From Tigers to Tombs

and all things heritage…..a trip covering the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India.

Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Manas- A story of revival against all odds

Manas National Park had one of the most interesting backgrounds amongst the sites we have visited. It was one of the Nine reserves selected to launch Project Tiger in India in 1973. It achieved more recognition when it was selected as a World Heritage Site in the year 1985. However the scene changed drastically from the 1990s. Rampant poaching, militant activities, kidnapping of forest officials almost signaled the demise of this wonderful reserve. UNESCO even went on to place Manas in the ‘world heritage site in danger’ List, making it the only site in India to ever feature in the list.

But the story of the revival of Manas is one that highlights the resolve of the local people to get back the glory of this wonderful forest.  The locals formed a council to end the militant conflict. Wildlife Fund of India and the Assam Government, decided to improve the forest infrastructure by setting up more outposts in the forest. This kept poachers in check. Some of the poachers were even convinced to work towards the preservation of wildlife rather than its destruction.  Better connectivity to cities like Guwahati was established to improve the tourist inflow and Rhinos were trans-located from Pobitora and Kaziranga to Manas, to revive the Rhino population here. Due to all these efforts, Manas was removed from the UNESCO ‘world heritage site in danger’ List. A great achievement completely dedicated to the resolve of the local population, the conservationists who toiled day in-day out and the officials who made sure that Manas deserved the respect it once enjoyed. We were able to procure all this information, from the Field Director, of Manas himself, who was kind enough to spend some time with us share this story, though we met him on an official holiday.

Sorry, for the rather long introduction, but this amazing revival story had to be told. Our journey to Manas started out with a train ride to Barpeta Road which 60 kilometers from the entrance to the Park (at Bansbari). On the Auto ride, we saw frequent signs of ‘STOP KIDNAPPING AND EXTORTION’, being displayed, a chilling reminder of the bloody past of the locality we were in. We struggled to find accommodation in the four lodges near to the Bansbari entrance as there was sudden influx of tourists due to Kaziranga being shut for their Rhino census. We finally had to settle down in a storage room, sharing our space with unused tables and chairs, which we felt was better than spending the night out in the forest vicinity! It was strange that the place only had four lodges, which were clearly inadequate to absorb a larger influx of tourists.

The next day we went for our safari ride to the forest in a Gypsy. Upon entering the forests itself we immediately realized that we were in a special place. Unlike Kaziranga which is mostly covered in Elephant Grass, Manas was pure forests. Huge tress lined up our roads on both sides, and our Gypsy trudged along the muddy path with us frequently ducking to avoid bumping into low hanging branches. We crossed numerous rivulets seeming to appear out of nowhere and disappearing into dense vegetation. Manas also had the grasslands, but they were far less compared to Kaziranga. We managed to spot the Pied Hornbill, a majestic bird with a large wingspan and an interesting beak. The Hornbill appeared quite a few times later as well, clearly indicating that it prefers this wonderful habitat. Buffaloes stared at us as we passed them through the grassland and the capped Langurs were spotted lazily resting on large tree branches, without being really perturbed by our visit. After almost two hours, we reached a quiet lodge in the middle of the jungle called Mathungari. It’s the only one in the middle of the forest and is situated next to the River Manas. We spent some time on the banks of this serene river across which the forest extended into Bhutan. Darkness had already descended on our way back, but we still managed to spot a Gaur and Sambhars due to the brilliant observations of our security guard (yes, it is compulsory to hire the services of one and he does come with a gun!) and his skills with the flashlight. The gypsy after us claimed of spotting a Black Panther. Though we missed out, the safari was really a unique experience lasting close to four hours, through forests that were a few years back the hideouts of militants and now has returned to its rightful owners, the wildlife.

The next day we tried out the elephant safari, which proved quite painful due to the insufficient cushioning at appropriate places! We still managed to bear through it for an hour and spotted a herd of wild elephants and a large number of Hog deers comfortable resting in the shade to escape the summer heat. The elephant ride did take us to the forest for a while, but it mainly concentrated on covering the grasslands, which were easier to navigate.

