Nature meets nurture in a startling and ancient ritual in the black hills of Kutch.
OUTLOOK TRAVELLER, November 2009
by Pankaj Sekhsaria
Located at the very edge of the beautiful and diverse land of Kutch, like sentinels rising high and keeping watch over the haunting landscape, are the Black Hills of Kutch, also known as Kala Dungar. At about 1,500ft, this is also perhaps one of the best places to get a bird’s eye view of the extensive and seemingly endless expanse of the Great Rann of Kutch. For while the Great Rann may be one of the most inhospitable and harsh environments on this planet, from atop Kala Dungar it seems anything but that. What meets the eye is a stunning vista of endless white that extends to the horizon and beyond; white that constantly changes shades with the changing light and moving clouds; white that is sometimes tinged the lightest of pink, then grey and then white again.
“There is no beginning and no end,” Lakshman, our driver and guide, starts off just on his own. Lakhubhai, as he is better known, talks of the creation of the universe, “Brahmand Rachna,” he says, “This is how the universe must have been created—where land merges with the Rann, the Rann with the ocean and the ocean with the horizon, all different and yet seamlessly one thing.”
But continuing along these profound lines would be getting away from the point. It was not the Rann that we had driven to the top of Kala Dungar for. The Rann was only a side show, the main attraction being a daily event here that sounded both bizarre and fascinating when I first heard about it. At the very top of Kala Dungar is an old and much venerated temple of Guru Dattatreya where the wild jackals of the mountainsides are fed sweetened rice every day.
Nobody knows the exact origins of this strange phenomenon, but the most popular legend is related to the compassion of a holy man. According to common folklore the priests here regularly offered food to the jackals. A time came when there was no food to offer and this is when the Pir of Pachchmai, also known as Guru Dattatreya, offered a part of his body to the animals. The tradition of feeding the jackals continues and rice sweetened with jaggery is offered to them twice every day—first around noon and then just a little before dusk. Earlier it was a human call of “le ang, le ang (take my body)” that summoned the jackals; today it is the ringing of the bell that indicates to them that food is on its way—a perfect Pavlovian experiment in the wild.
It is nearing noon and we rush back to the site near the temple where the jackals come to feed. A circular cement platform, about a metre high and three metres across, serves as the dining table for the jackals. The animals are clearly aware and expectant. They emerge tentatively from the scrub forest, running around nervously in ones and twos and then disappearing back into the bushes. But their sense of anticipation is high and evident.
Then the bell starts ringing and a man wearing a white shirt with a simple metal container on his head walks the roughly hundred metres to where the jackals will get their feed. A couple of jackals are trailing him now and more emerge as he stands by the platform, lowers the container and throws out handfuls of the rice.
There is no restraining them now and in just a moment at least 20 are on top of the platform grabbing every morsel that they possibly can. Some stand and eat, others growl and snatch and still others jump up, snatch a bite and quickly slink away. A couple of persistent crows join the 30-odd jackals in a feast that’s over in less than 10 minutes. The jackals are gone as quickly as they came and the crumbs that remain are now being cleared by an opportunistic mongoose and a couple of stray dogs that have been waiting their chance. It is just another day in the life of the temple authorities, the jackals, the dogs, crows and the mongoose; but for a one-time visitor like me, it is unlike any other day or event I have seen before.
I’m keen to find out a little more and go in search of a saffron-clad swamiji I’d seen on the way up. He seems to be a little high on dope and is not in the least pleased at being disturbed. “Go and meet Harjibhai,” he tells me, “he’ll tell you.” Harjibhai is indeed the right man—the man in the white shirt whose job it is to cook the rice for the jackals and then carry it to them after the bell is rung. He knows little himself, but fills me in with some interesting nuggets.
He’s been doing this job for three years now and the grain is provided for by a village at the foothills. Every meal for the jackals is eight kilograms of rice cooked with four kilograms of jaggery. He recounts the legend again and then adds a fascinating detail. There are rare occasions, he tells me, when the jackals refuse to accept the offerings made to them. It is an indication that some wrongdoing has occurred in the villages below and that some corrective action is needed. This, he further confirms, is exactly how the situation turns out to be.Hard to swallow? But then who would have believed that a hilltop exists in a remote corner of Kutch where jackals have been fed sweetened rice since time immemorial.