Wonder of ‘Sanskara’

It’s a cool place. Cool within quote – neat and clean, 360 degree view, air in the purest form, clear sky and density 0.4/0.5 forest. The panorama has a kaleidoscopic muted spread of colours. Foresters friends know about forest density but other may wonder. Briefly, I can say the canopy cover of tree in the forest is 40/50 per cent, which means dense forest here.

We are comfortably sitting around at the top level of a beautifully designed and constructed Watch Tower in middle of the forest, far from the madding crowd. The cosy floor is equipped with fixed stone table and benches.

Ashok ji with us appropriately words the weather – gulabi thand i.e. early winter when cold does pinches but is enjoyable and pleasant. One can wear warm clothes or can do without them. One can sit in sun or shade, both ways, it’s ok.

I am excited. I am not listening to what friends with me are talking. I am smelling the forest. I take time to capture the visuals in mind first before camera. Dhok is predominate species in the forest. It’s clearly visible all over from the forest canopy – small leaves are drying, turning to reddish-pinkish-brownish, difficult to name one colour. In fact, Dhok canopy does not look like canopy but as if mist is spread over. Different tree species are contributing different colours to panorama, green of course is common, in different hues, but there is rare yellow or greyish touch here and there. Most conspicuous in the drama is white top of the canopy of a temple in middle of tree mass.

I recollect while we have been on way to this region we saw patches of forest terribly degraded so much so that tree species have been so over exploited for wood and fodder and browsed so much by domestic livestock that they are not growing beyond bushes!  We are told that there is too much of anthropogenic pressure – that is man as well as his animals. This is much beyond the carrying capacity of the forest and thus we see degradation all around.

Naya Nagar forest block is an oasis in this degraded forest landscape. How come? And that is the why we are also here.

In one word, this is because of Satyanarain Joshi of Ladpura – State Vrish Mitra awardee about a decade ago and recently, Amrita Devi Award of the Forest Department of Rajasthan Government for 2015. Satyanarain is the lead person of Joint Forest Management Committee of Ladpura villagers and local forest department for Naya Nagar Forest Block of Mandalgarh Forest Range of Bhilwara Forest Division of Rajasthan.

There are thousands of Joint Forest Management Committees in the country since the fag end of the last century when this new concept of participation of the local communities in forest management was conceived and introduced. Soon corrupt bureaucracy and greedy locals connived and grabbed the new institutions and ensured virtual failure of the programme. It is a different matter that things looked great on paper with rosy statistics. The degradation of forests continued.

One obvious question comes to my mind. While so many of the JFMCs have failed, how Naya Nagar JFMC has succeeded? I raise this question directly to Satyanarain.

He explains, “My father is now in 90s. He has been a village senior and once a member of the legislative assembly (MLA), but he leads a simple life, spending time at the farm involved with agriculture and animals or in religious and spiritual matters. He heads a famous temple trust, where animal sacrifice has been stopped with his persistent efforts. On top of this, he is very sensitive to forest and wildlife and strives to protect them even going against his own fellow villagers, if necessary. This is what I have inherited. This is what I have seen. This is what I have learned. This is in my blood.  This is my ‘Sanskara’.”

Naya Nagar JFMC has been carrying on forestry and protection activities in the forest area with limited financial support of the Forest Department but with keen involvement of the Committee. Over the period of time the support has almost gone dry.  Satyanarain says, “We have to keep at least 4 watchmen for a minimum period of four monsoon months to allow seeds to germinate, saplings to develop and the forest to grow and ground water to recharge. I have been carrying on the protection work by managing to collect about one lakh rupees per year from friends and my own pocket for the payment of salary of the watchmen.”

Will any bureaucrat believe, Sanskara has been able to protect 20 sq km of forest with peanuts of private donations!

Pushp

 

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Wilderness having a free run in Asirgarh

Asirgarh is a fort of huge size and of huge importance, being strategically built at the gateway of Deccan by one Adil Khan. Talking of size, I read the simple data engraved in stone at the entry to the fort – 3300 ft long, 1800 ft wide, 60 acre and surrounded by wall up to 120 ft! Talking of importance, it is known as ‘Key to Deccan’!

I have been travelling around Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh and visit to Asirgarh has been on the list. It’s September. The monsoon is in air. It’s not hot. We start around 8.30 a.m. after breakfast. A forester accompanies me. The place is around 50 km from Khandwa, 22 km short of Burhanpur town to which the fort lends historical touch, though, there is whole lot Mughal history scattered around all over Burhanpur.

Incidentally, the fort was originally known by the name, Asa Ahir, the real builder of the Fort in early 15th Century. Over the period, the name has been abridged to Asir and the fort has been expanded.

As is usual, the fort is located at the highest point in the landscape –  259 m above ground and 701 m above m.s.l. It’s Satpura Hills. Satpura name sends a wave of excitement through my spine – it’s one of the most important, biodiversity rich hill ranges of Central India.  It’s a 3-4 km drive up a narrow and rough track – at places one has to back to take a turn! Of course, very difficult if some vehicle has to pass from opposite direction. To add to the difficulty, while going up, left side is steep fall and right side is steep wall of the hill. Because of monsoon, the road sides are full of luxuriant growth of vegetation, making the road still narrower.

Frankly, I do not have a particular interest in monuments. I really do not like forts which for one certainly involve climbing 100s of steps and walking long distances, at times in scorching sun and throng of people all around.

