A great thing about the Christian faith is that its holidays follow the Gregorian calendar and fall on fixed dates. Better still the Good Friday holiday has to, by definition, fall on a Friday and gives one an assured extended weekend. The Hindu, Islamic and Sikh religions are less obliging and holidays fall on dates that are determined by the clergy and debated every year and true to Murphy’s law are perpetually falling on Sundays and Saturdays. By rare good fortune, the Mahavir Jayanti (birthday of the last Jain Tirthankara, Mahavira) fell on a Thursday this year and we got a clean block of four holidays in a row. Our stuff was packed and ready and we were off to the City Beautiful after office, eager not to waste a holiday in travel.
Thursday started with a lazy breakfast at the idyllic Garden Cafeteria placed at the edge of the picturesque Leisure Valley to the front of the Chandigarh Art Museum. I had planned to photograph the medieval sculptures excavated from the ancient Shiv temple site at Morni-ka-Tal that are housed in the Chandigarh Museum. The Museum was, however, closed and we settled down to enjoy the Chandigarh spring while we waited for our breakfast. We had resisted the tempting aloo-paranthas (with butter) and had settled for a bread-omelette. The magnificent cluster of ‘Golden Trumpet’ trees was in full bloom. The bright yellow, trumpet shaped, delicately textured flowers gave the trees a dazzling golden canopy. The trees, the gentle sun and the light breeze served to remind us that Chandigarh is, indisputably, the most beautiful city of the country.
The kids decided to catch-up with their friends and my wife decided to rest for the afternoon. I had my agenda cut-out for the rest of the day. I was going to check out the Bunga village in the foothills of Morni. A reservoir had been created in this village in 1980s by building a 50 foot high earthen dam across a seasonal nallah. The large lake is visible on Google-earth and I wanted to click photographs of the same. I was not very clear about the route and I decided to cross-check with a local known to me who lived in the vicinity of this village. He gave me the directions to the village over phone and promised to join me at the reservoir to give me company.
Now this guide of mine is a remarkable man. Lean, athletically built with the agility and stealth of the ‘Baghera’ (the leopard). When addressed, he will regard you with a silent moody gaze, his eyes fixed at some distant horizon. He is amazingly sure-footed and will climb up a sharp hill slope through thick thorny scrub with long confident strides. He rides his motorcycle effortlessly on the tricky hill roads and seems to blend with the hill scenery, much like the spotted predator that rules the Morni wilderness after sunset. He is well acquainted with the terrain and knows all the hill routes and the little-known pathways to the remote hamlets. He is known to almost everybody at Morni on account of his having been posted in the hills for extended periods of time. He is obsessed with the hills and will go without salary if transferred out, as ‘he can’t imagine living anywhere else!’ His detractors distrust his motives but I am inclined to believe him. Like me, he is simply mad about these hills.
The drive till Mankian on NH-73 was uneventful. I had donned my large cloth jungle hat to pep up my mood. I turned left on the road to Toka-Manak Tabra-Tirlokpur leaving the national highway. I turned left again on the turn for village Toka on a road built under the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojna. The road was in excellent condition and led straight to the Morni foothills. I stopped enroute to click the beautiful landscape and the golden wheat fields.
The sun was warm but we were yet to get into summer. I crossed a raggedy poultry farm and sympathized with the villagers who have to put up with the pesky flies that pervade this area on account of the numerous poultry farms. I clicked a flock of Egrets in an onion field and an Asian Pied Starling near Ratewali on way to Tibbi.
Tibbi is a large village at the foot of the hills. I had driven about 7 KM from Toka at a leisurely pace and asked for the way to Bunga. A villager told me that I had taken a wrong turn and that there was no direct road to Bunga from Tibbi. I was unconvinced as I had spotted a dirt track leading to Bunga from Tibbi on the Google-earth map. I called up my guide who had reached Bunga by then. He confirmed that I had taken the wrong road and that I should have taken the first left instead of the second. I would have to drive all the way back and then retrace my way back to the foothills on a parallel road to Bunga. I asked him if I could reach Bunga on foot and leave the car at Tibbi. He offered to pick me up on his motorcycle. He reached in about ten minutes. I took my camera and pulled my hat tight over my head and we were off. The track ran along the foothills and passed through a major rivulet. The track was tricky and involved a steep descent through the winding narrow kutcha pathway to reach the rocky bed. The water flow was a mere trickle. The ascent to the other side was equally rough and the ‘Baghera’ ignored my suggestion to negotiate the treacherous river side on foot.
