As we make our way from Chiplun to Pune we cross one of nature's greatest marvels- Kumbharli Ghat.
The charisma of the Ghats leaves the onlookers spellbound. They are alluring, tempting the traveller to stop in his tracks and change his weary path. For those who do, they reveal their extensive beauty, teaching the ignorant human to revel in the magic of new life. As we drove through the Ghats, these thoughts didn't enter my mind. No words can be eloquent enough to describe what I experienced then. To the right, gentle waterfalls flowed down over red brown laterite giving rise to gurgling brooks that lined the roadside. Life, large and small, thrived in their midst. To the left, the road opened out to reveal what can only be described as nature's magnificence. A river, awakened by the sparkling waters of the sky, cut it's way through the lushness of the valley. Plants of all sizes and shapes crowded together as if celebrating the arrival of the monsoon. The mountains beyond revealed their personas. One mountain was the sentinel, stopping the grey clouds flying past and demanding they quench his streams, tortured by the summer past. Another was bathed in the golden rays of the sun, shining with a golden green no painter could replicate. The rain beat against our faces as we traversed our own mountain, crowned with soft cotton clouds, reminding us of the heaven that tales of yore have always spoken about. we went on and on, the mountain tempting us and teasing us...
Until the time came to bid goodbye. To the Ghats and the clouds and the rain and the waterfalls and the streams and the grass and the trees and the frogs and the snails and the mountain dripping with gold and the steaming chai and the friends and finally to HOME. To love and friendship and learning and first times. The honeymoon is over. All that remains is the wisp of memories that will gently haunt me forever.
As the sun sets, the sky is bathed in a robe of yellows and reds and all colors between. A pint of red is daubed onto the yellow harshness of the sun and the resulting orange hue bathes the sky, bidding adieu to the industrious day, and welcoming the tricky darkness of the night. Night that is set to cloak every road, every roof, every face with its all encompassing hug and suck the world into a period of doubt, of fear, of uncertainty, of helplessness.
People often tell me, green is the color of the Konkan. Look at the gurgling streams that bring perennial water to the forests here, feel the freshness of the leaves as trees sprout into life during the monsoons, hear the croaking of the frogs in spawn covered ponds, smell the rain spattered mud that signals the beginning of life for floral beauty and subsequently for the animal that inhabits, feeds on, breeds on the foliage. Konkan is green, they say confidently. Well, I beg to differ.
My Konkan is not green. It is the color of the sunset, composed of shades of red and orange, spreading like a drop of blood in a leaf-cup of water.
My Konkan is the color of the sunset, made all the more extravagant by the ruby red of the blood on the highway. Civets, mongoose, jackals, squirrels, snakes, frogs, birds- all contribute their share of gore to ensure that the speeding motorist has a red carpet rolled out for him. A black fur that speaks of a civet that wasn’t fast enough, the cold body of the jackal whose parents did not teach it to cross the road, the squashed limb of the endemic fungoid frog, the flattened head of the ratsnake are all incidental remains that the municipality cleans soon after. The spattered blood adds to the hues of our sunset.
My Konkan is the color of the sunset, and loves to flaunt its orange flame of the forest tag. Who said ‘flame of the forest’ was only a flower! Here it is the color of the forest, a color blown by the wind, like a child blows soap bubbles, to travel far and wide through the shadows of the night. We must thank the enterprising farmer for this, for how else would waste forestland be converted into useful crop? Birds can build new nests, snakes can slither into other holes, leopards can attack dogs, and who would waste time caring about tiny spiders, scorpions, crabs and what not? The brilliance of the flames, licking through ancient forests play their part- a dash of vivid on the palette of my Konkan
My Konkan is the color of the sunset, a deep mature red of the ferric soil that supports the alphonso, as also stores of bauxite ore. We need the mineral and how! Without it, there would be no foil to wrap our lunch in, no cement to build our ‘ideal’ homes with, no cosmetics to beautify our faces, no utensils to cook our food, no rubber to make our vehicles run, no dainty crockery to serve high tea in, oh wouldn’t we be so many times poorer! A host of mining companies rushed to our aid and vowed to get us this important mineral, by hook or by crook. The earth is dug, and dug and dug, and the mineral forced out from its bowels. A thick layer of red dust settles across quaint little villages and forces many to abandon what their forefathers’ earned through centuries of sweat and toil. The iron of the soil deepens the sunset whose colors have now bathed the clouds, the hill tops and the sea.
