In search of the Summer Angel

This article contains material written on trips made in the months of February to May. However, the events are not represented in a chronological order, but as per the flow of the article.

May 26. No one – man or woman – feels an angel when the hot weather is approaching. This year when we were enjoying the coldest February (8 degrees C), the temperatures abruptly rose to 39C on the 27th of the same month. Such heat-waves are rather infamous in this coastal city, though, and are never welcomed.

Yet if you wander away from the urban desert – concreted and paved, harsh on the eyes, burning your soles, and ideal for heat-strokes, you will find the summer angel that Rudyard Kipling only briefly mentioned in the classic Plain Tales from the Hills.

I went in search of the angel this summer, and found that she really dwells everywhere in the subtleties of life. If you‘ve ever felt the calm and coolness provided by a tree in the corner of the street, or felt an ethereal breath of fresh air while you’re travelling in a crowded train – with the fan not working, or, when most stressed, feel a sense of respite by watching a pair of sparrows – or crows – nesting and caring for their young, that is the touch of the angel. But it was by the end of summer that she revealed herself in human form.
A Langur infant enjoys the early morning breeze at Karnala Bird Sanctuary
June 2. The summer was at its most intolerable when I wrote this, and I couldn’t wait for the first showers. I did only a few explorations in the Sahyadri, at Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary, Mahuli Fort, Karnala Bird Sanctuary, and one of the most enlightening field-visit to the villages of Wada and Jowhar (in Thane District, Maharashtra).

Yet if you ask me about my experience with the summer, I barely survived any of these trips. Like many, I can’t wait for the first rains. There is a pair of nesting crows outside of my office window – and when the crows are nesting, it is traditionally known that monsoon is on its way.

June 9. It is here now. The fledglings have fled. I experienced the first premonsoon showers on June 7. It is time I talk about the summer angel before I mollycoddle with the monsoon!

June 2. The features of summer in Sahyadri are as unique as they are during monsoon. Even with majority of trees bare, there emerges a pattern that is magnificent – almost as if it was created with utmost regard to all extremes of the seasons. Like the winter and monsoon, the summer patterns and colours are also equally mesmerizing. One of the many wonders of summer angel’s magic we felt was on the tallest peak of Thane district – Mahuli fort.
The Sahyadri in summer - taken from Mahuli fort
It was in April that we went on a trek which we later baptized the Three Apple Trek. I had always considered it a challenge to scale Mahuli in the middle of summer – in fact I had promised myself never to attain it. I still don’t know what it was – perhaps it was the call of the Sahyadri – and we set off on the long journey under the summer sun. We treaded along the same way I did during previous monsoon. Here’s a glimpse of the avatar of Sahyadri in summer and monsoon:
Ridge of Mahuli in Monsoon and Summer months
The angel here presented herself as the kind people of Avale Village, a small village rapidly urbanizing, situated ‘neath the shadow of Mahuli peaks. We dined at Avale and retired for the night at a temple.
Avale village at twilight with the Evening Star
April 6. We began early next morning, with an aim to reach the only source of drinking water at the top of the fort. The journey was hot and humid, but the sights it presented are still etched in my memory. The peaks of Sahyadri are the nature’s canvas, intricately designed as the dwelling place of many plants and animals. And life here is not easy in summer, yet it has found a way to flourish under the scorching sun.

We did not see many animals on our way, except a Praying Mantis crossing the path, a number of Chestnut-shouldered Petronias, a lone White-rumped Vulture, and a few butterflies, bees and wasps. One of the most exhilarating moments was when we reached the fort. Exhilarating for people fond of flies, that is. If I may present to you, the wall of flies:
Swarm of true flies
These flies, probably muscoids, had overtaken the cave where we lunched in monsoon. They were all born at a perennial stream that dripped near the age-old stone steps running parallel to the caves. This behaviour is rather intriguing as much as it is exhilarating; because it is the first time I’ve seen swarming flies – with red eyes. What’s more interesting is that amidst this swarm sat Acherontia styx, commonly called Death’s Head Hawkmoth. Talk about one’s nightmares!

While they appear intimidating with their large red bulbous eyes, they were all totally harmless. They were probably seeking shelter from the sweltering heat. I haven’t come across literature with respect to this behaviour, I am not even sure of their identification yet.
The only source of drinking water on the top of Mahuli Fort
The spring at the top of the fort was a life giver. And so were the plants like Carissa carandas (Karvanda) that sustained us, and the bright young leaves of Madhuca longifolia (Mahua) that delighted us.
Tender leaves of Mahua
June 2. I did not realize what I was seeking while we trekked, and everything that we saw was through fresh eyes. The peaks that tower there since millions of years, the shrubs and trees that lie by the path taken by many trekkers, will never grow old to us. After returning, I felt that I did feel the summer angel that dwells in Sahyadri. But there’s always more than meets the eye.

