In the footsteps of Jim

“Eighteen miles to the North – North-East of Naini Tal is a hill eight thousand feet high and twelve to fifteen miles long, running east and west. The western end of the hill rises steeply and command one of the best views to be had anywhere of the Himalayan snowy range. This range, and all the hills that lie between it and the plains of India, run east and west, and from a commanding point on any of the hills an uninterrupted view can be obtained not only of the snows to the north but also of the hills and valleys to the east and to the west as far as eye can see. People who have lived at Muktesar claim that it is the most beautiful spot in Kumaon, and that its climate has no equal.

A tiger that thought as highly of the amenities of Muktesar as human beings did, took up her residence in the extensive forests adjoining the small settlement. Here she lived very happily on sambhar, kakar, and wild pig, until she had the misfortune to have an encounter with a porcupine…..” – Jim Corbett from Temple Tigers

One of my favourite childhood memories pertains to the story telling sessions hosted by my grandmother in our village house in Fulia. Since there was no electricity, we had to fall back on the flickering lights of the Lonthon (lantern) which added the much needed ambience in those cold nights. Google rebukes me that it should be Lanthana but like a true bong, I would vehemently deny and stick to the original pronunciation 🙂

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Our story telling sessions were somewhat obvious as they were always focused on two things:

  • Stories from the Jim Corbett Omnibus (the Bengali translation) which I had received as a gift from my grandmother
  • Her personal experiences of staying in the vicinity of the forests and wild animals. My grandfather was a forest ranger by the way

Thanks to my grandmother, I learned that Jim Corbett was not just a hunter per excellence but was a conservationist to the core. Through the storytelling sessions she urged me to explore nature and not to get frightened at the mere sight of wild animals. Thanks to her and our village home which was home to many species of birds, stray foxes, mongooses and lots of snakes, I developed a love for forests and its inhabitants and Jim became my childhood hero.

Over the past two years, we have been roaming around Uttarakhand and have been to Lansdowne, Landour, Jabarkhet, Ranikhet, Vijaypur, Nachni, Nainital and Mukteshwar. Every time we visit a new place, I try to find out if my childhood hero Jim had been there. While there have been moments when locals did not get baffled by my questions about him and his tigers, the “Wow” moment did not come till we visited Mukteshwar recently.

No sooner had I started my customary enquiries, I was blown away by “Jim was here”. Everybody seemed to know of the place where he stayed and the path that he took to the forest to kill the man eater. I was enthralled by the Pahadi folklores i.e. how the local shikaris (hunters) and then the chest beating city based shikaris failed to even to take a shot at the tigress who proved much smarter than her human counterparts. Ultimately it was Jim’s turn to do a trek from Nainital and kill the magnificent tigress over a period of 72 hours of tracking the animal in the forest. The tales included details of his disappointment upon killing the tigress and unearthing the reason why she became a man eater in the first place.

Mukteshwar is changing! The 5 km walk from our resort to the PWD bungalow where Jim Corbett stayed is strewn with new hotel properties. Apparently, more and more city dwellers are choosing this quaint little hamlet as their second home but still my customary morning walks gave me the pleasure of watching gorgeous sunrises, listening to the chirping of Himalayan birds and not meeting fellow human beings for most parts.

What has not changed though are:

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The bungalow where Jim Corbett stayed. Managed and maintained by the PWD for its special guests it has now been handed over to KMVN who plan to open it up as a hotel in 2017. Mere mortals would be allowed to book rooms and enjoy the uninterrupted view of Himalayas.

Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot, Nandaghunti, Trishul and Panchachuli are among the major peaks visible from the rooms / lawns of the bungalow

The forest has also managed to hold on. And it is still possible to follow Jim in his footsteps to the waterhole where he encountered the tigress. I would let the photos speak from here on. If you are interested, please reach out to the affable Bhagwat (image and phone number right at the end). Bhagwat is a self-taught naturalist who plans to starts his own travel business soon.

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This old house is more than 100 years old and was developed as the servant quarters. The trek starts here as you go down to the jungle

The forest path…

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The spot where the tigress was killed

And here is Bhagwat! He can be contacted at 09719586398.

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Happy New Year!

