INDIA IS A LAND of ancient civilization, with cities and villages, cultivated fields, and great works of art dating back 4,000 years. India's high population density and variety of social, economic, and cultural configurations are the products of a long process of regional expansion. In the last decade of the twentieth century, such expansion has led to the rapid erosion of India's forest and wilderness areas in the face of ever-increasing demands for resources and gigantic population pressures--India's population is projected to exceed 1 billion by the 21st century.
Such problems are a relatively recent phenomenon. Rhinoceros inhabited the North Indian plains as late as the sixteenth century. Historical records and literature of earlier periods reveal the motif of the forest everywhere. Stories of merchant caravans typically included travel through long stretches of jungle inhabited by wild beasts and strange people; royal adventures usually included a hunting expedition and meetings with unusual beings.
In the Mahabharata and the Ramayana , early epics that reflect life in India before 1000 B.C. and 500 B.C., respectively, the forest begins at the edge of the city, and the heroes regularly spend periods of exile wandering far from civilization before returning to rid the world of evil. The formulaic rituals of the Vedas also reflect attempts to create a regulated, geometric space from the raw products of nature.
The country's past serves as a reminder that India today, with its overcrowding and scramble for material gain, its poverty and outstanding intellectual accomplishments, is a society in constant change. Human beings, mostly humble folk, have within a period of 200 generations turned the wilderness into one of the most complicated societies in the world. The process began in the northwest in the third millennium B.C., with the Indus Valley, or Harappan, civilization, when an agricultural...