Ian Lockwood


Archive for the ‘Kalakad Mundanthurai area’ Category

Naraikadu- The Grey Forest

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Amy accompanies a Dhonavur sister on a walk through the community campus.

In a few weeks the Dhonavur Fellowship will celebrate 100 years of Naraikadu-the grey forest in the southernmost Western Ghats that they have been the guardians of for the last century. I have had the privilege of being their guest and visiting Naraikadu with Dhonavur communities on several occasions. This week to help mark the event and acknowledge the unique conservation effort by non-state actors and citizens working with the Forest Department I have contributed a short photo-essay and narrative on Naraikadu in Frontline, the respected newsmagazine of the Hindu newspaper group.

Fronline Screen Grab

The association that I have with Naraikadu is very personal. Over the last 25 years I have been fortunate to make several visits to Dhonavur, Naraikadu and parts of the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) with my friends in the community. I first wrote to David Rajamanian in 1995 about visiting. Through his sons Jerry and Ezekiel and their families I got to know the area and its history and made my first visits to Naraikadu. We have taken unforgettable journeys into the area, notably two epic journeys to Pothigai (Agasthyamalai) in 2002 and we are planning further forays into this little understood area of the Western Ghats. I have also had a chance to take several members of my family there including my wife Raina who fell in love with Nariakadu after cursing me on the hike up (with good reason-she was carrying 1.5 year old Lenny on her back). When our daughter Amy Zopari was born 11 years ago we named her in honor of Amy Carmichael in recognition for her remarkable personality and dedication to the wilderness area of Naraikadu.

Earlier this year, during our April Sinhala and Tamil New Year break, Amy accompanied me on a week-long adventure to Kodai, Dhonavur and Naraikadu. The season of heat had set in on southern India and the area was experiencing a severe drought. The highlight was a three-day hike to Naraikadu. It was this visit and the experience of taking Amy back (she had visited on two prior occasions) that set in motion the conversations that led to the article being written. You can read the full article on Frontline’s website.

The photo essay in the Frontline article utilizes a variety of evolving camera technology: there are 6×6 black & white film and digital SLR pictures but most of the key images were taken on a phone. I created two maps of the area for the article. The first shows elevation and utilizes high resolution digital elevation models and Swiss shade tints in ArcGIS. There was too much information in it for the article so I simplified it. The first map is  included here.

The physical geography of the area plays an important part in the story of Narikadu. To understand the southernmost Western Ghats one needs to appreciate the diversity of geography and consequently ecosystem diversity that exists in a relatively small area. The Tirunelveli plains are flat and separated from the wet western coast of Kerala by the rugged Ashambu ranges of the Western Ghats.


Carmichael, Amy. Lotus Buds. Dhonavur, India: 1909.  Web version on Gutenberg

Ganesh, T. et al. Treasures on Tiger Tracks: A Bilingual Nature Guide to Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. Bangalore, ATREE 2009. Print. Web Link.

Gazetteer of the Tinnevelly District. Madras 1917. Web.

Johnsingh, A.J.T. “The Kalakad–Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve: A global heritage of biological diversity.” Current Science. February 2001. Web.

Johnsingh, A.J.T. Walking the Western Ghats. Mumbai: BNHS & Oxford, 2015. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Kanyakumari and the Ashumbas in the South West Monsoon (Part 1)” July 2010. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Kanyakumari and the Ashumbas in the South West Monsoon (Part 2)” July 2010. Web.

Southern Western Ghats Elevation With 30 meter SRTM

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Draft#1 SRTM derived elevation of India's southern Western Ghats.

Draft#1 SRTM derived elevation of India’s southern Western Ghats. The red lines highlight the 1,500 meter contour- roughly where shola/grasslands mosaic ecosystems start. This is a map in progress and it de-emphasizes political boundaries and settlements. Click on image for a larger 150 dpi A3 version.

