Tibetan wood carving is a sublime art. Everything from Dalai Lama’s throne to incense boxes and Chemar bowls, has imprints of it. The signs of art of wood carving can be traced to as far as 7th century Tsuglakghang in Lhasa constructed during reign of King Songtsen Gampo. Wooden table paintings were also unique and popular during those times. That was said to be another branch of Tibetan art. Subjects and pictorial composition of these wooden table paintings are similar to those of thangka paintings.
Beautiful wooden engravings have lavishly decorated the columns, beams, doors, windows, cross beam supports etc in Tibetan monasteries and temples. Even shrines, platforms for deities, altars, stupas and other ritualistic objects were usually adorned with wood carvings. It has also been used in decorating traditional musical string instruments…like Dramyins and Piwangs.
Motifs normally used in wood carvings are similar to other Tibetan arts. Various types of flowers, mountains, clouds, other elements of nature as well as religious symbols are represented. Since in Tibetan Buddhism there is a typical style of drawing of every symbol, hence craftsman have to master the art of carving the vast repertoire of motifs and designs. Tibetan culture is so much influenced by Buddhism that although wood carving itself is not a religious art but many the motifs used have religious significance.
Though not a flourishing art, because the younger Tibetan generation has different choices, still there are some craftsman, giving their life and dedication to wood carving. Passang Topgyal is one of such master craftsman at Mcleodganj. He studied Tibetan traditional art of wood carving at Norbulingka Institute at SIdhpur in Dharamshala for six years and now designs many items including traditional musical instruments. Most of them go as souvenirs with foreign tourists to different parts of the world.
Playing such instruments is now limited to monks at monastic functions. Although there are attempts to improvise these instruments by modernising them in use, while retaining their traditional design and craft. For example Dramyins are designed also to be used as electric guitars.
Lack of patronage among the younger generation for the traditional music as well as the craft is posing a huge challenge for craftsman like Passang to keep the passion alive and rewarding.
So next time you go to Dharamshala, don’t forget to visit Passang Tobgyal’s shop.
Where: Passang Tobgyal’s shop of Tibetan Wood carving and Musical instruments is near Dharamshala Cantt on way to Dal lake (in Naddi village) from Mcleodganj. It is approximately two kilometres walk fro Mcleodganj town.
You can watch a short film on Passang Tobgyal on my YouTube channel by clicking on the thumbnail below.
Have you ever tried your hands on a traditional Tibetan musical instrument? Share your experience in the comments section below.
Being born to a typical north Indian brahmin family is no mean task. There are many prejudices one gets to live with throughout their lives, there are so many strings attached and a long list of do’s and don’ts always hanging above your head. Many preconceived notions lay hidden under the skin and there is misconceived veil of purity always around. Everything making them misfit to be a world traveller.
We had been tourists since childhood owing to father’s railway job giving us privilege to travel and army postings of other relatives privilege to logistics. We were certainly not travellers. Sense of purity was always a hindrance to explore the world. There was indeed an ‘under the wraps’ attempt to ‘depurify’ us with an egg-curry by a then family friend but that didn’t help a lot. It turned out to be an pen and shut case. Things started changing only when I finally moved out of the house for my future endeavours.
But the first moment of truth arrived, when more than two decades ago, after completing a winter trek to Dalhousie and Kalatop, we decided to have a detour to Jammu and Patni Top. One evening after spending the day visiting temples of Jammu, we reached to a small restaurant for our meal. One of our friend wanted to have a chicken for food. Third friend was a brahmin and vegetarian too like me. He chose to sit on the other table, to not watch somebody licking a leg-piece. Somehow, I decided that I will not change the table and instead share the table with my chicken-loving friend. I not only shared the table, but also made no pretension to not notice him whatever he was doing. I enjoyed my dal-makhani but I also kept all eyes on his dish and actually enjoyed the way he was enjoying his food. That incident changed my perspective for good. It was a bold first step in direction of making me a traveller.
