A divine deity is saving Kolli Hills from being lost to industrial agriculture forever

Critical to the insularity of Kolli Hills communities is their ability to stay reasonably self-sufficient and self-reliant in their food and resource needs.
A divine deity is saving Kolli Hills from being lost to industrial agriculture forever
A divine deity is saving Kolli Hills from being lost to industrial agriculture forever

The villagers at Veeraganurpatti in Selurnad of Kolli Hills did not permit us to visit the Kongliamman temple in a forest patch (locally called shola) on the ridge that drops on its western side into the Namakkal plains. The old priest at the temple, whose son does the worship at present, had died that morning.

K. Saravanan, a village senior, explained that the villagers follow the traditional practice that does not permit people to pass through a mourning village into a sacred grove. The villagers believe that Kongliamman, the reigning deity of the temple, has come from the plains near Erode. She followed a farmer from the village who had gone to sell his produce in the market at Erode, and then sat down in the shola. “From then on, our village had a samy shola (sacred grove),” he observed.

Saravanan’s recital of the local beliefs was colourful, and he would have heard them from his elders during childhood. Just as there is a saviour deity, there is also a villain deity in the village. He pointed towards a mound overgrown with thickets and said that Thokkan’s statue is there. “This deity was mischievous and threw stones at the village women,” Saravanan said pointing to the mound. “Kongliamman tied his legs and made him sit there.”

We climbed the mound, parted the thickets to see an idol, which looked like a Jain icon. Next to it was another idol, smaller and in feminine form.

K Saravanan. In the background is the Kongliamman Sholai

“The sacred groves of Kolli Hills that have references in Sangam literature, have few different forms of worship,” said EDI Oliver King, principal scientist at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), who obtained his PhD studying the biological and cultural diversity of the hills. MSSRF is one of the very few agriculture and rural development organisations working in Kolli Hills, helping villagers strengthen their agricultural income and climate resilience. “The sacred groves have deities that are from Shaivite, Vaishnavite and Amman cult worship traditions. In addition, there are ancestor worship in places and deities that would have originally been Jain icons in the past.”

There are more than 250 sacred groves in Kolli Hills, according to King. This is a high number considering that the mountain block itself is only 440 sq.km in area (at the base), accommodating 304 settlements/villages in 14 panchayats. Only recently was it declared a revenue taluk.  

The population in Kolli Hills consists mostly of Malayali tribals (translates to ‘people of the mountains’, and not to be confused with the Malayalam-speaking people of Kerala state). According to the 2011 Census, in Tamil Nadu, only 1.1% of the population are tribals. Among the districts, Namakkal has a relatively high tribal population, which is 3.3% of the district’s population of 17.26 million. In Kolli Hills, the tribal population constitutes 95.55% of the total of 40,479 individuals.

Kolli Hills is a mountain block in the shape of a kidney bean. Part of the Eastern Ghats, Kolli Hills is east of Namakkal and Rasipuram towns in Tamil Nadu. The Kaveri river flows not very far from the western and southern edge of the mountain block.

The concave edge of the mountain has good forests starting from the bottom to the top of the mountain. Considering the erosional indent rising all the way up, it may have been the headworks of a good river that joined the Kaveri. Today, the streams that originate from this curve blend into the plains and join the Tusur Lake near Namakkal, which in turn drains into other lakes and joins the Kaveri ultimately.

Till recently, the only road to the plateau was through this inward curve in the mountain, climbing to the plateau at an altitude above 1,000 to 1,300 metres through a winding sequence of 70 hairpin bends. Another road from the northern face has made the climb easier in the recent years.

The mountain block is likely to have been covered with forests in a not too distant historical past. Since it rises diagonally northeast of the Palghat Gap, it receives more rain than the adjoining plains. According to a communication published in Mausam, the journal of the India Meteorological Department, Kolli Hills gets an average annual rainfall of 1467.05 mm, which is significantly higher than the rainfall in the nearby town of Namakkal in the plains, which receives 840 mm.

