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

 

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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

 

 

Kanger Now Flows in My Heart

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I am in Raipur. Work is finished. I wish, I should have a break. A forester friend advises a visit to Kanger Valley Nation Park. Sounds interest. Logistics turn out tough – it’s about 330 km drive to Jagdalpur, the district headquarter of Bastar. The Park is another 30 km. Stay has to be at Jagdalpur. Stay at the Park is not advisable.

Long way to go, I plan to start at 6.00 am in the morning. No way. Wait and wait – the taxi driver has his own schedule, arrives at 8.00!  I use the time to finish up with a filling breakfast – long way to go. It’s comfortable SUV vehicle. I am the only passenger.

I am told the drive to the Jagdalpur is about 6 hours. I notice, the route is fine & roads are good & traffic is thin. Nevertheless, it ends up taking 9 hours to Jagdalpur.  Have to take about two hours break. Around 1.15 pm I notice, the driver is about to doze off. I make him stop, wash face and take a cup of tea. I keep an eye him. He is clearly sleepy and not accepting it.  I take a decision. He should rest for a while. Otherwise, he may put me to rest forever.

We are near Kondagaon. There is no hotel or rest house nearby. I remember from a previous visit, a complex of a NGO in nearby village, helping local artisans in creating pottery and metal artefacts and support with marketing the produce.  The metal stuff is unique to the Bastar region. I have bought some handicrafts from here which were liked by, to whomsoever I gifted. I can buy some stuff and driver can rest.

We halt at first wayside Dhaba for quick grab of meal. My memory back up indicates we are near the site, but not sure. I do not remember the name of the village or the NGO. I discuss the place with the Dhaba owner, Yes, I am right. We are hardly a km away from the site.

It’s Kumhar Pada – Kumhar is potter and Pada is a village i.e. potters’ village. The NGO is Saathi Society – Saathi means associate / friend. It’s rustic, spacious, open complex – few spread out buildings. Lot of green area. There is a display hall. I do not feel, many people come here for retail purchase.

The driver parks the car under a tree and dozes off immediately. I make a round of display hall and do some shopping. I have been expecting, it may take some time but in 20 minutes it is all done. What should I do?  I must let the driver rest for one-two hours, for him to get over his drowsiness.

I think I should find a quiet place to relax. I talk to a gentleman in the NGO office. He happens to be the manager of the place. What happens is unbelievable and this happens in India only, so to say. He shouts for a boy. A boy comes running. The man orders “get the key of the rest house. Get a bottle of water and come with me.” There is a set of rooms behind the office – again rustic simple setting, dormitory kind of place – wooden beds with cotton mattresses. Fresh bed sheet is spread on one. Fan is put on. I am shown the washroom, in case I need. The manager ensures that I am comfortable. And so I am. I never imagined this. They even do not know my name, what to say of identity!  After a good rest, we are on the way.

I am lodged at Jagdalpur Forest Rest House (FRH) at Van Vidhyalaya (Forestry School). The school is meant to train field level foresters. I am told, old FRH has been taken over by some other government agency. Since land was available, a guest house has been developed here. This is six-month old building, already in bad shape. The architecture, layout and surroundings are disappointing beyond description. I wish they could have just copied from some old rest house. I remember visiting Adwar FRH in Kanha Tiger Reserve, where a British time FRH in bad shape has been restored, brick by brick. Effort has been made to have old style wash room fittings and furniture as well. No light, no fan, no AC is required. Nature is all around. Van Vidhayalaya FRH is an antithesis of what a FRH has to be. All this is not important, but does matters for a traveller.

In the morning, I am ready on dot. We leave around 8.00. A Deputy Forest Range Officer, in short a Deputy, accompanies me. In half an hour we are at the Park.

I have done some online exploration. Park is actually 200 sq km of forest – around Kanger river. The valley starts at Tirathgarh waterfall and merges with the Kolab river on Chhattisgarh-Odisha border. It’s around 33.5 km long valley and on an average around 6 km wide.  Kanger river transverses through the heart of the Park. Besides the famous Tirathgarh waterfall, the other most notable feature of the Park is caves – several limestone caves. They feature stalactite and stalagmite formations. There are several of them and according to online literature one of them, subterranean, is more than a kilometre long!

