The 15th of February marks the date of the martyrdom of Shri Sanjay Singh, an Indian Forest Service officer, at the hands of nefarious Maoist elements and the mining mafia in the Rehal forests of Rohtas district, Western Bihar. Singh’s remarkable legacy has become an inspiration to generations of Green Soldiers, not only to those who have been working in the Vindhya-Kaimur Range of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but also to our field formations across the length and breadth of the country.
The forests of Kashi have been an intrinsic part of the pristine Vindhya-Kaimur Range. It used to be a part of Varanasi until the new district Chandauli got carved out of it. This is actually the south-eastern most part of Uttar Pradesh, which is adjoining to the jungles and hills of western Bihar, Sonbhadra and Mirzapur. Kashi’s forests were also known as the Chakia forest of Raja Benaras, with similar tracts of forests belonging to local kings of Dudhhi and Singrauli.
Apart from the harvesting of timber and forest produce, the forests were used as places of recreation and the Rajas used to have their shikargahs spread across these thickets, that used to be like small quilas or forts, and some of which later got converted into Forest Rest Houses.
After Independence and the enactment of the Zamindari Abolition and Land Reform Act 1950, these forests were vested to the state of Uttar Pradesh. Subsequently, for almost four decades, these forests were not only the source of timber, especially Salai, Vijaysal, and Abnoos, and also minor forest produce such as Tendu leaves, Mahua flowers, Piyar fruits, Chiraunji, and innumerable medicinal plants, both for the forest department and the local people, but also, used to attract thousands of people to Naugarh, Aurwa Tand, Rajdari and Devdari for jungle visits and to admire nature’s bounty, especially during the rainy season. However, the infestation of the area with Maoist activity for almost a decade have faded away the memories of the historical, cultural, and natural heritage of Kashi in the recent past.
We all know about Kashi, and its religious and spiritual significance as an ancient city, but the very same Kashi also has this huge tract of forests which have been a part of regional anecdotes and stories, since the olden times, as well as have added to the grandeur of the Vindhya-Kaimur range with their rich biodiversity.
These forests and the adjoining landscape have been the home to many of the tribes of Uttar Pradesh, such as Kol, Kharwar, Baiga, Cheron, Gond, Oraon, Buiyan, Panika and others. They have been living in these forests for numerous long years, having nurtured their own culture, languages, and more importantly, traditions based on ethno-botanical knowledge. Their dependency is on the forest and I can recall an incident from way back in 2001 when I was posted there, and children from tribal settlements from the Naugarh area had been brought into Varanasi city to show them how buses ply and trains carry passengers, because they had been so remotely placed and living in far off areas for years, that they had not had any chance to come in contact with modernity, they had been completely devoid of city life.
Besides the vibrant culture they sheathe, Kashi’s forests are known for Naugarh-Vijaygarh, places which have been popularized due to the very famous Chandrakanta Santiti, penned by Devki Nandan Khatri, which was later adapted into the popular daily soap, Chandrakanta ki Kahaniyan. The six-volume fiction series has stories of magic and folklore that are said to have been conceptualized and based in the forests around Kashi. Naugarh in today’s time is the place of origin, where one can still find the forest rest house which used to be like a fort.
Relatively unexplored are three magnificent waterfalls in this region, Devdari, Rajdari, and Aurwa Tand. Rajdari and Devdari literally connote ‘seat of the king’ and ‘seat of the gods’, signifying the immense grandeur and beauty of the valleys where they’re located. In the monsoon season, these waterfalls coupled with the lush greenery of the forests, are a sight to behold. Characterized by stepping falls giving way to plunging water streams, the waterfalls are a must visit for those in and around Kashi.
Aurwa Tand in Naugarh is also home to ancient cave painting sites, which have been in existence since prehistoric times. They are situated in the cave shelters of the Vindhya-Kaimur ranges and have about 250 rock art paintings. Some of the noteworthy painting sites are located in the cave shelters of Lakhania, Panchmukhi, Kauva Khoh and Lakhma similar to those in Kashi. The paintings throw light on the periods ranging from the Mesolithic to the Heliolithic ages. Sonbhadra is also home to the Salkhan fossil park, where fossils are estimated to be nearly 1400 million years old. The fossils appear as rings and are scattered on boulders in the park which is spread over the same landscape. The ancient and prehistoric nature of the forests can be realised by the presence of Salkhan fossil forests which lie testament to 1400 million years’ worth of time passed by.
