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Saving the Tiger

Ranthambore National Forest and Tiger Reserve is a stunningly beautiful place that spreads over 450 sq. km. Writers like Jim Corbett and Rudyard Kipling have painted vivid portraits of Indian jungles for readers in the English speaking world. On a recent visit to Ranthambore, sitting in an open jeep, slowly winding its way along rutted jungle trails, tales of Mowgli, Bagheera and Balu the bear seemed to come alive. She expected to see a barefoot boy in a loin cloth peering out from among the tall grasses. Instead, she came face to face with …Shere Khan.

Shere Khan. Her real name, said the guide, is Noor...

Shere Khan. Her real name, said the guide, is Noor…

...or Mala, or more prosaically, T-39, the mother of 3 healthy cubs

…or Mala, or more prosaically, T-39, the mother of 3 healthy cubs

The moment was so unexpected, so pure, so anti-climactic that there seemed to be magic in the air. Noor is also known to the park rangers as Mala, a name that means ‘necklace‘ for the decorative, beadlike stripes on her flank. She had apparently just fed at dawn, the remains of the kill lay somewhere in the grasses nearby, her belly was full, and she was tired and too sleepy to investigate the little open jeep with three occupants parked at a respectful distance.

These magnificent animals are under threat from us humans. Ironically, one way to save them might be to bring more humans to visit them in their natural surroundings, just like the passenger in the jeep who watched her in awed silence for nearly two hours. For every tourist who comes to see them here, there are perhaps two or three locals who earn a livelihood, people who have been displaced from their own natural habitat in the jungle, displaced by the need to preserve wildlife. The villagers who used to live in Ranthambore forest were relocated when the tiger reserve was set up. These displaced people had to carve out a new existence in small settlements surrounding the jungle that was once their home.

We met one of the displaced people, a Rajput by the name of Dharamveer. He was proud of his forbears who had built forts and castles in these hills and jungles, and today he was one of the lucky ones; someone who had done well by doing good. When he was displaced from the forest, Dharamveer had trained as a tiger painter, painting iconic portraits of Shere Khan with the finest of strokes using delicate brushes that were a mere three or four hairs thick. This fine work gave the tigers in the paintings a lustrous lifelike glow that seemed to move as they caught the light. Buoyed by this success, he assisted widowed women to retrain in other handicrafts and has created a thriving business selling their work.

A Rufous Treepie

A Rufous Treepie


the entrance to the reserve is through the old Ranthambore fortress gate

the entrance to the reserve is through the old Ranthambore fortress gate…

the sambhur belled, once, twice, and again... (Hunting Song of the Seonee Pack)

…the sambhur belled, once, twice, and again… (Hunting Song of the Seonee Pack)

We visited his store after the safari and were welcomed by the artisans who proudly showed us their wares. There was exuberant patchwork art, as well as many other fabrics, woven on rural handlooms, carvings, tribal paintings and animal protraits. As usual, there was more than one person could buy, but an American friend is exploring the market for these attractive products outside India. More on that will follow in a later posting.

Exuberant patchwork, handloom fabrics, carvings and nature paintings

An exuberant patchwork of Hathi the elephant; handloom fabrics, carvings and nature paintings


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The Demoiselle Cranes of Khichan

The town of Phalodi lies halfway between Jodhpur and Jaisalmer on the Rajasthan tourist circuit. Phalodi is an unremarkable town that one drives through in a couple of minutes on the good highway that links the two larger cities. Phalodi is known as the salt city of India and was an important trading post in the days of camel caravans travelling along the overland silk route. Six kilometers away from here, driving along a narrow dirt road, is an even more unremarkable and dusty village called Khichan. The village has been a traditional stop for decades on the annual migratory route of Demoiselle Cranes between September and March each year. Sometime during the 1970s, after a series of droughts, a local Jain merchant decided to help the few dozen migrant visitors and began to feed them grain. The following year, the number of visiting birds doubled and more volunteers stepped in to contribute grain or funds for the feeding of the birds. By 1996, Otto Pfister writes in a despatch of the Oriental Bird Club, that 6000 cranes were visiting and being fed half a ton of grain per day (mainly sorghum) for six months every year. By 2012, there were an estimated 20,000 of these elegant birds in Khichan every year, on their way back from breeding sites in Mongolia and Eurasia. After crossing the steppes of Central Asia, where they are hunted by predators like the golden eagle, these delicate-looking birds fly at heights of 5000 to 10,000 meters to cross the Himalayas. This is an incredible feat at oxygen-starved altitudes and along the way are other dangers; the wars in Afghanistan, or human disruption of their habitats.

