Madhusree and I have a thing about forests; both of us seem to become one with the verdant wilderness. We love sitting inside the foliage, listening to the sound of silence. This silence left unbroken soon becomes as loud as the roar of the seas; wind rustles through leaves, a shriek here and a drango there flutters across the branches, a peacock caws, owls flap their wings and the tree pie whooshes past at great speed snatching away a piece of nachos from your hands. We love the coolness of the bower created by branches of trees that roll into one another and through the gaps in the leaves watch the translucent blue of the sky. Sometimes we are surprised by a few drops of rain from a passing cloud. The smell of the soil just wetted is intoxicating and especially heady if mixed by the fragrance of neem flowers. What could be better than going to Sariska, a forest which is just a few hours away from Delhi, on a long week end?
So, Madhusree pottered round the Internet, clicked on a resort called the Tiger Heaven, booked a cottage for the two of us and spoke to one Mr Ghose who seemed to welcome us as fellow Bengalis who love nature. I am a bit selective about who I entertain in my resort, he cautioned us, because I want only quiet people. We were looking forward to a “quiet” resort only to find that Ghose considered young men with whisky bottles and music CDs as noisy; the majority population with shrieking children jumping about in the swimming pool, hanging like monkeys from hammocks and speeding across the gravel paths of the property did not fall under the category of being deafening. We had to find a way to avoid this “family” crowd. So we made a quick exit towards the far end of the property from where we could watch the dense forest on one side and a field of straw on the other.
As a child I loved the sea; I loved its constant activity in the eddy of its tide. There seemed to be so much energy in the sea, always simmering with the desire to flow and yet caught and trapped in its own vastness. Today, I identify with the forest. I think that I am like the forest. Beneath the apparent contended composure, the forest conceals in its gravity deep dialects of competing claims upon it. Too thick foliage retards the free movement of animals, too much of water produces methane which leads to warming of the atmosphere, too less of it makes animals and plants thirsty; birds disturb reptiles, reptiles must be bred to contain rodents; without rodents one cannot have burrows inside the soil which are needed as shelters for insects and termites which beaked birds and pea fowls feed on. The forest makes a constant effort to appear normal and unruffled; within its methods there lies madness and what is apparently unkempt and not groomed actually becomes a beauty in aesthetic balance.
The forest of Sariska unfortunately is endangered. In 2004 census of tigers, not a single tiger was found and indeed in our trip into the forest we did not find even a single pug mark. The guide who knew very little though a trainee Indian Forest Service Officer, failed to emerge beyond the pet thesis of poaching as a cause for the tiger to have disappeared from the forest. Tiger is not the only animal to have been poached; deer, antelope, peacocks have all been subjected to poaching and yet these species seem to have really struck back into survival under the protection of the forest authorities. The tiger is the most pampered species among all. Few days ago I saw a daft cartoon of a man carrying a tiger in his pillion which said would you rather have a girl or a tiger? Tigers are big and carnivorous and are feared. The survival of the tiger is essential for the ecology; because without a significant number of tigers, deer will not be killed and too many deer is a sure recipe for damage of flora. Yet the deer must survive because excreta are a natural fertilizer through which plants draw their nourishment. This is the balance of the forest, a delicate one because a lack in one or an overdoing in the other can tip nature’s equilibrium.
Aravallis have a problem and which is that of a crack in its bed; the Saraswati river is supposed to have disappeared through this crack and because water can literally fall through such cracks, water tables are always shifting. The shift in water tables produce shifts in moist lands and hence shifts in arable lands. The part of Rajasthan that lives in the cradle of the Aravallis has remained not only tribals but have comprised of roaming tribes, much like the Roma, or the gypsies, locally known as the banjaras. Stretches of land from where water has shifted away becomes a den of the thorny acacia making it difficult for animals to access the leaves and grass. We saw antelopes strolling about in the highways in search of shrubs planted alongside the paved roads; they had nicks and cuts all over their bodies and the babies among them, had bleeding lips and chin. Obviously the acacia that today fills the forests because of the growing aridity of the soil is so barbed, sharp and spikey that it hurts the animals and restricts their free movement. No animal more than the tiger can be a victim of this strange vegetation. The forest department does not allow humans to collect fire wood from the forest and no wonder that the bristled acacia remains on ground, becoming harder by the day. Sariska has fewer birds than many other forests precisely because of its thorny thistles. However, the relative scarcity of population has helped the cause of the migratory birds and we saw the black stork for the first time in our lives, a rarity in Bharatpur. The Siberian cranes were there too preparing to return to their moorings at the end of winter, in fresh spring.
Sariska’s visitors are more casual about the forest than it is elsewhere in the country. There is a fair number of villages inside the forest; many villages belong to the banjaras who used to have a near monopoly of supply of medicines from plants but many are now encroached areas by the local Gujjar farmers who play loud music and politics in securing a right of passage for buses and cars for pilgrims making their way to the Neelkanth temple. The Neelkanth temple was supposed to have been submerged mysteriously under a mound of earth as if there had been an earthquake. This strange phenomenon which has never been witnessed in modern times is difficult to explain, but could this strange phenomenon been a cause for the city of Mohenjodaro to have been buried under the earth seven times during its existence? Could this phenomenon be related in some way or the other to the “cracks” in the mountain beds? There is certainly more to geology than what is contained in the syllabus. The fragile ecology of Sariska makes it fragile also in terms of human habitation; tribes are always passing through the territory, Meenas, Rajputs, Gujjars and others, making Sariska a pathway rather than a home for one or the other.
The strange submergence of the Neelkanth temple lies at the core of the myth of the curse; curse seems to dominate the region. There are palaces and forts suddenly abandoned because of the disappearance of water from the ground. Fatehpur Sikri is the star among them and so is Bhangarh, again a cursed fort, contemporary of the above mentioned, today propagated as the world’s most haunted place. Rumours float all around Alwar of the haunted palace of Bhangarh and so we decided to detour about fifty kilometres on non-existent roads to visit the ghostly venue.
Bhangarh totally surprised me; built by Bhagwandas of Amer, the father of Jodhabai and father-in-law of Akbar, probably out of the bride price, it was actually a shopping mall which can hold ten Burrabazaars at one go. The ultra-modern lay out of the retail spaces makes one wonder whether the posh shopping malls of Delhi have an identical layout of the Bhangarh mall. Bhagwan Das’s matrimonial alliance with Akbar made new sense to me; he was one who wanted to build on the retail economy and thus hand over every responsibility of military protection to the Mughal. The idea of uniting India through business rather than warfare had been a traditional theme in the Indian history; one of the earliest protagonist of this view being none other than Buddha. Bhagwan Das had an imperial dream based on peace and the Bhangarh campus contains temples styled along Lingaraj and the southern temples with pillared halls and the Gopuram!! The dream of a pan Indian land through a retail space must be a strangely modern idea. Was this also not the famous area of the Painted Gray Ware of the Indus Valley civilization, suggesting that Bhangarh has been very much a pathway for trade since the hoary days of history?
Akbar’s vision seemed to have been reformist and many of his initiations like the abolition of Sati, of animal sacrifice at ceremonies, abolition of untouchability and the access of public education for the girl child are modern even by the present day in India. In Bhagwan Das we get an idea that Akbar also had friends who were progressive in their outlook. Interestingly, it is the same Alwar royalty that patronised Swami Vivekananda to visit Chicago and stay on in America for a while and become a brand! The history of Alwar is worthy of pursuit.