THE FIRES OF LOHAGHAT
Following in the Tracks of Jim Corbett of India
Charles W. Norris-Brown
The Song of the Alaknanda
In the 1980s, a budding, but not very young, anthropologist was on his way into the interior of the Himalayan hills to Joshimath, about as far as you can go on the road before you enter the boundary region with China, then a restricted zone. His first travels took him from Delhi to Haridwar to Rishikesh and up the river to Joshimath through places lik Devaprayag, Rudraprayag, Karnaprayag, Nandaprayag and Vishnuprayag. These, the five prayags, were located at the confluences of rivers along what is the Ganges below Devaprayag, and above where it is called the Alaknanda. These little towns, as well as other centers along the river were the sites of ancient temples, and all part of a pilgrimage route that ended at the very head of each branch of the Ganges, far up in the Himalayan snowy range.
That budding anthropologist was me, and my research took me into the interior of the modern state of Uttarakhand, to the edge of settlements where the hardy Shauka (Bhotiya) people lived. These people were my research subjects and I would finish a PhD on that work in 1984. Like in many alpine regions, the Shauka would move between winter and summer homes along with their sheep and goats which they took as pack animals between the lower hills and across the passes into Tibet. To Jim Corbett in his book on the Rudraprayag leopard, these were the packmen he met often moving up and down the roads.
As I criss-crossed between this region, known as Garhwal, and that which would become my home base, to the east, at Almora in Kumaon, I would travel across a range of hills to Karnaprayag, and go from there north to Joshimath or down river to Rishikesh. The route across the hills to Karnaprayag went through a small settlement known as Gwaldam. There I spent the night once, now many years ago, and someone suggested that I take a short walk up a hill where I would have a view of the great snowy range of the Himalayas. Climbing, with my back to the view, I settled down on a stone wall and turned around.
There before me, as if covering half the world, in all its sunset orange glory, rose the mountain known as Trishul. Stunned, I began to cry. Trishul: the three pronged trident of Shiva. Even today in my old age, tears still come to my eyes when I think of that view. I understood then, as now, why people of the hills, the Pahari, and so many others of South Asia, when they look upon the mighty range of mountains, believe that they are the abodes of the gods, and thus to try to make a pilgrimage at least once in their lives to pray to those mountain gods at the very sources of the most famous of the rivers.
As Corbett notes in the first pages of his book The Man Eating Leopard of Rudraprayg,
to praise these gods, people came from the plains of India, starting at Haridwar and Rishikesh at the base of the hills and traveled up the river to Rudraprayag, where the Mandakini River flows into the Alaknanda, and thence flows northwest to the shrine at Kedarnath. Or pilgrims proceeded on to Joshimath where the streams veer off again again at Vishnuprayag then northwest to the shrine at Badrinath. These two shrines are some of India’s most famous ones, in the abode of the gods, accessed by roads as challenging today as they were long ago. In Corbett’s time, the bravest of the pilgrims preferred to do the trek barefoot. In the 1980s, a trip from Rishikesh to Rudraprayag would take a matter of hours, in my case, in the local buses, which drove to near the shrines.
It is a landscape, then and now, that makes access a challenge. Small farmsteads still cling to the steep sides of the hills, their Pahari (hills) people eking out a living from terraces which Corbett called a “series of lines across the face of the steep mountains.” Terracing is the only way to combine any flat area for cultivation with a water source by digging out from the hillside and diverting the streams. They maximized what space they could find, even if the terrace was 10 long.
The little hamlets responsible for the terraces could be seen far off on hillsides, and the only way to get there, in Corbett’s day as well as today, is by foot — up and down these steep hillsides, skirting the terraces on narrow dirt paths and on stone stairways.
Once you got to the road, dirt in Corbett’s time, mostly surface now, you could board the many buses and private “taxis” to get to your destination. Then as now, the main roads to Rudraprayag are only so wide and so straight. The hills are high as they rise above the river valley roads clinging to the hillside, with hairpin curves requiring a high degree of skill, especially when trucks, buses and cars meet on those curves.
