It was aloo paranthas topped with dollops of delicious (cholesterol-enriched?) AMUL butter for breakfast! I hogged to my heart’s desire without any of the attendant guilt as we had decided to skip our lunch for the day. We had reached our friends’ rather tastefully kept home at Panchkula the previous night and I had the day long adventure activity planned with Musafir. I spotted a curious red-black beetle crawling on the floor and I clicked a close-up to identify it later. I was getting warmed up to a day of happy photography!
Running a hobby website on the Morni hills has been a life transforming experience for me. In my endeavour to create a rich panoramic picture of the Morni ‘ilaqa’ for my readers, I have tried to include pieces on its interesting history, a description of its diverse ecosystem, a guide to its resorts, an account of its quaint bhojs and dhanis and their somewhat reclusive inhabitants. The journey has got me interested in a range of things that I had barely noticed in my forty years of rather pedestrian existence. It has awakened a sudden curiosity for nature. A compulsion to know and understand the ways of God that are stamped in life around me and I rue the decades wasted in ignorance.
As I picked up my jungle hat and my sun glasses and pocked my precious Swiss-knife, Musafir appeared with a cardboard box, grinning enthusiastically in his characteristic manner. He was carrying the Jungle Boots that he had purchased for me sometime back from a road-side factory outlet. He was already wearing the pair he had bought for himself and was eager to test the fauji shoe in the day’s adventure. Liberty produces an excellent, light weight, high-ankle; rubber-soled, anti-skid canvas shoe for trekking that is sold under the name of ‘Warrior Jungle Boot’. The colour is a manly, military green, a natural choice for the manufacturer as the shoe is almost exclusively produced for and sold to the country’s military and paramilitary forces. I had last worn such shoes as a trainee cop and it felt good to slip into these manly and youthful shoes after a gap of fifteen years.
It was end April but the weather was pleasant and we headed in the direction of the Chandimandir railway station.
I planned to check out the ‘Chandi Gurh’, the 19th century stone fortress that had been built atop a small hill, short of the Pinjore fort by the Manimajra rajas. The fortress had a small temple dedicated to Chandi Devi and was a modest outpost that commanded a pass and overlooked the Ghaggar plains to the South and the Morni hill ilaqa that lay beyond. The modern city of Chandigarh had been named, for some curious reason, after this rather unimpressive structure that seems to have played no role in the history of the region. The hill fortress overlooks a modern, ornate Chandi devi temple built at the foot of the hill and lies across the railway track to Kalka in the area of Chandimandir village. I presumed that some hill path would lead up from the temple to the fortress on the hill. We parked near the temple and crossed the track to reach the pretentious gateway to the temple.
A small drain ran along the railway track and the entire area was covered under a thick lantana bush cover intermingled with the ubiquitous railway creeper with its distinctive mauve flowers. The area was abounding with butterflies that flitted about the bright-coloured lantana flowers. We seemed to have discovered a natural butterfly park of sorts and we happily clicked the Common Mormons, the Yellow Orange-tips, the Indian Cabbage-White, the Common Gulls and the Common Emigrants! I spied a Common Castor and quickly clicked its picture, careful not to give away my ‘find’ to the Musafir who had to pay for keeping ‘his’ fresh water crab a secret on an earlier trip to Morni!
A faded information board at the gateway proclaimed to the gullible visitor that the site of the shrine was 5000 years old. That the mighty goddess had slaughtered the infamous Mahishasura at this place and had later appeared to a devout Sadhu who built the original temple at the site. That the Pandav princes had performed penance at this place during their 12 year exile and that Arjun was blessed with a powerful sword by the Devi. The Pandavs went on to win the Mahabharat at Kurukshetra.
The board attributed the construction of the stone fortress atop the hill to the late 19th century Manimajra king, Raja Bhagwan Singh. This seems to be incorrect as the fortress finds a mention in British travel accounts of early 19th century.
The temple was completely deserted, its incredible history notwithstanding!