RJ Daniels and Jayshree Vencatesan of the Care Earth Trust, who studied the biological diversity of the Kolli Hills, reported in a paper in Current Science that the mountain is a biogeographical relic, with many of the current forests resembling that of the Western Ghats. The forests of Kolli Hills have a number of endemic species that are otherwise seen in the more humid Western Ghats. The forests may have harboured larger mammals, but were systematically hunted out by the resident tribal community over the years. Sloth bear is the only large animal reported from the hills.

“Kolli Hills is ecologically important because it has four different types for forest types – scrub jungles, deciduous, semi-evergreen and evergreen,” said S Balaji, former principal chief conservator of forests for Tamil Nadu. “It also has a high medicinal plant diversity.”

While he was working as the dean of forestry at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, Balaji’s team studied and compared the medicinal plant diversity in Kolli Hills with Javadi Hills (also in Eastern Ghats of Tamil Nadu). Not only was the medicinal plant diversity higher in the former, the traditional knowledge of its use was also higher with the Kolli Hills communities.

The sacred groves in Kolli Hills still hold many of these medicinal plants. MN Sivakumar, research fellow at MSSRF, who is a botanist by training, identified many such plants for us as we walked through many of the sacred groves of the hills.

However, these groves, along with the surrounding landscape, are under pressure from changing land use patterns. One kilometre away from Veraganurpatti, is Karuppusamy Sholai, a three-acre forest enclave surrounded by agricultural fields. This patch would have been a continuation of the forest that still runs down the edge of the mountain. Looking at the plains from the mountain edge, we could see the Kaveri flowing across the horizon, stately but without water.

“The sacred grove has been kept intact only because of the community’s respect for the deity inside,” observed A Annadurai, field assistant with MSSRF. A member of the Malayali tribal community himself, he has seen the agricultural lands creep around the grove over the years.

Karuppusamy Sholai with agricultural fields all around it

“The major land use change happened when the local communities started growing tapioca for supply as raw material in the sago and industrial starch factories of the plains nearby,” said Ajith Menon, professor at the Madras Institute for Development Studies. This change, which had begun in the 1980s and the 1990s started bringing commercial value from farming for the Malayalis. “Tapioca cultivation started dominating the dryland cultivation, where they had earlier cultivated millets, which in turn moved to marginal lands or disappeared.”

According to Sivakumar, tapioca cultivation at its peak covered 8,200 hectares in Kolli Hills, supplying to around 450 sago factories in Namakkal and Salem districts. Now it has reduced to give way to new crops such as a combination of silver oak (for timber), on which pepper vines are supported, and coffee plants between the trees.

This combination has started eating into the sacred groves of Kolli Hills. At Chinnammal Sholai in Thevaipatti village, Ariyur Nad, there is a part near the temple where the natural undergrowth has been totally removed and coffee has been planted. Pepper vines climb over forest trees.

“This process started only two to three years ago,” said P Arapalli, a farmer from Thevaipatti, who had come to offer the first milk from his cow after she had calved to the deity. “This was permitted by the village elders so that the farmers could reinvest the money they get from the sale of this produce for the upkeep of the temple.”

“Of course, nobody will dare cut the trees,” he empasized. “One villager had done so, ignoring protests from others. His family disintegrated and he died in poverty.”

At the Perumalsamy Sholai in Thinnennur Oorupuram, the disturbance is more visible. The thatched hut temple has been turned into a permanent construction. The native undergrowth has been replaced with cardamom and coffee.  

The most severe disturbance of the native shola vegetation is visible at the temple of Ettukaiamman, also known as Kolli Pavai, the guardian of Kolli Hills. As one of two most popular temples of Kolli Hills, this sacred grove is visited by far more people than the others. Only vestige patches are seen in the once-forested valley.

The second one, the Arappaleeswarar temple, sits at the edge of a deep river valley and water fall that drops all the way to the plains on the eastern side. This large tract of forest, which is a reserved forest, continues to be maintained well.

P. Arapalli in front of Chinnammal Sholai

Even though more people are coming from the plains to visit the temples, see the other sights and experience the mountain breeze, Kolli Hills have until now escaped becoming a tourist destination. Agriculture continues to be the most important economic activity. According to S. Chinnathambi, field technician with MSSRF and a denizen of the hills, a combination of silver oak trees with pepper vines on them and with coffee in between can earn a farmer a net income of more than Rs three lakhs per acre. Because of this there is not much pressure for the Malayali farmers to sell their lands for non-agricultural purposes.