Since my first geography lessons I have been interested in cartography and the art & science of depicting the earth’s surface. It was my Grade 4 teacher Kris Riber –also a KIS graduate- who got me interested in maps. We each had to do a study of an Indian state (mine was Meghalaya) and part of the task was to make a large, gridded map of our state. Since then I have enjoyed making sketch maps and have searched for the best printed maps of my areas of interest. In India is not easy and it continues to be a great challenge to acquire maps of some places, given restrictions and general bureaucratic barriers that make getting maps challenging. I persevered and now have most of the 1:50,000 and some 1:25,000 scale Survey of India topo sheets for the significant ranges of the Western Ghats. Some of these came from my grandfather Edson Lockwood and are early 20th Century editions where the cartography is at a highly refined level. In the 1990s I was exposed to Tactical Pilotage Charts of the Western Ghats and North East India (see the University of Texas Library site for free downloads). These are at a scale of 1:500,000 but depict the relief and elevation very accurately (see sample below). The advent of modern Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and web-based tools have allowed me to dabble in mapping the areas that are the subject of my photo-documentation and writing.

Last year USGS released a new 30-meter SRTM dataset for the world that allows mapmakers using GIS to more accurately depict relief and elevation. I was very interested in depicting the relief of the Palanis and other ranges more accurately. Over the last few months I have downloaded the tiles for Sri Lanka and southern India and am starting to use them to more accurately depict elevation in my areas of interest. I used a mosaic of about nine SRTM 30-meter tiles to create this year’s WWW Sri Lanka map. The map above was made to help my friends working on shola/grasslands landscapes in the southern Western Ghats (see post on “Forest Plantations”).  The goal was to depict the spatial relationship of the “sky islands” (above 1,500 meters) of the Western Ghats where this vegetation type was once dominant.

There are several places to download SRTM tiles. I used Earthexplorer to download the Sri Lanka and southern India tiles. ESRI’s ArcGIS online will shortly have 30-meter DEM tiles available to use as background imagery. Because we have dedicated licensed software I tend not to use the online versions. At the moment ESRI offers this data for all the continues except Australia and Asia.

Tactical Pilotage Chart (TPC) of southern India featuring sheets TPC- K8C and TPC-K8d.

Tactical Pilotage Chart (TPC) of southern India featuring sheets TPC- K8C and TPC-K8d. Published by the US National Mapping & Imagery Agency with revisions in June 2000. Sourced from the Univeristy of Texas Library.


Lockwood, Ian. “Hypsometric tinting of the Southern Western Ghats Landscapes.” Ian Lockwood blog. August 2013. Web.

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2015-04-30 at 11:54 pm

Using Landsat Imagery in the Western Ghats & Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot

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Annotated map of the southern Western Ghats created on ArcMap

In the last six months I have been spending significant amounts of my free time learning about the Landsat program and how to access and analyze their 40-year archive of data, which is now freely available. I was initially motivated by several mosaics of remote sensing imagery that I saw at ATREE’s Ecoinformatics lab, the IWMI GIS lab and MIRSAC in Aizawl. Then earlier in the year I was gifted a copy of Remote Sensing for Ecology and Conservation through a program run by the Natural History Book Shop (NHBS) in London. The book is the result of collaboration between NASA and members of the Center for Biodiversity & Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. It gives a very thorough overview of using satellite imagery in aid of conservation goals and has proven to be an indispensible aid in helping me understand the uses and applications of remote sensing. My interest is in applying the data and analytical techniques in areas of the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka that I have worked in, photographed, written about and taken students to.

In July the Landsat program celebrated 40 years of earth observation and analysis. They have made almost the entire archive of spatial data available to the public through the USGS Glovis site. I have started downloading some of the tiles with the goal of looking at temporal changes in vegetation and land use in areas in the southern Western Ghats and Sri Lanka. One approach is to use a photo editing software package (Adobe Photoshop etc.) to analyze the images but I have been interested in GIS and analytical applications of the imagery. Since most of my work with GIS is based on ESRI’s Arc platform of software it seemed sensible to use Arc Map and the Spatial Analysis extension to work with the imagery.  However, if you are just starting off there are now freeware options available in software such as Q-GIS. The Indian government has made archival remote sensing imagery, including multi-spectral files, available on its Bhuvan site. I have not yet had time to explore these options and have been focused on trying to learn how to import, mosaic and analyze the NASA Landsat data through ESRI’s software.