There is flight of steps, twisting and turning, and passing through a massive gate – if I remember correctly, forts are so designed that attackers on elephants cannot have access to them!

I have been thinking. Would it be worth it to write about the fort in my blog. I keep the decision pending – will decide after the visit. But, the situation makes me decide as soon as I arrive at the plain ground in the fort, there are Grey Langurs (monkeys) waiting to welcome. A party of them has been busy jumping around, hobnobbing or what.

There is a massive overgrowth of herbs and shrubs all over – Adding green contrast to aging walls, buildings and ruins. Path in the fort is made narrower with growth of vegetation on both sides. Luckily there is no tourist around, which is indeed rare. As I walk, at every foot fall, grass hoppers take off and disappear in the vegetation -Hundreds of these large and colourful creatures. I am afraid I may not step on them but I see them only when they hop off from path to plants. I do manage to take few photos of these interesting insects.

Jama Masjid is one land mark in the fort which is pretty intact as well as neat and clean – Delicate carving at the edge of arches is pretty interesting. I look out of one of the arches. Amazing – All the pink, yellow, blue… bloom makes me feel as if I am watching a mini valley of flowers – certainly cheers.

Another arch provides a panoramic view of the part of the fort, which is rather more forest than fort – Quite soothing.

As I come out, on the steps of Jama Masjid, I find few dung rollers busy, as the name suggests in rolling dung! I try to find the name of the roller. There are very large number of species and it’s rather difficult to identify, but I could narrow down this turquoise coloured, glazing and shiny creature to being a ‘Jewel Beetle’ – appropriately named.

 

As I walk around, I notice some of the stretches are well wooded – Kullu or Ghost Tree (Sterculia urens) is conspicuous among them.

It’s pleasant as the cool breeze is blowing. Sun is still not overhead.

I must mention that water management in the fort has been adequately addressed with elaborate system of wells, ponds, reservoirs… and Mama-Bhanja Talab system (literally meaning Uncle-Nephew pond system) is the jewel of Asirgarh.

 

Finally, talking of nature, I must say, it does not loose any opportunity – plants can been seen growing even in minute spaces between building blocks of the fort, and not even that, fungus is growing on the blocks themselves!

Pushp

The Mystery of Darter

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“What’s that?” exclaims a lady loud enough for us to hear. She has noticed a large black bird perched on a branch of a barren, submerged tree with wings and tail spread out like a cloth hanging on a line for drying. What makes me really turn back and look at the family is the reply from the lady’s teenage daughter, “Mom this is Darter. It goes under water to catch fish. When it comes out, it has to dry wings because its feather does not have oil – water sticks to them.” My first reaction is ‘smart girl’. I remember some issue of waterproofing with features of Darter.

Incidentally, I also find Darter conspicuous in Ghana (Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary) and among the most noticeable. The description of the bird is quite complicated and I am simply quoting this from online source for those who may be interested – The Oriental darter or Indian Darter is a large bird, measuring 85 to 100 cm in length and wingspan is 115 to 130 cm. The bill is long and measures 7 to 8 cm and it has long slender neck. The crown and neck of the bird are brown, darkening downwards to become black in the body plumage. The wing coverts and tertials have silvery streaks along the shaft. The iris is white with a yellow ring around it.[1]  For those who are not interested in detail, the photographs can suffice.

It’s not a shy bird – Goes about ‘business as usual’ – tourists or no tourist, disturbance or disturbance, I am not sure, but, may be, fish or no fish! It happens to be among my first photos of the shoot during the trip. At times, it has made a forced entry into frame while I am shooting something. It comes around and be in foreground of the frame!

On one occasion, I see it drying itself and suddenly it dashes (almost crashes) into water and disappears. I wait and wait with camera ready. I am excited with the thought that it will emerge with a fish in beak and I will have a good opportunity for photography. Alas! It has just disappeared with not a sign. I am sure, it has tricked me!

And on another occasion, we are just relaxing sitting on a bench and watching the water hyacinth filled wetland in front. There is a pair of Bronze-Winged Jacanas busy feeding, on what, we do not know. And, here flies in a darter and settles in a Babul tree partially submerged in the wetland. But where has it settled? It manages to merge so much with the tree, that it becomes a puzzle to find– no, it has not spread wings or tail and just set like a vertical line with slender neck straight up along with the beak pointing to sky – is it praying?

What amazes me further is the flexibility of the neck – it turns and twists it so much, so far, and so tediously that I feel, Baba Ram Dev can learn a trick or two for yoga from Darter for stage shows.

 

I recollect that during our three days-two nights, we do see Darter where there are wetlands, but yes, they are not in swarms, few here and some there – thus attraction remains.

As I am writing this, several questions regarding feathers – waterproof or not and oiled or not -crop up in my mind. I feel I should satisfy myself. And I also realise, it will be a good idea to pass on scientific explanation to readers regarding lack (or whatever) of waterproofing in Darter’s feather.

I have been sure that just a quick internet search and viewing few pages will be enough to gather the stuff. But, it turns into complicated basic science questions, which Wikipedia alone cannot answer.

But, let me start with Wikipedia page on Oriental Darter /India Darter (Anhinga melanogaster). It simplifies things – ‘it has wettable feathers and it is often found perched on a rock or branch with its wings held open to dry.’[2]

Wettable – what is that? We have simple questions – Are the darters feathers waterproof or not? Are they coated with oil or not? Wikipedia does not answer these.

