Jawai – Where Leopards are Locals

‘We went to India not only to observe the changes that had occurred since my former visit, 23 years ago, at the conclusion of our Philippine war, but also to visit places of interest, see something of the military air and ground forms, visit some old friends and acquaintances and then have a good tiger and big game hunt…Tiger hunting is regarded in India as a royal sport, and he who is successful in bagging this master of the jungle is looked upon as a public benefactor, for the number of people killed each year by wild animals and reptiles in India is appalling. Statistics are difficult to obtain because the native in some places hesitate to report what has happened, and in other cases those killed disappear without leaving a trace. The number reaches into the thousands, however.’

Brigadier General William Mitchell, Assistant Chief, US Army Service

A lot has changed since Mitchell wrote this in 1924. Now hunting of wild animals is officially banned and those blue-blooded Rajputs, who often partnered the British on their hunting expeditions, their present descendants have become saviours of wildlife.

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It is difficult to date the practice of hunting as a sport in our country but as per the available historical records it proliferated in the early 16th century CE with Akbar’s passion for big games. He began the tradition of royal hunting, shikar that was followed by Mughal rulers until the dynasty fell in 1857 CE. A large number of murals and miniature paintings from 16th century CE depict Mughal, Rajput, Turks and Afghan nobility hunting from elephant or horseback. These outings were an exotic and heroic sport and tigers were considered the ultimate trophies.

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A mural, shown in Bundi Palace depicting royal women hunters in the 18th century CE

British hunters along with their Rajput counterparts almost shot the tigers to extinction. The mass killing of tigers and leopards showcased their royalty, machismo, power and wealth. Often the hunters went out in large parties, carried by 10, 20, 30 or even 40 elephants. Their servants dragged and baited tigers into open public spaces for grand exhibition and the hunters often legitimized the killing by arguing that the big cats were terrible bloodthirsty beasts with an unquenchable desire for human flesh.

This is one side of the story and the other side shows a remarkable bond between India’s people and the natural world. The same Mitchell further writes: The jungle beasts of India are very ferocious, while the inhabitants are practically unarmed and are unwilling to kill most animals on account of their religion. A fact which forcibly impresses the western travellers in India is the proximity in which the indigenous people and the animals of the fields and forest live. Wild creatures of all sorts are found at the doors of the huts’.

After a century of Mitchell’s hunting expedition, I meet a young scion of Mewar’s Rajput clan Pushpendra Singh Ranawat at Bera village in the heart of Rajasthan’s renowned Jawai Leopard Country. Pushpendra runs a successful wildlife camp on his own ancestral farm called Varaval Leopard Camp (www.varawalleopardcamp.com). Together we went on an expedition deep into the leopard country and the exotic Jawai Dam where you see some of the best landscape in the whole of Peninsular India against the backdrop of spectacular Aravali Hills, one of the oldest in the world with a vast expanse of wetlands, agricultural farms and pasture lands. The drive was thrilling – daredevil off-roading on solitary granite hills.

Travel Tips:

Jawai is a cluster of hills surrounded by Jawai Dam in South Western Rajasthan on Jodhpur – Ahmedabad Highway at a distance of 163 km from Jodhpur and around 250 km from Ahmedabad. The nearest towns are Sirohi and Pali. While at Jawai do visit Bankli Home stay, a beautiful country resort at a distance of 50 km from Jawai. (http://www.thecountryretreat.in/). Owned by Krishnapal Singh Champawat the property has a magical ambiance set against the dry Jawai river, Aravali Hills, agriculture farms and secret marshy land where you can see countless migratory birds including pelicans and flamingos.  

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Each hill of Jawai has a story and on some hills, there are temples of Hindu and folk gods. Interestingly, the local villagers associate the temples with leopard as the face of the god and treat the kills of their domestic sheep/goat or stray dogs by leopards as an offering (prasad). This reminds us of India’s millennia-old humble faith in Almighty resulting in the unique bond between the human and the natural world. In the last 50 years of Jawai’s history, there is not a single case of a leopard killing a human being in complete contrast to the erstwhile Maharajas and British hunters claim of big cats as man-eaters and therefore a reason to kill. Watch the film here to know more about Jawai.

