Blood Stained Hands

“There it is”, Shashi Malik points out. Shashi is forester with huge experience of wildlife management. He is the first to sight it. The jeep stops with a screech. A huge male tiger is cooling itself in water saucer deep inside the jungle near Raiya Kassa crossing. The management of the Pench Tiger Reserve, where we are in, has created drinking water facilities for wild animals by way circular, cemented, 10-15 m diameter saucers for animals to drink water from in case it is not naturally available in the region. These saucers are filled by tankers as and when required. There are smaller saucers in areas where tanker may not reach. These are filled manually with hand pumps on one end.

The light is good. The tiger is in no rush. We take score of photos. Generally, it’s difficult to get time to shoot a tiger properly. The light may be bad. It may be hidden in bushes. The distance may be too much. It may be walking ahead and you are watching its bum…

We now wait for some different action or movement by the tiger. While we watch, Shashi notices red strains on the fore limbs of the tiger. These limbs are stretched out of the saucer while most of its rear body is in water. We all look closely, some with binoculars.  It is suspected that the limbs maybe injured. Tiger appears to be making limbs moment cautiously, more so, the left foot, added to the doubt.

The deputy director, K K Gurwani is with us. He gets worried. He knows that a new big male has recently taken to using this area. It has already pushed out another big male, famous as ‘BMW’, from the region.

There is always a possibility of territorial fight between the new one out to grab prime territory from the old established male, who is growing old.

Nevertheless, Gurwani maintains cool. He opines, “Maybe these are minor injuries. Such injuries, tiger is easily able to heal itself by licking. We will keep a watch.”

The discussion continues. Foresters decide that ‘A conclusion can be drawn when the tiger walks. If it limps badly, it will be matter of concern.’

We have been watching the tiger for half an hour but it is in no mood to rise and walk. In the meanwhile, local Deputy Ranger, Gautam Soni, famous man with about three decades of service for the Reserve has arrives. He can notice red strains with naked eyes. Deputy Director directs him to keep a watch and monitor the tiger.

We go around in the nearby area to see why spotted deer are making continuous alarm calls. There has been another tiger, or may be tigress, in the area. But we miss it.

Soon a message is received from Soni about the movement of the tiger. We dash to the spot. When reach, the tiger has left the saucer and we get a mere glimpse of it disappearing deep inside the forest. Soni assures us that all is well. There has been no limp in the walk of the tiger. The smart man has even grabbed video shot. We all see this and are reassured that there is nothing to worry.

A reanalysis of the mystery is done. It is felt that tiger must have made a kill and while handling the animal during feeding has soiled its fore limbs with blood. It is also discussed about the possible that tiger may have got brushes or minor injuries while hunting and tackling a strong animal. In any case, it is not Shakespearean blood stained hands in literal sense.

Pushp

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Launched into Sundarbans

 

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I am excited. I am ready before the appointed time of 8 am, and, in fact, we leave 10 minutes before from The Astor Hotel in downtown Kolkata for Sundarbans. It’s about 100 km drive. The traffic has not thickened as yet. We pass through Kolkata central, Kolkata suburbs, and are soon driving in the interior of Bengal towards south-east and pass through congested towns of Baruipur and Canning. At places, it is single lane road!

In about two and a half hour, we are at Godkhali, our destination by road. The name gave me a little shock for ‘khali’ in Hindi, as many of you know, means empty. If God is Khali, who will fulfil the greed of ever demanding man. Anyway, here onward, all travel is going to be by motor boat (launch) only. A forester friend has taken care of all the logistics – I have to be just there to relax, eat, enjoy the luxury and admire the wonder. The boat supervisor and his assistant have come to escort me from the car. It is a small walk to jetty. I stand at the head of stair leading to jetty and eye the scene. I can see, the white beauty, Bharat Laxmi, parked at the end of jetty stair. I am elated to board the boat. I envy myself to be able to make it to the unique landscape.

The driver and cook also welcome me, and here we go.  There are score of boats and several jetties around, and lot of movement of man and material. One of the towns in the region, Gosaba, is just across – people are connected to mainland by boat only. It is a question of getting used to it, since it is few minutes ride across. I see a boat carrying three motor bikes along with people. The bikers continue wearing the helmets as if not to waste even a second in speeding away when they land.

For those who may not know, Sundarbans is the largest delta (10,200 sq km) in the world formed by the convergence of two mighty Himalayan rivers, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, both of which flow into the Bay of Bengal. Sundarban Tiger Reserve is part of the delta. The entire area is a conglomeration of river channels, creeks and inhabited or forested islands.

I inspect the boat a little closer since this is going to be my companion for two days. I can see, from ‘bow’ about 7-8 feet space is open with rope bundles lying for tying the boat at jetty and rope hold on either side. There is flight of 8-10 steps to go to lower deck while two steps on its either sides take one to upper deck. The upper deck, has a driver cabin which can, besides the driver seat two more persons, in front of the cabin is a foot raised platform about 5 feet by 6 feet for people to sit or lie down on. The passage on either side has a chair placed. If need be, many more chairs can be placed. Behind the driver cabin is room with a large bed for staff to rest. Behind the room, till the tail, there is about 25 feet long open space with drums of fuel and fresh water, anchor and several of other miscellaneous stuff, and stair to go down to lower deck from the back. Lower deck houses two small bed rooms, two toilets and a dining hall. The section behind is partitioned off, comprises of boat engine and kitchen. The supervisor tells me, “The boat is 59 feet long. Of the boat’s height, four feet remains under water.”

I have the whole boat to myself. Tea is served. I stretch on the platform and enjoy the ever changing and passing by scenes.

We are cruising in the Bidhya River. The channel is quite wide. I can see many ships carrying merchandise to Bangladesh from Kolkata. It looks like a train of ships. This is an important trade route.

Also, the area is inhabited with several villages on both banks of the river. Sundarbans is a tidal delta. Presently, I feel that the water level seems to be rising. I check the tide times on net. Yes, this is high tide time and going to peak around 4.30 in the afternoon. Nevertheless, the boat is steadily cruising. The driver tells me, “The speed is, generally, 10 to 12 km per hour.”

