Ameen Ahmed sketches the historical and legal battles that were fought to shape the Devarayanadurga Forests to what it is today, a source of economy and joy.
The delightful village of Devarayanadurga is snuggled atop the discontinuous chains of metamorphic closepet granite hills running from Hospet in North Karnataka to Yellandur near Chamarajanagar in the South.
It is a place that attracts a versatile group of tourists. To a wandering pilgrim, it is the abode of many gods. To a history buff, it is home to structures like the Devarayanadurga Fort, which has been witness to the historical happenings for the last few centuries. For a meditator, the ambience of the place at a height of almost 4,000 feet above sea level is perfect to spend some peaceful moments far from the maddening crowd.
Devarayanadurga was the seat of many rulers and its name changed many times until it gained its current name, post its capture by Mysore Maharaja Chikkadevaraja Wodeyar in 1696, who built the fort that exists here even today.
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, each of which was overlooked by four superintendents, who were reporting to a Chief Commissioner.
It was common belief that the British had vested interest in the forests, for gain of timber for the fuel 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, starting in 1835, as Superintendent, oversaw the affairs of Chitradurga Division, which comprised Chitradurga and Tumkur districts. He was one of the longest serving superintendents of this division.
Concern for forests
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 elsewhere in the British records. A cottage, known today as Dobb’s Bungalow, atop the Devarayanadurga Hill, was built by him.
In 1852, with Mark Cubbon as the Chief Commissioner of the Province of Mysore, the jungles of Devarayanadurga began receiving partial protection under the Revenue department. In 1854-55, Major Dobbs expressed his concerns about the deforestation here as he observed that only a third of its original forest cover remained since he first took charge as superintendent in 1835.
He cited iron smelting as the reason for the removal of trees 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, the ownership of the Devarayanadurga forests were transferred to the Forest department. The department constituted it as a State Forest under Captain Van Someran, the Conservator of Forests – the 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 the old estimated area of 18 square miles continued to be shown in the accounts.
Between 1880 and 1882, the forest was extended by adding an estimated area of 6 square miles (15.53 sq km) without any formal inquiry. Fifty years later, 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 totalled 454 square miles (1176 sq km).
On February 6, 1883, according to Notification No 38 under Section 9 of the Revised Forest Rules of 1878, the entire Devarayanadurga forest block was demarcated again 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 six 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 was encumbered with numerous rights and privileges, chiefly to the people surrounding it. He then 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 conformance with the District Forest Officer and was finally disposed of by the Deputy Commissioner.
Strengthening of conservation
On June 1, 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 February 19, 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.
The woods of Devarayanadurga continue to fulfill their ecological functions, without taking 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 and do not cut short their future.