Archive for the ‘bears’ category

The Ibex of Sha-Ping

28 February 2010

Memorial to a young subaltern.

(Announcing the online library page of The Butterfly Diaries blog! Explore nature-writing online for free.)

Part of a green book cover with an embossed gold ibex head shown on it.

Click the image to reach the free download page from http://www.archive.org.

Being a “fauji” of the Indian Army who loves the Himalayas, it is most appropriate for me to begin my free online nature writing   ‘collection’ with :

The ibex of Sha-ping, and other Himalayan studies” by Lt L.A. Rundall. 1915 (with numerous pen and ink sketches and coloured plates by the author).

An opened book standing with its outer cover facing us. The dustjacket is on and is fawn coloured. The spine bears the names of the book and author, a caricature of a bear cub, the cost (ten shillings and sixpence) and the logo for McMillan who published the book. The front jacket has the name written along the top edge and the head of an ibex in the centre.

Lt Lionel Bickersteth Rundall (1890-1914) was a young British army officer who perished in one of the battles of the First World War. Commissioned into  the British Indian Army,  Rundall  joined the “1st King George’s Own Gurkha Rifles (The Malaun Regiment)” . The First Gurkhas were located at Dharmsala in those days and it is from here that Rundall must have ventured forth into the mountains and vales of today’s Himachal Pradesh. He fell in love with the mountains and planned to return over and over again.

Returning to England more than once in a few years was financially difficult for subalterns in those days. The commanding officers who would have lived most of their life in strait-laced Victorian society would not grant leave to a young officer to visit the towns and cities calling such visits to where white memsahibs could be found as “poodle-faking”.

There was an old saw that goes as follows:

“A subaltern may not marry,
captains might marry,
majors should marry,
and lieutenant-colonels must marry.”

Young officers were prevented from marrying as it was felt that it could ruin them financially when the cost was added to the initial outlay for commission, uniforms, equipment, subscriptions and the mess. The purity of the mess was disturbed by marriage, as it took the officer out of the all-male warrior clique. An officer who married without getting permission from his commanding officer severely jeopardized his chances of promotion. Custom, economics and peer pressure combined to postpone marriage until quite late in life.

Instead, they were encouraged to go to hunting, shooting, pig-sticking or any other activity which would sublimate their normal sex drive. So it was in the case of Rundall. He wandered far and wide in the hills nearby. Captivated by the hgh mountains, the wild life, the cold spring water, the fresh air and the variety of Himalayan fauna not to be found anywhere today. His keen observation and talent as an artist led him to write a number of stories which he illustrated himself.  In the book, a preface contains excerpts of his last letter to his mother wherein he made plans for many more trips including a trip to Tibet. At this point of time, hardly a decade would have passed since Younghusband’s expedition had opened Tibet up to the British and such a thought would have great romantic appeal to a young man.

Alas it was not to be,  Rundall died on 19 Dec 1914.  This fact leads us to conclude that he was part of the First Battalion of the First Gurkha Rifles which went to France with the Third Lahore Division in 1914.  The first battalion was the only battalion of the First Gurkha Rifles which went to Europe during World War I. With them went my own field company, 20 Field Company of the Third Bombay Sappers and Miners, which marched down the streets of Marseilles, the very first Indian troops to set foot in France. The Indians soon found themselves in the front-lines of one of the most vicious wars ever known to mankind. In Dec 1914, the Indians were ordered to capture the village of Givenchy. The Indians fought courageously capturing two lies of enemy trenches but were forced to retreat by a strong German counter-attack  with heavy losses, including amongst the officers. It is surmised that Rundall died in this battle which raged from 18 to 22 Dec.

A few excerpts from Rundall are in order.  Illustrated with beautiful sketches and paintings by Rundall himself, his preface indicates that he had worked towards writing the book which his family published posthumously.

There is an attraction about the log fire, made up of a hundred things...

From the Preface

You who are wearied with the day’s work, and would hear of the wonders of the Himalaya, let yourself float in your imagination, out across the seas, over the parched sand of the desert, across the arid plains of India, and up into the everlasting snows where the chill night winds are sighing. There, below you, lies my camp ; in the clearing midst the dark pine forests, where the log fire blazes and crackles, and where the silver stream murmurs of the thousand mysteries of the mountains…

Come down with me to my camp. Seat yourself comfortably in my deck chair, and draw it closer to the blaze. Help yourself to whisky—I have nothing better for you, except the ice-cold water from the spring — light your pipe, and listen awhile to the stories which I will tell you, mainly of what I myself have seen, partly of what I have heard from the lips of other shikaris.