The sky is overcast and all uniformly grey. In bigger channel e.g. the confluence of the Bidhya and the Malta rivers, where the channel is more than a kilometre wide, the view is somewhat monotonous – the grey sky almost merges with the grey water surface and the forest appears as dark, thin dividing line on both sides.

The cook announces lunch. I move to the dining hall. Wow! The spread covers the whole table –soupy daal, fried cottage-cheese and potato curry, okra curry, curd, papad, potato shreds deep fried, green salad, steamed rice and sweet rosogulla! It counts perfect 10!! And it’s all so tasty that I do not feel like ending. This is a luxury on water. Yes, I know, there are many, more luxurious, cruises catering to throng of tourists, but this is a different ball game. We are boating through a tiger reserve!

Soon, we leave the habitation behind and it is forest all around. I cannot peak deep inside but as we pass narrow channels or closer to the banks of islands, the vegetation is conspicuously different from inland forests I generally get to see.

This is all estuarine system of tidal swamp forest, largely comprising mangroves. These mangroves tolerate daily inundation of salty sea water in high tide! There are numerous uniqueness of the forest. I can count few, which I am just watching. One, the forest is refreshingly shiny green or yellowish green. No dust. Two, here and there are dashes of yellow or red leave canopies breaking the scene. Drying leaves. Three, these are low height vegetation, none of the lofty trees we see in inland forests. Loose soil cannot support lofty trees. Four, there is not even an inch of dry ground to be seen. Inter-tidal zone. Five, it is all alluvial soil. Six, nowhere any rock can be seen. Slit being brought in by rivers all the time. Seven, the vegetation is very dense. Eight, because of the forest falling in tidal delta, plants have evolved unique survival mechanism – some species are standing on stilts, others have pencil thin or dragon like thick aerial roots  (breathing roots called pneumatophores bearing lenticels for gaseous exchange)…

I can recognise Sundari (Heritiera fomes), Passur (Xyocarpus granatum), Kankra (Bruguiera gymnorhiza) and Mangrove Date Palm (Phoenix paludosa) though there are many more species present in this highly productive ecosystem.

Among the trees, one that stands out is Sundari. I do see one closely at the interpretation centre. I notice, the trunk develops buttresses and is grey with vertically fissured bark. The tree is in flowering. The pinkish bell-shaped small flowers form panicles. The canopy is conspicuous with drying bright yellow leaves ready to fall.

Sundarbans delta forest is apparently named after Sundari tree. I am told that in good old days, Sundari used to the dominant species here. I go by this idea, though there is also a thought that Sundarban is combination of Sundar (beautiful) and ban (forest).

Towards, late afternoon, the sun shows up. Forest brightens up. Monotonous grey is converted to varying hues. Sky and water liven up. We are passing through narrower channels and several smaller rivers. By and by, it is nightfall. We are going on and on. I am slightly worried. How is the guy driving? He has not even switched on the boat light! Probably, the sky light is guiding the course. Soon I realise, it’s foolish of me to worry. These people know the delta like the back of their hands. Though it’s manual driving but virtually auto-piloted with digitisation in their minds and hands. Without any doubt, they drop me safely to my night halt destination – Sajnekhali Resort.

 

Pushp

 

Post Script

Sundarbans is the largest delta in the world formed by the convergence of two mighty Himalayan rivers, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, both of which flow into the Bay of Bengal. This delta consists of 10,200 sq km of mangrove forests spread over India (4,200 sq km) and Bangladesh (6,000 sq km). The Indian Sundarban region consists of 4,200 sq km of Reserved Forests along with 5,400 sq km of non-forest area i.e. a total of 9600 sq km. Of this, Sundarban Tiger Reserve is spread over 2585 sq km. The entire area is a conglomeration of river channels, creeks and islands which total 102 in number. Of these, 54 islands are inhabited and the rest 48 islands are forested. Sundarban tidal delta experiences ‘the average tidal amplitude of 2.15 metre (maximum 5.68 m and minimum 0.96 m)’. There are host of wild animals found here among which, tiger tops the list.

There are 100s of species of plants in Sundarbans. Some of the important species are Sundari (Heritiera fomes), Dhungul or Passur (Xyocarpus granatum), Kankra (Bruguiera gymnorhiza), Gewa (Excoecaria agallocha), Goran ( Ceriops decandra) and Keora (Sonneratia apetala); palms Poresia coaractataMyriostachya wightiana and Nypa fruiticans (Golpata); and grasses spear grass (Imperata cylindrica) and Khagra (Phragmites karka).

 

125 floors below the ground!

My forester friend is finalising my visit to Sona Wani forest in Lal Barra Range of Balaghat Forest Division in the backyard of Madhya Pradesh. By the way, he asks me, “Will you like to see a Manganese mine?” I am not able to say yes or no immediately, as this is something out of blue. In my 60 plus years, I have not seen a Manganese mine or for that matter, any other mine closely from inside.  I say, “Yes!” with excitement – something really new.

We start at 9 am and reach Balaghat town around 11 am – 100 km drive from Seoni. All things are grand and protocol is followed. Accordingly, we can proceed further only after tea, which has been arranged at Balaghat FRH. The mine is another 8 km. A senior forester has arranged permission and guided tour for us.

In the meanwhile, I Google for Manganese mine and gather ‘Bharveli Manganese mine in Balaghat district is largest and deepest underground mine operating in Asia.’ Wow! Underground mine, another surprise.

The industry is big. It is evident from the highway itself. I can see huge residential colony to begin with, and a massive entrance gate. There is elaborate security process, which takes about 10 minutes!

As we proceed to underground mine manager’s office (which is on the surface only) the pollution is evident. All plants and trees have turned blackish with industrial dust covering the leaves and canopies. So, is the situation with buildings and vehicles.

