In the Fern Hills of Ooty, along the rain-blasted roads, down the dirt path, at the home he “bought justbefore the real estate boom took off”, to the right of the house, Dr Tarun Chhabra crouches near a pot. He shoves the weed grass aside and gently touches the inflorescence. The spathe-spadix resembles the hood of a cobra. Open the spathe—the male and female flowers are blooming.

The flower blooming is Arisaema translucence. Commonly known as Cobra Lily, the genus Arisaema is found all over the world; five or six species grow in the Nilgiris, of which three are endemic. This particular species blooms in the pre-monsoon season in one lonely patch of the Nilgiris, and also in Chhabra’s home “forest”—nowhere else in the world. The blooms indicate pre-monsoon for the Todas, the ancient tribe who live on the upper Nilgiri plateau.

In the home forest, there are species of wild balsam: Impatiens hookeriana, named after a British botanist who worked in India in the later part of the 19th century; Impatiens latifolia and Nilgiri Lily (Lilium neilgherrense); Rhodomyrtus tomentosa (hill guava); Rhododendron sp., Michelia nilagirica (Nilgiri champak); and different kinds of jamun trees (Syzygiun species). The forest, in the backyard of his house, “maybe 23 cents”, is a testimony to his love of the Nilgiri landscape.

Although Chhabra is not a Toda, he’s as good a tribal as they come. While recently talking to a Toda elder and discussing something, the man told the doctor: “You’re also Toda.” He has that visceral love and affection for the Todas and their land. “Whenever I visit their sacred sites, I am overcome with a feeling that these are familiar, that I had been here,” he says.

Chhabra is the inheritor of the Todas’ relationship with plants, flowers and the land. He is a bridge that connects ancient wisdom to the modern sciences of anthropology and ethnobotany; a translator of the Toda ecological thinking for the modern world; an applied anthropologist, with no formal training whatsoever, while he studies the Todas with the heart of a son and works toward their betterment.

He is documenting the flowers Todas use in their lives, often going down nameless scarps of remote hills, travelling paths negotiated ages ago by today’s forbears. It’s a world of wind and rain, thistle and thorn, filled with the squawking and whooping of birds, a place of micro-climatic zones—elusive to all but the Toda.

Chhabra records what the hills hold in their folds—ancient ecosystems in unknown niches, down to the basement of time—simply to verify a Toda elder’s tip about some unknown flower, scrambling up the hills where their gods live. He is an ethnologist who understands the map of the universe in Toda songs, that sing of flowers and their names, a collector of Toda folklore.

But this is only Chhabra’s vocation, not a profession. He’s a practising dentist. Chhabra’s struggle—although a labour of love—epitomises what Milan Kundera said about power: “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. On a soil stripped away by the influx of human settlements, crowded with non-native, exotic plants, he is cultivating the collective memory of the land.

The house is a renovated British building with windows looking out to his forest. Artwork and framed photographs of Nilgiri endemic flowers—especially that of the Nilgiri Lily—adorn the walls in every room. Toda elders protectively watch over him from framed photos and sketches, their faces showing a transcendent calmness. Chhabra’s physiognomy resembles the Todas and their heartland: aquiline nose; supple, flexible body for walking; five feet and seven-and-a-half inches height; and eyes that exude empathy.

On this afternoon, Chhabra sits in his dental clinic. His friend, Ramneek Singh, is visiting. They both started Edhkwehlynawd Botanical Refuge (EBR). Edhkwehlynawd in Toda means “magnificent view”. So who are the team? “The two of us and a lot of wilderness,” says Ramneek Singh. A brilliant photographer and tea planter, Ramneek lives in Coonoor.

Their combined vision starts in the Kundah range where they intend to buy up about 90 acres as a refuge for native flora and fauna. They have acquired about 25. EBR is funded by different organisations, especially the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “With prices increasing, we may not be able to buy that much land. With about 35 acres, we can have a good refuge,” says Ramneek, who named his younger daughter Ammer, a Toda name for Gaultheria (Winter green), which is found in balms and is common to the Himalayas and Western Ghats.

Ramneek and Chhabra settle some land matter for the refuge, and Ramneek departs. Theyr soon-to-be-restored land is surrounded by the Mukurthi National Park, about 45 kilometres from Ooty, deep in the wilderness.

Tell me about Nilgiris’ biodiversity.
Remarkably, this is the refuge of the endangered Nilgiri tahr, Nilgiri marten, and the laughingthrush. Rare species like the Nilgiri grass yellow butterfly were recognised as distinct species in 1990. Most importantly, the Nilgiris has about 90 endemic floral species found nowhere else in the world.

What strikes you most about the biodiversity in the Nilgiris? 
The flora is unique. We have species in genera such as Rhododendron, Lilium, Justicia, Geranium and Berberis. The striking thing is that they are Himalayan species. The Nilgiri tahr and Nilgiri marten are also basically Himalayan species.

The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR) is the first biosphere reserve in India, spanning Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It covers 0.15 per cent of landmass in India, but has 20 per cent of flowering plants, 40 per cent of butterflies, and 60 per cent of evergreen woody plants. The NBR was also the first to be recognized by UNESCO under their Man and Biosphere Programme.