He drove across till we reached the metalled road to Bunga. We took the cemented road through the village to the base of the earthen dam and I dissuaded him from attempting to drive all the way to the top. The Bunga reservoir is an impressive lake with the Mandana hills forming a beautiful backdrop.
I spotted some ducks swimming near the far bank. An army of grey langurs occupied a hillock to our left and the bank below. They had come for a drink and I clicked a langur family taking a drink together.
The hillock promised a better view of the Bunga village and the plains beyond and I wondered aloud if we could risk venturing into the langur territory. Baghera was already half-way up the hillock by the time I realized that he had already made the choice for us. I scrambled to join him and narrowly escaped breaking my neck as the Woodland’s outdoor sandals were not quite up to the task. He extended his hand and I gladly accepted the offer and followed him meekly not wanting to risk a fall in the thorn country. The langurs melted away in our presence as Baghera had predicted.
The tricky climb was, however, worth the effort and the hill-top offered an unbroken view of the vast rolling plains that lay to the south of Bunga. I scanned the scrub forest for signs of the leopard. Baghera can recount several close encounters with the wild cat in the Morni area. It is frustrating not to have come across a leopard even once in all these years. I have driven on the Morni roads at all hours (including 2 AM) and have spotted foxes, sambhars, barking deers, and monitor lizards, but never a leopard. But then as they say, you may not see him but he sees you all the time!
After having clicked photographs to my fill we picked our way back through the scrub to the dam. We then proceeded on the motorcycle to an adjoining dam that was smaller with a smaller, marshy lake. The lake was richer in bird life and I clicked a moorhen, a couple of spotted-bill ducks, a black-winged stilt, a red-wattled lapwing and a white-breasted kingfisher.
A local approached us out of curiosity and I quizzed him about the utility of the dam. He informed us that the openings to the pipes laid for irrigation had got buried under silt and the dams no longer provided water to the fields. They did act as large ponds where cattle were brought for a swim in the summers. The water table in the vicinity had also risen by a 100 feet over the years.
It was getting very breezy as thick clouds suddenly covered the sun. We could see the village women heading back with their load of grass from the forest in anticipation of an April storm.
We decided to get back to Tibbi. The drive back was pleasant even though the sharp wind threatened to take my jungle hat with it. On the way back, I enquired about the ruins of the fort at Masoompur. Baghera had heard about the fort and promised to find out more about it. I got back to my car in one piece only to discover that I had left it unlocked. Thankfully nobody had touched it. I thanked him for the ride and headed cheerfully back home, pleased with my exploits on day one of the holiday.
I drove back straight to join the house warming party at the Doc’s freshly renovated house complete with the Victorian wing chairs, wooden floors, antique almirahs, a large bay window and full-bodied Australian red wine. I scrambled to grab the cushy seat on the shisham bed with its ultra-luxurious mattress and stretched my legs to rest my aching knees. The mild climb to the hill top had taxed my clunky joints and I was glad to unwind and relax with some good wine. The evening warmed up gradually to a high decibel debate on the ethics of Indian print media in generating unwarranted hype about innocuous troop movements. The Scribe stuck valiantly to the defence of the cause of media, braving allegations of being an anti-national and an anarchist. The topic then moved on to deciding the ideal position for the ornamental plants outside the bay window. The hostess pooh-poohed Scribe’s suggestion for relocating her exotic ficus bonsai. In the meantime I had managed to convince the naughty ‘Angel face’ (Doc’s cute daughter) to part with her iPad and had transferred the photographs of Bunga to the device. I flaunted the day’s capture to Doc. He reluctantly admired the shots of the picturesque Shivalik foothills and the rolling landscape. He disappeared suddenly and reappeared with his dad’s latest acquisition – a Nikon D300s.