In this context, we refer to another facet of darter’s ecology. It’s known to spend most of the time roosting, resting or swimming. It is known that darter hunts for fishes inside the water. Another article mentions the issue differently ‘Since their feathers are not completely waterproof, they absorb water and are less buoyant, allowing for faster swimming and diving. Darter swim with their wings extended and paddle with their webbed feet. After swimming, darters sit on branches in the sun and spread wings to preen and allow them to dry. [3]

This article explains the usefulness of darter’s feather for being ‘not completely waterproof’ as an asset. Our questions are still not answered even by this detailed article. Rather another question is added here. It says ‘spread wings to preen…’

This brings us to a paradoxical situation as one of the roles of preening is spreading oil on feathers! Yes, I explore some literature about preening. First of all, several species of birds, particularly waterfowl spends hours in preening. Why it is that important? One good article explains –

Such is the act of preening, where each individual feather is meticulously maintained. As ducks check and re-check their bodies, they are actually cleaning each feather, removing any insects or lice, re-aligning the feather to its maximum aerodynamic position and then conditioning it.

This conditioning is the subject of much of the aforementioned scientific debate. Ducks, as well as a number of other bird species, actually coat their feathers with an oily substance that attributes to their apparent waterproof bodies. This is done through the uropygial gland, better known as the preen gland (and, also known as oil gland).

The preen gland is located near the tail of a duck, has a small, nipple-like opening, and is covered in short tufts of dense feathers.

A review of literature shows that this gland has been the subject of much scientific study due to its apparent mystical powers.

However, what we know for certain is that, by working the gland with their bill, ducks retrieve the substance on their head and face, and then spread it over their body. Such gives their feathers a shiny, oily appearance, and the unbelievable ability to shed water.’[4]

Another article regarding Darter particularly suggests, ‘They also squeeze their feathers through their bill to remove excess water and repel water with oil from their enlarged preen gland at the base of the tail.’[5]

The preening angle adds a contradiction. It is clearly suggested in several articles that ‘Birds pick up oil on their beaks, by rubbing against the uropygial or preen gland near the tail, and then rub it over their feathers. This coating insulates the interlocking barbules in the feather. As water cannot penetrate through the oil coating, the feather is waterproof.’[6]

I decide to look at an academic, detailed feature on feathers. This explains, ‘The interlocking Velcro-like structure on many bird feathers creates the smooth, flexible, and resilient surface that supports flight and sheds water. Arranged in an overlapping pattern on a bird’s body to expose the waterproof tips, contour feathers allow water to roll right off a bird’s back. Birds constantly maintain their waterproof coat through extensive grooming, or preening to ensure that every feather is in good shape.’[7]

What brought us closure to answer to our questions is the note on preening in a book  – Not all birds have a preen gland. Ostriches have lost their preen gland over time as their ‘earthbound’ feathers do not need to be groomed for flight. African Darters also lack preen gland and the absence of fatty oil allows their feathers to get wet – an adaptation to hunting underwater. [8]

I speak to several experts and most of them assume Indian Darter does not have preening gland because it has to dry features but it is not confirmed.  To add to the confusion, I have got a good photo of Darter from this Ghana visit with clearly visible preen gland at the base of the tail. Not only that, the bird has taken its beak right up to it!  Is it a pseudo gland? Or the gland does not have oil as found in many species?

Darter - is it looking at Preening Gland

Sorry, friends, I have gone too far and must conclude. I feel, nature has deliberately made Darter like this – feathers are ‘wet-able’ or ‘not completely waterproof’ or ‘not oiled’ in the tourist’s word, so as to allow it to be ‘less buoyant’ and be able to ‘make fast movement underwater and hunt easily’,  and Darter do preening probably to maintain feathers and not to oil them.

I must say, Darter has proved a tough nut but I have liked cracking it this far. May be some original wildlife biologist takes this over from here and make this very simple information available, simply.

Pushp

[1] http://indianbirds.thedynamicnature.com/2015/04/oriental-darter-anhinga-melanogaster.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oriental_darter

[3] http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Anhinga_melanogaster/

[4] https://www.realtree.com/the-duck-blog/are-ducks-really-waterproof

[5] http://www.besgroup.org/2009/02/25/darter-or-snake-bird-sunning/

[6] http://www.sciencefocus.com/qa/how-are-birds-feathers-waterproofed

[7] https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/feathers-article/

[8] https://books.google.co.in/books?id=fsuroRrJ5zAC&pg=PA35&lpg=PA35&dq=Preening+gland+in+Darter&source=bl&ots=ffQ8UqvRcY&sig=qthdeg3ENU7J08gTOYAIb8-kyek&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiLpuL3kpbXAhVGOo8KHXIWD5oQ6AEIXTAN#v=onepage&q=Preening%20gland%20in%20Darter&f=false

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Babul of Ghana

I find bright yellow flowers – small woolly balls – spread all over I go – dust tracks, on side of roads, bushes … I am in Ghana with a forester friend, Sunayan Sharma. As we drive through the Park to a have a macro view, I notice trees are decked with bunches of yellow balls. It is clear that this tree species is typical of Ghana. Incidentally, Ghana is known by other names also, Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and Keoladeo National Park (Rajasthan). I like the name Ghana as that’s the tradition name of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Talking of name, common name of the tree I am talking about is Babul. From literature, I find ‘the species is Acacia nilotica and it is indigenous to the Indian Sub-continent as also in Tropical Africa, Burma, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and in West and East Sudan. In India, natural babul forests are generally found in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Karnataka.’ All said and done, it is commoner than common trees of India.

