A paradise in the Himalayas

Print edition : January 28, 2005

The Thimphu chhu (river), ferocious yet beautiful. -

The Jigme Dorji National Park, Bhutan's largest sanctuary, abounds in flora and fauna. What is unique to it is the mountain goat, goral.

chhu

ONE location in Bhutan every nature lover should visit is the Cheri monastery, 15 km north of Thimphu. The seat of the first monastic body in Bhutan, it was built in 1620 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a Tibetan native and a holy man. It is situated at an altitude of 2,600 metres on a steep mountain slope on the southern boundary of the 4,200 sq km Jigme Dorji National Park, and is in the transition zone between broad-leaved forests characterised by species such as oak, rhododendron, maple and walnut and conifer forests with species such as spruce, fir, hemlock and the Himalayan yew.

The steep mountain slope on the southern boundary of the 4,200 sq km Jigme Dorji National Park, where the Cheri monastery is located.-

The short drive to the monastery from Thimphu (2,300m), along the winding mountain road that runs along the right bank of the Thimphu chhu (river), is invigorating and enjoyable, as it goes through a cool, verdant and scenic valley with small townships, villages and cultivated fields. The steep mountains on either side of the valley have dense blue pine (Pinus wallichiana) forests with patches of oak, rhododendron and other broad-leaved species.

A goral feeding on the lush vegetation, with the spiny fruits of Gerardia heterophylla sticking to his coat-

Gerardia heterophylla

The river originates in the Jigme Dorje National Park, which is the largest protected area in Bhutan. The park is named after the third king of Bhutan, lovingly described as the Father of Modern Bhutan. He died in 1972 at the age of 44 while on an official visit to Africa. In summer, the river, fed by the melting snow, flows furiously from the park. It is a beauty to watch the whitish torrential waters tinged with blue roll over the rocks and form emerald-green pools.

Surprised by the intruder.-

When I first visited the monastery in May 2004, the flowering of Rhododendron arboreum was coming to an end, and its blood-red flowers, dispersed in the forest canopy, although fading in colour, stood conspicuous amidst the greenery. In late September, red flowers of Colquihonia coccinea swayed in the breeze and peeped from the shrubbery on the banks of streams. Golden yellow flowers of Senecio chrysanthemoides, on metre-high fragile stems, danced in wet open areas, even in the slightest wind and I had to wait for several minutes to get a satisfying picture. The purplish blue flowers of Erigeron alpinus also contributed to the riot of colours.

The Cheri monastery.-

The drive to the base of the mountain and the uphill walk for over a kilometre along a well-maintained bridle path, would thrill any bird lover. One can see on the way white-capped water redstarts (Chaimarrornis leucocephalus) hunting insects along the river, blue whistling thrushes (Myophonus caeruleus) screeching; large groups of white-throated laughing thrushes (Garrulax albogularis) rummaging through the under-storey for insects and worms unmindful of the walkers; yellow-billed blue magpies (Urocissa flavirostris) browsing through the forest canopy for insects and bird nestlings; and the spotted nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes), with conspicuous white patches on the sides of the tail, hunting for beetles and breaking open the cones of spruce and pine for seeds.

Colours and scents of the sanctuary: Blood red flowers of Rhododendron arboretum-

Rhododendron arboretum

What attracted me to the Cheri monastery was the rather tame population of gorals (Nemorhaedus goral) that comes from the nearby steep ridges to feed on the lush grass and herbaceous vegetation around it. The goral is a primitive mountain goat and is distributed in a wide arc, covering Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, China, South Korea, North Korea and Russia. Three species and eight subspecies of gorals have been identified, of which two species and four subspecies occur in India. The goral exhibits its primitiveness by being solitary and monomorphic (the male and the female look alike).

Purplish flowers of Erigeron alpinus.-

Erigeron alpinus

I got fascinated by the goral as a boy when I first read a Tamil translation of Man-eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett, where there is an absorbing description of Corbett shooting three gorals in the chapter on the Champawat man-eater. Therefore, when I joined the Wildlife Institute of India, which is situated in Dehra Dun at the foothills of the Himalayas, I made it a point to see, observe and photograph gorals in the adjoining Shivalik and Outer Himalayan ranges. With the help of two dedicated and nimble-footed students, Charudutt Mishra and Anand Pendharkar, I could also make a detailed study on this hitherto little-known species.

Red flowers of Colquihonia coccinea.-

Colquihonia coccinea.

The gorals around the Cheri monastery differ from the gorals I have observed around Dehra Dun in two aspects: they are much darker in colouration and their pellets are much more roundish and darker. They live in a habitat with much higher rainfall, feeding on lush green grass and herbaceous vegetation, including Gerardiana heterophylla, a nettle plant with large leaves.

Golden yellow flowers of Senecio chrysanthemoides.-

Senecio chrysanthemoides

I also saw near the monastery an adult male Himalayan monal (Lophophorus impejanus), the largest and maybe the most beautiful of all the Himalayan pheasants with its metallic bronze-green and cinnamon colouration, standing on a path frequented by the goral. A goral kid came along the path, and on seeing the monal it ran towards it playfully, at which the frightened monal flew to a ledge on a steep rock-face. The goral kid inquisitively watched the pheasant for a few seconds, and then ambled away.

A goral family.-

The only problem faced by the Cheri goral is the dogs that follow devotees to the monastery. The dogs harass the goral. Once two dogs barked and chased a male goral, which nimbly went up a rock-face and stood there whistling in alarm until the dogs moved away. The rock-faces provide an escape point to the goral from predators such as tigers, leopards and dogs.

A solitary male.-

Every time I made the short stiff climb up the steep mountain, I asked myself whether such an exertion was necessary. But when I stood in the company of the goral under the majestic weeping cypress trees (Cupressus corneyana), which were possibly planted when the monastery was built, breathing the cool and fresh mountain air, imbibing the serenity of the area and savouring the enchanting view below, all the difficulties I had while climbing the mountain were forgotten. All over Asia, in mountains and forests, there are numerous places of worship belonging to different faiths. If these places, like the Cheri monastery, take care to keep the environs serene and garbage-free and protect wildlife, it will go a long way in ensuring the future of wildlife, which is dwindling in most parts of the world.

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