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Wading Through The Myristica Swamps

Tensing Rodrigues

Last time we noted the unique evidence proffered by the Kamgavai well in Dapoli, Ratnagiri, about the radical change that the climate in Konkan coast underwent between 44,000 and 1,500 BCE. We do not know what happened in the long gap. It could be that the dropping of the temperatures during the ice age reduced the runoff and the deposition of sediments. Some studies do suggest that the summer monsoon weakened during colder periods. [Saraswat, 2014: A Glimpse Of The Quaternary Monsoon History From India And Adjoining Seas, in Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 397; Nigam, 1993: Foraminifera And Changing Pattern Of Monsoon Rainfall, in Current Science, 64 (11 & 12)] The drastic change in the vegetation is what is of importance to us. Because it was just around the end of this mysterious interval that the migrations from the trans-Sahyadri Konkan happened. Based on the evidence of the Kamgavai well we had surmised that our ancestors might not have had to wade through the myristica swamps – home to pythons, king cobrasand a variety of vipers – to reach the coast; as by the time of their advent, these relics of Jurassic forests must have already disappeared.[Ali et al, 2006 : Faunal assemblages in Myristica swamps of Central Western Ghats, … , 106] But perhaps that may not be entirely true.

There is one aspect of this climate phenomenon that we have overlooked up to now: the shortening of the rainy season might not have been uniform along the entire west coast –it seems to have been the maximum in the northern part of the coast and least in the southern part, region around Goa being the transition zone.  We have noted that the samples drawn at the mouth of Kalinadi river at Karwar showed significant fossils of evergreen forest pollen as late as 3,000 to 2,300 BCE. So the Kamgavai conclusion would be applicable lesser and lesser as we go southwards. This is obvious from the surviving areas of myristica swamps. There are hardly any in the Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra and to the north of it, while the incidence increases as we move south from Uttara Kannadda district of Karnataka, being the highest in Kerala. In Goa we still find some patches of myristica swamps in the valleys of the foothills of the Sahyadri.  However, the surrounding forests are predominantly moist deciduous type; this shows that Goa is more or less the northern limit of the territory where the myristica swamps still survive in rare patches. These seem to be refugia spots – where, in spite of unfavourable conditions, that is, in spite of the primitive climate not prevailing, the swamps survive. The dominant tree species surrounding the swamps in Goa are kumbho, matti, nano, karmal and asno.[Prabhugaonkar et al, 2014 : First Report Of Three Redlisted Tree Species From Swampy Relics Of Goa State, India, in Journal of Threatened Taxa, 6(2)]

As we have said earlier, the change that made the evergreen forests disappear was not a decrease in the average annual rainfall; it was the distribution of the rainfall over the year. According to Srivastava, around 44,000 BCE it rained almost throughout the year. During the dry months, say January to March, there would be about 60mm of rain, which is about the same as the present pre-monsoon rainfall on Konkan coast. The pre-monsoon rainfall (say from April to May) would be about five times that. The two together, along with the S-E monsoon (from October to December), would account for about 35 per cent of the total rainfall. [Srivastava et al, 2016: Monsoon variability over Peninsular India … terrestrial archive from the corridors of Western Ghats, in Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 443, 64] This meant that the streams that fed the swamps flowed almost perennially, sustaining the dense evergreen vegetation.

The importance of understanding the pattern of rainfall along the western coast lies in the question we posed at the beginning: did our ancestors have to wade through the myristica swamps as they moved towards the coast ? In other words, how difficult was it for them to people the coast? And how long might it have taken them to do it? In the absence of sufficient anthropological and archaeological information on the early peopling of the western coast, we can only speculate on the basis of indirect indicators of rainfall and vegetation.

There is ample evidence to indicate that our hypothesis above –that the shortening of the rainy season was the maximum in the northern part of the coast and least in the southern part – is right. While luxuriant tropical wet evergreen rain forests had completely disappeared in Kamgavai, Ratnagiri by 1,500 BCE, the Kollam basin in Kerala showed abundance of such forests till that time. [Kumaran et al, 2014: Vegetation Response and Landscape Dynamics of Indian Summer Monsoon Variations during Holocene, in PLoS ONE, 9(4)] It is very likely, therefore, that when the early settlers came down into the more southerly coastal plains, and tried to make them habitable and cultivable, they must have faced an uphill task; and it must have taken them a long time, several generations probably, to settle down.

The folk songs of the gavadi, kunbi and velipa communities contain references to ghamta (ghantt = Sahyadri) and rana (ran = forest); take for instance these lines : ghamta vayalyana eyalo gavado (ghantta voilean eilo gavaddo = the gavaddo has come from the ghat);  gavado gela vayalya rana (gavaddo gela voilearana = the gavaddo has gone to the forest uphill). [Gawas et al, 2014: Tribes Of Goa: Their Institution And Movement, in SRJIS,3(19)] Material to construct their settlement history is rather scarce. Only such folk repertoire and their customs and traditions can yield clues to their history. According to Haldankar “The collective domain of worship of the (velipa) community is the place of their ancestral settlement. This ancestral settlement exists in the far flung forest areas away from their present settlement. By and large the festivals and all major collective rituals of the community get solemnised at the primitive settlement.” [Haldankar, 2015: Towards Understanding Tribal Livelihood through Religion in Goa, in Research Process 3(1), 12] That’s very interesting. It reinforces our hypothesis that these primitive settlers came from across, or at least, from the Sahyadri; that they moved westwards in course of time; but considered their original settlement as their homeland – some sort of a ‘pavana bhumi’ (holy land). But then at some point of time they seem to have been pushed back eastwards, at least from good part of the coast. When did that happen? Or did some of them stay back by ‘symbiotically blending’ with the new settlers? Interesting history; but hard to crack.


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