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Walking with the Maldharis in Gir

A new lodge at Sasan Gir in Gujarat is an ode to the local communities that have long coexisted with the Asiatic lions in the forest

The Gir National Park is the only home of the Asiatic lion.
The Gir National Park is the only home of the Asiatic lion. (iStockphoto)

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Ismail “Bapu”, 45, goes about his work of tending to, and milking, the herd of buffaloes and goats at his home in the ness, or settlement—like his ancestors did for the past 200 years. He is one of the last Maldharis (a word derived from the owner of goods or stock), a semi-nomadic, pastoral community that has eked out a livelihood selling milk. Their life is a unique case of humans living in a symbiotic relationship with the predator—the Asiatic lions at the Sasan Gir forest in Gujarat.

Bapu is a lion veteran and narrates many stories of encounters with them, when he has chased them away merely by being silent or thumping his stick and calling his herd to huddle around in a circle to protect the young calves. He lives in a simple mud home— situated in the buffer zone of the forest—with a tiled roof and a solar panel. The living area and cattle sheds circle a central courtyard with charpoys and thorny plants fence the home from the surrounding forest.

This coexistence of man and lions is not without controversy, and many Maldharis have been relocated many times to places just outside the forest, on the premise that they consume forest resources like wood and fodder.

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“Lions are violent only when humans harass them. I have walked silently past them many times. If they haven’t found any prey, they do venture into our homes for our livestock sometimes. The forest department compensates us for the loss and when I lose livestock, I look at it as a tax I pay for using the forest,” says Bapu, speaking in Kutchi, the Sindhi dialect.

It is people like Bapu who form the core of a new luxury safari lodge called Aramness (the name combines two Gujarati words: aram, or peace/rest, and ness, or local village) that opened its gates in November last year. Spread across 12 acres in an 18km area skirting the Gir National Park, it is an ode to the communities that have inhabited the forest since eternity.

The owner of Aramness, wildlife enthusiast Jimmy Patel, was inspired by African lodges and wanted to replicate one in the Sasan Gir forest. Working at rewilding a barren cornfield in the forest was not an easy task. But today he seems to have achieved it, with only 40% of the land used for the lodge, and the rest reserved for kitchen gardens and natural cover.

The rustic space, designed by Fox Browne Creative and Nicholas Plewman Architects in South Africa, has an earthy colour palette and derives inspiration from a typical local village, with 18 kothis (two-storeyed bungalows) opening out to a central courtyard. The architects have used reclaimed wood, locally-cut sandstone and sun-baked clay roof tiles. The interiors are decorated with local craft like lippan mirror work and antiques, from dowry chests and wooden cow bells to discarded wooden printing blocks used imaginatively as facades of cupboards.

Ismail‘Bapu’, a Maldhari herder.
Ismail‘Bapu’, a Maldhari herder. (Kalpana Sunder)

“Since we built this place during the pandemic, there were many roadblocks, like factories and quarries shutting down, and the team always came up with creative solutions like sourcing roof tiles and bricks from old village homes, and, in turn, rebuilding their homes for them. A lot has gone into training the locals for different positions in the lodge,” explains Kamini Patel, a food consultant, who has seen the place take shape.

Patel has curated the lodge’s menu, keeping it focused on local produce. Even the way it is served is in sync with the community traditions—on a kansa thali (bell metal plate) with medicinal properties.

Aramness derives from its environment in every way. “We could not have built this place without the Siddis,” says Parikshit Singh Rathore, the diminutive lodge manager, referring to the local community with African roots who speak Gujarati and are great sportsmen. “These strong and tall men helped with putting the lodge together,” he says.

The Gir National Park is spread across 258 sq. km, while the total forest spans around 1,400 sq. km. It’s the only home of the Asiatic lion, which is smaller than its African counterpart. It once roamed the vast expanses of Asia before being hunted into near extinction by Indian royalty and British officers.

The Haveli block at the Aramness safari lodge, with its large dining room.
The Haveli block at the Aramness safari lodge, with its large dining room. (Kalpana Sunder)

Finally, in 1965 a wildlife conservation programme for the Asiatic lion was started and from being on the “Critically Endangered” category of the IUCN Red list in the 1990s, the numbers today stand at 674, according to the 2020 census. Much of this is due to the efforts of, and collaboration between, wildlife enthusiasts and local communities.

We take a safari drive in an open jeep though the forest, past cathedral-like termite hills, with our naturalist Varun Taneja, who was studying to be an accountant when he first travelled to a national park—it kindled his passion for nature and the outdoors.

It’s a sensory experience driving through the dense forests on a cold December morning, with the wind hitting our faces. Gir is a mix of grasslands, dry savannah forests, deciduous scrub forests, rocky hills and streams.

Tall banyan trees, bursting with ripe, red fruits, act as magnets for the prolific birdlife. We spot barbets, parakeets, yellow-footed green pigeons and Asian green bee-eaters. Gir has as many as 350 species of birds, including winter migrants. The biodiversity-rich area is home to as many as 400 plant species, 38 species of mammals and 37 species of reptiles.

“On a lucky day, you could spot anything from a leopard, pangolin, striped hyenas to honey badgers and porcupines,” says Taneja.

Though we are there to spot the big cats, it’s the small details that make our day. A Maldhari in his traditional white clothing, holding a cane, nonchalantly crosses our path with his herd of buffaloes. The wild boar, stocky nilgai and sambar deer dart across. Three tawny lion cubs are gambolling and drinking from a water hole with the adults behind a teak tree.

Back at the lodge, I wander through the large library, browsing through hardbound books on wildlife and trees. There are few places on earth as precious as Sasan Gir, and I feel blessed to have set foot here.

Kalpana Sunder is a Chennai-based journalist.

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