I had to give explanations to Ghanshyam bhai, owner of the hotel Annapoorna in Sasan Gir.
I requested him on phone, to book a room for 27th and 28th December night. During our conversation he told me that December end is a peak tourist season. Since only a limited number of vehicles are allowed inside the jungle for three safari slots of 6:30 am-9:30 am, 12:30pm–3:30 pm and 3:30pm -6:30 pm, he advised me to book the safari in advance. For this he suggested to fax an application along with identity proof, to the forest office, with his name on top of that application so that he could collect the permit on my behalf.
However fate had ordained my stay differently. Following up on a tip from a friend of mine suggesting Anil Farm House for the stay, I looked at their website and was impressed. I reduced my stay in Annapoorna by one night and instead decided to stay in Anil Farm House for two nights. I conveyed my decision of staying only for one night (27th Dec) in Annapoorna to Ghanshyam bhai.
Still, I requested him to book two safaris – one on 28th afternoon and another on 29th evening. Ghanshyam bhai sounded puzzled. Immidiately, I realized that I had landed myself in a tricky situation. I followed my age old formula, when in trouble or in dilemma, “speak the truth and bear the consequences”. I told him that I was considering Anil Farm House for rest of my stay. Ghanshyam bhai was not amused.
I tried some convincing and deployed all the niceties at my command. He did not make matters worse for me. He downplayed his disappointment and emphatically assured me about collecting the permits. I really appreciate his maturity and amiability.
And now for the journey …
One way taxi from Somnath to Sasan cost us Rs 800. As always, when I booked the taxi , I told the driver that if we found something interesting on the way he had to halt without any fuss (read extra charges). He was dead sure that there was nothing interesting on the way. I was not. He was right.
We reached Sasan in afternoon. I was not feeling comfortable to meet Ghanshyam bhai in person. A quick “Kem chho Ghanshyam bhai” echoed a warm reply and I realized that I was talking to a friendly host.
Our room in Annapoorna was on the first floor. It was a reasonably clean room with clean toilets. It had a sufficiently big window to allow in ample sunlight and fresh air. It was located on the main road in the vicinity of the jungle; Still, I don’t remember getting disturbed in night by the moving traffic or by the roaring lions :-)
December-end is probably the only peak season in Sasan. In Annapoorna, we paid Rs 800 for one night. Normally, at all other times the tariff is around Rs 350-400.
There was a restaurant at ground floor. At lunch we enjoyed theplas and aloo paranthas with fresh curd. It was a leisure day with no safari booked and no activity planned. On Ghanshyam bhai’s suggestion we had a visit to the nearby crocodile breeding farm. There was nothing interesting.
When we came out of the farm we noticed a small group of nomads with strikingly sturdy and well-built cows having beautiful curvaceous horns. They were the best-looking and picturesque cows I had ever seen. The nomads were slicing the dead skin of the horns and polishing the horns.
There were sizable African tourists in Sasan. It gave the impression about its popularity among them. No, wait a minute! I was wrong. I could not believe, but I overheard them talking among themselves in Gujarati! Later on I was told that they were Sidhis or Sidis, the Indian nationals of African origin.
It is said that their ancestors were brought to Gujarat by the nawab of Junagarh as slaves. Most likely they were bought from slave traders for the construction of meter gauge railway line passing through Junagarh. Many of them though arrived later as traders and settled there permanently.
The Sidis have retained their lineage of music and dance; their only remaining cultural link with their past. In Sasan, it is possible to watch dance performances by Sidhi women. We could not get an opportunity to watch the performance. But, we met a tourist couple who had the chance to see it. They had liked the performances and recommended it.
Sasan is a dusty small village. So small that even for a cup of tea in the evening, we could not find anyone ready to prepare it afresh. Sasan is a major beneficiary of tourist influx to Gir forest. It was evident when Ghanshyam bhai also elucidated how he grew from owning a small paan shop to Annapoorna. He was in his early 30s and sounded contented with his growth.
But, Sasan was not always like that. In 19th century this place was covered mainly with thorny babul trees. State prisoners were sent on exile there. Water and atmosphere was so poisonous that the exiled prisoners used to die within a short time. The literal meaning of Sasan in Gujarati is punishment. Gir forest was part of erstwhile Junagarh state. The forest and its surrounding areas were haven for anti-socials, thieves, dacoits and poachers. The nawab of Junagarh had to control it by establishing a number of police stations around the forest with the help of East India Company.
Opposite to Annapoorna, Sinh Sadan Lodge – the government rest house is located. The forest office and Gir orientation centre are located inside its property. We had planned to watch a wild life movie shown in the premises of Sinh-Sadan lodge in the evening. But by evening, Rachit was again feverish. We gave the movie a miss, to provide Rachit time to recover.