We are expected became evident when we reach the manager’s office. Though, there is no body in the boss seat, but one person joins and welcomes us. He is wearing a helmet. His shirt is torn at one place and soiled with some blackish stuff. He is wearing gum boots. He welcomes us and introduces himself, “I am senior engineer”. I am taken aback – what modesty! Soon water and tea are severed. Alongside, we are dressed for the mine visit – helmet, a mountable torch with battery strapped around waist with leather belt, gum boots, and blue gown! ‘Do I look like a clown?’ I think.

Soon a young man, a junior engineer, is introduced to us. He will be our escort and guide in the mine. First thing he tells us as we walk to a crude gate, “we are going down about 1000 ft. To be precise it is 383 m.” I make some mental calculation and am amazed to realise that this means virtually 125 floors down the ground! The mathematics shakes me a bit. Second thing he tells us, “There are levels in mine. We are going to 12th level, though there are levels below this also.” I think, “Oh my god, are they digging to the core of the earth!!”

When the crude gate is opened, I realise that we are entering some kind of lift around 5 ft x 7 ft. There are rails fitted on the floor i.e. this is used for transportation of material and machinery also! It is largely open from all sides with some filmy wire mesh and tin walls. All is summed up in the name of the device – it is called ‘Cage!’

We keep going down and down. Water is dripping from all sides and some drops splash on us. After every half a minute or so, there is some light appearing. This is from the level of the mine we cross. It has been 5-6 minutes but looks much longer when we reach 12th level and we walk out of the cage into a different world.

The mine floor is fitted with rails for transportation of ore and other material. It is slushy with accumulating fine dust, ore spillage and seepage water. There is about four feet space besides the rail to walk along. There is a channel on one side, where mine seepage water is rushing to a point from where it is drawn out. Otherwise, the mine can get flooded. On the sides, there are number of pipes of various size and colour carrying whatnot. The ceiling is low. But what is worrying, there are jutting rocks here and there. As a reflex action, I am ducking all along to save my head and mind. The engineer shows us how ceiling is managed from falling with fixing of more than an inch thick bolts and iron plates all over.

The engineer assures that all is perfect science, and all standards and guidelines are followed, indirectly reassuring us to relax and enjoy. We are walking carefully, watching the floor – so as not to slip, step on uneven ground or topple on rail, and avoid falling into the side channel; keeping an eye on ceiling – avoid jutting rocks, loose hanging lights and pipes. We pass by a room dug out in the side wall, decorated with gods and goddesses photos, one bench to lie on, a table, a stool etc. The engineer tells us, “This is primary health care point.” To me, it looks like primitive health care point. We pass another hole in the side which is emergency communication point.

When we entered the floor, it has been surprisingly cool, breezy and pleasant. As we go farther, it becomes warmer and humid, but quite tolerable.

The engineer stops at a point, where a cranky and narrow temporary iron stair is installed. He tell us this is going up one level and from there, again to another level where actual mining is happening –drilling, blasting and material shifting. “No, we cannot go up. Its 15 m up the stairs and difficult,” the engineer tells us. We can image this from frequent, loud noise of falling material.  On the opposite side, some ten metres away, he shows us a hopper from where the produced material slides down from mining level and is collected in small 1.2 tonne bogies. It’s all complicated arrangement.

It must have been 600-700 m to the last point. We start back and as we near the exit, we see the final exiting part of the mine – a mini train, a small electric engine pulling half a dozen 1.2-tonne bogies. It is returning after transporting material to a point from where it is shifted to the surface by a lift.

As we stand waiting for the cage, in the adjacent section there is ore lying. The engineer picks up a small rock to show the colour and texture of Manganese ore – a steel grey-green smooth rock with blackish dust sticking to it. I pocket this as a souvenir.

On the way back, in the car, I look at the souvenir in clear sun light. I realise that bit of Manganese has rubbed on my trouser pocket, hands as well as shirt! I also realise, I am carrying the metal in my mind, and here it is.

Pushp Jain

 

Post Script

Madhya Pradesh is rich in manganese ore, mainly spread in Balaghat, Chhindwara and Jhabua districts. The “Bharveli manganese mine” in Balaghat district is largest and deepest underground mine operating in Asia. The manganese ore deposits of the State are being extracted mainly by the Manganese Ore India Limited (MOIL). MOIL was originally set up as “Central Province Prospecting Syndicate” in the year 1896 in the region of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. It was later renamed as “Central Provinces Manganese Ore Company Limited (CPMO)” in 1935. In 1962, the Government of India took over the mining activities from CPMO. MOIL operates 10 mines, six located Nagpur and Bhandara districts of Maharashtra and four in the Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh.

A Day Out with Baz Bhadur & Rani Rupamati

I am at Baz Bhadur’s Palace in Mandu. There are no tourists. A couple of ladies come but soon go away to the other part of the palace, which is segregated from the one I am in by a connecting door. I ask two accompanying forest guards to excuse me for a while.  I find the atmosphere tranquil. The open court has a beautiful cistern in the middle. There are rooms and halls all around. I am sitting at the steps of one of the hall with open courtyard in front of me. I can see green fields and forest and hilly landscape from the open arches. They sooth eyes as well as add diverse texture to the palace. Cool breeze is blowing. I just contemplate of those days when the palace has been brimming and buzzing with life, love and intrigue. I try to be one with the surroundings. I am entirely at peace with myself. The place has some magical charm. Soon I am pleasantly surprised. I hear the romantic song of love and romance and monsoon and….

Aaoge Jab Tum Saajna
Aaoge Jab Tum Saajna
Angana Phool Khilege
Barsega Saawan, Barsega Saawan
Jhoom Jhoom Ke
Do Dil Aise Milenge
Aaoge Jab Tum Saajna
Angana Phool Khilege ….

The man is singing full blast in the other section of the palace. I do not see the singer or audience but find this real mystic. I am elated beyond words.

This experience indeed transports me 500 years back to the legendary love of Baz Bhadur and Rani Rupamati. The history is rooted at this very place. A juxtapose of images is sailing in my mind. I feel as if I am one with the scene. I imagine characters from movies, books and plays to fit in to the eternal romance and history.