As I clicked the orange flower ball of a kadam tree, a man emerged from a house located near the temple compound. He probably belonged to the family of priests who managed the temple. We inquired about the way to the fortress on the hill that was almost completely hidden from view by a thick cover of forest scrub. He seemed annoyed at our ignoring the well-kept and ornately sculpted temple run by his family and at our preferring the run-down stone structure that had obviously been forsaken by its reigning deity. He tried to persuade us to give up our plan of heading for the derelict two centuries old structure. ‘There is nothing worthwhile to see in that fort,’ he said in open irritation,’and it’s anyway locked to visitors.’ We, however, persisted with our query and he finally relented and reluctantly gave us the directions for the place. We drove on further on the Shimla highway, parallel to the track until we reached a level crossing. We then turned left to take the road that went up the hill to the Chandi-Kotla village. The village is located at the edge of a large level area atop a hill. The hills of Chandimandir area form the backdrop to its north. We asked for directions to the fortress and made our way along the path that skirted the village’s periphery to reach the edge of the hill that overlooked the Shimla highway, the muddy Ghaggar river that flowed down from the Shivalik hills and the Morni hills that lay beyond. Just short of the fortress was a twin-towered temple of the Chandi with intimidating artwork in relief on its whitewashed exterior.
A large idol of the goddess draped in a black saree stood under the protection of a plastic canopy facing the temple. Chandi devi’s belligerence contrasted sharply with the composure of the meditating blue-blooded Lord Shiva to its rear.
The temple’s dual towers seemed to reflect an eclectic mix of the architectural styles employed in typical Hindu temples and those found more commonly in Masjids. The village probably had inhabitants from both the faiths and the fiery goddess to whom the village owed its name, seemed to have made an impression on both the communities. The temple had an eerie quietness about it. I spotted the pretty yellow flower of the delicate prickly pear and the Musafir obliged by taking its close up with his Nikkon DSLR.
We also clicked the orange berries of the Bistendu tree with its curious looking flowers.
The 19th century ‘Chandi-Gurh’ turned out to be as unimpressive as the youth at Chandimandir had warned. The entrance to the modest 50’ X 50’ stone fortress was blocked by a rather flimsy looking iron gate with a makeshift locking mechanism that however defied all our attempts to gain an entry. We finally satisfied ourselves with a photograph of a rock carving that we could see from the outside.
A horrible semi-finished modern brick monstrosity had been added by some fool to the 200 year old fort.
We walked along the narrow path that ran around the fort wall. The fort sat at the edge of the hill and was surrounded by thick shrubs. I startled a pea-fowl resting inside the shrubs as I got closer to get a picture of the dainty yellow flower of an Indian Mallow that I had spotted amongst the shrubs.
I tried scrambling up the 10 feet high stone wall but the knees are long past the stage of such adventure and I decided to ignore Musafir’s amused grin in the larger interest of saving my neck. I had anyway identified a conveniently located water tank tower near the fort that had an iron ladder leading to the top.
I planned to climb to the tower top get a nice picture of the fort and capture its dimensions from the 50 feet height of the tower. I would also get a panoramic picture of the Ghaggar flood plains of the Pinjore dun to the south with the scenic Morni hills forming the backdrop.
I could spot a spiral of smoke rise from the solitary stone crushing plant in the Morni foothills that is operated by the company that has built the Pinjore-Kalka-Parwanoo bypass. The foothills along the southern banks of Ghaggar have been the site of the scores of ugly stone crushing units that had ravaged the ecology of the area by spewing smoke and stone dust into the atmosphere. The giant claws of the earth diggers had mercilessly scarred the surrounding forest land as large pits were dug up to extract stones and boulders for crushing. The stone quarrying and mining in this ecologically fragile area was finally shut down by the High Court and the ban has managed to prevail despite persistent efforts of the mining lobby to circumvent the Court orders. The stone crusher zone today bears a deserted look with hundreds of acres of despoiled land waiting to be reclaimed and restored to the wilderness that once engulfed it. I have often hoped that the Government will acquire the entire area and bring it under the Khol-Hai-Raitan wildlife sanctuary that lies to its south. The sanctuary was notified recently in an attempt to save whatever little remains of our depleted forest heritage.
And then there is also this childhood dream of creating my ‘Hundred Acre Wood’! A. A. Milne, while creating the enchanting world of ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’, set the adventures of his endearing animal characters in a ‘Hundred Acre Wood’. The ‘Wood’ was a fairy-tale forest with pine groves and hills, streams and wooden bridges, grassy meadows and quaint tree-houses. The Pooh Bear bedtime stories were beautifully illustrated by E.H. Shepard’s sketches that were inspired by an actual five hundred acre forest in Sussex, England.
The sketches would stay with you long after you had finished reading the book. As the eyes would get heavy with sleep, one couldn’t help slipping back into the fascinating ‘Hundred Acre Wood’ of the Pooh Bear and his friends. My favourite place was the wooden bridge from where Christopher Robin would drop his sticks and I would watch them go floating down the meandering stream, following them till I drifted into the happy world of childhood dreams.
