Monday, January 20, 2020

Majuli day 1 (April 2018)

Boat Ride to Majuli
Somewhere on the internet once read the need for a vacation within a vacation. I know it sounds oxymoron but trust me when you are on the road for some time you need a day or two just doing nothing. Majuli was supposed to a magical place for us.

As we drove back west from Sivsagar we took the diversion to Nematighat, the boat embarkation point (ferry ghat) to go to Majuli. In recent times Majuli has lost its size due to many floods but it still holds the record for the largest river island.

We thought the drive from the highway to the ferry point would be quick, but it was a long one. The last 2 KM we drove on the bank of the river Brahmaputra and it was fine white sand all over. Even though we were not driving at very fast speed there was a sand storm on our back. As we approached the ferry we queued up for the cars to be placed on the next boat. Now, these are small boats which carry passengers, bikes and cars. But space for a car is limited and if the boat is even smaller it could be only 2 cars at a time.

Simple Rice Plate
Lucky for us the car in front of us broke down, they were trying their best to put that car. But Pamela smartly managed the situation and said if they are having so much tough time putting the car on the boat how they will get it out on the other side? Now putting up the car on the boat is not easy, we deftly drove the car down the slushy, scary-steep incline and stopped at the edge of a makeshift jetty on the river and there two wooden planks, almost as narrow as the tires, between the jetty and a country boat. But those guys were extra helpful as they realized we are a tourist. The cars are parked next to each other barely a few inches gap between them and it seems it is a norm to keep the car door unlocked.

At Deka Chang -  Relaxing
The seating space was very packed as well many travelers were on the top of the roof which provides better ventilation, but it was noon and we opted out of it. The boat ride is about an hour plus and there was an intermediate stop before Majuli. Once we landed in Majuli and got our car out we waited for the other cars and local taxi/tempos and we started towards our hotel.

Majuli welcomes us with its rustic beauty. There are only a few major roads that connect within the island. We stopped at Ural restaurant we found along the road and simple rice plate in the Assamese style.

Our stay was at Deka Chang, the place is supposed to be one of the best ones in Majuli. It even gets featured in the Priyanka Chopra’s promo video of Assam tourism. We got ourselves a very big room which was not needed. But it was due to the fact some government official was staying while he was on official vacation. This stay of the official caused us very poor service. And we were disappointed and cursing ourselves for choosing this property.

In the evening we visited the nearby temple (Satra). This Satra is very special as it runs by family members. It is called Garamur Satra.

Satras are Vaishnav temple and they are very special to Assam’s history and culture. Just to highlight few facts about Majuli
  • The first newspaper of Assam was published here.
  • Sankaradeva established the first Satra here.
  • Here you will find the largest tribal community of Assam the Misings.
  • Even though there all religious people stay on this island there is no mosque. It is just to show respect and great community living.

After observing the evening prayer at the Satra we had dinner at the same place where we had lunch and called it a day.

    Saturday, January 04, 2020

    Sivasagar - Unexplored Ahom Kingdom's finest

    When I was planning this long trip to Assam I always wanted to drive all the way up to Dibrugarh where I studied till class 5. Later, in the final planning stage realized it was too long of a drive. Covering Guwahati, Shillong & Dibrugarh was getting too much in one trip so saved it for a later day. Sivasagar remained in the itinerary for a night stay with a condition if we finish Gibbon-Hollongapar and still have time to explore the ancient capital of the Ahom kingdom. 

    As we had good sightings in the morning at Hollongapar we decided to move on and explore the Sivasagar area. The hotel Mr. Barua (Wild Grass) recommended was Hotel Brahmaputra. This hotel is near ONGC complex in the town center. We found the hotel room to be OK/OK for a night stay and checked in. He had an early lunch and wanted to explore as much possible of those historical sites. We decided to cover the distance one first and do the close-by the next day and head out to Majuli. 

    We started with Charaideo Maidams, which is around 30 KM away from the town. The drive was not great as road conditions were bad and we had to navigate big potholes. It took us some time to reach Charaideo. The approach to the site was very nice with canopy cover from the trees. According to history books, it was the first capital of the Ahom kingdom. Now for the Maidams which looks like a small pyramid here are some details below.

    Maidams These lofty maidams are the burial mounds of the Ahom kings and nobles. The Ahom followed a unique mortuary practice to bury their dead kings and nobles in the coffin and an earthen mound of pyramidal shape raised over it. These maidams are hemispherical in shapes ad vary in sizes depending upon the power and status of the buried individual. The hemispherical mound is usually bound by an octagonal enclosure wall with an entrance on the western side and at the top of the mound generally occurs a brick-built structure. 

