The BR Hills forests, until recently protected as a wildlife sanctuary under the
Wildlife Protection Act have recently been upgraded to a Tiger Reserve. And by no means without reason; BRT is one of the 42 global source sites for tigers, “so termed because these areas contain concentrations of tigers that have the potential to repopulate larger landscapes”. However, the forests are also a sanctuary to the Soliga people, who are themselves also increasingly seeing a role in tiger conservation. With a new, dynamic officer taking over as the Field Director of the tiger reserve, there was an effort at making a booklet to introduce new visitors to the rich wildlife, people and culture that these hills hold. Reproduced below is my contribution to the booklet, now incorporated into a well-designed booklet available to all visitors to the hills.
Weave, spider weave that web…
Doddasampige, my Lord
Safeguard and protect me, O Lord
Weave, spider weave that web…
O the Mountain Imperial Pigeon of Boodipadaga,
The same one that cannot be trapped!
Behold the Sloth Bear of my forest…
– Translated from the Soliga song Gorukana
Sidde Gowda from Bedaguli recollects an old tale, almost a legend now among the Soliga people in Biligirirangana Hills (BR Hills). The tale of a God-like man wearing Bilibatte (white clothes; used to indicate modern clothing) who came on a horse followed by several people. Perhaps, this is the only remaining memory among the Soliga people of a journey undertaken by a Scottish doctor nearly 200 years ago. Francis Buchanan left for us a journal of his notes from his passing through BR Hills in October 1800, perhaps the first ever written record about the Soliga people of BR Hills. The book titled “ A Journey from Madras through the Countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar” was then published in London in 1807 in three volumes. Buchanan travelled through the hills on horseback.
BR Hills consists of three parallel, north-south ranges of hills. To the north and east lie the town of Kollegal and the reserve forests of Kollegal. Westward the plains of Yelandur and Gundlupet separate the BR Hills from the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. To the south, the range merges with the Satyamangalam Tiger Reserve, which further to the south drop down in a steep decline into the Coimbatore plains. Eastwards, the Kollegal forests and a few villages separate the range from the Mahadeswara Malai Hills. Situated thus at the tail end of the eastern Ghats, the BR Hills form a part of the hill ranges that connect the Eastern Ghats with the Western Ghats, with plants and wildlife of both these areas.
Only a few hours’ drive south from Mysore, these are the hills that Edward Pritchard Gee, the famous naturalist starts off his well-known wildlife book “The Wildlife of India” with. In this book published in 1965, EP Gee starts off his descriptive illustration of the wildlife of India with a visit to a naturalist friend, who lived in the hills south of Mysore that abound with Gaur and Tigers. Indeed, it was BR Hills, he was talking about and the friend was RC Morris, a hunter-naturalist who lived in BR Hills. (Link to Subbu’s article from here).
The forests of BR Hills was the first place in South India where the Kheddah procedure for capturing wild elephants was perfected by George Sanderson in the later part of the nineteenth century. Today, the forest department’s guest house in Boodipadaga at the fringes of BR Hills stands very close to the area where Sanderson tried out the Kheddah, a method of cornering wild elephants into strategically located regions usually around water by land-drive method, as opposed to the earlier method of leading them into pits. Sanderson’s first sight of the forested hills as he looked up at the range from the village of Santemaralli (a hobli north of Yelandur town on the way to BR Hills) and his journey to Boodipadaga are described in his book Thirteen years among the wild beasts of India published in 1878. Later visits in the late 1930s by the Birdman of India, Salim Ali for surveying the birds improved our understanding of birdlife in BR Hills.
Today, BR Hills is one of Karnataka’s youngest Tiger Reserves, but perhaps one of our oldest forests. Having been declared a protected area under the Wildlife Act in 1974, its protection status was elevated to a Tiger Reserve in 2011. The forests on the hills support a variety of habitats and thus the wildlife in the area ranges from species known from scrub forests and dryer regions to species that are endemic to wet forests of the Western Ghats. The forests have nearly 270 species of birds; many species have been added to the known list of birds from BR hills by recent surveys by birdwatchers and scientists (References to papers on birds of BR Hills could be made at end of article). The diversity of habitats in the hills is revealed by the very different types of birds that can be seen in these forests. A drive through the only road goes from the north of the sanctuary to the south connecting the town of Yelandur to the district headquarters of Chamarajanagar is indeed a journey through the several types of forests in this reserve.
A bay backed welcome
As one starts off at the Gumballi check post at the northern foothills near Yelandur, the habitat is a dry scrub growth on either side of the road. The Laughing Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis) is very common here, as are Jungle Babblers (Turdoides striata) in their small flocks. In winter, large and noisy flocks of Rosy Pastors (Sturnus roseus) pass through in the evenings from surrounding cultivation and probably roost in large numbers at the foothills. Weaver nests may be seen hanging over the small water bodies in this area and birds that frequent farmland habitat visit often – the munias, bushlarks and such. Large reservoirs such as the Krishnayyanakatte, Bellatta, Suvarnavathi collect the water trickling down in small and large streams from the hills. But, the “jewel” of this habitat is the beautiful Baybacked Shrike (Lanius vittatus) that is commonly seen a few hundred meters after crossing the Gumballi check post on the way to the hilltop.
The Doves change, the drongos bronze
Continuing further up the Gumballi check post, the road soon begins an easy climb and the habitat changes to dry deciduous forest. And further up, the forests become more and more moist. The Laughing Doves are slowly replaced by Spotted Doves and still further up towards the forest guesthouse at K Gudi, the same areas along the road are occupied by Emerald Doves – a beautiful illustration of how bird species change with habitat. Flocks of noisy Hill Mynas (Gracula religiosa) with their golden crowns and Malabar Parakeets’ (Psittacula columboides) harsh calls echo through the forests in these parts. Fluty notes of Flycatchers and electric-spark like calls of Rufous Babblers are often heard. The Shikras of the lower elevations are replaced by Besras; the drongos here are of the Bronzed variety and the more familiar red-whiskered bulbuls give way to the yellow browed ones.
