This mountain top rising up to 1000 m above sea level at the border of Kottayam and Iduki districts in Kerala is the site of rare geographical wonder. It still houses an ancient check dam or Chira on the top of the grasslands sprawling on three mountain peaks and their joint summit called Mankunnu, Kodayatur Mala and Tonipara. In place names Chiras are associated with ancient Buddhist water management. This is called Elaveezha Poomchira or Ilaveezhapoonchira the floral pool or small dam; where leaves do not fall into it as it is on the grassland top of the mountain. The shola forest patches are there in the crevices and creeks of the mountain grass tops just below the grassland shola peaks.
There is a sacred grove shrine by the small floral lake or Poomchira. There are ancient Naga deities in granite by shola trees. Buddha as Naga Appan or Nagaraja Boddhisatva and Mahamaya as Naga Yakshi are still seen in Hinduized ways there by the trees. There are also ancient crude rock votive stupas nearby. The small pagoda is now dedicated to the fierce Hindu goddess Kali and the shrine is now called Kali and Krishna “temple.” Such fierce modifications might have happened in the late middle ages when the ancient Keezhmalai Nadu was annexed to Vadakumkoor in the early seventeenth century and subsequently to Travancore in the mid-eighteenth century.
This mountain peak is some 20 km from Todupuzha the capital of Iduki in the plains; it is some 50 km from Kottayam. Now a new road is being built linking it from Melukavu and Todupuzha. Till the early seventeenth century, this was part of the ancient Keezhmalai Nadu and place names like Muttam, Kodaytur, Koovapally, Elapally, Pallykanam and Ellykal Kallu etc. show ancient toponymical linkages to Buddhism as there are many Pallys or modified place names here. Muttam and Vattam represent the well-rounded stupa of Buddhism. Relics of ancient stones and menhirs and stupa-like worshiping stones also prove the archaeological presence of Buddhist cultural relics here.
Ellykal Kallu or Illykal Kallu is also said to be a later modification of Pallykal Kallu as Pallykanam is now changed into Pullykanam misusing the British English spelling as in Pullyvasal in Munnar. It must be remembered that such ancient bunds and dams using rammed earth are still surviving in Achan Kovil forests and Kulatupuzha forests near ancient Kattilapara or carved rock vestiges associated with Buddhism. The proximity to Pallykanam and Vagaman and the closeness to Moolamatam and Kodayatur are also linkages to the ancient trade-cultural routes between Chera and Pandya lands. The presence of Mala Araya tribal people closely associated with the Buddhist shrine of ancient Chavarimala or Savarimala now Ramafied as Shabarimala is also remarkable.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…