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Khichan – A model of ‘Vasudeva Kutumbakam’

Pushpendra’s story starts much before his birth. Rao Bahadur Thakur Shivnath Singh Ji, Pushpendra’s great grandfather and the Thakur Saheb of Bera was a passionate hunter.

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Rao Bahadur Thakur Shivnath Singh Ji

By the time his grandfather Thakur Saab Lal Singh Ji was young enough, India was free and had banned hunting. A new journey had begun. As a child Pushpendra would listen to scores of stories of shikar from his dada and nana and play around the very hills with his peers where his great grandfather once upon a time would set camps for hunting. These early childhood experiences set him on his path, not for an armchair corporate career but to lead and educate people like us about his land and the leopards of Jawai. For the last three and a half years, he has been consistently researching and watching leopard behaviour and passing the constantly created new knowledge to his esteemed guests. His day starts with an early morning safari at 4.30 am, much before sunrise with guests to Jawai’s magical hills and wetland and ends with yet another safari in the evening.

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Jawai consists of 28 granite hills and most of the leopards live in and around these hills in volcanic caves that are found in abundance.  Rebari shepherds, farmers and Garasia tribes inhabit the landscape. The seasonal Jawai River flows from east to west before meeting the Luni River in the midst of Thar Desert.

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The Jawai Dam was built by Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur in the 1950s to provide water to the parched region of Marwar. It is the biggest wetland in the whole of Western Rajasthan. The dam may have brought prosperity to the region as you see extensive canals in the countryside supplying water to the fields. Once upon a time a harsh desert land now altered into a mosaic of green and yellow with wheat and mustard plantation as far as your eyes can see. However, the river which once carried seasonal runoff has dried up completely.

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My dear friend Krishnapal Singh Champawat shares his views on the now dry Jawai River in the film below.

Jawai has one of the largest concentrations of leopards in the country but it is still not a sanctuary either under the protection of state government or Government of India. This is perhaps due to the high density of human population and their peaceful coexistence with leopards. It is true that Jawai has leopards because there are humans and therefore has an easy food supply. Pushpendra’s team is working towards obtaining the status of community owned reserve forest for Jawai where local community will manage their wildlife resources, not the government. If it comes through then it would become a classic example of Gandhiji’s Swaraj, an idea that had led India to its independence from the British Raj.

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Mangalajodi– Where Ashoka is Born and Dies Every Other Day

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Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

Water Heritage of Jodhpur – Then and Now

Ranisar, Padamsar Ote, Vyapari Gaya Tote

If Ranisar and Padamsar overflow, the market rates will fall as there will be good rainfall and bumper crop and the hoarders and money-lenders will be put to loss 

An old saying in Jodhpur

Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s second largest city and the cultural capital of Marwar is a jewel in the crown of the desert state. In spite of its hostile terrain and harsh climate, Jodhpur has produced some of the finest artistic expressions and music in the entire Indian Subcontinent. The erstwhile Maharajas were not just great patrons of art and architecture but also skillfully managed the water resources of the region.

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So durable was its water management system that it could quench the thirst of its inhabitants till 1950s through a complex network of lakes, step-wells, wells and jhalaras. Jodhpur has hills surrounding Mehrangarh Fort and is a catchment area for monsoon waters that flow down into small and large depressions. Its medieval inhabitants converted them into lakes from where water was drawn to over hundreds of step-wells and jhalaras built in different periods of time in the walled city area and beyond.

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Burhanpur – A Medieval Water Oasis

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Every neighbourhood in the old city had its own baori and the maximum concentration of baoris is in the Chand Pol area. These baories not only provided water to its inhabitants but also refuge to birds and a variety of aquatic life. Teeming with the life they were a cool refuge from the heat of the desert to spend some time in.

