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An Ethnic Weekend at Manas National Park

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Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to join a group of travel bloggers invited for the Pre-Bihu celebrations (7th-8th April, 2018) at Manas National Park. The event, Manas Spring Festival, was organised to promote the culture and food of the Bodo community living in the villages at the fringes of the Park. The aim of this event was to create alternative livelihood opportunities for the community through their traditional food, culture and handloom. We spent two days inside the Bansbari forest range, with no mobile network but lot of interactions within ourselves and the community.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

But first, answer to some of the general queries –

A community inside a National Park? Yes. The Bodo community live in the villages at the fringes of the Manas National Park.

Where is Manas National Park located? In Baksa district and just a 3 hours ride from Guwahati.

Are there any Rhinos in this Park? Yes. Along with many diverse wildlife species.

Does it have any stay options? Yes. There are many options available – government and private.

Is it safe to visit? Yes. After the restoration of peace in the area and formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in 2003, it is completely safe to visit Manas National Park.

What is the best time to visit? October to April are the best months for a visit to the Manas National Park. It remain closed during monsoons i.e. June to September.

Who are the Bodos? They are one of the ethnic and linguistic communities and early settlers of Assam in North-East India. The word ‘Bodo’ denotes both the language as well as the community and the word ‘Bod’ is supposed to mean ‘homeland’. The Bodos belong to a larger group of ethnicity called the Bodo-Kachari. Racially they belong to Mongoloid stock of the Indo-Mongoloids or Indo-Tibetans.

DAY 1

We set out for Manas National Park from Guwahati at 6:30 AM from our respective pick up points. There were 11 of us and a 3 hour journey lay ahead of us. Thankfully, we were served breakfast in the Traveller (our transit vehicle) and we got talking as if we knew each other for years. The love for travel and stories bound us together.  The roads were good except for the bumpy stretch from Bansbari, which is manageable. And we were ecstatic to start our first experience of Manas National Park.

Photo Copyrights - Debjani Paul (@deeghii)

The event site was a barren field in the middle of the Bansbari forest range and temporary straw huts were set up to be stalls for food and handicrafts. Our camps were ready for us in the corner of the field. We kept our bags and got ready to experience what we came for. We met some volunteers who belonged to a traveler’s group in Facebook. The event was yet to be inaugurated and so we went around the stalls, talked to the locals, asked many questions and clicked a lot of pictures.

The first stall had two ladies weaving an Aronai (a small scarf, used by Bodo men and women) in a loom. One could see the intricacy and detailing of the work as they worked together to weave the traditional motifs on the scarf. I noticed one woman using a safety pin to count the threads she would separate to recreate the design from her sample.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Bodos are known as one of the finest weavers in the entire North East region. This traditional art of weaving has been followed as a custom among the Bodo women for many centuries. In the early period, Bodo women who didn’t know how to weave traditional attires, faced difficulties in getting married. The traditional motifs used by the Bodo are mainly inspired by nature – water hyacinth, spinach flower, tortoise, mountain, pigeon’s eye, peacock  to name a few. The Bodo colors – shades of yellow to red as the base, with green or blue as the accent and floral patterns are  inspired by nature.

Moving towards the food huts, we found men and women working together to prepare the traditional delicacies for lunch. Various kind of meats were to be served and we were curious about their method of preparations. Bodo people incorporate variety of leafy plants in their food and the more we saw, the more we looked forward to our lunch. Rice is the staple food and is eaten in different ways – roasted, grounded, boiled or just soaked. It is enjoyed as Pitha for breakfast or savored with a non vegetarian dish like fish/pork (also as Ondla- curry made from rice powder) or even fermented into the local drink, Zu mai (rice beer). Two ladies were busy pounding soaked rice in a huge pestle while another lady was sieving the pounded rice to collect the flour for cooking Pitha/Ondla/Zu mai for us.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Bodo diet comprises mostly of meats and fishes, edible forms of flowers, fruits, roots, tubers, leaves, stems, seed and wild mushrooms. Bodo people are great connoisseurs of food. The traditional Bodo cuisine is characterized by little use of spice but strong flavors due to the use of exotic herbs, fruits and vegetables that are fresh, dried or fermented. Food is given so much importance in Bodo society that a Bodo greets another by asking, “Which curry did you have today?” instead of a usual “How are you?” Depending on what the other person has eaten, the answer will be happy (if he has eaten non-veg) or sad (if he has eaten plain daal or rice).
Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

In the meantime, the local performers for the cultural programme gathered in the chief arena. And we flocked together to enjoy the festivities as the honored guests arrived and inaugurated the festival. After a brief speech session, the cultural programme started with Bagurumba dance of the Bodo community.