The newer micro-habitats made available by the wetter, semi-evergreen forests provide opportunity to a greater diversity of birds – nuthatches, flycatchers, monarchs, more species of woodpeckers and barbets. The wet forests abound with a variety of insects, frogs and reptiles. The temperature drops and the trees are evidently taller. Indeed, further down along the valleys in the central part of the BR Hills range, the trees can be very tall with woody climbers that stretch from tree to tree, live bridges networking the forest. Apart from the larger animals such as Tigers, Gaurs and Elephants, these areas are also have giant squirrels, Stripe-necked Mongoose, barking deer’s and many other animals. Early in the mornings, flocks of Wild Dogs may be seen. And in the winter, Grey Wagtail, a migrant bird from the colder northern regions ranging from Europe, Northern Asia and Himalayas lines the roads and forest trails.
Not everything though
Although home to a variety of animals and plants, BR Hills has some peculiar “absences”. Birds, one could have expected but have not been recorded or known to have existed here in the recent past. Despite its habitat affinity with the western ghats as well as geographical continuity in patches, not all of the western ghat bird species are found here. Noticably absent are the hornbills of the wet zone of the western ghats – Great Pied and the Malabar Pied hornbills (Buceros bicornis and Anthracoceros coronatus) and the Malabar Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros griseus). (Link to avifaunal peculiarities paper)
The pygmy forest far away
As one travels down the road connecting BR Hills to the forest guesthouse at Kyatadevarayana Gudi (K Gudi for short), the hills far away across the valley appear “bald”. These are the sholas – a grassland-forest complex seen in the southern WesternGhats. The grasslands on the hilltops are surround clumps of trees in the folds of the hills, where the trees are quite short. The shola forest around Honnametti and Jodigere are reminiscent of similar habitats seen in Kudremukh and in Coorg in the higher hills. Kattari Betta at an elevation of 1864 metres above sea level is the highest point in these forests. With orchids and lichen as ornaments, the forest here is green all through the year. On hot afternoons, these grasslands are the best places to see the soaring raptors – Black Eagles, Kestrels, Falcons and often the Hawk-eagles.
On the sholas, one can feel the full gust of the southwest monsoons. Unhindered by trees or other barriers, the full force of these moisture-laden winds hits these hill slopes with a blast, that ecologists consider as one (among many) reason for the pygmy trees and the grasslands.
Peopled forests: Origins
The forests of BR Hills have had people for time immemorial. Burial sites excavated from several areas nearby date back to 3000 years ago to the Megalithic period. These sites characteristically consist of Dolmens – a circular arrangement of large stones with a central pit, walled off by granite slabs. Although, it is not known if these belong to the ancestors of the present Soliga tribe, having lived here for generations, the Soliga people have an intricate understanding of the flora and fauna. The Soliga lore traces their origins to the forest itself. Their name Soliga is in itself an indication that they have come from the forests (Sola-forest; iga-belonging to). One of their principal deities, the Doddasampige is a large Michelia champaka tree in a valley at the heart of the forest. On the banks of the stream Bhargavi, the large imposing tree perhaps several hundreds of years old is worshipped by a community-appointed high priest, the Thammadi. Their folklore, songs and dances adopt several elements from their life in the forests – the four-note call of Kethanakki, the Soliga name for the Indian Cuckoo (Cuculus micropterus) is named after one of their Gods, Ketha. The bird’s four-note call announces the arrival of their God, Ketha (Ke tha ban da – the four note call!). A temple to Ketha gives its name to the hunting lodge of the erstwhile Maharaja of Mysore, now with the Forest Department. Every year, Soligas from all around gather for Rotti habba, where they make fresh bread with Ragi to be shared among themselves, as they sing Goru, goruko, gorukana…. a song that calls on its singers to weave lines from their day’s jungle experiences into it as they sing and dance in a familiar rhythm. The song recalls a spider (Goruka in Soliga language) weaving its web, just as they weave their experience into their story. Further down the song, it is common to hear of the cheekiness of the Mountain Imperial Pigeon or the ambition of the Four-horned Antelope to create dung heaps as large as the hills itself! Having lived for generations, many observations of the life and behaviour of animals are woven into songs and lore of the Soliga people.
Today, the Soliga people number about 21000. The story goes that the first Soliga, Bomme Gowda’s beautiful daughter Pusumale was wooed by none other than Lord Vishnu, cementing a bond between the Soliga people, their Gods and the “mainstream” Hindu culture around. To this day, the temple of Biligiriranga situated on the white cliff (Biligiri in Kannada) has strong linkages with the Soliga community. During its annual festival in March every year, the deity is carried by four Soliga youth. Soliga lore recounts how the Lord Vishnu, after slaying an evil demon at some hills nearby was looking to a place to finally rest, and a local tribal God, Siddappaji shows him this cliff. The story continues that the cliff was raised out from the forests around to make a good seat for the Lord. In the words of Jade Gowda, the former Thammadi of Doddasampige, the Soligas are indeed brothers of the others (the naadu jana – the plains people).
The land in the hills, its people and the wildlife are interwoven through centuries of history. Indeed, BR Hills holds to us a mirror; a mirror that reflects the richness of our land, which survives in small islands, which we must protect and conserve at all cost.
Gorukana is also an eco-tourism venture promoted by the local NGO, VGKK to raise money for the hospital and school run for the Soliga people. If you are looking forward to a nice stay at the hills, do visit Gorukana
Kalyan Varma’s collection of photographs from BR Hills.