I still had a long way to go. I was still a vegetarian and was still fighting some food prejudices. I can’t say, I have overcome them all, but I am sure I was on the right direction after that incident in Jammu. I remember that another day, too far at Sepang in Malaysia, where I was present as a sports correspondent to cover the inaugural season of A1 GP at the Sepang Formula 1 race circuit.
As an accredited journalist, I had the access to official food area. That was more than ten years back. After the Saturday free practice in the morning session, we were off to the lunch. And I had to admit that it was a huge shock for me, I had not been to any such place before. I had heard that Malaysia is a heaven for sea-food lovers, but I never expected to be at any place for lunch where all I could see around was crabs, prawns, and that too huge ones, hanging everywhere. Honestly, I was bit terrified at the onset, but than I worked upon my mind and instead of moving out to some other place for the lunch, I stayed there and managed my meal from whatever I could find for myself. I thought that incident to be as big as the Jammu one in my transformation towards a traveller.
While I had adjusted to meat and chicken but fish was still a taboo because of its smell. That too was something for me to fight for. Time came for that too, when on a trip to Sri Lanka, we stayed for a night at Negombo. And our stay their also included a visit to the fish market in the early morning at the trading time. I still can’t believe I did that. But in an instinct I was inside the market deeper and longer than anybody else in our group clicking photographs while standing in the midst of piles of all types of fishes, prawns, oysters, crabs, and what not. And, to win a battle within, I didn’t even cover my nose. I kept talking to people in an attempt to know more about the market. But somewhere inside, I knew that I was doing it more for my own sake, to probably Say Yes to The World. And, I am glad, I did that.
Don’t you want to Say yes to the world? Why don’t you do it this way!
What was your moment of embracing this world? Please share with us all.
Asia’s biggest Tulip Garden at Siraj Bagh in Srinagar, Kashmir is now open for the year. Normally the garden opens with the start of April. But this year it has opened a week earlier owing to favourable weather conditions. We can also say that because the winter winded up a bit early and it brought the spring before time in the valley, hence the tulips also started blooming early. Hence the garden at Siraj Bagh on the banks of the Dal Lake was thrown open for the tourists on 25th March, a week earlier than last year. These are images from the park from the first day itself.
Blast from the past:Tulip garden at heaven!Not all the bulbs have bloomed, still some to go. It would be full by the start of April. It is indeed once in a lifetime chance to see more than a million tulips of different hues and shades blooming at a place which we call as paradise on earth. But remember Tulips don’t have a big life. Flowers will be blooming just for 3 to 4 weeks. So, you don’t have too much time in hand, if you want to see them this year, or else you will have to wait for another year. Moreover heavy rains or too much of heat, both can also destroy the bulbs. So, sooner the better. Interestingly, this Tulip festival also marks the start of the tourism season in Kashmir valley.
Life in paradise! Read:Never a dull morning in the Dal!In just ten years, this garden has become darling of tourists and locals alike. It has become one of the must-see destinations of the Kashmir itinerary in the months of April. This year the garden has been extended to add other plants like Hyacinths, Daffodils, Narcissus and other ornamental plants. In this season 40,000 Hyacinth tulip bulbs have been planted at a separate terrace.
Love Kashmir? Read:Kashmir we know less about- Kheer Bhawani at Tulmul To add the beauty of the already charming landscape, additional green spaces are being created to attract more visitors to this garden overlooking world-famous Dal Lake. This year free wi-fi service has been provided inside the premises for the visitors.
Formerly known as Siraj Bagh this garden was rechristened as Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden in 2008 when it was converted into a Tulip garden. It is located on the other side of the Dal where all Mughal Gardens are located on the foothills of Zabarwan hills. Chashmeshahi is close by.
First day… first show! Watch a video of tulips blooming this year on my YouTube channel by clicking on the link below
Have you seen the tulip garden at Srinagar? How was your experience? Share it in the comment section below.
Star breathed its last yesterday and it is certainly the most disheartening news to hear on the International Day of Forests. Star, also called as Sitara was actually one of the stars of the forests of Ranthambore National Park and Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. As per news reports Star or Sitara, which was named T-28 in forest records died after being tranquillised. Perhaps a tranquilliser overdose took its life. He was tranquillised in attempts to rescue him from a village in Khandar area on the park’s periphery. It is said that this 13 year old male tiger had strayed close to a village where people had surrounded it. Forest officials reached there and in attempts to rescue, tried to tranquillise it.
