Sunday, 2 November 2014

Year of the Tiger, WWF stamp and Mohan Narsingh Rana

Some thirty years ago, I started collecting stamps. A pair of forceps, a magnifying glass and two stamp albums were the most coveted possession I had in those days. And nagging my father and his friends, to give me the envelopes of the letters they received, was a routine work for me.

The psychology of hoarding stamps slowly turned me into a serious philatelist and within a decade I was a proud owner of stamps from over 150 countries. My favourite subjects of collection were famous scientists, monuments, flora and fauna.

WWF stamps, a craze among collectors
WWF stamps are always in demand among collectors and my love for the stamps made me push for a commemorative stamp for the Year of the Tiger campaign being led throughout the world by WWF. Earlier the Government of Nepal had issued a set of four WWF stamps showcasing endangered animals.

In early 2010, I was leading The Year of the Tiger campaign in Nepal and when discussing the idea of issuing a WWF stamp with the senior management team, I got the hint that it was a tough task.

Mohan Narsingh Rana, a perfectionist and designer par excellence
However, when one of my colleagues from WWF and I met with Mohan Narsingh Rana at the Departmental of Postal Services, I sniffed the smell of success at first sight itself. I could see the twinkle in his eyes when we told him about the stamp. He was always interested in designing stamps for special occasions. And it was a special occasion indeed.

He was not a big man. But it was his confidence and conviction that won over his thin and frail frame. His silvery white hair, moustache and beard added to his impressive personality.

Appreciating our plan, he detailed out the steps needed to design the stamp. The steps he spelled out were rigorous but doable. It was his experience of designing more than 300 stamps for the Government of Nepal and his reputation of coming up with excellent designs, he never compromised on standards.

Being a perfectionist, he wanted to be at the tiger habitats, either in Chitwan National Park or in Bardia National Park, visit the forest and if possible get to see a real tiger. He wanted to get the real feeling of a tiger habitat. He was not convinced drawing a tiger from available photographs.  Instead he preferred a camera trap image. That’s how you do justice to your work. In the final design, the tiger seemed to emerge out of its lair, the dense forest.
(c) WWF Nepal

Commemorative stamp for the Year of the Tiger
Finally, in commemoration of the Year of the Tiger 2010, the Department of Postal Services of the Government of Nepal issued the WWF tiger postal stamps. The then Prime Minister of Nepal Madhav Kumar Nepal introduced the stamps by applying the first day of issue cancellation to the Rs 5 denomination stamp.

What started as a hobby became one of the most satisfying moments of my life!

I had never thought that I would one day contribute to issuing a WWF commemorative stamp. However, it all happened. Thanks to Mr Rana, he understood the gravity of The Year of the Tiger and accepted to design the stamp. I feel the stamp was helpful in raising awareness about tiger conservation not only in Nepal but also in countries where the stamps reached piggybacking on the envelopes sent out of Nepal.

Rest in peace Mr Rana
Mr Rana was suffering from throat cancer and left this world early this year. He devoted his 36 precious years designing stamps of different colours, shapes and sizes highlighting various issues. And one of them is the WWF commemorative stamp for the Year of the Tiger 2010.  

I have in my collection a mint sheet of The Year of the Tiger stamp. And it is the most coveted possession that I have. Rest in peace Mr Rana! 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Why rainy season is the best time for a hike to Shivapuri

When I say this, you will say that I have gone crazy. But once you go through the thrills of hiking in the rain, you will believe me and Rachel Carson. She says, “A rainy day is the perfect time for a walk in the woods.” 

Torrential rains all night. A slight drizzle in the morning. The morning was not even suitable for a walk on the streets – let alone, hiking to the second highest peak in the Kathmandu Valley. But the spirit was high. All of us, highly energised for the hike, were ready with our umbrellas.

We started from the Budhanilkantha temple, famous for the lying Vishnu idol and notorious for the erstwhile royal family. Due to a belief that whosoever among the royals visits the temple, he would die immediately, none of the royal family member visits the temple.

It was still raining and the environment was misty. As we inched towards the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park entrance, the thin white clouds above the hills looked like a natural painting of greyish white splashed over the canvas. 

A pair of honey bears
Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park is a treasure trove for nature lovers. It is home to 177 bird species, 102 species of butterflies and 129 different mushroom species. Lucky hikers often get to see deer and if they are luckier a leopard or a Himalayan black bear might turn out of the lonely woods. 

In our case, it was a pair of honey bears (martens). They are famous for feeding on honey and their favourite prey is the Nepali national bird danphe (Lophophorous impejanus).  

As we were busy munching on our lunch box, none could click the elusive animal. It was an opportunity missed.