The song goes on and on. Every moment is wonderful, soul filling. At the end, I clap silently – applause from the core of my heart. I feel like presenting a gift to the singer but I am in no mood to move back to present. I want to continue soaking in the spirit of the place.

A peacock makes a call to reinforce the fact that we are in the middle of natural surrounds. So do a flock of rose-ringed parakeets flying past and making shrill ‘kir, kir, kir.. .’

Slowly, I move from an opening behind me to the other section of the palace this too has halls and rooms around with a small courtyard in the centre. The only difference is that there is no outside view of the forest or hills.

We take a flight of steps to terrace. This turns out to be another interesting part of the palace. The view of the surrounding Mandu landscape with greenery is pleasing but the functional part probably must have been the clear view in the south of Rani Rupamati pavilions. These are on a slightly higher platform.  As a crow fly the distance would be around 500 m only. This palace terrace has two Baradaris (pavilion with three doors like arches on each side, all making 12 i.e. bara). I can visualise Baz Bhadur lazing around in well laid Baradari and admiring the Rani across, in one of the pavilions.

Incidentally, I have visited Rain’s pavilion last time. This is end of the road and highest point in the area. One has to walk about half a km on the inclined path way.  There are rooms and halls and arched passages. There are pavilions above. On the back, it is sheer drop of several hundred metres but provides a panorama of Nimar plains with the Narmada winding across. Guide has told me that Rani Rupamati used to visit the place daily from a palace nearby to have darshan of holy Narmada.

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Yes, I do spend some time in the Baradari visualising a queen across. The song still echo in my ears and eyes look at the paradise beyond.

Pushp

 

PS: I try to dig some history. Pick up a book on Mandu by Archaeological Survey of India. It appears in mid-15th Century AD, one Malik Bayazid after the death of his father, the then Governor of Malwa region, crowned himself as an independent ruler with the title Sultan Baz Bhadur. He was not much of a king and was soon defeated by Rani Duravati. He took to music in which Rani Rupamati was his most famous associate. The devotion and love between them is reflected from the fact that they are well known part of Malwa folk songs.

It Rocks!

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Green water is so still, as if it is a calm lake. But no, we are sailing in one of the most famous spot on the grand and revered Narmada River – the marble rocks. The stillness is because of the huge depth of the river. The green is the refection of the good forest on top. Massive marble rocks are rising along both edges of the river. In fact, it’s a gorge, narrow at some places and little wide at others. The guide-boatman  tells, “This used to be so narrow at one point of time that monkeys used to jump across from one side to the other.”

I am alone and relaxed in the boat. I have decided to take full boat so that it is leisurely and un-interfered sailing, viewing and photography. As we begin our journey, on the left top, I see temples, rest houses and resorts overlooking the gorge. Soon, the hangover of the Ghat and town up are past and we are sailing in the quiet part of the marble rocks. I say, it rocks!

The November weather is fine. It is slightly cloudy today. This makes the marble a little less glistening. Nevertheless, the amazing colours of marbles in different sections of the gorge fascinate. There are range of it – cream, rust, brown, grey, blue and what not. Much of the marble at places is weathered, turning almost black.

The boatman makes a good and humorous commentary on the tit-bits on the way. Atop a small marble island jutting out in the river, an oval shaped rock with garland etc has been placed, representing God Shiva (Linga). Incidentally, a red-wattled lapwing appears to be engrossed in prayer at this temple!

At places, crude shapes have been carved by nature in the rocks, adding attraction to the already great site e.g. a man like figure sitting on the chair at the edge of the hill –  give it a slight push, it can tumble down into the gorge; a playful child, a god, an elephant face with massive trunk…

In this setting, I notice an egret, perched on a rock near the water’s edge. It is not afraid of our approach. It does not fly away, when we pass by, almost at a touching distance.

Oh! A boat is parked across, appearing to be blocking the way. As we reach near, there is way to cross. I notice a young couple is being photographed by boatman in odd setting! Maybe they find it romantic.

Two hundred meters ahead, I can see and hear water gurgling. Boatman announces, “We have reached the last possible sailing point.  Ahead it is very rough.” I tell him, “No worry, turn back. I am having a wonderful time.”

I have noticed all along, there is water mark about 5-6 feet above the present water level. I have not imagined the reason. The guide tells, “Upstream, there is the Bargi dam and Hydro-Electric Project on Narmada. Every night, water is released from the project and the water level rises to the water mark.” Oh!

The guide has been explaining all that is possible in his capacity. Boatman has not been pushing for fast return. He even asks me if I want it some other way or stop anywhere. In fact, though he took me for a ride but he has not taken me for a ride! It was money and times’ worth.

Pushp

PS : The marble rocks are in Bhedaghat, a small town on the bank of Narmada, 20 km from Jabalpur a well known city in Madhya Pradesh. Bank of the river at important places have been developed as Ghats where people visit to pray and take a dip in the holy river and feel blessed. The market up the Marble Rocks is all marble – 100 per cent of the shops are dealing in marble statues and souvenirs.

 

Ladvi – Fit for Hermit’s Abode

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It is night when we enter the Ladvi FRH. There are two suits on the first floor. The room is big. Chowkidar and others quickly do bit of dusting – re-spread the bed sheet and arrange blanket and pillows. I open the door at the other end. Oh! There is huge balcony. I prefer to spend time out. Staff lay a sofa, half a dozen chairs and a table here. Soon they are done. I take only five minutes to change and fix a drink and come out to balcony and incline on the sofa.

I am in another world. The moon is 3-day waned and the chandni is spread across the scene, lighting it softly. The Narmada, is inconspicuously flowing in front of me – almost running parallel, half a km spread of greenish water sheet, slightly simmering under the moonlight.  The scene sends a cool wave through my spine and now my mind understand, and I whisper  ‘Ma Narmaday’ i.e. mother Narmada. There is no artificial light. There is no human being. There is no noise. There is no disturbance. There is nothing in-between me and nature.  I envy my own luck. What an opportunity because of my forester friend, Anil Nagar. I mentally thank him.

