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Devalsari – Threatened Abode of the Gods

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By Raj Lakshmi Dube

I had heard about the three ‘B’s, butterflies, birds and bees of Devalsari, a small village in the hills. I got the opportunity to visit it through the walk conducted by Been There Doon That, (BTDT). My friend and I readied ourselves with hiking shoes, sticks and raincoats and met a group of about 24 enthusiastic participants at 6 a.m. Although it was difficult to wake up at 5.00 a.m. but there we were assembled at the start of the Mussoorie Diversion. We boarded a Tempo Traveller and started our journey at 6.30 a.m. Devalsari is approximately 55 kms from Mussoorie on the Uttarkashi road via Suakholi and Thatyur. Within a short time, fanned by the cool air, most of us were drowsy and sleepy. Midway, we stopped at a small restaurant for breakfast and after about 40 minutes boarded the van again and started for our destination. After about one hour, the van stopped on the side of the road and there seemed nothing around except green hills at a little distance. However, soon, we started hiking downhill on a small pathway leading down from the main road which would lead us to the village. The path was very uneven and strewn with stones and pebbles. Going down step by step with the help of my hiking stick, we reached a small culvert over a small stream. Looking towards the left side we saw a bunch of colourful butterflies, some of them moving around flapping their wings, flying around, awesome. Then started the uphill track, which was no different from the downhill one, a little steep in places. Huffing and puffing, we reached the top. In front of us was an open space like a meadow. We stood mesmerised, the lush green forest on the mountain side took our breath away. The pristine forest with deodar trees as high as 200 to 250 feet. They seemed to be standing and watching us apart from providing shelter to birds, bees and other wildlife. In front of the forest was a small open meadow where children were playing, looking like another bunch of bigger colourful butterflies. Their resonating laughter was echoing from the mountains all around. The sun was playing hide and seek through the floating clouds and a gentle breeze made us forget the difficult trek up. As soon as we reached there, we were welcomed by a group of villagers with tea and halwa, called ‘Dusari’, which they said was the traditional way of welcoming guests. We were introduced to the environment protection group by the name of ‘Devalsari Environment Protection and Technology Development Society’, consisting mainly of the youth of the village, led by the young and dynamic Arun Gaur. After refreshments, our organiser, Sargam Mehra, guided us to a narrow path from the middle of a forest towards a temple further uphill. Looking at the steep slope, my friend and a few others stopped at the environment centre and decided to wait there. Once again we started hiking, energy provided by the tea and halwa helped. On the way, we saw some bright green lilies in the shape of a cobra head with its tongue sticking out. The giant deodars formed a canopy above us, but what was disappointing were small metal patches stuck on the trees’ bark with small nails – maybe for headcount purposes, to cut or save, however, it probably hurts the nerves of the trees. I hope they were strong enough to withstand the onslaught and not harmed in any way. Midway to the temple, Sargam asked us to wait and feel the forest around and above us. We could actually feel the energy of the forest. Trees do not just remove carbon dioxide but also suck some of the darkness out of humans in their shade. They remind us that we share the earth with other life forms, we are bound to them with webs of mutual interdependence. Preserving and restoring the great forests would be worth doing for itself even if it had no economic use. On reaching the Mahadev Temple, we saw that it was partially made of wood from another local tree called banjh, which is actually a variety of oak. The doors of the temple were closed, we could only see the doors of the sanctum sanctorum through the bars of the outer door. I prayed to Shiva to save the forest and the village from the politicians and wood mafia – more about this a little later. The local story about the temple goes thus: once an ascetic visited the village and asked the villagers for a small piece of land on a hillock where he wanted to make his hut and meditate. The villagers refused, so he just walked up the hill and disappeared at the place where the temple now stands. Thereafter, as the saying goes, overnight small trees of deodar dotted the entire mountain and, especially, the oak tree, banjh. The ascetic appeared in the dream of the head priest of the village in the true form of Mahadeva and asked him to construct a temple at that place. Only the wood of the banjh tree’s branches was to be used. So, up came the Mahadev Temple in whom the villagers have immense faith. The doors of the temple open only once a year in the month of September, when there is a big day of worship and festivities. We then returned to the main office of the environment protection group for interaction with the villagers and lunch. Hearing the woes and issues of the village shook me to the core. The villagers are generally a satisfied and uncomplaining community, but the local politician and the wood mafia with their money and power are bent upon destroying the environment. A proposal to construct a road through the forest has been approved – more than 350 huge deodars have been marked for the axe. Can we even imagine how much harm it will do to the forest? The excuse is to develop eco tourism. Is that the way by destroying the environment itself? What will be the end result? The lush green forest destroyed, all wildlife gone, the birds and butterflies disappearing to be replaced by people from the cities driving up, loud music and, of course, drinks which will lead to rowdy behavior and unsafe villagers. One such example was recited by a young girl, Prachi Pundhir, who is a resident of a village by the name of ‘Nau Bigha’. The village is located on alternate route to the Dehradun–Mussoorie road. Just a few years ago, she and her classmates – all between 10 and 14 years of age – would go to school early morning by crossing a small river and return late in the evening. There was no fear for safety or any kind of harassment. Now, that a road has been constructed and the commuters have found a shortcut to Dehradun, even though the girls have grown up they do not venture out after sunset for the fear of human wolves. She also narrated that even her father, a cab driver, has to wait for the hooligans who would park their vehicle in the middle of the road and have their drinking spree with loud music, in the hope that they would voluntarily remove their vehicle and let him pass. So do we want another ‘nau bigha ‘in Devalsari? Moreover all the villages are already connected by the main road. Where is the need for another road which will not last even two rains, as it is a very heavy rainfall area? It is just an excuse to cut the trees. The most active and the representative of the youth, who manages the environment protection group, is Arun Gaur. This young boy, who has managed to gather like-minded people of the village, has had his life threatened by the political and forest mafia caucus, which has used every means to get the proposal for the road approved, it is alleged. Money, coercion and threats all have been used to intimidate the heads of the adjacent villages who called a mahapanchayat in support of the road. Arun is standing brave and steadfast like a beacon of light in the dark. Devalsaris do not want a version of development that will sacrifice their trees and the security of their village. Some elderly persons have also joined the movement, who feel that the heritage of their past is being destroyed. Will we allow the greedy and selfish people to have their way? With a heavy heart and hoping to visit Devalsari year after year in the same form as it is today, we bade goodbye to the lovely village where Binda Devi had come as a young bride and where her grandchildren are singing and dancing and like Chulbuli, eager to help all visitors to their village. May she grow up fearless under the protection of the deodars!