Bagurumba is one of the traditional dances of the Bodo people from Assam and is associated with the end of winter and the coming of spring. Bagurumba is performed as a part of the Bodo festival called Bwishagu, which comes around the Bishuba Sankranti that is celebrated in the month of April. It is also known as the “Dance of Butterflies” as it is famous for its resemblance to the merry flights of butterflies and birds in spring. The Bagarurumba plays an important role in the Bathou Puja of the Bodo tribes and also functions as a form of relaxation and entertainment for the village folk during the rigorous agricultural activities during the spring, for example the plantation of crops like rice. The Bodo women perform the Bagurumba dance with their colorful dokhna, jwmgra (fasra) and aronai.
Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

The energetic dance refreshed us in the blazing sun and we went on to have a second round of Bagurumba dance where the chief guests joined in too. Manas National Park is also surrounded by tea plantations and it is only natural to have the Jhumur dance performed next.

Jhumur dance is a traditional dance of tea tribe communities of Assam. The dance is usually performed during autumn season in Assam. This dance is also found in few parts of West Bengal. This dance is performed by young girls mostly in an open area like fields or under tree. The girls performed this dance is accompanied by male members to maintain the rhythm and vocals and for playing musical instruments. It is believed that Jhumur was originally a means of recreation between phases of tedious agricultural work.
Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

The cultural programme ended with a high-powered performance of Bihu dance by a group of youngsters from the nearby Salbari village. Being an Assamese, I naturally have a deep connection with Bihu music/dance (even though I can do neither). I sat on the ground, switched off the camera and let myself be taken on a rhythmic journey by the melodious tune of Bihu music. Every time there is a splendid performance of Bihu, I swell with pride at my heritage and thank God for letting me be a part of this wonderful culture. This was one such performance and I had to congratulate the entire team for putting up such an energetic and mind-blowing show.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Bihu is the chief festival in the Assam state of India. It refers to a set of three different festivals: Rongali or Bohag Bihu observed in April, Kongali or Kati Bihu observed in October, and Bhogali or Magh Bihu observed in January. Rongali Bihu is the most important of the three celebrating the Assamese new year and the spring festival. The Bhogali Bihu or the Magh Bihu is the one that is all about food. The Kongali Bihu or the Kati Bihu is the sombre, thrifty one reflecting a season of short supplies and is an animistic festival.
Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

The day was a hot one but we were all energized by the brilliant performances by the youngsters. The badge on our neck was our pass for the sponsored meal and we rushed to the food stalls to fill our hungry tummies. Being a foodie, I tried to fill up my plate with as many delicacies as I could (I had to skip a few though) so that I can sample them. Most of the items were cooked with leafy plants and were cooked in minimum oil and with little or no spices. Exactly what I needed for lunch on a hot day. As expected, the food did not disturb my stomach and I was very happy to add Bodo cuisine to the list of food I have tried.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

Foodie’s Verdict I love Bodo food now. Every bite of it. The vegetarian and the non-vegetarian. The solids and the liquids. I won’t prefer it regularly but I won’t mind it either.

The lunch ended with a interactive session with Kampa Borgoyari, the deputy chief of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) who told us  how Manas National Park was revived from being a dead park after the civil unrest in the ’80s and early ’90s. He is now working towards community conservation by rehabilitating the erstwhile poachers/militants to protectors of the wildlife in the Park through alternative livelihood.

From the 1980s until 2003, the park was engulfed by armed conflict, and its rhino population was wiped out. During this period, the Bodos were frequently portrayed as hostile to conservation efforts. A 2003 peace accord paved the way for the establishment of autonomous local governance, and the restoration of rhinos to the park. Former guerrillas now serve as anti-poaching patrols.

