The average daily wage in the Dangs district of Gujarat is twenty-two rupees. Sixty per cent of the population spends eight months of the year working in the sugarcane fields in Surat and Valsad. They come back during the monsoons to grow their single crop of the year &mdash nagli (finger millet). They&rsquove earned about five thousand for eight months of toil, and they use it to buy themselves new clothes, and fix their houses. "The only employer here is the forest department," said Anilbhai, a Dangi from Chankhal village, "People want to go to Surat &mdash they want to see life in a big city." For a moment I thought he was joking. But he wasn&rsquot. "Everyone wants to buy a car."
The Dangs isn&rsquot far from anywhere &mdash it&rsquos about 250km from Mumbai, 150km from Surat, and 75km from Nashik. Beyond Nasik the road starts climbing gently through the Ghats. The landscape is bone dry at the moment, but the breeze is pleasantly cool. The vineyards that stretch out on either side of the road are laden with grapes. A little before the Gujarat border, strawberries make an appearance. Men, women and children sit on the road behind deliciously large mounds of the deep red fruit. Some enterprising ones have packed them in cartons. At thirty rupees for a large box they&rsquore quite a steal, and they&rsquore very sweet. The mounds follow us as the road climbs one last time, onto the Saputara plateau.
Saputara, Gujarat&rsquos only &lsquohill station&rsquo, sits on the second highest plateau in the Sahyadris at an altitude of about 3,000ft. It&rsquos just across the Maharashtra border, on the southern border of the Dangs, Gujarat&rsquos smallest district. The entire 900 sq km of the district is hilly and densely forested. The hills slope from east to west-from a height of over 3,500ft on the southeastern fringe to about 400ft at the town of Waghai on the western fringe. The population is almost entirely tribal &mdash the largest groups being the Bhils and Kunbis, followed by the Worlis, Gamits and a number of other adivasi groups. There isn&rsquot, however, very much difference between them, and they all speak Dangi &mdash a language which combines Gujarati and Marathi with local words.
The district has for the longest time been a Bhil stronghold. "There are many origin myths among the Bhils" said Anil bhai, when I asked him about the history of the district. "All of them involve a deluge &mdash Mahadevji saved one man and one woman from it. They floated to safety in a large hollowed-out gourd&mdashwhich drifted to the hills of the Dangs."
A group of Gujaratis from Surat was boating on the small lake in Saputara. The town lies along one shore of the lake. It&rsquos almost as if the Gujarat government woke up one day and decided they needed a hill station. Saputara village was shifted to a different location, and in its place a series of hotels were built around the lake. So there are no houses in Saputara. Instead there are restaurants where pao bhaji and upma are served, and there are video game machines to entertain the children from Surat. There&rsquos even a ropeway that the Vaity Resorts has built from one hill to another. It&rsquos a Gujarati amusement park in the middle of nowhere. But the views from the cliffs are spectacular. That night I sat eating strawberries on the balcony of Gujarat Tourism&rsquos Toran Resort under the clearest sky I&rsquod seen in a very long time. The balcony looked out across a valley. Beyond the lights of Saputara lay darkness.
A little out of Saputara the forests take over. Dense overhangs of bamboo lean over the road. Mile upon mile of saag and khair forest follow as the almost perfect road climbs from one gentle valley to another, past river beds that are dry at this time of year. Every few kilometres we pass by a village. The houses are made of bamboo mats coated with cow-dung and mud. They blend with the browns of the hills and the carpet of dry saag leaves on the ground. The mid-afternoon sun is warm, but it&rsquos cool the moment you get into the shade. In some courtyards women sit pounding nagli with gigantic wooden pestles. Herds of cattle dally in the middle of the road, while a line of ox-carts makes its way back from Ahwa, where a timber auction is taking place. A few children walk by carrying cupfuls of mahua flowers. The only local transport to be seen is shared jeeps &mdash 40 people to a jeep, six on the roof &mdash those too are few and far between.
"Why don&rsquot you spend the night at the campsite" asks Anil bhai when we get to Chankhal. He runs a campsite on the outskirts of the village, which has a few basic huts. "We can meet a few people in the village and then go around to a few other villages tomorrow." I agree. "I&rsquoll stay if you can arrange some mahua," I joke. "Done," says he.
"There&rsquos an old Dang which is fast disappearing," Janu bhai, an elder from Chankhal had told me the previous day. Not surprising given the onslaught of the Hindutva brigade &mdash which extends from placing Hanuman statues in front of village totems to building massive temples. "You see snatches of it here and there &mdash in some of the pichavi paintings that people do on nag panchami, in the bhitka-chave (fire eaters) of Dhavalidod, and in some of our songs, but you&rsquoll have to dig deep. The one thing that does remain unchanged (even though the government has deprived us of access to our forests) is our understanding of nature, and our shikar," he had said, smiling.
