Friday, April 25, 2008


I was in Kaziranga for their annual three-day elephant festival: a celebration of a beast long revered in India. Although Hindus have literally hundreds of thousands of gods and goddesses to choose from, many begin their daily puja with prayers to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god. There are a couple of different stories about how he ended up with a pachyderm head. One recurrent tale is that Ganesha was born as a normal human boy. His father, Lord Shiva, beheaded him when the lad came between him and his consort, the goddess Parvati—who grew so angry and overwrought that Shiva brought their son back to life by replacing his head with the first creature to wander by: an elephant. Ganesh is revered as the Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Beginnings; he is thought to protect against adversity and bring prosperity and success.

But despite this reverence, elephants are disappearing from Assam. Thousands once moved between the nearby Karbi Anglong hills and the Brahmaputra River valley; perhaps one-tenth remain. They have almost nowhere left to go. From the air it’s easy to see what’s happened: only small patches of “green measles”—scraps of forest land—dot the brown and emerald patchwork below that divides the land into tea plantations, paddies, settlements.

In the 1820s, the British discovered tea growing wild; within 50 years they had imported 85,000 workers from other parts of India, clearing the land and turning this region into the largest tea-producer in the world. Enclaves of tribal people in the hills still practice slash and burn farming, getting two or maybe three years tops from a plot before the soil erodes away. A burgeoning population with its roads, agriculture, crops, villages, cities, factories, and power plants, continues to fell the forests.

The elephants have lost their ancient corridor, their needed passageway between high ground in the rainy season and the valley and national park below in the dry months. Crossing fields and villages puts both humans and elephants at risk. Someone was trampled to death at the end of March near here—and elephants herds continue to dwindle.

About 60 elephants were brought in for the festival. As they gathered at nearby forest guard camps the day before, I had the chance to hang out for some hours with them, touching, feeding watching them get their daily bath in the river—and even got a short bareback ride!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Happy Bihu

It is a month of festivals here in Assam. A few days ago marked Indian New Year, known locally as Bihu. It’s 1930: The country began their calendar some years after the Christians and follows a lunar month.

The Assamese dance to dhols (traditional drums), banhi (bamboo flute), pepa (a curved brass and buffalo horn woodwind), also using bamboo sticks and large cymbals for percussion. Musicians, priests from nearby Hindu temples, and village dance troupes chant and sing day and night in traditional dress. They sometimes appear at the door in the wee hours—and all must rise, come out to watch and listen—and offer a few rupees when they finish. If the donation is deemed too small, the troupe begins again, drumming and singing louder and longer. The money goes to support the temples or for village improvements.

This is by no means some hollow shell of a ritual only performed for tourists. Ninety-five percent of the travelers to Kaziranga are Indians from other parts of the country here to see rhinos and tigers and elephants. There is a strong movement to keep ancient traditions vital. Even young children know these dances and tiny boys bang on drums as big as they are, taught as toddlers.

We ended the day today by visiting a Krishna temple that sits on the main highway. Most passersby stop for a quick prayer or a real puja, and truck drivers either toss coins or jump out, offer a few rupees, grab a handful of incense and roar off. We watch, shoot pictures, pray; make a quick stop in the open-stall market, head back to our lodge for a beer, samosas, dahl soup—and early sleep. Our 5:00 AM rise comes early.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Once a year, most of the forest guard camps have a puja, from the Sanskrit for worship, and we were privileged to attend. I was the only woman there, and quite possible the only female to ever have visited Difalumukh Camp, nestled deep in the park interior in a restricted area.

A priest from the nearest temple officiated, garbed in a flowing white and red cotton wrap wound into a dhoti that also covered one shoulder. His hair curled to the middle of his back, and he was surprisingly lithe and youthful for his 50 years. Many participants also wore a ceremonial white scarf around their necks—trimmed in red, the Assamese colors.

The ceremony was held outdoors, under a tarp strung to shield all from the oppressive sun. The priest and two assistants placed an altar before the camp shrine, a small bamboo and thatch house for the pictures and statues of Ganesh, Krishna, and others. But the puja focused on Kalkoma, an incarnation of the Mother Goddess who is worshipped by guards in every camp throughout Kaziranga as their protector.

Krishna graced the cover of the holy book that they placed on a burlap altar. A burning wick trailed from a small clay pot filled with oil. Incense sweetened the air, with bananas for holders. Clouds of burning sandalwood rose from an ancient, rusty, well-used censer.

The priest led prayers, chanting, clapping, reverent and blissful. An elderly assistant provided clanging percussion with giant cymbals. This was not somber worship. Then they blessed each of the guard’s guns, a small arsenal piled against the walls of the shrine, and tied a red ribbon on each one.

