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.

Kuraigarh or Shergarh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pushp

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

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

 

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

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!

Khurasani of Mandu

 

I am visiting a senior forester friend based in Nimar region in South-Western part of Madhya Pradesh. This is West-Central India. He arranges an exposure of the region for me, which includes some unique places. One of them worth mentioning is Mandu.  Mandu, a hill fort, is known for love and romance, and exotic natural beauty. Mughal called it ‘the city of joy’.

Overnight, we have stayed at home of a local host at Khargone. In the morning, breakfast starts with Halwa – a real sweet and heavily buttery stuff. I am taken aback when the host tells me that this delicacy is made of seeds of Afeem! Afeem is opium, a narcotic! Opium is also famous as ‘God’s Own Medicine’. The host assure that the seeds have been treated – no narcotics to be concerned about. All said and done, I am keen. This is a new dish for me. And it involves a kind of adventure. We eat a bowl full of halwa and drink a cup of masala tea. All is normal! I prepare to leave, when I am informed that this is starter only! The ladies are busy in the kitchen, we can smell the stuff. There is no way I can refuse. So another round of traditional north Indian meal – stuffed parantha (fried bread), spicy dry potato vegetable and curd.

Filled to brim, we start around 10.30. End-January weather is just pleasant. It’s sunny and cool. After two hours, we are driving in a hilly terrain. Good forest – though it’s dry. Hills look desolate. Forest does not make the impact at this point of time, being of dry deciduous nature with teak as dominant species, which is mostly in leaf fall.

As we ascend the plateau and drive around, three things strike conspicuously – monuments, poor people living is shacks around them and Khurasani.

Regarding monuments, there are 48 of them, including palaces and fort; tombs and memorials; mosques and temples… I rapidly go through pages of a book published by Archaeological Survey of India on Mandu to get some rooting of history and monuments.

Mandu is famous for the selfless and devoted love between Baz Bahadur, a defeated ruler who turned to music and Rupamati his main associate and consort in mid-16th century. The glory of Mandu is said to have subsequently faded, though, Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan have visited Mandu for brief periods.

It is reported that most of the standing monuments were built between 1401and 1526 AD, the age when the Muhammadan kings of Malwa ruled independently from Mandu. Jami Masjid, Hoshang Tomb, Jahaz Mahal & Hindola Mahal are some of the famous ones.

I am not a keen lover of monuments. But Mandu is different. I loved to have one round of exposure. I am surprised that I visit about a dozen of these monuments including Rani Rupamati Pavallion; Baz Bhadur Mahal, Jali Mahal, Chorkot Mosque, Malik Mughith’s mosque, Jahaz Mahal, Hindola Mahal, Jami Masjid, Hoshang ShahTomb and others.

These monuments have grandeur but are simple and austere. What confuses me about these Mahals (Palaces) created by Mughal rulers is virtual absence of rooms in them – where is the private space that too for kings and queens? Secondly, all these monuments lack any art and delicate carvings. Thirdly, for the sake of convenience some of the structures have used the stuff obtained by cruel demolition of old temples.

 

What attracts me most is Khurasani – the very first sight hooks. There is nothing like this in indigenous species of trees in India. I have not come across Khurasani in my far and wide travel in forests and otherwise in India.

My forester friend too has flagged the species to watch. He is right. It’s worth it.

First attraction is bulk of the trunk. We actually measure one, which at breast height turns out to be 7.3 m in circumference! By this scale, I am sure some bigger ones may very well be more than 10 m. Second attraction is the shape – it’s like a cone or bottle with big bottom. In comparison, the canopy is smaller, irregularly scattered. Presently, being leafless – looks like an art installation!  Third attraction is the bark – somewhat shiny and copperish-creamish colour. Fourth attraction is, some of them may be 500 year old. It is just a guesstimate, can be more or less, but pretty old. Fifth attraction is the conspicuous fruit – about 8-12 inches long oval dull green big fruit. This is known as Khurasani Imli. Imli is tamarind. Sixth attraction is its capacity to store water. According to one source, ‘Old trees are known to have a capacity to store upwards of 120,000 litres of water. Aboriginal people in Australia and Africa have known this for long and have devised their own methods of tapping this water in times of scarcity.’

The local vendors all over Mandu, more so at the monuments, are selling, Khurasani Imli. They are selling the whole fruit, as well as seeds with dry pulp around. The pulp has mild sour taste.

There are several Khurasani scattered in the Mandu landscape. Local vendors point out that the tree was brought from Africa and planted here particularly for soldiers to carry with them, to meet shortage of drinking water, during wars. They point out that the most important property of the fruit is that it decreases thirst.

One article on internet indicates ‘The tree that we are talking about is the Baobab, also known as the Boab, Monkey Bread Tree, Boaboa, and Bottle Tree among others… The Baobab has nine species, six of which are native to Madagascar, two to Africa and one to Australia.’ It’s difficult to pin-point species, origin and its history of arrival in Mandu without going into research, which of course, has not been the objective of my visit.

All said and done, Khurasani fruit attracts us – let us feel and taste it. We stop at one vendor. It’s not very expensive. One cost us, Rs 50. He breaks it open – bangs it against a rock and the fruit split into two – pulls out the fresh interior stuff and removes seed with pulp from the fibre. Offers few to us to taste – yes it is sour, but mild, not as strong as Indian tamarind. There is just little pulp around seeds. He packs the stuff in a bag – A bit of history and souvenir to carry home.

 

Pushp