Leeches and leeches everywhere
However, for blood thirsty leeches it was a thriving opportunity. We were emptying the lunch box and the leeches were filling their appetite. But we were ready to cope with the blood suckers. A packet of table salt we had bought at the start of the hike came to our rescue. Putting a pinch of salt on a leech makes it lifeless.

I learnt two lessons the hard way – if you are hiking to a leech infested woods, don’t forget to apply anti-leech oil to your legs and arms, and carry either salt or tobacco (timur – toothache tree nuts too can be a good option) with you to get rid of the leeches if they are already feasting on your blood. If you need to hike to a leech prone area, make sure that you wear proper shoes. The leeches easily pierce inside the netlike texture of sports shoes.

Once we crossed a height of 1700 metres, there were no leeches in the surrounding. Though we had more than 1000 metres to scale, the climb was much easier with no leeches around. However, the stairs were posing problems. Had it been a route through the forest, it would have been much easier for the legs.
Waterfalls, wild mushrooms and flowers
As every black cloud has a silver lining, hiking in the rainy season has its own charm. You will get to see waterfalls, wild mushrooms and flowers everywhere. Being a nature enthusiast, I clicked each variety of mushrooms and flowers that I found on the way. I was repenting on not bringing a DSLR with me. However, with an umbrella in one hand, the point and shoot camera was much easier to handle.  

Trees laden with old man’s beard
Another delight to watch was lichens covering the trees. The trees in the park are very old and sun’s rays have hard time penetrating the dense canopy. So, like old men, the trees have lichens all over them. The old man’s beard, as they call it, sometimes makes the trees look scary.
The never ending stairs to the peak
The stairs leading to the Shivapuri peak never seemed to end. It was a tiresome walk to the top. I imagined climbing the stairs in a sunny day. Without the sun, the ascent was much easier. Still, we were panting for breath when we reached the top. A height of 2700 m above sea level! 

Yog Ashram for peaceful meditation
As they say, a hard earned victory is worth celebrating, the feeling after reaching the peak was no more than winning a battle. At the peak is a meditation centre, the Shiva Ashram Pashupata Yoga. Not staying behind in the age of technology, the Ashram also has a website ( and a contact email address ( If you are interested to meditate in the serene environs of Shivapuri, mail the caretaker to know more.

After resting for a while at the peaceful Ashram, eating the leftovers in our lunch boxes, we headed for the platform considered as the peak. Walking for just few minutes, we reached an open space. In the middle was a stone platform, almost square in shape. It was a perfect spot for a group picture.

Todke Baba – the sage who meditated in a tree trunk
It took us nearly five hours to reach the peak. Then we started our descent to the Bagdwar – the start point of the holy river, Bagmati.

On the way, we came across a hollow tree trunk. It was huge. On its top, from where the tree was chopped down, few Zinc strips served as a roof. The guide told us that the place was used by a sage from Haryana, India. As he meditated inside the tree trunk, people called him “Todke Baba”. In Nepali, a hollow space inside a tree trunk is called “Todka”. 

The tree trunk has now been deserted and an ashram for meditation has been by the Baba. The place has facilities for staying, meditating and performing yagna (holy offering to the fire). 

Bagdwar – the start point of Bagmati
Descending even further, we came to Bagdwar. The water flowing from the hills is made to pass through canals, finally flowing out of a tiger shaped spout. Taking turns, each of us drank the holy water, pure as nature.

Near the tiger faced spout is a Shiva linga and a green name plate with “Bagmati Ganga” written on it. Nearby is a small man-made pond with a Shiva statue in meditating pose at the centre. A trident with damaru stands next to the statue.
My love affair with the mushrooms and wild flowers
It was time to return. We could have gone to Nagi Gompa, a Buddhist monastery. But it was too late. We increased our pace of descent. It was much easier to climb down the stairs. However, the environment was monotonous.

I came across wild flowers and mushrooms in between and clicked the pictures as and when I saw them. Though seeing all the 129 varieties of mushrooms is an impossible task, you can easily locate more than 20 varieties on the way.

Below is a slideshow of the flowering plants and mushrooms I could click during the hike. 

Flowering plants of Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park

Created with flickr slideshow.

Mushrooms of Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park

Created with flickr slideshow.

Finally, we were at the bottom of the park. From there you can see a nice view of the Kathmandu Valley. Dog tired we rushed to the entrance and then to Budhanilkantha temple where our bus was waiting for us.

Hiking in the rain was a fun and I recommend you too a hike in the nearby woods once the monsoon starts.

I am not the only one to recommend hiking in the rain, below are the ones who echo the same.

