One Lakh Years of History on the Rocks

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We are driving from Bhopal to Bori in Madhya Pradesh on 30th of this October. On the way, my host, a forester friend, Shashi asks me, “would I like to see some caves, rock shelters and ancient rock paintings?’ I say, “Yes, I will love it.” In no case, I want to miss any of these hidden treasures.

And it’s not far. Just a little off our route. The place is called Bhimbetka and lies just 45 km from Bhopal in the adjacent Raisen district. As we get off the highway, I can see area is hilly and forested. Shashi tells me, “These are Vindhyan Hills. Interestingly, we are in Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary.”

Frankly, I knew nothing about Bhimbetka Shashi has been talking about, but the very first look blows me out of my wits. OMG, OMG, OMG… It’s massive, out of the world and unique. It’s ‘World Heritage Site’, and only one of this kind. I read the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) Signage – ‘The site remained a centre of human activity right from lower Palaeolithic times up to medieval period’! Unbelievable.

The caves are actually rock shelters. This is not some normal stuff or tit-bit tourist destination. The first line of introductory signage of ASI makes you say ‘wow’. It’s not one, two, three, four, five but ‘750 rock shelters in seven hills in around 10 square kilometre area’.  Wow again.

I and Shashi know that our knees are good enough for few of them only. Luckily, about a dozen of them we see, we get good feel and hint of what all is here. I am of course, wonderstruck.

The first one is a massive rock protruding over, and providing shelter to few plane rocks, may be 30 square metre area. There is model displayed under the rock of a family busy in different cores.

Next to this is a massive rock shelter, with large entrance and towering top. This is interestingly called ‘Auditorium’.  Hindi word mentions this as ‘Sabha Grah’ i.e. Assembly Hall. As we walk through, we can see ages old nature’s wonder in the naturally carved rocks and man’s wonder in the shape of ‘cup-marks’ made on the rock surface. These cup-marks have been dated to one lakh years old! ‘How many generations would that be’, I wonder. A lay man cannot appreciate the importance of these cup marks. According to ASI, ‘this pushes back the date of the cognitive development of man at Bhimbetka to many thousands of years earlier than that of similar sites in various parts of the world. Making it one the earliest cradles of cognitive human evolution.’

Most of the rock shelters have ancient paintings. There are largely depiction of man and animals and tools. These are, of course, with theme e.g. family life, festive life i.e. music and dancing, forest, hunting, warfare…

At places, we have to step back to avoid disturbing the scene. Here and there, we find young couples, hidden in nukes and corners, real people, sheltering in these rock shelters to live some romantic moments similar to those the stone-age man lived.

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She lands in my lap

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We are driving to Churna Forest Rest House (in Satpura Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh, last month). My forester friend, Shashi and our host, Shib, talk of possibility of sighting a Giant Squirrel. I have read about it. In fact, STR logo carries the outline drawing of the Giant. I tell them, “I would love to see it.” In fact, I am excited. I have not seen this earlier.

As we arrive, after protocol salutes for senior officials, we are seated at a nice spot in the lawn, in front of the FRH. Soon, the table is laid and tea is served. It’s high tea in view of presence of senior foresters. It includes nuts, biscuits, sweets, fruits…

As soon as the fruit plate arrives, we are joined by an unexpected guest. And of all the possible guests, it has been least expected – Giant Squirrel!

It has been keeping a watch on us, from an adjacent tree, arrives behind us with stealth. It seems, it is unable to get a clear view of how the table is laid and how to target the favourite stuff. It leaps and lands in my lap to get a clear view of the table! I am taken aback and so are others. Nevertheless, I keep still. In no time, the squirrel grabs a piece of apple and dashes off.

The local forest guard in attendance tells us that this particular Giant has learned the art of getting /stealing food from visitors. It has become bold to pick the stuff from plate and has no fear of man.

There it is, feeding on the apple, sticking to the truck of the tree next to us, in typical squirrel style – upside down. The tail and hind legs provide grip while it holds the apple piece in between front legs. Oh! Interesting – it removes the peel before eating the apple. Does it know that these days apples are covered with insecticide, pesticide and a layer of wax.

We are able to look at the Giant close enough to count moustache hair, take number of photos. Shashi even takes my photo watching the Giant at close quarters.