Ironically, the theme of this year’s International Day of Forests is : Forests and Sustainable Cities and we probably lost Star because of this ever-increasing pressure on forests from the surrounding human settlements. The news of his death reminded me of the day, I had seen him on the safari. Just a short encounter of 11 minutes was enough to get etched in the memory for ever. That’s the reason that news of his death saddened me. Star was named so because it had a 5 point star mark over its left eye and also has bird shaped mark over the right. Rajbagh area of the park was his favourite place to give audience to curious, thrilled, overjoyed travellers from around the world.
It was cold winter day on January in the year 2011. Our morning safari yielded no tiger sightings. Then came the afternoon safari. Normally in all tiger reserves across India, safari vehicles will have a specified route. There might be three-four or more different zones in the park and a safari vehicle is limited to a particular zone. That means, if you are in zone 2 for the morning safari, your route is limited to zone 2 only. Vehicles are not allowed to overlap the zones. This is done to manage the tourist traffic inside the park and ensure that a particular area or the wildlife in a particular area is not abused quite often because of any particular attraction and tourists are evenly distributed.
But on that particular trip, we were guests of the district officials and hence we had a special number safari vehicle which has access to all zones. Although I am not at all fond of sighting sprints of safari vehicles inside the reserve, but that day our driver thought that he had the duty to give us a tiger sighting. Hence around 5.20 pm in the evening he received a call on his walkie-talkie about a tiger sighting and then for next ten minutes we had a bone-churning dash towards Rajbagh, which was quite a distance from that place. That’s where the T-28 or the Star male aka Sitara was on his evening stroll.
There were already hordes of safari vehicles there, might be more than 60 to 70 people around at that particular time. He was already spotted inside the jungle and everybody was waiting for him to come out in open, which he eventually did with full gusto fit for his stature.
Also read:Shh…Tiger is here!He than proceeded to make the marking. One of the favourite acts of tigers to mark their territory.
It then cam to the road. Looked in a very playful mood. It was very interesting to see how these big cats maintained their composure as well as indifference despite of being surrounded by so many humans. They were least afraid but equally attentive. I don’t think they would be unaware of any lurking danger. But they were quite sure of their territory and their command over it, where they were kings. Sitara has history of getting too close to safari vehicles.And, then relaxed itself giving full view to all safari vehicles.After few minutes, it again made the move. Kept playing in the mud.Looking for tiger? Read :Spot the tiger in this wild image!
And then Sitara decided that it was the time to end the day’s audience and it walked away. It crossed our way, moved to jungle on to the right. Even than it didn’t disappear immediately. It kept everybody interested, but didn’t return. After a couple of minutes, it went deep inside. In the fading light, it was soon impossible to keep track of its stripes.Love wild? Read:Dudhwa sans tigers!
It all ended in just 11 minutes- the royal show, but gave everybody around a plenty to cheer about for rest of their lives.
Star aka Sitara aka T-28 was a young tiger, full of life and glory as well. Having born to tigress T-27, it was first spotted in 2008 but it established itself very quickly among the ranks. Got the name and fame as well when it got the courage to challenge the great tigress Machali. It is being said that in 2009 Sitara and Machali had many territorial fights. Sitara controlled a large territory and despite fights with Machali, also mated her two daughters including Sundari.
But all will be tales now. Goodbye Star!!
Have you been fortunate to have sighting of this particular tiger? How was the experience? Please let us know in the comments section below.
Darters are also called as snake birds owing o their long thin neck which has a snake like appearance when they swim with their bodies submerged. There are large number of oriental darters at Keoladeo.
There might be snake birds, but nobody gives more thrill than the reptile itself and actually Keoladeo has many species of them including turtles, lizards, snakes and pythons. Sometimes scary, but always fascinating.
