Binsar- The Himalayan Bioscope

We hit the road at six and were already an hour behind schedule! The 400 km drive to Binsar through Moradabad, Rampur, Rudrapur, Kathgodam, Bhimtal, Bhowali and Almora was going to be one long haul. Musafir had insisted on driving the ‘Jazz’ as the winding hill roads make him sick unless he is at the wheel. The other vehicle was entrusted to our good-old ‘Saarthi’ our comrade of many past adventures. The man speaks little but exudes a quiet confidence and is a good bloke to have with you when the chips are down.

We took the Highway to Lucknow (NH-24) and drove through Ghaziabad and Hapur, crossing the awe-inspiring Ganga to halt at Gajraula for breakfast at McDonald’s. The road was good and we had beaten the traffic thus far only to squander the early gains in a lazy breakfast. We now crossed Amroha, the birthplace of the famous Urdu poet Kamal ‘Amrohi’ who wrote the epic dialogues for Mughal-e-Azam and directed Pakeezah – the last film of his estranged wife Meena Kumari who died weeks after its release. The highway skirts the ‘Pital Nagri’ of Moradabad and we were still making good time when we turned left to leave the 4-lane highway and reach the erstwhile Princely State of Rampur.

Rampur became the capital of the Rohilla Nawabs after the rout of their military alliance with the Marathas in 1772 at the hands of the combined forces of the State of Oudh and the East India Company.

Nawab of Rampur with Sir Maurice Hallet, Governor of United Provinces - Carriage Procession escorted by Rampur Lancers from Nawab Station to Khas Bag Palace, Rampur (1940)

Nawab of Rampur with Sir Maurice Hallet, Governor of United Provinces – Carriage Procession escorted by Rampur Lancers from Nawab Station to Khas Bag Palace, Rampur (1940)

The town is today in a state of utter neglect if not outright decay but it still prides itself with the historic ‘Raza Library’ that has a priceless collection of rare Oriental manuscripts and Mughal miniature paintings. The library is housed within the splendid ‘Hamid Manzil’ – a palace constructed in the Indo-European style in 1904 within the walls of Rampur Fort that also contains the 19th century Imambara.

Hamid Manzil constructed under supervision of Chief Engineer W.C. Wright, in the reign of Nawab Hamid Ali Khan at Rampur (1940)

Hamid Manzil constructed under supervision of Chief Engineer W.C. Wright, in the reign of Nawab Hamid Ali Khan at Rampur (1940)

We were to now follow NH-87 till Almora and had managed to cover half the distance without event. The tough part of the journey had now started and we suffered a bone-jarring ride over the pot-holed 30 KM stretch amidst heavy tourist traffic from Rampur to Bilaspur. We refuelled and continued on the congested highway till Rudrapur. The towns of Uttarakhand are a pleasant surprise and present a clean, orderly look especially when compared to their shabby cousins in Uttar Pradesh. We now left the highway and took the refreshing forest road till Haldwani. We overshot the bye-pass and had to honk our way through the crammed market road until we finally hit the highway again.

We had fallen behind our planned schedule and were relieved to reach ‘Kath-Godam’ (literally the ‘Timber Depot’). The town came up in the foothills where the Gaula River disgorges from the Kumaon Himalayas to flow south to join the Ramganga. Its significance as a transit point for the transportation of timber brought down from the Himalayas increased in the late 19th century after the railway line from Bareilly was extended till the town.

Kathgodam Railway Station (1935)

Kathgodam Railway Station (1935)

Depots were established for stacking of timber by the merchants including the legendary ‘Timber King of India,’ Thakur Dan Singh Bisht, the ‘Maldaar’ of Kumaon. We halted briefly at ‘Udipiwala’ a welcoming budget restaurant with typical South-Indian fare, quick service and reasonably clean loos.

Binsar amongst the Himalayas

Binsar amongst the Himalayas

We left the highway again this time to take the Bhimtal – Bhowali road to escape the summer rush for Nanital. The ascent had started at Kathgodam and we drove up the pleasant hill-road gaining some 800 metres in altitude to reach Bhimtal. The hill-town is a terrible disappointment with a rather tired-looking lake, virtually in its death-throes, being pitilessly choked by the mushrooming architectural nightmares in concrete and the noisy potato-chip crunching tourists.

We left the valley and climbed up the road for ‘Bhowali’ which is famous for its fruit ‘mandi’ and its historic TB-Sanatorium. Therapeutic intervention for the treatment of tuberculosis started in India in the early 20th century with the setting up of ‘Sanatoriums’ at hill stations by Christian Missionaries and the British-Indian Government as part of the ‘Open Air’ treatment strategy that was in vogue in those times. Patients were expected to benefit from the salubrious climate of the hills coupled with the carefully monitored diet and lifestyle. A TB-Sanatorium was started in 1908 by the Church of Scotland near Almora and was intended only for women patients. In 1912 the Government established its first sanatorium at Bhowali that was named King Edward Sanatorium to commemorate the reign of King Edward VII. The Bhowali Sanatorium served as home for an ailing Subhas Chandra Bose in 1932. Later Kamla Nehru was brought here from Allahabad in October 1934 when she was diagnosed with TB. Jawaharlal Nehru was shifted from the prison at Naini to Almora Jail so that he could visit his ailing wife. He would read out chapters from his autobiography that he was writing in the jail to his wife. In March 1935, Kamla was shifted to a sanatorium at Badenweiler in Germany and from there in January 1936 to another sanatorium near Lausanne in Switzerland where she died the following month.

We crossed the busy bazaar of Bhowali at 1657 metres and once again joined the NH-87 to progress northwards down the western slope of Bhowali Range. The highway descended into a narrow, picturesque valley with a creek running down northward between two parallel ranges. The hill sides were thickly wooded with pockets of terraced fields. The natural beauty of this enchanting valley was interrupted by the ugly plastic domes of polyhouse farms set up along the banks of the rocky creek.

We crossed the ‘Kainchi Dham’ – a bustling ashram-cum-temple complex dedicated to Lord Hanuman that was started in the mid-sixties by an ascetic, ‘Baba Neem Karoli’. The complex has built at the end of a reverse bend in the road – ‘Kainchi morh’ in local parlance. The ascetic was made famous by his American disciple Dr. Richard Alpert who was a PhD in Psychology from Stanford and a professor at Harvard until his dismissal in 1963 on the charge of giving a psychedelic drug to an undergraduate! Richard was born in 1931 to Jewish parents and arrived in India in 1967 on a spiritual quest. He became a disciple of Baba Neem Karoli who changed his name to Ram Dass. Richard wrote a book on yoga, spiritualism and meditation that was published under the title ‘Be Here Now’ in 1971. It soon became a cult with the Hippie Movement of the 70s influencing many, amongst others, Steve Jobs! The book has sold over 2 million copies and served as the inspiration for George Harrison’s 1974 song, ‘Be Here Now’.

The valley is also home to the erstwhile ‘Imperial Potato Research Station’ that was established at Niglat in 1943. It became a ‘Wheat Research Station’ during the Green Revolution years and was eventually made a Research Station for the Central Himalayan Region under the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources.

The creek flows into a large seasonal nallah which in turn continues northward to join the Kosi River at Khairna. We crossed Garampani village (popular with tourists for its hot spring) to reach Khairna town at 888 metres, some 20 KM from Bhowali. Khairna has been famous for the successive iron-suspension bridges that were built by the British across the Kosi River since mid-19th century.

Khyrna Bridge on the road to Ranikhet; Lawrie and Company, G.W. (1895)

Khyrna Bridge on the road to Ranikhet; Lawrie and Company, G.W. (1895)

The town also had a staging bungalow for the European travellers. The cart road to Ranikhet Cantonment crossed the Kosi over the bridge at Khairna. Till the construction of a bridge across Kosi upstream of Khairna the only way to reach Almora was the circuitous one through Ranikhet. Lt. Col. Alban Wilson of the 8th Gurkha Rifles in his famous memoirs ‘Sport and Service in Assam and Elsewhere’ describes his stay at the Khirna bungalow and angling for mahseer that gathered in the pool below the bridge. It was 1899 and the Gurkha officer was on his way to attend the garrison class at Ranikhet. He had shot a barking deer and some partridges for the pot and had waited for the dinner with anticipation only to discover much to his chagrin that the khansamah fed his dinner to a travelling General and his staff who were also staying at the bungalow!

The Kosi River originates from the Bhatkot range near Kausani and it flows in south/ south-west direction through Binsar, Bhatkat, Syahidevi and Takula-Basauli hills till it meets its main tributary Suyal at Kwarab. The river then flows westward till Kakrighat from where it bends sharply to head south towards Khairna. At Khairna the river takes a westward course again until it bends southward near the Dangrani Gate of the Corbett National Park to flow through Ramnagar and join the Ramganga River south of Rampur.

We drove through Chhara and headed north along the highway that runs parallel to the left bank of Kosi. The tree cover thins out drastically after Khairna and the hill slopes look bare and eroded. 10 KM from Khairna we reached yet another temple-cum-ashram complex at Kakrighat. The site lies across the Kosi River and is famous for the ‘Samadhi’ of the ‘Sombari’ Baba. The ‘Baba’ was an early 20th century ascetic who was believed to possess miraculous healing powers.

Sombari Baba of Kakrighat

Sombari Baba of Kakrighat

He organized a free community meal (Bhandara) at his riverside ashram at Kakrighat every Monday (‘Sombar/ Somvar’) and hence the name ‘Sombari’. The Baba led a solitary, austere life in his modest riverside abode (he lived in a cave as per some versions). He would cook his own meal, sufficient only for one and then divide it into three. He would eat only the first part, the second he would feed to the fish and leave the last part for an unknown companion. The Baba performed meditation surrounded by fires lighted in all four directions with the fire of the sun above him (the ‘Panch’/ Five-‘Agni’/Fire ‘Sadhna’/ Meditation) to experience his inner fire – the ‘Kundalini Shakti’. When asked the significance of the ritual, he explained, ‘Fire is me and I am fire – the whole universe is pervaded by fire – fire is that which sustains life – everything in this web of life is interconnected – our health and happiness are not separate from the health and happiness of others – our inner strength and spiritual wisdom affect the world outside us and vice versa.’

Kakrighat

Kakrighat

The ascetic was in a way echoing the ‘realization’ achieved by Swami Vivekanada at the very same spot when he meditated under a pipal tree at Kakrighat in 1890. The Swami awakened from deep meditation and wrote in Bengali in the notebook of his companion Swami Akhandananda, ‘The microcosm and the macrocosm are built on the same plan. Just as the individual soul is encased in the living body, so is the universal Soul in the Living Prakriti [Nature]—the objective universe … is analogous to the relation between an idea and the word expressing it: they are one and the same; and it is only by a mental abstraction that one can distinguish them. Thought is impossible without words.’

We drove along the Kosi for another 10KM till we reached its confluence with Suyal at Kwarab. We crossed the Suyal over a high bridge and climbed the southern face of the Binsar-Almora Ridge that extends from the north-east to south-west and separates the Kosi catchment area from the Suyal basin. A signboard at the outskirts of Almora directed us to turn for the Binsar bye-pass which took us through numerous bends and turns until our navigating guide – ‘Google Aunty’ was as clueless as the rest of us. We eventually found ourselves driving on the Almora-Ranikhet Road and were guided by the locals to leave the main road at Almora Filling Station and take the hairpin bend that seemed to put us back on the road to Almora!! ‘Google-maps’ was giving bizarre directions and I was afraid to admit to my fatigued and anxious companions that I had lost my way.

The signposts of ‘Khali Estate’ a heritage property inside Binsar forest eventually came to our rescue and we followed the way to Khali. We were now on the Almora-Bageshwar Road. We were a couple of hours behind schedule and I was worried that we might miss the time permitted for last entry into Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary at the Ayarpani Gate. Saarthi had sensed my anxiety and had stepped on the accelerator without the need for instruction.

It was 5 PM when we finally reached the drop gate of the Forest Department. The Ayarpani Gate has a Reception Centre (with loos) and a Nature Interpretation Centre. A friendly forest employee ushered me to the Reception and I purchased the entry tickets for visiting the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. The charges were modest – Rs. 250 per vehicle (inclusive of the driver) and Rs. 150 per adult visitor with a 50% student discount for the children.

Aayarpani Gate Reception, Binsar WLS

Aayarpani Gate Reception, Binsar WLS

A single 9 KM long metalled road connects the Ayarpani Gate to the over 100 years old Forest Rest House nestled within the thick forest that covers the Binsar massif. The metalled road is the only track inside the sanctuary on which vehicular traffic is permitted. There are numerous jungle trails and village paths for reaching the private estates, villages and viewpoints. It was 11 hours of weary travel since we had started from Delhi and we were now standing expectantly at the gates of our latest forest adventure destination.

Drop Gate of Forest Department at Ayarpani, Binsar

Drop Gate of Forest Department at Aayarpani, Binsar WLS

 

Ayarpani Gate to Jhandi Dhar (Binsar WLS)

Aayarpani Gate to Jhandi Dhar (Binsar WLS)

Our story must now take a longish detour into the winding lanes of history of Binsar starting with the original colonial occupants of the 19th century bungalows and estates that were set up inside the Binsar forest. As one drives down the forest road from Ayarpani one encounters a board indicating the way up a hill top to the Khali Estate. Of the six private estates located inside the forest (only five are being operated currently) probably Khali has the best documented history – an enchanting tale of a long chain of owners, most of whom could be called dreamers, the not so ‘worldly wise’. For it does require a certain kind of madness to live a life of seclusion in the midst of a remote, pristine forest drunk on the love for the wild.

The 140 year old history of the present day ‘Khali Estate’ of Binsar starts with the purchase on 20th March 1873 by Lt. Col. Alexander Paterson of ‘Almorah’, of a parcel of land having an area of 16 (British) Acres 16 and 19 Poles and situated in ‘Lakhanpur Patti, Baramandel Pargana in the Collectorate of Kumuon’. The site was bound to the north by Mauzah Bhakuni, to the east/south-east by Mauzah Ullai and to the west/ south-west by Mauzah Bhatuli. Lt. Col. A. Paterson paid the treasury 101 Rupees and 9 Annas towards ‘redemption of land revenue’ that was payable to the Government for the site. Paterson served in the 3rd Gurkha (The Kumaon) as Lt. Col and Commandant from 9th Dec 1869 to 23rd June 1873 and as the Colonel Commandant from 1873 to 1879. The 3rd Gurkha was raised in 1815 as ‘The Kumaon Battalion’ during the war with Nepal and drew its soldiers from the hill people of Nepali, Kumaoni and Garhwali origin. The Kumaon Battalion formed a part of the 3rd Column led by Colonel Campbell that stormed the Kashmiri Gate in September 1857. The battalion was rechristened as the 3rd Gurkha Regiment in 1864. Col. Paterson gained recognition when he led his troops to victory in the famous battle of Ahmed Khel in 1879 during the Second Afghan War. He lived at Almorah, the permanent station of the regiment. He later rose to the rank of a General.

Paterson’s Estate was purchased by General Sir Henry Ramsay on 2nd April 1885 and was named ‘The Khalee Orchard’. He is said to have built a small weekend cottage at the property.

Major-General the Honourable Sir Henry Ramsay, CB, KCSI, Commissioner of Kumaon

Major-General the Honourable Sir Henry Ramsay, CB, KCSI, Commissioner of Kumaon

The General had built a bungalow and an orchard higher up in the forest that he called the ‘Binsar Orchard’. The two orchards together formed the Estate of Binsur Gardens of Sir Henry that was sold on 22nd February 1893 for 25,000 Rupees to Arthur Ross Wilson, Esquire a Scottish civil engineer then employed in the Public Works Department at Benares, North-Western Provinces.

Arthur Ross Wilson, Esquire 1848-1923 at Khali Estate, Binsar, Almora (1907)

Arthur Ross Wilson, Esquire 1848-1923 at Khali Estate, Binsar, Almora (1907)- Photo courtesy Nicholas Wilson

Arthur Ross Wilson came to India in 1864 at the age of sixteen, followed by his father, Thomas Wilson, C.E. a few months later, to work on the rail track being constructed between Amritsar and Delhi. He employed a British/ Anglo-Indian manager to tend to his estates before shifting to Khalee on his retirement in 1899 as the Resident Engineer with the PWD at Benares. He is said to have pulled down the old cottage of Ramsay and to have constructed a Spanish-style Villa as his retirement home that stands on the estate to date.

Khali Estate, Binsar, Almora (1905) - Photo Courtesy Nicholas Wilson

Khali Estate, Binsar, Almora (1905) – Photo courtesy Nicholas Wilson

Wilson is believed to have been a progressive estate manager who added a small dairy farm, a tea-garden, a tea-processing plant, a fruit-canning plant, a forge and a leather tanning operation to the orchard at Khalee. The hardy Scotsman seems to have been equally good with the gun- judging from his Shikar pictures of Binsar forest.

Arthur Ross Wilson, Esquire (1848-1923) posing with leopard kill, Binsar Forest Photo courtesy Nicholas Wilson

Arthur Ross Wilson, Esquire (1848-1923) posing with leopard kill, Binsar Forest
Photo courtesy Nicholas Wilson

 

Arthur Ross Wilson, Esquire (1848-1923) with wild boar kill, Binsar Forest Photo courtesy Nicholas Wilson

Arthur Ross Wilson, Esquire (1848-1923) with wild boar kill, Binsar Forest
Photo courtesy Nicholas Wilson

Wilson loved the hills and his estate and never returned to Britain at all after his retirement, not even for his children’s weddings in 1906 and 1908!! Arthur’s wife Margaret Methven died at Khalee in 1900. Both his children settled down in India and he continued to live at Khalee until his death on 22nd July 1923. Arthur and Margaret are believed to be buried in the Christian Cemetery at Almorah.

The Khalee Orchards then came to Colonel Norman Methven Wilson, I.M.S. the only son of A.R. Wilson who sold the estate (now measuring 16 Acres) on 2nd May 1932 for Rs.17,000 to Seth Jamnalal Bajaj of Warda, Central Provinces, the famous Indian industrialist, philanthropist, freedom fighter and follower of Mahatma Gandhi. It is said that Mahatma had visited Kasauni and had spent some days at the dak bungalow. He had fallen in love with the Himalayas and the estate was purchased at his behest and named ‘Shail Ashram’ by him. Shail Ashram seems to have been run as a dharamshala of sorts for invalids etc on payment basis under the guidance of Gandhi.

The ashram was then sold on 27th March 1935 for Rs.15,000 to Ranjit Sitaram Pandit a barrister from a cultured and wealthy Brahmin family of Kathiawar who bought it for a holiday home for his family and a recreation camp for Congress workers. Ranjit Pandit had got his education at Europe and studied in several prestigious institutions including the universities at Hiedelberg (Germany), Sorbonne (Paris) and Oxford (U.K.). This charming young man returned to India to practice law. He had many other talents. He was an avid sportsman, had a lovely voice and could play the violin. He was a linguist and was fluent in 11 European and Indian languages. He translated several Sanskrit classics to English including Kalhan’s ‘Rajatarangini’ (River of Kings), the saga of the Kings of Kashmir. It was probably his fascination for Kashmir that attracted him to Swarup Kumari (literally ‘Beautiful Princess’), the vivacious and attractive daughter of his senior colleague from law, Motilal Nehru, while visiting the family at Anand Bhawan – their home at Allahabad. The couple got married in 1922 and the austere wedding at Anand Bhawan was attended by Mahatma Gandhi. Swarup Kumari was renamed Vijaya Lakshmi in the tradition of those times.

RS Pandit with the Nehrus c. 1927

RS Pandit with the Nehrus c. 1927

The Mahatma had a tremendous influence on Ranjit who gave up all comforts and got intimately involved with the freedom movement. During the struggle Ranjit, his wife Vijaya Lakshmi and his charismatic brother-in-law, Jawaharlal Nehru had to suffer imprisonment on several occasions.

Nehru Behind Bars with Ranjit Pandit

Nehru Behind Bars with Ranjit Pandit

Soon after he purchased the Shail Ashram a summer study camp was organized at the place in May 1937 by the firebrand socialists of Congress like Yusuf Meherally, Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayprakash Narayan. Ranjit was elected as the Secretary of the Provincial Congress Committee in 1938.

Chandralekha Mehta, the eldest of Ranjit and Vijaya Lakshmi’s three daughters has rendered a touching account of life at Khali in the time of her ‘Papu’ in her book ‘Freedom’s Child: Growing up during Satyagraha’. The estate is said to have been in a neglected state when it was bought by Ranjit in 1935. A romantic and a poet at heart, Ranjit named the estate ‘Ritusamhara’ after Kalidasa’s epic poem by that name. He laboured hard to restore the estate to its past glory in the days of Ramsay and Wilson. To make it the idyllic hill retreat of his dreams. Under his loving care the neglected orchard once again yielded apricots, peaches and apples. A spring was harnessed to produce electricity to supplement the kerosene lamps. The waste water from the bath was tapped for use in the garden. Poultry was raised on the estate. Chandralekha recounts her memorable trips to ‘Ritusamhara’ during her childhood. Of landing at the Kathgodam Railway station with her younger sisters at the start of the summer break at school. Of being picked up by their doting father who would then drive them up the winding hill road at a gentle speed to save them from getting motion-sickness. He would sing songs all the way up in his wonderful clear voice to cheer up his daughters. They would halt for breakfast at Mrs. Cotton’s Guest House at Bhowali – an Anglo-Indian lady who bred cocker spaniels!! Lunch would be at the roadside ‘aloo-puri’ shop at Garampani village that lay en-route to Almora. The father would stop at all the scenic spots to let his girls enjoy the Himalayan scenery. The family would stay overnight at the Kundan Lodge at Almora with their relative Basiswar Sen, an agriculturalist who later went on to pioneer the Green Revolution in the country. His American wife- Gertrude Emerson, was a scholar of Indian history and her book, Paegeant of India’s History was published in 1948. It would be a stiff 14-mile climb the following morning to reach Binsar from Almora and the family would be accompanied by Bhutia porters carrying their luggage and ponies carrying the provisions from the town. Chandralekha longingly recalls the towering deodars at the dream home of her childhood. The mulberry tree that the children loved to climb. The sundial of Ramsay. The Gomukh – a marble head of a cow brought as a souvenir from the Swaraj Bhawan – ingeniously installed by her father over the source of a roadside natural spring to make the water run out through the cow’s mouth! She remembers her lounging on the wooden ‘takhts’ in the front verandah – gazing at the distant snow clad peaks. The lovely brown eggs, the home baked bread and the delicious apricot and strawberry jam.

Chandralekha with Vijaya Lakshmi

Chandralekha with Vijaya Lakshmi

But this fairy tale had a tragic ending. Ranjit was arrested during the countrywide crackdown triggered by the launch of the ‘Quit India’ Movement. While incarcerated in the Naini Central Jail in 1942, he finally completed his English translation of Kalidas’s, Ritusamhara (Garland of Seasons). Unfortunately, he contracted an infection while lodged in the Bareilly jail and passed away in 1944. His translation of Ritu-Samhar was published after his death.

Ranjit had been a much-loved person and was a special favourite with Jawaharlal Nehru who had spent many-a-happy-day with his sister’s family at their lovely hill home. On his release from the prison Nehru came to spend a night at Khali to mourn the loss of his favourite brother-in-law. Nehru’s love for Khali can be made out from his letter to Indira written from the Ahmadnagar Fort Prison in January 1945. He advises her to spend time at Khali especially for the sake of her son, the ‘young tyrant’ Rajiv (he would have been a year old at that time!) so that the child could learn to love the hills. ‘’I should like him,’’ wrote Nehru, ‘’to become acquainted as early as possible with the Himalayas, have sight of the snow covered peaks, looking down into the deep valleys and breathe the fragrant and health giving air of the pine clad hillsides.’’ He further advised her to take the bridle path to Binsar from Almora and not the motor road so as to get the real hill experience. Indira Gandhi stayed at her aunt’s hill estate in 1946 and wrote to her father from Khali. The letters between the father and the daughter have been published in the book, ‘Two Alone-Two Together’ edited by Sonia Gandhi.

After independence, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was appointed as the Ambassador to the Soviet Union and she sold the estate in 1950 to Swami Bhaskar who established an Ashram at the estate and named it ‘Yoga-Shikhar’.

The ashram was sold in 1959 yet again, this time to Navnit Bansidhar Parekh who was to be the owner of the Khali Estate for the next forty years till his death in May, 1998. Navnit was born to a devout Gujarati family based at Ahmedabad in 1923. His grandparents inculcated in him a love for the Sanskrit language and the Vedic scriptures. After finishing college he joined the family Clearing & Forwarding firm at Bombay, M/s Lee & Muirhead. The firm later shifted its business to travel and tourism. Navnit was, however, not cut out for business and his heart lay in travel and spiritual pursuit. In 1947 he accompanied his father on the 18 mile trek from Almora to Mirtola Ashram of Swami Krishna Prem and there was no looking back thereafter. He fell in love with the Himalayas and trekked deep and wide in the mountains from Kashmir to Arunachal. He made films of his Himalayan adventures that were screened for varied audiences. His film on Kailash Mansarovar was specially screened during the Congress Working Committee meeting at Bombay for the national leaders including Nehru and Patel. His insatiable spiritual quest led him to every sacred destination for pilgrimage in the Himalayas. He sought the answers to the questions of human existence in spiritual Gurus and Saints. He donated to charitable works like dharamshalas and rest-houses for Himalayan travellers and free medicines for hill folks. He travelled extensively in South-East Asia and described the influence of Hindu culture in his book, ‘On the Footsteps of Rishi Agastya.’ Much like his predecessor at Khali, Ranjit Pandit, he too embarked upon the translation of Sanskrit Classics and worked on the translation of the 3 books of Rishi Bhartru-Hari. He wrote extensively about his Himalayan travels in Gujarati. He was an Anthropologist of sorts and took deep interest in the life and culture of the hill-dwellers he encountered on his travels. He owned a large collection of books on travel and spirituality. Navnit settled down for good at Khali in 1963 and named the estate ‘Govardhan’ after the sacred mountain that was lifted by Lord Krishna on his little finger! In 1968 he married Prassana, a teacher at Almora who shared his passion for Hindustani classical music and the mountains. Navnit added a Shiva Temple and a ‘Kutir’ that he used for reading writing and meditation. He planted extensively in the area, planting deodars, rhododendrons, cypress, willow, eucalyptus and poplars. The orchard yielded apple, apricot, peach, pear, plum and chestnut. The cows and buffaloes raised on the ‘Gaushala’ yielded creamy milk. During his 4 decades of stay at Khali he had several important visitors from the world of spiritualism and classical music including Swami Krishna-Prem, Madhav-Ashish, Lama Angarika Govinda, Swami Ishwaranand Giri, Swami Pranavanandji, Ravi Shankar Maharaj, Swami Anand, Kaka Saheb Kalelkar, and Ma Anand-Mayi.

Navnit Parekh (1923-1998)

Navnit Parekh (1923-1998)

One may make a mention of the interesting history of Mirtola Ashram as a brief interlude to the narrative to get a feel of the curious lot who give up all to take to a life of solitude in the hills. The story starts with a young English Fighter Pilot, Ronald Henry Nixon who came to India after World War I in 1921 and took up employment in the newly set up University at Lucknow as a Lecturer in English. He became friends with the Vice Chancellor Dr. Gyanendranath Chakravarti, a well-known theosophist and his wife Monika Devi. In 1927 when Monica moved to Almora on medical advice, Ronald decided to accompany her. Monika took to the path of renunciation a year later and assumed the name of Yashoda-Ma. Ronald followed suit under the name of Sri Krishna Prem. The two then founded the Ashram at Mirtola in 1930. Yashoda Ma died in 1944. Sri Krishna-Prem now assumed the management of the Ashram and passed on the same in 1955 to his disciple, Alexander Phipps an English Aircraft Engineer who visited Mirtola in 1946 only to take up the path of spiritualism under the name of Sri Madhav-Ashish. Madhav-Ashish did pioneering work in hill farming techniques with local communities for which he was awarded the Padma Shri in 1992.

Navnit Parekh employed one ‘Mr. Pande’ on the estate as his manager and wrote most fondly of his son Himanshu Pande in his book ‘Himalayan Memoirs’ published in 1986. The family seem to have become the new owners of Khali after the death of Navnit in 1998. The estate is today said to be owned by Mr. Ghanshyam Pande who runs the property as a resort. While the cottage built by Wilson at the turn of the 19th century remains largely untouched some contemporary structures have been added over the years to add to the available accommodation. The ‘Khalee Orchard’ of Ramsay is today known as the ‘Khali Mountain Resort’, may be awaiting a new master, a new story and yet another name!!

Khali Estate, Binsar, Almora (2007)

Khali Estate, Binsar, Almora (2007)- Photo courtesy Nicholas Wilson

Our story must now tell the story of Binsar’s most famous resident, General, the Honourable Sir Henry Ramsay the King of Kumaun!

King of Kumaon - Indian Charivari Album - 1875

King of Kumaon – Indian Charivari Album (1875)

Henry Ramsay came from the famous Scottish Clan – Ramsay. The Dalhousie Castle near Edinburgh was the seat of the Chieftains of the Clan, the Earls of Dalhousie. His grandfather was the 8th Earl of Dalhousie. His father Sir John Ramsay retired as a Lieutenant General. His elder brother was the 12th Earl of Dalhousie. Sir Henry was the first cousin of Sir James Andrew Bron-Ramsay, the Marquess of Dalhousie who was the youngest and the last Governor-General of East India Company from 1848 to 1856. The Marquess was the author of the infamous ‘Doctrine of Lapse’ that authorized the automatic annexation of a vassal Princely State if its ruler was manifestly incompetent or died without leaving a male heir. This policy was used to usurp a number of Princely States that were under British Suzerainty including Jhansi and Oudh.

Henry Ramsay was Ensign with 53rd NI when in August 1840 he was made a Junior Assistant to the Commissioner of Kumaon. He was a Captain and Senior Assistant Commissioner, Kumaon Proper when he succeeded John Hallet Batten as the Commissioner of Kumaon Division in 1856. He continued as the Commissioner for 28 years from 1856 to 1884. The tradition of referring to the Commissioner of Kumaun as the ‘King of Kumaun’ actually started with George William Traill who was made the Commissioner of Garhwal and Kumaun hills after the British victory over the Gurkha invaders in 1815. Traill treated Kumaun as virtually his own principality and ruled it with the conviction that as a frontier administrator he knew what was best for his territory and even the successive Governor-Generals respected this tradition. Traill ‘ruled’ for two decades and the tradition of treating the Commissioner as the King of Kumaun continued till the time of Sir Henry Ramsay. He married Laura Lushington the daughter of Henry Lushington, Judge North-Western Province in 1850. Sir Henry’s father-in-law Henry Lushington is generally confused with George Thomas Lushington B.C.S. the 3rd son of the Right Honourable S.R. Lushington, P. C, Governor of Madras who served as Collector of Bareilly and Etawah and then as Commissioner of Kumaun from 1839 till his death on 25th October 1849. He was one of the first founders of Naini Tal, which was discovered in 1839 by Mr. J. H. Batten and his brother-in-law, Mr. P. Barron. George’s wife Marianne had died in 1839 after giving birth to a stillborn child and the couple did not have any children. Both were buried in the Cantonment Cemetery at Almora.

The Commissioner of Kumaon’s establishment was based at Almora the headquarters of the Kumaon Division. On 26th of April 1878 Sir Henry Ramsay purchased an estate atop a ridge south of the Binsur Massif from Khujanchee (treasurer) Jai Sah. The estate had an area of 26 (British Statute) Acres, 1 Rod and 25 Poles. It was located in the Lakhmandel District Almora (formerly called Kumaun District) bounded on the north by a government road, on the North east by forest and a ravine, on the South east by the village of Ullai and on the South by forest. Here he built his summer residence, a two-storey bungalow with a ball-room and a private chapel.

General Ramsey's House

General Ramsay’s House

He planted fruit trees – Ribston apples, pears and apricots and named the property- ‘The Binsur Orchard’. He added the courts, staff quarters and a gaol! He would hold court from Binsar during the summer months. The British Union Jack (a White Flag as per some) would be hoisted atop the highest peak of the Binsar Massif (christened the ‘Jhandi Dhaar’/ Flag Staff Peak by the locals) to announce to his subjects that the ‘King’, Ramji Sahib was ‘At Home’!! Bothered by the theft of his precious apples Ramsay had his orchard protected by a stone wall that survives till date and is said to have been built by the labour of the prisoners lodged in his jail!

Rather than attempting a biographical sketch of the man the Tramp has selected for his readers two interesting accounts of Sir Henry Ramsay’s charismatic, larger-than-life personality and style of administration. The first is that presented by Major-General Nigel Woodyatt in his book, Under Ten Viceroys – The Reminiscences of a Gurkha (1922).’ Lieutenat Woodyatt was transferred in 1884 from the Cheshire Regiment of the British Army to the Indian Staff Corps. He got posted to the 3rd Gurkhas sometime in the late 1880s. He landed at Almora – the headquarters of his new Regiment. This is what he wrote –

“On first arrival I found, as a resident, Major-General the Honourable Sir Henry Ramsay, commonly called the “King of Kumaon,” and until recently the Commissioner of Kumaon and Garhwal, an appointment he had held for thirty-five years. As a friend of his son Jack in the Cheshires, I got to know Sir Henry and Lady Ramsay very well and often stayed with them at Khali and Binsur, eight and sixteen miles from Almora respectively. At both places the late Commissioner had built himself houses where he cultivated apples and potatoes, moving to one or the other according to the season of the year. Binsur was a most beautiful place, on a mountain 8,000 feet high covered with oak and rhododendron. Above the house was, according to Sir John Strachey, a former Lieutenant-Governor, one of the finest views of the snows obtainable anywhere. Sir John Strachey’s India: Its Administration and Progress.

Sir Henry was a relation of that seven years’ Governor-General, Lord Dalhousie, who ruled India between 1848 and 1856, and annexed more territory than any other Governor-General before or since. An erstwhile adjutant of the 3rd Gurkhas, a participant in the Mutiny, the Controller of the Prince of Wales’ tiger shoot in 1875, and the omnipotent ruler, for years, of a province bigger than Belgium, Sir Henry was extremely interesting to talk to, and the old man loved to talk and to reminisce. He soon told me what a free hand he had to start with, soon after the Mutiny, and how irksome he had found the orders of the local government later on. So much so that if he did not like them he returned the paper endorsed in red ink, “Not applicable to Kumaon”! Meeting him out for a walk he would stand for an hour or two and tell me the most enthralling stories of his life, stories you never see in books, and stories you could listen to for ever. How the Prince of Wales stayed up so late at night that on the second evening, in his shooting camp, Sir Henry approached him at 11 p.m. and asked special permission to retire always at that hour,” as I can’t burn the candle at both ends.” How, in the first day’s shoot though there were plenty of wild tiger it had been necessary to introduce a few tame ones to make the bagging of at least two or three by the Prince an absolute certainty. How, when the huge “ring” of three hundred elephants was closing in gradually, a shot was heard, when the Prince of Wales called out sharply, “Who fired that shot?” (It was Arthur Prinsep of the 11th Lancers, but he was never given away, and the matter wasn’t pressed.) How, a few minutes later one of the tame tiger would not go away from in front of Sir Henry’s elephant, and he had to pelt him with oranges to get him to move on! How, big lunches in hot cases on the backs of elephants were taken into the jungle, and how delighted the Prince was with his first tiger, etc., etc., etc.

Sir Henry Ramsey with the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) 1875

Sir Henry Ramsey with the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) 1875

If I remember rightly, Sir Henry only took leave to England once during his sojourn of some fifty years in India. It was then only for three months, and made in order to procure agricultural implements and machinery for his district. In those days it only gave him about three weeks at home, and he had much to do. Directly he arrived a summons came from Marlborough House, and there the Prince of Wales told him he was to go to Balmoral to stay with the Queen. H.R.H. also added that on return to London he must make Marlborough House his head-quarters. These were sad encroachments on the scanty days of his short stay, but it couldn’t be helped. On leaving, the Prince and Princess of Wales (now Queen Alexandra) each presented him with a large signed photograph. These, in his haste, he left behind in his room. “What on earth did you do?” I gasped. “Oh,” said the old man,” I had a nephew, an equerry, and he had to go and retrieve them for me!”

He loved his unofficial title of “King of Kumaon.” Once a High Court judge, on leave from the plains, put up in the Government bungalow of Muktesar in the Kumaon Hills, and now a bacteriological college. Here was a large area Sir Henry had devoted to apples and potatoes. The judge liked the potatoes so much he took a sack away with him, sending the three rupees to the Commissioner, as told to do by the European caretaker. “I sent the money back,” said Sir Henry,” with the words ‘Kings don’t sell’!”

He reclaimed thousands of acres in the Kumaon Bhabar (land below the foot-hills and dry, as opposed to the Tarai, which is marshy and jungly land lying along the foot of the Himalayas north of the Ganges River), and persuaded the hill people to migrate there in the winter with their flocks and herds, thereby greatly adding to their wealth by giving them all seasons’ crops. He also introduced the cultivation of potatoes, chestnuts, etc., all over Kumaon, another source of profit to his beloved people. These lived in what might well be called a model province, thanks to their king and father, Sir Henry Ramsay.

Some years after I joined at Almora, he was persuaded by his family to leave India and reside at home, where perhaps the cramped life speedily killed him, for he only survived about a couple of years, if so long. Like most strong men he had, of course, his enemies. I came across one who for years had been one of his subordinate officers and hated the sound of his name. Getting to know this man pretty well, I probed for the reason for this dislike. It turned out to be resentment at various official wiggings for slackness, which were well deserved, and also because he was “checked” for living with a native lady of Kumaon to whom he was not married. An amusing thing was that when this old bachelor moved anywhere, the good woman was always carried in a large packing case, the bearers of which were instructed, if questions were asked, to say it was the sahib’s “baja” (piano)!

George Smith included Hon. Sir Henry Ramsay, K.C.S.I., C.B., the “King” of Kumaon in his list of 12 Statesmen of the 19th century whom he considered to be chief amongst the builders of the British-Indian Empire. Interesting excerpts from his book ‘The Twelve Statesmen’ (1897) are reproduced for the readers:

“No Scottish family has done so much to extend and to consolidate the Empire of British India as the Ramsays of Dalhousie. The founder was ennobled by his sovereign, James VI., whom he rescued during the death-grapple in the secluded chamber of Gowrie Castle. The ninth earl, whose brother also succeeded to the baronetcy and estates of Panmure, was made a peer of the United Kingdom for his services at Waterloo, and followed Lord Combermere as Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army. His son was the greatest of all, the first and the last Marquess of Dalhousie. When hardly out of his boyhood, he was Sir Robert Peel’s President of the Board of Trade, and virtual author of the English railway system. Sent out to India, the youngest, and, as it proved, the last of the Company’s Governor-Generals, in the self-denying administration of eight years to which he sacrificed his life, Lord Dalhousie added to British territory an empire as large as Clive’s, gave to its millions all the latest reforms of the age, scientific, social and educational, and would have left it stronger than ever had not the home authorities turned a deaf ear to his military requests. Not a few of his kinsmen commanded in the British and the Company’s armies. General John Ramsay had a Division in Bengal; Colonel James Ramsay was long well known as Commissary-General there; Colonel U. Maule Ramsay was Brigadier at Gwalior.

But the last of all the Ramsays, and second only to the great Marquess in ability, was the Hon. Sir Henry, popularly known as the King of Kumaon, who spent forty-four years as an administrator in the North-Western Provinces of India. When his elder brother succeeded to the united honours and estates of Dalhousie and Panmure, as the twelfth earl, Henry was living in all simplicity in the heart of his Himalayan province, one of those patriarchal rulers who, as soldier-statesmen, won and then civilised the martial races of our extended frontier.

Born in 1816, he went out almost direct from the Edinburgh Academy as a Company’s cadet to Bengal in 1834. In the six months’ campaign of 1848-49, when, for the second time, the Sikhs contested with us the supremacy of the Punjab, Henry Ramsay won his spurs in a style of which his kinsman, the Governor-General, four years his senior, was proud. But the Marquess of Dalhousie was no nepotist; and it fell to Mr. Colvin, the Lieutenant-Governor of the North-Western Provinces, to reward the young soldier long after. In the year before the Mutiny, Major Henry Ramsay was sent to the non-regulation districts of Kumaon and Garhwal as Commissioner. There he lived and there he reigned, amid the blessings of the people, and to the admiration of all men, till he came home to die. He had married the daughter of Sir Henry Lushington, Bart., who survived him, and he left more than one son in the Indian military and political services.

The country with which his name is for ever identified is just the size of Switzerland, but still more beautiful, with a million of hardy mountaineers. From the once rebel plains of Rohilkhand the Kumaon division rises up to the main range of the mighty Himalayas, and is arrested only by the border of Chinese Tibet. Lakes are rarely met with in the stupendous mountain system of North India, but this Province contains one of the most beautiful in the world, Naini Tal. Around it, as a sanitarium of rare beauty, the Europeans of the North-Western Provinces cluster in the hot season, and not far off, at Ranikhet and Chowbuttia, our British troops with their families find health and acclimatisation in the first years of their tropical service. From Almora, the capital, whence Henry Ramsay governed the million of his children for nigh forty years, thirty snowy peaks can be seen, all much loftier than Mont Blanc, while the giant Trisul (trident) and the two mightier Nandas tower up to almost twenty-six thousand feet. It is a land of great rivers, frequented by thousands of the Hindus from the parched plains below to worship at their sacred fountains…From two sources in Garhwal the Ganges takes its rise, and where the two affluents unite amidst everlasting snows, the shivering sun-stricken children of Mother Ganga find the holiest spot of pilgrim asceticism in the Brahmanical world.

Just before the crowning victory of Waterloo this land, which had been long ravaged by the Goorkhas, came under the British peace. First Traill, and then J. H. Batten, two administrators worthy of the noblest traditions of the Indian Civil Service, reduced to order the chaos caused by their Nepaulese predecessors, using the iron hand of a personal autocracy, tempered by equity and kindliness, to all who loyally obeyed the ruler. Henry Ramsay developed the policy of patriarchal administration, which Durand had been the first to embody in Tenasserim, under the name of “non-regulation,” and which had been splendidly carried out by the Lawrences and their officers, like Ramsay himself, after the Second Punjab War. He was soon recognised as the father of the people. In a region where roads and navigation, and even riding, was impossible, Ramji Sahib, as he came to be called, first fearfully and then affectionately, would suddenly swoop down on an offending village, or for the comfort of a suffering hamlet, like a bird from his eyrie. He could out-walk even his favourite paharees, or Highlanders. Promptly to right some wrong, he would emerge from the ravines or the forests of his kingdom before it was known that he had left Almora.

It was well that such a man had been for even so short a time as twelve months in charge of Kumaon when the Mutiny of 1857 blasted the plains of Northern India and, in the neighbouring division of Rohilkhand filled with Mohammedans, became almost civil rebellion. An Act was in due time passed to disarm the population. Mr. Colvin and his Government were shut up in the fort of Agra, where he soon afterwards died. Between him and Ramsay in their mountain fastnesses it could not be said that government existed at all. They could not be in touch. Ramsay heard of the Disarming Act, but would not believe that could apply to him. Were not his million of subjects peaceful and even actively loyal? The Commissioner of the neighbouring rebel division of Rohilkhand remonstrated with him, but in vain. Ramsay referred to Lord Canning and his Council the question whether he was to reward his Highlanders, Hindus, and Goorkhas for their loyalty at such a time by taking away the arms which they had used in our service. By that time the first Viceroy of India was learning to see facts for himself, and the Government of India decided in the indignant Commissioner’s favour. The paharees kept their muskets, and continued to use them against our enemies.

Henry Ramsay was his own engineer and forester and public works secretary for many a year. Perhaps the finest enterprise that he undertook and carried out single-handed was the revenue settlement of the waterless districts known as bhabar. The hill-tracts contained only some five hundred square miles of arable land, while the magnificent water resources of the country were running to waste, or became pestilential swamps as they collected at the plains. The streams found their way under the dry forests, and emerged below only to create malaria. Building drains and reservoirs on the higher uplands, he regulated the supply, and he carried it down to form small irrigating canals. He gradually wrought such a change on the face of the country that verdure and health everywhere prevailed. The people flocked to the new holdings, and they gladly paid an increasing rent to the State landlord and improver. The Public Works Department cast its eye on the enterprise, and sought to bring it under its own regulation control; but Ramsay long maintained his independent management, and was allowed to do so until the waste forest area ceased to exist, and the malarious (sic) swamps became smiling gardens. Lord Mayo, when Governor- General, visited the country, being himself an experienced agriculturist. He so admired the forest reclamation that he resolved, had his life and term of office been continued, to make it the model of similar works all along the lower Himalayas. His Excellency’s only complaint of the autocratic Commissioner was that he would not dine with him on Sunday evening, but preferred to keep to his custom of attending divine service. The Viceroy admired him all the more, and it was well known among both his native and European subordinates that Ramji Sahib would do no business between six and seven every morning, for that hour all through his life he gave to God.

The “non – regulation” system, under which the territories recently acquired by conquest or occupied by simple hill-men were governed outside of the elaborate codes and procedure and appellate courts of India proper, was necessarily temporary in its action. As a system it had its own codes, but these were simple, and were administered by civilians and soldiers of marked individuality of character and righteousness of aim, who feared no responsibility save to their own conscience and to God. The system was also educative, preparing the new subjects and their officials alike for the time when they must be absorbed into the Imperial machine of law and procedure. Henry Ramsay fully recognised this, with his marvellous tact and sweet reasonableness. At first he kept law, in the technical sense, far from him. “In my opinion,” he once remarked, when on the spot he was deciding a boundary dispute, “law is too often injustice. It can be twisted in any way, and can be made to defeat its own purpose. The best administration is that which deals out justice on intelligible principles, which never change.” But he, too, made mistakes, which he was the first to admit; and as every judge and magistrate cannot be a Henry Ramsay, or a John Lawrence, he paved the way for the High Court jurisdiction all over his territory. What Traill began he completed, till he left the Kumaon division of the North-Western Provinces a model administration…He ceased to be Commissioner in 1884, but so attached was he to the people and their interests, that he felt as if he could not leave. He remained for eight years afterwards, in a non-official capacity, doing them all the good in his power.”

Sir Henry bought the ‘Binsur Orchard’ in 1878 and interestingly enough two years later the Binsar forest was declared a Reserve Forest! It was a complete volte-face from his avowed opposition to excluding parts of forest from economic exploitation. He prided himself with reclamation of thousands of acres of ‘bhabar’ land in the Shivalik foothills for agriculture – paving the way for the mindless destruction of the ‘bhabar-terai’ habitat over the century that followed. Till as late as the middle of the 19th century Henry Ramsay and his boss Commissioner Batten, like everyone around them, were naive enough to believe that the forests of Kumaon were boundless. That the only real threat was of man being overwhelmed by the advancing forests and the wild beasts that inhabited them rather than the other way round. Such were the times!! The handful who foresaw the impending disaster were the laughing stock in their times.

Sometime in the middle of the 19th century a Mineral Survey was carried out by Mr. W.J. Henwood F.R.S. a distinguished mining geologist from Cornwall and his report highlighted the wanton destruction of pine forests in the vicinity of iron mines with the wood being used for preparing charcoal to be used as fuel for the furnaces for smelting of iron ore. He urged the authorities for adopting urgent measures to preserve and perpetuate the forests in the mining districts of Kumaon and Gurhwal, and to extend them by new plantations in the neighbourhood of the iron mines. He advocated banning of the clearing of forests for agriculture by burning and warned that a stage could be reached when no wood would be available for use.

The warning of Mr. Henwood was pooh-poohed by the Commissioner Kumaun Division, J.H. Batten, Esquire who found the report unnecessarily alarmist. He was of the view that Mr. Henwood had based his projections on his observations of denuded pine forests in the immediate vicinity of mining villages. Further that Mr. Henwood did not realize that this was a localized phenomenon and largely on account of the fact that the furnaces of the natives could not handle charcoal prepared from hard wood like Oak leading to over-exploitation of local pine forests. That once the mining and smelting operations were taken over by the Government using latest technology wood for charcoal preparation would be brought down from the thick virgin forests of pine, deodar and oak. He went on to make a bold claim in his letter dated 6th of August 1855 to W. Muir, Esquire, Secretary to the Government of the North- Western Provinces that the Himalayan forests were inexhaustible. His words are reproduced for the readers to realize how time makes a mockery of us all.

