The Sweet One and the Warm One

The Sweet One
Sudhagad Plateau
The rustling grass formed shapes of spirals in an otherwise uniform, sun-blasted lateritic surface of the Sudhagad plateau. As we emerged from the hot and humid forests adorning its foothills, we were witness to a vast field under a clear sky with a cumulonimbus budding over the horizon. From far we saw a Bonelli’s Eagle as it swooped low amongst ancient trees twisted and gnarled, to surprise the hidden doves and quails, of which there were plenty. Some of these ancient trees reminded me of Corbett’s banshee, screaming and wailing from the tree tops, but as the screams fell on my ear it was not the dread I felt, it was amazement. Then I looked at the reason behind the painful squeals, saw an unsettling grin it had carved, and thought otherwise. I quickened my steps as I fought myself from being attracted to this hidden (hideous?) face.
The banshee
Then quietness settled upon me. Not the lull before the storm quiet, it was of something pure and untouched by mindless activities. We came to a lone, bare tree standing over the edge of the plateau, forked at its base, both of its arms curved round each other and then, radiating outwards, gave out thinner branches resembling antlers. The edge of the tree marked a dried-up waterfall. Under it a small rodent which I couldn’t discern properly played around the boulders – its burrow, I reckon, was marked by a triangular entrance. I sat on a rock waiting for it to emerge, but it never gave me a chance to get a closer look.
Stag tree
Then we proceeded along the plateau dominated by tall grass lounging in the warm air. Large boulders were strewn across the plateau, perhaps the remains of majestic halls and tall pillars now free from the services of man.
A Pipit takes a respite under the stone
There is a reason why Sudhagad is called the sweet fort. One of the reasons is that even the gnarly face on the tree, in the end, provides a much deserving shade, as does a boulder surrounded by grass that forms no shadow.

A few hundred yards ahead is a small house with a low-shingled gable roof – a sign that when it rains, it rains a lot on this mountain – that belongs to an old lady. She was certainly not as old as the fort was when it was titled the sweet fort, but today if it is to be called a sweet fort; it is because of her.

We reached her house by noon, about time for lunch, and she so very kindly told us to explore the yonder hill with a temple and the gates from where once passed horses and kingly folk, until she prepared lunch. In the verandah, which quite frankly was the entire Sudhagad plateau, chilies bright in colour were laid out to dry a few yards from her house. Behind it are trees of Jackfruit, standing tall as her sentinels.
Ruins of Sudhagad and Tel Baila in the background
She was the only person other than the priest of the ancient temple that dwelt here. And although we do not know her age, she had come here decades ago with her parents and has lived here for a very long time, for she knew where all the springs and ponds are, and which path led where. Her accent was peculiar. I had never heard it before. It was pure, expressive, and extremely sweet. She asked us to return and to stay on our next visit – which I believe is very imminent now.
An Indian Bullfrog in a vernal pool
While trekking back we visited all the places she asked us to, from the spring that never runs dry to the pond full of flowers: frogs leaping from the banks, some swimming beneath the leaves. Flowers of Kumudini and Water Lilies adorned its surface, and dragonflies and damselflies danced amongst the rich plant growth. While the banks were heating up under the sun, the water was cool upon touch.
The sweet house
I will not deny that I was amazed by this lady. She was the epitome of the tribal communities who have lived over many generations in the Sahyadri, in Her extreme climes. In our little interaction, I did not sense any reverie in her eyes, or any regrets, for living quite isolated. She was most certainly glad to see us, and offered to us to return and stay on another visit. On the way down it started to drizzle, the last of the showers of the year. The cumulonimbus flowering in the far east finally relieved its burden. I deeply considered the life on this ancient fort. An elemental life. Life that is free, yet so exposed to nature’s fury. There are no neighbours here – there are wanderers who come, every week, and sometimes stay. But life here is not empty.

Time here need not be spent to get rid of it – it flows with the pace of nature. Passing-the-time is a concept born out of an urban living. Although time is, well, time – once gone it won’t come back; time here is largely measured by the waning of the sun and the moon, and only on a watch under certain circumstances. Our circumstance was to get home before sunset, just the exact same feeling you carry while you’re on your way home from work. But once here, it doesn’t matter anymore, for there is plenty to do.
Agriocnemis splendidissima and Kumudini
There is plenty to do in order to survive. In the process – a process which has taken thousands of years for these tribal communities – you voluntarily become wise. And you and I have miles and miles to walk to get there for which one lifetime is too short.

The Warm One
Buldhana on an evening
I think I have a penchant for losing my way – in a forest or in the city – and being lost amidst the words of left turns and right turns. It is adventurous, but then I have to make sure I reach the pick-up point hours before the departure so that I don’t miss the bus. On the way to Buldhana I spent two hours waiting on a busy three lane highway, trying to see the little number plate amidst the blinding headlights (and hoping I was not lost), while the bus-wallah who assured to be just over the bridge was actually the one to have lost his way! After spending two hours waiting I spent other couple of minutes in Buldhana – which seemed like hours – the next morning to find a hotel and settled, to my displeasure, into a shady place bleak and somber.