For educators, curious people and novices such as myself the internet has provided an easy way to access and learn how to use and analyze remote sensing data. There is a wealth of online tutorial information available for using the Landsat archive. NASA, of course, has numerous links and a good place to start is the Landsat homepage. There are also other data portals such as ArcGIS Online, the University of Maryland’s Global Land Cover Facility and USGS’s Earth Resources Observation & Science (EROS). I am regularly updating my GIS Links page on my Mangotree teaching Wikisite with links to tutorials etc. on remote sensing, Landsat etc.

This Image of the High Range, Anaimalais and Palani Hills was taken by Landsat 1 in July 1973. Water bodies such as the Vaigai dam and larger reservoirs in the High Range and Anaimalais are prominent. Overall levels of vegetation are generally high presumably because of the onset of the South West Monsoon in the previous month. The significant feature in this image is how wide spread montane grasslands are! In subsequent years these were largely converted to commercial plantations of non- native tree species. The image awaits further analysis to make quantifications of various land uses and changes.

As aspect of the Landsat archive that fascinates me is the opportunity to do temporal studies of changes in land use in areas that I have first hand knowledge of. As is well documented, significant changes have happened in the land use in critical areas in the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot in the last 40 years. Forest loss is perhaps what first comes to mind. But perhaps more difficult to track has been the change of forest cover or vegetation type. For example large swathes of high-altitude grasslands were converted in the 1970s and 1980s to fuelwood plantations of monoculture species. Eventually we should be able to do detailed studies of vegetation changes in critical hill ranges such as the Nilgiris, Palanis, Anaimalais and High Range using some of the tools that are available on modern GIS software.

Sinharaja Rainforest Landsat view highlighting the thermal band and closed canopy evergreen rainforest within its boundaries.

Agasthyamalai, A Mountain of Significance

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Three part series showing the west face of Agasthyamalai from the pilgrimage rest area at Athirumalai. The images were originally shot with a 35mm point & shoot camera on print film (Fujicolor) and then scanned (rather poorly). (February 2002).

Before I came to Sri Lanka and got to know Sri Pada so intimately I was drawn to a surprisingly similar, yet little known, mountain of great significance in the southernmost Western Ghats. Agasthyamalai, as I have written in the past, is no ordinary mountain. It is a mountain with unique physical, biological and spiritual dimensions. Many other mountains in the Western Ghats dwarf its 1,868-meter peak. Yet Agasthyamalai has an aura that transcends simple height and size. It stands sentinel amongst the craggy ridge that makes up the Ashambu Hills that lie south of the Shenkottah Gap. The area around Agasthyamalai is well know for its high levels of biodiversity and multiple habitats  that are spread over Tamil Nadu and Kerala’s border region in protected areas such as Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) and Neyaar and Peppara Wildlife Sanctuaries.

Ten years ago I took a sabbatical year off from teaching to better explore and document the ecology, landscapes and culture of the Western Ghats, from Kanyakumari up to Mahbaleshwar. In particular I wanted to get to know the environs of Agasthyamalai better and realized that it would take patience and numerous trips to various state capitals and New Delhi to get the required letters. I may have lived in India for most of my life, be married to an Indian and speak bits and pieces of several Indian languages but my pale complexion always seems to raise suspicion in officials on the lookout for neo-colonial bio- thieves. Nevertheless, my efforts were rewarded and I ended up taking four or five different trips into the area during that year. An account of the most memorable trip was published in Sanctuary Asia and  I later wrote an overview of the area for Frontline. However, I still have several images that have not made it into publications and that are worth sharing now. My motivation in revisiting those trips to Agasthyamalai came from ATREE, the Bangalore-based conservation research organization, that has used several of my images and writing in its recently published Agastyar  newsletter on the area. This summer I met several member of the KMTR team, including Soubadra Devy, while visiting ATREE’s GIS lab and head office in Bangalore. Their focus in this issue is on the religious pilgrimage in the KMTR area, something that poses delicate conservation challenges given the emphasis on involving the community in conservation efforts.

