To read the first part of this travelogue (Guwahati), click here.
Having spent the few hours we got in Guwahati sightseeing and eating out, we got up the next morning and set off for Kaziranga. Kaziranga, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is about 195 km from Guwahati, a distance that can be accomplished in about 5 hours (or less). The road is pretty good, a well-tarred, well-maintained, broad highway that goes mostly through the plains. Getting out of Guwahati itself took us close to an hour, and the LO kept remarking throughout: “It looks just like Ring Road!” (Delhi’s Ring Road, or at least those stretches of it we traverse frequently, often has construction work going on: flyovers being made, half the road cordoned off, traffic jams aplenty and the roadside trees choked with dust).
Interestingly, the outskirts of Guwahati abut onto Meghalaya; for about 15 minutes or so, the Innova that had come to take us to Kaziranga travelled through Meghalaya before re-entering Assam.
We traversed other interesting, and often very scenic, stretches of road once we were past the urban sprawl of Guwahati. The Assam countryside is very pretty: the villages nestle among coconut and betel nut palms, banana plants, and fields of paddy, or—even more striking right now, when it bursts into sunny yellow bloom—mustard. We passed many village ponds covered with deep pink waterlilies, and there were fishing nets anchored here and there, waiting for the catch.
Within an hour after lunch (thali, which we had at a roadside joint called Anuraag Dhaba), we had entered the peripheral areas of Kaziranga. Every now and then the highway would pass through dense forest, with prominent signs cautioning drivers to go slow because this was an animal corridor. We got a very pleasant surprise here, because peering out of the car windows, we spotted a rhino grazing not too far from the road. There were hog deer too, but the rhino was in a class all its own.
Further on, in and around the town of Kohora (which is the nearest to at least two of the gates of Kaziranga, the ones to the Western and the Central Ranges of the park), there are dozens of options for boarding and lodging. Hotels and resorts (all fairly small), plenty of home stays, and so on. We were booked into Infinity Resorts, a small resort with less than twenty rooms.
All the rooms are arranged, in the form of slope-roofed cottages on stilts, around a swimming pool in the middle.
There are trees—coconut, betelnut, starfruit, orange, and more. Hibiscus and jasmine bushes, and even a few tea bushes (this area seems to grow tea wherever possible: a tiny patch of slope, and there will be some tea growing on it). There are swings, which the LO fell in love with. An evening bonfire is lit during the winter months, and the LO was invariably the one to start prompting us: “Shouldn’t we go ask them why they haven’t lit it yet?” She adored the bonfire.
Infinity Resorts abuts a small and stagnant pond at the back, and beyond that, a settlement. The local roosters would begin crowing here even before dawn, which proved, in its way, a blessing.
… because we had to wake up really early to go on our elephant safari. The Western Range, also known as Bagori, offers elephant safaris that take visitors through part of the national park, and the safaris are all early in the morning: at 5 AM, 6 AM, and 7 AM. Our safari was scheduled for 6 AM, and a staffer from Infinity drove us half an hour or so to reach Bagori in time. The booking of the safari plus the transport, Rs 5,000, had already been paid; here we paid an additional Rs 200 for the three of us as well as a camera.
The LO was part apprehensive (“How will we ever climb onto the elephant? It’s so high!”) and part excited. The excitement got amped up several notches when she saw the elephants come lumbering up to the mounting platform, and by the time she was snuggled in firmly between her parents on the pachyderm, she couldn’t have been happier.
Unlike previous elephant safaris I’ve been on (in Corbett, many years ago; Corbett has now discontinued them), here the elephants don’t go on solitary jaunts: they travel all together, in a herd of about ten elephants, each carrying around five or six people (children included). Since the safari is only an hour long, the elephants don’t go very deep into the woods.
But they do go where the rhinos are. We went on elephant safari two days, and saw many, many rhinos: some with babies, some solitary. All calmly munching grass while our elephants stood and we watched.
We saw the stray deer or wild water buffalo, and of course some birds, but the stars of these elephant safaris were the rhinos. Kaziranga is home to some 2,500 Indian one-horned rhinos, so they aren’t (as we’d discovered even during our drive to Kaziranga) difficult to spot.
For the LO, incidentally, while the safari and the rhinos (“Ooo, baby rhinos! Awww!”) was all very well, the real highlight of the jaunt was that she got to pat our elephant on its trunk and feed it a bunch of bananas. “Lakshmi is the best elephant in the whole world,” the LO decreed. At least Lakshmi was better-behaved than many of the other elephants, who had no qualms about peeing during the safari. The LO had a big laugh over that: toilet humour is her favourite form of funniness.
Besides the elephant safaris, we also went on a jeep safari. This one, other than the obvious difference between the form of transport, is very different in other ways, too. For one, it’s at the Central Range, not the Western. For another, the safari is three hours long. Thirdly, it sets off in the afternoon. We were picked up from Infinity Resorts at 1:30 and driven to the Central Range, through which our safari driver-cum-guide drove us for the next three hours.
This terrain is interesting, and very scenic: in the course of our safari, we passed through dense forest, through open grasslands, along waterbodies, and between stands of elephant grass, taller than our jeep. The wildlife we saw here was quite different from what we saw on the elephant safaris: very few rhinos but lots of deer, especially hog deer and sambhar. Wild boar, wild water buffalo, a couple of wild elephants, turtles, and loads of birds. We stopped for a quarter of an hour each at two separate spots to see if we might see a tiger, but without success. Our driver did point out two trees, though, both with claw marks on the trunks, where tigers had been sharpening their claws.
