Barefoot in Kurne

I woke up to the merry laughter of birds, the melancholy music of rain, and a green aura, deep and longing, creeping onto the walls of the room and draping it in an indescribable glow. I spun my head seeking the source of the light and felt its warm glow upon my face, to which I stayed in my place, absorbing all the energy that emanated from the green fields filtering the early sunlight.
Home
The morning carried a pleasant breeze from the sea, the scent of which is peculiar only to the Konkan region. The sun glanced through a fissure in an otherwise uniform grey cloak of nimbostratus covering the eastern sky. I found myself standing in front of piling fields of bowing rice heavy with raindrops.
Rice
Thin streaks of smoke rose from the few scattered houses. Behind the house we live in runs a stream inundated by a makeshift dam – a useful source of water for the villagers – from where echoed the beating of clothes. A leopard killed a cow and dragged its prey behind the dense shrubs of the stream a few months ago. The village, far from the harms of the urban sprawl, enjoys the benefits of electricity as anyone in the city. What’s worthy to note is that their culture is strong in their hearts, and their way of living sustainable.

This little village of 1145 residents lies on the Konkan, that is western, side of the Western Ghats where they tumble down in succession of hills in descending order. Streams and rivers cut through these mountains, carving deep valleys as they reach the Konkan coast. The fertile soils and the monsoon rains have led to large swathes of lands being converted into agriculture fields, feeding the mouths of many down south and north.

We came here not as a retreat to a “weekend home”, nor to run away from the urban trap. We came here to see and learn, to appreciate what feeds urbanization, and to understand the harsh and bleak future of agriculture in India. And with it we were a witness to scenes untouched, except by the feet that didn’t mind trotting without shoes.
Lygodium sp. - a Climbing Fern
We lived here for three days, of which I don’t remember ever counting time. I observed that time is only relevant when you have to catch a train, board a flight, or a deadline to meet. Watches reside in the cities, and time is just a number. Come out of cities, and you’re free of its bonds. Time is metaphorically nonexistent in nature. It was invented so that man could break records, so that man could overpower nature. If I lived in a time when it was measured not on watch but by the sun and the stars I could probably see nature more clearly, I thought, as our ancestors once did who were so close to it. So I stopped looking at the watch for the three days except before catching the train and, though I thought I’d be lost in a timeless expanse of space, time itself seemed to stop still, and I could see better and clearer details in my surroundings.

I know what I say is hard to believe, but it is not so, for until the time came to catch train back home, we became one with nature, observing the tiniest details, and our feet covered greater distances every day – for the destination of reaching on time was irrelevant, and only the journey mattered. And we met the elements of nature, and her sons and daughters, who seemed to dance and greet us from close. The butterflies and the damselflies, the flowers and the birds know better about timekeeping without watches, besides my fellow friends and other naturalists who I’m sure feel the same without ever questioning the insane notion of time without time.

We took a 4 km walk to the neighbouring village to receive a friend, who with his excellent eyesight scoured the roadside for an absolutely stunning creature of the Western Ghats – the world’s largest moth (in terms of wing surface area) – Attacus atlas – the Atlas Moth.
Attacus atlas - the Atlas Moth
This moth is a quiet creature. They rarely flutter about except for the purpose of finding a mate. Seeing one in the wild is a delightful experience for any nature lover. The caterpillar has reserved only enough energy to power flight for the purpose of mating, and the adults do not feed through their two-week lifespan.
Paddy fields
The ground feels cool at the touch, the water we plod in is colder. The air, carrying a hint of the sea, is slightly humid. We’re walking in the paddy fields and talking to dada as he guides the cattle to fresh pastures. He tends to these fields. He says the rice variety is different throughout. Little embankments made of stone mark the boundaries, but there are no titles, and rice speaks for itself. On one hand there are rice seeds fattening, their leaves yellow, on the other they’re flowering.