Few tips on hiking in the rain

Why you should hike in the rain

How to hike in the rain

Tips for staying dry in the rain  

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Chanarbhoga – the mystery unfolding on the Chure hills in Saptari

A goat was being tied to a cycle. Four men and a little boy were busy spelling out their ideas to get the bleating goat settled on a piece of rice sack.  When I asked why the poor thing was being loaded in such a small space above the cycle pedals, the answer was, “It’s his journey of lifetime.”
The goat was destined to be the feast for the day. The first of Baishakh, the first day of the Nepali calendar, is spent making merry, having good time with friends and visiting the sacred places – the temples and thans (worshipping place of ancestral village deity).

The men were heading to Chanarbhoga – the Shira Than – where the guardian deity of many villages is supposed to dwell. Every year, the villagers collect money and buy a goat for the deity. Every village in the vicinity sacrifice a goat to make sure that the deity remains happy throughout the year and keeps away any outbreak of diseases and natural disasters happening in those villages. That’s the popular belief. 

Having heard a lot about Chanarbhoga, called Chandrabhoga by Nepali speakers, I set off along with the team with the goat tied to the cycle. And aiding me in my trip was my favourite mountain bike with Shimano gears. 
I was amazed by the terrain – stony river bed with ditches and flowing water at places, hills carved with interesting patterns from landslides, newly planted trees sprouting out amidst the butts of trees felled down – all were a “wow” for me.    
If you want to hike, trek and climb like Bear Grylls in the Man Vs Wild, head for the ruins of an ancient temple spread over the Chure hills in Saptari district of Eastern Nepal.

A mountain bike can be your best partner – to experience biking along the dry river bed during the March – April season. The once dense forest turns into withered, leafless trees and the climbers that sprawl the forest all the year round dries down. Thanks to the forest fire that occurs every year, the whole forest turns into a burnt, lifeless environ easing your climb to the hill-top.  

There are two ways to reach Chanarbhoga. Either head north from the Govind Chowk a kilometre west of Rupani or move northwards from the Shambhunath Chowk (locally called Traffic) which lies west of Govind Chowk. As you move northwards, you will come across a river bed. Just follow the river and it will lead you to the bottom of the hill leading to Chanarbhoga.
As I followed the river to its origin, the ditches in between and the cool flowing water kept the heat away. Though the heat was scorching till I got to the river, it dropped down by at least few degrees on entering the river bed.

One thing that pinched me was the rampant logging in the forest. It had eroded the hills towering over the river. I could imagine the condition had there been torrential rains. There would be a massive landslide in the area, in that case. The few trees remaining on the hills would not be able to hold the erosion.

But I see no solution to this problem. The people living in the vicinity are poor and landless. And their only source of income is the timber from the forest. They cut down the trees in spite of the so-called monitoring by the forest department and sell the wood in the nearby markets.
However, like every black cloud has a silver lining, the young trees sprouting out on the river bank seemed, would grow into a dense forest in near future.

As I neared the hill leading to Chanarbhoga, the river narrowed down further. I had never been to the place so had no idea – where to start climbing the hill. The group of men with the goat stayed back at the bank of the river to sacrifice the goat and prepare for the feast. I was all alone. The only thing I was tracking during the cycle ride was the highest peak among the hills. I was told that Chanarbhoga is somewhere near that peak.

Getting to the foothills of the highest peak, I chained my cycle to a young amaltash tree. Then I started climbing. The ascent was easy – no thorny plants and no rocky patches. I was comfortable on my pair of sandals.    
The hills seemed bare – devoid of trees. It was also due to a recent forest fire. Everything had burnt down to ashes, turning the surrounding into a black and white frame. The area smelt of burnt charcoal and with the gushes of fresh air, the aroma of ash and soil brushed past my face.
Nearing the peak, I could see the beautiful scene below – the green fields, surrounding hills and bare tree trunks. Looking above, the walking trail was clear, being used by the woodcutters every day. The trees stood naked, some with few patches of newly spouted green leaves. Among them the Marmellous trees (wood apple, called bel in local language) looked distinct and they were in abundance in the area.   
Reaping the benefits of the bel abundance in the forests, community members have started a bel juice factory in Lahan of Siraha district and Khata of Bardia district. The brand Marmellous was quite popular in Nepal’s domestic market and community members could earn extra income during the fruition period by collecting the fruits from forests and selling them to the factory.

