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The Indian Quarterly – A Literary & Cultural Magazine – Spirit Mountains

Spirit Mountains

Ian Lockwood 1

Ian Lockwood captures the ethereal beauty of south India’s own cloud forests, the threatened shola

Shola on the Escarpment Edge Palani Hills


Along the upper spine of the Western Ghats—the range of south Indian hills and mountains that plays a key role in the peninsula’s hydrology—is a belt of forest patches harbouring multitudes of unique life forms. Sholas, the cloud forests of the monsoon, speak to you in gentle drips of rainwater, the meandering call of the Malabar whistling thrush, and the deep resonance of the Nilgiri langurs. The pungent odour of humus and decomposing leaf litter permeates their dark, damp interiors.

Upon closer inspection, sholas bear living jewels, scattered from the lower tiers to their broccoli-like canopies. Winds, whipped into a frenzy by the area’s two monsoons, have shaped and stunted sholas into dwarf rainforests sheltering for the most part in small patches in the folds of valleys, and at times extending over larger areas. Changing climatic conditions have marooned temperate species with Himalayan and Gondwanaland connections in these south Indian “sky islands”. Rhododendron trees, laughing thrushes, tree ferns and other rarities are all relic shola species with ancient tales of a very different world in their genes.

The last century or so has been unkind to these high-elevation habitats, as plantations of non-native timber species (eucalyptus, pine, wattle, etc) have been introduced into montane grasslands, which once formed a mosaic landscape in ranges such as the Nilgiri, Palani and Anamalai hills. Today, sholas remain fragile. They are vulnerable to the ambitions and appetites of the human species. The photographs here provide a brief glimpse into the complex, threatened world of the shola.

Shola Interior  Vaccinium sp.

Shola Interior Vaccinium sp.

Large-scaled Pit Viper  Trimeresurus macrolepis, Palani Hills

Large-scaled Pit Viper Trimeresurus macrolepis, Palani Hills

Gaur  Bos gaurus, Palani Hills

Gaur Bos gaurus, Palani Hills

Ferns Kodachadri

Ferns Kodachadri

New Growth Kodachadri

New Growth Kodachadri

Cobra Lily Arisaema sp., Palani Hills

Cobra Lily Arisaema sp., Palani Hills

Rhododendron Arboreum Palani Hills

Rhododendron Arboreum Palani Hills

Tree Fern  Cyathea nilgirensis, Palani Hills

Tree Fern Cyathea nilgirensis, Palani Hills


Ian Lockwood is an educator, photographer and writer who has been documenting the landscapes and ecology of the Western Ghats for 20-plus years. He has roots in the United States, Bangladesh, south India and Sri Lanka, where he works and lives with his family.

One Comment

  1. Ted C. Essebaggers July 21, 2015 at 2:56 pm - Reply

    Thank you for a fine description of the special beauty still found in the high ranges of South India. Your photos are most wonderful and capture the spirit of mountain flora and fawna. Looking directly into that intelligent eye of the magnificent gaur is a rare experience for me. Very special. Let us hope and keep our fingers crossed that those who can and have the know-how, and will to do so, will manage to preserve sholas, grasslands and all those very special essentials for a good and sustainable future for the environment in this part of our planet.

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