Keoladeo national park has been popular for its Sarus cranes. Read more about Sarus at Keoladeo-
There are many type of herons found in Keoladeo and purple heron is one of them. This large, slender wing bird is migratory in Europe and north Asian regions and resident elsewhere. Looks fascinating because of its strikingly different colour and appearance. Although it is called as purple heron, but its head and neck is chestnut-red in colour.
Night herons are called so because they hunt at night and early morning and rest during the day.
Keoladeo has been once very popular for its huge population of painted storks. But it also has good numbers of Black stork, woolly-necked stork, European white stork and black-necked stork.
Planning to go to Keoladeo National Park? Here is a guide to easiest tips: Read-
Whistling ducks produce very prominent whistling sound while flying, hence commonly called as whistling ducks. Its a loud two-note wheezy call. There are big colonies of whistling ducks at Keoladeo national park.
Indian grey hornbill is among the most common of the Indian Hornbills and also the smallest among them. It is also called as Dhanesh locally.
Looking for a place to stay around Keoladeo? Read:
There are said to be more than ten types of owls in Keoladeo. And among the easily spotted are the spotted owl. Its also adapted
Laughing doves get their name due to their particular call which sounds like a human laughter. Mauve pink in colour with white shading on the breast. Even if you don’t listen them laughing you can still feel good by looking a hem.
Bored of English? Want to read in Hindi? Read more about birding
Ever expanding cities have engulfed much of the natural habitat in their surrounding areas, including the wetlands, despite knowing it well that how disastrous it is. Thus it was a very pleasant surprise for me to find a haven for migratory birds just a couple of furlongs away from my home at the City of Lakes- Udaipur in Rajasthan. Actually, I had already seen this residential area surpassing a few wetlands in the course of its ‘development’ in last couple of decades. Similar things would have definitely happened in all the surrounding areas.
Having shifted base to Delhi almost 28 years back, my visits to my hometown are occasional. Thus it was courtesy a childhood friend that I cam to know about Nela Taalab, even though it was very close to my home. Went with him to this place for the first time couple of years back. Taalab is actually the Hindi term for small lake or a bigger pond.
We went again this year few weeks back. It was a delightful experience, better than the last one. Better actually only in terms of the location we were able to access this year for sightings. I am not sure if it was better in terms of number of birds present this year. That is also because there are more colonies developed around the lake. There are more chances of disturbances to the bird habitat.
The area around has also been so-called ‘developed’ with a bund with lights and walkway often used by morning walkers from nearby areas.
Urban wetlands are quite important, more so when they have developed themselves into habitat for waterfowls and other avian species.
For developers urban wetlands might be a wasteland but ecologically they are the prized lands for urban areas. They control flooding, they are source of drinking water, they are also source of livelihood, they promote human well-being, they improve air quality and they also naturally filter waste from water.
They also add to beauty of a neighbourhood, adding to its charm -provided they are protected and preserved as naturally as possible. We need to include them in urban lands planning, besides reducing water consumption and harmful runoff.
We have tendency to encroach upon the wetlands whenever we are in need of land. This mindless construction leads to degradation, filling and build upon of the wetlands. Needless to say, if they are restored or preserved, they make urban areas more liveable.
It is also essential to include local residents in the wetlands management as that can check the unsocial use of the area, as often anti-social elements find secluded area around wetlands to their liking.
To my pleasant surprise, I was also able to sight some Egyptian Vultures for the first time in my backyard. Egyptian vulture is one among the globally threatened vulture species found in India.
Egyptian vultures have been included in endangered category by the IUCN Red List. These are resident birds but they have been included in endangered list due to their declining population and one reason for this rapid decline is mentioned as ‘presumably resulting from poisoning by the veterinary drug diclofenac.
It is certainly delightful to capture a bird in such a relaxed manner. But it seemed that tree was favourite place for the raptors. As soon as the vultures left, a kite occupied the place. It perhaps had the best view of the preys in the area.
Than there was a cattle egret watching the proceedings very closely
Besides the pintails and shovelers the lake also had a big colony of common eurasian coot.
However carefree, they might look, but they were quite aware of our moves and took no time to move away from we shutterbugs.
