Saturday, September 5, 2009

Sapt-Konkan - Parashuram Shristi

Sunday article by Mohan Pai

Hello friends,

Good morning. This morning's topic is Sapt-Konkan, the coastal ecoregion of the Western Ghats, defined by the Purana's as Sapt-Konkan or "Parashuram Shristi". And there is a legend about it.

The Western Ghats, older than the Himalayas, have a fascinating geological history. They are the most important feature of the landscape of the southern peninsula and in these same hills we confront our future. Unfortunately they continue to suffer drastic degradation due to human pressure.I have been writing about these mountain ranges for quite some time now. My book "The Western Ghats" was published in 2005. Most of the writings could be accessed in the links given below:For some key chapters from my book "The Western Ghats", please log on to:

For detailed blog (6 Chapters from my book) on Mahadayi/Mandovi River Valley, please log on to:

For biospoheres & bioregions of the Western Ghats please log on to:

Very best wishes,

Mohan Pai


The Emerald Country

Honda, Sattari, Goa - pic by Mohan Pai

'Parashuram Shristi'
Konkan, Goa & Karavali

The precise definition of Konkan varies, but most include Maharashtra's districts of Raigad, Mumbai, Thane, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg, the state of Goa, and the Uttar Kannada, Udupi and Dakshina Kannada districts of Karnataka. Sapt-Konkan is also known as ‘Parashuram Shirsti’; according to the legend, Lord Parashuram, the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu stood atop the Sahyadri and shot an arrow into the roaring sea and beyond and created the coastal tract. The Sapta-Konkan as depicted in Skanda-purana stretches from Maharashtra to Karnataka . This is actually logical since there are a lot of similarities in the food-habits (rice and fish), crops cultivated (rice, mangoes, cashews and jackfruit) and the physique (tall and well-built) of people dwelling in this area. Konkan Division is also one of six administrative sub-divisions of the state of Maharashtra, comprising of its costal districts.

Sage Parashuram, a painting

Konkan Ecoregion
An ecoregion is defined as a large area of land or water that contains geographically distinct assemblage of natural communities that
a) share a large majority of their species and ecological dynamics;
b) share similar environmental conditions, and;
c) interact ecologically in ways that are critical for their long term persistence.
Based on these criteria, Konkan division of Maharashtra, Goa and Karavali region of Karnataka form one homogenous ecoregion. Biodiversity ignores national and other political boundaries, so a more relevant conservation planning unit is required.

From the Imperial Gazeteer of India (1907-1909)

Konkan.— A name applied to the Marathi-speaking lowland strip along the southern portion of the Bombay Presidency, situated between the Western Ghats and the sea. The term has no very distinct ad- ministrative signification, and its former geographical limits have become less strictly defined than of old. The coast strip, to which the word is now applied, is a fertile and generally level tract, varying from 1 or 2 to about 50 miles in breadth between the sea and the mountains, with an area of about 12,500 square miles, and, approximately, a population of 3,800,000. It is watered by hill streams, and at parts intersected by tidal backwaters, but has nowhere any great rivers. A luxuriant vegetation of palms rises along the coast, the cocoa-nut plantations forming an important source of wealth to the villagers. Splendid forests cover the Ghats on its eastern boundary. The crops are abundant ; and owing to the monsoon rainfall being precipitated upon the Ghats behind, the Konkan is peculiarly exempt from drought and famine. The common language of the Konkan is Marathi. Kanarese is spoken in the southern part, and a little Gujarathi in the north of Thana. In a geographical sense, the Konkan forms one of the five territorial Divisions of the Bombay Presidency, the others being the Deccan, the Karnatik, Gujarat, and Sind. It includes the town and island of Bombay, the three British Districts of Ratnagiri, Kolaba, and Thana, the three Native States of Jawhar, Janjira, and Sawantwari, and the Portuguese territory of Goa ......The Konkan is bounded by Gujarat on the north, by the Deccan on the east, by North Kanara District on the south, and by the Arabian Sea on the west. The history of the Konkan will best be gathered from a perusal of the historical portions of the separate articles on the included States and Districts. The earliest dynasty connected with the Konkan is that of the Mauryas, who reigned about three centuries before Christ; but the "evidence of the connection rests altogether on vol. viii. T 290 KONKAN, an Asoka inscription discovered at the town of Sopara in Thana District. The dynasties that succeeded were the following, in their order, so far as order is ascertainable : — The Shatakarnis or Andrabhrityas, with their capital at Paitan in the Deccan ; the Mauryas, descendants of the elder house ; the Chalukyas ; the Silaharas, whose capital was perhaps the island of Elephanta in Bombay Harbour ; the Yadavas, with their capital at Deogiri, the modern Daulatabad ; the Muhatn- madans (Khiljis, Bahmanis, Bijapur chiefs, Mughals, and Ahmadabad kings) ; Portuguese commanders (over a limited area) ; Marathas ; and British. The principal incidents in the annals of the Konkan are of modern interest. The Konkan coast was known to the peoples of Greece and Rome, and both Ptolemy (150 a.d.) and the author of the Periplus (247 a.d.) afford evidence that Greek traders from Egypt dealt with the Konkan ports. Many of these last are named by the Greek geographers ; and while the modern representative of the ancient town has been in many instances identified, in others the ingenuity of conjecture is still employed. To take one or two examples, it is yet a matter of uncertainty whether Byzantium is the Konkan pirate fort of Vijayadrug ; whether the word Chersonesus refers to Goa, or whether the term Heptanesia relates to the islands that stud the modern harbour of Bombay. The arrival of the Beni-Israel and the Parsis from the Persian Gulf and Persia are important incidents in Konkan history. The Beni-Israel, whom high authority has not hesitated to call the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, are found all over Bombay Presidency. The descendants of the first Parsis, who landed in Thana about the 7th century, now crowd the streets and markets of Bombay, engross a large part of the city's wealth and principal trading operations, and have their agents in all important provincial towns.

Vasco da Gama landing at Kappad.

The Portuguese reached Malabar in 1498, and fixed the head-quarters of their naval dominion at Cheul or Chaul. In 1510, Goa was seized, and from this time until 1630 the Portuguese shared the rule of the Konkan with the Muhammadan kings of Ahmadnagar and Bijapur. The rise and fall of the pirate power of the Angres, who fixed themselves in the island strongholds of Kolaba, Suvarndriig, and Gheria or Vijayadrug, and from 1700 to 1756 harassed English, Dutch, and native shipping alike, mark a disastrous period of Konkan history. Since the British administration was set up in 1818 on the overthrow of the Marathas, the peace of the whole area, if some disturbances in Sawantwari in 1844 and 1850 be excepted, has remained unbroken. The great city and harbour of Bombay are situated about one-third down the length of the Konkan from the north. The Portuguese territory of Goa used to form its southern limit ; but the District of North Kanara has been transferred from Madras to the Bombay Pi and now constitutes the southernmost District of the D as the Konkan.

Imperial Gazetteer map of Konkan

Physical Aspects, Natural History, and Geology.- -The folio paragraphs have been condensed from a short mon<>Climate & Vegetation

The climate of the Sapt-Konkan shows two rainfall gradients.
The West-East Gradient
The west-east rainfall gradient is determined by the effect of Ghats’ escarpment. The reliefs of the Ghats act as a barrier to the eastward movement of the cloud masses brought by the summer monsoon rain-bearing winds of the south-west monsoon.
These masses bring prodigious amount of rainfall over the western slopes of the Ghats. For instance in Agumbe (height 645 m) which is situated at the edge of the Ghats, the mean annual rainfall is 7,460 mm, and in some years it exceeds 12,000 mm in only 130 rainy days. Overall the western slopes receive 2,000 to 7,500 mm of rainfall.