Now Doc’s family has been in the medical line for three generations. His dad, a gentle, unassuming and extremely principled man, is one of the best photographers I have come across in my life. He manages to create magic around the seemingly most mundane subject. A black-and-white picture of a happy village urchin (that was christened ‘The Champion’ by him) has adorned my office wall for the past several years and is the object of much curiosity and appreciation by the visitors.
His pictures have been published in well-reputed foreign photography journals but he has not let this go to his head and he is amazingly humble and low-profile about this god-given gift. Like all true professionals his camera means the life to him and is his dearest possession. He invests a fortune in upgrading his cameras and the high-fashioned lenses and accessories that are beyond my limited point-and-shoot comprehension. The laws of Mendelian inheritance have unfortunately denied the genes for photography to the Doc. It has thus been ordained by nature that he would have to learn to be content with being an excellent medicine man and a computer geek. He is yet to come to terms with this hard fact of life and continues to believe that he has only to give his photography some time in order to equal his dad’s remarkable record.
The Doc had kept his Saturday afternoon free and we decided to go for a picnic at the Bunga reservoir. He planned to borrow his dad’s Nikon and click some ‘masterpieces’. Day 2 was already reserved for a day excursion to the Tikkar cottage. On day 3, I landed early at the Chandigarh Art Museum to photograph the medieval stone sculptures excavated from the temple on the bank of the Tikkar lake. The sculptures were nicely housed in the impressive gallery but the dull lighting did not allow quality photography. The 13th century sculpture of Lord Shiva in the Kamantaki form was the best preserved piece. There was no written material available to understand the significance of the archaeological finds.
I spent some time checking out the Pahari miniatures hoping to find something on the Thakur rulers of Morni who had preceded the Meers. The Doc called to remind me of our engagement. We were travelling in his new Honda and he was carrying his dad’s Nikon. By noon we had picked up some burgers and bakery stuff and were off to Bunga. Mid-way to Bunga he told me about some stomach issues he was facing as a result of his binging on gol-gupas the day before! Everytime his stomach would rumble he would derive comfort from our stock of mineral water for coping with any gastric eventuality! I reminded him that we would be camping on the bank of a reservoir and that he should not eye our stocks of precious mineral water for performing such repugnant tasks.
We drove till Toka and this time I was careful to take the first left to Toka and not the road to Tibbi. We stopped to photograph a lovely flock of cattle egrets. I got a reasonable shot of the birds in flight while he fiddled with the myriad buttons and controls of his high end camera.
We drove on until we reached a village street that was blocked at the end with construction material. I was beginning to get some doubts about the route again. We reversed with difficulty and retraced our path till the turn on the main road. I dissuaded him from stopping to photograph a gnarled old hunch-back as she tottered through the village streets. ‘She’ll thrash you with her walking stick,’ I cautioned him. ‘Oh, you are such a darpok, my dad has photographed such subjects all his life,’ he retorted. ‘He looks a perfect gentleman and you must realize your obvious shortcomings in this critical aspect,’ I advised him. Finally, I prevailed upon him to shelve his plans for the misadventure at the very start of our hill excursion. We got the directions to Bunga from a local. We had to take a left from Kot village and not Toka and I had confused the names of the two villages. We drove back to Mankian on NH-73.
The drive to Bunga was pleasant. We crossed a couple of orchards and farmhouses until we reached the peculiar dual-temple at Bunga. A Guga-Marhi temple with its typical white-washed towers at the four corners had been built in close juxtaposition to a Shiv temple with large white ‘Trishuls’ in concrete.
We turned left and drove on the Bunga-Asserwali road till we reached the dirt path leading to the smaller reservoir. We parked next to a nice-looking farmhouse with a restive horse neighing to catch our attention. The owner had planted trees all over the fenced area.