Cover images from Agastya, ATEE's handsome newsletter on their conservation work in the KMTR area. The images shows pilgrims preparing a puja at dusk near the small Agasthya shrine on the summit of Agasthyamalai (April 2002).

Perhaps the most unique unpublished image that I have from the Agasthymalai summit trips is the mountain shadow taken on the summit of Agasthyamalai. These were my pre-digital days and it was taken with a cumbersome, awkward looking box (a Noblex panoramic camera) with a rotating lens to produce an uninterrupted 11 cm long negative or positive image. To this day it, along with many other medium format slide  & color negative images, sits awaiting my attention.  My initial focus has been to present our pilgrimage to the peak in black & white and I have hesitated to mix it with the color work.

I had actually witnessed the shadow that February on the lower slopes of the mountain as I ascended with pilgrims from the Kerala side. I was dumfounded to experience it having only read about Mountain Shadows  in the context of Sri Pada and higher mountain ranges such as the Himalaya. But this image was taken after spending an unforgettable night with my companions from the Dhonavur Fellowship. We had been exposed to a violent storm with winds, lightening and heavy rain without any shelter other than a plastic tarp. Out of that experience emerged one of the most amazing and glorious mornings that I have experienced in the Western Ghats. Here is an extract from the Sanctuary Asia piece:

Dawn is a magnificent affair and makes the stormy night worth all its fear and discomfort. As the rays of the new day begin to fill the sky, they paint the cirrus clouds in fantastic hues of gold and scarlet. A kestrel is hovering over the precipice near the summit and Grey-breasted Laughing Thrushes are chattering in the trees by the Agasthya shrine. Looking north, we are blessed with a view of  the dark evergreen  forests of the  Mundanthurai range. The azure mountains stretching beyond the Shencottah gap and up towards the Periyar Tiger Reserve are imposing.

Then something incredible happens. The sun, just a hair above the horizon, projects the conical shadow of Agasthyamalai into the light haze of the west, creating a surreal pyramid-shaped shadow that shifts as I walk along the summit. This is a phenomena often observed by mountaineers on high peaks at sunrise. It is well recorded on Sri Lanka’s Adam’s peak, but this is the first time I’ve seen it happening in the Western Ghats. The magical shadow doesn’t last longer than ten minutes and disappears when the sun slips behind a low cloud.

Mountain shadow on Agasthyamalai in the Ashambu hills of the southern Western Ghats. The image was taken on Fuji Velvia 120 film using a Noblex panoramic camera mounted on a tripod. To the right of the shadow is the slope of Agasthyamalai and then the ranges to the north. Visible in the center and below are the lower forests of Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary.

Another view of the vertical western face of Agasthyamalai seen from Athirumalai. Shot on 35mm color film with an SLR (February 2002).

Snapshots from three summit attempts to Agasthyamalai in 2002. Clockwise from upper left: Getting to Kanakati, at a puja ceremony with other pilgrims, with the modest Aastyar statue, sheltering with the Daniel brothers and Dr. Abraham under a tarp held up by a tripod and umbrellas, Agstyar statue close up. With Dhonavur friends after reaching the summit in April 2002.

Leaving to return...Agasthyamalai and its western face, seen through spring foliage from the north west of the peak in Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary.

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2011-12-03 at 4:10 pm

Waterfalls in the Rain Shadow of the Ashambu Hills

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Five Falls, one of the popular pilgrimage and bathing sites to the west of the south Indian spa of Courtallam. The falls, located in riparian forest in the relatively dry Tamil Nadu plains, are fed by the South West monsoon as it becomes active on the western coast of India.

In June when the South West monsoon moves up the western coast of India, the rugged spinal ridge of the Western Ghats intercepts the rain- laden clouds. The eastern plains remain relatively dry, bathed in warm sunlight with spectacular views of cumulus clouds over the neighboring state of Kerala. In the Ashambu Hills around the sacred peak of Agastyamalai the South West waters the evergreen forests that make this one of the most important biodiverse areas in the country. The monsoon feeds  numerous streams and rivers. They cascade down from the evergreen forests though dry deciduous scrub forests into the arid plains that stretch from Kanyakumari northwards through Papanasam and to Srivillaputur and beyond.  Several falls have attracted pilgrims and visitors for hundreds of years, something in evidence through the Jain and Hindu inscriptions on the rock sides. Today a visit during the monsoon season is both a pilgrimages as well as a visit to a bustling water theme park where identities of caste and creed are temporarily  washed away.

