It was on a beautiful winter morning that we visited the Mangar Bani. Dark clouds that had gathered in the sky, waited patiently till we walked right through the forest to the top of the hill and came down the other side. And then, they poured down for better part of the day.
The Mangar Bani is a ‘sacred grove’, sandwiched between Faridabad and Gurgaon. It is the last existing stretch of the indigenous forests of the Aravallis, on the outskirts of Delhi. It is the exclusive repository of the natural Ridge vegetation of Delhi – an ecological treasure. This is the only portion of the Ridge that has the Dhak trees growing, we were told. Yet, there has been much struggle on the part of conservationists to prove to the Government that this patch of forest actually exists, to have it demarcated as an endangered forest reserve and protect it from the mining and real estate mafia, rapidly chomping their way through it.
A hermit called Gudariya Baba is the one to be thanked for the Mangar Bani. Many years ago, he used his influence over the villagers living around the grove to prevent them from grazing cattle or collecting kindle from the forest. Legend has it that he promised the villagers that curses would rain upon those who cut trees or grazed cattle in the Bani. While other forests in the region got depleted, the Mangar Bani survived. Gudariya Baba, to whom a temple is dedicated within the forest, has had to adapt over the years of forest erasure, however. Our guide told us that there is now a practice of coming up with a “chadhava” or offering of some amount of money to the Baba, in return for permission to graze one’s cattle. This and the presence of much garbage, including styrofoam, around the temple don’t bode too well for the precious forest reserve. Yet, there is much hope in the efforts of activists and local conservationists like Sunil Harsana, our guide.
As we walked, Sunil Ji told us more Latin names of trees than could fit into my mind. The local names were easier to digest – Paapri Chudel, Khees, Vishtendu, Dhak and Dhau. The roots of most of these trees are fascinatingly cunning in the ways in which they twist, dance, lift themselves off the earth to keep the little water they find.
Going by the number of times Sunil Ji crouched over the ground with his GPS trappings on finding porcupine droppings, I learnt that porcupines must have great digestion and nimble legs (we didn’t see a single porcupine though we did see the scratches they’d left on tree trunks). As he takes visitors around the Bani, he uses the opportunity to document the flora and fauna of the dry, deciduous forest. Peacocks were all over the Bani, blissfully unaware of how a court judgement would generate an inordinate interest in their sexual habits, in just a few months.
The delicious hospitality we were accorded by the Lumbas at Laksh Farms, in Mangar, made this forest visit possible. The Farm is about an hour’s drive from Delhi. Captain Shakti Lumba and Ila Lumba bought a few acres of barren, dry land and converted it into a green haven over twenty one years. They started Laksh Foundation in 2007. The Foundation runs Tuition Centres for the local children and a Women’s Co-operative that makes aesthetic garments and bags. The women from the nearby villages work on these pieces from their homes and the products are supplied to retail outlets in many parts of the world or sold at exhibitions and sales in Delhi. Pesticide free vegetables and fruits grown at Laksh Farms are supplied at select places in Delhi, at regular intervals.
The highlight of our stay at the Farm was the warmth and love with which food was cooked and served by the matriarch of Laksh Farms – Rajjo Ji and her team. The melt-in-your-mouth gur-ki-rotis, methi parathas, missi roties, bajra roties and other delicacies were made in open chulhas under the sharp supervision of Rajjo Ji. The Lumbas are keenly involved in making visitors feel comfortable and in telling them about the heritage of the local forests and the lands they are working.
There are wonderful opportunities to volunteer at Laksh Foundation and to visit the farm. Read more about their work at – https://foundation.lakshfarms.com/
Ila Lumba can be contacted for more details: firstname.lastname@example.org
Feast on these images from Mangar Bani and Laksh Farms (Photos and photo art below by Anannya Dasgupta)