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Spirit of the Kikar Trees

Posted by Neha Gupta on August 19, 2021

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decided then and there that I would go and visit the Mangar Bani. 

Mangar Bani is among the few remaining pristine forest areas left in the Aravali hill ranges around Delhi and Haryana, in the misst of which the Delhi-Faridabad-Gurgaon highways also run. It is also a sacred grove and a Paleolithic archeological site, that has remained relatively untouched over the years. Villages do exist close to this eco-sensitive area. Despite its sensitive and important significance, governments in the past have not done enough to protect it. As it fell under the villages' jurisdictions, as common land or Panchayat land, the locals took some care till some decades ago, but slowly with increasing commercial activity, the area began to get affected. Environmentalists who are trying to protect the Aravalis from illegal or even legal mining, various forms of development and dangers have been concerned about it. 

I knew nothing about this place till very recently. Why suddenly then did I become interested in this place? Mangar Bani entered my imagination in the past weeks because of various things that occurred around me. Some relatives of mine live in Faridabad and we drove down to meet them - we have haltingly begun to make a few visits now in these pandemic days. To reach Faridabad we pass the ridge road, that includes parts of the Aravali’s protected, and not so protected sections. The Asola Bird Sanctuary is here and access to it has been recently re-opened. Conservationists have been working to improve these parts. This part of the hills, or what remains of them, has seen much destruction because of the typical type of highway development. There has been a growth in apartments, hotels and large farms for holding weddings. A few religious centers have also opened, there are also some Gaushalas. Beer and Wine shops have been always been around. Some villages have existed in these areas since long but have expanded - some legally some illegally - as constructions began or squatting families who work as serving classes in the newly growing apartments settled down. 

Most of these working class people bought plots of land from dubious owners who had taken this common or government land, or encroached forest land and converted it into plots. This time as we were visiting our relatives, we learnt that one such village, or sections of it were being demolished as they are in unauthorized land. There was much anger and protest among the slum residents. The families are lower middle class or poor. Many fall outside the rehabilitation criteria the authorities have decided on. They say, why are you removing us after years, when we have built pukka homes. We bought these plots with our own money. Investing the few lakhs they did is no small feat for a poor family. Its not an investment they can repeat again in this generation at least. If these lands were illegal why were we not stopped earlier, they ask? Fact is, everyone knows that these purchases were dubious, but is this not how the poor buy and settle into property in cities across India? It is wrong and sad. But this is how it is. 

Part of the reason to demolish these homes is that they come under forest area. There has been growing advocacy to save the Aravali range and its reducing forest cover in the past decade. Perhaps before it is too late, to finally bring some regulation in this endangered area. As usual though the attempts to clean up the situation hit the most vulnerable first. Not that that is an excuse to let them be. Tough decisions may be needed. Yet one has to wonder if some of the hotels, marriage halls and apartments – those who had to power to convert their also illegal or less legal purchases into legal ones – will they ever face the music? After all it is they who are pulling ground water, pulling on resources and creating deeper harm. And after all where the elite and middle class go, their serving class follows. 

Seeing all this I felt a sense of pain for this beautiful Aravali range and people in it. As a child I loved our drives though these hilly roads, it felt like a picnic. A mini trip to the hills without getting out of town. There are Nilgai, foxes and jackals, peacocks and porcupines living in these trees of kikar and babool – the trees that can survive and give coolness even in the harsh desert-like heat of Delhi. Migratory birds visit and even leopards were known to cross certain corridors here. Its not all about the forest area though. Even the village life adds a charm to the area. Even now one sees more local cow varieties, surely healthier and cleaner cows than usual, an occasional banjara family, people clad in local clothes heading about their business. Yet too, it is sad, that human interests and nature’s interests which can be one, are now against each other. We are made to choose, between people and trees - such has been our style of development – with no plan, no vision, everyone grabbing what they can, while they can. 

Just a few days later I read another breaking news about this area. In Mangar Bani - a different section of the Aravalis from the area getting demolished - Prehistoric cave paintings which appear to be dating to the Upper Paleolithic age have been found. That means that they are perhaps 20,000 to 40,000 years old (Before Present), older than Bhimbetka’s caves in Madhya Pradesh that are 10,000 years old. It is ironic indeed. In this one last bastion of undisturbed forest of the urban Aravali, this new finding has arisen. To some extent it is good – because finally there may be reason for governments to actively protect and preserve this area. But who knows, even this is after all human intervention. What shape will it take? 

The last few days it has been raining. In the pandemic we hardly go out anyway, and the humid rain wraps everything in a gentle and comforting mist. Sitting at home everything feels in balance. When you step out, the madness of the road is scary. Things were mad before too, and I even liked the hub-hub of the streets. Now it feels different. With much of the world in climate chaos, everything feels false, ready to break apart. As I look for new jobs, most seem so meaningless now. Why would anyone put their energies in selling a product, doing some new fancy research and what not. Where is life itself?

So Mangar Bani pulled me with a vague sense of meaning-ness. I met Rajeev (name changed), who works for a Wildlife Club, and has photographed the area a lot and actually was among those who ‘discovered’ the now exciting cave paintings. They had existed before the eyes of the villagers for decades but are now suddenly national news. We both walked among the path that his organisation takes people on nature walks for. The yellow, dry sand is now sticky after the rain. For a while at least. The trees drip a little. There is also plastic here and there, though it reduces as we go in. I wonder what will be the destiny of this area 10 years from now? As we approach the parts close to the sacred grove, our sense of wonder grows. The memory of another age, when man adjusted to nature, rather than the other way round. When there was a silence which today’s children know nothing of.

Maybe even then human hearts beat with a sense of longing and desire to know the world. Maybe they too fought the forest, feared it and attacked it. So maybe they weren't any better than us. For us though both those humans and the trees have become one, a combined and maybe constructed nostalgia whose ochre imprints are drawn as ancient art on the cave walls. 

We both meet here the friend who walks with us always, but whom we hear not. The silent companion, the communion of humans and nature, because we are one, both in our coexistence and our destruction.  Humans fight each other, rich often get away and the poor suffer. But the poor too are violent. What else will they be – this is the structure of our world. Conquer to survive. All because we cannot hear our constant friend. In the sacred grove we meet and we can hear. The spirit of the Kikar trees. Of a Delhi that has seen so much destruction that is has become numb to it. In the mist of the rain during the pandemic we can feel it. It tells us that all things are in a web and if we saw this, felt this, we will just stop in awe. But how can we?

In the Aravalis still the cacophony remains – hotels, farmhouses, miners, wine shops, slums, gaushalas,  ashrams, masjids. So many agendas, even  well-meaning, yet so divided. And here do emerge these prehistoric paintings. Such beauty, where will it find place in this ugliness? Is its discovery a celebration or an ugly joke? We three wonder silently. 

Note: This is a fictional story. I did not actually meet anyone (only in spirit). Also, since i wrote this piece, there have been initiatives to even take action against other illegal structures in this area, not just the slum. Date: 8th August 2021

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