Kanvashram: Lessons from the Jungle

An action-packed day in an Indian Jungle can bring all your six senses alive

It was 5.30am; daybreak in the Kalaghat Tiger reserve and the Jungle outside the GMVN tourist rest house in Kanvashram, in Pauri Garhwal. Although the sun was not fully up, its light was visible behind the valley on the far side. I sat up in my bed and watched it creep slowly over the forest behind my room, changing colour as it did so. It was a blazing silver as it crested the hills; but the long shafts reached out like a cinema projector’s beam as it grazed the tops of the tall Shagun trees turning them bright green, and then dappled the
barks with spots of amber, before finally hitting the ground as golden pools between the dancing shadows of the leaves.

I had learnt my first lesson even before I was fully up; watching the sunlight can be a full time activity in the Jungle.

As I continued to watch, the wind started blowing downhill, bringing with it the scent of mango blossoms, and berries. But I was not the first one to notice the scent; a pair of hornbills had already arrived to snack on the berries and are calling shrilly to let the others know of this new find. Meanwhile, a langur watched me from the roof top of a nearby room to see if I would leave. He loved eating the shoots and leaves of the jacaranda tree, as soon as they sprout, and what better time than early in the morning when the shoots are still young and fresh.

On another tree not far from the roof top a woodpecker was punching holes in the bark, and pulling out juicy grubs. He didn’t care that I was standing right next to him. Tok, tok, tok… he continued pulling out more fat grubs!

Already I had learnt my second lesson from the Jungle for the day—early morning is feeding time for the smaller animals and birds and they have to fill their bellies before the heat of the advancing day robs the leaves of their moisture.

As the day progressed, my guide and me took a walk along the forest trail which ran high above the river Malan, close to the rest house. Suddenly my guide pointed to a large splotch in the sand. “Elephant foot prints,” he said, “about a week old.” The trail was so thin and the sides of the valley so steep, I wondered how any animal, least of all an elephant could have walked through this path. I asked my guide and he pointed to a bamboo clump flanking the path. It was broken on top, by the feeding elephants. What I learnt from this is that in the Jungle the signs are all there, but one has to know where to look and how to read them. [sure enough a hundred yards further ahead we came upon elephant dung]

As we moved further, I noticed the forest had suddenly fallen silent. Gone were the peacock mews and the murderous calls of the Jungle fowls. Gone too were the songs of the magpies and twitters of the bulbuls and the calls of the monkeys. This silence marked an interim in the Jungle. Many of the smaller animals had finished their feeding and the big boys of the Jungle were yet to wake up for their day, so we returned to the resort awaiting the evening.

The evening encounters at Kanvashram

When I woke up after the nap and looked out, the sunlight was slanting as warm golden patches on the Shagun leaves; I knew soon it would be dark.

A langur then called from somewhere far off and stopped. He was followed by a chital who called for a minute and fell silent.

Let me digress a bit here from the events of the evening, to describe the effect the calls had, both on me and the Jungle.

Immediately after the alarm call sounded, I sensed a change in the mood of the Jungle, for they weren’t just the usual calls; they were the calls that signified urgency and threat.

There was stillness in the Jungle that seemed pregnant, as though all the Jungle was waiting breathlessly for the next call of the langur. All the Jungle folk recognised that the langur’s keen eyes had detected a leopard or tiger in the undergrowth and that he was now warning them: Beware! Danger is afoot!  From that moment on every faint scratch, every ripple of muscle would be noticed, and signalled like lightning across the Jungle. Failure to do so meant death.

As for me, the combination of the langur’s alarm call and the surrounding darkness and fear it brought, produced an awareness and intensity, I had never
felt before.

My eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness, and my ears, which had completely misjudged animal calls [and distances] when I arrived a few days ago, were now able to make out that the chital was calling on my side of the river close to where it flows away from the hamlet. From the way the calls have progressed— from the langur to the chital, I sensed that the leopard or tiger was moving and moving quickly. My intuition, [I will call it just that] signalled me to avoid the winding road through which I came, and instead walk through the hamlet and from thereon the shortcut to the rest house. This, as I was to realise later was fortuitous for the animal had also crossed the river at a point further up at about the same time I had, and had walked along the winding road I had avoided.  I hurried my steps and stumbled into the compound of the rest house just as another langur started calling behind my room. Almost simultaneously I heard a series of deep grunt-saws that resounded through the Jungle. It was a leopard, letting everyone know he was there. He was, trying to scare the langur’s off the trees, a favourite tactic of his, I was told, in order to get a meal. For those of you who haven’t heard a leopard in the Indian Jungle, it is at once perhaps the most terrifying and exciting sound you can hear. The blood races in your veins and your heart is in your mouth. One part of you desperately wants to see him, but at the same time you are scared to bits. Along with Babulal, my caretaker, I raced to the perimeter of the forest and as we did so the leopard grunt sawed once more and stopped.

And this was when it got terrifying—as long as he was grunt-sawing at least we knew where he was, but now we were clueless. He could have been 10 feet away or a 100 feet away—we wouldn’t have known. We switched on our pocket sized torches and shone them into the forest in front of us. The beam cut through the inky night like a knife through butter but we saw nothing. Then my beam fell between the trunks of two Shagun trees, and there, looking straight in our direction, at a distance of 20 yards, was the leopard. His metallic blue-green eyes, which were all we could see of him, gleamed in the darkness. I uttered a few words to Babulal to let him to know I had spotted it and this was enough to shoo the leopard away. When we spotted him a moment later, he had moved about 50 yards uphill. Again we saw his blue-green eyes, but a moment later he disappeared and we hear his grunt-saw at the edge of the forest.

I stood for a moment amazed at how he had moved more than half a kilometer, through a leaf littered forest, at the speed of lightning without making as much as the sound of a breath. I now understood the meaning of the word stealth.

I returned to my room and sat in bed looking back on the day. At every moment the Jungle had taught me something; through its silence, through its animals and birds, through its trees, through the sun, the sky and the wind. It taught me what it means to live fully with our senses, what we—as urban dwellers have lost touch with and, what it means to be alive. Truly it had been an intense [and humbling] experience, so intense that I slipped into sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. When I woke up the next morning the langur’s were busy playing in the mango trees and a pair of hornbills were calling to each other, they were letting me know that another day in the Indian Jungle has just begun.

HOW TO GET THERE

Kanvashram is a 7– 8 hours journey from Delhi. You can take the Mussorie Express that leaves Delhi at 10.20pm or the Garhwal Express that leaves at 6.50am. Get off at Kotdwar. From here it is 14 km.

To reach Kanvashram from Delhi by car, one needs to take the Delhi-Meerut road [not the bypass]; flip to Meerut-Najibabad route and from Najibabad take the road to Kotdwar.

What to do

Sahasradhara falls and the Malan barrage walk are the things to attempt. Take someone with you from the village to show you the way around as the forest trails are not easy to follow. You can go to the Kanvashram where the sage Kanva brought up Shakuntala. Swami Ramanandji, lives in a hermitage in the jungle and is very friendly and helpful. He is known to tell the tourists stories of the place.

Where to stay

The GMVN is the only place you can stay. You can book online on their website. The best time to go is Feb/March or September. I am told the monsoon is also nice as the animals come down during that time.

Food

Since there are no other places you can get any food, I strongly suggest you carry some food with you. The canteen at the rest house provides basic food but they need to be informed in advance [Even things like noodles and bread are got from a village two km away].

This was first published in January 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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