The variety of 90 and 120 days is mainly grown here, with the 90 day variety to be harvested shortly. Both the varieties are provided by the government, while the monsoons make sure that the paddies are well watered, and the cattle make sure the paddies are well fed with natural fertilizers. The harvest ultimately always depends upon the environment.
Calotes on a rice frond
A tiny Calotes sits on one of the fronds of rice guarding it – while basking at the same time – from pests that would openly relish on this delicacy. A few yards from the Calotes, a caterpillar with urticating bristles munches on the leaves.
Borbo cinnara - Rice Swift
Many others creatures are taking the advantage of the paddy fields. Flies love the blades to bask on, some are also fighting over the perfect perch. A Ground Skimmer, a female dragonfly, lurks on a frond eying the flies, and several Rice Swifts, a butterfly in the family Hesperiidae, are beginning to stir into the sunlight – they are one of the significant pests of rice.
Rice fields
We walk across the embankments and into a clearing made not too long ago to occupy the religious gatherings that takes place once every year. In the clearing stands a grand temple, its floor made of marble. Within its dome resides a pair of lovely bats – the Greater False Vampire Bats – looking at us with annoyance in their eyes. But don’t go by their names, or their looks.
Megaderma lyra - the Greater False Vampire Bat
They only feed on insects and other small reptiles and mammals. Those tiny eyes can barely discern you, but they sure can hear you well. We received their blessings and left them in peace, and wandered off beyond the walls that held the original forests from reclaiming this holy land.

On the other side of the wall lies the forest, a sacred forest protected for centuries as the dwelling place of gods. The temple of the resident gods is situated on the edge of a lush green hillock with its verandah fallen prey to soil erosion. From here one can see further down the valley and yonder in the paddy fields. It was a fine view, even from the eyes of a leopard.
The Sacredgrove
A small stream of clear waters emerges from the dense thickets of this hill and skirts around to vanish deeper still into other thickets. We decided to stand here, still, absorbing the shy and curious creatures of the sacred forest. There’s a lone Red-vented Bulbul singing in the valley, a Black-hooded Oriole calling in front of us, a gang of Flowerpeckers and Sunbirds dancing amongst the boughs of a large mango tree. Under its shade, a little butterfly and a small wasp sip on nectar.
Loxura atymnus - Yamfly, and a Velvet Ant (a wasp in family Mutillidae)
The grand old tree with a hollow is very old, we’re told. It was to be felled to make a way towards the temple, but some goodhearted soul let it live, and now it stands with its large arm forming an arch over the entrance to this sacred grove. If the gods dwell, they sure dwell here.

Before we ventured into the grove, we were told to be wary of one of the most frightful animal of the forests here – the Wild Boar.

They’re stout and angry, and are known to run down their competitors – which can be you and me – and maul them with their heavy heads and sharp tusks. And they never come in numbers less than three. Only last night they destroyed a farmer’s rice field, ate and rolled and plucked rice merely for their entertainment.

It is the most feared and hated animal in these parts, and everyone we meet is talking about them. We were warned not once but repeatedly to watch out for them, which we sure did, but to our displeasure, we did not even get a hint of their presence. Walking in the gullies with water flowing under our feet, we couldn’t imagine being run down by a gang of hefty boars. But their fears, over our enthusiasm, are justified. The boars, as much as they are a subject of awe for us, are the destroyers of their livelihood. While in one corner of my mind I was tempted to see this wild creature, the other wanted them to remain as far off in the forests as the agricultural fields would permit, since this region is a major agricultural land, and forests are fast depleting. Man-animal conflict here therefore is of crucial concern.

There’s a folktale concerning boars which is quite famous in the state of Maharashtra. The boars, it is said, never look at the moon particularly during the festival of Lord Ganesha, which comes around this time of the year. One day Lord Ganesha was travelling on his vehicle – the mouse, and the moon, seeing them pass, laughs at the sight, and so Lord Ganesha thence curses moon, and says, “No man, not even the wild boars, shall ever look upon thee when I arriveth”. And we realized, by the end of the trip, that we never did once notice the moon. (And so I believe did gods dwell here.)

The rice grown here is of the heavy and thick kind, its aroma pleasant when cooked. It is unlike the Basmati the world recognizes as rice, and it is more nutritious for it is not processed in industries, nor is it polished to please our eyes.
Forests of the Konkan and rice fields
Rice is also the most important crop economically. The landscapes in the Western Ghats and along its Konkan side are strewn with paddy fields. Other cash crops like mangoes and cashews are also an integral part of the economy of this village of a thousand souls. But the future remains uncertain. With technology making its way into the remotest villages, access to urban luxuries, which are well deserving of every human being, are drawing the sons and daughters of the farmers away from the rural life. What’s more worrying, I think, is that lands are being sold to realty dealers at alarmingly lower rates for the development of the repulsive “weekend homes”. The farmers of today worry about the future. Not as much as to feed their mouths, but, they say, to feed the future generation.

