There is a sacred spot on Neelkumar and Rajmati’s small farm in Karnataka, south India. To get to it from Bangalore, the capital of the state and the country’s IT hub, you need to change buses three times, travelling 500km into the mountains of the Western Ghats. Then you have to get off and walk.
After an hour-and-a-half of meandering along dirt roads, through farm and jungle, you reach the elderly couple’s four-acre landholding in Kanapugaru village.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
Village is a loose term for these clusters of two or three houses scattered across the jungled Sharavathy Valley. Neelkumar and Rajmati built their three-roomed house themselves: the walls of laterite stone, plastered with the pinky-red mud of the area; the mud floor finished with a polished cow dung paste; and the roof of red clay tiles that extend out on two sides to make a sheltered veranda where the couple like to sit.
The sacred spot, beside the stream that runs along the bottom of the valley at the edge of their fields, is quiet and unpolluted. It was identified generations before them; this generation merely returns to it.
Once a year, at Diwali, the festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains, the two go to this spot to offer flowers to the stream and to dip a black terracotta pot into its waters. They place daily offerings of flowers, sweet dishes and fruits inside the pitcher and, after five days, submerge it back into the stream.
The pot’s submergence symbolises the understanding that humans do not really own anything: the water is borrowed from nature to grow food, and then returned to its rightful place.
The couple then give thanks to their gods and ancestors, for the forests and weather around them, and to the monsoon rains that grow their crops. The couple give thanks to Varuna, the god of oceans and rainfall, often depicted with an umbrella over his head. This year they will have crops to sell and will be comfortable.
Knowing the rain
Neelkumar and Rajmati live in a region of the Western Ghats called Malenadu, meaning “place of rain” in the Kannada language. They live their lives acutely attuned to the climate of their land. It would be almost impossible not to: the mountains form the bank that the southwest monsoon hits as it rolls in from the Arabian Sea, and for up to six months of the year the area is drenched in thunderous rains.
For nearly half of this couple’s lives, great troughs of water have fallen from the sky, and they know the rains as intimately as they know each other. They refer to 10 different “types” of rain, identified by their intensities and length, and can predict from the feel of the air and the time of the year which one is about to fall.
Everyone in Malenadu can.
“There is one kind that pours for four days and nights without a stop,” says Neelkumar, looking out at his fields of areca, turmeric and rice paddy. “Even if the world had turned upside down, we wouldn’t be able to tell because of these rains.”
Back at the house, Rajmati chops vegetables for lunch with a traditional half-moon blade as the television in the background barks out sensationalist news on the local 24-hour channel.
Radio and television mean that they have heard vaguely of something called “global warming” but they are not too familiar with the concept. Their world is one of seasons, and local politics.
Neelkumar checks that the wild peacocks have not come out of the forest to eat the paddy, which is nearly ready, and in the afternoon the two relax on the veranda and chew the mildly stimulating areca nut. They roll up the broken nut in a betel leaf smeared with a little lime paste, occasionally mixing in a sprinkling of tobacco. They do this so often that their mouths are stained with it, and they sometimes have to spit it out before they can speak. It is one of their favourite pastimes.
‘We take only what we need’
The semi-evergreen forests in front of them are a global hotspot of biodiversity, meaning that they contain an exceptional richness of plants and animals, including many endemic species that are threatened with destruction.
These dense, dark forests are one of the last known habitats of the endangered lion-tailed macaque; Asian elephants and tigers move among the tall trees on the hillsides that give way to vast grasslands on the peaks.
The forest is a trove of natural treasures, yet Neelkumar and Rajmati venture into it only very rarely. They are Digambar Jains, and their beliefs tell them not to exploit for financial profit. Jainism is one of the oldest Indian religions, and the couple believe that all living beings – from plants to humans – have a soul, and should be treated with respect and compassion.
“We only take from the forest what we need for the house,” says Neelkumar, his gums and teeth red from areca nut.
