There is something inexplicable about rustic India. The simplicity and warmth overwhelm you as you see glimpses of rustic life: shepherds and their herds, farmers getting ready for harvest and nomads wandering along with their belongings. We pause by and chat with a woman who is on her way to join her husband with her two daughters. A lone baby bird drops from a tree as we speak and the girls rush to curl it in their hands and caress it. We ask for directions and move on...
We are in Hampi, the 14th century capital of the Vijayanagar empire, but our destination is about 20 kms from here, where one of the hidden gateways of this mighty empire was apparently built. The locals call this hamlet Daroji or Darwazi, meaning gate. Our agenda however was not to see more monuments, but to look out for sloth bears who have made the rocky caverns their homes.
The roads give way to shrub jungles and massive boulders. A pair of painted spur fowls rush past us, while the grey francolins call out for attention. The shrubs and the rocks are a perfect habitat for these bears who feed on berries and wild fruits that grow in plenty here. There are termite mounds and there is no dearth for honey.
We are at the foothill of a small mound waiting for the bears. It is a dead end and a small detour takes you to the watch tower. The Forest Department arranges for sweetlicks for the bears in the noon and we patiently wait for them to emerge out of their caves. While tourists watch the spectacle from the watch tower, we had special permission from the department and were hardly 20 feet from the bears.
And while we wait, our guide takes us to the days of the Ramayana when Anegundi, located on the other bank of the Tungabhadra, was believed to be the mythical Kishkinda, the monkey kingdom of Sugriva who was Rama’s ally in the war against Ravana. It is said that Rama’s army crossed Hampi en route to Srilanka. And if myths are to be believed, there was one bear in the army called Jambavantha.
Today, the Daroji Wild life sanctuary that includes the Bukkasagara range of mountains near Hampi and Anegundi is home to 130 bears. You can also find leopards, foxes, jackals, hyenas, pangolin along with several mammals and a variety of birds and reptiles.
Meanwhile at Daroji, the world of Baloo of Jungle Book comes alive in front of us. We watch a pair of bears peep from their cave and climb the rocks. A couple of cubs follow. For a long time it is just us and the bears. The residents of this jungle are busy enjoying their sweet licks as they lick one rock after another. They seem blissfully unaware of us clicking photographs. The silence is only interrupted by the large grey babblers who gather around these sloth bears. A sudden growl and the bears scramble behind the rocks. A large bear walks up the mound from behind our car and starts licking the rock hardly a few feet away from us. He gives us a look and then continues his activity, while the other bears disappear.
Illegal mining, man-animal conflict...
For a moment, I am lost in their world watching them play hide and seek with each other. It seems like there is a territorial war out there. As I watch, my guide explains that these bears are today threatened due to illegal mining and man animal conflict, especially in fragmented areas of the forests. As we speak, we can hear the distant echo of the dynamite from the hills- almost a sign of man’s greed out there.
Many bears rescued
While stories of man-animal conflict are in plenty here, the forest department has also rescued many a dancing bear from Daroji and neighbouring villages. My guide recounts stories of this age-old practice of capturing and domesticating a bear cub by the kalandars, who used them for entertainment.
The cubs were separated from the mothers who were killed and then the barely six-month-old cubs were subject to cruelty. Their claws were pulled out and so were their sharp teeth and sometimes the male cubs were castrated as well. They were then taken from home to home as children rode on them on the belief that they would be cured of ailments or they were paraded in villages where they danced to the tune of the masters. These domestic bears have been rescued and sent to rehabilitation centres in Bangalore, as kalandars have been given vocational training so that it compensates them for their loss of livelihood. It started raining as we did not realise that we had spent close to four hours watching the bears in their own habitat. They shook a leg for us, as they let the rain drops dry from their furry body and then disappeared into the rocks. Although it seemed like a peaceful coexistence, the bears seem to know that we were encroaching into their world.
Daroji wildlife sanctuary is about 15 kms from Hampi and you would need about half a day out there. Hampi is an overnight journey from Bangalore and is about 364 kms from the capital city.
Accommodation is available in Hampi and Anegundi. Carry binoculars if you are going to the watch tower. You could get forest department permission and they would arrange your trip to Daroji with a forest guide and your accommodation in the nature camp at Kamalapur will be taken care as well.