Background Improved understanding of the processes shaping the assembly of tropical tree communities is crucial for gaining insights into the evolution of forest communities and biological diversity. The climate is thought to be the first order determinant of abundance and distribution patterns of tree species with contrasting traits such as evergreen and deciduous leaf phenology. However, the relative role of neutral, and niche-based processes in the evolution of these patterns remain poorly understood. Methods Here, we perform an integrated analysis of the data on tree species abundance, functional traits and community phylogeny from a network of 96 forest plots, each 1 ha in size, distributed along a broad environmental gradient in the central Western Ghats, India. Then, we determine the relative importance of various process in assembly and structuring of tropical forest communities with evergreen and deciduous leaf phenology. Results The deciduous leaf phenological trait has repeatedly evolved among multiple distantly related lineages. Tree communities in dry deciduous forests were phylogenetically clustered and showed a low range and variance of functional traits related to light harvesting, reproduction, and growth suggesting niche-based processes such as environmental filtering play a vital role in the assembly of tree communities in these forests. The external factors such as human-mediated disturbance also significantly, but to a lesser extent, influences the species and phylogenetic turnover. Conclusions These findings revealed that the environmental filtering plays a significant role in assembly of tree communities in the biologically diverse tropical forests in the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot.