Memories of geography lessons from school that always stayed with me included some jumble about India’s Western and Eastern ghats. Walking on the high plateaus of the Western ghats I would vaguely ask myself where the Eastern ghats are, but no question was urgent enough to make me look at the universal classroom on my phone. Since its rain-swept heights became my habitat in monsoons, I learnt more about the Western ghats — its high inselbergs and the odd flora of the region, the extended volcanism, starting about 140 million years ago, that separated India from Gondwanaland and laid down the lava shield of the Deccan plateau, the subsequent weathering that leached most useful minerals from the rock leaving only the iron and aluminium rich laterite under a thin soil, the resulting ecology that caused plants to change wildly, producing plateaus with their coverings of seasonal grass and carnivorous plants. I loved peering at the centimeter-high ecology at my feet when I walked across the Mahabaleshwar meadow (where the featured photo was taken last October) or the Kaas and Chilkewadi plateaus.
When I went to Odisha for a month I found the same kind of soil and rocks around me. Laterite is easy to cut into blocks for construction. This is a common building material in the Sahyadris, and it is widespread in Odisha. The presence of laterite implied that the soil had started off as a lava shield. That’s when I recalled the Eastern ghats, and verified that I was indeed on it. Strangely, these ghats are highly eroded, and major rivers flow through them to the Bay of Bengal. The soil is several centimeters to several meters thick in most places. Why this extended weathering on the east and not in the west, I wondered. The answer lay in the deep history of the earth.
About a billion years ago, before complex life had colonized dry land, the drifting plates of the earth came together to form the supercontinent of Rodinia. When it broke up in extensive volcanic events about 600 million years ago, one of the pieces was a plate that included Australia, India and Madagascar. The eastern coast of present day India was formed at that time. The Eastern ghats are therefore several hundred million years older than the Western ghats. That explains the extensive weathering and the different ecology of the Eastern ghats. The land which was a month’s home to me was full of normal trees and grasses, and creatures like termites.
I could see these termites, great ecosystem engineers, begin to convert all fallen wood into soil in days. Sometimes they wouldn’t wait for the wood to fall, thereby giving me interesting photos like the one you see above. For termites to colonize an area, it would have to have large amounts of wood already. In other words, termites should follow the first forests. The sheer length of time since the breakup of Rodinia would have allowed the ecology of this part to evolve trees, forests, and termites. In fact, termites probably evolved in Africa, which was then continuous with what is today western India. They would have crossed Gondwanaland and reached here. It was sobering to realize that the ancestors of these termites were living in this land long before the first humans!