Our plates were always filled with the delicious vegetables, rice, and bhakris, all sown, grown, and cooked at home. All the elements of nature, and the efforts of fellow humans, went into providing nutrition most of the city food severely lacks. We discussed about the summers over food because it only seemed fitting to imagine this green wonderland in some other month.
A pair of Red-rumped Swallows
Under the grey skies we sat. The summers, quite unsurprisingly, are hot. The water is scarce. There’s no hint of breeze. But summer, we were told, is worth visiting for all the bountiful fruits borne by trees. Fortunately the water can be drawn a few miles walk from the village to the dam.

The way to the dam is overgrown with monsoon flora in this season. Senecio dots every embankment along the way; its bright yellow flowers were gleaming towards the sun as the rain fell in the other direction.
Senecio grahamii
The monsoon here arrives by the end of May and lasts as long as the end of the season. The waxing and waning of rain, as is its habit by the beginning of September, creates a weather of uncertainty. It rained when the sun was at its brightest, or it cleared so well that we could observe the entire arm of Milky Way streaking the sky in the night.
Fishing in the reservoir
With the sun aligning in the western sky, and the clouds building up in the east, we looked over the dam water. It begins as a deep gorge on one side, its banks deeply eroded, and on the other it touches the forests in the subtlest waves. Two fishermen fished in these waters known for large fishes.

A lone Little Cormorant contemplates on a thin emergent twig as the sun shines in the western sky. Her wax-less wings are dripping wet, so she unfurls the wings and sits facing the sun, balancing with her webbed feet. Soon the weather takes a turn, and as the sun shines in the early evening sky, rain lashes in the east. The Cormorant then gathered her wings and simply sat it out.
A Little Cormorant in the rain
Her patience was commendable. As soon as the rain stopped her wings were again fanning herself. Her mind was clear, I believe. She seemed in no hurry too. The light gave her a look of content. The entire scene appeared content. The waters were full, the sun shining aplenty, the trees dripping wet, the air clear, and the fishes testing the patience of the tolerant fishermen.

A little girl looked at us tourists as she, barefooted, shepherd her cattle for an early dinner before herding them back to the shed. She was curious but shy, as are all village kids, for we, as much as we tried to not to be tourists, were in the end just that: spectators who’d come, take pictures, and leave. We did not linger for long to make her uncomfortable, and were on our way home sooner.
Papilio helenus - the Red Helen
The way back home was delightful, but I didn’t quite like the thought, or revelation, of being a spectator. We saw a bright pink crab hide in a hole in a tree at our approach, a peculiar crab found in the Western Ghats. A large swallowtail butterfly, the Red Helen, puddled on wet stone as we sat patiently and observed him. He took many turns until finally settling a foot from us.

On a small culvert we dropped down into the clear, clean waters, and stared in amazement at a seemingly insignificant site for some: the ants.
Ants relocating pupae
They were shifting their huge colony for some reason, with the workers carrying a pupa each of smaller workers and large soldiers. Several adult soldiers were also on the way, to and fro, guarding the ant trail. This trail was over four yards long, and the ants took little or no breaks.

They continued well into the night, as we did on our journey. The day was at its end; tomorrow we would be on the trip home.

In the night we scouted the roof for nocturnal creatures. A Huntsman spider hung from an arm of a wooden edifice, its attention in the clearing. A little further sat one large species of a Scutigera.
A member of Scutigerigae - the House Centipede
This creature, commonly called House Centipede or Long-legged Centipede, belongs to the family Scutigeridae, and is a relative of Centipedes. They are strictly nocturnal, and are seldom seen scampering in dense undergrowth, or if you upturn rocks. This was by far the largest one I’ve ever seen – measuring a little less than two inches. It was prowling on the window sill, looking for insects to prey upon. They’re completely harmless, given their notorious looks, and are in fact beneficial for they prey upon several insects we call pests at home – like the cockroaches.

Out on the road, we were witness to a cruel world.
A roadkill
We saw ten dead frogs – squashed to death beyond recognition by passing vehicles – for every individual alive. It was a sad sight; the frogs were beyond recognition.
Euphlyctis cyanophlyctis - the Skittering Frog that got to safety
We guided a few individuals off the road and into the bushes. From underneath we could hear a chorous of Bullfrogs and Toads, and they all sang a tune that at first seemed random, but carried a tune which has resulted in them singing this… croaky melody to entice females. But it sounds beautiful once you get a hang of it, and you start to miss it once you return to the concrete jungle.