A yearly treat is the harvesting of wild forest honey, which the couple do in Ugadi, the regional new year celebration that falls between March and April. The local variety of bee is a small one, without a sting and blackish in colour, called Misri Jenu in Kannada, or the Dammer bee in English. Its hives are tiny, about the size of Neelkumar’s palm. Each yields only a couple of spoonfuls of honey, known for its medicinal properties, and the couple look forward to bringing home the combs to suck on for their heady sweetness.
“But the hives now are smaller,” says Neelkumar. “People are greedy, and they don’t wait until they are big enough to take.”
It is a tiny example of the human actions that threaten this delicate ecosystem: from individual exploitations, to wider industrial development and global climate change.
A land of rains
Rajmati looks up. It is not yet dark, but their eight cattle are home early again, waiting at the wooden gate made of tree branches lashed together. She puts down her sweet chai and gets up to let them into their enclosure. She will have to cut some more wild grass from the fields to feed them.
Rajmati and Neelkumar’s cattle never used to come home early. Every day they wander out through the forests to feed on the lush grass on the hilltops, and in previous years would sometimes stay out so long that Rajmati would have to go and fetch them home as darkness approached. But this year the grass on top of the hillocks is no longer there, so the cows return early looking to be fed.
The couple say that last October was far hotter than usual, and the grass died as a result. It is a major event for them, one as odd as the household cat suddenly becoming a different colour.
“[During] Diwali, the temperatures [were as warm as] you would expect at Ugadi,” says Rajmati. Neelkumar has also noticed a new type of disease on tree bark.
But the strangest thing of all is that the rains have changed. They no longer feel familiar to them. A type that normally drizzles for two days might stop early. Rohini MaLe, which used to occur in June, may now come later.
The couple’s observations corroborate the limited understanding of how climate change is already affecting parts of the Western Ghats. There has been an overall decrease in rainfall but the intensity of weather events has increased and become less predictable.
Rajmati says that the rains have become “scanty” over the past few years. Neelkumar noticed excessively heavy rains in 2013 and 2014. They remind him of only two other occasions during his 30 years of farming this area – one of which was in 1974 when heavy rain caused landslides to demolish agricultural fields.
In this land of rains, too much can be a problem: The areca palm becomes vulnerable to pests, and the areca nut can rot. This happened during the heavy rains in 2014, and as a result the couple had only half of what their crop has been this year.
And it has knock-on effects: the couple now buy various chemicals to fight the pests and spend hours applying them to the plants. When they work the fields, they cover their heads with caps made of hardened areca nut leaf – bent to the shape of a head and stitched in turquoise thread by Rajmati – to keep them dry.
The changes are not critical for them at the moment – such is the slope and saturation of these lands that the stream could give them enough water for their handful of fields for a year. They have a small vegetable patch growing okra, chilli, gourds and squash, and it usually yields enough for them to eat. For now, things are manageable and life is peaceful.
During the monsoon, the electricity often goes out for days on end, and with it the modern conveniences that have brought so much change to Kanapugaru village over the past 10 years: the television goes quiet, the kitchen mixer stands still, the electric light that spills out of the house in long rectangles to the dark forest outside is cut.
Instead the only noise is of the rain drumming on the roof and falling like thousands of grains of rice on to the leaves outside.
The water pools in the red earth and slides down the pathways. On the porch, Neelkumar and Rajmati roll up the areca nut and chew. Kerosene lamps that are little more than a metal canister with a wick make hives of flickering orange light, and Neelkumar sings the folk songs he learned from his parents. He has one for every occasion, and many include a mention of rain. He and Rajmati do not know as many as their mothers, and their children know fewer still.
Their two sons and daughter are grown-up now, and have moved away: the youngest two are studying computing, and working in Bangalore. Their oldest is married and lives 250km away, but comes to visit for Diwali. It is unlikely that any of them would be able to recognise all the different types of rain that fall in Malenadu.
Since the writing of this article, Rajmati has unfortunately died.