My Trip to Gawilgadh-Melghat-Narnala (Satpura Range)

April 2010.

Forts and Maharashtra are synonymous. As soon as you say ‘Qilla’ one thinks of the numerous forts that were built by the Marathas and the Mughals, mostly in the western ghats. There happen to be many more forts, important and older, than these in the north-east of Maharashtra. These forts were built in the Satpura ranges than runs through the Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh-Chhattisgarh border region. Satpura is known for its diverse eco-system and a wide variety of wild life. The famous Kanha national park is in the region and so is the Melghat tiger reserve.

Summers aren’t the best time to go to this region (Vidarbha). It is 45 degrees Celsius almost everywhere, with hardly any power or water. Our trip was planned, but I wasn’t in any mood to travel to Vidarbha in this weather. On the other hand, I wanted to go as this area is not within my ‘bikeable’ distance, so it would be unlikely that I visit it later on my own. I had to go to Pune, as the remaining folks (Abhishek joined from Nashik) were from Pune. As this trip was a last minute decision for me, I decided to take my bike till Panvel, park at my aunt’s place, and proceed to Pune. The journey to Pune was eventful, but also worth forgetting, as I just managed to reach Pune in time. We were a group of 7+2 people viz. Pinakin and Ninad (Trek’di fame), Mr. Deshpande and family (wife and two kids), Umesh, Abhishek and myself. The journey to Amravati is long, hot, boring and tiring, so we won’t talk much about it.

Abhishek met us at the Amravati railway station. I know Abhishek for the last four years, as he was a part of our historic Harishchandragadh trek. We left for Chikhaldara from Amravati in a Tata Sumo. Pinakin and I were cramped in the front seat. It was extremely hot, and every one was in hibernation mode to preserve their energy! Pinakin and I managed to sing a few songs and, eventually we too were drained and were waiting for the onset of the evening. We reached Chikhaldara late in the afternoon, were we are treated by the forest guards to some wonderfully cool water, just what the doctor ordered. We had lunch there, at a nice and shady restaurant, and then got going to visit our first destination, Gawilgadh. Before leaving for Gawilgadh, we booked rooms in a small hotel at Chikhaldara.

Gawilgadh is located on a Chikhaldara plateau, was established in the 12th century by a Gawali King a decendent of Yadavas of Devgiri. However, this fort built in mud, was fortified by the Bahamani being Ahmad Shah Wali. The fort under underwent further fortification around 1471. The fort stands on a lofty mountain and consists of an inner fort as well. The walls are strongly built and fortifed by rampers and towers. There are three main doors to the fort viz., the Fateh Darwaza, Kichakdara Darwaza and Delhi Darwaza. The Delhi Darwaza consists of three gateways. The outer most gateway has a symbol with a palm tree (middle-east origin) with a tiger holding a mouse in its claws, and five elephants. Above each tiger there is a double headed eagle. These seem to be emblems they represent emperors. The fort has eight tanks which retain water even during the dry season.

Jama Masjid, built on the highest part of the fort at the Fateh Darwaza, and was repaired in 1486 A.D. by Fatehfulla. The fact of repairs is recorded in an encryption on the mosque. He also put an adorning symbol on the Shardul Gateway of the Delhi Darwaza. The Gawilgadh Fort is regarded as one of the most formidable forts, known for its strength. In 1577 the Behram Khan built a fine bastion atthe south-west face of the fort. The fort finds mention in the famous Ain-I-Akabari. Gawilgadh, in its heyday, was the epicenter of the short-lived Imad Shahi dynasty. After the Mughal rule the fort changed hands and was held by the Hyderabad sultanate and later by the Marathas in 1751. Gawilgadh remained with the Marathas till 1822. Finally, the East India Company conquered it and later dismantled it in 1858 with the fear that Tatya Tope may use it as a base for a rebellion.The most interesting door to Gawilgadh is the Bara Darwaza. This is the principle entry point to the main fort.

The fort is so humongous that it would take us an entire day to explore it fully. We just had until sunset. I was roaming alone and got an opportunity to see some wild hares and barking deer. I also got an opportunity to see and photograph numerous birds, although without Pinakin around, I wasn’t able to recognize the species! We explored the whole fort and it was quite dark by the time we made out way back to our car. I did some night photography there, before we left headed for our hotel at Chikhaldara. We had a wonderful dinner, and then settled into our rooms as we were quite exhausted. The room was stinking thanks to everyone keeping their boots inside, so I insisted that everyone keep them outside to ensure no one suffocates at night ;)!

