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India 2000

India - A Memorable Trip

By Hugh Westheuser

Hugh is a member of the Central Okanagan Naturalists Club and lives in Kelowna, British Columbia.

The first glimmer of pale light, signalling a new dawn, back-lit the thick mist rising from the tall, swampy grass of Kaziranga National Park in the eastern Province of Assam.  Our group of 18 Canadians swayed precariously on the backs of nine elephants as they pushed through the grass and water.  Without warning a Great Indian Rhinoceros [Rhinoceros unicornis] loomed out of this mix of murk and grass.  At a signal from the mahouts, the elephants converged on the rhino, unwittingly surrounding it.  Known as an animal with little intelligence, bad temper, and poor eyesight, the rhino instinctively responded to this apparent threat to its safety by making grunts, moans and intimidating gestures with its head and single horn.  Responding to the rhino, the huge bull elephant, its long ivory tusks jutting forward from an upraised trunk, and the two female elephants with calves at their sides, trumpeted a spine-tingling threat that left the human audience fascinated and thrilled.  The rhino, now thoroughly intimidated by this apparent show of force, quickly wheeled around and faded into the long grass, while the mahouts guided their charges away from any confrontation, and towards the more benign grazing deer in the park.  Fifteen minutes later the elephants halted at the edge of a pond, and a mahout, imitating the sound of a baby rhino, called an adult rhino to within 30 feet of the elephants.  These were just two thrilling moments in a long list of interesting daily experiences during our November 2000 trip to this fascinating country.

We toured only a small part of India on a trip led by Kelly Sekhon of the Vancouver Natural History Society.  Although this was ostensibly a "birding" trip, (we did see over 200 species that were new to most of us) Kelly managed to expose us to something new and original every day.  In fact, the trip could be divided into three components: the people of India; the splendours of India; and India's Natural History.  Each of these elements contained more life experiences in one hour than many other trips do in total, with the highlight being our encounters with the people of India.

First one must come to grips with the fact that India has one billion people living in a land mass about the size of Canada's four western provinces.  Welfare and free lunches do not exist here.  Everyone must fend and provide for themselves and their family.  Observing this huge number of people from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus, you soon realize that an attitude of respect and accommodation for other people is inherent in the way Indians go about their daily tasks.  Initially we took the din from the honking of vehicle horns as a sign of frustration, which is what we would expect in North America.  But we soon realized it is a gesture of courtesy to let other drivers know you are about to pass, or that you want the right-of-way.  When the maneuver has been completed successfully, there is a second signal of thanks, again with the horn.  The ‘vehicle’ portion of the road is used by all: people, cattle, chickens, goats, pigs, bicycles, rickshaws, motorized rickshaws, motor cycles, cars trucks, buses, and so on.  To say it is congested is a gross understatement.  The width of the widest highway is often less than the width of our narrowest roadways.  Buildings and shops come right to the very edge of the road.  Every vehicle has not only a driver, but also an assistant driver.  The latter keeps track of the distance between the vehicle and other objects on the opposite side of the vehicle to the driver.

The large cities of Delhi, Calcutta, Agra, Jaipur, and to a lesser degree the smaller towns of Guwahati, Darjeeling, Gangtok, and Kalimpong, are teeming with people.  Kelly hired bicycle rickshaws one evening to take us from downtown Jaipur to our hotel on the outskirts of the city, about 30 minutes away in rush hour traffic.  Our eyes were already smarting from exhaust fumes long before we mounted the small two-person seat on the rickshaw.  With no lights, and minor hand signals, we crossed and re-crossed traffic lanes, as motor-cycles, cars, buses, camels, and cows careened past within inches in the dim light. Another unforgettable experience! Climbing down from the rickshaw at the hotel, one lady remarked that if she were a cat, she would probably have used up 3 or 4 lives in the course of the trip.  Others did not feel quite the same apprehension.  I suspect this is a matter of perspective and what one can tolerate in unfamiliar circumstances.