It was a contented walk back home, but also with a worry of how long will this place be able to sustain itself. Lot of efforts will be needed certainly.
P.S. Nela Taalab is just a kilometre and half off the NH 8 on Udaipur-Ahmedabad route in Hiran Magari, Sector 14, Udaipur, Rajasthan. A couple of decades earlier, it was an uninhabited area, but now it is very much the part of the city itself.
DO you have a urban wetland area close to your place? Share your views about it.
After a satisfying fourth day, it was time to move towards the climax on the 5th day of the Kashmir Great Lakes Trek. It was supposed to be the last day of climb. Satsar campsite is at an altitude of 12,000 ft and Gangabal campsite is at a an altitude of 11,500 ft but on the way we have to cross the Zach pass at an altitude of 13,400 ft.
Its climb right from the word- go. A steep fall on the left and cliff on the right. We had to cross through boulders and loose rocks.
Looking back at the Satsar campsite from bit of height.It is tiring though. Crossing boulders is always tricky and tough on knees. Reaching to another ridge.
Time to have some rest after having crossed most of the rocky terrain. Looking at those mountains make you you so humble.
Closer look at the mountains far on the other side of the valley with a stream flowing down.
Though flowering season has almost ended, but we could still find some smaller carpets here and there.
Also Read:Kashmir Great Lakes- Romancing the rains at Nichnai PassContemplating the moves! Looks like another peak to climb!! The ridge at the top is the Zach pass, the last high pass of the trek. It would be all down after that hopefully.And than climbing to the top turns out to be a feast for the eyes, when all of a sudden nature turns out to be a big canvas spread right in front of you (see the video below)
It is now descent of around 1400 ft till the campsite. Looks easy?Not so, if you see from this side… Mules on their way to the campsite at Nandkhol.It isn’t a straightforward descent as well. What we see is the first halt in a valley at the base of Zach Pass in this side. We can see some shepherd huts and a small stream flowing down from Gangabal lake.
Another view of the Harmukh peak in the glaring sun.
Reaching at the first stream. There is another small hill to climb, before another descent.
Time to relax, as we were aware that campsite isn’t far now.
The perennial trekkers for the company in this huge meadows.
The Harmukh Glacier that feeds the twin lakes. Glazing in the sunlight.
Whodunit? A rock as big as this one, cut into two pieces in the manner would have been due to hell of a happening!Finally the campsite on the banks of the Nandkhol lake. Looks so pristine! The man-made bridge to cross the stream coming from Gangabal lake towards Nandkhol Lake.Finally, the Gangabal lake an altitude of 3570 metres. This fish is home to many types of fishes including rainbow and brown trout.Joy of reaching the climax!July to August is the best time to be here. You will find more snow if you are here in June. You feel so calm and relaxed here.
Having visited the Gangabal lake in he evening itself, there was an urge to go there again in the morning. Campsite was at Nandkhol lake and it is almost a 20 minutes trek between the two lakes. So, quite determined, it was the early in the morning.Mules were getting themselves ready for another hard day.It was getting brighter on one side.And then, there were first golden rays of sun on the Harmukh Peak.
The 4th Day:A tale of seen Lakes – Gadsar to SatsarSun was very quickly to its full glow..Calm waters of Gangabal lake in the morning. But it was still not calm enough to get a clear reflection. You never feel like it is enough of the photographs. Its amazing that how nature keeps changing its colours. Kashmiri Hindus still come to this lake for many rituals or to pay homage to their ancestors. Locals often travel from Naranag to Gangabal for fishing or just a short trek.
Some tents at the banks of the Gangabal Lake.Reminiscent of what would have been a part of a pontoon bridge long time back. It looked quite astonishing as to how these extremely heavy pieces of iron would have been transported here. They seemed too heavy even for a mule to carry it. Its all bright, mules have had their green feast and everybody seems to be ready to move on the final day…You can also watch a video of this 5th day trek on my YouTube channel by clicking on the link below-
Have you been to Kashmir Great Lakes Trek? How was your experience? Please share in the comments section below.