The next morning, we headed to Melghat WLS. Melghat means ‘meeting of the ghats’ which is just what the area is, a large tract of unending hills and ravines scarred by jagged cliffs and steep climbs. The exquisite hill forests, thick undergrowth and moss-covered trees underscore its virgin confines. It lies at the northern extreme of the Amravati District on the border of Madhya Pradesh, in the southwestern Satpura mountain ranges. If its tigers were not so famous, Melghat might best be known as a ‘raptor’ or eagle sanctuary! It is, in any event, a birdwatcher’s dream come true. Remember too, that though you may not easily see them, this forest is part of one of India’s most vital tiger breeding habitats. As a whole, Melghat encompasses an area of 1,676.93 sq. km. which includes the 788.75 sq. km. Melghat Sanctuary and the 361.28 sq. km. Gugarnal National Park in the Vidharba region of Maharashtra. The rest of the buffer zone includes 526.90 sq. km. of reserve forest. Located in the catchment area of the River Tapti. Melghat, a water harvesting forest, supplies 30 per cent of all the fresh water available to the people living in the vicinity.

There are passes in Melghat that invaders from the north traversed to reach Berar where the Imad Shahi dynasty was founded in 1484. The two historic forts called Narnala and Gawilgadh guard the main east-west ridge. In 1803, in the Second Maharatta War, Colonel Arthur Wellesley, who later became the Duke of Wellington, captured the Gawailgadh fort from the Maharattas. Melghat was an automatic choice when Project Tiger was launched in 1973.

‘Bhavai Puja’ is one of the local customs of the Korku adivasis, and is performed annually at the onset of the monsoons. Children between 10-12 years of age carry out the puja. They bathe in the nalla or river near the village, catch a frog and bring it back to the Hanuman temple, where the frog is put in a small pot of water. The direction in which the water splashes is believed to indicate the direction from which the rains will come. The children then put the frog in a bamboo basket after smearing it with wet mud and go house-to-house singing that the pools have all dried up. People who hear their song, come out of their houses and pour water over them. In the evening, the frog is brought back to the temple and released into the nalla or river the following day.

‘Rupa Bhavala’ is a nalla that originates from a plateau in Gugarnal National Park and joins the Gadga river as two waterfalls, and ultimately meets the Tapti. Local legend has it that the place is named after two youngsters in love who jumped off the ledge here, in the face of parental opposition. The story of the girl Rupa and her young lover is believed to symbolise eternal love, in the union of the two waterfalls.

Melghat lies at the southern end of the Satpura ranges. The river Tapti, which is the northern limit of the reserve, branches into five major tributaries – Khandu, Khapra, Sipna, Gadga and Dolar – all of which flow through the reserve, with the Sipna and Dolar flowing through the core. Several pools and streams course through the area, but in the summer only a few small water sources remain. A few perennial streams ensure both water and pasture for herbivores. Small traditional earthen dams are constructed every year to augment the water sources and conserve the soil.
Melghat is a prime habitat of the Royal Bengal Tiger, Panthera tigris. However, it isn’t easy to spot a tiger in Melghat, so look for remnants of kills or scratch marks on trees or pugmarks as signs of the presence of the great cat. And if you see one, consider yourself twice blessed, for the real joy is being in the tiger’s home in the first place.

Leopards and jungle cats thrive here, and the area is also home to the rusty spotted cat. Packs of dholes roam through the forest, and wild pig root about in the luxuriant undergrowth. Jackals and hyenas scavenge fresh kills. Foxes and wolves have also been seen, though less frequently.

The Indian bison or gaur is another important animal of the reserve. Magnificent specimens can be seen alone or in small herds of five or so often feeding in bamboo clumps. Generally left alone, large tigers have sometimes been known to bring down a gaur!

But the tiger’s staple diet is deer, predominantly sambar. Barking deer or Muntjac, Chinkara,Chausingha and chital are plentiful. Blackbuck are also resident as are Mouse deer and Nilgai. You can spot Langurs in the trees, or hear their alarm calls in the jungles. They share their high-rise homes with tree shrews, flying squirrels and bats.