Afterwards, the food that had been cooked in massive cauldrons over open wood fires was brought into the shrine and blessed. The holy men served a delectable feast to the crowd of 60 or so guards and workers, apportioned onto banana leaf plates: a grain salad, a delicious rice pudding-ish thing, mixed spicy vegetables, rice, and the most succulent fish I’ve ever eaten. The priests were the last to eat.

The puja was part festival. Men clustered in the shade beneath the stilted guard house to gamble over card games, chew beetel nut, smoke ganga—and behind closed doors, drink “liquid”, the local rum.

It’s not surprising that the gods are regularly appeased in ceremonies across the park. These men need protection. It’s a dangerous job. There are occasional shootouts with heavily-armed poachers. And the animals these guards are here to protect readily attack people, from rhinos, elephants and wild buffalo to tigers and cobras. It’s a hard life, separated from family for months at a time for just 5,000 to 7,000 rupees per month, about $125 to $175.

I said my own prayers for their safety, directed to any and all gods and goddesses who would listen.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

In the park

We drive into the western entrance to Kaziranga National Park, stop to pay entrance fees and pick up the armed park guard that will accompany us. He rides shotgun to Konwar, our local Assamese wildlife expert. We stand in the back of a small, open Jeepsi, hanging onto the rollbars as we bounce our way along a rutted dirt track. It’s the end of tourist season, the few months between monsoon downpours and broiling heat. Jeeploads of mostly-Indian tourists pour into the park.

This part of the park is swathed in elephant grass, some low, burned back to keep forestland from overtaking the landscape—and some tall enough to nearly obscure everything but the tallest pachyderms. Within two kilometers, we see maybe 30 rhinos, usually alone, a mother and calf—and in one place, a male pursuing a female.

We finally pass into the restricted area of the park, driving through an area studded with bombex trees, tall, with branches extending out at right angles, geometric and Dr. Suess-like. The forest thickens, woven with groves of shiny, palm-like rattan. We pass within yards of an elephant herd feasting on their favorite delicacy.

We drive down a steep, muddy slope, bear to the right, and we pass a big male rhino, just 10 feet off the road. He lowers his head and tears after us, a careening 6,000-pound tank. It’s been raining and we fishtail in a mire of muck, the rhino gaining until I can almost reach out and touch his huge horn. Hard to believe, but over short distances, these prehistoric-looking behemoths can hit 35 mph. Konwar, our driver and guide, floors it. Then, suddenly, he just stops in his tracks. He watches for a minute, ambles into a wall of grass and disappears. A story on this animal is one of the assignments that has brought me here.

Kaziranga National Park is home to at least 70 percent of the world’s remaining rhinos—perhaps 2,000, according to Pallub Kumar Deka, the park’s western range officer. It’s a 200 square kilometer expanse, bordered on the north by the mighty Brahmaputra River, ringed by a network of paddies, tea plantations, crop fields and villages, with the main east-west highway cutting through a small corner. It’s a tough job to keep both animals and villagers safe.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

To Kaziranga

Through morning streets of a waking Delhi to the domestic airport. Legions of men and saried women en route to work: walking, riding, driving. Clustered at bus stops. Sardined into buses with limbs poking out doors and windows. Street dwellers emerge, dirty and disheveled, from corrugated lean-to’s, washing and cooking and eating beside the road.

Gut-dropping turbulence and a three-bounce landing and we arrive in Guwahati. Then comes the dangerous part: five hours on the main east-west highway that runs through Assam. A two-lane nightmare of near head-ons cut through red-earth rich land of paddies and palms, a palette of green, small towns built in cement block and bamboo. A flat tire gives us a brief glimpse into a small village.

For the last few miles, the park hugs the northern perimeter of Kaziranga National Park. I glimpse the hulking gray mass of a rhino in the distance. Forty hours door-to-door, and I am in one of Asia’s most amazing wildlands.

Friday, April 4, 2008


Departure: Tuesday, 8:30 PM, Newark
Arrival: Wednesday, 8:15 PM, New Delhi

Awaken from seven hours of dreamless sleep at 35,000 feet, down an Indian breakfast, land and disembark, disoriented, into the raucous clog of Delhi traffic. Spend an hour inching along the perilous, unpredictable main artery connecting the city to the international airport. Our Sikh driver joins the staccato symphony of screeching horns as we barely move through the jerky, clotted flow of cars, lorries and scooters, of tuk-tuks, of dodging pedestrians and stray dogs, the jam breaking only after we pass a holy cow, lazily masticating as she blocks 1½ of the roadway's two lanes.

Spicy, fragrant dinner with nocturnal friends, outsourcers who design for American companies and work until near the close of West Coast business, 5 AM. I try to sleep at 3:00. The night is windwhipped: the local watchman’s police whistle, a chorus of yapping dogs, and sonorous chanting from a nearby temple rise and fall in gusts, and I listen until dawn.

My senses awaken: I’m in India.