How often we trek and come across some very beautiful natural scenes as we have never seen before. But then there are few scenes which will freeze in your memories for ever. What, if such a view comes in front of your eyes all of a sudden, in a very unlikely manner.
That’s how it happens when trekking from Satsar to Gangabal during the Kashmir Great Lakes Trek, we have to climb three ridges one after another in a tough climb. And after three hours of energy sapping trek we reach to the top of Zach pass at 13,400 feet (also mentioned locally as Gangabal Pass), and all of sudden a view opens up like a canvas- Harmukh peak right in the front and twin lakes of Gangabal and Nandkhol at its base. A perfect vista to fill ones eyes… so close, yet a bit far. What a fitting climax to a unbelievably beautiful trek!
You can watch the video of the last few minutes of trek, when this amazing view suddenly props up in front of eyes-
Have you been to Kashmir Great Lakes trek? Share your experience in the comment section below.
City of Lakes Udaipur is famous for many things but rarely for its birds. Ironically village Menar, 15 kms from Udaipur’s Dabok airport is known for many things including its birds. Menar is also called as the bird village. More than couple of lakes in close surroundings of the village are known to host a huge number of migratory birds every year. Menar also has a long history which connects it closely to the Kings of Mewar. Rich in culture, this village also has an honour to produce some of India’s finest chefs who have worked in kitchens of many celebrities- home and abroad. Residents of this village have been known as Menarias.
But my recent trip to this village, roughly around 45 kms from my hometown Udaipur, was purely to catch some morning light. Capturing birds at sunrise (for that matter also at sunsets) has been always very delightful.
And, indeed it turned out to be so. With sun playing hide and seek in the clouds and birds, ready to start their day- it was morning worth every minute.
Lakes around Menar get good numbers of Black-tailed Godwits, Pintails and Shovellers in the winter months.
There are two lakes- one inside the village and another at the far end. Later one is better for spotting birds because of its calmness and undisturbed environs.
Menar has always been hosting here birds but it has come to the radar of bird watchers across the world only recently.
Now a large number of bird watchers flock here in winters to capture some memorable images. The local community here has played a big role in conservation efforts and popularising this place as the bird village. Volunteers here are called as Pakshi Mitras (friends of birds). They take care of patrolling, rescue and reporting of any attempts of poaching. Many other steps are taken to maintain the ecology of this place as a safe haven for the birds. Besides regular weeding and prohibition of fishing, locals have also stopped using water from these lakes for the purpose of irrigation. These lakes have no other source of water besides the rains. Hence, it is very significant to use the water judiciously.
As the light gets brighter, birds are off to their daily routine.
Besides waterfowls, Menar is also second home to many other birds, small and big including this Bluethroat-
Among the goose family, these Bar-headed goose make a big colony here every year-
Here these common (Eurasian) coots seem to be having a morning meeting before starting day’s business-
Interestingly, Menar also gets fairly good number of Flamingos. Here greater flamingos look in small number but in another lake close by, there are good number of flamingos visiting every year.
How to reach: Little known village of Menar is 45 kms from Udaipur. It is 15 kms ahead of the Udaipur’s Dabok airport. That means while going to Menar from Udaipur, one has to first cross the airport and than move ahead towards Menar. Menar now has a few homestay options for those, who are serious in bird watching and want to spend more time around. But alternatively, you can always make Udaipur as the base and go to Menar early in the morning for bird watching. There are many young people in Menar village who can be your guide for the bird-watching tour of the village. One of them is Dharmendra Menaria who is also pursuing B.Sc. in agriculture.
P.S.Menar is also famous for some of its festivals which include a grand festival to commemorate the valour of local people. The festival is held on second day of Holi every year.
Have you been to Menar? What was your experience? You can share it here in the comments section.
Almost 5,500 kms from Delhi, far down in Indian Ocean just about 600 kms from coast of Tanzania in Africa, an unimaginably beautiful tiny island with an area of just 11.6 sq. km is a source of discontent because of India. It must be something we rarely know about, but despite its small size Assumption Island, which is part of the Aldabra Atoll in Seychelles has a lot to cherish about. Debate is about India’s plan to make a Naval base at the island. Much to the concern of environmentalists and Seychellois, this island has already been leased out to India for 20 years and just 20 days back India and Seychelles signed a military agreement to develop the Naval base.