Manas, is still in the rebuilding phase. The forest seems to be back to its glory, but the wildlife is still to return in large numbers. The authorities should also ensure that there is adequate infrastructure to support the increasing tourist’s inflow. Every visit here is a way to salute the resolve and dedication of the hundreds who worked selflessly to return this majestic National Park to its past glory. Without their efforts, Manas would have been a just a fable about wonderful creatures that roamed these dense forests, spread on the banks of a beautiful river.

 

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On tyres and trunks

Assam tourism is currently on a promotion spree advertising what their state has to offer. An animated one horned rhinoceros urges you to “Come, visit Assam”. Assam has been notorious for separatist activity in the past and this advertisement campaign did ease some nerves when we decided on visiting Kaziranga National Park. From New jalpaiguri (after Darjeeling), we headed to Guwahati to make arrangements for heading to Kaziranga. Guwahati is the most well connected city in the north east of India. While the city probably functions as an efficient gateway to the east, the lack of civic sense amongst the people is evident through a lot of things you see and smell. We were quite sure we wanted to leave for Kaziranga at the first opportunity.

Our five hour journey next morning to the Kohra tourist complex was gloomy. The sky was bright at 5AM but was dark again by 8AM thanks to a very welcome downpour that cooled the entire region for the next two days. On reaching the tourist complex, we were exposed to our first major drawback of not having pre-booked accommodation. The park was to be closed for a rhino census in two days time and hence all accommodation options for the one night we wanted to spend there were either too expensive or full. We dropped our bags off in a highly overpriced room and and booked a gypsy and rode towards rhino gate and into the central range of the park.

India has fantastic diversity from one national park to another and Kaziranga was different yet again. Tropical forests in south India, woody jungles in central India and mangrove forests in the Sunderbans were replaced with rolling grasslands in Kaziranga similar to the African savannahs. If you could not see an animal in front of you, you couldn’t see one three hundred yards away either, but you could see a landscape reaching out so far. The wildlife sightings were far from disappointing. Our first one horned rhinoceros was sighted in a matter of 15 minutes and many more were to follow. Our guide decided that stopping for deer, peacocks and wild buffaloes was not worth it. We did see very many rhinos and wild elephants to stop counting beyond a point. The drive next day into the western range of the park was very interesting too. This area had many more water bodies to support wildlife. Storks standing on one leg, buffaloes rushing towards the water and rhinos grazing by the waters ensured we stopped every now and then. A green vine snake blocked our path for close to five minutes and lay stationary showing off. Two satisfying jeep safaris into the park and yet there was something else that was closer to the true Kaziranga experience. An elephant safari.

With the heavy tourist population in the park, we managed to get a slot early in the morning for the elephant safari in the central range. Being on an elephant is an experience in itself, but being on one to spot wildlife was going to be something. The two of us were given a fairly small elephant defying any logic that had been applied to the allocation. Oh well, we sat on the poor elephant which dint seem to mind and thudded along. It was not the most comfortable seat in the world and the elephant decided when it wanted to stop to eat, excrete or whip us with his tail in the excuse of swatting flies. We got dangerously close to a mother rhino and its calf and the elephant dint flinch. A rhino is capable of overturning a gypsy in its fury and we felt justified to sweat profusely being so close to such an unpredictable animal. The mahout seemed suspect when he was not able to name his elephant and if he decided to hop off and make a run for it, we had a fair mind to do absolutely nothing about it! Our anxiety tempered down a bit when we saw a herd of deer peacefully grazing. The elephant got bored of the deer and veered towards another rhino as we hung on tight. We returned to the elephant stables an hour after we started with our heads held high and bottoms thoroughly numb. We loved it.

In 1985, Kaziranga was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO to help preserve the highest concentration of one horned rhinoceroses in the world. The numbers have definitely shot up thanks to an efficient park management. The one horned rhinoceros in the advertisement campaign asked us to “Come, visit Assam” and we found it very hard to leave it.