Once this obstacle is crossed, the rainfall decreases rapidly to <>
The South-North Gradient
An important feature of the Western Ghats is that they form more or less continuous chain of hills with a latitudinal extent of almost 12 degrees. This has few parallels in the tropical world(eastern part of Madagascar and Queensland in Australia). The monsoon, the very pulse of India, adds yet another dimension : the duration of the dry season gradually increases from two months in the southern parts of the Ghats to over eight months north of Mumbai. This gradient is determined by the arrival and withdrawal of the summer monsoon.
The monsoon generally arrives towards the end of May at the southern tip of India, in the first week of June at Tiruvananthpuram, five days later it reaches Karwar, in another five days it has already crossed Mumbai and by middle of June it is beyond Kutch. Thus it takes only 10-15 days to cover the Indian peninsula from 80 N to the Tropic of Cancer.
The monsoon begins to retreat by the end of September in north India but it takes nearly 15 days for the front to withdraw from Kutch to Ratnagiri which it reaches in the beginning of October, in another 15 days it covers 400 km, the distance separating Ratnagiri from Coondapur. The front passes through Mangalore at the beginning of November and Kozikode in a fortnight, and reaches Kanyakumari only in early December. Thus the withdrawal is spread over a period of nearly two and a half months. The advance and specially the gradual withdrawal of the monsoon leads to a reduction in the rainy period from south to north and consequently a concomitant lengthening of dry season. This gradient is one of the key factors for understanding the variations in the floristic composition along the Ghats.
Vegetation Types
Wet Evergreen Forests
Wet evergreen forests are mostly confined to the windward side of the Ghats where the rainfall exceeds 2,000 mm. The deep valleys on the western windward side nurture closed canopy, stratified evergreen forests. These are arranged in a series of tiers. Each tier receives a different amount of light; the tallest trees are bathed in perpetual sunlight, smaller trees and shrubs receive dappled light. The forest floor is almost in complete darkness. The canopy is supposed to be closed because the contiguous crown of tall buttressed trees merge to form a veritable roof. Occasionally, giant trees termed as emergents push through the canopy to obtain dominant position. Light, temperature and humidity differ at different heights beneath the canopy. Two or more strata of shade loving trees find the appropriate level at which light intensity and relative humidity are best suited for their metabolic activities.
The density of growth in these hot and humid jungles is so great that over 70 tall trees can exist in one hectare. These trees may be 35-45 m high and have evolved small narrow leaves to minimise moisture loss through evaporation. The lower growing plants have larger leaves in order to maximise the benefit of the little light that manages to penetrate. At every level, leaves tend to be narrow with drain-like tips so that the monsoon water flows off efficiently. This makes it possible for the leaf to remain relatively dry and ‘breath The forests are in leaf throughout the year and hence termed evergreen. These trees shed their leaves at a slow and steady rate throughout the year, which results in continuous decay and decomposition on the forest floor which is full of leaf litter and decaying wood on which mushrooms, lichen and fungi thrive. In the relative gloom of the forest floor herbs are frequent with good representative of gingers and orchids. Climbers and lianas supported by sturdy trees, spiral towards the canopy in search of better light and fresh air..

Dry Evergreen Forests
The steep eastern slopes of the Ghats where the rainfall is less than 1,500 mm harbour dry vegetation types. However, in the relatively moist valleys and along streams, forests are evergreen and distinct in floristic composition with its counterpart on the western side. Physiognomic structure of these forests varies according to moisture level of the soil. Generally they are short forests, with a canopy seldom higher than 12 m, and with two strata.

Moist Deciduous forests
Moist deciduous forests, which are in primary nature, are found in the rainfall zone of 1,500 mm to 1,800 mm; as a transition between wet evergreen and dry deciduous forests. Large extent of these forests occurs in the Wayanad, Mysore and Karnataka plateau. Moist deciduous forests also occur within the potential area of wet evergreen formations, where the rainfall is more than 2,000 mm. Its very presence in the zone indicates their secondary nature after a possible degradation of original wet evergreen forests. On the leeward rain shadow side as well as on the coastal lowlands there are fairly long dry periods. Moist deciduous trees survive the rigours of the dry months by shedding all their leaves simultaneously to avoid loss of water through transpiration.
During the leafless period the trees carry on their reproductive cycle by spectacular flowering followed by abundant fruiting. With the pre-monsoon showers, a flush of fresh leaves appears to herald the beginning of a fresh annual cycle. A number of good timber trees are found in these open canopy forests.
Climatic Variations and Endemics
The high degree of endemism in the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats can be attributed to the isolation of the Ghats from other moist formations and the prevailing drier climatic conditions in the surrounding areas. This isolation seems to have facilitated the process of speciation (formation of new biological species) leading to the phenomenon of vicariance between sister species derived from a common ancestor, one of which thrives in the evergreen forests of the Ghats and the other in the adjacent dry regions (for example Diospyros assimilis in the moist evergreen forests and D. Ebenum in dry forests).
South of Kodagu, the Western Ghats are comprised largely of high ranging hills with several enclaves which formed ideal refugia for certain species when the climatic conditions became drier . Within the Ghats, the variation in the degree of endemism is mainly determined by
a) the increase in the number of dry months from south to north and
b) the decrease in the temperature with increase in altitude. These two gradients also explain the numerous cases of vicariance encountered within the evergreen continuum. Local topographic variations add another dimension to the floristic diversity and endemism.

CASHEW APPLE: The nuts are first removed andprocessed and have a large local as well as exportmarket. The cashew apple is first smashed, and then fermented to be made into the famous liquor- the Cashew Feni.

Traditional Horticulture
The main crops of the traditional horticulture of the region are Coconut, Betel nut, Cashewnut, Banana, Jackfruit, Mango, Bhirand or Kokum, Pineapple and a variety of gourds.
The Kadambas (1000-1350 AD) and later the Governors of Vijayanagar promoted mango orchards in this region. Although crude methods of grafting were already known in India, the Jesuits helped perfect the art of mango grafting in Goa.

Seaside Vegetation & Mangroves
The marshy areas, the swampy places where the sea comes in high tide, or where a river finally empties itself into the ocean, these are the places where many kinds of fish come to spawn. Often these areas are very large; trees do not grow here, for salt water washes over them, or floods them regularly; the loose muddy sand shifts easily, and the only plants which can take hold are mangroves with their long spreading roots. The mangrove bushes prove their worth during a storm, for they break its force; in a rough sea the mangrove belt acts as a ‘buffer’ and prevents erosion and keeps the coastline in tact. The mangrove vegetation has to survive on the scorching, shifting and saline sands. Trailing stems, fleshy leaves, salt excreting glands are some of the aids for their survival. The mangroves in the slushy estuaries have special features to overcome the difficulties of their habitat. The mangrove trees and shrubs anchor themselves against the push and pull of the tides by stilt roots. Air in the marshy soil is meagre. The trees often turn their breathing roots upwards in search of fresh air. The seedlings of mangrove trees remain attached to the parent plant until they have a chance of surviving on their own. They fix themselves like darts in the marshy saline slush to avoid being washed away by the sea until they have a chance of surviving on their own. If we remove the mangroves, the coast is exposed to the danger and damage from storms and rough seas.

A number of factors have been responsible for the depletion of wetland areas, mainly the mangrove forests, along the coasts. Intensive aquacultural development, deforestation, pollution from tankers, domestic waste, agricultural run off and industrial effluents are some of the factors. Most of the surviving mangroves are now confined to West Bengal and the islands in the Bay of Bengal. Some of these have been responsible for the protection of certain endangered species of turtles, crocodiles and the rare fresh water sponge.

Sacred Groves and Sacred Trees
Many traditional societies all over the world revered and worshipped nature and considered certain plants and animals as sacred. India has a long tradition in protecting nature - both plants and animals considered as sacred. Forests have been the lifeline for tribals and other forest dwelling communities since ages. Communities all over India followed the practice of setting aside certain patches of land or forest dedicated to a deity or village God, protected and worshipped.
The forest deities are generally of a primitive nature. Sometimes in the form of unshaped stone lumps smeared with red paint - Kalkai in the Konkan, Kenchamma in South Kanara. They are amongst the fiercest of deities; and breaking even a dead twig in a sacred grove is sure to invite the wrath of the deity. Sacred groves are to be found all over the country and abundantly along the Western Ghats and the west coast. Sacred groves ranged from 50 hectares or

A sacred grove in Goa
more to a few hundred square meters. Some sacred groves have remained in tact till recent times as in the Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts of Karnataka. These pockets have contributed to the preservation of tropical biological diversity, for several new species of plants which have disappeared from everywhere else have been found to be preserved in the sacred groves. Sacred groves in different areas are locally known by different names. In Maharashtra, they are known as Devarai, Devarakavu in Kodagu, Kavu in Kerala and Kan in Uttara Kannada. In spite of the depletion of forests, some sacred groves still remain in-tact. The sacred groves have contributed to the conservation of nature though in a small measure. There are also sacred ponds attached to temples in many parts of India.
Severity of Threats
The major threats to this ecoregion stem from agriculture, mining, hydroelectric projects, and urban expansion. All of these overarching threats are widespread throughout the bioregion. Most of the commercially valuable trees in this ecoregion have already been harvested (IUCN 1991), and ironically, logging is not a significant threat. The paper pulp, plywood, and fiber industries and sawmills were the major consumers of timber and bamboo in the past. Mining for iron and manganese ore are now large contributors to habitat destruction.
Tree frog
Many of the valleys that supported large stands of species-rich forests have been submerged by reservoirs created by the construction of hydroelectric dams. In addition to this inundation of large areas, the secondary activities associated with dam construction, such as road building, access and encroachment into the intact forests, settlements, and fuelwood collection, have exacerbated habitat loss and degradation. The important riparian habitat is the first to be lost during these development enterprises. Many of the remaining forest patches that harbor endemic species are being converted to rubber, areca, and coffee plantations.Fuelwood and fodder collection, grazing, and collection of nonwood forest products are intensifying as rural populations grow. The grasslands of this ecoregion are highly vulnerable to fire, and frequent fires retard the growth and regeneration of shola forests. The degraded habitat is then colonized by the exotic Lantana camera and Eupatorium odorata, which inhibit regeneration of native vegetation.The prevalence of guns, used for crop protection among the people, encourages widespread poaching.
Gavali tribal woman
The West Coast south of Surat runs parallel to the great escarpment of the Western Ghats for its entire length of about 1,600 km culminating at Cape Comorin. The Sapta-Konkan approximately occupies 900 km of the entire Ghat’s coast. The straight looking coast is however quite jagged, marked by a large number of coves (small sheltered recesses in the coast) and creeks(small tidal inlets or estuaries of small streams). A large number of small streams descend from the precipitous Western Ghats and flow through the narrow coastal plain to open into the Arabian Sea.