Good things first. Often called the jewel in the crown of Seychelles, Aldabra is the world’s second largest coral atoll. The site has been designated in UNESCO’s World Heritage List, purely for three things—it contains superb natural phenomena; superlative on-going ecological and biological processes; and significant natural habitats to conserve biological diversity. Because of its remote location in the Indian Ocean, Aldabra Atoll remains unspoiled by human influence and provides an excellent example of natural habitat where evolutionary and ecological processes can be studied. The atoll comprises four large coral islands which enclose a shallow lagoon; the group of islands is itself surrounded by a coral reef. This atoll has an area of 150 sq km which is about one-third of the landmass of Seychelles, but has no human population other than the staff of the Research station.
Aldabra Atoll thus is a rare and beautiful tropical paradise. Seen from above, the coral islands form a nearly closed ring that is home to a riot of marine biodiversity. The undisputed rulers of the islands are the thousands of giant tortoises. Due to difficulties of access and the atoll’s isolation, Aldabra has been protected from human influence and thus retains some 152,000 giant tortoises, the world’s largest population of this reptile. Biologists have also documented 400 endemic species and subspecies, including birds such as the Aldabra drongo. Extremely isolated, Aldabra is almost untouched by humans. Aldabra atoll is closer to the coast of Africa 630 km than to Mahé, and is in the most southwesterly part of the Seychelles. It is 407 km northwest of Madagascar and 440 km from Moroni on the Comoro Islands. The atoll is the largest raised coral reef in the world with an elevation of 8 metres (26 ft); and the second-largest atoll in the world after Kiritimati Atoll. The name Aldabra is said to be of Arabic origin. Arabs had settled in East Africa in 7th century. But first recorded visit to Aldabra is said to be in 1742 by a Frenchman Lazare Picault. Human settlement in Seychelles is said to have started in 1770. But this human settlement was immediate threat to giant tortoise as well as Green turtles. Both of these rare species almost went extinct in 19th century when some sense prevailed and conservation efforts started. By then their population had got limited to Aldabra atoll.
The island of Assumption lies about 37 kilometres to the southwest. This island has a landing strip and a handful of buildings, it is home to the scientists that are the only continuous human presence on the islands. Assumption is also the gateway to Aldabra atoll. The airstrip of Assumption is the fastest link to the outside world for the Aldabra group. Assumption was devastated by guano mining in the early 20th century. Over 160,000 tons of this deposit was scraped off the tiny island and the vegetation removed to facilitate exploitation. With the loss of the plants, the birds that depended on them were also lost. Giant tortoises were wiped out. Seabirds suffered, especially boobies. Today it is slowly recovering.
In recent years, birds from Aldabra have been sighted for the first time in more than a century. The main beach is one of the finest in Seychelles and some Green Turtles still nest here. Diving too is excellent. Aldabra is said to be biogeographically much more closely related to Madagascar than the rest of Seychelles. All the land birds have their nearest relatives in Madagascar, including the Aldabra Rail, the last surviving flightless bird of the Indian Ocean. Other endemic species we will encounter ashore are the Aldabra Drongo, Madagascar Coucal, Souimanga Sunbird and Aldabra Fody. Seabirds include 10,000 pairs of frigate birds breeding in one of the world’s largest colonies. Shorebirds include large numbers of crab plovers, a speciality of the western Indian Ocean. If that’s not enough, this atoll is also the one of only two oceanic nesting colonies of flamingos. There are large ray and shark populations in the lagoon as well.
The fringing reef Astove averages about 250 meters from the shoreline, and beyond this the floor plummets steeply. The wall off Astove is one of the most awe-inspiring and spectacular dive sites in the world and has been rated by diving experts as one of the finest in the world. From the shallow edge of the reef, the waters plummet to incredible depths. Huge groupers, reef fish and shoals of pelagic fish congregate alongside forests of Gorgonian fan corals as Green Turtle drift slowly past. Hundreds of species of fish, Green Turtles and even the anchors of wrecked ships are to be seen.
