I was visiting Kaziranga after six long years. Having been born and brought up in Assam, a chance to visit my beloved National Park was like revisiting the paradise I left behind some ten years back when we relocated to Kalyani in West Bengal. The chance to speak in chaste Assamese and savor the delicious Assamese cuisine was irresistible.
What prompted us to visit Kaziranga was the fact that a high-level delegation from a renowned Conservation NGO from the UK was on-site at Kaziranga, researching the bio-diversity of the National Park and evaluating the schemes on Rhino Conservation that have been launched at this world-renowned Wildlife Sanctuary.
Incidentally, my London-based cousin brother Animesh was a part of the delegation and we received an invitation from the NGO to assist them in their day-to-day interactions with the local forest authorities.
We reached Guwahati by the early morning Jet Airways flight from Calcutta and a coach was waiting at the airport to pick us up for our onward journey to Kaziranga National Park. The 6 hours drive from Guwahati to Kaziranga was beautiful as we passed by quaint Assamese villages, undulating hills, and lush green countryside.
We checked in at the very popular Wild Grass Resort, which has carved a niche for itself as far as providing high-quality jungle hospitality is concerned. No wonder, the resort was teeming with foreign tourists. At the dinner table, we discussed threadbare our itinerary for the week and retired for the night.
After our early morning breakfast, we rattled along the meandering jungle trail on our four-wheeled drive through the early morning mist. Since it was December, there was a nip in the air and as we traveled deep inside the forest we became excited at the sight of untamed One-Horned Rhinos grazing in the grasslands of Kaziranga.
This one-of-its-kind National Park has quite a bit of history attached to it. The history of Kaziranga goes back to the time when Lady Mary Victoria Leiter, wife of Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India visited Kaziranga. She had come here with the sole intention of spotting the rare and elusive One-Horned Rhinoceros. But alas! That was not to be.
On Lady Victoria’s persuasion, Lord Curzon declared Kaziranga as a Reserved Forest in the year 1905 and the rest, as it is known, is history. From a little-known Reserve Forest in the North-East of India to a Game Sanctuary (1950) and ultimately culminating with the status of a National Park in the year 1968, Kaziranga rose like a phoenix in India’s wilderness landscape.
The ultimate honor or distinction was however the UNESCO’s 1985 declaration designating the Kaziranga National Park as World Heritage Site.
Lord Curzon aside, any mention of Kaziranga would be incomplete without a reference to one of India’s greatest naturalists – Dr. Robin Banerjee who single-handedly catapulted Kaziranga National Park into a name to reckon with in the international wildlife landscape through his epoch-making 50 minutes Documentary entitled – “Kaziranga” sometime in the 1950s.
He went on to make 32 Wildlife Documentaries in all and in the year 1971 was awarded the Padmashree from President V.V. Giri.
Since our priority was to evaluate the Conservation Management at Kaziranga National Park, the staff of the UK-based NGO was all praise for the Elevated Flood Zone, particularly due to the fact that every year Kaziranga has to bear with the turbulent forays of the Brahmaputra river.
According to Anthony Hopkins, a Bio-Diversity expert – “In terms of park management, I rate Kaziranga National Park very highly. I am most impressed with the decision of the government to extend the boundary of the park by a further 45,450 hectares that would incorporate a part of the river. It is easily one of Asia’s finest in terms of the dramatic natural panorama”.
We were told by the Resident Forest Officer that Kaziranga was among the first National Parks in India to conduct scientific research and census. The park has used state-of-the-art techniques like Satellite Imagery to ascertain changes in vegetation and other scientific assessment concerning habitat suitability for Ungulates.
Kaziranga is ideally located on the southern bank of the mighty river Brahmaputra, which happens to be the only male river in the world. The National Highway 37 passes by the sanctuary and the foothills of Karbi Anglong provide the perfect backdrop to the National Park. Rhino’s aside, the park is renowned for its rich bio-diversity.
As many as 35 mammals have been spotted at Kaziranga and there are at least 15 species that are on the verge of extinction. As we traversed deeper inside the forest, we spotted varied species like the Hollock Gibbons, Capped Langurs (they are cute), Bristly Hare, Sloth Bears, the Swamp Deer, Sambhar, and Barasingha.
If luck is on your side, you might even spot the elusive Gangetic Dolphins that are a treat to watch. As far as the big cats are concerned, a few exist here but then it is very difficult to spot them, as they are few in numbers.
The beauty of Kaziranga lies in the fact that it is covered with tall grassland and there are small streams and reservoirs (bheels) spread throughout the contours of the park. The Savvanah woodland, Deciduous forest, marshy water bodies, and swamps only add to the beauty of the National Park.
Kudos to the Park management, there are no human settlements inside Kaziranga National Park. However, the park is bordered on three sides by tribal villages, the majority of whom are Mikir (Karbi) tribesmen. Some of Assam’s best-known tea estates too are within close proximity to the National Park.
A visit to Kaziranga is not only about wildlife. It is also about the colorful tribal culture that exists in this part of the world. You would do well to venture out of the National Park and visit any of the 39 odd villages that exist in the neighborhood.
Since we were a part of a UK-based NGO, most of the members were hell-bent on visiting a Karbi village to appreciate their unique lifestyle and culture. Without wasting any time, we made a formal request to the Forest Officer who in turn directed a subordinate to guide us to a Karbi village just 5 km. away from the National Park. What was to follow was something we would treasure for the rest of our lives.
Most of my conservationist friends from the UK, it seemed, had done their homework prior to their visit to Kaziranga. According to them, the very word “Kaziranga” was derived from the word – “Kajir-a-rang” which in local Karbi folklore indicated a powerful woman of the same name who ruled over this area in the days of yore.