A typical view of the Konkan, consisting of white-sand beaches and palm trees (mostly coconut and betel nut).

Although the streams are small, some of them have formed spectacular waterfalls. The Konkan coastal plain is cliffy and there are several shoals, reefs and islands in the Arabian Sea. Mumbai was a large island but parts of the sea have been reclaimed in recent years to connect it with the mainland. There is a submerged forest near Mumbai which suggests that the sea level rose on the Konkan coast not long ago. The coastal plain is dotted with flat-topped hills. Transverse flat-looped spurs come down almost to the shoreline from the edge of the plateau and dip into the sea at Karwar, the northern part of Karnataka. These appear to be abrasional platforms, now dissected by the west flowing streams.

Mahadayi River at Sonal, Goa - pic by Mohan Pai.
Although the Ghats run parallel to the coast, the width of the coastal lowland varies. At Konkan it is about 50 to 60 km wide. From Goa to Kozhikode, the width of the coastal zone is more variable than in Maharashtra.

The Sahyadris dip into the Arabian Sea at Karwar
It is about 40 km wide at the latitude of Goa and then suddenly narrows near Karwar where the Ghats almost meet the sea. To the south of 140N, the coastal zone now called Dakshina Kannada, widens once more to almost 80 km south of Mangalore. The coastal region after Kodagu, known as Malabar, is not more than 30 km wide up to the latitude of Kozhikode. From here it widens out to about 60 km near Palghat Gap.
Satodi falls, Karavali
A Coast of Maritime Legends
The maritime history of the West Coast of India predates the birth of Western Civilisation. The world’s first tidal dock is believed to have been built at Lothal around 2,300 BC during the Harappan civilisation near the present day Mangrol harbour on the Gujarat coast. Even before Alexander, there were references to India in Greek works and India had a flourishing trade with Rome. Roman writer Pliny speaks of Indian traders carrying away large quantities of gold from Rome, in payment for much sought exports such as precious stones, skins, textiles, spices, sandal wood, perfumes, herbs and indigo. It was the lure of spices that attracted traders from the Middle East and Europe to the many trading ports in Sapt-Konkan.

Memorial to Vasco da Gama, Kappad
From the earliest times, the West Coast had developed a considerable shipbuilding industry, specialised in building large vessels. There are several accounts of such activities including that of Marco Polo who has described the Indian built ships. European interest in India has persisted since classical times and for very cogent reasons. Europe had much to derive from India such as spices, textiles and other Oriental products. When direct contact was lost with the fall of Rome and the rise of the Muslims, the trade was carried on through middlemen. In the late Middle Ages it increased with the prosperity of Europe. Spice trade was not solely a luxury trade - spices were needed to preserve meat through the winter (cattle had to be slaughtered in late autumn through lack of fodder in winter) and to combat the taste of decay. Wine, in the absence of ancient or modern methods of maturing, had to be ‘mulled’ with spices. This trade suffered two threats in the later Middle ages. There was the threat of Mongol and Turkish Invasion which interfered with the land route through Egypt, and there was the threat of monopoly shared between the Venetians and Egyptians. The Arabs controlled the spice trade with India since the end of the 12th century AD. During the 15th century Spain and Portugal, the then main maritime powers of Europe initiated a series of expeditions with Royal patronage. While one such voyage led to the discovery of West Indies by Columbus, another voyage brought the Portugese to India, the El Dorado.
Fisher women at Britona, Goa -pic by Mohan Pai

Political divisions
The Konkan division is an administrative sub-division of Maharashtra which comprises all the coastal districts of the state with a coastline of about 500 km. The region starts with Damanganga river in the north and extends to Terekhol river in the south.Area: 30,746 km² Population (2001 census): 24,807,357 Districts: Mumbai, Mumbai Suburban, Raigad, Ratnagiri, Sindhudurg, Thane.

History of administrative districts in Konkan Division
There have been changes in the names of Districts and has seen also the addition of newer districts after India gained Independence in 1947 and also after the state of Maharashtra was formed.In 1961 the Konkan region became a part of the newly formed state of Maharashtra. Prior to this it was a part of Bombay province which was split to form Gujarat and Maharashtra. Creation of the Sindhudurg from the southern areas of the Ratnagiri district. The erstwhile Kolaba district was renamed as Raigad. A proposal to carve Jawhar district out of Thane District is being considered on account of its high tribal population.

Water sports - pic by Mohan Pai
Goa encompasses an area of 3,702 km² (1,430 sq mile). It lies between the latitudes 14°53'54" N and 15°40'00" N and longitudes 73°40'33" E and 74°20'13" E. Goa has a coastline of 101 km (63 miles).The Mormugao harbor on the mouth of the river Zuari is one of the best natural harbors Goa has more than forty estuarine, eight marine and about ninety riverine islands.

Idalcao Palace, Panaji
The total navigable length of Goa's rivers is 253 km (157 miles).Most of Goa's soil cover is made up of laterites which are rich in ferric aluminium oxides and reddish in color. Further inland and along the river banks, the soil is mostly alluvial and loamy. The soil is rich in minerals and humus, thus conducive to plantation. Some of the oldest rocks in the Indian subcontinent are found in Goa between Molem and Anmod on Goa's border with Karnataka. The rocks are classified as Trondjemeitic Gneiss estimated to be 3,600 million years old, dated by the Rubidium isotope dating method.


Karavali is the geographical area covered by sea-coast of Karnataka. This region is also called Canara. Karavali forms the sourthen part of the Konkan Coast and comprisesthree coastal districts of Karnataka, namely Uttara Kannada, Udupi and Dakshina Kannada. The length of this region, from north to south is around 300 Kms and width varies from 30 Kms to 110 Kms.

Om Beach, Gokarna

The region is characterised by swaying palms and swift brooks running towards the Arabian sea.Even though many languages are spoken like Tulu, Konkani and to some extent Kannada there are many common factors in food, culture, rituals, traditions. Rice, fish and coconut oil are commonly used ingredients in the food of the people of Karavali region. Spirit worship (Bhuta Kola), Serpent worship (Nagaradhane), Buffalo race (Kambala), Yakshagana are some of common traditional rituals followed.Major ethnic groups are the Tuluvas and konkanis.The main languages spoken in this area are Tulu and Konkani. The northern half is predominantly Konkani and the southern half is predominantly Tulu. The majority of the people follow Hinduism. Other religions practiced include Christanity and Islam. While the Tulu speakers are exclusively Hindus, Christians are almost exclusively Konkani speakers. This region has many sites of Hindu pilgrimage including Kollur, Dharmasthala, Udupi Srikrishna Math (Temple), Kateel, Murdeshwara, and Gokarna. The main occupation of the natives is farming and fishing. Fish is the staple diet of the people living in this region. Coconut is used generously in all the dishes. The region has abundant rainfall, recording average annual rainfall among the highest in India.

For some of my articles visit:
For some key chapters from my book "The Western Ghats", please log on to:
For detailed blog (6 Chapters from my book) on Mahadayi/Mandovi River Valley, please log on to:
For the book 'The Elderly' please log on to:
You can also access my blogs on Sulekha and Wordpress
For my book "The Flight of Gods - Hindu Temples & Shrines of Goa" please log on to:
For “Miscellany” log on to:
(Traditional Hindu Central Courtyard Houses of Goa)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Tree of Life -Peepal (Ashwatha)

Sunday article of Mohan Pai

Peepal (Ashwatha)
-the Tree of Life
Ficus Religiosa
Black-hooded Oriole eating Peepal fig in Kolkatta
“Among trees, I am the Ashwatha”
- Bhagavad Gita
Flora in general play a central role in the Indian sacred culture. Two varieties of the fig (called Ashvatha in Sanskrit), the banyan tree and the peepal tree are the most revered in the Indian tradition, and both are considered the trees of life. The banyan symbolizes fertility according to the Agni Purana and is worshipped by those wanting children. It is also referred to as the tree of immortality in many Hindu scriptures.
Ashwatha: The Tree of Life
Called Ashvatha in Sanskrit, the Peepal (Ficus religiosa) is a very large tree. Its bark is light grey, smooth and peels in patches. Its heart-shaped leaves have long, tapering tips. The slightest breeze makes them rustle. The fruit is purple when ripe. The Peepal is the earliest-known depicted tree in India: a seal discovered at Mohenjodaro, one of the cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation (c. 3000 BC - 1700 BC), shows the Peepal being worshipped. During the Vedic period, its wood was used to make fire by friction.
Ashwatha is sacred to Hindus as well as Buddhists. Ashwatha literally means "Where horses stood" (ashwa + tha).Sage Shankaracharya interprets this tree as representing the the entire cosmos. 'Shwa' in Sanskrit means tomorrow. 'a' indicates negation, and 'tha' means one that stands or remains. He interprets Ashwatha to indicate "One which does not remain the same tomorrow", or the universe itself. Ashwatha tree is quite remarkable because it grows both upwards as well as top to bottom. The branches themselves morph into roots, so even if the original tree decays and perishes, its branches underneath are young and continue to enclose the parent. This eternal life of the the Peepal tree has inspired many Indian philosophers and Hindu thought. Besides harboring thousands of birds, insects, and providing shade to animals and humans, its foliage is very rich in protein and the bark of the tree is used in several native medicinal drugs. There was a time in India when a Peepal tree was planted in the premises of every temple, and was regarded as the Tree of Life.