There’s a huge potential to come up with a juice factory in the area looking at the bel trees. Once the communities will start benefitting from the bel trees, the felling down of these trees will be under control.    
Leaving behind the bel trees, I moved up. As I neared the peak, the trail narrowed down and literally there was no way to get to the peak. I clambered clutching on the wild grass, the only thing clinging tightly to the rocks. However, I could not continue beyond a point where even the wild grass was nowhere to be seen. I managed to get hold of crevices and push myself up, but could not get beyond the point. The sight was dizzying looking down from the point. As I could not climb further, I lowered down, a step at a time. Then like King Robert’s spider, I tried once again climbing to the peak. But again got stuck at the same point.

With a feeling of a defeated warrior, disheartened, I trekked back to the bel trees. Luckily, I located a group of children with a goat in tow led by an old man whom I had met on my way to the foot of the hill. They were going in a different direction, but I was sure they were going to Chanarbhoga, to sacrifice the goat. So, I thought of following them.
I had not even walked for five minutes and the sight before me was baffling. I was stunned. The stones, pillars, bricks were scattered helter-skelter. The bricks, larger but thinner than normal bricks, were baked to perfection. The stone structures, square blocks, pillars, pedestals and columns with idols carved – all were lying unattended. Looking carefully at the columns, I could identify structures that seemed aiming with a bow, meditating and dancing. One huge round structure that could have served as a pedestal for a column, broken into three parts, was lying intact at a point. The structure was exactly like the one that I had seen at the Semnath temple (Sambhunath). I hadn’t believed when people said that the structures at Semnath were brought from Chanarbhoga. I could now compare them. They were obviously taken from Chanarbhoga to Semnath.
Structures at Semnath were brought from Chanarbhoga
As I clicked the pictures of each and every stone that I could see in the surrounding, I came across a long column that could have been part of the entrance of an ancient temple. The stone structure had carving of idols in dancing, sitting and guarding poses. Nearby were other stone items with beautiful patterns. At a distance were two large triangular stones with beveled bottoms.

It was the first of Baishakh and I knew hordes of people must have flocked to Chanarbhoga to sacrifice goats. But nobody was there. I then followed the direction to which the group of kids and old man had gone. After walking for few minutes, I could hear sound of people talking. I kept heading to the direction.
I had to climb down the hill and pass through a gorge before I met groups of people picnicking at the dead end of the gorge. The old man who had led the kids was sitting at the bottom of the hill and the kids were pushing the black goat on a steep cliff. The kids told me to leave my sandals at the foothill before climbing to the shrine Chanarbhoga.
I followed the children. Though it was steep, I could hold on to the roots of trees and climbers to get to a cave-like dugout on the hills.
Inside, five stone structures were placed in a row. All the structures were blackened by the applying of mustard oil. Above the structures was a red cloth with white perimeter. A symbol of purity and divinity. On the front of the idols were clay lamps (diya), sweets (laddoo), incense sticks and flowers. At the side were clay pots (ghaila) meant for fetching water. There was a huge knife (dabiya), a clay bowl of rice (akshat), few bottles of mustard oil and a glass and lota (a brass tumbler) of water at one end.
The priest who hailed from Hardiya Kataiya, a village to the south of the highway, wore a kurta, dhoti and turban (pagari). He put the akshat and flowers on the head of the goat and sprinkled water on the goat. As the goat accepted the pariksha by moving its head throwing away the flower and rice, the priest left not a second to sacrifice it. Before sacrificing an animal or bird, they are asked whether they are ready for the sacrifice or not by putting rice, drops of water and flowers on their heads. As they nod their heads, it is taken as a green light for being ready for the sacrifice.

The boys carried the carcass down the hill and I merely followed them back to the foothill. I was parched due to the climbing without even a drop of water. So, I borrowed water from the team which was a good way to start conversation about the shrine.
Amrit Lal Chaudhary from Khoksar village
Before the children could speak, the old man Amrit Lal Chaudhary (60 years) from nearby Khoksar village started telling about Chanarbhoga and myths surrounding it.

“Once a priest left his lota after worshipping and when he returned to get it back, he never returned. His friends only saw a small piece of his gamchha (a thin towel) wavering from a small crack in the temple. So never look back after you return having offered prayers and sacrifice to Chanarbhoga.”

“The idol at Sambhunath (Semnath) is originally from Chanarbhoga. The piece of rock was swept away from the Chanarbhoga temple and landed in Khando River. Seeing the abandoned piece of rock, shepherds started sharpening their knives on it. However, it started bleeding like a living thing.

Later in dream of a man from the Sambhunath area, Semnath asked him to take him to the place where He is established right now.

