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Resolving Conflicts to Protect Siva’s Locks

In the 19th century British colonial administrators in India took control of vast areas of forestland, which they subsequently exploited through the Imperial Forest Service. A good part of this forestland had originally been managed communally in accordance with local rules and regulations. With the coming of the British Raj (colonial rule), conflicts broke out between rural populations and the Forest Service. Village systems of resource use broke down, and forest degradation accelerated rapidly. The Chipko Movement, founded in the 1970s with the aim of conserving forests in the Himalayas, is one recent response to these developments. Before the Himalayas can become green again, however, it will first be necessary to resolve long-running conflicts. For here, just as in other areas of the world, conservation and regeneration of forests are primarily a social problem and only secondarily a biological problem. No-one has demonstrated this more convincingly than Visheswar Dutt Saklani, the man who planted 30,000 trees.

In The Forests of Hope – Stories of Regeneration. Earthscan: London, 1999.

© Christian Küchli, Forsting. ETH, Journalist BR, CH-2502 Biel, Switzerland

According to Hindu legend, the sacred river Ganges originated not on Earth but in Heaven, for it was said to emanate from Vishnu’s toe. Legend also has it that when the 60,001 ill-bred sons of King Sagara disturbed the sage Kapila while he was meditating, he reduced them to ashes with one scorching glance. Saint Bhagiratha then prayed for the Ganges to be brought down to Earth so its waters could cleanse the ashes. The river goddess Ganga, furious at being displaced from Heaven, stormed through the gorges of the Himalayas and onto the plain, where she unleashed a torrent of floods and destruction. Anxious to rescue the Earth, Siva, the most benevolent of the gods, caught the turbulent river on his brow and stilled Ganga’s fury in his matted locks.

Just as he does every evening, Visheswar Dutt Saklani sat monotonously reciting from the Puranas, the Hindu scriptures which tell of the creation, destruction and rebirth of the universe, and which are the source of the legend explaining how the Ganges came down to Earth. We were sitting on a charpoy, a bedstead woven from straw with four posts. The flame of a kerosene lamp intensified the light of dusk that was streaming through the one small window. In the kitchen, Saklani’s wife and daughter were finishing what remained of our supper of rice and dal, a tangy curry made from lentils. A woman balancing a full pitcher of water on her head passed by outside. When Saklani paused in his chanting, I could hear the soft chewing sounds made by the water buffalo that was tethered beneath the window.

Visheswar Dutt Saklani is a farmer. He lives in the Song Valley in a village called Saklana, nestled in the foothills which rise from the floodplains of the Ganges and Indus rivers to form a broad band in the foreground beneath the great peaks of the Himalayas. The catchment area of the Song, which merges with the Ganges further downstream, is part of Garhwal, and lies between Kumaon to the east and the state of Himachal Pradesh to the west. Garhwal and Kumaon together comprise the highland areas of the state of Uttar Pradesh.

I first heard of Visheswar Dutt Saklani in 1984, when Sunderlal Bahuguna told me of “the man who planted 30,000 trees”. Bahuguna, in Europe at the time, was one of the leaders of the grass-roots Chipko Movement, which was founded in the 1970s to conserve Himalayan forests in India.

The next year I had a chance to spend five months journeying through the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas, travelling from Pakistan through India to Nepal. The village of Saklana was my first destination after I reached the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. It was not difficult to find Visheswar Dutt Saklani; he was well-known here for having raised literally tens of thousands of trees, which had since become an entire forest of oak. He was the man who cared for Siva’s locks and watched over their regeneration. In the Himalayan foothills of India, Siva’s bountiful locks of hair are, of course, a metaphor for the forest.

The story of Saklani’s forest began with a tragic event in January 1947, the day on which his brother was shot and killed in the struggle for Indian independence. In his grief, Saklani decided to establish a forest in his brother’s memory. Each year on the 11th of January, friends and relations gather with Visheswar Dutt Saklani to plant more trees, which have since grown to constitute a forest of oak larger than 20 football fields.