0 to 51 in 10: The Panna Tiger Story

The verdant forests of Panna, Madhya Pradesh. We were able to visit two weeks ago. And were lucky enough to see a tigress and her cub. What a majestic sight! The tigress was pretty big and healthy, the cub frisky and curious. The mother was contemptuous of the humans in their vehicles going into contortions to catch a look, to take a pic, to exclaim to each other. She moved when she felt like, sat down and relaxed when she felt like. Not looking in the direction of the vehicles even once, though she knew we were there. She was the queen of her territory and saw no reason to acknowledge us.

It was a wonderful feeling. To see the healthy tigress and her confidence in her security. The active cub, about 5 months old. The number and variety of herbivores. And the thick forests and healthy, lush greenery.

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It would be good to have seen this in any of our protected areas. But especially gratifying when we go into the story of Panna. Panna was declared a National Park in 1981, and subsequently a Tiger Reserve in 1994. The tiger population in Panna was down to zero in Feb 2009, thanks to poaching. It was a sad time indeed for India’s conservation efforts.

Things started to change with the posting of Mr. Sreenivasa Murthy, who took over as Chief Conservator of Forests and Field Director, Panna Tiger Reserve. They speak of the tough measures he took in securing the Park, coming down hard on all incursions, trespass, illegal activities and poachers. Even as he protected the area and worked on the morale of the Forest Staff, he built on the already initiated plan for re-introduction of tigers into the Park. Starting with one tigress in 2009, six of the species were introduced from different parts of the country. And it was not an easy task. As the Panna website tells it, one of the re-introduced males strayed out of the protected area into unsafe terrain, and 70 Park staff led by the Field Director followed it on elephants for 50 days, securing it from gunshots, poisoning and electrocution, till at last they were able to tranquilize it and bring it back into the safe area. All the hard work paid off and the re-introduction worked, with the first litter of cubs born in Panna in 2010. The results are obvious today, with the Park now home to 51 tigers. Several cubs have been born this year too.

Nothing is achieved by one man alone. But equally, individuals make all the difference. And in the case of Panna, this individual was Mr. Murthy. He has been posted out of the Park, but even today, drivers and guides speak his name in hushed tones, in tones of awe. And when respect and admiration penetrate to all levels, it is surely the greatest homage to the real difference someone made.

 

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So a huge THANK YOU Mr. Murthy and all our Forest Dept. staff who work in extremely difficult situations to ensure that our biodiversity and natural heritage are safe. The thick forests of Panna, the variety of animals and birds we saw, of whom of course the tigress and cub were at the peak, the flourishing trees and plants—all of these stand testimony to your efforts.

–Meena

(There are many trees like the pic, with nail marks made by bears climbing them to get at honeycombs.)

 

PS: We did not get any pics of the tigers—we were too busy looking at them. And anyway, they were far away and our phone-cams were not up to the task.

But a few other pics from the Park and Pandava Falls nearby. Photo credits: Prof Samir Barua.

Carved in Stone, Carved in Our Memories

Khajuraho. Memories of history textbooks. Also of sniggers and side glances among us as school girls.

When our friends and we decided to visit, it was on a whim. We wanted to see the monuments which are counted among the best in terms of the flowering of Indian art, architecture and creative expression. But we half-feared we would see badly maintained ruins.

What an amazing surprise! We were awe-struck with the boldness of imagination and design of the 25 out of 85 temple structures still standing. We marvelled at how, more than a 1000 years ago, buildings of such complexity and technical perfection could have been built. Even in terms of just moving material and creating such huge structures—how did they manage it? Truly a civilization at the height of its cultural powers.

We were equally impressed with how well the structures have been restored and how well they are being maintained. No ugly and inappropriate renovation. No vandalism. No graffiti. No unpleasant solicitation by guides or vendors. No garbage. No muck.

