Back to Soil: By GN Ashokavardhana
[G.N. Ashokvardhana is the founder of ‘Arohana’, team of amateur trekking enthusiasts in Mangalore; he is an avid nature lover and staunch supporter of environmental conservation efforts and he is a freelance writer in Kannada on many humanitarian issues.]
I am a dealer. As I had firmly believed that change of occupation is the only way to rest and relax, I had made it a hobby (since around 1975) to roam in the jungles and hills on holidays. As my ‘experience of forest treasure’ enhanced and I witnessed disruption and destruction of nature’s status quo due to man’s greed and misrule, I joined the crowd that cried full throat – “Save Western Ghats! Save Environment!” I lent my voice to the chorus of “Oh come on here! Go around our hills and jungles, enjoy the streams and falls, grow more and more trees….”etc., etc. As the days went by, the loudest protests seemed to be reserved against the setting up of mega industries. On further analysis, it appeared to be more ego centric and serving to petty human selfishness. For many, being an ‘environmentalist’ was only another decorative prefix!
At this stage, I happened to have a peek at Dr. L.C. Soans’ ‘forest treasure’. On the outskirts of his cultivated land, he had retained a piece of land, as it is, without cultivation. In stark contrast to the grassy hillocks around, this piece of land appeared like a piece of thick forest brought from the western ghats, as though ‘transplanted’! I wanted to have such a glorious treasure for myself! And Dr. Ullas Karanth provided the theoretical support for my dream of this ‘forest treasure’.
With Ullas’ acquaintance, I took part in the animal census at Nagarahole for a week. Though it may sound funny, the wealth of the woods, the company of Ullas and Chinnappa made me into a mini spokesman for the forests. (Read Kadu Pranigala Jadinalli by Ullas Karanth, Athree Book Centre, Mangalore and Kadinolagondu Jeeva, K.M. Chinnappa’s autobiography in 3 parts, Pustaka Publishers, Mysore). Lending my voice to the cause of saving the forest wealth of the western ghats in our region (now known as Kudremukh National Park), I turned my attention to developing a ‘private forest’.
I bought one acre of barren land about 20kms from Mangalore that suited my budget and access and started my experiment in May 1999. Myself and Devaki, my wife, are the labourers here. We named it ‘Abhayaranya’ or ‘Jungle without Fear’, for a natural state is fearless and we hoped to see a ‘forest’ with the passage of time. We have erected a latterite wall on three sides facing the civilised society and a green fence on the side facing a grassy hillock that belongs to our relatives. There is no cultivation at ‘Abhayaranya’; within the limitations of our understanding of what is natural, we have planted saplings and sowed seeds without disturbing the grass or shrubs. Once a week we have watered the very tender saplings that seemed unable to tolerate the extremes of summer; we have also provided water holes for the little birds. We have avoided pruning the grass and cutting the plants so that all that is organic goes back into the soil. We also made bunds that help in recharging the ground water. All this we did without expecting any direct use or benefits; but the joy of observing the evolution of nature week by week and working with it with whatever we know is priceless and inexplicable. When noble ideas are brought into practice, every word would be a hymn; even a dry, thorny land could become a heaven! (Purposeless deeds would be empty boasting; even heavenly gardens may be turned into hell!)
It is not life to endlessly brood about salaries that are not paid, taps that are dry, power that is in short supply or cost of living that is unbearable. Start knowing the environment. As any facet of nature or any little bud of challenge becomes closer to us, we would find the roots of our daily grievances as well the answers.
Until about three decades ago, the all season road ended at Bajagoli, Karkala. Mala is a remote and backward village with difficult vehicular access during summer. Walking was the only sure means of travel. Beyond Mala, a walkway through the thick forest was the only route for those bound to Shringeri, on the other side of the western ghats. Along this tortuous route, there are many natural locales that are used as signposts, thirst quenchers or rest stations and these have been uniquely named as Gangamoola (Origin of Ganges), Hanumana Gundi (Hanuma’s pothole), Varaha Theertha (Boar’s waterhole), Kuriangallu, Naga Theertha (Serpent’s waterhole), Gangadikallu etc. based on the pedestrians’ convenience or beliefs (folklore). These natural water sources have been used for drinking, bathing or even for limited worship. There were no land records or man made structures that would have suggested their promotion onto full fledged utilities. Even if someone had attempted such, those would have gone back to nature in later days.
