Just beside the apartments, skirting the forest and dipping unexpectedly from the curve of the road, lies a trail which winds its way down the slope. Past pine trees, stubs of burnt shrubs from last years’ forest fires, rocks and stones and some lush green grass, the lane hops across a tiny stream, loops around the next hill and enters dense forest. It’s a great walk for the afternoon, with sunlight filtering through layers of pine trees, the blue skies and the mountains watching us walk single file past the tall trees, and birdsong to encourage us. A fallen pine tree obstructs the trail—there is an alternate path climbing the slope, or one clambers over the trunk. The dogs just walk below the tree, and panic when they see me hauling myself over it. To them, it’s the ultimate stupidity—why do all this climbing, when you can just trot below the tree?!
We walk on, cross another little stream and its grassy banks and the path begins to climb the next hill. At this point, Biskit has run up the side of the stream and vanished from view and Pepper has begun questioning the wisdom of this walk. Through the trees and shrubs, on a hillock, I can see a tiny structure standing all by itself.
We walk up the slope, through the greenery and grass and find a small, perfectly built, simple, square temple with a low boundary wall. There is no idol inside the temple, no bells, no people…just a few burnt out lamps and some stones arranged in the center. The air here is fresh and lively. The view– Himalayas and blue skies, valleys and green forests and fields, kites circling overhead, is something to savor and enjoy, as is the cool breeze and the smell of the pine forests. The dogs join me and we sit for a while, just basking in the sun and breathing the fresh green air.
A villager treks past and grunts out a greeting..I ask him about the temple and he stops, lays down his bundle and tells me that the temple is for the big cats of the forest. When a hungry tiger or panther wants to go for a kill, rumour has it that the big cat visits this temple and asks for the blessings of the Forest Gods. On being blessed, the big cat roars—a specific roar, which, when heard in the nearby villages, makes them release an old goat or cattle into the forest, so that the hunger is appeased with this offering and the rest of the livestock is spared. I listen and marvel at this win-win situation of this folklore..The Big cat gets the meal, the villagers save their productive cattle, and the blessings of the Forest Gods are not in vain.
This forest trail is a favorite for the summer. Once the monsoons come, it’s too wet and slippery for comfort, and the winter makes it a bramble- and-thorn- filled- canine- adventure which ends with distress during the daily grooming session. Last summer, an early morning hour found the dogs and me stomping along the path and doing our usual stuff. Biskit was running up and down the slopes and sniffing every blade of grass, every pine cone and every bit of bone; Pepper panting and chasing her usual stone and me striding, stone-throwing and singing. Suddenly, at the point where the second stream comes up, Biskit froze in her tracks, raised her hackles and growled softly and continuously. Peppu came bumbling along and she froze too. I turned the corner and had this disquieting sensation of being observed. Not just observed, but being watched carefully. It was a strangely scary feeling, and that vulnerable sensation shook me up. I looked around, and then, there they were… a pair of dark black eyes watching me steadily, from across the stream and its thick shrubs.
In that one speck of time, panic made me turn into a statue and I felt my life flash past my eyes. For an eternity we stood there– statue-like me, snack-like (for the watching Big Cat) growling dogs, and the breeze whooshing through the pine trees.
That speck of time passed, I looked again at those eyes and saw the rest of the large mountain dog . He was just sitting and watching us steadily. The relief!! The relief!! And the realization that we are capable of hypnotizing ourselves into a mass of fearful, paralysing nerves by just thinking of the worst,made me laugh myself silly. How could I let a story make me so nervous? And how have I not yet forgotten that feeling of pure paralyzing panic which gripped me, that sunny summer morning?
I will go for morning summer walks again, next month and I will smile to myself, as I clamber past that bend of the trail. And yes, I will look behind my shoulder and sweep the scenic hills with careful eyes, smile indulgently at my cautious behavior, and walk on to enjoy the forest!