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09 November, 2014

Conservation of Devarayanadurga forest over the centuries

This is an unedited version of the story that was published in two parts* in the Deccan Herald, Bangalore, in Aug-Sep 2014.
Devarayanadurga, Tumkur Ameen, Tumakuru
A view of Devarayanadurga forests
©Ameen Ahmed (All rights reserved)
Located a stone’s throw distance from Tumkur city towards east atop one of the many hills of the metamorphic Closepet granite chain that runs, often breaking in between, from Hospet in north Karnataka to Yellandur near Chamarajanagar town in south is the picturesque Devarayanadurga village. It is a place which gives a sense of joy to varied people. To a Hindu pilgrim it is abode of the many gods well-known of which is Lord Narasimhaswamy. To a history buff, it is home to structures like the Devarayanadurga fort which is eye witness to the happenings here for the last few centuries. For a meditator, the ambiance of the place at a height of almost 4,000 feet above sea level is perfect to spend some peaceful moments away from the noisy and polluted cities. Devarayanadurga village was the seat of many rulers and had its name changed many times until it gained its current name post its capture by Mysore Maharaja Chikkadevaraja Wodeyar in 1696, who is credited with erecting the fort here that exists even today.

Biodiversity treasure trove
To a wildlife lover Devarayanadurga state forest which surrounds this village and the hill is a local biodiversity hot spot where locally rare mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, amphibians and trees and shrubs thrive in plenty. This wonderful woodland is home to mammals like Hanuman langur, spotted deer, leopard, wild boar, slender loris as well as nearly 250 species of birds and more than 50 butterfly types. Over 200 species of plants and shrubs have been recorded here by botanists. It is an oasis of moist forest species - some plants and animals mainly found in the moist forests of Western Ghats can also be come across here unlike the surrounding plains. There are eyewitness accounts of tiger roaming in this jungle ever since its presence was first documented here by British officers in the 19th century.

Apart from the significant emotional and recreational quotient, this forest gives birth to many streams that quench the parched throats of tens of thousands of residents surrounding it.  It forms a major catchment area for streams like Garudachala as well as the locally well-known Jaya and Mangali. Beyond their place of joining, the Jayamangali is dammed at Irrakasandra irrigation project and Teeta dam near the well-known Goravanahalli Lakshmi temple, both inside Tumkur district. Downstream it flows east of the Jayamangali Blackbuck Reserve and near Parigi village in Andhra Pradesh it joins the Uttara Pinakini stream which originates from Ghati Subramanya and Nandi Hills. The waters ultimately empty into the Bay of Bengal near Nellore, after a journey of nearly 600 km.

19th century forest protection in Devarayanadurga and the scene in then Mysore state and rest of India 
Though this hill forest is a popular destination for people from surrounding human settlements including Bangalore city, few are aware of its rich conservation history that rivals some of India’s best known national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. It is among the earliest protected forests of the Indian subcontinent.

When the British East India Company retook the reigns of the kingdom of Mysore from the Maharaja in 1831 after the Nagar rebellion, they divided it into four Divisions overlooked by four Superintendents reporting to a Chief Commissioner in 1834. It is a common belief that the British had interest in forests for their timber as well as for the fuel wood needs of their cantonments and settlements. But there are documented instances of the British showing genuine concern to conserve the state’s forests for better reasons. Major General Dobbs, a British officer and a Protestant missionary, oversaw the affairs of Chitradurga Division, of which Chitradurga and Tumkur districts were a part, as Superintendent starting in 1835. He was one of the longest serving Superintendents of this Division. He penned memories of his service, particularly his observations in Chitradurga and Tumkur districts in the book ‘Reminiscences of Life in Mysore, South Africa, and Burmah’ in 1882. He refers to Devarayanadurga quite a few times in this book and also elsewhere in the British records. A cottage, known today as the Dobb’s Bungalow, atop the Devarayanadurga hill was built by him. He was enchanted by the wildlife and serenity atop the hill and on occasions sang hymns atop the hill for his guests, overlooking the beautiful sunsets.

In 1852, with Mark Cubbon as the Chief Commissioner of the Province of Mysore, the jungles of Devarayanadurga began receiving partial protection under revenue department. In 1854-55 Major Dobbs expressed his concern on the deforestation here as he observed that only a third of its original forest cover remained since he first took charge as Superintendent in 1935. He blamed the removal of trees on iron smelting and took measures to arrest the deforestation by banning iron forges. Under Major Lewin Bowring, Chief Commissioner of Mysore and Coorg, a department of forest administration was formed in the province in 1864 for the first time ever.  The following year the first legislation to protect the state’s forests was framed. In 1868 Devarayanadurga forests’ ownership was transferred to the Forest Department, which constituted it as a State Forest under Captain Van Someran, the Conservator of Forests - highest ranking forest officer of the Mysore province between 1865 and 1879. According to his memo appended to his annual report of 1873-74, the forest then was spread over an area of 18 square miles (46.62 sq. km). In 1879, the forest was surveyed and mapped by the Mysore Topographical Survey Department according to which the computed area was 11 square miles and 256 acres (29.52 sq. km), but somehow this area was not taken into account and the old estimated area of 18 square miles continued to be shown in the accounts. Between 1880 and 1882 without formal enquiry the forest was extended by adding an estimated area of 6 square miles (15.53 sq. km).  Meanwhile after a period of 50 years, the Maharaja was restored as the head of the princely state of Mysore, but the forests continued to be governed by the British as prescribed by the Indian Forest Act, 1878. Devarayanadurga then was one of the 32 state or reserved forests of the province which totaled to 454 square miles (1176 sq. km).