Ratels, sloth bear, palm civet, small Indian civet and porcupines are other creatures found in the reserve. The Tapti river harbours a small population of otters, several species of frogs and over 24 species of fish.
There are 16 species of snakes that have been documented including the green vine snake, python and the cobra. Fat-tailed geckos, forest calotes, lizards and several species of fresh water turtles are also found here.

Over 250 species of birds have been listed in Melghat, but it is most importantly a raptor paradise. Birds of prey include the Crested Serpent Eagle whose call often fills the skies. Hawk eagles are found almost all over the reserve, while Eagle Owls restrict themselves to large trees near the streams and rivers. Reports that came in towards the middle of the year 2000 suggest that vulture numbers have dropped. Crows and Rufous Treepies are among the first birds to be seen near kills.
The Golden Oriole forages in trees for insects and fruit, and you might spot the bright yellow head of the male. The Black-hooded Oriole is also found here. The Gold-mantled Leafbird or Chloropsis camouflages itself beautifully, but listen for its melodious song, to locate it. Grey Francolin and Jungle Bush Quail may suddenly burst out from the undergrowth, but they will allow you only the very briefest of sightings.

Parakeets, the Asian Paradise Flycatcher, the Racket-tailed Drongo and bee-eaters are relatively common in the reserve as are the Black-rumped Woodpecker and the Stork-billed Kingfisher. The Black-capped Kingfisher may be seen around Bitkilpatti near the Dolar village, on some occasions. Crested Larks can be spotted in scrub and grassy areas where sightings of the Great Bustard have also been reported.
The Fairy Bluebird, which was once reported in Melghat, is not seen any more but the Forest Spotted Owlet believed extinct was seen again after 113 years on 25th November 1997 by Pamela Rasmussen, David Abbot and Ben King in Shahada near Taloda. Melghat’s rugged topography is characterized by steep cliffs and rocky ravines and more than forest guards, this is what protects it from encroachers. The hills are between 200 to 1,500 m. high with Vairat Devi Point being the tallest at 1,178 m. An irregular succession of hills and valleys vary in altitude and gradient, with numerous spurs branching off from the main ridge. Between plateau and hills are fodder-rich saddles used extensively by wild animals. Teak forests and bamboo thickets combine here to form prime tiger habitat… remnants of the once grand forests of Central India.

We headed for our jungle camp in Melghat, at a place called Semadoh . The camp is maintained by the forest department, and to our surprise it was quite well maintained. People can choose, depending on availability to stay at either the dormitories or detached cottages. We made our bookings (prior bookings can be made from Amravati) and were about to leave for another at Kolkas, which is further north and actually an even better site than Semadoh. The hitch is that bookings for staying here can only be made at Amravati, which we hadn’t. This was an absolutely beautiful place, green, by the river side, full of birds. I wonder what it would be like to stay here in post-monsoon! We had some breakfast here, and then dispersed for some bird photography. I got some excellent shots of birds, butterflies, and a rare shot of dragonflies mating.

The heat was taking its toll and we assembled back at a small shack, where lunch was arranged for. Food was extremely delicious, and after toiling in the heat for 4 hours, it felt well deserved. We left and went back to our camp as we were to depart for an evening safari. Safaris are conducted in the morning and the evening, and visitors are escorted by guides, who aren’t there to ensure your ‘safety’, but in fact are of great help in spotting the perfectly camouflaged creatures. We met another family who were visiting Melghat, from Indore. Suddenly, I felt far away from home!

The jungle safari commenced, and though the Sagwan (Teak) trees were giving us the feel of being in a dense forest, we didn’t find much company from the animals. It is important to understand that the animals avoid the areas through which the safari passes, and conveniently stay in other quiter regions of the forest. We did manage to spot some peacocks, some deer, a snake, a mongoose, wild boars, and a serpent eagle. Mrs. Deshpande and her kids were very disappointed that we couldn’t spot a tiger. Tiger spotting is very rare. There are a total of 70 odd tigers in the whole reserve.