Image: courtesy birdingblogs.com

Image: courtesy birdingblogs.com

The crane is known as  Koonj in Hindi, and there are many stories told about why the village community decided to feed the birds. One villager, when asked, speaks of the birds as auspicious symbols. “As long as the birds come, the future of our village is assured.” In the epic Mahabharata, the disciplined flight formation of the family groups of these birds is imitated when forming battle lines (Krauncha Vyuha) in the Kurukshetra war. In the crane-shaped formation of infantry units, forces are distributed to imitate the cranes’s wingspan, with a formidable, penetrating centre depicting the crane’s head and beak.

Through the power of the media, what was once a small local custom has attracted a large international following. The village of Khichan is now on the tourist map of Rajasthan and bird lovers from all over the world visit the place. What started forty years ago as a gesture to help a small flock of 150 migrant birds now attracts over 20,000 cranes annually. There are several amateur videos of the remarkable spectacle on You Tube. Here is one example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSWEWdp-X_k

One observer writes: The most amazing thing during the morning feeding sessions perhaps is how disciplined the cranes are. They fly into specially created enclosures, walled fields of around an acre each. When one batch has fed, the next batch flies in for their turn. If the field is full, they land outside the field and patiently wait their turn.

Beginning in the 1970s, several remarkable people have transformed the face of Rajasthan. One of these, Rajendra Singh, mentioned in an earlier blog (Stepwells and Johads:digging into the past) as the man who restored the flow of seven dried up rivers in Rajasthan, now finds his expertise in demand at international meetings like the Economist Water Forum in early November where he advised property owners in the UK about methods to prevent flooding in Northumberland and elsewhere. For more, see The driest part of India offers a solution to Britain’s floods, from the Telegraph of 7 November 2014.

A lot has been written in recent years about mitigation and adaptation measures to counter AGW (anthropogenic global warming) and climate change. It is to mankind’s own long-term benefit to protect biodiversity. Ecological studies show that biologically diverse communities are more productive and stable. Traditional communities have long followed this wisdom, hard-won through years of observation and patience. Modern science confirms their wisdom. Positive actions usually come full circle, but when the circles are on a global scale they so large that we often do not see it.


Facebook for the Gods: Phads and Puppets

William Dalrymple, in his fine book “Nine Lives” writes about the Phad singers of Rajasthan. As in traditional arts and crafts everywhere, the few remaining Phad singers and puppeteers are struggling to find audiences and sustain their livelihoods. There is a great danger that these rich traditions will soon be lost. Performances for tourist groups can help these artists survive, but to be really appreciated, the audiences need to be educated about the background to these stories (which are well-known to most traditional rural audiences) and this happens only with the most knowledgeable tourists, such as academics or researchers studying language and culture.

The Phad: Image courtesy Rajasthan Textiles

Pabuji ki Phad: Image courtesy Rajasthan Textiles

The Phad is a religious scroll painting of deities, a kind of a portable temple. As representations of the divine, these Phads, or painted scrolls, are treated with great reverence by the Bhopas (traditional singers) who carry them from village to village and fair to fair. The bhopas are bards, singers of epics, and perform prodigious feats of memory. The most popular epic is that of Pabuji. In the old days, when this 4000 line courtly poem was recited from beginning to end, something that rarely happens today, it took a full five nights of eight-hour performances to complete the narration. The art of the bhopa was handed down in families, from father to son. Sadly, the bards with their traditional accompanying musical instruments, called Ravannahatta, are disappearing from both town and country today.

Another dying art tradition is that of puppetry performances. Scholars believe that the tradition is thousands of years old. The puppets are called “kathputli” and fashioned from fabric, wood, wire and threads. In a desperate attempt to attract foreign tourists, puppeteers have “dumbed down” their elaborate plays based on the classic Indian epics, and developed contemporary five-minute local variations that neither do justice to the original, nor do they attract the tourists as they are meant to do. As Janis Joplin presciently sang in the 1960s, the sentiment behind Lord, can I have a Mercedes-Benz and the pursuit of material wealth has eclipsed the spiritual quest even in this land of 33 million gods.* There are several standard figures in the line-up of modern Rajasthani puppets. One of them is called Anarkali, who is modelled as a temptress and courtesan.