A caretaker emerged and redirected us back towards the village for taking an inner road that would take us closer to the main reservoir. We drove to the Gurdwara by the side of a large village pond and leaving the car there, we trudged up to the dam. It was bright and sunny and we spotted an egret and some ducks basking in the sun on the far bank. We clicked some pictures and then decided to make our way through the scrub forest to get closer to the birds. The Doc was neither having his sun glasses nor a hat and was wearing some suede sandals that were ill-suited for venturing into the thorny-scrub. He held on to the precious camera carefully lest he should drop it and reveal his ineptitude in handling sophisticated cameras. We made our way to a grassy patch where a shepherd-couple and a local village-drunk were resting in the shade. The drunkard was amused to see us clicking the birds and kept calling out to us impertinently until I was forced to snub him sharply. This ended their break for them and the couple proceeded deeper into the hills to check out their goats. The drunkard made his way back to the village negotiating the narrow winding pathway under the watchful eye of his guardian angel.
We settled down for our lunch in the place vacated by the locals. It was fairly warm with no breeze and Doc had failed to get any worthwhile picture ‘owing to excessive light!’ A dull shot of the egret was all he had to show for the hi-tech camera with its obscenely long lens.
He grumbled in protest when I suggested that we go deeper into the forest and try spotting the leopard. ‘The only wildlife there is in this forest are the buffaloes swimming in the lake and the stray dogs in the village,’ he muttered. We walked on along the track taken earlier by the shepherd couple. We had stopped for a break under a tree when I spotted a pair of Golden Jackals making their way down the hill side to our front. We struggled to get our cameras shooting like the gun-fighters of the wild west. I got one of them.
The Doc cursed his ‘bad luck’ as a long stalk of grass obstructed the face of the jackal in the picture clicked by him. The jackals melted into the scrub and left us with an air of anticipation. ‘You can’t see him, but he sees you all the time,’ I reminded the Doc referring to my favourite subject. We were debating whether or not to continue on our trek when my phone rang. It was Baghera. ‘He sees you – all the time!’ He had found the exact location of the Masoompur Fort and wanted to know whether I wanted to check it out. I asked him to meet us at Garhi-Kotaha. The sun was on its way down and we barely had time to get to the fort for a decent photograph. We made our way back to our car clicking an oriental-magpie robin, a sparrow, a sun-bird and a warbler on the way back.
The Doc clicked the Grey langurs that I had clicked on my earlier trip. The reservoir seemed a major watering-hole for the langurs in the area. He also photographed the self-anointed ‘Mornee Tramp’!
We drove to Garhi where Baghera was waiting on his motorbike. He piloted us through the streets of Kotaha heading on towards Masoompur. The link road took us through Rehna, a Mohamedan village where young school boys played cricket in their cute white skull caps. Masoompur was a small village by the edge of sharp ravines, at the foot of the Morni hills. The motorable cemented track ended here and the path to the fort continued as a sandy dirt track winding along a hillock. The light was declining fast and a walk to the fort would have taken additional 15-20 minutes. We climbed onto Baghera’s bike, the Doc holding onto the Nikon for his dear life as our leopard-man manoeuvred his bike on that impossible slippery track with his usual quiet confidence. The Masoompur fort is set on a small mud hillock and it overlooks the sharp ravines to its south that break into the plains beyond. We halted at the base of the hillock and made our way slowly to the top. The fort was a post under the formidable Garhi-Kotaha fort of the Meers and it dominated the route to Samlotha temple that lay on the hills beyond. The white tower of the Samlotha Devi Temple was visible on the hill top to the North East. The fort was in a state of complete ruin. The outer wall had collapsed completely. A part of a lone gateway, a couple of dark and dingy cells with thick stone-brick masonry walls and a narrow secret passage to an underground ‘tehkhana’ is all that survived.
The setting sun gave the ruins an eerie touch and we decided to call it a day. The Doc finally managed his photo of the day, the sunset against the gateway on the hillock.
The bike ride back to the car was uneventful. We followed Baghera in our car till we reached Garhi. We thanked him for his help and drove back home.
Thankfully, Doc’s stomach withstood the day’s adventure (barring an ominous rumble or two) and we got to drink our mineral water on the way back!
P.S. The author has desisted from producing a more candid account of Doc’s escapades on this trip as he is the web master of this website and has threatened retaliatory action!