Frankly, it does not carry any impressive image in literature. I recollect an old say, quoting my mother who used to say, “Boya paid babul ka to aam kahan say khaye.” That is, ‘if you have sown a babul tree (which is all over thorny) than how can you expect to get mango.’

You may wonder, ‘Then, why I am talking about this tree? What is so great about it?’ That’s valid questions but during my two days in Ghana, I learn the importance of the species and it really amazes me. Yes, that is why, I decide to look at it closely.

We take a walk behind Shanti Kutir, the Forest Rest House in middle of Ghana. The area which used to be a complex of wetlands is now dry. There are no birds – not literally but in the context that it used to swarm with thousands of birds of more than 100 species. It is now grassland-cum-woodland. I notice Babul is conspicuously present all over. I further notice, most of the trees along the dust track are not standing. The stem could not bear the load and most of the trees are lying down of one or two stout branches. This might have been for decades but it has not impacted the growth of the trees in any way! A similarity that comes to my mind is that instead of standing, a man is inclined on a bed sideways, with thick pillow tucked in between an arm and body so that the upper part the body is inclined at an angle to bed.

It’s leisurely walk and no serious birding. Soon it’s twilight. We find a bench facing a patch of grassland. We are tired and it feels better to sit down and remove camera bag weight from shoulder. I have some fixed up stuff in my bag and we chill, as kids say. I am sure we are prefect picture for a postcard of two old, as well as, old friends enjoying a carefree life.  After a while I notice, the forest beyond the grassland is really thick. I ask, “Sunayan Bhai, what’s that.” He replies, “Our same old Babul.” I could not believe babul can stand so tall and thick as well. Mostly, I have noticed, the tree is scattered and ruggedly shaped or rather shapeless.

Sunayan has been the director of Ghana about a decade ago. He knows the forest closely. While discussing the character and usefulness of the species, I find it amazing. In nutshell, ‘It grows in varied soil conditions. It flourishes even in alkaline soils. Even the existence of saline water in the sub-soil is not injurious. It’s almost evergreen. It is a domestic tree and villagers like to plant it around their houses, wells, compounds and in the agricultural fields. Almost every part of the tree finds some use. The tree is highly versatile.’ Furthermore, this tree is largely used in Ghana by several species of birds – egrets, herons, storks… – to develop mass nesting areas, called heronry. OMG! It’s all in one.

Next morning, we visit the core of the core of Ghana – Sapan Mori. It is pronounced as Saapan Mori. Saapan means ‘of Snake’ and Mori means a drain. Here these drains have sluice gates which have been installed in whole area to regulate water in wetland complex. At Sapan Mori too there is one such sluice gate. Probably, here, there is more concentration of water snakes in the channel!

On both sides of the narrow dust track, there is mix of wetlands, marshes, grasslands, swamps. I recollect in good old days, about three and a half decade ago, we used to see few Siberian Cranes here which, alas, is no more so. Now, we do see a pair of Sarus Crane, our domestic crane, which is also our tallest bird. Sarus too is not common these days.

Coming to the subject, there are trees scattered in swamps and wetlands and you will be surprised to know that these too are mostly Babul. They can tolerate partial submergence for some part of the year and get along. The good part is, they are very important for birds – nesting, perching and roosting. Sunayan Bhai adds “inclined trees at the edge of the water are the nesting places for birds like White Breasted Water Hen, Dabchick…”

This can go on but I will like to conclude, Babul, the commoner, is certainly special for Ghana. I am sure, you will agree.

Pushp

Jis roj Diwali hoti hai

Another Diwali is here. It does bring some good change, at least change in season. There is a spirit of festivity, though one is lost in traffic and shopping in cities. Many friends and relatives visit mechanically just to pass on some sweets and/or gift. They are so busy that they do not have time to enjoy.

I share here the flavour of my sweet Diwali.

I do shopping at the time of opening of the shops before the crowd emerges and swarm the market. I even do not use my car to go to market as there are traffic jams and no parking space available. I use e-rickshaw – this is less than half of the car parking charge!

I visit only few relatives and friends but make sure that they are free when I, alone or with Sunita, my wife and sometimes with Himal, my son visit them. It has to be a relaxed chat, sometimes running into hours.

For example, at Kamal’s (my cousin-cum-pal) place we land at 10 pm. Since it is late, I think we will not stay long. It happens to be my dry day as well as Kamal is entirely dry so I suggest, “I can take Neembu Pani”.

Vedica, Varun’s wife prepares wonderful lime-soda, complete with a straw in a tall glass. Relishing. But this turns out to be only the beginning. Soon a tray with four dry fruits arrives, followed by a tray of four sweets and another tray of four namkeens!! This is when the family has already taken dinner!!!

It is fine, sometimes display is required in Indian culture but here Vedica insists that she will prepare everybody’s plate.  I am not even sure if Vedica is filling my plate but foolishly,  I keep saying, “ do not put this … do not put that.” She hands over the plate to my wife first. I continue with my protests while another plate is being filled and end up receiving a plate full of two sweets, two dry fruits and two namkeens, only!

After 45 minutes, we start to rise but Varun says, “Tauji, please. Tea is almost ready and we will enjoy that.” Kamal asks, “What’s the hurry? Do you have some work at home?” I honestly say, “No.” Whole family ask us to just relax and enjoy. And we do relax and enjoy sharing jokes and developments; exchange of family news; reflecting back of fun filled moments spent in past etc.etc.

