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A stunning spectacle of nature

Twenty-five kms from the bustling city of Satara lies a pristine ecosystem nestled in the Sahyadri Mountains. Known as the Kaas plateau, it is acknowledged as home to a few endemic life forms that are found nowhere else in the world. But perhaps what is more striking is the amazing aspect of its character, which came to the notice of the scientific community not very long ago. It was discovered that a strange metamorphosis begins to take place when the Indian Monsoons approach. The land becomes covered with innumerable tiny flowering plants that drape the hills and slopes in sheets of yellows, purples, pinks and even whites, with the blooms appearing in all conceivable shapes, so as to attract insects and bees in large numbers in order to ensure the future for the progeny of the tiny plants. Following the insects are small birds and frogs, which attract birds of prey such as falcons, eagles and buzzards.

Kaas Pathar

Every living being is busy, careful all the while of not becoming someone else’s meal instead. This hectic activity sets the plateau abuzz, amidst a riot of colours and forms created by the flowers. The show that starts sometime late in July continues, changing dramatically, throughout August and into September, if the rain gods are sympathetic and shower their blessings.

When the rains finally cease, the thin layer of soil quickly dries up and the land becomes brown and yellow once again. Flowers now make way for green grasses and plants, the bees leave and so do the other insects. Frogs find hiding places for themselves and birds of prey fly away to better hunting grounds. The magic of the Indian Monsoon is over, leaving shepherds to tend to their cattle and sheep.

Kamalina – Commelina hasskarli

Origins

The making of this very special place goes back to the time when, as a part of the Deccan Plateau, it witnessed twenty-nine lava flows spanning twenty crore years. With every eruption, a new layer of lava flowed from fissures and spread horizontally over the already weathered older strata. When the flow of magma finally stopped, the action of many water streams and huge rivers began, eroding the flat landmass forming deep valleys and gorges, thereby giving it its present form. Today, if we look down from any of the steep slopes in the Sahyadri range of mountains (Western Ghats), we will notice stacked up layers revealing these time zones.

A splash of colours

It is the onset of South West monsoon that totally transforms this otherwise dry land, pouring over 2000 – 2500 mm of rainfall in just about 3 months. Water that accumulates from this catchment finds its way into the Kaas Lake, which is the source of the Urmodi River. With this life-giving rain, the thin layer of red soil suddenly erupts in a profusion of flowers. As far as the eyes can see, the land is soon covered with Smithia and Sonki – the Senecios, which together give the whole landscape a golden bath. As the monsoon clouds continue their sub-continental journey, the process of transformation continues on this plateau. The enchantment does not end with yellows.

Smithia flowers resemble Mickey Mouse face

Not to be left behind are the fields of pinks, lavender and purples of Balsams – which get their scientific name of Impatience from the phenomenon of their capsules bursting open to release the seeds at the slightest touch. Then there is the colour white, thrown in by the blooms of Gend – Eriocaulon with their white head-like flowers. In contrast is the peach of Murdania, which has spectacular sheen of gold dust on its petals.

The soil layer is very thin and contains little or no organic matter. This has meant that Mothers Nature has had to evolve a number of plants that are insectivorous so that they are able to nourish themselves with food supplements. Seeta’s Tears or Utricularia, which provide a purple blanket to the landscape, are blessed with interesting small bladders around their roots. Tiny insects are attracted to the bladders and get caught, thereby providing the plant with precious nitrogen and phosphorus. But even more interesting are the insectivorous plants of Sundew or Drossera. If you are a little patient, you may also be able to watch insects getting trapped on its sticky dew-like secretions. Most of these flowers are just about a centimetre or two in size but their sheer numbers help them cover acres and acres of land.

The orchids

Habenaria – ground orchids that flower in monsoon and have a very short life span

Adding glamour to the flowering world at Kaas is a range of ground orchids. WayturaAponogetan satarensis – is a plant that is endemic only to this region, which means that this plant is found nowhere else on the planet. However, over-enthusiastic botany students have almost collected it to disappearance from this plateau – very much like the Khandalachi Rani, the butterfly orchid – Pecteilis gigantean of the Lonavala- Khandala region. Amongst the other ground orchids are the Habeneria heyneana, which has flowers turned to one side giving it its common name – toothbrush orchid. The other ground orchid, Habeneria digitata, has greenish-yellow flowers, which have a foul smell that can be recognized only after sundown. Another unusual flowering plant found here is Ceropegia, whose lantern-like appearance gives it its appropriate vernacular name of kandil kharchudi. An interesting feature of Ceropegias is that their flower tubes are lined with small hairs that point downward to form a temporary trap for small flies. These flies get attracted to the flower by its odour and are led into the flower tube. However, after satisfying their appetite with the nectar, they are prevented from escaping until the hairs wither. In the meantime, the Ceropegia flower manages to get the pollinia attached to the body of the flies. The pollen carrier then escapes, only to be tempted by the odour of another Ceropegia.

Topli Karvi

However the story of Kaas would remain incomplete without the mention of ubiquitous ‘basket kept upside down’ Topli Karvi Pleocaulus ritchei. This plant interestingly flowers only once in its lifetime of eight years, after which it dies. And yet when it blossoms, it is a sight to behold with baskets of purple flowers swaying in the breeze.

Such is the power and fecundity of nature, which is revealed in all its splendour on the Kaas plateau. From dry shades of browns and ochre to spectacular displays of colour that defy the imagination…the cycle of blooming and fading persists. In an ideal world, one would expect such pure exuberance to continue, untouched. But in the real world the plateau faces the onslaught of uncaring, overzealous and often plundering visitors who do not regard its specialness enough to be sensitive and protective towards it.

Now, fortunately with its upgraded status as UNESCO declared World Heritage site, Kaas is breathing a new lease of life. The forest department is also playing a proactive role of preservation – by involving the local community in the eco tourism, thereby making them the stake holders in the conservation plan. Simultaneously, the forest department is also making efforts to distribute the tourist pressure to prevent overload on a few areas.

Drosera – Insects landing on these leaves get stuck to the sticky discharge. It is then clasped by tentacles and digested.

Perhaps now Kasani, the local goddess will be more than just pleased and a piece of heaven in the Sahyadris will remain, to enthral us every year when the rains come visiting.

Article & Photos: Anirudh Chaoji
Source: Heritage India Vol 1 Issue 4 (2011)

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