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Bygone Doon: Forests and Forest Follies

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 By Pradeep Singh

When the pilgrims to the Guru’s newly settled abode in the Doon Valley came trudging through the defiles and wooded wilderness of the Siwaliks, the lofty Himalayas were spied only rarely. So deep were the forests and foliage so abundant that the snowy tops were a fleeting image for the callus-footed, weary bodied seekers of the spiritual cup. Streams bubbled at every few yards and no lips were parched having slaked their thirst of the sweet waters thereof. The birds sang the silence of the Sal trees to cheer the most despondent soul.

Doon Valley, terra incognita three centuries ago, was a treasure undiscovered or perhaps a solatium for Guru Ram Rai, who wandered the wilderness where none could see him in his renunciation, after his disappointment in affairs of the world. His treasury empty but his domain set apart with a wealth that would attract the attention of the high and the mighty who sought the valuable timber for creating their sumptuous palaces and pleasure houses. The ruling monarch of the day, Emperor Aurangzeb, paid a princely sum of Rs 8000 in 1673 for Dehra Dun’s Sal wood for his personal use at Delhi.

The Doon Valley was then a primeval forest resplendent with a variety of fine wood of which Sal trees were somewhat dominant. There were upward of seventy different types of trees that were of good specific gravity to be useful for construction of buildings. Abul Fazl, Akbar’s minister and author of Ain-i-Akbari, noted these qualities in timber of the time. Doon’s forests were the convenient source of timber for the Mughal capital. Not only Aurangzeb but another noble as well purchased Sal wood worth Rs 5000 in 1680s for his haveli at Delhi. Besides, the Mughals regarded Sal wood as suitable for boat building, too. On one such boat in 1857 did Bahadur Shah Zafar make the eventful journey from the Red Fort, or Qila-e-Mualla (the exalted fortress) as it was then called, to Humayun’s tomb for the Yamuna then flowed past both these historic places.

Leading the British forces into the Valley, three days before his luck ran out and his heroic death, Gen Robert Rollo Gillespie had written to a friend : “…in the famed Dhoon– the Tempe of Asia; and a most beautiful valley it is; the climate exceeding everything I have hitherto experienced in India.” He wrote this letter sitting and facing the beguilingly beautiful slopes of Sal trees leading up to the killing fields of Khalanga and Nalapani during early winter of 1814.

The outcome of the Anglo Gorkha War of 1814-15 was the annexation of Doon Valley, along with other parts of Uttarakhand and Himachal, by the British East India Company. The consequence of this development was in several ways a watershed for the history of Dehra Dun and its ecology.

At the time Doon became a possession by conquest for the East India Company, Europe but more particularly Britain was in the embrace of the Industrial Revolution, an engine that fed on resources of every conceivable kind to justify the investment that entailed in setting up the infrastructure to leverage the benefits of applied scientific knowledge alongside not so desirable and unethical exploitation of the human resources. In making the British dream to “civilise the world” as the white man’s burden come true and colonising much of Africa and Asia, the East India Company and its operations were indispensable. And so successfully did it do so that the British crown took over the mantle of the East India Company by ending its charter after the Indian Uprising of 1857. The pace of industrial development in Britain only speeded up, demanding more from its crown jewel, India.

Rampant commercial activities of the British skewed in favour of Britain led to a host of unpleasant developments, including for the Doon Valley.

(To be Continued)