 

On the Serpent’s Trail — SoWeTravelBlog

Hike to Dhaulinag Temple Our stay in Vijaypur, Uttarakhand, was quite an eventful experience to say the least of it. It was spiked with allergy bites, back breaking falls (which still makes it difficult for me to remain seated for long), a swim in the boisterous mountain rivers, overturning of Kayaks and many more. On […]

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A Walk in the Clouds — SoWeTravelBlog

Our short trip to Ranikhet was coming to an end. While we had explored the quaint little cantonment town on foot and had taken a detour to Majkhali, a small village around 12 kms from the town, we felt we needed to do something else before we headed back to Gurgaon and relish the daily […]

via A Walk in the Clouds — SoWeTravelBlog

Welcome to the Jabarkhet Experience!

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Modern day India is abuzz with start-ups. If you happen to live in a city like Gurgaon like myself, you cannot but take notice of the entrepreneurial spirit that makes the city liveable despite all its challenges. It is indeed inspiring to find entrepreneurs trying to fix the problems that the common man on the street faces with innovative solutions. However, a unique start-up is taking shape far away from the urban madness of Gurgaon. It is not a normal start-up and has been incubated at an elevation of around 2,000 metres above sea level. Sounds interesting! Let me share the story of Jabarkhet Nature Reserve, a privately owned and operated nature reserve in Uttarakhand.

On our last trip to Landour, we came across a poster of the nature reserve in our resort. Friendly inquiries revealed nuggets that sounded quite surreal. The forested area of Jabarkhet has passed many a hands since it was known as Rockville and owned by Dr. Wright. Moving forward, it was sold to Lala Parma Nand and Lala Ram Prasad Jain in 1929. The property has since stayed with the family and in 1970 was broken into three parts consisting of 300 acres each. It came to be known as Jabarkhet Estate I, II and III. The owner of Estate I, Mr. J.P. Jain was an ardent lover of nature and attempted to utilize the natural resources without depleting the forest. His love for the forest has inspired the birth of a beautiful project which aims to preserve the bio-diversity of the area and share it with others.

The promoters of the project, Vipul Jain (son of Mr. J.P. Jain), and Sejal Worah, a well-known conservationist in India are attempting a model that has precedents in other parts of the world (South Africa for example) but is unique in the context of India. Happy to be corrected of course!
The Jabarkhet model has refrained from operating as an NGO and soliciting donations. Instead, the nature reserve is attempting to achieve sustainability by generating revenue through individual and institutional memberships, one-time visitor entry fees, product merchandising and fees linked to facilitating school field trips and research activities. Community involvement is high as the guards and naturalists have been hired from the neighbouring villages. The money generated from the above mentioned activities is used to pay the employees and maintain the nature trails and the artificial waterholes.

When you visit Jabarkhet reserve today, nature at its pristine best extends a warm welcome. However, when you hear the stories of its turnaround from a place which was characterized by overgrazing resulting in a complete decimation of the ground vegetation and weeds taking over, declining wildlife population, increasing pile of garbage left by visitors, the efforts seem nothing but herculean.
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Image source: Official site, Jabarkhet Nature Reserve

The restoration efforts started in 2013 saw the removal of 400kgs of trash. More than three tons of the weed Eupatorium had to be uprooted manually to allow the recovery of vegetation that are native to the area. Three new waterholes were developed to ensure access to water to the resident and migrant wildlife population. The involvement of the local community in the project helped the reserve negate the ill effects of over grazing and cutting of trees.
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Image source: Official site, Jabarkhet Nature Reserve

And how has Mother Nature responded! Today, when you visit Jabarkhet you would be greeted by the sight of the spectacular Kaleej pheasant. If you are lucky, you would look up and see a glimpse of the Himalayan Griffon and the Lammergier vultures. Wildlife, though not easily spotted is represented by the leopard, barking deer, goral, yellow throated marten, leopard cat, langur, black bear, porcupine, wild boar and the sambar. Many of these animals are making a comeback to this area and the camera traps provide you a glimpse of what is around you.

While we visited the reserve in December which is more or less the barren period, we got a glimpse of what’s to come in spring. The beautiful “paper plant” bush with its exotic white and pink flowers assured us that our next visit would be more rewarding than walking through the fallen pine and deodar cones. We were told that Jabarkhet experiences the emergence of violets and gentians from February to April. Moving on to early summer (May-June), the forests are awash with the bright yellow flowers of the barberry bushes dotted with wild roses. They are supplemented by the daisies and clover which take over the meadows. The monsoons bring about the “peacock” flower that covers the hill sides and upper meadows. The list goes on and on!

