We had crossed the gently flowing nascent river Bhima. Our aim was the deep and dark forest in front, at a raised level. We climbed the slippery red clay comfortably as the roots of mighty Anjani trees were holding the clay lovingly like a mother and child. As we quietly entered the thick forest, suddenly we heard – 'Array array Kuturru Kuturru Kuturru' . Indeed a forest is ever alert, fully conscious. In fact a warning had been issued ' to whomsoever it may concern' of the entry of four destructive tall featherless bipeds. We were four of us viz. Self, my daughter Geetanjali, a friend DFO (divisional forest officer) and a Forest Guard.
We could start only by ten in the morning from Pune in a jeep and reached Bhimashankar by 3 PM, covering a distance of 70 kms. There is a gentle climb throughout, for Pune is at an altitude of 600 meters and Bhimashankar at 1100 meters. We had saved considerable time and fatigue by riding a powerful mechanical horse. However from Ghodgaon, from where the mountain and greenery really begins, I wished I could ride a real horse. The scenery reminded me of my horse ride from Harshil, on the bank of Bhagirathi, to Gangnani, at an altitude of 3000 meters. Ghodgaon is a small town on the bank of river Ghod. Bhimashankar, mountain and the forest is the catchment area for both the rivers - Bhima and Ghod.
Bhimashankar is a many splendoured thing, apart from being a sanctuary and a revered Jyotirling (a temple of Lord Shiv) out of the twelve in India. It is rather small sanctuary comprising 130 sq. km., its smallness should not mislead one. For one can find beauty and beast here that one may not find in big sanctuary. First of all what strikes a nature lover is that it is a green jungle island amidst an ocean of concrete jungle. It is surprising, for how has it withstood the onslaught of industrialization and population explosion ? Not long back these forests had continuity with main range of Sahyadri of western Ghats. On our journey I could notice that area before Ghodgaon was barren, and green afterwards. I thought the barrenness was because of basaltic and granite rocks, and the greenery was due to rich soil after Ghodgaon. But later on notice that region after Ghodgaon also had same rocky structure. So I was putting the cart before the horse. The area had become barren because it was deforested and had lost the thin layer of rich soil. The upper regions remained green because the forests were not felled. A forest not only protects the soil, inter-alia, it also nourishes it and thus both remain alive. The soil can withstand heavy rain, for it rains 300 cms in Bhimashankar every year.
While climbing from Ghodgaon, as greenery increases, so does the variety and number of birds. One continuously feels fresh as one sees mango, lemon, jamaun, kombar, senduri etc. trees enroute. In between one enjoys the grandeur and dignity of mighty Pipal and Banyan. At lower reaches silvery ringing songs of Black-headed Bulbuls and Red-whiskered Bulbuls with the water symphony of cascading Ghod provide a feast to ears and enhance the pleasures of nature watch. This site fascinated us and charmed us so we sat under a Banyan tree. House Swifts were performing such daredevil low flying on the cascading Ghod that an ace fighter pilot would be proud of. These agile fliers harvest their crop of insects on the wing. Their name in Sanskrit therefore is 'Watashi', one who lives on air, (I should add the word love to complete the proverb). What a double pleasure this petite flier enjoys - while playing it also gets its food, I suppose like to day's professional players ! I saw a few Magpie Robins perched on a Kanca tree. This tree is related to Kacnar (Bauhinia Variegata ). They seemed to be in a serious mood, perhaps brooding on the deteriorating human behaviour that cannot see that he is cutting the same very branch that he is sitting on. White-throated Flycatchers were catching insects on the wings, again a flight of dexterous fliers.
We had reached the forest rest house at Bhimashankar around 3 PM. We immediately moved out for we had not gone there for rest, but to enjoy the forest. We changed in to dull coloured clothes. Our DFO friend advised us that we ought to respect the silence of a forest, and move in a single file with our mouth shut and eyes and ears open. Very soon we started for the thick forest. Nearby Anjani trees were providing beauty to the forest, for Anjani tree is as beautiful as a Mauli Shree tree, one of the five favourite trees of Kamdev, the god of love. The forest Guard informed us that from among the big predators, only Leopards are ruling this forest. There are Porcupines and Boars, and Sambars, Muntjeks (barking Deer), and mouse Deers ( a very small deer about 50 cms tall, with protruding canines like a Kasturi Deer) also love this forest. We may not be able to see any one of them, for they are very wary of this destructive biped and this kind forest provides them with all the cover that they need. Having noticed perhaps some disappointment on my face, he added that we would certainly get a glimpse of a special animal of Bhima – Giant Squirrels.
