MP – you think of politicians? Think again!
Madhya Pradesh geographically is the heart of India, in the middle and slightly up. We primarily went there on the everlasting hunt for Sonya‘s totem-animal and destiny – the Giant Squirrel.
Bhopal & the Lakes
Bhopal, the capital of MP is mostly famous for the huge tragedy, an accident in a chemical factory, that happened in the late 1980s. Toxic gases were released in the middle of the night, causing an exodus of Bhopal‘s citizens, the instant death of about 2000 people and left many life-long handicapped. We stayed in a guest house directly on the upper lake, just behind a decent promenade at the posh Shamla Hill – also not far of the governor‘s residence. The lake-view was well worth it since we happened to arrive just when a major regatta was held and so the lake was crowded with two groups of Lasers and some Optimists on – as far as we were able to make out – two triangle-courses. Apart from a very scenic mosque behind another lake and with plain white cupolas, I remember most our host‘s fantastic cold coffee and the Mangos in cream. Homemade pickles, homemade yoghurt – this was definitely more than just Bed & Breakfast.
Bhopal allegedly has 2.5 Mio inhabitants, but it rather leaves the impression of a much smaller town, maybe due to its widespread outskirts and the half-moon position on the lake. Upper lake, by the way, is artificially made and is only 20 meters at its deepest point. However, it is one of the major reservoirs for fresh water in the area and a pipeline even provides Hoshangabad, 70 kms away.
Coming back to the Bhopal incident: One added value of staying with real humans – meaning not in a Hotel – is that you hear more authentic stories about local life which are not written in any guide-book. Like that our host was 12 years when a friend called them at two in the night and told about an accident and that they should immediately leave their home. He remembered seeing the other lake-side illuminated by an endless row of car-lights, like a garland, thinking that maybe a VIP was visiting. Strange things going through your head in such a situation. Or that a neighboring family was forgotten and stayed until next morning, windows shut, ACs on. They miraculously survived and only wondered why so many dead animals were lying on the streets. At the same time the station master of Bhopal‘s railway station was trying hard to get all trains out of the city in time and to wave through quickly those which were still arriving. By the end of the day he was dead too.
On the same day we went on to Sanchi, once a spiritual center for Buddhists. It is situated on a hill and close to the railroad tracks coming from north. This is also the place where India‘s lion-head emblem was taken from. There are some big stupas left, which had to be partly excavated in the late 19th century, as well as the fundaments of surrounding monasteries. Initially they had been almost destroyed by treasure-hunting Brits. Now the site‘s best pieces are partly in Delhi‘s National Museum, the friezes having been reconstructed perfectly on site. When we reached, we were the only visitors, maybe because of the 45° Celsius air temperature. So we took pictures – especially of the reliefs and many Brahmi-inscriptions that interested me most, had a coke at the local cafeteria, and left again for an evening walk at the lake-side promenade in Bhopal.
Bhimbetka is a typical non-place on the way to Hoshangabad, which stepwise gained fame after 1888, when it was discovered (as usual) by an Englishman walking around. He wondered what strange rock formations that may be on a ridge in his sight. So he undertook a short climb uphill and looked around, finding out about these ,Planet of the Apes‘-rock shelters and their ancient drawings.
The cave art sometimes resembles the style of Altamira and Lascaux. However, many paintings are much newer and others have their own style, like the patterned animals, which bear spiral and cross-patterns on their bodies.
The colors of the paintings are red, black and white – the classical alchemical trio, that is present on so many sites throughout the world, prehistoric and in countries of early civilization as Egypt or at American early historic places.
The visit was worth it. Few other visitors again – due to 40+° and the fact that ,tribal‘ art is not seen as noteworthy by Indian tourists and Madhya Pradesh not as a tourist destination for Lonely Planet authors and most backpackers. There are many other such cave-art shelters around Bhimbetka that are catalogued and were visited by archeologists but are not described in common literature. You can find some of them on your own but it takes quite some walking and you‘d better take a guide. The surrounding is commonly called „jungle“ but when we were there all the leaves were gone and the sun merciless and strong. It is more shrubbery than forest, so take a cap instead of the Mexican hat and a long sleeved shirt.