Darjeeling- A heady hill station

Our ride from Jorethang in Sikkim to Darjeeling could easily compare to the best roller-coaster rides around,little did we know that our experience at Darjeeling wouldn’t be too different either.
Darjeeling is easily the most popular hill station in this part of the country.Hills adorned with tea plantations, the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the air and little girls dressed up in cute convent school uniforms,it ticks off all the boxes required for a hill station.When we landed in Darjeeling we were greeted to a cacophony of blaring horns and cab drivers shouting at the top of their voices. Darjeeling is filled with Cabs, vehicles of all sizes and shapes are parked all over town offering to take you to the remotest of tourist attractions. There were so many off them that navigating through the town proved to be a real hassle. The roads weren’t clean either,crowded, littered and cramped,we were beginning to realise that Darjeeling had another side to it.
One of the must see attractions of Darjeeling is the view point at Tiger Hill. Viewing the sunrise here and being able to catch a glimpse of the lofty Himalayan peaks(Everest included on a clear sky)was something we did not want to miss out on. So we hired a taxi which promptly arrived at our doorsteps at 4 in the morning. Still unsure if we were awake, we boarded the taxi and it sped off to beat the sun to Tiger Hill.Whatever slumber we were in, was shattered by the blaring horns of the gazillion vehicles at the entrance to the hill. Yes!There was actually a traffic jam at four in the morning on this tiny hill. Navigating through the crowd, we managed to buy tickets (the better the viewing point, the higher you had to pay!)to a decent viewing spot. The sea of humans there to great the Sun was a greater spectacle to us than the actual Sunrise.We were half-expecting the people to cheer and do a Mexican Wave as the Sun made its grand entrance. In spite of all the commotion around, nature did not disappoint us and we witnessed a picturesque sunrise bathing the Himalayan peaks in shades of Orange and Red. We were able to locate the Kanchenjunga, but the Everest managed to slip under the clouds and give us a miss.By now were wide awake and the driver also took us to the Ghoom Monastery, one of the oldest in this region and the Gurkha War Memorial dedicated to all the Gurkha soldiers who lost their lives fighting for our country.

 

In the afternoon, we decided to visit the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park,commonly known as the Darjeeling Zoo. The zoo is located in a fairly large 65 acre plot in the outskirts of the town. We were able to observe a variety of wildlife that were unique to the Himalayan region like the Himalayan Tahr, Blue Sheep, Himalayan Monal, Grey Peacock Pheasant, Himalayan Salamander, Blood Pheasant, Satyr Tragopan, Snow leopards, Red pandas and  Gorals (mountain goat). We did spend an extra few minutes in observing the Royal Bengal Tiger, the quest after which this humble blog has been named. The Zoo is also know for its conservation efforts of the Red Panda,the state animal of Sikkim, a timid creature which is usually found in the lower Himalayas. One of the points that caught our attention, were the large open spaces available to some of the animals to freely roam around (the wild ones were obviously caged). It was a refreshing change to the cramped up environments we are so used to seeing in other zoos.

 

The next day we finally decided to take a ride on the famed Darjeeling Mountain Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage, and the actual purpose of our visit here.The Darjeeling Railways operates both Diesel as well as Steam rail engines. The former ones are called the TOY rides and the latter the JOY rides. We could not understand this unique classification as the JOY of traveling on a steam powered coach was not in our destiny. Tickets for these were already sold out, so we decided to enjoy the diesel-powered TOY ride. These ones are used by the general public for transportation to the New Jalpaiguri and Kurseong Stations, while the steam ones are only used as Novelty rides to Ghoom and back (2 hours ride to cover a distance of 13 kms). Like everything else in Darjeeling, the train compartments were filled with people, all there to capture the excitement of a mountain railway train ride. Fortunately we had reservations and navigated our way through the maze to our seats. The train meandered through Darjeeling town at its own leisurely pace. All vehicles next to the tracks were stopped to give way to the Grand Old Man of Indian Railways. It was actually quite a sight, all the cab drivers, who were generally always shouting as their vehicles overtook one another, were now quietly waiting in line for the Heritage train to pass. We were able to catch glimpses of more tea plantations, and numerous Monasteries on the way. The train ride, was indeed a unique experience, more so for the fact that we were able to ride on one of the oldest trains in India through some of the busiest mountain traffic in the country.


