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Saturday, December 04, 2021

Know Your City: Vetal Tekdi, a ‘mini-Sahyadri’ named after a malevolent god

A sprawling hill in western Pune, Vetal Tekdi with its dense forest, grassland plateau and unique ecosystem “was a volcano 65 million years ago”. Today, it is a haven of sorts for trekkers, picnickers and those who seek some quiet time.

Written by Dipanita Nath | Pune |
Updated: November 21, 2021 8:05:35 am
Because the hill complex is an eastern extension of the main range of the Western Ghats, wildlife such as hyenas, leopards and barking deer would visit the hill even 15 years ago.

Weekend mornings are busy at Vetal Tekdi. The undulating hill tracks are dotted with walkers, joggers, cyclists and trekkers. Under giant trees, young boys play improvised ball games. On a platform near a Hanuman temple, people of all ages catch up with friends or rest their limbs after a climb. Groups from colleges, batches of senior citizens, couples and families on a picnic navigate the long grass and rocks.

A sprawling hill in the western part of the city, Vetal Tekdi is a distinctive and powerful natural and sociocultural landmark. Pune-based anaesthesiologist Dr Satish Phadke, whose passion is to explore the hills of the city, published a book last year titled Flora of Vetal Tekdi. “It’s interesting to note that some of its part is dense forest, some is grassland plateau with occasional shrubs. The abandoned quarry has produced a different ecosystem, due to a large collection of water, with associated marshy areas that are a haven not only for many species of birds and amphibians but also for typical species of plants that require such areas for their growth,” he writes in the book.

At certain times of the year, Dhangars and other nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoral communities stop at Vetal Tekdi as they have for centuries during their annual migration between the western parts of Maharashtra and Konkan. Though the hill now boasts plantations of social forestry, the original flora featured grassland and only pockets of woodland, which was good for grazing animals. As the city grows, there are very few spaces like Vetal Tekdi where the Dhangars can stay. Their horses and sheep feed on the lush grass and other vegetation. On the other hand, students from the slums around the hills come for peace and to study.

. Every year, a jatra or procession takes place during Gudi Padwa in the middle of the night, with locals presenting the midnight march of Vetalbaba with pishachas and bhoots, among others.

“The more urbanised we become, the more is our anxiety to seek the company of nature. Otherwise, we are alienated from it. The manicured garden look is something people are tired of. Vetal Tekdi is rare because it is an urban space that is also natural. I have seen people coming to Vetal Tekdi to worship, study insects, plants and birds or for photography,” says Saili K Palande-Datar, an archaeologist and historian. The Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) conducts vehicle testing here and campuses of several educational institutions are located around the hill.

The hill is also the custodian of a shared memory. The late historian D D Kosambi used to explore the city of Pune and its surroundings as a way to understand the past — and Vetal Tekdi was one of his regular routes. It was at Vetal Tekdi, Law College Hill and Pashan Hill, among others, that Kosambi came across small stone tools or microliths with sharp edges, blades and points that indicated the presence of prehistoric humans in the region during the Mesolithic era or the Middle Stone Age, between the Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods. “The findings confirm that man was harvesting grain, hunting, fishing and stripping animal skin to make leather in the Mesolithic period,” says Palande-Datar.

The hill gets its name from a temple to Vetal that is located at its top, 160 metres above the general city level, which makes it the highest point in Pune with a panoramic view. “Vetal is an angry and malevolent god who is connected with the greater tradition of Shivs and his troop of pishachas. He is the king of pishachas and is, generally, visualised as a skeleton with an emaciated body. At Vetal Tekdi, we have an aniconic representation in an arrangement of stones,” says Palande-Datar. The temple is now developed but, even a few years ago, it was raw and the mere look of it told one that it was old. “It is interesting to see how people interpret the various stones that are placed in clusters. The central stone is Vetal while the surrounding ones are the praja or the soldiers. It felt like a prehistoric tradition continuing,” she says. Among the devotees are wrestlers who seek the deity’s blessing before matches.

As a college-goer, more than a decade ago, Palande-Datar used to explore various parts of the hills. “At that time, women were not allowed to go near the Vetal temple. The local caretakers would not allow me to step near it. In the last 10 years, things have changed but women are still not supposed to step on the platform of the Vetal,” she says.

Another temple is located at the foothill, dedicated to the younger brother of Vetal. Every year, a jatra or procession takes place during Gudi Padwa in the middle of the night, with locals presenting the midnight march of Vetalbaba with pishachas and bhoots, among others. The Vetal temple site also represented the meeting point of four villages — Pashan, Kothrud, Erandwane and Bhamburda — making the Vetal also a boundary god for these areas.

Vetal Tekdi is a part of a larger Vetal Hill-Mhatoba Hill complex that includes the Mhatoba Tekdi, named after the goddess whose temple is present here; the Hanuman Tekdi, after a Hanuman temple, and the Chatushrungi Tekdi, where the Chaturshringi temple is located. According to Sahapedia, the shape of the hill complex is often compared to that of a flying bird, with the main body spreading five kilometres from Bavdhan in the west to Balbharati Khind in the east, and the wings spreading three kilometres from Pashan in the north to Chandani Chowk or Paud Road in the south.

Because the hill complex is an eastern extension of the main range of the Western Ghats, wildlife such as hyenas, leopards and barking deer visited the region till around 15 years ago. “This was before Chandani Chowk was developed and Vetal Tekdi was a part of a greater corridor that is totally non-existent now. Today, people are happy if they see a few peacocks but the hill used to have a richer diversity,” says Palande-Datar.

Phadke refers to Vetal Tekdi as “mini-Sahyadri”, “because it is representative of many plants observed in the Sahyadri”. In the flora of Vetal Tekdi, he has identified several rare species of plants and drawn attention to unique trees as well as those that are not natural to the hills but have been planted since British times.

Researcher Divyanshu Pawar, who first visited the hill in 2019, looks out at the quarry and sees the different kinds of volcanic lava activity. “The region we are living in was a volcano 65 million years ago. It is a kind of volcano that does not erupt but flows. That’s why the basalt rock found here, called Deccan basalt, is black. What is special about this geology is that the compact and vesicular basalt rocks act as recharge and discharge places, allowing water to seep in and out, and accumulate in aquifers or storage houses of underground water. It is important to preserve areas like Vetal hill. With hills being cut down and no proper recharge and discharge of water happening, Pune has been suffering adverse ecological effects,” he says.

Vetal Tekdi is also a site of conflict between environmentalists and citizen groups and organisations that plan developmental projects here. Strong real estate prices have made the vast expanse of the hill a prime target for builders. A consortium of several organisations keeps agitating, going to court, staging dharnas and resisting every time they sense a threat to the Tekdi. “There is a good culture of Pune people being actively involved in saving nature,” says Pawar.

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