These hills are “rugged and rough” Corbett wrote, “cut up by innumerable deep ravines and rock cliffs.” In and around these gullies and copses of woodland, the hamlet farmers collect oak leaves and grass for their goats and cattle. These pathways, gullies, and rock outcroppings figure throughout Corbett’s hunting of the man eaters. Victims were either, in the case of Rudraprayag, pilgrims along the main roads, or more generally hapless Pahari who needed to venture out — men, women and children killed while farming a terrace or collecting fodder and dragged off into some ravine. We read often of such ravines and of how Corbett would set up watch in a structure built in one of the oaks.
In the 1980s, I knew about Jim Corbett, but only later bought his books. When I finally did read his work, I knew the scenery, since I also walked those narrow paths, climbed up or down earthen steps from terrace to terrace, sat on stone walls in the homestead courtyards, ventured into gullies where women lopped oak leaves or cut grass beneath mighty pine trees, followed children to a water source to get their buckets filled, clambered up stone steps, and shared in their meager meals of dal and rice.
And Corbett knew the river, the Alaknanda, churling its way down to Rishikesh and, as Ganga Ma, across all of northern India. It is a steady roar in the higher places. Bluish in color, with mighty waves it carries with it the words of the gods from high up in the mountains; carries the words down to share with the world. If the world will listen, it will hear a song begun on the likes of Mount Trishul, carried down its streams, touched by all matters of life, caressing rocks, merging with neighbors — a song from the heart of the earth. If the notes of the river were colors, it would paint a million rainbows.
The Road to Champawat
My travels then took me all over Kumaon — to Muksteshwar, Naintal, and Ranikhet, all in Corbett’s turf, and north to Bageshwar and the interior. But in the 1990s it also took me farther eastward, to the beautiful Talla Desh, one of Corbett’s favorite places, and site of another well-known hunt for a man eater. He praised the beauty of his camp in the terai at Bindukhera, and traveled from Kathgodam via Bareilly and Pilibhit to Tanakpur — — then up the Sardar River separating India and Nepal, all places I visited and would eventually return to. Corbett trekked the route on foot. I rode buses bouncing along sometimes dusty and bumpy roads all over beautiful eastern Kumaon from Tanakpur to Pithoragarh and along the Mahakali from Munsyari far up where the Shauka lived, to Barmdeo. Like Corbett, I heard the barks of the kakhar, the squawks of the pheasant, the whoops of the langur, when I could get off the road and into the homes and pathways of the Paharis.
This eastern part I suspect is still far from the madding crowd with names and places as mysterious as they sound. In the 1980s, it was an area low in tourism since there was not a lot to see as an outsider other than in passing through, as in Rudraprayag, to tourist centers in the high mountains. Officials seemed to be the biggest travelers up and down the roads form Tanakpur to Pithoragarh, the regional government seat. When the cars and buses stop for the night, life returns to the silence of the mountains and the singing of its streams, and I, once in a while back then, spent a night in a hamlet, under heavy covers with bed tea served by a shy young woman in the early morning as people got up to face the day of toil ahead of them.
Both Corbett and I shared the feeling of the mysterious beauty of it all from Lohaghat to Champawat. The people, their terraces, small homesteads, sharing walks along terraces and down into the jungle. There, where people and animal share a world, where bare human footprints share muddy paths with animals of the forest; where anklets jingle in the still air; when langurs bark and tigers call. Men and women with large piles of hay, grass, leaves, or sticks on their heads. Men plowed terraces with water buffalo or cattle, whole families working in the rice paddies. There were the smells of water buffaloes and hay, lopped oak leaves; of milk tea and dal and rice; of hard stone house interiors. A strong and self-sufficient people, the smell of healthy humanity, taste of buffalo milk. The spicy children smell of mischief and head colds, always smiling — almost always, that is. A tear here and there from maybe a little boy who did not get in the picture — saved by the kids who surrounded him and brought him forward. In these farmsteads, no one was turned away, and the guest is “god.”
The Waters of the Kosi
In the 1980s, from my base in Almora, I would often visit Naintal. But by the 1990s, my travels had shifted southward and westward, and by 1999 into that part of the terai ecozone in which Corbett Park lay. My research focus had shifted somewhat away from the people of the hills toward the terai, and in 1999 I set out to start what I thought would be an academic study of the people of the Corbett Park buffer zone. By then, I had read all of Jim Corbett’s books and as part of my 1999 sojourn, paid a visit to his home in Kaladhungi. I had also made contact with The Corbett Foundation (TCF) which had an office just outside the park entrance. My association with them would be a game changer for me.
