In south India, the mountain plateaus of the Western Ghats form an almost continuous wall from north to south. On their higher reaches is a unique habitat found nowhere else in the world – the sholas. Derived from the Tamil word சோலை (cōlai), which means grove, this ecosystem is a sight to behold – smooth montane grasslands roll undulating, as far as the eyes can see, and tucked into the dips and valleys grow darker dense pockets of evergreen tropical forests. It is like walking into another world. The trees grow stunted, studies have shown, rarely more than 15 m, a clever evolution to withstand the high speeds winds of this altitude of above 1,500 m. Thickets of shrubs and ferns thrive in the lower storeys, under round dense canopies. Countless epiphytes, creepers and mosses carpet every possible surface, from tree trunks, to boulders and the forest floor. High frost and fog conditions don’t allow tree seedlings to germinate beyond a certain height, so the grasslands reign supreme at the mountaintops.
This mosaic of shola forests and grassland spreads across the Nilgiri, Anamalai, Palani and Kalakad-Mundanthurai ranges of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and parts of Karnataka. Strategically located, the sholas receive glorious nourishment from both the south-west and north-east monsoon. Much of this rainfall is carefully soaked and absorbed, held and slowly released over time like a sponge… giving birth to abundant perennial rivers that feed the plains. And the many creatures that live in the forests. Isolated from other ecosystems for hundreds of years, the sholas have formed what are called “sky islands”, that shelter a rich biodiversity. Birds, frogs, insects, fungi and plants have evolved over millions of years to these unique conditions, several branching into different species as they were separated by cloud oceans. Most are found only here, and sadly many are now endangered.
These rich sholas are now so scattered and fragmented throughout their range. Invasive exotic plants, commercial agriculture and urban development continue to encroach into the ecosystem, the last remaining patches shrinking further and further. In the Palanis alone, a 2018 study reveals, 66 percent of the grasslands and 31 percent of shola forests have vanished since the 1990s.
In this issue, as we celebrate the wonders of the sholas right in Kodai’s backyard, we also look at what we stand to lose if they are not conserved in time. A landscape frozen in time, that has inspired many researchers, scientists, artists, activists, writers, photographers and many more to unravel its mysteries.
I can see why the sholas remain a perennial muse. As I walk under the darkening canopies of the Bombay shola, right within Kodai, I marvel at these moss-adorned trunks of these ancient trees and the deep dark ferns taller than me, listening to the songs of creatures that have lived here long before my oldest ancestors… I can’t help but wonder, what other stories we do not yet know. Will we find out in time?