The Brahma Purana and the Padma Purana, relate how once, when the demons defeated the gods, Vishnu hid in the peepal. Therefore spontaneous worship to Vishnu can be offered to a peepal without needing his image or temple. The Skanda Purana Peepal Tree also considers the peepal a symbol of Vishnu. He is believed to have been born under this tree. Some believe that the tree houses the Trimurti, the roots being Brahma, the trunk Vishnu and the leaves Shiva. The gods are said to hold their councils under this tree and so it is associated with spiritual understanding. The peepal is also closely linked to Krishna. In the Bhagavad Gita, he says: "Among trees, I am the ashvatha." Krishna is believed to have died under this tree, after which the present Kali Yuga is said to have begun. According to the Skanda Purana, if one does not have a son, the peepal should be regarded as one. As long as the tree lives, the family name will continue. To cut down a peepal is considered a sin equivalent to killing a Brahmin, one of the five deadly sins or Panchapataka. According to the Skanda Purana, a person goes to hell for doing so. Some people are particular to touch the Peepal only on a Saturday. The Brahma Purana explains why, saying that Ashvatha and Peepala were two demons who harassed people. Ashvatha would take the form of a peepal and Peepala the form of a Brahmin. The fake Brahmin would advise people to touch the tree, and as soon as they did, Ashvatha would kill them. Later they were both killed by Shani. Because of his influence, it is considered safe to touch the tree on Saturdays. Lakshmi is also believed to inhabit the tree on Saturdays. Therefore it is considered auspicious to worship it then. Women ask the tree to bless them with a son tying red thread or red cloth around its trunk or on its branches. On Amavasya, villagers perform a symbolic marriage between the neem and the peepal, which are usually grown near each other. Although this practice is not prescribed by any religious text, there are various beliefs on the significance of 'marrying' these trees. In one such belief, the fruit of the neem represents the Shivalinga and so, the male. The leaf of the peepal represents the yoni, the power of the female. The fruit of the neem is placed on a peepal leaf to depict the Shivalinga, which symbolises creation through sexual union, and so the two trees are 'married'. After the ceremony, villagers circle the trees to rid themselves of their sins.
In Buddhism
The Bodhi tree and the Sri Maha Bodhi propagated from it are famous specimens of Sacred Fig. The known planting date of the tree in Sri Lanka is 288 BC which gives it the oldest verified age for any angiosperm plant.This plant is considered sacred by the followers of Buddhism, and hence the name 'Sacred Fig' was given to it. Siddhartha Gautama is referred to have been sitting underneath a Bo-Tree when he was enlightened (Bodhi), or "awakened" (Buddha). Thus, the Bo-Tree is well-known symbol for happiness, prosperity, longevity and good luck.
According to the Buddha – 'He who worships the Peepal tree will receive the same reward as if he worshiped me in person'. The Peepal tree has its own symbolic meaning of enlightenment and peace.

Ram Bahadur Bamjom...the meditating boy under the peepal tree. This scene no doubt has become one of the widely photographed scene in recent times in Nepal. Posters have been circulated in Nepal and people are already wearing lockets with photos of Ram Bahadur Bamjom. Ram, famous as the Buddha Boy or the Little Buddha or the Meditating Boy stayed there meditating for about 10 months “without eating”.

The Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple. Propagated from the Sri Maha Bodhi, which in turn is propagated from the original Bodhi Tree at this location.

References: Wikipedia,, kamat’s potpourri

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Biodiversity - 'Extinction is forever'

Sunday article by Mohan Pai

Extinction is forever !

Over 99% of the species that ever lived are now extinct.

Mass extinction exhibits a cyclic nature. 5 major extinctions that occurred during the last 540 million years of earth history wiped out most living species.
Mass extinction is a sharp decrease in the number of species in a relatively short period of time. Mass extinctions affect most major taxonomic groups present at the time — birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, invertebrates and other simpler life forms. They may be caused by one or both of:
*extinction of an unusually large number of species in a short period.
*a sharp drop in the rate of speciation.

Over 99% of species that ever lived are now extinct, but extinction occurs at an uneven rate. Based on the fossil record, the background rate of extinctions on Earth is about two to five taxonomic families of marine invertebrates and vertebrates every million years. Marine fossils are mostly used to measure extinction rates because they are more plentiful and cover a longer time span than fossils of land organisms. Since life began on earth, several major mass extinctions have significantly exceeded the background extinction rate. The most recent, the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event, occurred 65 million years ago, and has attracted more attention than all others as it marks the extinction of nearly all dinosaur species, which were the dominant animal class of the period. In the past 540 million years there have been five major events when over 50% of animal species died. There probably were mass extinctions in the Archean and Proterozoic Eons, but before the Phanerozoic there were no animals with hard body parts to leave a significant fossil record.

Estimates of the number of major mass extinctions in the last 540 million years range from as few as five to more than twenty. These differences stem from the threshold chosen for describing an extinction event as "major", and the data chosen to measure past diversity.

Extinction cycles
It has been suggested by several sources that biodiversity and/or extinction events may be influenced by cyclic processes. The best-known hypothesis of extinction events by a cyclic process is the 26M to 30M year cycle in extinctions proposed by Raup and Sepkoski (1986). More recently, Rohde and Muller (2005) have suggested that biodiversity fluctuates primarily on 62 ± 3 million year cycles.Much early work in this area also suffered from the poor accuracy of geological dating, where errors often exceed 10M years. However, improvements in radiometric dating have reduced the scale of uncertainty to at most 4M years - theoretically adequate for studying these processes.

The concept of periodicity has important implications for determining which factors cause extinction. Hypotheses invoking catastrophism have particularly been advanced utilizing this concept, which imply extra-terrestrial forces as extinction-causing agents. This is because only astronomical forces are known to operate on such a precise periotic time schedule. Contrary to catastrophism are hypotheses which focus on gradualism. These gradualistic hypotheses invoke various terrestrial extinction mechanisms including volcanism, glaciation, global climatic change, and changes in sea level. Most recently hypotheses centered on the new non-linear science of complexity have emerged. Under these hypotheses species-species interactions lead to occasional instability resulting in cascades which may ripple through entire ecosystems, with potentially devastating results.
Major extinction events
The classical "Big Five" mass extinctions: End Ordovician, Late Devonian, End Permian, End Triassic, and End Cretaceous. The Holocene extinction event is referred to as the Sixth Extinction.

Cretaceous-Tertiary. 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs were wiped out in a ma extinction that killed nearly a fifth of land vertebrate families, 16% of marine families and nearly half of all marine animals.
End of Triassic. About 200 million years ago, lava floods erupting from the central Atlantic are thought to have created lethal global warming, killing off more than a fifth of all marine families and half of marine genera.
Permian-Triassic. The worst mass extinction took place 250 million years ago, killing 95% of all species.
Late Devonian. About 360 million years ago, a fifth of marine families were wiped out, alongside more than half of all marine genera.
Ordovician-Silurian. About 440 million years ago, a quarter of all marine families were wiped out.
Most widely supported Causes
The most often cited as causes of mass extinctions are:
*Flood basalt events: 11 occurrences, all associated with significant extinctions.
*Sea-level falls: 12, of which 7 were associated with significant extinctions
*Asteroid impacts producing craters over 100km wide: one, associated with one mass extinction. *Asteroid impacts producing craters less than 100km wide: over 50, the great majority not associated with significant extinctions.

Evolutionary importance
Mass extinctions have sometimes accelerated the evolution of life on earth. When dominance of particular ecological niches passes from one group of organisms to another, it is rarely because the new dominant group is "superior" to the old and usually because an extinction event eliminates the old dominant group and makes way for the new one.For example mammaliformes ("almost mammals") and then mammals existed throughout the reign of the dinosaurs, but could not compete for the large terrestrial vertebrate niches which dinosaurs monopolized. The end-Cretaceous mass extinction removed the non-avian dinosaurs and made it possible for mammals to expand into the large terrestrial vertebrate niches. Many groups which survive mass extinctions do not recover in numbers or diversity, and many of these go into long-term decline.

Sixth Mass Extinction is NOW !
There is little doubt left in the minds of professional biologists that Earth is currently faced with a mounting loss of species that threatens to rival the five great mass extinctions of the geological past.
The classical "Big Five" mass extinctions are End Ordovician, Late Devonian, End Permian, End Triassic, and End Cretaceous. The Holocene extinction event is referred to as the Sixth Extinction, that is the extinction event that is taking place NOW !
A study published in the international journal Conservation Biology reveals a sorry and worsening picture of habitat destruction and species loss. It also describes the deficiencies of and opportunities for governmental action to lessen this mounting regional and global problem. The review highlights destruction and degradation of ecosystems as the main threat.
A study published in the international journal Conservation Biology reveals a sorry and worsening picture of habitat destruction and species loss. It also describes the deficiencies of and opportunities for governmental action to lessen this mounting regional and global problem. The review highlights destruction and degradation of ecosystems as the main threat.
According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2008
*Nearly 17,000 of the world's 45,000 assessed species are threatened with extinction (38 percent). Of these, 3,246 are in the highest category of threat, Critically Endangered, 4,770 are Endangered and 8,912 are Vulnerable to extinction.
*Nearly 5,500 animal species are known to be threatened with extinction and at least 1,141 of the 5,487 known mammal species are threatened worldwide.
*In 2008, nearly 450 mammals were listed as Endangered, including the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), after the global population declined by more than 60 percent in the last 10 years.
*Scientists have catalogued relatively little about the rest of the world's fauna: only 5 percent of fish, 6 percent of reptiles, and 7 percent of amphibians have been evaluated. Of those studied, at least 750 fish species, 290 reptiles, and 150 amphibians are at risk.
*The average extinction rate is now some 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than the rate that prevailed over the past 60 million years.
The Passenger Pigeon
In Michigan during a single hunt in 1878 an estimated 1,000 million birds were destroyed at nesting sites. On September 1, 1914 the last Passenger Pigeon named Martha died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo.

