SPINE CHILLING MOMENTS
“Any moment a tiger can dart out of these bushes”. My guide Mohan Pandey whispers, sounding quite cool. “Probably it’s watching our move”, he says. His words sent a chill down my spine. I realize, if the tigers get thirsty they head straight to the water body, forget the time. Standing near Bhumka Chaur where our Boar Canal trail ends, I reckon there’s little chance for an escape. The possibility of an encounter remains a thrill, but by now my mind and heart started talking in different ways. Both said “GO” but in opposite directions. I’m in the dense jungles of Kaladhungi near Chhoti Haldwani that encompasses Bhabar foothills and Terai forest belt in the Kumaon range, at the base of the Himalayas.
JOURNEY TO KALADHUNGI
Immortalized in his book “My India” by Jim Corbett, the buffer zone village of Chhoti Haldwani, awakens to the incessant calls of Indian Cuckoo. I learn that it’s when the Kafal fruit ripens, the Indian Cuckoo appears on the scene. Arriving overnight from New Delhi, a crowded private bus from the busy fruit market at Ramnagar takes me to Kaladhungi, on a busy motorable road, cutting through the forests of huge Sal and Teak wood trees. Alighting at Kaladhungi Dak Bungalow, I tug my luggage along trekking slowly to the 221 acre village, nurtured by Jim Corbett.
CORBETT HERITAGE WALK
Corbett’s initiatives are part of this village’s folklore. Motivated to catch a glimpse of the glorious past, I do the heritage walk, past harvested fields, though the sun isn’t kind.
In a quiet corner of the village, I find the last surviving chaupal (a raised sheltered platform). “Corbett met villagers here and instilled confidence in them” observes Mohan Pandey.
Moments later Trilok Singh emerges with the single barrel muzzle loader gun, a legacy of Corbett. “This was once our lifeline for protecting the crops from the raids by boars and porcupines” says Trilok Singh.
The turning point came when Corbett built a stone masonry wall, using river bed stones to replace the thorn fence, around the village, leading to a dramatic reduction in human wildlife conflict.
Corbett isn’t an ordinary mortal for the villagers here. Actually he’s looked upon as a savior for generations to come. Corbett lives on here.
BOAR CANAL WALK
Corbett’s efforts towards repurposing of Boar Canal for irrigation changed villagers’ lives. For most of my walk along the Boar Canal, on a slightly uneven narrow side bank walls, it was one of precarious balance. The walls of the canal were just less than 2ft wide and I was told not to look down. But when I did, it became clear why I was warned. The water was gushing downhill and the canal was 6ft deep. One false step would have meant nasty surprises for me. We had just begun the nearly 8km walk. The Boar Canal is credited to bring waters from the Boar River to people living a life off the jungles. The opportunity here was to familiarize myself with the wonders it created along the way.
The care for wildlife while building the canal in mid 1850’s was amply clear. The grill filters and step ghats help wild animals escape drowning. At several places the water flows underground only to surface later. This was done keeping in mind both the topography and wildlife movement. There are several sluice gates that divert the waters to the nearby villages. The precision in technology applied amazes me. My thoughts reach out to those who toiled hard to make it a dream come true.
KALADHUNGI FOREST WALK
Kaladhungi forests present challenges to experience, and a walk through the jungles is about living the moment. At day break the next day, we stepped out to visit Corbett falls, passing by a few thick bushes walking through a narrow pathway and suddenly the scenario changed dramatically into tall trees. I instantly knew we went beyond the village periphery into the dense jungle. Now this is where the attacks normally happen if we are stalked, explains Mohan Pandey. The barking deers and chirping birds did convey some danger on our tracks. Suddenly something moved! Gasp! But a sense of some relief did creep in though, when told, that the wild animals retreat deep into the jungle by dawn, except near the water hole. We do spot a few deer tracks, and elephant droppings (interestingly serves as a forest manure) to suggest, there were movements around the place a few hours back.
JHORA DANCE CELEBRATIONS
Back in the village, an evening of Jhora dance celebrations, at the spacious front yard of Puran Joshi’s house, awaited me. The full moon provided an unforgettable ambience for the dance performance. To the beat of the Puran Joshi’s Hurka, the women in ceremonial attire sang the songs and moved in circular formation holding hands together, stepping forward and backward with a slight jump and also bending bodies with slight shoulder movement, a treat to watch while spreading moments of happiness all around. I could see a renewed joy on their faces when we asked them to do the dance once more. Part of their deep seated beliefs and traditions, I think this folk dance is culturally important in the Kumaoni lives, as a way to stay socially connected.
Later that night, Puran Joshi invited me to have dinner at his house, and I couldn’t resist getting a taste of their simple Kumaoni food, served hot on the Timlaa leaf. Joshi in his conversations told me “We do sustenance farming like Mangoes and Grapes in addition to our regular farming on the fields and milk distribution from our animal farm”. I ask him if it is not terrifying to be the first point of attack for the wild beast, as his house is at the very edge of the forests. He says “Observing animal behavior from close quarters is our daily balancing act. We have a unique connection with the forests as we are forever in search of fodder and firewood” notes Joshi.
LIVING LIFE KING SIZE
Mohan Pandey sums up saying “Our lives are closely connected to the forests around us. This is an unforgiving terrain, but we move on with our lives with extra caution. We need to live in harmony with nature, without putting our lives at risk and into trouble. This is our home and our way of life”.
The village society runs eco-tours, homestays and a restaurant and shares the gains with the villagers. Corbett lived here for the poor. The people here live his dream. The best seasons to visit this place are from October to April. If you need to have a break from city life, then this is the place to go. I feel it helps us get connected with what nature has to offer, and a real jungle life to boot.
Contact Corbett Gram Vikas Samiti (CGVS) https://corbettvillage.in for your stay and trails. You will be glad you did it.