What about floral intensity?
The Todas use different flowers through the year for various purposes. A profusion of the avulashky flower—which literally means puffed rice—would indicate the pre-southwest monsoon period. The flower belongs to the Oldenlandia species, and its buds resemble grains of puffed rice. Anemone rivularis in mass flowering stage indicates the monsoon is well and truly in. It’s locally called kwaadar kol poof which literally means monsoon flower. Kafehl (Ceropegia pusilla and ciliata) indicates the early monsoon phase. It is the churning stick flower which Todas used as a model for their milk churning stick.

Then there is the Nilgiri Lily (Lilium neilgherrense)—known as pehnapoof in Toda—starts to flower on remote hill tops when the monsoon is in the final phase. When the sacred mawrsh trees (Michelia nilagirica) flower en masse with their magnificent, divinely-scented blooms in the shola forests, the Toda elders realise that the southwest monsoon is fast declining.

What’s the story of mawrsh flowers?
Once I told Kwattawdr Kwehttn, a Toda elder, that the rains seemed unending. He assured me they would end within a week as he had seen mawrsh flowering in profusion in the sholas. Kwattawdr Kwehttn is my guru, and he is a repository of ethnobotanical knowledge.

In the same way, they have flowers that are indicators of the northeast monsoon—its arrival, its early phase and its peak. The Todas also have flowers that indicate dry winter months.

In the same way, they have flowers that are indicators of the northeast monsoon—its arrival, its early phase and its peak. The Todas also have flowers that indicate dry winter months.

Tell us something about their floral lore.
I mentioned how they model their milk-churning stick on kafehl. To indicate a man’s age and wisdom, they see the flowering cycles of Strobilanthes. It’s called katt in Toda. Then there is the ‘six o’clock flower’, Oenothera tetraptera, which blooms at that specified time every evening, whatever the weather conditions.

There is also an interesting flower called the “worry flower”. Todas call it arkilproof (Gentiana pedicellata). If a person with a nagging worry plucks the stem of this plant—without touching the flower—and holds it in his hands, the flower slams shut. Whenever I travelled with a person who was worried and he held the stem in his hands, the flower would close immediately.

What do you study?
I study our relationship to plants, from the Toda perspective.

What’s that perspective?
The veneration they have for plants; the various plants and flowers they use in their ceremonies. Also documenting those flowers after verification through fieldwork.

Did you have formal training?
No. It’s Toda elders who have taught me all about flowers and plants.

What are the joys of your vocation?
When you look for some undocumented flowers, and you come across in a patch of deep forest, the joy is immense.

In your fieldwork, you have re-discovered many forgotten, endemic flowers. Can you describe specific flowers that have a great place in Toda life?
There are two groups: wild balsam for wet monsoon season, and Rhododendron for dry winter phase. Wild flowers grow in profusion on the grasslands of the upper Nilgiri plateau. There may be many different species­—countless, in fact—of flowers. It could be that a single hill slope may have 20 species or more.

Of these, balsam are the most spectacular. They belong to the genus Impatiens. They are so named because they are impatient to discharge their seeds. Todas call them nawtty. Of the 90 recorded floral species endemic to the upper Nilgiris, nine are species of balsam. They are the true balsam of the Indian subcontinent.

Can you explain further?
Impatiens are essentially a genus of old-world tropics There are no true balsam as such in Australia and South Amercia; Europe has one species of balsam, while north America has two.

And in the Indian subcontinent?
The Himalayas and the Western Ghats are the principal regions where balsam are distributed.

What about the Western Ghats?
Of the 40 wild species, nine are endemic to the upper Nilgiris. The fascinating thing here is endemism in localised areas. It may be that the conditions and factors that facilitated the interaction long ago ceased to exist, and certain parts of the genus got isolated in remote hills. The confinement, the localisation over long stretches of time, gave rise to evolution of distinct species.

How come they’re found in the Himalayas and the Western Ghats?
The Western Ghats had a distinctive character before the Himalayas formed. Long periods of isolation followed due to drought conditions. The climax ecosystem here gave it the upland-island effect. Plants got stuck in niches, had to adapt and survive, or go extinct. The species thrived in small, localised areas in their own niches without any interaction with the parent stock, and evolved into distinct species.

Interestingly, if you see Impatiens species such as Impatiens munronii and Impatiens jerdoniae, you find they are directly related to African species. They can be directly linked to a common ancestor from an anonymous plant family in ancient Gondwanaland.

What’s the explanation for it?
Well, there is Sunder Lal Hora’s Satpura hypothesis: there was a range of hills connecting the Himalayas to the Western Ghats, and these plants kind of hopped on the hills. Interestingly, conifers in the Himalayas didn’t come here. Also, some common species—like Impatiens balsamina, probably common in China, and another commonly found in low elevations of 1,000 metres—are here. Then there is Geranium napalense, found in the Himalayas and the Western Ghats.

Anyway, it needs intense research to come to establish something like this.

