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Cover story: India’s fastest vanishing treasures

The country we know and love won’t be around forever. Even as you read this, a tiger somewhere is being hunted for skin or for sport. A stately monument is witnessing its last few summers.

brunch Updated: Apr 20, 2013 18:44 IST
Sharanya S
Sharanya S
Hindustan Times

The country we know and love won’t be around forever. Even as you read this, a tiger somewhere is being hunted for skin or for sport. A stately monument is witnessing its last few summers. A lush forest is being sacrificed in our thirst for development. But all’s not lost. Not yet. Many of our indigenous wonders still remain and are breathtaking to hold. See them now, support them now. And you’ll give them a tomorrow.

The Indian Vulture, Uttarakhand

How many left: About 10,000
As recently as the 1980s, vultures were so abundant in India that it was probably the most common large bird of prey in the world. But in the last decade, their population has seen almost a 99 per cent decline. “It was discovered that diclofenac, a painkiller administered to animals, left behind a residue. When vultures ate carcasses containing them, it proved fatal,” explains Issac Kehimkar of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). The birds would either die from acute kidney failure or lose their ability to reproduce. The BNHS effort to ban the drug was successful in 2006, but the battle’s still on. Diclofenac is still available for human use and people have been using it for their cattle. The Haryana forest department and the BNHS established a breeding centre at Pinjore and the first vultures bred in captivity will be released by 2016. Till then, they will continue to be a rare sight. Surando, Gujarat

Expected to last: A few years

This stringed instrument is fashioned from a single piece of wood and played with a bow made from horse’s hair or gut fastened to each end of a flexible stick and traditionally used by the Fakirani Jat community of Kutch. Six strings – five of steel and the sixth of copper – make a sound that’s not quite a violin and not exactly a sarangi, but altogether haunting. "Over the years, the sounds of the surando have been disappearing into the vastness of the Kutch desert," says Berenika Rozanska, festival producer at De Kulture Music that organised Pushkar’s Blue Lotus Festival, aimed at showcasing Indian music genres on the verge of extinction. "Osman Jat is the last known master, and as he strums his deft fingers across the strings, this quaint art of creating music is brought to life; but might soon be extinct."

The Pangolin, across India

How many left: Undetermined. They refuse to cooperate with the census team
The pangolin is a truly interesting animal. The scales on its body differ depending on the colour of the earth in its surroundings. It curls up into a ball as a form of defence. It is widely hunted for its meat. Its scales are thought to be an aphrodisiac and are made into rings and jewellery. “The pangolin is a nocturnal animal and is very secretive, so determining its exact population is tough,” says Issac Kehimkar of BNHS. But they’ve been reported to wander into villages, and dig through concrete to enter homes. Though said to be found across India, they’re hard to spot. If you’re lucky, you can see the pangolin at Amboli in Maharashtra and in Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh. Art, Kutch

Expected to last: Not more than a decade

This traditional Kutch form creates intricate patterns on fabric. Gummy paint is made by boiling castor oil with earth colours and mineral dyes over three days. It is then spooled on to a thin iron rod, much like a crochet needle, and the resulting trails or strands of paint are manipulated to form shapes like petals, geometric patterns and dots. All designs are drawn freehand and require dexterity and patience. The work can decorate everything – saris, scarves, even cushion covers. The Khatri family in Gujarat is the last of those that are still masters of this form. "It is a very specialised sort of art, and almost looks printed, but what you get is lacquer on cloth," says Medhavi Gandhi, founder, Happy Hands Foundation, which aims to create sustainable development opportunities for craftsmen.

Hampi, Karnataka
Expected to last: One generation

It’s called the largest open-air museum in the world. But what now lies in ruins was once the thriving capital of the Vijaynagara Empire. Located on the banks of the Tungabhadra river, Hampi’s temples point to great wealth and superior architecture. At the Vitthala Temple, the outer pillars (also called the musical pillars) reverberate when tapped. More than 500 monuments, spread over 26 square km, fell under the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, but were taken off in 2006. “Hampi is being ruined due to encroachment and urbanisation,” says award-winning conservation architect Abha Lambah. “But in the last few years, the government has taken steps to preserve it with some positive results.”