Indian Vultures
In India, the White backed vulture population was estimated at 30 million birds in 1992. Today, it is a mere 11,000 birds and falling due to Diclofenac poisoning.

Extinction is irreversible.
This has been part of the evolutionary process which has produced more advanced forms of life - a process that has occurred over a vast span of time over millions of years. The greatest contribution of Charles Darwin, who propounded the Theory of Evolution, in his logical explanation for evolutionary changes and appearance of new form of life - natural selection - the success of those organisms that are capable of adapting to the environment, to survive and reproduce. One of the world’s rarest birds and an almost extinct species, today lessthan 200 birds survive!
In India, the Cheetah, the lesser one-horned rhinoceros, the pink- headed duck and the mountain quail have become extinct in the last one century.
The Sangai, the brow-antlered deer is found only in Manipur and only 162 animals survive.
Many mammals and birds have become rare and endangered and many a natural range diminished in size with increasing deforestation, often confining the animals to small territories.

The Golden Toad of Monteverde, Costa Rica was among the first casualties of amphibian decline. Formerly abundant, it was last seen in 1989.

References: Wikipedia, J. C. Daniel (’Extinction is for ever’), IUCN Red List,, Mohan Pai.
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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Biodiversity - Noah's Ark

69. Biodiversity - Noah’s Ark - An article by Mohan Pai - July, 2009

Noah's Ark

or Manu & the Fish

"With more and more species threatened with extinction by the flood that is today’s global economy, we may be the first generation in human history that literally has to act like Noah - to save the last pair of a wide range of species. Or as God commanded Noah in Genesis “ And every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female” - Thomas L. Friedman

Native global flood stories are documented as history or legend in almost every region on earth. Old world missionaries reported their amazement at finding remote tribes already possessing legends with tremendous similarities to the Bible's accounts of the worldwide flood. H.S. Bellamy in Moons, Myths and Men estimates that altogether there are over 500 Flood legends worldwide. Ancient civilizations such as (China, Babylonia, Wales, Russia, India, America, Hawaii, Scandinavia, Sumatra, Peru, and Polynesia) all have their own versions of a giant flood.These flood tales are frequently linked by common elements that parallel the Biblical account including the warning of the coming flood, the construction of a boat in advance, the storage of animals, the inclusion of family, and the release of birds to determine if the water level had subsided. The overwhelming consistency among flood legends found in distant parts of the globe indicates they were derived from the same origin, but oral transcription has changed the details through time.

Perhaps the second most important historical account of a global flood can be found in a Babylonian flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. When the Biblical and Babylonian accounts are compared, a number of outstanding similarities are found that leave no doubt these stories are rooted in the same event or oral tradition.

Matsya Avatar

Manu - the Indian myth

The Matsya Avatara of Lord Vishnu is said to have appeared to King Manu (whose original name was Satyavrata), the then King of Dravida, while he washed his hands in a river. This river was supposed to have been flowing down the Malaya Mountains in his land of Dravida. According to the Matsya Purana, his ship is supposed to have been perched after the deluge on the top of this Malaya Mountains. (This land or kingdom of Dravida that was ruled over by Satyavrata or Manu might have been an original, greater Dravida, that might have stretched from Madagascar and East Africa in the west to Southernmost India and further to Southeast Asia and Australia in the east.) The little fish asked the king to save It, upon his doing so, kept growing bigger and bigger. It also informed the King of a huge flood which would occur soon. The King builds a huge boat, which houses his family, 9 types of seeds, and animals to repopulate the earth after the deluge occurs and the oceans and seas recede.This story is to an extent similar to other deluge stories, like those of Gilgamesh from ancient Sumerian Mythology, and the story of Noah's ark from Judeo-Christianity.

With the human population expected to reach 9-10 billion by the end of the century and the planet in the middle of its sixth mass extinction this time due to human activity the next few years are critical in conserving Earth’s precious biodiversity. It is our generation and our civilization that is responsible for causing the flood of commercial development which is causing Global Warming and pollution that could wipe out much of the world’s biodiversity.

To quote E. O. Wilson “Except from giant meteorite strikes or other catastrophes every 100 million years or so, Earth has never experienced anything like the contemporary human juggernaut. With the global species extinction rate now exceeding the global species birthrate at least a hundredfold, and soon to increase ten times that much, and with the birthrate falling through the loss of sites where evolution can occur; the number of species is plummeting. The original level of biodiversity is not likely to be regained in any period of time that has meaning for the human mind.”Since Man is causing this flood, it also now becomes his responsibility to build the Ark that is needed to preserve life on the earth.

Let us consider the following facts:

During the past 150 years, humans have directly impacted and altered close to 47% of the global land area.

Under one bleak scenario, biodiversity will be threatened on almost 72% of Earth’s land area by 2032.

48% of South East Asia, the Congo Basin, and parts of the Amazon will likely be converted to agricultural land, plantations and urban areas — compared with 22% today, suggesting wide depletions of biodiversity.

Starting some 45,000 years ago a high proportion of larger land animals became extinct in North America, Australia, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, coinciding with human arrival.

The current textbook definition of "biodiversity" is "variation of life at all levels of biological organization".

Biodiversity can be defined as the totality of life on earth. It's a vast field, encompassing all the world's ecosystems, all the plant and animal species that populate those ecosystems, and all the genes that make up the hereditary material of each living species. To get some inkling of the vastness of the topic I am reproducing below E. O. Wilson’s speech given at the Explorer’s Club on March 18, 2006:

What is left to explore?

Why, the biosphere of course, that razor-thin membrane of life plastered to the surface of Earth so thin it can’t be seen edgewise from an orbiting space vehicle yet still the most complex entity by far we know in the universe. How well do we understand this part of the world? Proportionately not very much. We live on a little-known planet. Let me give you some examples. The best-studied animals are the birds, which have been carefully collected by naturalists and explorers for centuries. Nevertheless, an average of 3 new species are added each year to the 10,000 already described by scientists. Comparable to them are the flowering plants: about 280,000 species known out of 320,000 or more estimated to exist. From there it goes steeply downhill. You’d think that the amphibians—that is, frogs, salamanders, and caecilians—would be comparable to the birds, but in fact they are still poorly explored: from 1985 to 2001, 1,530 new species were added to the 5,300 already found, an increase of over one-fourth, and with more new species pouring in.

When we next move to the invertebrates, what I like to call the little things that run the world, we get a fuller glimpse of the depth of our ignorance. Consider nematode worms, the almost microscopic wriggling creatures that teem as free-living forms and parasites everywhere, on the land and in the sea. They are the most abundant animals on Earth. Four out of every five animals on Earth is a nematode worm. If you were to make all of the solid matter on the surface of Earth invisible except for the nematode worms, you still could see its outline in nematode worms. About 16,000 species are known to science; the number estimated actually to exist by specialists is over 1.5 million. Almost certainly the world’s ecosystems and our own lives depend on these little creatures, but we know absolutely nothing about the vast majority. To continue: about 900,000 kinds of insects are known to science (I’ve just finished describing 340 new species of ants myself, for example) but the true global number could easily exceed 5 million. How many kinds of plants, animals, and microorganisms make up the biosphere? Somewhere between 1.5 and 1.8 million species have been discovered and given a Latinized scientific name. How many species actually exist? It is an amazing fact that we do not know to the nearest order of magnitude how many exist. It could be as low as 10 million or as high as 100 million or more.

Those of us in biodiversity studies say that we have knowledge of only about 10 percent of the kinds of organisms on Earth. The nematodes and insects and invertebrates all shrink in diversity before the bacteria and archaea, the dark matter of planet Earth. Roughly 6,000 species of bacteria are known. That many can be found in the 10 billion bacterial cells in a single gram, a handful, of soil—virtually all still unknown to science. It’s been recently estimated that a ton of fertile soil supports 4 million species of bacteria. We believe each one is exquisitely adapted to a particular niche, as a result of long periods of evolution. We don’t know what those niches are. What we do know is that we depend on those organisms for our existence. A search is on right now at least for the bacteria that live in the human mouth. The number of species adapted to that environment so far is 700. These bacteria are friendly; they appear to function as symbionts that keep disease-causing bacteria from invading. For those species your mouth is a continent. They dwell on the mountain ridges of a tooth; they travel long distances into the deep valleys of your gums; they wash back and forth in the ocean tides of your saliva. I’m not suggesting that we give an Explorer’s Club flag to a dentist. But you get the point. Every part of the world, including Central Park where a new kind of centipede was recently found, has new kinds of life awaiting discovery.

