Pathans' Waterloo | chandigarh | Hindustan Times
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Pathans' Waterloo

Most human tourists to Kashmir are summer visitors. But the avian ones prefer chilly climes to wing in from Central Asia, China, Russia and Ladakh, to the Valley's famed waterworld, now under siege from ruthless reclamation and colonisation. Vikram Jit Singh writes.

chandigarh Updated: Oct 27, 2013 21:23 IST
Vikram Jit Singh

Most human tourists to Kashmir are summer visitors. But the avian ones prefer chilly climes to wing in from Central Asia, China, Russia and Ladakh, to the Valley's famed waterworld, now under siege from ruthless reclamation and colonisation.

Greylag geese, Mallards, Pintail ducks, Northern Shovellers, etc., adore the Valley and their black flocks descend every autumn, though in numbers now that cannot compare with the mighty waterfowl migrations of the Partition era.

It was this abundance of water around Srinagar that once helped the Indian Army stave off the other hordes that swarmed the Valley in October 1947. Today, October 27, is venerated as Infantry Day when 66-years back the Army launched into its first battle. The highly-decorated 1st Sikh under the redoubtable Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai (MVC) flew in to the Valley on this date to counter the 'armed and plundering migration' of tribal lashkars.

As tribals subsequently advanced, after mauling Baramullah, and the twinkling lights of Srinagar appeared tantalisingly close, the water ringing the city afforded a natural defence like the British Isles once did against the Nazi invasion.

Troops on Srinagar-Baramullah road, 1947. Photo by: Bharat-Rakshak

Most tribals were not good swimmers and could not outflank the Army's machine-gun nests on the Baramullah-Srinagar road. Maj Gen Akbar Khan, who commanded the Pakistani invasion, wrote in his book, 'Raiders in Kashmir': "From our side, the approaches to Srinagar were all covered with water.

As raiders moved forward, they started encountering more and more of the perennial water that surrounds Srinagar, water from river, lake and rains all contributing. They found themselves converging on the main road because of this water and ultimately it looked as if the only way left to deal with the obstacle was to go for it straight down the road."

This played right into the trigger-happy hands of outnumbered Indian troops, and raiders were slaughtered in heaps like ducks at the princely October/November duck shoots at Hokera wetland just outside Srinagar on the road to Baramullah.

Hiss Highness

Snakes are such elusive creatures, and there is so acute a paucity of research on their distribution and behaviour that even the most distinguished of Indian herpetologists may not be able to comprehend the diversities.

Take the standard reference on the subject, 'Snakes of India: The Field Guide' by Rom Whitaker and Ashok Captain. The book confines the distribution of the Black-headed Royal snake to drier parts of Punjab. However, there have been nine recoveries from diverse habitats since May 2010 of this exotic-looking snake from Nawanshahr district by Nikhil Sanger and the tricity region by Salim Khan. Both these regions cannot be described as 'dry'. The latest recovery comes from Nayagaon by Khan, who earlier had rescued a Royal snake from the ceiling of court room number 26 at the Punjab and Haryana High Court. In all, Khan has rescued three such snakes, all of whom were found at high spots such as the tin roof of a hutment or a compound wall. This is a rear-fanged, mildly venomous snake, whose potency is designed to quickly paralyse rodents and even birds when it expertly slithers high up the trees. It is the only known Indian snake to continually change its skin patterns all its life. This snake can hiss with a great sense of acoustics, just as a pressure cooker letting off steam, and mimics the skin patterns of the venomous Russell's viper to ward off wild predators. (Photo by: Vikram Jit Singh)

However, this snake which rarely bites humans is often mistaken as a venomous one and killed. Though the snake is described as a nocturnal creature in most books, Sanger's experiences show it is often found active during the day

Phool aur Pathhar

These quaint yellow flowers bring life to naked rocks above 3000 metres. For DS Rawat, a botanist at GB Pant University, on a recent expedition to the origins of the Alaknanda river in Uttarakhand, the unique collection of diverse flowers springing from bare rocks conjured visions of a natural rock garden.

Particularly vivid were these yellow ones, scientifically known as Potentilla eriocarpa. All Potentilla species are known as cinquefoils in English.

Rawat came upon these flowers close to the Vasudhara waterfall. Botanically a shrub, it takes decades for one to develop a large patch of flowering branches. Rawat's passion for flowers has seen him launch expeditions ever since 1986. In that very first expedition, he got memorably lost for three days in the dense temperate woods of Kuari Pass near Joshimath. He loved that!

A seasoned explorer now, Rawat trekked steep inclines for eight kilometres to reach Badrinath, as roads had withered due to flood devastation.

Another trek of eight kilometres took him to Vasudhara falls, a journey enriched by photographing alpine plants. Rawat was saddled with regret while turning his back on this rock garden in the clouds. In his words, "The return journey in a trek
is always an embarrassing time as I feel my exploration is incomplete. (Photo by: DS Rawat)

Just behind that high rock we may have seen a beautiful alpine plant or discovered a new species. The mind wanders in the landscapes left behind remembering plants, views and adventurous moments."

Only a bath in the hot spring at Badrinath on his return somewhat relieved the ache of separation from the mists lacing petals stencilled in stone.