Kelly also took us to several rural villages.  Two were in the eastern province of Assam, and the third in Sikkim.  Here we had an opportunity to see how people live in close association with the land, in a way, one suspects, as they have lived for centuries.  Invited into a home, built on stilts, on the flood plains of the Brahmaputra River beside Kaziranga National Park, we climbed up a pole staircase, with steps notched into the log.  The interior was a single room, with a pole floor, and a cement slab in the center, on which a fire burned.  Overhead, much of the roof was black from the smoky fire.  Small fish from the nearby river were cooking in the smoke.  Pots and pans hung above the stove.  Mats were rolled up to the walls, and were brought down for sleeping purposes only.  Everything was in its place, neat and tidy.

In Sikkim, near the village of Martam, we were invited into a house for tea.  Situated almost in the shadow of the third highest mountain in the world, Mount Kanchenjunga, this home was built among the rice paddies terraced down the steep mountainside.  The kitchen was an open, roofed shelter outside the bedroom quarters, spotlessly clean and tidy.  Water ran continuously through a bamboo pipe from much higher up the mountain, onto the ground at the corner of the kitchen.  A garden full of vegetables, fertilized with manure from the nearby barn, provided all the food necessary for the family.  The woman, who spoke no English, told our guide that her children were in school, and her husband was thrashing rice nearby.  After tea, we watched as the men literally thrashed a sheaf of rice on the ground to extract the grain.  Two bullocks continuously circling a stake finished the process by walking on and through the straw.  The people seemed part of the natural environment, working with it, with tools they produced themselves from materials found in the surrounding hills.  Nearby another farmer tended the small rice fields with two bullocks pulling a plow, harness and plow fashioned from rice-straw rope and wood.  Only the odd television antenna intruded on this tranquil picture of life in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains.

The splendours of India provided the third element of our visit.  Here I refer to the former luxurious, now somewhat decaying palaces and forts built by the feudal rulers of India in previous centuries.  The maharajas were wealthy people, and labour was cheap.  Yet stories told by our guides suggested these rulers made a concerted effort to govern with compassion and justice, despite their exploitation of cheap labour.  The Red Fort in Delhi is a huge fortified area, with high walls and castle-like buildings that could well have been lifted right out of ancient Europe.  Not only is it a tourist attraction, but units of the Indian Army are also housed within its walls.

The vibrant pink city of Jaipur (where we enjoyed the rickshaw ride mentioned earlier), founded in 1727 by the warrior-astronomer, Maharaja Jai Singh II, is another case in point.  His home, now a museum and tourist attraction is located in the heart of the city.  Women of the court could surreptitiously observe activities on the main street below one of the fort walls.  Nearby is a fascinating glimpse of how astronomy (and astrology) was scientifically examined by the maharaja.  Huge celestial instrument structures that could calculate the time of day, the monthly cycle of the moon, the location of the stars, and the signs of the zodiac as they swing through the night sky are laid out in elaborate fashion on a 10 acre lot.  Our hotel in Jaipur was still occupied by the descendants of one maharaja.  The old bedroom, with its canopy bed and elaborate bathroom, is now part of the building used by guests, including one of the couples in our party.  Nearby, Amber Fort, built on a hill to defend the maharaja from Mughal aggression, is also open to the public.  Today, one can take an elephant ride through the grounds, or quietly contemplate what it would be like to sleep in an elaborately decorated bedroom, the ceiling of which reflects back the flickering light of a candle, making it feel like one is sleeping beneath the stars and heaven.

Last, but not least, is the Taj Mahal in Agra.  Built for love, this poignant Mughal mausoleum is a very extravagant monument.  It was built of marble by the Emperor Shah Jahan, in memory of his wife, who had died in childbirth.  It is reportedly most beautiful in the moonlight, or at dawn, when the character of the building changes in different light.

Yes, India is full of 'lifers' - not only birds, but many other fascinating and interesting elements that make up this truly remarkable part of our planet.