This time around I wasn’t going to miss it for anything.
Three decades is a long time. Figuratively since the time my daughter began to show her milk teeth to now when she is married and lives in a faraway land.
Chudail Chaaj (abode of the witches), as the locals called it, lay in the Tunda Bharka Khoh in the south zone of the park. It had often been mentioned to me by the staff observant of my preference for the outdoors over office work.
Khoh is the local name for seasonal streams.
The Park Range officer had even got a picture of a few strange-looking signs from there which I had then got engraved into the main facade of the Park’s reception centre. Little was it understood then that what had been taken for an exotic art was actually part of a sentence in a language no longer in use.
Tunda Bharka Khoh is a first order stream that feeds the Mahuar river, a major tributary of Sindh in north central Madhya Pradesh. The park was Madhav National Park (MNP) in Shivpuri district and I was then its director. ‘Sindh’ is yet another popular name for more than one river in India (see my previous post).
MNP was declared a wildlife national park in 1956 and is thus one of the earlier such parks in the country. Once a popular shikargah (hunting preserve) of the house of Scindias it takes its name after Madhav Rao Scindia, one of the famous kings of the dynasty. The park, especially in its central zone is sprinkled with a number of heritage structures, ‘George Castle’ being the most famous and imposing of them all. Legend has that the castle was built in 1911 for an overnight ‘shikar’ stay by King George V, but was never thus utilized for the King had got his ‘tiger’ short of Shivpuri town.
It is the land of Kardhai (Anogeissus pendula) – a medium sized, small leaf, crooked bole tree -which flourishes on poor soils of rocky undulating terrains. Commanding the heights it makes allowance only for its dogged associates like salai (Boswellia serrata) and kulu (Sterculia urens).
A few evergreens like jamun (Syzygiumcumini), gular (Ficusracemosa) and ber (Ziziphusmauritiana)manage to exclude it from the valleys.
One special quality of Kardhai that I would give anything to witness, is its amazing ability to magically break, just with a hint of rain, into a riot of lovely, verdant green from an absolutely leafless, summer grayness.
My first port of call of course was a perennial spring called Amrai, forming one of the founder streams of the Tunda Bharka Khoh. It lay like an ‘oasis’ in the heart of the stone dry landscape during early May. The site of the spring where from fresh water oozed off a crack in horizontally layered shale rocks (farshi in local parlance) possessed a distinct micro climate of its own with a diverse vegetation mix of mango (mangiferaindica), jamun (Syzigiumcumini), amla (Emblica officinalis), karonda (Carissa carandus) and khajoor (Phoenix spp).
This distinct and welcome green patch could be seen from a distance!
The staff mentioned that come summertime, they preferred this water to the one supplied by the municipality.
There were tell-tale signs of wildlife and cattle using a small pond that this spring had formed a little distance down the slope before escaping underground to emerge later at the mouth of a gorge formed in the Tunda Bharka Khoh.
Not a little restless by now, I was soon led into the world of Chudail Chaaj that lay a stone’s throw distance away from the gorge.
It was a longish overhang which could hardly be called a ‘cave’ but still carried enough depth to offer safety from a sudden downpour to anyone caught unawares in the wilds.
The manner in which the trees and vines had embraced it betrayed not only its vintage but the fact that the local people avoided it perhaps on purpose.
What greeted me there was way beyond my expectations! It was a cornucopia of rock art in different colors and forms spread all over from reachable heights to the very ceiling. Drawings of humans, processions, martial scenes, animals, trees, bee hives and unfamiliar signs fascinated me no end. Soon I lost count of the indulgent hours spent admiring and clicking all that I could see, distinctly or not.
Although the elements over the ages had faded, many into oblivion, one which still stood out is an animal drawing that seemed like an ant eater without many of its other features.
Further investigations revealed that these drawings were to be found in similar overhangs at not only Chudail Chaaj, but also at Ghuria Chaaj and at Shiv kho within a short distance of one another.
The mystery of the strange signs was unraveled thanks to the expert help received from Sri Rahul Singh, a senior researcher & official at the Department of Archeology, Raipur (Chhattisgarh). According to him it is a sentence in the prakrit language (Pali script) from 2nd century BC and reads “Kaushik ka putra, shiv ka rakshak/bhakt hai” (Son of Kaushik is the protector/devotee of Lord Shiva).
No wonder, the locals thought these drawings to be the handiwork of ‘witches’ and kept a safe distance from them? Who knows, it is this fear that has perhaps also saved them from vandalism at the hands of man.
Whatever, a wait of over 3 decades turned out to be more than worth it!