    The picturesque forest setting makes this place very ideal for leisure walks with a cool breeze. The Ahom’s continued to bury their royalty here long after they moved their capital elsewhere, and the mounds are still considered sacred. 

    On our way back from Charaideo we stopped at Kareng Ghar (at Garhgaon) which is around 15 KM away from the town. This brick palace is the last major remnant of the Ahom kingdom’s before they moved their capital to Sivasagar. This is a stepped pyramid-style structure with 4 floors. The top floor has a dome-like roof with a chamber. Kareng Ghar was built first in 1540 but 1752 the current structure was built on the top of the old one as the old one worn out over time. The influence of contemporary Mughals can be seen in the structure. There are four main gates to the palace. It is believed there is a secret tunnel from Kareng Ghar to Talatal Ghar (15 KM). After taking lots of pictures in their well-maintained garden we decided to head back to the town. 

    We parked our car next to the district court and explored Sivasagar Tank and temples around its famous Shiv Dol, Vishnu Dol & Devi Dol. These three temples are next to each other. Shiva Dol is the tallest, Vishu Dol has finer workmanship. Some might say these temples resemble the famous Kamakhya temple of Guwahati. These temples were built by the Ahom queen Phuleswari. 

    As the sun was setting down we got some great shots of these temples in golden light. We walked on the tank bank and reached the Assam Tourism hotel which is one of the corners of the Tank. 

    We had an early dinner called it a day. 

    The next day, early morning without any breakfast and all we started for the remaining attractions. We started with Joy Sagar Tank another massive man-made water body. It is Asia’s biggest man-made tank. The Sivasagar college was next to it. We wanted to drive along the complete perimeter, but one side is blocked by the Indian Army. I respect a lot Indian Army for their sacrifice and hard work but it is strange how they occupy some central part of a town and causes hindrance to civilian. 

    We came to Talatal Ghar next, founded by King Rudra Singha. Built-in the 1750s over an earlier wooden palace, it originally had seven stories, three of which were underground (including secret escape tunnels). Now we can visit the two surviving above-ground levels, which have labyrinthine galleries and a large flat roof holding several pavilions. 

    From there we went to the last attraction Rang Ghar passing Gola Ghar(Amination Storage). And It the best attraction to the Sivasagar area to me. It is a two-story, oval-shaped pavilion built by King Pramatta Singha in 1746. We walked up to the top floor, from where the royalty watched buffalo and elephant fights and other entertainment. The place was under renovation when we visited. The place used to come alive during Bihu festivals. 

    After this, we had breakfast on the way back to the hotel and left for Majuli.

    Friday, January 03, 2020

    A morning at Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary

    Hoollongapar Gibbon
    Our trip to Hollong was one of the most challenging and memorable ones. Still, after so many months, it remains clear like yesterday. We slept early knowing we have to leave early. So when the alarm went off at 4 AM the whole place was quiet and dark. We hauled all our luggage from the room to the rented car. It was a bit of a task given that we were staying backside of the property. Any way by 4:30 we started and headed east to Hollongapar GIBBON.

    The traffic was thin as there was not much movement in the early morning. Soon the sun came out, but the road condition started to deteriorate with ongoing road widening and other work. We passed many tea gardens on both sides of the national highway. But suddenly we saw one accident and lots of people. As we approach slowly we saw the accident involved a truck carrying fresh fish and another vehicle. As the fishes would spoil every villager was carrying two-three big fishes in their hand or any makeshift begs that they could find. It was quite a scene. I am sure those villagers even might remember that day when they had a Fete 😊 

    Primates of Gibbon  
    Soon we crossed Jorhat and saw the sign for Mazuli (our later destination). We were following Google Maps and soon we were in the middle of a tea garden as we left the highway behind. We were a little puzzled as there was no mention of crossing a tea garden when we discussed the road condition previous night with Wild Grass Manager. As we had no choice we continued driving and soon we reached a spot where there was a small signboard which said Hollong. 

    But by now the road condition is just dirt track and with previous night rain, it was only suitable for a 4x4. Our rental car was the cheapest one a small Ford Figo. There was no place to take u-turn as the road was narrow and we were moving forward at a snail pace using the tire marks from other cars. We saw only 3 people on this road who were on bicycles collecting fallen woods from the forest. With my broken Assamese, I just managed to ask where is Hollong/Gibbon and they just showed with their hand go forward. Aarush was sleeping in the back seat and we were scared as there was no mobile signal and we realized we are middle of the jungle. After driving for quite a few KMs we reached a spot where we saw forest personal. 

    They gave us a strange look as we were not the locals and had no local guides with us and how we reached there from the wrong road. Talking to them it became clear (thanks to Google Maps) we drove through the jungle which is not at all sensible as there are wild elephants who are active in the early morning. 