What about the story of rhododendron?
When Kwattawdr Kwehttn told me about white and light blue rhododendrons, I was sceptical. I wanted to go check it. We found in our treks a stunted tree with snow-white flowers. After verifying and checking over several flowering seasons, we confirmed a rhododendron with white flowers. This is the first non-Toda record of rhododendron with white flowers in south India. In some parts of the Himalayas, a white rhododendron exists. We couldn’t trace the rhododendron with light blue flowers. We’re trying to locate it.

The flowering of Rhododendron nilagiricum sets the tone for dry winter months. Todas call rhododendron, pehrshk. It is sacred for them, and they use the tree in pregnancy ceremonies.

What about the story of Cobra lily, Arisaema translucence?
We found it in some I pockets, not in the grassland. The area was outside Mukurthi National Park. This is a lesson to save the sholas because you never know what you can discover.

Could you talk about the ecosystems that gave birth to such floral diversity?
This is climax ecosystem where the grasslands and sholas exist in balance. People think a grassland is wasteland. But most of the endemic plants exist in the grassland. You have grassland, and in between you have sholas. High-altitude grassland is full of water. The hydroelectric dams constructed over the rivers supply nearly 40 per cent of electric power to Tamil Nadu.

How have the ecosystems changed? What about the habitat fragmentation?
Dam construction has taken away the best wetlands; the sholas are gone, except here and there. Now the cutting has stopped but human settlements, new villages, townships and tea plantations have damaged the land, leading to habitat fragmentation. Thousands and thousands of acres are cut. Most of the Toda sacred sites have gone. There is an awareness of what’s gone wrong. Now is the time to restore the whole.

What’s your idea behind EBR?
The idea is buffers and corridors for the movement of plants and animals so that they can move freely. The area should be clear of plantations, non-native plants, and grassland and sholas should be grown. The idea is to restore a certain piece of land to its pristine self. The refuge can be a place where researchers study. You have hinterland, where wilderness exists, next comes buffer and a corridor with restoration work, and then you have whatever.

We cannot leave everything in the government’s hands. As citizens, it’s our responsibility to protect the wilderness. Also, the Todas have lived in these forests for ages. EBR is working to bring their ancient ecological thinking to the world at large.

How about your eco-restoration work?
The landscape is full of exotic plants like eucalyptus, acacia, wattle and pine. The British planted them for firewood and fuel so that people would not cut down the sholas. But, after Partition, our government planted them all over for commercial purposes.

sholas. But, after Partition, our government planted them all over for commercial purposes.

In the same way, they have flowers that are indicators of the northeast monsoon—its arrival, its early phase and its peak. The Todas also have flowers that indicate dry winter months.
There is no one thing that fits all. In Sariska National Park, a prestigious national park in India, tigers died. We have to involve local communities in conservation and restoration. The idea that humans should not be allowed will not work. After all, we’re part of nature. The tribes have deep bonds with the forests.

One great example is B. R. Hills in Karnataka. Under the Forest Rights Act, the Soligas have won, and are going to manage the whole forest with the help of the forest department. In the same way, more and more participation of local tribes will work in conservation.

What is your ethnobotancal inventory?
We have made a list of about 250 plant species that the Todas use.

What’s your idea of sustainability?
I don’t know much about it. I try to follow life like the Todas. They’re intimate with nature. It’s not like you do this and you do that. In eco-restoration I work by incorporating traditional Toda wisdom.

For example, Todas have plants that conserve water. These plants harvest water in different ways. They are Hedyotis verticillaris, and are endemic to the Nilgiris. The plants have rosette-like leaves. They hold a jug of water inside them, and slowly release it. Studies show that all the precipitation, all the rain that falls, goes into the water bodies in the upper Nilgiris. Nothing gets wasted. This is a unique feature of the western Nilgiris. The Todas have great knowledge of such hygrophytic plants.

The Todas think on a landscape level.Could you elaborate about climate change, its effects on the Toda landscape, and how they respond?
They have plants that flower in every season. If the flowers don’t bloom at the correct period, they know climate has changed. They may not know it’s happening on a global scale but they know it is changing by looking at flowers and their cycles.

Don’t you think both sides on development and environmentalism are pitted against each other, with the latter losing out more often?
Yes, but it depends on which animals or plants you want to conserve. You cannot have a blanket rule for all. You cannot generalise. Yes, there should be genuine development. It’s case-by-case. For example, tigers need a different corridor for movement than elephants. Birds need a different migratory corridor. Certain plants need particular ecosystems, without which they cannot survive.

How can the Toda perspective contribute to this debate?
The Todas have their own method of taxonomy, far more rigorous, and intense and fundamental than scientific taxonomy. They see some fundamental things and they know which flower is what, and what are its uses, medicinal and ritualistic, and so on.

Studies also show that tribes in Amazon and South America have their own taxonomy. For example, liana woody creepers have not much use for the Todas, whereas tribes in the Amazon do all kinds of things with it. When they go fishing—they have festivals when scores of fish come up—they make a paste of lianas and smear it on the arrow and shoot the fish with it. They shoot monkeys with those arrows. The monkeys don’t die but go into muscular spasm. So the way these people use these things should be taken into account before we tinker with their life. They are the great ecological thinkers.