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.)





  1. Have been away from the scene Harman. Time to do something about my blog and visit yours.....
    Thanks a lot.