Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Call from Monyul

The Prologue

Tashi-Delek is a magical word. Rather words. But they always go together. The former makes your lips pout and the latter makes them stretch. And together they tickle and add a sparkle and a smile on the face.
Yes, the word is like cheese: difficult to say without smiling.
This all-purpose greeting is just about all the vocabulary a traveller needs in Tawang. For “Tashi-Delek” you say and the ice melts. The door to Tawang and to the hearts of the beautiful people of Tawang opens for you.


Moored high up in the mountain ranges of the Himalayas, at 3500 metres above sea level is Tawang- the beautiful land of the Monpas. With sobriquets like “The Hidden Paradise” or “Land of Dawn-lit Mountains”, this land evokes images of awesome mountain views, remote hamlets, quaint and sleepy villages, magical gompas, rugged hills, snow-capped peaks, rushing streams, wispy mists, roaring waterfalls, tranquil lakes and a lot more. At Tawang (also called Monyul) you have a heavenly tryst with nature at its best and the heady mixture of history, religion and legends as your travel companions.

In search of Nirvana

Tawang derived its name from the majestic Tawang Monastery. Perched atop a ridge and surrounded by thick clouds and perennial mist, the Tawang Monastery seems to be suspended from heaven in an equally ethereal space. About 400years old the monastery is the 2nd oldest and the largest in Asia and can house more than700 monks. It controls 17 gompas and a few nunneries of this region. Founded by Mera Lama Lodre Gyatso in 1681 in accordance to the wishes of the 5th Dalai Lama, 

Nagwang Lobjang Gyatso, the monastery has an interesting legend surrounding its name, which means chosen by horse. (Ta – horse; Wang – chosen) As the legend goes the site of the Monastery was chosen by the horse of Mera Lama. Mera Lama, who had been unable to decide a site to establish the monastery, was one day praying in cave, seeking a divine guidance. When he came out after the prayers, he found his horse missing. A search located the horse standing quietly on a hilltop. Considering this as a sign from the gods he decided to construct the monastery at that very spot. The monastery was built with the help of volunteers from the neighbouring villages. Even today, the villages are responsible for the upkeep of the monastery. The monastery is also grandiloquently called Galden Namgye Latse meaning celestial paradise and one look at the monastery on a clear night will make one realize how true to its name it stands glowing like a phantasmagoria in the blue of the night.

Built like a fortress, the monastery has huts for the lamas, meeting hall, library, a school for the basic education, community kitchen and the main building/temple called Dukhang. It houses the huge and enthralling 30 feet gilded statue of the Buddha. Apart from this it has many more idols, all steeped in antiquity, elaborate mural paintings, priceless documents and texts, thangkhas (scroll paintings having images of Buddhist deities) and precious literature written in gold. The gilded giant prayer wheels (drums) flank the entrance.
A walk through the over powering silence of the monastery entices the spiritual part of even the atheists.

Celestial Cherubs -The People

The people are like the place. Beautiful and friendly. Their demeanor guided by the beauty of the place and the serenity of the religion they practice.
Descendents of Mongoloid race and originally immigrated from Tibet and Bhutan, the Monpas are Buddhist by faith and follow the Gelugpa Sect of Mahayana stream of Buddhism preached by the Tawang Monastery, the fountainhead of faith and religion. Before embracing Buddhism they were believers of Bon faith characterized by spirit worship and animal sacrifice.
Agriculturist by occupation, they follow the terrace form of cultivation unlike the most of the tribes of the Northeast who practice jhumming. They have even tried their hand in rearing Yak and other cattle like sheep etc and have almost mastered the art.
The society is monogamous in rule but polygamy and polyandry is quite frequent. Broad in mind, the people allow widow remarriage and divorce is not a stigma here.
Despite the hardships of existence in far-flung place like Tawang, the people enjoy life, are convivial, warm and hospitable and with the bubbling urge to make the most of God’s natural bounty.

Places worth a visit:

The Pilgrims Path – The Monasteries

Tawang Monastery: The Tawang Monastery is the most gorgeous monument. Despite the medieval aura that the white walled, yellow roofed buildings and the maroon clad, solemn looking lamas evoke, the abbey is the living tradition which shapes future lives with collective wisdom of its rich and cultural past, besides preaching the religious values of life. The heavy smell of frankincense and the smoky, butter lamp-lit, silent interiors and the constant vibrations of “om mani padme hum” provide the perfect ambience to feel the gnawing urge of spiritualism. And while you make this outward journey, all the while sensing the essential inwardness of Buddhism, be followed by the curious gaze of the red-riding hoods (the boy lamas). Dressed in the monks’ robes these little lamas with frost bitten cheeks and occasionally running nose are the little (sometimes-naughty) angels residing in this paradise of a place.

Urgelling Monastery: About 5km from the heart of the town is the Urgelling monastery established by the lama Urgen Sangpo who came to this area from Bhumthang in Bhutan. Dating more then 460 years ago the monastery is the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama. Apart from being a treasure trove of many ancient relics, the monastery has the footprints and fingerprints of the Dalai Lama preserved for darshan.

