Sweet, Sour and Salty Sundarbans

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We set sail in Sundarbans from Godkhali around 10.15 in the morning. Sky is overcast and uniformly grey. It’s warm and humid. On the boat it is me and four staff members – boat supervisor, driver, cook and an assistant. I change to comfortable basic – vest, short and slippers and take it easy.  Around 1 pm the cook announces lunch. The spread covers the whole table in dining room in lower deck. Slight sweet touch is added to all the curries and vegetables. Of course, there are hard core sweets – famous Bengali Misti Dahi and Rosogulla also. We have been sailing smoothly for about four hours. I am slightly sleepy with heavy meal. But I wake up when I notice the boat is heading towards a camp. One more departmental boat is parked here, probably for foresters to petrol the area. I look through a binocular. Sign board reads Netidhopani Camp.

First thing I see at the entrance of the camp is a temple. It carries idols of Bon Bibi and Dakhin Ray. It has been built by the Forest Department. This is a paradox since temples are difficult issue in wildlife management across the country.  Anywhere you go, Ranthambhore, Sariska, Kanha, Pench, Gir, Kalakad, Periyar…, there are old temples in the forests to which over the years, with increase in population, visitors and pilgrims have increased drastically, running into lakhs. People create disturbance in the whole forest – vehicles, camps, trample across and litter. These occasions provide opportunity to criminals to make hay while sun shines i.e. timber theft and animal poaching.

Local people in Sundarbans have great faith in goddess, Bon Bibi, who is worshipped as savoir and Dakhin Ray, who is worshipped as the tiger god. Local people dependent on forest e.g. baulis (wood cutters), maulis (honey collectors) and fishermen do not enter forest without praying to them. One of the reasons is persistent tiger-man conflict.

Sundarbans is known for honey. Come April-May, the honey season, local honey collectors, the ‘Maulis’ are all set to take plunge. Honey is reported to be extracted from forested and inhabited islands of Sundarbans to be tune of tens of tonnes! But honey is also cause of death of many collectors who illegally enter the forest and tiger poaches few of them, now and again. Man and animal are both stressed for resource – local are stressed for livelihood and tiger is stressed for prey. In fact, to avoid man-animal encounter, the forest sides surrounding the fringe villages have been fenced using nylon nets.

In Sundarbans, the forest department has fallen back on goddesses and gods to have respite from man-eating tigers. I ask the camp in-charge to open the temple gate and I pray as I too have put my foot on tiger land. I do not feel any threat, rather pray to have an encounter with tiger (of course, from safe distance and safe ground).

As I walk around the camp, local myth and mythology is explained on several boards. Sundarbans gets the highest national importance as a protected area. It’s a national park as well as tiger reserve. It’s  global importance is depicted here in displays e.g.  signage on Man & Biosphere Reserve declaration, and monument for Park’s status as a World Heritage Site (as recognised by UNSECO). There are few animals e.g. tiger chasing spotted deer;  fishing cat with prey; etc have been depicted in action to create excitement for visitors, though artificial. Real action is difficult to see in thick mangrove forest.

Sundarbans management has taken a major conservation initiative to revive the population of the northern river terrapin, Batagur baska. This ‘is a large critically endangered river turtle that previously occupied most rivers and estuaries of South Asia (India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar)’. I see a fresh water tank dedicated to the species to breed.

Now, the best part of the camp – the watch tower. I have been watching the mangrove edge along the river channels for last four hours. It is for the first time, I get to see forest from top. Swampy soil is expected. The forest is thick and green. The tree line is uneven.

I am pleasantly surprised to see a group of five Lesser Adjutant Storks – guard and boat assistant with me shout together – madantak, madantak. It’s after long time I have seen this huge bird. They are huddled together at one spot in a clearing. They appear to be taking afternoon nap. Wonderful. I see one Brahminy Kite – a really colourful bird. The bright rust and pure white make it real conspicuous. I do hear a kingfisher and see a drongo. I later notice in the photo another Brahminy kite in the tree, maybe, it has been a pair.

Fresh water is hard to come by in Sundarbans. A tank has been developed which captures rain water just outside the fenced camp area. It is fully viewable from the tower. This is a temptation which I suppose no animal would resist. Willy-nilly, the animals in the area must be visiting the tank. Forest Guard, who is camp in-charge also, tells me spotted deer, wild boar, water monitor lizard are occasionally seen at the tank.

I notice tiger sightings by staff have been jotted down on a white board. I can see five of the six recorded sightings are from the tower and one is actually at the fresh water pond, mentioned as ‘sweet water pond’. So sweet.

 

Pushp Jain

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A Day Out with Baz Bhadur & Rani Rupamati

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pushp

 

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

It Rocks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pushp

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

 

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