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.

Illikkal Kallu or Pallykal Kallu? The Ancient Rock that Looks Like a Buddha Head in Meenachil Taluk of Kottayam

Illikkal Kallu
Illikkal Kallu rock peaks resembling the face of the Buddha, profile with nose, chin and tuft of hair or Ushnisha above. It rises above 1000m at the eastern border of Kottayam district in Meenachil Taluk.

Illikkal Kallu is an ancient rock formation rising to 1000 m above sea level at the eastern mountain ranges in Kottayam district in Meenachil Taluk bordering with Idukki district. Many tributaries of the river Meenachil are also orginating from the grasslands of this rock caped mountain. It is also close to Vagaman mountains and Ilaveezhapoonchira peak. The enigmatic shrub Neelakoduveli is believed to be growing on its crevices.

Illikkal Kallu fallen rock face resembling the face of the Buddha with a tuft of hair above that resembles a lying lion representing the Sakya Simha roaring to the world

The place name Illikkal Kallu refers to Illi or the thorny bamboo. But this variety of bamboo does not grow on such altitude above 1000 m on grass land tops or sholas and rocky peaks in particular on the Western Ghats. It is a miserable mockery that the tourism lobby is now planting a few bamboos there. Only the elephant grass and alpine date palms or Eendu grow on these grassland tops. There are a few giant reeds (‘Ottal or Odal’) in the lower stretches and slopes of this range. So Illi or bamboo cannot become the key element in the place name anyhow. Thus the place name seems to have changed or modified in modern times. Considering the ecological and geo strategic location and proximity to ancient trade routes to Tamilakam or the ancient Tamil Pandya country across the the Western Ghats from the Chera land or Kerala the original place name seems to be Pallykal Kallu or the ancient rock at the vicinity of the Vihara. Especially when we consider the surrounding place names like P(u)allykanam, Elapally and Eendupally it is all the more clear. Pally affix in place names are changed gradually to either Pilly or Pully misusing the British spelling ‘u’ or slight changes in local articulation to erase the history of Buddhism by the hegemonic consensus.

Reclining Buddha in his rocky bed, another angle of Illikkal Kallu. An alteration of Pallykal Kallu as Eendupally and Elapally as well as Pallykanam are surrounding the area in Meenachil Taluk in Kottayam district of Kerala.

Teekoyi which is a small town near this place is also an altered version of Teekovil the pagoda of fire. Kozhikod was originally Kovilkod and Koyilandy was Kovilaandi in the north. The Poonchira another peak nearby is also having a Buddhist connection as the Chira or dams and irrigation bunds for water management in ancient Kerala and Tamilakam were designed and made in eco-conservative ways by the nuns and monks of Asoka from BC third century onward along with their sacred groves or Sangha Aramas that precipitated later as the Kavu culture of Kerala. The elaborate archaeological and ecological relics of Buddhist conservation culture as in Amaram Kavu named after Amara Simha the author or Amarakosa and the ancient rock temple and Gajotama or Ganes temple in Karikod near Todupuzha are reminiscent of the Buddhist age.

The rock faces and formations at Illikkal Kallu or Pallykal Kallu resemble the head of the Buddha in many ways and angles. The face and tuft of hair (Ushnisha) are clear and the tuft also looks like a seated lion roaring, again symbolizing the Sakya Simha speaking to the world. Perhaps that is why the rock was called Pallykal Kallu before the modern age. There were many Viharas or Pallys on the Western Ghats as in Pallykanam or Eendupally on these grass land tops. Kutikanam or the Kanam or wooded grassland top with a Kuti or Pagoda is another example in southern ranges. Many rock heads have fallen. Some rocks look like mushroomed umbrella and are called Kuda Kallu popularly by the Mala Araya tribals. Some are called hunchbacks or Koonan Kallu. It is remarkable to note that Kuda or ceremonial umbrella is another key symbol in Buddhism. The ancient Stupas and gateways carried three, four, five or eight umbrellas. Kodaikanal got its name from the Kodai or umbrella icon of Buddhism. There are Pally affixes in the house names of the Mala Arayas.

Another smaller rock nearby is called Ayyanpara or the rock of Ayya or Arya Buddha. In the middle ages these shrines were taken over by Saivism. Maramala falls is also nearby which is now shortened and distorted in articulation and meaning as Marmala. Mara and his daughter Mohini tested the Buddha with their sensual song and dance and he assumed the down to earth posture or Bhumi Saparsa Mudra peacefully conquering the trials of the senses. There are several places related to Mara in Kerala like Maramon, Maraparambu, Marayimuttom, Mararikulam etc. The traditional percussionist caste is also called Marar or the people of Mara hinting at their song and dance traditions.

This unique geological and eco cultural location must be conserved very carefully from the business interests of the tourism industry and must be conserved for future generations and the future of the river Meenachil and the planes fed by the river.

Photos and text by ajay sekher