Rigyalling Monastery: What it lacks in history and significance, the monastery makes it up by the soothing and green atmosphere of its surroundings. The efforts of the lama Changsey to amend for the urbanization gradually creeping in resulted in rows and rows of trees of all types and shades of green like the pines, fir, oak, Popular Salix, thoza and the rare crytomeria Joponica. His green thumb has turned the place into a picturesque abode where the silence is broken only by the chirruping of birds and the rustle of the wind in the trees.

Taktsang Monastery: The Tiger’s Den as it is also called, is 45km beyond Tawang, nestled amidst breathtaking surroundings of coniferous forests and lofty mountains with their crowns covered by snow. It is believed to have been visited by Guru Padmasambha in the 8th century.


The Nunneries

The Anis as the nuns are called join the monk life voluntarily. No rules or compulsion forces them to embrace the rigorous and hermit life of a monk.

Brama dung chung Ani Gompa: The oldest of the ani gompa, it was commissioned by lama Karchen Yeshi Gelek in 1595. It houses 45 nuns and is 12km away from the town.

Gyangong Ani Gompa: Situated on a hillock, surrounded by pristine beauty is this ani gompa at a distance of 5km. It has about 50 inmates.

Singsur Ani Gompa: 28km away, built in 1960 by the Rev. abbot Gonpaste Rimpoche this nunnery is the home to about 45 nuns.

Gorsam Chorten: Situated 92 km from Tawang at Zemithang is this Stupa looming high into the sky. It was constructed in the 12th century and is the largest stupa of the area.

By now if the traveller feels he had had a head spinning experience of religion, do not worry. Take a break in the lap of Mother Nature and savour her scintillating “sights”. We ensure your senses will experience a “spiritual rapture” of totally different kind. As Tawang is endowed generously with natural beauty, which can take ones breath away.

 Shimmering Silvers-The Lakes
There are so many of them and each out does the beauty of the other. Clean and crystal clear, the lakes shimmer like thousands of shivered mirror under the blue canopy of the sky.

PTTso Lake: 17km away, the PTTso lake looks straight out of a picture postcard or perhaps straight out of the Master Painter’s canvas. For God changes its hue with the seasons. As blue as lapis lazuli on a clear day, coyly hidden under the mists on the rainy days, surrounded by flowers of all colours in October and stark white with snow in the winter.

Sangetsar Lake: Providing communion with nature is the Sangetsar Lake 42 km from Tawang. The lake formed during the earthquake of 1950 has bare trees standing like guards in vigil. A reflection of the azure sky, the lake is beautiful like a Samaritan’s soul and captivating like a gypsy’s eye.

Banggachang Lake: At the scaring distance of 101 km is the Banggachang lake but its unparalleled beauty is worth all the pain of the journey. The stories of mystical sights like candle burning in the nights, apparitions of gompa, gold coins and jewels makes the place more alluring. Visit it. Who knows the apparitions turn real for you and you come back enriched in more than one ways.

Colossal Crescendos- The peaks

If the lakes provide one with the much sought after tranquility, the rather precarious and overpowering mountains dare the mighty men to climb the peaks.

Gorichen Peak: The highest in the region, the towering Gorichen peak has fascinated the minds of many mountaineers to scale its height of 22500 feet. At a distance of 164 km it is ideal for mountaineering expeditions.

Geshila Peak: Though not very high the peak is more approachable as it is only 25 km away.

Sela Pass and Peak: At a height of 13714 feet the pass meets the traveller on his way to Tawang and marks the beginning of the district. With its two lakes and tiny flowers of enchanting shades the Sela Pass fills one with ecstasy.

Cascades of Crystals- The Waterfalls

Nuranag Waterfalls: About 42 km from Tawang and 2km from Jang, the administrative circle, is this enticing beauty of milky white water. Thunderous and enthralling like an oration.

BTK Waterfalls: They say to watch its beauty even the sun lingers wistfully here, creating rainbows across the waterfalls. And the sound of water is like music. At BTK Waterfalls Nature’s very own sound and light show is played out daily.

Healing Hotspots-The springs

Thingbu hot water spring and Tsachu hot water spring- The hot water springs not only provides warm, sulphur rich water which cures many skin ailments, they are also located in the midst of a terrain and at distance which is ideal for trekking.

Jaswant Singh Garh- Where stands the invisible sentinel.

The memorial raised to pay homage to Jaswant Singh, Mahavir Chakra awardee

 (Posthumous) of 4 Battalion Garhwal Rifles is a place where emotions swell up naturally. In the Battle of Nuranag in 1962 during the Chinese aggression this brave son of the country showed an unmatched valour by fighting and holding the invading Chinese for 72 hours all alone before he met the martyr’s end. A plaque beside the road put up by the army asks one to stop for a while, soak in the abundance of beauty and be a part of the history. The jawans offer a cup of hot tea that is so welcoming in the cold weather.

Tawang Memorial- Overlooking the imposing Tawang- Chu valley the Tawang War Memorial is a 40 feet multi-hued chorten like structure that honours the 1962 Sino-Indian War heroes. It bears the name of the martyrs of the war. The line “ How can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his father and temples of his Gods” is etched on the wall and echoes in the hearts of the visitors. And odds there were many as the soldiers had to fight with antique rifles, 50 round of ammunitions and cotton clothes.
But the men in green with fire blazing in their eyes made the ultimate sacrifice for duty and the country.