‘I venture, in opposition to the apparent opinion of Mr. Henwood—at all events, to the impression which, I think, the Report of that gentleman would leave on the public mind,’ he wrote, ‘to declare that the forests of Kumaon and Gurhwal are boundless, and, to all appearance, unexhaustible (sic); and that they require no human care to preserve them ; while, on the other hand, every encouragement ought to be given to their diminution for the sake of the inhabitants, who, in many places, have now to maintain a constant war (not always successful) against wild beasts, both those that destroy life and those that destroy food.’ Commissioner Batten, likewise, rejected Henwood’s suggestions for plantation and banning of firing of forests. He wrote, ‘The prevention of fire and cattle-grazing (for which firing the forest grounds is a necessity) and the planting of trees are the remedies for the evils complained of by Mr. Henwood, which that gentleman points out. I am afraid that no amount of authoritative prohibitions can prevent the conflagrations in the forest, which, except in very dry seasons, like the last, are confined to the grass and do not injure the trees. The passing of a torch at night, a spark from a hookah, may cause, in May and June, a fire which will spread over hundreds of square miles. Moreover, no good object would be attained by the prohibition of fires, except in any forest which may be preserved for special fuel near mines, and even there accidental fires could not always be avoided. The mere manufacture of charcoal may be expected to cause a considerable amount of unpreventable conflagration. Of course, if any forest or plantation of young trees is to be preserved for purposes of fuel, all cattle grazing and goat pasturing must be rigidly stopped. Ten goats or sheep will do more harm than a hundred fires of ordinary season. I consider plantations of seedling trees, taken from nurseries, to be an absolute impossibility. If made on flat ground, with easy means of watering, cultivation must be put an end to in the very places where it is most profitable, and the supply of food to the inhabitants must be proportionably (sic) diminished, and probably pine plantations would not succeed in such situations; while to plant oaks there would be an useless waste of time and labour. The oak forests, in all places where that wood grows naturally and easily, may almost, without exaggeration, be said to be untouched, and, if touched by periodical clearings of new ground for tillage, Nature bountifully (too bountifully indeed) renews the tree vegetation in the abandoned grounds. On bare hill-sides, the preservation of planted-out pine trees could not be effected without an army of watchmen, attended by another army of water-carriers (bheesties); and even with the latter in daily attendance, my own experience leads me to doubt whether cheer pine-trees will in these hills grow in artificial plantations. It is difficult in a small garden, with every means of watering at hand, to show a good-sized cheer tree after ten years of care. On the other hand, one wild plot of cheer trees, so long as only three or four old cone-bearing trees are left undestroyed, will present a larger supply of wood on the barrenest (sic) hill-side than twenty plots of planted trees would show, after many years of labour and expense.’

J.H. Batten’s views were echoed by his deputy, Captain Henry Ramsay, Senior Assistant Commissioner, Kumaon Proper. In his letter dated 30th of June 1855 addressed to Batten he wrote,

‘Mr. Henwood’s Report on the subject of preserving our forests from destruction …observations… appear to refer to all forests; he does not confine his remarks to those requisite to mining operations, but expresses a fear, that under the System of devastation now pursued, wood will soon be a scarce article. In most parts of the District where cultivation bears a small proportion to the waste land, the greater inroads made on the forest the better, because extensive undisturbed jungle harbours so many deer, bears and tigers, that the animals soon become more powerful than the villagers, and the destruction of life and crops becomes so great that the village is abandoned, the waste land before long becomes a forest; and its wild animals make their attacks on another village. The only way of keeping down the destructive denizens of the forest is to cut down patches at different places, by establishing cow-sheds and making temporary settlements; the villagers keep up communication between these and gain sufficient confidence to shoot or hunt the deer and destroy the beasts of prey as opportunity offers. If the practice of making clearings in the forests were prohibited, and the villagers were prevented using fire to get rid of the under-growth, the result would be increase of forest and decrease of cultivation, and I cannot think this would be a desirable change, seeing that such protected forests would be worse than useless and a curse to its surrounding villages.’

A first person account of the picturesque summer residence of the King of Kumaon is presented by Ms. Marianne North the famous 19th century British traveller, artist, naturalist, and botanist who travelled extensively all over the world writing accounts of her travels and painting the landscapes and plants that she encountered.

Marianne North (1830–1890)

Marianne North (1830–1890)

She visited India in 1878 and stayed with the Ramsays at Binsar for some days. She was camping near Almora when she was paid a visit by a Captain K., the treasurer, to change her £ 2 note. Here is what she wrote,

“He very kindly came and paid me a long visit in the afternoon. He said that the people there were great thieves, and I ought not to go without a second chaprasi. He said also that the natives had quite a fancy for pictures, so that telling them what was in the heavy box would not save it, and he promised me coolies to take me up to the Governor’s, Sir Henry Ramsay, at Binsur, about fourteen miles off. After two days’ incessant rain, I had a tolerable morning for my start, and a lovely road all the way up to Binsur, 8000 feet above the sea. The house was most comfortable and unpretentious, with a verandah from whence one could see mountain above mountain, and two of the grandest snow-masses in the world (when visible). The morning after my arrival, which was glorious, I saw all the giants perfectly clear against the blue sky, and had time to sketch them. They all came upon me at once, five separate mountains, not a long chain as at Simla or Masuri. The oak-trees had their branches hung with lichens and mosses, while the rhododendrons were almost as big with pink bark. Lady Ramsey was a charming hostess; she had a garden round the house full of sweet English flowers –roses, sweet verbena, heliotrope and flowering myrtle in abundance. Her husband, who was generally called the King of Kumaon, a grand man, was most proud of his garden, in which he had grown and ripened the first gooseberry ever produced in India, and his Ribston Pippins might have taken prizes in any show in Europe. But as in Europe, he had been forced to build a wall round his garden to keep out “the boys,” whose ways are the same all over the world. The clouds were always rolling about and playing fantastic games in the sky, sending down wonderful shadows on the hills below. There were strange views on every side. Almora, with its scattered white houses, shone on a ridge in the middle distance on one side; on another there was an emerald-green valley, glittering among the blue hills. There were snow-peaks poking their heads through the black clouds above, and close below the house was a damp little valley with clear stream, and a Hindu temple covered with ferns and saxifrage. General Ramsey was a huge man, with great bodily strength. He rode forty miles home the day after I arrived, and played at back-gammon with his little wife all the evening. He used to dig and slave in the garden like an English labourer. He planned out an expedition for me (as it was too wet to go nearer the snows), and he lent me his travelling cook and canteen. The second chaprasi had orders to hunt up coolies for me. Poor things, they did not go away from their farms willingly, and were a poor weak set from working so constantly in the feverish valleys. I cannot say that travelling on their heads and shoulders was all enjoyment, and they preferred balancing the dandy on two heads to carrying it on their shoulders, folding up their plaids and putting them on the tops of their turbans first, which raised one to a great height above the ground. When going along narrow paths at the tops of precipices I occasionally found it best not to look too much over the side, but never met with any accident. I came down to Almora from Binsur with a regular gang of young ragamuffins, all howling and screaming at once, one of them playing a reed pipe, more classical than agreeable. I had sent on my old chaprasi to deposit my trunks with Dr. Pearson, so there was nobody to keep order, and the young savages nearly jolted me to death.”

Miss North painted beautiful landscapes during her stay at Binsar that are exhibited in the Marianne North Gallery of Botanic Art at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The gallery was built at her expense in 1882 to house the landscape and botanic paintings donated by her to the Royal Kew Museum. She painted the fascinating view from ‘From Lady Ramsay’s Garden’, the ancient ‘Temple in a Dell’ and the glorious ‘Panch Choola from Binsur.’

From Lady Ramsay's Garden, Binsur, Kumaon, India, Marianne North 1878

From Lady Ramsay’s Garden, Binsur, Kumaon, India, Marianne North 1878

 

Temple in a Dell, Binsur, Kumaon, India (1878)

Temple in a Dell, Binsur, Kumaon, India (1878)

 

Panch Choola from Binsur, with Oak Trees and Grey Apes in the Foreground

Panch Choola from Binsur, with Oak Trees and Grey Apes in the Foreground

Marianne’s temple in the dell was none other than the 18th century, Bineshwar Mahadev Temple, believed to have been built during the gory reign of the fratricidal Kalyan Chand, who ruled Kumaon from 1730 to 1747.

Kalyan Chand’s accession to the throne at Almora was preceded by the deceitful murder of the debauched Chand Raja – Debi Chand in 1726 A.D. by his trusted Garhwali Ministers – Manik, a ‘Gaira’ Bisht – and his son Puran Mall. The late Raja left no heir so the Bishts installed a puppet on the throne, one Ajit Chand, who met the same brutal fate three years later when he denied the paternity of a child born to a female slave that had been sired by the licentious Puran Mall. Kalyan Chand an impoverished distant descendant of the Chand dynasty acceded to the throne in 1730 and avenged the murders by putting to sword Manik and Puran with their families. Having tasted blood he now ordered a systematic purge of any potential Chand claimant to the throne. Fear of a Brahman-led Khasiya uprising triggered a mass blinding of Brahmans with seven earthen vessels filled with the gouged-out eyes of Brahmans being placed at his feet by his murderous Police Chief – Bhawani Pati Pande of Bairti. The Khasiya followers were butchered en masse and their bodies cast into the ravines of River Suwal to serve as food for the jackals and the vultures.

Binsar was the favourite country residence of this blood-thirsty Raja where he built the temple to Maha-deo, Lord Shiva. The name ‘Binsar’ is a British distortion of ‘Bineshwar’ that may itself be a distortion of ‘Vishveshwara’ – the Lord of the Universe, Shiva. Kalyan Chand seemed to be aware of the risk of divine retribution for his sinful ways and appeased the Gods with liberal grants to temples and priests including Badrinath, Kedarnath, Jageswar, Baleswar in Champawat, Ganesh Temple at Almora, Briddh-Kedar, Ghatotkacha, Naganath in Charal, Sitala Devi in Baraun and Kalika Sitala.

Almora was sacked by the Rohillas during Kalyan Chand’s rule with the temples being plundered and the idols defiled. Kalyan Chand sought an audience with the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah and carried the jewels of Jageshwar Temple as a tribute (the temple was saved the depredations of the Rohillas by the swarms of bees unleashed on the violators by the Gods!). The Rohillas eventually withdrew from Almora and Kalyan Chand died in 1748 and predictably enough had turned blind with age. Such is the tale of the builder of the Binsar Temple!

Yet another account by a visitor to Khali and Binsur Orchard was published in the Gardener’s Chronicle 1886 (Vol. XV). Dr. John Firminger Duthie was an economic botanist who specialized in the study of fodder grasses and was the Superintendent of the Saharanpur Botanic Garden from 1875 to 1903. He went through Almora in August/ September 1886 on a plant collection expedition into Higher Himalayas to cross the 17500 feet high Lipulekh Pass to reach Kutti, a Bhutia village on the bank of the Kutti-Yangti River on the Tibetan Frontier. He stopped at Khali on the way up and at Binsar and Khali on the way down. Here is an excerpt from his account published in the Gardener’s Chronicles-

“I left Naini Tal for Almora on August 9, breaking the journey at Khairna, a close steamy place at that time of the year. There had been a week’s heavy rain, and the road was badly broken in several places. A good deal might be said about the vegetation all the way down from Naini Tal, and the changes from temperate to tropical forms…. Almora, which I reached on the following day, is 18 miles from Khairna, and about 2000 feet higher. Transitions from tropical to temperate vegetation were observed similar to those already alluded to. The vegetation round about Almora is not nearly so luxurious as it is at Naina Tal, there being no higher hills immediately connected with the plateau on which this hill station is situated. From Almora I went to a place called Khali. The climate both here and at Binsar is very suitable for the cultivation of English fruit trees, and Sir Henry Ramsay, who has for many years paid great attention to their cultivation in this province, has very extensive orchards of his own containing many excellent varieties of Apples and Pears. We remained at Khali the night, and on the following morning started (or Bageswar on the Satju River, descending through forests of Pinus longifolia to the level of tropical vegetation, and on the next day we reached Kapkot on the same river… The camping-ground at Dolchini is about 5600 feet above the sea, and is on the south-west side of a low portion of the Binsar range. Early on the following morning we sent off our tents and all our baggage by the direct road to Almora, my companion and I taking the path along the crest of the ridge to Binsar, a beautiful walk of four to five miles. We had a splendid view of the snowy ranges we had lately visited; this being our first sight of them since we had left them. At Binsar I took the opportunity of inspecting the very fine fruit orchards belonging to Sir Henry Ramsay. The site is evidently very suitable for Apple culture, especially of the Ribston kinds. This last season appears to have been a very good one for Apples throughout Kumaun. From Binsar we went down to Khali, where we met Sir Henry Ramsay, who kindly gave us breakfast, after which we resumed our journey to Almora.’

F.W. Seers yet another botanist and the Superintendent of the State Gardens of the Alwar Princely State lauds Sir Henry’s Apples in an account of his trek in the Himalayas published in the Gardener’s Chronicles (1893). He wrote,

‘Having reached the ridge in question, which is some 7000 feet in elevation, we make an equally long desent, during which Binsur, the former residence of General Sir H. Ramsey, was clearly seen in the distance at some 8000 feet elevation. Sir Henry was for nearly half a century the ruling genius of Kumaon, and was not unfittingly called the King of Kumaon. From every side one heard a good many tales of the Brilliant General whose work was more civil than military, but he had a fine combination of the iron hand beneath the velvet glove. The general possessed the finest collection of Apples in all India, his method was to root up any kind that did not succeed, and by constant adding during something like forty years, he succeeded in getting a really grand lot of Apples that do well in India. I hear, however, at this date that the real demons of Kumaon, viz., hail, has played great havoc with the fruit this year, as it has in so many other places in Kumaon.’

Sir Henry left India in late 1892 and was residing at Number 4, Lynham Road, Gipsy Hill, Upper Norwood, London, England when he sold the Binsur Gardens in February 1893. He died the same year at the age of 77. It was a tragedy that he had been persuaded to leave Binsar just before his death for a King should rest in his Kingdom!

Laura died in 1914 at 26 Highland Road, Upper Norwood, England. Sir Henry’s elder son Lt-Col Henry Lushington Ramsay, was in the Indian Political Department and published a book on the languages and customs of Ladakh. He married Anna Maria Sophia Thomas and their son Captain Archibald Henry Maule Ramsay (‘Jock’ to his friends) was wounded in the First World War. Jock was admitted to the Royal Company of Archers and represented Peebles and Southern Midlothian as Member of Parliament from 1931 to 1945. In 1939 he founded a rabidly anti-Semitic secret society that allegedly bordered on Nazism – the ‘Right Club’ that was infiltrated by Mi5 and he was interned at the Brixton Prison London from 1940 to 1945. Archibald died in 1955 trying to retrieve the family name.

Sir Henry Ramsay's Family Tree

Sir Henry Ramsay’s Family Tree

After leaving India, Sir Henry sold off the orchard-estates at Binsur and Khali on 22nd February 1893 to Arthur Ross Wilson, Esquire. He had already sold his estate and bungalow at Nainital, Ramsay Park, in 1879 to the Sisters of the Congregation of Jesus for the setting up of St. Mary’s Convent High School. The school is known amongst the natives as Ramnee School, Ramnee being a corruption of the name Ramsay.

Not much is known about the sale of the Binsur Orchard by Arthur Ross Wilson. As the story goes the estate came into the hands of one Col. Martin by the 1920s. The adjoining estate of Dr. Govan had by then been purchased by a Sah family of Almora which did not enjoy a good neighbourly relation with the Colonel. Harkishan Lal Sah (grandson of Jai Lal Sah, the Khuzanchee who had originally sold the estate to Ramsay in 1878?) eventually managed to purchase the Binsur Orchard in 1931 despite the Colonel’s resolve to not to sell the estate to his neighbours! The property was passed on to the descendants of Harkishan Lal. His son Jagdish Lal is today nearing ninety. His great-grandson Sindhu Sah Gangola runs Ramsay’s Bungalow as a heritage hotel with his wife Shikha. The estate has been named the Grand Oak Manor, the name being taken from an imposing oak tree near the entry to the estate. The oak tree is believed to be older than the bungalow and its massive boughs arch menacingly over the tiny private chapel built by Ramsay.

Ramsay's Chapel under the 'Grand Oak' Binsar

Ramsay’s Chapel under the ‘Grand Oak’ Binsar

The search for Col. Martin did not prove fruitful. One Stephen Joseph Martin from Guernsey, Channel Islands did however, live at ‘Binsar House, Almora’ probably at the turn of the 19th century and his daughter Margaret de Carteret Martin married Theodore John Chichester Acton son of Lt. Col. Thomas Hampden Evans Acton in 1913. Nothing more could be found about S.J. Martin.

Neither Lt. Col. Alex Paterson nor Sir Henry Ramsay was, however, the first amongst the British officers to have an estate or to have set up a home at Binsar. The earliest reference to a British occupant of a home at Binsar that could be traced out by the Tramp was in the ‘Handbook to the English Pre-Mutiny Records in the Government Record Rooms of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh’ compiled by Douglas Dewar ICS (1920). The Chapter on the ‘The Pre-Mutiny Records in the Record Room of the Deputy Commissioner, Almora’ has the entry in 1852 ‘Land taken up at Binsar by Major Evans’. Again there is an entry in 1855 ‘Sketch of Binsar Hill around the buildings of Captain Perry and Major Evans’. The estate of Major Evans at Binsar measured seven acres as per some sources.

A search for Major Evans revealed that he was Major Francis Robert Evans the eldest son of Major-General R. Evans, Royal Artillery of Limerick with the family seat at the Carker House, County Cork, Ireland.

The Carker House (1906)

The Carker House (1906)

He married Mary, daughter of William Eccles, of Eccles Street, Dublin. F.R. Evans joined the 26th Bengal Native Infantry in 1826 and was a Major when he was made the Commandant of ‘The Sirmoor Rifles’ an infantry regiment of British-Indian Army with Gurkha troops in 1846. He later became the Lieutenant Colonel and Commandant of the regiment. The Sirmoor Battalion was raised at Nahan in Sirmoor State in 1815 at the end of the war with Gurkhas and recruited from the disbanded soldiers of the Gurkha Army. Lieutenant (afterwards General) Frederick Young was the commanding officer till 1843. The Regiment was stationed at Dehradun. The regiment was later rechristened as the 2nd Gurkha Rifles and distinguished itself during the Mutiny in 1857 in the protracted battle on the Delhi Ridge. The regiment was granted a Truncheon by Queen Victoria in 1863. In 1876 the Regiment was given the title of “The Prince of Wales’ Own”. Later in 1902 when the Prince ascended the throne it was rechristened as the 2nd King Edward’s Own Gurkha Rifles (The Sirmoor Rifles). At the time of Independence the Regiment went to the British Army where it eventually got merged with the Royal Gurkha Rifles. The 4th Battalion of the 2 GR, however, joined the Indian Army as the 5th Battalion, 8th Gurkha Rifles (Sirmoor Rifles). Mary died in 1847 and was buried at the cemetery at Dehradun. The inscription by her husband on the tombstone tells us something about the man, ‘While sorrow weeps o’er virtue’s sacred dust, Our tears become us, and our grief is just. Such were the tears he shed, who grateful pays, This last sad tribute of his love and praise; Who mourns the best of wives and friends combined, Where female sweetness met the accomplished mind : Mourns, but not murmurs, sighs but not despairs, Feels as a man, but as a Christian bears.’ The Sirmoor Battalion was moved to Almorah in 1847 where the Kumaun Battalion was also stationed and stayed there until it marched to Meerut on the outbreak of the Mutiny. After the fighting was over it was garrisoned at the Delhi Fort till 1859 and thereafter the Regiment returned to its home at Dehra Dun.

No further information could be found about Captain Perry who had a house at Binsur in 1854.

Major F.R. Evans was not the only officer of the Sirmoor Battalion to have taken up residence at Binsar. The 12th Volume of Allen’s Indian Mail for the year 1854 reports the death of the infant son of Captain C. Reid at Binsur on the 9th of June, 1854. Digging up of some old history established that the Captain was none other than General Sir Charles Reid K.C.B., G.C.B. (1819-1901). The son of George Reid the Esquire of Jamaica he joined the service of the East India Company in 1835 in the 10th Bengal Native Infantry. He served in Upper Sind under Sir C. Napier, saw action in 1843 during the Sutlej Campaign at Badiwal, Aliwal and Sobraon and again in 1852-53 in the Burma War. He was a Major and the commanding officer of the Sirmoor Battalion when it marched to Delhi on the outbreak of the Mutiny. Saw action at Badli-ki-Sarai and Delhi Ridge. Commanded the 4th Column and was severely wounded. Was promoted as Lieutenant Colonel and participate in the Oudh Campaign in 1858-59. Became full Colonel and one of Aides-de-Camp to Queen Victoria. He was made a Major General in 1867 and a full General in 1877.

Yet another name that emerged was that of Captain Honourable Robert Vernon Powys HEICS of the 12th Bengal Native Infantry who was reported to have died at Binsur, Almora on 26th May 1854 in the 196th Volume of the Gentleman’s Magazine & Historical Chronicle. He was the son of Thomas Powys the 2nd Baron of Lilford and was born in 1802.

Coat of Arms of the Powys

Coat of Arms of the Powys

He married Jane Beckett daughter of William Beckett the Esquire of Enfield in 1825. She died in 1842 at Kanpur. He was transferred to the HEIC Invalid Establishment on 1-1-1846 as he was found unfit for field service and was permitted to reside at ‘Nynee Tal’. It must be during this period that he set up a home at Binsar. He was lucky to have died early at the age of 51 as it saved him the pain of knowing that his younger son, Lt. John Powys 61st BNI, Executive Engineer (PWD) who was posted as the Superintendent of Irrigation works in ‘Bundelcand’ got massacred on the 8th of June 1857 along with his wife Caroline Louisia and infant daughter Caroline James at the Jhansi Fort by the mutinous troops of the 12th BNI and the 14th Irregular Cavalry. Lt. Powys was holed up inside the Jhansi Fort along with the other officers and their families and servants. Powys and the other officers including Major Skene, Captain Burgess and Captain Gordon were firing desperately at the mutinous troops besieging the fort. Captain Gordon got shot in the head while exposing himself on the parapet. Just then Lt. Powys spotted the ‘Khidmutgar’ of Captain Burgess removing the stones that blocked the gates of the fort from the inside. Powys shot the ‘traitor’ only to be cut down by the sword of this man’s brother who in turn was shot by Captain Burgess. Some 75 British were killed that day with the majority being put to the sword in a garden inside the fort after Major Skene had surrendered. A memorial with the following inscription was placed by his unit at St. Luke’s Church, Jullundur – “To the memory of Lieutenants John Powys, Edward Kemp, and Ensign Herbert Durnford, of the 61st Regiment N.I. who fell in action whilst serving in the earnest performance of their duty, during the rebellion of 1857-59. This token of esteem and sorrow is placed here by their comrades, the officers of the late 61st Regiment N.I.” R.V. Powys elder son, Robert Horace Powys died decades later in 1913.

On the southern face of the Binsar Masiff is an estate that faces the Binsur Orchard of Sir Henry. It is said to have belonged to a Doctor Govan before it was purchased by the Sahs of Kumaon in 1912. Search revealed the likely owner, one George Moncrieff Govan M.D. who was born to George Govan M.D. and Mary Maitland on 3rd March 1829. He obtained M.D. and L.R.C.S. from the Royal College of Surgeons at Edinburgh in 1851 and joined the Bengal Medical Service the same year as Assistant-Surgeon. G.M. Govan served in the Burmese War of 1852-53 and was present at the capture of Rangoon and at the storming of the stockade of the Dragon Pagoda for which he received the medal and the clasp. He took part in the action near Delhi during the Indian Mutiny in 1859. He was promoted as Surgeon in 1864 and he served in the Bhutan expedition in 1865-66 and took part in the capture of Buxa and the Tazagaon attack on the Bala stockade for which he received the clasp. He was made the Surgeon-Major in 1871 and became the medical incharge of the 3rd Gurkha Regiment that was headquartered at Almora. Col. Alex Paterson was the Commandant of the 3rd at this time. It is likely that Govan bought his estate at Binsur around the same time as his C.O. Lt. Col. Paterson. The regiment marched off to Afghanistan on 11th October 1878 under Paterson to participate in the Second Afghan War. Govan, however, got invalided while the regiment camped at Meean Meer and recouped at England for the next two years. He retired from the Indian Medical Service as a Brigade-Surgeon in 1877. He died at Almora on 1st April 1898.

We may speak a little more about the Govan family. George M. Govan’s father Dr. George Govan M.D. (1787-1865) was the Civil Surgeon of Saharanpur in 1817 when he proposed the setting up of a Botanic Garden at Saharanpur in 1817. It was the third such garden to be set up under the East India Company after Calcutta and Bangalore. Dr. George Govan was the first botanist to collect plants at the Subathu Hills near the newly founded hill station at Simla. While at Simla he became a companion of the Indian Governor General Lord Amherst and his wife in their post-breakfast walks to guide their search for plants. He became the first Superintendent of the Saharanpur Botanic Garden in 1819. A species in the genus Nepeta – Nepeta govaniana, Benth. is named after Dr. George Govan. Dr. George Govan was married to Mary Maitland daughter of Charles Maitland of Rankeillour and Lindores and niece of Rear-Admiral Sir Frederick Lewis Maitland who accepted the surrender of Napolean after Waterloo as the Captain of Bellerophon.

Dr. G.M. Govan married Frances Marion Short and the couple had three sons and three daughters. The eldest Rev. George William Govan was born in 1861 and became the Rector of Wittycombe, Carhampton, Taunton. The second son Henry Maitland Govan was born at Almora, India, and was educated at Rossall School and Edinburgh University. He was a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries, London and a certificated civil engineer. He took up a post in the uncovenanted civil service in Burma in 1887 and hunted dacoits as a civil officer in one of the Upper Burma campaigns. He was made the secretary and engineer to the Akyab municipality in 1894. He married the daughter of Mr. J. C. Schmidt, a grantee of the Mount Joy Estate, in the Akyab district.

Henry Maitland Govan

Henry Maitland Govan

The third son Douglas Moncrieff Govan was born in 1875 and became a Major in the 1st Battalion of the 5th Gurkha Regiment. Major Govan died in action at Gallipoli on 28-6-1915 during the First World War and is buried at the Helles Memorial, Gallipoli Turkey.

Yet another estate in Binsar is Goralkot that lies on the western extreme of the Binsur Massif. Goralkot (Ghuralkot) – the fort of Goral takes its name from the mountain goat-antelope Goral that was once numerous on this heavily wooded ridge. The number is said to have come down drastically due to loss of habitat on account of grass-cutting and timber harvesting. Maurizio Locati a wildlife biologist from Italy estimated the Goral population at 250 in 1987 for the entire Binsar region. The bungalow at Goralkot is said to be over 155 years old (built in late 1850s?) and was bought sometime in the past from the original colonial-age owners by the Sahs of Kumaon. As per the folklore many of the British owners of the hill-estates sold off their picturesque properties to the Sahs of Kumaon to settle their unpaid liquor bills! Goralkot was sold by one L.R. Shah in 1956 to Vivek Dutta a Punjabi businessman from Delhi. Dutta a doctor in philosophy married Marie Theresa, a Belgian musicologist, who had come to Kumaon to record folk music of the region for a UNESCO-sponsored project. The two settled down in the midst of the oak-rhododendron forest at Binsar. Their daughter Mukti Dutta founded an NGO, Jan Jagaran Samiti (a society for the empowerment of the native population) in 1987 with the objective of involving the locals in her campaign to preserve the forests and wildlife in the Binsar region. Earlier in 1986 she got a shot-in-the-arm when the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi personally responded to her letter that had urged the PM to take personal interest in the protection of the unique biodiversity of the Binsar forests against threats from poachers and the timber mafia. Rajiv encouraged the twenty-three year old to continue with her struggle. In 1988 the Jan Jagaran Samiti received a Government grant of Rs. 8 lakh for reforestation work in Binsar area. A year later in 1989, Binsar was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary. The NGO under Mukti’s stewardship helped set up a Leprosy Rehabilitation Centre at Almora. Next came the ‘Panchachuli Women Weavers’ Cooperative’ to impart vocational skills to the Kumaoni hill women particularly the spinning and weaving of pashmina shawls, wool fabrics, carpets and blankets with the help of Bhutiya tribeswomen from Mansiyari. Training Centres and Production Centres were established allover Kumaon and the cooperative today employs several hundred women. The products are sold from retail outlets at Mussoorie, Nanital and Almora and at exhibitions in Northern cities. During the phase of struggle a benefactor appeared in the shape of Dena Kaye, the daughter of the Hollywood actor, singer, dancer, and comedian – Danny Kaye. Dena was in India in 1997 to look for projects to fund through UNICEF (her father became the first ambassador-at-large of UNICEF in 1954 and received the French Legion of Honor in 1986 for his years of work with the organization). She was impressed with Dutta’s initiatives and pledged $1 million to the Samiti in 1998. Dena later also funded a hospital set up by the Samiti on land donated by the gram sabha of the Matena village. The Dena Hospital (it is named after its principal benefactor) later received the support of the Tata Group. The Samiti has also set up 5 primary schools and 2 junior high schools in the Almora district. The property is today run as a heritage hotel – Nandadevi with accommodation being offered in the colonial-age Goralkot Bungalow and the Writer’s Cottage thus named after its most famous occupant Tiziano Terzani, a famous Italian traveller, journalist and writer who sought solitude and refuge at Goralkot from 2000 to 2002.

Goralkot Bungalow, Binsar

Goralkot Bungalow, Binsar

Terzani loved to refer to himself as ‘Anam’, the one with no name and spent the time in meditation, trying to come to terms with his terrible illness (stomach cancer). He found a friend and a philosophic guide in Vivek Dutta as he grappled with the questions of life and death. Terzani had led a life of adventure and had travelled extensively all over east Asia. He had witnessed the fall of Saigon to the Vietcong and nearly got executed by the Khmer Rouge while covering the fall of Phnom Penh in the 1970s. He wrote several books in Italian and English including ‘The End is my Beginning’, the story of his life, travels and his philosophy of life and death as narrated to his son that was published posthumously in 2006 and was translated into several languages. It was at the cottage at Goralkot that he wrote ‘Letters against the War’ (published in 2002) and began writing ‘One More Ride on the Merry Go Round’. He returned to Italy from Binsar in 2002 and died at Orsigna, a quaint little village in the Apennine Mountains in Italy in 2004.

While Terzani was easily the most famous guest of Goralkot yet this picturesque mountain retreat also served as home to a rather mysterious guest – Arun Singh, a close friend and confidant of Rajiv Gandhi. Arun was born in 1944 to Prince Karamjit Singh the son of Sir Jagatjit Singh the Maharaja of Kapurthala by his 4th wife Rani Kanari. Arun studied at Doon School with Rajiv Gandhi. He graduated from St. Stephen’s College in 1964. Attended Cambridge. He was working with Reckitt and Coleman when Rajiv got his school time buddy inducted into the Rajya Sabha in 1984. When Rajiv became the Prime Minister after the assassination of Smt. Indira Gandhi, Arun was made a Parliamentary Secretary to the PM. He accompanied Rajiv during the election campaign in 1984/85 as his close confidant and advisor. After the landslide victory in 1985 Arun managed the establishment affairs of the Prime Minister’s Office until he was made Minister of State for Defence. There was a falling out between the school time chums when the ‘Bofors Scandal’ broke-out. Arun Singh resigned in 1987 and sought refuge at Goralkot with friend Ramola, closing himself up completely to politics and contact with the outside world. He refused to be drawn into the media controversy triggered by this sudden self-imposed exile. He briefly reappeared on the scene when V.P. Singh became the Prime Minister only to return to his secluded life at Binsar. The media was intrigued at this apparently strange conduct and Arun’s steadfast refusal to disclose the reasons for his having withdrawn into a shell. He was jokingly referred to as India’s ‘most famous recluse.’ He made a last public appearance as Advisor to the then Minister for External Affairs Jaswant Singh during the Kargil conflict.

Yet another estate on the southern slope below the Binsur peak is ‘Edinpur’ that stands between Goralkot and Dr. Govan’s Estate. It is said to have belonged to one Major Edin. No further details could be found by the Tramp.

Major Edin's Bungalow

Major Edin’s Bungalow

On the eastern fringe of the Binsar Massif below the early 20th century Forest Rest House lies the ‘Budden Estate’ that takes its name from Mary Budden of the legendary Christian missionary family of Reverend John Henry Budden. John was born at London in 1813 to William Budden and Elizabeth Hanson. Rev. John Budden joined the London Missionary Society at Mirzapur in 1841 and was invited in 1850 by Commissioner J. H. Batten and his Assistant, Capt. Henry Ramsay for setting up a Mission at Almora that was by then a major cantonment town in Kumaon. Rev. Budden soon established a chapel and a school at Almora. The Almora Mission School got an Indian Headmaster in 1852 and with the increasing number of pupils it was first upgraded to a High School and then a College and was named ‘Ramsay College’ in 1886.

London Missionary Institution - Almora, Uttarakhand c1880's

London Missionary Institution – Almora, Uttarakhand c1880’s

The mission took over the running of the Leper Asylum that had been established earlier at Almora in 1840 by Sir Henry Ramsay.

Leper Asylum at Almora 1868

Leper Asylum at Almora 1868

Mrs. Sarah Odell Budden and her daughter Mary started a school for girls. Sarah died in 1859 but her Girls’ School grew and flourished under the energetic Mary who also started a hospital for women. The Almora Mission also ran orphanages and rescue homes for the homeless.

Sarah Odell Budden (d.1859) & Rev. John Henry Budden (1813-1890)

Sarah Odell Budden (d.1859) & Rev. John Henry Budden (1813-1890)

In the 1870s John Henry Budden made a trip to Pithoragarh with his son Hanson Odell Budden. He found the town to be located on a busy crossroads and hence ideal for starting a mission. The London Missionary Society was, however, not keen on setting up a new station and the opportunity was passed onto American Methodist Episcopal Society. A hospital and a small Church was built at the station and a medical mission started under a young doctor Richardson Gray who arrived from America in 1873. Richardson married Budden’s daughter Margaret in 1875 and the couple together ran the mission at Pithoragarh. In 1877 Margaret was joined by her sister Annie who took over the running of a fledgling Girls’ School. A Boys’ School, a Widows’ Home and a Leper Asylum were added over time. The Grays had many children including Mary Louisia Gray who was born in 1881.   Dr. Gray withdrew from the mission ‘under charges’ in 1893 and he was succeeded by J.L. Humphrey and later by Dr. S.S. Dease. The Grays left for America in 1894 and Annie continued the work of the mission at Pithoragarh that she called ‘Isaikot’ (The Christians’ Fort). She worked as a member of the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church at the Bhatkot Mission and later at Phulbari Mission.

Rev. Buddens in the meantime retired from active service in 1887, and died at Almora in 1890. The church at Almora was named the ‘Budden Memorial Church’, in remembrance of his years of service to the people of Almora.

Rev J.H. Budden 1890, The Chronicle of LMS May 1890

Rev J.H. Budden 1890, The Chronicle of LMS May 1890

The Almora Mission was now run by Mary Budden whose no-nonsense spirit and her fierce defence of her independence as a single working woman earned her the epithet – “the tigress”. Her status as the de-facto Superintendent of the Almora Mission after death of her father was resented by many of her male colleagues.

Mary Budden with orphanage girls, Almora, Uttar Pradesh, India, ca. 1880-1890

Mary Budden with orphanage girls, Almora, Uttar Pradesh, India, ca. 1880-1890

On 8th of July, 1899 Mary bought a 5-acre estate at Binsar from General W.J. McGregor through his attorney Sham Lal Sah the son of Lala Budha Sah, a General Merchant in Almora town. She was still serving the Almora Mission when it was transferred to the American Episcopal Mission in 1926. She is believed to have died sometime after 1931.

The Grays upon their arrival in America settled down in New Jersey. Richardson died at Hazen, New Jersey in 1915. Margaret continued to stay in touch with the family friends at India including J. R. Chitambar, the first Indian Bishop of the Methodist church. In 1917 Bishop Chitambar gave Margaret a Bible, translated into the Urdu language. The Bible was full of photos and pasted-in prayers. The Bishop and his wife visited Mary in 1932 at New Jersey. She recorded in the Bible in 1935 that it was to be returned to these dear friends upon her death. Margaret died in 1940 at the Mary Fisher Home, Tenafly, New Jersey and the bible came to her daughter Mary Louisa Gray. Mary Gray had married Robert Armstrong Smith Junior and she died in 1966 leaving the bible to her daughter Mary Williams Smith. Mary Williams married Jacob Adrian van Brederode and upon her death in 1986 the bible passed onto their daughter who traced out the late Bishop’s descendants and returned the Bible as per Margaret’s wishes but not before a niece Tara van Brederode had posted the entire story in a blog post “Mission Accomplished” on her blog God, Politics, and Rock ‘n’ Roll! The post included an undated photograph of Mary Budden taken from the Bible’s collection that is happily reproduced by the Tramp for his readers!!

An undated photo of Mary Budden from Bishop J. R. Chitambar's Bible given in 1917 to Margaret Budden Gray

An undated photo of Mary Budden from Bishop J. R. Chitambar’s Bible given in 1917 to Margaret Budden Gray

All four daughters of Sarah and John – Annie, Mary, Margaret and Helen worked in Missions. Their son Hanson Odell Budden was working as an Inspector with the Indian Educational Service in 1885. It is not clear as to when the estate was sold by Mary Budden. It changed hands several times until it was sold by one Mr. Bhandari in 1990 to Ashwani and Serena Chopra who also inherited some of the Mary Budden memorabilia. The couple run the property as a heritage resort.

Mary Budden Estate, Binsar, Almora

Mary Budden Estate, Binsar, Almora

The search for the history of the estate’s original owners, starting with General W.J. McGregor led the Tramp to the purchase of a thickly wooded hill estate, Mayavati (Maipat) on 2nd of March 1899 by Captain J.H. Sevier for the setting up of an Ashram of the Ramakrishna Mission. Capt. Sevier purchased Mayavati from General McGregor of the late Bengal Staff Corps for Rs. 7000. The General was residing at ‘Janakpore’ in Almora District and sold his property through his attorney, the same Sham Lal of Almora who later negotiated the sale of the General’s estate at Binsur to Mary Budden. At the time of the sale Mayavati was called the Glengyle Estate. It was located about 130 KM east of Almora, in the present day Champawat District. The estate had extensive acreage and three commodious houses that were used for setting up of the Advaita Ashram and the publication of the Mission’s Journal ‘Prabuddha Bharata’ or Awakened India that was earlier being published from Madras. No further information about General McGregor could be unearthed.

A surname that figures repeatedly amongst the owners of estates in Binsur is Sah (Shah). It is a small but wealthy and largely urban community of Kumaon that generally claims descent from Rajputs (Kshatriyas) of Uttar Pradesh. It is primarily a trading community though some own land and are also engaged in agriculture. The community is divided into different clans that take their names from their ancestral villages, trades, titles received etc. The prominent clans include Kumaoiya (from Kumaon), Thulgharias (literally ‘the owner of a large house’ – claim origin from Jhansi), Gangolas (named after the area Patti Gangoli – claim origin from Badaun), Jagati, Tamkia, Chaudhary (the largest clan – claim origin from Jhansi-Allahabad), Chukurait, Jakhwal, Kholibhiteria, and Salimgarhia. The claim to Kshatryia-hood is, however, disputed by their detractors who point to their roots in trading and money-lending to label them as Banias (Vaishyas).

J.H. Batten in his ‘Final Settlement Report of Kumaon (1848)’ talks of one Toola (Tula) Ram Sah, the treasurer of the Almorah Collectorate who purchased in 1847 a part of the Zamindari of Askote for Rupees 1600/-. Batten doesn’t seem to have thought much of this wealthy ‘khuzanchee’ whom he blames for not investing in the improvement of his lands and for making irregular exactions from his tenants. The Report also mentions that farming leases were obtained by Purma Sah, a Bunneea (Bania) from Almorah for Mauzah Khurhai and by Kurree Sah and Damoo Sah for land on the banks of Surjoo. He speaks of the Sahs of Almora and Bagesur as ‘Capitalists’.

George William Traill, Esq. Commissioner Kumaon in his ‘Statistical Report on the Bhotea Mehals of Kumaon (1832)’ sheds some light on how the Sahs of Almorah may have made the transition from the ‘Bania’ trader-capitalist to the ‘Rajput’ Zamindar. He writes in his report that during the time of Gorkha occupation of Kumaon in early 19th century the Bhutias came in for severe punishment for their dogged resistance to the Gorkha conquest. Their villages were made over to the Gorkha military commanders who exacted a high tribute from them. The tribute, jumma, had to be paid half in cash and half in kind. The right to collect the half that was to be paid in kind was generally sold off at a discount for ready cash by the rapacious Gorkha Overlords to the Sahas of Almorah who in turn made a fat profit on the transaction.

Prominent among the Sahs/ Shahs of Kumaon in the 19th century was a building contractor Lala Motee (Moti) Ram Sah (Shah). He owned the Hotel Victoria in Naini Tal that was bought by the Government in 1855 for 4000 rupees for use as kutchery (Court) of the Junior Assistant Commissioner at Naini Tal. He had also built the Temple of Naini Devi by the side of the lake in 1840s. The temple as well as Hotel Victoria (then owned by one Captain Harris) were completely destroyed in the calamitous landslip in September 1880 that was triggered by torrential rainfall and unregulated construction on the hillside. Lala Moti Ram was amongst the top donors in the list of contributers for the setting up of a dispensary at Almora in 1869. His contribution of 1000 rupees matched that by the Kumaon Commissioner Col. H. Ramsay and by Rajah Sheoraj Singh, the Zamindar of Kashipur who was bestowed the Order of the Star of India for his services to the British in 1857. The list of donors gives interesting insight into the wealthy status of the Sah community. Khuzanchee (Treasurer) Jai Sah who later sold the estate at Binsur to Sir Henry contributed 400 rupees as did the Thulgarias (Motee/Moti Shah, Huree/Hari Shah & Koondun/Kundan Lal Shah) and the Gungolahs (Nathoo/Nathu Shah, Oode/Uday Lall Shah & Motee/Moti Shah). The other Sahs in the list of donors included Sree (Sri) Ram & Koondun (Kundan) Lall Shah (Rs. 200); Kashee (Kashi) Dabee Shah (Rs. 200); Toola/ Tula Ram, Banee (Bani) Ram Shah (Rs. 200); Koondun Lal Shah Juggatee/ Jagati (Rs. 200); Shib/ Shiv Lal Shah Juggatee/ Jagati (Rs. 150); Punee Shah (Rs. 100); Ram Kishen Shah (Rs.100); Jewa Dabee Shah, Mohun Lal Shah, Shib Lal Shah Gomshta and Purma Shah. The wealth of the Shahs can be judged by the fact that more than half of the total donated amount of Rs. 6500 or so was contributed by the Sahs of Almora!

The Tramp has pieced together the family tree of Param jyu Sah Gangolah who would date back to end of 18th/ beginning of 19th century with the Gangolahs of Binsur being his direct descendants. Many of the names of the relatives of Jai Sah, Khuzanchee who were his contemporaries also figure in the 1869 list of donors for Almora dispensary.

The Family Tree of Sah Gangolahs of Binsar

The Family Tree of Sah Gangolahs of Binsar

The long list of mavericks who at some point of time owned a bungalow in the Binsar forest includes one Myron Henry Phelps a wealthy New York based lawyer of Irish descent.  A man of many interests, Phelps, is best remembered for his principled and passionate opposition to the British Imperialism and his literary works on the Bahai and the Radhasoami faiths.

Myron Henry Phelps (1856-1916)

Myron was born to Major George Phelps (a Civil War veteran) and Cornelia (Rogers) Phelps at Illinois in 1856. He graduated from Yale and obtained his law degree from the George Washington University. He had an extensive practice as a patents lawyer in New York City. It was probably his Irish roots that imbued in Phelps a hatred for colonialism, particularly by the British. He was vocal in his criticism of the British Rule in India and was first noticed in 1907 when he wrote a series of eight long ‘Letters to the Indian People’ that were published in the Irish Catholic Newspaper the ‘Gaelic American’ and were reproduced in the ‘Hindu’ published from Madras. In his letters Phelps drew parallels between the Indian, Irish and American experiences with colonialism. He exhorted Indians to draw lessons from the American struggle for independence and to boycott British manufactured goods. He advocated the Swadeshi Movement and asked the Indian Muslims to whole-heartedly support the cause. He encouraged Indians to write about Indian experiences under colonial rule that could be shared with the American people to evoke sympathy and support for the Indian struggle. The same year Phelps established the ‘Indo-American National Association’ at Maine with Dadabhai Naoroji as its Honourary President to assist Indian students in America. To share the Indian experiences with the American press and the American sympathies through the Indian Press. To support the cause of self-rule for India. The following year Phelps established the ‘India House’ at New York for providing affordable lodging to Indian students. He negotiated the concessional fees for Indian students with some of the colleges. The experiment did not work out too well due to wrangling between student groups and financial difficulties. In January 1909 Rabindranath Tagore wrote an open letter to Phelps to express his view that India needed to absorb modern ideas from Western thought and art before it could aspire for self-rule. The letter is believed to have convinced Phelps to shut down the India House in March 1909.

Earlier in January 1909 the American President Theodore Roosevelt lauded the British Rule in India in his address at the Diamond Jubilee of the Methodist Episcopal Church at Washington. Phelps published a strong rebuttal with a list of several eminent Americans who had signed the same in opposition to Roosevelt’s views. Phelps open opposition to British interests resulted in his inclusion in the list of ‘Undesirables’ who were kept under surveillance by the Government of India in the US. In 1909 Phelps relinquished his practice in New York and travelled to Europe. At Paris he met the firebrand Indian revolutionary Krishna Varma. He proceeded to London to enlist the support of the Socialists and the ‘Friends of India’. While at London Phelps met Mahatma Gandhi and he later wrote about his Satyagraha Movement in South Africa in the Springfield Daily Gazette in August, 1909. Phelp’s opposition to the British was well-known and in July 1909 he was unceremoniously evicted by the manager of Hotel Waldorf where he had been staying as the Waldorf did not ‘wish to create a clientele of that kind’! Phelps was planning to travel to India and feared reprisal by the British Indian Government. Apprehending an assassination bid the moment he set foot on the Indian soil he is believed to have ordered a coat of mail that was to be constructed of aluminium by a Viennese armourer and was to be lined with cloth and covered with leather. It was to weigh two pounds and cost two guineas and to be guaranteed to withstand any attack from a dagger or a revolver of low calibre! Phelps even executed a ‘Last Will & Testament’ to nail his would-be assassins. The operative part of the Will read as follows, “Being about to proceed to India and other adjacent countries: direct my executor in case of my death while upon said journey to set aside from my estate the sum of £ 2500 the whole or such part of said sum as my executor shall determine to be used by him for investigating the cause of my said death and if it appear that the same was not due to natural cause, then in fixing the responsibility therefor and bringing those responsible to judicial account.’

Phelps travelled to India via Sri Lanka to devote himself to his passion for the comparative study of religions. Phelps love for Hindu spiritual thought probably started with his admiration for Swami Vivekananda and the Vedanta Society established by him at New York. He first saw Swamiji at the Chicago Parliament of Religions in 1893 and was overawed by the handsome monk in orange robes and turban who took the vast audience by a storm by his brilliant address. Phelps met Swamiji on numerous occasions in the following three years and hosted him as a guest at his house. Phelps evinced interest in the Theosophist Thought though Annie Besant did not allow him to join the Theosophical Society due to his vociferous opposition to Britain. Phelps also studied Buddhism.

In 1902 Phelps travelled to the ancient coastal city of Akka (Acre) in Palestine (present day Israel). He stayed at Akka for a month as a guest of Abdu’l-Bahá (1844 –1921) the eldest son of the Persian nobleman Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith who was jailed in the penal colony of the Ottoman Empire at Akka. Phelps was accompanied on this journey by Countess Miranda de Souza Canavarro, the American socialite wife of the Portuguese Ambassador to Sandwich Islands. The Countess was in a ‘spiritual marriage’ with Phelps. Initially a theosophist, she converted to Buddhism in 1897 and settled in Colombo as a nun, Sister Sanghamitta. Phelps wrote a about stay at Akka and his encounter with Abdu’l-Bahá in his book ‘Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi’ (1903) that was later printed under the title, ‘The Master in Akka’. Phelps dedicated the book to the Countess.

Master in Akka

He toured the country addressing varied audiences on the Hindu ideals and values, the traditional Gurukul education system, Vivekananda’s teachings etc. He exchanged ideas on social-political issues with Tagore at Shantiniketan. He also interacted extensively in 1913-14 with the spiritual leader Mādhav Prasād Sinha (‘Babuji Maharaj’) the nephew of Shiv Dayal Singh (Soamiji Maharaj) who founded the Radhasoami Satsang at Soami Bagh, Agra. Phelps took notes while attending the discourses by Babuji Maharaj and the same were later published as “Phelps’ Notes” that form an important part of the sect’s literature.