The cluster of temples (85 at the peak), were built between about 950 and 1050 AD, by kings of the Chandela dynasty. And the eclectic collection of Gods to whom they were dedicated is interesting—Shiva, Vishnu and even Jain temples (Devi temples being conspicuous by their absence).  The erotic nature of the carvings in Khajuraho is much talked about, but it constitutes only 10 per cent of the total. And done in a completely matter of fact way, juxtaposed with everyday scenes of life and times.

varahaWhat I found most fascinating was the Varaha temple. A temple dedicated to the 3rd avatar of Vishnu–Varaha or Boar. I don’t recall any other temple devoted to this avatar. The sculpture is a humungous sandstone monolith—2.6 metres long and 1.7 metres tall.  It boggles the mind how they got the stone up there and carved it. Because carve they did—every inch of the boar’s body is covered with numerous figures. Between the nose and mouth is a carving of Goddess Saraswathi, with the Veena in her hands—a tribute to knowledge. In the Varaha avatar, the demon Hiranyaksha kidnapped Goddess Earth and hid her under the cosmic ocean. Varaha battled the demon for a 1000 years and brought back the Goddess. Well, the Varaha statue has battled the elements for over a 1000 years, and stands testimony even today, to the skill of its creators. It looks fresh, exudes power, and is almost shiny metallic looking.

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telescope

 

Other sculptures that stand out are a dancing Ganesha. You can see his paunch swaying as he dances! An elephant with a sense of humour, who looks with a twinkle in his eyes, at an amorous couple.

And most interesting of all, a man who is ‘upskirting’ a voluptuous beauty with the help of a device that looks like a telescope. But the telescope was invented only in about 1608!! So what could this device be?

 

 

While Khajuraho was an amazing experience, getting there was not! There is an airport, but flights seem seasonal, and only connect to Delhi, Agra and Varanasi. There is a station there, but only serviced by a few trains. We got there by road from Jabalpur. A distance of about 250 kms which took about 6 hours, thanks to 30 kms of potholed roads, and 20 kms of no road at all!

So while I bow to those who conceived and created Khajuraho, and bow to those who have restored and are maintaining it, I definitely do have a bone to pick with those who are doing their best to make getting there such a pain. A real disservice to anyone who wants to see India’s heritage in its glory, a disservice to the world in making access to a World Heritage site so difficult.

–Meena

TEN DAYS IN NEPAL

May 29th is Nepal’s Republic Day. To mark this upcoming day, here is my friend Anuradha’s travelogue, which could help those planning a trip to this amazing country. Meena.

We planned a 10-day trip and booked air tickets much in advance by Nepal Air direct flight from Bangalore to Kathmandu @ Rs.14K /ticket for round trip. With Kathmandu as a base, we took a package @ Rs.1.3 lacs for 3 pax which included flight tickets from Pokhara to Jomsom round trip, a private car with driver, and accommodations in 4* plus hotels for 9 nights.

Day-1: We were off! Reached Kathmandu by evening.

Day-2 (Friday): Kathmandu local city sightseeing -Swyambhunath Stupa, Darbar squares of Kathmandu & Patan, Pashupathinath Temple.  The ‘Living Goddess’ of Darbar square, hand-made idols of brass and metals at Patan, ancient Pashupathinath Temple were the most memorable.

Day-3 (Saturday): Early morning drive to Chitwan—a distance of around 120 Kms. On the way, there is a popular cable car ride to Mano Kaamana temple. Saturday being a state holiday, there were long queue.  Though we spent half day on the whole process of cable car ride, it was worth it.  Reached Chitwan around 5.30 pm and checked in to Hotel Green Park. As it was already dark, no activity was scheduled. We hired an auto and went around Chitwan and nearby villages, spoke to local people, did some food shopping.  Annual Elephant festival was happening nearby and we dropped in. We enjoyed watching elephant racing and elChitwanephant Polo.

Day 4 (Sunday):  Chitwan National Park visit, Elephant safari, Boating, bird watching, visit to Elephant Breeding centre and cultural evening. Rhinoceros is a star of Chitwan. There are an estimated 600+ plus Rhinos here.  Elephant Safari of around 1.5 hours across a river and inside the jungle was an amazing new experience. We could see Rhinos, Deer, Crocodiles and rare birds.

RinoBird watching from a boat across River Budiramati was amazing.   Jungle walk with guide across National Park, viewing rare Himalayan medicinal plants, creepers, birds was truly educational. We were excited to see a just-born baby elephant in the breeding centre.