The nature reserve has created eight walking trails excellently sign-posted all the way. We took the “Ridge Trail” and went up to Bear Hill Top via the Flag Hill Top. The entire trail allowed us to soak into the forest but what waited us when we hit the top most point was nothing sort of mesmerizing. I will let the pictures tell you the story.

If you are fan of start-ups and enjoy exploring and supporting innovative ideas, you would love the entrepreneurial spirit of Jabarkhet Nature Reserve. You would probably be able to connect instantly if you love nature and prefer walking rather than driving. Irrespective of the lens that you prefer, please do spread the word about this beautiful place and the initiative. And next time when you travel to Dehradun / Mussoorie / Landour, hop on to the Jabarkhet experience.

Click here to read more about the reserve. And here are the images…

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Following the Ridge Trail

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See you in Spring!

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The view gets better as you go higher up

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View from Bear Hill Top

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Tea, anyone?

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Newest member of the Jabarkhet fan club!

“Arre huzoor, wah Taj boliye!”

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As a young kid, I was lucky to have visited the Taj Mahal. Like most, I had picked up the customary souvenir (a replica) to earn bragging rights among my peers. As I grew up, I was horrified to hear the story that the Emperor had ordered that the chief architect’s hands be cut post completion of the mausoleum. My young mind could not relate to this gruesome act associated with a building that is touted as a symbol of love. I decided never to visit the place again.

As I grew up, my resolution was put to test. First it was Ustad Zakir Hussain and the Taj Mahal tea campaign. Like many, I was mesmerized as the Ustad’s curly locks, lightening fingers flying across the surface of the tabla and his smile lit up our good old ‘Konark’ TV screen. The visuals were complemented by an anonymous voice: “Wah, Ustad, wah!” To which, the Ustad replied “Arre huzoor, wah Taj boliye!” And all the while, the shining white monument, resplendent in all its glory stood in the background. Feeling nostalgic! You can relive the magic on YouTube.

The next was when I realized that there is no scholarly evidence to the cutting of hands story. I was relieved as this provided a perfect excuse to break my resolution. Years went by and although I started visiting Delhi regularly, from where Agra isn’t too far, the trip to the Taj never happened.

Fast forward to 2015: as we were trying to settle down in Gurgaon it became clear to us that we would need to be inspired once in a while to continue to earn a living without letting go our interests. After a couple of short visits to Lansdowne and the majestic Bharatpur, it was time to go back to the Taj. Following our customary research which enabled us to book entry tickets online prior to our visit, we hit the road. We took the NH2 as I was unable to convince our friendly driver of the merits of enjoying the Yamuna Expressway. After a friendly banter, we agreed to take the expressway on our way back.

The journey was fairly uneventful but as we entered Agra, the presence of the mausoleum was overbearing. It seemed all the road signs led to one direction and every other establishment had something to do with it. We settled down in one of the numerous hotels which ended with either the phrase “Palace” or “Mahal” promising to one another that we would be at the gates by 6am. Despite our best intentions and the hot cup of tea served by the only staff in the Palace who was up at that unearthly hour, we could not reach the gate before 6.30. We realized we had not factored the walk of around 750 meters from Shilpgram (eastern gate). From Shilpgram, where you can park your vehicle, you have the option of taking a rickshaw, a horse driven cart or just walk. If you stay in a fancier “Palace”, you are probably eligible for the battery vehicles which chose to ignore us, the lesser mortals as they breezed past. The walk, by the way is quite pleasant in the morning.

After flashing our online ticket receipts (strangely we were probably among a handful of visitors who did not have a printed ticket), we were allowed in for a few hours of bliss. A word of advice: the queues at the gate are separate for men and women and it becomes easier if you have more than a copy of the online receipts.

I would stop and let the pictures below narrate our experience for the next two hours. Suffice to say, the workmanship, the design and the architecture takes your breath away. As you admire the beauty of the mausoleum, it helps to have the excellent hand held audio guide to seek answers to many questions that are likely crop up in your mind.

For me, more than the questions, the realization that this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a great example of a fusion of various structural traditions (including Moghul, Persian, Central Asian, pre-Moghul Indian and European architecture) was more important. At a time when we seem to become more and more impatient and intolerant, it dawned on me that one of the finest memorials in the world is indeed one of best examples of multiculturalism and assimilation of cultures. It represents India as it has always been and hopefully would continue to be.

In this context, I could not resist sharing this poem written by the greatest Bengali ever born.

