Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Himalayan Griffon at Corbett

I must say I am exceedingly lucky to have not only seen a Himalayan Griffon but was at a touching distance!! It so happened I was at Corbett in Kumaon, and also so happened that a Himalayan Griffon had injured itself and was in care at a local resort. I need point here that the forest officials have been quite callous and don’t seem to be concerned or shall I say bothered, it is individual or group effort and care that see these incidents have positive end. And finally, it so happened that on the day of my visit the Vulture was set to be released. Wow. So here I was incredibly excited and facing the Himalayan Griffon. What a massive bird. It seems that the vulture had started to like the place and refused to budge out of the confinement despite much prodding by the volunteer in protective gear. The bird surely is aggressive. They left the door open and I trained my camera standing at a distance…minutes passed it won’t come out and so I went near the door and lo the bird hops out and few long strides was up and away, in the melee I forgot to take the picture. Geez. But must say the bird truly is a beauty, what an amazing sight. Some of these vultures have wingspan as long as 10ft. My good luck was on a long leash, the bird alighted on a tall tree few hundred metres away. So we crept up to the tree, and I got some really wonderful pictures. Later the bird was seen soaring the sky thousands of feet up, how exhilarating indeed.

The Himalayan Griffon Vulture (Gyps Himalayensis) inhabits in mountains of the higher regions of the Himalayas, the Pamirs, Kazakhstan and on the Tibetan Plateau between 1500 and 4000 metres of elevation. It performs altitudinal movements during winter, and frequent lower areas while the young birds wander down onto plains (the above is a juvenile). The Himalayan Griffon Vulture is the largest of the genus Gyps. They feed only on carrion and gather around carcasses located by soaring and gliding over large areas with their keen eyesight. They find mention in the history of the Tibetan culture as the dead bodies were left to be fed by these Vultures during the very cold periods of the year. The frozen soil did not allow burying the dead. I am sure we are aware of practices by Parsis, but those are mostly White-rumped or Indian Vulture (long billed). 

Gumani Pant: the voice from Kumaon hills

I was at Ramnagar in Kumaon region of Uttrakhand state tucked in the feet of Himalayas along the Shivaliks. Few enquiries and some luck I was at the door of seventh generation of poet Gumani Pant. The elderly man was taken by surprise. We talked about general things, I was handed some books to refer. The one that caught my attention was Says Gumani by Charu Chandra Pande. Other source includes Gumani Kavi Virachit Evam Bhasha Kavya by Devidutt Pande and Gumani Neeti by Rebadutt Upreti.

Gumani Pant (1791-1846) was one of the earliest voices from Kumaon, apart from his dexterity with Sanskrit he was the originator of khariboli in Hindi verses much before Bharathtendu Harishchandra –to whom it is credited. Gyan bhaishajya manjari is work of Gumani on medicine, dealing with maladies and philosophy in the form of couplets in Sanskrit. His Panch Panchashika is a theological work based on the philosophy of the Upanishad. Gumani witnessed rule of three sets of rulers during his lifetime –the Gorkhas, the British and the Tehri king. Apart from felicity with different languages Gumani’s versatility is reflected in the choice of subjects, from sublime to ridiculous, here he see jest as one of his friend slipped and fell (must add the English translation is wanting)

Yo brahmand chadi udi kamar ki dwi tuti pada
Akhan meh athi dah ye bhakath ch meri khabar ko karon
O ija babjyu kaka sun sabbai mishri khana su daiyo
Layavo dudh sithab pran udni ha ram yo meh maryu

Oh the universe behold my waist has broken into two
My soul breaks away and takes wing
My eyes burns, Oh is there no one to look after me
Mother, father, uncle  …hear O hear
I’ve fallen, I’ve hurt, don’t you see?
Give me sugar candy to eat
Oh quick I say, fetch milk, hurry –
Otherwise I will die, Oh Ram, I am done!

This poem is whispering of fruits called Kafals (myrica esculanta) that yields small pea size stone fruit. The colour of the ripening fruit is pink, which gradually turns darker.  

