30 November – mark this day! I went on a safari in
Although tigers are supposed to be found in the
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
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
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
Some Assamese people told me, "We have Thai blood," but few on the streets of Guwahati,
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
I flew to Guwahati from
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
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
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
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
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
In fact, the British had adopted a hands-off policy towards most of the tribes during
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
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
Firstly, there were those in the new states who called their compatriots traitors for agreeing to stay within
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
I waited and waited, but nobody turned up. I got in touch with my
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
The roads of
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.
The almost 40 million people living in the Northeast are joined to "metro"
The Northeast wasn't always as isolated today as before. The region used to be the hinterland of the old
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
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
Trade could potential take place through
We also passed by the famous tea gardens of
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.)
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!