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Travel Shot: Community Revival of Taj Baodi – A Success Story

Bijapur Water Heritage – An Oasis in Parched Deccan

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But with the construction of Indira Gandhi canal, the Himalayan water started flowing into every household of the desert town through pipes and taps. People started detaching themselves from their roots of harvesting and respecting the water. Slowly the places and related customs became obsolete and turned into a refuge for tons of trash. The most vulnerable were the underground baoris; hidden from plain sight these have become a safe haven for anti-social elements.

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Reviving Ballari’s Water Heritage – Hope for the Best

Rao Jodha decided to build his capital on the summit of Pachetia Hill in the 15th century CE because the area had immense potential for harvesting rainwater and perennial springs that were visibly flowing in-between the rocks.

Travel Tips:

Jodhpur is the second largest city and is located in the heart of the Marwar region in west-central Rajasthan. Founded by Roa Jodha in 1459 CE Jodhpur is a major tourist place for its palaces, temples, desert biodiversity and ethnic life. It is also a shoppers paradise. The main thoroughfare for tourists is around the iconic Ghantaghar, the lanes and by-lanes of the Blue City and the majestic Mehrangarh Fort. 

From Jodhpur, a tourist can also plan to nearby Mandore Fort, Gurjar Pratihar Temples of Osian and Khichan for demoiselle cranes. 

For a local delicacy try out rabdi and kulfi at street corners around Ghantaghar.  

The first water project undertaken was Ranisar for supplying water to the fort above. The southern embankment of Ranisar has masonry walls of red stone with symmetrical steps descending up to its depth, exhibiting the great architectural skill of Jodhpur’s formative period. Water was collected from by both the common people as well as the royal family. Women would come to fill water in their pots for their household needs. For the royal family, labourers would carry water in large vessels up to the palace. From the turret (burz) water was also drawn up to the fort by Persian wheels.

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Hill Forts of Jaipur – Jewels of Aravali

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Ranisar and Persian Wheel Structures 

The construction of Ranisar was patronized by Jasmade Haddi  Ji, the Maharani of Rao Joddha in 1460 CE, which was later expanded during the rule of Rao Maldeo.

Beside Ranisar is the Padamsar tank, yet another marvel constructed by Rani Uttamade Seesdini  Ji, who was the daughter of Rana Sangha of Mewar. Rani Uttamade’s other name was Padmavati. The project was also financed by Seth Padamsar Shah of Mewar at the behest of his mother to assist Rani Padmavati. Hence it came to be known as Padamasar after its patron.

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Padamsar

Both these water bodies were periodically expanded and maintained by the royal families.

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Mandu’s Water Heritage – An Epicurean Delight

A little away in the walled city near the Ghanta Ghar is Gulab Sagar along with two temples – Neni Bai ka Mandir and Ranchor Ji ka Mandir. All of these were constructed by queens. According to Late Komal Kothari, Rajasthan’s foremost folk historian, most of the water bodies of Jodhpur were commissioned when these queens became widows.

The following is an extract from his conversation with Rustom Bharucha that appeared in the book Rajasthan – An Oral History.

‘Here we have to understand the laws relating to primogeniture (pātvi) inheritance, where the property of father goes exclusively to the eldest son and does not divide among the brothers as in the bhai-bant inheritance system.

In the pātvi system, we find that as soon as the king dies, his widowed queens are removed from the royal premises along with their servants. It is assumed that they pose a potential threat to the new king with their manipulations and conspiracies.  Only the new king can sanction whether these ex-queens can hold on to their property; they may however, be denied access to it. Now so far as movable property (chal-sampati) is concerned, including ornaments and money, this could remain with the queens unless the king orders that it should be returned to the royal treasury. What we find is that when the queens became widows, they would often give their property to a Brahman – this form of donation is known as udakena. It works on the premise that anything given as dān (gift) to a Brahman cannot be reclaimed by the king. Till the queen lived she had rights over the property, but on her death, it became the Brahmin’s property. We find that the patronage of many water bodies has come from such sources.

