Did you know that the Deccan plateau is older than the Himalayas?
It is home to one of the largest volcanic provinces in the world—the Deccan Traps, which were created by an eruption that took place between 66-100 million years ago. A part of the Traps called the Lameta Formation contains a treasure trove of dinosaur fossils, including those of a fearsome Cretaceous-era carnivore by the name of Rajasaurus Narmadensis.
Deccan plateau itself is even older; it was once a part of the ancient supercontinent Gondwanaland, which split during the late Jurassic Era and set the continents of Africa, Antarctica, South America and Indo-Australia drifting apart about 150 million years ago. In contrast, the Himalayas are mere upstarts at about 55 million years old.
(left) India, physical division, image courtesy WorldAtlas.com; (right) Physical map of India with various physiographic divisions by Vigneshdm1990, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The roughly triangular table-like land of the Deccan covers the entire upper region of peninsular India. Its boundaries are marked by the mountain ranges of Satpura on the north, and the Eastern and Western Ghats, which meet to form the tip of the triangle. The plateau spans 4,22,000 sqkm covering eight Indian states in part or whole: from the forests of the Gonds and Bhils of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, to the arid rocky expanses of Maharashtra, Telangana, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, to the green hills of the Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Like its culture, the geology of the Deccan too is incredibly diverse.
Some very hectic volcanic activity in the prehistoric era has blessed the Deccan with rich mineral deposits of everything from gold to diamonds, and from coal to copper. Not all the riches are underground, either. The lava that once flooded this land cooled to form towering cliffs of basalt, which was used to build some of the most magnificent architecture in Indian history. The dark soil of the plateau, called regur, allows fields of cotton, tobacco and sugarcane to flourish. It’s no wonder that empires from the Mauryans to the Mughals waged countless bloody battles to control the golden kingdom of the Deccan.
The birthplace of great rivers like Godavari, Krishna and Kaveri, the Deccan nurtures several unique ecosystems, including scrub jungles, rainforests, grasslands and marshes. It was here that the cheetah was once hunted into extinction, and these wilds are still home to such protected species as the black buck, sloth bear, great Indian bustard, sand boa, pangolin and Royal Bengal tiger. The densest concentration of Asian elephants is found on the Deccan plateau along the Brahmagiri-Nilgiri-Eastern Ghats Elephant Range.
The black soil of the Deccan contains all the mineral-y, volcanic goodness of the basalt rocks from which it is born. This offers a fertile foundation for a variety of plant species. Apart from its commercial value-the Krishna-Godavari basin is dubbed ‘the rice bowl of India’—this region is also a naturalist’s paradise. And an artist’s.
Images from the 1884 book, Flowers of the Bombay Presidency by Mary Elizabeth Butt. The artist included the following notes on the images above:
Image 1 - Prickly pear. “Grows in large patches of waste ground as fungi grows in this country. It was very plentiful on the waste lands about Nassick (Nashik).”
Image 2 - Caesalpinia sepiana, Mysore thorn. “A scandent, strongly armed shrub. Flowers in March, April and May. Hyder Ali surrounded his fortified palace with it. Egutpoora. May 21 1857”
Image 3 - Syzygium jambolanu, jamun. “A large and handsome tree found in the Concan, but scarce- the fruit has a peculiar, rough flavor and in the absence of anything better makes a decent pie.”
Image 4 - Euphorbia nerefolia, cactus Indicus. “It grows abundantly over all the rough and rocky places in the Deccan and Concan (Konkan) and is used for planting hedges. It forms the railway hedge in India. Sometimes it attains a great size and affords a retreat to tigers and other wild beasts. It yields when cut a mucous juice. This was gathered at Narel at the fort of the Matheran Hill, the Sanitarium for Bombay.”
In a rare 19th-century book from the Sarmaya collection, amateur artist Mary Elizabeth Butt made detailed watercolour drawings of flowers she found growing in the wilderness of Nashik in Maharashtra. She accompanied these with copious notes on the species drawn from native knowledge and her own observations. The revered Mahua tree of Madhya Pradesh still serves as a muse for Gond artists today. Artist and writer James Forbes paid loving ode to the insects, fruits and plants of the region in the art for his 1813 book, Oriental Memoirs—images from the book below.
The soil and climate of the Deccan have influenced its political, cultural, culinary, artistic and social histories in ways that are still evident today. You’ll experience it in the weathered timelessness of its stone temples, the tamarind-sourness of its curries, the compassionate animism of its religions. It’s incredible to contemplate a prehistoric volcanic event, which likely led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, giving birth to a province that nurtures such a dazzling variety of life.
Habitat and relative species diversity of Deccan plateau by Harish Bhat, Promod Subbarao and Akshay Kumar Chakravarthy
A Walk In The Woods Where The Wildflowers Grow by Sheshadri Ramaswamy, Eartha Mag
Deccan Plateau, World Atlas
Thorns in the Enemy’s Path by Ameen Ahmed, Deccan Herald