There is an attraction about the log fire, made up of a hundred things. Among these, the sweet scent of the burning pine, the sharp tongues of flame which leap and dart, the merry crackle of the dry wood, the hissing of the sap, and the myriad sparks which whirl upwards and soar floating on the wings of the blue smoke. Each but a small matter in itself but contributing to the cheery glow, and
without which it would not be complete.

So it is with the mountain, and its thousand streams, its forests and its lakes, its animals and its birds, its flowers and ferns. Without any one of them it would not be complete.

Sunset on snowy peak

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Rambling Round a Forest Fringe

21 February 2009

This blog is about nature & nature-writing, and not about me. So here is a nice piece by a guest and fellow-naturalist.

— x — x — x —

Jamuntola is a typical one-horse, many-cattle Indian village nestling on the border of the Kanha National Park. A well-kept jungle road skirts along a sal forest, bumps across the bed of the Banjar Nadi and wends its way past the village to Thakur’s home. The river has been dry for the past few months. Its huge boulders stand naked, awaiting the gush of the monsoon waters to embrace them. It has rained, unusually, during the “nau tappas” – the nine hottest days of summer and the sun is pleasantly strong.

Birendra Singh Thakur, as his proudly displayed certificate states, is a Bachelor of Arts from Allahabad University. He is employed as a Forest Guard at Kanha. A chance meeting has resulted in our being invited as his guests. If the name brings to mind a big, gun-toting, bristly-moustached character, our real life hero is quite the opposite. He is short, wiry and fair-skinned with eyes that twinkle with animation.

As Ketan and I alight from the jeep, a welcoming smile lights up his face. His abode consists of two rooms, a kitchen, a fenced-in courtyard and a verandah. Towering over the mud-thatch roof are fourteen different species of trees. Thakur rattles off their names with practiced ease. He hustles us through a steaming mug of tea to a pond nearby, anxious to fulfil his promise of showing us wildlife.

On the far side, two Sarus cranes are visible, their grey bodies and maroon heads providing a perfect contrast. Thakur explains that not only is the Sarus India’s largest bird, it also occupies a proud place in jungle lore because of its legendary fidelity to its mate. In fact the Sarus’ attachment to its mate has been commented on even by Emperor Jahangir in his Jahangirnama .The sight of a pair of Saruses bowing and prancing, spreading and closing their wings, reminds one of a graceful polka dance.

Unison! Fidelity and coordination - a Sarus pair!

Unison! Fidelity and coordination - a Sarus pair!

Our hopes of seeing like Noah, a procession of animals is belied. Only the ubiquitous cheetal – the spotted deer, it seems is thirsty that evening. Thakur offers to accompany us again after dinner. We walk back in single file with Thakur reminiscing about life in the wilderness and childhood in his beloved Allahabad. Dinner is everything one would expect a rustic meal to be. The rotis are large and thick, the dal and vegetable hot and spicy and the onions and green chillies pungent. Beyond the wooden fence the trees and bushes acquire ghostly dimensions. The moon has not yet risen and a gentle breeze has sprung. Burps done with, Thakur leads the way, torch in hand.

Far away, a sambar calls. There is no other sound except for the dry leaves crackling underfoot. Thakur cautions us to remain silent as we near the bund overlooking the pond. He trains the torchlight along the periphery of the water. Apart from the gently-swaying water-lillies, nothing disturbs the stillness. The beam moves further inland. No sign of life. Suddenly from out of the darkness, two shining eyes are reflected in the light. Except for the eyes, not even a dim form is distinguishable. My heart thumps – just a deer or could it be a tiger? The eyes are startling blue. They gaze into the light, turn away for a few seconds and then appear to move towards us. We continue to crouch behind Thakur who holds the torch unwaveringly focused on the eyes.

Suddenly, like a man possessed, Thakur screams, turns around arms flailing, and bolts. The beam weaves crazy patterns on the forest floor as Thakur’s yells shock us into action. We race after him. It is some moments before we realize that his cries are ‘ Reech! Reech ! Bhago ! Bhago !’ (Bear! Bear ! Run! Run!). This only spurs us onto greater speed and I quickly out stride Thakur as the dim glow from his hut becomes visible.