A creature scurried along the path as we explored the village in the night. The flash of the light revealed a large bodied rat – a little over two feet in length, rushing into the little rainwater drainage. A beating was organized by the house where the Bandicoot Rat disappeared – the residents banging utensils, just to create enough noise, to scare the wild boars away.

We were hushed to the shelter of our warm home by a heavy downpour, but the Blister Beetle I saw in the house kept me awake.

The air smelled sweet. We awoke to the scent of tea. A hot cup of sugary tea quite unknowingly becomes an addiction. Fortunately people of Konkan never tire of drinking, neither of making, tea at any time of the day. We started then, only after a cup of tea, to a stream that was swollen with rainwater, and went sweeping down its rocky bed deeper into the valley.
The swift ephemeral stream
It was also the last day of our exploration. The sun lit up the canopy as we made our way through the stream. This water, by the end of monsoon, is blocked by a makeshift dam, and is then utilized for domestic purposes.

We came to a small waterfall on the stream, the first of the many that then tumble down steeply off the hill we’re on. It then goes to join the dam reservoir we explored on the previous day. On the edge of the mountain – overlooking this stream that swells as smaller ones join in – is a crematory that remained hidden in the dense forest cover. A several hundred feet below the stream roared and moaned as the waters crashed and split in a hundred droplets on rounded boulders – a sound that echoes a million times in still air. Walking alone here, and at night, will be extremely eerie, if not for ghost, then certainly for leopards.
Pandanus fascicularis - Kevda in Marathi
Several yards before it leaves the hill, the stream runs beside a large shrub of Pandanus fascicularis (Kevda) which must have taken root long, long ago. Its leaves measure twice my height, and it stands too tall for us to see its full might.
The expanse of Pandanus fascicularis
It is a proof enough that man has not meddled with it, or its habitat. Man has taken only what he has wanted – some water to sustain himself, as have the leopards, wild boars, and the deer of the woods. A few yards past the tree, and to the opposite bank of the stream, is a pool overgrown with thickets and submerged plants. Skittering frogs and a Checkered Keelback snake reside in this wetland. It is one of the most unique habitats I’ve ever seen, creating several niches along its periphery.

On one side we have a swift flowing stream – its ecology completely different than the still waters of the pool in the opposite. It was a nursery for several wetland-associated insects – and a paradise for us to explore.
A small, unique damselfly – both male and a female – sat upon tall bare branches hunting midges.
Libellago lineata - the River Heliodor
This damselfly with a robust built shared its niche with two other large damselflies – also fond of fast-flowing streams – the Black-tipped Forest Glory (Vestalis apicalis) and the Clear-winged Forest Glory (Vestalis gracilis). I was quite curious to see their interactions, but although they all share the same niche of fast-flowing streams, share the same height of perching, and share the same food habits – they did not interact in our presence. The dragonflies, an Orthetrum sp. and a Tetrathemis sp., however, were always on the tail of one another.

The scenes we absorbed through our eyes, the air we breathed, and the water we soaked, it was all pure, and instilled a sense of calmness upon us. After another, and the last, cup of tea we were zigzagging our way through the tumultuous mountains of the Konkan, towards the railway station. On the way we gazed at idols of Lord Ganesha and his faithful vehicle, the mouse, being painted in the most extravagant colours for the upcoming festival.
Design
This journey we took to this land of people who respect it so much that they would rather feel it barefooted, has left us in awe. I, for the first time, saw through my eyes the natural world through a different perspective –  their eyes see nature, has seen nature, more closely than I have, and they have every right to defend themselves from the harm that wildlife does to them. Being an outsider, I found it hard to hear that snakes are killed, more often without reasons, because there are many superstitions surrounding them. But now being there, I understood what makes one fear snakes so much. Simply put, they take lives of people and livestock.

This journey did open my eyes, something it would be hard to do if I were on a jeep safari rocketing through the national parks.

In the vehicle I let my eyes roll back and images flashed before me: the bubbling stream  flowing under me, the forests swaying above, the girl in deep silence tending to her cattle, the stars and the Milky Way gazing down upon me. Under all the stars and other unearthly bodies, here we were, contemplating one tiny part of the gargantuan universe, dumbfounded by this most intricate connection: everything  – everything from the scale of the universe to the scale on the Atlas Moth's wings  – is in relationship to one another.

2 comments:

  1. Your photographs will be a hit in Project Noah if you joined that site.

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    1. Thank you Wong Chung Xing! I wasn't aware that it is open to public, I will check it out!

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