palette may be reached at 9142243866 (Mr Cyril Kochi). 8km from Vagaman town.