Manjushree Vidyapeeth- This is the only orphanage in Tawang and is not in the conventional traveller’s itinerary but people who mix pleasure with purpose can visit the place and spend some time with the children.

Parvat Ghatak (Ball of Fire)- This high altitude warfare/commando school is not likely a tourist destination but is a pride for the nation and needs a mentioning. Located at Pemgarh, barely 2km from the Indo-China border as the crow flies the Parvat Ghatak fulfills the need felt more intensely in the immediate aftermath of Kargil where the soldiers had to fight at heights above 1200 feet. At the height of 1500 feet and temperature which drops to – 20 degree, where only the toughest can survive, the school is performing the Herculean task of turning soldiers into deadly warriors in war and in peace.

Fairs and festivals-
The main festivals are the Torgya and the Losar festivals when the spirit of bonhomie and merry making fills the air of the district. These festivals provide the people with occasions to get together and enjoy the spirit of brotherhood. They mirror the rich culture of the people of Tawang, their artistic genius and skill in expressing themselves through music and dance which occupy the main place in the celebration of these festivals.

Losar festival is the beginning of the New Year according to the Monpa calender. This 15 days festival falls in January/February. The houses are cleaned, lamps lighted, prayers offered for prosperity and good health and prayer flags are hoisted. It is a common belief that the wind carries the prayers to the heaven. Various dances like the Aji Lhumu dance, Lion and Peacock dance and the Yak dance are performed during the festival.

Torgya festival is a 3-day affair when the courtyard of the monastery becomes a hive of activity. The lamas make a torgya (a pyramidal structure of millet), pujas are offered and the monastery is illuminated with colourful lights. The lamas perform the monastic dance wearing attire rich in colour and frightening masks of animals. The dance and the festival signify the destruction of evil spirit and harmful forces and seek the rule of prosperity and happiness amongst the people.
The other festivals are of the sober type and basically mark the important stages of the Lord Buddha.
Swarga Dawa: Celebrated in the 4th month of the lunar calendar this festival marks the achievement of Nirvana by Gautam Buddha.
Dukpa Tse-Shi: The festival coincides with the preaching of the Four Nobel Truths at Sarnath by Buddha. It falls in the 6th month of the lunar calendar.
Lhabab Duechen: In the Monpas 9th month this festival marks the reincarnation of Buddha in his Shakyamuni form.
Ganden Ngamchoe: The day commemorates the death of Tsongkha-pa, the founder of Gelugpa Sect.

Apart from the monastic dance performed by the lamas during the Torgya festival, the Monpas have extremely attractive traditional dances. The dancers wear masks, which have a human, an animal or a bird face and through their rhythmic movements and gestures they depict some mythical stories. They use musical instruments like trumpets, drums, cymbals, clarion and conch shell.

Aji Lhamu Dance: One of the most prominent of the traditional dances, this dance-drama form of performance tells the tale of Tibetan version of Ramayana. The 5 people who perform it represent Gyeli and Nyapa the chief protagonists, Nyaro the antagonist and Lhamu and Lhum the female characters.

Yak Dance: This dance celebrates the joy of the discovery of yak many hundreds of years ago. It is quite interesting to note that the importance of yak in the lives of the people is completely acknowledged. The yak has a major role in the prosperity and economy of people with its multi-purpose use. No doubt it occupies a special place in their daily life and has a dance named after it.

Lion and Peacock Dance: This dance displays the story of saint Tenteling who performed an extremely difficult fast and meditation on the mythical mount Gangrikarpo in the Himalayas for three years. The two snow lions that lived in the ridges of the mountain and witnessed this severe and pious life of the saint befriended him and offered him milk and their company. Overjoyed by this strange relationship between man and animals the people danced. And till today the people perform this dance on every important occasion for they know peace and prosperity comes when there is a harmony between all living creatures of the world.

Art and craft-
The artistic genius of the Monpas is not limited to their dance and music. They have magic in their hands and make dreams with it. See the carpets to believe it. The hand-woven woolen carpets are a masterpiece in themselves. The intricate patterns and the smooth finesse are no less than magic.
Woodcarving is another art worth appreciating. The expertise with which the artists carve dragons or snow lions or the Buddha or whatever they can think of is mind blowing.
Thangkha paintings are like a wizard’s spell. You feel the brush had been dipped in a palette of mysticism and enchantment before moving it on the scrolls. Normally bearing pictures of Buddhist deities the thangkhas are a must in the connoisseurs’ list.
The people are also good in making handmade paper from the bark of Daphne-Botanica plants, colourful masks, agarbati and leather items.

Indigenous Sports--
The indigenous versions of archery (Mia Than), wrestling (Glam Nyurri), shot put (Pung Gor), discus throw (Lem Gor), and completely new games like Mahjong, Lai and Thipi add fun and some exercise in the life of people.

The traditional cuisine has the Tibetan taste and make a generous use of chili and not very surprisingly, yak milk’s cheese.
Momos (the meat dumplings) are real tasty. Various versions of momos are available to satisfy the gourmet’s taste buds.
Thukpa is another dish which the Monpas and even the tourists relish. This dish with noodles floating in hot, steaming soup garnished with a variety of stuffs like meat, vegetables, cheese etc is very nourishing and wonderful to taste.
While the momos and thukpas are the gourmets’ delight, the Zan is the staple food of the Monpa tribe. It is basically a dish prepared by boiling millet flour along with local condiments and vegetables/meat/cheese.
Khura is the traditional pancake while the Gyapa-khazi is the Monpa version of pulao. The rice is fried with cheese, dried fish, chili, ginger etc.
The local brew Chang does add cheer and “spirit” in life.