When we start to rise again around midnight, Varun says “Tauji Chai may maza nahi aaya. Thandi ho gayi thi. Mummy please prepare hot tea.” Another fun and joyful hour.  Laughter and more laughter… That is ‘Happy Diwali’.

I do not like to stress myself at festival time. I have taken leave for Chhoti Diwali. (It’s like Diwali Eve.) Earlier, I used to be on forefront in installing and decorating home with lights, flowers and Diwali specific decoration. Now I like Himal to take lead. I only help and support, if necessary. Generally, it is old stuff which has been used for more than a decade. Every year some stuff becomes useless and some new is added. I like traditional handicrafts and ensure that one or two are added each year.

Diwali puja (prayer) is the climax. There is a set norm on the kind of decoration and layout for the stuff at the place where puja has to be performed at home. Sunita spends hours in setting it up.

We being Jain, puja of all 24 Jain gods with focus on the last one, Mahavir Bhagwan, is the prime one. Of course, Puja of Lakhsmi goddess and Ganesh god is must. We also do puja of our ancestors like that of gods.

In good old days, when there has been no wax candle and electricity, oil lamp has been the way to create light. The lighting of earthen diyas with mustard oil and cotton wick is traditional and we do it without fail. I just love this part most. I wish,

Hey darkness, go away from us

Hey divine light, touch us

Hey man, let us spread brightness

Hey man, let us simply make it Diwali

 

Pushp

PS : On this occasion, I am immensely impressed by

a poem by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and love to share.

 

जब मन में हो मौज बहारों की
चमकाएँ चमक सितारों की,
जब ख़ुशियों के शुभ घेरे हों
तन्हाई  में  भी  मेले  हों,
आनंद की आभा होती है
*उस रोज़ ‘दिवाली’ होती है ।*

जब प्रेम के दीपक जलते हों
सपने जब सच में बदलते हों,
मन में हो मधुरता भावों की
जब लहके फ़सलें चावों की,
उत्साह की आभा होती है
*उस रोज़ दिवाली होती है ।*

जब प्रेम से मीत बुलाते हों
दुश्मन भी गले लगाते हों,
जब कहींं किसी से वैर न हो
सब अपने हों, कोई ग़ैर न हो,
अपनत्व की आभा होती है
*उस रोज़ दिवाली होती है ।*

जब तन-मन-जीवन सज जाएं
सद्-भाव  के बाजे बज जाएं,
महकाए ख़ुशबू ख़ुशियों की
मुस्काएं चंदनिया सुधियों की,
तृप्ति  की  आभा होती  है
*उस रोज़ ‘दिवाली’ होती है .*।               –

–अटलबिहारी वाजपेयी

 

Everest, Antarctica & all that

I have to fly to Indore from Delhi but I am caught in traffic jam to airport even though it’s not peak hour. Delhi’s traffic is unpredictable. I spend quite a few anxious moments. I do say a prayer. Thank god, I am just in time to rush through the process and be among the last to board.

Slightly stressed, I decide to take a short nap. I have a window seat – first row, first seat! It’s too bright outside. I pull down the window shade and soon I am out.

My forester friend, Shashi Malik is with me. As soon as I wake up, he suggests ‘Pull the window shade up.’ I am slightly hesitant. It appears from the corners of the shade that it is quite bright outside. But I oblige. Bright it is but the scene is really interesting. I sit up and notice.

We are flying over a solid white formation of clouds – Quite attractive. I generally do not take photos in plane but here this is compelling.

I have seen many friends commonly posting photos from plane which look like screen shots of Google Earth Satellite maps. Yes, I have seen some photos of clouds also posted.

These days I am flying at least once every month, but hardly take photos. Several times, even if there is good opportunity, delay in pulling out the camera results in the scene passing by! This time it is different. I pull out my new phone and start shooting right away.

Nature is wonderful.  The very first thought is ‘I am on cloud9.’

There is solid white uneven layer of clouds. Is it surface of Moon? Not really.

Bright sun lends snow white texture to the layer. Is it snow? Not really.

There is massive mountain rising out of the layer. Is it Everest? Not really.

And lo, there is a formation as if a river flowing on flat land meets a circular fall? Is it a frozen fall? Not really.

In India, traditionally cotton is spun manually. Raw cotton is filled in a room and massive bow is hung from ceiling and expert spinner works on this. The whole room is all white with balls of cotton which break up into fine cotton with flakes flying all over. Now, we see a layer of cotton spun by nature. Is it cotton? Not really.

Then, there are thin fluffy light clouds flying over the solid white layer which looks like ground? Are we flying only few hundred feet above the ground? Not really.

Clouds are shaped like tips of icebergs in the whitish blue sky. Have we arrived at Antarctica? Not really.

OMG! Looks like clouds are imitating the Hydrogen Bomb testing scene. Are we watching a photo released by North Korea? Not really.

Soon we are descending. There is fast and drastic change in scene. Nearer ground all the cloud formations and Sun is gone. Suddenly we are engulfed in thick fog. It sends a chill down the spine. It feels cold. We are supposed to be insulated from outside weather. Has somebody opened a window of the plane? Not really.

What a transformation as we land – It’s all grey, No sun, no cloud… It’s raining – indeed, that is what the clouds are about.