After finishing the apple, it is ‘dil mange more’. The Giant returns back to the table but by now only biscuits and empty cups are left. It is disappointed.  A friend offers biscuit but it just ignores.

It is angry. It notices a kitten feeding on a biscuit behind us. The Giant gives the kitten a bite stiff enough for it to make sharp and shrill cry.

Local forest guard shows us two more giants in nearby trees but they are barely visible –feeding up in the trees. Giants actually love big trees and remain in upper canopy, rarely coming to ground. He also shows a giant’s home in the foliage – some tender leaves have been laid into a circular bed.

I notice, the friendly Giant is indifferent to us, and sharply looking at two new visitors. It notices a bag of eatables. It runs to them and immediately attracts attention. The story of grabbing a fruit goes on.

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Post Script

Indian Giant Squirrel is endemic to India. Its distribution is in the Western Ghats, the Eastern Ghats and the Satpura Range, as far north as Madhya Pradesh. It is one of the largest squirrels. It is dramatically coloured involving creamy-beige, buff, tan, rust, reddish-maroon, brown and black. There are some variations among the subspecies of which, ten have been described. The one mentioned in the blog is Ratufa indica centralis.

Ladvi – Fit for Hermit’s Abode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wall of Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kuraigarh or Shergarh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dancing Elephant

 

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

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

Vatsala

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

Panna Calves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another Heera of Panna

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(Panna Forest)

I have arrived at Panna Tiger Reserve with family and friends in the morning. We are accommodated at Hinouta Jungle Camp. The Complex is at the edge of the forest and just next to entry gate. It is almost staying the forest.

Summer is at its top. The temperature is souring past 45°C. Sun is shining white. We start for the forest in an open Zypsy. Even at 4 pm it feels like burning. We are driving on Hinouta Plateau.

Udaimani Singh Parihar, the forest guard of the area is in the front seat. I suggest to him that let us go to denser parts of jungle first and later in the open parts to avoid Sun and heat, as much as possible.

The sharp eyes of Udaimani notice a leopard at the edge of the forest at one place. This has been least expected or thought of. He whispers about it. My wife, Sunita, sitting just behind him gets the hint first and notices the animal for a flash as it is entering into the undergrowth. None of us, Suresh Pant, Mrs Sunita Pant and me see the animal. Mrs Pant is terribly disappointed and so are Suresh and me. Mrs Pant starts complaining, and like a child she starts thumping feet. “Why I could not see?”

Though the leopard is gone but we wait. We are praying, maybe, it appears once again. And it does! For mysterious reasons, the leopard takes U turn from left side where it has gone and crawls in bushes in front of us and goes towards the forest on the right. Sheer luck!

Lot of excitement. Mrs Pant is bubbly and says, “My luck. I have seen tiger number of times, but leopard only once.”

This has been a matter of seconds when whole drama happens though it may sound like a long event. Nevertheless, an event this has been. I notice that the leopard is full grown, black circle dominating yellowish base; length including tail may be 7-8 feet. It appears to be a male. I realise there has not been time or opportunity for taking a photo.

We all agree that this has been a great opportunity and amazing surprise. We have seen the animal clearly and that too in broad daylight. I notice, this is only 4.30 pm. I wonder, “How can a leopard operate in broad daylight in core tiger area? Is the leopard very bold? Is there greater tolerance of leopards by tigers in Panna? Is there no tiger operating in this area? Or, probably, it is sheer chance.”

There is jubilation. We decide to stop at the first chowki and have some tea, biscuit, and namkeen. I generally keep all the stuff in my bag.

There is quite a bit of brooding over the sighting. Suresh Pant says “My visit has become more than successful with the sighting.” My wife claims “I have seen the leopard most, twice!” I add “This has been a really big leopard. See, how it moved with stealth.”

Suresh raises a fundamental question, “We all have the desire to see a tiger whenever visiting a tiger reserve. Leopard does not appear even in thought. The paradox is, it is more difficult to spot a leopard than a tiger.”

“Indeed. Why we miss giving importance to our second largest cat?” I wonder and I say, “Sorry my dear leopard, we will be careful next time.”