A bamboo grove on the left side and few scattered trees on the right and open scrub in front without any construction make the rest house, a prefect site for meditation. I am virtually sensing spirituality in the air and surrounding.

In the night, the nature is over enveloping.  I am overwhelmed. I love to forget everything and be light and fresh. Moon’s soft light, indeed, always fills my heart with joy and love. If fact, I have named my daughter, Chandni. And yes, the presence of a water-body in forest makes the scene complete. I can hear a nightjar in the back ground. There are insects, moths…. around. Many of them are already resting in my bed.  I have to close the door of the room. I am sure there must be minor mammals, amphibians, reptiles active down there – busy in nitty-gritty.

I have been at Ladvi during the day. Incidentally, rather in fact, Ladvi is an important nursery of the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department, spread across about ten acres of forest land. There are nursery beds spread to wherever the eyes go. Staff is busy in all kind of nursery activities. The water sprinklers are spraying water across to one and all plants. Oh, one malfunctioning sprinkler sprays some water on me as well. As an impulse reaction, I step back.

I can see there are beds with old plants, may be two-three old. There are beds with sand filled polythene bags, recently seeded, and saplings just emerging in most of them. There are few beds holding one-year old plants, left over of this year’s distribution.  I bed particularly attracts me. It has saplings of Baobab (Adansonia spp.), the famous inverted tree of Africa. The forester in-charge of the nursery informs me, “This monsoon about 4.5 lakh, largely teak and other forest tree species, and some fruit bearing plants have been sent to forest divisions around. 10,000 plants have gone to a village panchayat.” While going around, we pass through a bamboo grove – the massive plants on both sides of a narrow jeep-able path, have formed a beautiful tunnel.

And then, when we emerge in the open, I am unable to believe that we are just 200 m from the bank of a river, the mighty and revered Narmada. I feel like running to touch the sacred water. I do not run but I do touch the water!

Incidentally, Ladvi falls between two sacred temple towns cum Narmada Ghats – Mandleshwar and Maheshwar. These are thronged by lakhs of pilgrims and tourists.  Here at Ladvi, it is our own Ghat, a rare privilege. I do go to Maheshwar in the afternoon. The boat ride exposed the dirt and garbage on the Ghat.  From the middle of the river, I can see, Gods or Goddesses live there in majestic and massive temples. At Ladvi there is no garbage on the Ghat and the Gods are everywhere – a perfect place for hermit’s abode.

Pushp

Wall of Night

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The name sounds exotic – ‘Kali Bheet Ka Jungle’. Tucked away in the backyard of Central India, it’s part of the Khandwa Forest Division in Madhya Pradesh. My forester friend, Anil Nagar is taking me around. We arrive at Amaliya Forest Rest House. Oh! This is different. I have been used to seeing British style FRH in most the forests I visit. Here the whole dimension is massive – long driveway, huge lawns, the building raised 7-8 feet from the ground, double storied building with two-luxurious suites on each floor along with huge halls –lounge on the ground and dinning on the upper floor.

I enter the suite and amazed at 20 feet by 20 feet room with 8 feet by 10 feet bath and huge balcony overlooking a rivulet. This may have been built 2-3 years ago but looks as if done yesterday and the quality of workmanship is visible along with the tasteful layout, design and furnishing. In fact, this is far different from generally shoddy and poor works of the forest department in building and construction. I like the place immensely.

We start for forest visit around 4.30 pm. It’s still lot of light. Yadav, the local forest guard accompanies us. As we drive, my first question to him is “Why this forest called Kali Bheet?”  Yadav explains Kali is for Raat i.e. night and Bheet is for wall. The reason is that this is a high density, sparsely habituated forest area. In good old days, with virtually no vehicle or human traffic, the tribal found this as a dark wall even during the day.

Yadav first takes us to a medicinal plant rich area. Presently the entire ground is covered with greenery which includes herbs, shrubs, saplings, grass, weeds… Incidentally, we find it difficult to locate medicinal plants! Yadav does manage to locate few. I take note of Hindi names and take some photos. Later I find, Hathjod or Hadjod (Cissus quadrangularis)  is for  joining bone; Vajradanti (Barleria prionitis) is for teeth; Yam (Dioscorea species), is used as food and for manufacture of steroid; Bhui Amla (Phyllanthus niruri) is reported to be useful in Hepatitis-B, Jaundice, Cirrhosis of liver, intestinal infection, diabetes, chronic fever, loss of appetite and what not.

I come across a sign board indicated this forest patch to be a Medicinal Plant Conservation Area (MPCA). This was a popular concept in late 1990s of identifying medicinal plant rich area in forest and demarking 200 ha for conservation. There was a project being supported by UNDP, which included creation and management of such areas in the country. The forest departments were enthusiastic as funds were available. With the end of scheme, the MPCA is no better than the forest it has been. The sign board is rolling in dust!  The glare and lime-light of MPCA is no more, and Kali Bheet is back to normal. It is back to local people for use and abuse.

f course, a stream besides the MPCA is live because of monsoon. The water is crystal clear and gushing along. We can see small fishes, crabs, frogs and even a small snake in the steam.

I am told, the locals heavily depend on the forest and all the wildlife including deer, fish, crab… end up in people’s stomach! People have almost eaten the golden goose.

We drive another few kilometres and come to a patch where there is a pond. I can see that department has created some recreational facility around. And Yadav shows us the reason. Hidden in the woods is wonderland of era gone by. There is a bawadi (step well), there is temple, and there is fort – all in ruins. The walls and virtually the whole place have been dug out by locals in past, in the belief that there may be some hidden treasure. Yadav tells me that local tribe has claimed right over this site under the Forest Right Act. Incidentally, I notice that the rightful owner, the forest, has already claimed the site back and there is vegetation all over and around the structures!!

