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Plant ExpeditionWestern Ghats

Velliangiri Hills – A beautiful monsoon trip!

The view of the seventh hill of Velliangiri Hill range

Please click on the images for enlarged view.

Introduction

Velliangiri hills are a series of hills in the Western Ghats of Coimbatore district in Tamil Nadu. It is located in the Boluvampatti forest range of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Velliangiri hills is a popular pilgrimage center in Southern India. It is called “Southern Kailash” by the devotees. Every year, pilgrims trek through wilderness across the seven hills to pay their homage to Shiva at the top of the seventh hill. Pilgrimage is allowed only during the dry seasons of March, April, and May. It is the most suitable time for trekking the Velliangiri hills as it rains the rest of the year. The rain makes the pathways very slippery and dangerous. During the monsoon months, with the bountiful rains, the forests will be lush. There will be a huge number of elephants roaming these forests!

A lucky chance!

I had a lucky chance of visiting these hills during the monsoon months! Most people don’t get that chance easily, so I thought it would be great to share with you guys. You all should see how the hills look like at it’s the most glorious state! The aim of this post is to show you the beauty of the hills. To insist the need for conservation and protection from the ruthless pilgrims and tourists.

This post will be long. But, trust me. It will be worth reading if you have unconditional love nature and want to preserve it. I got some message for you at the end!

Let’s begin!

The journey begins…

The journey started early in the morning at 6:30 AM. We planned to start at this time because there should be ample light to watch plants. Most plants start blooming at this time of the day! It was a great day with chilly weather from last night’s rain and some early morning drizzles. The road was cold and the mountains that line the horizon was our destination! We then started our journey after informing the forest department officials. We showed them the permission letter that we had acquired prior to the trek. 

On the way to Velliangiri Hills!
On the way to Velliangiri Hills on a beautiful cool and cloudy morning!

Lush green forests!

This time, the forest was entirely different and so full of life as we started our trek. The steps on the first hill were even very moist. The rocks on the sides were covered by moss, liverworts, and ferns!

Elephant dung is a common sight in these hills during the rainy season. This is because the forest is full of green and lush during this time of year. They come here to feed regularly. Elephants roam the lower elevations more because it is easier to move around. The forests are not so dense here and the elephants can move easily and the forest is lush and full of fresh vegetation. So, they have a lot to eat too!

After climbing half-way through the first hill, we can enjoy the view from above! Nearby tribal villages, the forests and adjacent Siruvani mountains line the distant horizon.

We continued to climb the first hill and the end of the first hill is marked by the vellai vinayagar temple. It was unattended when we visited as there were no pilgrims at this time of the year. Then we crossed the mighty bamboo groves which looked amazing with greenish new growths. When people usually visit during the summer months, the bamboos would have gone dry!

When we turned back halfway through the first hill, we were in for a breathtaking view of the plains through the tree window! 

Seeing through the canopy - Velliangiri Hills
Seeing the plains through the canopy!

The rare Ficus tree!

The forests slowly begin to transform from deciduous to semi-evergreen and then evergreen trees as we climb up the mountain. It becomes denser as we climb uphill. We had reached the third hill and this is where we encounter the first water source of this trek. There are three such sources till the top, providing water even during the bone-dry summer season! This first water source is near the pambatti sidhar (the monk who controlled snakes). There we found this awesome Ficus hispida, the only Ficus with opposite leaves in the Western Ghats. All the other species in the genus have alternate leaves! Look closely and you’ll be able to see the oppositely arranged leaves!

Ficus hispida - Velliangiri Hills
Ficus hispida

The Velliangiri hills trekking adventure

The way can be strenuous and daunting for those who hate climbing steps and are not used to trekking hills. Some places it is continuous steps. In some places, the stones would have fallen, moved away, or washed down in a torrential flood. In such places, you are left with no choice but to climb bare rocks! But, those who love adventure, will enjoy this trek so much.

I was always dreaming about how would the shola grasslands look at this time of year. My excitement grew as we climbed up the hills. We were nearing the grasslands. I can’t wait to go out of the canopy of this forest into the open grasslands! The shola grassland complex is what I love. It is full of plants that I love. Impatiens, Orchids, plants from the Melastomataceae family, ferns, and moss make me go crazy! The canopy is a composition of different colors and all shades of greens! The tree branches clothed with mosses, ferns, and other epiphytes. On top of everything, foggy and misty weather during the monsoon.

I was thrilled when we were out of the canopy. It was breathtaking to see the Siruvani mountain range opposite where we were standing. We were able to see the streams running down from the hills whenever the mist and clouds cleared. 

Almost at the end of the fourth hill. This marks the end of the forests and the grasslands would soon start from here! You can see waterfalls on the other side! This is what the view was when we reached the grasslands!

The view of Siruvani hills opposite to the Velliangiri hills
The view of Siruvani hills opposite to the Velliangiri hills. Look at the streams flowing down from the hills!

