– Manisha Sheth Gutman
The Tansa Valley, which is located just 60 km north of the city of Mumbai in India, was originally inhabited by indigenous peoples that lived close to the Earth and whose world view was centered on Nature. In an area that hosted tigers, they worshipped the Tiger God and other personifications of Nature. The valley is named after the Tansa river, which is the primary source of drinking water for the city of Mumbai, and is nested within a circle of hill ranges. The highest of these, Mt. Tungareshwar, was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 2003. The mountain is inhabited by a rare species of owlet and connects up with the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, forming a corridor for leopards.
The power of the natural beauty of the region is accentuated by the fact that it lies on a fault zone and has several hot sulphur springs which are revered for their healing properties. Around these springs, Hindu religious monuments arose and Hindu mythology has reference to the sanctity of the region. Ancient forts and temples are seen scattered through the landscape.
Over the past century, this region also became home to several living saints and began to attract pilgrims from far and wide, both nationally and globally. The three villages of Vajreshwari, Ganeshpuri and Akloli are now important pilgrimage sites for devotees.
In spite of its proximity to Mumbai, the area has been relatively undamaged until the last decade. However, this is changing as Mumbai continues to expand towards the valley. Highways and industry are the most immediate threats to it. Brick kilns that feed the construction industry have stripped the valley of its fertile topsoil and diminishing yields have forced farmers to sell their lands to developers.
Whereas the original indigenous cultures of the area considered the entire landscape sacred, the values that evolved later were more focused on specific natural features such as the hot springs and mountains. This then shifted to iconic worship, as temples dedicated to Shiva and the Goddess Vajreshwari developed – and then, the spiritual direction moved to a focus on living spiritual leaders, around whom communities gathered.
These communities have incorporated the need to conserve and protect Nature in their mandates. Reforestation of private lands and the dissemination of environmental information form part of their activities. Community development efforts now include development of organic agriculture and eco-sensitive livelihood options.
The location of the valley at the edge of one of India’s most densely populated and developed cities, makes development inevitable here. However, the value of its natural and cultural heritage for the future city of Mumbai far surpasses its real estate potential.
In 2013, the expansion of an existing road demanded the felling of 3000 old growth banyan trees. The banyan is considered sacred within Hindu philosophy and many of these trees are annually worshipped on a full moon night (Vata Poornima) in a ceremony especially dedicated to this tree. A citizens’ effort to save the trees, resulted in litigation against the expansion of the highway and a demand that its alignment be reconsidered. The case is still pending.
As early as 2001, an application was put together to get a special notification for the area as being eco-sensitive. As the valley falls in the buffer zone for two protected areas, it also qualifies for protection as per an order passed by the Indian Supreme Court in 2006.
Protecting this spiritual sanctuary, for the future generations of Mumbai, will ensure the water security of the city, as well as a corridor to ensure connectivity between the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, the Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary and the Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary. This is crucial for wildlife that is already under severe pressure in the existing national park within the city. Achieving such conservation connectivity will require many groups to agree on land use – including the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority, the National Highways Authority, farmers, indigenous peoples and the spiritual communities– in short a multi-stakeholder dialogue process is required to bring all the different groups to the table and respect each others’ views. Such an approach is currently underway, though much negotiation and agreement still needs to be achieved, to attain the goal of protecting such a corridor.
Link to relevant Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TheTansaValley
Header photograph by: Scott Fry