Scroll: Fieldnotes from a Childhood Forest


NATURE’S SECRETS

Nature trails, life lessons from wildlife and a place to heal, deep in the Baghdarrah forest

The reserve, a 30-minute drive from Udaipur, offers endless possibilities with its lush biodiversity, or a comforting refuge from the world.

Arefa Tehsin

Leopards at Baghdarrah | Pankaj Choudhury

On the road from Udaipur to Jaisamand, you pass a green and yellow gate. It sits on an elevation with its jaws locked, guarding a thicket. A few old trees rise above all boundaries and thorny shrubs scratch the wall, breezily wanton. Challenging you to break the virtues of dailiness and Netflix, and come, explore the untamed.  

That is the forest reserve of Baghdarrah in the wild heart of Aravallis, famed for its lake teeming with reptiles from the dinosaurian era. In these times, when we are trying to take refuge in literature and movies on apocalypse, we are more likely to find spirituality in the woods. And cracks on our walls. If there’s truth in wine and children, there’s wisdom in a croc lying mouth-open on a rock, digesting her meal. Not caring about the fish on her breath. Instilling in us a sense of stillness. This forest abounds in beauty, anonymous happiness and frankness, mostly of the good kind. 

The handsome, pocket-sized dynamo of a forest reserve, just a 30-minute drive from Udaipur, is rich in biodiversity. I’ve visited this forest since childhood with my naturalist father. The lake with its smilingly meditative cros, the walk on the dam with water on one side and a thickly wooded forest stream on the other, the melancholy branches of geriatric trees sweetened with beehives, the ‘ouhdi’ or the old shikar lodge perched on the top of a hill. 

It was the perfect place for an imaginative child, and then an outrageously wishful teenager who dreamt of flowing-haired fairies (blonde, of course) and that kiss at the end of ‘Honey I Shrunk the Kids’. This was while the naturalist father made observations on the paling colour of crocodile hides due to phosphate washing into the lake from the adjoining quarry and the tinge of aggression in the crocs, as most of them were bred and released from the zoo. 

A mugger bares its yet-to-be-formed teeth  | Pankaj Choudhury

In the lakes of the Lake City Udaipur, crocodiles were found in abundance in the 1950s. After independence, the government began to issue contracts for killing crocs for their skin. Within a few years, the crocodiles of this region almost disappeared. The Gulab Bagh Zoo bred and occasionally released them in the lake of Baghdarrah, where they have thrived. 

There are resident leopards too along with a few wild boars, nilgai, hares and mongooses. But prey is not in great abandon. The leopards must be hunting stray cattle and dogs in the adjoining villages and take refuge in this refuge. Nothing wrong in that, right? 

My father Dr. Raza Tehsin says that leopards are without ego. They’ll eat an antelope or a rat for survival. And that’s the reason they are the most widely found wildcat. There’s surprising tenderness with which they treat their kill. Last year, a massive softshell turtle was spotted in this lake picking on the carcass of a dead wild boar with an urgency that was far from being tender, if you know what I mean. 

The forest of Baghdarrah sits in harmonious disjunction with the mines and rural civilisation  (notwithstanding the question of the future of civilisations). The winter evenings may find you looking at flocks of cormorants flying in formations from the nearby waterbodies. Hundreds of them. Just when you feel you have craned your neck enough but can’t miss the sight, another flock arrives. There is the occasional Egyptian Vulture and the ever-present bush quails. 

The nights come burgeoning with fireflies that don’t believe in dialogues but gestures, and skies that are stitched with old branches and crowded with stars. The best time to visit this deciduous forest is as the winter sets in and before the last bluethroat leaves for Siberia, but every season has moods that can’t be missed. Rueful, flamboyant, tempered, tenderly intimate and grave-and-sparse. Or at times, when it has a rainbow painted on its cloudy-sunshiny face, it might even look avant-garde. 

SWALLOWS ENJOYING AN SPELL OF EXTENDED RAIN. CREDIT: PANKAJ CHOUDHURY

The forest has remained like an old landscape snapshot, retaining its poise and pastoral hues. If only life could move in such gentle shifts. Recently, when I was grieving after the demise of my uncle, I took refuge in these wilds, just like the leopards do. 

There is a rustic campsite Dera Baghdarrah run in collaboration with the forest department, deep inside the reserve. It has spacious canvas shikar tents and colonial furnishing that is reminiscent of the British Raj. You can just step out in the forest for a walk, expecting a chance encounter with a boar or a jungle cat. 

We stayed at this campsite overlooking the lake, which wears its beauty lightly, and I licked my wounds in solitude. The loss had hit me like a fingernail being pulled out, sudden and stinging. I let the jungle play host and healer. Sat looking at the woolly-necked storks: their faces open for interpretation, the wry soulfulness of the herons, the conversational immediacy of the francolins, the emotionally reserved red munias and passionately intense peafolws. 

Crocodiles swam past with a grace and delicacy you don’t expect of someone with such strapping prowess. The skinks that sometimes took all liberties and slinked into the tent brought in a whorl of colours. And the earthy eagle owls, often declarative as the night crept in, made those colours instantly unfashionable. While some would prefer a root-canal than spotting a snake, I remained constantly on the lookout for precious rock pythons and Russell’s vipers. For who better than them to convey the aphoristic message. Life slithers on. 

CAMPS AT BAGHDARRAH

That day, I sat in the forest of my childhood, learning from nature how to say farewells. Staring at a spider build its delicate web suspended on the canvas doorway, fighting the gravity, waiting for an unsuspecting dragonfly, just the right size, to land in it. And then, just like that, came the cleaner, broom in hand. I wondered what the difference was between craved and carved. Existing and extinguished. Not even a sweep.  

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