March 25. WWF – Maharashtra State Office had organized a visit to Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary, a unique sanctuary in Maharashtra dedicated to increase the populations of the vultures. It is one of the few natural sites that are noted for encouraging vulture populations.
Meadow where vultures dine at Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary
We explored for two days. And we explored not only the Wildlife Sanctuary, but the neighbouring villages which have played an important role in conservation of this region. The Sanctuary is run by many local villagers, from maintaining the forest rest-houses to cooking food for the visitors. The Forest Department has also hired locals that are excellent guides, knowing secrets of these places that not many are aware of. Unfortunately, we were new in the terrain, without the expert guidance.
Erythrina indica - the Indian Coral Tree
The summer was full of bright colours, as Erythrina indica, Schleichera oleosa and Memecylon umbellatum flowered en masse.
Schleichera oleosa - Kusum
It was through silent explorations, with expressions of awe and wonder on our face; it was through the long hours treading before sunrise, when we reached Chikalgaan situated deep inside the valley, full of natural springs and streams, that we were blessed by birds that came to bathe in it. Here, the birds represented the angel – a pulsating, brilliantly coloured aura of vivid colours contained in their feathers.

In the night, we visited the forests again, and came across many geckos that were out and about, with their vertical pupils dilated to hunt for creatures unaware of danger.
Geckoella deccanensis on the hunt
The visit to Phansad was long awaited. Although we did not explore it as much as we would, thanks to the extremely high temperature and humidity, I came home delighted and wanting to return to this place again someday.

On April 14, I and a few friends paid a quick visit to Karnala Bird Sanctuary. It was only for a few hours, and since the very first rays touched the ground, it had already begun to grow hot. We treaded along the deciduous forests of Teak:
Deciduous landscape of Karnala Bird Sanctuary
And sat under the shade of the giant Mangifera indica (Mango) and Syzgium cumini (Jambul), where we heard a bird noted for its beautiful call – the White-rumped Shama.
White-rumped Shama
This bird has the most beautiful melody, and it often mimics other bird calls, and may also mimic other objects that it hears – such as a camera shutter. This shy bird gave us a rather pleasant surprise as he sat close to the path, singing for a female that danced in the nearby boughs. Wouldn’t you believe that there really is an angel of the summer?

Our walks were not as pleasing to the ear, though. The forests then were mostly dominated by summer cicadas:
Summer Cicada
These fellows are hard to identify based on photographs. Besides complex morphology and similarities between many species, the summer cicadas can however be distinguished from the monsoon cicadas because of their size. The summer ones are quite large, while the monsoon ones are small and more colourful. I think it has to do with camouflaging for protection. During summer, these cicadas have very few places to hide – few trees are evergreen throughout the summer, and not many cicadas rely on such for food. Therefore, cryptic colouration is their best chance to avoid being eaten. On the other hand, the monsoon cicadas have plenty of places to hide, and therefore, can afford to have brighter colours. I find it rather similar to the evolution of birds of the rainforests, which have plenty of places to hide and therefore afford brilliant colouration, and those of the arid regions, which are drab, mainly to rely on camouflage.
Calotes versicolour - Garden Lizard basking in the morning sun
A few lizards were out basking in the early sun as well, before retreating into shaded regions, as was this Garden Lizard, Calotes versicolour.

June 2. Although we sought the angel in the scorching mountains of Sahyadri, it was not until a field-visit to the remotest villages of Wada and Jowhar regions of Maharashtra that I really felt the angel. It was a warm feeling, almost reluctant and harsh – surprisingly different than what a city-dweller would imagine her to be.
We had come to meet the people of this region, the Warlis, one of the most famous tribal communities of Maharashtra for their culture and artwork. Our interactions were very pleasant. They greeted us as their relatives, and we didn’t have the slightest hesitation one feels as a guest to gatherings in a city.

The villages we visited were mostly in the Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary, a place which I haven’t visited for its biodiversity. These villages have been here since before the region was declared a protected area (PA). Their villages are small, each carrying a solar panel on the thatched roof. There was no electricity provision to these villages that faced the conflict of development in a PA.
Pachghar village with solar panels on the rooftop
The Forest Department discourages electrification and building of roads to villages inside the PA. Whereas, other departments are willing to provide all the resources that they can, even though they may take decades before they are actually implemented. These people are completely cut off from what we call the “civilized” world, which, I think, is the most illegitimate word when it applies to connection between  people belonging to entirely different regions. They are as educated in things of their importance as we are of our own. They are probably more educated in the so-called “primitive” ways of living (another word that I don’t like using myself). It is in fact the knowledge that is traditional, having roots spread over many generations that were learnt from harsh experiences. This doesn’t make it primitive.

It was a world I had never seen before. No where have I experienced the sense of remoteness, and if I did have a slight feeling of it, these kind folks were there to take it away. We sat together, laughed, had tea, and discussed problems. It was in these villages that I felt a sense I cannot describe, which grew stronger and stronger since I returned. I believe I felt an angel.

She may appear harsh for an outsider, but she is softest, kindest, most modest, and extremely friendly when you open your mind to the world around. It wasn’t long before I realized that these people are the angel of this region, and the angel does not merely dwell in them. They carry her in their nature. In their eyes dwells not the regret of not having electricity, but of knowledge of hard work, and thoughtfulness for every action, for danger lurks in their lives in the form of a venomous snake, drought, rainstorm, or worse, an illness.

It hurts me when I know the problems faced by these villages are not going to go away so soon. When a respectable government officer says that electricity will not be coming in their generation but it certainly will in their children’s, they smile. I don’t know if they smiled in hope or in longing, but their smile always lasted for the longest time.

3 comments:

  1. Always a pleasure to read...keep up the good work Aniruddha :)

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  2. Another beautifully written and photographed article.
    Yes I live in the so called civilised world, but how I yearn sometimes for the primitive.

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  3. Thanks for sharing some wonders from your world. As always amazed and inspired by your work.

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