But—if none of this impresses you, would you like an entire new living planet for your delectation? The closest we may ever come is the world of the SLIMES (that’s an acronym for Subterranean Lithoautotrophic Microbial Ecosystems), a vast array of bacteria and microscopic fungi teeming below Earth’s surface to depths of up to 2 miles or more, completely independent of life on the surface, living on energy from inorganic materials, possibly forming a greater mass than all of life on the surface. The SLIMES would likely go on existing if we were to burn everything on the surface to a crisp. In approaching biodiversity, we are all explorers, scientists and all others who care about the natural world, now put in perspective, like Cortez and his men on a peak in Darien, before the new ocean, staring, in Keat’s expression, in wild surmise at the unknown world stretching before us.

E. O. Wilson's Explorers Club Speech 18th March, 2006

Coral Reef

The highest percentage per unit of area of endangered species are in the tropical rainforests and coral reefs. These species are now disappearing at the rate somewhere a thousand times faster than they are born due to human activity. At this rate, in one human lifetime, half these species of the world which have developed over thousands or millions of years, could be eliminated. Conservation needs to be focussed on the hot spots of biodiversity and fresh water systems of the world. Fresh water systems deserve special attention because they are under heaviest assault from pollution and drainage.

Most of the species extinctions from 1000 AD to 2000 AD are due to human activities, in particular destruction of plant and animal habitats. Raised rates of extinction are being driven by human consumption of organic resources, especially related to tropical forest destruction. While most of the species that are becoming extinct are not food species, their biomass is converted into human food when their habitat is transformed into pasture, cropland, and orchards. It is estimated that more than a third of the Earth's biomass is tied up in only the few species that represent humans, livestock and crops. Because an ecosystem decreases in stability as its species are made extinct, these studies warn that the global ecosystem is destined for collapse if it is further reduced in complexity. Factors contributing to loss of biodiversity are: overpopulation, deforestation, pollution (air pollution, water pollution, soil contamination) and global warming or climate change, driven by human activity. These factors, while all stemming from overpopulation, produce a cumulative impact upon biodiversity.

“The science of living beings in general, and especially of the human individual, has not made such a great progress. It still remains in the descriptive state. Man is an indivisible whole of extreme complexity. No simple representation of him can be obtained. There is no method of comprehending simultaneously in his entirety, his parts and his relations with the outer world.”
“We are beginning to realise the weakness of our civilisation. Many want to shake off the dogmas imposed upon them by modern society - those who are bold enough to understand the necessity, not only mental, political and social changes, but the overthrow of industrial civilisation and of the advent of another conception of human progress’’

- Man, the Unknown - Dr. Alexis Carrel.

References: ‘Hot, Flat, and Crowded’ by Thomas L. Friedman, E. O. Wilson’s work, ‘Man the Unknown’ by Dr. Alexis Carrel, Wikipedia.


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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Indian Rainforests

An article by Mohan Pai

The Indian Rainforests

Rainforests - the Lungs of the Planet Earth

Tropical rainforests are vital to the global ecosystem and human existence. They are a world like no other and are unparalleled in terms of their biological diversity. Tropical rainforests are a natural reservoir of genetic diversity which offers a rich source of medicinal plants, high-yield foods, and a myriad of other useful forest products. They are an important habitat for migratory animals and sustain as much as 50 percent of the species on Earth, as well as a number of diverse and unique indigenous cultures. Tropical rainforests play an elemental role in regulating global weather in addition to maintaining regular rainfall, while buffering against floods, droughts, and erosion. They store vast quantities of carbon, while producing a significant amount of the world's oxygen. Rainforests once covered 14% of the earths surface and even though they now only cover 6% of the earth, they are home to almost half of the worlds population of mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects, bird life and plant life.

Tropical rainforests are located in a band around the equator (Zero degrees latitude) in the area between the Tropic of Cancer (23.5° North latitude) and the Tropic of Capricorn (23.5° South latitude).This 3,000 mile (4800 kilometres) wide band is known as the 'tropics'.

The equator is a line that circles the centre of our global world and is situated halfway between the north and south poles. Temperatures at the equator are high. These high temperatures cause accelerated evaporation of water, which results in frequent rain in rainforests in the tropics.

World Rainforests
Tropical rainforests are found between latitudes 10° N and 10° S. This includes the Amazon Basin of South America, the Zaire Basin of Africa and the islands and peninsulas of South-east Asia.In Southeast Asia, the tropical rainforests are found in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Burma and Papua New Guinea. The rainforests found in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are in small patches and strips, while on the other hand, Indonesia contains one-tenth of the world’s rainforest and 40% of all Asian rainforests! However sadly, as Indonesia is progressing further into modernisation, it is losing its rainforests to commercial logging and human settlements. Malaysia too has lost about two third of its lowland forest to plantations. On a brighter side, Papua New Guinea still has areas of rainforest yet to be disturbed, due to its mountainous terrain. Papua New Guinea is home to many amazing animals, one being the largest butterfly in the world; the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing. Its wing span can reach up to 10 inches wide!

Although they cover less than 2 percent of Earth's surface, they house an estimated 50 percent of all life on the planet. The immense numbers of creatures that inhabit the tropical rainforests are so great—an estimated 50 million species— they are almost incomprehensible. The sheer range of numbers alone suggests the limited extent of our knowledge of these forests. For example, whereas temperate forests are often dominated by a half dozen tree species or fewer that make up 90 percent of the trees in the forest, a tropical rainforest may have more than 480 tree species in a single hectare (2.5 acres). A single bush in the Amazon may have more species of ants than the entire British Isles. This diversity of rainforests is not a haphazard event, but is the result of a series of unique circumstances.


A tropical rainforest is typically divided into four main layers, each with different plants and animals adapted for life in that particular area: the emergent, canopy, understory, and forest floor layers.
Emergent layer
The emergent layer contains a small number of very large trees called emergents, which grow above the general canopy, reaching heights of 45-55 m, although on occasion a few species will grow to 70-80 m tall. They need to be able to withstand the hot temperatures and strong winds in some areas. Eagles, butterflies, bats, and certain monkeys inhabit this layer.

Diagram: Coutesy Animal Corner
Canopy layer
The canopy layer contains the majority of the largest trees, typically 30-45 m tall. The densest areas of biodiversity are found in the forest canopy, a more or less continuous cover of foliage formed by adjacent treetops. The canopy, by some estimates, is home to 50 percent of all plant species, suggesting that perhaps half of all life on Earth could be found there. Epiphytic plants attach to trunks and branches, and obtain water and minerals from rain and debris that collects on the supporting plants. The fauna is similar to that found in the emergent layer, but more diverse. A quarter of all insect species are believed to exist in the rainforest canopy. Scientists have long suspected the richness of the canopy as a habitat, but have only recently developed practical methods of exploring it. As long ago as 1917, naturalist William Beebe declared that "another continent of life remains to be discovered, not upon the Earth, but one to two hundred feet above it, extending over thousands of square miles." True exploration of this habitat only began in the 1980s, when scientists developed methods to reach the canopy, such as firing ropes into the trees using crossbows. Exploration of the canopy is still in its infancy, but other methods include the use of balloons and airships to float above the highest branches and the building of cranes and walkways planted on the forest floor. The science of accessing tropical forest canopy using airships, or similar aerial platforms, is called dendronautics.
Understory layer
The understory layer lies between the canopy and the forest floor. The understory (or understorey) is home to a number of birds, snakes, and lizards, as well as predators such as jaguars, boa constrictors, and leopards. The leaves are much larger at this level. Insect life is also abundant. Many seedlings that will grow to the canopy level are present in the understory. Only about 5 percent of the sunlight shining on the rainforest reaches the understory. This layer can also be called a shrub layer, although the shrub layer may also be considered a separate layer.
Forest floor
The forest floor, the bottom-most layer, receives only 2 percent of sunlight. Only plants adapted to low light can grow in this region. Away from riverbanks, swamps, and clearings
where dense undergrowth is found, the forest floor is relatively clear of vegetation because of the low sunlight penetration. It also contains decaying plant and animal matter, which disappears quickly due to the warm, humid conditions promoting rapid decay. Many forms of fungi grow here which help decay the animal and plant waste. It takes up to 20 minutes for rain to actually touch the ground from the trees. Forest floor - Mahadayi Valley, Karnataka.
Because of the ample solar energy, tropical rainforests are usually warm year round with temperatures from about 72-93F (22-34C), although forests at higher elevations, especially cloud forests, may be significantly cooler. The temperature may fluctuate during the year, but in some equatorial forests the average may vary as little as 0.5F (0.3C) throughout the year. Temperatures are generally moderated by cloud cover and high humidity.

