Thursday, 10 September 2015

Sun Sets over Gir




The following write up written by me on the Maldharies (Cattle Breeders) of the Gir Forest, Gujarat, was published way back in the year 1996 in the magazine Human Scape and subsequently translated into Hindi and published in Chakmak, a children's magazine. Nothing really has changed and the article remains still very relevant as more and more people as well as animals get pushed out of India's forests in the name of development. As those were pre-internet days, I thought of putting up the article on my blog for the new as well as young readers.  Photos by Ravi Chellam, a senior environmentalist are a new addition to the write up. I thank Ravi Chellam for allowing me to use his photos for this blog post.

Landscape of Gir in summer, Gir is a dry deciduous forest. Photo Credit: Ravi Chellam.

Their forefathers had named the mountains, the hills, the rivers and the streams in the Gir (forest/area), Gujarat. The Maldharies (cattle breeders) have been the part of Gir forest since time immemorial. Even today though most of their settlements called “ness” have been removed from the forest, one can see from those permitted to still be there, how totally they form a part of the Gir forest. It is therefore not surprising that they know every inch of the forest and can find their way anywhere even in the darkest of nights. They know every lion, its temperament and its territory. They know which lion or lioness is aggressive or mild and accordingly take the tourists close or far to have a look at them. They know which part of the forest had a kill the previous night and whether it was by a lion or a leopard. They know each pride of the lions and their habitat, which lioness is about to give birth, which animal is wounded or sick, so on and so forth. They can recognize the calls of monkeys and those of deer’s and can tell if it is an ordinary call or a call of warning. They know the Gir forest and its animals like we know the back of our hands. And why not? They have lived in the Gir for generations, their main occupation being cattle breeding for both milk and ghee. A boy of fifteen years grazes his cattle alone in the forest full of lions and leopards and brings them back home safely in the evening. A pride of lions dare not attack his cattle no matter how hungry they may be or how defenseless the boy may seem with just a stick in his hand! It seems that there is an understanding between them and recognition of each others’ right of cohabitation. They live in harmony with each other – a harmony which is rapidly getting extinct in our society otherwise.

Maldharies with their cattle in the Gir. Photo Credit: Ravi Chellam.

Then one day, in the name of protection of forest and wild life, the people living in concrete and steel jungles took a decision that the Maldharies must be removed for they are a hindrance to the wild animals in the Gir. Thus they were removed and today just a few “ness” remain with an uncertain future. As compensation some of the Maldharies were given some petty jobs as forest guards.  Their job though lowest in the hierarchy in the forest department, is the toughest. They are supposed to guard the forest day and night in cold and in rain. Not only do they have to live in the forest alongside all kinds of animals but have to also guard the forest from poachers and smugglers of wood- who are all the more dangerous as they are politically strong and some of them even holding top positions in the Government.  


I have been going to the Gir since childhood and have loved to experience the excitement of being in the wild. And each time we went there we used to be accompanied by a forest guard named Ramsingh (name changed) who would take me and my family to explore the Gir forest, watch animals of all kinds, explain their habits, teach us to recognize a warning call, etc. I never got tired of his stories and his instructions. Each time there was something more and new to learn from Ramsingh. Even a lion would look up at him and give way! Ramsingh, his skill, his knowledge, his strength and fearlessness never ceased to fascinate me – like the Gir itself. He used to tell me how at age thirteen he had started grazing his family cattle in the forest and how he spent his day- grazing cattle as well as exploring the forest. It was Ramsingh who told me stories of the Gir he had inherited from his forefathers and how each place was named by them and why. Ever since I was a girl, the time that I spent with Ramsingh a simple – illiterate guard, possibly earning less than a thousand rupees a month, living in a small mud house, with a family of eight, remains one of the most memorable times of my life.



A full grown lion in the Gir. Photo Credit: Ravi Chellam.

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It was one of my regular trips to Gir. As soon as I reached the forest, I hurried to Ramsingh’s house to fix up the time to go to the forest that evening. He invited me for lunch. We were joined by another Maldahri, who was introduced to me as Fulsingh (name changed). Fulsingh looked different. He had deep scars on his hands, face and chest. I asked him how this had happened to him. He told me that a few years back a white man from a reputed wild life magazine had come to take pictures of lions. Fulsingh was asked by his officers to help the foreigner achieve his objective. Fulsingh traced a lion and a lioness for the photographer. The photographer was extremely excited to have come upon the lions and wanted some close pictures of the lions.  Fulsingh warned the photographer to maintain a safe distance because Fulsingh recognized the lion to be the one with a very aggressive temperament.   But the photographer did not pay any heed to Fulsingh’s warnings and went closer to the animals. Suddenly the lion charged. To save the visitor, Fulsingh intervened. He was badly mauled by the lion. Miraculously, he survived. Fulsingh was in hospital for two months. Later, he got back to his job as usual.  I am sure that those photographs must have been admired the World over and the photographer possibly awarded for his bravery as well as photography. But for Fulsingh, nothing changed – except the deep disfiguring scars that will remain on his body for ever.