If one spots a tiger, you can mention it on a black board kept at the jungle camp. So, the last reported spotting there was around 2 months ago. We returned to our camp, and just chit chatted for a while. Pinakin and I were desperately waiting for nightfall, as the jungle camp is known to house the rare flying squirrel. Pinakin had a night vision binocular, so it would be fun if we could spot one of these creatures. We had dinner at the nearby village. I must mention that before having dinner, we had one plate of ‘jalebi’ and one plate of ‘rabri’ (both Indian sweetmeats). The dinner was so spicy, that I cannot describe it in words. I could feel my intestines smoking! Plus, the manager cum waiter cum cook was drunk and couldn’t understand our complaints.

On our way back to the camp, Pinakin, Umesh, Abhishek and I alighted a some distance before the camp, on a bridge over a near dry river. We made ourselves comfortable on the deserted road, and Pinakin conducted a lovely sky gazing session, which was loads of fun and very interesting too. We could hear some sounds, probably made by some animals nearby. Abhishek was extremely worried about the animal sounds, and just wanted to go back to the safety of the camp. We walked back to the camp, through pitch dark routes. I forgot to mention, during our star gazing session, one of the ‘star’ attractions was Jupiter, which I saw for the first time with a naked eye.

On reaching the camp, we started exploring the area behind the camp site, in search of the elusive flying squirrel. The flying squirrel, doesn’t fly really, but has a specially adapted body which allows it to jump from one tree to another. It’s belly is what serves as the wings, and generates the lift. After thirty minutes of search, Pinakin and I finally spotted the mammal. We saw it with our torches, we saw it ‘fly’ and we saw it through Pinakin’s night vision binoculars. It was a wonderful feeling to have witnessed this special animal.

Because the kids who were with us were disappointed on not having seen a tiger, Pinakin decided that we do another jungle safari in the morning before heading to our last destination, Narnala fort and WLS. The safari was good, but unfortunately we did not see any animal apart from a few peacocks and hens. The family from Indore claimed to have sighted a sloth bear. We packed our stuff and left for Narnala fort, which is in Akola district.

Narnala fort, standing upon an isolated hill of the Satpura range, is 18kms north of Akot, a taluka town in Akola district. It is 973 metres above sea-level and consists of three distinct hill forts: Jafarabad in the north-east, Narnala, the principal fort, in the centre,and Teliagarh in the south-west. It was protected by a curtain wall about 9 metres high with 67 bastions and six large gates. The Shahnur or “Mahakali” gate, built by Fateh-ullah Imad-ul-Mulk in 1487 AD, is not notable example of Sultanate architecture. The white sandstone gateway has Persian/Arabic inscriptions on it and is flanked upon on either side by galleries and rooms, probably for guards, but the most striking feature of the gateway is the overhanging balconied windows, two on either side. Within the fort are a number of tanks and cisterns, large cannon, known as nau-gazi top, and old palace, an armoury, a baradari, a mosque and other buildings, all in ruins.

According to tradition a very old fort, Narnala was repaired by Ahmad Shah Bahamani around 1425 AD, and in 1487 AD it came under the control of Fateh-ullah Imad-ul-Mulk, the founder of Imadshahi at Ellichpur, now called Achalpur. During Akbar’s rule. Narnala was a Suba (state or province). Narnala was captured by Parsoji Bhosale I in 1701 AD and remained with the Marathas till it was taken over by the British in 1803 AD.
The history of Achalpur, formerly known as Ellichpur, could well be said to be history of Vidarbha (Berar) itself. Nawab Sultan Khan, the first of his dynasty, built the fort at Sultanapura in Achalpur on the south the bank of the Sarpan River in about 1754 AD. Much of the part of the fort is now in completely dilapidated condition. The city was fortified by Sultan Khan’s son Ismail Khan by a huge and solid rampart wall of masonry with four gates. Most of the fortifications and the gates are still intact.

The exact date of construction is not known. The first fortifications, according to local legend, were made by Naryendrapun, a descendant of the Pandavas and at the time Emperor of Hastinapur (Delhi). It likely predates 1400 CE as Firishta -the Persian historian- records that Ninth Badshaha Shahbudeen Ahmad Shah I Wali (1422 CE to 1436 CE) during construction of the Gawailgadh fort, made repairs to Narnala fort when he camped at Achalpur (Elichpur) from 1425 to 1428. This would mean that the Narnala fort was constructed before Bahmani rule.

