As we walked in a gully between two stands of rock, a shadow fell upon us. The source was moving in leisurely circles across the sky. The easy pace of the bird came from a confidence – the ease of a bird of prey for whom the sky is a playground.
A Short-toed snake eagle was in the spring sky, shimmering white against the blue. Near us, closer to eye level, a Spotted Owlet snoozed on a branch. And behind it was the great panorama of the Aravallis – understood to be amongst the world’s oldest mountain ranges. The place where we were standing, near Mangar in Haryana, looked as old as the Aravallis themselves. There was no great marker of modern life in front of us – wires did not scythe through the sky, car horns didn’t blare, the hills were not cruelly gouged out.
Yet, this may not remain a reality. Haryana (much like Goa) wants to mine its mountains and minerals. The Supreme Court will soon hear a case on this matter. Citizens of Haryana, notably from Gurgaon and Faridabad, have mounted a spirited and sustained campaign to safeguard what remains of the Aravallis today. Through campaigns like Aravalli Bachao, they also ask that Haryana should increase their forest cover from a pithy, existing 3 percent, to at least twenty percent.
Looking at the old, dusty crags of the Aravallis, I thought of all that the mountains had endured. They would have seen civilisations rising and then smashing to the ground, young and old people both, and would have tolerated storms and spells of serenity. Despite their age and their location in Delhi NCR – making them prized real estate by default – these hills were still standing. But how can they withstand mining?
That is why states must make the inter-generational decision to preserve what little is left of green belts and water recharging areas like the Aravallis.
As we moved forward on the hills, spikes of orange greeted us on the slopes. Pushing through the dry, rocky Aravalli soil were Palash trees. Palash is a native Indian tree that flourishes in Central India. This means it can withstand desert-like heatwaves, live on tiny quantities of water, and still put out a heart-stopping display of annual flowers-like-flames. The tree has a complicated trunk and beautiful, trifoliate leaves. Palash will usually grow bent or crooked. Buds grow densely clustered on boughs, looking like birds huddled tightly together in the cold. When the buds break into blooms, their proximity to each other gives a sense of mad profusion – as if the branches are covered in merry licks of dancing flames. The flower itself is a piece of unusual beauty – it has been likened to the beak of a parrot, or the shape of a claw. Seeing Palash on the Aravallis is as natural a sight as mining would be unnatural.
Near the Palash, on flatter ground, another native Indian tree flourishes. This is the Semal—a tall tree with large flowers which feed all kinds of birds, bees and mammals. On the slopes, Dhau trees with purplish leaves grow- specialized for holding on and withstanding the loo from the Thar desert. Around Mangar, there are Kaim and Kadamb trees, Chudail-papdi, Jungle jalebi, Bistendu and Banyan trees.
As I noted down the Palash trees, I saw another ancient animal patrolling the sky. This was the Egyptian vulture, once a common species. It is a smallish vulture revered in Egypt, a bird with a disheveled looking head and a bright yellow beak. The Palash, Kaim and birds of prey had all adapted to this place and its peculiarities – the old rock smoothened by the elements in places and completely jagged in others, ringed by tough, thorny trees and blessed by an abundance of sunshine.
A recent survey revealed that there are many more wild species in the Aravallis than meet the eye – these include leopards, honey badgers, hyenas, porcupines, langurs, Nilgai.
To my eye, the Aravallis deserve protection not for their age but for their possibilities. Without the Aravallis, we would hardly know of the Dhau that can hold on to slopes and the Bistendu that grows a fruit used to stun fish. The Aravallis show us that the heat and dry sparseness of North India can have species evolved for this very place. That we are a step away from the desert, but that step in between is lush with secret lives – shadows in the sky and flowers amongst the rocks.
Photos: Neha Sinha
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