Agasthya 5.3 Geography and myth on Agasthyamalai
Any and all opinions expressed in this newsletter are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinion of ATREE. 

Centre for Excellence in Conservation Science
Royal Enclave,Srirampura,Jakkur Post
Telephone: 080-23635555 (EPABX)
Fax : 080- 23530070

At the heart of the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, sharing a border with Kerala's protected areas, is a distinctive mountain that is associated with myth as much as it is with the tremendous biodiversity of its slopes. Agasthyamalai or Pothigai (as it is known in Tamil), is no ordinary mountain. Amongst the steep slopes of scrub forest, valleys of dense tropical rain forest, and jagged peaks, Agasthyamalai stands as a sentinel. Agasthyamalai has a distinct conical profile that is nearly identical from both eastern and western sides. From either Trivandrum in the west or Tirunelveli in the east it stands out as a distinguished peak amongst a range of sharp, craggy mountains. Relatively speaking it is a lesser peak in the chain of mountains that make up the 1,400 km long Western Ghats. Dodabetta in the Nilgiris (2,623 m), Karnataka's Mullayanagiri (1,918 m) and Anai-Mudi (2,694 m), South India's highest peak are all far higher. Yet, there is something about Agasthyamalai that transcends mere height (1,868 m) and size. Agasthyamalai's profile bears an uncanny resemblance to Tibet's Mt. Kailash and this has perhaps lead to its aura and many myths. Agasthyamalai's namesake is derived from the great sage who is said to have given the Tamil language to India's Dravidian people many years ago. Agasthya is associated with herbal remedies and is often depicted holding a stone crusher in one hand and a vessel in the other. The significance of this and the fact that Agasthyamalai hills are known for their medicinal plants should not be overlooked. The most pertinent myth regarding the mountain relates to Agasthya and the marriage of Lord Ishwara (Siva) and Parvathi in the heavenly realm of Mt. Kailash (the sacred peak in Tibet at 6,740 m). When the wedding was announced, all the world's gods, rishis and people migrated north to the Himalaya. As a result, the earth went dangerously off balance. With disaster looming, Ishwara asked Agasthya to go south and balance the situation through meditation. After meditating and praying on the mountain that now bears his namesake the world was once again put in balance.

As the readers of this journal are well aware of, the Ashambu Hills play a key ecological role both from a water and biodiversity point of view. The hilly areas form a critical water catchment for both eastern and western coasts. Thus, millions of farmers dependent on the mountains as a source water for their crops. While the plains parched for much of the year the hills receive as much as 6,000 mm of d e p e n d i n g o n t h e l o c a t i o n . Tambraparani is one of the many significant rivers that have its origins in the forests Agasthyamalai.

For many years there has been a lowintensity religious pilgrimage to the summit Agasthyamalai. A small shrine with a modest image of Agasthya marks the spot pilgrims have to take on a 2-3 day arduous and at times, death-defying trail to get there. There are approaches from both Kerala Tamil Nadu with the former being areas. popular. The pilgrim's path is generally well known and forest officials are well aware of the potential ecological impact that such pilgrimage could cause if it became popular. The case of Sabarimalai, just a little to north, illustrates the danger of open access spiritual locations in the protected Ten years ago I had a chance to explore and photograph Agasthyamalai peak on a series of visits, where I interacted with forest department officials, pilgrims, Kanis and conservationists. I can't speak about changes since that time but certainly in 2001- 02 the area around the peak showed signs of impact from the pilgrimage. Vegetation had been trampled and hacked down in places. Litter, with the ever-present plastic bag, was noticeable on the approach from Neyyar and Pepara. This summer, I visited the Tambraparani near Kariyar reservoir and noted the steady stream of pilgrims who visit Banatheertham Falls. Balance is the trick and forest officials have a delicate task balancing the needs of growing numbers of pilgrims and visitors with the strict conservation guidelines needed to maintain KMTR's remarkable biodiversity.



Editorial Team
Editor: Allwin Jesudasan
Associate editor: Rajkamal Goswami
Editorial Review: R. Ganesan, M. Soubadra Devy, T. Ganesh
Design and presentation: Kiran Salegame

Volume 5,  Issue 3
      November 2011

A S H O K A   T R U S T   F O R   R E S E A R C H   I N   E C O L O G Y   A N D   T H E   E N V I R O N M E N T

Geography and myth on Agasthyamalai
-Ian Lockwood
If you have any suggestions or comments please let us know through the boxes below