Bon Voyage-
Half the joy of the odyssey to Tawang is in the journey. It involves travelling through miles and miles of sprawling tea gardens of Assam, snaking through the hypnotic mountain roads of Arunachal Pradesh and passing through a long kaleidoscope of scenic and cultural variances. Before one reaches Tawang, one crosses Bhalukpong, famous for river rafting, angling etc, Tipi the temple of orchids (the largest in Asia), the picturesque town of Bomdila, the tantalizing Dirang valley where the serpentine river becomes one’s companion for long and the magnificent Sela Pass which awakens the poetic passions of passerby.

The epilogue

This is Tawang. Sans urban trappings and star comforts, yet a bit of paradise still left on this earth. A splendid canvas of unspoiled scenic beauty. Where the first rays of sun kiss the snowy peaks to a blushing rose and the last fills the saucer of the shivering sky to its brim with countless stars.
So this time when you hear the call from Monyul, do not neglect. The Monpas will be there to welcome you and the vale will echo with whispers of Tashi-Delek.

( The article, an old piece, was written first for the Govt of Arunachal, more as a travel guide...and then in its many avatars with personal touches, was published in many national travel magazines.) 
( It's a place I am 100% in love with and have visited many times....I know I have been lazy to upload the pix. Someday. One day.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Where I met Zorba and the Buddha

Where I met Zorba and the Buddha
Anjali Tirkey

Emptying the tea cup

Jai Ho to anyone who dares to be different, not just for the sake of being different (well, no problems with that too) but dares to be different and courageous enough to do which is typically not done by many and seek things which nature reserves only for those who have that streak of madness, a passion to venture into the unknown or the lesser known.
So unlike his fellow brethren my friend, decided not be another marijuana smoking, saffron robed, spirituality seeking, ex army Israeli traveller you find in Dharamshala and Manali or in the rave parties in Goa, and decided to come to the North East.

He had left his cubical at a hi-tech corporation for a year's journey around the world with two backpacks. Next was India for him.

Mine? Some Guru had said that I was a gypsy in my last birth and since they did not follow the death rituals right to the last T, my spirit never found the moksha and here I was born again in this very world carrying the same nomad spirit with the same unquenchable thirst to travel and travel more, mindless of the fact whether it is a caravan or car or bus or train or plane – a lot depending on those piece of papers called rupiah.

(Liked my story? Nope!!! Never mind, I will cook up another past for myself the next time and I bet you will like it.)

He had heard so much about our Incredible India as we call it, the typical stuffs: place of birth of Buddhism, Hinduism, Yoga, Bollywood, British occupation, more than a billion people. But about the North East? Ney. His copy of guidebook too was not much helpful about this part of the country. It had a truly interesting reason for that. The writers of the book find it difficult to get the entry permits, so tedious it is to break the maze of red tapeism and bureaucratic rules for foreigners. (Hope somebody from those who matter are reading albeit listening.)

So either you choose to write applications one after another for months to get the restricted area permit or get married as it is easier for married couples to enter the " exotic areas" or make a group of minimum four people and find a travel agent to do the job or (this I discovered from some foreign tourists I met) pay for a minimum of four and on the D-day say the others did not turn up. ( Garn!! A choice of bad, worse and worst.)  

So we meet in the Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport. (How do we know each other?
Com’on some things should be left for some other write up?
Not surprisingly, he was full of anticipation but excited. Most of his traveled friends had said you either love or hate India but you can’t ignore India. But about the North East they were all ignorant. My gut feeling told me he will love it, for the North East is like that beautiful woman hidden in a citadel; you just need to break the mindset that stops you to reach there and she can charm you with all her beauty, with all her colours and with all her many secrets. And yes you need to do another thing, like in a Zen story – “Empty your teacup”.

Manas, we come
For all the obvious reasons, we decided to start our travel with Assam but aha, here was another detour, no Kamakhya and Kaziranga (at least for the immediate while) but Manas.
Why Manas?
Because while the two famous national parks in Assam share a similar administrative history, unlike Kaziranga National Park, which had had a successful journey of becoming the world’s best conservation example for the one-horned Indian rhinoceros and the other denizens of the wild, Manas had a very checkered history, with lots of drama and trauma, where politics, insurgency, rampant poaching, complete failure of administration, human invasions had badly affected the dynamism of the forest. But in the recent years there have been news of peace, of restoration, of innovative conservation projects like ex-poachers turning forest guards and re-introduction of the female rhino.
Fascinating enough to lure us. Complex enough to interest me as a subject to study.

We leave Guwahati, crossing the Brahmaputra River (fourth in size in the world), the numerous villages; our driver honking his way across a typical rural landscape, making Norbert nervous by his insistent honking.
 I oblivious, while Norbert noticing and absorbing everything- people on the streets, cows, rickshaws, shrines, brick factories, rice fields, military bases, police checkpoints – continuous movement and vibration.

