Not far from the highrises is a spectacular sight. It is a 100-hectare jungle, consisting of dhau, a tree with small leaves and a silvery trunk. A species that’s adapted to rocky land, there are great jungles of dhau in Ranthambore and in Bundelkhand, but here it is close to the limits of a metropolis, with the skyscrapers of Gurugram looming up on the west.
Early morning is the best time to visit Mangar Bani. The forest is sacred, the trees are worshipped and there are two temples. The valley has a village of Gujjar herdsmen who believe in a mystic called Gudariyadas Baba. The forest has probably survived — so far — because of the faith of villagers. They believe that cutting a tree — even a branch — would invite Baba’s wrath. On Sundays, village children share stories of the invisible Baba under a banyan tree.
One late morning here, after the rains, tiny red velvet mites suddenly appear, their almost-luminous bodies in stark contrast to the greens around them. A monitor lizard, more than a metre long, ambles into the undergrowth. Above, a sunbird flits in the low branches. Underfoot, a centipede plays dead.
Walking in the valley reveals the fragile beauty of our city’s fast-receding green cover. Pradip Krishen, an encyclopedia on region’s forests, says, “Mangar Bani is like a little museum of what the rocky past of the Ridge must have looked like before being swallowed by the city.”
In summer, dhau sprouts new leaves. Indeed, by the time the monsoon arrives and it is not far, the area is one of the most beautiful sights in Gurugram. “Standing on a cliff with the valley below you, it’s like looking at a giant cloud of green,” says Krishen. The new leaves of dhau have long silvery hair on their tips. When you look at trees from the distance, you see little silver points of light. Another beautiful and strange forest, close to Mangar Bani, is in a former stone quarry on the Gurgaon-faridabad Road. One weekend morning, Mr Krishen led a group of seven people there.
The quarry used to be excavated for Badarpur sand and Delhi quartzite, among the most commonly used construction materials. The mining in this area began in 1992 and, following a Supreme Court order, ended a decade later.
The group walked down a slope on which trucks once carried stones from the mine. The ground was red with Badarpur sand. The sides of the slope were made of the same sand; their depressions and fissures indicating that the surface was being eroded by water. The extraordinariness lay in that this sandy and rocky landscape was the site of a special ecosystem. The slender leafless stems of tamarix, a tree rare in the region, were just beginning to bloom with little pink flowers. The blue flowers of shankhpushpi were growing not an inch above the ground. The soil here is porous and does not retain water, so only a narrow band of plants survives. Siras, ullu and sheesham were the other trees.
While cicadas sounded in the undergrowth, the group clambered down to an area of flat, parched ground. At one corner of it stood a dhatura plant with a solitary white flower. A little further, on a slope, was a sand cave that housed a small community of Rhesus macaques, along with a few birds and insects. There were also signs of porcupine and palm civet. The cave’s packed sand could easily disintegrate and wash away in heavy rain, destroying the microhabitat it nurtures.
As Gurugram and its ‘sister city’ Delhi (just joking!) have grown, the area has lost vast folds of the forest. What is left is the semi-wilderness of trees such as dhak, khai, phulai, kareel and—most sadly—vilayati keekar, a thorny foreign import planted by the British that has single-handedly wiped out many other tree species. Here in Mangar Bani, you will experience a different Gurugram.