Breathless, Thakur explains, whether for dramatic effect I don’t know, that the colour of the eyes and the animal’s movement towards us, are sure signs that it was a bear. He however hastens to reassure us that bears notwithstanding, there is no danger in sleeping in the courtyard. I look up at the star-laden sky and fall asleep thinking of the animals immortalized above by the ancients – Ursa, Taurus, Leo, Pegasus, Lupus ….. Bears and Bulls, Lions, Horses, Wolves ……

Waiting for father! Bears hunted in the Seoni hills - these stories may have inspired Rudyard Kipling's works. Originally captioned waiting for father - this was about a family of bears waiting for their father that was killed. The next day the mother bear was also killed.

Waiting for father! Bears hunted in the Seoni hills - these stories may have inspired Rudyard Kipling's works. Originally captioned waiting for father - this was about a family of bears waiting for their father that was killed. The next day the mother bear was also killed. (Drawn by Robert Armitage Sterndale. Denizens of the Jungles, 1886.)

Morning breaks. ‘ Ku-sum-pa-kha, ku-sum-pa-kha’ – the haunting melody of the kusumpakha awakens us. It is still early by city-dweller standards but the forest has been alive for some time. Small groups of tribals are busy collecting mahua flowers, tendu leaves and other forest produce from which they eke out a living.

Mirror and shaving kit in hand, Ketan and I walk to the well a kilometre away. And while Ketan has a shave, mirror perched precariously among the branches of a tree, I pull a bucket of water from the well and dump it over my head.

We tumble into the jeep and decide to scour the countryside. A stream of villages with exotic names pass by – Khursitola, Sarekha, Chargaon, Kumadehi. The previous day’s weather is now a memory and as midday approaches, the heat builds up relentlessly.

Thakur motions us to stop as we cross a small thatch-roof hut protected from the sun by the shade of a huge mango tree. Inside is the local hooch shop. A grizzled old woman who is proprietress, barmaid and bouncer all rolled into one, welcomes us warmly.

We are given pride of place – an ancient looking ‘khatia’ that probably shares birthdays with the woman. Thakur indulges in light-hearted banter. The woman asks what we would like to drink. The choice of poisons is clear – the starchy, colourless liquid distilled from the flowers of the mahua tree or the milky trappings of the sulfi tree. The latter should be drunk early in the morning as fermentation sets in by midday. So we settle for the mahua. It is common knowledge that bears are partial to the mahua flower, seeking them out with the all the single-minded dedication of a red-nosed tipler weaving his way through the bars of London.

Kanha - Chital in a forest glade!

Kanha - Chital in a forest glade!

Thakur recalls an old tribal belief regarding the sulfi tree – that only one person should do the tapping and if someone else does, the tree dies prematurely. Each tree is therefore zealously guarded and tapping rights strictly enforced. The woman passes round a dried peepul leaf on which rock salt and crushed green chillies are kept. Caviar may go well with champagne, but there is nothing to beat apna desi sharab and mixture.

The morning after all will, of course, look after itself. Two starchy rounds later, the world starts looking a decidedly better place. We wisely refuse a third, realizing that it is time to be moving if we want to reach Jabalpur before dark.

Thakur appears sad that we have not seen a tiger in the heart of Kipling’s India. But as with all wildlife viewing, the reward lies not so much in the quantum and variety of wildlife seen as in the totality of the experience. It can be as exciting learning about an anthill’s intricate ventilation system as in coming face to face with a tiger in the wild. And for us, the memories – of an encounter with a bear, of warmth and friendship and sharing – will remain forever fresh. But Thakur’s wistful eyes do not seem to understand as we say goodbye.

Guest post by : Sarabjit Singh (sabusingh2003@yahoo.com)

Image Credits:

  1. ”Unison – Sarus pair” – Image by J.M. Garg from Wikimedia Commons used under Creative Commons Sharealike attribution 3.0.
  2. ”Waiting for father!” – Public domain image available at Wikimedia Commons .
  3. ”Chital in a Forest Glade” – Public domain image available at Wikimedia Commons, (cropped & reduced).