Forest around is mysterious entangled mass. Oh! I side step. There is huge pile of fresh cow dung.  I feel, have I stepped on this, there would have been no way to clean the shoes and I may have to walk back bare foot. Cattle have not left even this abode of gods, kings and queens and probably tiger alone. It’s so disgusting, and worrying as well. Much of the forests in India are going down in cows’ stomach or in firewood stoves.

It’s getting dark and we decide to return. Even though it is September, the weather is pleasant and cool. Slight chill is there in the air.

In the night, we go to bed around 11. We have the luxury of a suite each. After a long day, I switch off light and lie down on the bed. Soon, I feel some big ant crawling on me. I remove this. Then another, another… I get up and put on light. Oh, there are quite of lot of them moving in few streams from right of left on bed rest and around pillows. I clear them all with bed sheet and lie down again. I am about to doze off when I feel some more ants crawling on me. I again get up and put a light on. Oh my god! The big ants are all over the bed. They seem to be busy in themselves with least concern of my presence.

I take a tough decision. I leave the bed for ants. I pick up a sheet, blanket and pillow and stretch on sofa. It is uncomfortable but there is no way out in the middle of night.

In the morning I wonder, ‘What’s wrong?’ Being a wildlifer, I realise that probably these large ants, also called carpenter ants have their nests somewhere in the bed. It is known that they chew out galleries in dead and damp wood to nest, particularly in forest areas.

In the morning, we go out around 7 am. We are driving on the State Highway No. 26 towards Betul. The forest is lush green and all washed up – shining and fresh – because of the monsoon. Anil notices something on the road side and asks the driver to back about 100m. Yes, he has certainly noticed a unique bulbous flower. Neither Anil nor I have ever seen this. Yadav tells us, ‘this is jungli (wild) arbi.’  As we are viewing and photographing it, I notice another herb standing tall with beautiful light purple bell shaped flowers with one portion being dark purple. Yadav tells us, ‘this is jungli til (wild sesame)’. We are happy that we are watching these two new plants.

Later, in a rapid internet search I find that Jungli Arbi is Dwarf Gonatanthus which is medicinal. It is reported that ‘paste from the rhizome is applied on the chest for chest pain. Juice from crushed leaves is used as an antibiotic for wounds in humans and animals.’ It is called Jungli arbi because the leaf of the plant is very much similar to the vegetable arbi commonly eaten in India. As for the ‘Jungli til’ the species is probably, Sesamum orientale, while the cultivated til is Sesamum indicum.

About four kilometres down the road at one bend in the road, Anil asks the driver to stop the vehicle. He is admiring the diversity in the forest. He tells me, “this is real rich forest. See the diversity.” As we walk for about 200 metres he identifies about a dozen trees species some of which I noted are Anjan (Hardwickia binata), Salai (Boswellia serrata), Gurjon (Lannea coromandelica), Haldu (Haldina cordifolia), Dhawra (Anogeissus latifolia) besides teak /Sagon (Tectona grandis). He is impressed and so I am.

Later, we take a forest trail and decide to walk for a while. We leisurely explored the forest. Spider webs are, of course, conspicuous and interesting. One which is large has the Giant Wood Spider in the middle, commonly seen in sal and teak forest. There are smaller ones also– the quirky one is a conical, funnel shaped web generally on the ground new the tree base or small mound. Incidentally, this spider is called funnel weaver!

Anil is keen on butterflies. He gets interested in one and looks closely. Yadav says, ‘It’s one wing is broken. Probably some lizard may have tried to kill it.’ Further exploration reveals what I have never seen. Anil lifts the butterfly with soft hold of thumb and a finger. Oh! Amazing. It is yet to born completely. It’s so called damaged wing is still in the pupa while rest has emerged out. Pupa shell is still holding part of the wing and body of the butterfly. It’s not fully air borne. We live it in peace, perched on a herb.

As it starts getting hot, we return back. I must say, the forests have unending hidden treasure to make us wonder. Already I am planning for the next travel.

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Kuraigarh or Shergarh

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We leave Seoni for Kuraigarh around 9 am after breakfast. It’s a larger than usual group out to conquer the Garh. Besides my forester friend, Shashi Malik, there is one young forest officer, posted as Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) before getting final posting as Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Sidharth Gupta, and another old SDO, Tej Bhan Pandey, and one forester and a forest guard. Sounds like a gang. But jokes apart, Garhs (forts) in good or bad old days used to be attacked often to be conquered.  In fact, that is the only work the kings used to do.

From Seoni we take Nagpur national highway. It is like flying – newly constructed four-lane road with trees and towns far off. The flying stops as soon we reach the forest area, largely Pench Tiger Reserve. The road narrows down to old two-lane. The forest and hills close in. You can see, feel and smell forest. This road has been a bone of contention between developers and the environmentalists for about a decade. Besides the rich forest proposed to be chopped down, the broad road would act as a barrier for wild animals to cross across, thus leading to fragmentation. Those animals who dare to cross can get killed by fast moving vehicles. There have been litigations against the expansion of this road but at the end of the day, the developers win. There has been a fait accompli kind of situation – Highway has been developed at both ends and this forest patch has become a bottleneck. The traffic density has increased tremendously.  The narrow hill road with twists and turns leads to frequent traffic jams with huge trucks plying on this highway. Only compromise is that several under passes would be developed at the identified animal-crossing points to avoid disturbing wildlife to some extent.

We enter the Pench buffer area from Rukhad FRH side. Kuraigarh is about 10 km from here. It’s monsoon time. The forest is wearing its greenest colours. We drive slowly. There are temporary cross bunds put across the road to protect it from getting washed away or damaged due to water flowing at various angles across the Kachcha track. The ride becomes bumpy.

This is dry-deciduous mix forest. I can see tendu, saja, amla, salai, dhora, teak, semal etc. The ground is full of regeneration, herbs and shrubs in most places. The bamboo is present in conspicuous number and volume. But many of the pure bamboo patches do not have a blade of grass growing on the ground besides the bamboo clumps. No chance, since little light penetrate on to the ground.

