“It is always the same with mountains. Once you have lived with them for any length of time, you belong to them. There is no escape.” – Ruskin Bond
Much like the enigmatic Ruskin Bond, I find myself returning to the mountains time and time again. This month, my quest for higher ground (and a field trip for work) led me to the mountains where my roots lie – the Western Ghats of peninsular India.
The Western Ghats are chummily known as India’s monsoon mountains, and indeed the rains have been kind to this vibrant, forested stretch of peaks. One of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, the Ghats are home to a range of charismatic and ecologically-vital species. Herds of elephants traverse the hills, following ancient migration routes passed down from generation to generation. The seesaw rasp of the Indian leopard echoes through the jungles at night, stilling the rooting of the wild pigs and bringing the chatter of the langurs to a standstill. Otters splash in mountain streams, and the russet flash of the Asiatic wild dog captivates those who stumble across these powerful predators in the depths of southern India. The dhonk of the sambhar alerts the forest to the presence of India’s national animal, the Bengal tiger, as this elegant cat ambles along jungle roads. Yes, India’s wild heart soothes the tired, city-worn soul, and it is for this landscape that I have yearned.
Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary, shortened to BRT, lies nestled in the Nilgiris – the blue hills – that connect the Western Ghats with the Eastern Ghats. This stretch is marked by a series of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks straddling the states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. Karnataka’s Nagarahole and Bandipur National Parks are connected to Tamil Nadu’s Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve and Mudumalai National Park by BRT, where I spent two days this past week. BRT is cloaked in soft greens and blues at this time of the year. These pastels are interspersed with shocking oranges and reds, from berries and flowers. Tribal houses, painted in shades of pink, blue, and orange dot the landscape, peeking out from beneath the trees. India is truly a land of colours. From the landscapes to the wildlife to the people, colours dominate one’s memories of this vibrant country.
We stayed at the WCS field station on the buffer of the tiger reserve, and our morning began with a walk to the nearby lake. Frogs chittered from leaves on the still water, wagtails and skimmers dipped their wings in droplets of silver, swirling in an endless dance of grace. We had hopes of seeing elephants in those early morning hours, and of spotting the wild dogs that were said to walk along the roadways, but no charismatic large fauna made itself available to our eager eyes. BR Hills is a birder’s paradise at this time of the year. Not much of a birder myself, I still enjoyed spotting the bright flashes of colour through the dense trees while my birder companions oohed and aahed over the finer details of species identification. My trusty binoculars and digital camera never left my neck during those days of paradise.
Of course, even if it remains hidden from the eager eye, wildlife never fails to leave its traces. I eagerly pieced through fresh carnivore scat only to find that it was fresh leopard scat, a real treat to find right at our field station! A wild pig was spotted twice rooting around our field station compost pit, and we stumbled across a stripe-necked mongoose in a field, a pleasant and rare surprise. The poor mongoose was less than pleased to be found and headed for denser cover, leaving us exclaiming in delight. On the second morning, Vaishali and I walked up to the cliff to witness sunrise over the blue hills. A soaring Brahmini kite circled above us, bringing a smile to my lips. The wind ruffled my hair and brought a flush to my cheeks. Mornings in the mountains soothe the soul unlike any other form of meditation.
The Biligirirangans, in the heart of southern India, are a reminder of why we need wild places. They are as much of a part of us as they are a part of the wildlife that we live alongside. India’s wild heart beats for every living creature that calls her home.