Ladakh Phai the Marmots: Digs Gold || LIVE IMAGE


Marmot seems to be the cause for repeated invasion of the North India since ages. A small herbivorous rodentia mammalian though harmful himself yet has been the reason to lure in the world’s greatest and worst repeated invasions on this part of the planet. It was just passing mention about marmot the burrowing “phias” of Ladhak that led this writer through the pages of the history.

An introductory written by a Oxford Scholar Sh Surindernath Pandita on the book English Ladhak;My Journey Up, Down & Across by late Sh Pushkernath Kaul which he has translated from Urdu into English caught my attention and at the same time fascination to know more about it. The lines even a casual reader could not had brushed aside are “It was the Greek traveller Herodotus in the 5th century B.C who first acquainted the West with Ladhak among other things by informing about the “wondrous ants the size of little dogs.” Who mined gold there? Closet explanation for that Hendrou’s so called “ants” is nothing but the presence of burrowing phia or marmot as Pushkernath Kaul informs us.”So the marmot a little loveable creature who minds his own business up in inaccessible area has been unwittingly the cause to some extent for our miseries plunders invaders came this far in search of Gold. And it opened the Pandora’s box of the misfortune under this land has been subjected to repeatedly ever since the observation of Herodotus .Makes on to safely construed that it has been much before Indian subcontinent earned to be a Golden Sparrow as European referred it. This fabulous tale of the giant ''ants'' that dug up gold in a far-off El Dorado and enriched the Persian Empire has circulated for some 2,500 years. It was Herodotus (c. 484 – 425/413 BCE) a Greek writer who invented the field of study known today as `history’ called `The Father of History’ was a wide traveller. For some of unintentional discrepancies in his record or some references unknown then too got him the title Father of lies sheer jealousy.

One of his claim of fox-sized ants in Persia who spread gold dust when digging their mounds. Alexander the Great, is said to have known about the tale and came to India in search of it. Scholars and fortune hunters have tried to explain the enigma for centuries. After a many centuries went by Herodotus was proved right by the French explorer Michel Peissel confirmed that a fox-sized marmot in the Himalayas did indeed spread gold dust when digging and that accounts showed the animal had done so in antiquity as the villagers had a long history of gathering this dust in 1984.Michel Peissel, was explorer and an ethnologist who devoted a good part of his life to recording the culture of Tibet and led numerous expeditions to seldom-travelled places, died on Oct. 7 2011 at his home in Paris he was 74. He offered the theory that Herodotus may have confused the old Persian word for "marmot" with the word for "mountain ant". Further explained that the Persian word for `mountain ant’ was very close to their word for `marmot’ and so it was established that Herodotus was not making up his giant ants but, since he did not speak Persian and had to rely on translators, was the victim of a misunderstanding in translation. Herodotus did not claim to have personally seen the creatures a species of fox-sized, furry "ants" lives in one of the far eastern, Indian provinces of the Persain Empire. He reported that this region is a sandy desert and the sand there contains a wealth of fine gold dust.

These giant ants, according to Herodotus, would often unearth the gold dust when digging their mounds and tunnels, and the people living in this province would then collect the precious dust. Peissel reports that in an isolated region of northern Jammu and Kashmir State on the Deosai Plateau in Gilgit–Baltistan province, there is a species of marmot – the Himalayan marmot, a type of burrowing squirrel – that may have been what Herodotus called giant ants. The ground of the Deosai Plateau is rich in gold dust, much like the province that Herodotus describes. According to Peissel, he interviewed the Minaro tribal people who live in the Deosai Plateau, and they have confirmed that they have, for generations, been collecting the gold dust that the marmots bring to the surface when they are digging their underground burrows .Marmots belong to the squirrel family (Sciuridae) within the order Rodentia. The closest living relatives of marmots are ground squirrels and prairie dogs. Marmots are well suited for life in cold environments and have small fur-covered ears, short, stocky legs, and strong claws for digging. The Himalayan marmot is about the size of a large house cat weighs about 3 to 7 kg length of body about 11.8 to 23.6 inches the short, bushy tail is 3 inches to 8 inches long. Their long, thick fur is slightly coarse and may be yellowish brown (usually frosted with buff white), brown, reddish brown, black, or a mixture of gray and white. Marmots are active during the day (diurnal) and are almost entirely vegetarian. All hibernate in winter, most of them deeply, although some may emerge from their burrows for short periods on mild winter days. Marmots hibernate for 6-7 months starting early October, staying huddling together in their hay covered and tightly closed burrows. The hoary marmot hibernates for up to nine months, its fat reserves amounting to 20 percent of its total body weight. The Himalayan marmot lives in colonies and excavates deep burrows that colony members share during hibernation.

Burrows are between (6.6 and 32.8 ft) deep, given that the upper soil layer is sufficiently light and deep such as fluvioglacial, deluvial and alluvial deposits. Where soil conditions are ideal on alluvial terraces, marmot colonies comprise up to 30 families, with up to 10 families living in an area of 1 km. The marmot eats plants growing on pastures, in particular the soft and juicy parts of grassy plant species Marmots mate soon after they emerge from hibernation. Reproduction Females become sexually mature at the age of two years after one month of gestation they give birth to generally 4 or 5 (recorded extremes range from 2 to 11) is born in a nest within the burrow most marmots produce young every year. The Himalayan marmot (Marmota Himalayan(Hodgson, 1841) species inhabits alpine grasslands throughout the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau occurs in the Himalayas at elevations of 3,500 to 5,200 m (11,500 to 17,100 ft). it has been recorded in Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu, Xizang, western Sichuan and Yunnan The life span of the Himalayan marmot is 6 years or 10 .A study report by Vipin Chaudhary, R. S. Tripathi, Surjeet Singh, M. S. Raghuvanshi under title, Distribution and population of Himalayan Marmot Marmota himalayana (Hodgson, 1841) (Mammalia: Rodentia: Sciuridae) in Leh-Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir writes that the Himalayan Marmot Marmota Himalayan is one of the largest rodents of cold desert habitats, found mainly between 3,500–5,200 m above the timberline. Most of the population of marmot was found between 4,000–4,500 m altitude and the steep slopes (42.05%) where loose soil was available for excavation of burrows. It is regarded as an ecosystem engineer and constitutes part of the diet of Foxes, coyotes, bobcats, eagles, hawks, owls, Snowleopard and humans. Being one of the least studied rodents, a survey was carried out in different habitats of Leh District along the altitude gradient to assess the status and distribution of Himalayan Marmots. A total of 110 individuals of Himalayan Marmots were sighted in the surveyed stretches of Leh District with a maximum mean count of encounter of 2.71 in the Tangtse-Chushul sector. The grasslands were the most preferred habitat 41.67% activity observed, whereas, cultivation area being frequently disturbed for agricultural operation were least preferred by the marmot. Marmots are not easy to find along new road projects though; according to a forest official, a certain race of migratory workers from the state of Orrissa eat everything that moves including Marmots. IUCN Red has listed as Least Concern but census about the Phai is desired.

(The writer is a Jammu based environmentalist and a regular contributor to this Website.)

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 By- Bushan Parimoo 

( the author is jammu based Environmentalist)


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