 

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Blood Stained Hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Crocs cannot go anywhere to complain

“Oh! Shit. Mom cannot we have a clean home?” baby croc asks her mother. Mother herself is in bit of a trouble. One of its feet got entangled in a fishing-net. She has been strong enough to get free but part of net is now permanently wrapped around the left front foot. Mother is depressed. People are stealing their food also. She is helpless since, all the lakes in the area are more or less similarly polluted and affected. She broods over the good old days, her grandfather used to talk about. Those days, Shivpuri was a sleepy small town and people use to be able to manage their shit at their own end and not pass on to animals’ home.

The croc family, whose conversation I overheard belongs to Sakhya Sagar – a large lake in the middle of a wildlife reserve, Madhav National Park adjacent to Shivpuri. The reserve has been a royal shooting preserve of the, than, Gwalior State. At one end of this lake is around 100 year old Sailing Club. This may have busted with royal parties in good old days. Now this is a grand old Forest Rest House with two suits.

Madhav is teaming with herbivore, reptile, carnivore, and of course, avi-fauna. One can see large herds of spotted deer and nilgai. Wild boars can also be spotted.  Crocodiles are common in lakes. We often come across huge monitor lizards in the forest. Leopards operate in the area but are sighted infrequently.  Tiger used to be common here but unfortunately now there is no resident tiger population. Once in a while some dispersing tiger finds temporary home here. Forest is dry deciduous in nature. Thus, the visibility is good in the forest.

I am lucky to be staying at the Club. The whole place is for me, thanks to a forester friend. I sit enjoying lavish breakfast on a huge veranda, the size of a tennis court but more squarish, and extending into the lake. In fact, this has been erected on pillars in the lake.

This is so wonderful. What a sight – mix of natural and cultural history.  I can see the huge lake spread before me with variety of birds. Hilly, undulating landscape is spread beyond. At the other end, I can see some nilgai feeding lazily. Did I see a chowsingha (four horned antelope)? Not clear from so far, but is possible. I can see or maybe imagine a crocodile here and a crocodile there, now and again, by tell tale ripples in the lake, barely visible snouts…

In the afternoon, we go around the lake to watch wildlife. All along the edge of the lake we can see plastic bottles, plastic bags, rags and what not – waste that has beached. And in the middle of all this waste all along the lake edge are basking crocodiles, difficult to count all in just one afternoon visit – they can be between 50-100, of all age and size. Must be of both sexes, though, I do not know how to differentiate. There they lie like dead but as we approach in a vehicle, closer than 100-150 m, they are full of life and with a dash they splash into the lake. A rare one allows a closer approach. That’s the prize of patience. Looking closely at water reveals, it’s not as clean as it should be. It’s blackish. There is some unpleasant stench as well.

I have visited Madhav some twenty years back. I do not remember all this. Nevertheless, I feel I must explore what’s going on.

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I find the cause is just a stone’s through away. City’s sewage is being directly mixed into the lake using a sly. The, than Gwalior royal, Madhav Rao Scindia, has designed the Madhav water supply system in such a way that there is water available for wildlife round the year.  In 1918, he built a chain of dams – set of three lakes – on the river Manihar. The drainage of the area reaching the river is first collected in Jadhav Sagar, just outside the present day National Park. Overflow from Jadhav is collected in Sakhya Sagar and overflow from here further goes into Madhav Sagar, and extra water through a sluice gate meets the Manihar River downstream. Prefect system thus provides water to the flora and fauna of the reserve.

The town municipality plays a trick to save the bother of managing the sewage. It brings all the sewage in a large channel which flows adjacent to Jadhav Sagar. Just few metres short of overflow point of the lake, the sewage is mixed with the Jadhav water. The water and sewage together overflow and pass down to Sakhya and from Sakhya to Madhav!

To add insult to injury, The National Park suffers at the hands of fishing mafia. Hand in gloves with local police and bureaucracy, truck loads of fish is illegally collected from the lakes in the Park.

Maharaja Madhav Rao is no more. Forest Management with limited staff is not able to stop the pollution and fishing. People of Shivpuri do not care. Municipality has cut short its work. Crocodile do not have a voice. How much waste might have accumulated in these lakes is anybody’s guess. This is really shitty.

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Wilderness having a free run in Asirgarh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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