The air was cool when I first entered the city before the sun. Small hills and an undulating terrain contained within a thick fog, settled contently in-between. The sun, as it rose, was warm and red, and as the temperatures slowly increased, it scattered the fog out from the dell. It was my first visit to Buldhana, and although I knew the language very well, I had my own doubts of finding my own way in a new place.

The town of Buldhana is small but not congested, and is spreading outward steadily. The buildings are trimmed to a certain level, allowing a wide view of the town from other significantly shorter buildings. Yet it is not as flat as that further into the Maharashtra hinterland. Buldhana is one of the thirty-five districts of Maharashtra, and lies in the Vidarbha region – where lie my roots.

Coming from a large overcrowded city gives one the pleasure of seeing empty streets and children going to school on their bicycles – a peculiar way of life in Maharashtra that the coming generations are certainly going to miss. I found a temporary abode after asking around a little. Interacting with people here occurred to be extremely familiar to me – the dialect of Varhadi they use is one of the sweetest of Marathi. It has been many years since I listened to this dialect which always fascinated me. In my childhood I used to try to mimic it but would gradually come to speak in the dialect typical of Mumbai city – which I think is the plainest (and boring) dialect without any accent.

The landscape of Vidarbha is generally uniform, with plains dominated mostly by grasses, and the short undulating terrains by dry deciduous forests. Amidst these live the Black Bucks, Chital, Sloth Bear, Leopard and, if you go further north and east-wards, the tigers.

The district of Buldhana, which many residents consider to be the least developed in the state (about which I will come to a little later), seems generally lost on the map because it is, as I have been told, not a ‘happening’ place. Tourists don’t visit, except to visit Lonar crater a few miles from the main Buldhana city. There are no major industries so no business men come here. The general consensus is that Buldhana is a lost city sandwiched between the increasingly urban western and eastern cities of the state. Coming from one of the most crowded (and polluted) part of the state, I beg to differ.
Lonar crater lake - created by a meteor impact on the basaltic rock
Buldhana is not stale, but silent. It may not be ‘happening’, but it is content. You may not find a pub or the best hotel to eat at, but the houses here – most if not all – are still what everyone in a major city yearns for – with a terrace, a verandah, and a garden, a traditional life most Indians once preferred.
Information board on Lonar crater
Every time I get a chance to interact with the residents of a certain place, the more I learn about humanity and its close association with nature. We’re told that Buldhana is broadly divided into two geographic areas – one is hilly, and the other plain. As with any place in the world, there has already been a significant drop in forest and grassland areas of the district. It was all fine a few decades before until more and more land was cleared for cultivation, and now the animals, which stayed within the forests, have taken over the fields.

Loss of hiding and feeding areas has forced deer, wild boar, and other animals to enter agricultural areas and damage the produce. It is apparent that the problem was created by farmers. Fortunately, the farmers also accepted the matter as did the government, and programmes were put in place to reverse the impacts – such as by afforestation. I was impressed to know that farmers are not entirely against the ideas of keeping forests intact, instead of increasing their land holdings for agriculture. But of course there remain a few who think otherwise.

Yet in the end when we discussed the future of our agriculture, it was not forests, or wild animals, or even the climate they were worried about. The answer they gave was the most expected – and we all sat as hopeless and bleak as a wilted flower in winter wishing for the sun. The young generation has been attracted by urbanization through the means of education and media. The mindset of the young have delineated from its former roots (as have mine, I admit). I’m afraid the question remains not about how or when we will see an impact on our agriculture, but when it does, what will we do.

Buldhana is one of the many small towns with the hopes of making it really big. It should indeed be the vision of every government and the people of the town – but being an underdeveloped district does not put it at a disadvantage. It in fact provides an edge to become what today’s cities failed to become – sufficient and efficient. I would not regard my town being backward, after all the basis on which we rank towns and cities is extremely obscure and differs from person to person. For us naturalists it is about maintaining as close a bond with nature as possible, but for some it is also about having as many industries around. In general, however, it is about providing the basic necessities for mankind without any prejudices.
Mobile towers are one of the first signs of development today. Surpassing even the provision of basic needs.
Making a town into a bustling city therefore is a matter of choice of its people, but a general consensus needs to be met with first (striking a balance is the key, after all), before laying the plans of development. This little town is unfortunately trapped between two worlds – the agricultural predominated by the previous generation, and the urban that is largely drifting away from agriculture.

I call Buldhana as the warm one because, except for its cool and pleasant weather, its residents gladly accept the fact that there are no industries and therefore it is a clean district to live in. And secondly because its farmers have become extremely sensitive to the issues related to deforestation and its ultimate get-back on our own plates.

Of course, only time can tell how warm a town can remain, but realizing the problem is the first step towards bringing about a change for good. 
Lord Hanuman of Sudhagad defeats the evil
It has taken us quite a long time to get where we as a species are today. Let us not forget that although we may live a far more sophisticated life away from so-called savage wild, we’re still directly dependent upon it. Still directly at its mercy. In truth, the savage we have created for ourselves, the rapid urbanization, is wilder than the wild – it has its own psychological and physical effects. And the more we try to further isolate nature from us, the harder it will be to survive.