Majuli Island, Assam
Expected to last: Two decades

Majuli, the world’s largest river island, is located in the middle of the Brahmaputra river. It is a major hub of Assam’s Vaishnav culture. “All of Assam’s Hindus belong to a certain sub-sect that finds its headquarters in Majuli,” says Nandita Chalam, who lived in Assam for 25 years. Majuli is covered with vibrant greenery and has barely any pollution since there are no factories in the vicinity. Its residents are known for their mekhla chadars (traditional garments comprising a wrap skirt, blouse and additional cloth to drape over the shoulder), and eri, a raw silk that originated there. The Shattriya Nritya, a classical Assamese dance, also finds its origins in Majuli. Sadly, the island is under threat due to extensive soil erosion from the river lashing against it. Almost a third of the island has disintegrated, and despite government efforts, it keeps getting smaller every year. “Majuli is close to the hearts of every Assamese. That’s why every Assamese is joining in the effort to save it,” says Chalam. Fort, Rajasthan

Expected to last: Two generations, unless restored in time

Back in 1156, when the Bhati Rajput ruler Rao Jaisal constructed Jaisalmer Fort, the world was a different place. The land was arid, the rains paltry, water scarce. Yellow sandstone walls rose magnificently from endless desert. Within, homes, stables, palaces, scalloped arches, delicate jalis and intricately carved walls thrived. And thus it stayed for almost 2,000 years.

Then the tourists came, the government built a sewerage system and everything changed. Additional water for half a million visitors began to overstress the drains, sewage seeped into the clay-rich soil and weakened the foundations. Add to it the fact that increased rainfall set off more collapses, and the damage caused by the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, and you know that India’s last living fort – 2,000 people call it home – won’t be around for long. "The problem with Jaisalmer Fort is the people," says Kurush Dalal, who has a Ph.D in Archaeology and teaches at Mumbai University’s Centre for Extra Mural Studies. "They need to work with the The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to preserve it."

The Rudravina, Uttarakhand
Expected to last: A few years

The rudravina is a string instrument usually associated with drupad, the oldest surviving compositional form of Hindustani art music. It is believed to have been the most prestigious instrument during Akbar’s reign. However, during the second half of the 20th century, dhrupad lost its pre-eminent position to the khayal, leading to the decline of rudravina. “While in the last couple of decades, dhrupad has managed to stage a comeback, though not in its original form and glory, there was no place for the rudravina in its new avatar,” says Dr Suvarnalata Rao, musicologist and head of Indian music programming at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA). “Today, the instrument survives in the hands of just one or two practitioners with almost no hope of its revival.” Catch a performance soon, or recordings will be all that remain.

Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary, Maharashtra
Expected to last: Less than a generation

With Shivasagar Lake on one side and the Western Ghats on the other, Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary has been naturally protected. A complex biodiversity has flourished; tigers, panthers, sloth bears and pythons have made it their home; and threatened plants like dhup and longan have thrived undisturbed. But all won’t be well for long. “The sanctuary is threatened by land being acquired by resort owners and windmills being set up in the corridors of animal migration,” says Vishal Suri of tour company Kuoni India. Land inside the sanctuary is up for sale and several trees have been felled to set up 200-odd windmills to power industries in Satara district. Soon, it will be a sanctuary only in name., Kerala

Expected to last: Two generations

This elegant form of Sanskrit theatre is believed to have originated over 1,000 years ago. Classical dramas are spun through dance and usually performed at temples. Some would last for hours, even days. Kudiyattam has been recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Heavy-duty stuff indeed, but Kudiyattam performers today are few and far between. Amrita Lahiri, a kuchipudi dancer who formerly headed the dance department at the NCPA, Mumbai, believes lack of awareness has led to its decline. "The Sangeet Natak Akademi has set up centres for the preservation of Kudiyattam in Kerala, but funds are limited. It requires decades of dedicated training to master a form like this. In order for young people to take up these rare forms as a profession, every citizen must recognise and take pride in the beauty of these traditions."

