Hazaribagh: The joys of living wildly
by Preeti Verma Lal
Nights were of a different metal - we would
either go boating and hear the oars cut through the limpid
lake or sit by the lake, dip our feet and wait for hordes
of deer to line up on the other bank and drink water. In
the darkness we could hardly see the deer, but their eyes
shone like diamonds and we would do a wild census by counting
orange balsam. The red canna. The crowded sal. The trite
fragrance of wet eucalyptus. The golden of the orioles.
The russet of the earth. The branched antlers of the deer.
And the twitter of the sparrows.
Inside Hazaribagh National Park, these
were like everyday perks doled out to anyone who set foot
inside this 72 sq. mile park. For me, it was a fiefdom,
for my father happened to lord over it officially. The park
was a weekend getaway for us, straight from school we would
change into jumpers and slacks, hop into a rickety jeep
and drive through 18 kms of green fields and brown hillocks
to reach Pokhariya, the entry point of the Park. Beyond
the entry point, for 10 kms all one had was a dense canopy
of sal all around, the prancing spotted deer, the burly
sambhars standing by the mud road and staring, and the occasional
rabbits and snakes. Yes, there were leopards and tigers
but hey! have you ever seen royalty walking the streets
with the plebian? There were no casual encounters with leopards
and tigers, but then who really cared, there were better
things waiting at the end of those long, bumpy 10 kms.
A wooden creaky bridge led into the canteen
that sat smug in the middle of a man-made lake. The fuel
used in the earthen hearth was wood (who had heard of LPG
cylinders then!) and if it were winter we would sit near
the hearth and scoop condensed milk out of the tin and slurp!
Let me admit that milk was for the canteen's provisions,
but then when you have dad who lords over it nobody snatched
that tin away. In summer, glee came in the shape of an incredible
fridge. There was no electricity inside the Park but there
was an improvised fridge. An earthen pot was filled with
water up to its gills and placed in a three feet hole in
the canteen's backyard. The lid was covered with wet sand
to beat the heat and this contraption was used to keep cold
drinks, lemon, mangoes. And every time a Fanta or a Thums
Up was pulled out of its wide neck I yelped in glee. That
weird fridge also became my first lesson in minimalism.
Nights were of a different metal - we
would either go boating and hear the oars cut through the
limpid lake or sit by the lake, dip our feet and wait for
hordes of deer to line up on the other bank and drink water.
In the darkness we could hardly see the deer, but their
eyes shone like diamonds and we would do a wild census by
counting the glitter.
All these vignettes were borrowed from
years that have gone by. But having trudged the world and
worked enough I longed to see the Park again. When I packed
and drove inside the Park recently, the sal looked as dense,
I did spot the sambhars and the cheetals, I heard the twitter
of the sparrows and I also recognized some of the faces
that made our childhood happier. The Park still has no electricity,
the wooden bridge still creaks and the canteen stills serves
simple, yet sumptuous food in a jiffy. There weren't busloads
of porcelain-skinned Bengalis who vacationed here, but age
has not withered the pristine beauty of the Park and any
day I would choose the no electricity, no phone life here
than curl up within satin sheets in a Four Seasons.
While Hazaribagh National Park is known
for its sal and cheetal, Betla National Park is where the
world's first tiger census was held. A five-hour drive from
the state capital Ranchi, Betla is nestled next to Daltonganj,
a largish town, and is known for its tiger and elephant
population. And it is my two encounters with the elephants
that I think of every time Betla crops up in a conversation.
It was a chill winter morning and we were in an open jeep
scouring mud-spattered roads in search of a herd of elephants.
The forest guard said he could sniff them, we were certainly
on the right track. Seconds swelled into minutes but the
tuskers were eluding us. Disappointed the driver was about
to swerve to another track when we heard the first loud
trumpet. Yes, the elephants were coming, we jumped in joy.
But the loud trumpets soon sounded disaster, out of nowhere
there came what looked like hundreds of elephants chasing
our jeep. My dad, an avid photographer, did not want to
miss this opportunity, my mother screamed at the driver
to take us to safety. Those were harrowing moments, I had
lived in the jungle long enough to accept danger but this
pushed us close to Death. The jeep's engine was revved but
strangely suddenly the elephants stopped dead in the tracks.
They just let us go. I still can't find an explanation to
this sudden change of heart, but I know we had a close brush
But elephants don't necessarily make the
heart race wild, in Betla the tamed ones take you around
the jungle on a morning safari. Just as the sun rose from
amidst the cobalt sky, we struggled up the elephant in search
of tigers. For two hours we went up and down hillocks, braved
the sun and the bruises but well, there was no tiger. Yes,
the mahout did try and convince that the pug marks were
that of a tigress but we laughed at his gimmicks.
When in Betla, try and stay in the treetop,
a cottage perched on the top of a tree. The bed might squeak
and if you have vertigo keep the windows closed, but it
is an experience that not many national parks offer. And
if you are a history buff, put on your sneakers and roam
around the ancient Medininagar fort that sits on the park's
Hazaribagh and Betla national parks stay
within the realm of reality, but if you are looking for
a fabled land where lizards fly and butterflies spatter
their colors with gay abandon, go to Saranda. Sprawled over
800 sq kms in the West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand,
Saranda literally translates into 'the land of 700 hills'.
The forest is lush; it houses exquisite flora, provides
a safe haven to the endangered flying lizard and is the
permanent home to 150 Asiatic elephants.
If you want to see the prettiest
sunset in the state, drive to Kiriburu that is perched at
2,800 ft above sea level and can easily masquerade as a
hill station. Soak yourself in the spectacular view of the
rising and setting sun at the viewpoint.
in Today's Traveller, April 2005.