While we are still far away from our destination, darkness sets in and along with it a worry. I had not reconfirmed the accommodation in the Bansbari Tourist Lodge and God forbid if they had no rooms for us. Sleeping under an open sky with the billions of stars peeping down and a zephyr playing a lullaby is all well and romantic when it is a choice but not in a no alternative-kinda-situation.

The paved road changes into a graveled road and then to a no- road once you cross Barpeta Road. This also marks the end of any kind of communication with the world and the signs of civilization. So we make some hurried calls to people  at home and ready ourselves to be enveloped by whatever was in store.

Our vehicle makes its slow and bumpy way to Bansbari

My friend is not impressed. (He has flown from Sydney to Mumbai to Delhi to Guwahati with hardly many breaks and was tired like hell.) And if nothing else than the last patch of the journey had made him remember how badly his body ached and how much he needed to rest in a warm comfy bed.

But thanks to the dogs and the banging (can’t give all the credit to the dogs), everyone who mattered, mainly meaning the manager Mr. Rajkhowa, in the Lodge woke up. Good God on that particular night there were no tourists!!!!

They knew we had to come but never realized that someone could be crazy enough to decide to reach at almost midnight in areas which were still remembered by the violent past.

Love at time of work

I wake up by the calls of peacock to a totally different world. From the balcony of my room I see the jungles of Manas and not just the peacock but kingfisher, darter, pied harrier, partridges and many more. The room is definitely nice and welcoming but the world outside my balcony and beyond beckons me. And good that I heard the call, for mornings in Indian villages and especially one like Bansbari which is just outside the fencing of the forest, silhouetted by the hills of Bhutan can be captivating.

We were in no hurry to “do” or “dheko” Manas and decide to walk around the village with Mr. Rajkhowa, a retired wing commander whom we find warm and knowledgeable not just about the forest but also about the villages in the fringe areas, the people and their culture. Walking around this multi-ethnic and multi-religious village, we see mud houses built on a bamboo or tree skeleton, very simple but effective even in the monsoons. Hibiscus, beetle nut trees, pineapples, sometimes orchids surround the houses.

Jetropha plant from which bio-diesel is extracted was also seen abundantly. My friend wonders if the “black gold”, will be replaced by the “green gold”. But not for long. He is distracted by the many very attractive girls and women, giving shy looks to a foreigner strolling in the village.
In fact, he is so fascinated by the village and the village folks (the feeling was mutual, I guess) that he started going for walks on his own when I was working. (Gypsies too need to work for that piece of precious paper I talked about earlier.) And on one of such ventures he met Gonga and fell in love. It was love at first sight as he says. A two year old female, this time from the elephant species, separated from her herd during one of the recent floods. The forest department people will train her later for living.
Yes, some of the elephants have maternity leaves and vacations, even retirements. Seriously.

I leave the two alone to get to know each other, test each others strengths, push and pull each other, to feed or give a hand in scrubbing her. I could see the village was making a deep impression on him.

He often summed up the days as - Quiet and calm, a different rhythm dictates everything here. So different from the hectic work in the office! No mobile phones, no TV, no big music hits, and no crowds, just the melody of life, rebelling hunger, illness and poverty and despite all that smiles. Can’t help not to remember images from Kazantzakhis’ “Zorba the Greek”, in which the author describes people in a Cretan village. There is only one conclusion: Life is beautiful!

Webs and Ties

And we had not yet been inside Manas in a true sense, except the one hour trip inside the forest on an elephant back. Now, now don’t underestimate the thrill of a ride on an elephant’s back, sitting 3.5 metres above the ground swaying with the rhythmic movement of this gentle giant waiting for the animals to wake up and surprise you and you them while the sun throws its first gentle rays on the earth, glistening the dewdrops on the blades of grass, making a peacock break into a mating dance, or the fishing eagle swoop on it’s first prey or the hog deer nibble on the grass till startled by you. You see all this and the flowers of many hues but ask me who has been in the jungles so often that nothing can match a jeep ride in lesser known routes deep in the forest or the walks on the narrow tracks that meanders into depths and surprises; of course not without permission and never without an armed forest guard. So forgive me for not counting this trip

Proposed as a Reserve Forest in 1905, this wide vista of wilderness, Manas, was declared as a Tiger Reserve covering an area of 2837 sq km in the year 1973. Later it was catapulted to a World Heritage Site in 1985 under the criteria N II, III and IV and a Biosphere Reserve under UNESCO in 1989. The Tiger Reserve extends from the river Sankosh in the west and Dhansiri in the east, with a core area of 500 sq km. of the Manas National Park. Administratively a major chunk of it falls under Baksa and Chirang districts under BTAD (Bodoland Territorial Areas District) in Assam. The forests are also contiguous with the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan, thus forming one of the largest Protected Areas in the Terai and Bhabhar regions that extend upto the Sub- Himalayan ranges in Northeast India and Bhutan.

Talk to anybody who had been to Manas till almost the late 80s and you hear the same story with much nostalgia and longing about this piece of Eden at the confluence of the Indian and Indo-Chinese realms, criss-crossed by rivers and streams, a treasure house of grasslands and virgin forests and a plethora of fauna- including his majesty – the tiger.
Extensive human pressure for fuel, fodder, timber; poaching for consumption, thrill and commerce; a feeling of alienation and hostility and then to top it all lawlessness, rampaging and mayhem during the insurgency took its toll. In fact UNESCO was forced to declare Manas as World Heritage Site in Danger in 1992. Someone had said that the world is as delicate and complicated as a spider’s web. If you touch one thread you send shudders running through all the other threads.
And we were not just touching the web; we were tearing great holes in it.