I look forward to lot of action. We enter Kotumsar Barrier. It’s pleasant weather though will soon get hot. We drive through forest, not so thick.

The forest from Kotumsar Barrier to Kotumsar village is apparently dry mix deciduous – not thick, teak is present in good number. This gradually turns into moist mix deciduous forest and end up into a bamboo grove before we exit from the Park to a village to again enter into forest after a 5-6 km of village landscape.

As we enter the village, I see a baby girl at a hut door. The overall frame is interesting, but as soon as I get down, the girl disappears, like a bird from a branch. An old man comes out on seeing us. He brings the girl out. I do take two-three photos for the sake of it but it is not the same frame. I see a woman coming down the road in tribal attire. Oh, she is photogenic but she shies away from being photographed.

The best part is whether inside the forest or outside, the life is at ease. There is no traffic or crowd. The time seems to have slowed down.

Soon we re-enter the Park at Netanar Barrier. The plan has been to take a round trip of the Kotumsar Forest Range.

From the Barrier, we go to Kailash Cave. Kailash is another name of the Shiva, the Hindu God, whose symbolic presence, a Linga, is represented in temples. In this cave, the Shiva Linga has formed naturally with lime stone. The cave is up the hill – it is uphill task for me with Osteoarthritis. My knee will not allow. I just hang around to have a feel of the place around. A flex sheet poster is fixed here, highlighting highlights of the Park but most out of place stuff, to say the least- gaudy.  As it is, it will not last even one season! There are no tourists. Two workers are busy cleaning up the place. The Deputy engages in conversation with the workers, who are local tribals.  Soon there is commotion. A monkey has picked up one work’s bag containing miscellaneous stuff, including food and a bottle. The monkey is trying to pull the bottle out. Bottle is special attraction as this contains local homemade brew – Mahua (Madhuca longifolia) booze! Lot of shouting saves the stuff.  It saves the day for all – the tribal without it would go mad and the monkey with it would go mad.

As the luck will have it, the narrow kuchha road is blocked – under repair and it’s not possible to go forward. We go back all over – a detour of about 20 km! No worry, it happens in forest.

In the afternoon, I spent time at Tirathgarh Waterfall – must see for anybody who visits Bastar. It’s mesmerising site. I have already written about it in my blog previously. Here, the Deputy Ranger has arranged lunch. Lovely. I take the liberty to rest for half an hour after lunch.

We are on the road again – travel in the forest touching the Kanger now and again – musical flow, small twists and turns, rocky terrain at some places, and quite pools at other places.

There are few land marks, as we go. One is Kanger Dhara. Here the site is scenic – the river is passing through rocky terrain with small falls here and there and thick forest up, above the rocky walls of the gorge – steel grey rocks, green forest and white water! I spent some time – just relaxing on a rock and listen to the Kangeri music, watching the river flow by.

At this point of time – last week of March month – the Kanger Dhara is a different site for a different reason. The flat and clean surface of rock selves provide perfect site for drying flowers of Mahua tree, so laboriously collected and which is life line of the local tribe. All visible flat rocks on both sides of the river are covered with drying Mahua flowers. These will be later fermented and brewed into local liquor.

Well, this is indicator of human influence in the Kanger. Though there is only one village Kotumsar inside the Forest Range, but there are score of villages on the boarder of the Park. The tribal people’s lives are woven around forest – fuel wood, minor forest produce, medicinal plants, food, meat… In my entire trip, I do not see even one wild animal! Obviously it’s poaching. I am disappointed. The literature lists even the presence of tiger, which I do not expect here, but at least some deer, but no.

I am told that these days, because of local political movement, nobody dares to question any local person for any activity in the forests in Bastar. It’s a free run of the forests. In fact, the other Forest Range of the Park, Kelong, is not accessible, as movement people do not appreciate outsiders.

We zigzag along the narrow kuchha road in the hilly terrain. The forest is lush green, even in summer. An endangered bird species, Hill Myna (Gracula religiosa) is found here. The guard with us keeps track of about 3-4 groups, comprising of about100 odd birds – an expert in locating the species. He notices few birds near Dandak Cave, but before I can set the binocular, they fly away! Hill Myna happens to be the State Bird of Chhattisgarh.

