There is something distinctly refreshing about being on a rocky hill: rocky slopes, boulders, grasses and climbers growing in between them, trees which seem to grow out of sheer rock, and life in every crevice and stone surface. This lends an almost mystical element to the place. There are many such stone hills and hillocks around Bangalore. One of them is Siddarabetta, meaning the ‘hill of the mystics’, located off the Koratagere-Madhugiri road, about 100 kms from Bangalore.
Being a rain-shadow region, the area does not receive much rainfall. The annual rainfall in Tumkur District (where Siddarabetta is located) varies from over 900mm in Tumkur to around 600mm in Pavagada. Siddarabetta is dominated by scrub and dry-deciduous forest species that thrive in the intense heat. It is a place of extremes. Temperatures shoot up during summers, the heat intensified by the rocks. Everything looks parched, and all life – except some trees – is in shades of brown and grey. During the monsoon, the entire landscape is transformed, with hill tops shrouded in clouds and an omnipresent green swathe. Carpets of grass and tiny herbs cover the slopes. There is a luxuriance and profusion of life for a few months. I am yet to experience Siddarabetta’s monsoon magic, and have only written about the trees and plants seen here during January and February.
An uncommon and peculiar tree with a ghostly white-pink trunk and branches can occasionally be seen in these deciduous forests. Sterculia urens is a beautiful medium-sized tree known for a vegetable gum that is obtained from it. During this time of the year, it is completely leafless and flowering. The yellowish green flowers and the interesting architecture of the tree make it stand out. The shed leaves of this tree are double colored and crisp, and make for an interesting sight.
The tree’s blunt, upward-curving branches give it an eerie appearance. The epithet urens is Latin for ‘stinging’; its flowers and fruits are covered with tiny, golden stinging hair.
If you visit Siddarabetta during the month of February, you can enjoy an ambrosial scent in the air. A beautiful tree, endemic to the dry hills of South India, Shorea roxburghii, is found in abundance here, especially along the walking trail. Locally called ‘Jalari’ or ‘Jalada mara’, it blooms in February around the festival Mahashivaratri, and the trees are laden with bunches of fragrant, creamy-golden blooms. There is a buzz as countless insects surround these flowers.
These wispy white flowers with yellow stems are a marvel; the petals are all twisted in one direction. A cousin of the Sal (Shorea robusta), this tree produces a resinous exudate as well, which is burnt as incense.
There was a tree – leafless during these months – that caught my attention. I had not seen this tree before: a short tree with sprawling horizontal branches and clusters of fruits hanging on every branch, each cluster seeming to have two cup-shaped leaves at the top. I later learnt that the tree is Hymenodictyon orixense, a rare tree that grows in dry-deciduous forests and has a very patchy distribution.
A tree that is common in these dry, rocky forests is the Yellow Silk Cotton, a small, gnarly tree with large, lobed leaves. This tree was also leafless during this time. ‘Betta Dasavala’ or ‘Arashina Booruga’ in Kannada, it is spectacular when in bloom. The entire tree is bright yellow, with numerous large, yellow flowers – a sight to behold! When one goes closer, the large, five-petalled yellow flowers are even more impressive. Though called Yellow Silk Cotton, it is not actually a true silk cotton. These trees are extremely hardy, requiring only a few feet of soil to survive. Ball-shaped fruits mature during the summer and release cottony seeds.
February can be a dry period in these forests, but the few months before the monsoon are the absolute driest. I was pleasantly surprised to find the insectivorous sundew plant growing in a mound of soil made wet by water slowly releasing from a soil patch. Drosera burmannii is a tiny sundew that is more common during the wet season. The red leaves have hair tipped with a sweet, sticky fluid, and fold over when an insect gets caught in them. These fluids then digest the insect and the nitrogen-rich nutrition is absorbed.
A common climber often seen covering bushes is Argyreia staphylina, related to the morning (Ipomoea sp.). They flower in winter, and their clusters of funnel-shaped white flowers with a purple center are a treat to see. They are also very fragrant. These flowers are a rich source of nectar for small winged visitors. This beautiful climber is common around Bangalore.
Another tree found in such hills is the ‘Alalekayi’ tree or ‘Haritaki’ in Sanskrit, Terminalia chebula. One of the three fruits used in the Ayurvedic preparation ‘Triphala’ is the fruit of this tree, the other two being Terminalia bellirica (Baheda) and Emblica officinalis (Amla). The fruits of Terminalia are also used in tanning and dyeing, as they are rich in tannins.
Siddarabetta is a beautiful island of plant and animal diversity. Summer and winter days can be very hot, but the trek is worth it. The trail leads to a spring and a shrine located in a cave at the top, also worth seeing. A visit to this hill is highly recommended, to experience the mystical beauty it has to offer.