Nature the elixir vitae

But nature is like panacea, not just for jaded broken souls like me but for itself too. If allowed to, it heals itself and springs back to life. Manas is doing the same. We see this clearly at our next camp: Mathanguri Forest IB. No match to Bansbari Lodge as far as comfort and hospitality is concerned but the location in the heart of the National park, on a hillock, with the Beki and Manas Rivers flowing by and the Bhutan border at a stone throw distance makes it tempting enough to say goodbye to Bansbari Lodge. We have our ration ready (including match boxes, candles etc) for in Mathanguri you need to carry every other provision you can think off.  Yes, there is a cook who can come up with quite delicious meals and even when he flaws, hunger after a tiring walk or drive can make you hog up whatever is on the table. Be assured.

When we leave for Mathanguri it is already evening and the jungle is alive with the sounds of crickets and cicadas. We spot night jars and hear rustles in the bushes. But viola! there waits this wonder whose memories are still etched in my mind. Hundreds and thousands of soft yellow lights glowing in the thickets and jungle. Astonishing us, mesmerizing us till we understood the rhythm of the lights, till we immersed in the beauty of the glowworms.

My friend had paid a hefty sum to see these fireflies in some cave in Australia. And here they were, these tiny worms in Manas, going about their business, making myriads of pattern in the darkness with the yellow fire in them. All for free, yet priceless.
I dislike Robert Frost to remind me about going miles before I sleep, but we did move further to the IB which greets us mysteriously covered by a veil of darkness. (The generators are run only for an hour and the rest of the time you manage with candles and lanterns. So I happily put work down in the priority list and allow the Range Officer’s Brahmas favourite quote to take over me. “We all are born to be wild.”
(No pun, intended but well on second thoughts it does not sound too bad either.) The contour of the Bhutanese hills stand like phantasmagoria, the rapid flow of ever shifting River Bekhi and the serpentine like River Manas just under the IB dictates the sound ambience, the surrounding high trees cannot hide the stars and the almost full moon. Something tells us it’s an amazing view and we can’t wait till the morning.

Golden mornings and Golden Langurs

Indeed the wait was more than worthy. Commotions in the close-by trees reveal Capped Langurs and lots of them!
“Get up!!Hurry up with your camera.”
Sleepy eyed he does. And it takes not even a few seconds for his eyes and mouth to open wide. Whole families sitting on the branches, almost ignoring us, enjoying the nectar of semul flowers or just doing nothing. Infants cling to their mothers while they acrobatically jump from branch to branch, challenging us to take some in-motion shots.
A walk in the vicinity leads to encounter hornbills, macaques, squirrels and a great variety of birds like egrets, pelicans, brahminy duck, jungle fowl, minivets and lapwings.

Bhutan and more specifically the Bhutanese forest department lies just across the rivers. Accompanied by the Indian range officer we cross the river by boat and meet the Bhutanese counter parts. The differences are more than obvious! Colorful Buddhist praying flags, lighter mongoloid features and traditional dress Bakhu, fluent English and  most welcoming!
The population density is low, the rules stringent, and the jungles flourishing. Animal sightings including tigers and the wild dog are not uncommon. While the tiger still evades us, I see through my binoculars a wild dog feeding on some carcass till disturbed by vultures.   
But it’s the sighting of as many as 20 or more magnificent golden langurs found only on this side of the river Manas that make our day. And perhaps to some extend, the King’s beautiful palace too that served as a hunting resort till he gave up for the sake of conservation and its values.

The day passed quickly and the night arrives. The Range Officer keeps his promise –the night jeep safari! The vehicle with us, the guards and a few wildlife graduate students – is ready to move! The moon is full creating the perfect lighting conditions for the play to unfold! With the help of search light we sight huge Sambars , hog deer and wild buffaloes. Chitals are long extinct. What about a tiger? Keeping fingers crossed do not matter. The camera traps had shown a dozen or more tigers and you may sell your soul even to the devil for its sighting but it is rare. I have been blessed only once.

Next day we leave for a walking trip. Accompanied by three armed forest guards we head to Noonmati saltlick, frequented by animals and also sometime by poachers. On the way, one of the guards points to the ground. Tiger’s pug mark.  Respect and excitement grow within us, knowing that the big cat can be anywhere, maybe just there behind that tree.
At Noonmati there is again tell-a-tale of signs of animals. On the tree trunks, on the ground. The scorching sun had made them take refuge in the depths of the forests, away from our prying eyes, but we knew they are there.

Tourists want to be promised a tiger, an elephant, a rhino and a golden langur, and if possible – right at the entrance of the park, posing in all the right positions.
They like to head to Kaziranga where animal spotting was so sure that same complain it becomes an overdose!!! Most tourists don’t share the patience and the enthusiasm for the “hunt” wildlifers have, waiting for hours, days, months to see say a tiger and even if not blessed by the sight, to feel happy by the signs that say they are there, surviving. “Nothing is sure, but everything is possible” said the indigenous guide in the Bolivian jungles. The jungle has a mind of its own. Manas certainly has.

