The Bright Half of Bhadra
The two raptor biologists I’d been trailing behind had waited out the weekend to enter Ranthambhore National Park in order to avoid the crowds. They had made a minor miscalculation. What the scientists didn’t realize was that that particular Monday was Bhadrapad Sudi Chaturthi, the fourth day of the bright half of the month of Bhadra according to the Hindu calendar. Chauth for short. It was the day the pilgrims came.
The scientists and I were there in Rajasthan in search of the disappeared. The missing in question were the bald-headed, awkwardly over-sized, carrion-feasting vultures of the Indian subcontinent. I’ve written of these creatures before, of how a seemingly harmless livestock drug has caused a massive avian collapse, but we forgot about all that when we found ourselves unexpectedly in the middle of a pedestrian traffic jam within the forest.
We passed through the gates of the park along with a steady flow of pilgrims, thousands of them moving barefoot beside the safari jeeps. They had come to walk the seven-kilometer trail that circumnavigated the Ganesh temple perched high atop the hill above us, part of a fort built more than a thousand years ago and now at the heart of a tiger reserve. There were men in business casual, old men with walking sticks and green turbans swaddled over faces creased with the lines of life, and young men with shiny black sunglasses. There were women in brightly colored saris, a flame against the beige backdrop of the dry forest and the vined stanchions of banyon tree trunks. There were small children, not one of whom I saw crying or complaining. They carried no water bottles as they entered and what food they had was served to the langurs that lined the road to accept the offerings, delicate, dexterous fingers reaching out. God comes in many forms.
Sometimes within the stone walls of a Hindu temple, I forget the blessed simplicity of devotion and instead only see the priests with their outstretched hands, feel the gaze of the gods and goddesses upon me at every turn. The Hindu rules I only half know make me an inadvertent offender. But here in the forest, I’m on common ground with these worshipers. They walk through the woods to give praise to gods they don’t see. We look for a bird that is all but vanished. Around all of us move tigers that are so few in number they are known by individual names.
Thirty-six hours earlier we were on this same road, traveling with a tigress known as Sundari. She moved casually, unconcerned, ignoring us as our cameras fluttered, capturing her retreating flank, her languid and sinuous tail, her powerful neck, encircled with a radio collar that tracked her movements until the battery died a few months back, leaving nothing but irritating ornamentation. And a few kilometers into the forest on the day of Chauth, after the pilgrims had turned right down their path and the biologists and I had turned left down ours, we came across another tiger. Enormous. Male. Watching us with cool green eyes as we watched—breathless, hearts stopped—him, standing not twenty feet away from our open jeep. He licked the stone wall and turned towards us, sticking out his massive tongue and making a funny face. I smiled. He was a new male, as yet unnamed unless the temporary moniker of Guda stuck, a reference to the area of the forest we were in. He’d slipped in, somehow, from some place impossibly unknown. Down the dusty road, the worshipers walked, step by step, around their thousand-year-old temple. And the vulture counters continued their survey, tallying the adults and the chicks, nest by nest, this year a few more—though just a few—than the year before. Just enough to make them return again next year. And begin the cliffside count anew.
Meera Subramanian is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about the environment and culture for Nature, InsideClimate News, Virginia Quarterly Review, Orion, and others. Her first book is A River Runs Again: A Natural History of India from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka (PublicAffairs, 2015). Visit her at meerasub.org.