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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Assam: Tiger found while Rhino-searching in a Lost Thai Kingdom in India

 

Assam: Tiger found while Rhino-searching in a Lost Thai Kingdom in India

 

 

30 November – mark this day!  I went on a safari in Kaziranga National Park, Assam, Northeast India, a world heritage site which is well known for having the world's largest concentration of single horned rhino and lots of wild water buffaloes, deers, wild elephants and birds.  Apart from seeing all those creatures I was supposed to find in abundance, I also came across a tiger 150 meters away, just before sunset, 15:20 local time.  Specific location: Rajapukhry, Western Range Bagori.

 

Although tigers are supposed to be found in the Assam wilderness, their sightings have become very rare in recent decades, due to poaching arising from the huge demand for tiger parts in China.  In fact, national parks and tourism offices in Assam no longer sell Assam through tiger-sighting.  I snapped a picture quickly without properly focusing the camera.  If I did, I would have missed it as the tiger was gone in a few seconds.  There were two tourists in another nearby vehicle that had the most sophisticated equipment but they were too slow and didn't manage to take any picture.  The driver said a few months ago, an Australian team spent 16 days at the park hoping to see the tiger.  They left without any luck.

 

Everyone congratulated me and told me how lucky I was.  My wildlife guide said he only saw the tiger twice this month even though he comes to the park several times a month, and that most tourists who were lucky to come across the tiger didn't manage to take any photo.  When we left the park, I had to fill up a tiger sighting register indicating the place and time of the sighting – tigers are so rare nowadays that their sightings are monitored.

 

Back to the lodge, the news spread and all wanted to see the photo of the elusive tiger.  Together with this email is the whole picture taken as well as the digitally zoomed-in shot.  Look at that magnificent creature!

 

 

 

Ladies and gentlemen, in honour of that fine Singapore tradition, go buy 4-D (lottery) with the date of this auspicious day, 3011.  Buy me a dinner if you win!

 

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Assam state in India's northeast is Thailand's long lost ethnic cousin.

In 1228, a prince named Sukapha and his men from what is today Shan State of Eastern Myanmar and Northern Thailand reached what is today Assam, where he founded the Kingdom of Ahom, the first pan-Assam kingdom. He conquered local tribes, married a princess of the Naga tribe, founded mines and settled disputes between clans.  The Kingdom of the Ahom-Tai further expanded to cover most of what is today northeast India.  The Ahom Tai kings converted from Buddhism to Hinduism, intermarried with local tribes and other Hindu royal families, and were one of the few Indian-Hindu kingdoms to successfully resist the expansion of the Islamic Moghul Empire. 

 

The Ahom kingdom lasted till early 19th century when it was invaded by the Burmese and suffered terribly during the Burmese occupation when one third of the population perished.  The British drove the Burmese out in 1822 (and went on to conquer the southern half of Myanmar) and annexed Assam (corruption of the word "Ahom") into British Indian province of Bengal.

 

Some Assamese people told me, "We have Thai blood," but few on the streets of Guwahati, Assam's largest city, looked Thai to me.  After eight hundred years of intermarriages between the Ahom-Tai and the Indo-Dravidians, most people looked rather Indian, though I have come across Mongoloid faces, and these could well be members of Assam's dozens of ethnic minority tribes. 

 

There remains a small group of Buddhist Ahom-Tai living in Eastern Assam (known as Upper Assam) who continue to write the original Ahom-Tai language using the Thai alphabet; but their tongue is now considered one of India's most endangered languages and is not expected to survive long.

 

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I flew to Guwahati from Delhi on Tuesday.  As I mentioned in my last dispatch, I was hardly harassed or bothered on the streets. In fact, I was surprised by the friendliness and kindness I encountered. I had meaningful conversations with people on a wide variety of topics I never had in the last three weeks in the main tourist cities of Northern India. 

 

The hotel staff seemed more polite and sincere, and gave me what was probably good advice rather than advice that benefitted them or the hotel. A tailor sewed my shorts button for free.  I walked into the Assam State Tourism Department and spent a few hours having tea and chats about Assam and Singapore with the department director and several senior staff. 