Sometime around this time Phelps purchased a bungalow at Binsar for twelve thousand rupees. Amongst the distinguished visitors to this forest retreat of Myron Phelps was Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz (1878 – 1965) was an American anthropologist, Theosophist and writer who is best known for his pioneering work in the study of Tibetan Buddhism including the famous English translation of ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’ (1927).

Walter Yeeling Evans Wentz (1919)

Walter Yeeling Evans Wentz (1919)

Myron H. Phelps died of tuberculosis in December, 1916 in a hospital in Bombay.

The Tramp’s search for the earliest Colonial occupant of a home at Binsar did not rest at Lt. Col. F.R. Evans and instead led him to the story of the Stracheys. Sir John Strachey GCSI, CIE (1823-1907) was a distinguished British Indian civilian servant. He was the fifth son of Edward Strachey, the second son of Sir Henry Strachey, 1st Baronet of Sutton Court in the County of Somerset. He joined the Bengal Civil Service in 1842 and initially served in the North-Western Province. He rose to the rank of Chief Commissioner of Oudh in 1866. In 1868 he became a member of the Governor-General’s Council. He briefly acted as the Viceroy when Lord Mayo got assassinated by a vengeful Afridi Pathan, a convict at Port Blair in 1872. He was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of the North-Western Provinces in 1874. He returned to the Governor-General’s Council in 1876 as the financial minister under Lord Lytton and continued till 1880 when he quit over criticism over having wrongly estimating the cost of the Second Afghan War. He returned to England and was rehabilitated as a Member of the Council of the Secretary of State for India from 1885 to 1889.

Sir John’s elder brother Lt. Gen. Sir Richard Strachey (1817-1908) G.C.S.I., F.R.S., F.L.S., joined the Bengal Engineers in 1836. He was mentioned in the despatches in the Battles at Sabraon and Aliwal in the 1st Anglo-Sikh War. In 1846 the elder brother of Richard and John, an intrepid explorer – Lt. Henry Strachey (1816-1912) of the 66th Bengal Native Infantry defied the Tibetan ban prohibiting entry of Europeans to enter and explore western Tibet and discover the channel between the Tibetan Lakes Manasarovar and Rakshastal. The same year he also meticulously estimated the elevation of places between Almorah and Gangri from the temperature of boiling water and or barometrical measurements. On 21st of November 1846 he estimated on the basis of the temperature of boiling water the elevation of ‘J. Strachey’s Hut on Binsar Almorah’ at 7400 feet above sea level nearly 600 feet below the top of the hill (7969 feet). His measurements were recorded in his journal and map. The hut referred to by Lt. H. Strachey in his journal can be safely presumed to be that of his younger brother John whose oft-quoted account of the breathtaking view of the Himalayan peaks from atop the Binsar peak shall be reproduced later. In 1848 Lt. Richard Strachey joined J.E. Winterbottom for further exploration of the Tibetan region around the lakes. The same year Henry became the first European to find the Siachen Glacier while working as a member of the Boundary Commission under Alexander Cunningham to delineate the boundary between Tibet and Ladakh. The brothers Henry and Richard briefly re-entered Tibet by following the Niti Pass out of Garhwal in 1849. Henry was awarded the Patron’s Medal of the Royal Geographic Society in 1852 for his surveys in Tibet and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. Richard was chiefly employed in the Public Works Department and was the Director-General of Irrigation from 1867 to 1871 when he left India. He returned to serve briefly on the Governor-General’s Council. So many of the family served on important positions in the Government of India that it was at one time sarcastically described as the Government of Stracheys!

Sir John Strachey and Sir Richard Strachey, 1876 (by Elliott & Fry)

Sir John Strachey and Sir Richard Strachey, 1876 (by Elliott & Fry)

Sir John Strachey was invited by the University of Cambridge in 1884 for delivering lectures on India on a wide array of topics including the country’s geography, Government, public finances, law and justice, education, agriculture etc. The lectures were published in 1888 in a consolidated form in his book titled ‘India’. The introductory chapter of this book had a beautiful account by Sir John of the unmatched grandeur of the Kumaon Himalayas that is reproduced here for the readers.

“The province of Kumaon,’’ he wrote, ‘’has an area of more than 12,000 square miles. Its whole surface is covered by mountains. They rise like a wall with strange suddenness from the plains of India… I spent many summers in the higher regions of the Himalaya, sometimes among the almost glaciers at the sources of the Ganges and its tributaries, or visiting the passes into Tibet, one of them more than 18,000 feet above the sea, or on the forest-covered ranges immediately under the snowy peaks. I have seen much of European mountains, but in stupendous sublimity, combined with a magnificent and luxuriant beauty, I have seen nothing that can be compared with the Himalaya…after you have left the plains for 100 miles and have almost reached the foot of the great peaks, the valleys are still in many cases, only 2000 or 3000 feet above the sea…conveying the heat and vegetation of the tropics among ranges covered with perpetual snow…the traveller may obtain at a glance a range of vision extending from 2000 to 25000 feet…Tigers…are common in the valleys; and it is not very unusual to see their footprints in the snow among oaks and pines and rhododendrons 8,000 or 10,000 feet above the sea… Indian mountains are grander, their forests are nobler, their whole vegetation is more rich and varied, and nowhere in Europe will you find the splendour of the atmospheric effects and colouring of the Himalaya… whole of the Bernese Alps might, it has been said, be cast into a single Himalayan valley…Among earthly spectacles, I cannot conceive it possible that any can surpass the Himalaya, as I have often seen it at sunset on an evening in October from the ranges thirty or forty miles from the great peaks. One such view in particular, that from Binsar in Kumaon, stands out vividly in my remembrance. This mountain is 8,000 feet high, covered with oak and rhododendron. Towards the north you look down over pineclad slopes into a deep valley, where, 6,000 feet below, the Sarju runs through a tropical forest. Beyond the river it seems to the eye as if the peaks of perpetual snow rose straight up and almost close to you into the sky. From the bottom of the valley to the top of Nanda Devi you see at a glance almost 24,000 feet of mountain. The stupendous golden or rose-coloured masses and pinnacles of the snowy range extend before you in unbroken succession for more than 250 miles, filling up a third part of the visible horizon, while on all other sides, as far as the eye can reach, stretch away the red and purple ranges of the lower mountains. ‘In a hundred ages of the gods,’ writes one of the old Sanskrit poets, ‘I could not tell you of the glories of Himachal.’”

Sir John Strachey, Lt. Governor of NW Provinces, a cartoon appearing in Indian Charivari Album (1875)

Sir John Strachey, Lt. Governor of NW Provinces, a cartoon appearing in Indian Charivari Album (1875)

In finding the Himalayan view from Binsar an unforgettable experience Strachey was echoing the sentiments of many a Himalayan traveller who halted at this famous 19th century stage-point for expeditions into higher Himalayas – especially the Pindari Glacier and the Mansarovar lake in Tibet.

Anthony George Shiell in her book ‘A Year in India’ (1880) beautifully captures the mesmerizing grandeur of the ‘Mountain Monarchs’ in her account of her stay in the Kumaon Hills sometime in 1876. She came via Moradabad to the picturesque Dak Bungalow at Kaladhungi on her way to Nainital from where she proceeded through Almora to a ‘native bungalow’ just below the Binsar Peak. This what she wrote-

Chief of all the sights of a Himalayan hill station are of course the snows, to behold which at Naini Tal daily pilgrimages are made to a place called ” the snow seat,” supposed to be the best point of view. Not that these mountain monarchs condescend at all times to make themselves visible. For days together they remain shrouded behind curtains of clouds. I remember I made several fruitless journeys before my toil was rewarded. At last, as I was walking along the hill -top path one morning, my companion exclaimed, “There are the snows!” I looked up to what I supposed would be the greatest height of any mountains in existence, but could see nothing. “Look,” repeated he, ” cannot you see them; they are quite distinct?” By degrees I raised my eyes higher and higher, till I seemed to be scanning the very centre of the sky; and there, floating in mid heaven, as it were, beheld cloudlets of silver,—these then were the topmost peaks of those mighty mountains, piercing through their fleecy canopy of cloudy As I continued to gaze they took shape and consistency, and one could perceive that they must be mountain summits after all, for they appeared too hard and white to be nebulous. Gradually they divested themselves of more and more of their clothing of cloud, till finally they stood before us in all their sublime nakedness, from summit to base. A snowy barrier of stupendous slopes with fretted crest of peaks, pyramids, pinnacles, and domes, shutting out heaven and earth across one entire horizon. That vast rounded mountain, nigh 26,000 feet in height, is Nundi Devi—the bull of Siva, his vehan or chariot. That cluster in the centre, of three points, each upwards of 20,000 feet, is called Trisool, the trident of Mahadeva, a symbol that glitters on the apex of every Shivala upon the plains of Hindostan—for these are the summits of Kailas, the “crystal ” habitations of the greater gods of a mightier Olympus. As I continued to look, I felt what others have told me they have experienced in the same presence, how unearthly pure they are, how coldly calm, and how loftily unattainable, till the heart seemed to sicken with a fruitless longing.

As we progressed on our way to Almorah the snows grew nearer and more vast. The Kumaoni Capital is a picturesque little town, lying like a Highland clachan at the top of a wild glen. It is said to have the prettiest and cleanest bazaar in India—smoothly causewayed, the shops with fronts of carved wood, and at one end a white temple; while in the gardens of the English residents, as we passed, home flowers, such as roses and dahlias, were blooming. The furthest point we reached was a hill called Binsur Peak, a tree-clad isolated cone, with a native bungalow near the top, and empty, which we obtained permission to occupy. Here we were so enchanted with the prospects and the delightful remoteness of our situation that we resolved to spend a day or two in our mountain home. At a little distance from the bungalow, and at a point still higher, was a cairn of stones erected by the Trigonometrical Survey. Early in the morning, before the sun had arisen, we used to sally out, and walking through the pinewoods take our station upon it with field glasses in our hands. Over the tops of dark hills that rolled below us up to the base of the snows, their deep valleys filled with fleecy vapours, rose, in close proximity now, the vast flanks and towering summits of the giant chain. As when one has entered some great opera-house before it is lit up all is gloom, till, the flamelet travelling from jet to jet, there blazes forth a circle of light, so these lay dull and leaden, till, far away at the eastern extreme, Morning with her torch of dawn touched first one slumbering peak and then another and another, and all the enkindled line coruscated with silvery sheen.

Evening, as the sun was sinking, found us again at our vigil on the cairn. If possible the view then was even more lovely than by sunrise. The warm tints of sunset suffused the snows with a hectic flush, which, gradually as the sun declined, faded from off them, till they grew pale and cold like marble masks, and the stars came out one by one flickering like tapers on the faces of the dead.

Shiell describes the bungalow as being close to the Binsar Peak. In  all likelihood she stayed either at Goralkot or at Maj. Edin’s Estate.

An interesting comparison is made of the views of the Snow Peaks from Nainital and Binsar in an article published in the ‘Calcutta Review Vol. 26 (1856)’ by an anonymous contributor who wrote,

“During the latter part of the rains, the visitor to Nynee Tal will never be wrong in taking a trip to Almorah. It is lower, and therefore warmer, but freer from damp than its more favoured rival: and the clouds that sweep through the houses of Nynee Tal rarely condescend to visit those at Almorah. More over the first two marches afford an excellent specimen of the scenery of the lower ranges of this noble chain of mountains. The view of the snow from the Bungalow at Pewrah is remarkably fine—though not equal to the view which we first had of it—from the ridge over Nynee Tal ; and still less to be compared with the glorious view from the Binsur hill, about fourteen miles beyond Almorah. This latter has been pronounced by good judges, as the finest view to be had of the snow from Simlah to Darjeeling. It undoubtedly surpasses, in its awful grandeur, the view from the Nynee Tal ridge. Over Nynee Tal one is wrapt in admiration: at Binsur, one is struck with awe. Over Nynee Tal, one thinks of the plains as well as the hills: at Binsur, one can think of nothing else, save that long, living, ever-varying, time-defying wall of snow. Over Nynee Tal, one is charmed with the beauty of the fore-ground: at Binsur, the fore-ground is passed over without a thought. Over Nynee Tal, the snow is the grand finish to an exquisite view: at Binsur, the snow is all in all. Therefore, no one should be a season at the lake without giving at least a fortnight to a visit to Almorah and Binsur. The last fortnight in April, or the first in October, is perhaps as good a time as can be chosen…”

It was to this panoramic view of the snow-clad Himalayas that we were headed as we drove up expectantly along the metalled road through the Chir-pine forest. The Ayarpani-Binsar Forest Rest House road follows the ridge-line of the NE-SW Binsar-Almora Range. As we gained in altitude the pine trees were replaced by the thick cover of Rhododendrons and Oaks that the Binsar Forest has been famous for down the ages. ‘Siyahee-ka-Sulla, Binsur-ka-Banj,’ – the pines (Sulla) of Siyahee and the oaks (Banj) of Binsur – is an old Kumaoni proverb. As the story goes the demand for timber for building of the capital of the Chand Kings at Almora was met by the soft pinewood from the Siyahidevi Hill and the hard oak-wood from Binsar. The Oak-Rhododendron forest of Binsar is one of the last naturally occurring moist temperate broad-leaved forests of the Middle Himalayas. The forest is home to the graceful leopard -the craftiest of hunters amongst the big cats that relies on its superb camouflage and stealth rather than brute power for bringing down its prey. Leopards are frequently spotted in Binsar and they prey on the still plentiful gorals, kakars (barking deer) and the langurs. The forest also has a sizeable population of rampaging wild boars and the pesky rhesus macaques, the bane of the hill farmer. The other major species of wildlife include jungle cats, yellow-throated martens, and jackals. The Serows and the Black Bears are all but gone. The sanctuary reportedly harbors 166 species of birds including black francolins, koklass pheasants, kaleej pheasants, hill partridges, great barbets, hawk eagles, Himalayan griffons, lammergeiers, and yellow-billed magpies.

An excerpt from Rev. James Kennedy’s account of the ‘wild beasts’ in Kumaon in his book ‘Life and Work in Benaras & Kumaon (1884)’ is reproduced to give the reader an idea of the abundance of wildlife in Kumaon when he visited the Mission at Almora around 1868. He wrote,

‘Notwithstanding the extension of cultivation and the increase of population in Kumaon, we may travel for many miles over hill and forest and not see a trace of man’s presence. Cover for wild beasts has been somewhat abridged, but it is still sufficient to shelter them, and to make it unlikely they can be exterminated. Both in the hills and in the country beneath, hunters of wild beasts, European and native, still find abundant employment. Not a year passes without persons, sheep, and cattle being killed by tigers, leopards, and hyenas. They live so much in the gorges of the mountains, and in the depths of the forests, ready to pounce on their prey when opportunity presents itself, that the destruction caused by them is seen, while they themselves disappear. The first thing we saw on our first approach to Almora was a horse which had been killed by a leopard the preceding night. A woman, who had been cutting grass before the door of a house we occupied for a few days, was killed an hour afterwards by a tiger in the adjoining forest. One afternoon we heard the cry of a herd, and running out we saw a goat with its throat cut, but the leopard that had killed it had disappeared in the jungle beneath. On another occasion my pony, picketed near my tent, had a narrow escape from a leopard. I have often heard huntsmen relate the encounters they have had with these terrible brutes. On one occasion I saw four dead tigers brought in by a party that had killed them a few miles from the place where my tent was pitched. Tigers are very migratory. They live in the cold weather down in the Bhabhur and the Terai, and as the hot weather advances they follow the herd up the hills on to the verge of the snow. The bears of the hills feed on fruit and vegetables, and usually make away when human beings are seen, but they are very formidable to those who attack them, or come suddenly across their path. In some places wolves abound, and children and animals require to be guarded against them; but they never hunt in packs as in Russia, and they are not feared by grownup people. In the lower hills and the Bhabhur there are herds of wild elephants, which do much injury to the crops of the people, and cannot be safely approached. I have been again and again in their track. There are also serpents, but they are not so numerous or venomous as in the plains. The dangers to which the inhabitants are exposed is shown by the annual statistics of casualties, in which the first place is given to the ravages of wild beasts, the second to landslips, and the third to serpents.’

It is clear from the accounts by Sir John Strachey and Rev. James Kennedy that while the stealthy leopard may be the apex predator of the forests in the Higher Himalayas yet the magnificent tiger was not completely unknown at these heights. The tiger was known to follow the migrating herds from the forests of terai in the summer months right up to the ‘Alpine’ meadows just short of the snow-line. This was of course only till the early 20th century when the trophy hunters armed with the modern post-World War weaponry mindlessly slaughtered the tigers in a one-sided contest. The Tramp was successful in locating an over 100 year old newspaper account of a strike by a man-eating tigress in a village field in Binsar. The same is reproduced for the readers.

Dealing with a Man-eater

The World’s News, Sydney  (Saturday, December 13, 1913).

Dealing with a Man-eater, Binsar

A most interesting story about a man-eating tigress comes from Binsar, Almora U.P., India and is vouched for by Lieut. Col. Molesworth. For some time the tigress had terrorized the natives of the villages in the locality as much by its sudden and stealthy appearances as by its depredations. On one occasion a native woman was busy stacking hay up a tree—the usual custom in the Kumaun Hills—when the tigress made its appearance. Catching sight of the woman in the tree, it lashed its tail from side to side, and then calmly prepared to wait until she should come down. The woman, however, had seen the brute just as it had seen her, and, knowing that some natives were working in the jungle close by, she called them to her assistance. They responded at once, and, although only indifferently armed, did not hesitate to advance upon the tigress. After much shouting and brandishing of hoes and sticks, the natives succeeded in driving the brute away. Then, calling out to the woman that the tigress had disappeared, they returned to the jungle, and she, with the usual apathy of the native, continued her work up the tree.

But the tigress was more cunning than its adversaries. It went away, but only for a short distance. There it lay hidden, watching its human prey all the time.

When the woman did eventually cease work and come down, the tigress sprang from its hiding place and was upon her before she was well aware of its presence. The spring of the tigress brought the woman to the ground and did not stun her, and she was able to call loudly for help.

This time the only person in the locality was another woman, who, though only armed with a hoe, advanced upon the tigress and attempted to drive the brute away. All her efforts were unfortunately of no avail. The tigress killed its first victim, and had sprung upon and severely mauled the woman who attempted the rescue before the villagers arrived on the scene and again drove the tigress away.

On the day on which the tigress met its fate, about a month after the event recorded, two ladies; who reside on a large fruit estate in the locality, and both keen sportswomen, got word that an animal of some sort had killed a small wild pig within 200 yards of the house.

It was a pouring wet day, but sportswomen of their stamp are not to be deterred by a trifle of that sort. At 5 o’clock in the evening they were both perched in their machan—a platform built up in a tree with a lire goat tied up as a bait. They prepared themselves for the usual monotonous wait.

But within five minutes of seating themselves, not without the least warning, they heard a sudden rush through the jungle, and in the same instant the animal was upon the goat.

“Tiger!” whispered both ladies as they cautiously raised their rifles.

In another couple of seconds the brute rolled over, quivering its last, with a well-directed bullet through its shoulder. Two or three bullets followed from both rifles to make assurance doubly sure, and then, feeling that it was quite safe, the ladies came down from the machan.

Within a few minutes of the firing of the shots, every native employed on the estate had made his way to the kill, and great and varied was the rejoicing when it was found that it was the “man-eater” that had terrorized a large district for some time.

The tigress (says “Country Life”) measured over eight feet and such an event as a tiger shot at Binsar had never been known before.

This truly terrible scourge to the timid and unarmed inhabitants of an Indian village is now happily becoming very rare. Man-eaters of a bad type are seldom heard of, or if heard of rarely survive long.

Before there were so many European sportsmen as there are now in India India, a man-eater frequently caused the temporary abandonment of whole tracts of country. The terror inspired by a man-eater throughout the district ranged by him is extreme. The helpless people are defenseless against his attacks. Their occupations of cattle s grazing or wood cutting take them into the jungles, where they feel they go with their lives in their hands.

Though the blood-thirsty monster is perhaps reposing with the remains of his last victim miles away, the terror he inspires is always present to everyone throughout his domain. The rapidity and uncertainly of a man-eater’s movement are the chief elements of the dread he inspires. His name is in everyone’s mouth; his daring, ferocity, and appalling appearance are represented with true Eastern exaggeration; and until some European sportsman lays him low thousands live in fear day and night. Bold man-eaters have been known to enter the village and carry off a victim from the first open hut.

The man-cater-as previously explained in “The World’s News”—is often old tiger, more frequently a tigress, or an animal that, through having been wounded, or otherwise hurt, has been unable to procure its usual food, and takes this means of subsistence. The man-eater is as cowardly as cunning. It flies before an armed man, between whom and a possible victim, it discriminates with wonderful sagacity.

Having driven a little over 5 KM from the Ayarpani Gate we reached a small level clearing, a beautiful green meadow nestled within sharp slopes covered by thick stands of deodars, oaks and rhododendrons. A rocky brook ran through the meadow and on its south-eastern edge was the nearly 300 year old Binsar Mahadev Temple. We had reached the ‘Temple in the Dell’ of Marianne North.

The Binsar Massif - the southern face

The Binsar Massif – the southern face

 

Bineshwar Mahadev Temple, Binsar WLS

Bineshwar Mahadev Temple, Binsar WLS

Atop the hill rising on our south-west was the 19th century ‘castle’ of the King of Kumaon. Facing us to the north was the thickly wooded Binsar hill with a steep trail leading up its southern face to its peak, the Jhandi Dhar. Parallel to the trail to its east ran the stone-wall of Dr. Govan’s Estate, now owned by the Sahs of Kumaon. The estate looked neglected and its extensive terraced fields were overgrown with grass. The colonial-era bungalow with the characteristic red tin roof gave a forlorn look, dwarfed by the stately deodars that engulfed it.

Dr. Govan's Bungalow

Dr. Govan’s Bungalow

The only sign of activity was in the stone outhouse with a slated roof.

The Govan Estate, Binsar WLS

The Govan Estate, Binsar WLS

We parked next to a locked outpost of the forest department (or may be the PWD) – a modest brick and mortar structure with a chimney and a sloping tin roof.

Post near the Bineshwar Mahadev Temple, Binsar WLS

Post near the Bineshwar Mahadev Temple, Binsar WLS

An arrow on a wooden signpost affixed to the entrance this room indicated the way to the Binsar Retreat up the trail to Jhandi Dhar. As we got off our vehicles a handsome, golden bhutia sheep-dog (probably a cross-breed) gazed at us with a friendly curiosity. It was Simba, the ‘Lord of the Bineshwar Meadow’, and the sole companion to the priest at the temple.

Way to Binsar Retreat and Simba

Way to Binsar Retreat and Simba

We had informed our host of our arrival on reaching Ayarpani and presently a rugged looking Bolero Camper trundled down noisily over the roughly paved jungle path. As the pickup drew closer we could make out a Gurkha standing in the cargo section in a gaily-coloured Nepali cap grinning at us cheerfully as he skilfully dodged the overhanging branches. Our host emerged from behind the wheel – a tall sturdy man with a thoughtful frown fixed on his sunburnt face – his hair curly and unkempt – dressed in a casual sport gear – looking every bit as rugged as the 4X4 he drove. We were meeting after eight years and he looked a changed man. He had spent a decade alternating between the corporate straitjacket and a carefree existence in the Himalayan wilderness until the allure of a quiet life in a mountain forest overwhelmed him completely. And like all the rest of the ‘crazy’ men who had preceded him at Binsar – he decided to drop everything and step into the wild – never to return. Binsar had got its latest Ramsay!!

As we trudged up the steep path we came upon a landing that functioned as a parking for vehicles that lacked the ground clearance or power to continue the journey up the Binsar ridge. The gradient sharpens steeply thereafter with hairpin bends that can be negotiated only by a 4X4 off-roader with ample ground clearance and a driver having the stomach to risk his neck and that of his trusting passengers! Our teenaged children clambered aboard the open-to-the-sky cargo section to take a joy ride to the retreat. The adults carried on foot. It was getting dark as we crossed the arched stone gateway to the Govan Estate and walked through the Oak-Rhododendron forest to the Retreat.

Entry to Govan Estate, Binsar

Entry to Govan Estate, Binsar

The jungle trail was littered with fallen leaves and dried-up Rhododendron flowers. We had missed the April bloom when the forest is said to be on fire with with the striking red flowers of the Rhododendron trees. We reached a fork and as instructed took the path on the right. We were completely out of breath by the time we reached the Binsar Forest Retreat – a nature camp set up on Major Edin’s Estate that was now being run in a partnership by our host. The estate has numerous terraced levels each occupied by quaint little wooden cottages with sloping roofs of slate and tin amidst a riot of poppies and other wild flowers. All around us was an unimaginably thick forest that sent a shiver of excitement down the spine. We were greeted with Rhododendron Sharbat served in steel tumblers. The children were ecstatic and could barely keep still as our host gave us instructions to respect nature, to conserve water and electricity (the camp runs entirely on solar power and draws water from a seasonal spring) and to not venture out into the forest after sunset. The camp was done up in the classic ‘Fabindia’ finish, stylishly ethnic with a woody feel to all furniture and fixtures. Everything was understated. The theme blended completely with nature. Some of the cottages had been named after the trees in their vicinity. Others were named after the glorious Himalayan peaks that are visible from the Jhandi Dhar on a clear day. We were lodged in the Walnut and the Rhododendron Cottages.

Rhododendron Cottage, Binsar Retreat

Rhododendron Cottage, Binsar Forest Retreat

 

Walnut Cottage, Binsar Retreat

Walnut Cottage, Binsar Forest Retreat

It had been a full twelve hours since the start of our journey that day and we shamelessly raided the chocolate cake that was served with tea. This was followed with vegetable pakoras (the camp serves only vegetarian fare) and an early dinner. We settled down in our cosy beds awash with excitement for the two days of adventure that awaited us.

Our host had most thoughtfully decided against rushing us for the trek and we woke to the happy camp sounds and the gaiety that is so typical of a Banjara Camp. A large stainless steel dispenser filled to the top with hot tea had been placed in the dining hall for the guests. I happily downed several tumblers-full as I shook the sleep out of my eyes. The spirited camp-followers (more Gurkhas than the local Kumaonis) sped up and down the camp busy with the morning chores. Musafir, an early riser, had stolen a march on me in the latest round of our never-ending contest in bird photography. He had managed a trophy picture of a Grey-winged Blackbird that would be impossible to better.

Grey-winged Blackbird, Binsar (Photo courtesy the Musafir)

Grey-winged Blackbird, Binsar (Photo courtesy the Musafir)

Nuthatch, Binsar (Photo courtesy the Musafir)

Nuthatch, Binsar (Photo courtesy the Musafir)

 

Flycatcher, Binsar (Photo courtesy the Musafir)

Flycatcher, Binsar (Photo courtesy the Musafir)

I scanned the forest around the camp hoping to spot some interesting bird and try and even the contest.

Joey, the resident cat, meowed and purred as it was shaken out of its slumber and noisily chased by a sprightly little girl who giggled impishly behind her glossy eye-mask. Her worldly possessions safely tucked away in her colourful shoulder-bag!

Joey- the Camp Cat

Joey- the Camp Cat (Photo courtesy Gazella)

I enjoyed my tea sitting amidst the brightly coloured poppies nodding cheerfully in the breeze with yellow butterflies flitting from flower to flower.

Flowers at Binsar Forest Retreat

The floral treat (Photo courtesy Gazella)

We had missed the Rhododendron bloom but had apparently landed in the middle of the butterfly season. The forest was teeming with wonderful varieties of brightly coloured butterflies.

I could manage only a modest photograph that morning of a ‘Scaly Thrush’ skulking in the mushy undergrowth near the outlet of the camp’s drain pipe.

Scaly Thrush, Binsar WLS (June)

Scaly Thrush, Binsar WLS (June)

We finally started for the morning trek around half-past ten.

TO BE CONTINUED

Acknowledgments:

The Tramp owes special gratitude to Nicholas Wilson the great grandson of Arthur Ross Wilson, Esquire the Scotsman who succeeded Sir Henry Ramsay as the owner of the orchard estates at Binsar and Khali in 1893. Nicholas rendered invaluable assistance in piecing together the history of the two estates in the time of his industrious ancestor and most kindly airmailed pictures of his Great Grandfather and his Khalee Estate dating back to 1905-06.

References:

  1. Papers regarding the forests and iron mines in Kumaon; The Records of the Government of India, Home Department (1855)
  2. Recollections of a Happy Life: Being the Autobiography of Marianne North; Marianne North, Janet Symonds (1892)
  3. Life and Work in Benaras & Kumaon; James Kennedy (1884)
  4. The liberator of Kumaoni women- Mukti Dutta, Business Today, January (2008)
  5. Sport and Service in Assam and Elsewhere; Lt. Col. Alban Wilson (1924)

A paradise called – The Baspa Valley

It was yet a couple of hours to dawn when I waved goodbye to Sindbad and his family as they started on their long journey back home at that unearthly hour. I watched them go for sometime until the headlights disappeared into the darkness. It was going to be a long and gloomy drive. The towering Raldang peak seemed to glower menacingly under the moonlight from across the torrential Sutlej annoyed at Sindbad for having abandoned his ‘voyage’ into the high mountains. But our mid-eastern adventurer had really been left with no choice but to set sail for home. ‘Begum’ had taken a nasty fall the previous evening and needed medical attention. As I wearily made my way up the wooden staircase back to my room I couldn’t help thinking that the adventure holiday had been jinxed from the very start.

It had started as an ambitious trip across Khardung La (world’s highest motorable pass at 5602 m) to the silver dunes of Nubra and the apricot orchards of the enchanted Turtuk. And then over Chang La to reach the sparkling icy blue of Pangong!

This was, however, not to be and we settled for a round trip across the lunar landscape of the inaccessible Spiti Valley. It was to be a parikrama of sorts- where we would drive in from Manali negotiating the noise and the slush at Rohtang to leave the Leh-Manali Highway at Gramphu. To drive along the scenic Chandra river crossing the snow bound Kunzum La (4500 metres) to reach the quaint little monastery towns of Kaza and Tabo. We would then proceed through the picturesque lakeside Nako village and the Army base at Peo to reach the apple town of Kalpa (Chini of the yesteryears). On our way to Chini we could consider a halt at Kanum that was made famous by the Hungarian traveller Alexander Csomo De Korros who lived like a monk in the Kanum monastery for three long years (1827 – 30) and left the western world a dictionary of the Tibetan language and an impressive work on Tibetan grammar. It would be a short drive thereafter to the enchanting valley of Baspa for taking a well-deserved break at the Banjara Campsite at Sangla. The drive back home through Shimla would have a one night halt in the temple town of Sarahan.

‘We are in the third week of June and are tempting the rain Gods,’ the Scribe cautioned us, true to his habit. But this time round I had Sindbad’s enthusiastic support for any kind of adventure and I chose to ignore Scribe’s customary round of warnings.

Even this new plan got nixed due to a delay in the opening of the road through Kunzum La. It had snowed heavily the previous winter and GREF was working behind schedule!

With a heavy heart we now reworked the entire road trip to enter Spiti via Kinnaur – a not so scenic but all-weather route. This route had its own hitches as a part of the Hindustan Tibet Road was obstructed due to falling boulders at Tapri, ahead of the bridge at Wangtoo and traffic was being diverted to a steep and narrow link road that went all the way up to Urni and then descended all the way back to meet the riverside highway at the bridge across the Chooling Nallah. The traffic was being operated one-way at a time by the Kinnaur police through the Tapri–Urni-Chooling Nallah stretch and we had to reach the diversion point at the prescribed time as per the schedule given on the BlogSpot of Kinnaur police. “I told you so,” grumbled  the Scribe when I informed him about this new problem. Leave is difficult to get by in his line of work and the prospect of wasting it while stuck in a road jam on a one way link road was definitely getting his goat!

It’s a good 500 KM drive from Delhi to Sarahan, the Gateway to Kinnaur and we decided to break journey at Shimla. Shimla, the Queen of the Hills, the charming Summer Capital of the Imperial India has weathered badly with age and the decades of neglect. Ugly scars of concrete today cut savagely through the once pristine landscape. The towering pines and deodars look haggard under the pall of vehicular smoke, their heads hung in shame, mute witnesses to the onslaught of development. The old lady smiles weakly through the shroud of gloom and urban squalor – desperate to rediscover her lost magic – the spell that she would cast on the first time visitor. It’s a losing battle.

Shimla in Colonial Times- The Viceregal Lodge and Boileaugunge from Prospect Hill

Shimla in Colonial times- The Viceregal Lodge and Boileaugunge from Prospect Hill (1890)

But seen through the kaleidoscope of childhood memories – Shimla continues to fascinate. Happy memories of a year spent in an idyllic cottage overlooking a wooded valley in the Shimla of early 70s. It all comes rushing back to me every time I take that bend from where the city suddenly becomes visible. As if it was only yesterday.

We were staying at ‘The Yarrows’, the home to the National Academy of Audit and Accounts since 1950. One has to take the narrow lane that falls sharply to the front of Hotel Cecil and halts at the imposing gates of The Yarrows Estate. The Yarrows, dates back to the mid 19th century and was a colonial style bungalow set on a thickly wooded spur overlooking a narrow valley and the Shaily Peak in the distance. The bungalow was owned by the Rajah of Nahan and was rented out annually to the visitors.

With the coming up of Shimla as the summer destination of the British, the ‘native’ Princes were encouraged to buy bungalows and estates and help in setting up a city to the taste of the British rulers. The Rajahs not only bought properties for their own use but also as investment and these were let out annually to the British tenants. By 1885, the Indian Princes owned 34 properties in Shimla. Raja of Nahan, with his 14 prized estates was the most prominent landlord. His properties included Bantony, Torrentium, Retreat and The Yarrows.

The earliest photograph of the ‘Yarrows’ was taken by Samuel Bourne, the famous British photographer in 1865.

The Yarrows from Peterhoff, Samuel Bourne (1865)

The Yarrows from Peterhoff, Samuel Bourne (1865)

Samuel Bourne established the ‘Bourne and Shepherd’ at Shimla which was India’s premier photographic studio of the colonial times. Bourne made three major Himalayan photographic expeditions from 1863 to 1866 – the first to Chini, the second to Kashmir and the third to Gangotri Glacier through the Spiti Valley. He is famous for the 2200 photographs of the Himalayas and other places in India, the original glass negatives of which were lost in a tragic fire in Calcutta in 1991.

The first written mention of The Yarrows can be found in Henry Benedict Medlicott’s ‘Memoirs of the Geological Survey of India’ published in 1865. Medlicott was a famous Irish geologist who coined the term ‘Gondwana’. He surveyed the southern Himalayan region and wrote in his memoirs, “Under that portion of the Simla ridge known as Boileaugunge, on one of the northern spurs,about 600 feet below the house called the Yarrows we find a limestone and a grit conglomerate…”

The Yarrows (1865)

The Yarrows (1865)

The bungalow was let out to the Imperial British Government that ran its Finance Department from the place in 1875. Edward J. Buck writes in his book, Simla Past and Present (1904), “For the present convenience and speedy despatch of public business the Imperial departments are now located in four great buildings all within a few hundred yards of each other, but thirty years ago the wheel of the Government machinery certainly moved with much less speed than they do to-day. A map of Simla issued by the Surveyor General’s Department in 1875, indicates that in that year the offices were located as follows- the Home office was in ‘S. Mark’s,” the Finance in ‘The Yarrows,’ the Public Works in “Herbert House,’ the Foreign in ‘Valentines’, the Military in ‘Dalzell Cottage,’ and the Revenue and Agriculture in ‘Argyll House’.”

The bungalow was then occupied by Sir George Tomkyns Chesney who started his career as a second-lieutenant in the Bengal Engineers in 1848 and rose to the rank of General. He is known for his work on administration in British India, Indian Polity (1868) and a short story, The Battle of Dorking (1868). General Chesney was a famous resident of Simla and was the President of the prestigious United Service Club in 1888 and again in 1890.

Sir George T Chesney, Indian Civil Servants, Bourne and Shepherd (1890)

Sir George T Chesney, Indian Civil Servants, The Viceregal Lodge, Simla – Bourne and Shepherd (1890)

A news report published in the Spokesman Review on January, 29, 1900 read as follows- “… Yarrows, formerly the abode of the late Sir George Chesney, but recently tenanted by the prime minister of the Nizam of Hyderabad – a magnificent personage, who dispenses hospitality in right regal fashion.”

Sir Viqar ul-Umara, Amir-e-Paigah was the Prime Minister of Hyderabad who occupied ‘The Yarrows’ for some years. He built the magnificent Falaknuma Palace as his residence at Hyderabad. The construction took 9 years and was completed in 1893. This palace was given to the Nizam, Asaf Jah VI. He now built a new home for himself, now in the European style – the Paigah Palace.

Yet another occupant of the Yarrows was the Surgeon-General Robert, sometime around 1899.

In 1908, the Indian Meteorological Department shifted its Head Quarters from the ‘Constantia’ that was acquired by Lord Minto, the Governor-General to accommodate the YWCA, to the Yarrows Estate. The Yarrows was by now in a dilapidated state and IMD shifted to the Kennedy Estate.

The old bungalow was pulled down and a beautiful new cottage was built at the site in 1913 for Sir George Rivers Lowndes, the Law Member in the Imperial Legislative Council of the Viceroy. It was designed by the famous British Architect Sir Herbert Baker who designed the famous North and South Block Buildings of the Secretariat on the Raisina Hill at Delhi. Baker described the Yarrows in his book, Architecture and Personalities (1944) as follows- “ …a pleasant diversion from my Delhi work was building a house for Sir George Rivers Lowndes at Shimla. A long, low hall looks through mullioned windows over the lawn and garden through majestic cedar trees to the autumn gold foothills and the Himalayan snows beyond.”

The Yarrows, Simla (1913)

The Yarrows, Simla (1913)

Sir Herbert Baker, the British Architect of 'The Yarrows'

Sir Herbert Baker, the British Architect of ‘The Yarrows’

Sir George Lowndes retired from the Imperial Legislative Council in 1920. ‘The Yarrows’ seems to have served as the residence for the Member Law for sometime as it was occupied by Sir Brojendra Lal Mitter, Member Law in the Imperial Legislative Assembly around 1929. He later became the Advocate General of India from 1937 to 1945.

‘The Yarrows’ then got its last famous occupant, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. It was at the gates of Yarrows that Jinnah received Mahatma Gandhi in the September of 1939 from where they drove down together to the Viceregal Lodge to meet Lord Linlithgow. Jinnah continued to visit his summer house in Shimla right uptill the birth of India and Pakistan in 1947.

In 1950, this charming estate was handed over to the Indian Audit and Accounts Service and it now became the home for the National Academy of Audit and Accounts. Over the years, two hostel blocks were added to the estate. The first was ‘The Glen,’ a rather plain-looking structure that has obscured the lovely views of the valley and the mountains beyond that so fascinated Sir Herbert. Later came the more regal looking ‘Cedar,’ complete with a large and very European cobblestone courtyard! An impressive stone plaque engraved in gold announces the heritage building’s 100 year history.

Where does the name ‘Yarrows’ come from? It has been suggested by some that ‘The Yarrows’ is named after the plant ‘Yarrow’ that grows wild like a weed and bears minute daisy like white coloured/ pale lilac flowers in cymes. This hairy weed-like plant has traditionally been used to prepare formulations to treat wounds and staunch bleeding.

Yarrow - The Plant

Yarrow – The Plant

Others attribute the name to William Wordsworth who was fascinated by the river ‘Yarrow Water’ that flows through the ‘Scottish Borders’ in the south-east of Scotland and is famous for trout and salmon fishing. The river flows out of St. Mary’s Loch, 45 miles from Edinburgh and journeys eastwards through an idyllic valley, past the impressive ruins of the 15th century Newark Castle, till it joins the river Ettrick Water. Wordsworth first wrote about the river in 1803 in his poem ‘Yarrow Unvisited’. He then journeyed down the length of the river and published ‘Yarrow Visited’ in September 1814. He published a third poem about the river “Yarrow Revisited’ in 1838.

Yarrow Water - The River

Yarrow Water – The River

A third theory links the name to the ‘Loch of Yarrows’ in the County of Caithness in the Scottish Highlands near the estuary town of Wick. The Hill of Yarrows overlooks this lake and is famed for the archaeological remains from the Neolithic and Iron Age including burial chambers and tombs. Situated on the shores of this Highlands Lake is the picture-perfect North Yarrows Cottage – a traditional 18th century Caithness ‘Croft House’ complete with its own boat, a dog-kennel and falconry mews! The cottage faces the icy blue waters of the lake with a backdrop of the Yarrows Hill. Was the architect of ‘The Yarrows’ a Scotsman from the Highlands? Did he yearn for his homeland and name the estate in Simla after the hill, loch or even the shepherd cottage? We shall never know!!

North Yarrows Cottage

North Yarrows Cottage

‘The Yarrows’ is a symbol of intense pride for the officers of the Indian Audit and Accounts Service and one has only to visit this fairy tale destination to know the reason why! The original colonial-age look of ‘The Yarrows’ has been preserved with a passion. ‘The Yarrows’ has easily the best kept garden in the whole of Shimla with a lush green lawn, lovely flower beds, a riot of floral climbers and the majesty of the towering deodars.

The Yarrows (2014)

The Yarrows (2014)

Cedar, The Yarrows Estate 2014

Cedar, The Yarrows Estate (2014)

Sindbad was to join us at Shimla the next day. And there he was – hanging precariously out of the Crow’s Nest on the high mast, enjoying the sharp bite of the icy squall tearing into his face, the sails billowing noisily around him and the bow crashing against the violent waves. There was anticipation written all over his face. He had set sails for the ‘Land of the Lamas’ this time and there he hoped to find the magic cure for his restless mind that drove him from home, friends and family on one adventure after another.

It is a  150 KM drive along the Hindustan- Tibet Road from Shimla to Sarahan.  The construction of the ambitious Hindustan – Tibet road from Kalka to Shimla to Khab (on the confluence of the Sutlej and Spiti Rivers) was started by the British in 1850-51. It took a decade to complete the first leg from Kalka to Shimla and to make the road usable for wheeled traffic. A tunnel was constructed through the ridge between Sanjauli and Dhalli to take the mountain road northwards to Narkanda and the Kinnaur Kingdom of the Bussahir Rajas.

The construction of the Sanjauli Tunnel was started in 1850 under the command of Captain D. Briggs, an engineer in the British-Indian Army. The 560 feet long tunnel was carved out through a ridge of solid rock with the help of 10,000 prisoners and 8000 workers. This ambitious tunnel is said to have been the first of its kind to be built in British India. The dank, unlined interiors of this lengthy tunnel would get completely enveloped in darkness after sunset. Each evening, six lanterns would be lighted inside the tunnel for the late-hour travellers. Their faint glow would do little to dispel the darkness and the long shadows would only add to the eerie atmosphere of the tunnel. The coolies and mule drivers would shout and whistle hysterically to ward off the ghosts and evil spirits that inhabited the dark interiors of the tunnel.

Lord Kitchener was appointed as the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in India in 1902 and he took up the beautiful Wildflower Hall, a bungalow located inside a thick pine and cedar forest at Chharabra as his weekend retreat. He would cross the Sanjauli-Dhalli Tunnel on horseback whenever he visited his summer home from Snowdon, his official residence at Simla. One such evening when he was returning from the Wildflower Hall his pony is said to have slipped, trapping his leg under its weight. A Goorkha porter is said to have heard the General’s shouts for help. The shadowy outline of the Lord and the fearsome echoes of his cries for help, however, proved too much for the poor, superstitious hillman who took it to be a phantom. The man turned back and fled to safety ignoring the loud curses of the indignant Chief that followed him. It was only when word reached one Mr. Jenn, a European gentleman, that the livid General was finally rescued. The embarrassing tunnel incident had left him with a fractured ankle and a bruised ego!

Lord HH Kitchener (1902)

Lord HH Kitchener (1902)

The new road followed the ancient ‘caravan route’ for the most part and joined the famed ‘Silk Route’ that was used for trade between China, Persia and Europe. Wool, livestock, dry fruit, precious stones and spices were some of the commodities traded along this spectacular road. Mule trains would leave the Sanjauli Bazar and cross the tunnel to reach Dhalli.

Sanjauli Bazar, Simla (1890)

Sanjauli Bazar, Simla (1890)

It was a long and weary journey thereafter through the villages of Fagu, Theog and Matiana for reaching Narkanda (Nagkanda). Fagu, Matiana and Narkanda had  ‘Staging Bungalows,’ resting places for the travellers moving along the road.

The road to Tibet forks into two some kilometres beyond Dhalli, with the main highway continuing along the ridge through the Shimla Reserve Forest. A smaller road branches out  for Mashobra (Mahasu) town and Naldehra that lies beyond. We halted at a roadside Punjabi dhaba at this point for a quick ‘rajmah-chawal’ meal. Beyond this point lies the ‘Potato Country’ with potato being grown in terraced rows on steep slopes by the hill people. Potato is planted in the month of May allowing the plant to grow to a few inches by the time the rains arrive in end June. Rain water is harnessed for the potato plants by the low earthen ridges along the terrace boundaries. The potato crop is harvested in the month of October. Potatoes from this region cater to the demand from Shimla and the Northern Plains that lie beyond. The pahari aloo from the hills is popular all over the North sells at a premium in the urban mandis.
Having crossed the turn for Kufri one reaches Fagu, a small misty village located at 2500 metres amidst terraced potato fields and apple orchards. The village experiences heavy fog and offers beautiful views of the distant peaks, the terraced fields and the valley below. Himachal Tourism has built a pleasant hotel, The Apple Blossom, in a picturesque location.

Road between Fagu and Theog, Samuel Bourne (1865)

Road between Fagu and Theog, Samuel Bourne (1865)

Theog is the next major destination along this road. Theog was a part of the Sainj Riyasat, a minor Princely Hill State that was made a feudatory of the Keonthal State of Jubbal by the British after the end of the Goorkha War. The Thakur rulers of the Riyasat claimed descent from the Chandel Rajputs of Jaipur and resided at their rather impressive wooden palace at Sainj.

Palace of the Thakurs of Sainj Riyasat

Theog (1890)

Theog (1890)

Modern day Theog is a fairly large town that caters to the needs of the surrounding hill villages.

We were, however, driving hours behind our planned schedule and could not afford the luxury of checking out any of these historic palaces. We drove without a stop till we reached Narkanda, a small town located at a height of 2700 metres surrounded by a thickly forested area. Some 5 KM from the town is the Hatu Peak, which at 3400 metres is the highest point in Narkanda. The peak has a quaint little temple made of wood and stone with ornate carvings and slate roofs dedicated to the Hatu Mata.

Temple on Hatu Peak

Temple on Hatu Peak

Narkanda forests from Hatu Peak

Narkanda forests from Hatu Peak

Hatu offers uninterrupted views of the distant snow clad ranges of the Higher Himalayas. The Himachal PWD has built a small rest-house near the temple. Narkanda is a popular transit point for the tourists heading for Kinnaur and Spiti and has an impressive PWD Circuit House and a nicely located but rather shabbily maintained HPTDC Hotel, The Hatu.

The Hatu, Narkanda

The Hatu, Narkanda

Samuel Boune’s pictures of Narkanda dating back to 1865 is the earliest photographic record of the place.

Narkunda dak bungalow & village, Samuel Bourne, 1865

Narkunda dak bungalow & village, Samuel Bourne, 1865

Narkunda Forest, Samuel Bourne (1865)

Narkunda Forest, Samuel Bourne (1865)

A forest road leaves the National Highway at Narkanda to head for the apple towns of Kotgarh and Thanedar. The kutcha road passes through an enchanting deodar forest and rejoins the Highway at a point some distance short of Rampur. Banjara runs a transit camp at Thanedar with beautiful log huts located within an apple orchard.

Banjara Log Huts at Thanedar

Banjara Log Huts at Thanedar

We, however, did not take the forest road and continued along the Hindustan-Tibet road. The road descends sharply after Narkanda passing through Kumarsain before entering the Sutlej Valley. The historic town of ‘Kumharsain’ is believed to have been established by Rana Kerat Singh sometime in the 10th century AD. The dynasty ruled this modest hill state till 1914 when it became a part of the Simla district. Originally a feudatory of the Bushahr State, Kumarsain gained its independent status as one of the Protected Hill States in 1815 after the British victory in the war against Goorkhas. The Ranas resided in a sprawling wooden palace – The Hira Mahal – made of deodar wood. A late 19th century painting by BH Baden-Powell shows a carved pillar of the palace.

Rajah's house at Kumharsain, Baden Henry Baden Powell 1872

Rajah’s house at Kumharsain, Baden Henry Baden Powell 1872

Over the decades, this age-old home of the Ranas fell into a state of neglect and got crowded in by ugly concrete buildings.