The villagers came in group with drums and musical instruments. But He didn’t budge from the place when they loaded him on a bullock cart. He moved only when they used a baby playing cart.” 
After hearing the stories of Chanarbhoga, I had two choices – to return via the same route or to follow the children. I decided to follow the children, though it was the tougher one.
It was a narrow passage between two hills – a gorge which is filled with water during the rainy season. Luckily, it was dry and we could easily walk along the path. On the way, I encountered few of the pieces of carved rocks from Chanargbhoga. Now, I believe, how the rocks might have been swept away down to the Khando River. The passage is very narrow and the rapid current of water can even sweep away big boulders. 
At places, there were deep ditches of water – some even having shoulder-deep water. At those places, we had to climb up the hill. With no trails, we kept forward clutching the roots of trees and climbers. And the children were quicker than me! To climb up and slide down the rocky patches.
Then at a place we came across a perfectly round stone. Most probably swept away from Chanarbhoga. As we were nearing the place I had chained my cycle to, I took a picture of the boys who led me throughout the journey. One of the boys was wearing a t-shirt with an interesting graffiti – “I am a GOOD person with BAD attitude” and his friend was sporting a Gangnam Style tee.

Finally, I was at my start point. I unchained the cycle and sped towards my villagers who were feasting somewhere at the bank of the river. I saw many groups of people cooking the meat of the sacrificed goats. Unfortunately, I could not find them. I missed a chance to savour the feast. But the experience as a whole was unforgettable.

If you want to know more about Semnath (Sambhunath) and Chanarbhoga (Chandrabhgoa) and their affinity to the Sen kings, read my piece published in The Kathmandu Post.

Friday, 8 August 2014

How I managed to click the image of a jackal’s horn

Does a jackal have horns? Have you ever heard about it?

Well, the answer is – a straight no. A jackal doesn’t have horns. However, you won’t believe, I clicked the image of a jackal’s horn. You can’t really say it’s a horn. But, is a small protruding piece of meat on its head.

It was a perfect day. I was wearing a white WWF t-shirt with a huge logo on the back. The logo inspired by Chi-Chi, the giant panda at the London Zoo, reminds me the importance of conservation and inspires always to be a conservationist.

Those days photography was my passion. It still is today, only the intensity has declined though. I was a proud owner of a DSLR, a Nikon D80, thanks to our communication department I could any time run around with the camera to click pictures.

While I was fumbling through the daily newspapers, trying to scan conservation related news of the day, I received a call from the Metropolitan Police Range, Hanumandhoka. To get a call from Hanumandhoka has two meanings in Nepal: either you are wanted badly by the Crime Division or you are a reporter with a national media agency. I was neither of the two.

However, as WWF was partnering with the Crime Division to keep an eye on the illegal wildlife trade, they [the police officers with the Crime Division] knew us well. And whenever they nabbed wildlife traders, they would make sure to invite us to the press conference.

The call was an invitation – a quick one – to be at a house in front of Goma Ganesh temple in Naxal. It’s where the Nepal Police headquarters are located. I left the newspapers scattered on my table, grabbed the DSLR and headed to the mentioned house.

When I reached the spot, the place was already swarmed with journalists reporting on wildlife crime. The items on display were skins of tiger, leopard, red panda, snow leopard and python, tiger and bear claws, chests and sofa mounted with animal skins, artifacts like temple idols, buttresses and thangkas among many other items prohibited for trade.

Among them was a small tuft of hair kept in vermilion. When asked, the police revealed that it was a jackal’s horn. It was a small protruding piece of meat on the hairy skin. Being an unheard and unseen thing, I started adjusting the lens of my camera to click a perfect shot of the horn. Soon, there was a deluge of flashes – everybody was trying to get a piece of the pie.

Each and every item displayed was unique to me and I posed the camera to each of them. They were collected by Ian Baker, a famed writer who even contributed to the National Geographic. He was not in Nepal at the moment though. The police had raided the house on a tip from reliable sources.

Talking about the jackal’s horn, I asked many, researched on the subject and got the below.

“When a pack of jackals howl on a full moon night, a piece of meat protrudes on the leader’s head. If the leading jackal is shot at the moment, the protruding piece of meat remains as it is. The protruding piece of meat is termed “jackal’s horn”. It is safeguarded in a pool of vermillion.   

“A jackal’s horn is traded illegally and is a sought after rarity for gamblers. It is a common belief that one who owns the horn never loses in a gamble or a bet.”

I never believe in superstitions and can never believe that a jackal has horns. But here’s a peek to the rare item I clicked during the police raid.

As I was wearing a t-shirt with huge WWF logo at the back, I got featured in next day’s Kantipur, the largest selling Nepali daily, with the caption “A WWF personnel clicks images of illegal wildlife parts from a police raid”.

Though it only showed my back with me in the action, it was a huge motivation – to be a conservationist and a WWFer.