Poachers turned Guards

We decide to traverse the forest and reach Koklabari, a Bodo dominant place on the eastern region. It is a long arduous journey not just for us but the vehicle too. But the forest is amazingly beautiful with sub-Himalayan semi-evergreen forests along the Indo-Bhutan Border, moist mixed deciduous forests and Bhabhar Sal forest patches on the hill slopes and in the high moisture areas. But the majority of the Park is dominated by wet alluvial grasslands interspersed with savannah woodlands. A total of 543 plant species have been recorded thus providing an ideal habitat for a variety of fauna. The figures show more than 60 species of mammals, 312 species of birds, 42 species of reptiles, 7 amphibians and 54 species of fish including the highly endangered species such as the Tiger, Elephant, Clouded Leopard, Golden Langur, Wild buffalo, Pygmy hog, Hispid Hare, Bengal Florican, brush-tailed porcupine, Particolored flying squirrel, Gangetic dolphins and the Assam roofed turtle.

I am encouraged to meet the youths who are members of MMES (Manas Maozegendri Ecological Society and run homestead tourism. We stay with them relishing the Bodo delicacies and understanding the role they play in spreading awareness for the environment and its conservation, protecting the fauna especially the endangered and highly beautiful Bengal Floricans (you need to watch the mating dance  of these death do us part pair of birds). These youths are also motivating and working with some 30 ex-poachers who have now taken up the job of protecting the forests. In return the government gives them stipend and recognition. Most of the famous conservationists like Corbett had been avid hunters once. I hope these new members of patrolling squad become too.

I hear the never ending debate between ‘fortress conservation models’ versus ‘people’s participation’. I realize that Vishnu and Shiva exist not just in the mythologies. Life is shaped by a continuous struggle between opposite forces. Vishnu and Shiva confront each other through people and nature. Manas must be just another battleground between the two.

We friends do more of Assam and some of the other states of the North East for many weeks. Then he leaves for Osho’s Centre in Pune to find his Zorba and the Buddha.
My Zorba and my Buddha lies here in Manas, and there, where I go next and everywhere. Existing outside and within me, selves within a shelf, sometimes in conflict and sometimes in harmony.

( Published with some editions. Inputs from Norbert Kalman and Sonali Ghosh.)




Friday, September 3, 2010

Somewhere, sometime, I forgot to chase my ambitions, now I am chasing my dreams.

They asked me to imagine a city laid out in the shape of a puma; a stone to tie the sun to; a city of fleas. They asked me if I was willing to meet Earth Changer, Our Lord of Earthquakes and Mother Earth? I nodded. If so, they whispered in my ears, prepare to follow the pilgrimage to Cusco, the place that every Inca endeavoured to visit once in a lifetime. Navel of the world, one of the Western Hemisphere’s greatest empires, Spanish colonial showpiece, gringo capital of South America, Mecca of all dreamers, Cusco is all this and more. Ask any guide or better still read any guidebook. They said.

Explore the ruins, live the traditions of the descendants of the Incas, make the sell-your-soul-for-it kind of trip to the Hidden Citadel of Machu Picchu, bargain graciously with ample doses of smiles and gracias in the Andean markets, watch and worship the apus, the imposing snow-capped peaks while standing at the agricultural terraces of the Incas, climb as many hills as your muscles can take, mountain bike, plummet 1,400 metres in two hours, be an adrenaline-junkie on a raft on one of the a heart-stopping white waters, or get lost in the world’s largest protected rainforests of Manu Biosphere that starts high in the Andes and goes down through elfin, clouds, montane forest, swamps and lowland jungle of the Amazon and do more.

Do more but like what? Like learning espanol, sipping the legends and the lore, guzzling down glasses of pisco or enjoying ceviche or pachamanca cooked over heated stones in a hole in the ground or even the cuy (guinea pig) or chewing coca leaves to fight high-altitude sickness or even the cold, get spitted on by a vicuna- the cousin of llama, and swear like Captain Haddock...his blistering blue barnacles, thundering typhoons, buy the softest of alpaca sweater or weep alone on your pillow in the night till you learn to be a gringo, an independent single strong woman backpacker, and accept that after Gandhi the most popular export has been the latkas and jhatkas of our Bollywood.

This is the story of Alice. But the story begins long before, when Alice read Tintin’s Prisoners of the Sun when she was 6 or perhaps a few years older. Tintin the sleuth goes to Peru to solve a mystery...his tale puts Alice in the dream-processor. They say when you sincerely dream for and long something, they often turn true. 20 years later Alice as a scribe finds herself in Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia with 12 other girls from different countries. When the media-programme is over, Alice decides to go footloose ....break the shackles, put the suitcase in the locker and throw the essentials in a backpack and just GO.

No itinerary, no tour packages, no fast paced whistle-stop visits, no companion. A journey should rightfully begin with a prayer and this time she wants to offer her prayers to the Inca gods in the Inca- capital Cusco. And when the plane pierces the mists and clouds and she looks down from the window of her plane, she knows that she is in a wonderland.

First thing first. Locate a budget place. She does and then goes for a walk to acquaint herself to this new world. The sun is about to set and the moon has already claimed her place in the sky. Didn’t the sun sent his son, Manco Capac and the moon sent her daughter, Mama Ocllo, to this world to spread culture and enlightenment throughout the dark barbaric world? And both emerged from the icy depths of Lake Titicaca and walked and walked to this place which they named Cusco- the navel of the Earth-and started the Inca dynasty sometime in the 12th century.