Scenes from Courtallam’s Lower Falls: Crowd control on the men’s side and bathers in the stream.

• Courtallam’s Five Falls, men’s side.

Courtallam is the most important spa in the area. It is a place I have visited over the last 20 years and that provided inspiration for photographs that attempted to bridge the ecology and human interaction of the area. There are several falls here and it is awash with tourists from Tamil Nadu and some of the neighboring states. It still remains off the radar screens of most Lonely Planet wielding tourists and thus offers an intriguing glimpse into southern traditions. Unfortunately the pressure of the masses is hard to miss and one must put up with serious rubbish and trashy streams in these areas. Bonnet macaques terrorize anyone with food. There is a permanent police presence helping to sort people out (males in one set of falls women in another) and keep giddy young men in line.

Agastyar Falls above Papanasam as painted by Thomas and William Daniel in the late 18th Century juxtaposed with how it looks today. This was one of the images that was part of their Oriental Scenery collection. Today the falls has been dammed above for a hydroelectric plant. The place was visited by photographer Antonio Martinelli in his efforts in the late 1990s to document the places where the Daniells had been. (picture sourced from http://www.english.wisc.edu/tkelley/NASSR/images/12Waterfallprint.jpg)

Relief carving of Hanuman, Rama, Laxman and Sita near Agastyar Falls.

Pilgrims and bathers at Nambi Kovil (left), and the Agastyar Falls area (center and right).

Further south near Papanasam, where the sacred Tambraparani river meets the plains from the Kalakad Mundanthruai Tiger Reserve (KMTR), there are a series of falls. Notable is the Agastyar Falls, named for the peak that gives birth to its waters on the high and remote border with Kerala. This was once a roaring falls that has now been harnessed in a hydroelectric plant and thus reduced to a trickle. Thomas and William Daniel painted the falls in the late 18th Century. There dramatic aquatint of the falls was part of the Oriental Scenery collection. It is now an ideal location to take children rock hoping and exploring, which is exactly what Lenny, Amy and I did on our visit in June. We clambered over boulders and across dried rock faces to the base of the falls and looked for evidence of rock carvings that are visible in the Daniells’ painting. Sure enough they are there at the base of a small Vishnavite temple. Nearby a stunning panel of Rama carves Hanuman, Lakshman and Sita is carved into the granite side of the slope.

Karaiyar reservoir with boats making their way across to Banerthetum falls. The surrounding catchment area is carpeted under impressive stands of evergreen forests that are part of KMTR’s core zone. Balancing the growing numbers of pilgrims with the need to protect this incredible area remains an ongoing challenge for the Forest Department and conservationists.

Following the stream upwards once eventually get to the enormous Karaiyar reservoir, a man made lake that is surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery in the Western Ghats. Here motorized launches take pilgrims and bathers across the lake to Banerthetum Falls. It’s a bit of a circus as one clambers out of the boat on to the sandy shores, crossing a deep stream to makes one’s way up to the falls. The pilgrims are friendly and are curious about what I am doing there on my own with two kids and a backpack full of camera gear. A sign reminds visitors that they are in a Project Tiger area. At the top of the first falls and below the higher falls we join a throng under the pounding water of the Tambraparani.

Pilgrims negotiating a minor river before clambering up to Banerthetum Falls.

Banerthetum Falls with the sacred Tambraparani River gushing with the waters of the South West monsoon.