Hira Mahal , Kumharsain - before the fire

Hira Mahal , Kumharsain – before the fire

Hira Mahal, Kumarsain

Hira Mahal, Kumarsain

This centuries old structure was finally lost to a devastating fire in 2007. Kumharsain is known for the Koteshwar Mahadev Temple located at Mandoli village. Koteshwar Mahadev is the ruling deity of Kumharsain and is believed to be an avtar of Lord Shiva. The deity is brought out every four years from the cave shaped temple  when it meets the other local deities. The occasion is marked by a colourful fair and the local ‘Naita’ dance. The Seema Sashastra Bal runs a training centre at Kumharsain.

Having descended into the Sutlej valley, one now drives along the mighty river till one reaches Rampur, the capital of the erstwhile Bushahr (Bussahir) State and historically an important trading town for the Kinnauris with traders coming through the high mountain passes all the way from Ladakh and Tibet. Bussahir was one of the 28 Protected Simla Hill States – petty Princely States that came under the ‘protection’ of the British Empire after the British evicted the Goorkha invaders in a protracted war for supremacy in the Himalayan Hills that ended with British victory led by General David Ochterlony in 1815.

James Baillie Fraser a Scottish traveller, writer and artist presented a fascinating account of his journey through the Himalayas to the source of Yamuna and Ganga. Equally famous are his watercolour depictions of the Himalayan landscape.

James Fraser - the 19th century Scottish traveller and artist

James Fraser – the 19th century Scottish traveller and artist

James came to India in 1814 in search of opportunities for trade and decided to join his brother William who had been appointed the Political Agent in the British War against Nepal. The year was 1815 and the British campaign against the Gurkha invaders had reached its decisive last phase. These were tumultuous times for the Punjab Hill States that had been left devastated by the rapacious invasion and rule of the Goorkha raiders. Undeterred by the uncertainty of the times James embarked on his journey into the mountains. The Tramp reproduces some of his descriptions of the Bussahir (Bischur) State which he reached on the 13th of June 1815:

Rampore, the capital of Bischur, has far juster pretensions to the appellation of a town than any of the miserable villages through which our route has led: it was once a flourishing place, and the entrepot for the merchandize brought by the traders of Hindostan, and for the produce of Cachemire, Ludhak, Bootan, Kashgar, Yarcund &c. In the days of its prosperity it may have contained three or four hundred houses and a large bazaar, well filled with the commodities of these various countries. For this commerce, the passage of the river Sutlej through the hills forms a convenient channel and the road which is now very difficult might be much improved without incurring any extravagant expense. There is no ghat practicable for the conveyance of merchandize through the Himala range between that at Budreenath and this of Rampore; and doubtless it was this circumstance principally that gave to Rampore the importance it acquired, and made it to the westward, what Sireenuggur was to the eastward, a depot and mart for the products of the abovementioned countries. When the Sikhs were a more predatory race,wandering and unsettled,this route to the Trans-himalayan countries was much followed and prosecuted through the hills to Nahn, the Dhoor and Hurdwar. Since the rise of that nation under Runjeet Sing, the roads from Ludhak, through Cooloo and Chamba, direct to Umrutsir, are in general use.

Much was told us of the splendour of the late rajah and his court, and the opulence of the place in former times, till the struggle with the Ghoorkhas first impoverished and distressed the country; and soon after the death of the rajah the finishing stroke was put to the destruction of the capital by the sudden and unexpected arrival of a Ghoorkha force, from which the young rajah, with his mother and attendants, barely escaped, flying to the recesses of Kunawur, and leaving the accumulated riches of the capital a prey to the conquerors. At this time, by far the greater proportion of the houses was in ruins and the rest very thinly inhabited. The bazaar, which formerly was a tolerable street, and where the remains of good shops and large houses may still be traced, at present contains only the booths of a few poor Bunyas, miserably supplied, and everything bespeaks wretchedness and poverty. So little encouragement is there now for the traders of the low country to bring their goods hither, that the most common luxuries, the produce of the plains, are often not to be had. We could not procure sugar … Rampore is a place of considerable sanctity. It possesses severaltemples for Hindoo worship, of tolerable construction, viz.one to Maha Deo, to Nersing, to Gonesh, to Hoonoomaun and smaller ones to inferior deities. … To officiate at these shrines are a sufficiency of Brahmins and a host of byragees,gosseins, sunyasseas and other descriptions of fuqeers and mendicants; indeed they are the only people who seem to have escaped the desolation, and yet inhabit the place. The houses of priesthood were neat and comfortable and their persons and circumstances were apparently thriving.

There are two royal residences in Rampore: one appears to be far more ancient than the other and was lately occupied by the dowager Ranee, with her family and court. It is built on a rock overhanging the river, somewhat as a strong hold; but in the interior is like most other hill-chieftains’ houses, containing a square court, around the interior of which small apartments are ranged in the Hindostanee fashion, chiefly open to the court, except those intended for the women, which are closed by screens of wood, finely cut into flowers and various figures, so as to partially admit the light without exposing those who are within: in the centre of the court there is a holy pagoda. The second palace is a more modern structure, and though considerably more elegant and better built and finished than the other, it does not depart much from the usual style in the interior dispositions. It stands at the north side of an inclosure that extends about 150 yards along the highest stage or terrace of the projection on which the town is built, and though not more than half that breadth, stretches quite to the foot of the lofty precipice that frowns over the place. The terrace itself overlooks the whole town and the river which flows around it. The building is a square, the front of which, looking to the southward is very highly ornamented with rich carved work in wood; in the centre above the entrance, projects a small balcony, in which the rajah sat and showed himself to the people; the other three sides are rather plain, and with their slated penthouse roofs, which do not project far above the walls, bear a great resemblance to those parts of a common English house which are least exposed to public view. There are no towers at the corners of this square, as in most other hill castles, nor much to give it a resemblance to the usual fashion of the country: from the left or east side of the front a projection runs out of three stories; the two lower are open in front, exposing the interior; the uppermost is shut in with carved wooden screens of trellis-work, and the whole front of this projection is most richly ornamented in a similar manner. This wing was chiefly appropriated to the use of the Zenana. On the opposite side, also projecting forwards, was placed the summer-house in which we took up our quarters; and this though small, was exceedingly neat and well ornamented. Another small building in the same line… a shrine to some deity, projected to a length that corresponded with the extent of the left-hand wing. The space between those two rows of buildings in front of the main body of the palace is paved as a court. Above the summer-house and behind the palace several venerable peepul-trees extended their shade… Both these palaces are built … of dry stone bound with wooden beams… roof… slates were large, of a deep purplish blue and placed with utmost regularity; each cut square and the joining covered with a long piece like an isosceles triangle with its base upwards and the apex cut off below; rows were thus formed and kept accurately straight… carved ornaments in wood, the pillars, the screens,the cornices … covered the front… wood used was wholly fir…the screens…ornaments.. were imitations of similar works in marble… the palace in Dehlee. The interior.. suites of small closed and open apartments all looking into the court at the centre …In the inclosure…several small houses … offices… quarters for the attendants of the Royal family … houses of the wuzeers are mostly in ruins… houses of the Brahmins…alone preserve … appearance of comfort

The town of Rampore by James Baillie Fraser - 1820

The town of Rampore by James Baillie Fraser – 1820

… a singular and dangerous kind of bridge … jhoola… At some convenient spot, where the river is rather narrow and the rocks on either side overhang the stream, a stout beam of wood is fixed horizontally upon or behind two strong stakes…driven into the banks on either side of the water; and round these beams ropes are strained, extending from the one to the other across the river, and they are hauled tight and held in their place by a sort of windlass. The rope used … two to three inches in circumference… collection of ropes is traversed by a block of wood hollowed into a semicircular groove large enough to slide easily along it and around this block ropes …forming a loop in which the passengers seat themselves, clasping its upper parts with their hands to keep themselves steady; a line fixed to the wooden block at each end and extending to each bank…to haul it… jhoola at Rampore …formidable…river tumbles beneath…ropes … thirty to forty feet above it … span…ninety to a hundred yards…

As a brief interlude we may look at some of the sketches and photographs of the Jhula Bridge retrieved by the Tramp from old books to make the readers understand why the jhula inspired so much of awe if not outright terror amongst the travellers from the West who were not accustomed to this Kinnauri mode of river crossing.

Crossing Sutluj by Jula Rope Bridge, Chegaon - Sketch by CF Gordon-Cumming 1867

Crossing Sutluj by Jula Rope Bridge, Chegaon – Sketch by CF Gordon-Cumming 1867

Jhoola Bridge at Poo

Jhoola Bridge at Poo, Trans-Himalaya (Vol. III), Sven Hedin (1913)

 

Jhula, Four Months Camping in the Himalayas WGN Van der Sleen 1929

Jhula, Four Months Camping in the Himalayas WGN Van der Sleen 1929

We may now continue with Fraser’s narrative-

Bischur is governed by a rajah … under him the different districts…regulated by hereditary chiefs… assumed the title of wuzzeer.. the archives and records of the state as of rajah’s family, were entirely destroyed by the Ghoorkhas… Rajah is descended from… Raajepoot family…from Chittore …late rajah dying left two Ranees; one daughter of the house of Sirmore, by whom he had no issue; the other was relation of the Dhammee Thakoor… and by her he had the present young rajah and a daughter…wuzzeers rule entirely… ranee possesses a jagheer… The rajah and his mother, as well as the Sirmore Ranee at present reside at Seran where they came on their return from Kunawur after the discomfiture of the Ghoorkha forces. He is said to be eight years of age, of good natural abilities…his education is much neglected…

The Bussahir ‘Kingdom’ was restored to Mehendra Singh Teeka (the child prince referred to by Fraser) by the victorious British Government through a ‘Sunnud’ dated November 6, 1815 and an extract of the same is reproduced for the readers to give a taste of those times of British supremacy-

The overthrow of the Goorka power in these Hills having placed the countries freed from it at the disposal of the British Government …confirm to Mehendra Singh son of Rajah Ooqui Singh and to his descendants the Raj of Bussahir the same in extent and boundary as on the death of his father in A.D. 1811 on the conditions… Bussahir shall pay in zeghundee,namely, as a contribution towards defraying the expense of the force maintained by the British Government for the preservation of the safety and tranquillity of the protected Hill states, the annual sum of fifteen thousand culdar rupees… in three kists or instalments…In the event of war the troops of Bussahir willcooperate with the British force…Bussahir will furnish beegarahs, when called on,for the construction of roads throughout their country.

Rampur despite its stuffy climate, congested lanes and squalid buildings is a town with a rich history that invites the seeker to explore it. The Tramp would have loved to look for the carved, wooden palaces of the Bussahir rajas, the Buddhist-style temples and the terrible jhoola bridge across the Sutlej that inspired the many interesting accounts of the town by the different Europeans who travelled through Kinnaur in the 19th century. To make a ‘discovery’ of something novel, a tiny scrap of history that might have missed the eye of a Fraser or a Gerard. Then there was the Colonial-style Padam Palace that was completed in 1925 during the reign of Raja Padam Dev Singh which definitely deserved a visit. But the sun was already down and we were driving behind schedule as usual. The final 16 KM run up the hill road to Sarahan from Jeori left  us exhausted and we tumbled into our beds at The Srikanth, yet another HPTDC Hotel at a prime location with rather poor  maintenance.

The Srikhand, Sarahan

The Srikhand, Sarahan

Sarahan was the summer capital of the Bussahir Rajas. The original wooden palace that was sketched by James Baillie Fraser in 1816 or by W Simpson in 1860 no longer exists – it having been replaced by a more recent structure in the 20th century.

The Bussahir Rajah's Palace Serahn, on the Sutlej, W Simpson 18th June 1860

The Bussahir Rajah’s Palace Serahn, on the Sutlej, W Simpson 18th June 1860

 

Seran Raja's palace by James Baillie Fraser 1820

Seran Raja’s palace by James Baillie Fraser 1820

The historic, Bhima Kali Temple, with its prominent twin towers styled like the Chinese Pagodas and built in the traditional wood and stone Kinnauri architecture, however, stills stands proud giving this small hill town its unique character. The Temple finds a mention in the report dated 30th April, 1859 by the Commissioner of the Cis Sutlej States deputed for pacifying the insurrection against the Bussahir Raja led by his illegitimate brother Meean Futteh Singh. The Commissioner wrote-

At Surrahun in Bussahir, there is the temple of the national goddess, called Bheemakallee. A large portion of the oil, wine and corn received from the country, is consumed in the daily sacrifices to this deity. A goat is killed on the average every day, and offered upon the shrine. Nothing is done by the Raja or the Wuzeers without consulting the oracle of Surrahun, and whenever any compact is made, the members thereof are sworn to observance at the feet of Bheemakallee. The maintenance of this temple is more expensive than the cost of the Raja’s own household. The idol is rich in ornaments and has a full treasury, supposed to contain about 40,000 Rupees, while the Raja’s own Exchequer at Rampoor is usually empty. On great occasions, such as the birth of an heir, or the marriage of the Raja, treasure can be obtained from the temple; but for ordinary expenses, even for the discharge of the British tribute, the priests refuse to give up a single rupee.

This medieval temple of the Bussahir Rajas does inspire a shiver when one learns of its gruesome history. The temple deity was offered humans in sacrifice till as late as early 19th century until the British over-lordship was established with the eviction of the Goorkha usurpers in 1815. The hapless victim would be drugged and paraded in chains, dazed by the overwhelming clamour of cymbals and drums to be beheaded at the altar of the ruling deity. And before we sit in judgment over the Kinnauri people for pursuing such ghastly traditions- The Tramp would like to remind his readers that as per a conservative estimate some 10,000 widows were burnt alive on the funeral pyre of their husbands in India every year till early 19th century before the British decided to intervene!

Bheemakali Temple, Sarahan

Bheemakali Temple, Sarahan

It was raining lightly as we started from Sarahan at dawn and crossed the ITBP jawans toiling their way up the steep hill road on a cross country run. It was a beautiful morning and as we hit the highway at Jeori we were spell bound by the sheer grandeur of the Kinnaur landscape. Huge mountains of sheer rock with near vertical cliff sides. One marvels at the ingenuity of the road engineers who have cut through the vertical rock to carve out the famed Hindustan Tibet Road that snakes up the Satluj valley. The Satluj for its part adds to the ruggedness of the landscape as it dashes down the narrow valley with a force that inspires fear. Kinnaur or ‘Koonawur’ as our colonial masters called it is best described in the words of Captain Alexander Gerard, the famous British explorer who surveyed the Western Himalayas and the Sutlej valley in three successive mountain expeditions during 1817 to 1821. He produced one of the first detailed maps of the region.

Map of Koonawur by Alexander Gerard

Map of Koonawur by Alexander Gerard

The indefatigable Gerard criss-crossed this inaccessible land undaunted by high mountains and treacherous mountain passes as he penetrated into the bordering Tibetan region. A man of scientific temper he maintained a systematic record of the barometric and temperature readings with the Long./Lat. bearings and estimated elevations with precise trigonometric measurements. He made notes on the geology of the region he traversed and also of the people inhabiting these remote regions. His hand written diary notes, maps and observations formed the basis of the ‘Account of Koonawur’ published in 1841 two years after his death and a little passage is being reproduced to get the flavour of Kinnaur-

Koonawur, called likewise Koorpa, is the tract of country belonging to Busehur, which lies on both banks of the Sutluj … It runs in a N. E. and S. W. direction, and the habitable part seldom exceeds eight miles in breadth. It is a secluded region, rugged and mountainous in an extraordinary degree. It is terminated on the North and N. W by mountains covered with perpetual snow, from 18,000 to 20,000 feet, above the level of the sea, which separate it from Ludak … A similar range of the Himalaya, almost equal in height, bounds it to the South ; on the East it is divided from the elevated plains of Chinese Tartary by a lofty ridge, through which are several highpasses ; and on the West lies Dusow, one of the divisions of Busehur.

Koonawur has seven large divisions termed Khoond, each of which contains three or four lesser portions named Ghoree, comprehending a few villages; many of the latter consist of five or six distinct parts, and the houses of the principal residents have names which are common to their owners.

Gerard estimated the population of Kinnaur in 1817 at less than 10,000 spread over a vast area of 2100 square miles. The thin population was ascribed largely to the inaccessible and inhospitable terrain – ‘the greatest part of Koonawur is occupied by vast chains of snowy mountains, inaccessible crags or impenetrable forests.’ The hill people practiced Polyandry and celibacy (amongst monks and nuns) which further depressed the population. He then described the Sutlej Valley-

The largest valley is that of the Sutluj, through which the river of the same name flows; its length within Koonawur, following the sinuosities of the stream, is about 80 miles, and its general direction is N.E. and S.W. The level space in the bottom is inconsiderable, being usually not much broader than is sufficient for the passage of the river … The right bank … is for the most part very abrupt for the first 2,000 or 3,000 feet, with here and there level spots laid out into vineyards ; at the height of from 7,000 to 9,000 feet are the villages, and arable land which extends to 10,000 or 11,000 feet, and is in general scattered in narrow slips interspersed with gloomy woods of oaks and pines. From this elevation upwards, the ground is covered with green sward and countless varieties of the loveliest flowers, of which thyme of many kinds is most plentiful; there are clumps of forest and beds of juniper here and there, but the inclination is gentle, and rocks are not so frequent as below. This belt forms the pasture lands, and here in summer shepherds tend their flocks. These verdant meadows reach to about 14,000 feet, and are crowned by mountains covered with eternal snow, or sterile peaked masses of granite. The left bank of the river … contains more plain land near the stream, and the villages are commonly situated only a few hundred feet above it; here are extensive vineyards and thriving crops, diversified with orchards of apricots and apples. These arable spaces that occur only in distances of 6 or 8 miles, vary from a hundred yards to ½ or ¾ of a mile in breadth, after which the mountains rise rapidly … and are extremely precipitous and sometimes thickly wooded with pines and birches. The forest belt on this side extends fully 800 feet higher than on the other ; but such is the crumbling nature of the granite in some parts, that prodigious masses every now and then give way with a horrid crash, overthrowing the trees and leaving nothing behind but a wreck of naked rocks, devoid of vegetation. The pasturage here is neither so abundant nor so luxuriant as on the right bank of the river. The limit of forest on this side is 12,500 or 13,000 feet, above which the gravelly granite soil seems unfavourable to the development of plants or even grasses, which in small tufts reach to 1,000 feet higher. From 14,000 to 16,000 feet are barren crags terminated in tall steeple-formed points, too abrupt for snow to rest upon; and beyond these, tower the white summits of the stupendous Himalaya.

The scenery of this valley partakes more of magnificence than of beauty. Here everything is on the grandest scale, fragments of fallen rocks of immense bulk, hurled from the peaks above, and vast impending cliffs fringed with dark forests, and topped with mountains of indestructible snow, appear on every side ; a village perched amongst the crags without a single patch of verdure around, and now and then a more populous place environed by fields and orchards, or what is most common, a solitary house, with a small piece of cultivation or a few vineyards attached, but seldom attracts the eye of the observer. The character of the Sutluj is more of the nature of a torrent than that of a large river, for its fall in several places is 100 or 150 feet per mile, and it rushes over rocks with a clamorous noise, and exhibits heaps of white foam.

Gerard describes Rampur and Sarahan as follows –

Rampoor… is the capital of Busehur, is a poor looking place, consisting of about one hundred houses, and situated upon the left bank of the Sutluj. It contains seven or eight shops, but few articles of any kind are to be got; neither shawls, Putoo, nor Chowries are procurable; blankets are scarce and of a bad kind… From the small size of the valley which the town occupies, and the ruggedness of the mountains in the vicinity, it could scarcely ever have been larger, but I understand it carried on a much better trade before the Goorka invasion than it does at present. The houses are generally large, well built of stone, and slated like those of most villages in this part of the country. The slates are large, of a brownish colour, very thick, and form heavy roofs; those upon a few of the houses are cut oblong and laid on regularly, which has a neat appearance, but by far the greater number are all manner of shapes and sizes, piled upon one another with the utmost confusion and disorder. The heat here is very great … in June it is much higher. This arises from the low and confined situation of the town, all the surrounding hills being high, with large quantities of bare rock, attract and retain heat a long time. There is a fair here in January, and another in October. Under the Rajah’s palace, which is at the northern angle of the town, there is a Jhoola or rope-bridge across the Sutluj which leads to Kooloo.

Of equal interest is the travel account of Constance Frederica  Gordon-Cumming– travel writer and landscape painter who travelled through India in 1867. She travelled along the treacherous Himalayan tracks carried on her dandie for the most part, by her merry band of bearers drawn from the short but sturdy hill-men, escorted by her blue-eyed Shikaree, Nanko. Sleeping in tents or dak bungalows. Stopping to paint the beautiful landscape she traversed.

CF Gordon-Cumming (1893)

CF Gordon-Cumming (1893)

Constance describes her journey from Kotghar to Thanedarh to Rampore talking about the Hindustan-Thibet Road that was still under construction in 1867, Rampore the Capital of Bussahir State and Shamsher Singh, the Rajah of Bussahir. Kotghar was the last British outpost with a Christian Mission Station. The area was known for its tea gardens at that time (apple orchards have completely overwhelmed the landscape today).

Kotgurh Mission Station from Narkanda, Sketch by CF Gordon-Cummings 1867

Kotgurh Mission Station from Narkanda, Sketch by CF Gordon-Cumming 1867

Constance left Kotgarh, proceeding along the road to Thanedar to make a sharp descent of 5000 feet thereafter to reach the Satluj Valley. She then took the Hindustan – Tibet Road that was being constructed by the British along the Sutlej. This is what she wrote-

Rampore … the capital of Bussahir… stands on the brink of the river… the city of Rama… One of the largest fairs of the Himalayas is annually held here, and all the treasures of Thibet, Yarkand and all those far away districts are brought here to be exchanged by the merchants from the plains for such simple products of civilization as may find use among men whose requirements are so few. It was therefore necessary that whatever road was made to the frontier districts should pass through the city;and as the old native path was merely a track, winding among difficult and dangerous cliffs-sometimes by natural ledges, sometimes over a bit of plank, bridging some frightful chasm, and often so steep that no beast of burden larger than a goat could clamber up –it became a question of very difficult engineering to make such a road … at any point of which two laden ponies should be able to pass one another in safety. It was also necessary that the road should be constructed below the ordinary limit of snow, which is estimated at 12,000 feet above the sea level; and so it was found that by generally following the course of the river some of the most overwhelming difficulties would be avoided. There was formerly, however, another road of English construction… It commanded distant views of far-away snows, and carried you up into a region of silence; whereas by this new road you seem never to escape from the noise of the waters, or from the steep precipitous cliffs which hem you in. The old road formerly ran from Narkanda to Serahan, which is two marches beyond Rampore, keeping a high level the whole way, and altogether avoiding this dangerous hot valley. There were good dak bungalows at intervals all along the road… Since this new road to Rampore the old one has been allowed to fall into disrepair, and is now impassable…at length we caught sight of the town of Rampore, with its jula, or rope bridge, its temples, and all its quaint hill houses, with its overhanging upper storeys and balconies of carved cedar wood. The foreground was peculiar, having great gallows beside the river where the Rajah of Bussahir hangs malefactors…

Rampore - a sketch by CF Gordon-Cumming 1867

Rampore – a sketch by CF Gordon-Cumming 1867

The Rajah himself is a very contemptible mortal, being a youth of semi-English upbringing. His education seems to have been entrusted to a Baboo, who taught him good English and the abuse of strong liquor, which he at once demands from all travellers who he honours with a call, occasionally prolonging his visit for so many hours that his forcible removal becomes necessary. One of his great topics is English guns and gunmakers; and every gentleman whom he visits is invariably requested to sell his favourite rifle or his travelling clock, a negotiation which is generally closed by the fumes of brandy obscuring the princely intellect. His picturesque palace is perched on a rock overhanging the river, and just opposite is his zenana, the balconies of which are entirely closed in with carved wood. He generally, however, prefers living in his summer palace at Serahan, much farther up the hill. All the houses in this part of the country are more or less alike. A square base of stone acts as granary and stable for cattle. A staircase outside leads up to an overhanging balcony which surrounds the wooden dwelling-house. Perhaps a second still wider storey is above this.The roof is peaked,and slated with large slabs of grey shingle or slate, or even of cedar wood. All the gables are elaborately carved with hanging ornaments of wood – arabesques or curious heads. Hot air was blowing down the valley like the blast from a furnace …

Yet another foreign traveller to pass through Bissahir was Victor Jacquemont,  French botanist who came to India in 1828 to collect plant and animal specimens for Jardin des Plantes, a famous botanical garden of Paris that was established by the bank of Seine in the 17th century. He halted at Sarahan in July 1830 on his way to Ladakh.

Victor Jacquemont

Victor Jacquemont

He described his brief encounter with the Rajah in a letter to his father at Paris written on the 15th of July 1830 from Chini. His account smacks of colonial arrogance but is undeniably witty. This is what he had to write-

…on my arrival at Seran, the summer-residence of the Rajah of Bissahir, the sovereign came in all haste to pay me a visit and make all kinds of offers of service. I had a draught on his treasury, the amount of which it was not convenient for me to receive immediately; and another on one of his subjects who was absent. The amount of both will be paid on sight, in the Rajah’s name, whenever I may think proper to demand it; his little Chancery has written to all the chiefs in the Upper Country, and to the Lamas of Ladak, to comply with all my desires. I hope then to penetrate as far as the platform. The Rajah, besides, has given me … the highest in rank among his servants, to serve as interpreter and to give orders everywhere in the name of his master, whom nobody here contradicts…A story-teller might find something superb in the visit of the Rajah, with his fan in his hand, during a furious hurricane, which threatened to overturn the tent in which I was expecting him and his viziers.. His court and people assembled to shout God save the King, after their own fashion  . .. I regretted the weight of my own grandeur, which did not permit me to return the King of Bissahir’s visit, for I was anxious to see the interior of what is called his palace… It was the Rajah’s place to come with all the pomp of his royalty, and to consider himself honoured at my allowing him to take a seat before me and at my shaking hands with him. The Rajah of Bissahir reigns over a degree of latitude, and two or three degrees of longitude; and although the greater part of his dominions lies buried under the eternal snows of the Himalaya, although nine-tenths of the rest are covered with forests, and the remaining tenth nothing but sterile, arid pastures or naked rocks he has a revenue of a hundred and fifty thousand francs a year, without pressing on his subjects, who are the most wretched in the world. His nuzzer, or offering, consisted of a bag of musk in the animal’s skin, a rarity indigenous in his mountains… The only thing I gave him in return was a lesson in geography, of which he stood in great need. He leaves the trouble of knowing it to his viziers, and passes his time with his Cashmerian slaves, whom he fattens in their cage, and who are probably not very handsome…

Victor Jacquemont was destined never to leave India. He died of cholera at Bombay in 1832, at the age of 31. The French botanist was definitely one of the more illustrious guests of the Rajah of Bissahir and has several plants named after him such as ‘Betula jacquemontii’- the Himalayan White Birch.

 

A decade and a half later Bissahir received its most impressive visitor. Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Waldemar of Prussia came on a tour of India in 1845, accompanied by, amongst others, his personal physician and childhood friend Dr. Werner Hoffmeister who chronicled most of the Prince’s visit through letters written home. The Prince landed at Calcutta and travelled through Patna, Kathmandu, Benaras, Delhi, Naini Tal as well as parts of the Himalayas and Tibet.

Prince Waldemar of Prussia

Prince Waldemar of Prussia

He halted at Sarahan as a guest of Raja Mahendra Singh of Bussahir in August 1845 and Dr. Hoffmeister’s account of the same is reproduced for the readers:

… an ambassador from the Rajah of Bissahir, leading an elegantly caparisoned horse, which he had been dispatched to offer to the Prince for his entry into Seran. His Royal Highness however begged to decline making a public entry, or being received with any ceremony. A “Deval” and the Palace of Rajah of Bissahir- his summer residence, were the first features of the town of Seran which caught the eye as we descended to it. The temple is an extensive edifice, surrounded by a gallery immediately below the overhanging roof; beside it rises the actual “Deval”, a tall, white, tower-like structure, terminating in a truncated cone; it stands between the sanctuary and the abode of the Rajah, which is a simple and unpretending fabric, two stories high. Behind this range of buildings lies concealed the group of lowly dwellings, dignified with the name of Seran,- in reality, a miserable village, composed of a few half-ruinous, one-storied houses. Tents were ready pitched in this place … to accommodate us… We had scarcely established ourselves in our tents, when the Rajah sent a liberal supply of fruit for our refreshment- beautiful forced mangoes, grapes, and unripe peaches, as hard as apples, for in this state it is the custom to eat them here. At the same time he announced his intention of waiting upon the Prince the following day… The following morning (the 25th of August) His Highness the Rajah kept us all very long waiting; noon had already arrived, when we at last heard the sound of trumpets and of drums, announcing his approach. The Sovereign appeared on foot; a small, decrepit man, clothed in violet-coloured silk, with morocco-leather boots of the same colour, and a huge and most unshapely cap of gold tissue: he was led forward by the Vuzeer (“Bujeer”) and another exalted dignitary, both arrayed in white… Our camp-beds, with Indian shawls thrown over them, served as divans, on which the Rajah and his suite immediately reclined. Our interpreter … translated questions and answers at a brisk rate, and the conversation flowed on with vivacity and zest; for the aged Rajah, however dulled and enfeebled in his outward man, displayed no lack of life and quickness in his mind and language. Among the presents was a piece of Russian leather… several singular weapons… webs of silken and of woollen stuffs, musk bags and the highly-valued Nerbissi root… After dinner the Prince returned his visit. The Vuzeer came to conduct us to the palace. Passing through a half-dilapidated gateway, surrounded by an eager throng of inquisitive spectators, we entered the great court, over which was spread a baldachin. A grand yet simple entrance leads into the interior of the palace, an edifice distinguished by the severe and unadorned style of mountain architecture. Three elegant silken sofas were placed in a circle; behind them and on either stood hosts of courtiers clad in white, with drawn “Khukries” (short sabres) in their hands: a few only were marked as heralds by the insignia which they bore, – the long gilt staff separating at the top into two curved points. The counter-presents now offered…the Rajah… conversed for a long while with the Prince, and expressed a great desire to obtain information concerning the position, size and state of our native land … He refused, through the medium of his “Bujeer”, to allow us to see his palace …granting us permission to be conducted round its outer gallery.”

The Prince was an observer in the First Anglo-Sikh war witnessing the battles at Mudki, Ferozeshah and Sabraon. During the Battle of Ferozeshah, some four months after he wrote the above account, Dr. Hoffmeister got killed on the battlefield. The Prince of Prussia visited Sarahan in the time of Raja Mahendra who was succeeded upon his death in 1850 by his son Shamsher Singh who ruled the Bussahir State for 53 years –  initially from 1850 to 1887 when he abdicated in favour of his son Raghunath Singh. He took to the throne a second time at the age of sixty in 1898 after the death of Raghunath and ruled his impoverished mountain country till his death in 1914. Shamsher Singh was known for his eccentric ways that intrigued (shocked?) many a British traveller that passed through Kinnaur in his reign. Many anecdotes have been written about encounters with this colourful man The Tramp cannot resist reproducing some of the more interesting ones.

The Commissioner of the Cis-Sutlej States who rescued the embattled Raja during the popular uprising in 1859 described him in the following words-

The Raja, Shumshere Sing, is a youth of about 25 years of age. He is short in stature, not above 5 feet 2 inches in height, stoutly made, with broad Tartar features. He speaks and writes English pretty correctly, for, in his pupilage, he was educated by a Bengalee Baboo, selected by Mr. Edwards. I think that many of the vices now displayed in the Raja’s character, may be attributed to the influence of this tutor. The Raja does not want intelligence, but he is most irresolute and fickle. No dependence can be placed upon his word. It is impossible to fix him for a moment upon any definite policy. He will assent readily to any scheme that is proposed to him, and the next hour at the instigation of others, will adopt as readily the reverse. He has now accepted, with profuse thanks, the plans I have formed for a better administration of his country. He expressed himself equally delighted with entirely different measures proposed by Lord William Hay. In short, he is utterly incapable of forming or adhering to any policy. He is at the mercy of the last speaker- a man unfit for the responsible position to which he was born. To this grievous defect, he adds the vices of drunkenness and debauchery; not that he is an habitual drunkard, but his excesses are notorious and frequent … there are good points in his character … he is good-tempered, kind to his subordinates and not the least vindictive or cruel.

Sven Anders Hedin was a famous Swedish geographer and traveler who explored the western highlands of Tibet and the Trans-Himalayan region becoming the first European to reach the sacred Manasarovar Lake. He halted at Sarahan and Rampur on the 9th /10th of September 1908 on his journey back to Simla along the Hindustan-Tibet road. He writes about his encounter with the ageing Raja and his impressions of the Beshahr capital.

We crossed three side valleys and a small pass before we reached the rest-house of the village Sarahan. Here I was surprised by a letter written in English from the Raja of Beshahr, Shumshir Sing by name, who in polite terms asked if he might pay me a visit. I should think so! A Raja asking for an audience! “Your Highness will be heartily welcome,” I wrote back. And His Highness came, but not a highland prince with light elastic gait. He was a shrivelled old man, who, from age and infirmities, could no longer stand on his feet, much less walk, but was carried on a litter by turbaned servants. They helped him to an easy-chair in my room and then a very singular conversation began. The noble prince was almost stone deaf and I had to yell into his ear to make myself audible. His English was not easily comprehensible to any one who can hear as well as I can. But for all that we chatted away, both at the same time, and before I had thought of giving directions to Gulam my guest gave his own orders. “Bring me some tea and cake, and put tobacco before me, for I will smoke a pipe.”
Meanwhile he looked round at all the trifles lying about and without a change of countenance, and without speaking a word, put two of my last pencils into his pocket. No doubt it had become a habit of his to plunder the visitors to the bungalow in this harmless fashion, and I would willingly have given him a whole cart-load of pencils if I had been able. “How old is Your Highness?” I asked. “Forty-nine years,” he answered boldly, and without a moment’shesitation,though he must certainly have seen eighty springs pass over the lovely country of Sarahan. “How old is Your Honour?” he asked me. “Forty-three,” I replied. “Then I am three years older than you.”“Just so,” I answered, for I would not make a fuss about a paltry difference of three years, when he himself had so coolly taken off some thirty years.Thereupon this remarkable visit came to an end. My offer to return his visit was decidedly refused. Early next morning the old Raja was announced again,but I sent word that I unfortunately could not see him and made off quickly with my pencils.
…the large village of Rampur on the Sutlej … air was damp, warm and close as in a conservatory … Sutlej foams some thirty yards below the village … Beshahr is a poor state … revenue is… thirty thousand rupees… little left for the …Raja who is so fond of pencils… Yet the Raja could afford to live in Rampur in a palace called Shishe Mahal, or the Glass Palace, a commonplace building in debased oriental style, with coloured glass windows,badly painted portraits of the owner and other princes, and cheap showy knick-knacks on the walls and in the verandahs. The court bears the pretentious name of Top-khanehor Artillery Court and two old rusty muzzle-loaders actually stand in it. All bears the imprint of decline, decay and bad taste… little else to see in Rampur…a bridge over the Sutlej, a bazaar street with shops and workshops… a post-house, a school and two Hindu temples,which contend successfully with a Lamaist monastery for the souls of its inhabitants … the last monastery on the road from Tibet…

The Tramp now reproduces an account by an unknown traveller of his encounter with Rajah Shumsher Singh that was originally published in the London Daily Mail and was published again by the Australian Town and Country Journal in June 1904 to amuse its readers.

An Indian Rajah

You may have been to Simla, and if so, you will know that all the surrounding country is split up among numerous small rajahs, whose, territories constitute what are officially termed tho Punjab Hill States. They are queer little kingdoms -a narrow green valley and a fringe of lofty mountains. Their rulers are equally queer. They all lay claim to the royal blood of India, that of the Rajput race, and look down from the mighty grandeur of their thrones on the home spun clad rugged hill folk over whom they rule. It was in one of these States, namely, Bushire that I met the subject of this article. Turning a sharp corner on the hill road, I suddenly came upon his capital, wedged in between two hills. A very dirty place it was, but tho rajah, although he had a palace there-a wooden affair, conspicuous with gilt and glass-lived two marches further on, and I admired his sense in doing so. I left the capital, Rampur, and proceeded to where tho monarch ruled, a place called Sarahan. Before I left Rampur I received a most affectionate letter from the rajah. He addressed me as his very dear and esteemed friend, and expressed a very delirium of joy at the prospect of seeing me. I reached Sarahan dead tired-it was a very hard march, up and down, and I felt glad that I was not an official in this Rampur rajah business. The next morning, after a free interchange of letters at intervals of twenty minutes, commencing at 6, a special courier came to announce the immediate arrival of his highness. The inevit able hubbub of conversation heralded his arrival, and I hurried out on to the verandah to greet the rajah. I saw a mob of frieze-dressed hill men, wearing “Dolly Varden” hats, four of whom were carrying a litter on which their sovereign lay. The litter would have disgraced a Liberian Republic volunteer ambulance corps. His highness got out, and carefully kicked off his shoes, displaying a pair of regulation army socks-a touching tribute to the King Emperor’s forces. He was a tiny man, not more than 4ft 10in, and wore a cheap tinsel Hindoo cup, and a red velveteen robe that needed a wash badly. He came toddling up to me, addressed me in perfect English, and seemed delighted to see me. I regarded him curiously. He was now an old man. In his younger days he was what the Arabs politely called “The Father of the Bottle,” and had a reputation for oppression. I produced some whisky, and pressed it on him, when, to my astonishment, he refused. True, the hour was 8.30 a.m., and the month June-but, in view of his past foibles, his refusal astonished me. I then discovered that the passion of his old age was jam, eaten preferably with a spoon from the pot. Sweet biscuits were also a joy to him, and tea as provided by the sahibs, and not as sold by the local bunnia (shopkeeper). The old man was very deaf, and conversation a, difficulty. He gave me a nasty shock. Ho was examining a rifle, and I happened to be looking away for a minute. When I again turned to him I saw that he had produced a cartridge from his pocket, and had put it into the weapon, and was holding it point blank to the door, where a gaping crowd was gazing at us. Rajah or no rajah, that was too much for me, and I snatched the rifle from him. He picked it up a few minutes later, and tried the same thing again. Then I did my best to get rid of him. The tea and jam were packed away, and his highness, seeing nothing forthcoming, rather sullenly went off. That was the last I saw of Shumsher Singh, Rajah of Bushire, who still rules his State and screws the taxes. There are funny stories about him-of how one sahib fed him, a high caste Hindoo, on the best of Chicago tinned beef, and how another humorous sportsman, in answer to the inevitable question which the rajah always asks, “What is the time by your honour’s watch?” promptly answered 5, instead of 10 o’clock. He has a fair revenue, as his State is large, and stretches up to the Thibetan frontier. The scenery is fine., the deodars wonderfully grand. His forests are leased to the Imperial Government, and all that Shumeher Singh has to do is to sit in what he terms his “camp palace” and draw the revenue from his overtaxed people.

TO BE CONTINUED

References:

  1. Architecture in the Himalayas, William Simpson
  2. Account of Koonawur in the Himalaya, Alexander Gerard (1841)
  3. From the Hebrides to the Himalayas; a Sketch of Eighteen Months’ Wanderings in Western Isles and Eastern Highlands; Constance Frederica  Gordon-Cumming (1876)
  4. Journal of a tour through part of the snowy range of the Himala mountain and to the sources of Rivers Jumna and Ganges; James Baillie Fraser (1820)
  5. Trans-Himalaya Vol. III, Sven Hedin (1913)
  6. Letters from India, Vol. I; Victor Jacquemont (1834)
  7.  Four Months Camping in the Himalayas; WGN Van der Sleen (1929)
  8. Simla Past and Present, Edward J. Buck (1904)
  9. Memoirs of the Geological Survey of India, Henry Benedict Medlicott (1865)
  10. Memoirs of an Octogenarian, Sushama Sen (1971)
  11. The Magic Mountains: Hill stations and the British Raj, Dane Keith Kennedy (1996)
  12. Imperial Simla, Pamela Kanwar (2003)

Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary was created in 1986 with the notification of 4707 acres of community lands of the villages of Asola, Shapur and Maidangiri as the Asola Wildlife Sanctuary. To this were added the 2167 acres of Bhatti that were notified in 1991. The sanctuary comprises the semi-arid forest area of the northern-most extension of the Aravalli Hills that form the ‘ridge’ area on the southern boundary of Delhi.

The decades of unregulated mining:

The first challenge to the  scub-forests of the Aravali ridges that once extended all the way to Alwar in Rajasthan, came with the building of Delhi as the new Imperial Capital of British India. Open-pit mines were set-up to provide sand and rubble for building the sprawling new city and the material was transported by the Imperial Delhi Railway.

The pace of growth of the new Capital picked up in the 60s and the quarry area now encompassed the entire Aravali hill region in the Bhatti revenue area in Delhi as well as the Surajkund-Faridabad area of neighbouring Haryana. The mining was controlled by a mafia of unlicensed contractors who exploited the area by unscientific and unregulated mining for mineralized quartzite (Badarpur bajree) and stone. In the hey-days of the 70s and 80s the Bhatti Bajree Mines employed at least 4000 labourers who toiled under inhuman and unsafe conditions. The bajree was excavated manually and transported from the dangerously deep pits in sacks on the backs of mules and donkeys.  Deaths due to mining accidents were common. The Bhatti Bajree Mines were taken over by the Delhi State Industrial Development Corporation in 1975 that, however, left the actual mining operations in the hands of the very same contractors and merely collected octroi by establishing checkposts. The foundation stone for a 145 acre housing project for the mine labourers was  laid by Sanjay Gandhi in December,1976. Most of the labourers came from the nomadic Od Tribe,that originally migrated from Sindh and West Punjab. The Ods are traditionally engaged in earth-digging and masonry work and have dug ponds and canals for centuries. The Kumhars formed the other large community amongst the labourers. The Od ‘village’ comprising the tenements built for the workers along with schools, a veterinary centre and a police post was originally named ‘Bhagirath Nagar’ after the mythical ancestor of the Odhs. As per the folklore, Bhagirath had vowed not to drink water twice from the same well. He accordingly dug a new well each day and continued to do so until he failed to emerge from a well being dug by him. The Bhagirath Nagar was later renamed ‘Sanjay Colony’ after the death of the late benefactor of the Odhs. Indira Nagar and Balbir Nagar were two other colonies set up for the quarry workers over an area of 22 and 65 acres respectively. The mines were mostly owned by the Gujjar landlords.

After decades of rapacious exploitation of the area and neglect, a sad incident on May 31st, 1990  involving the death of seven quarry workers in a pit-side collapse, made the Government sit up and address the problem of unregulated mining. The Bhatti Bajree Mines were finally closed by the Delhi Government in April, 1991 with the notification of the area as a Wildlife Sanctuary. It, however, took ten long years to bring the mining it to a ‘complete’ halt. Well, almost complete!!

Degraded land at Bhatti

The History:

It is difficult today to visualize that the dry, despoiled area of Badarpur, Mehrauli, Asola, Anangpur, Surajkund and Bhatti was not always so. That these ancient ridges of the sloping Aravalis, this rugged undulating land and the dried-up nallahs that once drained the area into the mighty Yamuna actually bore a shroud of forest that was rich in wildlife. That this area was home to the earliest settlements of hunter-gatherers. But this is what the archaeologists tell us from the discovery of pre-historic sites in the hilly area on Delhi-Haryana border at Surajkund, Anangpur, Badkhal, Chhatarpur etc. Excavations in the Qutub area have revealed that a temple complex existed in this area during the post-Gupta and Pratihara period. The area then came under the reign of the Tomar Kings. The mighty Tomar fortress, Lal Kot, was built near Mehrauli in the reign of the Anang Pal II, in the middle of the 11th century. A tank, Anang tal, has also been excavated near the fortress. This area was the original Delhi, Dhillika, if the historians are to be believed!! This was before the rule of the Chauhan Rajpoots who expanded Lal Kot to create a still more formidable fort, Qila Rai Pithora. And then came the rule of the Slave Dynasty.

The ‘Gazetteer of the Delhi District’ published by the Punjab Government in 1883-84 offers a glimpse of the general topography, the flora and fauna and state of ecology in the region towards the end of the 19th century. Some sections that pertain to the thinly forested hills that today comprise the Ridge and the Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary are reproduced for the readers:

” The Delhi district, is the central of the three districts of the Delhi division, and … consists of a long narrow strip of country running along the right bank of the Jamna. Its greatest length north and south is 76 miles; its average breadth is 18 miles…The tract thus limited, though exhibiting none of the beauties of mountainous districts, possesses a considerable diversity of physical feature, and in parts is not wanting in picturesqueness. This it owes to the hills and to the river. The former, which at the southern end join on to the hills of Mewat and so meet with the Aravalis, at the other start from the river at Wazirabad, four miles north of Delhi, and skirting the present city on the north-west and west, stretch away nearly due south to Mahrauli. Before reaching this place, however, they branch out into two halves, one going full south, the other sweeping round in a curve to the south-east to Arangpur, whence again it turns south-west, and uniting with the other branch below Bhati, holds on southward to Kot, and so out of the district into Gurgaon. But though the main direction may thus be described, there are here and there irregularly shaped spurs which break the continuity of the range, and at the same time greatly extend its area.

The irregular oval enclosed by the branching halves above spoken of is really a plateau of a light, sandy soil, lying high and dry, but with a very useful general slope to the south-east. Here in different places are earth work dams aggregating several miles in length, made to catch the drainage …The hills of Delhi, though not attractive in themselves, give a pleasant view across the Jamna, and in clear weather allow, it is said, even a glimpse of the Himalayas. Their surface is generally bare, supporting little or no vegetation save a stunted kikar (Acacia Arabica), or karil (Capparis aphylla), or the small bush of the beri (Zizyphus nummularia) which, with its prickly thorn, is so inhospitable to the foot traveller. The surface of the ground is sprinkled with thin laminae of mica, which shine in the sunlight like gold. The stone, which juts up from the ground here and there, is hard and often sharp-edged. Water of course lies very deep, and irrigation by well almost everywhere impracticable. A moderate pasture is obtained by flocks of sheep and goats herded by Gujar boys. This tribe has appropriated almost entirely the hill villages, as they suit their pastoral traditions, and pastoral traditions are less repugnant than a settled husbandry to thieving, a habit universally attributed to the Gujar. The highest point of the range probably is near Bhati – 1,045 feet above the sea and 360 above the Jamna railway bridge at Delhi. The breadth varies greatly. At Arangpur it is not less than ten miles, while towards the northern end the hills dwindle into a mere rocky ridge, only a few yards broad…”

The geological structure of the hills of Delhi is described in the Gazetteer as follows, “A core of quartzite with more or less vertical bedding, and the associated rocks as far as they are exposed on the flanks of the ridges, indicate advanced metamorphism.”

The Gazetteer also gives a brief account of the mining in the hills – “The noticeable minerals … of the district (Delhi) so far as known are stone, crystal, kankar and chalk; though it is said the quartz-like formation of the hills renders the existence of gold not impossible and the known presence of crystal at Arangpur has been recently alluded to as favouring the probability.  The quartz-like kind of stone is hard, and not easily worked, except for uses not requiring delicate shape. It is seen at its best in any of the old buildings round Delhi, where it fitly harmonises with the sombre dignity of the Pathan style. For the Agra Canal a considerable quantity was used, but for the new Delhi Branch the softer and more malleable Agra stone has been preferred… The only place where crystal has been brought to the surface is in the limits of Arangpur, a hill village about two miles south of Delhi. A mine here was first started, it is said, a hundred years ago by the Raja of Ballabgarh, who spent a good deal of money in getting out and sending for sale a supply of the mineral. Most of the pieces, however, were small octagonal blocks of no great commercial value, and after this one attempt the Raja gave up the enterprise and closed the mine. After the Mutiny a Khatri of Delhi took a contract for working it; but after spending some Rs. 1,500 in trying to find the crystal, gave up the attempt and his contract also. The locality of the mine is rather inaccessible; it lies to the south-west of the village, which itself is a collection of huts, at a considerable distance from the main road. Dr. Thompson, in his report on rock crystal mines says that “the crystal does not occur in its primitive position, but in a secondary deposit of silicious breccia, very highly impregnated with iron; each crystal is cased in a sheath of haematite. As we go downwards the rock becomes less ferruginous, and lower still is met with in pieces of pure quartz, embedded in a matrix of almost pure white clay.

The Eco-restoration:

An Eco-Task Force (ETF) was created by the Delhi Government in year 2000 and was entrusted the task of restoring the natural ecology of the badly ravaged area of Bhatti mines. It was a wasteland with deep gully erosion and over 200 excavated open pits. The ETF, through its decade long awe-inspiring effort involving plantation and protection of lacs of saplings of indigenous trees and other restorative works has today succeeded in restoring a rich-green cover to this once devastated area.The  greening operations of the task force have subsequently been extended to the ‘Asola’ part of the Sanctuary.

