The Western Ghats in the eastern imagination

The Purple Corner

By Narayani Ganesh and B Sivakumar

NARAYANI GANESH and B SIVAKUMAR make a plea to conserve the sacred groves and rich bio-heritage of the Western Ghats that stretch all along the coast of western India from Kerala upwards to Gujarat as they run across parts of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Goa.

The Western Ghats have long been home to ancient sacred groves, inspiring deep insight into life and living. Designated as one of the 10 top biodiversity hotspots in the world and soon to be declared a World Heritage Site, the Ghats, also known as the Sahyadri range, are home to over 5,000 species of flowering plants, 139 mammal species, 508 bird species and 179 amphibian species. There could be as many species here that are still unknown to us whereas 325 of those we know are on the endangered list.

According to the Worldwatch Institute, from 1980 to 2008, an average of 52 species per year moved one category closer to extinction on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Endangered Species. Although mass extinctions have occurred on Earth throughout geologic time, the current loss of biodiversity is the first to be caused overwhelmingly by a single species — humans. The five principal pressures causing biodiversity loss are habitat change, overexploitation, pollution, invasive alien species, and climate change, all of which are almost exclusively human-driven.

Man And Nature
Why is it so important to conserve biodiversity? Doesn’t Nature have her own way of reparation and rejuvenation? Indeed, in the natural birth and death cycle that is a universal phenomenon, a subtle balancing mechanism might be at work. However, the cycle could be thrown off balance with human interference as is in evidence today. Which is why UN member countries are converging at the Rio+20 Earth Summit, June 20-22, to figure out a consensual approach to not only conserve resources and reduce exploitation and pollution, but also ensure our well-being and survival.

Government intervention is only a small part of the reparation process. Individual effort counts, especially when it translates to action by billions across the globe. Community-led efforts are important too, whether these are led by civil society groups, religious organisations or simply pockets of society that have worked out their own way in local conditions to restore harmony around them.

The Western Ghats ecology expert panel set up by the Environment Ministry has recently designated the entire Western Ghats (142 talukas) as an ecologically sensitive area to ensure that the current moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining, polluting industries and power plants remain extended till completion of carrying capacity analysis. These efforts are important at the administrative level where action is expected to be taken top-down. But they are not enough; truly forceful would be a community-based approach that celebrates the interconnectedness of life.

Hence, the following trend is encouraging, though it might seem passive. In recent times, a faith-based grassroots-up approach that includes the building of many new temples in the region, especially in Karnataka and Kerala, is reviving the ancient practice of respecting and conserving biodiversity. The older places of worship, too, are seeing a revival as they are being frequented by a greater number of people seeking to connect with Nature.

Scholars point out the many references to the Sahyadris in epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as in the Puranas. The Ramayana describes the Ghats as majestic, great mountains with brightly coloured peaks, woods rich in flora and extensive forest tracts of sandalwood. The Western Ghats are also compared to the Himalayas for its rivers and sacred spaces.

Alive In Our Epics
Among important tirthas located in the Ghats at the source of different rivers is Triambakeshwar at the source of River Godavari near Nashik in Maharashtra; it has one of the 12 ancient and sacred Jyotirlingas. The legend of Sage Gautama who lived near Triambak on the Brahmagiri hill is narrated in the Brahmapurana and Naradapurana. The Ramayana features Panchavati on the banks of the Godavari as the place where Rama stayed along with Sita and Lakshmana.

Adi Shankara established a math at Sringeri on the banks of River Tungabhadra, at a height of 2,205 feet. The Vidyashankara temple at the Sringeri Sharada Peetham has a number of sculptures from Hindu, Buddhist and Jain mythologies. “There are around 100 to 150 temples, big and small, in and around the Western Ghats in Karnataka alone,” says Haridass N Shenoy from Belman, Mangalore.

Trek To God’s Abode
Footfalls here have been steadily rising in recent years with some pilgrims making a twice-yearly visit. Kollur, the abode of Goddess Mookambika, is surrounded by the Kodachatre mountain range and dense forest. Adi Shankara described Mookambika as a Jyotirlinga incorporating both Shiva and Shakti. The Divine Mother symbolises trigunas or threefold aspects of life. Dharmasthala, Kukke Subramanya, and Horanad Annapoorneswari are some of the other significant sacred destinations along the Ghats in Karnataka.

The towering Gomateshwara monolith at Shravanabelagola near Shimoga, is sacred to Jains but attracts followers of all faiths and persuasions. There are 14 shrines on Chandragiri Hill and Mauryan emperor Chandragupta Maurya, after renouncing his kingdom, settled on this hill, along with his guru, Bhagwan Bhadra Bahu Swami. The emperor is buried here. In Kerala, the Sabarimala shrine is the abode of Ayyappa, who presides over a thickly forested area in the upper region of River Pamba. It is also where Rama met Sabari, an ardent devotee who ventured to taste the fruit before offering it to Rama. Several historical churches are situated in mountain ranges in Kerala.  

All For Planet Earth
In Tamil Nadu, River Tamaraparni arises in the Agasthyamalai. Downstream, it reaches the Papanasam tirtha which is another popular sacred destination. The Shiva Purana and the Kurma Purana besides the Mahabharata and Ramayana make reference to the tirtha.

While heads of state thrash out ways to resolve global ecological crises, quiet movements by people moved by nothing more than faith and hope — seeking refuge in sacred groves in biodiversity hotspots like the Western Ghats — could well help turn the tide of destruction to a more positive and all-embracing evolutionary path that will inculcate greater respect for Planet Earth. Any relationship based on respect is bound to yield good results. From this awareness will come the strength to campaign for and ensure implementation of laws that seek to save the environment from exploitation — industrial or otherwise.

Western Ghats, Eastern Pride: Click to see more stunning images of the Monsoon mountains.