Further south we spent several restful days with our friends at the Dhonavur Fellowship. I appreciate the efforts of ATREE to document the area in their very useful guide Treasures on Tiger Tracks. Their field staff were preparing for the festival at the Sormuthaian Kovil, an annual event that puts a great deal of anthropocentric pressure in the heart of the Mundanthurai plateau. It is a good time to explore the surrounding area, take in the breathtaking scenery of the Mahendragiri range and explore the Nambi Kovil temple. Like other pilgrims the kids and I enjoy bathing in a variety of cool streams and rock pools. Our visit is fleeting and we soon turn northwards to follow the monsoon back up to the Palanis.

Nambi Kovil set in the Mahendragiri range of hills just north of Kanyakumari. This is a rare Vaishnavite temple with close connections to the temple at Thirukurungudi set amongst a largely Shivite population. The temple is surrounded by KMTR and located by a beautiful stretch of riparian forest at 400 meters above sea level. The impact of significant numbers of visitors to the temple illustrates the difficult task of managing religious pilgrimages in protected areas. Because the access is physically difficult the numbers of visitors are relatively low for the moment.


Ganesh, T. et al. Treasures on Tiger Tracks: A Bilingual Nature Guide to Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. Bangalore, ATREE 2009. Print. Web Link.

Martinelli & George Michell. Oriental Scenery. Oriental Scenery: Two Hundred Years of India’s Artistic and Architectural Heritage. New Delhi: Timeless Book, 1998. Print.

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2011-08-31 at 6:16 am

Kanyakumari and the Ashambus in the South West Monsoon (Part 1)

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Ashambu or Agasthyamalai hills from Kanyakumari (June 2010)

Kanyakumari is best known as a pilgrimage site, where every good Indian will visit to bathe in the three seas, visit the Swami Vivekananda temple and pay respects to the temple of the virgin goddess who the tip of the peninsula is named after. I appreciate these aspects but for me, Kanyakumari is where the Western Ghats begin (or end, depending on how you look at it). On this visit, my focus was on experiencing the monsoon from the eastern rain shadow where its drama can be appreciated without actually being caught up in the mist, deluge and whatnot.

I wanted to share the experiences with my two young children but I was alone, as my wife Raina was studying in Thailand. Using a mix of public transport and taxis and managing boisterous (and then sick) kids, camera gear and regular baggage on my own became a significant challenge. Kanyakumari was abuzz with festive visitors, many who had been given an extra holiday as a part of the World Classical Tamil conference in Coimbatore. The monsoon had already been active for two weeks and there was drama in the clouds and hills. We experienced this from the Swami Vivekananda rock, Vattakotta fort and Maruthuvazh Malai (Medicinal Hill).

Pilgrims and visitors at the confluence of the three seas with the Thiruvalluvar Statue and Swami Vivekananda island under the South West monsoon.

On our return home to the Palani Hills from Dhonavur the South West was bubbling over the mountains and even raining on the dry plains. We took the long way back through Tenkasi, Rajapalaiyam and Srivillaputtur to experience an intimate feeling of the eastern face of the Western Ghats.

images reformatted and updated in September 2022

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2010-07-26 at 3:42 pm

Kanyakumari and the Ashumbas in the South West Monsoon (Part 2)

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Diversity in the Naraikadu area (clockwise from upper left): Malabar Pit Viper (Trimeresurus malabaricus), Map showing southernmost Western Ghats near Kanyakumari (source iPhoto/Google maps), Unidentified flowering tree (family Ochnaceae ?) at David’s Rock (elevation 1000 m), Bronzed frog (Hylarana temporalis) below Naraikadu, Endemic damselfly (Euphaea cardinalis) at stream (elevation 800 m).

For the second part of the trip we returned to visit our friends at the Dhonavur Fellowship to spend a pleasurable week appreciating the biodiversity and landscapes on the plains and in the hills. Our daughter Amy is named for Amy Carmichael who founded Dhonavur and had the wisdom to protect the Naraikadu forest in its natural glory. It remains an unusual example of a private forest area in an Indian protected area (KMTR) but retaining some of the finest forest in the area. I came to the area in the mid-1990s as I worked to document and understand the landscapes and ecology of the Western Ghats.  In 2001-02 I made three memorable trips with the Fellowship to the Agasthyamalai area culminating in a night on the summit in April 2002.