Thick Scrub Forest, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Thick Scrub Forest, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The deep pits created by the decades of excavations for stone and sand have been converted into a series of beautiful lakes with clear blue waters. The lakes have sandy beaches and are bounded by spectacular cliffs that were created by the years of mining. The ‘Nilli Jheel’ (The Blue Lake) is the largest and most spectacular of the Bhatti lakes, and can easily be called the Hidden Jewel of Bhatti. A ‘kutcha’ motorable track leads till this lake from the Shani Dham Gate and the lake is located at a distance of 5 KM from the gate.

Jeep track to  Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Jeep track to Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Wooden gate on track to  Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Wooden gate on track to Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The lake has clear, sandy beaches at its two ends that are frequented by picnickers.

Jewel of Bhatti, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Jewel of Bhatti, Nilli Jheel, (The Blue Lake) Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Clear blue waters  and white sands of Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Clear blue waters and white sands of Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February) - The Jewel of Bhatti

Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February) – The Jewel of Bhatti

Rock cliffs, Nilli Jheel at Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Rock cliffs, Nilli Jheel at Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Rock-slip, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Rock-slip, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The other lakes of Bhatti are equally beautiful and can be accessed from the Nilli Jheel through winding trails that pass through the thick scrub-forest. The closest is the Lake Peacock that has a narrow, shallow, ribbon-like channel (the tail feathers of the peacock), a nice sandy beach and some beautiful sheer cliffs that are home to a large number of Black Kites.

Lake Peacock, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Lake Peacock, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The ribbon-like channel of Lake Peacock, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The ribbon-like channel of Lake Peacock, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Black Kite flying against the rocky cliffs of Lake Peacock, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Black Kite flying against the rocky cliffs of Lake Peacock, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Black Kite, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Black Kite, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Black Kite in flight - Lake Peacock, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Black Kite in flight – Lake Peacock, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Black Kite on a stroll on the banks of Lake Peacock!! Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Black Kite on a stroll on the banks of Lake Peacock!! Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The other lakes of Bhatti are best accessed from the Surajkund-end of the Sanctuary. A track leads to the lakes from the Surajkund-Badkhal Lake road near Manav Rachna University.

The first lake lies near an old banyan tree that is a prominent landmark for the locals. A path branches off at this point and heads north for the large Gujjar village of Anangpur. This lake is home to a large army of macaques that sustains itself on the bananas and other offerings brought in by the steady stream of the devout who come in search of salvation! The Tramp has chosen to name this lake the Vaanar Jheel’, after the monkey hordes that inhabit its banks.

The first lake on Surajkund-Bhatti track

Vaanar Jheel, the first lake on Surajkund-Bhatti track

The second lake on this track lies nestled in thick forest and is not visible from the main track. There were was a large flock of Spot-bills and Common Coots swimming and fishing in the secluded safety of this hidden lake.

The second lake on Surajkund-Bhatti track

A hidden lake on the Surajkund-Bhatti track

The Tramp encountered a man living alone in a shanty on the ridge overlooking the lake and the surrounding forest from the north. He squatted on the edge and showed no curiosity in the Tramp even as his mongrel growled menacingly at the ‘intruder’. He offered no explanation for this solitary existence. Was he a sentinel posted by the mining mafia? Or was he engaged in something more hideous?

View from the ridge, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

View from the ridge, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The Tramp failed to figure out a way to reach the third major lake, the  thorny scrub surrounding the lake being virtually impenetrable.

The fourth lake on the Surajkund track is comparable in size and beauty to the Nilli Jheel and is a favourite with the day trippers approaching from the Surajkund-end. It is reportedly an incredible 250 feet deep and has been christened the ‘Gehri Jheel’ by the Tramp. The Tramp spotted some adventure cyclists taking a break on the wide sandy beach of this lovely lake, enjoying the fresh breeze and the ripples it produced in the beautiful blue waters.

Gehri Jheel,the largest and deepest lake on Surajkund-Bhatti track

Gehri Jheel,the largest and deepest lake on Surajkund-Bhatti track

Cyclists at Gehri Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Adventure cyclists at Gehri Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Cyclists at Gehri Jheel

Cyclists at Gehri Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The fifth lake lies close to the Gehri Jheel, on the opposite side of the track and is secluded behind a thick forest cover.This calm, secluded lake is bounded by yellow-ochre cliffs and its waters are an algal-green and not the sparkling blue of the Nilli and Gehri Jheels. This lake was also abound with the yellow spot-bills in early March. A Little Cormorant sat sunning its wet wings after a swim, on a large rock.

Secluded lake- Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Ochre lake- Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The sparkling blue waters of the Bhatti Lakes  are rich in fish and aquatic plants and are growing increasingly popular with the winter-migratory birds. The Nilli Jheel also has a resident “Giant” Turtle that rarely surfaces, Bhatti’s version of the Loch Ness Monster!!

Spot-billed Ducks, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Spot-billed Ducks, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Northern-Shoveller, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Northern-Shoveller, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Northern-Shovellers, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Northern-Shovellers, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Tufted Duck,  Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Tufted Duck, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Common Coot,  Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Common Coot, Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Great Cormorant, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Great Cormorant, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Little Cormorant, Bhatti-Surajkund Lake, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Little Cormorant, Lake Ochre, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The creation of the lakes have led to an improvement in the ground water recharging in the Bhatti area. The Nilli Jheel provides water to the adjoining farmhouses that is pumped through a series of storage tanks. Over time the indigenous trees like Sheesham, Dhak, Siris, Amaltas and Peepul have found their way back to this dry Aravali forest.  The Tramp also spotted some interesting wild-flowers hidden under the all-pervasive, thorny kikkars.

Little Glory (Evolvulus alsinoides), Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Little Glory (Evolvulus alsinoides), Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

White leadwort / Chitrak flowers (Plumbago zeylanica), Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

White leadwort / Chitrak flowers (Plumbago zeylanica), Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Sida cordifolia, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Sida cordifolia, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Gokharu kanta/ Puncture Vine (Tribulus terrestris) Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Gokharu kanta/ Puncture Vine (Tribulus terrestris) Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Seed pods of an Indian Mallow, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (January)

Seed pods of an Indian Mallow, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (January)

The scrub-forest is now home to the Golden Jackals, Striped-Hyenas, Indian crested-Porcupines, Civets, Jungle Cats, Snakes, Monitor Lizards, Mongoose, Black-naped Hare, Nilgai and Rhesus Macaque.  There have been reports of leopard visits as well. The population of porcupines, jackals, nilgai, and of course the macaques is particularly impressive.

The Delhi Gazetteer (1883-84) included a note on the wild animals of the Delhi district by one Dr. Kavanagh and the same is being reproduced for the readers to give a feel of the wildlife present in this region at the end of the 19th century:

Pig abound all along the banks of the Jamna, being found in the jhau jungle where there are no crops, and in the latter when they are high enough to afford cover. Foxes and hares are plentiful on the eastern bank of the Jamna, but do not seem to inhabit the western bank to the same extent. Black buck are found almost everywhere. Chikara abound in the range of hills which runs north-east of Delhi, being especially numerous at Bhunsi, Sinah, and the part of the-Ridge in this neighbourhood. Wolves are not plentiful, but they are to be usually found in the neighbourhood of the old cantonment, especially during the time soldiers are there encamped, at which time, I have seen them in numbers quite close to my tent. Jackals abound. Hares are found generally throughout the district. Peafowl are plentiful. Duck and snipe are plentiful in ordinary years but in dry years they are scarce. The nilgai is to be constantly found near the villages of Borari and Khadipur, and in my pigsticking excursions I constantly came across them in these parts. They are also constantly found at Bhunsi due east from the Ridge. Black and grey partridges are plentiful, the former being found principally in the high jungle along the banks of the Jamna, and in the crops when the season is advanced. The mongoose is very common, and so is the hedgehog. I have known the latter commit sad havoc in a garden in the Cantonments. Snakes of every kind are plentiful, the cobra especially so. The old Fort called the Kotla is infested with them, and it has been a common pastime for members of the garrison to go there hunting for them, especially in the rainy season or immediately preceding it. Leopards are found in the outlying villages. I have myself seen them at Tuglakabad. Para are abundant, especially in the neighbourhood of Borari on the bank of the Jamna, where in my pig-sticking excursions I have seen as many as, 40 or 50 in an hour. Mahsir, rohu, and batchwa are found in the river Jamna and at Okhlah in the Agra Canal, and the entire river is infested with muggurs, the gurryal predominating; but the snub-nosed man-eater is also plentiful. In that part of the river opposite the present rifle range they may be seen any afternoon in hundreds swimming about or basking on the edge of the water. Between the old Fort and Okhlah, they are equally numerous. Monkeys in some villages bordering on the shady avenues of the Western Jamna Canal are quite a nuisance. Within the past five years rewards to the amount of Rs. 908 have been given for the destruction of 10 leopards, 367 wolves, and 1,128 snakes. Ducks of various kinds are found in the ponds in the cold weather; snipe in several places in marshes; quail are not uncommon in the fields; partridges, both black and grey, are abundant, and kidan are fond of the fields of gram when the grain has not yet hardened.”

Nilgai Bull, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Nilgai Bull, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Nilgai, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife sanctuary

Nilgai, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Indian Gray Mongoose,  Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Indian Gray Mongoose, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The Tramp quizzed  a Gujjar goatherd he encountered grazing his goats inside the Sanctuary area. He reported having spotted hyenas in the late hours on numerous occasions. The sand hill (tillah) overlooking the Lake Peacock was the favourite haunt of one of the hyenas. A hyena had killed by one of his goats some months back though the spunky Gujjar goatherd did not allow it to carry off its victim. If this man was to be believed a leopard (baghera) was also on the prowl in this forest and had killed several cows and other animals.

The Tramp spotted Hyena pugmarks and scat on the forest track.

Hyena pugmark, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Hyena pugmark, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Hyena scat, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Hyena scat, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The Tramp also found the carcass of a nilgai female (or maybe a calf) near the rock-slip area of the Nilli Jheel. It had probably been killed by a Hyena or may be even a leopard. It was all but eaten up barring its outer fur coat. Its stomach had been ripped  open. The stink did not allow a closer investigation.

Nilgai killed by Hyena,Nilli Jheel,  Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Nilgai killed by Hyena,Nilli Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The Asola Sanctuary is also home to a large variety of avian fauna including orioles, rollers, sandpipers, lapwings, coucals, peafowls, cuckoos, shrikes, sand grouse and the migratory water birds.

Peafowl, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Peafowl, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Brahminy Starling, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Brahminy Starling, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Rufous-backed Shrike, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Rufous-backed Shrike, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

India Silverbill (White-throated Munia), Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

India Silverbill (White-throated Munia), Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Red-Wattled Lapwing, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Red-Wattled Lapwing, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Pond Heron,  Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Pond Heron, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

White-browed Wagtail, Gehri Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

White-browed Wagtail, Gehri Jheel, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The Tramp  seeks to educate his readers about the novel and highly successful Indian experiment of Ecological Task Forces.

The Ecological Task Force (ETF) Scheme was started in 1982 by the Ministry of Defence in partnership with the Ministry of Environment and Forests with the objective of creating productive employment for ex-servicemen by involving them in the restoration of degraded ecosystems through afforestation, soil conservation and water resource management techniques. The idea was originally mooted in 1980 by the then Prime Minister of India, Smt. Indira Gandhi, who was advised by the renowned agro-economist, Dr. Norman Borlough to deploy the army to tackle the problem of eco-degradation of the Shivalik hills. As it was not feasible to involve regular troops, it was decided to raise specialized ‘Ecological Battalions’ of the Territorial Army that would provide employment to retired Army personnel of the region and would tap their discipline, training and industry to take up eco-restoration projects on a ‘war footing’ in inhospitable terrains. Under this scheme the ETFs of the Territorial Army prepare the ground for plantation of saplings by digging pits and erecting perimeter fences. Saplings of indigenous species are planted and a high survival rate ensured by timely watering and protection from damage by grazing, rodents, termite etc. Fenced nurseries are created for raising saplings.

Eco-Task Force Nursery & Quarters, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Eco-Task Force Nursery & Quarters, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Check dams are built and water bodies are created to check erosion and conserve water to meet the watering needs of plants and wildlife especially during the summer months.

Water body near Karni Singh Shooting Range Gate, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Water body near Karni Singh Shooting Range Gate, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Innovative low-cost techniques like pitcher-irrigation are evolved to conserve water and protect the saplings. The Forest department identifies the land for reclamation and afforestation and provides the saplings, fencing material and all technical and logistic support to the Green ‘Terriers’.

The first Ecological Task Force was born on 1st December, 1982 with the raising of 127 Infantry Battalion (Territorial Army) Ecological at Lansdowne with affiliation to the Garhwal Rifles. The Eco-Battalion did commendable work in afforestation of the Shahjahanpur Range near Saharanpur and the reclamation of mines in Dehradun-Mussoorie hills. The 128 Eco-Battalion was set up on 1st September, 1983 at the regimental Centre of Rajputana Rifles at Delhi to green the Thar desert. It was involved in greening of the banks of Indira Gandhi Canal in Bikaner. It also developed a lake at Amarpura that has become a sanctuary for birds. The 3rd Eco-Battalion, 129 IB (TA) Ecological was set up at the Regimental Centre of Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry at Srinagar on 29th June 1988 and it undertook watershed development work in Samba and afforestation of Bahu Jindra Mountains. In 1994 came up 130 Eco Battalion with affiliation to the Kumaon Regiment for afforestation in Pithoragarh area. The 5th ETF was the 132 Eco Battalion raised at Delhi with affiliation to Rajput Regiment on 9th October, 2000. The 5th Eco Battalion was entrusted the task of restoring the despoiled and gullied area of Bhatti mines and as discussed, has done a commendable job in the past decade. The 6th ETF- the 133 Eco Battalion was set up in 2005 at Himachal Pradesh that was plagued with the problem of frequent closure of hydel power plants due to heavy siltation because of denuded slopes in catchment areas. The 7th and 8th ETFs were created in Assam with raising of 134 and 135 Eco Battalions that have done commendable afforestation work in and around Nameri National Park and Balipara Reserve Forest in Sonitpur District and the lower Assam areas of Kokrajhar district respectively.

Entry Gates:  There are two entry gates to the Asola – Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary:-

  • The more easily accessed gate lies opposite to the Karni Singh Shooting Range on the Surajkund road that branches off from the Mehrauli-Badarpur road near the Tughlaqabad Fort. This is the ‘tame’ end of the sanctuary that is frequented by school kids for nature walks. The congested Sangam Vihar borders this end of the forest and the locals have breached the protective boundary wall at numerous places and use the green patch as a recreational area. The Tramp was surprised to encounter kids of all ages playing Gilli-Danda in this age of 20-20 cricket and online computer games. A friendly bunch insisted that they be clicked as they happily posed for a photograph.
Gilli-Danda Gang, area bordering Sangam Vihar, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Gilli-Danda Gang, area bordering Sangam Vihar, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

  • The wilder end of the forest, the area that fell under the Bhatti mines is accessed through the gate that lies at the end of the Shani-Dham road that branches off from the main Chhatarpur road just short of the Hotel Tulip. The 4 KM long road gets its name from a temple dedicated to ‘Shani’ (Saturn). It skirts the western boundary of the forest and is bounded on both sides by the opulent Asola farmhouses that are owned by the rich and the famous.

Apart from the designated gates, there are a number of other entry points to the forest with tracks leading to the surrounding villages.

  • The most popular entry point to the sanctuary, especially for the Surajkund-Bhatti lakes is the forest track that leads off from the Surajkund-Bhadkal Lake road near the imposing campus of the Manav Rachna University. The track is jeepable but large boulders have been placed near the first lake to block ingress of cars deeper into the forest. Bikers and adventure cyclists, however, make their way till the Gehri Jheel that is a popular picnic spot for the nature lovers.
Cyclists at Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Cyclists at Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

 

Monkeys of Asola-Bhatti WLS: A curious experiment has been undertaken at Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary in the past few years. The Delhi High Court in response to a petition filed by the New Friends Colony Residents Welfare Association directed vide its order dated 14th March, 2007 the Municipal Corporation of Delhi to capture monkeys and rehabilitate them inside Asola Wildlife sanctuary. Initially, some 15,000 monkeys were brought in for resettlement. ‘Feeding points’ for these simian guests have been created all over the sanctuary, by building 30 cemented platforms that are raised on pillars. The daily feed of raw fruits and vegetables sourced from the Azadpur Subzi Mandi is brought in trucks and is piled onto the platforms. One can spot large troops of monkeys feeding at these points.

Feeding shelter for monkeys, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Feeding shelter for monkeys, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

The stray cattle from adjoining villages and the nilgai also gather under the platforms to pick up the ‘crumbs’ that may be dropped by squabbling monkeys. The annual expenditure of Delhi Government on the vegetables and the chickpeas (Chana) is reportedly in the region of Rs.3 Crores. The monkey population has quite obviously exploded due to this unsustainable and unnatural rehabilitation arrangement and has become a menace to the areas around Bhatti. It is hoped that as and when the natural fruit-bearing trees come up through the afforestation drives the monkeys will be weaned back to their natural diet through foraging.

Wild red berries, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Red berries of Kankera tree, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (February)

Ber tree, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (January)

Ber tree, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (January)

Fruit of a Bistendu tree, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (January)

Fruit of a Bistendu tree, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (January)

In the meantime, the eco-warriors employed by the Eco Task Force engaged in restoration of the degraded forest land have to bear the brunt of attacks by the simians and have to protect the saplings from damage. The Tramp found the sight of that sorry looking lot of social outcasts – the red-faced monkey hordes, the emaciated cattle and the nilgai with their shaggy grey-brown coats feeding despondently on their daily dole of vegetables, rather eerie, if not post-apocalyptic.

Monkey Feeding Platform, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Monkey Feeding Platform, Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Other Challenges:

The Sanctuary needs to be zealously guarded against encroachers who threaten to nibble-off the forest in the periphery. The areas around Anangpur village and along the Surajkund- Badkhal Lake road are particularly vulnerable. The Tramp was particularly shocked to encounter a large marriage palace having been set-up inside the sanctuary area opposite the campus of Manav Rachna University. More such encroachments have reportedly taken place around Anangpur.

Encroachment of Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Encroachment of Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

A lesser-threat is from the illegal mining that still continues on a small scale. The Gujjars from the adjoining villages,particularly Anangpur, reportedly use camels for smuggling stone and bajree out of the area at night. A leopard reportedly chased-off a party of late-night miners, angered at their reckless destruction of his habitat.

A Case for a Greater Asola Wildlife Sanctuary:

The forests comprising the Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary are only the northern-most fringes of the denuded Aravalli hill range. The semi-arid, scrub forests of the Aravalli hills continue in pockets further south into Faridabad and Gurgaon and indeed all the way to Rajasthan in the South-West.

Aravali Forests of Delhi and Haryana

Aravali Forests of Delhi and Haryana

It could be possible at some point of time in future to conceive a ‘Greater Asola Wildlife Sanctuary’ that could be formed by merging the entire Aravali forest from Tughlakabad in the north till the Damdama Lake to the South and the Bhonsi forest to the South-West. Wildlife corridors could be created to link the Mangar and Bhondsi forests in the south to this sanctuary. This thick scrub forest with idyllic water bodies and nature tracks would serve as an oasis in the unforgiving urban desert of NCR.

Greater Asola Wildlife Sanctuary

Greater Asola Wildlife Sanctuary

The Mangar Forest:

The Tramp decided to check out the  scrub forest of Mangar area that forms a natural southward extension of the Asola-Bhatti WLS. The two swathes of  Aravalli forest are divided by the high speed Faridabad-Gurgaon toll-road that has effectively fragmented the habitat of the wild-life living in these forests. Wild animals often fall prey to road accidents while trying to negotiate the high speed roads that bind the Asola-Bhatti forests.

Jackal killed in a roadside accident, Surajkund-Pali road (March 2014)

Golden Jackal killed in a roadside accident, Surajkund-Pali road (March 2014)

The northern portion of the Mangar forest that abuts the Asola-Bhatti area has over time been almost entirely colonized by the thorny vilayati kikar. The rugged Aravalli landscape has been rendered even more savage by the decades of unregulated quarrying that left ugly gashes cut deep into the hill-sides to create sheer cliffs and unseemly craters.

Rugged terrain of kikar forests around Mangar

Rugged terrain of kikar forests around Mangar

The mining also devastated the natural forest cover in the area and paved the way for the spread of  the perinicious kikar that neither supports wildlife (avian or terrestrial) nor allows the resurgence of the indigenous flora.

Flowers of the Vilayati Kikar (Prosopis juliflora) Mangar forests

Flowers of the Vilayati Kikar (Prosopis juliflora) Mangar forests

The trek through the kikar forest turned out to be a toturous affair with nasty thorns finding their way easily through the soft rubber sole of the jungle shoe.  The Tramp, however, did manage to find some interesting wild flowers and shrubs for his readers that were somehow managing to eek out an existence in those inhospitable rocky conditions, standing up bravely to the tyrrany of the kikars!

Karir flower (Capparis decidua), Mangar forests (March, 2014)

Karir flower (Capparis decidua), Mangar forests (March, 2014)

Karir leaves (Capparis decidua), Mangar forests (March, 2014)

Karir leaves (Capparis decidua), Mangar forests (March, 2014)

Tiny Pink Wild flowers, Mangar forests (March 2014)

Tiny Pink Wild flowers, Mangar forests (March 2014)

Chitrak flowers (Plumbago zeylanica), Mangar forests (March 2014)

Chitrak flowers (Plumbago zeylanica), Mangar forests (March 2014)

Wild flower,Mangar forests

Wild flower,Mangar forests

Wild mushroom, Mangar forests

Wild mushroom, Mangar forests

Thorny shrubs,Mangar forests

Thorny shrubs, Mangar forests

Flowers of Common Indian Nightshade, Mangar forests (March 2014)

Flowers of Common Indian Nightshade, Mangar forests (March 2014)

The inhospitable thorn forests hide a number of beautiful lakes, comparable in beauty to the Asola-Bhatti lakes, created by the gradual ingress of ground water into the deep craters excavated into the earth during the  days of mining. The Tramp negotiated a sea of thorns and a maze of narrow winding tracks to find the way to the beautiful sandy beach of one such lake. The rocks forming the sheer cliffs that hide the lake from view have a ‘glassy’ character and the rock edges are razor sharp much like sea-corals. The beach had thick strands of the kans grass and the Tramp spied a Coucal and some Stilts at the lake.

Mangar lake- view from North

Mangar lake- view from North

Mangar lake- view from South

Mangar lake- view from South

Coucal on the grassy banks of Mangar lake

Coucal on the grassy banks of Mangar lake

Black-winged Stilts, Mangar Lake

Black-winged Stilts, Mangar Lake

The Mangar village lies in a bowl-shaped valley to the south of the thorny kikar forest and the lakes. The drive along the metalled-road to the village offers a breath-taking view of the Mangar valley just before one descends sharply into the valley below.

Mangar village

Mangar village

As one drives into the village one is greeted by the ubiquitous wall paintings by a local artist with popular themes from the Hindu mythology. The road then traverses through the Mangar village that is unremarkable like any other village of Haryana despite its picturesque location.

Cow dung cakes, Mangar village.

Cow dung cakes, Mangar village.

Bansa flowers, Mangar

Bansa flowers, Mangar

The road then heads south towards the forested hills that are referred to by the locals as the ‘Bani’.  Mangar Bani is a thickly forested stretch of 200 hectares that falls within the villages Mangar, Bandhwari and Baliawas, a sacred forest that is home to the slow-growing, ecologically significant Dhau tree (Anogeissus pendula).

Mangar bani

Mangar bani

The ‘Bani’ or the sacred grove has a shrine dedicated to an ascetic, Gudariya Baba, who is said to have attained salvation in the forest. As per popular belief, it brings bad-luck to anyone who fells a tree in this sacred patch. This pristine forest showcases the indigenous flora of the Aravalli region. A veritable ecological oasis amidst the desert of kikar. Mangar Bani today faces threat from the development process under a newly approved Master-Plan and the eco-activists seem to be fighting a losing battle to save it.

Thick forests around Bani Dham, Mangar

Thick forests around Bani Dham, Mangar

It was close to sunset by the time I reached the sacred Bani. The woods were lovely, dark and deep! And inviting. I yearned to query the locals about the legend of the Gadariya Baba. To find out as to which of the several domed structures was the original shrine dedicated to the Baba. To identify and photograph the Dhau tree. But there was hardly any time left and I had to trek back some 8 KM  on the metalled road through the forest to reach the Gurgaon-Faridabad road where my car was parked.

I made my way into a rather gloomy looking walled temple complex at the base of the thickly forested hills. My attempt to befriend its caretaker met with little success and I was taken aback by his rude replies that bordered on being resentful if not outright hostile. He glared at me belligerently as I photographed his ‘pet’ blackbuck doe. I toyed with the idea of educating him that his misplaced love of wildlife was illegal and could land him in trouble but something in his eye warned me against it.

Blackbuck doe, Bani Dham (Mangar)

Blackbuck doe, Bani Dham (Mangar)

My sixth sense seemed to have warned me in time as less than a week later a group of birders from Delhi were assaulted by the resident ‘Baba’ of the Bani Dham and his cronies to vent their annoyance at the ‘prying ways’ of the city-bred nature enthusiasts!!

Aravali Hill Forest of Bhondsi-Gamroj:

South-west of Asola-Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary and west of the Mangar forest lies the forested area of Bhonsi and Gamroj in Gurgaon. These hills were heavily mined for stone in the 1990s until mining was gradually banned due to environmental concerns and the intervention of the Courts. Sh. Chandrashekhar, the former Prime Minister of India,  had set-up a Public Trust under the name of Bharat Yatra Kendra and it had received a large piece of village common land as donation from the Bhondsi panchayat in the 80s. While, the BYK had to eventually surrender most of the land donated to it yet it did help protect the 500 acre forest land that was managed by it for nearly two-decades. Considerable afforestation work was also undertaken in the area by the Trust. Today, the Aravalis in this part are having a reasonable green cover of scrub-forest that is home to the wildlife in the area.

Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj (Hill side reveals scars of mining)

Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj (Hill side reveals scars of mining)

Holes drilled into rocks, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj- The Scars of Mining

Holes drilled into rocks, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj- The scars of mining days

Water body, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

Water body, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

Black-winged Stilt, Aravalis-Bhondsi-Gamroj

Black-winged Stilt, Aravalis-Bhondsi-Gamroj

These forests are home to the slow growing ‘dhau’ in addition to the all-pervasive kikkar and thorny shrubs like hingot.

Hingot, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

Hingot fruit, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

The Tramp visited this forest in search of the Hyena pack that has reportedly ‘terrorized’ the villagers of Bhondsi and Gamroj who have their fields in the foothills. The fear seems unfounded as there have been no actual attacks on humans. The hyena is called ‘Jarak’ in the local language due to the clearly audible creaking sound of the bones that is produced when the animal moves. The hyenas have, however, killed numerous nilgai and also routinely poach on the village dogs and the poultry. The villagers avoid going to the fields in the foothills after dark. In fact, many have shifted to planting mustard in the winters as the wheat crop requires more frequent watering and the same has to be done at night, the only time when electricity is provided for the farm tubewells. The hyenas have, however, proved to be a blessing to the farmers as they have made the nilgai flee to the forests near Mangar.

The Tramp managed to locate the deep rock crevices that are believed to be used as ‘dens’ by the hyenas. There were nilgai bones and feathers of poultry birds scattered in the vicinity of the dens. The hyena scat is rendered white in colour due to the calcium in the bones of the prey eaten by it.

Rock-slip, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj -Hyena Country

Rock-slip, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj -Hyena Country

Nilgai bones outside Hyena den, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

Nilgai bones outside Hyena den, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

Carcass of Nilgai killed by Hyena, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

Carcass of Nilgai killed by Hyena, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

Hyena scat, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

Hyena scat, Aravalis- Bhondsi-Gamroj

 

References:

  1. Gazetteer of the Delhi District (1883-84)
  2. Battling for green Cover, Vijay Mohan, The Tribune, Saturday, 8th October, 2005.
  3. Excavations at Lal Kot 1991-92, B.R. Mani
  4. Tell us where to go, Anita Soni, Tehelka, July 15th, 2006

Corbett Tiger Reserve

It’s a 400 km drive to Ramnagar from Chandigarh. One drives through Panchkula to take NH-73. The highway crosses the 17th century fortress at Ramgarh with its white-washed ramparts and its majestic wooden gate. One then drives along the picturesque 5000 acre walled-campus of TBRL to turn for the Toka-Khangesra link road at Mattewali, a short-cut to Raipur-Rani from where one takes SH-1 to Naraingarh. The drive from Ramgarh till Naraingarh passes through the scenic farm landscape along the foothills of Morni. One now takes NH-72 and negotiates the congested Kala Amb to enjoy the refreshing drive along the winding hill road to Nahan. The highway crosses the Yamuna at the historic Sikh town of Paonta Sahib. One continues eastwards through Herbertpur along the Asan River till Dehradun. Its tedious driving through the impossible traffic of Dehradun and the busy road to Haridwar. One crosses the Holy Ganges to take NH-74 and drives through Najibabad, Nagina, Jaspur and Kashipur before one turns for NH 121 for the final leg of the journey that brings one to the sleepy little town of Ramnagar, the Gateway to Corbett. We were two families of four packed into an 8-seater Innova (not counting the driver) and it was a long, weary drive.

It was late evening by the time we reached the rather lavishly built but most poorly maintained PWD Rest House on the outskirts of the town on the road to Corbett. One look at the shabby, listless caretaker gave away the place’s sad story, without the man having to utter a single-word. The kitchen was not operational, so we dumped our gear and headed straight for the town to find some food. Ramnagar does not offer much by way of culinary choice to the transit-tourist and we were disappointed to see the rather seedy-looking eating joints along the main highway. Luckily for us some students directed us to a nice, clean, unpretentious dhaba by the side of a canal. The kids were famished by the long wait for dinner and we pleaded with the incredulous waiter to allow us to poach the order placed by the guests who had reached before us. The freshly cooked, wholesome desi food greatly restored our flagging spirits.

On the way back to the Rest House we stopped at the town market to see if we could find some shop to pick up some additional blankets for the night. It was early January and frightfully cold and our bored caretaker had handed us only four, rather sorry looking blankets, two per family of four! He had yawned at our suggestion that he could ‘consider’ trying to arrange some extra blankets for us. We were in luck and I was delighted to find a shop selling cotton-stuffed quilts open at that late hour. I triumphantly carried my purchase back to the waiting vehicle. The drive had left us all exhausted and each family crammed into its assigned double bed to try and catch some sleep. There was of-course no question of us hoping for the caretaker to show some enterprise and muster spare cots for the kids.

The morning was bright and cheerful and we headed for the tourist reception centre to pick up our entry permits. We had booked in advance but were required to fill in a form and complete some formalities for getting the permits.  A photocopy of my i-card was needed and yes the centre did not have a photocopy machine. Ramnagar gets no electricity supply during the day and there is only one photocopying shop that has a generator. I fretted at the loss of precious time in completing such mundane formalities but we finally had the permit. We were staying at the Sarpduli Forest Rest House, Dhikala being totally booked. We were required to carry raw provisions with us as the rest house had a kitchen and the caretaker doubled as a cook. It was another 20 KM to the Dhangrani Gate and it was past noon when we finally drove through the Gates of Heaven.

It was love at first sight. Corbett Tiger Reserve is an enchantingly beautiful forest with a breathtaking landscape complete with mysterious hills, misty lakes and meandering rivers. We had barely driven for a couple of minutes along the road to Dhikala when we spotted a flock of Chital.

Chitals on Dhangari - Dhikala road, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Chitals on Dhangari – Dhikala road, Corbett Tiger Reserve

It was the first time that we were seeing deer in the wild and we were awash with excitement. I clicked pictures frantically, imagining it to be some rare, lucky sighting. It was only later that we realized that Corbett is teeming with deer. Chital, Sambar, Hog deer and Barking deer. We next came upon a Sambar family.

Sambar family on Dhangari - Dhikala road, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Sambar family on Dhangari – Dhikala road, Corbett Tiger Reserve

I got a close-up of the stag against a Sal tree.

Sambar Stag on Dhangari - Dhikala road, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Sambar Stag on Dhangari – Dhikala road, Corbett Tiger Reserve

They were early days yet and the Tramp’s journey to God and Nature was yet to begin. I could barely tell one deer from the other and clicked anything and everything that moved. We crossed the Sultan Forest Rest House that looked rather weathered and even less promising than the Rest House at Ramnagar. The road now started moving parallel to the Ramganga, a rain-fed river that originates in the Lesser Himalayas to the Northeast of Corbett and flows westwards along the Dhikala road to traverse through the Reserve where it is joined by Palain, Mandal and Sonanadi. An impressive reservoir is formed by the dam at Kalagarh. The river then bends back to flow east through the Gangetic plains to join the Ganges in the south. The drive towards Dhikala offers stunning views of the Ramganga.

View of Ramganga from Dhangari - Dhikala road, Corbett Tiger Reserve

View of Ramganga from Dhangari – Dhikala road, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Sarpduli Rest House lies on the southern bank of Ramganga, mid-way on the Dhangari – Dhikala road. It is one of the seven rest houses in the Dhikala Zone and is surrounded by a thick, green forest.

Forest around Sarpduli Forest Rest House

Forest around Sarpduli Forest Rest House

Thick forest around Sarpduli

Thick forest around Sarpduli

We were housed in a quaint double-storey structure, with a room on each floor.

Sarpduli Forest Rest House, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Sarpduli Forest Rest House, Corbett Tiger Reserve

The first floor had a nice balcony with a large wooden table. The place was basic but nice and cosy. The bedding was clean and the quilts were warm. The kitchen door had long sharp spikes on the outside. The caretaker said it was to keep the elephants from battering their way in to raid the pantry. The pachyderms have a keen sense of smell and cannot resist the aroma of our spicy cuisine! The rest house was enclosed within a solar powered electrified perimeter fence with a gate that was shut at 5:30 pm. Power was provided by a rather noisy, diesel-generator that was started after sunset and run till dinner time. It was lights-out at 9. A guide joined us for the afternoon safari and we were off in the search of the tiger.

Day one of the forest safari did not throw up too many surprises. We hunted for the tiger in the thick sal forests. We drove up and down the rutted jeep tracks through Corbett’s golden grasslands.  We forded numerous nadis and soats. We crossed minor rivers over quaint wooden bridges.

Jeep tracks through Corbett Grasslands

Jeep tracks through Corbett Grasslands

The Sal forests, Corbett Tiger Reserve

The Sal forests, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Nadis and soats of Corbett

Nadis and soats of Corbett

We halted briefly at Dhikala, which is a large complex with an impressive, colonial-style Forest Rest House that is reportedly a 100 years old. The age of this heritage rest house can be guessed from the fact that the construction of a first-class, double-storey forest rest house was proposed by Sir D. Brandis, Inspector-General of Forests at Dhikala in 1881 at a cost of Rs.3500/- He had also proposed a second-class rest-house at Kalagarh and 12 third-class rest-houses at Sona-nadi, Palain, Patli Dun, Dharon and Kohtri Dunin. The rest-houses were to be built for accommodating the Divisional Forest Officer and the Rangers charged with the protection of the precious Sal-forests from fires and illicit felling.

Dhikala Forest Rest House, Corbett Tiger Reserve

The Colonial Forest Rest House at Dhikala, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Accommodation is also available in a more modern Annexe building and log-huts.

Annexe at Dhikala , Corbett Tiger Reserve

Annexe at Dhikala , Corbett Tiger Reserve

There are some bungalows of officials of the Forest Department. Dhikala has a cute, well-stocked canteen and a library.

Canteen at Dhikala

Canteen at Dhikala

The elephant-back safari also operates out of Dhikala.

Elephant Safari at Dhikala

Elephant Safari at Dhikala

The campus overlooks the grasslands of the Ramganga valley to its north with the thickly-forested Kanda Ridge forming the backdrop. The Ramganga shimmered in the winter sun as it flowed westwards into the large reservoir formed at its confluence with the Sonanadi and the Palain River by the dam at Kalagarh. The construction of this 420 feet high dam was completed in 1974 and it created the Ramganga Reservoir that has an area of 55 Sq. Km. I could spot an elephant grazing on the grassy banks of the Ramganga, probably one of the Safari elephants.

Elephant grazing on the banks of Ramganga

Elephant grazing on the banks of Ramganga

Dhikala Complex is enclosed within a solar-powered protective electric fence on its perimeter.

Solar-powered perimeter fence at Dhikala, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Solar-powered perimeter fence at Dhikala, Corbett Tiger Reserve

We were told by our Guide that a tiger had climbed onto the roof of one of the buildings some years back and had pounced upon an unsuspecting employee leaving him badly mauled and crippled. We, however, spotted no tigers that day. The fairy-tale forests were abound with the dainty Chital deer. The Sambars were equally plentiful but more difficult to spot. We also caught some fleeting glimpses of the shy, Barking deer. We finally drove back in to our rest house around 5 pm, happy with the forest experience but disappointed at not having sighted a tiger.

The evening at Sarpduli was beautiful. We were enveloped by the wilderness of that pristine forest, the forest sounds sending a thrill down the spine. We happily braced the chill of that breezy evening of early January as we made our plans for the tryst with the tiger on the following day. The kids were excited at the prospect but the ladies fretted about the possibility of the Jungle King giving us a miss. The Musafir, brushed away their concerns and gallantly promised them their tiger. He was sure that we were destined to have the encounter. He cheerfully went on to expound the ‘Theory of Manifestation’ to his captive audience. How our consciousness impacts our reality. How our belief has the power to shape, define and even create our reality. That we have to only believe hard enough in a thing and it surely happens. It ‘Manifests’!! ‘But for the tiger to manifest itself,’ he warned us Doubters-of-the-Faith most gravely, ‘not one of us was to harbour even the slightest doubt about the promised encounter’. Not even that teeny-weeny, itsy-bitsy, niggardly little-doubt that had the potential of poisoning our collective consciousness and of destroying the power of our collective will. Having thus delivered the ‘Sermon at Sarpduli’, the Master rewarded his parched throat with a decent pouring of the Chivas. I grinned at the man’s infectious positivism. His journey of life makes an interesting story, with numerous twists and turns, but the one underlying theme that instantly strikes the listener is the power of self-belief and positive thinking. We raised a toast to the Lord of the Jungle and had an early dinner in the balcony, enjoying the overpowering stillness of the thick forest. The caretaker handed us candles for the night before turning-off the generator. It was pitch-dark thereafter and we retired to our beds, keen to take an early start the next day.

It was still some time for dawn to break when we left the comfort of our quilts and got dressed under the dim candle light. It was a cold, cloudy morning of early January and a thick mist hung over the forest. We were glad to have settled for the admittedly boring but definitely practical choice of doing the jungle safari in our closed-body Toyota Innova rather than the much more romantic option of driving around in a rugged open-top Gypsy.  Our guide led us through the dew covered golden grasslands and the dripping Sal forests to reach a river-crossing.

River-crossing, Corbett Tiger Reserve

River-crossing, Corbett Tiger Reserve

A flock of Blue Rock Thrushes played noisily on the rocky bed of the river. A Bar-tailed Godwit waded through the sparkling river water in search of the proverbial worm.

Flock of Blue Rock Thrushes, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Flock of Blue Rock Thrushes, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Blue Rock Thrush, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Blue Rock Thrush, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Bar-tailed Godwit, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Bar-tailed Godwit, Corbett Tiger Reserve

We drove over the rickety, make-shift wooden bridge to find a River Lapwing boldly blocking our progress at the other end as it curiously balanced itself like a yogi on a single leg.

Wooden bridge, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Wooden bridge, Corbett Tiger Reserve

River Lapwing, Corbett Tiger Reserve

River Lapwing, Corbett Tiger Reserve

I later learnt that the River Lapwing is a ‘Near Threatened’ species. We could see a mysterious forest hidden under a shroud of mist on the other side of the river and it seemed full of promise. To our disappointment, however, the jungle was clearly not ready to divulge any of its secrets to us band of novice intruders. At least, not yet. A Black-winged Kite, a Black Kite with its characteristic forked tail, a Changeable Hawk-Eagle with its astonishing high-pitched scream and a couple of shy Sambars were all that we managed to spot in the first few hours of driving.

Black-winged Kite, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Black-winged Kite, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Black Kite, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Black Kite, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Changeable Hawk-Eagle, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Changeable Hawk-Eagle, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Sambars, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Sambars, Corbett Tiger Reserve

I photographed a flock of birds flying in the classic V-formation, high up in the sky. Each bird flying in this formation flies slightly higher than the bird in front as this reduces the wind resistance that it encounters. Birds take turns to lead the flock thereby conserving energy for flying the impossibly long distances on their annual migrations.

A flock of birds flying over Corbett in classic V-formation

A flock of birds flying over Corbett in classic V-formation

The guide now brought us to the fenced compound of the high-end Khinnanauli Forest Rest House. This recently constructed rest house reportedly catered to the country’s elite including the Gandhis if the Guide was to be believed.

Khinnanauli Forest Rest House, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Khinnanauli Forest Rest House, Corbett Tiger Reserve

It looked deserted at that moment and there was no way of checking out as to what made the place so special.  We spotted a wild boar looking at us with suspicion from across the fence and it bolted for cover the moment I tried to get in closer for a clear shot.

Wild Boar near Khinnanauli Forest Rest House, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Wild Boar near Khinnanauli Forest Rest House, Corbett Tiger Reserve

We crossed a pair of Golden Jackals as we headed for Dhikala for our breakfast.

Golden Jackals near Khinnanauli Forest Rest House, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Golden Jackals near Khinnanauli Forest Rest House, Corbett Tiger Reserve

The kids were looking worn down and bored with the hours of non-stop driving, on an empty stomach. Disappointment was written large all over our faces as we trooped out of our vehicle and listlessly made our way to the busy canteen at Dhikala. Thankfully they served Maggie noodles and the kids couldn’t care less thereafter about the miserable tiger who had failed to put in an appearance for his enthusiastic fans. The  overcast  grey sky and the light drizzle were making things look gloomier.  We decided to cheer ourselves by taking the elephant safari. The man at the counter however informed us that there were only limited seats and the afternoon safari was fully booked.

We had an extended photo-session of the kiddie-gang as we whiled away our time to settle down the heavy brunch. A father-son duo proudly played us the live video of a tiger that they had shot the same morning. All was not lost after all. There was still some hope! The drizzle picked-up further and some of the tourists backed out of the afternoon elephant safari. We were going to get to ride the elephant after-all!! The kids let out a loud ‘yippee’ triumphantly and we happily waited to mount the howdahs like the Sahib log of the days of the Shikar.

But it was one of those bad days. The light drizzle now turned into a steady rain and the safari was called off. We kicked ourselves for having wasted precious time waiting for the safari and rushed to get back on the jeep track and resume our quest for the tiger. The Guide looked glum as the forest denizens generally seek refuge under the trees inside the forest when it rains and our prospects didn’t look too good. We crossed an imposing iron watchtower and spotted a colourful Black Francolin and a pair of Golden Mongoose scurrying across the path in front of us.

Watch Tower near Dhikala, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Watch Tower near Dhikala, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Black Francolin, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Black Francolin, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Golden Mongoose, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Golden Mongoose, Corbett Tiger Reserve

We now headed for the Ramganga reservoir which is a vast expanse of water trapped by the dam at Kalagarh. An impressive grassland covers the southern bank of this huge lake, giving this tiger reserve the typical ‘Serengeti feel’. The rain had ceased by this time but a heavy mist hung over the calm waters of the lake.

Ramganga Reservoir, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Ramganga Reservoir, Corbett Tiger Reserve

A large Chital flock grazed on the bountiful golden grass without an apparent care for their lurking striped foe. The chances of an encounter with the tiger looked increasingly remote.

Chital flock grazing in the grassland near Ramganga Reservoir

Chital flock grazing in the grassland near Ramganga Reservoir

It was past 3 PM and I was amusing the kids with a cute picture that I had clicked of a Sambar deer apparently caught spying at us from its hiding, when we suddenly spotted a massive lone tusker, right in front of us, at the 12’O Clock position!

Sambar spy! Corbett Tiger Reserve

Sambar spy! Corbett Tiger Reserve

The bull elephant was flapping its ears and swaying its huge head from side to side as it ambled towards us on its enormous padded feet. ‘He looks mean,’ the Guide warned us in a sudden hiss, ‘let’s get out of his way. Quickly!’ We were on a narrow jungle track and there was no place to turn. The elephant seemed to have spotted us and was walking towards us with large, purposeful strides. Thankfully the man at the wheel was good. Damn good. He did not lose his head and reversed our large, ungainly vehicle on that difficult winding track without taking his eyes off the rapidly advancing danger. The Guide was sweating with fear as he craned his neck backwards to see the track and help the driver make the difficult manoeuvre. We finally spotted a small clearing along the track and reversed the vehicle into it to get out of the line-of-sight of that Mammoth. The Tusker lost interest in us once we cleared-off from his path and he suddenly left the track and melted into the forest. The whole episode had  lasted less than a minute. But it had left us trembling with excitement. Was the bull in musth? Was it intending to assault our vehicle? What would have happened had the engine stalled at that crucial moment? What if another vehicle coming from the rear had blocked our timely retreat? We’ll never know the answers to these questions. But that brief face-to-face encounter with the marching pachyderm was definitely one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. And yes, I had managed a fantastic picture despite the panic and general commotion in the face of the advancing enemy!!

Marching Tusker, Corbett Tiger Reserve

Marching Tusker, Corbett Tiger Reserve

TO BE CONTINUED …

References:

  1. Suggestions regarding Forest Administration in the North -Western Provinces and Oudh, Sir D.Brandis (1881).

Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR)

It was a chilly cloud-covered morning of early January and dawn was yet to break as the Gypsys queued up for entry at the Moharli gate of the Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. The open-top Gypsys used for the jeep-safaris are modified to allow three rows of front-facing seats. One has to grab the side rails and step on the improvised footrests to climb into the rear seats. The heightened anticipation in the air was clearly palpable. A thundering roar had reverberated through the forest the previous night and had sent a thrill down our spines as we sat eating our dinner in the garden resort right outside the boundary of the reserve.

Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve- view from Moharli

Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve- view from Moharli

The roar was followed by a flurry of alarm calls by the forest denizens who scampered for cover. It is said that it is impossible to localize the tiger’s position from its roar and it’s only a ruse to scare the Chitals and the Sambars in giving out their positions by their frantic calls. In the general mêlée that follows the blood-curling roar, the terrified deer run in all directions and the tiger waits for one to run straight into his waiting jaws of death. His vicious canines lock over the windpipe of the prey in a frightful pincer grip that suffocates the victim, not allowing it even that tiny last whimper to bemoan its terrible fate.

Moharli Gate,  Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Moharli Gate, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

The roar seemed doubly menacing on account of the ugly incident that had occurred the previous day. Some villagers from Kolara, a village on the north-eastern fringe of the Tiger Reserve, had ventured into the thickly forested ‘core’ area near Pandharpauni for collecting firewood.  A tiger emerged suddenly from near the Waghai nallah and viciously mauled one Vidhoba Nogse.  It then went on to eat up the poor victim, roaring threateningly at the huge crowd of locals who tried in vain to scare the villain into giving up the body. I later learnt that this was not an isolated mishap. A lady, Poonam Shende, had been killed by a tiger only a day earlier, in the forest near Lohara on the Chandrapur-Mul road, some 40 KM south of Pandharpauni. The Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, as it turned out, is notorious for its man-eating tigers. The notorious Man-eater of Talodi had wreaked havoc in the Brahmapuri forest area some 40 KM to the north-east of Moharli until it was shot dead by the sharp-shooters of the police department in November 2007. Wildlife conservationists decried the killing and blamed the Forest Department of having killed the wrong tiger. They had killed a male even when it was clear from the man-eater’s pugmarks that the culprit was a tigress. The killing did not stop the attacks on humans and there were a string of deaths in Janakpur village in this area in 2008. As per newspaper reports there were 31 deaths in and around TATR from April 2005 – April 2008 due to Man-animal conflicts. While tigers were the principal culprits yet there were also deaths due to attacks by leopards and bears. The ‘Man-eater of Vejgaon’, a leopard struck terror in 2008. Yet another leopard, the ‘Man-eater of Wardha’ caused numerous deaths in 2011. Even on the day that we made the safari, a female bear and her cub mauled and killed a poor, helpless mute of Dhaba village near Gondpipri some 60 KM south-east of Moharli.