 

 

Day 5 (Monday): Drove to Pokhara from Chitwan.  Beautiful drive across rivers, valleys of Himalayan stretch.  View of Dhaulagiri, Nilgiri and Annapurna range of Himalayas, Matsyangadi, Sethi Gandaki and Gudi Gandaki Rivers.  Compared to Kathmandu, Pokhara looked more developed with better infrastructure.  Our hotel was right opposite the famous Fewa lake.   Visited couple of local places in Pokhara. As it was 31st Dec, entire city was decorated and Street Festival was going on.  We roamed around here and got to know about local Mela.    It was indeed a memorable great experience to be in Nepal’s happening Pokhara, on the New Year eve.

Jamsom flightDay 6 (Tuesday): Travelled from Pokhara to Jomsom by 7.50 hrs Tara Air flight.  Flight didn’t take off on scheduled time due to bad weather.  Till 10.45 am, we had no idea whether flight would take off.  Luckily weather cleared by 11 am and we were on the way.  It was a spine-chilling experience in a 12-seater charter flight, flying at a very low height of 30 mts among Himalayan glaciers.

Flight landed in a small place Jomsom, surrounded by mountains.  Temperature was minus (going down to -17o C). Stay was arranged in Om’s Home, a beautiful heritage hotel.  Understand Amitabh Bachchan stayed in this Hotel during shooting of his movie Khuda Gawah.  To our excitement, the same room was allocated to us.  We quickly freshened up for a local visit around Jomsom, to a lake which was frozen and a beautiful Morpha village.  Since it was off-season, not many tourists found and it was calm and heavenly.  The apple-growing Morpha village was very clean and neat with wooden houses.   Dining room at Hotel was kept warm by non-electrical boiler heater.  Internet connectivity was very good though it is a remote place.

Day 7 (Wednesday):  Mukthinath Darshan.  We started around 9 a.m. from Hotel by jeep towards Mukthinath.  There are no words to explain our experience of passing through the Himalayan valley. We filled our hearts and minds with the Himalayan view and took pics. We crossed Khinga, Jarkot, Kakbani villages, Kali Gandaki river and drove towards Mustang and arrived to Mukthinath base. After 30 mts trek, we reached the holy temple.  Our dream of seeing god Mukthinath has come true.  We bathed in icy cold holy water here.  We had a very good darshan as there were no crowds, thanks to the cold.

As we had read that ‘Saligrama’ is found at Kali Gandaki river, we requested our driver to take us to the river bank .  He was good enough to do so and after an hour of searching, we found a few.  On the way back we bought fresh Walnuts and dried apple.

Day 8 (Thursday): Departure from Jamsom by Tara Air and back to Pokhara around 9 a.m. Full day Pokhara local visit was planned.  We have covered Museum on Mountaineering-definitely worth a visit.  4.5 km boat ride in Fewa Lake was a wonderful experience.Peace Pagoda stupa at Pokhara was also interesting.

Day 9 (Friday): Sunrise view from Sarangkot is not to be missed.  The view of Davalgiri and Annapurna Himalayan ranges, sun rising on these mountain ranges can’t be explained but has to be experienced.  We were in no mood to leave the place and were there till 8.30 a.m. filling our eyes with mountain ranges and sun rise view. As next visit was to Nagrkot a long drive from Pokhara, we had to leave to continue the journey.

It was full-day awesome drive across river Trishooli, Sethu Gandaki. On the way, we visited an extremely old temple Changinarayan.  Wooden crafts and masks are famous here. We reached Nagarkot mountain peak around 8 p.m.  Our stay was arranged in Country Villa wherein each room is on a mountain edge and built in such a way that sunrise can be viewed from the room itself. The great Everest mountain ranges are visible from Nagarkot.  It is better to plan for more time at this beautiful place.

Day 10 (Saturday):  Morning, we checked out of the to drive towards Bhaktapur, a heritage city. Bhaktapur is famous for Thangka art and paintings.  City looked red–all brick buildings without paint. We visited Darbar square of Bhaktapur, saw beautiful sculptures and heard stories behind these.  We quickly finished our Bhaktapur visit so as to reach airport by 12 noon to catch our return flight.