Dandak Cave is again similar to Kailash Cave – limestone cave up the hill.  I, of course, do not venture to go up.  But what is interesting is that the massive rocks forming the hill side along the road from where the way to the cave leads up, too are admirable – they are all different shape and look like sculptured.

Down below on the other side of the road, flows the life line of the forest, the Kanger – bluish green, deep, quiet pools. The whole panorama is picture perfect.

The sun is going down. It is cooler.  I get out of the vehicle and quietly walk for 15 minutes, in the solitude, and drink in the spirit of nature. The Kanger now flows in my heart.

 

Pushp Jain

Chandni here & Chandni there – what a lovely coincidence

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Animal babies are lovely – Innocent looks, naughty acts, playful moods, not a care in the world…

I am in Panna Tiger Reserve. Based at Karnawati Forest Rest House, it has been wildlifing mostly in Madla Range of the Reserve. I am told that in the adjacent Hinouta Range there is a very young elephant baby – less than a month! Oh my god! That is exciting.

I plan it out. I decide to spend one night at Hinouta Jungle Camp. Here the Elephant Camp is nearby. So it will not be touch and go. I can spend time.

I start with bags and baggage in the morning jungle drive at 5.45 am. It’s still not full light.  As a routine we go around the forest, chase tiger which plays hide and seek. There is always a news – the guy passed this way few minutes ago, the lady is hiding in the bushes, cheetal is calling in fear of a large carnivore… But no direct sighting. Of course, we see pug marks i.e. foot prints of tiger at number of places. Cheetal and sambar are a plenty, in all kind of actions and so close, one can almost touch.

We reach Hinouta Jungle Camp around 10.30. Hungry. First thing to do is to eat breakfast – traditional stuffed paranthas, pickle and beans. I am so hungry, I decide to convert this into brunch by stuffing in more paranthas, as it is almost 11.30 and merely two hours later the staff will start pressing for lunch!

I do not want to delay meeting the baby. Immediately after eating, I take my equipment and dash to the elephant camp. I see that the elephant camp is just across the boundary. In fact, there is short cut and I do not have to go out of the resort gate even.

I see several mahouts (elephant drivers) and chara-cutters (helpers of drivers) crowded around in one verandah, probably busy playing cards.

As soon as they see me and I enquire about the baby, concerned Chara-cutter, Prakash, comes out immediately.

I can see the mother and baby in a nearby hall with completely open front. Baby is hiding being the mother. Prakash tries to bring baby forward. Mother makes some rumbling noise as if talking to the baby, “Cool baby cool, Prakash is here, no worry.” Baby is quite small in comparison to mother, but huge in isolation. Lovely – A woolly ball. Some fodder is scattered around.

I do not want to disturb the baby and nursing mother directly. Let the people close to family direct the mother-baby and me so that there is no stress and tension. So, I give directions to Prakash and Prakash to me, to manage watching, spending time and photo-shoot.

Just to give you a brief background, Panna does not have wild elephants. Domesticated elephants are kept for tourism and surveillance to visit off-track dense forest. These elephants include male and female. They mate and so we have more elephants.

In Hinouta Elephant Camp there are 10 individuals – 5 adults and 5 calves, of all age. The group is headed by a grand old lady, Vatsala who is going strong at 97.

Prakash has steered mother and baby out of the hall, behind the camp. It is virtually jungle. While the animals settle down and relax, I start small conversation with Prakash. He informs me “the mother is 55 year old and is named Roop Mati. The baby has been born on 25 February.” I calculate, ‘today is 18 March, it’s just 21 days old!’

I ask if they have named the baby. Prakash informs me it’s ‘Chandni’. Oh my God. This is a pleasant surprise. My daughter is also named Chandni. Chandni has been uppermost in my mind today. It happens to be her 35th birthday. Only an hour ago, I texted wishes to her. And here God has provided an opportunity to meet baby Chandni, while the other Chandni is 13000 km away in States. This whole coincidence endeared the baby more to me.

