Mela Baag in a state of neglect

Ashok Sharma
In Udhampur, there are many places of historical and archaeological importance which are little known. There are few gardens/ orchards, especially of mango and other fruits. One such place is Mela Baag in Tehsil and District Udhampur which has a lot of land reserved for mangoes, guavas and other fruits.
Till a few decades ago ,it used to be a picnic resort for the students of adjoining schools in Udhampur Tehsil. As this garden had a large number of mango trees predominently of native varieties of mangoes, bubbling springs of water and sufficient space to sit and relax, it was preferred as a picnic resort. Mela Baag is owned by the Govt. of J& K but none knows when it came into existence and when the orchard was laid as it has many old trees of mango which must be more than two hundred years old. According to legends, it was originally planted by a person Mela Ram and later taken over by the Govt. Interestingly this garden falls in the territory of village Mela which has its own Sarpanch and Panches. According to another legend close to the garden used to be the way from Udhampur to the holy shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi Ji. On the way were located the villages of Chak Rakwalan, Hartryan, Chiryai, Sundrani, Painthal and then Katra. This garden has a large number of trees mainly of mangoes besides litchi, papaya, guava etc. which now lie uncared. Some others believe that this region used to be hugely populated in the days of yore. It is said that there were around 20 bowlies in this garden many of which are still in good condition. Adjoining to the Government orchard, there is another orchard exclusively of mangoes which is privately owned. A large number of pilgrims would relax here, take their food and resume their journey for Mata Vaishno Devi. It is also said that Sadhus used to do meditation in this salubrious environs. Even in the privately owned orchard there are four bowlies which produce large quantity of water. Many people from the neighbouring villages still use the water of these bowlies for drinking, bathing and for washing clothes. There are separate bowlies for drinking water, for washing and for the use of cattle. One bowli bears the inscription that that this bowli was constructed by Pandit Devi Ram and Pt.Govind Ram during the regime of Maharaja Ranbir Singh in 1866 AD (‘Duggar ki Bawlian’ by Prof. Shiv Nirmohi) for public use. This bowli has dried now but water from the other bowlis is drained into it. There is another legend associated with Mela Baag. The soil irrigated with the water of these bowlies was very fertile. Once it so happened that there was a rich growth of water melons in the fields adjoining this garden. A Sadhu picked up a watermelon from a field and ate it to quench his thirst and hunger. The owner of the fields saw him relishing the watermelon and abused him. The Sadhu gave him a curse that henceforth no water would irrigate his fields. Now though a lot of water is produced by the bowlies, it gets absorbed in the garden itself and does not reach the fields nearby. The fact that close to this garden there used to be a way to Vaishno Devi shrine from Udhampur may have some truth as it seems to be one of the shortest routes to Vaishno Devi. Moreover,there are many trees of peepal and bargad along the way from Udhampur to Katra for the pilgrims to take rest in the shade of these trees and drink water.Till a few decades ago, people would put earthen pitchers filled with water under these trees for the travellers to drink as people from as far as Chiryai,Thathi, Sunari, Chak Rakwalan etc would take their dead ones to Devika Ghat at Udhampur for cremation via this way. Moreover, there are many bowlies along this way including at Salmeri ( constructed in 1939 by Rani Bhutyali, Mother of Maharaja Hari Singh (1925-1948).It also bears an inscription that on the public demand and in view of shortage of water in this region of Tehsil Udhampur this Bowli was got constructed by Rani Bhutyali W/o Late General Raja Amar Singh (who was younger brother of Maharaja Pratap Singh of J&K (1885-1925). On the route to Mata Vaishno Devi, there are also bowlies in the villages of Chakrakwalan (Rani Rakwal W/o Maharaja Gulab Singh was from the village of Chak Rakwalan), Chiryai (there are 4 beautiful bowlies believed to have been constructed in the 17th century) and enroute to Katra. There are beautifuly sculpted idols of various gods and local deities on the Bowlies. Interestingly one of the bowlies has an idol of a Camel which points that the sculptors of these idols must, perhaps, be from Rajasthan. This garden has still more significance. But with the construction of roads and provision of transport facilities, this way was abandoned by the travellers.
Moreover, before the Banihal Cart Road came into existence, the then Dogra Kings used to move from Jammu to Srinagar via this region and it used to be a resting place very near to Krimachi (the capital of Bhuti Dynasty) where they would stay. There are also many bowlies and step wells on this Jammu- Srinagar route in the villages of Padanu Sokar, an oldstep well at Pattla, Dabreh, Krimachi, Pangara, Panchari, Lander etc. There was also an old temple in the Mela Baag which got crumbled due to vagaries of time and which waslater renovated a few decades ago. Close to this garden, there is also Rajdei da Baag on the eastern side on the other side of the stream called Bhuteshwari. There are also many bowlies in thisplace. Close to it is the village of Beli where the workers of the King of Krimachi were believed to work and reside. An ancient temple and many other things of archaeological importance have been discovered from this region. According to oral legends, its ancient name was Multan and there goes a legend that a person had been told that he would meet his death at Multan. He ran away from Multan and wandering for miles finally reached Beli ( Multan) and he died there. At Dabreh, was Maharaja Hari Singh’s maternal home and Maharaja Hari Singh used to come here for hunting in the forests. Elders recall that people would be divided into various groups. Some groups would make a loud noise to terrify the animals in the dense forest, which would come out and the hunters would shoot them. The palace at Dabreh and the ruined fort at Krimachi close to the world famous Krimachi temples believed to have been built in the 8th century stand witness to the glory that this place had in the days of yore.
Now Mela Baag lies in a state of neglect. The last gardenener who served as a Govt. employee in Mela Baag was named Jai Ram. He died in 2009.He did a lot of work to maintain this garden and plant new saplings of various fruit yielding plants. Since then, no employee has been entrusted the responsibility of looking after this garden. The bowlies of this garden used to be the main source of drinking water for the people living in the adjoining places. So, people would throng this garden in the morning and evening to take a bath and fetch drinking water. They would share gossip leisurely and play cards for hours. When it is the season of mangoes, the air in the garden is filled with the scent of ripe mangoes which are sold by inviting bids. As it was well looked after in the old days, there used to be huge competition among the bidders and people would be seen carrying baskets of mangoes early in the morning to sell them in the market. Some people would purchase unripe mangoes for pickles. There used to be a lot of hustle and bustle in this orchard. Majority of the trees were of native mango and many of them have fallen, being old. The need of the hour is to take steps to revive the pristine beauty of this garden, plant more saplings of mango and other fruit yielding plants repair the existing bowlies and unearth the bowlies buried under ground bowlies so that it attracts tourists as a picnic spot. There is also need to conduct archaeological and anthropological studies to unearth more bowlies as to what could be the reason for building so many bowlies in this region which is now not so thickly populated . It could have been a rich cultural centre or hugely populated region or a place of importance in the days of yore, which only researchers can unravel.
(The writer is a Sr. Lect.(retd) from SED, J& K)