The Great Indian Bustard, Rajasthan
How many left: Fewer than 300

The Great Indian Bustard isn’t colourful like the peacock. But it’s one of the largest flying creatures in the world, and it was almost crowned our national bird. They used to be a common sight in the grasslands of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, but they’re vanishing fast. About 90 per cent of their population has fallen victim to hinterland development – as fields make way for towns – and their size make them an easy target for hunters. “They are critically endangered,” affirms Issac Kehimkar of the BNHS. The BNHS organises trips where you can try to get a glimpse of the last of this breed. A few can still be spotted in Solapur (Maharashtra) and in Rajasthan.

The Gharial, Uttarakhand
How many left: Fewer than1,000; only 200 are breeding adults

The reptile native to the Indian subcontinent is not your regular croc. Its jaw is long and thin and looks like it could spear you (though it wouldn’t. The gharial’s jaws don’t accommodate large prey) and eat fish. But they are one of India’s most endangered species. Gharials are extinct in Pakistan, Bhutan, Myanmar, and most likely in Bangladesh. In India, barely 200 breeding adults remain in the wild. They’ve been hunted for their skins and for use in local medicines. But now, with rivers becoming more polluted, their habitats disappearing and illegal fishing, their survival is even more threatened. To catch a good glimpse of the gharials, head to the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand.

Valley of flowers, Uttarakhand
Expected to last: Not more than a decade

No other valley is so aptly named. Fields of blooms bright enough for a Yash Chopra song, rare animal and plant species, picturesque beauty and crisp fresh air – it’s all here. The valley gets its name from a book written by British botanist and mountaineer Frank Smythe in 1930. “Locals were amazed that tourists chose to see this valley when there are others in the Himalayas also full of flowers,” says Gaurav Punj of Connect with Himalaya, which organises trips to the region. But with the tourist boom, almost all flora has been destroyed, until the government banned people from camping inside. You can still visit the valley for a day, but you can’t venture in too far. Let the flowers bloom in peace. Bengal Tiger

How many left: Fewer than 2,500

The tiger crisis has been well documented, but is still quite alarming. The majestic Bengal Tiger has become a rarity in India primarily due to hunting and loss of habitat. "What we should explain to kids is this; we cannot save the tigers unless we protect their habitats," says Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary Asia magazine. "By protecting habitats with their biodiversity intact, we end up sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and storing it on the ground in wetlands, grasslands, forests and other ecosystems. This ends up protecting our water, food and economic security." While the government has been implementing many schemes to protect our national animal, their number continues to drop. Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan has been classified as a Project Tiger reserve and is still the best place to spot one.

Olive Ridley turtle nesting sites, Kerala
Expected to last: As long as local groups guard the eggs

The little Olive Ridley sea turtles spend their lives in the ocean; unless it’s nesting time, which is when thousands of females come together to the same beach, winter after winter, to lay eggs in the sand and leave. When the eggs hatch 40-60 days later, baby turtles who’ve never ever seen the sea (or their mothers) somehow find their way to the water and swim away, but only if they’ve survived. Sand mining, poaching and attacks by dogs pose the biggest threat. Filmmaker Surabhi Sharma’s award-winning documentary, Aamakaar - The Turtle People, depicts how turtles in Kolavipalayam are threatened by sand mining. “Most mining occurs on river beds, but this village was affected by the fact that their estuary was being mined,” she says. “Villagers believed that this was why their beach was eroding constantly.” Local groups now keep watch and move eggs to makeshift hatcheries to save them from poachers. But as for saving the beach, no long-term measures are in place. Indian Rhinoceros

How many left: About 2,500

The Indian Rhinoceros (also called the Great Asian One-horned Rhino) is second in size only to the Asian elephant. But poaching and loss of habitat mean its numbers have greatly reduced. The horn is a prized ingredient in Asian medicines, so poachers deploy methods like shooting, poisoning and even electrocution to capture them. The rhino is particularly difficult to breed in captivity. In 2009, the Cincinnati Zoo attempted artificial insemination, but the calf died 12 hours after birth. They once roamed in the lands between Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar. But today, most are confined to the Indo-Gangetic plains of Assam. "The best place to see rhinos is Kaziranga National Park," says Isaac Kehimkar of the BNHS.