The other prominent donors were female dancers and singers who were patronised by the king and given the status of pardayatpaswan and bhogtan. There were also prostitutes from musician groups like the patar. We find that these women financed the construction of quite a few temples and drinking water sources after the death of their respective masters.’

Unfortunately, the construction and development of water bodies came to an end around 1897-98, when a public water supply system was introduced for the first time. But Jodhpur’s inhabitants continued to value and maintain the sanctity of old water bodies till the 1950s, after which a collapse began.

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Water and Thar Desert – Stories from Indo-Pak Border

On a fine morning when I started walking around the old city admiring its water bodies, what drew my attention were the clean waters of the Toor Ji Ka Jhalra built in the 1740s by Rani Toor Ji. This step well, however, had become a dump yard until recently when it was taken for restoration by local hotels. Water was drawn from this stepwell using Persian wheels once. I was very impressed with the sight, but this happiness disappeared as soon as I arrived at Gulab Sagar, a critically polluted talav with residents having opened their sewage lines into it and also dumping the garbage. Here I met Caron Rawnsley, an Irish environmentalist who has made Jodhpur his home for the last many years.

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Toor Ji ki Jhalra and Gulab Sagar

We spent almost an hour at the spot to understand his ideas and concerns regarding Gulab Sagar and other water bodies of the city. Do watch the video below.

From Gulab Sagar, I next went to Mahila Bagh Jhalra, another restored stepwell, thanks to Caron who cleaned it single-handedly recently.

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Deeg Palace – A Synthesis of Persian and Indian Aesthetics

From Mahila Bagh, I strolled through the interiors of the Blue city and came across a number of small baories in different neighbourhoods. The most important being the Chand Baori but a great surprise was awaiting me on the following day when I and Caron walked through the Chand Pol area outside the walled city.

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Chand Baori

Our first stop was at Sukhdev Ji Trivedi ka Jhalra, a clean undisturbed water body teeming with aquatic life. There is no information available virtually on its construction or patron. As Caron said it was also not spared until recently by the neighbours and had become a dump yard like many other baories of Jodhpur. He put in a lot of effort in cleaning but vandalism of the structure and its sculptures have not ceased. Do watch the video below on Sukhdev Ji ka Jhalra.

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One interesting feature you see near every step-well in Marwar is a stone post with sculptures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses engraved on it. You also see the inscription of the donor and sometimes his/her image.

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Panchmadi Baori

Our next stop was a hidden gem among all step-wells of Jodhpur – Panchmadi Baori. It is virtually unknown to the outside world and thanks to its almost secret location, it has escaped vandalism. You see pristine water as you descend the steps.

From Panchmadi Baori we moved on to yet another hidden gem, the Ram Baori. Though it is located in the heart of the city it offers unmatched peace and tranquillity.

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Ram Baori

Next, we went to the fairly well-known Suraj Kund, a large square tank with steps and pavilions spread over two floors. The structure is now under renovation by the Mehrangarh Fort authority. Built by Rao Suraj Singh in 1672 CE, the well is built in Mughal architectural style. It is located in the premises of the Rameshwar Siddha Peeth and was built to meet the water demand of the shrine.

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Step – Wells of Gujarat – a Timeless Journey

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Suraj Kund

In close proximity to Suraj Kund is the Raghunath Ji ki Baori, the most well maintained of all the baories I saw. The kids there told me they use the place to learn and practice swimming.

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The last baori visited by us was the Panch Kua Baori located in an open space but close to being encroached from all sides.

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Jodhpur is truly a magical city. Its art, architecture, settlement pattern and more importantly water structures are unique in the Subcontinent but one feels disappointed to see this wonderful water heritage on the verge of extinction. We need a little bit of Caron Rawnsley in each of us to fulfill what Gandhiji meant by Swaraj. That said, the government too needs to wake up from their deep slumber and take urgent steps.

Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com