We cannot end this article without mentioning one of the best bakeries we have ever set foot in -Glenary’s. Set right in the centre of town, on Motor Road, the pastries and patties here are truly to die for. Over the course of our two day stay, Glenary’s would not have seen more gluttony tourists before. Spicy chilly chicken patties, tender pork sausages,melting-in your mouth paneer patties, custard oozing cream rolls,soft as fluffy sweet buns, sugar sprinkled donuts and chocolate dripping pastries, nothing was left unsampled.Darjeeling should just advertise this as their main attraction!


Darjeeling does have its charm, its just that its getting harder to find it.With the tourist inflow increasing by infinite bounds, we just hope that this once-quiet mountain town retains its hill station heritage in the years to come. Till then, lets bear with the noisy Cab drivers as you enjoy your mouth watering cream roll, while staring at the lazy heritage train pass by.

Mangroves and man-eaters

A trip to the Sunderbans national park was always going to be a highlight of this three month journey across India. The largest delta in the world, mangrove forests, tides creating and destroying forests at different times in the day, salt water and fresh water having no boundaries were enough reasons for us to visit this hostile environment. There was also this one other tiny excuse to visit this place feared by outsiders and locals alike:The Royal Bengal Tiger. The forest is known to have the largest concentration of dedicated man-eaters. Fishermen and honey collectors wear masks on the back of their heads to avoid an ambush attack by the 220 kg killing machines. The impenetrable forests make it difficult for people to go in and even more difficult to come out. Just being in these forests, knowing that you could be attacked alike from water and land have led the Hindus and Muslims to worship a common goddess, Bonbibi.

The Sunderbans are a highly protected region with a majority of the area belonging to Bangladesh and the rest with India. Access to this region is based entirely on permission from the forest department and can be best arranged by booking a package tour with the West Bengal tourism department. Opting for a 3d/2n package, we were taken in a bus from Kolkata to the jetty at Sonakhali. We boarded the MV Sarvajaya and settled in as the motor chugged away under the afternoon sun. At Rs 4200 per person, our low expectations were pleasantly dashed when we saw fairly comfortable bunkers, a wide variety of options for food and a generally cheerful staff and tour guide.

After the chaos and crowds of Kolkata, we were looking forward  to some quiet time in the waters and we got just that. There was one attention seeking 8 year old kid who made his presence felt by shouting and stomping his feet on the deck every time we forgot him. We spent many hours plotting how to use him as a bait to lure a tiger to restore the tranquility of the place. Within an hour of entering the waters of the national park, we were fairly certain we wouldn’t see the tiger and settled down to getting used to the idiot. While the place is teeming with wildlife ranging from spotted deer and saltwater crocodiles to many bird species and royal Bengal tigers, the ability to spot them depends on being at the right creek at the right time. With so many small rivulets to meander through, the probability of a tiger showing up on the banks of the water we were moving through was equivalent to threading a needle.

Our stay on the vessel was very enjoyable. Our 3 days comprised of waking up, lounging on the deck chair looking for wildlife, getting off the boat to climb on to watchtowers that were located next to “sweet” water ponds(meant to lure wildlife) and a lot of wholesome eating. The most we ever had to worry about was if dinner would be better than the already good lunch. We did see deer, many types of kingfishers, a giant water monitor lizard and other birds and we did see forests so thick that they were overflowing into the waters. For three days, all we did was walk through caged walkways to watchtowers and just enjoy the breeze on the vessel. Go with no expectations and you shall certainly be rewarded with a good time.

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