You knew, Shah Jehan, life and youth, wealth and glory, they all drift away in the current of time. You strove, therefore, to perpetuate only the sorrow of your heart…Let the splendor of diamond, pearl, and ruby vanish like the magic shimmer of the rainbow. Only let this one tear-drop, this Tajmahal, glisten spotlessly bright on the cheek of time, forever and ever.
O King, you are no more. Your empire has vanished like a dream, your throne lies shattered…your minstrels sing no more, your musicians no longer mingle their strains with the murmuring Jamuna…Despite all this, the courier of your love, untarnished by time, unwearied, unmoved by the rise and fall of empires, unconcerned with the ebb and flow of life and death, carries the ageless message of your love from age to age: ‘Never shall I forget you, beloved, never.’

– By Rabindranath Tagore (translated by Kshitish Roy) from One Hundred and One Poems by Rabindranath Tagore (pp. 95-96)

And here are the images (finally).

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First glimpse: “Arre huzoor, wah Taj boliye!”

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Care for a walk in the park?

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What a way to start your day!

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The not so impressive Yamuna as a backdrop

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A memorial like no other!

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We call Taj our home

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Till we meet again

The storytellers of Bharatpur

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The dabbawalas of Mumbai taught us the art of service excellence. Is there a lesson to be learned from the rickshaw pullers of the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary?

Upon our recent visit to the park, I met an extraordinary man who earns his bread by ferrying tourists on his cycle rickshaw across the 29 sq.km paradise, frequented by birds from around the world. He has been doing it for more than three decades and after two trips to the park where he doubled up as our guide, I felt privileged to have met someone who seemed as exotic as any of our avian friends who refer the bird sanctuary as their home.

Here is a quick list of my lessons learned from him.

Do what you love to do: The wise man of Bharatpur reaches the sanctuary gate at 5.30am every morning with the same enthusiasm that our eight year old daughter exuded when we entered the park for the first time. He informed us that over the last thirty years, he has never failed to reach the gate in time to pick up wide eyed tourists eager to lap up his stories on the park. He has accompanied the legendary Salim Ali tagging birds for his research activities and has probably ferried countless urban folks like us who struggle to spot anything beyond the peacocks, painted storks or the cormorants with the naked eye. But rather than feeling despondent, he weaves his magic. As he helps the tourists spot the birds in the bushes, treetops and water bodies, he adds anecdotes and stories. During our two trips, he made it a point that our daughter ticks off the birds that she had seen on the book that was bought from the souvenir shop located at the park gate. He was quick to realize where our interests lie and left no stones unturned to make us happy with an elusive sighting. It was his persistence that resulted in us having a sneak peek at the large-tailed nightjar.

During the six hours that we spent with him, it became evident that 30 years of doing the same thing has not dampened his enthusiasm. When asked how long he wants to continue, he smiled cheerfully and responded – till the time I am fit enough to ride the cycle rickshaw and till the time our rickshaws continue to stay relevant in the days of battery operated carts.

Stories over facts: During our first trip, he gauged our interests and probably classified us as amateurs who love birds but whose knowledge is somewhat limited. From that moment onwards, he switched on to a storytelling mode. Every bird that we spotted was tagged to a story. With effortless ease he kept our daughter enthralled with stories around the courtship dance of the sarus crane, the nesting patterns of the migrant ducks, the difference between a dotted and a spotted owl etc. He reiterated my belief that facts are for PowerPoint slides but stories are for moments that lives on in our memories.

The power of experiential learning: During his eventful journey traversing the three decades, he has taught himself to learn from his experiences. He was quick to point out that he benefitted from the innovative measure taken by the sanctuary authorities to train the rickshaw pullers to evolve into guides as well. However, it is experiential learning that allows him to go beyond rattling names of birds and add a bit more spice in his knowledge sharing sessions. It is this unique ability to personalize a sighting that puts him in a league of his own.
If you have reached thus far, you may be interested in knowing his name. While I deliberated on sharing his name and number, I felt it would be more fun if you discover him on your next trip to the sanctuary using these clues below:
• He belongs to the Labana Sikh community, who are originally from the Sindh province, and who settled in India after Partition
• He has been featured in an article on Livemint on the sanctuary
• He has published two books on the birds of Bharatpur

Would love to know if you were able to spot him during your next trip to Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and the lessons that you had learned.

And here are some images from our trip.

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Postcard from Bharatpur

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The Maestro at work

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Lonely! I am at work, you urban fool!

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Time to do some stretching!

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Good morning! It is a beautiful day!

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Picturesque!

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Till we meet again!