In the hilly area the path is narrow while in the plain area there is larger opening in the canopy and there is much more clearing on both sides. The monsoon season as well as late morning time means very little sighting of animals.

The vehicle ahead stops with a screech. The road is narrow. The grass is growing on both sides as well as in the middle of track where vehicle tyres do not roll. The people emerge and walk forward to see something. We are not sure what has happened but do not want to miss action. We get out and rush ahead too. One forester whispers, “Sir, tiger pug marks.” He whispers as if he is watching a tiger actually! In the rain soaked mud the foot prints are crystal clear. It is certainly exciting. It is always thrilling to see tiger foot prints. It adds value to the forest. You are assured that a tiger is present in the forest. In fact, as a matter to habit, in such situation, I always look around, to assure myself that the tiger is not watching us from too close a distance.

I look at the pug marks little closely. Make some mental note and look at the photos later. Though I am no expert but I find that foot prints are squarish, and on drier ground the toes are roundish, indicating tiger may be a male. Furthermore, there are set to two impressions each with two foot prints. They are both sets of left feet. What I could make out is that left hind foot is falling ahead of left front foot. This indicates the tiger may have been walking fast. In normal speed, the hind superimposes on the front and in slow speed the hind falls behind the front.

We see large, colourful spider with webs spread between two adjacent trees which can be 4-6 feet and with similar or more height. I remember, seeing these webs shining in sun at certain angle making each and every thread clear. But not so much today, it’s cloudy. If it rains, no worry. The web is water proof from all indications. I have see, water droplets hanging from each and every thread but the web does not break down. Even if it is not rain, it can be dew-droplets at times in winter. I just thought, let me be sure. I quickly glance at internet. I find myself correct. But there is more to it. Discover reports of one Chinese research where they find the science in the method of collection of dew-droplets by web which can be used in high tech water collection from air.[1] Another article talks of potential of man wearing spider web silk in future.[2]

I think, “What intricate work? What labour? What wonder?” On second thought I realise, “But then what else. Life is this only. Work, eat, rest and move on.  This is what the whole animal kingdom does. Some may pretend to be different but…”

Slowly we are gaining height. Then the road ends. We are done. It’s about 200 metres steep down and up and we arrive at the rocky plateau of Kuraigarh. It’s top of the world kind place – Highest in the surrounding. As has been the practice, in the days gone by fort used to be built at the highest and most inaccessible place. That way, the site fits in for Kuraigarh. But there is no fort. There is not even a ruin to indicate any part of the buildings in the fort. The forest guard accompanying us shows me an arrangement of stones circling the rocky plateau to some distance.  I am told this is all that remains of the fort.

For a Delhite like me,  fort brings in mind pictures of Red Fort, which is intact even after more than three & a half centuries  or Purana Qila (Old Fort), which is 2000-3000 years old, renovated in 16th century by the then rulers, retains many of the old structures.

This would be wrong and unrealistic to imagine such forts in Seoni.  This is a tribal land. These must have been very small forts and not of sturdy kind.

Nevertheless, the site is exciting. There is 100 percent density forest all around in the valley and hills. Only in far left we can see hint of some habitation of Kurai village which is also the developmental block headquarter – Kurai Tehsil.

Cool breeze is blowing – ballooning my shirt and caressing my hair. The rocks have blackened with exposure. Here, there is nothing but nature. I see a pile of scat (excreta). I suspect this may be tiger’s. Shashi confirms, “Yes, its tiger’s.”

It’s not difficult to visualise a tiger lazily walks over and after relieving, sits on a rock, dog style, and brood over his kingdom, realise ‘I am the blessed one to have such rich forest as my territory.’  It lords over the fort landscape which can very well be now called ‘Shergarh (Tiger Fort)’.

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[1] http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2010/02/04/dew-spangled-spider-webs-could-inspire-high-tech-water-collection/#.W4pkPs4zZ0w

[2] https://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/in-the-future-well-all-wear-spider-silk

 

Dancing Elephant

 

I am staying at Hinouta Jungle Camp, just adjacent to entry gate of Panna Tiger Reserve with family and friends. Jungle surrounds the Camp. I can see domestic elephant camp about 200 meters away. One afternoon, we decide to meet the elephants and mahouts, and just walk across.

Uniqueness of Panna as far as domestic elephants are concerned is the 100-year old grand lady, Vatsala. Vatsala has been brought from Kerala to Hosangabad  in 1971 and shift to Panna in 1993. She has worked in Nilambur Forest Division of Kerala in her early days. The grand old lady love calves born at the camp and take full care of them. She is always there from the day baby is born to help the mother in calf-care. She is docile. She does not mind touching and caressing by visitors. One mahout tells me that she has never shown displeasure to anybody inside or outside the Camp. It is a different matter that one male elephant, though named Rama, has behaved like Ravana with her – grievously injuring her with his tusk not once but twice during last 15 years. Reserve management has sent Rama to Vanvas i.e. shifted to a separate forest camp while on the other hand, Vatsala has been relieved of all work. She is free to have good time.

Vatsala

There is action all around. We see there are at least four calves at the Camp. With an adult, they are busy eating. My friend, Amar Singh Gond, Forest Range Officer, joins us. He takes our photo with Vatsala for posterity. In the meanwhile, mahouts tie naughty calves. These calves playfully kick and push visitors, which can hurt.

Panna Calves

I am attracted towards a calf about two years old, who is swinging. On observation, I notice that the baby is actually dancing with rhythmic movement of trunk, tail, ears, legs and body. Incidentally, the dance is pretty fast and continue at least till we are there i.e. about half an hour.

Noticing our interest, Mahout, Ekka Jhabru joins us. He informs me that this dancing calf is Purnima. He points to another older elephant calf, Vanya, a seven year old female, about 100 m away. We notice that this young lady too is dancing but much more softly, its rhythm involves front feet only, which automatically gives a little swing to the body.

I think this is a coincidence. Ekka tells me, “No, this is not the case. Vanya is elder sister of Purnima!” “Genetic?” I wonder.