Khana layak indra ka hum chiya bhulok ayi pada
Prithvi me lag yo pahad hamri tthathi rachi dev lai
Yeso chithe bhichari kafal sabai ratha bhay krodh lai
Koi aur buda khuda sharm lai neela dhumaila bhaya

We are created for indra, the king of gods
But unfortunately dropped down below
Among the mortals here
And even here, on this planet alas!
We are made to dwell on these rugged hills
How unfair is the play of the destiny
Thinking thus in their hearts against god’s injustice
All the kafals turn red in fury
And yet others, who were old and haggard
Turned dusty blue in utter shame.     

Gumani lived during the period of turmoil as the colonialism was taking its root in the subcontinent. Colonial Britain was spreading its tentacles through East India Company, he verses makes the irony a satire
Yo angrej kahan se aya kon wathan meh rahta hai
Kahan aye ke raj kare sab lok isi ko chahath hai
Hindustani boop isi ka tej na koi sahta hai
Jo honi na rahe hue bin suno Gumani kahta hai   

Where from does the British hail? Which homeland is his abode?
And where does he reign? People even try to seek favour from them
No Indian prince can face his fierce might  
Says Gumani, it was thus ordained: whatever is to happen will happen   

Here is one poem that talks of good times and opulence

Kela nimbu akhod dhadim rikhu naring adho dahi
Khaso bhath jamoli ko kalkalo bhuna ghadera ghaba
Chuyda sangh uthyol dhudh bhaklo thyu gaay ko dhanodhar
Khani sunder mauniya daphduva gangawali roaniya

Banana, lemon, walnut, pomegranate, sugarcane, orange, ginger and abundant curd
Arum in dried leaves, tender stalks and corns, aromatic rice baked beaten flat or boiled
Thick delicious milk of cows and granular butter indeed
Big cakes of rice powder fried in clarified butter
That is what they eat, the people of gangawali

According to UNESCO’s list of languages Kumaoni is placed under unsafe category -which requires consistent conservation efforts. Kumaoni is one of the Pahari language (other being Garhwali), and is very much influenced by now extinct Khasas language.  It has many dialects (about 20 recorded) that change with the region.  

Jim Corbett: a hunter turned conservator, naturalist, a writer, a magnificent fellow

If Corbett Park is the oldest wildlife sanctuary in the country, it is a tribute to Jim Corbett. The man had a colossal presence in Kumaon region, born in Nainital (1875-1955) he was instrumental in initiatives for conservation effort.

I was reading these interesting observations “All birds and all animals have their own language and though –with few exceptions –one species cannot speak the language of another species, all the jungle folk understand each other’s language. The best three of the exceptions are, the racket-tailed drongo, the rufous-backed shrike, and the gold-fronted green bulbul. To bird lovers the racket-tailed drongos is a never ending source of pleasure and interest for, in addition to being the most courageous bird in our jungles, he can imitate to perfection the calls of most birds and of one animal, the cheetal, and he has a great sense of humour. Attaching himself to a flock of ground feeding birds –jungle foul, babblers, or thrushes –he takes up a commanding position on a dead branch and, while regaling the jungle with his own songs and songs of other birds, keeps a sharp lookout for enemies in the way of hawks, cats, snakes, and small boys armed with catapults, and his warning of the approach of danger is never disregarded. His services are not disinterested, for in return for protection he expects the flock he is guarding to provide him with food. His sharp eyes miss nothing, and the moment he sees that one of the birds industriously scratching up or turning over the dead leaves below him has unearthed a fat centipede or a juicy scorpion he darts at it screaming like a hawk, or screaming as a bird of the species he is trying to dispossess does when caught by a hawk. Nine times out of ten he succeeds in wresting the prize from the finder, and returning to his perch kills and eats the tidbits at leisure, and having done so continues his interrupted song” ….. later in same chapter he writes “I don’t know if racket-tailed drongos can learn to talk, but I do know that they can learn to whistle tunes. Some years ago the Anglo-Indian station master of Manakpur Junction…supplemented his income by teaching drongos and shamas to whistle tunes. Trains halted at the junction for breakfast and lunch and it was a common sight to see passengers running over to the station master’s bungalow to hear his birds, and returning with a cage containing a bird that whistled the tune they fancied most. For these birds, plus an ornate cage, the station master charged a flat rate of thirty rupees”.  (from the book Jungle Lore)  