This is my Konkan, soaked with the colors of the sunset, all set to enter the stuffy tunnel of night. The sun is setting fast, the oranges and the reds have spread far and wide, they shine now on the brown hardened faces of the inhabitants. The night is creeping in, with its long spidery fingers stretched out to wrap what once was glorious. Now glorious is only a wisp of the past, and as the Konkan farmer looks at the sun, a dark shadow befalls his face. That speaks of hasty decisions, of greed, of mistakes of yore. And he falls to his knees, deep in prayer, as rivulets of his bloody struggle join the vast sea.
Anjarle. It was supposed to be another one of those coastal villages of Maharashtra . A fishing community, coconut plantations, fishermens’ boats and their nets, a beach and the sea in front. That is what i expected.
We made our way on the bike through the ghats of Konkan. Verdant hills, flushed with the delicate new leaves that spring forth with the rains bordered one side of the road. On the other side were deep, treacherous valleys, that still afforded a panoramic view of tiny villages, paddy fields stretching on forever and still more mountains ahead. Tiny waterfalls gurgled down the slopes- the rains hadn’t yet turned them into raging monsters. Densely packed trees, plains with a blanket of green grass and pretty yellow flowers, muddy rivers flowing calmly below the bridges, opportunistic kingfishers biding their time for the perfect catch, mangrove patches filling in the intermediary spaces, and the wind in my face, along with a sprinkling of the rain! The iora sang to welcome us, the kingfisher saw us through every ghat, swallows greeted us at every village.
And I sat and reflected. On the beauty around me. About what i should do ahead. About how i should enjoy today and the next one year. About how I would form a bond with this place, the sort of bond i yearned to form with Mumbai. A sense of belonging to some place. Like school. Only, without the ugliness. Just pristine, untouched, virgin beauty.
And so I reflected when the warm, salty smell of the sea suddenly got me curious. I am in the middle of mountains, where doth this come from?! When just as suddenly, the road opened up and to my left I saw the white rolling foamy waves of the sea! That’s when I realized I wasn’t in Konkan anymore. I’d reached heaven.
Heaven stretched on boundless, like the waves that enveloped it on the left. The lush hills on the right wouldn’t pause though, they had a mind of their own- wouldn’t allow the traveler to reach his destination early- they wanted him to live for the journey, not for the destination. So we went on and on, up the mountain, catching glimpses of the sea and of the mountains and both seemed to be nestled within each other, like star crossed lovers destined never to meet. Up the bike went and we came upon a patch of open land, only to be greeted by a jackal! I could have reached out and petted it, so close and unafraid it was, so unaffected by human presence. Then came the fishing boats- not miniscule excuses for a boat, but strong and sturdy, all covered with tarpaulin to protect them from the rain. Followed by the village, comfortably ensconced among the mountains, with coconut groves and paddy fields in its immediate surroundings.
To cut a long story short, we went ahead with the vulture survey. A nest can be assumed to be active by the presence of droppings at the base of the coconut palm. This year, there was just one vulture nest here. The tree had white droppings spattered in places. We saw no bird. While speaking to a local, I heard a ‘spat spat spat’ and looked to see fresh droppings at the base of that very tree. I looked up, holding my binoculars with hands trembling with the bottled up anticipation of three long years.
The film on vultures at CEC. 99.99% population declines in India. Population crash affecting the Parsi funeral customs. Dr. Vibhu Prakash’s work. The efforts of international bodies. The final culprit- Diclofenac. Caused kidney failure. Slow death. Rotting carcasses. Heart rending stories. The urge to save them. BNHS. Opportunity to work ex-situ. Opportunity to work in-situ. In-situ made more sense. The people should be the saviours, not a bunch of scientists. The contained excitement, the palpating heart, the quickening of breath.
None of this crossed my mind, only a simple curiosity to check what’s above sufficed. There it was. The white backed vulture. Whitish-brownish featherless head, black wings. It spread its wings to reveal the triangular patch of white. My binoculars could not contain the bird. With some flapping, it flew off and nestled itself in the midst of some trees ahead. My very first ‘wild’ vulture. Completely worth the seven back breaking hours I spent on the bike getting to it. And better than first love...
Want to work on vultures? Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra runs an excellent vulture conservation program along India's western coastline. The cherry on top is that they accept volunteers. So you could unwind after a particularly hectic week along the scenic Konkan coast gorging on fish, interviewing villagers gazing wonderstruck at these critically endangered beauties.
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