Days 15-19: Kindness and courtesy in a bandit-held wilderness, the 100 kilometers from Shivpuri to Gwalior

Updated on Friday 10 March 2006
We are now in Gwalior, population around a million and a half, at the Sindhi Bhavan Dharmshala, which is a sort of hostel. We have just crossed an extremely bleak and somewhat treacherous stretch of about 100 km that lies between here and Shivpuri to the south. During that time we had absolutely no electricity, infrequent sources of water, and certainly no opportunities for internet access — that is why this update is so late. EDITOR’S NOTE: The pictures from these four days have not yet arrived, but will be added as soon as they do.
Day 15, Monday, March 6
We left Shivpuri just before sunrise as the last few stars were fading, singing and chanting songs and walking with banners for the early risers at the edge of town. The most popular song, casually referred to as “The Bhopal Song”, goes like this —
Chala Bhopal ka rela
Chhor gharbhar ka jamela
Aae burhe aae
Aae Jaavaan aae
Koi na chute akela
Walk on, Bhopal rally
Leave behind your house chores
The old have come
The young have come
No one is left alone

We had failed to secure a police escort in Shivpuri for the trek through dacoit land, but chose just to walk as close together as possible and not worry too much about it. As soon as we were out of Shivpuri we could see that we had entered a new and different cultural landscape. At the first place we stopped for tea (after walking about five kilometers) was a man standing in front casually holding a black, full-length, pistol-grip shotgun. Over the course of the day we would see many more men on motorcycles, faces wrapped over in bandanas and long guns slung across their backs.
We ended up spending the afternoon at a place called Santavara, a small base camp for forest rangers. So prevalent are masked bandits on motorcycles that the guards mobilized against Vikas as he rode in on his motorcycle — they mistook him for a daku because of his long scarf, which he had wrapped over his head and under his jaw. Rachna came to his rescue and when they realised who we really were, they were abundantly hospitable. There was a deep well there and people took turns pulling the rough and frayed rope to draw the dripping bucket from the bottom, which was about 30 meters below. We all enjoyed some rice and dal with fresh tomato and onion under the shade of a small Hindu temple within the camp.
Despite another long and painful walk in extreme heat after the lunch break, we did not make it all the way to Dohlagarh, the town we were supposed to reach for the night. The sun was about to set and we knew it was too dangerous to continue walking after dark, so we sought accommodation in the next town we passed, which turned out to be a tiny village called Pataara. Pataara is a very poor, dacoit-connected village and we were warned by several people to be extremely careful there. There was no electricity because of a permanent, self-imposed blackout that gives them an advantage in the ongoing battle with the police, who live in special military-style camps from which they fight the bandit groups. The handpump there was no good so we had to get water from a kilometer back.
What must have been half the village gathered around us as soon as we arrived. They seemed very friendly. We were taken under the wing of a man named Muni Ram who said that if he had known that we were coming he would have arranged food for us all. He allowed us to sleep in two adjacent, empty school buildings with accordion-style metal gates which could be bolted from the inside. He also gave us his special lantern to display as a signal to others around that we were under his watch and no one should harm us in any way.
There was another man we met in Pataara who used to work in the stone mill close by. The government closed it down and he was left with no source of income. He was thinking of moving to Bhopal with his family and appealing to the Chief Minister there…..”But now, having heard of your problems, if the CM in Bhopal does nothing to help you then perhaps i should reconsider moving there and also walk to Delhi.” Another local added that, “There are children being born now who will be little more than corporate slaves it seems. It’s like the old British rulers at the start of trading with our country. Companies are now behaving in the same way – it’s a kind of new colonialism. When guests came we used to give them Coca-Cola, now we know that they take all the water so we don’t give it to our guests anymore.”
We took our minds off the immediate environment with a group meeting in which new cooking groups and rotas were formed as we had said goodbye to eleven of the group last week. Once we had filled up on some rice, roti and great dal, everyone crowded inside the two school rooms and bolted all the doors tight. The women collectively chose three of the men to sleep in their room in case of any unwelcome intruders. At about 3 a.m. someone got up to go to the bathroom and unbolted the door as quietly as possible, but half the room sprung upright within three seconds, a chorus of voices demanding, “Kaun hai? Kaun hai?!” – “Who’s there?!” It was hard to get back to sleep after that – the women’s room in particular was too tense. Actually getting up in the morning was hard after such a fractious night but helped by a cup of sweet black chai before we moved off.
Day 16, Tuesday March 7
We left Pataara right at sunrise to begin the very long walk to Mohana, our next stop. The landscape here is arid and mostly flat, with nothing but dry brush visible as far as the horizon. Most hills are flat on top – a series of small plateaux as far as the eye can see – breathtaking landscape actually. The ground is mostly red and yellowish brown sand and gravel, with a surprising green-leaved tree here and there and many small thorny, bald trees and lots of dry stone walling. There seem to be no farms at all and almost no people, buildings and very few power lines. We had to stock up on water, too, because pumps and wells are far less frequent than they were south of Shivpuri.