Next morning we were ready for the safari. Our driver Tinkoo bhai, a young lad in his twenties, arrived on time along with a guide in an open olive green Gypsy vehicle. After exchanging pleasantries with the guide and the driver we started. The guide gave a brief introduction of the Gir sanctuary. It is spread over an area of 1400 sq km and is amongst the most successful wild life conservation stories. From a pitiful small number of around 20 lions at the turn of 20th century, today there are approximately 300 lions in the park. It also has one of the largest populations of leopards in respect to any other Indian wild life sanctuary. So it is a best bet for wildlife enthusiasts to spot a wild cat.
Gir wild life sanctuary was setup to protect the lion and its habitat. The endeavor to protect lion first came into the mind of enlightened nawab Sahab Bahadur Khanji II. In 1890, Prince Victor Albert, duke of Clarence and elder brother of King George V, told nawab about his plans of visiting Junagarh for hunting lion. It was then the nawab realized that his lions were almost on the verge of extinction. In the beginning not a single lion could be traced. The duke was offered a caged pride for the game, which he refused for obvious reasons. Later on a lion was traced and finally His Highness ;) was satisfied.
It is also believed that to please the royal guest, few lions were brought from North Africa in dhows (small boats). Though it seems improbable , as scientifically Asiatic lion (panthera leopersica) has several distinct characteristics found only in Gir forest’s small population.
Asiatic lions are slightly smaller than their African cousins, although the largest Asiatic lion on record was of imposing length of 2.9 meter. It is paler and has longer tail tassels. Its mane is less luxuriant and doesn’t cover its head and ears. A prominent fold of skin runs the length of the abdomen. Gir lions are also purely predatory, never feeding on dead rotten animals unlike the African lion.
The above mentioned face saving incident that could have potentially turned embarrassing for nawab, made him aware of ground realities. He and his son nawab Sahab Rasool Khanji started adopting many positive and firm measures to protect lion as well as to conserve its habitat. For it, they had to fight with their neighboring states. Sometimes they even had to convince the royal guests not to do the killings. In 1900, Lord Curzon restrained himself when he came to know that the number of lions had gone down to a few dozens.
In 19th century the territory of the Asiatic lion was stretched from its current abode in Gujarat’s Gir forest to as far east as Bihar. Invention of the pistol, along with widespread hunting decimated lion’s population.
Asiatic Lions were the favorite game of Indian rulers and their guests. Killing wild cats was an easy way to prove the manliness, bravery and hunting prowess. It also helped rulers in portraying the image of a sympathetic ruler, who was always with his subjects in providing them safety from the marauding wild beasts.
Shooting an unprepared-innocent wild animal from protected machhans or running jeeps, in my opinion, is an act of cowardice. I remember , on my visit to the city palace of Udaipur, the boastful photographs of royals with their prized killings filled my heart with revulsion. Such unmindful and indiscriminate killings had reduced the number of these gorgeous cats to the current lows. Unfortunately, the demi-royals like Salman Khan, Nawab Ali Pataudi still take pride in killing wild animals.
It is a pity, as probably we Indians were the first in world to realize the importance of conservation of nature and animals. In 300 BC Kautilya, the mentor and the powerful minister of Chandragupta Maurya, wrote “Arithshastra” and recounted a comprehensive method of conservation and forestry system by the name of “Abhaya Aranya” or the forest free from fear. It should be the first ever documented system of living in peace and harmony with wild animals.
Ashoka, who succeeded Chandragupta inscribed his messages as rock edict in the foot hills of Girnar in 257-256 BC. The edict mentioned the rules to be followed for conservation of the forest and banned all kinds of hunting. Undoubtedly these were the first endeavors of conservation on earth initiated by a civilized society.
Coming back to the safari, our Gypsy was running on the plains and our eyes could see long, uninterrupted vistas of the jungle. Gir forest is a dry deciduous type, matching the color of the lion’s skin. It remains green only during monsoon.
We love jungles. It’s so easy to get swept away with its wild-charms, rawness and freshness. Such enchanting views of wild vegetation might had prompted Russian Novelist & poet Czeslaw Milosz to utter “Nor that I want to be a God or a hero, just to change into a tree, grow for ages, and not hurt anyone”.
A few minutes after the start of our safari, the driver and the guide drew our attention towards a pair of jackal resting under saagwan trees. They were the Golden Jackals – the largest in the jackal family. It was the first time we spotted a jackal in any jungle.
Jackal is a monogamous animal that prefers to hunt in pairs. The modus operandi of their hunting expedition is that they avoid directly attacking their preys. Instead, they try to tire it out. Once the prey is tired so much so that it cannot run and barely stand, they attack and kill it. They in general prefer the new born fawns and the leftovers of big cats. They are omnivorous and feed both on plants and animals.
Jackals are strongly associated with the dead. They were seen near cemeteries and hence in Greek mythology the God-of-dead-and-afterlife was half human with a jackal head – Anubis.
This deciduous tree varies in size according to growing conditions and can reach 150 feet in height and produces a long straight trunk of about five feet in diameter. It was a pleasant experience driving through a saagwan jungle.
Among the yellow green vegetation of saagwan trees, white bark gum or Eucalyptus tree was conspicuous. It looked like a sage with an ash smeared body, worshiping lord Shiva in the hermitage of Gir.