We had crossed the infant Bhima that we had heard the loud clear and sweet warning, – 'Array array Kuturru Kuturru Kuturru…' I knew that I would not be able to spot Kuturru easily for he is s well camouflaged, but my eyes looked for him in those dense trees. There he was, mainly in a green 'safari suit' but the shoulder and head had a distinct red tinge, which very discreetly had given him a charm. There must be something special in its calls for in seven Indian languages it's name is 'Kuturru'.
On either side of the wet footpath were Karvy shrubs, about a meter high. We asked our friend DFO if these had any special significance, for every living thing, so also matter, have some significance. I am sure he would have told us without asking, for Karvy is special. He said people generally say that Karvy is a septennial plant that is it flowers every seven years. It has many species; some are annual, some biennial, some quadrennial and some fourteen - yearly flowering. Beyond that septennial Karvy hedge, so to say, were lively mango, jamun, senduri, komber, karambu etc. Senduri trees bear pea size fruits which when ripe produce a red powder which has same colour as Sendur (vermilion) that married women in India use for a Bindi (dot) etc. I felt that I had seen a Karambu tree somewhere. DFO on asking informed that Karambu is a variety of wild olive. I was immediately teleported to Roma where I had several olive orchards. Italians are very fond of olive oil. Karambu does not yield much of oil, whereas Italian olive does. It is same as Indian mango which has been so developed by us that nowhere else a mango tastes half as delicious.
Geeta had stopped near a pool and was looking at something. We also joined her. There was an empty carcass of a yellowish orange crab, about 10 cms long. While walking through a jungle we are used to seeing such carcasses and ignore them as a matter of routine. Forest Guard said, ' It is a carcass of a 'pi-uda kainkda'. There were 10 or so tiny younglings scurrying about within the carcass. 'Are crabs cannibals ?', I asked . 'No, worse, they are eating away their mother', said Geeta. 'Oh oh', I said, 'Poor younglings, their mother has been a victim of some predator, and the poor things are so hungry that they are forced to eat their mother.' Geeta responded, ' No doubt that they are eating their mother, but it is not because some predator had killed her…' 'Then what ?', I was aghast. ' No they did not murder their mother. … Their mother sacrificed her self. It is their method of survival. Mother ensured the minimum growth for her offspring, after which they can look after themselves.' ' Oh yes', I recollected, ' there is widow spider, who eats the male after mating. In many species males are disposable, for once they have fertilized the eggs, they have no significant role left thereafter. But it is the mother here !!' Geeta said, ' you also know about salmon fish, both the parents die after the eggs are laid and fertilized.' I said, ' May be they are not in a position to take that long, risky and adventurous journey from the source of the river to the ocean and then back.' Geeta said, ' The question is why not?' DFO said, ' Let us proceed to the ocean of this forest and then we have to be back by sunset.' There are many reasons for enjoying nature, and the joy that comes from wonders of nature is wonderful!
Meanwhile Geeta had gone to the other end of the pool, and she enticing some creatures by dangling a worm on a twig in the shallow waters. In a little while there were many little crabs homing on to the bait. These were not orange but ferruginous. These were even more amazing. They were right handed, well I cannot say right legged. Crabs belong to a group of crustaceans that have four pair of legs. Some species have evolved their first pair of legs to become a pair of powerful claws, with which they can not only hunt but also defend. Orange crabs we had seen earlier were left-handed. Some crabs are of course ambidextrous. One-handed crabs have one claw far bigger than the other. But these were even more amazing. They were all carrying a shell of a snail each, and had only two pairs of legs !' 'What about the fourth pair of legs ?', I asked. 'That is holding their home'. I agreed, ' Nothing like a home, of your own. But do they remain this small size through their life ?' Geeta said, ' Like Americans or many Indians, they do not mind changing their house as they grow in status !' ' Oh these are the hermit crabs', exclaimed the DFO. I objected to the name, ' Just because they carry their house they shouldn't be called hermits.' Geeta said, ' They live alone like hermits.' I said, I would call them in Hindi 'kuti kainkada' or even 'gharu kainkada' and not 'sadhu kainkada' as some dictionaries are prone to do. Geeta said, 'I do hope that your lonely voice would be heard by the translators'.