    Forest Guard waling with his gun
    The forest personnel asked us to pay a minimal fee and told one guard will come with us and it is a walking tour. This was our first walking tour inside a forest where there are wild animals like elephants and leopard. Luckily we got some company of another tourist who came with Diganta Gogoi. Mr. Gogoi runs a homestay and the best guide for Hollong and surrounding areas. Now there are two guards allocated for 6 of us, and they were carrying very old guns on their shoulders. The purpose of those guns maybe just to scare away any animals. I thought we will just go inside for a few hundred meters and come back. And after the scary drive was bit disoriented so when Aarush asked which shoes to put I said just put crocs. But he somehow decided to put proper shoes. 

    As soon as I entered I saw a bright bird and clicked it. And to my surprise, it was Red Trogon and soon the trogon flew away without giving any chance of a second shot. There are only three types of trogon in India, two are found in North East Red-Headed and Ward Trogon. And Malabar Trogon in the Western Ghats. 

    Soon we started to spot the primates we saw Gibbon, Pig-tailed Macaque, Stump-tailed Macaque. Other primates found in the same forest are Capped Langur, Assamese Macaque, Rhesus Macaque and the only nocturnal primate in the north-east, the Bengal Slow Loris. 

    A group of Stump-Tailed Macaque crossed just in front of us, but my bad luck I ran out of battery. And in the morning with all excitement from the crazy driving, I completely forgot to put the spare battery in my pocket. Asrush got 4 leech bites but he was brave enough not to make any noise. 

    After a few hours of jungle safari on our foot, we turned back to the car. We had a quick chat with Mr. Gogoi and he invited us to stay next time in his homestay which we are looking forward, 

    And this time with proper direction from the forest guide took the road to Jorhat our next destination. 

    Gibbon Wildlife -- Things to know before vising.


    Baby stump-tailed macaque
    Hollong - the state tree of Aaasm. The story goes back like this when the British came and saw these long trees, they asked How Long? And it became Hollong Tree. Just like "there is a brown crow" was a way to say "Darwaza bandh Karo" (close the door in Hindi -- from Satyajit Ray's Feludaa).

    It is only 20 sq KM of Sanctuary. Actually, it is the oldest miscellaneous plantation having Dipterocarpus and Mesua as dominant species It was declared a Reserve by the British way back in 1881,(53 years after the advent of British rule) The original forests used to extend to the foothills of the Patkai mountain range. Since then, the forest has been cleared mainly for tea growing by the British. In the 1960s people from Majuli were settled here, so small villages have come up also. Now it is a small tropical wet forest 20 sq km in size.

    The place is easily accessible and has 7 species of primates. Only walks are allowed and Hollock Gibbon easily sighted. The area has Northeastern India's only nocturnal primate – the slow loris But you have to be overnight in Gibbon itself to see the slow loris. The accommodation is basic inside Gibbon. (night visit is now banned) There is a presence of pigtailed and stump-tailed macaque which can be sighted with moderate luck. In winter (starting late October) it is good for forest birds several species of forest butterflies and giant squirrel also can be seen. The dense forest makes it difficult to see too many birds. Guides claim that in the main road cutting through this small sanctuary more than 100 species of butterflies can be identified in the months of Oct and November as also in March-April. 

    Though a plantation it looks like a natural forest with all stories of canopy extant. It’s a natural-looking rain forest and surely worth a visit. The sanctuary is now insular and has no connectivity with a larger forest belt. But earlier it had contiguity with Disoi Valley Reserved Forests(RF) Disoi RF, Tiru RF and Geleki RF bordering Nagaland and was the natural abode of all these primates. Due to large scale human-induced degradation especially from Nagaland the Gibbon Sanctuary is what is left. A pocket herd of the elephant is largely resident in this sanctuary and leopards are also found. Sighting of the groups of primates requires prior arrangement with forest authorities. in this unique forest, It is the best place for orienting a naturalist to the representative rain forest habitat condition coupled with interesting primate sighting especially the Hollock Gibbon which is the only ape available in India. Photographers usually try their luck.

    It does not take long to explore Gibbon usually people do it ex Kaziranga they take a hired vehicle to go to Gibbon WLS and leave very early 4 am so they reach the place 128 km (2 and half hours) and then Gibbon activity is over they come back to visit Eastern Range in Kaziranga on same day. The place is 30 odd minutes from Jorhat airport and so on the last day of the tour, it is fruitful to visit this very small sanctuary for those flying out via Jorhat airport. Jorhat airport is 90 km away.

    Second Day in Kaziranga (April 2018)

    Our hotel Wild Grass was next to Central Zone. For the second day in Kaziranga, we supposed to have elephants Safari in the morning. Now there are 2 places where you can have elephant safari. The central zone is very popular, is difficult to get, The counter opens at 7 PM in the evening prior and people line up for long, there is a priority to foreign tourist. Our hotel arranged for the Western Zone. 