I still like to believe that the forest was real. That I will one day recreate it, in its every fascinating detail. How it shall happen or when it shall happen, I do not know. But yes, the ravaged stone crusher zone in the foothills of Morni has all the potential of being restored to an enchanting forest.
I walked to the tower and inspected the ladder for making the planned climb to the top. ‘Areh darogah saheb, chhoriyeh yeh sab natak,’ advised Musafir, realistic and grounded as always. The 50 feet climb up the vertical ladder suddenly seemed a not so simple affair.
I have always been afraid of heights and have often woken to a nightmare of hanging from the edge of a high building only to slip and plunge to my death. I had already committed myself to the stupidity and started climbing up the ladder at a tentative pace. Midway to the top my heart started pounding and I decided to take a break. I hung at the spot for several minutes. Musafir asked me whether my arms were tiring. Climbing up a vertical ladder places a tremendous strain on the arms as I was realizing. It was pointless to hang on further and I was too scared of attempting to climb any further. I decided to shelve the crazy plan and slowly made my way back to the ground. Musafir pretended to not have noticed my sheepish expression as we made our way back to the car. ‘It’s only an irrational fear, after all, the ladder is perfectly safe,’ I thought aloud. ‘Yes, it is an irrational fear,’ the Musafir said rather unexpectedly. I had hoped that he would disagree with me and would say the sensible thing that it was risky and pointless venture. I was all prepared to be ‘dissuaded’ by Musafir when he put me in a spot by agreeing to my statement about my fear being irrational. He was grinning mischievously and I could visualize his mirthful description of the episode later in the evening over wine and dinner, of ‘Darogah saheb’s misadventure with the tankee!’ I cursed myself for starting the stupidity in the first place. I once again made my way to the tower and began the climb with my heart in my mouth.
I reached the midway point and halted. ‘It’s an irrational fear,’ I reminded myself. It was tiring to remain hanging at the spot and I continued the jittery climb. ‘I am destined to die today,’ I told myself, ‘that damn dream is going to come true.’ ‘How stupid this will all appear in the hindsight!’ I rued. ‘Why the f*** did I start this?’ I asked myself over and over again. A couple of steps were missing in the ladder and Musafir guided my step and reassured me that I was doing fine. ‘He’s probably visualizing the scenario of my breaking my neck and him having to face my wife and explain as to how he had allowed me to embark on this idiocy!’ I thought, amused at his sudden concern. I finally reached the top of the ladder.
A short step would have taken me to the top of the tower with its short parapet wall from where I could have clicked some amazing photographs for my website. But as I said, I am terribly afraid of heights. I had actually got the jitters standing on the tipsy top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the sheer delight of my wife! I knew that it would be unnerving for me to stand on the tower top without a reassuring railing. But that was not all. Stepping back onto the ladder, with my back to the drop, would be a nightmare. I decided not to push my luck any further. The descent was simpler as I knew that the worst was behind me. On touching the ground I looked up the tower again and wondered why I had been so scared. ‘It IS an irrational fear!’ I finally concluded. My arms ached from the strain. The time spent in vacillation at the midpoint had caused an avoidable fatigue. ‘I’ll be back,’ I promised myself and I clicked the beady seed pods of a large babool to cheer myself.
We now drove back to the highway and stopped to click the Kaushalya Dam.
We now took the Jallah road along the stone crusher zone crossing Burj and Kotian. Midway to Jallah a road climbs up the hills for Chaudhury-ka-vas, one of the seven dhanis of Mandhna. We crossed a number of school kids walking back home from the village school. All of them carried school bags and were dressed in nice clean school uniforms and looked every bit like their urban counterparts. The road got narrower at the top. Musafir was impressed with my having correctly predicted that we would cross a small pond with a large banyan tree, based on my off-site Google earth exploration!
The road ended near a village grocery store. I made my usual queries about NREGA as I bought some mineral water and cold drinks. The shop keeper was annoyed at the poor progress due to the funds under the scheme having been given to the forest department instead of the gram panchayat. I was happy to spot sparrows on the village street.
Musafir was in his ‘art’ photography mood and went around clicking the typical ‘village scenes’! A crooked ladder, a machan and a fodder shredder!!