The wind was icy cold and Alice sheltered herself in a cafe watching the Plaza de Armas and Plaza Regocijo, in Inca days called Huacaypata (the place of tears) and Cusipata (the place of happiness) and she didn’t know that soon, very soon they both, tears and happiness will lay their claim on her.

Flanked by palaces, Plaza de Armas was a place for solemn assemblies and parades, the latter is still seen every weekend and one can join the masked boys or the colourful dancers and feel the ancient culture thriving alive though the Inca palaces have been replaced by Spanish architectures of a cathedral, Iglesia Jesus y Maria and El Trinufo. Even if there may not be any religious inclinations the complex is a must visit because of the treasure, the art, the woodwork and the amalgamation of Spanish and Quechua schools of art. For example where will you see a painting of the Last Supper with Jesus eating cuy and drinking chicha.

The church of La Compania de Jesus, built on the site of the Palace of the Serpents also has a dazzling work of art with generous use of gold leaf. The Incas love for gold outdid any civilisation on the planet and perhaps was one of the reasons that lured the Spanish to plunder, loot and destroy the empire.

But it was time to go back to a lone room and let tears wet the pillow. Alice was alone, but what mattered that Alice was so lonely in a so so faraway country, dreaming to do everything alone...And then she hears....Mujko Mujhise Chura from film Mohabatein. This is hallucinations. A Hindi number in a country where people didn’t even know English? But the song keeps playing, drawing her towards a school courtyard where she finds girls practising on the music for their annual school day function. They look at her; dressed as she was in a salwar- kurta.

“ An Indu?” they ask her.

By now she knows that Indians from India are called Indus. And she nods. Still in a daze. They touch her dupatta and with great effort and lots of gesticulations request her to teach them some dancing from Bollywood. She agrees, overwhelmed to see how dancing around trees and romancing in filmy style has overwhelmed the young Peruvians. How the masala Hindi films have crossed the barriers of oceans, culture, race, and language. Assignments and people to look forward too for the next 3 evenings for Alice but she also has a long list of “ things to do” before, in between and after that; museums to explore, nightlife to enjoy, visit the fortress of Puka Pukara, the shrine of Tambo Machay, walk the sacred valleys of Sacsayhuaman, Urubamba, Pisac, Moray, worship the sun god, admire their drainage system and get stoned by the incredible and scientific stonework which stood the numerous earthquakes that the area is prone to, make friends with locals and other travellers and exchange tears and loneliness with laughter, happiness and strength . She truly is in an adventure-land.

Being her own Hiram Bingham

Any traveller worth his salt knows that his travel is incomplete without a visit to Machu Picchu. So either do the 4-5 days of dizzying Inca- Trail, take the luxury train Hiram Bingham, or the budget tourist train or take a taxi/bus or make various combinations of all these. Do whatever but reach there must because the site is something that can’t be matched by words, especially limited words. It is a kind of shorthand for lost civilisations, the curiosity and apprehension that accompanies an exploration, the thrill of discovery, exotic travel, and an enigma that defies the modern technological world, all wrapped with loads of picturesque surroundings.

It was hidden, and lost for centuries. It was said to be sacred city where astronomical treasure and knowledge was kept and studied; it was also called a citadel; it was also called the home of the “virgins of the sun”; whatever it was it was deliberately abandoned by its inhabitants- perhaps because of civil wars, perhaps because of small pox, perhaps drought or fire. None know for sure. Unknown to the world, till 1911 when explorer Hiram Bingham made his chance discovery and spread the word, Machu Picchu is now declared a World Heritage Site and Wonders of the World.

Cross the ticket gate and what you notice is ruins and ruins and extensive terracing that supplied the crops to the city. On the back is Intipunku or the Sun Gate from where the sun sends its first rays to kiss the Sun Temple that draws a golden haze on each piece of ruin. It takes a while to understand the significance of each ruin and a guide comes handy. Gradually one understands what they are; the main plaza, the Temple of Three Windows, the Principal temple, the Sacristy, the residential quarters, ceremonial baths, the royal sector, the watchman’s hut, the condor temple and the Intimacay cave. And synonymous with the ruins is the overpowering verdant mountain Huayna Picchu. Photograph it as much as you want, let clouds cover it or the rains shroud it but let only a brave-heart climb it.

“Alice, what did you do?”

“The steps are wet and slippery and the climb steep and treacherous and my camera bag heavy. With each knee-breaking, spirit shaking step it turns heavier but what would be life like if I cross the oceans, years of dreaming and give up now.”

“All the best Alice but will you go to the Intipata-The Inca Bridge which is actually couple of logs and ropes carved into a vertiginous cliff-face?”

“I will if I am alive and then I will soak my sore muscles in the hot springs of Aguas Calientes. And if I die, think that I was the Ch’alla (sacrifice) to the Pachamama. And I take nothing but a piece of this magical place that transcends the roles it has acquired, photogenic image, tourist magnet, centre of controversy, through the strength of its stones, the way it is tied intimately to its surroundings, its enigma, its beauty. I am ready to be the Virgin of the Sun God.”