An important characteristic of rainforests is apparent in their name. Rainforests lie in the intertropical convergence zone where intense solar energy produces a convection zone of rising air that loses its moisture through frequent rainstorms. Rainforests are subject to heavy rainfall, at least 80 inches (2,000 mm), and in some areas over 430 inches (10,920 mm) of rain each year. In equatorial regions, rainfall may be year round without apparent "wet" or "dry" seasons, although many forests do have seasonal rains. Even in seasonal forests, the period between rains is usually not long enough for the leaf litter to dry out completely. During the parts of the year when less rain falls, the constant cloud cover is enough to keep the air moist and prevent plants from drying out. Some neotropical rainforests rarely go a month during the year without at least 6" of rain. The stable climate, with evenly spread rainfall and warmth, allows most rainforest trees to be evergreen—keeping their leaves all year and never dropping all their leaves in any one season. Forests further from the equator, like those of India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Central America, where rainy seasons are more pronounced, can only be considered "semi-evergreen" since some species of trees may shed all of their leaves at the beginning of the dry season. Annual rainfall is spread evenly enough to allow heavy growth of broad-leafed evergreen trees, or at least semi-evergreen trees. The moisture of the rainforest from rainfall, constant cloud cover, and transpiration (water loss through leaves), creates intense local humidity. Each canopy tree transpires some 200 gallons (760 liters) of water annually, translating to roughly 20,000 gallons (76,000 L) of water transpired into the atmosphere for every acre of canopy trees. Large rainforests (and their humidity) contribute to the formation of rain clouds, and generate as much as 75 percent of their own rain.
The Amazon rainforest is responsible for creating as much as 50 percent of its own precipitation. Deforestation and climate change may be affecting the water cycle in tropical rainforests. Since the mid-1990s, rainforests around the world have experienced periods of severe drought, including southeast Asia in 1997 and 2005 and the Amazon in 2005. Dry conditions, combined with degradation from logging and agricultural conversion, make forests more vulnerable to wildfire.
Rainforests Waters
Tropical rainforests have some of the largest rivers in the world, like the Amazon, Madeira, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Negro, Orinoco, and Zaire (Congo), because of the tremendous amount of precipitation their watersheds receive. These mega-rivers are fed by countless smaller tributaries, streams, and creeks. For example, the Amazon alone has some 1,100 tributaries, 17 of which are over 1,000 miles long. Although large tropical rivers are fairly uniform in appearance and water composition, their tributaries vary greatly. Many tropical rivers and streams have extreme high and low water levels that occur at different parts of the year. In addition to rivers, rainforests have conventional, free-standing lakes and so-called oxbow lakes, formed when a river changes course. These lakes are home to species adapted to the quiet, stagnant conditions. Tropical waters, whether they be giant rivers, streams, or oxbow lakes, are almost as rich in animal species as the rainforests that surround them. But they, too, are increasingly threatened by human activities, including pollution, siltation resulting from deforestation, hydroelectric projects, and over-harvesting of resident species.
Forest - the mother of rivers
There is an umbilical connection between healthy forests and water regimes. Forests are nurseries and cisterns for our life giving rivers. Forest areas give birth to all the major and minor rivers. Most of the rivers spring from some unknown forests. Because of the slope the rain water cannot stay to soak into the earth, it flows downhill rapidly taking some of the earth with it This run-off on the hillsides will only be halted, and water will percolate into the earth where there is a good tree cover. In fact a forest “traps” rainwater and channels it into underground streams.

World’s Largest Pharmacy

Medicinal plants and herbs which are in great demand by Pharmaceutical MNCs e.g. Mappia foetida used for the treatment of ovarian colon cancers. The tree is the richest source of Camptothetician (CPT) used in the treatment of these cancers.

Tropical rainforests are called "the world's largest pharmacy" because of the large amount of natural medicines discovered in rainforests that are derived from rainforest plants. For example, rain forests contain the basic ingredients of hormonal contraception methods, cocaine, stimulants, and tranquilizing drugs. Curare (a paralyzing drug) and quinine (a malaria cure) are also found there.

Rainforests around the world still continue to fall. Does it really make a difference? Why should anyone care if some plants, animals, mushrooms, and microorganisms perish? Rainforests are often hot and humid, difficult to reach, insect-ridden, and have elusive wildlife.

Actually the concern should not be about losing a few plants and animals; mankind stands to lose much more. By destroying the tropical forests, we risk our own quality of life, gamble with the stability of climate and local weather, threaten the existence of other species, and undermine the valuable services provided by biological diversity. While in most areas environmental degradation has yet to reach a crisis level where entire systems are collapsing, it is important to examine some of the effects of existing environmental impoverishment and to forecast some of the potential repercussions of forest loss. Continuing loss of natural systems could make human activities increasingly vulnerable to ecological surprises in the future. The most immediate impact of deforestation occurs at the local level with the loss of ecological services provided by tropical rainforests and related ecosystems. Such habitats afford humans valuable services such as erosion prevention, flood control, water treatment, fisheries protection, and pollination—functions that are particularly important to the world's poorest people, who rely on natural resources for their everyday survival. Forest loss also reduces the availability of renewable resources like timber, medicinal plants, nuts and fruit, and game. Over the longer term, deforestation of tropical rainforests can have a broader impact, affecting global climate and biodiversity. These changes are more difficult to observe and forecast from local effects, since they take place over a longer time scale and can be difficult to measure.

Deforestation and the Global Carbon Cycle
Carbon dioxide ( CO2) is the major gas involved in the greenhouse effect, which causes global warming. All the things that produce CO2 (like car burning gas) and the things that consume Co2 (growing plants) are involved in the “global carbon cycle”. Tropical forests hold an immense amount of carbon, which joins with oxygen to form CO2. The plants and soil of tropical forests hold 460-575 billion metric tons of carbon worldwide. Each acre of tropical forest stores about 180 metric tons of carbon.
Deforestation increases the amount of CO2 and other trace gases in the atmosphere. When a forest is cut and replaced by cropland and pastures, the carbon that was stored in the tree trunks (wood is about 50% carbon) joins with oxygen and is released into the atmosphere as Co2.The loss of forests has a great effect on the global carbon cycle. From 1850 to 1990, deforestation worldwide (including that in the United States) released 122 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere, with the current rate being 1.6 billion metric tons per year. In comparison all the fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) burned during a year release about 6 billion tons per year.Releasing CO2 into the atmosphere increases the greenhouse effect, and may raise global temperature. The role of fossil fuels burned by cars and industry is well known, but tropical deforestation releases about 25% of the amount released by fossil fuel burning. Tropical deforestation, therefore, contributes a significant part of the increasing CO2 in the atmosphere.
Today tropical rainforests are disappearing from the face of the globe. Despite growing international concern, rainforests continue to be destroyed at a pace exceeding 80,000 acres (32,000 hectares) per day. World rainforest cover now stands at around 2.5 million square miles (6 million square kilometers), an area about the size of the contiguous 48 United States or Australia and representing around 5 percent of the world's land surface. Much of this remaining area has been impacted by human activities and no longer retains its full original biodiversity.

The Rainforests of India

The rainforests in India are the centres of species richness and endemism and due to this has the status of being one of the 12 mega-biodiversity countries in the world. Even the two hotspots in India, the Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalayas, owe their status due to the presence of rainforests therein. These forests form very important catchments areas for major river systems, maintain soil and water fertility not only in the immediate vicinity but also hundreds of kilometers away, harbours rich indigenous culture with long traditions of sustainable use of traditional knowledge systems especially on medicines and wild relatives of cultivate crops. It is to these rainforests that more than 80% of the endemic flora and fauna of India are confined. Being the most complex ecosystem, the rain forests are living laboratories in which complex ecological, biological and evolutionary processes that have shaped the Earth.

Bamboo brakes, Muthodi, Karnataka
Tropical forest cover in India has been reduced to two major areas: the coastal hills of the Western Ghats (about 55,000 square miles or 135,000 sq. km) and 14,000 square miles (34,500 sq. km) in Northeastern India. Very little of India's forest cover is considered pristine. 22.8% —or about 67,701,000 hectares—of India is forested. Change in Forest Cover: Between 1990 and 2000, India gained an average of 361,500 hectares of forest per year. The amounts to an average annual reforestation rate of 0.57%. Between 2000 and 2005, the rate of forest change decreased by 92.3% to 0.04% per annum. In total, between 1990 and 2005, India gained 5.9% of its forest cover, or around 3,762,000 hectares. Measuring the total rate of habitat conversion (defined as change in forest area plus change in woodland area minus net plantation expansion) for the 1990-2005 interval, India gained 1.0% of its forest and woodland habitat.Biodiversity and Protected Areas: India has some 2356 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles according to figures from the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Of these, 18.4% are endemic, meaning they exist in no other country, and 10.8% are threatened. India is home to at least 18664 species of vascular plants, of which 26.8% are endemic. 4.9% of India is protected under IUCN categories I-V.
The Rainforests of the Western Ghats

The Western Ghats hill range in India contains spectacular landscapes and an incredible array of wild species, many found nowhere else in the world. One among the world’s 34 most biologically diverse “hotspots”, the region has representation of a wide variety of natural ecosystems from grasslands and dry forests to rainforests, rivers, and streams, threatened by a multitude of human activities such as industrialisation, agriculture, grazing, hunting, deforestation, fragmentation, and degradation. Today, rainforests in the Western Ghats occur largely as fragments within a landscape matrix dominated by commercial plantations of tea, coffee, and other cash crops. With an annual deforestation rate of 1.2%, the southern Western Ghats is losing about 500 square kilometres of forest every year. NCF’s programme focuses on human impacts on wild species and habitats, biological surveys, human-wildlife conflict research and mitigation, and restoration to turn the tide of destruction towards conservation.