Anarkali: The temptress struts her stuff

Anarkali: The temptress at her seductive best

The second standard modern puppet figure is a Rajasthani version of Michael Jackson, who struts his stuff on the portable wooden stage and manages a passable moonwalk. The highlight of this 2-minute skit is when he raises his detachable head.

Michael disguised as a Rajput

Michael Jackson disguised as a Rajput

The third modern set piece is a snake charmer and his cobra, which begins to chase him around the stage after initially swaying to the charm of the flute in the background. Another character who often appears is a demure bride who suddenly is flipped over and becomes a male singer. Sometimes these puppets are handled with considerable skill, all the while accompanied by an ektara, a single stringed violin, and a shrill-voiced male singer who speaks through a bamboo reed.




...and Yang

…and Yang



...or a bit of both.

…or a bit of both.

*The figure of 33 million was pulled out of a hat after many discussions of the number of gods, where the count ranged from 3000 to 330 million, the last figure based on the reasoning that almost every third person in the country has his or her own personal deity. This seemed rather far fetched, but it is true that in every small village and town there are local version of the principal gods and lesser deities of the Hindu pantheon. If it all seems too foreign and confusing, look at it this way. There is but one god, Brahma, the creator of all things, and all the numerous deities are but one way of approaching him, just as Catholics pray to their favourite saint to intercede for them before the one God.


A lake palace, and a lake of tears

Udaipur is one of the must-see cities of Rajasthan, for its iconic Lake Palace situated in the middle of Lake Pichola with its grand series of stone and marble palaces that have been successively added along the shores over centuries. Udaipur’s royals belong to the longest unbroken line of rulers in the world, having endured for more than a millennium.

One of the world's longest ruling dynasties, 1400 years

One of the world’s longest ruling dynasties, 1400 years

The present-day city was founded in the 1530s at around 1000 feet above sea level, close to the cooling influence of the Aravalli range of hills. The aboriginal hill tribes of the Aravallis, the Bhils, were traditionally self-sufficient hunter-gatherers and good archers. Bhil tribesmen assisted Rajput troops in their periodic wars against Mughal armies, and for this reason, the Mewar coat-of-arms portrays both a tribal armed with bow and arrows and a Rajput warrior flanking the shield with a fortress in the middle.

A wedding cake of a hotel on Lake Pichola

A wedding cake of a hotel on Lake Pichola

The lake dries out occasionally when there is a succession of bad monsoons, but a project is underway to ensure a steady inflow and expand the rainwater harvesting systems that were installed in the palaces from the 17th century onwards.

Nowadays the royal barge is only for decor or the occasional VIP hotel guest.

Nowadays the royal barge is only for decor or the occasional VIP hotel guest.

More palaces and bathing ghats along the lakeshore...

More palaces and bathing ghats along the lakeshore...

More palaces and bathing ghats line the lakeshore…

...most are hotels.

…most are hotels.

Pushkar: a holy lake of tears.

Pushkar is one of the holy places for Hindus in India. There is a temple to Brahma in Pushkar, a rarity. There are only six temples dedicated to Brahma worldwide and this is considered the most important. There are several beautiful stories associated with the reasons for Pushkar’s sanctity. One has it that Siva’s wife Sati was insulted by her father (this is a long story in itself, see the URL below for more) and literally burned with shame. Siva was so overcome on hearing of the death of his wife that he wept inconsolably. The pools formed by the tears from his two eyes are the lake at Pushkar and the Katasraj temple lake about 300 kilometers away that lies today in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

There is another story about the reason for Pushkar’s spiritual significance. In this, Brahma saw a demon named Vajranabha killing people, so he killed the demon with a divine lotus flower. In this process, the petals of the lotus flower fell to the earth and formed the lake. Yet another story tells of a mortal, a Rajput king, following a wild boar down to the lake during a hunt. He stopped to quench his thirst and found that dipping his hand in the lake had cured his leukoderma. Whatever the reasons for its perceived sanctity, the town exudes a certain contradictory bustling calm and the lake itself is surrounded by temples and bathing ghats. The biggest attraction for tourists is the annual 5-day camel fair where livestock are bought and sold.
See the stories of Siva and Sati at http://www.swami-krishnananda.org/bhagavata/bhagavata_4.html

Innumerable temples line the lake

Innumerable temples line the lake

A small sign reminds visitors to remove their shoes while walking around...

A small sign reminds visitors to remove their shoes while walking around…

...this is holy ground

…this is holy ground