Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Lion People

Everyone knows about the Masai of Africa, but have you heard of the Lion People of Gujarat?

My daughter went to Sasan Gir Lion Sanctuary, and brought back this portrait of a Maldhari herdsman.

The Maldharis are buffalo-herders, who live in little mud nesses inside the Gir forest. Like the Masai, the Maldhari count their wealth in cattle. But unlike the Masai, the Maldharis are vegetarian and do not slaughter their livestock for meat. They live instead, by selling milk and milk products, and use the earnings to barter or buy vegetables.
Maldhari homes have no electricity or running water. Every morning, the Maldhari men take their cattle to the forest to graze, while the women gather firewood and grass, draw water, and tend to the home. While the cattle are grazing, the Maldhari have to keep a sharp lookout for Gir's Asiatic lions, for whom the cattle are an easy target.

They're good looking people, these men, aren't they? Sharp features, confident, and so very macho. Maybe you'd be macho too, if you had to watch out for prides of hunting lionesses, with only a stick or an axe to protect your herd? The lions take 8 out of every 100 cattle that the Maldhari own, but the Maldharis do not hunt or kill the lions. They have learnt to live alongside them.

The Forest Department believes Maldhari cattle over-graze the forest, making life difficult for the deer, nilgai and other ungulates of Gir. And domestic cattle can bring disease into the forest, wiping out the last surviving pure breed of Asiatic lions.

But others say the Maldhari herds are vital to the survival of the lions. A 16-month study monitoring 6 Maldhari nesses in 2006-2007 established that almost 50% of the diet of Gir lions consists of Maldhari livestock. If you were to remove the Maldharis from the park, the study says, it would significantly affect the lion density, pride size and structure.

Sasan Gir has a complex set of problems. The biggest one is that it has too many lions and too little space. So there are territorial fights among the lions, and this leaves the smaller and younger males with no choice but to look for new places outside the protected area. Gir's lions have now started migrating outside the park. I'm glad they are reclaiming the lands where they once roamed, but this brings them into populated areas and creates new sources of conflict. Relocating the lions to another park would be a good idea - but the Gujarat government wants the Asiatic Lion to be exclusively "Gujarati"! So it blocked a plan recommended by the Wildlife Institute of India to move some lions to Madhya Pradesh.

Five state highways pass through the Gir forest, and there is a widespread limestone mining nearby. There's a cement plant barely 15 kilometers outside the protected area. There are 23 temples, and 250,000 tourists every year. In an area that has very little rainfall, these human activities drain scarce resources, and leaves the waterholes dry in summer (lions in Gir have fallen into human wells!).

Instead of fixing these issues (which involve influential people and big money), the government has got it into its head that the Maldharis - a community that does not poach - are the chief problem. In my view, the biggest threat to the Asiatic Lion is not the Lion People. The biggest threat is that the only 300-odd surviving Asiatic lions in the world are all hemmed together in one small forest. A single epidemic could wipe out all of them. This is a disaster waiting to happen.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Lemonade Seller, Chandni Chowk

On a hot summer day, nothing is as tempting as an iced lemonade flavoured with mint.
The wet cloth on the rim sends out cool waves, dragging your eyes like a magnet.
The sun is merciless on the back of your neck.
You watch the lemonade seller as he stirs the juice.
You imagine its sweet-salty-sour taste.
You hear the dull clink of ice, and smell the tang of the masala.
You can't resist it any longer.
"One lemonade please", you say. Bottled water be damned.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Holiday in the Shivaliks

So - to continue from where the last post left off - I'm just back from a short summer break on the blissfully cool slopes of the lower Himalayas.

Naldhera - Abode of God - is 2500 metres above sea level, and a six hour drive from Chandigarh. It is about an hour away from Simla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh.
We took a late morning flight to Chandigarh, so we got there when the sun was high in the sky. The heat hit us like a furnace when we got off the plane. The tarmac was hot and dry and blindingly white as we walked towards the airport building to collect our bags. When we got outside the airport building, there was construction everywhere - the place looked like a disaster zone. To add to it, the May heat rose off the newly set concrete in dizzying waves.
Ranjit Singh, our young Sikh driver, was not apologetic - he waved at the mess and told us very matter-of-factly that they're converting Chandigarh to an international terminal. I have only one piece of advice for the Chandigarh airport authorities: Plant lots of trees! Your international visitors will need the shade!!

In direct contrast, Naldhera was blissfully cool. When we got there it was dark, so it was only the next morning that I figured out how beautiful the place was. .I sat and listened to birdsong at 6:00 a.m. The trees rose behind the cottage, tall and straight, everything around me was serene and perfect. (Well, almost perfect. By seven thirty, the enlightened management of Chalets Naldhera were piping some very irritating outdoor music on a tinny music system. Can you imagine ruining the peace of this place with bad music?)

The very first thing we did was go on a trek to explore the cedar and pine forests around us. The forest floor was crunchy-soft with needles, and the climb was surprisingly steep. We were rewarded with a view of the Sutlej River as it rushed down below, muddy and swirling with the silt from the upper slopes.

"There are hot springs down there, Madam", said our guide Raju. .
"Where?", I asked. .
"Tatta Pani", he said. "It's down there. Very holy place."
I'd never even heard of Tatta Pani, but it sounded interesting. So the next day, we decided to check it out. Tatta Pani, it turns out, is a little village on the banks of the Sutlej. And "tatta" is localspeak for "tapta" - boiling. Tapta Pani. Very poetic. Conjures up bubbling hot water, doesn't it?

We drove about an hour from Naldhera to get to Tatta Pani. The hot sulphur springs right next to the river were an interesting sight, especially because the Sutlej itself is so cold.

The kids had a great time jumping from hot water into cold, and from cold into hot. But Tatta Pani is not all about fun. It is also famous for its curative properties.

We saw a hopeful family of three - an ailing old man and two of his sons. They were at Tatta Pani, trying to curing their father of a sickness that had left him feeble and unable to walk.
Something about these three arrested my attention - maybe it was the fact that they were so silent. None of them really spoke much, but the sons were attentive and considerate. One son held his father's hand, while the other son made a little private pool for him to bathe. When the bath was over, they offered prayers assisted by a local priest.

Here's the other brother, creating a little impromptu spa. The water was hot, so every now and then, he would dip his hands into the cold river water flowing nearby. Since the going was slow, both brothers joined forces to dig out the pool. They gave each other quiet instructions, and used sticks and stones. I watched them hunched over the sand, patting down mud and stones, and marvelled at how it was both a labour of love and an expression of simple, abiding faith. I was glad I went to Tatta Pani.

Tatta Pani gets crowded in Jan-Feb (the month of Magha), when large numbers of people come to bathe in the waters. They believe that a dip in this water will wash away all their sins. They also visit the old Shiva cave temple nearby. Another busy day is Baisakhi Day in April.

(Funnily, locals also come here on January 26th, Republic Day, I'm not sure why! Sometimes I think I will never understand this country of mine)

For more tales of Naldhera and Tatta Pani, and my little shopping expedition to Simla, check out my flickr photo travelogue.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

On the road from Shimla...

We're hurtling down the Shivalik mountains in an Innova. Ranjit Singh, our driver, is a madman on a mission - to get us to Chandigarh by 2 pm for our flight back home.

Shimla was surprising and interesting in many ways...we stayed at Chalets Naldhera, away from all the bustle of Shimla. More when we get back home!

P.S. It rained last night in Shimla. This morning, the pine and cedar trees were sharp and clear against a blue sky.