We happened to venture to a Karbi village at a time when a village meeting was going on with regard to the punishment that would be meted out to a convict. This practice of imparting punishment is popularly referred to as “Rengbonghom”. We took delight at the manner in which the village head (Gaonbura) pronounced the sentence to the convict. The convicted person has shaved off his hair on three sides and is sent to a faraway jungle.
Since most Hill Karbis know to speak Assamese, I started a lively conversation with the womenfolk. I was particularly impressed by their costume. The male Karbis wear a white inner shirt over which a jacket (Choy Honthor) is worn. The jacket is intricately embroidered. The loincloth is “Rikong” while the headgear or turban is well embroidered with flowery designs. They also carry a “Dao” or dagger for self-protection.
The females wear petticoats (Pini) and flowery designed girdles (Wankok) over her waist. The upper garment is a wrapper passing under her arms and drawn tight over her breasts. The shawl over her body is called “Pe-Kok” or “Khon Jari”. The females wear beautifully decorated earrings, necklaces, beads, and bracelets predominantly made of silver.
The Karbi’s lead a fascinating lifestyle. They believe in the tradition of the monarchy but it is no longer in existence. In their hierarchy, the village chief also called “Karbi Recho” occupies the highest position. We were ushered into a “Liquor-taking Ceremony” where the biggest gourd of liquor went to the local Chieftain. What really amazed us was the manner in which the Hill Karbis built their houses, raised several feet above the ground in the form of “Machans”.
In course of my animated conversation with the local Karbi Chieftain, I was told that the traditional Karbis are not animists as commonly believed. They don’t worship inanimate objects but they associate god (Arnam) with all the striking objects. A huge rock formation may have an “Arnam”, a big lake may have an “Arnam” so also a river, a stream, etc.
My friends from the UK went absolutely deliriously with joy as they took part in the romantic “Bong Oi Alun” dance well past midnight. They joined hands with some beautiful-looking Karbi maidens and danced rhythmically to the accompaniment of traditional Karbi musical instruments.
Kaziranga has been eulogized not only by TV documentaries but also by renowned writers of the stature of American Science Fiction & Fantasy author – L. Sprague de Camp. The renowned Assamese vocalist Dr. Bhupen Hazarika has mentioned Kaziranga in some of his songs.
So also the renowned BBC environmentalist Mark Shand who did an exclusive documentary on Kaziranga’s first female Master Elephant Rider or “Mahout” appropriately entitled – “Queen of the Elephant”.
A visit to Kaziranga is filled with nostalgia for the bygone days as well as of a future, which is promising as far as forest conservation is concerned.
Kaziranga has become so famous that every tourist who lands up at this world-renowned National Park of India has very high expectations from it. Even before they arrive here, they start visualizing in their mind’s eye their possible brush with the rare and elusive One-Horned Rhinoceros which they have heard so much about in the media and elsewhere.
Let me inform you, if you have come to see the showpiece Rhino, Kaziranga will never let you down. You must be the most unfortunate tourist in the world not to have seen the Rhino while on a visit to Kaziranga.
Kaziranga fascinates me each time I make a visit here. It is not only the elusive Rhinos that give you company. The favorable micro-climate of Kaziranga means that you have friends like Oriental Honey Buzzard, Black Kite, Black-Shouldered Kite, Brahminy Kite, White-Tailed Eagle, Pallas’s Fishing Eagle, Himalayan Griffon, Grey-Headed Fishing Eagle, and a whole lot more for company.
The quintessential Western tourist has already come to appreciate the sheer diversity of India’s wilderness and every year they come in even larger numbers to have a date with nature in some of our top-end National Parks. I believe it is about time we Indians left our Dickensian cities behind and explored the great Indian wilderness.
Our trip to Kaziranga was coming to an end. We spent the last night of our jungle safari by the side of a bonfire at the sprawling lawns of the Wild Grass Resort. There was liquor and there was barbecued lamb. It was a full-moon night. The ambiance was sublime. The unfathomable joy of 100% pure nature overwhelmed us with its serenity. There was silence everywhere.
All that I could hear was the soft rustle of the tree leaves and the occasional footsteps of the Hog Deer. Kaziranga is mysterious.
Traveler’s Fact File
Jorhat is the nearest airport, which is located at a distance of 98 Kms. By road, one can reach Kaziranga from Guwahati which is a 6 hours drive covering 239 Kms. The drive from Guwahati to Kaziranga is beautiful. Guwahati is well connected by air, rail, and road to the rest of India.
There are numerous options to suit every budget as far as accommodation in Kaziranga National Park is concerned. The Government of Assam, Department of Forest runs a Forest Lodge – “Aranya” which has both A/C and non-A/C rooms. The rooms are tastefully furnished with running hot and cold water.
Apart from Aranya Forest Lodge, there is Wild Grass Resort, which is upmarket. The resort is eco-friendly and blends harmoniously with the local environment. Traditional Assamese architecture has been used to design the Resort. Apart from standard rooms, the resort also has provisions for Ethnic Cottages and Tented accommodation.
Provisions for wholesome breakfast, lunch, and dinner are available. The Resort also provides facilities like visits to nearby Tea Estates and Tribal villages. Jungle Treks too are conducted regularly. The resort has its own fleet of vehicles for jungle safaris.
Another alternative is the Bonhabi Resort, which is located in close proximity to National Park. In fact, it is a minute’s walk from the main entrance to the park. There are 8 well-furnished cottages that offer breathtaking window views of the surrounding greenery.
Traditional Assamese architecture has been used in designing cottages. The Resort has an in-house multi-cuisine restaurant. Evening folk show by local artists is an outright hit with the resort’s discerning guests. The resort also has its own fleet of cars and buses for jungle safaris. Arrangements for early morning elephant rides too can be made at the resort.