Ra - Van
Unravelling the ten headed kingdom
From closer in the West.
Forest officials rescue a leopard cub that entered a residential complex in the suburbs. Transfer him back to the forested park of the city.
From the far East.
Illegal forest mafias turn the dense forest into timber depot. Leads to immense degradation of the forests in the entire region.
From somewhere in the South.
Botanists rediscover endangered tree species considered to be extinct. Experts say that conservation of such forest is critical.
From up North.
Census at popular sanctuary reveals a steep drop in the bird population
I sighed. Some were good and some bad news. As an editor of a magazine dealing with environmental issues I was accustomed to it. Research work on forests and biodiversity meant a lot of field visits across the world, and of course interactions with varied communities. To examine these accounts further, a few of us decided to visit these parts of the country towards a publication for the next issue loosely titled ‘Unexplored Facets of the Forests’
We decided to start from the southern region to understand the rediscovery of endangered species and our contact was a senior ecologist – a man who spent many years in research and now ran a prominent NGO.
“See... This is the evidence of the presence of a forest with long ecological history. Most people think history is only about kingdoms!”, stated the wise man holding the report, as a smirk appeared across his face. We only had questions.
“Our country had vast forests from ancient times. Even mythological records exist of overgrown forests with dense and tangled plants everywhere - untamed and uncontrollable”, continuing passionately he added, “Not only wild animals but it was home to rare flora and fauna. In some of the forests, human access was difficult as it was nearly impenetrable and contiguous”
My mind started to register a few words – Untamed; Uncontrollable; Impenetrable; Contiguous as one of us blurted, “Where do we find such forests now?”
“They still exist in different parts. In today’s core zones of national parks, such undisturbed areas are fully protected. Hunting and grazing are not allowed.”, the ecologist confirmed.
His passion engrossed us for an hour, and then at our request, he graciously allowed us access his collection and even more generously allowed me to borrow a few books.
From here, we headed west to follow the leopard expedition. This time our point of contact – the forest officer - who rescued the cub. Like a typical man of the forest, he vividly described the event – reliving each emotion, movement and detail. With due permission we decided to hike the trail and at first encountered a group of huts and cattle grazing around in open grounds filled with seasonal grasses and some fodder trees.
“No more grazing, beyond this point”, the official accompanying us said in an authoritative tone, as the trail winded through a scrubland making its way to a dense evergreen forest. Full of grasses and shrubs. This was home to the wild – tigers, lions and leopards and giving them company - many herbivores. Signs of which we witnessed the previous night.
“Most wild animals are solitary, and each has their territory based on the availability of the prey”, a tour guide explained few nature enthusiasts, as I overheard carefully.
“The leopard spotting incidents in the city, have increased substantially over the years!” I enquired and stated in the same breadth.
“Madam, it is all due to encroachment. And the fence is also weak”, the official made a passing remark strolling ahead.
“Is that not a responsibility of the forest department? And what about poaching?” this time my enquiry had taken an investigative tone.
“We are working on that. We are taking measures”, the official stated in a typical official manner. The casualty made me ponder, as we reached end of the trail.
Gathering myself after dinner, I grabbed a book borrowed from the ecologist. An old book with reference from ancient literature, that had stories of forests. As I glanced the index and started the first chapter about descriptions of kings and hunts – I paused. A reference for “unexplored facets of the forest’ I thought. Even I have stories, I said to myself and began to identify forests with a name.
The impenetrable, untamed, uncontrollable and fully protected… Jungala. Yes, Jungala!
Dedicated forests for hunting and taming of animals, Penetrable, The great forest… Mahavana
The thick forest corridors, unobstructed, for free roaming of wild animals ... Vyalawaata
Open grounds, seasonal grasses, fodder trees, for grazing of domesticated animals, near human settlements… Pashuvana
Returning to office, I decided to pursue the other two information. Researching the news from east about timber produce left me surprised. I learnt that people there had immense spiritual attachment with forests. They referred to it as ‘sacred groves’, dedicated to a local deity or a village deity.
These forests were their source of livelihood. Apart from timber, many non-wood products had high demand outside the region. The produce consumed locally, generated income to wide section of society. Wild fruits, nuts, tubers, vegetables, fishes met the daily food requirement and even herbal medicines were integral to their living due to lack of modern health care facilities. It even provided for building shelter – bamboo and cane produce.
Traditional conservation practice allowed for non-commercial extraction, but commercial felling was always prohibited. Demand outside the region now led to illegal actions for timber. The forests were turning into ‘timber’ land. The data was disturbing.
As I thought about the forests in east, a voice broke through,“Ma’am, I have gathered some information on bird sanctuary from north”. It was time for review.
“So, it seems that the suspected causes of this decline are increasing temperatures, agricultural chemicals, and industrial contaminants” I summarized, after we collectively sieved through the data.