Paintings

Reached Bangalore around 5 p.m. with amazing memories of Nepal, eyes filled with Himalayan glaciers, blessings of Lord Pashupathinath and Mukthinath.

Our observation of Nepal on our 10-day tour is that people of Nepal are very proud and concerned about the Himalayas and treat their land as God’s home.  Women are respected, they go all alone freely.  People are sincere and happy.   All the places we visited in Nepal were clean and well maintained. Rest rooms were hygienic. Garbage bins are available in most of the places and also getting cleared every now and then.  Nepal is truly a worth visiting destination.

–Anuradha Nagaraj

(Trip of Dec 2018-Jan 2019).

Jodhpur: Ancient City, New Experiences

Jodhpur is an old city, going back to 1459. The magnificent Mehrangarh Fort, the slightly anachronistic Umaid Bhawan Palace, bazaars, the camels that still stride the streets, the food…an experience for all the senses.

One danger with going back to re-visit old haunts is that the present almost never lives up to past memories.

But as far as Jodhpur is concerned, I will not complain on this count! We’ve been going back every few years, and it just gets more interesting!

fort 4This year, the highlight of our trip was the Mehrangarh Fort. We go there every visit, but this year new areas seem to have been opened up. Shaded gardens, cobbled paths, open spaces from which to view the city–many of which I do not recall from dozens of visits. fort 2And the whole, immaculately maintained.

ziplineAnd the zipline running from the Fort! This has been in operation for about a year now, it seems. It has six segments, some offering dramatic views of the blue city; others of the ramparts of the fort; and yet others of the Padamsar lake. And most important, it looks safe and well-maintained, and the people running it come across as professional and competent.

I must not forget however the highlight of our trip. We went to catch a movie at the mall with our friends. And there, waiting with us was a lovely Rajput couple, with their little 6 month old son. He was bundled up in a green velvet teddy-bear like costume. After the usual cooing around the smiling baby, we asked what his name was. It was Rudra Pratap Singh! Wow! What a name for a gurgling little fellow dressed in green velvet! Will it put pressure on him? Or will he just grow into it? Who knows?

–Meena

PS: I did not zipline, scaredy me! Raghu did.

Travel PANIC…..

I regret planning a holiday before I leave. And once I am ‘there’ I don’t want to think of home!

So here is a list of things I panic about:

  1. Packing: Have I enough clothes? Have I too many clothes? Have I the right clothes? How do I fit in the walking shoes and the formal shoes and the chappals? Is it going to rain? Do I need an umbrella? Is it going to be cold? Do I have enough woollies? Do I really need them? What medicines should I take? Did I pack my chargers? Am I going to read two books or three? Are the books too heavy?EB301699-D567-4B7B-A138-124C3458A90C
  2. Money: Do I have enough? Do I need all these credit cards? Have I got them safe yet handy? Am I going to lose my money? Are my cards going to get pinched? What is the exchange rate? Shall I change money at the airport or the city? What if I don’t change at the airport and don’t find an exchange easily? Am I going to get gypped?
  3. Documents: Did I put in all the papers I need? Do I have all the hotel contacts, the visa documents, the whatever, the whatever? Have I got copies of all of them? What if I lose them?
  4. Connectivity: Will my phone work? Are the charges going to kill me? Will I be able to regularly access email?

And of course..

  1. Work: Did I forget to do something important? Is what I sent the Boss OK, or is he/she going to want some changes? If so, how will it get done? Is there going to be a crisis just in this one week? Are the skies going to fall?
  2. Home: What about thieves and burglars and break-ins? Do all those wicked people know I am away? Are they watching for a chance? Are they planning for a break-in?

And the most predominant one in my life currently…

  1. Older people: Is my mother going to be OK when I am away? Even if she doesn’t fall ill, is she going to panic herself sick because I am away? What if the doctor doesn’t respond promptly? Does she have all her medicines? Does she have all contact numbers??

But the learning for life, which I have to remind myself about before every trip…..

Crises do break out, but they get managed somehow.

Wallets do get whacked, but there is not much one can do.