Reni Pani – A Healthy Body lives in a Healthy Spirit
After having used the hottest time of the day for walking from shelter to shelter, having climbed on solid and perfect rock up to the overhanging art-galleries of Bhimbetka, until the usual lathi-armed forest-guard caught sight of our disorderly leaving the beaten tracks - we crossed the triple-holy Narmada and proceeded towards the place where we would spend most of our time left: A newly built semi-five star lodge run by a professional tourism-expert who had studied hotel-management in Montreux, Switzerland. He (Faiz) had also overviewed the construction of the lodge and now his smaller brother Ali is joining him and guides people on safaris. They are both from Bhopal‘s Nawab family. Together with Elgar, a professional wildlife guide and zoologist from Goa, they teach their guests passion for wildlife in a way that can only be done by those rare breed who were out there from childhood onwards and really enjoy what they are doing.
Initially expecting little, we were soon surprised with their approach. The lodge lies on the edge of the Satpura National Park, famous for tigers, mouse-deers, the even smaller leave-deers, and maybe even the still undiscovered micro-milli-deers. Tigers and Leopards are also common – but who cares for these ordinary fellows. We discussed our safari-arrangements for the coming days and went for a healthy mix of driving, walking and maybe elephant rides – to cover the local big five: Tiger, Giant-Squirrel, Giant Teakwood Tree, Boa Constrictor Maximus Indica and the also still undiscovered forest monsters, which have only rarely been seen by locals alone but never appeared in front of a white man and/or his entourage.
Furthermore we explored the oval pool which turned out to be bigger than expected and is definitely more than just a plunge pool. We inquired about the details of the re-settlement of local villagers which is still an ongoing process to transform the area into the young National Park. According to one of the jungle guides each family gets 10 lakhs for moving away from the forest, plus one lakh per family member, plus the same amount of land that they had possessed before. Still, many seem not to be happy, money is spent quickly and the new land of course is worth little, since not in the forest and usually goes hand in hand with water-shortage.
Nevertheless, we can‘t change that now and enjoy the outdoor showers, our traditional mud-wood built bungalow and tie down one of the safari experts (Elgar) with endless talks about the seven sisters – the Eastern States (Assam, Arunachal, Megalaya, etc.). He has studied and lived there and eventually even married a Naga-girl. We observe colorful lizards and chameleons from the pool and hope to not see big cats on the way back from late dinner to our hut.
Evening: A heavy dinner under thousandandone stars. Radiation was up from 0,09 ?Sv/h to 0,14 ?Sv/h. Maybe part of the geological natural radiation, that is quite common in parts of central India. Sonya is hearing steps while sitting on the veranda. Again, big cat or just the ordinary camping-psycho?
The Hunt is on
We got up 15 minutes after 3 a.m. The first of the big five, we see, is a spider on the way to our bathroom. After a short meditation a flute played by the multi-talented chef announces the arrival of early morning tea (EMT). We drive down to the Tewar-Reservoire, cross it by boat and start our jungle walk: The sun is rising over the rich waters, full of fish and hand-bag raw materials. Walking on sand-roads, we soon make out the first tracks of porcupines, sloth-bears (melursus ursinus), various deers – and suddenly also from a small female leopard. The latter is quite fresh. A herd of gaurs appear on our right, one being slightly injured (mating season). Langures are roaming the trees and suddenly we hear the alarm sound of a samba, which is repeated from time to time.
This together with the fresh leopard track alarms us too. But instead of yesterday‘s fear and modesty regarding the big ones, our instincts unexpectedly switch into hunting-fever. The local lathi-wallah does rather not share our passion, but Elgar goes straight after the sounds and so do we, cautiously trying to avoid stepping on dry twigs and once in a while slightly correcting our direction after the ongoing alarm sounds, that, now together with those of a group of monkeys, clearly indicate a predator. We are sweating heavily under the quickly rising sun and after a while reach another sandy road. We see the herd of samba crossing at a distance, awake but not scared anymore. The imminent danger seems to have vanished, and so has the leopard;-/
We find its fresh track again and keep following it for a wile until we loose it. Slowly walking back to a hill by the reservoir, we look back from time to time. Elgar says that he has the feeling that the cat is just lingering somewhere very close and probably watching us. By this time we definitely had shed our fear turning into respect and a little bit more understanding about the sociopolitics that govern the jungle.
