The Tale Of A Sacred Trail
Ecologist Dipani Sutaria’s sublime experience of an ancient landscape – Haryana’s sacred forest, Mangar bani.
Photo: Dipani Sutaria.
Sacred Forest: kavu in Kerala, devarakadu in Karnataka, sarana in Jharkhand, dev van in Himachal Pradesh, devrai in Maharashtra, ki law kyntang in Meghalaya, kenkri in Rajasthan, kovilkadu in Tamil Nadu, umanglai in Manipur, gampu in Arunachal Pradesh.
I believe that when one’s heart is set on experiencing a place, a home has already been made there and it is just waiting patiently to be visited. My brief walk into the heart of the Mangar forest in Haryana’s Faridabad district was one such trip. My visit was neither exploratory nor academic – it was more of a homecoming. I carried no expectations; I knew that the forest would offer me all that I could embrace.
Navigating the broken roads, Chetan Agarwal drove us off the highway and onto a dirt track towards the forest. Previously a traditionally-protected common area, much of the land now lies divided in fenced plots, illegally procured by builders. In the Mangar village, we came across gracefully hand-carved dung huts called bitowdas. Dung is fashioned differently to dry in different parts of our country, and the bitwodas were a rustic reminder of the inherent artistic aesthetics of our pastoral communities. Here, we also met the lithe and quiet Sunil Harsana, a young, local conservationist who would accompany us into the forest.
Sacred groves are old-growth forests that remain untouched through community protection. These community-conserved forests, found in 22 Indian states, are in fact a global phenomenon. They have a cultural significance - symbolising the deep awareness and respect embedded in traditional communities towards their source of sustenance. Just 20 km. from Gurgaon, Mangar Bani is a natural sanctum within the Aravalli range. The forest and its buffer cover an area of about eight sq. km., and serve as an ecological corridor between the Aravallis in Rajasthan and the Asolla Bhatti Sanctuary in Haryana.
Photo: Dipani Sutaria.
On entering Bani, we felt as though we had been transported back in time to a natural landscape that existed centuries ago. I became quiet as we stepped onto trails of golden light with rich greens and blues swaying in it. We walked along a winding mud path lined with dhau – the signature tree of the Mangar forests – along with ronjh, khejri and chudail papdi. We marvelled at the different habitat types flourishing in these hills – from the naala flowing through the valley to the rocky, top plateau, interspersed with sandy patches. Each habitat had its own charming forms and characteristics to behold.
Just then, a troop of cyclists, in their spandex and helmets whizzed past us. Had they stopped for a chat, perhaps over some chai instead of fluorescent-coloured energy drinks, we may have talked about the deep fabric of nature and culture they were racing past. I sighed inwardly and reproached Chetan, “Do they know where they are cycling? Can we put up a sign at the entrance into the Bani?” As they disappeared from our view, we came upon a Wrightia arborea. With its beautiful green sheen, the tree stood out in the otherwise sombre scrub landscape. Here in Bani, my love for the form and shapes of trees was renewed with great fervour. I experienced a whole world of otherness in this forest.
We walked quietly alongside Sunil as he expertly identified the flora around us: dhau, khejri, chudail, dhak, kadamb, jhinjheri, hingot, karaunda. According to research conducted in 2012, 26 species of trees and over 100 species of herbs and shrubs have been documented from Mangar Bani (Yadav 2012). This includes the infamous and omnipresent Prosopis juliflora – the villaitee keekar – that on one hand provides locals with income from charcoal production, but on the other, is an invasive species. Sunil voiced his apprehensions as we mulled over the cultural complications of eliminating any species from the grove. We pondered over ways to convince the people of the neighbouring villages of Mangar, Baliawas and Bandhari that the removal of Prosopis from in and around Bani was both necessary and could be successfully achieved.
On our meandering path, we encountered a lone sapling on a hilltop otherwise dominated by dhau. The sapling was trying resolutely to mark the beginning of a new generation of its species. Our own tree-man Pradip Krishen later confirmed that it was a Roheda. To our surprise, we also found some moss holding on to a few muddy rocks. Overwhelmed by nature’s ways, I did not know what to focus on – the resilient Roheda or the intriguing moss growing in such an unlikely environment. We took a rest atop a stack of boulders to speak about the politics of protecting this splendid forest, but were soon distracted by the breathtaking view – the rusting of the skies. The dhau had painted the landscape with shades of dry ochre, tinted pink and rust. Perhaps, this was the colour of silence.
Photo: Dipani Sutaria.
On our way down, we walked by the forest deity’s temple and its stunning Ficus trees. On the way, we found camel, goat and nilgai dung, what could have possibly been hyena scat, and palm civet, and porcupine pugmarks. When we finally reached flat ground, I was astounded by the landscape that surrounded me. Boulders of different shapes and sizes were scattered amongst stunted dhau trees and bushes. I was pulled out of my reverie when Sunil calmly pointed to a pack of three jackals following their leader. My eyes followed them as they crossed our path. One of them turned around and intently considered us, no doubt scrutinising the outsiders to its realm.
Later, at Sunil’s home, his mother, a tall, lean lady with a gleam in her eyes, offered us tea. Sitting on his sun-drenched porch, I observed the people there and how their brows furrowed with worry. I recalled the cyclists whizzing past, I thought of the dangerous prospect of losing Bani to the construction lobby and contemplated the shifting cultural values in pastoral communities. As I looked around, I couldn’t help but fret over the destiny of this ethereal place.
My short walk through these ancient untouched forests that carry a sense of community, plurality and infinity, was nothing short of magical. It is as Sunil said “Mangar Bani is always magical – I see something different every time I go there.” His reverence gave me goose bumps. Perhaps Mangar’s destiny is in good hands after all.
Dipani Sutaria is a freelance ecologist who studies aquatic systems. She has spent most of her recent years involved in marine mammal and elasmobranch research in India. At heart, she is a mountain person, and when she is not in the water, she is either rewilding with native trees or caring for her large family of non-human creatures.
Author: Dipani Sutaria.