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Updated: June 25, 2011 20:40 IST

Shades of black in Kaziranga

Mridula Garg
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A spectacle: Land of the Rhinos. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar
A spectacle: Land of the Rhinos. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

A trip to this sanctuary is like a dream come true, and you will also start believing “If it's not here, it's nowhere; if it's anywhere, it is here….

I started for Kaziranga from Dibrugarh by road, courtesy All Assam Students Union, who had invited me on their Martyr's Day. A chance remark by the AASU Secretary about Kaziranga had made it impossible for me to return to Delhi without seeing it. My wish was AASU's command. I was accompanied by two students and a young industrialist, who opted to play guide, fired by the zeal to show his inimitable country to an outsider. Culture makes the country say the Assamese, the rest is Mainland. No wonder, Indians from the Mainland are outsiders in North East India!

An unending vista of emerald green tea gardens lulled me to dreams of paradise but the industrialist was hell bent on recounting tales from hell. Was he an angry young man! Angry with the Assamese people, the Indian industrialists, the State and Central Governments, all responsible for the abysmal economic growth of the North East; and rightly so! We travelled to the belligerent chant of industry-market-production-economy but all I heard was; kazi-ranga-kazi-ranga. Suddenly it was there; a jungle, thank God, not a marketplace!

Similar, yet different

We found the forest officer, Jungle-babu to us, beside the driver in the jeep at the entrance called Rhino Gate, Kaziranga's emblem. Young, bronzed, dapper in jeans and jacket, still a part of the jungle. City smart yet filled with wild elation, alert to every nuance of the wild terrain. The first thing he told us was, “Learn to differentiate between black and slate; between buffalo and rhino.” We pretended we could but we saw the animal much after he had smelt and pointed it out. The difference between black and slate seemed clear from afar but got confounded close by. Who can differentiate better than Indians between shades of black? Black, dark, wheatish, dusky… the list is endless. I am dusky; you are dark; she is black! Loved ones are coffee, unloved ones, charcoal and enemies, cobra black. Lord Krishna was the only one, both beloved and blue-black. From a distance, amidst the overpowering green, rhinos looked dusky and wild buffaloes, ebony black; both turned plain black close by. Other differences came into view. The rhino's sharp horn and bullet-proof, layered rough hide opposed to the deceptively smooth skin of the tough buffalo.

I saw rhinos for the first time in Kaziranga; hordes of them. A rhino in a ferocious stance, carved out of a single piece of rosewood, was presented to me, huge enough for my four year old grandson to sit astride. There were herds of wild elephants and buffaloes too and a lot more to set it apart. Elephant grass, the food of elephants grew to such enormous height that if not trimmed after the monsoon, was likely to engulf all foliage. Though the population of elephants grew by leaps and bounds, the growth of grass outstripped it. Food outstripping population, a notion to mull for neo-Malthusians! Equally abundant were the silk-cotton trees. When the Bihu dance was on, the beat of the drums made the silk-cotton fruits explode. Drums beating, thousands of fruits bursting open to scatter silk cotton all over…till the jungle looked like a field of snow.

But that could not be, said the Jungle-babu, if cotton blanketed the flora, the vegetarian rhinos and elephants would starve to death and the jungle, come to naught. So the fruits were plucked before the advent of Bihu season and the silk cotton stored for sale. The market again! Man pretends that nature needs his help for survival but in reality, it's he who needs help. Nature is a hard taskmaster. Its mathematical equations take centuries to reach QED; change is not an issue but a never ending game. Man cannot wait for even one century, so tries to deal with the future here and now.

Kaziranga can boast of being home to most animals, fish or fowl of India, except the lion! It was host to elephant, rhino, buffalo, tiger, panther, leopard, hyena, and fox, spotted deer, mule deer, caribou, white tail bucks, black tail harts and more. Migrant birds from winter bound lands; many types of cranes; the rare blue-throated neelkanth; the crane look-alike kronch. The first shloka of the ancient epic Ramayana burst from the lips of poet Valmiki, when he saw a grief stricken male kronch commit suicide when a hunter killed its mate. Dunga Lake boasted of swans of many colours and Cheetal fish, so huge that at first I thought they were bucks cavorting in the water. No dearth of snakes and pythons either. A python emerged from an aperture in the banyan tree, rolled in mud and shed its skin, now pink and soft like a new born child. Truly a peek into reincarnation!

The sun set over Dunga Lake. The day was done. We gathered for tea at Jungle-babu's house, looking like a picture postcard of congeniality. Intuitively I felt the image would crack. It did. The Jungle-babu's old father cried out, “The birds! Killed again! Why don't you do something!” His cry was not a question because there was no answer. The confrontation between man and animal had not ended in Kaziranga. The jungle had electric wires running overhead because modern man could not live without electricity. The birds in flight collided with them and got killed. The old man expected his son to do something. But gone were the days, when the forest officer could decide whether the forest was for the tourists or the flora and fauna. Despite the electrocuted birds, Kaziranga has remained etched in my memory as the Mahabharata of jungles. “If it's not here, it's nowhere; if it's anywhere, it is here.”

Inevitable cycle

My fantasy was confirmed by what I saw as I was about to leave. A huge peepul tree— half green, half dry. The far-flung roots littered with animal skeletons. Head of twelve-horned buck, torso of spotted deer, foot of elephant, horn of rhino, discarded skin of python, jaw of buffalo, claws of fox, and more! They needed no graves; the root lattice was cemetery enough. Who knew what the inevitable cycle of change might do; dust-storms may rage, earth by the roots erode, dirt rise to push the skeletons to the womb of the earth. Or nothing may happen and the skeletons continue as artifacts in cages, fashioned by the interlocked roots. I did not ask why the skeletons were kept there. I wanted to sense, not know. I surrendered to the scene, intuitively understood the meaning and accepted it without question. Intuition said, it could only mean one thing, the end!

Translated from original Hindi, Rang rang Kaziranga by the author

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