Indians have been nature worshippers since the dawn of civilisation. We live in a blessed land whose bounty has been our mantle of protection. Within each one of us exists a profound connection with wild nature that probably draws inspiration from our earliest origins when we evolved in nature’s green mansions, prior to the advent of industrialisation. The few remaining pockets that have been protected from harm should thus be seen as more than mere ‘entertainment’. They are the windows to our souls and help renew and repair our psyches.

Diving three metres below the surface, I saw dragonfly larvae, small fish and tadpoles darting amidst green stalks on the sandy bed of a placid, glass-clear river in the very heart of India.

It was an indolent morning and as I rose to float aimlessly on the surface, eyes shut against a strong May sun, I heard the ubiquitous bird calls that had accompanied me everywhere… Brown-headed Barbets, Rose-ringed Parakeets, Asian Koels, Spotted Doves and the occasional call of a Crested Serpent Eagle.

It was high summer and I was in the Indravati Tiger Reserve in Bastar, in the embrace of one of India’s cleanest, most gentle, most inviting rivers, which lent its name to the reserve. Driving through the leaf-littered forest earlier that day, I had seen a leopard bound across the road, within killing distance of a small herd of nilgai females and their young.

The day before, a small herd of wild buffalo had revealed themselves at a waterhole in a part of the tiger reserve that had, miraculously, been saved from the fires that villagers still routinely light.

Far from industrial India, I felt alive and well and grateful for the fact that I live in a part of the world where my ancestors worshipped the Earth and all creatures that shared our existence.

Mystery of mysteries

Awe, wonder and delight are only some of the feelings people experience when raw nature washes over them. These are usually followed by varying degrees of curiosity. Why is the sky blue? What makes glow worms glow? How do sharks hunt in the black of night? What is the purpose of life… what lies beyond beyond?

The quest for answers is one of Homo sapiens’ most purposeful pursuits and is the engine that drives much of our science… and virtually every religion. Yet, despite thousands of years of collective wisdom, the vast bulk of nature’s secrets remains… secret.

Of all the marvels and mysteries of our planet, nature’s best-kept secret arguably remains the process by which the first spark of life was breathed into inanimate raw materials, transforming them into living, breathing plants and animals. This ‘mystery of mysteries’, as Darwin referred to the origin of life, has always obsessed humans… yet we seem no closer to finding the answer than the day the question was first asked.

There is something utterly magical about wild nature. Quite apart from its beauty, everything on earth seems to fit perfectly, like a massive jigsaw designed for life. Every creature has a purpose. Every system works.

And, despite the multitude of problems confronting our planet, there have probably never been more living plant and animal species on Earth than there are today.

As the quest to learn more about our planet and the universe unfolds, nature remains the primary source of human inspiration, art, culture, music, dance and philosophy.

And whenever circumstances conspire to drain us emotionally, time spent with nature continues to be one of the most healing forces for mind and body.

Those fortunate enough to live on the Indian subcontinent have reason to be grateful – our home is many continents rolled into one.

Like a pilgrim out to savour the gift of life, for the past three decades I have dived, trekked, driven, flown, canoed and ridden horseback into all manner of wild places, including the glaciers of the Himalayas, the deep forests of the Northeast, the coral waters of the Andaman sea, the mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans, the arid Thar desert and the swirling waters of the Brahmaputra.

Everywhere, I marvelled at the generosity and fecundity of nature and wondered when, if ever, modern India will rediscover the wisdom of flowing with nature’s tide.

Living temples

Whenever I find myself alone in untamed places, I feel small and insignificant. I did nothing to create the beauty and wonder around me, am not responsible for running it, yet the whole latticework of life hums efficiently to the beat of overwhelming simplicity and grandeur.

The temples of nature I love so much have a way of force-feeding humility without bruising the ego, because I am not in competition with nature. Mountain peaks, ocean depths and dark forests are not there to be conquered, but savoured; not to be pillaged but protected.

 In such places, far from the clutter of human-dominated landscapes, I feel at home, protected in the womb of nature. I can understand why ancient civilisations worshipped the sun, or why my ancestors believed that tigers, crocodiles and snakes were their gods.When I contemplate the pulse of our planet, I too, feel a tingle…

A blessed land

The people of the Indian subcontinent have been blessed by some of the planet’s most extravagant natural gifts. It is the productivity of the subcontinent that gave rise to some of the world’s most sophisticated human civilisations. Much of the natural wealth that made India what it was is now in tatters. Fortunately though, enough still remains to remind us of what was and, because nature is self-repairing, what could still be.

This is our inheritance. More than the Taj Mahal, or the trappings of modern development, living nature is the legacy passed down to us and living nature must be what we hold ever so gently in our hands, before we pass it over, unharmed, to unborn Indians.

Bittu Sahgal is the Editor of Sanctuary Asia magazine.