Pushp

 

Pani Ray Pani

Forester In-charge of Gomarda calls to say, “The rains have failed. Water sources are dry, even in monsoon!” As a crisis management, he has planned installing solar pumps at two ponds crucial for wildlife. “The process is taking time,” he sounds dejected.

I am disappointed to hear all this. Anyway, I am reaching Gomarda next day. I will see if anything can be done with a follow-up with senior officials.

Next day, early morning I am on rail. Past noon, arrive at Raigarh. At station another forester receives me. His first words are, “Sir, see these clouds,” looking towards the sky, “they built up and fizzle out. No rain in the Sanctuary. It may rain here and there, but nothing in the Sanctuary!”

We take lunch at Raigarh. The cloud built up is massive – all dark grey sky. It starts raining as we leave. Our friend is depressed. “Sir, see, this will rain for a short while here and vanish. Even road side would have no water collected.”

The forester is a worried man. Being a Range Officer, he has a great responsibility. Whole July and August, he has been looking towards sky with hope. Whenever there are clouds, he prayed, “Hey God, pour in my forest. Please fill dry tanks and water ways. My animals would face very difficult time.”

Nature has its own way. There is heavy downpour now, light shower than or no rain, as we transverse 50 odd km distance to the Sanctuary. Whenever, we reach a dry patch, our friend says, “Did not I say?”

We stop at Tendudhar Check-post – entry point for Gomarda. It starts raining. Staff host us black tea. Incidentally, they correctly call it red tea as the colour is not black but actually reddish. As we sit here, sipping tea, the clouds are earth shaking thunderous. It’s lightening now and again. Rain is now real heavy down pour. We wait for the rain to slow down.

Our forester friend now changes his thought. “Maybe it’s you who have brought the rain. Maybe this works today?” We are now ascending in the hills. After an hour or so, the rain has almost stopped but the whole forest is enveloped in thick fog.

My first thought is, “A foggy winter day of January is here live in hot monsoon month of August.” I ask driver to stop. I want to feel this on ground, smell it, taste it… Let the spirits be drenched in the wonder. Entirely, out-of-world stuff.

As we approach a culvert on the narrow hilly forested track, there is huge gurgling sound. It’s water rushing over the rocks hidden in foliage on the hill face and gushing down into forest on the other side. Amazing. Now our friend is excited. He is feeling that it has really rained in the forest. He wants to reassure himself with one more proof. He asks driver to rush to Adhar Pani.

This is a nala, a seasonal stream, and waterfall. It gets active when there is sufficient water in the catchment area. As soon as we reach the spot, our forester friend and the driver jump of the vehicle and dash to the location about 200-300 m away. I am careful on the rocky, sloppy and slippery land. Our friend is a bundle of excitement like a kid. He shouts, “Sir, come quickly, Himanshu, where are you…”

Adhar Pani nala is flowing again – Flowing full blast!! In the deep gorge, the water is gushing down to enrich the valley and spread life and love. The joy on the face of my friend is indescribable. He simple says, “Thank you. You have done it.”

Inside my heart, I am happy to hear these words of credit. Fact is, I have done nothing. Humbly, I say, “It’s the result of your prayers. I just happened to be here on the occasion.”

Now, it is the ‘Mast’ atmosphere – unexpected and unbelievable.  As we go down, the nalas are criss-crossing the landscape. They cross the road at about half a dozen places – all these are over flowing with more than a foot of water. We see an anicut – water is flowing over the bund. A temporary bund of sand bags could not bear the pressure and breached. Low-lying areas are all water sheet. Frogs are happy lot – one can feel from the clear and crisp noted emerging from them. Peacocks are dancing. Birds are chirping… Celebration is in the air.

God has not poured pani, it is amrit. Life is flowing through the forest. Joy is written large on every leaf, insect, bird, animal…

Pushp

 

P S : Amrit is elixir, nectar and all that.

Gomarda Cheetal

We are passing through Reserve Forest Compartment no 910. This is among the best wildlife sighting areas in Gomarda. Forester friend accompanying me alerts me, “See Cheetal!” I can see two cheetal about 150 m away behind a layer of trees. As soon as we stop to see them, they dash off. I am happy to see that they are present. There is life in the forest, I mean wildlife.

During the tour, off and on, we come across Cheetal i.e. Spotted Deer in twos, four-fives and even herds of about 8-10 animals. As usual, animals like to maintain distance from homo-sapiens in such Protected Areas (PAs) – remote and with substantial anthropogenic pressures. Man-animal conflict is serious. In some situations, they are chased away from agricultural fields. There can be poaching pressure outside some PAs.

Cheetal is among the commonest deer of India. In some of the high profile Protected Areas, they are found all over in large number. In Corbett Tiger Reserve one easily see herds of even of 200-300 animals. In Kanha they are everywhere and pressure on meadows is so much that even the grass quality is deteriorating in some places and pockets in meadows are enclosed, excluding animals, to allow natural regeneration of grasses. On the other hand, there are PAs where one may not see even one animal. It is not that they are not there but the population is small and shy.

Cheetal at Corbett Tiger Reserve

Thinking of Cheetal, I can vividly member photographing Cheetal almost at a touching distance only recently in March 2017 at Panna. With the backdrop of famous Ken River, Cheetal go about their business. Stags have a good pass time locking antlers. There is loud noise when antlers strike each other and lock. There is lot of pushing and jostling. Is it for fun? May be, it is more serious business.  Does are watching all this, though not apparent, but may be with deeper interest. And all this is happening just 10-20 m around us!