Now this rare beauty is embroiled in a huge debate. India wants to build a military base on Assumption, and the Seychelles government is ceding the control of the island to India for 20 years. For India, the atoll is not just an isolated speck of land, but a potentially vital strategic outpost in its rivalry with China, who acquired its first African Naval base in Djibouti in November 2015. Once ready, this base will help India exercise greater control over the Indian Ocean’s western region all the way up to the piracy-prone east African coastline. India already acquired a fully operational coastal radar system in Seychelles in March 2015.
Environmentalists are alarmed at the prospect: The atoll has remained pristine because of its remote location and the limited number of people allowed to visit. That would change dramatically – and in the worst case, the island could become a battlefield. Construction workers and military personnel could introduce invasive animal and plant species to the islands with unpredictable consequences for the ecosystem. Soldiers would litter the island with plastic and other waste. Ships and aircraft would cause noise and pollute the air. Leaking fuel and oil could contaminate the soil and water – not to mention the possibility of major oil spills. These pristine islands are feared to be sacrificed to military and geopolitical interests.
Let’s go just about half a century in past. In 1962 for the first time British and American governments initiated surveys for a military base here. That also included a plan for a deep sea port. But because of huge outcry from scientific and environmental organisations, plans for the military base were abandoned. Instead a research station was established in 1971. In 1982, Aldabra was declared as a UNESCO world heritage site. So, life seems to have gone a full circle for the biodiversity of Aldabra in just about 50 years, with another threat looming.
Among those opposing the India’s military base in Aldabra is the former Tourism Minister of Seychelles Alain St. Ange. He says that these pristine islands must not be sacrificed to military and geopolitical interests. He plans to send a petition to the government of the Seychelles and UNESCO to protect Aldabra Atoll. There was also a protest in capital Victoria on this issue few days back. Ralph Volcere, one of the organisers of the protest, said that Seychellois do not want this project, as the details were not made public. Volcere said that though there has been talked about the base since 2015, everything was kept secret, adding that it was only a couple of weeks ago that the issue was brought back again and the signing was held soon after. Volcere added that it is not right for the government to give away the island which is part of the Seychelles heritage. Another demonstrator, Vicky Lanza, said that a project of this magnitude has catastrophic impacts on the islands pristine environment. “Once there is a military base, there will be an element of control and locals will not have access even in the vicinity the island,” said Lanza. Many locals are just worried of the fact that just how can one of our islands be given to another country.
The agreement was signed for the second time on 27th January this year after revisions were made to the previous one. In the revised agreement, the main aim is to provide a framework for assistance to Seychelles by India. It will help enhance the military capabilities in control and maritime surveillance. The project will cover about a quarter of Assumption, which is some 1,140 southwest of the Seychelles main island of Mahe. However Indian High Commission says that the revised agreement will benefit both countries.
The Indian High Commissioner to Seychelles, Ausaf Sayeed, said the agreement will provide Seychelles with the opportunity to enhance its military capabilities and safeguard its marine zone. “In return, India will benefit through better communication and safe trade in the region as most imports of goods pass through the Indian Ocean,” Sayeed said. The Indian High Commissioner also said that although the project is being financed entirely by India, Seychelles retains full ownership of the facilities and sovereign rights over the island. He added that the project will jointly be managed by both countries and will not limit the movement of citizens to the island nor to the island of Aldabra as many are speculating. However it is said that 7 villagers here were given an option to stay on island with restrictions or get transferred to Astove island, where Indian government has already built residential houses. India has targeted to complete the construction of all military buildings by this year itself.
On the other hand the Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF) , the organisation mandated to protect the Aldabra atoll, says that “it is certain that an enforcement presence is needed in the area to cut down on and prevent illegal activities currently happening in the Aldabra Group.” SIF is hopeful that the Seychelles Government and National Assembly will ensure that the implementation of the agreement will benefit Aldabra. But the question of threat to the bio-diversity of Aldabra atoll still remains unanswered.
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