The commonly believed reason for the increasing incidents of conflict is the deteriorating habitat of the wild animals that is being nibbled at the fringes by construction and developmental activity. The village common lands have disappeared over the decades and the villagers now venture into forests for collecting firewood and grazing their cattle, thus bringing them in conflict with the wild animals. The guide told us that there are four ‘Gond’ villages inside the thickly forested Tiger Reserve. Many villages have been relocated and rehabilitated over the years. As per the existing package a male adult is considered an independent unit and is entitled to Rs. 10 lac as compensation. Most want the compensation barring the exception of a few who spurn all attempts at persuading them to give up their age-old ways and the frugal traditional existence inside the tiger reserve. Their continuation inside the reserve is, however, getting increasingly dangerous with the rising population of tigers. Curiously enough, the recent tragedies had not caused too much of a flutter as neither the staff at the resort nor the forest guide or the jeep driver seem to be particularly perturbed by the incidents. ‘Gazella’ my younger one, however, was not looking too happy. She made her quiet queries about the possibility of a man-eater pulling off a victim from an open jeep. We reassured her that the safari was completely safe so long as one did not get off the vehicle. There was not much logic in our argument though as Jim Corbett does write about man-eaters forcing their way into closed huts to pick up a victim. True to her creed she is completely risk averse and did not look too convinced as she sat gripping her camera in a state of fearful anticipation.

Entry into the Reserve starts at 6:30 AM. A metalled road leads to a second gate for regulated entry to Taroba range. The jeep drivers while driving towards the Taroba Check-post, take detours through the narrow jungle tracks through the bamboo forests. The growth is too dense for most part of the year for any wild life to be spotted by the amateurs. It is only during the dry season when the foliage declines that one can hope to spot a tiger through the bamboos. The ‘Guide’ gave us his rehearsed introduction to TATR – the Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. There was also a short sermon on ‘the dos and the don’ts’ for the tourists. He pointed to the series of stone pillars along the metalled road that connects Moharli to the Taroba Lake in the north.

Gond Pillar, Moharli-Taroba road, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Gond Pillar, Moharli-Taroba road, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

The pillars had been built by the Gond Rajahs of Chanda (Chandrapur) and bore decorations to announce the passage of the king in the olden days. Each of these stone obelisks was crowned by a curious forked stone. On being questioned about the reason for the same the guide spun some yarn about a rope having been run through these stones that was used for signalling. On another occasion, he told us that the pillars had been built to guide the traders through the forest lest they should lose their path. It was a pity that the Gond guide should have so little knowledge about the history of his people and the significance of the structures that they had built. Many of the pillars had crumbled and had been restored by the forest department. A portion had been plastered and white-washed and bore some unintelligible (to us!) instructions written over it in Marathi. It seemed a rather curious way of preserving these heritage pillars. The Tramp resolved to read up on the history of the Gonds of Chanda and to try and ferret out the real story behind these pillars. It would be fruitful at this point to narrate the story of the Gond Rajahs of Chanda as a brief interlude.

There are varied accounts of the History of Gonds of Chanda (Chandrapur) but their tale has been best told by Major Charles Bean Lucie Smith who was the Deputy Commissioner of Chanda for six long years. Major Smith reportedly loved the area and spent most of his tenure touring and discovering this little known area that came under the British Rule in 1853-54. His accounts of the traditions and folklore of the people of Chanda as well as the history of this Gond Kingdom were first published in the ‘Report on the Land Revenue Settlement of the Chanda district, Central Provinces’ in 1869.

The thickly forested area of Chanda is believed to have been occupied in the 7th century by the three warring tribes of Gowaree, Gond and Mana. The Manas established their pre-eminence around 650 AD and established their fortresses at Soorajgurh and at Manikgurh, high in the hills. The Manas retained their upper hand for some two hundred, strife-torn years until they were toppled by the energetic Gond Chief, Kol Bheel. Kol Bheel united the Gond people and taught them to extract iron from the ore that was plentiful in the area. Bhim Bullal Sing, established himself as the first Gond ‘Raja’ in 870 AD after subduing the rival chiefs and established his capital on the bank of Wurdah River at Sirpoor. A line of descendants strengthened the Gond rule.

Gonds, India and its Native Princes, Louis Rousselet, 1876

Gonds, India and its Native Princes, Louis Rousselet, 1876

In 1207 AD Surja Bullal Sing became the King and led a successful expedition against the Rajput Chief, Mohun Sing of Kaibur who would not give his daughter’s hand in marriage to the Emperor at Delhi. Mohun Sing died on the battlefield and his sword became a war trophy to be passed down the successive generations of the Gond kings. The Emperor conferred vast territories upon the Gond Raja who was now called Sher Shah Bullal Shah and his descendants now substituted ‘Shah’ for ‘Sing’ in their names.

Raj-Gond- The Highlands of Central India, Capt. J. Forsyth (1871)

Raj-Gond- The Highlands of Central India, Capt. J. Forsyth (1871)

His son, Khandkia Bullal Shah succeeded him in 1242 AD. The king had sores on his body that would not heal. To escape the disease he shifted residence from Sirpoor to the opposite bank of Wurdah, where he established a fort at Bullalpoor (modern day Ballarpur). One day while hunting to the north-west of Bullalpoor he grew thirsty and drank water from a hole in the dry bed of Jhurput. The drink partially cured his ailment and he returned to his palace. His joyous queen rode with him to the spot where they discovered that the hole in the rock was actually one of the five footprints of a cow that remained filled with water no matter how much water one drew from them. This was actually the spot where Goddess Mahakali had rooted her handsome son Bhootnath forever on the banks of Jhurput with the seal of a cow’s hoof. He was now ‘Achuleshwur’ – the immovable and could not philander anymore with the wives of the Gods’ who had complained against his conduct to his rather severe mother! Khandkia was bathed in the holy waters and got completely cured. Achuleshwur appeared in the raja’s dream that night and the queen read this as an omen for building a temple at the site of these miraculous healing waters. He was supervising the construction when one day he noticed a hare chasing his dog! The astonished Raja rode after the duo and noticed that while his dog ran in a wide circle the hare took zig-zag shortcuts to catch-up with his dog. The hare caught up at one spot but the dog shook him off and continued his flight. Eventually, they reached the spot where the chase had commenced. The dog now suddenly turned on the hare and killed it. The King noticed a white spot (Chundur) on the forehead of the dead hare. He narrated the episode to his wife who immediately interpreted it to be an omen for building a new fortified city within the circuit of the chase. The city walls were to follow the zig-zag path followed by the hare (as could be made out from the hoof marks of the King’s horse). Special bastions were to be built at the point where the hare had caught up with the dog and the point where the hare had died. The latter point would be vulnerable for the new city. The new city was called ‘Chundur’-pur or Chanda.

Gonds-The Highlands of Central India, Capt. J. Forsyth 1871

Gonds-The Highlands of Central India, Capt. J. Forsyth 1871

Khandkia was succeeded by Heer Shah in 1282 AD, who created rent paying Zamindaris by encouraging his loyalists to clear forests, establish villages and build tanks. He continued with the construction of the city walls and the gates and built a palace on a citadel inside the walls. The Gond chiefs came with their tributes during the annual festivities adorned in peacock feathers, beetle wings and wild berries. They danced and rejoiced and were treated to a banquet by the Raja of Chanda. The City Walls eventually reached their full height after 300 years of construction in 1522 AD.

Gonds of Sahpura Range-The Highlands of Central India, Capt. J. Forsyth (1871)

Gonds of Sahpura Range-The Highlands of Central India, Capt. J. Forsyth (1871)

A dispute between the Gond Rajas of Chanda and Deogurh resulted in a fierce battle with Beer Shah of Chanda severing the head of Doorgpal, the Prince of Deogurh with the ‘Sacred Sword’ of Chanda Kings. The head was offered to Mahakalee and Beer Shah’s wife, Heraee got a new temple built for the Goddess and a stone bust of Doorgpal was installed on the spire. Beer Shah was himself killed by his Rajput bodyguard in 1672 AD when he moved in procession for a second marriage (he had no son from the first). His queen got a beautiful tomb built in the memory of her beloved husband at the spot he fell. Thus, the 800 year old rule of the Bullal Shah dynasty came to an end. Ram Shah, a child from the royal family was adopted by the widow and he ruled Chanda for 63 long years till his death in 1735 AD. A popular king, he built Ramala tank and Ram Bagh in Chanda. His son Neelkunth was defeated by the Maratha Chief, Rughojee Bhonsle in 1751 AD and he died in captivity. The 900 year rule of Gond Rajas of Chanda came to an end and with them crumbled the fortunes of the once powerful Gond tribe. Bullal Shah son of Neelkanth escaped captivity at Bullalpoor fort and attempted a Gond insurrection, but was shot and captured and deported to Nagpur. He was later released and granted a pension of 600 rupees. Yado Shah, the deaf and dumb, great-grandson of Neelkunth was the official ‘Gond Raja’, living on a political pension of Rs. 1490 per annum at the time of the Settlement by Major Lucie Smith.

Tombs of Gond Rajahs of Chanda (1865)

Tombs of Gond Rajahs of Chanda (1865)

Chanda now became a province of the Bhonsla family of Nagpur and was placed under a ‘Sena Dhoorundhur’. The Maratha rule was marred with palace intrigues, murders and conflicts. To add to Chanda’s woes, the Eerai flooded Chanda in 1797 AD. The Pindharee raiders plundered the area and laid it to ruin. Appa Sahib, the Raja of Nagpur accepted British ‘protection’ in 1817 AD. He was arrested by the British Resident, Mr. Jenkins after a foiled intrigue in 1818 AD. The Gonds rose in rebellion and the Killedar of Chanda, Gunga Sing, raised the banner of revolt. The fortified city was besieged by the British troops and their guns breached the city walls, as had been prophesized some 500 years earlier, at the very place where the dog had killed the hare! The British captured the town and sacked it after a short but fierce battle. Chanda was a British Protectorate till 1830 AD and was finally annexed in 1853 AD. Gonds continued to be restive and robbed a British Treasury Escort at Mul, near Chanda in 1852 AD. They participated in the rebellion of 1857 AD but were finally subdued by the British. A defeated people with none left to carry forward the legacy of the 900 year rule of Chanda Kings.

The emblem of the Gond Kings of Chanda was a Lion (Sing) killing an elephant and it can be seen carved in stone on the Chandrapur Fort Gates.

Emblem of Gond Rajas of Chanda

Emblem of Gond Rajas of Chanda

Moharli was a large village some 30 KM north of Chanda and lay on the Chanda-Chimoor road. Moharli was situated amidst thickly forested area and had a large irrigation tank. The villagers grew rice and sugarcane in their fields on the fringes of the forest. Farther north lay the Chimoor hills and Chimoor. Chimoor was a Maratha town some 8o KM north of Chanda which was famous in the 19th century for manufacture of cotton-cloth and carts. People from the surrounding areas flocked to the annual trading fair held in the town in the month of January.

One may also reproduce Major Smith’s brief account of the forests and wild life of Chanda in the second half of the 19th century. Clearly, the tigers of Taroba were as much of a menace even 150 years ago!

Over six thousand miles of the country is the forest, which rolls league upon league one mighty wave of trees, and forms perhaps the most important element in the economy of Chanda, not only affecting the meteorological and agricultural conditions of the district, but making itself felt in questions of administration and trade, and giving to a large class of the people their principal means of support. The finest timber grows on the slopes and summits of the eastern high lands, and the teak and sheshum found there are probably unsurpassed for size or quantity in any other part of India, Beula, tendoo and ein, are widely distributed, the latter in great numbers. Mowah and char grow profusely in all red and sandy soils; and kowah is plentiful in the vicinity of water. Great tracts of bamboo  jungle exist, some of whose canes are of immense size, and bel, cheechwa, doura, ghuraree, huldee, khair, khoosum, kullum, rohun, sheewun and teewus are common. Satin-wood is abundant in the central tracts, but does not attain any large girth. Fan palms grow profusely in the south-east, furnishing a fleshy nut and a pleasant fermented drink; and east of Bhamragurh the mago palm occurs. Wild arrowroot, buhira, wild hemp, hirda, kakursinga and kumela with honey, wax, lac, and tussah cocoons are produced in considerable quantities and the production is capable of indefinite increase.

But much as the forest gives to man, it exacts a heavy tribute in the injury wrought by the wild beasts which find shelter in its recesses. Pre-eminent for evil is the tiger, which not only kills great quantities of cattle, whose death represents the annual loss of many thousands of rupees, but it also destroys much human life- now springing on the herdsman as he tends his cows, now seizing the traveller on the highroad, and now in a jungle hamlet dragging the sleeper from his cot. Indeed no ten miles of country can be traversed without some token being seen attesting the ravages of this dreaded beast. Panthers and leopards are common, and bears abound in the hills. Bison are found on both sides of the Wyngunga, but are most numerous in the eastern forests, where also are herds of wild buffalo; while spotted deer, sambur, neelgai and wild pig roam the forests in immense numbers, and by night-raids inflict grave harm on the cultivated tracts. Fortunately the forests are also inhabited by wild dogs, animals about the size of the English fox and of great voracity, which hunt in large packs, and do something to thin the ranks of deer and pig. The Gonds have it that when wild dogs meet a tiger they never leave it alive, but course round and round in wide circles until at length the tiger becomes blinded by the effluvium of their urine, and being blind eventually perishes from starvation. According to tradition, wild elephants once ranged the Chanda wastes, and under the Mool hills is to be seen a large excavation into which it is said these animals were formerly driven. Pea-fowl, jungle-fowl, water-fowl and other game are plentiful, and in the vicinity of water the woods are alive with the twittering of small birds.

The Gond guide, clearly had had no lessons in history and we hoped that he would fare better at tracking and spotting wildlife in the forest. We had hardly started on the safari when we spotted an elephant feeding on bamboos! The trip seemed to have started on a lucky note!! To our great disappointment we learnt that Taroba has no wild elephants and it was only a tame one that is used for the 5 KM long Elephant-back Safari. .

Tame elephant, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Tame elephant, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

The driver  turned leftwards for a detour through the forest and we followed a virtual train of Gypsys. He speeded along at break-neck speed that allowed little room for any chance spotting of wildlife. We halted briefly at a watering hole. It was a cloudy morning and still too dark to get a clear picture of the crested serpent-eagle and the owl.

Wild Owl, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Wild Owl, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

The eagle’s shrill call rang out through the morning stillness. Our jeep swept through the bamboo thickets to re-emerge on the metalled road. As we stopped at the check post for Taroba range we couldn’t help smiling at the ‘disclaimer’ put out by the TATR authorities by way of a cartoon to warn one against letting one’s expectations run too high.

Disclaimer at Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Chital were beginning to emerge and were grazing timidly in the area around the check post. We drove through the tracks of Taroba range clicking the Sambar and the Chitals that were plentiful.

Chital Stag, TATR

Chital Stag, TATR

Sambar-Mug Shot! Andhari Tiger Reserve

Sambar-Mug Shot! Andhari Tiger Reserve

I spotted a Gaur in the undergrowth and we stopped to allow it to emerge and amble across the road.

Gaur (Indian Bison) Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Gaur (Indian Bison) Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

It was a revelation to me that Gaurs belonged to the cow family and were different from the wild buffaloes!

Bull Bison-The Highlands of Central India, Capt. J.Forsyth (1871)

Bull Bison-The Highlands of Central India, Capt. J.Forsyth (1871)

Gaur, India and its Native Princes, Louis Rousselet, 1876

Gaur, India and its Native Princes, Louis Rousselet, 1876

Gaur- Commemorative Postal Stamp  (7th October 1963)

Gaur- Commemorative Postal Stamp
(7th October 1963)

We drove through beautiful landscapes. The soil was red for most part and the jeep track ran through beautiful golden, rocky grasslands and forests of teak and (S)ein.

Scenic drive, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Scenic drive, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

We finally reached the scenic Taroba lake.

Taroba lake, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Taroba lake, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

There is an interesting legend attached to this beautiful lake. I reproduce Major Smith’s description of the lake and also the popular legend about its mystical origin.

The Chimoor hills commence east of Chimoor, and run due south as far as Mohurlee, and are twenty miles long by six broad, with a height above the plain of 450 feet. Both slopes and summits are covered with thick forest, and all along the foot run numerous springs which never fail. In the basin of the hills is the Taroba Lake, which is far away from any human habitation, and though artificially embanked at one point has all the appearance of a natural lake. The embankment is 401 feet long, 93 broad at top and 60 high, composed of earth and boulders so strong and compact that it is difficult to distinguish the dam from the two hills which it connects. Under the bottom of the dam, and 180 feet above the plain, flows out unceasingly a strong clear stream of water which passes down the narrow valley to the south and then enters the plains, where it irrigates the rice and sugarcane of several villages. The surface area of the lake averages 158 acres, and the depth is probably over 70 feet in the centre and by the embankment. In the early ages, so runs the legend, a marriage procession of Gaolees was passing through the hills from the west. Hot and thirsty they sought for water and found none, when a weird old man suggested that the bride and the bridegroom should join in digging for a spring. Laughingly thet consented, and with a few spade-full’s of earth a clear fountain leapt to the surface. While all were delightedly drinking, the freed waters rose and spread into a wide lake, overwhelming bride and bridegroom and procession; but fairy hands soon constructed a temple in the depths, where dwell in peace the spirits of the drowned. Afterwards on the lake side a palm appeared which from dawn to noon shot up to meet the sun and with the sun sank down, disappearing into the earth as twilight closed. One morning a rash pilgrim seated himself upon the palm top, and was borne into the skies, where the flames of the sun consumed him. The palm then shrivelled into dust, and in its place appeared an image of the spirit of the lake, which is worshipped under the name of Taroba. Formerly at the call of pilgrims all necessary vessels rose from the lake, and after being used were washed and returned to the waters. But at last one evil minded man took those he had received to his home; they quickly vanished, and from that day the mystic provision wholly ceased.

In quiet nights the country folk still hear faint sounds of drum and trumpet passing round the lake; and old men say that in one dry year when the waters sank low, golden pinnacles of a fairy temple were seen glittering in the depths-

“On Taroba’s banks as the fisherman strays

On a cold calm eve’s declining

He sees the fair temples of other days

In the waves beneath him shining”

The lake is much visited, especially in the months of December and January, and the rites of the god are performed by a Gond. Wives seek its waters for their supposed virtue in causing child-bearing, and sick persons for the health they are believed to give. Fish in the lake grow to a large size, the skeleton of one which was stranded some years ago measuring eight feet.

We stopped briefly at the lake to photograph the Black Ibis, the Green Bee Eaters and the Egrets and the beautiful Snake birds.

Black Ibis, Taroba lake, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Black Ibis, Taroba lake, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Snake Bird, Taroba Lake, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Snake Bird, Taroba Lake, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Little Egret, Taroba lake, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Little Egret, Taroba lake, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

A Chital fawn tagged playfully with his alert mother, gawking at the Egrets.

Bank of Taroba Lake, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Bank of Taroba Lake, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Chital fawn, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Chital fawn, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Death was lurking dangerously close. Some of those rocks that protruded from the beautiful lake waters were actually the terrible Gharials waiting patiently for that one false step that would bring its unsuspecting prey within range of its jaws of death.

Marsh Crocodile, Taroba lake, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Marsh Crocodile, Taroba lake, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Taroba has a good population of these marsh crocodiles that can be spotted basking in the sun on the banks of its numerous water bodies and large lakes. Equally numerous are the Crocodile Bark Trees – the Sein with a bark that is creepily close to the skin of a crocodile. Then there was that ivory white leafless ‘Ghost tree’ (Sterculia urens) with its branches resembling the clawed fingers of Satan.

A tigress with four cubs (average litter size is only 2 or 3) had been spotted by a number of tourists. ‘We trailed her along the path and made a video,’ announced a youth triumphantly, to our extreme annoyance. We searched high and low for this elusive tigress but there was no sign of her. The guide would make us park at different locations in the forest, patiently listening for the tell-tale alarm calls but it was all to no avail. Disappointed, we now drove into the large grassy open plain of the erstwhile Ramdegi (Navegaon) village. The village had been relocated in October 2013 to a place outside the reserve. This had released 400 acres of farmland and village land that was now being developed into a grassy plain with small water-bodies in the midst of the thick forest. The mud houses had been pulled down and only a single deserted hut and the village school now marked the site of the once thriving village. The village pond had been deepened and was now surrounded with thick foliage including the pink-flowered, bush Morning Glory. The area was full of birds. I photographed a Shrike. I then got a White-throated Kingfisher near the water body. A flock of Cattle Egrets had descended on the pond for a drink. I photographed Red-wattled Lapwings near the school building.

Shrike, Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Shrike, Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

White-throated Kingfisher, Village pond at ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

White-throated Kingfisher, Village pond at Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Village pond, Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Village pond, Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Red-wattled Lapwings, Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Red-wattled Lapwings, Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

As we turned the bend in the direction of Chimur, I spotted a Common Kestrel (the guide insisted that it was a White-eyed Buzzard) perched on the electricity wires. A babbler-like bird that we could not identify. A beautiful close-up of the resplendent Indian Roller was the ‘Catch-of-the-day!’.

Babbler?

Babbler? Ramdegi, TATR

Common Kestrel, Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Common Kestrel, Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Indian Roller, Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Indian Roller, Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

We then came upon a large Nilgai family with the male blue bull surrounded by his harem of brown coloured females that merged completely with the beautiful golden landscape. I noticed the curious black and white stripes that were visible inside the upright ears. All had the tell tale hairy pendants hanging from the chest which is characteristic of Nilgais.

Nilgai family,  Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Nilgai family, Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Nilgai cow,  Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Nilgai cow, Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Nilgai-bull, Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Nilgai-bull, Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

I photographed a Black-winged Kite but missed the wild boars that scampered for cover.

Black-winged Kite, Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Black-winged Kite, Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Gazella had clicked a nice picture of the Egrets and had now beaten me to it in getting the Wild Boars. I clicked the Angel’s Trumpets of the Sacred Datura – the Witches’ Weed that yields a powerful, toxic hallucinogen that is known to bring delirium and death to the unwary seeker.

Datura flower, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Datura flower, Ramdegi, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

The 65 tigers of Taroba had however decided to give us the cold shoulder. It was mildly breezy and with the sun still hidden behind the clouds it was fairly chilly as we drove back to meet the 11:30 AM deadline for exiting the Moharli Gate. Czarevna’s nose was pink with cold and she sat huddled inside her heavy black jacket with its large furry hood. She never can understand her Dad’s enthusiasm for chasing the un-obliging Striped Cats in dusty, cold environs. We halted briefly to get the picture of a handsome young Gaur as it stood in a clearing munching lazily on the nourishing, golden grass.

Indian Bison (Gaur), Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Indian Bison (Gaur), Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Gaur, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Gaur, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

To our utter surprise the jeep’s engine stalled suddenly in the middle of the forest, some 7 km short of the Moharli Gate. The driver cheerfully announced that we had run out of fuel and would have to hitchhike our way back home!  The guy had made me miss some perfect wildlife pictures earlier that day due to his annoying habit of ignoring directions to halt and scaring the subject away by getting in too close. I struggled to reign in my flaring temper at his cheeky, unapologetic grin. With that novice driver and the poorly trained guide it was a wonder that we had managed to spot anything at all and could hardly blame the tiger for not showing up. ‘The King can’t be expected to oblige a pair of Court Jesters’,I thought wryly. We were eventually ‘rescued’ by an Aunt and her two nieces. The aunt seemed one of the typical matronly women from the Mofussil areas of Maharashtra. She was clad in a saree and had wrapped herself up in a dowdy, black shawl to stave-off the cold. To our surprise, far from being self-conscious about her rather out-of-place attire and appearance she immediately launched herself on quizzing us on the sightings we had made. She pooh-poohed the mention of the grass-eaters. She chuckled mirthfully on learning that we had missed the tigress and her cubs. I felt overawed by her spirited manner and thought it better not to mention the birds lest she should burst out laughing. Having first assured herself of our mediocre performance she then embarked on recounting her own successes. She had managed to see quite a few animals including the elusive tigress (the tail and the hump!). She had also spotted a tiger lying on its back with its belly exposed in the forest close to the Moharli Gate. She had spotted a leopard the day before. She rued having missed the dholes and the sloth-bear and then went on to compare all the wild life sanctuaries and national parks that she had visited. India is a land of surprises! By the end of it we were beginning to feel rather sheepish and I realized that my ‘natgeo-style’’ jungle hat and sun-glasses were looking rather stupid and phony in the presence of that pro!

Her nieces amazed us no less. They were researchers from the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and were working on camera-trap photography of the tigers. These plucky girls were walking several kilometres a day through the Taroba forests that are notorious for their man-eaters. Neither the aunt nor her nieces seemed the least perturbed by the fact that tigers had struck twice in the area on the previous two consecutive days. The girls had obviously inherited the genes of their enterprising aunt. They told us that sightings were best during the hot summers when the entire wildlife congregated on the artificial watering holes maintained by the forest department.

I later reckoned that the girls were a part of the WII team that had arrived to assist the TATR authorities with the Phase IV Tiger Estimation for the year 2014. The Tramp feels that his readers must be briefly introduced to the National Tiger Estimation Programme.

The National Tiger Estimation Programme was started in the year 2006 and involved a 3-Phase approach to estimation:-

  • Phase I involved field data collection (scat samples, rake marks on trunks, pugmarks, scent marks etc) by following a standardized protocol
  • Phase II involved analysis of habitat status of tiger forests using satellite data
  • Phase III involved camera trapping in sample sites for an actual visual count of tigers by identification of individual tigers from the unique pattern of their stripes. This data of actual tiger population in sample sites was then compared to the corresponding data from ground surveys and habitat status and the relationship between the three was used to develop a mathematical equation for estimating tiger densities in areas that had not been camera-trapped.

This 3-Phase estimation yielded for the first time in 2006 a ‘snapshot’ of the tiger population in the entire country. The number was estimated at 1411 (+/- 246). This exercise was repeated in 2010 with the estimate being 1706.

The National Tiger Estimation Programme entered its Phase IV in 2011 with the shift to a camera-trap based intensive, annual monitoring of important ‘source’ populations of tigers in 41 protected areas. The Phase IV methodology for estimation of tigers (and their prey) was developed by the Wildlife Institute of India and the National Tiger Conservation Authority. 25 double-sided cameras are deployed per 100 square kilometres with a minimum trapping effort of 1000 trap nights per 100 square kilometres. Thus, the Camera Trapping was no longer to be restricted to sample sites and was now going to be adopted at the Tiger Reserve Level.

The first Phase IV estimation of tiger population in TATR was done in 2012, when the tiger population in the 1325 Sq. Km Core and Buffer area was estimated at 65. This exercise was restricted to the Core area in 2013 due to intense man-animal conflict in the Buffer zone. The tiger population in the Core area was estimated at 41 in 2013.

The exercise for 2014 was now underway and the girls were a part of the 6 member WII team that was helping in the setting-up of camera traps. The TATR authorities had divided the entire reserve into 4 blocks and would be deploying 320 camera traps in one block at a time.

We finally reached our resort and alighted from the jeep after thanking the ladies. Our garishly painted resort had the advantage of being located just outside the Moharli Gate and its garden was full of colourful avian visitors from the surrounding forest and lakes. I scouted around to get some pictures to get over the day’s disappointing run. I started with the owner’s pet Turkey! A rather ugly-looking creature that would sooner-or-later end up on a Christmas table.

Turkey, Moharli

Turkey, Moharli

I then got a Pond Heron from close-quarters. This was followed by an Oriental Magpie Robin.

Pond Heron, Moharli, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Pond Heron, Moharli, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Oriental Magpie Robin, Moharli, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Oriental Magpie Robin, Moharli, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

A Coucal skulked around in a tree and defied my efforts to get a photo. There were also a Drongo, a Bee-eater and an Indian-Robin in that Noah’s backyard. A Yellow-Oriole tap-tapped our bedroom window and the Gazella managed a quick picture through the glass. We had a garden-brunch and decided to rest for the afternoon safari.

The afternoon safari turned out to be rather uneventful. We had a new guide this time but this did not change our luck. It was no tiger again. But I did manage some nice pictures of Chitals and Sambars and also of a Muggermachh (Marsh Crocodile) that was lazing in the sun on the bank of a small pond.

Chital stag, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Chital stag, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Sambar deer, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Sambar deer, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Marsh Crocodile, TATR

Marsh Crocodile, TATR

We traversed up and down the forest tracks. I noticed that the Rhesus Macaque is completely absent in these forests though the Grey langur is present in considerable numbers.

Grey-Langur family, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Grey-Langur family, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

I got a close-up of a Bee-eater and an against-the-sun shot of a Serpent Eagle. The Gazella is quick on the button and got a nice picture of the bee-eaters.

Bee-eater, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Bee-eater, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Serpent Eagle, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Serpent Eagle, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

We drove along the Taroba Lake several times and went up to Ramdegi grassland a second time. The Nilgai family was still there and it scampered away on spotting us this time. The lakeside bungalow of the Field-Director of TATR looked enchanting and I once again rued having landed up in the wrong job. A large, shy boar with an impressive mane refused to emerge from its camouflaged position and pose for the picture that would have made him famous.

Wild Boar, Taroba- Andhari Tiger Reserve

Wild Boar, Taroba- Andhari Tiger Reserve

We enjoyed a long leisurely evening in the garden recounting the day’s experiences. The light evening breeze, the wine in plastic goblets, Gazella’s cheerful prattle and Czarevna’s soulful singing made it a memorable affair. We drove down the road towards Chandrapur through the forested area (outside the Reserve) after dinner to try our luck at late-night spotting. We spotted a large rodent that looked like the mongoose but could well have been a porcupine. Our headlights picked up a hare sprinting across the road. This one was chasing no dog!! The desolate moonlit Eriam lake was looking eerie and beautiful. There was no question of sitting by the banks of Eriam at night. It’s the time when the Muggermachh emerges from the waters to hunt on land. It sits in ambush on the forest trails leading to the lake and waits patiently for an unsuspecting prey to come within its deadly reach. The unfortunate victim is seized and dragged into the water to be drowned and devoured. There were no blood-curdling roars by the tiger that night. 

The morning of day two also turned out to be rather chilly. We shivered in the breeze as we sat huddled up inside the open jeep waiting for the gate to open and to be allowed a one last chance at spotting the tiger. We were continuing with our guide of the second safari as he had seemed promising. We had barely entered the Reserve when he took us on a detour along a mesmerizingly beautiful lake. This was the Teliya Lake that lies close to the Moharli Gate.

Teliya Lake, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Teliya Lake, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

The jeep track wound around the bank of the lake in a virtual ‘parikrama’. A fine mist hung over the still waters. A large flock of ‘Whistling Teals’ had descended on the lake and their wheezy calls filled the morning air, as they waddled around noisily in the shallow waters near the bank. The light was yet not very good but Gazella and I attempted to capture these noisy, long necked ducks.

Whistling-teal, Teliya lake, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Whistling-teal, Teliya lake, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Just then, the guide heard an alarm call by a Sambar and motioned the driver to halt. As we listened with anticipation the stillness of the bamboo forest suddenly registered on us despite the cacophony of the ducks in the background. We waited for the Striped Cat to step into the open but there were no further sounds. The guide now picked up the pugmarks of a tiger and also the human-like tracks of a sloth-bear.

He pointed to the globular flowers of a flowering bamboo-clump and told us that we were witnessing a rare phenomenon as the bamboos flower in Taroba only once every few decades.

Bamboo flowering,  Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Bamboo flowering, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Bamboo flowering is a phenomenon that has a lot of mystery and folklore attached to it. It is popularly believed across cultures that the flowering of bamboos bodes ill for the people as it is invariably followed by a period of widespread famines and starvation. It is now realized that the flowering of bamboos triggers an exponential increase in the rodent population that feeds on the highly-nutritive bamboo seeds that get scattered on the ground after the flowering. The seeds germinate after the rains thereby causing the food supply to disappear. The rodent army then destroys the crops and stored grains thereby triggering famines. Mizoram experienced thousands of starvation deaths in the famine of 1959 that was caused by the rodent outbreak after the bamboo flowering in 1958. Such a catastrophic flowering of bamboos is referred to by the botanists as ‘Gregarious Flowering’. The bamboos of one particular species suddenly flower and produce seeds irrespective of their geographical location. The bamboo plant expends so much energy in the process that it dies out thereafter. This mass flowering and subsequent death of a particular species is a rare and an awe-inspiring event. The botanists explain this apparently mystical phenomenon by the fact that bamboo is invariably replicated by division and re-division of the stem of the ‘mother plant’. The bamboos that develop from these divisions are all the same age as the mother plant. The timing for the flowering is believed to be hidden in the genetic code of the bamboo plant so that when the time is right, say after a hundred years, the mother plant and all its ‘clones’ flower at the same time as they are the same age. Thus bamboo plants that have originated from the same parent plant die at the same time across continents!! The hidden trigger for this mass flowering is as yet one of the unexplained mysteries of nature. Some bamboo species are known to flower sporadically or even annually without the subsequent death of the flowering plant. The plant dies after flowering only in the case of mass-flowering.

We could see that some of the bamboo clumps had died out after the flowering. Was an ecological catastrophe developing in front of our eyes? The bamboos in the Chandrapur forests are said to have flowered in 1982-83 when they triggered an insect outbreak with the swarms feeding on the bamboo seeds and then attacking the surrounding vegetation. Many birds are known to feed on the bugs that feed on the seeds. Some, like the Jungle-fowl, also feed on the seeds. Thus, it cannot be disputed that bamboo flowering does bring in a major change to the local ecology one way or the other.

Environmentalists do caution against the risk from forest fires, which can destroy the bamboo seeds before they germinate with the onset of the monsoons. The flowering bamboo clumps are also sometimes burnt down by the locals to prevent the looming danger of a rodent outbreak. The destruction of seeds by fire can potentially break the cycle of natural regeneration of bamboo and cause an irreversible change to the forest ecology.

Major Lucie Smith makes a reference to the bamboo flowering in Chanda district in his Settlement Report that is reproduced for the readers.

” The uses of the Bamboo, are almost infinite, and it could probably be the least spared by the people of all the products of the forest. It is of two kinds — the common and the Kutung Bamboo. The first grows in all light soils, and in each clump there will be one or two canes which shoot up above the others, with only a small hollow at the core, being the “male Bamboo”, so prized for the shafts of hog-spears. The Kutung is much larger than the common species, attaining a height of sixty feet, with a corresponding thickness of stem, and grows chiefly on the banks of streams. In the Khalsa country it is found principally in the dense Mohurlee forest, but the Zemindarees have it in great abundance. During the rains the young cane shoots from the ground, and being then tender, though of considerable thickness, are boiled and eaten by the Gonds. It seeds at irregular intervals, and the produce is carefully collected for food. With the effort the Kutung dies, and people of all classes believe that seeding only takes place during years of scarcity. My own experience is, that in each year since 1864, various clumps of Kutung have seeded in succession; but when mentioning this fact to the advocates of the theory of a special Providence in the matter I was met by the question- Have not those years been all times of scarcity among the poor? And as I could not answer in the negative, the theory was supposed to be triumphantly confirmed out of the mouth of a disbeliever.”

We re-emerged on the metalled road to Taroba Gate and stopped briefly to photograph the Yellow-footed Green Pigeons.

Green Pigeons, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Green Pigeons, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

We drove through the Taroba gate and were following the forest track to the lake when our guide picked up fresh pugmarks of a tiger. Our luck seemed to be finally turning around and we followed the tracks with nervous anticipation.

Tiger pugmark,   Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Tiger pugmark, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

The suspense seemed to have gotten even to Her Royal Highness, The Czarevna of Mornee, and she demanded to be told, every few minutes, whether the tracks were still there. She had, until this moment, been unable to understand what that ado was all about and found it stupid to be driving up and down that dusty road for that two-minute thrill of having caught a glimpse of that highly discourteous striped cat.  It was high time, she thought, that one of these miserable Taroba tigers showed some grace and put in an appearance to end this ridiculous game of hide-and-seek. She would certainly be glad to over and done with the tiger chase head back home to saner pursuits.

To our disappointment the trail disappeared after some distance. The guide figured out that the tiger had left the track to seek the safety of a nallah that was enshrouded by a thick bamboo growth. We decided to continue along the track that ran parallel to the nallah and presently came upon a number of jeeps parked along the forest track. The excited safarists had their cameras pointed at the bamboo clumps that grew on the nallah bank and looked at us with open irritation for disturbing the peace. Our jeep had barely trundled to a stop when the tiger let out a short roar, more of an irritated growl, from somewhere inside the thick undergrowth. ‘It’s coming out,’ whispered our guide and we waited with bated breath for the big moment. I had my finger on the trigger (camera button), not wanting to be beaten to the draw. It was our turn to glare at those pesky ‘latecomers’, who were ruining the chances of a tiger sighting with the ruckus that their jeeps were creating. We waited for the King to grant an audience to his loyal subjects but it was not to be. The tiger never came out. ‘It must be walking down the nallah,’ reckoned our guide and we moved up to a spot where the nallah emerged from the undergrowth in a large clearing. The track bordered the fields of a village, one of the four that were yet to be relocated. We were told that a tiger had killed a wild boar in the fields the previous day and had the dragged its kill into the nallah. All the guides seemed to have hit upon the same idea and caused their drivers to endlessly manoeuvre the jeeps to capture the vantage point for sighting the tiger when it emerged from the nallah. We participated in this pointless ‘circus’ and wondered with irritation why the guides did not understand that no tiger was likely to show up with all that commotion that the jeeps were creating. A local villager and his wife appeared on foot and were heading in the direction from where we had heard the roar. Our guide warned them against venturing any further in that direction and they reluctantly agreed to turn back. It was not far from this spot that the man from Kolara had been mauled to death by the man-eater  just two days back and it was beyond my comprehension as to how that adivasi couple could dare to walk  through this dangerous area with such complete nonchalance.

We wasted the morning waiting for the tiger which did not appear. We finally called it a day and headed home. It was sunny and warm and we noticed the unusually high number of Sambars basking in the sun in the open. They had clearly not heard the roars of that nallah tiger.

Sambar fawn, Taroba- Andhari Tiger Reserve

Sambar fawn, Taroba- Andhari Tiger Reserve

I clicked a curious small mud embankment covered with straw mats to prevent erosion. Was it the traditional Gond way of damming up nallahs?

Bandh, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Bandh, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

As we stopped briefly at the Taroba Gate I noticed a camera fixed on the bonnet of a jeep with an improvised mechanism for clicking pictures with the tug of a string. I wondered what its possible utility could be.

Camera on jeep bonnet, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Camera on jeep bonnet, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

The Bison of the previous day was standing at exactly the same spot, feasting on the grass. A diminutive barking deer watched us shyly for some time and then disappeared into the bush, its upright white tail bobbing in the air cutely behind him.

Barking Deer, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Barking Deer, Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

We drove past a Gond bullock cart as we bid adieu to this land of the Chanda Kings.

Gonds inside Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Gonds inside Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

Our tryst with the elusive tigers of Taroba would have to wait for another day.

P.S.

Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve

The Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve made a modest beginning in 1935 when an area of 45 square miles of forest at Taroba, around the Chimur Hills to the north of Chanda district,  was declared as a ‘Reserve’ forest by the British-Indian Government. This provided some measure of protection to the wildlife in the area and its habitat. Two decades later, in 1955, the Taroba Reserve Forest was declared as a National Park. Three decades later in 1986, the 509 Sq. Km area of the adjoining forest land that was drained by the Andhari River was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary. The Taroba National Park and Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary were then merged in 1995 to establish the Taroba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) over the combined area of 625 Sq. Km. TATR became one of the 41 ‘Tiger Reserves’ under ‘Project Tiger’, with the reserve area being divided into Taroba, Moharli and Kolsa Zones.

The tiger reserve is bounded to the north and the west by the Chimur hills that have a rugged landscape with steep valleys, cliffs and caves. The land slopes gently towards the south and the forests thin out somewhat beyond the Taroba Lake that forms the southern boundary of the thick forests to the north.  The Taroba forests are of the mixed-deciduous type and are dominated by Teak and Bamboo. Ain, Semal, Palash, Haldu, Tendu, Baheda and Mahuaa are some of the major species of flora. The fauna includes the Bengal tiger, Leopard, Gaur, Sloth Bear, Dhole, Nilgai, Sambar, Chital, Barking Deer, Chausingha, Civets and the Striped-Hyena. The tiger reserve has numerous big and small lakes like Taroba, Teliya and Kolsa. It is bound on the South-West by the Eriam River and reservoir near Moharli. The lakes and the marshy areas in and around TATR have a rich population of the dreaded Mugger, the Marsh Crocodile. Pythons, Indian Star Tortoise, Indian Monitor, Cobra and Russell’s viper are the other prominent reptiles. The Crested-Serpent Eagle, the Changeable-Hawk Eagle and Fish-Eagle are the prominent species of avian fauna.

Tourists make their entry to TATR for open-top jeep safaris through gates located at different points with the Moharli Gate being the most popular amongst the tourists. Moharli is generally approached through Chandrapur which is 140 KM from Nagpur. The Kolara Gate also caters to a large number of tourists. The gates at Zari, Navegaon, Kuswanda and Pangdi are less popular. In all about 50 odd safari jeeps are allowed into the reserve through its different gates for the 4 hour long morning and afternoon safaris. The permit for the jeep safari is issued from the office of DFO, Chandrapur District. The jeeps can be locally hired and generally charge Rs. 1800/- per safari (Rs. 300/- for the Guide). The timing for the morning safari is from 6 AM to 10 AM (6:30 to 10:30 in winters). The afternoon safari is from 2:30 PM to 6:30 PM (1:30 to 5:30 in winters). TATR remains closed to tourists on Tuesdays.

Tramping in Tiger Country

It was past two in the afternoon when our car rolled into the driveway of Kingfisher, Haryana Tourism Department’s motel on the tri-junction on NH-1 at Ambala where it meets NH-22 that traverses 460 KM to the north-west to reach Khab on the Tibet border. Kingfisher started its journey as a tastefully styled motel and is a part of the chain of 40 odd Government-run motels that dot Haryana’s highways. Each of the motels is named after a different bird and much of the infrastructure was created in late 60s and early 70s when the mercurial Bansi Lal, the architect of modern Haryana, was its Chief Minister. The aesthetics and upkeep of the motels has taken a beating over the ensuing decades and Kingfisher’s interiors look dated and tacky. I was late for the scheduled rendezvous with the Scribe and he had most predictably reached on time and was waiting impatiently for us to start our journey. His vintage station-wagon had been given a nice wash and a rub and the old lady gleamed cheerfully under the pleasant mid-October sun. As I hurriedly shifted my bags from my car the Scribe examined the ankle-length shoes I had picked up for him at the factory outlet at Karnal. He had wanted the canvas jungle-boots that I had been using for the treks for some time and could barely conceal his disappointment at having to settle for the leatherette version as the canvas shoe was out-of-stock. The Scribe is generally not bothered about what he wears but is somehow extremely finicky about his shoes. We waved our goodbyes to my family who were continuing with their journey to Delhi and we were off.
Off for a 10-day Training Program on Wildlife Conservation that was being organized by the Wildlife Institute of India at Dehradun. We hoped to interact with the country’s leading experts on wildlife. The email by the course director had promised a 5 day camping and trekking experience in some of the finest tiger and elephant habitats in the foothills of the Himalayas and we could barely contain our ‘school-boyish’ excitement. It was a ‘men only’ trip and it felt refreshing and thrilling to be out on an adventure. Managing the leave from office had proved surprisingly easy. It’s not every day that a guy asks for leave to attend a paid training course and our respective bosses had decided against playing spoil sport. The Scribe had pinched his wife’s Bluetooth speaker for the trip and I had the music of the romantic 70s going as we made our way along NH 72 through the hilly tract from Kala Amb to Nahan to cross the Yamuna at Paonta Sahib. We continued on the Chakrata road and it was dark by the time we reached Dehradun. We were driving by the Google Map directions on my phone and we honked our way through the busy bazaars crowded with the Dussehra festivities as we found our way to the WII Campus at Chandrabani. A prominent flex signage announcing the start of the training program greeted us at the main gate. It was clear that the institute meant business and that it was going to be a ‘busy’ holiday.
We asked for directions for the New Hostel where the course participants had been assigned accommodation on twin-sharing basis. We had been assigned the same room on our request and it reminded me of the room I had lived in, some two-decades earlier, during my University days. It had two wooden cots with rather stiff-looking mattresses. There was a pillow and a blanket for each bed. We had a plastic jug for water. There was a small ante-room where a kitchen area had been created with a sink and a shelf. A small table with drawers was placed between the cots. There was an attached bathroom and a door opened into the balcony outside. It was quite dark and we could make out nothing from the balcony besides the outlines of thick undergrowth and the night time sounds of insects. We were to wait for dinner at the old hostel as a Dussehra function was in progress at the auditorium. We decided to take a stroll around the campus while we waited for the dinner. All major buildings had a curious architecture and were made to resemble gigantic tents of concrete. The campus had some impressive Sal trees and pockets of thick ground cover. Presently, the WII ‘family’ emerged noisily from the auditorium and trooped to the large dining area of the ‘Old’ Hostel. Nobody seemed to take any notice of us ‘oddballs’ in the din and we meekly tagged along trying to locate our course director. We had started with the soup when he finally appeared and shook our hands warmly. I noticed the natural confidence and athletic build of the man as he introduced us to the other participants. For reasons more than one, the ‘Tramp’ has decided to christen him as the ‘Tiger-man’. He was the in-charge of our training and was going to be assisted by the ‘Bird-man’, a lean, spectacled and more serious looking colleague of his. There was the usual exchange of pleasantries and we headed to our room after the dinner.
The first acquaintance in our training batch of 15 was made that night with ‘100-400’. A tall, sun-burnt, outdoor man, who was working with the World Wildlife Fund on a project to deploy trap-cameras for photographing the Sunderbans tiger in the wild. His work entailed long hours on the boat through the swamps of the dense mangrove forest and he awed us with a rare video of a male tiger with a cub. A friendly, easy-to-get-along-with guy with the best camera lens (100-400) in the group! We would all watch with envy as he would hammer his distant subjects with a burst of photographs. The intent look on his face, the staccato whirring of the camera and the massive zoomed-out lens made him resemble the battle-hardy Vietnam-war combatant of the kill-all mortar squad!
And then there was the ‘Charmer’, a jovial, affectionate, happy-hearted youngster, who had quit a banking job out of boredom and was experimenting with free lance photography. His infectious, unaffected laughter filled the air all through the course and lifted our flagging spirits whenever the going got tough on the impossibly long treks.
We settled down for the night after fortifying ourselves with the good old, literal-and-proverbial, bottle of rum. The Scribe complained about the lumpy mattress. He had of course carried his own pillow from home! His pillow has to be the right thickness!! And of course a sleep-mask, to cut out the ambient light!! Life is not easy for these forty-something insomniacs.
We wore woken up in the morning with the rude clanging of the doorbell. It was the mess-boy with the morning tea. We carried our cups to the balcony and woke up to a refreshing view of a wetland landscape. The institute has created its own water-body by building a dam across a stream that runs through the campus. The marshy area all along this stream and the man-made lake has been allowed to grow wild and is completely overgrown with shrubs. A micro-habitat of sorts has been successfully created over the years around this lake and it now boasts of a rich bird life. The ‘New Hostel’ building has been set up on the southern bank of the lake and we had been luckily assigned a room on the lake facing side.

New Hostel, WII

New Hostel, WII

The birds seemed to have woken up to the morning at the same time as us. It was a treat to watch them lazily shake off the last remnants of sleep and groom themselves in preparation of yet another busy day in search of food. I generally require several more cups of tea for achieving the ‘tipping point’ that can no longer be attained by the action of gravity alone. So a full hour would be spent each morning watching the birds, some of which I managed to photograph.

White-throated Kingfisher, WII, Dehradun

White-throated Kingfisher, WII, Dehradun

White-breasted Waterhen, WII Dehradun

White-breasted Waterhen, WII Dehradun

Small Blue Kingfisher, WII, Dehradun

Small Blue Kingfisher, WII, Dehradun

White-earred, yellow vented Bulbul, WII

White-earred, yellow vented Bulbul, WII

Godwit? WII Dehradun

Godwit? WII Dehradun

Spot-billed ducks, WII, Dehradun

Spot-billed ducks, WII, Dehradun

White-browed Bush Robin, WII Dehradun

White-browed Bush Robin?? WII Dehradun

White-browed fantail, WII Dehradun

White-browed fantail, WII Dehradun

The WII lake is surrounded by pockets of thickly growing Sal trees and foliage to its east and west and a nature track has been created around the lake that runs through this miniature forest.

WII Campus, Dehradun

WII Campus, Dehradun

The faculty have photographed leopard visits on this track on several occasions using a trap camera. Also residing on the campus in this lake-forest is the Yellow-throated Marten in addition to the several species of birds. There is also the not so fascinating (to the tramp!) population of reptiles including the cobra, the krait, the viper, the yellow-headed tortoise and the monitor lizard. Then there is the large population of the pesky Rhesus Macaque that far exceeds the ‘carrying capacity’ of this pocket-sized habitat and poses a nuisance to the tranquil environs of the institute. WII is itself located on the northern-eastern fringe of the Rajaji National Park which is a big contributing factor to the richness of the wildlife that resides on the campus. The stream emerges from the Rajaji Park to the south of the institute and runs through the campus to join a larger stream to the north-west that runs westwards to join the Asan River that drains the western half of the ‘Dehra’ valley (dun). Asan in turn meets the Yamuna at Paonta Sahib that marks the western limit of the Rajaji National Park.