I was astonished to find him focusing his camera on a rather scraggly looking street dog. ‘Why on earth are you clicking that mongrel?’ I demanded. ‘Take a closer look,’ he told me triumphantly,’the dog has rubbed ash all over his face like a naga sadhu!’
We then headed back for the Jallah road, clicking photographs of the area. The road to Chaudhury-ka-vas offered a fantastic view of the Ghaggar floodplains and the Pinjore dun with the thick forest of Bir Shikargarh Wildlife Sanctuary. We had stopped by the roadside to click a panoramic photograph of the picturesque landscape when a scooterist coming down the slope waved to us from a distance. He had switched off his engine to save fuel and we could not see his face on account of his helmet. He stopped his scooter next to us and removed his helmet to reveal a cheerful, unshaven man in his forties. He was a teacher from the secondary school and he taught ‘chitrakala’ चित्रकला to his students. He was an art teacher. ‘I have many talents,’ he told us. He liked collecting old coins and artefacts. ‘The Chandi temple near Jallah has several ancient sculptures of the Pandav era,’ he told us. He lived at ‘Burj’ village that got its name from the hunting lodge of Maharaja of Patiala that was now protected by the archaeological department. He then produced some jaggery (gur) from the scooter dicky and insisted that we eat the same to wash down the dust. ‘I know all about yoga,’ he carried on enthusiastically. Before we could react, he had lifted his shirt and did a Ramdev on us. His stomach went in to reveal his rib-cage and the unseemly outlines of his intestines which he then moved expertly from left to right to leave us shocked at the turn of events. The worst was yet to come and I rushed to get back into the car as he produced a rubber tube from his pocket. The tube went into the nose to emerge from the mouth and Musafir ignored the unpleasant churning in his stomach as he clicked a horrible close up for my website!
We waved a hasty goodbye to our talented friend and drove on till we located another spot for shooting the landscape. As I took a wide angle shot, we marveled at the mesmerizing beauty of the landscape. The Morni area is definitely one of the most picturesque in the country.
I discovered a bamboo stick lying concealed in the bushes and I retrieved it for the last adventure of the day.
We now proceeded towards Jallah to head for the tri-junction with the main Morni road. I stopped to click a giant Drumstick (Sohnjana) tree near Jallah and ‘educated’ Musafir about the virtues of its seed pods.
We crossed a warning board of the Wildlife Department put up recently by the roadside to announce the provision of harsh punishment under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, including a possible 7 year imprisonment, for hunting or killing wildlife and for destroying their habitat within the area of the Khol-Hai-Raitan Wildlife Sanctuary.
I often wonder why a bounty is not declared on the poachers. The locals would definitely help round up the poachers and game hunters for even a modest monetary incentive.
We reached the tri-junction with the Morni road near Kheda Bagdha and I turned right to drive towards Mandhna. I stopped at the Guga Marhi temple on the outskirts of Mandhna and parked the car next to the temple. We had been driving around the hills for most part of the day and it was now time to test the Jungle Boots! I took out the bamboo stick from the car boot, donned my jungle hat and was ready for the walk to Kadiyani.
‘How far is this place that we are headed for?’ inquired Musafir as he trudged along the path that descended sharply into the narrow valley that is wedged inside a bend in the Morni hill range to the east of the Mandhna ‘plateau’. I lied about the distance to comfort him. He grinned to acknowledge the lie and stopped to click the orange bloom of a Dhak tree.
Kadiyani is a picturesque dhani located at the mouth of a steep valley created by a large seasonal nallah (rivulet) that drains the hills to the east of Mandhna.
The rivulet is joined by numerous streams and choes as it falls sharply to the South west and becomes recognizable as the tempestuous ‘Dangri’ nadi that drains the region between Ghaggar and Markanda. The valley broadens out to the south of Kadiyani as the nadi crosses Dudhgarh and Khetpurali. I had made an abortive attempt to reach Kadiyani on a motorcycle from Dudhgarh on the previous weekend. I now intended to walk down to the village from the hill road to its north. I had often watched the dense forest that covers the ‘secret’ valley and the steep hill slopes from the cliff-side viewpoint at Mandhna.
I was certain that the forest would be home to a lot of wildlife and made the descent to the valley with an air of anticipation. Large patches of the hill were covered by the pink-white profusions of the husky seed pods of the hop-bush that grew wild in the area.
I clicked a blue dragonfly (Black-headed Skimmer) to add to my photo-collection of pretty insects of Morni!
