Born to be free

This Independence Day, let's celebrate all things Nature, all things beautiful, writes Nilanjan Coomar

Kanchenjunga view of Sandakphu

Come Independence Day, a nation and the people that it cradles will celebrate a remembered freedom, awash in an unquestioned and deserving fervour. There can’t be a bigger occasion for symbolism and for so much pride and patriotism.

Yet, if we step away from the ideals of clan and tribe, and of race and country, there are other freedoms too. Quieter and unnoticed freedoms; but worthy of taking pride in, since they are not always about our own. A freedom for all that belongs to Nature — which showers countless bounties upon us, and whose benediction it is that gives and keeps giving with all its heart, expecting so little in return. It’s a fight for and a celebration of such freedoms — of creatures that are voiceless, that make our land so achingly beautiful, and who deserve no less than a life lived on their own terms.

Here are six little-known places that can fill one with no less pride as to what India stands for — freedom.

Bharatpur black shouldered kite and moon
Bharatpur black shouldered kite and moon

Sudhanyakhali

That in a world largely tamed into submission, India still harbours a place so wild that man, the supreme being and hunter, is nothing but among the hunted — isn’t that worth taking some awe-filled pride in?

Visit Sudhanyakhali in the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve for a boat ride on a river that snakes to the sea, tugged at its heart by the pull of the earth and the moon. Where water comes in and gushes out with the tide every day, to leave behind a land licked by its wetness and its salt. Where a breed of tiger still lives that is so untrammelled in its ferocity, and so steeped in legend, that it’s perhaps more of a spirit and an idea, than a true creature of flesh and blood. Yet, it exists. As evidenced by the countless stories of men who have strayed too far and have been too careless, and who are now lost forever to this wondrous maze of forest, taken away by a striped ghost that comes up to mooring boats at night, noiseless in its stealth, and implacable in its intention. To be in the Sunderbans is to feel unimaginably alive with a thrill and a fascination of being among beasts that can kill us, and do so at almost their free will.

Sunset at Sunderbans
Sunset at Sunderbans

Keoladeo Bird
Sanctuary, Bharatpur

Nature can paint, and that it can paint very well is proved in a place like Bharatpur in Rajasthan. No canvas can be so haunting and mystical. Think Bharatpur, and you think foggy winter mornings, the mist rising from the water like a spirit of the land, shrouding the lakes and the road that runs under gracious arches of trees, a sheltered pathway to paradise. On that road, you may find a frozen silhouette of a chital, a living statue of gentle grace and beauty, carved fleetingly by the play of light through the fog and the trees. Hundreds and thousands of water birds from all across the globe bring the place to life.

A Kingfisher spotted amidst fog in Bharatpur
A Kingfisher spotted amidst fog in Bharatpur

Panna Tiger Reserve

India has many pressing human needs and scarce resources to spend on them. Yet, one has to see the tiger re-introduction programme at Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh to believe how a nation can truly make a difference, if its intent is in the right place. A park that suffered the evils of poaching, resulting in the extermination of all its residing tigers, Panna today is a shining example held aloft worldwide, showcasing India’s determination and success in protecting its national animal. Watch the tireless and unrelenting effort of the simple but dedicated forest staff who patrol every inch of the reserve, through all hours of light and darkness, through scorching sun and furious rain, ensuring that the radio-tracked tigers are safe.

Sandakphu

You don’t need snow shoes or crampons, or need to breathe through oxygen cylinders, and don’t need to rappel down precipitous slopes where a single tumble can take you into a snowy and untraceable oblivion. Yet, at Sandakphu in the Singalila National Park in West Bengal, nestled above the clouds at 12,000 feet, you will be able to take in breathtakingly uninterrupted views of four of the five highest mountain peaks in the world — Mt Everest, Mt Kanchenjunga, Mt Lhotse and Mt Makalu. These snow-clad giants, standing tall and majestic over time and millennia, will take away any hubris you may have as a member of the human race.

A leopard spotted in Jawai
A leopard spotted in Jawai

Jawai Conservation Reserve

There are parts of the world where trophies are handed out for mercilessly hunting down the maximum number of coyotes annually, but in the boulder-strewn landscape of Jawai in Rajasthan, an old priest who walks up to his temple every evening often finds a leopard sitting on its steps as he reaches the top, which will just slink away silently at his approach. Never in 30 years has man and beast harmed each other, an inherent tolerance and a sharing of space rarely seen elsewhere in the world.

Leopard families have thrived in this landscape for ages. The goatherds know that a few sheep from their flock will be lost to these striped cats, the true rulers of these lands. It’s part of the larger acceptance that the very scrub forest that makes a living possible for these poor people will also extract its occasional price. 

Dudhwa

To round it off, what better place to visit than a homage to Tiger Haven in Dudhwa National Park in Uttar Pradesh, the workplace of Billy Arjan Singh, a conservationist of the like the world will never ever see again? Born, incidentally, on August 15, Billy was a man of exemplary courage who put the rights of India’s remaining wildlife over its people, who reared orphaned tigers and leopards, completely rewilding them to a life back in nature. He was a sight to behold — walking the sal-drenched paths of this forest with a tigress ahead of him, a dog by his side and a leopard Harriet bringing up the rear! Who once put his granny, who had come to visit him, in a cage, because he believed that in the forest it was the wild cats who should roam free. Today, more than ever, we need more Billys, but it’s also true that there’ll never be another like him.

A nation’s pride 

A nation’s pride shouldn’t just be in its people, not just in its monuments and culture, and not just be rooted in an anthropocentric history, howsoever glorious that may be. Gandhi said that a nation is judged by the way it treats its animals. We must celebrate the sharing of space amongst all of God’s creations, not just because it’s right, but because it’s moral. An Independence Day should be a celebration of all freedoms.

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