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.