Cheetal at Panna Tiger Reserve

Coming back to Cheetal of Gomarda, we are out to search for bear in a potential area. It’s cloudy as it and its late evening. Here we run into a herd of about dozen Cheetals including large stags. I ask our driver to stop vehicle some distance before we are too close. The diesel vehicle is nothing else but noise. The herd immediately notices us but appears to be not shaken. In about two minute stop they do not run away. I ask the driver to move ahead to a more appropriate and closer point and ask him to switch off the engine. He thinks that switching off the engine would make them run. I say, “If they go, they go, we have nothing to loose.” But for a change they do not run away.  We are now much closer. My SLR camera is of no use in such low light, but my mobile works! I take photos and even video with my mobile (You can see, the shared video is good enough for record.).

Minutes later, when it is felt that we are getting late for bear search, we start. It is at this moment that the Cheetals decided to run away. As I have stated time and again, the paradox is that animal do not run away from their worry, but cross in front of us – hopping one after the other. They could have easily run away inside the forest. It is my first close and really satisfying Cheetal watch in Gomarda as good as any prime Protected Area.

Pushp Jain

PS : Gomarda is a Wildlife Sanctuary in Raigarh District of Chhattisgarh State in India.

A Diamond in Panna

 

This is new landscape. It is huge undulating grassland with scattered ruins, may be 2-3 sq km in size in middle of thick forest. It’s perfect with a water-body present in the centre. I have not seen this in my about dozen or so visits during my project here in Panna Tiger Reserve about a decade and half ago.

Chhatris

Chhatris

Small Fortress in Ruin

Small Fortress in Ruin

Oh! This has been village Talgaon. On enquiry I find, four years ago in 2013, it was relocated.  It has been a big village – 177 resident family and 74 non-resident families. The relocation has been done with due compensation and as per the decision of the community.

Incidentally, this grassland is now known by the village name. In fact, this whole area is known as Talgaon Plateau, which is the highest of three levels of the Panna Tiger Reserve – Talgaon Plateau, Hinouta Plateau and Ken-River landscape.

I am amazed by the silence and beauty of the whole grassland. We park the vehicle at the edge of the lake. I reflect. At some point of time long ago, man took this land from nature and converted it to a ‘gaon’ – a boon for man and bane for wildlife.  Presence of man, surrounded by wilderness of immense importance harbouring tiger, sloth bear…had its impact. Man’s activities – agriculture and livestock rearing – are in conflict with that of wildlife. Crops are browse for herbivore and livestock food for carnivore. Nobody could have imagined that one day situation and conditions would be ripe for man to give away the land back to nature. This is, wheel taking a full turn.

In Central India, we come across land vacated by relocation of villages from wilderness areas, be it Kanha, where more than two dozen villages were shifted in 1970s or Satpura where more than three dozen villages shifted during last 4-5 years. Villages are being shifted from Protected Areas all over Central India including Panna, of course with the concurrence of community and with due compensation and rehabilitation.

What is interesting is that a shifted village leaves behind cleared area, which was converted into agricultural fields. This becomes excellent grazing ground for herbivore – deer and antelope – and as a consequent becomes an attraction for carnivore. Thus, whole range of wildlife revolves around these productive areas.

I see the history scattered around the lake. I inspect two chhatris (elevated dome shaped pavilions) just near where we are parked. These are not so luxurious / arty as we find in several historical cities e.g. Jaipur and Udaipur in Rajasthan or Gawalior and Shivpuri in Madhya Pradesh but simple brick structures, now weathered and in ruin. I can see, two hundred metres away, almost touching the lake water, a small fortress like structure, again in ruin.

I walk around the grassland quite a bit. Shifted village remains – temple, school, hand pumps, piles of rubbles or partially erect structures at the site of several houses, left behind after removal of valuable building material e.g. rafting, doors, windows etc which have been taken away to be used in the new house, brings out emotions in me. I notice – a slipper here, a shoe there; scattered broken bangles and earthen pots; torn clothes or fire places, in the now desolate kitchen areas of some broken houses – all reminder of era gone by. I strongly feel the old and new history should be restored and preserved to give the place a unique character.

I can see new occupants of Talgaon. 150 metres away under a tree a female nilgai is busy grazing. She is not bothered by our presence. A jackal is busy trotting through grassland but alert – out to look for some prey. It’s not scared due to us, but maintains a distance. We can see spotted deer droppings. Oh! It’s exciting – we find a trail of leopard’s foot prints on a dust track.  Wildlife, which was bone of contention and constant cause of man-animal conflict is now having free run of the place.

We drove around kuchcha track of Talgaon. I wonder, how long it will be, when this becomes one of the best hubs for wildlife in Panna. My thought is interrupted with the chirping of a family of four yellow-wattled lapwings – slowly they walk away while hotly arguing and trying to  sort out some family issue.

What a surprise. As we emerge from the Talgaon grassland, pass the field staff quarters, turned left on to the main track of the plateau, a sloth bear is surprised to see us. It has been foraging at the edge of the road and quickly shuffles around to enter into the forest.

No doubt, Talgaon is wonderful part of the core of Panna. I talk to the Park Director, Vivek Jain and describe my experience and feeling. He agrees and updates me, “Talgaon is high tiger density area.” Indeed, it’s a diamond in Panna.

