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March 27, 2018

Habitats for Humanity: Bera In Rajasthan Offers Much Food For Thought

Text and Photographs by Aalika Mahindra

What makes Bera in Rajasthan unique is the fact that it is perhaps the only uncontrolled environment in which leopards and humans have peacefully coexisted for over a century

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.
From Ode on Solitude by Alexander Pope

A pair of ears peeked out from behind a naked grey rock, and the powerful binoculars I was using caught their every twitch. I silently focused the lenses on the two yellow-brown peaks, and restrained any audible expressions of excitement for the imminent payoff following a patient two-hour stakeout. After another 20 minutes, the furry triangles finally elevated to reveal the imperial head of the sleepy leopard cub to which they belonged. His heavy paws splayed out in front of him, and he arched his long back for a leisurely full-bodied stretch like an agile yogi mid-surya namaskar, except the feline faced a blood-orange setting sun. As he settled into a seated position, poised like a feudal lord with front limbs overlapped, a flicker of movement on the top of the rocky hill signalled the arrival of his mother and sister. Their marching silhouettes morphed into flashes of black and gold as the last rays of the sun entangled themselves in the spots on their sprinting bodies. When they reached the male cub, the family sat together, surveying their domain with supernaturally translucent jade eyes rimmed in jet black. And I stood in the distance, in quiet awe of this imposing tableau.

If I sound adrift in a Rudyard Kipling fantasy, it’s only because my trip to Bera, in the Aravalli Hills of Rajasthan, had exactly that effect on me. Located between Udaipur and Jodhpur in the Pali district, Bera is a small, rustic town inhabited largely by the Rabari tribe, a shepherding community — unmissable in their white achkan-dhotis offset by intricately snaked brick-red turbans and silver amulets. The famous Jawai Bandh, built by Maharaja Umaid Singh, is probably the most recognised site in the area. It is a breathtaking expanse and an ornithologist’s dream, but the craggy backs of crocodiles float ominously atop the water, waiting to pounce. What makes Bera unique, however, is the fact that it is perhaps the only uncontrolled environment in which leopards and humans have peacefully coexisted for over a century. The Rabaris’ herds of slow-moving cows and goats provide a wealth of prey for the leopards to hunt, and there was no necessity for them to evolve into predators of humans. In fact, they are more likely to kill their own over territory wars. Our open-top Jeeps and unarmed safari guides are proof of this counter-intuitive ecosystem; a place where man and beast fight for survival, but not against each other.

I stayed at the Bera Safari Lodge, a boutique hotel owned by a delightful couple — Shatrunjay Pratap Singh and his wife Katyaini Kumari. Run more like a homestay, the lodge has only five cottages that look like they just appeared in the landscape like some inexplicable Stonehenge. It is the only oasis at the end of a large stretch of rocky, cacti-filled desert land. The Singhs have calibrated the degree of isolation to perfection; there is always enough company to satisfy the need for human contact, but not so much that it cramps theirs or the guests’ experiences of detachment. About seven years ago, after a stint with Sula Vineyards, Shatrunjay decided to devote all his time to tracking Bera’s leopard population and conserving their habitat. He prompted the Rajasthan government to stop a mining project that would have destroyed these animals’ natural environment. Also an avid photographer, he accompanies his visitors on safaris, armed with his camera, tripod and intimidatingly large telephoto lens. I was grateful for my borrowed DSLR that allowed me to escape being the lone person trying to zoom in to a faraway, not to mention camouflaged, cat, with an iPhone camera. Shatrunjay has been working on a film project for the last year, for which he has been intently tracking a single family of leopards. The persistent determination and passion is enviable; his enthusiasm borders on obsession, but the type of obsession that is gratifying and satiates the soul. I always have more than a few revelatory moments when I come across somebody who emits this aura of zen, the palpable sensation of equilibrium that comes with finding purpose. He is awake by an unearthly 4 a.m., awaiting the latest updates from his various scouts, who include local villagers. Each day could consist of hours of solitary waiting, with just the sound of his breath and clanging temple bells periodically interrupting the stillness. His reverently upturned Rajput moustache bristles with his hiccupy laugh as his wife recounts how she demanded separate bedrooms to prevent the crackling walkie-talkies from interfering with her night’s rest.

Although leopards are her husband’s forte, Katyani also appears to have found her centre of gravity in Bera. The meticulous detail that went into making each cottage comfortable, the locally sourced ingredients for six-course meals and the impeccably run lodging all bear her nurturing stamp. I did not, however, see Katyani as simply a talented homemaker. Her quiet strength and mien of no-nonsense rationality are what I imagine helped her choose to find happiness in the middle of nowhere, instead of living as a passive bystander.

On my last night, the other guests and I enjoyed some drinks in front of the jumping embers of a bonfire. I looked up at the inky sky, the glimmering dots of constellations making it look like delicate lace. It’s an old cliche, but on a clear night, a network of stars can really kick one’s existentialism into high gear. At daybreak I had stood on a hilltop and watched the sun rise into a diaphanous Monet sky while the sheer waning moon was still visible. I had sipped on steaming kulhad chai sitting on the charpai of a local tea shop before the town woke up. I watched a solitary barefoot farmer carrying a load of branches among the cavernous rocks inside of which sleeping leopards lay. I saw the deep lines engraved into the leathery face of an elderly Rabari up-close and questioned the significance of my own personal history. After witnessing and participating in instances of solitude (not to be confused with involuntary isolation or loneliness) in its different forms, I ultimately was able to clearly see that in the search for private tranquillity one shouldn’t have to literally detach from one’s current habitat. If leopards and humans have managed to create a jointly habitable domain, how hard could it be? As our species evolves, what is ‘natural’ also will, but what will be constant is our inner state and the way it nourishes or depletes us. The beauty of solitude is that it can take on multiple forms, shape-shifting to fit one’s individual needs. It might, in fact, be easier to think of our inner being as mutually exclusive from its outer surroundings. When it comes to making lifestyle choices, we have the troublesome tendency to think in binaries; you can either live in a big city and run the rat race or give it all up to live in an Ayurvedic centre in Dharamsala, but that inner sanctuary can be tended to even if you’re in between. Maybe by asking the right questions one can feasibly distil the world down to exactly what makes one happy. Maybe a leopard can change its spots.

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