We do over-pack and under-pack, but never learn to do better next time.

And we do live to travel another day.

So no point worrying, just go!

–Meena

Yes, you got it right. Just got back from a holiday!

Ministry of T

It is finding the known in the unknown, and the unknown in the known.

It is mental exhilaration and physical exhaustion.

It is anticipation and satisfaction.

It is memories of things seen and the curiosity to see new things.

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It is re-living old memories and storing up new ones.

It is sinking in comfort, it is roughing it out.

It is pleasant surprises and unpleasant shocks.

It is a camera lost, it is a vision captured in memory.

It is being with the family, it is getting away from the family.

It is being duped by touts, it is being helped by strangers.

It is tasting exotic food, it is finding the familiar dhabha.

It is being a bit bored, it is having a lot of fun.

It is being away from home, it is finding new homes.

It is being out of touch, it is finding new connections.

It is cockroaches in the bathroom, it is squeaky clean sheets.

It is upset stomachs, it is healthy carrot juice.

It is swearing never to travel again, it is booking tickets for the next trip.

Is this just me, or do most people think of travel like this?

 

–Meena

 

Cry, Beloved Blue City 

A stranger in India, reading the news in the last few weeks, would think that the most prominent landmark of Jodhpur was a huge prison, dominating the landscape. That the principal function of the city was to host trials for all kinds of ‘celebs’ accused of all types of crimes, and to then house the convicted in its boundaries.

I have lived in Jodhpur for several years, and my family has close ties to the city. None of us had any clue where Jodhpur Jail was. After the news of Salman’s conviction, we had to look up Google to figure out the location.

What we do remember of Jodhpur is the magnificent 550+ year-old Mehrangarh fort, one of the best preserved and best kept monuments in India. When I lived there 30 years ago, we would be greeted by drummers when we entered, and there were some friendly moustached guides who would take us around. They almost became like family, so often did I take visitors to the Fort. (Now there are proper displays and exhibits and shops and what not. Still nice, but not so intimate).

When you look down from the ramparts of the fort, you know why Jodhpur is called the Blue City. And there is also a walking path from the heart of the city up to the fort, which we did a few times as students (on furlough from college, no doubt). And the very unique Jaswant Thada, lined with different coloured translucent marbles, as you came down from the Fort.

Then the Umaid Bhavan Palace, the newest palace in the world, built as a drought-relief work and completed in the ‘40s. Part-hotel, part-museum, part-royal residence and wholly fascinating. Specially the indoor swimming pool lined with mosaics of the zodiac signs. And the huge murals of scenes from the Ramayana, with the heroes and heroines of distinctly Greco-Roman cast of features, done by a Polish painter.

The most interesting was where I had the good fortune to live on the grounds of—the Ratanada Palace, one of the palaces of the royal family, never really inhabited because it seems it wasn’t lucky for them. It was turned over to the Government after Independence and became the Defence Laboratory, a lab under the Defence Research and Development Organization. Imagine a lab in a palace! There were rumours that it was haunted, and ‘jingling ghungroos’ and ‘strange noises’ were sometimes an excuse not to stay too late at work!

The Palace-Lab

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The housing for the Lab scientists was on the palace grounds, in converted elephant and horse stables, garages,  band-house, aloo-khana, etc. So there was the most amazing array of very quaint but probably very uncomfortable houses for the families. I never knew whether we were lucky my father was allotted a proper  house—one that was built for the king’s British pilot, who seems to have lived in true colonial style, in a 14-room bungalow . (The same king, I think, who features in the very interesting movie ‘Zubaida’).

The Pilot’s House

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The food—the mirch wadas, the badi pakodis, the kabuli, the sponge rasgullas, ghewar and the array of sweets. The lassi in which we could stand a spoon, the dal-bhatti-churma, the kachodis.

The people—hospitable, chivalrous, generous, entrepreneurial.

The ‘khamma ghanis’ and the ‘padaro sas’ and the courtesy.

The bandhinis, the leherias, the silver jewellery and the lac bangles.

The  bazaars, the gullies, the bargains.

I want these images to dominate my mindscape and Jodhpur memories. Not the prison and the prisoners!

–Meena