On 6 February 1883, according to notification No. 38 under Section 9 of the Revised Forest Rules of 1878 in force then in the Mysore Province, the entire Devarayanadurga forest block was re-demarcated and its boundaries were notified based on the lines demarcating the forest from the villages around it. But the notification did not specify the actual revised area of the block. In 1891-92 and 1893-94 about half a square mile was excluded, as it was recorded that they were wrongly included in the demarcation line. In 1889, the area was further extended east on the orders of G.W.L. Ricketts, the first Inspector General of Forests of Mysore state, adding a block estimated at 6 square miles (15.53 sq. km), and notifying it in 1895. In 1896 Col. J.Walker, considered to be the first professional Conservator of Forests of Mysore state, noticed during his tour to the district that this forest was periodically extended without formal settlement and it was encumbered with numerous rights and privileges chiefly to the people surrounding it. He therefore ordered a careful investigation into the rights and privileges and if necessary the revision of its boundaries. In 1897-98 the settlement was accordingly carried out by a revenue officer in concert with the District Forest Officer and was finally disposed of by the Deputy Commissioner about which Col. Walker was satisfied and the boundaries were finally rectified.

Strengthening of conservation in 20th century
On 1 June 1906, the revised boundaries of the Devarayanadurga State Forest were forwarded for publication, both in English and 'Kanarese' (as Kannada was called then) in the Gazette. Hence, after 50 years from the first protection accorded to it, on 19 February 1907, the final notification of the forest was published vide Govt. Order no: 7591-Fr-120-06-3. This notification included 16.88 square miles (43.72 sq. km) of area as Devarayanadurga state forest.  The extent of the forest today is almost the same as the area notified then. In fact today there is a considerable area of adjoining land belonging to the revenue department which is covered by forest.

Devarayanadurga’s name as a forest spread far and wide attracting the attention of well known birdwatcher Dr. Salim Ali. In 1939-1940, he welcomed the New Year here in a unique way – studying birds. This visit was part of his study of birds of the State of Mysore from Nov. 1939 to Feb 1940 funded by the Government of Maharaja of Mysore. He recorded 56 species during his 5 day stay here at the old forest bungalow at Namada Chelume. The list of birds included the hill myna which is not to be found here today. The yellowthroated sparrow was re-sighted by members of the local wildlife NGO Wildlife Aware Nature Club (WANC) including this author in 2007 after a gap of 69 years.

What’s in store in the 21st century?
Apart from the centuries’ old two Narasimha temples, Devarayanadurga is dotted with many structures dating to a few decades or centuries. While the old stone stair ways and kallu mantapas (stone shades) for travellers leading to the hill top from the village are in a fairly decent condition, the Dobbs Bungalow, the old  British forest bungalow where Salim Ali stayed and the Devarayanadurga fort are in need of urgent attention.

Like forests everywhere else in India the woods here face threat from forces of unregulated development despite protection measures of the forest department and support by local conservation groups. In the past couple of years the construction of an illegal road inside this forest to Chinnaga Betta the source of an important perennial stream of Jaya Mangali stream was stopped mid way by using RTI and approaching the Lok Ayukta by local wildlife activists including this author. But the forest may undergo drastic reduction in its area thanks to plans by the successive state Governments to build a dam to store water brought in from Yettinahole stream in Western Ghats. About 700 hectares or 7 sq. km of the notified forest along with many more hectares of non-notified forests on the adjoining revenue lands will drown forever if this proposed project goes ahead. Unless alternatives are found, we may lose a rich part of human and natural history for ever.

Over a hundred and fifty years into its official protection, the woods of Devarayanadurga continue to fulfill their ecological functions of priceless economic value assigned by nature like giving pristine water and pure air, without taking back anything in return. They have inspired numerous young minds to delve deeper into the world of nature and wildlife. They will continue to serve us for as long as we want, only if we leave them as they are. Let’s hope the policy makers keep in mind their contribution to our culture, traditions and water security before cutting short their future and also that of the people and wild animals depending on them.
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* Ahmed, Ameen. (2014) A green treasure trove. Deccan Herald. [Online] 16th September. Available from: http://www.deccanherald.com/content/431020/a-green-treasure-trove.html. [Accessed: 8 November 2014].

Ahmed, Ameen. (2014) Guarding green cover. Deccan Herald. [Online] 26th August. Available from: http://www.deccanherald.com/content/427459/guarding-green-cover.html. [Accessed: 8 November 2014].