But what was more astonishing was the background study, that one of the members read out. “Due to vast and varied geographical setting and extended coastline India contained one of the richest and most varied avi-fauna for centuries. Ancient Indian scriptures, literature, and art have many stories associated with these feathery species. Forests, scrub-lands, grasslands, wetlands, sea, coastlines, islands and deserts act as their habitats. Most identified and reserved as bird sanctuaries. Presently over 13% of the world’s bird population can be found in India and at least 35 protected areas are devoted primarily for birds.”
“Go ahead, publish all the four accounts”, I ordered and as I continued to work on the article for the next issue, I noted two other forest identities.
Forest for timber and other economically important plants… Dravyavana
Forests for avian diversity… Pakshivaata
Days passed. On a Sunday morning, I visited my daughters favorite park in the city. One along the lake, dotted with large trees, decorated with lawns and ordained with fountains, benches amongst fruiting, flowering and fragrant trees. A scenic place, admittingly. As my daughter went to buy the entry tickets, I read through an information board, tucked in a corner. It read, “It is believed that during a reign of a mighty king, this was a beautiful vatika (garden) constructed for leisure activities and the hill behind used by the king for hunting and taming of animals.”
That evening, with the memory of the information board etched in my mind, I retired to watch some television. My daughter sat beside me fidgeting with a Rubik’s cube as her grandmother called her into another room to spend some time and to narrate stories. I sat peacefully following the documentary on Deer that stated their profound effect on nature by controlling growth of grass and other tree types favoring them. Surprisingly I also learnt that the country has the largest number of deer species in the world.
The documentary concluded with the following statement - “In ancient scriptures, the extent of Indian region was described as the forests where the blackbuck roamed. Hunting deer, blackbuck was a favorite pastime for the kings in Vedic times. The rishis often used deerskin as clothing and as mats to sit and sleep on. Often in the epics, hunting deer contributed a crisis to many kings.”
As I walked out to catch up on the storytelling in the other room, I heard my daughter ask, “Daadi, what do you mean, when you said Tapovana?”
Her grandmother described, “During the old days, there used to be a special place in the forests where the rishis (sages) and their pupils would study and meditate. Kings and commoners visited this place to seek the wisdom, blessing, and guidance from the sages.”
“Tapovana”, I murmured to myself and as I started to rush to my room, a reminder flashed – ‘Tomorrow, Vata Savitri puja’
“I don’t believe in these things! Why involve me?” I said in an agitating tone. “But the tree is considered to be holy…”, my mother responded as I left it midway, for I had heard the story several times.
Reaching my room, I flipped through the borrowed book to fulfill my curiosity. I read, “In ancient culture the concept of Tapovana or study within the vicinity of the forest signaled growth. On the ecological front, the concept of Tapovana and the basic agrarian practice posed humanity in a friendly posture towards the flora and fauna from around.”
As I continued further, I read, “The protection of elephants became a serious business for they were used as a medium of transportation, as military war craft, as a sign of status and a platform to hunt in tall grass country. So, there were forests set apart for grazing of royal elephants. Being a large herbivorous animal, an elephant needs vast areas for roaming, browsing, foraging and moving from place to place in search of food and water with the changing seasons. Elephants create clearings in the forest which in turn provide sustenance to other herbivorous animals.”
I continued with the book, that I had left midway after publishing the news. As I read through, I headed down south, and to my list of identities I added another 4 new heads:
For recreational use, typically located near lakes or rivers. Mostly consisted of varieties of ornamental, flowering, shade-giving and fragrant plants… Upavana
Wooded, dedicated for deer and other ungulates… Mrigavana
Forests of peace and tranquility, devoid of harmful animals, for study purpose, and away from the civilization… Tapovana
Forests for large grazing animals like elephants… Hastivana
The published issue in the following month was well received by many, and in an event hosted in the city I was called to share my experience, which in a nutshell read like the following:
The English term ‘Forest’ is much like the term ‘Uncle’. It never reveals the true relationship but often blankets associations and makes it generic. This has resulted today in declaring forest – as only one that serves as a ‘resource’ and one that is either reserved or protected. This limited understanding, has resulted in the degradation of forests especially that occur in proximity or within human habitation.
Through the journey of this article, what has revealed are the many identities of the forests – each based either on the relationship to settlements or based on certain purposes. More importantly, each having a specific cultural significance whose findings are recorded in literature, arts, crafts and folklores. However, missing across the ‘development’ regimes.
I rephrase the term ‘Forest’ to Ra-Van – a ten headed natural kingdom, where each head possesses a specific significance. Which at the beginning, even I failed to see. And there are more heads that I am yet to see.
In today’s times, we ought to uphold and respect this Ra-Van for the kind of multiple roles it plays, and nourishes our lives without our awareness. Understanding and guarding Ra-Van is critical for us to preserve and uphold in the current times of ‘vikaas’. Not just from the environmental point of view, but even from the historical and cultural connotation. Or we will continue to burn this Ra-Van for our pleasure, as it does not suit the definition of ‘forest’ – that we have suited to our own understanding currently.’
As I concluded, a news broke in from the city:
Officials prepare to cut tree for transport corridor, declaring the land is not a forest.
I exclaimed, “Aarey!”
Content and Author - Bahar Nair
Idea and Illustration - PULP crew