Sunday, April 19, 2009

Favourite Indian Lands

For my last month in India, I designed several possible itineraries: tour the backwaters of Kerala, motorcycle through mountains of Kashmir, backpack the former French colonies of Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu (etc.). I reflected on my travels in India, thus far, and felt that the past five months had been as exhausting as they had been exhilarating; both because of navigating the streets customs language of several cities and states. For my last thirty days in the motherland, I decided to revisit my favourite spots, rather than discover new terrain.

I first reached Amritsar for four short days. I spent an entire afternoon basking in the warmth of sun rays bouncing off the Golden Temple. Instead of entering through the front entrance, as I had done most times in the past, I steered through a maze of markets that bury the back end of the compound and slipped into an inconspicuous entrance. I encountered the Golden Temple from a new angle and the sight was breathtaking. I worked my way through the crowds, seated myself on an empty patch of marble alongside the perimeter of the central pool, and, after some time, began noticing all of the otherwise invisible patrons performing seva (i.e. service); a young woman was wiping floors, an elderly man was wading in the pool to brush bacteria off of metal gratings. I decided against eating langhar (i.e. food from the community kitchen). My last serving of langhar left me with an upset stomach from all the red chilies. But, I eagerly devoured a buttery mound of warm halwa (i.e. a granular sweet dish similar to porridge). The following afternoon, I hunted for and brought home a pair of traditional Punjabi jhooti (i.e. leather shoes) with ornate gold embroidery and toes that curl up to the sky. Amritsari evenings were full of chai, laughter, and farewells to family.

My next destination, after Amristar, could be none other than Assam. Durng my first trip to the northeast of India, I spotted rhinos in Kaziranga National Park and reached the villages of my new Assamese friends. This time around, I headed first to the tiny town of Pathsala to celebrate Holi, the festival of colour! Fuchsia parrot green cherry red cobalt blue flooded homes shops streets. A convoy of us eight young men strolled through town. A group of young girls, fashioned with a bamboo branch, threatened to harm us if we refused to submit ourselves to their ‘well wishes’. We played by their rules as they giggled and smeared our cheeks foreheads noses necks with bright powder. For a single day, all Indians were the same multi-colours, void of caste, often marked by complexion, which is still omnipresent in rural India.

Last week we motorcycled along the dusty gridlines of farm plots and paddy fields. We passed green rivers, crippling wooden bridges, cranes nibbling on bugs nestled in the hairs of cows, goats sneaking bites from cabbage patches, a Kali Ma temple that performs animal sacrifices upon bisons, handloom collectives that promote women’s empowerment, the mighty Brahmaputra River, wood mills carving illegally forested timber, bamboo thatched-homes constructed of mud, and plantations of tall and slender betel nut palm trees. Darkness soon swallows whole the sweaty and tropical landscape and new characters became visible: slithery eels shining under the swinging light of bulbs at the fish market, a million blinking fireflies floating like a string of Christmas lights, and grimy chai stands bustling with the clangs of glass cups slamming on wood tables, of steel spoons slicing through sweetmeats, and of men, old and young, sharing anxieties about the delay in rainfall this season leaves their fields extraordinarily thirsty.

And finally, I arrived at Manas National Park. Manas straddles the border between India and Bhutan and is truly a non-human land where the wild is master. Manas is at the bullseye of a biodiversity hotspot. A three-kilometer hike transports you from palm India to deciduous Canada to fern Brazil. I am intoxicated by perfumes and colours of saturated sweet fauna and musky reddish bark. We will be lucky should be spot footprints of an elephant or tiger, let alone stumble upon either of these nearly extinct species. Shaggy and golden langur monkeys leap with fierce elegance and I finally develop an appreciation for the value of biodiversity.

Manas is also home to extremist political warfare which has plagued this rarely visited region since 1991. Timber is cut, illegally, and transported across the South Asian sub-continent. Proceeds are used to finance intra-tribal conflict. I am befriended by members of a non-governmental organization (NGO) who enthusiastically share with me their mandate to protect Manas' jungle habitat. The NGO monitors on their own progress and self-reports to their generous American donor. We spot numerous loggers in the jungle, armed with heavy axes. "Avoid eye contact and scurry by unnoticed", I am instructed. Some days later, and behind closed doors, I converse with animal poachers who teach me about their operation and introduce me to officials from the forestry department who allow illegal timber felling in exchange for bribes. According to both animal poachers and forestry officials, NGOs are becoming as corrupt as the rest of the lot by reporting false progress reports to their American donors.

I am further documenting this volatile hub of political ecology.

*images have been captured by myself


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing, Brother
I wish I could share stories nearly as exciting. All I have, for now, is that yesterday our choir performed at the Westminster Abbey. What an inspiring day it was!

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to quickly wish you all the best for your last month and may god bless you.

vinesh said...

Your blog is very nice... i like your blog ....
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