We decided to cool ourselves in the evening in the Beki river. The timing was perfect because we spotted a Rhino grazing in a viewing distance on our way to the river. In my experience, one has to be lucky to spot the main animals in wildlife sanctuary. I have returned without spotting tigers and black panther in Nagarhole National Park (Karnataka) and the Royal Bengal Tiger in the Sundarbans. So sighting the Rhino in Manas National Park,unexpectedly, was a surreal moment for me.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

Once we reached the Beki riverfront, we opened our shoes and rushed in to the waters. All of us have become good friends by now and we felt like kids in the much-needed cool water. Some of us swam too. All of us had fun.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Photo Copyrights - Jyotish Dutta (@dutta.jyotish)

Tired from the long day but happy to have new friends, we turned in to our tents early after a light dinner. Along with a glass or two of the delicious Zu mai, of course.

DAY 2

Today is our day of exploration, away from the event so that we can know more about the national park and the community involved in protecting it. Our plan:

  • Explore the Manas National Park in the morning safari
  • Tea Plantation Tour
  • Take a tour in the Bansbari village
  • Enjoy the  bathing of the Elephants from the Smiling Tusker Elephant Camp
  • Discussion among the bloggers and organisers
  • Return to Guwahati if everything gets wrapped up by evening

So we woke up early to start our morning safari at 6 AM. However, the sky was growling with grey clouds and it started raining exactly at 6 AM. We decided on waiting for half an hour to see if the rain would stop as we knew it would be hard to spot any wildlife in this heavy downpour. In the meantime, we gorged on biscuits and cakes brought by Suman, a fellow travel blogger. I love how this girl stored snacks/bites in her magical camera bag (magical because I can not figure out how she stored so many things in that little Canon camera bag). The rain slowed down a bit by 6:30 AM and we decided to start our safari.

After a tea-stop near the park entrance and a few minutes with the elephants (including a naughty little baby elephant), we began our Manas Wildlife Safari in two jeeps with 6 members in each.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
Previously the hunting reserve of the Cooch Behar Royal Family and the Raja of Gauripur, Manas National Park has now acquired the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is blessed with the rare privilege of being a national park, a Project Tiger reserve, a biosphere reserve and an elephant reserve. This wildlife conservation area is home to 21 animal species listed in Schedule 1 of India’s national Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972. The park is believed to be the only remaining habitat for pygmy hogs and hispid hares.

The drizzling weather did not deter us from taking any pictures throughout the 5 hour long safari. We barely had any breakfast but we were driven by the hunger to spot wildlife. We had a fantastic time, knowing each other better and sharing our experiences – travel, marriage, life and what not. Our first sighting was that of a herd of Deer, which was grazing close to the road we were traveling.

We arrived drenched at Kuri Beel Camp after a couple of hours, with no more animals in sight and climbed up the tower to try our luck. We spotted a couple of wild elephants nearby enjoying their breakfast in the cool weather. The security guard alerted us to the presence of pygmy hogs but they ran away before we could see them. But we were lucky enough to see the herd of Eastern Swamp Deer before we left.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

Since we were shivering from our drenched clothes, Ketki (a fellow travel blogger) asked me to enquire whether the tower guard would serve us a few cups of tea. The tower guard happily agreed but warned us that they do not have sugar or milk. We were just happy to get tea in the middle of nowhere and it turned out to be a beautiful glass of black tea with a hint of lemon (from the lemon leaves he used while boiling). It warmed us up and we got back to our restless jeep driver to continue the rest of the safari.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

The weather was getting pleasant by the time we reached  the Manas River front. The Manas river serves as the border, separating India and Bhutan. We could see the hills of Bhutan across the river. One of our travel blogger/Photographer, Upasana had come all the way from Thimphu and we were teasing her how she can now cross over to her homeland without bothering to take the long way back. Ketki and Suman stacked rocks, which looked surreal against the backdrop of the Manas river and misty hills.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
The official uses of rock stacking/Cairns are memorials or landmarks. Cairns have been used since the beginning of humanity, mostly to set marks to not get lost in nature. Later, cairns were used as burial monuments and as landmarks to locate buried items. When hiking through nature, it could be useful to see a landmark every now and then to remind you that you’re still on the right track.