As usual, my children and I were treated with the utmost hospitality from our friends. Soon after we arrived in Dhonavur we were joined by our friends Bob & Tanya from the Vattakanal Conservation Trust.

Thiruvanamalai, one of the most spectacular mountains in the Ashambu/Agathyamalai hills.

The Fellowship’s location at the foot of the southernmost Western Ghats is sublime. The campus, designed in a unique Sino-Travancore blend, sits on the red-earthed plains amongst groves of tamarind, neem and banyan trees. The structures are built with fired bricks and tiles and a series of arches highlight Amy Carmichael’s early links to China. Their hospital, church, clock tower and other buildings fuse into the landscape as if they had metamorphosized out of the soil.  A little to the west rugged mountains arise in a dramatic riot of granite, with scattered patches of forest and grasslands. As with the rest of the Ashambu or Agasthyamalai Hills, a dizzying array of vegetation is packed into the east-west profile of the mountains. This forms the southernmost parts of the expansive Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR).

Thiruvanamalai, Mahendragiri and the nearby ranges under a monsoon rainbow.

Mahendragiri (1,654m) commands the heights of hills and is often enclosed in a misty hallo. However, it is the prominent Thiruvanamalai that captured my attention. This is a mountain that was drawn by Thomas and William Daniell on their seminal journey though southern India documenting landscapes and monuments in the late 18th Century.  A view of Thiruvanamalai (sketched from “Kalakkadu”) appeared in their collection Oriental Scenery and has been reproduced in Antonio Martinelli and George Michell’s 1998 book with the same name (Timeless Books, New Delhi p. 170-171). Most interesting to me is that Thiruvanamalai hosts the southernmost populations of Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius), something that has been documented by A.J.T Johnsingh and members of the Dhonavur Fellowship. Of interest to birdwatchers in Sri Lanka is the fact that G.M. Henry had a fruitful trip to Dhonavur in 1936, something that is described in the intriguing book Pearls to Paintings: A Naturalist in Ceylon (edited by Christine Johnson, WHT, Colombo, p. 92-93, 2000).

Michael is a true ‘mountain man’ and has worked with the Fellowship over many, many years. He knows the mountains like no one else, something I appreciated when he helped our group on the Agasthyamalai summit trip in 2002.

Since its inception the Dhonavur Fellowship has been meticulous about keeping weather and rainfall records as well as a full diary of wildlife and natural history sightings. Here, Ezekiel Rajamanian is recording the rainfall from the previous 24 hours at Naraikadu.

Scenes from the Kanyakumari-Dhonavur monsoon adventure: Lenny, Amy and their father (and annachi Ezekiel).

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2010-07-26 at 3:01 pm

World Water Day… Visions from the Western Ghats

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Lower Falls, Courtallam 1995

Devotees bathe in a waterfall fed by the first bursts of the South West monsoon in the south Indian spa of Courtallam. More images of Courtallam are posted here: http://highrangephotography.com/

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2010-03-22 at 4:28 pm

Kalakad Tree adventures

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Better Photography (published by Infomedia in Mumbai) ran a black & white special in its July 2008 issue. They wrote to me in May to ask for a picture to use the “in my best shot” segment. I decided to submit my image “Kalakad tree.”  It compliments the interview and portfolio in the July 2006 issue very nicely. The recent issue of Better Photography includes a variety of practical articles on making pin hole cameras (more on this later), using Adobe Photoshop to create digital B&W, to the zone system and more. The “showcase” section features an interview with Jeff Zaruba, a review of Ansel Adams’ seminal work, a portfolio by Varun Maira and then my “Kalakad Tree” write up (see link for a PDF version). Unfortunately the magazine was not able to print the full description that I wrote and I’ll include it here for interest.

Despite our best efforts landscape photography is rarely a purposeful endeavor and is more likely the result of old fashioned serendipity. I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to understand weather patterns, seasonal changes, how films work in different light situations, the mechanics of various cameras etc. However, in the end the pictures that I respond to most transcend technical jargon and are more a reflection of a moment where all the right elements serendipitously came together.