We stopped for chai in the morning in a place where the owner insisted on paying for the whole group once he heard about what we were doing. The roadside stall had a good place to shelter from the sun and redress sore feet. That afternoon we had trouble finding a good place to weather the midday heat and have lunch. We ended up stopping under nothing but a semi-shady fig tree with a water pump nearby. A couple of people got the collapsible ladies’ shower frame out for those who weren’t too exhausted or otherwise occupied to take a bath. Team number one did a fine job of cooking with no shade. The heat was absolutely suffocating. Some people got underneath the truck to escape the sun.
Earlier Rashida Bi met a farmer on the road riding his bullock cart. He asked what we were doing and why. When Rashida Bi told him about our journey he got down from his cart and started walking with us saying that that was the very least he could do in support. He had heard about the gas disaster but didn’t know about the second and ongoing water contamination disaster. He was 85 years old and told of how he had seen many governments and different parties in power and none have worked. As he parted from the group he said: “I pray to god that Manmohan Singh listens to your problems.”
When we started walking again we were approached by some local police who thought it was too dangerous for us to walk into the land ahead of us. Stopping was not an option, though, of course, so they agreed to escort us all the way to Mohana. A jeep with about four police gunmen and a truck with about a dozen kept driving ahead to make sure there weren’t any impending ambushes and following up the rear to make sure no one got picked off from behind. We made it all the way to Mohana without incident.
In Mohana we stayed at one of the nicest places we’ve stayed so far on the trip — in the driveway of a gated government rest house building. We were given access by Hargyan Singh, who is the local Council Head of the Village of Mohana. We were right next to the Parvati River, the first real running river we have passed, actually, and several of us spent much of the evening bathing in the ice cold water at the edge of its whitewater rapids. This is actually the same river (upstream) as the one we passed through in Pillukhedi, where Coca-Cola and other corporations were destroying the water.
That night about half the padyatris stayed up late drumming and singing while those too tired for the revelry slept soundly through it all.
Day 17, Wednesday March 8
After walking for about 17 kilometers, we stopped for the afternoon at the only place for miles and miles around — a Sikh gurudwaaraa. There we were fed dal and and roti and were able to bath and refill our drinking water.
hosts at gurudwara.jpg
bathing at gurudwara.jpg
There was very little shade however, and people slept against the side of the building to catch what little shade was available. Others found relief under the truck again.
After walking a total of 32 kilometers for the day, we spent the night at a very small, empty government building in a town called Ghatigaon. Only two days before in Ghatigaon, there had been a kidnapping we read about in the newspapers while still in Shivpuri.
It started raining as soon as we arrived and everyone had to quickly stuff themselves inside a few small rooms. As soon as the rain died down enough to go outside, we had a quick dinner and went to sleep. We could hear rats squealing and running by our heads, but were too tired to care. At about 3 a.m. there was a big commotion because of a fire in the back of the truck that started because some pieces of wood from the dinner fire had not been thoroughly extinguished. Nothing was very damaged luckily, before Sateesh and Asphak were able to put it out. Everyone went back to sleep quickly.
Day 18, Thursday March 9
We walked 20 km through some of the most incredible landscape yet – after a few hours of walking through beautiful forest we walked up hill for about a kilometer and then around a big bend in the road and wow! the view opened out far and wide and we could see the outskirts of Gwalior in the distance which we reached in the late afternoon.
approaching Gwalior.jpg
We were delayed quite a bit by a sudden thunderstorm, during which we sheltered under the awnings of a chai stand on the outskirts of town. Gwalior, famous for its huge fort, is framed by a massive and beautiful rock plateau and we were keen to see what the city was like. When it didn’t stop raining, we finally just continued walking and got very wet. No one’s spirits seemed to be dampened by the water, however. Everyone sang songs and chanted as people in the front held banners and others on the periphery frantically distributed our yellow, one-page fliers to the many people reaching out to grab them.
arriving in Gwalior.jpg
Gwalior was, on the whole, very welcoming to us. After winding through the city for about half an hour, we eventually arrived at the place where we would sleep, the third floor of the Sindhi Bhavan Dharamshala.
After a very difficult walk and a wet, muddy ending, everyone was thrilled at the relative comforts we found here — bathing stalls, toilet stalls, and clean floors without rats.
At this point we have walked a total of 432 km.
Sending the update from Gwalior via a laptop and cell phone
Day 19, Friday March 10
We stayed in Gwalior for the day, as much to catch up on practical and medical concerns (the Ayurvedic medicines from Sambhavna are working like a dream by the way!) so as to take advantage of the large population and stage a press conference. The management of the dharamshala provided us with a breakfast of rice poha and sweets this morning.
gwalior press conf.jpg
The press conference was at 4 p.m. here in our sleeping quarters at the dharmshala and was very successful. All the local newspapers from Gwalior were represented, as well as reporters from statewide television channels. Asia News International will air some coverage of the padyatra tomorrow, giving us exposure to people all over Asia. Dr. D. C. Sharma, a friend of Sateesh Tewari who lives in Gwalior, was very helpful in setting up the press conference.
Older entries from beginning of the march
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