Incidentally, elephants go to roam free in the nearby jungle around 7-8 am. They come back around 5 pm and enjoy laboriously prepared meal – food balls cooked from rice, aata (wheat flour) and besan (gram flour), salt etc. There can be variation in quantity and contents depending upon age and health of elephants, and season.

Continuous i.e. non-stop dancing is real energy. I brood, “Can this be due to meal just taken?”  Ekka updates me, “Purnima is normal in jungle, it is only when it is tied in the evening that it dances continuously till it falls asleep. Similar is the case of elder sister, Vanya.”

“Where is Purnima and Vanya’s mother?” I enquire. I am shocked to know that their mother, Mohan Kali, lives in another forest range, Chandra Nagar, 30 km away. Here, another adult female, Anar Kali, has adopted the calves. And of course, Vatsala is always around to watch and take care. What a fraternity.

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Remember Mowgli?

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Shashi tell me, “Today we are going to one of the most important landmarks in Central India – Mowgli Land.” The very name Mowgli makes me keenly interested. Most of you would know that Mowgli is world renowned character from The Jungle Book, a fiction written by Joseph Rudyard Kipling in nineteenth century (1894). Mowgli is portrayed as man-cub reared by wolves, living among wild animals almost like a wild animal.

We start from Seoni after breakfast around 9.30. We are driving on a four lane road. As we progress, in one and an half hours, from four lane Seoni-Mandla State Highway, we are on two, and than one, and later no lane road. Finally, it’s dead end! We have arrived.

I notice from a sign board, we are in Kanhiwada Range of the South Seoni Territorial Forest Division. The place is closely surrounded by hills which are densely forested all around. Looking down a narrow gorge, I notice a rivulet flowing. Tej Bhan Pandey, Sub-Division Officer, with us informs, “This is the Hirni River, a jungle stream, originating in Rukhad Forest Range near Seoni.”

Shashi tells me, “This place is also known as Amodagarh.”  Garh is for a fort. I notice it is isolated enough today and wonder what it would have been centuries ago. There is no fort or ruin around, which I can see. I wonder if this is just an imagination. Local forest guard shows me the remains of a wall which is supposed to have surrounded the fort! This is virtually a pill up of stones, which can be imagined as ruin of a boundary wall.

Amodagarh is in middle of Reserved Forest. I think, ‘there must be some mention about the place in the history of the region in the Working Plan of the Forest Division’. We check the Plan later but find nothing about Amodagarh. Few internet pages mention, Amodagarh has been Sona Rani’s palace, though no serious literature is available. On Google Map, I am able to locate the place –Seoni (State Highway No. 12) – Kanhiwada – Chhui – Mordungri –Amodagarh.

One thing I can certainly assume from the site is that Amodagarh must have been among the tiniest forts in the country. Second, I can assume many would not have known the existence of this fort because of the location. This looks more like a hiding place.

I notice a group of local tourists arrive in two cars. They straight away take to stairs going down to river. It is clear they know the place. Forest Beat Guard of the area tells me, “This is local picnic place. Families and friends spend time here, eat, dance, sing and have fun in the river and forest around.” In fact, Google Map too mentions Amodagarh as a picnic spot!

Madhya Pradesh Eco-Development Board seems to be promoting the place as the forest around which Mowgli stories are weaved. A statue of Mowgli-Wolf has been erected, though, not quite attractive. A watch tower and a cafeteria have also been developed here.

I vaguely remember some lines from The Jungle Book, read 40 years ago, and some scenes from the Jungle Book movie seen later. Somehow, this really does not seem like the Jungle where the Book is plotted.

I glance though some pages on internet. It excites me to know more about Mowgli stories and more about the author. First of all, Kipling is born in Bombay (1865), lived here for six years as a kid, and after 10 years returns to work as a journalist for 7 years. Clearly, he does not spend lot of time in India. But then, he has been much appreciated author in his 20s itself. In fact, The Jungle Book (1894) has proceeded by the book ‘In the Rukh’ and followed by the book ‘The Second Jungle Book (1895)’. There have been many more famous stories in between.

The truth is that The Jungle Book is a fiction and Mowgli (man-cub), Bagheera (black panther), Baloo (bear), Sherkhan (tiger), Raksha (mother wolf), Kaa (python) etc are all characters. There is mention of ‘Seonee’ in some stories but Kipling never visited the present day Seoni forest. Nevertheless, some literature mention that he used what he knew, what he read, what he heard and what he dreamt in his stories! What surprises me more is what I learn from Britannica – ‘Kipling has received Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907’!

I remember, for quite some time, Pench forest (i.e. Pench National Park/ Tiger Reserve) has been marketed as Mowgli land by the M P Forest Department, Seoni District Administration and Pench resort owners alike. Kanha Tiger Reserve in adjacent districts too has been reported to share the Mowgli glory. I tried briefly but could not find any sure proof of the forest where Mowgli stories are plotted.  I end this piece with a question, ‘Where is The Jungle Book plotted?’

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Forest Rest House – My House So Often

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I am delighted for my forester friends and for naturalists like me. The Supreme Court today has done a wonderful thing. Forest Departments across the country have got a much needed support and moral boost. The Forest Rest Houses were for foresters, are for foresters (?) and will be for foresters for sure – No more take our by district administration or ABC…

The Supreme Court of India has ordered today:

  1. The control of Forest Rest Houses, including their reservation shall under all circumstances remain with the Forest Department.
  2. At no circumstance the control of the FRH/IB’s located inside the forests be taken over by the District Administration / Government.
  3. Forest Rest Houses / Inspection Bungalows located within the forest area including the Protected Areas shall not be transferred to private and commercial entities in the name of public –private partnership or by whatever name such an arrangement is called, for promotion of any form of tourism including Ecotourism.
  4. The Forest Department should make every effort to retain the basic plan and elevation of old FRHs/IB’s many of which are heritage buildings, while making improvement / addiction to these buildings.

This is landmark development for all forest departments, foresters, naturalists and wildlifers. It’s a Supreme court concurred by Government of India.

 

 

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