ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take a short detour from India’s Steel City to visit a hilly wildlife sanctuary home to a Shiva shrine, ancient tribes and vestiges of British plantations
Just off the busy NH-33 between Kolkata and Ranchi high above the industrial haze overlooking the Subarnarekha River that skirts its base, the lofty Dalma Hills stretch for 16km like a jagged knife. For centuries, wild beasts and adivasi tribes made it their home, until JN Tata chose the scenic confluence of the Kharkai and Subarnarekha as the site of Asia’s first steel plant. One can only imagine the untamed beauty of the land before a century of development…
Established as a wildlife sanctuary on 19 Dec 1976, Dalma has been less of a park and more a picnic spot for school and corporate groups from Jamshedpur and surrounding areas. Lores of rogue elephants, naxal movement and trekkers lost in the forest only added to its allure. But the recent renovation of the colonial era guesthouse near the summit has given day visitors a reason to stay back and appreciate Dalma’s charms.
As the road weaves past the elephant arch gate at Shaharbeda, scenic canals and adivasi huts with striking tribal motifs at Chakulia van (forest), the forest begins to close in. Coucals swoop across the path as the call of koels, quails and francolins ripple through the undergrowth. Gnarled roots of ancient trees enmeshed boulders like natural art installations. A row of villagers rested with their load of firewood.
The forest check-post at Makulakocha, with a Museum-cum-Interpretation Centre, Bamboo Hut, a basic Forest Rest House and a Deer Rescue Centre, marks the entrance to the wildlife sanctuary. A few elephants of the forest department chomped on clumps of hay, eyeing us sagely.
The Dalma Hill Range ran south-east to north-west and the park was divided into east and west buffer zones, sandwiching the core in the middle. The undulating terrain of hillocks, plateaus, valleys and open fields provides diverse habitats for Dalma’s natural wealth – several mammals, 84 bird species and 300 species of flora. The dry deciduous forest is a profusion of sal, gamhar, mahua and semal trees. We reached the Forest Rest House at Pindrabeda, which commands a great view of the plains below. Caretaker Munna welcomed us with tea and explained how this flat patch of land or ‘beda’ had a profusion of fruit trees called ‘pindra’ (randia uliginosa), though the site was also known as Mahukal (a long-tailed bird).
After handing him the provisions and food rations for our dinner and breakfast, we set off to pay our respect to Dalma Mai. Past her open-air shrine under a tree, we trudged up 1km to the Shiva temple and the Hanuman temple at Dalma Top, 926m (3047 ft). Our guide Dhananjay Singh accompanied us to the bandhs (dams) dating to the British era, when the area was used for extensive coffee and indigo plantations, besides gold prospecting. Coincidentally, Subarnarekha literally means ‘streak of gold’ and gold was indeed mined near the origin of the river at Piska near Ranchi.
While only unused wells, stone oil grinders and ruins of bungalows remain, names like Nilbadi (Indigo farm), Sarsobari (Mustard farm) and Kulmari Bangla still echo Dalma’s colonial legacy. For irrigation, the British had constructed dams like Badka (big) Bandh, Chhotka (small) Bandh, Neechla (lower) Bandh and Majhla (middle) Bandh. In the old days, there even used to be a haat (bazaar) near Chhotka Baandh!
In a mosaic of six grasslands and the valleys of Bijli Ghati and Snan Ghati, the reservoirs and streams formed a network of 66 water holes including Samar Jal, Dong Jal, Makad Jal, Ranga Jal, Maha Jal, Teesri Nala and lyrical appellations like Chiping dadhi, Bhusi Jharna, Kas Jobhi, Hathitopa and Chiyak Pathar. We spotted the odd deer, Rhesus Macaques and the Indian giant squirrel (Ratufa indica centralis) leaping in the canopy of dry deciduous trees. The squirrels use the leaves of these trees to make nests called ‘dreys’. The park harbours tigers, leopards, Sloth Bear, Wild Boar, Dhole, Striped Hyena, Wolf, Fishing Cat, Jungle Cat, but we saw none.
Back at the forest rest house, while stirring some chicken curry over a wood fire, Munna lamented how there could be better wildlife sightings if only the forest was left alone. Due to religious festivals and pilgrim traffic during Makara Sankranti (Jan 14), Shivratri (Feb-Mar) and Bishu Shikar (annual hunt in April) animals had retreated to the core.
However by summer, as water sources dry up, large elephant herds congregate around the reservoirs, reinstating Dalma as a wildlife haven. As night fell, the distant lights of Jamshedpur twinkled like a carpet of stars beneath the hills while snatches of the latest film songs mingled with the sounds of the forest punctuated by the call of a frightened barking deer.
Area: 193.22 sq km (core 35 sq km, buffer 158.22 sq km)
Location: East Singhbhum and Saraikella-Kharswan districts, Jharkhand
Altitude: 154m-928m (max)
Temperature: Summer 22oC – 38oC, Winter 5oC – 28oC
Getting there: Drive 16km from Jamshedpur on NH-33 (Ranchi highway) via Pardih Kali Mandir and turn right at Shaharbeda. Shaharbeda is also accessible via Kandra-Chandil from the Kadma-Adityapur Toll Road; though slightly longer, the road is much better. At Shaharbeda, enter through the Dalma Forest Arch, cross the canal and turn right for the Makulakocha forest check-post, 4 km from the main road. The Pindrabera Forest Rest House is 11km uphill and the Dalma Hill top is 5km further ahead, the ideal terrain for SUVs.
Permits: For overnight stay at the 2-room Pindrabera FRH, acquire permits from Range Forest Office, Mango (Opp. Payal Talkies) Jamshedpur or Divisional Forest Office, Doranda, Ranchi Ph 0651-2480948
Fees: Entry – Adults Rs.2, Children Rs.1, Photography – Still Camera Rs.50, Video Camera Rs.200, Vehicles – Rs.20 2-wheeler, Rs.60 Tempo, Rs.80 Car/Jeep, Rs.120 Mini Bus, Rs.200 Bus/Truck, Guest house Rs.300/room
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the March 2013 issue of Saevus wildlife magazine.