Rakhigarhi, Haryana
Expected to last: Two generations

Rakhigarhi, the site of a city that was part of the Harappan civilisation, has survived the march of time. But it seems no match for the march of urbanisation. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which has been conducting excavations for 15 years, has made important discoveries about this early Harappan site, including paved roads, jewellery and fire altars. But encroachment and soil erosion pose a threat to what lies beneath. “It is an amazing site and must be visited,” says Kurush Dalal, a Ph.D in archaeology who teaches at Mumbai University’s Centre for Extra Mural Studies. “The problem, unfortunately, is about choosing between the living and the dead.”

Manas National Park, Assam
Expected to last: As long as new conservation measures are put into effect

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to rare species like the Assam roofed turtle, the golden langur and the pygmy hog. But socio-political issues like the backlash over the alienation of local Bodo people over the last two decades has meant bad news for the park. “As the law and order situation deteriorated, poachers nearly destroyed the reserve’s rhino population,” says Prateek Deo Gupta of Life Away From Life, which organises safaris into the park.

However, after the creation of the Bodoland Territorial Area District five years ago, things have been looking up. Local youth have been roped in to help with the management and a comprehensive rhino reintroduction plan has been devised. We can only hope they are all implemented.

Cheriyal mask-making, Andhra Pradesh
Expected to last: One or two generations

Cheriyal is a village in Warangal district, where the traditional art of mask-making is dying. The masks are made of a pulp of tamarind seed powder and sawdust, and they were used to narrate folklore and mythological tales. “Currently, only three families practice this art form and not many avenues exist for them to display their work. Masks are not a favourite of consumers,” says Medhavi Gandhi.

Sisupalgarh, Orissa

Expected to last: 5 years

The remains of the 3rd century city of Sisupalgarh lie near Bhubaneshwar. It is estimated that at least 25,000 people lived in this highly developed settlement. Excavations from the ancient site include 18 stone pillars, pottery, terracotta ornaments and bangles, finger rings, ear spools and pendants made of clay. "It was declared a heritage site in 1960, but unfortunately, it was just the ramparts. Inside, people have been setting up homes, damaging the site irresponsibly," says award-winning conservation architect Abha Lambah. "The fortification may last a few years but the site itself? I don’t think so," she adds.

Urban legends

Some vanishing sites are right here in your city

Addas of Kolkata

Expected to last: A few more years

The word adda is part of everyday conversation, but it was first Kolkata’s before it was ours. "Adda involves hanging out, and talking about current issues, literature and art," explains Deepa Krishnan, whose company Kolkata Magic organises tours of the city. "As the city modernises, the old neighbourhoods, where everyone knew everyone, are vanishing."

Rajaon ki Baoli, Delhi

Expected to last: For a while, but minus the good bits

This stepwell in Mehrauli was built by Daulat Khan in 1516. "With restoration, there is always a debate," says Himanshu Verma, an art curator who conducts heritage walks to the well. "While I think the fine design is what make the baoli beautiful, the restoration is focused on its structural integrity. The original designs should be seen before it’s too late." cafés of Mumbai

Expected to last: One generation

Irani cafés are the stuff of Mumbai legend and advertising location dreams. In reality, these family-run businesses are on the verge of extinction. Very few children of owners want to take up the reins. Bruce Carter, a community historian from Australia, has been researching Irani cafés for years. He says their significance lies in their inclusivity: "Where else could the young couple just off the train from Karnataka have found they could work out their situation for a few rupees? Where else would dada been able to treat the grandkids without breaking the bank? At the corner Irani. And therein lies the magic."

Taverns of Goa

Expected to last: A few years

Luis Dias, member, The Goa Heritage Action Group, misses the local watering holes replaced by swanky clubs. "Small taverns in North Goa used to be where we went to unwind at the end of the day," he says. But most places have traded in their old shadows for neon lights and electronic music. "It’s a tragedy," Dias laments. "Tourism leads to revenue, but for locals, the quality of life is reducing."

Photo imaging by Malay Karmakar

From HT Brunch, April 21

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