As we were cruising through the park, we noticed two elephants (probably a mother and her kid) crossed our trail. It was a sight to behold; words would not be sufficient to describe the beautiful moment. Sometimes, pictures speak better than words.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

After spotting a solo Giant Squirrel nibbling away with a cotton seed and a few birds, we returned to our camps, eager to fill our hungry tummies. A quick breakfast of Kettle Pitha and banana later, we walked towards the Smiling Tusker Elephant Camp to enjoy the sight of elephant bathing. But we reached too late to witness it even though they had prolonged the bath by an hour for us. However, it was a beautiful camp and they entertained us with cups of black tea. I had a long discussion with the camp host, Nayanjyoti about what this camp is about and what his NGO, Anajaree does.

Smiling Tusker is an initiative for the conservation and re-utilisation of the trained domesticated Asiatic elephants. Anajaree (meaning bond in Assamese), the local NGO has been formed by a group of youngsters,who gathered to work on the rehabilitation of mishandled elephants. The camp employ the mahouts of those elephants, so that they do not engage in illegal activities to sustain their livelihoods. They have been trying to do this since 2008. They started as a elephant camp but to sustain, they have now introduced various activities such as camping, village and garden trail etc.
Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

We had our lunch there and on the way back, I had a great time photographing the beautiful landscape of the village (Follow my Instagram account for more pictures from the trip) leading to the event site. No doubt, I was the last to enter. A cultural programme was going on but my attention was drawn to a trishul-shaped plant that resembled a cactus. Encased inside a fence, it was evident that the Bodo community prayed to the tree.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
The religious philosophy of the Bodo tribe centres round the super power of Bathou Bwrai who is analogous to Sibrai or Shiva of the Hindu Trinity. The above plant is the Sizwu plant (Euphorbia Splendens), which is regarded as representing the Bathou— the supreme deity of adoration.

We also enquired on the process of making Zu mai, which the local people explained to us patiently and even showed us the samples of fermented rice as well as Amou (the agent for fermentation; which is made of  dried and crushed pineapple leaves, jack-fruit leaves and Fitimale leaves along with sticky rice). The following picture shows the Amou (round balls) along with a sample of Fitimale leaves.

Photo Copyrights - Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)

Food FactThe Bodos examine the strength of their local wine by throwing a cup into fire. A flash of fire indicates strong wine. They never use Alkali and turmeric together in any preparation and sour and bitter ingredients are never combined in cooking. They never eat green leafy vegetables, sour and bitter food at night.

And soon, it was time to bid our goodbyes but not before we took lot of group photographs.

Photo Copyrights - Amit Kumar (@amittraveller)
Photo Copyrights - Suman Dooger(@noamdicshoes)
Photo Copyrights - Nikhita Nina Bora (@nikhita_nuku)

Manas National Park, you had been amazing and I hope to see you again. With more stories to tell.


Note: All the photographs are copyrighted with all rights reserved. Please do not download/use my work and never for any commercial use without contacting me in advance for purchase or licensing rights.

 


Even though I have known Suman Doogar, Travel Blogger (@nomadicshoes) on social media, this was the first time we met in person. We had a great time finding out more things in common, sharing our travel experiences and inspiring each other to do more. I have always been a huge fan of her work and she has penned a comprehensive write-up on Manas National Park, which is absolutely useful for anyone planning to or visiting this unique national park of Assam.  Read on >>

“From being abandoned to a thriving national park. Read about Manas National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that suffered because of violent ethnic clashes but managed to overcome its dark period. Local communities are taught conservation plans to decrease their dependence on forest produce.”

  1. Wow! Its like I am reliving the days at Manas. Thank you for the mention. Your post is the go-to-post for Manas now. Very informative and detailed. Loved how you have mentioned facts with our personal experiences. Keep up the good work sweetie. 😘

    • nookandcorners nookandcorners

      Many many thanks to you for being a constant source of motivation. I had such a fun-filled two days only because I had you all awesome people with me. Looking forward to many more experiences with you all. 🙂

  2. Ketki Ketki

    Truly looks like you had a wonderful time. I think you answered all of my probable questions in the Q&A in the start of the blog. Lovely read 🙂

    • nookandcorners nookandcorners

      I did. Thanks a lot for being so cool. I look forward to your next visit to Assam. Sustainability is a topic that I could relate to and I am so glad to have met you. Hopefully, we can experience more wildlife activities in Assam or elsewhere together. 🙂

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