    Elephant Ride @ Kaziranga
     As last evening we already had done our safari there, we drove in our car till the Western Gate. Reaching there we called the person who was supposed to make our booking and take us to Safari. There were hundreds of people in the early morning. We could not get the first batch of Safari as there are a limited number of elephants. There were vendors selling hot tea and other hot beverages. We spotted many birds just outside the Park gate.

    These elephant rides take place at the very edge of the Park. There are only 4 people (max) allowed on each elephant. Depending on the group of tourists and their overall weight distribution the seating is arranged. Getting up on the back elephant is always fun, it is shaky and you need to adjust yourself and your legs properly. The best part of the elephant ride is it takes you very close to the rhino. The track is partly swap so you swing a lot from the back of the elephant. Photography is difficult as there are not many stable moments. The whole ride was for about 45 minutes.

    Post the ride we came back to the hotel, had a big breakfast that involved freshly cooked many dishes. We walked around the property and did some photoshoots. And decided to visit the nearby Orchid & Biodiversity Park.

    In the afternoon we had our second jeep safari in the central zone. We again saw many birds, elephants, rhino. It was really great. If you plan to visit Kaziranga must recommend Wild Grass for their rustic bungalow with warm hospitality.

    Kaziranga - information you need to know before visiting

    Kaziranga is one of the bigger National Park of India. It has three prominent zones - Central, Western and Eastern.

    Central Range -- This drive covers the central region of the park. It is an ideal introduction to the park and its ecology as the route passes through the entire spectrum of habitat types prevalent in the Kaziranga area. (though Brahmaputra view is not available, a stretch of the route goes by the tributary river Difloo) There is a possibility of sighting elephants as well as the other big animals especially the swamp buffalo and of course the rhino. In the extensive short grass yards next to the wetlands the rare Swamp Deer. Swamp Deer is more endangered than the Asian one-horned rhino as far as the world population is concerned. Birding is possible in a wide range of habitats.

    Western Range -- From Wild Grass, it takes 20 minutes by jeep to reach the entrance of this Range. The route traverses the southwest portion of the park. This range has maximum short grass areas and is the optimum habitat for Rhino and Water buffaloes The Dunga Tower presents a panorama of short grass edged wetland, patches of tall grassland and woodland in with such visual setting animals can be sighted in a landscape representing their appropriate habitat. Part of the drive is also through Low Alluvial Savannah Woodland. Colonization of grassland by Lagerstroemia trees can be seen.

    Eastern (Agaratuli) Range --Situated towards the eastern part of the park, less frequented (we did not go there ourselves). The area is excellent for birding. Many water birds can be observed at Sohola Beel. Various woodland birds can be seen along the drive through very scenic Dillenia Swamp Forest. Elephants may be encountered, as well as Water Buffalo and Swamp Deer. Takes 30 minutes to reach from Wild Grass. Part of the route gives an idea of the Brahmaputra river (only tourist route that goes partly by the river). One can do a boat ride in the northeastern point of the Park.

    The Kaziranga National Orchid & Biodiversity Park, located in Durgapur village off the National Highway(37) itself. It offers a very benign recreational activity. It is about 3 km of walkable distance from Wild Grass. Besides the outdoor orchids, the greenhouse is manned by personnel adept at orienting and interpreting the rare orchids of NE region The Park has a large array of medicinal plants as also varied species of bamboo groves. A day-long cultural program makes the place lively and a selection of folk dances of different communities and tribes of the hills and valley of Assam is continually performed. The Bamboo dance is very special. Ethnic thali having as much as 18 to 26 food items is available for lunch and early dinner. There are other exhibit areas apart from the orchid display areas in this property. Apart from the photo gallery of orchids, the exhibit areas are all evolving into a storehouse of the tangible folk cultural properties of the various communities of Assam. Diverse implements produced out of the necessities of the everyday daily life of the peasants and farmers of different regions of the Brahmaputra Valley help any visitor to understand the material folk cultural forms of the Assam area.

    Burrapahar Wildlife Range, Ghorakati.  This area is part of the addition to Kaziranga National Park. Scrubland some forty years ago it was under afforestation management practice for fast-growing tree plantation but the low lying areas (now grassland ) were found uneconomical for tree planting. Part of this Range has areas having ideal wet grassland habitat attributes for transient animals from Kaziranga National Park. Kaziranga management was In a search of more areas for the ecological integrity of Kaziranga NP and with this in view the Ghorakati area, as well as the hilly Kukrakata Reserve Forest, has been annexed to Kaziranga. And only a little over a decade ago has been opened to visitors. Again we have not visited this part ourselves.