Roop Kali is not allowed to go to forest these days since she has a small baby and there can be an encounter with tiger which can prove fatal for baby. Now, being out of her abode in open, she is heading to forest. Prakash has to stop her and bring back again and again. And as the mother goes, the baby follows. It’s difficult situation for photography. When Roop Kali is brought back, Chandni would hide behind her. Once, mother protests by loud striking of trunk to ground and raise dust for not being allowed to walk free to forest.

At times, when baby is left behind, the mother would shout. On one such occasion, I try to engage with Chandni by doing pep talk and taking some portrait shots, when it decides ‘enough’ – she cries so loudly that the mother trumpets and comes rushing back, and I have to take care of myself! I have never imagined that an elephant baby can call so loudly.

As it is, they are pampered lot. Mother gets extra porridge and jaggery. Prakash brings freshest tree branches for fodder from forest. A vet visit every week and administers required supplements. Baby is entirely on mother’s milk. So she will be for about three months. Vatsala loves Chandni most. As soon as she is back from the forest, she would reach out to Chandni. The other young ones too try to please her by their gimmicks. Talking of young ones, I remember of an elephant calf about half an year old in Kanha Tiger Reserve. It would rear up and surprise visitors by giving a back kick. The strength is so much that one can get toppled over, if not careful. This is the usual trick babies around 3-month and somewhat older play on unsuspecting visitors to have some fun of their own.

Chandni is an added attraction in Panna. I am told, most of visiting keen wildlifers do come to meet and spend time with her these days. Yes, why not. Where would you get such opportunity – to look into eyes of less than a month old elephant and actually touch her!

Pushp Jain

Tirathgarh – Garh of all Natural Tirath

As luck would have it, I am in Bastar. Here too I am on my way to Tirathgarh, 35 kilometre from Jagadalpur, the district headquarter. About a kilometre or so before the destination, we cross a small bridge below which flows a placid small stream – Nothing unusual.

We pass through two manual toll gates mounted by locals to charge some token fees for development of the area. A row of small shops in shanties line both side of the road. The items on display consist of plastic packs of snack, biscuits, aerated drinks, bottled water; some shops selling freshly fried pakoras; and some shops selling parsada for the temple…All these add vibrant colours to otherwise drab surroundings and harsh hot weather in the end of March month – It’s full blast summer, temperature souring to 38 degree centigrade.

I am guest of the Forest Department and end up at an exclusive facility called Van Chetna Kendra, bang opposite Tirathgarh… Wow! I am face to face to a massive waterfall.

I sit down on a sofa, stretch my tired legs on the table in front, postpone photography… It is just to relax, admire and capture the essence… a caretaker brings tea and snacks…feels like a paradise… I enjoy the luxury, far from the madding crowd.

The gorge has been cut into steps over which the transparent water gets transformed into pure white – It is as if, milk is rushing and gushing down the steps – Ever in a hurry to join the pool below. It creates a continuous vibrant music. Incidentally, Tirthgarh is one of the tourism jewels of Chhattisgarh and is boldly promoted by the State Government.

I wonder where from these huge sheets of water, cascading down the fall, coming from.

Deputy Forest Range Officer with me brings my attention to the small stream we crossed before reaching here. Oh no. I do not believe. “Yes”, the deputy says, “it is Kanger river!”

I am not able to judge the height of the fall. It can be 100 m or more? But online search corrects me – 91 metre or 300 feet. Further, I find 135 visitors have reviewed the site at Google  and given dashing average 4.5 /5 rating. I for one give it 5/5 rating.

I do not have strength to go to the foot of the fall in the deep gorge, but I can see stream of people joyously making the journey down. There are well laid spiral of steps. It is not only that many of them are bathing in the hard hitting water falling with gravity, they are jumping with joy, bliss…it is simple people gathered from across the country side. They know how to enjoy life without inhibition and give themselves to the situation, and be one with nature. Just enjoy… just do it…

In India, we have a tendency to link all natural wonders to religion. This becomes business for the temple caretaker and vendors selling parsada – A miscellaneous mix of flower, fruits, nuts, sweets etc which is offered to god, through the temple caretaker/priest, who keeps some for god and rest he returns for visitors’ consumption. At Tirathgarh, just near the foot of the fall, juts up a small rocky hillock, on which a small temple is installed, where our simple folks flock to be fleeced by the caretaker!

