This is the first of a two-part article written for the 67th Wildlife Week celebration of BRT Tiger Reserve, tracing the history of the land, the people and the forests. Read Part 2 here.
Nestled amongst the undulating landscapes of the Byloor Range of what is today Biligirirangaswamy Temple (BRT) Tiger Reserve is the curiously named Aaneyerada Betta (in Kannada, ‘the hill that the elephant wouldn’t climb’). During a recent bird survey led by S Subramanya, some of us birders retraced the probable routes that Salim Ali, referred to as the ‘Birdman of India’, took when he surveyed this area; Aaneyerada Betta was one of the locations covered by Salim Ali during his survey. We watched Malabar Parakeets screeching across the low-hill forests at the foothills on one side, and even mixed flocks, often with Orange Minivets and Yellow-browed Bulbuls; on the other side of the hill, we watched with intrigue Rose-ringed Parakeets and White-browed Bulbuls. The majestic wet-zone and shola-covered hill ranges in the south-eastern parts of BRT Tiger Reserve drop rapidly to merge with dry deciduous and scrub forests within a very small area, allowing for the co-occurrence of birds that rarely overlap. Such is the intrigue of BR Hills, where the flora and fauna of what are often considered distinct ecological regions are found together.
Not very far away from where we stood were wet forests at higher elevations, home to Rufous-bellied Hawk-eagles, Indian Blackbirds, Black Bulbuls, Fairy Bluebirds and Nilgiri Flycatchers. As we stared upwards towards the higher elevations beyond Aaneyerada Betta, I remember thinking of the Nilgiri Wood-Pigeons and Bronzed and Racket-tailed Drongos that we were sure to meet as we proceeded upwards. That said, previous efforts to locate other wet-zone birds such as the Broad-tailed Grassbird (found easily a bit further west in the Brahmagiris) or the Malabar Trogon (that is seen well south of BR Hills at Mudumalai), have always puzzled me. Many such intriguing questions have answers spread across traditional knowledge and oral histories on one hand and formal knowledge systems involving social and ecological sciences on the other hand. In this two-part essay, I attempt to examine our current knowledge of BR Hills through a few books, places, people and stories that remain with us.
If you trace the local legend about the name of the hill, Solega elders say that it is one hill that even the elephant would not climb due to the steep incline and slippery grass-rock terrain. An elderly Tammadi (a Solega priest) whom I met during my work there confirms the origin of the name. However, change a small vowel sound in the name of the hill from aa to ee, and the meaning shifts to convey the opposite: the hill that the elephant climbed. Indeed, many Solega youth I meet are confused about whether the name is in fact Aaneyerida Betta. As is often the case with lore and tradition, the shifting sands of time make the origins fuzzy. Did the name capture the inability of the elephant to make it to the top? Or is the recent sighting of elephants possibly changing the name? And as many younger Solega suspect – is this a sign of changing climate patterns that elephants too notice, which then creates micro-ecological changes in these eco-sensitive, biodiversity-rich areas? The answers to such intriguing questions are mired in oral history, traditional knowledge, and their interface with modern science and forest management. Let us dive into how the history of these hills and the inter-generational memories of the Solega intertwine to possibly help us revere and protect the social and ecological heritage of the hills.
Of lost times and oral histories
Our view of history often boils down to tracing the first appearance of a place or event in written form, and for post-colonial societies such as ours, this invariably comes down to history in English, written typically by an Englishman (almost always a man, a sign of those times). Francis Buchanan-Hamilton’s 1807 expedition which passed through BR Hills is most often cited as the first historical record of the region and its “shy” Solega inhabitants (his characterisation). The history of the peopling of this landscape during the pre-colonial times is yet to be deciphered. While the later colonial administration paid great attention to the characterisation of the flora and fauna, given their extractive economic interests, there was little effort at documenting local oral histories.
The presence of dolmens in these hills, dating back to possibly the early history of humans settling, testifies to the early peopling of these landscapes. Dolmens are structures made by arranging large to small stones in various configurations, typically erecting them to create a burial chamber (cist), with or without an outer circular arrangement of stones. What is fascinating is the widespread discovery of these megalithic burial site traditions, from Scandinavia and Western Europe to the dense forests of the Anamalais, Nilgiris and BR Hills. It is very likely that many of these human settlements could date as far back as 3000-4000 BC, if not older. Only a systematic survey, mapping and archaeological preservation of these sites will tell us more about the people who built these. Such dolmens are known in several sites in this region – for example, a treatise on the Nilgiri dolmens by William Noble in 1976, along with a discussion on the plausibility of these being the ancestors of the Adivasi communities there (the Toda, Kota, Badaga, Kurumba and the Irula), or the description of megalithic burial sites in South India by VD Krishnaswami. In the case of BR Hills, systematic archaeological and scholarly work in the public domain does not yet tell us about the relationship between these sites and the current Adivasi inhabitants of the hills. Possibly a lot of answers are hidden within the diminishing oral knowledge transmitted across generations amongst the Solega.
The white man arrives – roads, royalty, extraction and disease
Memorialising, cataloguing, and documenting in written form came to prominence only in the last few centuries. For centuries before that, human societies have transmitted oral knowledge, and wisdom from one generation to another through song, lore and tradition. Several tacit knowledge forms (knowledge and scholarship that cannot be codified in formal language) in the domains of wisdom, experience, insight, and intuition were vastly prevalent in Solega communities, enabling their life in the forests. This was before the arrival of local kings and feudal lords (from Mysore and Coimbatore) or colonial planters and foresters. For the “outsiders” and “settlers” who came in awe of BR Hills ever since Francis Buchanan-Hamilton’s fabled ‘Journey through Mysore, Canara and Malabar’ (1807), the tacit knowledge of the Solega was possibly the only way to survive in these hills and thick forests.
Across the world, colonial history is replete with mere footnote references to unnamed “locals”, whose help was critical to the wider extractive enterprises of timber and other forest products that began with the setting up of colonial forestry activities under the British rule. Such support by the “locals” possibly facilitated the scholarship of English and particularly Scottish doctors, naturalists, and colonial officials, who made remarkable strides in carefully documenting the local flora and fauna. Standing out amongst these is the legacy of the Morrises – the father and son Morris and their extended family – who made these hills their home since the earlier Morris arrived in BR Hills in the mid-1880s. See S Subramanya’s excellent weaving together of this story across three generations, in this article on JLR Explore.
When I came to BR Hills in the early 2000s as a doctor-birder, many Solega elders from the Bedaguli settlement (near the estate that the Morrises lived in) reminisced about the strange ways and means of the white man (bilibatteyavaru – Kannada for people with white clothes). Halage Gowda (now deceased), whom I befriended, remembered as a young boy working odd jobs at their estate, their eating of food with ‘belli kaddi’ (possibly silverware cutlery) and the “sticky food” that, when offered to him, stuck to his mouth. He went on to say that many of his kin never fancied their food much. The colonial characterisation of the Adivasi as “primitive” only belies a colonial gaze; the Adivasi narrative on the white man, which is possibly disappearing and yet to be written, might in fact illustrate the intrigue, wonder and perhaps some ridicule of their ways.