My intention at that time was to develop an “applied” research project around Corbett Park, the aim of which was to find ways to help save the endangered Bengal Tiger. TCF provided much information and the allowed me to ride around with them in parts of the Corbett buffer zone on both medical visits and visits to look into tiger kills of cattle, the goal of which was to collect data as well as reimburse the villagers so they would not be tempted to kill the tigers.
But I was not happy with my applied anthropology. Much of it had been done before in that region and would in part become the Terai Arc Landscape Project under the guise of already established, and thus financially secure, academic “experts.”
But something wonderful happened. Accompanying TCF took me right into the heart of the buffer zone, to places far from tourists. This took me into places that I had never imagined existed. They were the simple farmers of the flat interior, with almost magical, large homes of grass. There I met them and their children and touched a little bit of their lives.
I had also taken with me some of my art material. I think I was curious to see what watercolor combinations I could use to get the beautiful skin tones of the people. On one of the trips around the buffer zone, I asked if anyone had any better suggestions as to how to help protect the tiger. Seeing my art, someone suggested that I write and illustrate children’s books.
It was an epiphany and struck deep into my soul. Now I could combine what I loved about my field of anthropology with my art, and that with my closeness to the local people whether in the hills or the flat area known as bhabar (where Kaladhungi is located) and the terai. It would also direct me toward sharing my feelings and interpretations around conservation and forests — with the world’s new generations. And last but for me far from least, it liberated me from academia with its identitarian and self-protective politics. No more books on shelves or published articles in rare journals whose only readers were other academics whose only purpose was to secure university status. I felt that my connection with the issues went straight from the hearts of those “small” people I had paid wonderful visits with. In time, my book Did Tiger Take the Rain? was published (my book is now an open source book at https://storyweaver.org.in/stories/99107-did-tiger-take-the-rain).
My book starts out on a day in the terai. It has been exceptionally hot and dry. One day, a tiger crosses the river and walks through one of the village fields. People run in fear and believe that the tiger is an omen — the tiger took the rain. Two little girls decide to set out to ask Tiger why she took the rain. But Tiger did not take the rain after all. Forest degradation can affect the climate cycle of transpiration, evaporation and precipitation. It is a sensitive balance. But most importantly the girls begin to understand that when it rains, it rains on people and tigers alike. We feel the same wind. We all breathe the same air. In the end, they set out to replenish the forest and restore the balance.
In an article from 1936, ten years after his confrontation with the Rudraprayag leopard (“Wild Life in the Village: An Appeal,” Indian Wild Life I(2)), Jim Corbett notes two major adverse things happening at that time in the volatile interface between human and animal/forest. One, was the wanton killing of wild animals. This not only reduced the numbers generally, but, as in all such compounding factors, killing many of the tigers’ prey put pressure on the tigers to seek out easier prey, including human. The second adversity was habitat destruction, and here Corbett lists several, including the effects of Forest Service policy. Again, with the destruction of the forest, the habitat of the tiger and so many, many more species, humans and wild animals are pitted face to face.
Forest degradation and its effects on both humans and animals is part of my book’s theme. But reading Jim Corbett made me even more aware of an empathy for the local people, the front line in the big picture.
There is one scene in Corbett’s story the Muktesar Man-Eater that struck me, not only because I could see and smell the very places on which it was based. It added another, empathetic dimension that no academic research could ever attain. It is the brief account of the meeting between Corbett and little Putli, the brave little girl that delivered her uncle’s cow along paths no one else wandered in fear of the man-eating tiger. She had shown Corbett where a late kill had taken place. Ensuring she was safely home, the rest of the story is about his hunt for the man-eater. This is one example of Corbett’s intimacy with and love for the simple people of the hills. Nor was it only of his touching concern for the safety of Putli. He moved among the people, knew them, loved them, and knew that the first line in the breakdown between humanity and Nature lies among people such as these.
There they have lived for ages among these beautiful hills or in the flat terai. Smoke curling up from home fires boiling water for tea or making food in such mysterious places as Rudraprayag, Champawat, Mukteshwar and Davidhura. In the clear, crisp air of the hills there is the sweet smell of clothing perfumed in smoky corners lit up by the sweet perfume of the fires in far away places such as Lohaghat.
“And, greatest satisfaction of all, at having made a small portion of the earth safe for a brave little girl to walk on” (Jim Corbett “The Muktesar Man-Eater”)