“How can we love the forest if we don’t see it?” asks retired Air Vice Marshal Vinod Rawat, who has spent the last seven years restoring Sanjay Van forest in the heart of south Delhi. Mr Rawat, an associate of the DDA and citizens group Working With Nature, is an uncle of sorts to thousands of trees, innumerable fauna and many DDA forest staff. They work closely with him on the restoration of 784 acres, which he has built back from dry ponds and empty pits into a thickly wooded forest with wide, clean walkways. We set off from Gate #1 on Aruna Asaf Ali Marg, where he meets us with walking stick and golf cart, and find many things you can do within.
A short to-do list:
Walk An Easy Ten Kilometres: Well-maintained, cleaned daily and lined with shade-giving trees, Sanjay Van’s walking trails come with detailed route maps along the path in case you get lost. Only a few feet into the forest off a busy road, we hear koels, squirrels and cicadas, and are amazed at how completely the forest muffles all sounds of traffic.
Peacocks, partridges, squirrels, sparrows and monarch butterflies cross serenely as we walk past. There are tiny paths that lead off into the undisturbed forest. It isn’t fenced because, as Mr Rawat says, “I don’t want the animals to feel trapped.” Birds come to drink at the terracotta bowls of water placed at regular intervals, and there are benches to rest every few feet. Our favourite is marked “Keep Calm and Save Wildlife.”
Say Goodbye To An Old Botanical Enemy: One sign in the forest is different from the rest. It is red, nailed to the tree and reads ‘Vilayati Keekar.’ “We hate this tree,” Mr Rawat says. “It robs the groundwater from all the other trees.” Once imported from Central America by the British to help green desert areas, the tree has proved an environmental menace.
Now, native Aravalli trees on the verge of disappearing from Sanjay Van are slowly taking back the land — come here to spot the khair, khejri, kumattha, ronjh, and siris. The hingot is popular with the nilgai who enjoy its fruit. You’ll also see the vibrant dhak or flame of the forest if you look out of your airplane window while descending into Delhi airport at the right time.
Check Out A Ponds Beauty Regime: Twelve revived ponds—some of which have trees growing through their middle—have made Sanjay Van Delhi’s only forest self-sufficient in its water needs. The ponds are lined with typha grass, said to clean the water. The surfaces are bubbling when we walk past them; this, Mr Rawat explains, is only because they’ve filled the water bodies with gambusia fish that eat mosquitoes and provide food for the birds.
Start Your Own Birder Conspiracy: Sanjay Van is serendipitously located on the Central Asian migratory route of birds, and over 150 species have been sighted here in recent years. (In fact, plans to convert it into Delhi’s first bird sanctuary have been on the table for about three or four years now.)
In the rains, the peacocks sit in the trees for hours, and bright blue kingfishers—rare visitors on Delhi’s avian scene—frolic in the water Along with the monsoon also arrives the rare pied crested cuckoo from the eastern coast of Africa to lay its striking turquoise blue eggs in here. Tip: It’s worth visiting on a hot afternoon to spot the Indian paradise flycatcher bathing in one of the ponds alongside pond herons, cattle egrets and geese who will most likely be dipping their feet in the shallow water. Overhead, catch the golden oriole, a purple sunbird, the seven sisters birds (who fly in flocks of seven), and in the evening, hundreds of sparrows.
Gather With Your Deer-ly Beloved: If you venture into the quieter parts of the woods, you’ll be walking with nilgai, deer and jungle fowl. Instead of venturing towards the open grasslands of the Mehrauli end of the forest, stick to the pathways: if you are quiet enough, you may spot a golden jackal. Please also remember that you may well be walking beside the Indian spectacled cobra, common krait and saw scale viper. “There has not been a single snake-related death in the area for twenty-five years,” Mr Rawat hastens to assure us. Let’s keep it that way.
Now, native Aravalli trees on the verge of disappearing from Sanjay Van are slowly taking back the land — come here to spot the khair, khejri, kumattha, ronjh, and siris.
Find A Reading Nook: Three enclosures—at 2011 Point, at Peacock Hills and in a clearing just off the main path—offer ample space to sit in the shade and read. The Qutub Institutional Area gate is next to Rockland hospital, and a garden with many benches has been created just inside the gate for patients to unwind. You can also hare off into the medicinal forest to find a nice tree for company. Speaking of which—
Go To The Bel Jar: 224 acres of the forest has been turned into a plantation of trees whose healing properties you can read about off bright yellow boards. We see neem, jamun, bel and amla, plus lesser-known harad and ber bushes. The forest also boasts 5000 new Giloy trees, considered to be effective in fighting diseases like dengue fever—giloy root, we learn, is an old Ayurvedic ingredient, but has been endangered by overuse. Note: please do not trip over the JNU botany students working here on their field studies.
Scale The Ancient Wall of Lal Kot: The rains have turned what remains of the thousand-year old Qila Lal Kot into a meadow of tall green grass through which the wall peeps out at us. To avoid an unexpected meeting with a golden jackal, climb up a set of steps to the top of the wall that Prithviraj Chauhan built. Your reward: a spectacular view of trees and heritage monuments such as Qutub Minar and Adham Khan‘s tomb.
Climb The 2011 Tower: It stands to reason that one of Delhi’s last green spaces deserves its own forty-foot-tall tower —named after the International Year Of The Forest—from which to enjoy a surreally green panorama of the city.
Peer Into The Old Well of 1961: Villagers drew water from this well until it dried up years ago. Well, it’s back! Over the last couple of seasons, its water has risen to 35 feet, and is now used to water the plants.
Visit Hazrat Aashiq Allah: The domed dargah of Aashiq Allah is popular with families with babies who visit it to ward off the evil eye. Next to the dargah, find several graves called Ganj e Shaheeda'n which means “the place where the martyrs are buried”. The dargah is approached through Desu Road in Mehrauli.
Make New (Old) Friends: Sanjay Van’s winding paths cross many an old mausoleum and cracked mossy tomb. Long known as the most haunted place in Delhi, the forest is full of stories of Sufi saints rising from their graves at night as well as stories of warriors who died in the wars over Delhi roaming Lal Kot. Locals have reported hearing voices call out to them and the cries of children coming from the trees. An old Mianji lights candles on Aashiq Allah’s tomb every week, and residents believe he walks along the lit path. Say hi for us.
Invest Your Own Seed Fund: The conservation team always has a wish-list of saplings and trees that they’re looking to plant in Sanjay Van, and encourage you to plant some. You can get in touch with them here.
Take a Moonlit Walk: Thickly wooded forests and wetlands make excellent homes for nocturnal creatures such city moths, grasshoppers, spiders and frogs – all of whom you will meet on regularly scheduled night walks through the Van. Details of upcoming walks are posted here.
Bring Your Bike: Unlike other forests in Delhi, the paths here are flat and wide enough for cyclists. Entering from any of the gates will give you a scenic, shaded route. Because cars aren’t allowed inside the property, cyclists and walkers have the path to themselves.
Getting there: Enter from Aruna Asaf Ali Marg, the Qutub Institutional Area or from MG Road beside the TB Hospital. Entry is free, gates open from dawn to dusk. The closest metro stations are Chhatarpur and Haus Khas on the Yellow Line.
This story was contributed by Urvashi Bahuguna, a writer based in New Delhi.
Image credit: Instagram / birdsthrulens
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