At such a juncture started the Kudremukh Iron Ore Project (some time in 1975, when Kudremukh National Park had not yet been designated). For such a project it was essential to have an excellent road from Mangalore to Malleshwar, a very remote village. That called for renovating of the existing road up to the outskirts of Mala and from thereon, cutting and digging through the untouched Bhagavathi forests of the western ghats. For the company and its contractors, all the natural wonders only meant challenges that had to be tamed and the only aim to see that the road retained its status quo with the land unmoved by seasonal insults. And to announce the arrogance of their achievements, they erected decorated Sign Boards here and there; examples being SK border (between Dakshina Kannada and Chikmagalur), Gangamoola, Varaha Theertha, Kurinjal (for Kuriangallu) etc. To add to this, the labourers who toiled against the great forces of nature built small temples or ‘worshipping stations’ and offered prayers. As the days went by and the workers left the place, these disintegrated without care and disappeared only to become a part of the forest.
At a time when mining, the great mockery of nature, is about to be ‘wound up’, and Kudremukh National Forest’ is taking shape as a remedy for the insults heaped thus far, certain wicked elements have started to put pressure on the forest treasure. A process of turning folklore into modern practice, of turning mythology into history has begun as part of the neo-religious politics. One such place that rose to limelight overnight as a result is Nagatheertha.
Nagatheertha is a crevice on the ground, about 10 feet square, on the way to Bhagavathi. Suddenly a name board for Nagatheertha sprang up between Hanumana Gundi (a small water fall) and Gangamoola. Close by, a wide foundation was laid illegally, ostensibly to renovate this crevice! An attempt to make a giant out of a dwarf! The main reason behind the sudden interest and swift action by these ‘devotees’ is probably the news that the road is being upgraded! Along the highways on the ghats, it is common to find small temples with priests holding lamp-lit plates, seeking monetary offerings from the drivers of heavy vehicles, so as to promise a safe journey for them along the treacherous route. But on the Bhagavathi Road, the traffic was not heavy enough for this ‘bhakthi business’ to be a profitable proposition. But this renovation committee is making its full scale efforts as if to prove that a ‘national highway’ cannot be as ‘dry’. The trucks that ply on this route are offloading one or two construction materials as a ‘service’. Similarly, skilled ‘devotees’ have laid the foundation as a ‘voluntary service’ or ‘kar seva’! It is claimed that there are no priests, no rooms for prayer materials or for living. But how do we believe these words when we do not find even a single minister either at the central or state governments who does not seem to believe in ‘miracles’?
In the thousands of years of its existence, the stony Kumaradri’s boulders have attritioned, soil has collected, grass sprouted, dwarf shrubs have evolved and springs have erupted. Over the hilltop, across the valleys, whispering cold breeze, cooing birds, rainbows of seasons, fragrance of green flowers and beauty of flowing waters have made this not a mere hillock but a garden on a hill – Pushpagiri. Our ancestors, with all their wisdom, had made this into a place of worship, so as to invite people to see this beauty but with certain restrictions so as not to compromise its dignity. As if to support this, the modern civil dispensation has declared it as a reserve forest and imposed restrictions. However, consider the following as a short take on the degeneration of values:
A small team of ours had been to Kumara Hills during Christmas vacation. Similarly more than two hundred members of nearly thirty other teams had also visited there. From chocolate wrappers to plastic bags of gutkha and country liquor, from empty bottles of ‘Bisleri’ to a variety of containers of oils, juices and alcohol, all were colourfuly strewn around there. Slippers without toe-hold, bag without a bottom, foam beds that are torn could be found all over the place. Overuse of flowing rivulet has left behind only a small puddle now. It should be seen to be believed the way most trekkers do all their chores, as though there is no end to themselves. It is one thing to light fire with dried leaves and grass for unavoidable cooking and warding of the cold at night. But it is another to cut the centuries-old short plants, to indiscriminately wield the axe for making roads, to leave the fire after its purpose is served and lead to a forest fire; but all these are on the rise.
The caretakers of the Pushpagiri nature reserve behave as though protection of the Kumaragiri is only collecting fees from the trekkers at the two check-posts at Subramanya and Heggademane on the outskirts of the hill. The trees that have been cut to build a bridge across a stream, slopes that have been levelled to lay roads and cables, catchment that was lost while trying to build a bund across a stream- all these in the name of developing the forest wealth are nothing but mockery of nature and waste of public money. Probably no one has noticed the fact that the land slide that occurred on the Subramanya side of Pushpagiri following rains is an adverse effect of man’s interventions.
It is explicit that we have de-linked ourselves from understanding nature. It is endless learning for a fraction of life -of Man- to understand this timeless nature. Know your ignorance, lose your arrogance of taming nature – Go back to soil!