The area seemed completely deserted and we did not encounter a soul as we made our way steadily down the hill side. It was past five in the evening and we did not want to be stuck in the forest after dark. I searched the forest around us for signs of wildlife, ignoring Musafir’s playful jibes about my never ending and fruitless search for the big cat. The path now followed a narrow strip of high ground that ran between two large nallahs that ended at the rocky bed where the two nallahs merged to flow as one. The path veered around to the west to wrap around the hill that lay beyond the nallah to our right. A large stone embankment had been built across this nallah to check erosion and to permit fording of this rivulet during the rainy season. The structure had taken a beating during the rains and needed urgent repairs if the path to Mandhna was to be kept open in the wet season.
Kadiyani is a small hamlet built on a level strip of high ground in the foothills that is bound by nallahs to its south and east and by a sharp cliff to its north. It would surely be getting cut off from the world during the rains when the nallahs would be in full spate. Musafir’s brand new jungle boots had turned out to be one size too small and he decided to give his feet some rest and to catch his breath.
I could hear some activity further down the path and as we resumed our journey we came across some abandoned loads of firewood. There was nobody in sight. It was probably my jungle hat again that had caused the locals collecting firewood in the forest to flee on mistaking us for forest rangers. We expected Kadiyani to be close but could spot only a deserted temple with a narrow white tower.
Some village kids watched us shyly through the bushes and scampered away on our asking them for directions to the village. We hurriedly followed the bed of the nallah expecting the village to be somewhere further west. We were desperate to touch Kadiyani for sake of record and head back for Mandhna before it got dark. A man finally called out from the hill above us and inquired about our destination. He told us that we had taken the wrong path and that we would need to retrace our path till the temple and then follow a narrow hill path that would take us to the fields and the village beyond. We decided to call it a day and head back for Mandhna as it was getting late. We now encountered some men smoking beedis as they squatted by the bundles of firewood we had crossed earlier. They had probably figured out that we were only some aimless wanderers who meant no harm and had emerged from their hiding. We exchanged greetings as we walked past them. The return journey was a steep uphill climb and we walked quietly, careful not to show any signs of fatigue to be made sport of by the other. I spotted a leafless tree on the far side of a nallah that was virtually covered with langurs. It presented a strange sight in the fading light and seemed slightly eerie in the silence of the forest.
I asked Musafir to maintain a sharp look out for wildlife as animals are known to re-emerge in the evenings after staying hidden through the day. He had barely finished laughing at my optimism when I spotted a barking deer on the terraced slopes of the hill across us. Its trademark snow-white tail was held upright as it flitted around the trees. It was a female as it had no antlers. Musafir’s Nikon was firing in the burst mode while I struggled to make my first live wildlife video. Yet another Muntjac started its shrill bark from the scrub behind us, probably to attract the attention of its coquettish mate that posed for our pictures while swishing its pretty tail. To my surprise Musafir broke into a low whistle to draw out the hidden deer. Now, I am not much of a wildlife expert but I am sure it doesn’t need one to know that the whistle that works for a six-month old Golden Retriever may not be exactly ideal for the Indian Muntjac, even if its call resembles a dog’s bark!!
The deer disappeared from our sight and we made our way to the car triumphantly. Musafir had managed some excellent pictures despite the poor light.
‘You have the potential of becoming a NatGeo wildlife photographer,’ I said in appreciation. ‘Only you’ll need me to do the sighting!’ I finished. He smiled good-naturedly, all too pleased to return the jibe.
As we drove back home through the Khol-Hai-Raitan Wildlife Sanctuary, we kept our eyes peeled to the surrounding jungle for making another lucky sighting. Musafir made some adjustments to his camera settings and held his camera ready for any opportunity that might present itself. He is a great believer of the power of positive thinking. He often repeats Paul Coehlo’s famous quote from the Alchemist, “When you really want something to happen, the whole world conspires to help you achieve it.” I saw the principle work when we finally sighted a tiger just before sunset at Corbett, after having scoured the National Park from dawn to dusk for two full days. Well it worked again that day. I sighted a White-crested Kalij that had all but disappeared into the scrub and Musafir managed an impossible shot through the windscreen in virtual darkness. Had it been cricket, he would have been squashed by his jubilant team mates for getting that impossible one handed catch on the dive! Only a birder can know the value of a clear picture of this shy pheasant in the wild.
We could not have asked for more on a single day’s adventure and we now sped home to an evening of wine and music.