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No electricity, phone or TV and lions as neighbours
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel in Gir, Gujarat | May 16, 2008

The serene teak forests and gently rising and falling grassy knolls that make up the 1,412 sq km of the magnificent Gir Forest National Park are home to about 350 of Asia's only lions.

Gir, interestingly, is also the home of Lakhibai, 15.

Lakhibai and her 500 odd fellow nomadic herdsmen, the Maldharis, and their contingents of shiny black, mammoth buffaloes and cattle, also uniquely inhabit this southwestern Gujarat jungle.

Lakhibai is not afraid of the lions that share her forest home. We bumped into her while she was gracefully walking home with her day's enormous haul of grass balanced on her head; armed not even with a stick. Nor do the lions bother with her. It is a situation of mutual respect.

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Unlike other Indian wildlife reserves, where the villages situated within the protected park were all relocated when the parks were established by the government, in Gir forest many of the Maldharis, who live in 50 or so scattered villages called ness, were allowed to stay on.

They were also given rights to graze their buffaloes in the placid meadows of Gir. The Gujarat government apparently compensates them 50 per cent for every buffalo/head of cattle that the lions take for prey; although applying and receiving the compensation is said to be a torturous process.

Living deep and buried in this dense, peaceful forest has cut the Maldharis off from the flow of every day modern Indian life. Cut them off from 'civilisation' virtually. Their life has changed just negligibly from what it was in the 1960s when the forest park was created.

They live in simple communities that have not had the benefit of modernisation. There is no electricity. Or running water. The villages are of a few homes each and the Maldharis uproot, from time to time, and migrate to better grazing areas within the park.

Kerosene lanterns are the only means of light in Lakhibai's home that she shares with two younger sisters and parents. They chop wood from the forest to run their stoves.

"I get up at 5 am. We cut grass and organise food for the buffaloes," she explains in her sweet-sounding dialect.

Lakhibai has never been to school. She has rarely ventured out of the forest or beyond a 50 km radius of her home. She has not watched television nor used a telephone. And prefers not to ride in a vehicle; Maldharis use camels or opt to walk long distances.

The radio is the prize possession of their home. "I listen to music on it," she says shyly. It runs on batteries.

But she has not heard of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan or Shah Rukh Khan and does not know anything about Hindi films. Or what it means to be Hindustani.

Maldharis, who dress in a special intriguing gypsy style with black skirts and wrapped in colourful chunnis, are not a caste by themselves. Charans, Ahirs and Rabaris and folks from other cow-herder castes can be Maldharis. Staunch vegetarians, they do not slaughter their livestock.

The word maldhari means people who have maal or worth. A strange title for virtually possession-less, nomadic people?

Not really when you realise that over the years their buffaloes have made the Maldharis wealthy. This entire community of pastoral nomads own about 16,000 head of livestock.

Lakhibai cannot tell you what exactly her family earns but locals from Sasan town, which is located at the entrance of the forest, tell you that these families earn close to Rs 20,000 a month selling milk.

Maldharis live quite contentedly off the milk products they sell, and use, and do not have much to spend their money on except more cattle and buffalo. So much of it is invested in jewellery. True to their name Maldhari women wander around with heavy ear-rings and other jewellery.

Lakhibhai and her clan, who do not farm, are very wily herdsfolk. The lions do not often get to their buffaloes. They keep a very sharp eye is what the forest guides tell you. And they are not afraid of lions. The forest is full of Maldharis trekking down forest paths. Lions are not prone to harming humans in these forests. They have enough game to keep themselves happy.

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But there could be a wrinkle on Lakhibai's continuing existence in her forest paradise. Opinions differ on whether the Maldharis, who revere their environment as well as the lions, live in awe-inspiring harmony side by side with the lions. Or that the lions will ultimately pay for the over-grazing of the forest by the Maldharis's herds.

Some statistics reflect that buffaloes and cattle make up 37 per cent of the lion's prey. Net result: A decrease in population of the lion's natural prey like deer and nilgai. Maldharis are extremely resistant to being moved out of the forest. Apparently experiments in the past have not been successful because of the Maldharis's inability to till land.

We encounter Lakhibai's sleepy village, a cluster of a few simple thatched homes, 15 minutes ahead by jeep. A huge herd of buffaloes amiably chew cud, standing in front of it. Dusk is about to descend and the menfolk are busy securing the herd for the night.

It will probably take Lakhibai another 15 minutes to reach home and then half an hour to wind up her tasks. Then she will probably tune into the outside world, the only way she can, when she turns her radio on.

Photograph: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel

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