The next day I set out to meet Ambe, the fireeater from Dhavalidod. "It was many years ago at the festival of the Anna devta that the bhagat (combination of a shaman and medicine man) told me agni-dev was my god &mdash that I had a special gift. I must have been about ten years old. All I had to do was utter the name of the dev and then fire wouldn&rsquot affect me at all. I can rub burning logs on my body and even eat them." On seeing us, Badye, an older bhitka-chave joins us. He wears earrings on both ears, and grins a wide toothless grin at me. "I don&rsquot play with fire anymore." Smile. "I don&rsquot have teeth, so I can&rsquot bite the logs." "Padi gayo," piped in Ambe pointing at his head and then at a few rocks in front of his house. "Mahua," he said sheepishly. He&rsquod apparently had too much mahua one night and banged his head on the rocks in front of his house. He doesn&rsquot have the stamina any more and can&rsquot practise. "They&rsquore the last in the Dangs," said Anil bhai.
At night we sat by a fire at the campsite, drinking mildly sweet mahua, listening to Anil bhai narrate folk stories of the Dangs. The air was crisp, almost cold. There were stars everywhere &mdash they seemed to dangle from branches of trees that towered around us and float in our glasses of water. There was no other light for miles around. The tentative &lsquowhop whop&rsquo of an owl echoed through the forest. A few torches flashed in the distance. "Shikaris," explained Anil bhai, following my glance. "They&rsquore signalling to each other."
"I wasn&rsquot out hunting last night," said Janak bhai when we bumped into him in the village the next morning. "But I&rsquove hunted everything in my day &mdash from khargosh to wild boar, sambhar and birds." "Now my son-in-law goes hunting, but when I get tired of living in the village, I still take off to the forests for a couple of days." I was reminded of the hunters I&rsquod seen sauntering into the forests yesterday, with bamboo sticks and nets in hand &mdash they were in a cheery mood, laughing and smiling as if they were going on a holiday.
With that we set off on our walk to the Barda falls. It is a steep descent to the Barda Nallah &mdash almost 1,000ft through dense forest. On the way down Anil pointed out various trees &mdash"that&rsquos kodi &mdash put two drops of its resin into goat&rsquos milk and you&rsquoll get the sweetest dahi in five minutes that&rsquos khandhor &mdash the powder that flakes off it&rsquos trunk cures skin ailments etc." His knowledge was exact and detailed. A bit like the carefully designed fishing and hunting equipment I&rsquod seen in the village houses &mdash elaborately crafted bamboo traps to catch a particular variety of fish know as murra and the sticks coated with a combination of four different resins that are used to snare birds.
The falls were dry now, but there was water in the pool at the base. The forests along the river were green. A crow-pheasant hopped on the branches of a sisso tree. We were surrounded on all sides by cliffs, and behind us the rocky bed of the river disappeared around a mountain. "Come on," said Anil bhai, jumping off a ledge into the pool. I touched the water &mdash it was nice and cool. "This is how we tribals like to live," he said smiling. "The only thing missing are the strawberries," I retorted. And he started chuckling, "The government and a few NGOs thought they&rsquod provide us a livelihood by teaching us how to grow strawberries. The people were taught how to grow the fruit, and use gloves to pick them. But they forgot that the fruit was highly perishable, and would require refrigerated vans to transport it to the market. People don&rsquot know what to do with the fruit now. So they sell them at a loss &mdash and it&rsquos people like you who eat strawberries in Saputara."
Gujarat travel guide
There are two ways of getting to Saputara (from Mumbai), and both take about six to seven hours. The first route is via Nashik (265km) and the other is via Vapi, Dharampur and Vansda (345km). The roads are perfect. You can also take a bus to Bilimora, from where you can catch one to Ahwa and then on to Saputara.
The only transport available outside Saputara are highly erratic state transport buses and shared jeeps in which you are quite likely to get squashed. So it makes sense to hire a car in Saputara.
Where to stay
Base yourself in Saputara since there are few places to stay in the rest of the Dangs &mdash the district being as small as it is no place is more than 60km from Saputara. The Vaity Ropeway Resort (Rs 1,000-2,490 02631-237210 www.vaityropewayresort.com) is located on a cliff overlooking Saputara. Gujarat Tourism&rsquos Toran Resort (Rs 50-900 237226) has some simple cottages that look across a valley. Their Gujarati thali is excellent. Shilpi Hill Resort (237231 www.shilpihillresort.com), a new resort, is located near the lake.
If you&rsquore willing to rough it out a little, it&rsquos well worth staying in one of the forest rest houses scattered across the Dangs &mdash the best are at Mahal (North Dangs 60km from Saputara) in the Purna Wildlife Sanctuary and at Subir. It&rsquos difficult to reserve these, and you will have to meet the District Forest Officer personally in Ahwa (30km from Saputara).
What else to see
Walk through some of the villages &mdash Dhavalidod, Chankhal and Chinchli are interesting.
The Purna Wildlife Sanctuary has some lovely trails. You will need to get permission from the forest department to walk in the sanctuary.
There are a number of beautiful waterfalls scattered through the Dangs. Of these the Gira falls (off the Saputara-Waghai road) and the Barda falls (near Ahwa) are the most beautiful.
Anil Patel of Chankhal is a encyclopaedia of information on the Dangs. You can write to him at Post Chankhal, Taluk Ahwa, District Dangs, Gujarat-394710