Author: Bittu Sahgal
Photo: Intesar Suhail
I love Dachigam winters. Over the past three decades I have visited this Kashmir forest multiple times, in every season. This image of a magnificent male hangul deer Cervus elaphus hanglu with his harem, taken by a fine young Kashmiri photographer, Intesar Suhail, brings back such poignant memories.
I miss Mir Inayet Ullah and Qasim Wani, neither of whom are with us anymore. Inayet was the very personable Chief Wildlife Warden of J&K and the latter a charismatic, wise forest guard who once worked for Maharaja Hari Singh, ruler of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Qasim was eventually absorbed into the J&K Forest Department where, to his last breath, he tramped and protected Dachigam’s handsome deer… the pride of every Kashmiri.
From Qasim and Inayet, I learned not just about the living forest and how it tempered the swift flow of the Dagwan river’s glacial waters, but also about the indescribable peace that pristine, undisturbed, silent forests bring.
All summer long the hangul, also known as the Kashmir stag, graze in the fodder-rich pastures of Upper Dachigam, descending to the very limited space and food sources available in the oak and walnut forests of Lower Dachigam. Here, for centuries they managed to survive the austere winters thanks to the fat accumulated all summer long in the green meadows of Upper Dachigam.
Nature is remarkable. In winter, after gorging on acorns, then celtus fruit, seeds and Kashmiri rose plants, the black bears of Lower Dachigam, which might otherwise predate on vulnerable, young hangul, are forced to hibernate.
When we enter a truly wild place, the first thought that washes over us is “how peaceful nature is.” The truth is that while it is in balance, peaceful it is not. The struggle for existence involves an eat-or-be-eaten reality, that is the very stuff of evolution. That said, for decades now, the human unrest in J&K has not dissuaded me from visiting this haven. If anything, it has brought me closer to the beautiful, young people of Kashmir, who I am sworn to support...