Out of the canopy, into the misty grasslands…

It was during the last spell of the monsoon in September when we visited Velliangiri hills. It gets very windy at high elevations. The winds were so strong that we were not even able to walk against it sometimes. We were also constantly bombarded with rain. Not to mention leeches that were waiting to pounce on us for a meal.

We were in the fifth hill and here we were greeted with the beautiful orchid, Habenaria longicornu. The beautiful terrestrial orchid with white flowers that look like small angels!

Habenaria longicornu - Velliangiri Hills
Habenaria longicornu flowers!

We were really lucky to see so many rare plants in flower. It was really a good day to be remembered throughout my life. Not that I won’t revisit this place. But, this was the first time I experienced the true nature of the Velliangiri mountains. It was a great experience overall. I’ve never had leaches bite on me, never seen such high winds combined with mist, clouds. I wear power glasses and my vision was almost zero. I did not know where I’m stepping most of the time when I was in the grassland!

The plants I saw at Velliangiri Hills

So many plants and trees I saw that day, I’ve never witnessed them before!

See my previous post about the shola forests and the flora of Velliangiri Hills – here.

The ugly story of Velliangiri Hills…

It is all nice to call a hill a sacred place and make it the abode of Lord Shiva. The Velliangiri Sivan temple is world-famous. It is visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, tourists, and trekking enthusiasts every year.

Now let us see the flip side of the glorious sacred mountain. What humans have done on their way to get the blessings of Shiva. Carrying plastic bags is banned on the hills and the forest department does its best to make sure that every person is screened and get rid of any plastic they carry. But with overwhelming crowds and with lack of labor, a few people have to be there extra hours screening people for plastics. They have a difficult time checking each and every one of the pilgrims and some sneaky bastards still manage to get through the screening process with plastic, matchboxes, and lighters into the hills.

Now look at what we have done to the hills.

These plastic bags did not come there in a day. It has accumulated over the years that it has gone into the layers of soil. There are so many dangers it will cause – destroying the soil, damaging the roots of plants, prevent water percolation, make the soil loose, animals may eat this accidentally and die a gruesome death. The possibilities are wide that this can become lethal.

This is not just one threat that these hills are suffering from by allowing an ass-load of tourists each year. People trek overnight and they have nowhere to urinate and defaecate and they see these hills and forests on the sides of the pathway as wastelands and they just do whatever and wherever they like which makes places in the sixth and seventh hills stink with humans wastes and the water sources also turn nasty!

Another biggest threat is the burning of forests and grasslands. The hilltops get colder and people start creating small fires to keep themselves warm. The shops that sell hot tea also start fires on these hills for their stoves which sometimes spread to the grassland which is already bone dry during the summer. This is particularly dangerous in lower elevations where the forests are super dry during the dry season. It destroys many deciduous trees and shrubs that drop leaves during the dry season and destroys the seeds of herbaceous plants which will come to life when it rains again during the monsoon.

These pictures show how dry the grasslands get during the dry season… Also look at the discarded plastics!

This was taken during the dry season with senseless burning. Controlled fires can be beneficial for grasslands but fires such as this burn the grasslands every year and destroy biodiversity!

Look at these dried up Strobilanthes kunthianus plants. These plants bloom in huge masses once every 12 years and the plants die off dispersing the seeds. The seeds germinate in the following monsoon and the new plants bloom again in 12 years. Imagine if this place was set on fire by some dumb idiots who want to stay warm for a few hours. An entire generation of Neelakurinji that transforms the entire hills into blue will vanish!

Strobilanthes kunthianus full of seeds - Velliangiri hills
Neelakurinji full of seeds!

Here’s yet another trouble to the shola trees. They are mercilessly cut and used as fence posts to control the crowd and also as firewood for the shops. Sirhookera lanceolata, an epiphytic orchid endemic to the southern Western Ghats is left to die in the dry and hot sun. Now you see what I’m talking about. These bastards just don’t have any empathy towards plants, animals, or nature.

Sirhookera lanceolata left to desiccate - Velliangiri hills
Sirhookera lanceolata left to die - Velliangiri hills
Sirhookera lanceolata left to die and so the tree it was living on!

The takeaway

Clearly, humans are not fit for this earth. The only solution is to stop the pilgrimage till people become a little responsible for their surroundings and learn how to keep themselves from littering, pissing, and shitting wherever they like. Sorry for all the cussing if it bothered you. I tried to hold myself from swearing but I just could not… I hope that some serious action was taken and this pilgrimage is stopped for good. 🙁

Next time, if you are visiting the Velliangiri Hills, understand that this place is not your backyard, not a public toilet, not the streets where you would drop wastes anywhere you like, it is not your home and you have no rights to ruin the place. It does not even belong to Lord Shiva. It belongs to nature, the plants, and the animals that live there. Remember this and be a responsible human being and DO NOT burn, litter or shit and piss around like a bloody psycho!

Tags : endemic floraImpatiensorchidsSouth Western Ghatsvelliangiri hillsWestern Ghats

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