 

I visited the Modern Book Depot, noted in Lonely Planet for having an extensive collection on India's Northeast, and ended up having two consecutive days of chats with the female co-owner over coffee, about their family business history ("book business is in our family's blood – 50 years in the business across northern India.," she said) and life in the Northeast.  I ended up buying about US$100 worth of books about Indian history, current affairs and the Northeast's diverse ethnic groups and epic history, and getting her to post them to Singapore for me.

 

Best of all in Assam was that I did not have to be on guard all the time, like when I was in touristy Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan, where many people I came into contact with, seemed to have ulterior motives, in lying, cheating and pressurizing one to part with one's cash as soon as possible.  Yes, I did buy many books at the Modern Book Depot, but those books included many I had contemplated buying elsewhere and those simply not available (e.g., specialized books about the Northeast) anywhere else.  It was the "feel good" factor and the friendship established that prompted me to make the purchase.  Maybe the tourism industry in Northern India could learn something from the Assamese.

 

 

 

 

The Assamese language today is closer to Bengali (which in any case has loan words and associations from the Burmese and Thai, due to geographical proximity), but one should never tell an Assamese that his language is a Bengali dialect.  After the British took over Assam and turned it into a huge producer of tea, Bengalis were brought in as administrators, clerks, merchants and commercial farmers; while Adivasi tribals from Central India were brought in as indentured workers in the tea gardens.  

 

The Assamese language was sidelined and Assamese intelligentsia and nationalists spent years fighting the notion that their language was a mere Bengali dialect and wanting it to be declared the official language (apart from keeping more of the state's oil revenues within Assam). Today, Assamese is the official language of Assam state and one of India's two dozen official languages.

 

One man's meat is another's poison. The problem with Assamese as the state's sole official language was that the minority tribes had become upset.  The northeast of India, which used to be the single state of Assam, has over 200 language and ethnic groups (I said 100 in my last email – it's actually more!), hardly feel Indian or Assamese (in the case of the non-Assamese tribes). 

 

In fact, the British had adopted a hands-off policy towards most of the tribes during British India days.  They divided the Northeast into three zones: British India proper which comprised of the core Bramaputra Valley of the ethnic Assamese and where full set of British Indian laws were enforced; "Partially Excluded Areas" where the British Governor could exercise discretion in whether to apply specific legislation; and "Excluded Areas" where outsiders could not enter without British Indian Government permission and where the government exercise minimal power but would raid from time to time if the tribes living there misbehave.

 

To pacify and "civilize" the tribes, the British encouraged Christian missionaries to enter tribal territory, set up missions and mission schools and convert the tribes so that they all became committed and willing citizens of the British Empire, something they were more cautious about in rest of India after the Mutiny of 1857. 

 

The end result is the prevalence of literacy today especially in the English language today (even to an extent much greater than in "metro" India), an overwhelming Christian population, an accompanying  international religious and educational network and a strong sense of individual tribal and ethnic identity even among some of the smallest tribes in the northeast. Education tends to bring a higher sense of self-worth and the desire for better jobs and standard of living.  However, such opportunities are scarce in the remote, underdeveloped Northeast, which leads to disillusionment and subsequent allegation of neglect and discrimination by the central government.

 

In 1947, the tribes living in the Excluded Areas were suddenly told they were about to be part of independent India, a country that neither conquered nor ruled them.  And with the Assamese assuming powers of the state, including linguistic supremacy over other languages, the tribes became restive.  Insurgencies broke out, either with the aim of breaking away totally from India, or wanting to separate from Assam to become a state within the Indian Union.  Since then, the Indian government had tried to placate the tribes through the formation of six additional states from Assamese territory, namely Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Manipur.  But this did not satisfy all.

 

Firstly, there were those in the new states who called their compatriots traitors for agreeing to stay within India as a new union state, and these people continued fighting as guerillas in the jungles and the hills.  Secondly, there were also other smaller tribes who found themselves unhappily remaining part of the reduced Assam, or now becoming part of a new state ruled by a rival tribe. Democracy and the need to win votes, plus of course, desire to ensure peace and placate tribal rebels, new autonomous tribal district councils were created to introduce self-government short of full independent or separate state status.  Such moves had satisfied some and not other groups, and new groups split from existing groups, which further complicates the picture. 

 

When you have 200 ethnic groups and a political culture that emphasizes individualistic self-interest, insurgencies carry on as before, with some saying that many of the supposed rebel groups are mere glorified names for local gangsters.  Put together permutations of a tribal name and words like national, democratic, socialist, revolutionary, freedom, liberation, army, party and front, you get a whole new Northeast Indian rebel group!

