Lions in the wild

Although it is called the ‘home of the lion’, not everyone who goes to Gir is lucky enough to see one. And that probably explains the magical excitement we felt when we saw not one; but two of these serene, majestic beings. Strangely though, the lions were not the highlight of the trip for me. What I really took away from my trip to Gir (via Junagadh) was the rustic simplicity, warmth and silence. That little village, nestled amidst the forests, often resonant with distant echoes of regal roars and rumbles, charmed me completely with its modified bike-rickshaws and roadside dhabas serving home-made Saurashtran fare.

Jottings aboard the train to Junagadh.

At Virpur station: I feel suddenly a deep yearning for this uncomplicated simplicity. God bless these sweet, simple folk and their sun-burnt, guileless faces. I hope the pastoral sun will invigorate my city-weary bones somewhat. I hope selfishly – that this slice of India always remains as is – untarnished by the cold hands of ‘development’. Just when I think that monsoon has long since bid farewell to this dusty land, the breeze ruffling my dupatta turns cooler; and the skies greyer. She is still here – the goddess of all that is born in the earth.

Dusty cool breeze
And gentle hum of rickety rickshaws
Time will freeze
Like the grins on these rural faces.

A land untouched 
By the useless questioning of so-called intellectuals
A people who live
By rules that are cast in stone.

Endless patches of flowerless grass
Cast waving shadows on overhead beams
Cause dancing ripples of happy peace
To leave merry footprints on my overused mind.

A little girl plays on a wayside track
On her wrists – bangles the same shade of the grass
People stand and stare like Wordsworth said
From the sorrows of anxiety, these people have never bled.

An alien state, an alien language
Yet so familiar, I feel I’m home
Home after all, is this sense of contentment
That sometimes eludes even when I’m ‘really’ home.

Painted pink and yellow pots
Ride on an old man’s cartwheel
Their shiny, new countenances
Presently unmarred by the all-pervading dust –

A magical dust, that is made of
Pure joy, serenity and faith.

My itinerary in brief:

Black Buck

Thursday evening: Train from Bombay to Junagadh (14 hour journey)
Friday afternoon: Bus from Junagadh to Sasan Gir (2 hours), then modified bike-rickshaw till the resort
Friday evening: Exploring the area on foot (it’s not safe after sundown they say but that added a touch of mystery to our meanderings – especially to a neighbouring deserted resort that seemed to be straight out of a horror film with wayward trees and crackling twigs)
Saturday morning: An early-morning nature trail to a hillock from where we had a pretty view of the villages around. We were also told about herbs with healing properties (I cut myself on a thorny leaf and used one called Shatavari for relief) We also heard a lion roar from 1.5 km away and joked about being breakfast for it. Seeing a lion from inside of a jeep/bus is one thing – hearing it while on foot is quite another. Later, we relaxed at a roadside dhaba in the village and sipped on the local tea – a little milkier and flavoured with nutmeg.
Saturday – rest of the day: A safari trip in Devaliya National Park  or Gir Interpretation Zone (since Gir sanctuary is shut doing the monsoon months). We saw different types of deer (sambar someone said), black bucks with curved horns that looked too beautiful to be true, birds and finally the one we’d all been waiting for – the king of the jungle. Two lions lay beneath the shade of a tree, quite oblivious to our staring eyes. Or perhaps, they were plain bored. I wish I could have seen their royal stride but that itself was miraculous – to see them in their natural habitat rather than behind the bars of a sorry zoo enclosure.
Saturday night: We were treated to an electrifying tribal-style dance performance by Siddis with painted faces that still bore signs of their African descent. They cackled, jumped and shimmied to the primitive beats of the drum and the bonfire and the surrounding darkness of the forest heightened the feral nature of the experience.
Sunday morning: Bus back to Junagadh where we had a sumptuous lunch. Food in Gujarat is tasty and inexpensive (predominantly vegetarian), although I’m sure non-vegetarians might find attractive fare as well, thanks to the sizeable Muslim population.

Footnote 1: What is a modified bike-rickshaw?

It’s the only kind of ‘rickshaw’ you’ll find in those parts. They are noisy yet utterly charming and colourful contraptions consisting of a cart fixed behind a motorbike. You sit on top of the cart, or inside it and enjoy the 360 degree view while the driver rumbles down the lane.
Pluses: The view, the feeling of riding at the back of a truck, the cost (100 rupees for a longish ride)
Negatives: The noise but who cares when you’re doing something so unique!

Footnote 2: Who are the Siddis?

Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Gujarat is home to many ethnic groups; one of whom are the Siddis, originally descended from Bantu peoples from Southeast Africa that were brought to the Indian subcontinent as slaves by Arab and Portuguese merchants. Wikipedia says: “Although Gujarati Siddis have adopted the language and many customs of their surrounding populations, some African traditions have been preserved. These include the Goma music and dance form, which is sometimes called Dhamaal. The term is believed to be derived from the Ngoma drumming and dance forms of Bantu East Africa. The Goma also has a spiritual significance and, at the climax of the dance, some dancers are believed to be vehicles for the presence of Siddi saints of the past. Also worth mentioning are the Maldharis, who are religious pastoral communities living in Gir, known to have survived through the ages by having a symbiotic relationship with the lion.

For more on Gir’s lions and ethnic communities, you may want to watch the BBC documentary ‘The last lions of India’ at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uG1WwzOS98g.

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