Pushp

 

PS : Panna is prime tiger land and is a notified Tiger Reserve. I had the occasion to work here on a photo documents around four seasons in 2000-2001. Of course, subsequently, I have visited here several times. Many may be surprised that Panna has real diamond mine as well!

Rocky Tops on Top of the Central India

 

 

It’s May. Summer is full blast in India. Except for the hills in north, the temperature during the day soars to 40+°C. What to do? Travel, I must.

A forester friend helps. I land in Pachmarhi. But no, I am not here because it’s a hill station of Central India. I am here for Satpura Tiger Reserve of which this region forms part of. Yes, of course, cool, cool place.

We decide to spend the afternoon to go around nearby landmarks. We wind up and up for 10 km, closing in on lofty hills in view, rising almost vertical, like a fortress. There is forest all around. It’s Sal forest but with a difference – stunted grown and much branched trees instead of towering Sal trees with straight stems, we mostly encounter. New flush of Sal leaves lend the forest rather too bright yellow-green hue. But, refreshing.

A board standing few feet taller than the place announces, Dhupgarh – 4429 ft. Yes, we have arrived, not at a but the land mark, the highest point, not in Pachmarhi, not in Satpura, not in Madhya Paradesh but whole Central India!

Immediately, what attracts attention is imposing, beautiful bungalow – typically British. Without going into history, I can say, the building, probably built more than a century ago, stands looking as if built yesterday. Forest Department has tactfully converted this into Dhupgarh Tourist Interpretation Centre. Nobody can touch this now. I understand, several hotel chains eye such properties and grab/ with hand in gloves with, you know whom!

 

There are two sides of Dhupgarh coin – sunrise point in the east, and logically bang opposite, more famous sunset point.’

It’s only 5.15 pm and sunset probably is another hour later. We walk to sunrise point. OMG! On top of the top of Central India, there are amazing looking rugged rocky hillocks – Facing the full blast heat of the sun round the year, one hillock has turned entirely black. These hillocks have different perspective from different sides. The eastern end of the somewhat small flat top of Dhupgarh suddenly ends with land falling virtually vertically for may be 300 metre. It’s a 180° massive panorama of miles and miles of undulating landscape with hillocks here and there, spread across, and all densely forested – this is Satpura magic.

Standing by the railing, cool breeze blowing into my face – I wonder and brood. The guide once tries to point to few known points in the panorama but I ignore.

I wonder what Captain Forsyth must have been like who is reported to have found Pachmarhi for the world in 1862. He must have walked to Dhupgarh as well. Did he know the uniqueness of the landmark? Even if no, he must have realised.  No doubt, the English had best of the both worlds during their rule in India.

I can imagine, under the dense canopy, on some narrow dust tract, there may be a tiger walking by; in the grasslands, the gaur herds or may be spotted deer are peacefully grazing, unconcerned of tomorrow; for sure, some langurs may be watching me from top of the some trees down there and wondering ‘What is that monkey looking at and for what?’

I mostly travel in forest, and thus, it does not strike me – we are alone at Dhupgarh! It’s not possible for such a famous touristy place! I am informed ‘today is Wednesday and on Wednesday, tourists are allowed for first half only, thus no visitor.’

Oh that’s it. There being no disturbance, while coming up we do see a heard of Indian Bison which has been grazing on the right side of the road, walks past to the left in front of us and we clearly see them – at least half a dozen, if not more.

An attendant has prepared tea. The whole place is for us. A table is laid bang in front of the Bungalow – it feels like lordly.

As the sun is slowing sliding down, we walk to the western side of the flat top. Oh. The top is gradually descending, and has been laid into steps to go down to viewing point. Though the sunset can be viewed from anywhere at the western end. The viewing point has been laid out as an open air theatre – amphitheatre.

It’s not the sunset of the kind, where you see the sun ball displays varying cool colours as it slides down the horizon and disappears, inch by inch.

Here, it appears the sun has disappeared much before going down the horizon. No dramatic colours. The amazing feature of this landscape is layer beyond layer of ridges unto infinity – all forested and rugged. The green hills, as the sunset nears, get shrouded in mysterious grey haze – surrealistic, indeed. There is no green any more. It’s all grey tone, hill darker and the surrounding layers of mist lighter. This all is contrasted by orange sky and bright orange ball going down.

I wonder what Dhupgarh is like with tourists. I get another occasion to visit – the ten km winding road is now a race track, one jeep chasing the other. Up there, there is not an inch of space for parking, more than 50 vehicles.

Dhupgarh is a kaleidoscope of colours – you name it and you find one or the other person dressed in. There is a mix of people of all age, size, colour, caste, state and region. There are people and people all over.

Dhupgarh amphitheatre is too dhupy, I mean sunny, and people hang around all over the place. All places wherever there is some shade and better still some place to sit, are occupied.  Lone canteen is packed. Some people just cannot stop eating and drinking.

Around 6 pm, the sunset point seating area is packed. I take more photo of the pack than sunset. Amphitheatre becomes a sefie-istan – selfie sticks of all size are out and people are very busy. Only, few people are enjoying sunset and panorama while the rest are busy in shooting.

I just brood, what difference the whole lot to tourists can make to a place. As the sun goes away, assembled crowd fizzles out within 15 minutes. We keep hanging around. Soon we are alone in the amphitheatre, but people left behind an infection. Taruna says ‘Uncle, you are looking smart in Satpura Tiger Reserve hat, let me take your photo’. For Satpura, I smile.

 

Pushp