 

 

 

On Thursday morning, a guide and driver were supposed to meet and drive me to Kaziranga National Park.  As you might recall from my previous email, a major political crisis had engulfed Assam – the Adivasi tea garden tribes, descendants of indentured workers brought to the tea plantations by the British colonials, were rioting because they were denied Scheduled Tribes status in Assam.  Bandh, or enforced general strike, had been declared by the Adivasis and they would burn any vehicle or shop that dared contravene the bandh.  Some said that the bandh was over but others were not that sure. After all, the news continued to report serious disturbances in Upper Assam, of which Kaziranga was at the edge of. 

 

I waited and waited, but nobody turned up.  I got in touch with my Delhi travel agent only after great difficulty.  My Naga guide was unable to get to Guwahati in time because the buses refused to travel due to the bandh, and my driver was stuck somewhere else but would try to come to my hotel.  Visions of disaster flashed across my mind – an expensive half paid-for tour of Kaziranga and Nagaland to be abandoned?  Or worse, car surrounded by angry tribesmen enforcing the bandh.

 

Eventually, the car came 5 hours late.  The news were that the road to Kaziranga was now clear, and that Azo, my Naga guide was on his way direct to Kaziranga instead of coming to Guwahati.  In politically unstable Northeast, all travel plans have to be flexible.  Hurrah to the gods of Hindustan!

 

 

 

 

The roads of Assam were heaven compared to those of the "Cow Belt" of India, i.e., the core Northern Indian Hindi-speaking heartland states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.  There were less traffic and fewer suicidal drivers.  Or at least Biku, my Assamese driver, has a lot more sense than Dinesh, the mad, impatient and greedy driver with whom I spent two weeks in Rajasthan.

 

Biku overtakes other vehicles too but in a sensible manner. No sharp turns, no sudden jerks, no compulsive must-be-ahead-all-the-time mentality that prompt Dinesh to try overtake every car, donkey, camel or holy cow ahead of him, that had led to the amazing number of near miss experience I had undergone everyday in Rajasthan. He must have thought that he was merely playing a PC racing game where one merely restarted upon a "Game Over" crash; the game could be really over for good on the real road. Yesterday's news reported that 280 Indians die everyday on the roads. Hence I was glad to be in a safe car again.

 

So far, Biku had appeared to be a nice and sincere guy that discharges his duties professionally.  In contrast, Dinesh was more anxious to bring us on shopping excursions to establishments that had probably promised him fat commissions and kickbacks.  He would find excuses not to go to agreed places, and demanded additional huge sums for any slight change in itinerary, even if the place we wanted to go was along the way to the next destination.   

 

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Although Assam is predominantly Hindu, there were definitely few cows wandering aimlessly on the streets compared to the most appropriately nicknamed Cow Belt. These cows are extremely hazardous to traffic and road-users.  I cannot imagine how India can industrialize and prosper if it cannot deal with the simple problem of cows that should be kept at the right place.  Unfortunately, everything in India is politicized and twisted by politicians and even a simple order to control cows could be construed as an insult to Hindus who consider such creatures as sacred.

 

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The almost 40 million people living in the Northeast are joined to "metro" India via a small ledge of land corridor that belongs to the state of West Bengal.  In fact, this tiny intra-India border between West Bengal and Assam accounts for only 1% of the entire Northeast region's external borders, i.e., the other 99% of the border is international.  The region is effectively landlocked and often forgotten by Central Government and decision makers of any sort.  For instance, mobile phones from other parts of India and elsewhere in the world do not at the moment roam in the Northeast and the phones in individual Northeastern states do not roam outside their states. (I feel so far removed from anywhere here!)  Everything works differently here from the rest of India, a Guwahati resident assured me.

 

The Northeast wasn't always as isolated today as before. The region used to be the hinterland of the old province of Bengal, i.e., what is today Bangladesh and Indian West Bengal.  It was only after the Partition of British India in 1947 into India and Pakistan that non-Muslim Northeast found itself in the awkward geographical position today.  In 1944, just before the end of WWII, when the British had more or less decided on independence and Partition of India, there was a proposal for the setting up of a new crown colony comprising of the "hill tribe regions" of Assam and Burma, and the port of Chittagong.  This colony, basically, would comprise of all the tribal regions which had never really been ruled by either India or Burma/Myanmar historically and would dread coming under the control of the newly independent nations. The proposal, however, fell through, and since then, these adjacent ethnic minority regions of India, Bangladesh (see my previous story on the Chakmas of the Chittagong Hill Tracts) and Myanmar have been in a constant state of rebellion.