Forests of the western slopes of the Western Ghats, Konkan
The northern portion of the range is generally drier than the southern portion, and at lower elevations makes up the North Western Ghats moist deciduous forests ecoregion, with mostly deciduous forests made up predominantly of teak. Above 1,000 meters elevation are the cooler and wetter North Western Ghats montane rain forests, whose evergreen forests are characterized by trees of family Lauraceae.The evergreen Wayanad forests of Kerala mark the transition zone between the northern and southern ecoregions of the Western Ghats. The southern ecoregions are generally wetter and more species-rich. At lower elevations are the South Western Ghats moist deciduous forests, with Cullenia the characteristic tree genus, accompanied by teak, dipterocarps, and other trees. The moist forests transition to the drier South Deccan Plateau dry deciduous forests, which lie in its rain shadow to the east.

Clear felling, Mahadayi Valley, Karnataka
Above 1,000 meters are the South Western Ghats montane rain forests, also cooler and wetter than the surrounding lowland forests, and dominated by evergreen trees, although some montane grasslands and stunted forests can be found at the highest elevations. The South Western Ghats montane rain forests are the most species-rich ecoregion in peninsular India; eighty percent of the flowering plant species of the entire Western Ghats range are found in this ecoregion.
Tropical Montane - Bedthi River Valley, Karnataka
The animal life of the Indian peninsular region is characterised by the absence of many of the Indo-Malay species which are so abundant in the hill forests of the Himalayas. It is the home of the true Indian fauna of which the spotted deer, the nilgai, the blackbuck, the four-horned antelope, and the sloth bear are typical representatives. They are found no where else. Other species like the gaur, the sambar and the muntjac (barking deer) occur both in India and Malay countries. The Western Ghats, in sharp contrast to the adjoining dry zone of the Deccan present a region of great humidity and heavy rainfall. The forests covering the western slopes are at times very dense and composed of lofty trees, festooned with perennial creepers. Bamboos form a luxuriant undergrowth. In parts of the range the forests are more open and the banks of clear streams running through them are covered with spice and betel groves.
The Nilgiris, an offshoot of the Western Ghats, rise precipitously to form extensive grassy downs and tablelands seamed with densely forested gorges or Sholas. They are composed of evergreen trees with dense undergrowth.

1. Malabar Giant Squirrel 2. Lion tailed Macaque
Among the species limited to these forests are the Nilgiri langur, the Lion-tailed macaque, the Nilgiri brown mongoose and the striped necked mongoose, the Malabar civet, and the spiny mouse. In the higher levels of the Nilgiris and the Anaimalais are found such characteristically Himalayan animals as the tahr, the pine marten and the European otter.
Endemic species of the Western Ghats
One hundred and twenty species of mammals are known from the Western Ghats of which fourteen species are endemic (found only in that area).
Nilgiri Tahr
The mammalian fauna of the Western Ghats is dominated by insectivores (11 species), bats (41 species) and rodents (27 species including porcupine). Few studies have, however, paid attention to the community structure and organisation of these small mammals in the Western Ghats, although there have been attempts to review our understanding of the status and ecology of smaller cats and lesser carnivores.

The Rainforests of the Northeast India

The Northeast India lying between 22-30 degree N latitude and 89-97 degree E longitude, and sprawling over 2,62,379, Northeast India represents the transition zone between the Indian, Indo-Malayan and Indo-Chinese biogeographic regions and a meeting place of the Himalayan Mountains and Peninsular India. It was the part of the northward migrating ‘Deccan Peninsula’ that first touched the Asian landmass after the break up of Gondwanaland in the early Tertiary Period. Northeast India is thus the geographical ‘gateway’ for much of India’s flora and fauna, and as a consequence, the region is one of the richest in biological values. It is in this lowland-highland transition zone that the highest diversity of biomes or ecological communities can be found, and species diversities within these communities are also extremely high.
Northeast India is blessed with a wide range of physiography and ecoclimatic conditions. The State of Assam has extensive flood plains, while Khangchendzonga in Sikkim stands 8586 m. tall. Cherrapunjee in the State of Meghalaya holds the record for the highest rainfall in a single month (9,300 mm) as well as the most in a year (26,461 mm) in India, while the nearby Mawsynram has the world’s highest average rainfall (11,873 mm). The forests in the region are extremely diverse in structure and composition and combine tropical and temperate forest types, alpine meadows and cold deserts. There are regions, for example, in the State of Sikkim, where the faunal assemblages also change rapidly from tropical to subtropical, temperate, alpine and finally to cold desert forms.

After the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Western Ghats, Northeast India forms the main region of tropical forests in India, especially the species-rich tropical rain forests. The tropical semi-evergreen and moist deciduous forests in the lowlands of this region extend south and west into the subcontinent, and east into Southern China and Southeast Asia. The subtropical forests of the region follow the foothills of the Himalaya to the west; also extend into Southeast China in the east. Himalayan temperate and subalpine zone forests extend from northern Pakistan and adjacent Afghanistan through Northeast India to Southwest China. Each of the eight States of the region, namely Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura, boast of several endemics in flora as well as fauna. This region represents an important part of the Indo-Myanmar biodiversity hotspot.

1. Dooars forests, North Bengal 2. Golden Langur
The primary vegetation in extensive areas of the Northeast India has been disturbed and modified and in some places destroyed by seismic activities, frequent landslides and resultant soil erosion. While these natural causes have contributed only marginally to the change in vegetation type, it is the activity of Man that has led to the irreversible transformation in the landscapes and has resulted in colossal loss of biodiversity in the entire region. Human influences have pushed many species to the brink of extinction and have caused havoc to natural fragile ecosystems. Such devastations to natural ecosystems are witnessed almost everywhere in the region and is a cause of great concern.

1. Slow Loris 2. Reticulated Python

Northeast India has 64% of the total geographical area under forest cover and it is often quoted that it continues to be a forest surplus region. However, the forest cover is rapidly disappearing from the entire region. There has been a decrease of about 1800 in the forest cover between 1991 and 1999. More worrisome still is the fact that the quality of the forest is also deteriorating, with the dense forests (canopy closure of 40% or more) becoming degraded into open forest or scrub. Though there is a succession of several edaphic formations, a vast area of land has already been transformed into barren and unproductive wastelands. This being the case, the statistics of ‘more than 64 % of the total geographic area in this region under forest cover’ could be misleading. For example, though the forest cover in Manipur extends to 78% of the total geographic area, only 22% of forest area is under dense forest cover and the rest has been converted to open forests.

Except in the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys of Assam where substantial areas are under agriculture, little of the land is available for settled cultivation. Hence, shifting agriculture or slash-and-burn agriculture is the major land use in Northeast India and extends over 1.73 million ha. Different agencies have come up with different figures concerning the total area under shifting cultivation (jhum) in the region. What is not disputable is that with an ever shortening jhum cycle, the other human influences have caused environmental degradation with disastrous consequences.The forests of Assam once acted as a sponge, absorbing the tremendous impact of the monsoons. The natural drainage of the vast northeastern Himalaya is channelled through Assam and with the loss of thick forest cover, Brahmaputra, one of the largest and fastest flowing rivers of the subcontinent is creating havoc in the State. Floods that have devastating effects are now common to Northeast India and protecting the forests is a difficult problem.

The Rainforests of the Andamans & Nicobar Islands

The Andamans and Nicobar Islands have tropical evergreen rain forests and tropical semi-evergreen rainforests as well as tropical monsoon moist monsoon forests.

There are 572 islands in the territory, of which only approximately 38 are permanently inhabited. Most of the islands (about 550) are in the Andamans group, 26 of which are inhabited. The smaller Nicobars comprise some 22 main islands (10 inhabited). The Andamans and Nicobars are separated by a channel (the Ten Degree Channel) some 150 km wide.The total area of the Andaman Islands is some 6,408 km²; that of the Nicobar Islands approximately 1,841 km².

Aerial view -Andamans & Nicobar Islands

Andaman & Nicobar Islands are blessed with a unique tropical rainforest canopy, made of a mixed flora with elements from Indian, Myanmarese, Malaysian and endemic floral strains. So far, about 2,200 varieties of plants have been recorded, out of which 200 are endemic and 1,300 do not occur in mainland India.The South Andaman forests have a profuse growth of epiphytic vegetation, mostly ferns and orchids. The Middle Andamans harbours mostly moist deciduous forests. North Andamans is characterised by the wet evergreen type, with plenty of woody climbers. The north Nicobar Islands (including Car Nicobar and Battimalv) are marked by the complete absence of evergreen forests, while such forests form the dominant vegetation in the central and southern islands of the Nicobar group. Grasslands occur only in the Nicobars, and while deciduous forests are common in the Andamans, they are almost absent in the Nicobars. The present forest coverage is claimed to be 86.2% of the total land area.

References: Wikipedia, Mongabay,com, Animal, The Western Ghats by Mohan Pai, Nature Conservation Foundation, Biodiversity of Northeast India an Overview -V.Ramakantha, A.K.Gupta, Ajith Kumar
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