Many of my efforts in the last 16 years have been focused on documenting the Western Ghats landscape with a goal of raising awareness about the need to protect the area from various types of threats. As a child and young adult growing up in India I was struck by the dearth of images that did justice to the land that I experienced. My photography and love affair with the Western Ghats was a response to this. The fact that land-use changes were dramatically altering what I had once taken for granted gave the work a sense of urgency.

In the summer of 1997, shortly after meteorologists in Trivandrum had announced the arrival of the South West Monsoon, I journey down to Kanyakumari and Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. I only had five days for this visit and soon had to be in Cyprus to pursue graduate courses in education. I was recovering from a nasty bout of cerebral malaria that I caught looking for rare birds and plants in the Garo Hills that spring.  Now I was eager to get back into the field and continue my ongoing exploration of landscape, ecology and culture in the Western Ghats.


Monsoon clouds gathering over the Vivekananda memorial at Kanyakumari (before the Thiruvalluva statue was built (June 1997)

Monsoon clouds gathering over the Vivekananda memorial at Kanyakumari (before the Thiruvalluvar statue was built) (June 1997)


Several of my friends who work as wildlife researchers in the early 1990s had told me about the forests of Kalakad and it was my goal to visit a remote bungalow that overlooked the eastern slopes of the hills in the southern most Western Ghats. After spending the night in a spartan dormitory at the foot of the hills I caught a lift up the dilapidated ghat road in a department truck. It was mango season and my only meal had been an assortment of delectable neelam and thothapuris. The day was spectacularly clear with a deep blue sky and beginning-of-time freshness in the air. On the way up we stopped several times to observe troops of Nilgiri Langurs (Semnopithecus johnii), a flight of four Great Pied Hornbills (Buceros bicornis) and the unfolding views. To the south and east the blue horizon of the Gulf of Mannar was visible (I would see Tuticorin’s lighthouse that night).  Several prominent granite faces protrude from the dry scrub forest that lies in the rain shadow of the hills. Undisturbed evergreen vegetation spilled over the ridges on their higher slopes. This unique transition of vegetation in such a short distance is what makes the area amongst the most biologically rich areas in all of India.


Looking north east near the Sengeltheri Resthouse. The image shows the direr, leeward side of the southern Western Ghats. (June 1997)

Looking north east near the Sengeltheri Resthouse. The image shows the direr, leeward side of the southern Western Ghats. (June 1997)



Looking north west from the Sengeltheri bungalow. Evergreen forests cloak the rugged forests of the Kalakad Mundanthrai Tiger Reserve. (June 1997)

Looking north west from the Sengeltheri bungalow. Evergreen forests cloak the rugged forests of the Kalakad Mundanthrai Tiger Reserve. (June 1997)


The tree in the photograph had a new flush of leaves that were a bright yellow in the morning light. I was on a tight budget and using a Yashicamat 6×6 that I had bought 4th hand or so in Ooty. I had brought along a few precious roles of Konica infrared 120 film, something that I liked to use for the dramatic effect that it give to landscapes (the film is no longer manufactured). It is also very effective in reducing dust, a perennial problem with some of the views that I experienced. The lens had an unusual bayonet filter ring and I had to hold conventional 52mm red filter over the lens manually with the camera fixed on a tripod. The exposure was probably something like 1/15 at f/11 (development in D-76 1:1). Given the chance of error I shot it several times and also took shots in color with a polarizing filter.

I developed the film as soon as I could but it took me another year or two to print out the image because of my teaching commitments and studies. When I print this picture I do a considerable amount of dodging and burning to bring out the highlights in the foliage. The infrared film turns chlorophyll to bright white, something that is an integral part of the composition.  I’ve hand printed the image in 15’x15” for my exhibitions in New Delhi and Mumbai. I like Kalakad tree because it depicts the grandeur and beauty that I associate with the southern Western Ghats. Kalakad tree is a reflection of a serene moment where the right elements came together and I had the good fortune to be there with the right equipment to make the image. I am now working more rigorously on plant identification and wish that I had been able to identify the tree species.


Written by ianlockwood

2008-10-09 at 4:57 pm

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