Here he capsulate years of field knowledge of tracking into easy understanding “all animals that run down their prey have big toes as compared with their pads, and all animals that stalk their prey have small toes as compared with their pads”….. “if you look at the tracks of a house dog and cat, you will see what I mean by big toes and small pads in the track of the former, and small toes and big pads in the track of the latter”. Aha that we should look out for next time as first step towards identifying tracks, and then extend that to jungles. Corbett also gives insight into identifying poisonous and non poisonous by the track.   It is quite an interesting read. Another reference is found in book The Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag “…when a leopard or tiger is walking at its normal pace only the imprints of the hind feet are seen, but when the normal pace is for any reason exceeded, the hind feet are placed on the ground in advance of the forefeet, and thus the imprints of all four feet are seen. From the distance between the imprints of the fore and the hind feet it is possible to determine the speed at which an animal of the cat tribe are travelling.” 
                            I came to know about Sultana daku in 1997-98 from ‘punditji’ who runs a sweet shop in alley of Karol bagh. There were three elderly people running the shop those days, averaging an age of 80, the owner who sat at the counter in Gandhi cap, the waiter cum does-everything-else man and finally the cook. Now though the waiter survives aging 85, still serving delicious, rather subtle sweet sandesh, from palm jaggery and milk concentrate. The shop has a long history; started in 1940 it has seen many ups and downs. Nehru and Patel, yes Jawaharlal and Sardar, were regulars. Till three decades back the shop supplied sweets to power that be, including Pranab Mukerjee (who now is President of the country). I have spent hours and hours of lazy afternoons in this shop, mostly reading some books I carried. In the meanwhile Punditji regaled me with the stories from the past, of Sardar Patel who once came rushing in his jeep and asked punditji to come with him, and then he takes off…the problem being he keeps repeating the stories.  One of the stories he narrated was about Sultana daku. Punditji hails from Nainital, when he was about 10, the family went for a pilgrimage trek to haridwar, for darshan. They hid the currency coins in flour that they carried to prepare food on the way, as was the custom those days. They were attacked by the dacoits and things looted, as they were ruing their fate came Sultana daku riding on his horse and demanded what happened. On hearing he not only compensated for their loss but also gave them his share as offering to god. Another story of how Sultana looted only rich, in this case a moneybag named Karak singh, and the daring tactic he used apart from his benevolent nature towards poor made him part of local folklore. Sultana notified the fellow the hour he would come to loot, and came dressed as a cop in the guise of protection and cleaned up the coffer!!

Corbett has devoted a chapter in his book My India on Sultana daku appropriately titled Sultana: India’s Robin Hood. Eminently readable the chapter ends on a poignant note that reverberates in the mind for a long time. “ I could have wished that justice had not demanded that Sultana be exhibited in manacles and leg irons, and exposed to ridicule from those who trembled at the mere mention of his name while he was at liberty. I could also have wished that he had been given a more lenient sentence, for no other reasons than that he had been branded a criminal at birth, and had not had a fair chance; that when power was in his hand he had not oppressed the poor; that when I tracked him to the banyan tree he spared my life and lives of my friends. And finally, that he went to his meeting with Freddy (the cop in-charge of catching him), not armed with knife or a revolver, but with a watermelon in his hand”.

The book My India opens with a dedication that includes “…in my India, the India I know, there are four hundred million people, ninety per cent of whom are simple, honest, brave, loyal, hard working souls whose daily prayer to God, and to whatever government is in power, is to give them security of life and of property to enable them to enjoy the fruits of their labours. It is of these people, who are admittedly poor, and who are often described as ‘India’s starving millions’, among whom I have lived and whom I love, that I shall endeavor to tell in the pages of this book, which I humbly dedicate to my friends, the poor of India.”