We came to the conclusion that if you truly want to see Kaziranga, you should do both an elephant safari and a jeep one. Together, they show you two pretty different aspects of the national park.
But Kaziranga, as we discovered, isn’t just the wildlife reserve: there is also one other large and very interesting attraction here, the Kaziranga National Orchid and Biodiversity Park. Just five minutes’ drive from our hotel, this proved to be a satisfying way to get to know Assamese culture and heritage.
The orchids form only one part of this large complex, but they’re an important and lovely part. The orchid greenhouse was what we entered first, and we were greeted by one of several volunteer guides who show visitors around. There weren’t too many visitors, so this was a wonderful experience, the place full of orchids in bloom, their colours and shapes wildly beautiful. North-east India is home to some 900 species of orchids, of which 800 species are to be found in this park. Not all, of course, were in bloom when we visited, since they flower at different times; but there were enough to enchant us.
The LO, especially, was taken up by the ‘dancing lady’ orchids (they look so much like little Disney princesses holding out the voluminous skirts of frilly gowns on both sides as they dance: very much like how the LO likes to pose whenever she’s wearing a skirt).
And the ‘monkey face’ slipper orchid, which she (and I) found fascinating.
There were other plants and flowers too, including an assortment of carnivorous plants (Venus fly traps and pitcher plants), bird of paradise, and something very unusual, called a ‘black bat flower’, that I’d never seen before.
From the orchid enclosure, we went on to the next sight in the complex, the Assam Museum. This modest-sized gallery showcased traditional Assamese culture and crafts, from bamboo fishing traps to Ahom palanquins.
… to weaving. There were lengths to woven material, in richly patterned designs, as well as a display of natural dyes and how they’re used in Assamese weaving.
Best of all, there were several looms where weavers (all women) were at work. The LO was quite interested, especially as just before we left on holiday, she had been doing a school project which involved understanding textile weaves in Arunachal Pradesh.
There are other museums within the Orchid Park complex as well. Just as interesting as the Assam Museum was the Museum of Indigenous Musical Instruments, a brainchild of the famous Assamese musician, Dijen Gogoi. One of Gogoi’s students, a very skilled musician named Imdadur Imu Rahman, explained most of the instruments—what it was made of, what occasion it was traditionally played on, and so forth—and demonstrated it. Wonderful music, and a very skilled artiste.
There is also the Gorkha Museum, though this one was a little disappointing: poorly lit, badly labelled (often not labelled), and with a caretaker whose rapid-fire commentary was a little disconcerting and oddly brusque.
We couldn’t wait to get out of the Gorkha Museum; the LO, especially, was eager to get out—because, very close by, was a play area with slides and whatnot.
The LO having spent a few minutes there, we went back to seeing the sights: the 101 Leafy Vegetables Garden (a somewhat underwhelming herb garden, really); the nursery (small, but with some lovely plants); and a souvenir shop, which had lots of beautiful mekhla chaadors, tea, trinkets, and the like.
We also went to the nearby covered theatre, where, during the day short performances of traditional dances and songs of Assam are staged. These are just a few minutes each, enough to give you a glimpse of the local performing arts. At 6:30 every evening, a longer performance is held here, though we couldn’t make it for that.
Once we’d experienced pretty much everything in the complex (including a couple of glasses of refreshing lemon juice, made from oblong Assam lemons, and a couple of the deep-fried sweets known as pitha), we made our way, past the nursery and beyond, towards the Bamboo Park. To get to this place, you need to walk for a couple of minutes down a dirt track (leading past tea gardens) to a shady, green, swishing-whishing expanse planted with bamboo. The caretaker here took us around, showing us different species of the seventy planted here.
This was quite an eye-opener: I hadn’t realized just how many species of bamboo there are. We were shown everything from a creeping bamboo to the world’s thickest, Gigantea, which—when fully grown—measures a whopping 1½’ in diameter. There was black bamboo and golden bamboo, dwarf bamboo and striated, and tons more.
The LO, as she manages to easily do, charmed the caretaker completely (I think her enthusiasm plays a large part in her ability to enchant people). She had found herself a long twig and was going about inscribing her name in the dust under the bamboos, when the caretaker decided to give her a gift: something better than the twig. He found a thin wand of bamboo, peeled and trimmed it for her, and gave it. The LO was so happy, she brought it all the way back to the NCR in our suitcase, and it now lies at home, used every now and then as a Harry Potter-wannabe wand, a Jedi light saber, and whatever other thin, flexible stick appears in the LO’s current favourite books or films.
So that was the Orchid Park: very enjoyable, interesting, and enlightening.
The next day, reluctantly, we set off back for Guwahati, from where we had to catch our flight the day after. En route, our driver said something about whether we would like to stop by to see what sounded like ‘ship’ to me (I was sitting at the back, the driver—like us—was wearing a mask and so his voice was a tiny bit muffled). A ship? In the middle of landlocked Assam? I was intrigued, so I immediately say yes.
Shiv, not ship. That’s what it turned out to be. Just off the Guwahati-Kaziranga highway, less than five minutes’ drive from the main road, is the Maha Mrityunjaya Temple, home to the world’s largest shivling. At 126’ high, this massive building of black stone is shaped like a giant shivling, the temple itself housed in the base of the shivling.
This was quite impressive, though when the LO caught sight of all the beehives hanging from the underside of the yoni, she couldn’t wait to get out of there. Those beehives ruined it all for her, so much so that when our driver cheerily asked her, “Acchha laga?”, she was completely candid in her response: “Nahin!”
But that, as a whole, couldn’t be said for Assam. She loved it, as did we.