Around Bhimashankar not only are there sacred temples, there are sacred trees and forests ! We certainly wanted to experience one of them. So early next morning we started for 'Vandev' grove. This grove is dedicated to the deity of the whole forest. We had to descend somewhat from the plateau of Bhimashankar. As we entered the grove it was a different feeling even from the rich and thick Bhimashankar. I was again teleported to the sacred forests of Khasi Hills, although they were or appeared to be more primal. But that could be because it rains for 7 to 8 months there. Such forests look old, age old but strong and lively and rich and there are only these two sacred forests left in their prime form. In the sacred forests felling of trees and branches is forbidden. In some of them plucking of flowers and fruits is also forbidden.
There were many such forests earlier in India. Since the arrival of the Vaishya British who only wanted to exploit Indian raw material, and who attacked our faith and beliefs, we yielded to their dictats, and have lost not only forests but also much of our cultural wealth. And this loss has not reduced after they were driven out, indeed the rate of exploitation has increased, because we have become a poor clone of theirs. However people living here are not that advanced. They still follow the tradition. Here it is an important pilgrimage, they obey the laws of sacred forest, not because of some Parliamentary edict, but because of faith and reverence. A local man was passing by. I asked him, 'Do you live around here ?' He, "yes, we do." " What do you do for livelihood ?" " We sell forest produce like herbs and honey etc. We have a small shop near the temple where we sell flowers also." "Where do you pluck your flowers from ?" " We are permitted to pluck Ran Harad flowers from non-sacred forests." What do you call your selves ?" " We are Mahadev Koli." "Are there more sacred forests here ?" " Yes. There are Khetoba forest, and Baghoba forest. Khetoba is the most sacred because it is dedicated to the deity responsible for welfare of every thing in this area." "And Baghoba ? Are there any tigers here ?" " No there are no tigers now. My father tells me that not long ago they were here. We worshipped them in a temple in the Baghoba forest." I wondered . Did our sages know that a forested area looks after the welfare of everything in and around, that it supplies water all the year round , that it reduces the fury of floods, that it enriches the soil all around, that it - the list is very long ? We the educated people are understanding these process now. How could they have known all this then, without the education ! Now we understand that they knew !
We then went to the ancient temple of Bhimashankar to pay our respects. We bought the Ran Harad flowers, a coconut etc. The flowers are delicate and purple in colour and the petals are translucent, why shouldn't Mahadev not like them ! I asked our DFO friend if this Ran Harad is a variety of haldi - turmeric-? " Yes it is a wild variety." There is a huge statue of Nandi, the bull, the vehicle of Lord Mahadev. 'Well', I mused, 'If the transport is here, the Lord must be at home. Nandi shows signs of aging.
Near by there is a large bronze bell hung on specially built pillars. A bell rings - not very far back in time there was Portuguese influence around here. Inside the temple we find that there is special cove for river Bhima as well. This temple is known to be that of Lord Shiv. How generous of river Ganga, the second and very possessive wife of Lord Shiv, to allow another river in their precincts ! The locals are very clear about the virtues of Bhima and therefore they call the Lord Shankar in the temple as Bhimashankar, in the mode of Umashankar ! The temple is on the source of Bhima.
As we entered the forest again, the welcoming ( ? Well, I liked to feel so ) trumpet - Kuturru - blew again. We kept on enjoying the forest as we roamed around. Then I heard a heavenly song ! I knew it was a Thrush, for I have often enjoyed their songs in Himalayas. But it was a superior songster. Its melody was longer comprising many notes. I absorbed the music, or the music absorbed me. Then I scanned the trees. I saw a largish bird of the size of slightly bigger than a Myna. His rear body was rufous (like an almond), and the front grey. The upper rear body had a tinge of brown on its rufous. The head was grey like a rainy cloud, the throat was white. He had applied a thick black and long eye shadow. His tail was black. He was not afraid of any predator, or why else would he be so colourful and put on so distinct make-up. I suppose love makes people brave or rash, depends upon ones point of view. He was certainly dressed to kill and was singing its beautiful melody, full throated. Most probably the dandy was a Wynaad Laughing Thrush. These English always call a Thrush as a laughing Thrush. Perhaps to them singing of a Thrush is laughing matter, but to a Thrush it is a matter of life and death ! To me it was heavenly music. We were at a sufficient distance, so he kept his serenade going. If we went closer, he would fly away; well they are not so rash. Suddenly I realized that he was singing Radha nain Kanha ko nachaya - Radha nain Kanha ko nachaya - and so on - meaning Radha, the beloved of Krishna had made Krishna dance. We male and female of the human species, all tend to think that it is a female who is made to dance to the tune of a male. But here was a confession, loud and clear, by a young and brave male that Krishna has been made to dance to the tune of Radha. He couldn't be bothered, he kept on singing merrily, 'Radha nain Kanha ko nachaya' - But my male mind put a doubt, may be he is singing 'Kanha nain Radha ko nachaya' ...
