Beyond the tea

Flora and Fauna

Ian watkinson offers a taste of real Assam, a taste that lingers on much after you have finished your morning cup of tea.

Bounty : A single-horned  rhinoceros at the Kaziranga National Park in Assam.  Photo by author

This was a part of India that was rarely visited by Indians and foreigners due to social and political instability. A legacy of the British for the manner in which they insensitively carved up the Northeast India before partition, and created East Pakistan, Assam is experiencing stability and progression unheard of until recently. It is justifiably keen on capitalising on its abundant charms to attract visitors, from the rest of India as well as overseas. The state is quickly reasserting itself by opening up areas formerly closed to visitors and rapidly developing better communication and roads into its more remote areas.

The true beauty of the state is most certainly its welcoming people and verdant nature. With one of the heaviest rainfalls during the monsoon season, Assam boasts of a fertile and productive landscape, both cultivated and wild. It has been called the ‘Kerala of the Northeast’ and not without good reason. Great forests of
Himalayan sal, teakwood and other hardwoods grow in profusion, along with a scattering of bamboo. Giant plantain and abundant crops are to be seen growing everywhere amongst extensive paddy fields.

The houses in the spotlessly clean rural villages are constructed from bamboo frames with woven reed panels pinned in between, skimmed with a mixture of cow dung and mud. They are raised on hard mud platforms, two feet above the ground, to survive the rainy season. Nearly every house has a fish pond, either in front of its vegetable plot or shared with others in the villages, for, freshwater fish form an integral part of the Assamese diet.

There are over 180 species of freshwater fish here, from the massive Roi that can be caught wild in the mighty Brahmaputra river, to small fish no bigger than a beedi. Birds are everywhere, from the ubiquitous white egrets to huge, solitary and broody adjutant storks, which stand motionless on their taut, stick-like legs in paddy water, eyes open for the next meal. With 120-plus rivers feeding the mighty Brahmaputra, 700 km of which flows through the state, water is Assam’s lifeline.

There are many fascinating places to explore within easy reach of the capital, Guwahati. There is the hilltop Kali Temple of Kamakya with a beehive-shaped sanctum, where unseen tantric rituals are still practised along with ritual animal sacrifice. Or, the Sufi shrine at Hajo, again atop a hill. You could even visit the Turbeh of an Iraqi sheikh who settled here in the 13th century — Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians all revere this unique spot and come here to pay their respects.

Courting Kaziranga

The jewels of Assam are its wildlife parks, which are gradually making their way back onto the visitors’ maps. They are all far from Guwahati — the park at Kaziranga, above the Brahmaputra valley, easily takes six hours or more of wild driving through countless tea plantations and small villages to reach. The tiring journey reaps rich rewards upon arrival, for, this is a beautiful place. In contrast to the lack of accommodation en route, here in Kaziranga, there are many eco-friendly style lodges with comfortable rooms.

Exploring the park can take a few days as it is split into three large zones. Taking a jeep safari in any zone either in the morning or evening is the best time to see animals, as there is no doubt that they will be there. Another delightful and peaceful way to get close to the animals is to take an elephant safari at dawn.

From the rickety wooden seat perched on the back of the lumbering pachyderm, you can get quite close to the peacefully grazing animals; it almost feels like they are within arm’s reach. The bird song at dawn provides the soundtrack — an orchestra in the forest. Through long elephant grass, the safari passes a herd of wild elephants, 40 or more, grazing in the thick grass. One can even find the last bastions of the Indian one-horned rhinoceros, rhinoceros unicornis. Although these are still  sought after by poachers for the supposed aphrodisiac effects of its single horn, there  are now over 2,000 rhinos in Kaziranga, mainly due to careful management in the park.

They can be found everywhere, grazing, taking mud baths or attending to their young calves. There are wild buffaloes wallowing in mud pools — the warden informed us that the buffalo is more dangerous than the rhino. Sambar deer, hog deer and spotted deer can be seen in profusion. There are tigers here as well, having steadily increased to being 106 in number from the 86 that were around previously. This seems to be one of the few parks in India where the numbers of its species are on the rise. There are more than 35 species of mammals living in these parklands and forest, including four species of monkeys. India’s only true ape, gibbon, can be found only here.

Over 480 species of birds find their way here. Entering the deeply forested jungle of tall hardwoods, they provide a symphony of sound — again, the best time to see and hear them is early in the morning or late in the evening just as the sun is going down. Blue rollers flash like blue sparks between the trees, grey fish eagles sit unmoving, sullenly surveying the rivers and water holes, golden orioles split one’s vision momentarily with a yellow flash, and jungle fowls peck the ground with their chicks.

Kailash peacocks scuttle in the undergrowth, red-chested parakeets screech playfully in and out of holes in the trees, the competing saxophonist sounds of coucals and koels filling the air with natural jazz. Mynahs and bright green linnets sing soprano solos high above. A rare great hornbill flies across the pastel evening sky as we turn to head out of the forest, a fitting farewell to a place near paradise.

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