The floral diversity of Kashi’s forests acts as a lifeline for the people of the region, who rely on forest produce for earning their livelihoods, besides contributing to the richness of biodiversity. The economy of the region is characteristic of produce from trees such as Mahua and Tendu, as well as Buchanania lanzan whose seeds and fruits – Chiraunji and Piyar respectively are widely sold and consumed in many parts of North India. Tendu has been the main source of income for tribal people, with many members from a family engaged in the collection of the leaves which are used for making beedis. Mahua also play an important role in the socio-cultural space of the tribal people residing in these forests, as Mahua flowers make their staple food in various forms. Other prominent tree species in the region include Sal, Salai, Vijaysal, Palash, Asna, and Dhau. Salai trees have been used to make the famous wooden toys of Benaras while magnificent flaming red Palash blooms cover the forest facade during the spring months. Besides, the Palash leaves have found their way to cities as leaf plates and bowls.
Another interesting and lesser-known fact is that Kashi’s forests have one of the oldest sanctuaries named Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary where the reintroduction of Asiatic Lion was attempted in 1957 from Gir in Gujarat. The number of introduced lions rose up to 11, but subsequently, the population dwindled. Chandraprabha, although a very small Wildlife Sanctuary, has been home to lions, tigers, leopards, Chausingha, Sambar, and a wide variety of birds. The Eastern reaches of the Vindhya-Kaimur have also housed elephants in the past. This landscape has recently witnessed movement of elephants and tigers which indicates the presence of a myriad of mega-faunal species in the area since time immemorial. Sightings of sloth bears and leopards are quite common there, even now. Earlier, this wildlife sanctuary used to provide a sort of connectivity with the forests of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh up to prominent protected areas in the landscape.
Perhaps the remoteness of Kashi’s forests from the city put it in a disconnected state which might have been one of the reasons that the region faced extremism and Maoist activities from early the 1990s to the mid-2000s. This may have also stemmed from a dynamic social structure owing to the onset of illegal mining in the area. Between 1996 and 2001, seven forest officials were martyred in Kashi wildlife division alone. I witnessed the sad demise of two of our forest officials – a forest guard and a forester – who were shot point-blank, just because the Maoists thought that they had come to disclose their presence in the forests. I also witnessed the unfortunate abduction, followed by the brutal killing of my then fellow Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of an adjoining area, Shri Sanjay Singh, at the hands of Maoist extremists, across the extended landscape of Kashi’s forests. Today, in the Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy (IGNFA), Dehradun where upcoming Indian Forest Service (IFS) officers are trained, this is one of the stories of the loss of our martyrs, which we narrate, of those who laid down their lives for service.
During this extremely difficult time, the region grew much more obscure and less people frequented it, rendering it even more remote and disconnected than before. The perceptions of its inaccessibility and dangers grew and people began avoiding the forests and nearby areas due to the insecurity as a result of Maoist activities. I still feel the eerie silence and threat of the face-to-face encounter with Maoist extremists when we had received information about an effluent poaching gang and had entered the forest. Despite all odds, we were able to nab nine poachers, and charge a large fine for criminal activities in the area. Showing complete disregard for our lives, we had encounters with the poachers in the forests with open rounds of firing from both sides, and ended up chasing them, and bringing them to justice.
Despite such natural and aesthetic marvels, many are unaware about the beauty, significance, and importance of Kashi Ke Van, the forests of Kashi. From being the setting of the Chandrakanta Santiti, age-old forts from the Kashi Raj era doubling up as rest houses, forests with their full natural bounty, wildlife, and all the historical perspectives it offers. Although certain parts of the forest, the Lateef Shah dam in Chandauli district, and the waterfalls have been frequented by locals as picnic spots, the region rarely features on the itineraries of those frequenting Varanasi and nearby locations.
Photos: wildlife and landscape Ramesh Pandey; forest rest houses Sitanshu Pandey, IFS; Salkhan Fossil Park Rakesh Kumar, PFS UP
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