 

The geographical precarious state of the Northeast region was heightened during the Sino-Indian war of 1962 over the disputed regions of Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin (in Kashmir).  The Indian Army was routed in a humiliating defeat, and North East Frontier Agency (NEFA, now known as Arunachal Pradesh) was overran by the Chinese, who marched as far as Tezpur city on the Bramaputra river, which is the main artery of transport Assam.  If the Chinese had persisted, the Indians would have lost all of the Northeast (but the Chinese withdrew unilaterally from NEFA and kept uninhabited but strategic Aksai Chin instead). 

 

As we drove eastwards towards Kaziranga, I noticed that a major road widening process, to extend the two-lane national highway to four lanes, was going on despite the lack of heavy traffic (whereas I hardly saw any improvement being done on the terribly congested but critical Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Kolkata highways where one shares the road with camels, cows and mad truck drivers).  I could not help but wonder if this has anything to do with the potential of trade with China, which is booming phenomenally despite the low usage of common border crossings.  Both countries are already major trader partners and most of the trade is currently via the sea instead of through their common frontiers.

 

 Trade could potential take place through Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and the old Stilwell Road (or "Burma Road").  The Stilwell Road was built during WWII to link a China besieged by invading Japanese to vital military supplies in India, through treacherous mountains and deep valleys, and there is a lot of talk of reviving this.  Whatever happens, these routes would pass through the Northeast which provides impetus to quick and major improvement to the highway systems linking the region with "metro" India.

 

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We also passed by the famous tea gardens of Assam, where 60% of India's tea is produced.  Peaceful as they seemed as we drove past, but the tea gardens were on the brink of revolution merely a few days before.  Many plantation workers belong to the 5 million strong "Tea Garden Tribes", descendants of indentured workers from the Adivasi (tribal) regions of Central India.  Whereas their ethnic cousins in Central India are classified as Scheduled Tribes, those in Assam aren't, because they live outside their original home regions.  During the last weekend, the Adivasis had demonstrated and rioted.  "AASU" – abbreviation for the All Adivasi Students Association of Assam, one of the key agitators of the Adivasi movement, were found in fresh paint across the tea garden regions we passed through, on tree trunks, walls, lamppost and anywhere that could be obvious targets for such political vandalism.

 

Later that night, whilst in the comforts of the resort lodge, I watched Adivasi dancers from neighbouring villages performing what they termed the "tea garden folk dances".  The following day when I went on the safari, my wildlife guide, Gokul, was an Adivasi from the Munda tribe.  I couldn't help but reflect on the events of the past week, not only here in Assam but also in Malaysia where the local Indian population, also descendants of 19th century indentured workers, demonstrated for equal rights.  (It is interesting to note that while the Indian-Malaysians are clamoring for equal rights, the Adivasis are asking for special privileges or affirmative actions that would provide them with special job and school quotas.)

 

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That's all for the time being.  I would next report from the exotic Indian state of Nagaland, where rival guerrilla groups have declared a ceasefire, as the state celebrates the grand annual Hornbill Festival.  Members of the 16 tribes in Nagaland and a dozen more who live in neighboring states would gather and dance in their amazing costumes.

 

Best regards, and don't forget the lottery!

 

 

Wee Cheng

 

 

 

 

2 comments:

Madog said...

For a first time traveller to Assam and Northeast India,Mr Wee Chang,has made a a very descriptive note of the region and its people.I thank W tan for the post.We would welcome all travellers to our land as guests rather than as tourists.

TOP said...

Hello Mr Wee,

Looks like you are from Singapore. I am from Assam and been here in Singapore for the last 5 years - a PR now. I liked your write up - a very true reflection of what Assam is - has been captured. Not too many people have written so comprehensively about the experiences in Kaziranga and about the history of my place in a blog. I stay just more than an hour aways from Kaziranga. Being an Ahom myself, I was really excited to see how you could trace the history....