I am so used to seeing the narrow-tall varieties of Eucalyptus that I could not make out that it’s of the same species. Eucalyptus is a native of Australia. There are so many varieties of it in Australia that the Australian Governement has started “Eucalid” programme to identify different species of it.
And then there was the favorite of mine – bargad or the banyan tree. It always reminds me of a saint in deep meditation for centuries, unaware that his beard has outgrown his body. Also, in my imagination Tarzan, might have lived in a jungle full of banyan trees.
Its English common name – the Banyan – has an interesting etymology. This word originates from Hindi word baniya, which refers to a trader/merchant. When the Portuguese arrived in India they noticed that the merchants used to sell their goods sitting under the shade of this tree. They picked the word baniya and passed it to English and thus was born the word “Banyan” for this tree.
The Banyan tree symbolizes eternal life with its unending expanses. After years when the main trunk is too weak to support the tree, number of spread out mighty arms take the load and relieve the main trunk. An organization should be like Bargad. I wish “ghumakkar” the life of a bargad :-)
I had seen the famous Banyan tree in Calcutta’s botanical garden. This Great Banyan tree today covers over one and a half hectares with a circumference of little less than half a km with 100 subsidiary trunks.
I also came across the story of a tree that walks. Says folklore, that there was a banyan tree that started next to a small village in Gujarat. It has moved, literally, with the original trunk having withered away. It now stands two miles away from where it began life 200 years ago. Interesting.
I came out of my engrossing thoughts when suddenly our Gypsy halted. We saw a glimmer of hope. A few Gypsies were standing there with all the tourists looking toward an abandoned Gypsy. We were told that that some VIP guests were been escorted by the forest guards to the lions already spotted by them. A few more tourist Gypsies arrived. It made the rangers, standing there, impatient; they started to shout and commanded the drivers to move on. A verbal duel broke out. One of the drivers argued vehemently against the wrong doing of the forest rangers. They had allowed the VIPs to walk in the jungle but were not allowing others to even halt. As the voices rose, our hopes of doing Namaste to pride began to fall.
We felt that there was zero possibility of a lion coming out from the interiors of the jungle in that brazen noise. Had I known more about the lion habits, I might not be so hopeless. Lion is amongst the laziest of the big cats and sometimes spends more than 20 hours a day, taking rests. It is a social animal and lives in groups or families called “pride”. Asian lions are remarkably fearless of man and allow humans to come close. I wonder if we would have continued the ruckus for some more time and annoyed the lion appropriately enough; it might have actually decided to come out of its shady abode, condescendingly obliging us, crazy tourists, for a few prized snaps. Thereafter, he would retire back to continue to enjoy the noiseless, serene nap. Unaware of this possibility ;) we requested our driver to move ahead.
Later on in Anil Farms, I could make out who was in that empty gypsy. One Mr Kabra was boasting, how through his contacts he managed to see the lion while others returned complaining of “No Sightings”. He had to ring his forest contact again as his few family members were not in that VIP Gypsy :-)
We asked our navigators about the best season to spot a wild cat. Both of them felt that it was in the summer, when most of the trees are bare. The wild cats in that season are forced to come out into the open to the limited water reservoirs.
They explained that on hunt wild cats prefer to walk on dusty Gypsy paths to avoid rustling of dry leaves. They are undeterred, even if a Gypsy follows them. It also explained why we could never spot any wild cat in any sanctuary we visited, while we always managed to spot its pug marks :-)
Till 1987, it was common in Gir to attract a lion with a tied domestic animal. As the lions used to come close, sometimes these baits were quickly pulled back but many a times they fell prey. However, in both the cases this maneuver left a lion trapped in tourists shutter boxes. Some of these lions become so habitual of the meat of domestic animals that they started to attack human settlements, causing lose to human lives, cattle and sometimes to their own. For good, this practice is now discontinued. It is better not to spot any wild life than to spot it in this manner.
As the sun got fully awake, opened its eyes wide open, started its chores with deep breath, our navigators, the driver and the guide, lost hope of spotting the wild cat. We were told that the magician sun with his hypnotic sun-rays put the prides to sleep in deep jungle under the cool shades of the trees. The prides by that time of the day hardly move.
In the end, we reached a place where this tree with jungle berries was there. The grapes were sour for spotting the Lion, but the berries were deliciously sweet. Its taste was even richer than that of the ber and it did not cause any irritation to the throat. This fruit is favorite of monkeys. Did I say that I liked it too? :-)
Afterwards we drove towards the exit. When we reached Sasan we stopped at a sugarcane juice shop to wet our thirsty throats. The thirst to spot a lion remains un-quenched, but we compensated it by satiating our real thirst with a glass of sweet sugarcane juice prepared along with ginger.
It was time to un-settle from Annapoorna, to get settled in Anil farm House. Anil Farm house is at a distance of 6 Km from Sasan in Balcheel village. GhanShyam bhai dropped us there and we waved good bye to him.