However, in the recent years, agriculture is getting affected with the unreliable availability of water. Since Kolli Hills does not have an irrigation scheme, the farmers depend on the water that flows in the streams or that from the wells. The impact of the failure of the monsoon in 2016 still continues, since the 2017 rains have not been adequate.

“It has been very difficult since the last year,” said P. Thangaraj, a farmer at Aripilapatti village in Devannur Nad. In his small rain-fed farm he grows paddy, tapioca, banana, silver oak and millets. “The rains have not been proper in the recent years. It is getting difficult to rely on the rains and this is affecting our farming. To earn enough to survive we need to go the plains to work as agricultural labour during some months every year.” Thangaraj is also a priest at the Arangathappan Shola temple in his village.

P. Thangaraj

This is where the sacred groves of Kolli Hills get their importance. Much like in other mountainous parts of the country, the sacred groves of Kolli Hills are mostly on the ridges above the valleys where the Malayalis originally cultivated millets and rice (depending on the availability of water). They are also the points from where streams originate, and provide water to the fields.

According to Daniels and Vencatesan, in Kolli Hills there was a widespread increase in cultivated area between 1970 and 1995, though only a marginal increase in rice area.  The marked increase was in the rainfed cultivation on slopes and uplands with fruits, pulses, lentils, tapioca and a range of other crops. This process is now being accelerated with the combination cultivation of silver oak, pepper and coffee.

Elders in Kolli Hills rue that the rainfall pattern is not as reliable as what it was in their younger days. “The rain in our village is not the same as it was when I was married and brought here,” said Vellaiammal at Thennoorpatti village, Gundur Nad. We met her on the road at the edge of Pidariamman Sholai, a 10-acre forest patch, where unlike other sacred groves the community had not permitted the cultivation of coffee and pepper.

“The water from the shola flows into the fields,” she said, pointing to the valley below. It was nearing noon and she had come with food for her animals. A few minutes later we heard the jangling of bells as her cows, goats, pigs and a dog walked to her. That noon she was repeating a chore that she and her animals would have practised for decades.

Vellaiammal with her animals

We heard similar bells while talking to Ooru Gounder (village chief) Ayyasamy, at Padasolai village, in Thiruppuli Nad. His cattle were grazing not very far from Ayyanarpatan Sholai, a sacred grove dedicated to ancestor worship (patan means ancestor). Explaining the history of temple in the grove, he said that it came to existence somewhere around 500 years ago, when their leader and forefather died.  

“His spirit is in our forest and we pray to him,” Ayyasamy observed. “He was the first god for Thiruppuli Nad. He gives us prosperity, health, and protection and we offer him milk, banana rice pongal and goat sacrifice. Here we do not even remove the undergrowth from the forest. If we do so our families will have health problems for which even hospitals will not be able to help.”

We trekked up the slippery path to the temple. Unknown to me, then, a leech was sucking my blood from behind my shin. The temple looked like a megalithic dolmen (a grave made in the form of table created with flat stones), akin to the kind I had seen elsewhere in the Nilgiris. If the god of Ayyanarpatan Sholai really did reside in a dolmen, then there could be some truth in the village chief’s story. The only factual error then would be with its age. Instead of 500 years the grave would have been from thousands of years ago.

The path leading to the inside of Ayyanarpatan Sholai

The temple at Ayyanarpatan Sholai, which seems to be a megalithic dolmen

Researchers like Kolli Hills as a good research laboratory that has not had very serious disturbance from outside. Its population is homogenous – almost consisting totally of the Malayali tribals. There are no settler-farmers and almost no business enterprise run by people from the plains.

Critical to this insularity is the ability of the Kolli Hills communities to stay reasonably self sufficient and self reliant in their food and resource needs. If the sacred groves in the hills continue to get degraded, then these critical elements could be irreparably damaged.

(S. Gopikrishna Warrier is an environment journalist and blogger).

Picture credit: S. Gopikrishna Warrier

Maps: Google Maps

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