                                                                ***
That day things looked different in the guest house (sinh sadan). It was flooded with number of small and big officers moving in and out in number of jeeps, breaking the silence of the Gir. It seemed someone high up in the Government had come and I was not wrong. The district forest officer was on a visit to the forest. That evening Ramsingh and I went on a trip to Satadhar - as going anywhere else in the forest was prohibited after dusk.  Moreover Ramsingh had night duty at one of the forest check posts and he had to return early. On our return journey we were followed and stopped by a jeep. The officers in the jeep pulled up Ramsingh for having accompanied me. How could he have entertained visitors without their orders?  Ramsingh listened to them in silence though he was not on duty and we were not in the restricted areas of the forest.  I was very upset but decided to not intervene as I was afraid that Ramsingh would be put into trouble later. We proceeded towards Talala. On the way, we were stopped by two officers who were exploring the forest at night with their families. They had been stranded in the forest all alone as their jeep tyre was punctured. The two guards who had accompanied them had gone to Talala to fix the puncture as they did not have a spare wheel.  The guards were not expected to come back for a couple of hours as they had a good 10 kms of walking to do with the car tires.  The two officers and their family looked visibly scared. The officers ordered Ramsingh to stay back with them till the other two guards arrived.  Ramsingh had no choice and stayed back despite the night duty he had to resume in an hour or so. I could see how relieved the two officers and their families were with Ramsingh around- for the night was getting darker and the roars of lions louder.
A typical boundary surrounding the "ness"-  the Maldhari settlement inside Gir. This environmentally friendly boundary is generally not penetrable by lions and gives protection to their cattle at night. Photo Credit: Ravi Chellam.

Next day, Ramsingh and I had decided to take a day trip to the forest. It was Ramsingh’s day off. As soon as we got started, Ramsingh was stopped and told that the District Forest officer (DFO) had summoned him. I could see the DFO standing at a distance- a young smart man clad in jeans and hat, surrounded by big and small officials- looking arrogant, stern and powerful. One of the officials asked Ramsingh to wait and ordered another guard to go with me. I saw Ramsingh standing with his head bowed down, listening silently to the angry officer.


I could not control myself on seeing Ramsingh who walks so fearlessly in the wild being reduced to this position by men belonging to the concrete jungle. I went to the DFO and told him all that I felt as a lay person. I told him that Ramsingh knows every inch of the forest unlike him or any of his officers. I told him that none of his officers would dare enter the forest without the guards. I told him that I would go anywhere into the Gir forest even at night and on foot with an unarmed Ramsingh and would feel completely safe.  Whereas I would not trust going with anyone of them, even by a vehicle- during the day - as they had no sense of direction once into the forest.  I told him that the entire forest department would be dysfunctional without the guards. It is these guards who petrol the forest, survey the animals, locate the kills, organize wildlife shows for tourists, help students camp and learn in the forest, take reputed photographers for wild life photography, rescue sick and injured animals, cook and feed the officers, drive their vehicles, salute them, manage the forest guest house and do endless number of other chores. 


I also told him that Ramsingh’s knowledge is unmatched. I told him that just so that he has a formal degree – though obtained far away from the forest and in the concrete buildings, he has become a DFO. Whereas Ramsingh who has spent his life gathering immense knowledge of the Gir; is a petty guard just because he is not literate, knows no English, has no fancy degree attached to his name and does not belong to the class of urban elite. Ramsingh knows, understands and feels Gir so totally- unlike anyone of them would ever do so. I said, it is Ramsingh who I respect because he is so approachable unlike anyone of them who maintain a distance from both the forest as well as people like us. I told him that if logic and justice prevailed, it is these guards who should be at the top positions in the forest departments and not them.


It is with this outburst that I went back with all sorts of emotions engulfing me. Grief over the fact that the vast knowledge of the Maldharies remain unrecognized; whereas the formal education no matter how shoddy and incomplete gets all the recognition. Fear for people like Ramsingh who could be chucked out of their jobs – their only means of livelihood after having lost their traditional rights of cattle breeding in the Gir forest. Anger on seeing how a fearless man like Ramsingh for whom even the wild animals make way being reduced to such a submissive position by the elite. Frustration with the current system, that wants to eradicate our traditional knowledge as well as the traditional rights of people over natural resources for their own gains. 

That night I could not sleep. The noise of tractors carrying away the soil and stones of the Gir for the market-illegally of course, was becoming unbearable- while the guards- the Maldharies- watched helplessly- their Gir being destroyed.

[Post Script:  The famous Gujarati poet Shri Javerchand Meghani has beautifully narrated in his poem titled -Charan Kanya, the life of those communities living in and around Gir. I will be happy if anyone could share the English translation of the poem.]
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