Soon lunch is served. It’s simple but fresh and piping hot food – Lovely. After filling meal, I take a small stroll. It’s all soothing green. Moist deciduous forest surrounding the fall complements the great experience – unforgettable.

Pushp

PS : I have added some photos of the fall and surrounding in monsoon.

What matters is the man behind a machine, so is it in wildlife management

 

I make first quick round of the Panna Tiger Reserve (Madhya Pradesh, India), after arrival early in the morning from Delhi. Wonderful. Wildlife is all over the place – Cheetal, Sambar, Wild Boar, Chinkara…

I get back to the Karnawati FRH where I am lodged. As I get out of the vehicle, one gentleman greets me. I do not know him but nevertheless courtesy demand, and I reciprocate. I see, he is six feet tall, slim & trim, thick moustache, smart man. I get the impression ‘this man must be from army.’ We do not talk.

Later in the night, the caretaker, Bhure Lal peeps in to my suite while I am relaxing and scribing notes of the day, “Sir, Range Officer is here to see you.” As I rise to welcome, here enter the gentleman about whose greeting me in the morning, I just narrated. Pleasant surprise. There is no physical sign of his being a Forest Range Officer – no potbelly, no dullness, no shrewd looks…

The gentleman is Amar Sigh Gond, Incharge, Madla Range of Panna. I ask Bhure Lal to manage a drink.   Amar politely declines, “Thank you sir but I do not drink anything.” And adds, “I only take simple meal.”

Strange. I ask myself, “Can there be a simpler person in forest service, that too in a wildlife sanctuary, who does not drink, does not drink even tea, supper teetotaller!” Bhure Lal later informs me, “Very rarely, he takes few sips of tea, out of courtesy to provide company to a senior guest.”

Amar tells me, “Sir, I have walked every inch of Panna.” That’s commendable. It’s one-line complete introduction of a forester. These days even guards need bike to go around forest. Amar’s mobile keeps ringing, non-stop. He is either giving orders or taking orders.

You may wonder, ‘why I am writing about a person in my wildlife blog?’ Indeed, I think, it is equally important to talk about wildlife managers and for that matter about persons who have devoted themselves to wildlife conservation.

Amar’s contribution is immense. Just for the background, Panna lost all of its tigers because of various reasons, including mismanagement around 2000s. This unfortunate situation was beyond belief. A plan to rejuvenate Panna was perceived by reintroduction of tigers by relocating surplus animals from other Tiger Reserves. First tiger was reintroduced in Panna in March 2009 and immediately after this Amar joined the Reserve. He has been part of tiger reintroduction success story, almost from day one.

Amar is tribal to core, literally. As his surname indicates, he belongs to Gond tribe of Central India – Joint service 21 years ago in 1996 as a humble Forest Guard. Incidentally, he belongs to the nearby area, Buxwaha in adjacent Chhattarpur district of Madhya Pradesh.

Initial days of ensuring security to relocated tigers have been very tuff. Keeping track of tigers without satellite radio collars was always testing job.

Amar has been a keen wildlifer. He says, “I used to climb and sit in trees regularly for hours to watch and monitor wildlife.” He proudly narrates the story of a tigress, numbered as T 2. “While I am up in one tree in Madla one day, T 2 with four cubs arrives and settles below the tree. The camera noise alerts the cubs and they look up. The tigress also notices my presence. Interestingly, the tigress does not feel threatened and remained below the tree for more than an hour!”

Amar’s immense courage in protection of wildlife and controlling wildlife crime have been duly recognised n number of times. He has received several awards and recognitions. Latest being the State Wildlife Conservation Award 2016 few months ago. Similar award he got in 2011 also. Amar has received formal appreciation letters and awards from the Panna Tiger Reserve and Wildlife Conservation Trust several times. Amar proudly adds, “Sir, I received appreciation from the Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Shri Jairam Ramesh ji also in 2011.”

It is apparent the management has posed full confidence in him. Though he is junior rank official but has been assigned a senior post. Yes, he is a man of rule and law.

Amar says, “I am most happy working for and watching wildlife. The day I am not able to go to forest, I get depressed.”

In the end, I may add, forests and wildlife are under pressure – encroachment, poaching, tourism, development…. Amar is very important and India needs more Amars.

Pushp