Saturday, 30 January 2010

Frontier Land

Downtown Mon

Northern Nagaland is home to the Konyak tribe and this is truly frontier land. It is the least developed and least modernized part of the state still clinging on to traditions and ways of lives long gone in the more developed and urbanized southern areas. This is in almost every sense pretty much as far as you can be removed from Delhi and the Indian heartland without leaving the country: Geographically, religiously, economically, politically, culturally and linguistically you are in a different place altogether.

We had our base in the district capital of Mon, which despite having less than 20,000 inhabitants is the largest town of the area. It is a market town so there are lots of stores, but most deal only in very basic products.

My mother exploring the local stores

View over central Mon

There are only two guest houses with very basic facilities. In fact in for the first 36 hours we stayed in Mon we had no electricity as Mon suffers from chronic power outages. When power finally returned we could clearly hear people cheering and celebrating all over town - only for the party to come to an abrupt hold 15 minutes later when the lights went out again. This time power would not come back before we left town.

After dark entertainment without electricity. But lots of candles and battery operated lamps.

Early morning jungle mist seen from our guest house terrace

One of our simple rooms in day-time. Very basic but fairly clean.

Mon is not that special, so it was only a base for us. We came to see the semi-traditional life of the villages around Mon, including a very special group of people who I will return to in my next blog post.

Landscape on the way from Mon to the villages. All the little grey dots on the hill sides are little shacks like the ones you see in the front

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Coal Mines of Nagaland

Young labourer in the depths of a Nagaland coal mine

As you drive into Northern Nagaland the crowded plains of Assam give way to lush and dense jungle covering the unpopulated hills. But occasionally the greenery is broken by some small scale industrial activity, especially mining. Since our guide sensed my interest in these small industrial enterprises in the middle of nowhere he arranged for a stop giving us a chance to descend into the darkness of a coal mine. I don't know exactly how deep these mines are, but my guess is that we went about 20-30 metres down to reach the bottom.

The mine entrance

As with most other basic industries in this part of the world, mining is also a very labour intensive affair with men rather than machines doing most of the work. The workers dig and enforce the pit using very basic manual tools and they drag out the coal in big baskets on their bag. This is hard manual labour and there is no luxurious camp waiting for them once they leave the mine pit. However, they had erected a small shack outside to eat their lunch. Whether they have some small huts to sleep in nearby or whether they drive in from a nearby village every day I don't know.

The miner's lunch shack and a pile of coal

Carrying the coal up. The guy on the right is not a miner - he was our drive

Quite steep descent

Workers at the very bottom of the mine politely stopping their work to pose for photographs...

...but quickly they must go back to their work of re-enforcing the pit with wooden beams. Obviously this picture was taken with flash - the guys work in darkness with only a small light bulb allowing them to see what they are doing.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Faded Glory of the Ahoms

The Rang Ghar pavillion from where Kings would watch Elephants and Buffaloes fight

From 1228 to 1826 the Ahom people ruled a great kingdom in most of present-day state of Assam. The Ahoms ruled from the area, which is now the city of Sibsagar, until it fell to Burmese invaders and a few years later was annexed by the British. But even though Sibsagar was the capital of a great kingdom less than 200 years, it is today little but a sleepy district headquarters with some 50,000 inhabitants, which in an Indian context is next to nothing.

"Ahom" is a modern term for these people, who originated in Thailand and originally spoke a language called Tai, related to modern day Thai. As far as I'm aware there is not much left of the Ahoms as a seperate ethnic or linguistic entity (but if I'm wrong I'm sure one of this blog's knowledgeable visitors can correct me in comments). I their own day, However, this people were known as the Assamese people and their Kingdom they named Asam. The Ahoms thus - ironally - gave away their name and identity to the state and people of which Sibsagar is now just a remote and unremarkable corner, left even without it's own railway station (according to Wikipedia).

A present-day local of Sibsagar. Perhaps she has some Ahom ancestry?

However, Sibsagar is located on the way to Northern Nagaland so on our way to Mon we decided to make stop here to see if we could get a sense of the Ahom glory that once was. And although you have to know that it's there, there are a few historical remnants of the seat of power that was once located there. Sibsagar is well of the tourist trail so you won't meet many other visitors here apart from a few young Indian couples seeking a little solitude away from prying and condemning eyes. One of those young couples started chatting with me and my brother at the Kareng Ghar monument. As we walked away, the girl whispered something to the boy and he immediatly yelled on to us what seemed to be intended an unconditional compliment: "She said that you are the whitest people she has ever seen!"

My family in front of Kareng Ghar a 4-storey building built to act as a monument

Kareng Ghar from a different angle. I feel it has a slight resemblance to some of the pyramids of Central America

Beautifully decorated pillars inside the Kareng Ghar

The young couple at the top of Kareng Ghar who complimented us for our very white skin

All in all, Sibsagar is worth a small detour for those interested in Indian history. The pictures of the buildings may not convey so well the size and grandeur of these buildings which today stand bare and undecorated. But being there you do get a certain sense of what this was once like. Particularly the royal Palace, Talatal Ghar, is very large with huge open platform terraces. Nearby the Rang Ghar (top picture) was a pavillion used by the Royals for watching sports and entertainment, such as animal fighting and dancing acts.

My father walking on the main central terrace of the massive Talatal Ghar palatial complex

The Royal Bedchambers of the Talatal Ghar. Placed on a seperate platform, probably for security. The only access from the palace's main terrace goes through a heavily armed guard house

Sibsagar also holds some religions significance (the city is named after the God Shiva). Here is a very large and very holy 300-old temple, the Shiva Dole.

A closer look at the temple's dome and the scaffolding surrounding it. Here you get a good sense of the size of the temple as well as the unsafe working conditions of the workers restoring it! If you look closely you can see two of the crawling around.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

With the Family in Kaziranga

My mum, dad and brother moving comfortably around Kaziranga on elephant back

My last post showed a lot of pictures from our Rhino spotting safaris in Kaziranga and focused mostly on the park and the animals, whereas this post will be a bit more personal, showing some additional pictures of various members of my family enjoying the park, resort and surrounds.

In our trip to Kaziranga our starting group consisting of myself, my wife Nitoli, my father, mother and brother were joined by Nitoli's two nieces, Ina and Alovi who had never been to the park before despite living in Nagaland only some 100 or so kilometres away. It turned out to be a great experience from them, although Alovi was running a high fever for much of the trip. But getting close to the animals, riding the elephants and just spending time with their family from far away was something they seemed to enjoy a lot.

We stayed at the Wildgrass Resort, which is not exactly cheap - particularly by Indian standards - but very recommendable. The main building with dining hall and reception area is a British-era heritage building, while the rooms are in fairly large and much newer units, which however don't seem out of place. The room interiors are dominated by wood giving it a good charm.

Our nieces, Ina and Alovi scouting for rhinos (with one even visible in the picture).

Even the safari elephant are enjoying some family time. A baby elephant is busy drinking milk from it's mother while tourists are busy taking rhino pictures

Ina lucky enough to get to feed a baby elephant

Dinner time at the old dining hall

One of the residential sections of the resort

Our room at Wildgrass Resort

Poor Alovi sleeping through a high fever

Assamese dancing troupe entertaining the resort's guests

...but my brother was the only tourist brave enough to accept an invitation to join the dancers on stage