The Rajaji National Park was created in 1982 with the merger of the Rajaji, Motichur and Chilla Wildlife Sanctuaries. It is spread over 820 Sq. Km in the Shivalik hill region and is home to several wildlife species including the Asian Elephant, the Bengal Tiger, the Leopard, the Sloth Bear, the Himalayan Black Bear, the Goral, the  Sambar, the Nilgai, the Cheetal, the Barking deer and the Python. It has an equally rich presence of Avian Fauna of pheasants, woodpeckers, barbets, kingfishers and hornbills. The park is named after C. Rajagopalachari who was presented with a hunting reserve near Dehradun on his appointment as Independent India’s second Governor-General. A Gandhian and a pacifist, this austere Tamil Brahmin had no use for a hunting reserve and desired that the forest be made a safe-haven for the wildlife. Thus came into existence, the Rajaji Sanctuary that has today taken the shape of a vast National Park.

C. Rajagopalachari Commemorative Postal Stamp 25th Dec 1973

C. Rajagopalachari Commemorative Postal Stamp 25th Dec 1973

Interestingly enough, we later learnt that the final notification of the Rajaji National Park had been issued only days before, after a long wait of over three decades.

WII Campus- General Landscape

WII Campus- General Landscape

The mess-boy banged on our door to announce that the breakfast had been served. The bird-man joined us for the bread-and-omelette breakfast and walked us to our ‘Porta-cabin’ classroom well in time for the inaugural session.

Porta-cabin Classroom

Porta-cabin Classroom

We gradually discovered that WII followed a military-style discipline for running its courses. The institute was treating us gang-of-amateurs with utmost seriousness and it was probably a shade more than what us pretenders-to-the-cause-of-conservation possibly could deserve. The training course was formally inaugurated by the dean who gave us an overview of the field of wildlife conservation. Then followed a series of detailed presentations and lectures on different endangered species of wildlife and their habitats, by the respective subject experts.

2nd Course

2nd Training Program on Wildlife Conservation

We had a number of classes on the ‘large carnivores’, the first and foremost being the tiger. It was explained at the outset that the obsession of the conservationists with the tiger emanated from the fact that its survival signified the protection of a large ecological area that supported most other indigenous species of flora and fauna. Tiger is the ‘apex’ predator and the conservation of tiger habitat automatically signifies the conservation of all other species that exist lower down in the food chain. It is a kind of ‘ecological thermometer’ that gives us a measure of the health of the ecology. For the tiger to survive, its natural habitat comprising forests and the grasslands must survive. The forests support its natural prey, the large ungulates. Thus the cheetal, the sambar deer and the nilgai will survive in sufficient numbers only when their habitat is not ravaged by grazing of cattle. When the natural water sources are not poisoned by discharge of untreated urban sewage and industrial effluents. When the poachers don’t go unchallenged and unpunished. The tiger has always lived on its own terms, with the natural dignity and majesty of the ‘King’. It will not adapt beyond a point for mere survival. Thus unlike the wily leopard it shall not stoop to preying on village dogs and rodents once the Cheetal and Sambar have disappeared. It will not reconcile to scavenging of dead cattle like the lazy Asiatic lion of Gir. It needs to stalk and hunt down its ungulate prey like its ancestors have done through the ages. The male tiger with its large home range needs access to a large, unbroken stretch of forest to claim as its own. Fragment its habitat with highways and urban pockets and you might as well shoot down the majestic cat. For the males shall perish in the fight for territory. The species shall disappear through in-breeding if condemned to live in small isolated pockets of forests by the march of human ‘progress’ and colonisation. The lessons for conservation were simple and I shall list the core ideas I picked up.

  1. Relocate human settlements from the core areas of tiger habitat to minimize man-animal conflict. The tiger is generally wary of human contact but it remains an unpredictable animal. It can get aggressive if surprised. The tigress in heat can be irritable and nasty without provocation. Human casualties from such accidental encounters turn the locals to vengeful killing of the tigers through poisoning and snares. So does poaching of their cattle. Relocation minimizes such conflict and also saves the habitat from pressure of grazing and lopping and helps boost the natural prey population in the ‘liberated’ areas.
  2. Prevent fragmentation of habitats. Invest in elevated highways where roads must cut through forest areas instead of blocking development which would eventually turn people away from the cause of conservation. Create corridors to connect wildlife habitats by encouraging farmers to shift to agro-forestry.
  3. Put down poaching with a heavy hand. The pride and passion with which the Rhinos find protection in Kaziranga deserves emulation.

Experts shared their experience with the reintroduction of the tiger in Panna and Sariska National Parks. The Tiger-man spoke of the challenges involved in introducing tiger to the eastern part of Rajaji National Park, i.e., east of Ganga river. We were told that the Corbett National Park had achieved its carrying capacity for tigers and that they were now moving westwards through the corridor provided by the hilly, Lansdowne Forest Division to the Chilla forest range to the east of Ganga. A move was afoot to secure this corridor and the Union Forest & Environment Ministry had recently accorded an ‘in-principle’ approval for the inclusion of the Kotari, Laldhang, Kotdwara and Kalagarh ranges of the Lansdowne Forest Division in the neighbouring ‘Corbett Tiger Reserve’. The movement of tigers further west was interrupted by the Haridwar-Rishikesh highway and railway line, the Chilla Power Channel with its steep banks and the Army Ordnance Depot at Raiwala that was smack in the centre of the narrow corridor used by the wildlife for moving from the Chilla to Motichur range. An elevated road was under construction for past several years for replacing the existing Haridwar-Rishikesh road. The Army was also considering shifting its depot.  The next frontier was the Yamuna river beyond which lay the Simbalwara Wildlife Sanctuary, the Kalesar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary and the Morni hill forests that were once famous for tigers.

The Terai Arc

The Terai Arc

All this meant a greater commitment by the nation and we vowed to do our bit for igniting the passion in our community for the cause of conservation. One thing seemed obvious to the Tramp that at least some of us need to focus our energies on convincing our political leaders to commit greater resources to conservation efforts. We cannot simply wait for such time in the distant future when change shall follow from the education of the masses to the cause, as the game would have been irrevocably lost long before that.
Apart from the tiger, we also had a series of lectures on other important endangered species. We were told about the amazing success of the conservation programme of the Asiatic lion in Gir. How the lion had adapted to coexisting with the human kind. How the lions roam freely after sunset through the villages that lie on the fringes of Gir. How man-animal conflict has been reduced through a generous Government policy of providing quick compensation for the occasional poaching of cattle by the lions. We learnt about the reclusive ways of the Snow Leopard and its pictures taken by trap cameras. And about the ‘Chiru’ antelope of the Tibetan Plateau that has been mercilessly hunted at those impossible altitudes for its precious wool that is woven into ‘Shahtoosh’ shawls by the Kashmiri weavers. We were introduced to the temperamental Himalayan Black Bear in Kashmir’s Dachigam National Park. We were amused to hear the incredible story of a radio-collared bear that stubbornly resisted its removal from a human habitation area. The bear would promptly make its way back to the original place despite being repeatedly tranquilized and captured. We were educated about the differences between the Asiatic and the African Elephant. How the pachyderm is an efficient forest gardener. How its poor digestion yields fibrous dung that provides nutrients to the soil and helps in germination of seeds. How the elephant herd uses its brute strength for forcing its way through dense forests leaving a path (the ‘haathi-dandi’) to be followed by animals and humans alike. How the flapping of its massive ears reduces its body temperature by causing cooling of blood in superficial blood vessels. How its height at shoulder is twice the circumference of its forefoot. There was a class on the natural regeneration of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve after restrictions were imposed on entry of tourists and mountaineering expeditions. We were told about the differences between turtles and tortoises. How the sex of the turtle offspring is determined by the temperature at the time of incubation. How global warming may wipe out entire species by disturbing the natural sex ratios. Then there was the presentation on snakes. We were introduced to the ‘Big Four’ of the venomous snakes of India (those that cause the maximum deaths!) – the Cobra, the Krait, the Saw-Scaled Viper and the Russell ’s viper. We were told about the differences in their venoms. The Cobra bite hits the nervous system and causes respiratory failure, the Viper’s bite causes bleeding and the Krait’s bite causes muscular paralysis. Many die of sheer fright even when most bites can be treated with Anti-Snake Venom within four hours of the bite. The presentation included a picture of the hand of the young presenter, after being bitten by a Common Krait! There was an extended session on wildlife forensics. How wildlife species could be identified from hair, bones, scats etc. We were shown the state-of-the-art DNA fingerprinting facility where DNA profiling of endangered species is done. The WII scientists can tell with reasonable accuracy from which part of the country a tiger has been poached by studying its DNA profile. We learnt about the Himalayan birds. The bio-diversity of the Western Ghats.
The classroom sessions were interspersed with tea breaks that afforded an opportunity for chit-chat and we gradually got introduced to the faculty and all our interesting course-mates.
One may start with the ‘Tiger-man’, for he is quite much as interesting as the magnificent, striped feline he studies. One cannot help but be drawn by his natural magnetism, the unaffected confidence with which he conducts himself and the charm of his understated wit. Later through the course when he led us through the forests we also got a taste of his remarkable endurance, his tiger-like love for ‘territory’ and the reckless streak that lies hidden under the cool exterior. An affable man whose smile never really reaches his eyes. A man whose passion for his work, commands respect. A friendly, likeable man you would definitely not want to trifle with!! He started his career with the study of nesting sites of the Olive-Ridley sea turtle on the coast of Odisha. The nesting season sees the simultaneous ‘landing’ of thousands of female turtles on the beach, who hurriedly bury their eggs in sand before returning to the safety of the seas. Not much is known about the behaviour patterns and movement of this small sea turtle. Our man spent two years of his life catching and tagging turtles in high-seas. A hermit living alone on a lonely island off the coast of Odisha, with only his two assistants for company. But he is not the one for being tied down to a spot for long. The restlessness within compels him to seek out new challenges. To brave new dangers! He left the obscurity of the turtles for the romance with the tiger. Maybe he answered to the call of his destiny that promises him a place in the sun. He has since been working in the Terai-arc that forms the tiger’s last surviving habitat in the north, systematically studying its movement and behaviour. He is intimately involved with photographing the tiger population in the arc by setting up camera-traps.  He works on developing a knowledge base that can convince the nation and powers that be, to do what needs to be done to save the ‘King of the Jungle’ and its fascinating world from certain extinction.The Tramp could not resist pinching for his readers the Tiger-man’s prized photograph of a tiger watching Haridwar town from atop a hill taken by a camera-trap , a King cornered by the march of human civilization.

Award wining Camera trap photograph (Courtesy the Tiger-man, WII)

Then there was the lovable ‘Bird-man’ – soft-spoken and refined. A dedicated field-researcher. A man who spent years chasing his beloved birds living amongst the rat-eating tribes of the Far East (it was a pity that his ornithological pursuits did not leave room for a study of the quaint primitive cultures of these little known jungle tribes). A born teacher. He was there with us all through- the classes, the meals, the excursions, the bus journeys and the forest treks. He would patiently answer our every little query, however laughable, with utmost sincerity and seriousness. He was now engaged in a study to understand the reasons for the decline in diversity of bird species as one moves westwards along the Himalayas. He was also involved in a programme to tag the Amur falcons that briefly touch Nagaland on their long migration from Siberia to Southern Africa. It was amusing to see this serious scientist blush when kidded about the risks of being married to a spider-woman!!
And now for something about our other course mates. The ‘Hawk-eye’ – a sensitive young man, on a silent journey of self-discovery. He had returned from across the seas and was currently ‘between jobs’. A thorough gentleman, always alert to the needs of others. But what set him apart from all the rest of us, was that incredible hawk-eye vision that could pick-up the smallest of birds from the most impossible of distances. No camouflage seemed good enough to conceal a bird from his roving eyes. We would all follow the direction of his finger as he would announce his discovery with sudden excitement. The zoom lens would go whirring out and binoculars would be hastily focused with trembling hands as we scanned the landscape impatient to make the spotting. The Bird-man would then have us amazed by reeling off facts about the bird species in his scholarly, matter-of-fact style. And most of us would still be trying to spot the miserable bird!! Between the two of them, they were quite an unbeatable team.
Then there were those ‘Techies from the South’. There was that tall, suave, perfectly groomed gentleman who had easily the best trekking gear in our group, if not the country. He talked very little but had a friendly presence and seemed a die-hard nature enthusiast. Most of his stylish stuff was from ‘Olive Planet’, a store that  specializes in ‘premium military gear’ and I promised myself a better gear on the next such training! His younger colleague was the son of a forester and was in the serious business of conservation. He captivated his friends with his tales of his many escapades in the forests- the brush with a bear, the encounters with elephants, the photo shoot of a leopard.
We had a ‘Happy Banker’ – a decent, mature gentleman whose love of forests and nature had not let the monotony of his job get to him. He had found out some wonderful forest ‘hideouts’ that offered him a respite from the drudgery of our mundane existence. A deceptively fit man, who handled his bulk with a natural ease.
The atmosphere would have been heavy with the boring shop talk of us foggies but for the cheerful prattle of the ‘Talkative-one’. She talked to anyone and everyone about nothing in particular! Her companion had definitely decided to compensate for the din and managed to maintain a scrupulous silence for the most part. She did have us shocked though when she announced that she rescued snakes for a hobby!
We also had in our team the laid-back, well-fed ‘Lion from Gir’. And a ‘Doctor Sahib’ who would not be dissuaded from applying his daily quota of ‘Keo-Karpin’ even at the risk of offending the olfactory sensibilities of the notoriously ill-tempered pachyderms of Rajaji National Park. There was the tech-savvy ‘Ad-Guru’ from Mumbai whose journey ended in a pilgrimage of sorts. And there was this refined, well-mannered honcho from the corporate world.
Finally, there was the ‘Nasik-Tiger’, that unforgettable man from Malegaon. He was a man on a mission. He had found the evidence of a tiger sighting in Nasik and he was not going to let any half-baked expert talk him out of it! An inquisitive man, whose natural curiosity led him to endless rounds of questions that could exasperate and amuse at the same time. A confident man, who knew where he was going and did not care a fig for your opinion. Gregarious and energetic, there was never a dull moment while he was around.
That was our group of fifteen. On the whole a happy, queer bunch.

While the classroom lectures were absorbing, yet we were all there mostly for the field trips. The true enthusiasts amongst us had woken up early on the very first day and had checked out the nature trail that went around the lake. I could spot the Hawk-eye and 100-400 from my balcony, making their way through the shrubs on the far side of the lake, with their cameras trained on some distant targets. The duo had bagged a picture of a Pied-Hornbill even before the games were declared open! The Bird-man took us on a campus familiarization walk along the trail that evening after the classes were over. I clicked the pulpy red flower of the Wild Ginger. The dainty pink flowers of Barleria cristata that were growing wild all over the place. I zoomed to capture the woolly white flowers of a small tree that could not be identified.

Barleria crisata, WII Dehradun

Barleria crisata, WII Dehradun (October)

Wild Ginger, WII Dehradun (October)

Wild Ginger Flower, WII Dehradun (October)

Woolly flowers of unknown tree

Woolly flowers of unknown tree

We learnt to recognize the wild pear tree. We were told about the timber qualities of the tall Sal trees that brought the British to Dehradun. Sal was best identified by the deep vertical furrows in its distinctive orange-brown bark. I established my credentials as an amateur nature-enthusiast by pointing out the ‘Tree of Damocles’. The Pilgrim spotted a Monitor Lizard. And also the Skittering Frogs that walk on water! The tall erect shrub with large yellow flowers that caught your eye was the Wild Lady Finger.

Monitor Lizard at WII

Monitor Lizard at WII

Wild Lady Finger Flower, WII

Wild Lady Finger Flower, WII Dehradun (October)

Mating Dragonflys, WII, Dehradun

Mating Dragonflys, WII, Dehradun

The New-Hostel building where we were housed was looking like a luxury lakeside-resort from across the lake. It was beginning to get dark and I regretted not having carried my Fuji HS50 for the walk as the Scribe gleefully flaunted a nice picture of a giant spider that he had managed despite the poor light. This triggered off a photography war between us (Fuji versus Nikkon) with the Bird-man choosing to bet for the Scribe. The Scribe does manage to charm people with his ‘I am a gentleman and he is a crooked cop’ look!

The Snake-man from the East was accompanying us quietly on the walk. He would lift the Kota-stone slabs lying along the forest trail every once in a while to check if some snake had chosen the damp spot under it as its abode! We were told that the thick Sal pockets near the lake were visited frequently by a leopard from the adjoining forest. The leopard’s visit triggers a panic exodus of the otherwise aggressive Macaques who love to terrorize the campus dwellers. The Bird-man was peeved by their cheeky raids on his precious fruit trees and could barely conceal his intense dislike for their creed.

The Bird-man had an excursion planned for us after lunch on day 3 to the Benog Wildlife Sanctuary near Mussoorie. We cheerfully clambered on board the Institute bus with our cameras and water-bottles like a bunch of excited school kids. I noticed the overbearing and ill-tempered bus driver as he glowered at us for no reason. He was an old hand at the Institute and didn’t think much of the city-bred researchers and nature hobbyists. The faculty, however, chose to ignore the cheeky behaviour, much to my astonishment. The Dehradun traffic was killing but once we had left the city the hill drive to Mussoorie was pleasant. The monsoons had made a delayed retreat this year and the seasonal springs were still in full flow. We saw how the Indian Army had successfully reclaimed large parts of the ‘hillscape’ that had been ravaged by limestone mining. The miners had covered the ugly exposed scars in the hills with green paint when the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi had decided to do an aerial survey to assess the environmental damage due to the mining. We nature lovers have a lot to thank the old lady for, whatever her other failings. She was undoubtedly the first political leader to have championed the cause of environmental conservation in an era when the problem was not so well understood.
We turned for the road to Kempty falls at the ‘Library Point’ at Mussoorie and drove for another half-hour till we reached the ‘kutcha’ road to Benog. We then began the pleasant hour-long uphill trek to the sanctuary gate.

Walk to Benog

Walk to Benog

The Bird-man was accompanied by a botany researcher who helped identify the wild flowers as we walked up the hill track. We saw the Yellow Dandelions, the colourful white and pink Daisy fleabanes  and the beautiful yellow bells of the Himalayan Clematis.

Yellow Dandelion, Walk to Benog

Yellow Dandelion, On the walk to Benog

Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron bellidiodes)

Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron bellidiodes)

Himalayan Clematis (Clematis connata)

Himalayan Clematis (Clematis connata)

Small Flowered Crape Myrtle?? Benog

Small Flowered Crape Myrtle?? Benog

There were also those large, brightly-coloured spiders that were happily feasting on the wide variety of bugs that they had ensnared into their silky webs.

Spider with its prey on the way to Benog

Spider with its prey on the way to Benog

Yellow Black Spider on the way to Benog

Yellow Black Spider on the way to Benog

Spider at Benog

Spider at Benog

We crossed an adventure camp that had diverted a hill stream to run the water through a swimming pool!

Adventure Camp on way to Benog

Adventure Camp on way to Benog

We spotted a number of ‘croaky’ Grey Treepies and also the Red-billed Blue Magpies that look spectacular in flight with their long trailing tail feathers. A Blue Whistling Thrush posed for a picture. The Whistling Thrush is a frequent winter visitor to Morni hills and it sometimes lets out a clearly discernible whistle just before it lands from flight. I photographed the peculiar looking nuts of an Oak tree from up close. And a Wild Pear Tree that we had learned to identify on the WII campus. There were Chir pines and Fir trees all over the landscape. There were other trees with curious woody flowers or fruits.

Blue Whistling Thrush, Benog

Blue Whistling Thrush, Benog

Oak nuts

Oak nuts, Benog

Wild Pear Tree, Benog

Wild Pear Tree, Benog

100-400 was lost in his world happily firing away with his monstrous camera. It was comical to see him jolted out of his spell by the Nasik-Tiger who would demand that his picture be clicked at every scenic spot on that lovely jungle track. The Tiger (Nasik T-001!)was having the time of his life and he wanted to take back with him the blow-by-blow photographic evidence of the same! When rude sleeve tugging failed to yield the desired result he would embarrass 100-400 into agreeing to click that ‘one last pic’ with his loud plaintive appeals! The man does not understand ‘NO’ for an answer and is destined to make a real contribution to the cause of conservation while the likes of the Tramp will content themselves with writing blog posts!

The track went through the gate and ended in a grassy meadow with an idyllic cottage and a beautiful stream of clear water. There were beautiful wild flowers all around. The tiny wild red strawberry, the delicate pink Himalayan Balsam and the feathery white seed head of the Dandelion. We were told that the area was a part of a private tea estate during the British era but the estate had eventually proved nonviable. The owners had experimented with sheep farming but the venture did not succeed.  The area is now a bird watcher’s paradise and the Bombay Natural History Society organizes birding treks to the ‘Benog Tibba’. The Sanctuary is now a part of the Rajaji National Park and is supposed to be home to the Himalayan Quail that was last sighted in 1876! There have been unconfirmed reports of sightings and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is yet to declare the species as extinct. The Uttarakhand Forest Department has recently declared a reward of Rs. 1 lac for anyone who brings evidence of the existence of the bird.

Himalayan Quail - Sketch courtesy Paschalis Dougalis

Entry Gate to Benog WLS

Entry Gate to Benog WLS

Cottage at Benog

Cottage at Benog

Stream at Benog

Stream at Benog

Balsam, Benog

Balsam, Benog

Wild Strawberry, Benog

Wild Strawberry, Benog

Seed head of a Yellow Dandelion (Teraxacum)

Seed head of a Yellow Dandelion (Teraxacum)

Green cestrum?? Benog

Green cestrum?? Benog

The Bird-man had made arrangements for a picnic at the small forest rest house at Benog. It felt happy to be sipping the hot tea and munching on biscuits without a care in the world, feeling the fresh hill breeze in your face and hearing the light-hearted banter of those new found friends.

One could opt for a jeep ride on the way back but most of us decided to trudge back to the bus. The Scribe managed to snatch a picture of a Grey Treepie while I was struggling with my zoom lens.

Grey Tree Pie, Benog (Courtesy the Scribe)

Grey Treepie, Benog (Courtesy the Scribe)

I pooh-poohed the picture that he triumphantly presented as the trophy of the day of a beetle having immobilized a caterpillar with its venomous sting before devouring it. It was the ‘Assassin bug’ in action, if the Hawk-Eye was to be believed.

Assassin bug at Benog (photo courtesy the Hawk eye)

Assassin bug at Benog (photo courtesy the Hawk Eye)

It was the Scribe’s lucky day and he went on to click an unbelievably beautiful picture of the near full moon that had risen in the evening sky.

Moon at Benog (Photo courtesy the Scribe)

Moon at Benog (Photo courtesy the Scribe)

We halted briefly at the Mussoorie mall that offers a nice night view of the twinkling Dehradun lights. I persuaded the Scribe to accompany me for a walk till the bookstore near that quaint, colonial-style building of SBI.

SBI Building, Mall at Mussoorie

SBI Building, Mall at Mussoorie

The mall had not changed much in the last 15 years. It was here that I had spent the most memorable time of my life, romancing the lass who taught me the business of living.

On day 4 we were taken for a visit to the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology that was set up in 1968 and named after Dr. D N Wadia, the father of Himalayan geology. The institute has a small museum that houses fossils recovered from the Shivalik hill region. I was joyous to see the fossils from all around the Morni hill region- Pinjor, Nada, Raipur-rani etc. There was a scaled down fibre glass model of the Sivatherium Giganteum, the four-horned antelope that went extinct. There were fossils of extinct species of elephants and hippopotami. There was an incisor of Homo Erectus (early human species that appeared 1.8 million years ago) recovered from Nada in Pinjore. The Nasik-Tiger ignored the repeated suggestions to refrain from photographing the exhibits. I shamelessly stole a few with my phone camera! There was no way I was going to miss the opportunity of photographing pieces of the evolutionary history of my precious Morni hills!

Fibre glass model of Sivatherium giganteum at Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun

Fibre glass model of Sivatherium giganteum at Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun

Fossilized teeth of Hexaprotodon Sivalensis an extinct Hippopotamus at Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun

Fossilized teeth of Hexaprotodon Sivalensis an extinct Hippopotamus at Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun

Fossilized teeth of Elephas planifrons, extinct elephant from Pinjor at Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun

Fossilized teeth of Elephas planifrons, extinct elephant from Pinjor at Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun

Incisor of Homo Erectus from Nada,Pinjor at Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun

Incisor of Homo Erectus from Nada,Pinjor at Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun

We then visited the Forest Research Institute with its imposing 75 year old Greco-Roman style building, probably the grandest structure to be built during the days of the British Raj.

Forest Research Institute, Dehradun

Forest Research Institute, Dehradun

FRI - Commemorative Postal Stamp (11th Dec 1954)

FRI – Commemorative Postal Stamp
(11th Dec 1954)

 

The Institute chiefly focuses on forest research in the terai-arc and the Himalayas and houses several museums. For some curious reason we were rudely denied entry to the Timber Museum that houses the transverse section of a 700 year old deodar. We saw the Entomology and Non-Wood Forest Products museums that felt musty and dull with no one around to do any explaining. The place looked dead despite all its imperial grandeur. The Scribe and I cut the visit short and spent the evening browsing books at Dehradun’s iconic ‘Natraj Bookstore’ that has an excellent collection of books on wildlife and environment. I picked up JC Daniel’s book on the ‘Leopard in India’.

We packed up that night for the 5 day camping at the Laldhang Forest Rest House. We double-checked for the rucksack, the camera charger, the jungle boots, the torch, the water bottle, the jungle hat and the sun-glasses. We were to vacate the Hostel and had been given a room for storing the excess baggage. The Scribe persuaded me to leave the Old Monk behind in the interest of maintaining camp discipline!
We loaded our stuff onto the bus after lunch and I could not help but note the wry expression with which the driver greeted us. He was narrating some incident to his assistant within our ear-shot, about the day when the ‘sahib log’ had fled in the face of some danger (probably an encounter with a rogue tusker) leaving him saddled with the responsibility of saving the bus. He was not going to mince words while letting us know what he thought about the likes of us! The portly mess-commander was a complete contrast to this cynical man. He was getting the enormous cooking pots and LPG cylinders loaded onto a jeep, a 4X4 soft top Gypsy with stylish alloy wheels. He was anxious to reach Laldhang ahead of us so that he could set up his kitchen in time to serve us an early dinner. The Tiger-man was going to pilot our bus in his personal 4X4 Scorpio. I had also spotted him earlier on the campus, riding his 500 cc Enfield Bullet Classic with mind-blowing accessories from Cramster. The best job in the world. The best jeep in the country. A motor-bike one could die for. Some guys have all the luck!!
We took the Dehradun-Rishikesh road that crosses through the Rajaji National Park. The driver fumed at the idiocy of the cops who had parked their jeep dangerously close to a couple of tuskers standing close to the edge of the forest and were attempting a photograph with their phone cameras! We crossed the historic Rishikesh Railway Station that was the terminal station for the railway line built by the British to transport timber from the Sal forests of the Terai region. We now took the scenic road that runs along the ‘Shakti Canal’ that runs along the left bank of the Ganga River. Water is diverted into the canal from the Pashulok Barrage, built across the Ganges at Virbhadra, 5 KM south of Rishikesh. The canal carries the water to the 144 MW Chilla Power House that lies some 15 KM downstream of the Virbhadra barrage. The water from the power house is then discharged back into the Ganges. This ambitious run-of-the-river power project was started in the mid- 70s and was commissioned in 1981. It involved the ticklish construction of the 14.3 KM long power channel (the ‘Shakti Canal’) that had to traverse the path of several torrential nallahs and rivulets that flow down from the hills to join the Ganges. The engineering problem was tackled by building aqueducts to carry the water across two nallahs through an overhead channel. The largest rivulet was negotiated by diverting the canal through an underground channel. We had taken this circuitous route as the Tiger-man wanted us to see this narrow corridor that is still available for the movement of tigers and elephants from the Chilla range to the western part of the Rajaji National Park. The elephants, we were told, are excellent swimmers despite their gross look and easily swim across the Ganges stopping only for a short breather on one of the river islands! The Shakti Canal, however, poses an additional obstacle for approaching the Ganga as its banks are far too steep to be negotiated by most animals. The wildlife thus prefers to follow the path along the bed of the rivulets and cross the canal under the aqueduct bridges or at the point where the canal goes underground.

Shakti Canal- Chilla Hydroelectric Project

Shakti Canal- Chilla Hydroelectric Project

We stopped at one of the aqueduct bridges and walked down to the bed of a nallah that flowed under the canal. Tigers had been photographed with camera-traps at this location.

Aqueduct bridge over the rivulet

Aqueduct bridge over the rivulet

Vultures circled the sky at a distance. I pointed out the spiky green pods of the Nicker-nut bush that originates from the beaches of the Caribbean islands. I couldn’t help feeling pleased with the distance I had traveled from being a complete illiterate in matters of nature.

Nicker Nut (October)

Nicker Nut (October)

We crossed the Chilla Power House and stopped for tea at the nice tourist reception area on the entrance of the Chilla Forest Range.

Tourist Reception at Chila, Rajaji National Park

Tourist Reception at Chilla, Rajaji National Park

A shop selling T-Shirts and animal books to the tourists had on display a half-burnt wooden log with mushrooms growing out of it! But then maybe they were not mushrooms at all.

Mushrooms on a stick

Mushrooms on a stick

We continued along the road to hit the Haridwar-Najibabad road. We then turned left to take the road to Laldhang, a small township on the bank of the Rewasan River. Laldhang was the place where the Rohilla Chief, Faizullah Khan made peace with the Nawab of Oudh after his defeat at the hands of the joint forces of Oudh and East India Company in 1774. Rohillas were the Pathan highlanders of the Yusufzai tribe of Afghanistan who were brought in and settled at Bareilly and Rampur by Aurangzeb to suppress the Rajputs. Faizullah Khan was thereafter installed as the first Nawab of the Princely State of Rampur after the dismemberment of Rohilkhand.

Route from WII to Laldhang

Route from WII to Laldhang

It was dark by the time we reached the Forest Rest House that seemed to have emerged straight out of a Jim Corbett book. The colonial-style 19th century bungalow had a tiled sloping roof and a large verandah. The main sitting room had an operational fireplace and a gun-rack!

Forest Rest House, Laldhang

Forest Rest House, Laldhang

The rest house had a fairly large, grassy campus with a grove of tall trees. The campus was surrounded by a low barbed wire fence and a thick line of trees, mostly teak, that had been planted by the forest department. The wooded low hill that overlooked the campus from the south seemed to cast a gloomy shadow over the entire area. It did not help to know that the enthusiastic lady DFO of the area had recently spotted a tiger on that hill. Thankfully it was a full moon night!

Full Moon at Laldhang

Full Moon at Laldhang

The Rewasan river flowed silently in the north and beyond it lay the Chilla and Laldhang Forest ranges that were home to the tigers, leopards and elephants who suddenly seemed much more real.

Laldhang Forest Rest House

Laldhang Forest Rest House

The men were to be housed in the five large tents that that had been pitched next to the fence, the typical Kumbh Mela variety. Each tent had four folding-cots and two rather rough-looking tables. The camp organizer had thoughtfully provided two power points for charging our mobile phone and camera batteries. The bedding seemed clean though basic. The toilets had been set up at the far end of the campus. Squatting toilets surrounded by flimsy tin sheets and with doors that defied attempts at locking! A leaky water tanker was parked right next. The freshly bought colourful plastic buckets gleamed cheerfully in the Moonlight!

Camp at Laldhang Forest Rest House

Camp at Laldhang Forest Rest House

It was early dinner for us that day as we were to take an early start in the morning. The Tiger-man introduced us to a Gujjar tracker, Imam Hussain who was his companion for the past fifteen years. The mutual respect between the two was apparent and it felt good to know that he was going to be with us all through.

Imam Hussain,the experienced Gujjar tracker

Imam Hussain,the experienced Gujjar tracker

The Scribe and I shared our tent with the Tiger-man and the Doctor-sahib. A powerful breeze caused the teak trees to rustle rather menacingly. The Tiger-man told us about the terrible night he had spent in the Bhutan forests in a tent next to a tree that housed a Viper! How he had nightmares of the reptile slithering into his sleeping bag. He promptly slept-off thereafter, his snores competing with the creaking and rustling of the teak trees. Doctor-sahib spent the night keeping his quilt tucked in tightly, lest a snake should find its way up the end touching the ground! I recalled Corbett’s vivid accounts of the gory deeds of the man-eaters that prowled in these forests and the disturbing jungle sounds of the night would not allow me to get into deep sleep. The cacophony from the Ramlila also did not help! Curiously, the Ramlila in these parts does not end with the burning of Ravan’s effigy at Dusshera and continues right up-till Diwali.

The mid-night trip to the tin-shed toilets, with the moon-lit trees swaying noisily in the breeze and that gloomy hill casting its haunting shadow on the campus, tested your nerve to a point that you would not readily admit!!
We woke up at 5:30 AM to the cheerful call of the mess boy who brought us the morning tea. I dragged myself out of the bed with some trepidation and prepared myself for the painful squat! The ordeal was followed by a cold water bath under the teak trees with the noisy babblers and the colourful Flameback for company. We had a heavy breakfast and were raring to go by 7. The Forest Range Officer of the Laldhang Range had decided to join us for the trek and he was accompanied by two armed guards. Imam, our bearded tracker, was there with his nephew and two sons who were dressed in long shorts and plastic slippers. I felt sorry to see the poor lads clad in slippers, happy to have my own feet secure in the ankle-length canvas jungle boots. We were to walk along the bank of Rewasan River to reach the hills to the north that formed the corridor for the tigers that crossed over to Chilla from Corbett through the Lansdowne Forest Division. The Bird-man was the group leader for the day and we trooped out of the rest house with an air of anticipation. The adventure had begun.

We followed the short track that led us to the Rewasan River, which sparkled softly under the morning sun. We would have to wade through knee-deep water to cross the Rewasan. As I sat down to unlace the ankle-length jungle shoes I realized that our Gujjar guides were far better equipped for the task with their shorts and slippers. I rolled-up my jeans, held on to my shoes with one hand, keeping the other free for the balancing-act as I cautiously made my way through the swift current. It was tricky business and one was presented with the dilemma of choosing between danger and discomfort. The large smooth rocks were easy on the feet but were dangerously slippery. The smaller stones were safer to tread on but were tough on the feet. Progress was slow and I realized that I was lagging behind. The prospect of suffering the ignominy of a fall so early in the day, however, kept me from trying any heroics. I was, after all, the oldest participant of this Course!

Crossing the Rewasan (Photo courtesy the Hawk eye)

Crossing the Rewasan (Photo courtesy the Hawk Eye)

We now entered a level forest patch with heavy teak plantation. The Bird-man was not too happy with the forest department’s decision to plant teak for reclaiming disturbed forests as the species was not indigenous to the area and did not help in the sustenance of wildlife. The teak tree allows no undergrowth and thus inhibits the herbivore population. Diminished availability of prey in turn finishes off the carnivores that lie higher on the food chain. The tree is shunned by even the avian fauna. Furthermore, the high quality timber of the Teak tree makes it a liability as the forest department has to guard it against illegal felling. Teak has however been popular since the early-sixties for forestry plantations in the Terai due to its robust character and low mortality.

Teak, Laldhang

Teak, Laldhang

We crossed a deserted and somewhat spooky looking temple. The white-washed, single-domed structure looked more like a ‘Mazaar’ (mausoleum) and we were surprised to learn that it was a temple.

Gloomy temple at Laldhang

Gloomy temple at Laldhang

I took a peek inside an open termite hill. We were told that the Sloth bears loved raiding the termite colonies and the scat analysis of bears invariably revealed an abundance of the white exoskeletons of the termite. Imam picked up a not-so-recent pugmark of a leopard and this sent a thrill through the entire group.

Peak inside a termite hill

Peak inside a termite hill

Leopard pugmark in the sand

Leopard pugmark in the sand

We were back to crossing the Rewasan and I once again struggled to loosen the extra long laces of my jungle shoes, conscious of not wanting to be seen as a straggler. It was the same painful walk over that uncomfortable, rocky, river bed. I have hated walking bare foot all my life and the soft, inexperienced soles of my feet were completely unequal to this test of endurance.

Rewasan Valley (Photo courtesy the Hawk Eye)

Rewasan Valley (Photo courtesy the Hawk Eye)

We were now entering the indigenous Terai forests and we now saw the heavily lopped Chhal trees, the Sein with its tell-tale ‘crocodile bark’, the Baheda with its edible nuts, the Rohini which is a favourite with the elephants, the Haldu, the Papri, the Bael tree, the Sal and the many more that I lost track of.

Crocodile bark of the Sein tree, Laldhang forest range

Crocodile bark of the Sein tree, Laldhang forest range

Haldu tree, Laldhang Forest Range

Haldu tree, Laldhang Forest Range

Rohini tree, Laldhang

Rohini tree, Laldhang

Chhal tree, Laldhang

Chhal tree, Laldhang

Many of the tree species that I saw were the same as are found in the Morni hills and I was happy to be able to identify a few. The Coffee Weed with its delicate yellow flower competed with the hardy Lantana in a battle to dominate the undergrowth. I was the only one to spot the beautiful orange-yellow flowers of the Honey Suckle Mistletoe. Interestingly enough while our young Gujjar guides knew the botanical names of many of the trees and plants yet they were at a complete loss when asked about the common names. The days of traditional knowledge being passed on from the father to the son were clearly over and these boys owed most of their knowledge to the WII scientists and researchers whom they accompanied on the field trips.

Coffee Senna (Cassia occidentalis ) Laldhang range

Coffee Senna (Cassia occidentalis ) Laldhang range

Honey Suckle Mistletoe,Laldhang forest range

Honey Suckle Mistletoe,Laldhang forest range

There were colourful spiders all around, feasting on the plentiful prey and I managed some impressive ‘macro’ shots.

Spider at Laldhang

Spider at Laldhang

Spider devours a wasp, Laldhang forest range

Spider devours a wasp, Laldhang forest range

We walked past a bamboo plantation that was enclosed within an electric fence. The fence delivers a micro-second pulse of a high-voltage shock when touched and this is generally enough to dissuade an elephant from attempting a raid on the plantation.

Electric fence, Laldhang

Electric fence, Laldhang

A forest guard told me that the fence cannot, however, stave-off a determined attempt at a break-in by a pachyderm. The elephants are known to tear-off branches of trees and use them as wooden-clubs for demolishing the electric fence! I was reminded of the Kenneth Anderson story in which the author and his tribal trackers are chased by an enraged rogue elephant until they manage to seek refuge atop a high rock, outside the reach of the elephant’s trunk. The elephant then attempts to sweep them off their high perch with the help of a broken tree branch held in its trunk to increase its reach.

We passed a quaint looking Gujjar dera with huts having mud-plastered walls and thatched roofs. The walls had large openings for letting in light and air. Gujjars are believed to have come to the Shivalik region from Jammu in early 19th century as part of the dowry of a Nahan princess! This was the time when Nahan was itself overrun by the fiery Gurkha general, Amar Singh Thapa. The Gujjars were pastoralists and settled down with their cattle in deras near the water courses in the Shivalik foothills. They would migrate every year with their buffaloes to the Alpine meadows of Jammu in the dry summer months. Eventually, their original homeland closed its doors on them and they were now forced to graze their cattle in the Terai belt all through the year. This led to overgrazing of grasslands and heavy lopping of trees. Water sources got polluted with dung. This ruined the natural habitat of the herbivores leading to fall in availability of prey for the carnivores, with the tiger taking the biggest hit. The calls for conservation led to the first resettlement in the 1980s with Gujjar families being shifted to the Pathari forest block to the south of the Chilla range. A second relocation was done to shift Gujjar families from the Chilla range to the Gujjar colony at Ghaindikatha. The rehabilitation package was attractive, with 0.8 hectares of arable land being offered per male adult with additional land and allowance for building a new home.

We decided to take a peep inside their dera. There were no buffaloes and the cows looked emaciated. The houses were bare with virtually no furniture other than some charpoys. We were told that the Gujjars led a frugal, isolated life and most hoped to be rehabilitated to a more hospitable terrain by the Government.  Their brethren settled in villages in the foothills of Morni are definitely better off financially though they continue to practice the summertime migration with their cattle during the dry months when water becomes scarce in the porous ‘bhabar’ belt. I picked up a stick for use as a walking aid and it was my treasured companion for the next four days.

Gujjar dera, Laldhang range

Gujjar dera, Laldhang range

We once again left the forest track to re-enter the Rewasan valley. I photographed a White-browed Wagtail as I settled down on a rock to remove my shoes for the nth time. I, however, missed the beautiful White-capped Redstarts.

White-browed Wagtail, Rewasan river, Laldhang forest range

White-browed Wagtail, Rewasan river, Laldhang forest range

The walk ‘along’ the river had turned out to be a walk ‘through’ the river and we had to cross the Rewasan six times as we followed the meandering course of the river.

Walking up the Rewasan valley

Walking up the Rewasan valley

The forest guards showed us numerous leopard pugmarks along the river. The Tiger-man had spotted a King Cobra basking in the sun on the river bank some days earlier but we had no such luck! We had been walking for three hours when we left the river valley and began climbing up the hills to the South.
The climb started with an easy gradient which became progressively difficult. I was consistently bringing up the rear and had the Talkative-one, the Gir-Lion and the Happy-Banker for company. One of Imam’s sons had been tasked with ensuring that none of us stragglers lost the way and it felt reassuring to have him for company. I was hastily photographing whatever wild flowers I could manage and I got the Philippine-violet, the Common Sida, the Pink Burr, Wild Orchid, some delicate mauve flowers, dullcreamy-white flowers and a white fern.

Philippine Violet (Barleria crisata) Laldhang Range

Philippine Violet (Barleria crisata) Laldhang Range

Pink burr?? Laldhang Range (October)

Pink burr?? Laldhang Range (October)

Common Sida, Laldhang forest range

Common Sida, Laldhang forest range

Delicate mauve flowers

Delicate mauve flowers

Wild Orchid, Laldhang

Wild Orchid, Laldhang

Dullcreamy-white flowers, Laldhang

Dull-looking creamy-white flowers, Laldhang

White fern, Laldhang Range

White fern, Laldhang Range

There was elephant dung on the narrow hill tracks and we were amazed to learn that elephants used these tracks with ease despite their bulk.

Elephant dung, Laldhang forest range

Elephant dung, Laldhang forest range

The Bird-man ordered the first halt and showed us a Painted Grasshopper. He picked up the hard leathery cocoon (ootheca) of the Praying mantis (a grasshopper like insect with forelimbs folded to give it a ‘prayer-like’ posture) that was cut open with great difficulty with my Swiss-knife (a gift from the Scribe!) to reveal a white, woolly interior. The Scribe playfully kept it in the outer pocket of my rucksack and was actually upset to later discover that I had unthinkingly thrown away his precious trophy!

Painted Grasshopper, Laldhang forest range

Painted Grasshopper, Laldhang forest range

The woolly cocoon

The woolly cocoon (ootheca) of the Praying mantis

There was no ‘wildlife’ to be seen so we compensated by focusing on the insects! I jostled with my mates to get a close-up of a caterpillar nest!

Caterpillar nest, Laldhang range

Caterpillar nest, Laldhang range

The march continued and we tasted the wild berries and aamlas for those extra calories! We had run out of the supplies of the light snacks that some of us had been carrying. Water supplies were also running low as the bright sun made us weary and thirsty. The Bird-man seemed fresh as ever and showed as the scat of a leopard. It was white because of the calcium in the bones it had chewed. The scat had tufts of hair that had been passed out undigested.

Leopard Scat, Laldhang forest range

Leopard Scat, Laldhang forest range

The scat was old but the pug mark in the wet soil that we crossed on our way was less than an hour old. This time the thrill was real and I noticed that the tail-enders fastened their pace perceptibly to get closer to the safety of the main pack. We next saw the elongated scats of the porcupine.

Leopard pugmark, Laldhang range

Leopard pugmark, Laldhang range

Porcupine scat,Laldhang forest range

Porcupine scat,Laldhang forest range

We had reached the 600 metre high ‘peak’ by 1 PM and now began the precipitous descent. Fatigue had now set in and all of us walked silently to conserve energy. The Chatterbox and the Gir-Lion were beginning to fall back repeatedly and I noticed that 100-400 kept his eye on them often waiting to let them catch-up. Imam had now fallen back to take the stragglers under his tutelage. The Happy Banker narrowly missed a nasty fall. My right-knee did not like the stress of the unending descent. A couple of tight-spots had us slithering down on our backsides tamely rather than risk a fall. We finally reached a spring where we drank to our fill. My face was flushed an unhealthy pink and I doused my head under the soothing waters of the spring to cool my radiator!
The walk was now manageable and I picked up my pace to the great amusement of 100-400 who laughed at the performance of the vintage diesel engine that carried on chugging despite the occasional splutter! I heard a blunt ‘Woof’ call being repeated from somewhere close. The ranger said that it was a leopard, probably a juvenile.
We finally hit the level patch and entered a forest. We stopped at yet another Gujjar dera where we were most graciously offered tea. As we relaxed on the woven charpoys the Gujjar kids looked at us with open curiosity. The Hawk-eye could not resist clicking a cute little girl who posed for the snap with confidence as her toothless Grand pa looked on with mirth. The old man’s amusement was complete as I chased his brightly-coloured roosters for a photograph!

Innocence (Photo courtesy the Hawk eye)

Innocence (Photo courtesy the Hawk eye)

Roosters at Gujjar dera, Laldhang range

Roosters at Gujjar dera, Laldhang range

We had walked for 8 hours, a distance of 15 KM when we hit the Laldhang-Kotdwar road. For once I was happy to see our bus driver standing by his bus with his characteristic sardonic smile. We boarded the bus wearily, hungry and tired. It was a 5 KM bus ride back to the rest house. We finally managed to spot some wildlife- a female Sambar standing on the dry river bed that we crossed on our way back home.

Walk through Laldhang Range

Walk through Laldhang Range (GPS trace courtesy the Pilgrim)

We had finished the first day of trekking without any misadventure and some of us still had the energy to go for a bath-in-the-open in the cool waters of Rewasan after the late-lunch. I settled for a repeat of the under-the-teak-tree experience! It felt refreshing to wash off the sweat and grime and to enjoy the rice pulav with the feet plonked comfortably on a spare chair.
The Scribe and I later checked out the town market. Some of our friends were having sweetened lassi (buttermilk) at the local ‘halwai’ shop. There were a number of small and dusty grocery stores. We bought some chocolates and peanuts for the next day’s trek. I bought a shaving mirror (I had shaved with the help of the side-view mirror of our bus, earlier that day!). The Scribe picked up over-sized boxers in the most shocking colours (apparently the only size and colour available)! We bought some apples.

I sorely missed the Old Monk that night. It would surely have brought succor to my swollen right knee!

Day 2 at Laldhang started with a repeat of the early morning drill. Things moved with the usual clockwork precision of a WII operation! By 7AM the entire group was all geared up for the ‘Mother-of-all-Treks’, waiting for the Commander’s signal to move. Well it was not the entire group really as we had two drop-outs. The previous day’s walk up and down the craggy hillside had taken its toll after-all! Tiger-man was going to lead us on a long trek that traversed the entire breadth of the Chilla forest range from east to west. Wise after the previous day’s experience we quizzed him about the actual distance that we would be walking that day. He gave non-committal replies, choosing to charm us instead with his jokes and forest anecdotes. He had warned us against using any colognes or aftershaves as the ill-tempered pachyderms of Chilla were quick to pick up smells. Doctor Sahib feigned not to have understood that the advisory applied equally to the copious amounts of Keo-Karpin oil that he was so diligently applying to his already over-greased mop.

We crossed the Rewasan on jeeps to save ourselves the bother of having to remove our shoes. We stopped at the drop-down barrier of the forest department that marked the entry to the Chilla range.

Entry to Chilla range from Laldhang, Chilla forest range

Entry to Chilla range from Laldhang, Chilla forest range

An armed forest guard joined our troupe and we began the long walk through the Chilla forest to reach its western end. Tiger-man motioned Imam to walk ahead of the group as a scout along-with our armed escort and to keep a sharp look-out for elephants. The threat from a rogue elephant was far more real than the possibility of being challenged by any of the big cats as they rarely condescend to take any notice of us Homo sapiens. “Tigers can be quite unpredictable though,” the Commander informed us. “Only yesterday, a forest guard employed on daily wages got badly mauled at Corbett,” he told us in a most matter-of-fact way. ‘Well it’s a long overnight walk for that blood-thirsty tiger,’ I consoled myself. So even if the villain was planning a repeat show at Chilla, we should be out of the forest long before his arrival!
The unsaid bond between the Tiger-man and his Gujjar tracker reminded one of Robert Redford’s memorable performance as Denys Finch-Hatton, the stylish hunter-adventurer in the all time classic ‘Out of Africa’ whose Maasai tracker-companion accompanied him like a silent shadow, always at some distance, alert to any sign of approaching danger. Imam was quick to pick up leopard tracks as we walked through the teak plantations.