Post-Processing & the Library
The Reni Pani Lodge not only has educated guides but also a well stocked library. So we use the hot time of the day to get into the specialties of the region, like Sonya‘s new love, the tiny mouse-deer. We also study the Gond tribes a bit, who semi-nomadically live here and are the reason the Satpura range is also called “Gondwana”. What Forsyth has to say about their early architectural remains, that are still found scattered, mostly as temples: „… it has often been wondered how a tribe of such rude savages as the Gónds could have reached a stage of civilization at that early period [before the arrival of the Aryans] so greatly above anything they have since shown themselves to be capable of“ . He then goes on with the same sermon as every modern European who in his over-evolutionist drive is unable to understand the real cause of savagery – namely often being a state of decline, and not a state of early humanity: So Forsyth routinely whisks away the interesting topic by stating that obviously not the Gonds could have been the creators of this civilization, but the later arriving Hindus had to be the ones. That is sad, since the topic just started to get interesting. However, I intend to follow it up and maybe will even launch an expedition and go after some of the allegedly remaining Gond-temples and forts.
Speaking of evolution, we saw many spotted deer and black deer peacefully grazing near the government lodge at the reservoir. You could even touch them. Since they are holy, nobody will harm them and so they peacefully live among the locals. Churchward frequently speaks of these deers as a symbol for the „first man“ which can be frequently observed still today at Buddhist sites, where two of those very same deers kneel on each side of the Dharma-Chakra. Here you could observe on the spot how coherent this symbol actually is, when the small deers humbly approach the people – their elder brothers – for salt. This is a hint on a line of evolution that is based on a spiritual understanding though.
Sonya‘s New Love for Pottery
There is a rush in newly acquired friendship flowing through my wifey‘s heart. After the mouse-deer, it‘s now also pottery. Accidentally another family member of the hotel-owners, the aunt of the princes – also with the name Sonya – just set up a pottery workshop two weeks ago. The workshop is slightly outside the lodge and will in future feature local clay-artists who teach guests the techniques of forming clay into something usable.
Sonya made a small tea-mug and we got a short introduction on the site how to dig out the raw earth, then soak it for days in water to eventually sieve it twice and then again leave the black basic material overnight in cloth to drain out the remaining water. In addition, and before you use it, you then add ashes or horse-dung to enhance its cohesive abilities. Another method is to use really rotten paper-mache – soaked newspapers.
We spent the afternoon on our first real birding trip walking along a small creek that in the end disappeared in an underground lake. Following a small thorny path we could make out different kinds of kingfishers and bee-eaters; but what made the day perfect were the many owls which we came accross – always spotting for the small cracks and cavities in the rocks that engulfed the creek. These soft-feathered birds were just waking up for their nocturnal business. The best shot we got at an incredible distance of about two meters by lying flat on a small ledge and peering into a washed out cavity where a big owl was staring out of the dark with its full yellow eyes. After the first shots it was slowly more awake, started clicking with its beak and clearly communicating that she soon would get upset if we continued staring into her bedchamber.
We arrived, went for a swim and were led for another – though short – walk to our dinner site, which was picturesquely situated in a small clearing in the middle of the forest, lit by dozens of candles and petroleum lanterns under a sky full of gravy buttermilk-stars that in this brightness we had not come across for a long time. Flabbergasted and awfully tired we soon stumbled back to our cottage to get another four hours rest until tomorrow‘s jeep-safari.
This time we started even earlier and the ferry-operator was also a bit more ready. To cut things short: We covered a lot of area, but driving through the jungle is much too fast for me. We saw two sloth-bears, one even with a cub, that it attached to its back – but the driver often stopped when the animal had already vanished. So, for me, nothing compared with the short-distance walks. Nevertheless, one drive should be made and the rare barking deer, the bears, the giant squirrels and last not least the romantic temple ruin deep in the jungle was well worth the rattling.
 Forsyth p. 7