In 1437, when Nashir Khan the subhedar of Khandesh invaded Berar, the governor of the province (also called Khan-i-Jahan), remained loyal to his master, Ala-ud-din Ahmad Shah II (son of Ahmad Shah I Wali) and retreated to Narnala. He was besieged by disaffected nobles and Nashir Khan, but managed to break through the besieging force with help of Khalaf Hasan Basri who was sent by Ala-ud-din Ahmed Shah II. Nasir Khan was defeated.

In 1487 CE Narnala along with Gawailgadh came under the control of Fateh-ullah Imad-ul-Mulk, the founder of Imad shahi dynasty at Ellichpur (or Achalpur). In 1572 Burhan Imad Shah (also of the Imad Shahi dynasty) was confined in Narnala by his minister Tufal Khan. This gave Murtaza Nizam Shah of Ahmadnagar a pretext to lay siege to the fortress. He captured both king and minister, subsequently putting them to death. Thus the fort passed into the hands of the Ahmednagar kings. In 1597-8, the fort was captured by Akbar’s officers, Saiyid Yusuf Khan Mashhad and Shaikh Abul Fazl, from the officer who held it for the Sultan of Ahmadnagar. During Akbar’s rule, Narnala was one of the Sarkars of Berar Subah (see Berar Subah). Narnala was captured by Parsoji Bhosale in 1701 CE and remained with the Marathas till it was taken over by the British in 1803 CE.

The fort covers an area of 362 acres. It has 360 watchtowers, six large and twenty one small gates. The large gates are called the Delhi darvaza, the Sirpur darvaza, the Akot darvaza, and the Shahanur darvaza. The innermost of the three gate-ways is the Shahnur or Mahakali gate. It is built of white sandstone and is highly ornate. It is decorated with conventional lotus flowers, a rich cornice, and Arabic inscriptions, and flanked by projecting balconies with panels of stone lattice-work displaying considerable variety of design. It is considered an example of Sultanate style of architecture. An inscription records the fact that the gate was built in the reign of Shahab-ud-din Mahmud Shah (Bahmani) by Fataullah Imad-ul-Mulk in 1486. A short verse from the Quran is also inscribed.

It has an aqueduct and drains to catch rainwater. Along with 19 tanks, four of which are full throughout the year, this ensured a plentiful water supply to the fort residents.

We explored the fort in the killing heat, but it was worth it. The main door, is the star attraction of the fort, which is still in very good condition with beautiful Persian calligraphy on it. Among the other things on the fort, there is a famous Nine Yard cannon that is present there. Barring some graffiti, the canon is also in very good condition. There was a board there that talked about the canon’s history. We clicked some pictures here and there and went back to the base village for lunch. We had simply delicious lunch at a local’s house, and the heat and hunger made it tastier. People in these areas live on brinjals, so brinjal it was for lunch. There was also some raw mango chutney, which was the season’s first for us.

After lunch, we left in our Sumo for Akola. Due to some unforeseen availability issues, we didn’t get return tickets for an air conditioned coach, Abhishek had his railway booking for Nashik, and all of us were stuck. I decided to split from the group and make some arrangement for myself (as a solo person, it is more likely to find some sort of transport). I was in no mood to travel 12 hours by a State Transport bus, which too wasn’t a direct one. The other guys decided to go ahead with the ST bus idea, via Aurangabad. Abhishek came along with me to the private bus terminal, where some sweet talk found me a fantastic seat in an air conditioned sleeper bus. The journey was better than the one to Amravati, and I was able to find some sleep during it.

The bus left me at Pune, and remember, I had to go to Panvel (en route Bombay) to pick up my bike from my aunt’s house. I reached Pune in the morning, caught up with some folks, and then left for Panvel in a stupid, lousy, uncomfortable cab. Alighting at Panvel was an ecstatic feeling! I had some tasty food at my aunt’s place and left for Bombay on my bike and reached home before dinner time. Overall the trip was awesome. The area is so good that I would like to visit it again during a better season. I recommend this region to all enthusiasts, and winter may be a good time for enjoying (although summer is the best time for wildlife spotting).

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