Leopard Pugmark, Chilla forest range

Leopard Pugmark, Chilla forest range

We saw the Nilgai scat. The bulls defecate in ‘latrines’ to mark territory. We saw bear scat and Tiger-man broke up the lumps to show us the exoskeletons of termite. The Bird-man picked up a tiny ball and announced that it was Hare scat. The Tiger-man was greatly amused when one of us novices mistook the Nilgai’s poop to be the possible job of a Chital. “Chital will need surgery to produce such big lumps!” he said with a chuckle. I did wonder as to how we were expected to possibly know the size of you-know-what of different species to be able to match it to the size of the scat. We eventually did see the Chital scat which was indeed smaller in size!

Nilgai scat at Latrine site (Territory marking by Bull) Chilla forest range

Nilgai scat at Latrine site (Territory marking by Bull) Chilla forest range

Bear Scat, Chilla forest range

Bear Scat, Chilla forest range

Hare scat

Hare scat

Chital scat, Chilla forest range

Chital scat, Chilla forest range

We now left the teak belt and entered tiger country. There were no more signs of the leopard for the tiger brooks no trespass by the lesser cats. We saw the rake marks of a tiger. The tiger marks its territory, we were told, by clawing the trees that have a soft bark. The Bishop wood (Bischofia javanica) tree is such a favourite with the tiger for the raking that it is popularly called the Tiger tree!

Tiger rake marks - Chilla forest range

Tiger rake marks – Chilla forest range

The tiger also sprays the trees for warning other males to lay-off his territory and his ‘chics’. The Tiger-man wanted us to ‘smell’ a spray sight for a firsthand experience and none of us had the heart to refuse! I hastily agreed to the suggestion that it did smell like Basmati rice and cleared off before he decided to introduce us to the taste!! There is no mistaking the man’s passion for his work. He is plumb crazy!!!
We entered the Sal forests and Imam picked up an old tiger pugmark in the sandy bed of a dry stream.

Sal Forest, Chilla forest range

Sal Forest, Chilla forest range

Tiger pugmark, Chilla forest range

Tiger pugmark, Chilla forest range

The tigers, we were told, preferred to follow the clear paths (the ‘dandi’) through the forests to avoid hurting their soft pads on thorns and sharp stones. We were advised against walking up the stream beds that intersected with the forest tracks as these were the favourite spots for tigers to take a break while patrolling their territory against unwanted intrusions. Tigers scratch the ground parallel to the path they follow to warn others from treading the same path. With all that raking, spraying and scratching business, the tiger did seem one jealous old creature.

We were shown a shallow burrow dug up by a bear with the tell-tale claw markings.

Burrow dug by a bear with tell-tale claw marks

Burrow dug by a bear with tell-tale claw marks

We learnt that the constant movement of tigers causes their prey, the ungulates to disperse. This in turn prevents overgrazing of anyone area. The Chitals and Sambars help disperse the seeds of many tree species. The Langurs and Chitals have an interesting symbiotic relationship. The langurs throw down semi-eaten fruits that are rejected by them that are eaten by the Chitals who would otherwise be unable to reach them. The langurs maintain a lookout from their high-perch and raise an alarm when a predator is spotted. The Chitals have the advantage of their acute sense of smell and will sometimes pick up the scent of the predator even though it is not visible. The alarm-calls of Langurs, Macaques, Chital, Sambar, Kakars and many of the bird species help warn each other against common foes.
We were introduced to a host of indigenous tree species. We saw the Limonia (crenulata?)tree with its black berries that are a favourite with the bears. The Bael tree. The Kadam tree. The Chilla (Casearia tomentosa). The Haldu, with its corky bark. The Sandpaper tree with its rough, abrasive leaves.

Black berries of Limonia, Chilla forest range

Black berries of Limonia, Chilla forest range

Bael tree, Chilla forest range

Bael tree, Chilla forest range

Kadam tree, Chilla forest range

Kadam tree, Chilla forest range

Majestic Haldu tree, Chilla forest range

Majestic Haldu tree, Chilla forest range

We were told that a true wildlife enthusiast must also take interest in the flora. The wildlife sightings are few and far between and one needs to appreciate the richness of the flora that forms the animal habitat to keep oneself from getting bored with walking long distances in the wilderness.

The Hawk eye-Bird man team were busy at work. They picked out a Sparrow Hawk, a Barbet, a Blue-bearded Bee eater and a Green Leaf Bird.

Green Leafbird, Chilla forest range

Green Leafbird, Chilla forest range

Blue-bearded bee eater, Chilla forest range

Blue-bearded bee eater, Chilla forest range

Sparrow Hawk, Chilla forest range

Sparrow Hawk, Chilla forest range

Barbet, Chilla forest range

Barbet, Chilla forest range

The pictures had to be taken against a strong back-light that ruined my photographs. The Scribe had managed to find a camera setting that negated the darkening of the subject by the back-light and did manage pictures that were a tad clearer. The Bird-man continued with his blatantly partisan policy of applauding only the pictures taken by the Scribe!

I photographed some more wildflowers including the periwinkle and the Chinese Foldwing. The Philippine Violet and the Negro Coffee flowers could be seen all over.

Periwinkle (Sadabahar), Chilla forest range

Periwinkle (Sadabahar), Chilla forest range

Chinese Foldwing (Dicliptera chinensis) Chilla forest range

Chinese Foldwing (Dicliptera chinensis) Chilla forest range

We crossed a rather forlorn looking dilapidated concrete structure and were told that it was the original Looni Forest Post. The Bird-man gave us its unhappy history. We were told that a forest guard stationed at this post had committed suicide at the place along-with his son. That their restless spirits had returned to haunt the place. This post was then abandoned and a new Post was built on a sunny and cheerful spot near the bank of the Looni nadi. But the spirits followed to haunt this new building as well. A researcher staying overnight at this Post had been spooked out by supernatural experiences and had vowed not to visit the place again! Tiger-man clearly did not approve of such jungle lore and chose to ignore the entire conversation. We were somewhat sobered down by this upsetting tale by the time we reached the new Looni Post, a simple two-storey structure. The entrance was barricaded with logs to prevent entry by elephants.

Looni Post, Chilla forest range

Looni Post, Chilla forest range

We had stopped for a short halt to stretch our legs. I checked out the all purpose Gujjar machete (Pathal) that is used for lopping and chopping and also serves as a handy weapon.

Gujjar machete (Pathal)

Gujjar machete (Pathal)

Tiger-man and Imam cheerfully narrated their not so pleasant brush with an elephant herd the previous year when they had come for the same trek with the participants of the last course. The story had the desired effect and it was with a sense of heightened expectation that we crossed the Looni nadi and continued on our westward march.

Let nobody be fooled that any of us were there for the advancement of knowledge alone. We were there for the raw thrill of treading in tiger country. The thrill of a possible encounter with a tusker in musth. Of seeing a python in the wild. Of chancing upon tigers brawling for territory. Or maybe a bear excavating a termite hill. It is that hint of lurking danger that gives wilderness its true romance. It’s that primeval fear of violent death, that involuntary shiver that an encounter in the wild evokes that transports us, ever so briefly, to the rugged age and time of our ancestors. An age, when every species had a fighting chance. When the competition for space was not yet loaded so much in favour of man.
We were now entering deeper into the forests of Chilla range. I photographed a female Praying mantis, trapped in a spider web. We had seen the insect’s leathery cocoon the day before. The large yellow-striped black spider was making its way towards the helplessly entangled prey. The female Praying mantis, however, does not deserve too much of our sympathy as it is known to bite off the head of the smaller-sized male when it dismounts after copulation!

Praying mantis trapped in a spider web, Chilla forest range

Praying mantis trapped in a spider web, Chilla forest range

I added to my growing collection of pictures of colourful spiders. I photographed a spider that had a curious X-shape in a dense white material woven into the centre of the web.

Spider with curious X weaved into its web

Spider with curious X weaved into its web

A colourful small spider, Chilla forest range

A colourful small spider, Chilla forest range

We were walking along the forest track in a single file when the Tiger-man stopped suddenly under the overhanging branch of a small tree. He studied the branch for a while and then climbed up the tree trunk without a word to reach the branch for retrieving whatever had caught his eye. He then dropped down to the ground theatrically with the treasure hidden in his clenched fist. He opened his hand triumphantly to display the Sambar hair that he had removed from the branch. He then explained the significance of his ‘find’. The Sambar stag raises itself on the hind legs to mark territory by scratching the high branches of trees with its antlers. Some of the hair from the occipital region, stick to the tree and reveal the height of the stag to the other rival males and also to the females that he may choose to court. How on earth the man had spotted the hair in the first place was an unexplained mystery!

Jungle walk, Chilla forest range

Jungle walk, Chilla forest range

Tiger-man after the Sambar hair

Tiger-man after the Sambar hair

We crossed a dry river bed and 100-400 picked up a rather clear pugmark of a large tiger.

Tiger pugmarks, Chilla forest range, Rajaji NationalPark

Tiger pugmarks, Chilla forest range, Rajaji National Park

As we continued along the track Imam picked up several more tiger pugmarks. There were repeated scratch marks along the path. A tree bore the rake marks. There was a large patch of disturbed grass where the tiger had probably brought down its prey. It reminded me of the rather unpleasant sight of a wildebeest being ruthlessly dragged by its neck by a lion at Maasai mara, with fresh red blood splattered all over the flattened grass. There was no mistaking the feeling that ‘he’ was there, somewhere real close.

Studying signs of struggle

Studying signs of struggle

Tiger-man and Imam discussed the possible significance of the rather unprecedented frequency of territory marking signs. It was decided that in all likelihood a new male was threatening the reign of the ruling lord who was double marking his territory to warn the challenger of the consequences of a trespass! Border disputes between male tigers are known to get nasty with the risk of ‘collateral damage’! Tiger-man now quickened his step suddenly and set up a punishing pace as we headed north along the left bank of the Mithawali sot. The path had opened up into a fairly wide track and we followed our Commander wearily who did not reduce his unrelenting pace for several kilometres until we reached the newly constructed Mithawali Forest Bungalow. The bungalow had its back to a well forested hill and overlooked a large grassy plain that was enclosed by a solid stone wall. The campus was located high on the left bank of the Mithawali sot.

Restored Forest Bungalow at Mithawali, Chilla forest range

Restored Forest Bungalow at Mithawali, Chilla forest range

A 19th century building had originally stood at the spot but the structure had disappeared with time and the site had got occupied by a Gujjar dera. The dera was removed under the rehabilitation scheme and the land restored to the forest department. We had been walking for five hours and the sudden burst of the last few kilometres had taken the wind out of us. The bungalow was locked and we removed our shoes and happily collapsed on the floor of the large verandah to get some rest.

It was going to be a ‘namkeen’ break! The Bird-man pulled out the extra-large polypacks of ‘namkeen’ from the backpacks being carried by Imam’s sons. Namkeen is a unique Indian snack comprising a varied mix of spicy dried ingredients including roasted peanuts, dried lentils, flakes and noodles made of ground rice, corn and chickpea flour etc. I wondered at the Commander’s curious choice of snack for the outdoor adventure. The chillies and the spices irritated our already parched throats and made us thirstier. We were all running low on water supplies and our canteens were all but empty. We, however, feasted on the chocolates that some of us were carrying.
Presently it was time to be on the move again and on receiving the Commander’s signal we hoisted our rucksacks to our backs and trudged out wearily to resume our westward march. The jungle trail descended to the bed of the Mithawali sot that flowed gently on its southward journey to join the Looni nadi. The path then rose sharply as one had to negotiate a low ridge to descend into the Mundal valley to the west. There were numerous tiger tracks and also rather fresh elephant dung heaps. The Tiger-man cautioned us to remain alert and ready to react to any sudden exigency. The plan was simple. We were to get out of the way of any tusker that we might suddenly encounter on that narrow hill track. It was an EMERGENCY if the elephant made an aggressive movement towards us. It was every man for himself (the ladies had stayed behind that day!) and we were not to look for instructions. Slithering down the steep hillside to the south to escape the pachyderm’s swinging trunk was a good idea as some bad bruises or even a couple of broken bones were nothing compared to the punishment that a ‘musth’ tusker could inflict on us! One could hardly miss the excitement and the sparkle in the eye of the Nasik-Tiger as he marched ahead expectantly!!
My vintage ‘Peugeot 2.1 Litre, inline 4-Cylinder’ was beginning to misfire with the exertion from the climb and I was again lagging behind. I had the Gir-Lion for company who was braving the pain from the ankle he had twisted the previous day. Pilgrim’s knee was also giving him trouble but he was walking ahead doggedly. Imam’s younger son was walking last keeping his eye on the laggards. We went over the ridge and I wobbled down the slope and was glad to hit the golden Mundal valley. The Mundal sot drains this large undulating plain that slopes gently to the south. The relocation of the Gujjar deras from this area in the recent years has worked wonders for the revival of this once degraded grassland. The hardy, tall grass has bounced back to reclaim the entire valley. The grassland today sustains a rich ungulate population that is attracting the tigers from the west. The grass also supports the elephant herds that pass through this area on their eastwards migration every winter. The golden grasslands of Mundal valley rival the raw beauty and vastness of the African Serengeti.

Golden Grasslands on way to Mundal post

Golden Grasslands on way to Mundal post

We walked past the feathered remains of a Crested Serpent Eagle that seemed to have come to a violent end.  Binging on a snake diet is tricky business!

Feathers of a dead raptor, Chilla forest range

Feathers of a dead Crested Serpent Eagle, Chilla forest range

It was a warm sunny afternoon of early winter and the heat made the toil even more difficult. We were desperate to reach the Mundal Post where lunch and fresh supplies of water awaited us.

The long walk to Mundal Post

The long walk to Mundal Post

The Bird-man distracted us with sightings of birds in the tall grass. The back-light issue continued to plague my photography. The Scribe managed a beautiful capture of a Lal Munia in the grass. And also a difficult picture of a distant eagle against the sun. As was expected the Bird-man went into an ecstatic fit on seeing the picture of Lal Munia. I managed a measly bush bird that nobody else bothered to click. And some curious green-coloured globular flower heads.

Red Munia (Photo courtesy the Scribe) Chilla range

Red Munia (Photo courtesy the Scribe) Chilla range

Eagle near Mundal (Photo courtesy the Scribe)

Eagle near Mundal (Photo courtesy the Scribe)

A bush bird, Mundal valley

A bush bird, Mundal valley

White-petalled green globular flower heads, near Mundal

White-petalled green globular flower heads, near Mundal

The golden grass with the fluffy pink flower heads looked mesmerizingly beautiful in the sun.

Pink flowered grass near Mundal, Chilla forest range

Pink flowered grass near Mundal, Chilla forest range

We finally spotted the Mundal Watchtower and quickened our pace to finish this unending penultimate lap.

Watch Tower at Mundal, Chilla forest range

Watch Tower at Mundal, Chilla forest range

I was the last one to walk in and was ready to drop down dead by the time I removed my jungle boots. It was pleasant to feel the soothing touch of soft grass under my bare feet as I made my way to the tap. I washed my face and doused my head under the running tap to get the heat out of my system. The food restored some of the flagging spirit and I lay down flat on the grass to rest my aching back. The Bird-man was giving some field lessons on the freshwater tortoise found in the area but I was too fatigued to pay any heed to the conversation.

The Mundal post is located on a high ground that overlooks the breathtaking landscape of the Mundal valley to the north. The valley with its sparkling waters, golden grasslands and distant rolling hills for a backdrop is picture perfect. A nature enthusiast awed by the natural beauty of the location had christened the rather spartan Mundal post as an ‘All Star Hotel’ that beat all the Oberois and Sheratons of the world in the richness of experience it offered. We were early for the westward migration of elephants and it felt strange to have walked through the entire expanse of Chilla range without encountering any elephants. The fresh dung heaps, however, showed that they were somewhere there, grazing quietly, hidden by the tall golden grass.

Lunch at Mundal post, Chilla forest range

Lunch at Mundal post, Chilla forest range

Before we knew it, it was time to move again. This was going to be the last stretch. Not a very long one if we were to believe the Tiger-man. Of course nobody believed him!! The ladies had taken a jeep ride direct to the Mundal post that afternoon and were now eager to walk the remaining distance. Six jeep ride slots were up for grabs for those who had had enough for the day and wanted to settle for a ride back home. 100-400 smiled at me with encouragement as I followed him wearily for the walk back home. I was not ready to throw in the towel just yet!

We had barely started walking when one of the ‘foot-soldiers’ had a change of heart and decided that he wanted the jeep ride after all. The jeep seemed within shouting distance but all efforts to catch the ear of its occupants failed and it gradually moved out of our range. The ‘deserter’ looked downcast at the prospect of having to walk back after all. Just then the Techie, who was out-fitted for a proper commando operation, pulled out the ‘Storm’- a survival whistle used by US Special Forces and is touted to be the world’s loudest whistle! One short blast from that little monster and the jeep was speeding back to us, probably alarmed by the high-decibel signal.

We now followed the meandering course of the Mundal sot as it flowed westwards to join the Ganga River south of the Chilla Powerhouse. Imam picked up the feint tracks of a hyena in the sand.

Hyena pug marks, Chilla forest range

Hyena pug marks, Chilla forest range

We were told about the camera-shy tigress that lived in the hills to the north. She had successfully evaded all attempts to photograph her with a camera-trap by numerous researchers of WII. We walked and walked and walked. The Bird-man was pointing to birds but I had no energy to raise my camera. We finally reached a point from where we were to leave the river bed to take a short-cut for the West Gate to Chilla Range. The short-cut required us to climb up yet another hill. We were too tired to protest and followed our Commander tamely. We reached the level land on the top that had a heavy cover of undergrowth. The Tiger-man had come to this spot some months back for setting up a Camera trap. When he had later visited the site to retrieve the photographs the camera revealed a picture of a tigress peering into the camera. The photograph had been taken minutes after he had left the spot after setting up the Camera trap. She had obviously been watching him from her hiding while he fixed the camera and had decided to investigate the ‘alien’ device the moment he left the spot! ‘So you see, even if you don’t see the tiger it does not necessarily mean that it is not around. One might be watching us right now!’ he added gleefully. We stuck real close to the Tiger-man and Imam for the rest of the walk through that sinister wooded patch and the overwhelming fatigue was the least of our concerns. We finally reached the tourist reception area at the West Gate where we had tea and biscuits before boarding our bus for the drive back to Laldhang. We later learnt by mapping the GPS trace provided by the Pilgrim, that we had walked an impossible distance of 28 KM that day! The Tiger-man insisted that it was only 19 and finally settled for 24 by night-fall!!

The 28 KM walk through Chilla Forest Range

The 28 KM walk through Chilla Forest Range  (GPS trace courtesy the Pilgrim)

Day 3 started rather tamely for us. The Tiger-man had decided to take it easy and let us troopers lick our wounds! We started for the Jhilmil Jheel Conservation Reserve, the nearly 4000 hectare wetland that falls in the Haridwar Forest Division and is one of the last surviving habitats for the highly endangered Swamp Deer. The wetland occupies a saucer shaped area between the Haridwar-Najibabad Highway and the left bank of Ganga River. It was declared a Community Conservation Reserve in 2005 when Swamp deer were rediscovered in this area and a need was felt to protect their habitat from fragmentation due to expansion in agriculture and change in land use. Families residing inside the ‘conserved’ area were relocated and steps were taken to curb poaching of deer.

Jhilmil Jheel Conservation Reserve

Jhilmil Jheel Conservation Reserve

We were fairly close to the Watch Tower that offers an unbroken view of the breathtaking landscape of the Jheel when our bus came to an abrupt halt. There was a large grey tusker blocking our path. It was on its way for a raid on a sugarcane field and had decided to amuse himself as he took a breather. A cycle lay close to his feet and he seemed to be toying with the idea of stamping on it.

Tusker on road to Jhilmil Jheel

Tusker on road to Jhilmil Jheel

Earlier, he had scared the wits out of the poor cyclist by appearing like an apparition, completely unnoticed by the cyclist who received a ‘light’ nudge on his arm as he cycled past the Gentle Giant. He immediately realized his folly and fled for his life leaving his precious bicycle behind. His bowels had given way out of sheer terror and he emerged from his hideout where he had been squatting on seeing our bus. He now stood next to our bus for safety and pleaded with the Giant with folded hands to spare his bicycle. The prayer and pleading seemed to have the desired effect on this real life Ganesha! He did no damage to the poor man’s bike and ambled on silently on its enormous padded feet to disappear into the forest on the other side. The man ran to retrieve his cycle from the danger zone and pedalled off hysterically.
We resumed our journey and reached a small flat hill top that was almost level with the road and overlooked the vast wetland area of the Jhilmil Jheel. The Forest Department had built an Observation Tower atop this hill and I followed the Bird-man to the top to spot the Swamp deer. As luck would have it not a single one could be spotted that day. This was rather strange as the Forest Department had counted over 200 deer in a recent census carried out with the help of experts from WII. We peered at the beautiful landscape for some time.

Jhilmil Jheel Conservation Reserve- the beautiful landscape

Jhilmil Jheel Conservation Reserve- the beautiful landscape

I clicked a glossy black drongo and a red dragonfly.

Drongo near Jhilmil Jheel Watchtower

Drongo near Jhilmil Jheel Watchtower

Red Dragonfly, Jhilmil Jheel Conservation Reserve

Red Dragonfly, Jhilmil Jheel Conservation Reserve

The Scribe’s camera was out of action and he blamed me for not allowing him to charge his camera battery the previous night, there being only one plug point between us. The truth was that he was so dead beat after the gruelling walk through Chilla that he had crashed straight into his bed after dinner with no energy left to prepare for the next round of the Battle-of-the-Cameras! We were about to move when I spotted a flock of large black birds circling the sky to our south. They were the Black Storks that breed in eastern Europe (Poland and other countries around it) and visit India during winters. The Bird-man was ecstatic that we had spotted the storks in such large numbers (he estimated their number to be 300) on their winter migration route. The Black Stork is a large bird with a wing-span of 5 feet. It can grow up to 3-1/2 feet tall and has a long neck and long legs and a straight pointed beak. It is a glossy greenish-black except for the white lower-breast and belly. The white belly could be clearly made out even from that great distance. 100-400 was hammering the skies with his Ack-Ack Gun. I managed some modest pictures of the storks while the Scribe looked on, wringing his hands in despair!!

Black Storks over Jhilmil Jheel (Winter migration)

Black Storks over Jhilmil Jheel (Winter migration)

Black storks over Jhilmil Jheel

Black Storks over Jhilmil Jheel (Late October)

We were now driven to the Chilla Tourism Resort on the bank of the Chilla Power Channel and after crossing the canal we alighted from the bus and walked through the forest enclosed within the channel and Ganga River that is part of the East-West Corridor. We were planning to see the birds on the waters of Ganges and on its numerous islands. I spotted a Blue Rock Thrush.

Blue Rock Thrush, Ganga River

Blue Rock Thrush, Ganga River

We all tried our hand at the distant Pallas’s Fishing Eagle.

Pallas's Fish Eagle, Ganga River

Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Ganga River

A couple of Brahminy ducks flew tantalizingly close but I missed the rather difficult, against the sun, in-flight picture. Hawk Eye managed a brilliant shot while I contented myself with a picture of the ducks paddling in the Ganga waters.

Brahminy Ducks in flight (Photo courtesy Hawk-Eye)

Brahminy Ducks in flight (Photo courtesy Hawk-Eye)

Brahminy Ducks on the Ganges

Brahminy Ducks on the Ganges

 

I photographed Red-Cotton Bugs and a Garden Lizard in the forest.

Red Cotton Bugs, bank of Ganga River

Red Cotton Bugs, bank of Ganga River

Garden Lizard (?)

Garden Lizard (?)

The Ganga was a beautiful blue, yet to be sullied by the urban sprawl at Haridwar, that lies further south.

Ganga near Chilla Power House

Ganga near Chilla Power House

Ganga river- panoramic

The day had been something of an anti-climax after the high of the previous day and the Tiger-man sensed our disappointment. He was busy on his phone through the lunch and a loud cheer went through the group when he announced his plan of taking us for a jeep ride through Chilla in the evening. I was lucky to be in the vehicle driven by the Tiger-man himself and it was 4 PM when we rolled out of the camp. We were only 15 minutes into the drive when we spotted him, almost simultaneously. There he was, enjoying the evening sun standing lazily in the middle of that overgrown jeep track. I had of course spotted only a ‘something’ but the Tiger-man needed no binoculars for declaring that it was a beautiful, big leopard. The leopard was fairly close to the point where Imam had picked up leopard pugmarks the day before. It was at quite a distance from where we had halted but we could not risk getting any closer. I zoomed in for my best picture of the trip.

Leopard, Chilla range, Rajaji National Park

Leopard, Chilla range, Rajaji National Park

I had done it, finally. As the readers are well aware, the spotted one has eluded the Tramp all this while and I had begun to despair that I was perhaps not destined to see one in the wild. The Scribe missed out on a ‘face shot’ and blamed his cramped position in the rear of the jeep for the debacle.

We now drove on towards Khara Post where the rest of the group awaited us. A Neelgai watched us go past from its well camouflaged position.

Nilgai at Chilla

Nilgai at Chilla

The track was rough and at places parts of it had been washed away in the rains. We negotiated several river beds including that of the Looni nadi and I was impressed with the power and the phenomenal ground clearance of the Gypsy and its confident handling by the Tiger-man.
We spotted Cheetal herd near the Khara post.

Cheetal near Khara post, Chilla range

Cheetal near Khara post, Chilla range

Also some jungle-fowls, parakeets and peafowls. And a strangler fig.

Strangler fig

Strangler fig

Rose-Ringed Parakeet

Rose-Ringed Parakeet

We crossed the deserted post and drove on further west. Our comrades were coming excitedly from the opposite direction and the Scribe got a perfect picture of our wildlife enthusiasts.

Driving through Chilla range

Driving through Chilla range

They had spotted a Burmese Python in a nallah. We accompanied them to the spot and were happy to find that the python was still there. It was climbing up a vertical mud wall with the help of its prehensile tail.

Burmese Python, Chilla range

Burmese Python, Chilla range

The Burmese python is hunted for its lovely skin and is evaluated as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red list of threatened species. Our comrades rued the missed opportunity of photographing a leopard in the wild.

We now headed back for Laldhang. A minor-tiff over space between two of our jeep mates in the rear got the Tiger-man’s goat. He made a ‘suggestion’ to the one cribbing the loudest to switch vehicles. It was ‘an offer you could not refuse’. But it’s only the ‘Godfather’ fan who understands the peril involved in refusing such an offer. Our ‘delinquent’ pal obviously had never read the book and flatly refused the suggestion. You could see the dark cloud of sudden rage descend on the tiger’s face. The eyes were aflame as he switched into a high gear and stepped on the gas pedal to go hurtling through the narrow jeep track that was now visible only under the headlights. The track had deep ditches obscured by tall grass; there were boulders strewn all over and trees pushed down by the elephants that blocked the track. But nothing seemed to deter the tiger from his fantastic speed. He veered the vehicle sharply at the Y-junction with the track that led to Mithawali and turned left to head towards the bungalow at the same breakneck speed. There was complete silence in the rear as the passengers held on to the side-rails for their dear lives, their differences forgotten! Adrenalin was running high as we roared through the gates of the Mithawali Forest Bungalow and the tiger parked the jeep and got-off to cool his shocking temper!
The ride back to Laldhang was relatively sedate and uneventful. Our tech-savvy Commando now produced a high-power torch that flood-lit the forest on our sides. We had our eyes peeled for any sign of wildlife but we spotted nothing. It was a quick dinner on reaching back as we were to get into our beds early that night. The Tiger-man proposed to start an hour earlier than the normal departure time for the final day of adventure. But that was not to be. The Bird-man had organized an after dinner lecture on citizen participation in wildlife conservation programmes. How we could contribute as common citizens and make a difference. The success stories from all over the world. Undoubtedly, it was the most important lecture from the standpoint of the declared objective of our course and there was no way that the Bird-man would let us wriggle out of it! But as was to be expected it was an excellent presentation and we willingly sacrificed our precious sleep to sit through that post-dinner class. These guys could put even the military instructors to shame with their diligence and single-mindedness of purpose!

Driving in Chilla Range- the route we took

Driving in Chilla Range- the route we took (GPS trace courtesy the Pilgrim)

We were up at 4:30 AM and were ready to board the jeeps by 6 for the early morning drive through Chilla range. I scrambled to get into the jeep being driven by the Tiger. ‘Who knows?’ I thought expectantly, ‘with the man’s luck we might actually chance upon a tiger!’ I double-checked my camera to be sure that I did not miss that very special moment. We followed the usual track till the Looni nadi. The moon was still high in the sky and it felt eerie to be driving through the quiet Sal forest at that early hour. At Looni, we turned left to take the track that led to Khara.

The beautiful landscape, Chilla range

The beautiful landscape, Chilla range

We spotted a Chital herd that frolicked around in the sparkling river-bed unmindful of our jeeps and flashing cameras.

Chital herd at Chilla range

Chital herd at Chilla range

Chital stag, picture perfect

Chital stag, picture perfect

We did startle a rather grave looking Pond-heron that rose from the shallow waters to reveal its snow-white wings.

Indian Pond Heron, Chilla range

Indian Pond Heron, Chilla range

There was elephant dung all around but no tuskers in sight. Tiger-man was puzzled that there were no Sambar deer to be seen that morning. We drove through Chilla to emerge at its west gate. There were some wild boars just short of the exit.

Wild Boar at Chilla

Wild Boar at Chilla

The hour long drive through the beautiful landscape had been refreshing but did disappoint those who had hoped for some interesting sighting.
We boarded our bus for the drive to Dharkot. We crossed the Chilla Power Channel (Canal) near the tourist rest house and then drove along the scenic canal road until we reached the narrow bridge near ‘Kaudiya’ village. We now turned right and took the winding hill road to Dharkot. The tiger was piloting our bus in a jeep. I was sitting on the seat right behind our temperamental driver. The condition of the road deteriorated rapidly and before long we were driving along an impossibly steep, narrow and winding gravel path that I would not have dared to attempt even on a jeep. Our driver’s expression was grim as he steered that 42-seater through the unending series of hair-pin and S-bends. A stalling of the engine at any of the sharp bends would have surely sent us hurtling down the hill side. I was hoping that the driver would halt the bus at some level stretch and refuse to drive us further on that path to collective hara-kiri. But this one was not a quitter. He was too damn proud for that! “Sahib kahan lekar jayengeh aaj?” he muttered wryly as the road narrowed down further and the gradient increased. I enquired from the Bird-man whether he had ever done this journey on a bus. He was busy lecturing his pupils on the wonders of nature and could not care less for my mundane concerns! “Local bus jaati hai is road par,” he remarked casually and I felt reassured.
We passed a spot that offered breathtaking view of the Ganga River and the Haridwar town to the west but I had no stomach for landscape photography at that moment. Large sections of the road had been reduced to loose gravel and I marveled at the confidence with which our driver swung the bus from bend to bend without allowing any break in momentum. The damn vehicle did not have even a power-steering. Thus we went, with me waiting to meet my maker; my eyes pinned on that treacherous track until we reached the point beyond which the road was metaled. We were saved! We now crossed a series of small hamlets- the Talla and Malla Banas, Kimsar and Ramjiwallah as we drove for Dharkot. The name ‘Ramjiwallah’ rang a bell. This was the place where Sher Jung, the hunter-turned-conservationist, the freedom fighter from Nahan, had shot a cattle-lifting tiger. The village kids on way to school waved cheerfully at us as we drove by. On the way up, we had encountered the ‘local bus’ that did the rounds on this impossible hill road. It was a 26-seater barely half the size of our TATA 42-seater. Its driver was astonished to learn that we had actually driven up that road in a full-fledged bus!! We had driven for 25 KM after the turn at Kaudiya when we finally stopped at a roadside dhaba at Dharkot.

The 25 KM hill drive to Dharkot

The 25 KM hill drive to Dharkot

I got off with relief and vigorously shook the hand of our bus driver much to his embarrassment. He was without any doubt, the absolute best. A man with courage and character, who knew his job like nobody else and was justifiably proud of it. It is only to be expected that an artist such as him should not think much of the mediocrity that characterizes the endeavours of the likes of us.

We were greeted by a thickset man sporting a trendy trekking gear. The face was almost completely hidden under the broad rim of his flop hat and the dazzle of his goggles that seemed to be straight out of Thalaiva’s wardrobe! We were being received by the ‘Haakim’ of the Tiger Country that we were set out to explore that day. A cheerful man who quite apparently loved his job and certainly didn’t mind its trappings! He had decided to join us for the down-the-hill trek through the Gohri range all the way to Laldhang. It was a nice gesture on his part considering that it was the ‘Karva Chauth’ day when the wives fast for the longevity of their husbands and certainly expect them to be home for the evening prayers!
We were to have chicken for breakfast, which did not portend well for the trek that was to follow. For the Tiger-man is a great believer in the potency of a non-vegetarian diet. It is his confirmed belief that one must fortify oneself with high-on-energy food before embarking on any arduous enterprise. Thus we could be certain that he had an adventure planned for us that day. The Gir-lion and the Talkative-one decided to give the trek a skip. I marveled at their courage in risking a return journey by bus on that murderous road.
The trek started with the usual happy banter as we made our way down a cemented pathway that descended down the hill from Dharkot.

The track from Dharkot

The track from Dharkot

It was sunny and rather warm for late October. The trek was going to be hard on my swollen knees and I wished that I had not added those additional 10 KGs to my girth. Our Tech-savvy Ad-Guru was also having trouble with his knee. But we had not come all this way to quit on the very last day. The Scribe was walking along most cheerfully and showed no signs of fatigue. We were a large group today as we were accompanied by the Haakim’s impressive ‘Lashkar’ of forest rangers and guards who were keen to make a good impression on their boss. I got a nice picture of the striking red flowers of the Red Star Morning Glory, an invasive climber that is native of North America.

Red Star Morning Glory, Dharkot, Pauri garhwal

Red Star Morning Glory, Dharkot, Pauri garhwal

We crossed a cute little girl on her way up to her school. She was shocked to encounter such a large party of strangers walking down that generally quiet hill side. We were treated to a freshly harvested honeycomb that tasted like the magic-candy from Enid Blyton’s enchanted forest! We crossed a quaint hamlet and a number of terraced fields including one that was overgrown with the bhang weed (hemp).

Hamlet near Dharkot

Hamlet near Dharkot

The lantana made the going tough as we pushed our way along the narrow track through thick undergrowth. There was elephant dung all along the path and it was difficult to imagine how that immense size could negotiate such a narrow path. The track was now running parallel to and above the Moriya sot, a rivulet of considerable size that drains these hills as it flows south to join the Rewasan. Just then a warning was sounded by the scout. There was a tusker on the wooded hill across the sot. I could barely manage a glimpse before it disappeared. We were lucky that we had not had a face-to-face encounter as it would only take a couple of ‘gentle’ swipes of that enormous trunk to knock us all off that hill!
The path now began to drop sharply and we had to once again resort to slithering down the sharp slopes on our backsides to avoid breaking our necks. The difficult descent ended on the bed of the Moriya sot and the entire party settled down on the boulders amidst the sparkling waters of the rivulet. We had walked less than 5 KM but the torturous descent had been killing for those with knee-issues.

Dharkot to Moriya sot

Dharkot to Moriya sot

We munched on the biscuits and chips that were passed around as we waited for the next instruction. We were in a narrow valley that followed the southward course of the rivulet with steep sides to our east and west. The Haakim was debating the path to be followed with his men. It seemed that the trek group from the previous year’s course had also followed this track and had ended up getting lost in the forest after sunset and the trumpeting of the belligerent elephants had scared the wits out of them. I could see that the forest guards were openly derisive of the Imam’s suggestions on the subject who decided to clam up completely in protest. The local ‘Darogah’ finally convinced his boss to walk down the Moriya valley along the sot till we reached the point where it met the Rewasan River. The Ad-Guru was aghast to hear the plan as the bed was strewn with slippery rocks and boulders and one also had to negotiate the shallow pools formed by the flowing water all along the river course. The Tiger-man told us that the walk through this tricky stretch was going to be short as the valley was expected to open up further down south. It would be a leisurely stroll thereafter along the idyllic sandy banks of the sot!
The group started moving Southwards in a long extended file. One was required to jump from boulder to boulder to avoid getting the shoes in water and I winced with pain at every little leap.

Boulder march, Moriya sot, Gohri range

Boulder march, Moriya sot, Gohri range

The Ad-Guru was in serious trouble. His inflamed knee could be justifiably described as a ‘medical condition’ and he seemed to be in great pain. The face was ashen as he followed the group, clambering painfully over the rocks. There were many wild flowers growing along the banks including the ubiquitous Barleria. There were also the colourful dragonflies and damselflies enjoying the sun as they rested on the river rocks. I paused to photograph some of these natural beauties but soon realized that I could ill afford the luxury as I was lagging behind considerably.

Barleria cristata, Moriya sot

Barleria cristata, Moriya sot

Wild flowers along Moriya sot

Wild flowers along Moriya sot (Pink burr?)

Damselfly, Moriya sot, Gohri Range

Damselfly, Moriya sot, Gohri Range

Dragonfly, Moriya sot

Dragonfly, Moriya sot

The Ad-Guru fell back a long distance from the group and I was wondering how he would finish this arduous trek.

The journey was unending. The fall of the river became progressively steeper. The current was now fairly swift and the pools through which it flowed seemed deeper. The light-hearted banter had ceased completely and we were all walking silently, careful not to slip and fall.

Moriya sot flowing through the forests

Moriya sot flowing through the forests of Gohri range

The Tiger-man had a quiet talk with Imam who now slipped back to assist the Ad-Guru whose walk was reduced to a painful wobble. I was faring no better and was the first one to slip that day. I misjudged a leap and fell flat on my back in the flowing water. Thankfully I had my camera in my hand and I managed to keep it above the water. My trousers, shoes and shoulder bag were soaked in water. The Scribe helped me to salvage myself and I anxiously checked my precious i5 for damage. Thankfully it was safe!! My bones also seemed intact though the pride was badly shattered!!
The path was tough yet beautiful in its own rugged way. The water had eroded deep, cave-like recesses in the rocky hill sides.

River cave, Moriya sot

River cave, Moriya sot

The river trail

The river trail

The river was joined by numerous streams as we walked down its course and the Scribe, the eternal pessimist, predicted that the increased flow was only going to make our journey tougher. The Moriya valley was showing no signs of opening out. We came upon interesting multi-hued rocks. The Scribe attributed the yellow colour to the presence of sulphur. The water was crystal clear and sparkled in the sun. We reached a tricky crossing across a large slippery boulder and the Ad-Guru took a nasty fall. For once the Tiger looked worried. There was no way a guy could be evacuated over this terrain even if a stretcher could be managed.

Our comrade now had a strange, distant look in his eyes. He was quiet and did not respond to words of commiseration offered by his mates. His wet clothes clung to his body and his hand was tightly gripped on a wooden staff, perhaps to defy the waves of pain that ran through his leg. The greying beard and the light cloth turban made him look a man from another world. A man, on a pilgrimage, to some distant land – in search of redemption.

We had stopped for a brief halt. The Darogah who had recommended the route was sheepish and avoided the eye of his unhappy boss. Apparently, he had never really done the route before but had not mustered the guts to admit this to his boss as the area fell under his ‘beat’. ‘The poor bloke might have even submitted detailed reports of having patrolled this area!’ I thought with amusement. The Haakim seemed to be in an ugly mood and refused to smile at the half-hearted attempts at humour by his army of nervous minions.
The ‘kafila’ was on the move again. The Pilgrim had suddenly discovered a new determination. He followed the Imam without complaint as the duo settled down to a gentle, even pace that they maintained for the rest of the journey. I had also stepped up my pace as I had decided to quit tailing the group and to catch up with the Tiger-man and the Haakim’s army, who had been leading the pack thus far. The trackers picked up rather fresh looking tracks of a tigress with at least two cubs, on a sandy bank.

Pug mark of a tigress, Moriya sot, Chila forest range, Rajaji National Park

Pug mark of a tigress, Moriya sot, Chila forest range, Rajaji National Park

Pug marks of tiger cub, Moriya sot, Chila forest range, Rajaji National Park

Pug marks of tiger cub, Moriya sot, Chila forest range, Rajaji National Park

The tracks indicated that the tiger family was also making its way south so that we could expect feline company at any moment. The water flow had increased manifold and now covered the entire width of the riverbed. We gave up all attempts at keeping our feet dry and now waded through the ankle-deep water.

River crossing, Moriya sot

River crossing, Moriya sot

I immediately felt better as even though the feet felt raw with the soaking yet the knees were spared the painful jolts from the constant leaping.

We reached a large rocky clearing and found a half-eaten Sambar. It was a tiger kill and there were pugmarks of the tigress all around. The Scribe winced when I clicked the poor dead beast. He expected greater respect for the dead.

Sambar kill by Tigress and her cubs, Moriya sot, Gohri range

Sambar kill by Tigress and her cubs, Moriya sot, Gohri range

The rangers were looking genuinely fatigued and the boss was resting on a large rock, fanning himself with the flop hat. The walk was now beginning to take its toll. The Tiger-man had left the spot and was walking ahead, accompanied by 100-400 and a couple of tough youngsters.

The ‘MM 540’ was not going to finish second this day and I cut short my rest to try catching-up with the scouts. The Scribe who had been jumping over rocks like a mountain goat for the better part of the day was now showing signs of fatigue and produced a chocolate that he had been saving up for the much needed energy boost. We were joined this time by Doctor Sahib and the Happy Banker. Our Banker pal had done very well for himself. He had taken the smart decision to wade through the water from the very start and had saved himself the pointless pain and fatigue from springing from rock to rock that had anyway proved futile. The Pilgrim appeared on the scene with Imam and the weary rangers kidded them about the fable of the ‘Hare and the Tortoise’. The duo ignored the guffaws and kept walking on at the same dogged pace. On seeing us leave the Haakim got up wearily and led his men quietly after us.
The tiger tracks were now joined by the tracks of a Black Bear. Things were beginning to get lively!

Black Bear tracks, Moriya sot, Gohri range, Rajaji National Park

Black Bear tracks, Moriya sot, Gohri range, Rajaji National Park

As we followed the meandering course of the Moriya sot I turned each bend with the anticipation of coming upon the tigress and her cubs. I imagined my famous last reaction to an angry charge by the protective mother! Fatigue acts like a drug on the mind and such idle reveries keep you going in a state of trance. It was an impossibly long haul, over rocks and boulders, through a flowing river but we finally managed to reach the point where the sot flowed into the Rewasan River.

Sparkling waters of Moriya sot

Sparkling waters of Moriya sot

We found the Tiger-man sitting on the bank across the river chatting cheerfully with his fellow scouts. We waded through the knee deep water to join the advance party and flopped to the ground out of exhaustion. We had barely rested for five minutes when the Pilgrim appeared on the horizon and crossed the river on that same unbroken step. We hailed him cheerfully. He had done it. The Tiger-man could call for a jeep to this spot and his suffering was over.

To my utmost astonishment I realized that the Pilgrim was not intending to settle for a bail-out at the fag-end of his pilgrimage. He walked past us all and disappeared into the forest with Imam in tow. They were going to walk all the way home to Laldhang.
I vacillated for a while and then decided to follow the brave-hearts. They had a head start of a few minutes and I was anxious of losing my way as I hurried to catch-up with them. I finally spotted the duo at some distance ahead of me and followed them wearily taking care not to lose sight of them. I heard my name called out from behind and found the Scribe accompanied by Doctor Sahib, rushing to join me. He was mad at me for having left him behind!

We now followed the track that went by the Gujjar dera that we had visited on day one. A dog came bounding out of the dera on spotting us and wagged its tail hysterically. It pranced around our feet with happy loud barks, not allowing us to make any progress. The Scribe loves dogs and was amused to see the antics of this affectionate dog. He had been bitten by one such friendly stray canine that he was trying to pet sometime back and I braced my stick to fend off any hostile approach. The Gujjars sensed my discomfort and called their dog in but only after we had lost track of Imam and the Pilgrim. We now walked fast to catch-up with the scouts. But there are limits to what one can achieve after 8 hours of clambering down the boulder path and try as we might there was no way we could bridge the gap. We crossed the Rewasan and now entered the teak forest with the lonely white temple. I was walking ahead of my two mates and could see the Imam at a distance. The Scribe was complaining about stones in his shoe and decided to halt. The Doctor Sahib also decided to take a breather while I walked on alone. In minutes I had lost sight of both the party ahead of me and the friends to my rear. It was not with a very happy feeling that I continued along that spooky track and was relieved to emerge out of the forest and hit the Rewasan River for the third time. Laldhang lay at the other end. Imam and Pilgrim had already waded halfway through the river. I tailed them tamely until we reached the gates of the Forest Rest House. The bus driver, the Champion of the day, greeted me cheerfully. We were friends for life! I headed straight for a chair and struggled to get the wet shoes off my swollen feet. The feet had turned a cadaverous white after walking through water for so long and I placed them on a chair to restore the circulation. The Pilgrim was looking triumphant. He had not given in and had won his unspoken battle with pain and adversity. His pilgrimage was complete. The proverbial ‘tortoise’ had proved once again that in the final analysis it’s only the will and grit that counts. The Scribe and the Doctor Sahib trudged in next. They had lost their way and had had to retrace their path for a short distance.
That was it. No one else walked in home that day. The rest of our gang drove in somewhat sheepishly in the jeep! The last mile is not considered the trickiest for nothing!!

Laldhang-Chilla-Dharkot-Gohri-Laldhang

Laldhang-Chilla-Dharkot-Gohri-Laldhang  (GPS trace courtesy the Pilgrim)

We started early for the journey back to the Institute. The holiday was coming to an end. The last four days had been one of the most memorable experiences of our life. 

This time we travelled by the Haridwar-Dehradun road. The Bird-man lectured us on the issues involved in creating an obstacle-free East-West Corridor. He pointed to the badly delayed project to build an elevated highway. The Army dump. The Railway line. He recounted the tragic death of the legendary, Tipu Sultan. The majestic 65-year old tusker, was easily Rajaji’s best loved elephant. A notorious crop raider, who never harmed a human. Luck ran out for this lovable Gentle Giant when he got badly mauled in a musth-fuelled battle with a much younger bull. He was still recuperating from his injuries, under the care of anxious wildlife experts, when he strayed onto the bridge across the Motichur rau on the Haridwar-Rishikesh railway track. The driver of an oncoming train spotted him in time but the terrified elephant jumped to his death from the bridge. He was buried at the spot he fell. The tale moved us tremendously. Maybe it was the sadness with which it was narrated.

Tipu Sultan (2004); Photo courtesy the Tiger-manWe stopped for breakfast at a famous roadside Punjabi dhaba. The mouth-watering aloo-parathas with generous dollops of butter and lassi cheered us up for the farewell. The Tiger-man had reached WII ahead of us and had organized a Valedictory Session. The session was presided over by a senior faculty, a sceptic, who quizzed us on the utility of running such a course. Our emotional replies overwhelmed the man. There was no doubting the fact that we were ‘converts’ for life! We were presented with beautiful certificates placed inside arty, handmade jackets and a WII mug to remember them by! Most of us were feeling overwrought as we stepped out of the room and said our goodbyes. We were going to remember these 10 days of camaraderie, of tramping in the wild, of learning from the best, for a long long time.
The Scribe left early, overwhelmed with sudden sadness as we parted ways. A lovable, emotional man-my friend, the Scribe.
I boarded the evening train for the journey back home. ‘I will be back!’ I promised myself as the train chugged through the enchanted forests of Rajaji.

Dehradun Railway Station in the colonial era

Dehradun Railway Station in the colonial era

Epilogue:

The Tiger-man photographed two male and two female tigers at the spot where we had encountered heavy territory marking by tigers on our way to Mithawali. The stage is being set for a ‘battle-royale’ between the ‘Ruling Lord’ and the ‘Challenger’ which may see the violent destruction of the unlucky loser. He also photographed a tigress with a male cub at the ‘Bohri’ sot (that I have erroneously referred to as ‘Mohri’), the place where we found the dead Sambhar. Incredibly enough he also managed an amazing picture of the tigress that had stalked him earlier while he installed a Camera-trap. This time she was carrying a Sambhar by its neck. The graceful lady did not condescend to drag her heavy ‘kill’ and instead carried it clean leaving no drag marks!

Stalking the Stalker, Rajaji National Park

A closer reading of Sher Jung’s ‘Tryst With Tigers’ revealed that the Ramjiwallah he referred to in his book lies farther east (towards Corbett) to the one we crossed on way to Dharkot!!