I listened carefully to the song and I concluded 'no, he was very clearly singing - Radha nain Kanha ko nacaya. From close by a Red-whiskered Bulbul played out some silvery notes, and another Thrush sang in a milder and at somewhat lower pitch, perhaps to give contrapuntal support. Music was also streaming forth from ghunghroos (a string of small bells worn around ankles by a dancer) of hundreds of crickets. Whole nature seemed to be in agreement with him and his song and whole nature was providing a background orchestra to the solo of Wynaad Laughing Thrush. I looked around but I could not have a darshan of his Radha. But the concerto went on. I am reasonably certain that it was a composition in Raag Malhaar for I was getting drenched in that heavenly musical rain. My heart was dancing ! And then it flashed to me; Radha was in my heart who was making me dance. Radha may or may not have had a historical existence, she resides in our hearts, and whom so ever she blesses, life for him then onwards is a song and dance. My heart was singing 'Radha nain Kanha ko nachaya' and my heart was dancing !
Clouds were playing hide and seek with the sun, and the forest was enjoying it. A forest is ever conscious. We may also become fully conscious when we enter a dark and deep and lively forest; sound, touch, form, taste and smell - all the five senses suddenly attain their peak sensitivity. May be this is due to fear, or due to feeling of being one with the nature. The Forest Guard pointed at a tree and said in a hushed tone that there was a giant squirrel frisking on a tree; the locals call it Shekhroo. The common white squirrels are about 30 to 35 cms long, but this giant is 90 cms long. She was no less agile and expert runner on the naturally unprepared track of tree branches. In addition to flowers, fruits, seeds and young leaves, this also eats barks of trees. It also shies away from the dictator of the earth, this 6 feet biped with an ever-expanding universe of greed. To me this giant squirrel became another symbol of Bhimashankar. It is known as giant Squirrel of Bhimashankar; I mused why not call it Bhima-gillahari in Hindi or Bhima-squirrel in English. This name conveys both the attributes - its size and its location.
It was a June afternoon when the sun, the clouds, the trees and the wind had joined to create an exhilarating atmosphere. We climbed a hillock from where we had a panoramic view of the rich forest below - an uncommon site in India to day. In front, we saw a hill whose shape could easily be imagined to be that of a cobra including its raised hood, except for its colour and that its sting would give elixir rather than poison; and its name is aptly enough 'Nag Fani' (Cobra's hood).
We were standing on a commanding location I knew that I owned nothing of what I surveyed ! Yet I was mighty happy for I could and I took deep drought of stream of happiness, I drank the elixir from the invisible hands of Mother Nature. I felt humble before the vastness of nature, before its amazing wonders. I was reminded of -' There are more things on earth and heaven than you can imagine, Horatio ! Suddenly, low and beautifully dark clouds came and embraced us. The air became heavy and moist. The collyrium of the clouds to me is one of the most charming of colours. One may say it is no colour; it is a shade of black which is no colour. Different shades of black are created by mixing white with it. Well, white has all the colours in it - a super example of unity in diversity. The collyrium of the cloud carried me to through many sweet memories. This lasted alas!, only for a short while. The dark cloud had continued its journey, the sun was coming through a silken cloud, and the soft light was caressing me. But there was a kind of lull that birds can anticipate. All the birds were flying in an obvious hurry to their homes. There was an uneasy kind of silence all around. All the birds, trees, creepers, vines and other creatures were expecting, not fearing, something delightful to happen.