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Friday, April 29, 2016

Biswanath Ghat, the abode of Shiva

Assam has many tourist gems which are not well known among the general public. One such gem is the Biswanath Ghat which is located near Biswanath Chariali town in the recently formed Biswanath district.

A view of the river beach along the Brahmaputra 

Located on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra, the place is named after the ancient Biswanath temple. It is called Gupta Kashi, in comparison with Kashi during the golden rule of the Guptas. Going by popular sayings, Kashi was home to temples housing about 330 million gods and goddesses. The ghat has a cluster of more than 100 temples in the vicinity. A Shiva temple, which was the erstwhile Biswanath temple, was located at the confluence of Bridhaganga (Burigonga) river with Brahmaputra. But now what is left of it are just the stone posts, beams and other ruins. During the summer the temple remains under water. Only in winter, worship is done by constructing temporary shed which draws lots of tourists. 

Biswanath Ghat, though a religious place, makes for a perfect tourist destination during the winters. The water level of the Brahmaputra recedes with the coming of the winter and gives way to lush golden riverine sand beaches for tourists to explore. The lowered water level also brings most of the rocks in the small riverine bay out from below the water and they make a magnificent view.

A view of the riverine bay at Biswanath Ghat 

There is also an island is present nearer this Biswanath Ghat which is known as island of Umatumuni. This island is a tourist spot as it houses a tourist lodge and also some remnants of an old temple. Just on the opposite bank of the Brahmaputra lies the majestic Kaziranga National Park, and in the far distance, you can see the hills of Karbi Anglong. 

People are also highly recommended to visit the place during the festival of Rongali Bihu. The third day of the festival, known as Goxai Bihu, becomes a big affair here as devotees gather in large numbers to join in the festivities and take out a religious procession in the area.

The Bordol Temple 

The ghat has several temples and many of them are worthy of looking around. A new Biswanath temple was built in the village in the area and it is worth paying a visit to. There are several smaller temples in the area and it is said that there are many more yet to be discovered which lie hidden or remain submerged under the river. Perhaps the most magnificent temple to be seen here is the Bordol Temple built by the Ahom king Rajeswar Singha. This temple has the same architectural design of the famous Shiva Dol temple of Sivasagar and is a brilliant example of the Ahom style of architecture.

Reaching Biswanath Ghat is not a problem. Once you reach Biswanath Chariali town, you can either take a taxi or an autorickshaw to the place which about 30 minutes away from the town. There are also several options of hotels and lodges in the town as well.

Biswanath Ghat makes a great option to visit along with family and friends during if you in the mood for some exploration and adventure. The place’s picturesque beauty will leave you spellbound and will continue to haunt you to make another visit sooner than you will think.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Reliving the golden era of comic books

Reading comic books is a pretty much dead trend nowadays in India. The number of people who read comics today is quite miniscule to the number that used to exist about twenty years back. Our entire childhood and early teens went away in the pursuit of collecting as many of the best comic book titles that were available back then.

Comic book reading as a hobby thrived throughout the 90s decade and died a slow but gradual death in the 2000s with the advent of internet and wider medium of entertainments along with it. In the last one decade, I have not come across one child who reads comic books. The few ones who do only do so because they happen to have a few stray copies in their possession or they came across older issues that were preserved by their parents or older siblings. But in my opinion, active comic book reading as a hobby has pretty much died out in India. Comic book reading exists today among a small group of enthusiasts throughout the country. Most of these readers are familiar with American titles from publishers such as DC and Marvel. The yearly holding of Comic Cons in various metropolitan cities does help keep the spark alive. But it is no longer the rage it used to be.

Most of the classic comic book characters have died out from public memory and the newer generation is pretty much unaware of them. Characters like Phantom, Mandrake, Flash Gordon, Garth, Rip Kirby, etc used to be widely popular among the masses during the 70s and 80s due to the publications of the legendary Indrajal Comics. Once that brand died out in 1990, these characters faded away. Diamond Comics continues publishing Phantom and Mandrake issues during the 90s, but the others just vanished after that. Along with these, the advent of the 90s saw the death of certain comic book characters that were indigenous to our country. Two of the most popular characters in this category are Inspector Vikram and Bahadur. While the inspector’s adventures centred on combating dacoits in the notorious Chambal valley, Bahadur too battled dacoits and other forms of organised crime as well. It is safe to assume that because of the existence of these characters, we saw the emergence of more popular comic book heroes such as Nagraj, Doga and even Chacha Chaudhary in the 90s.

While characters from DC and Marvel may be the favourites during the 90s and today as well thanks to Hollywood’s current infatuation with them, back in the 70s and 80s, most of the Indian youth rocked to the adventures of the Indrajal heroes. These comics were the first foreign origin ones to be translated into vernacular languages such as Hindi, Bengali, etc. While famous cartoon characters like Tintin and Asterix also got translated into vernaculars around the same time, they never reached out to the mass readers the way the Indrajal heroes did. Their reach extended to far flung areas of the country and influenced youngsters into being a part of the greater pop culture that Indian youth was experiencing back then. In several areas of the northeast, Indrajal Comics sold like hot cakes upon their arrival. The English, Hindi and Bengali versions were big hits in the towns of Assam and most of the older generations who grew up in the 70s or 80s identify solidly with Phantom just as 90s and today’s youngsters identify with characters like Batman or Superman.

The effect of these comics in remote areas such as northeast was immense. Back in the 70s and 80s, communication was quite backward in most of the region. TV had not yet made a dent into the homes here and radio was widely popular but lacked in the visual medium. These comics became the source of entertainment for millions of youngsters who sought adventure and icons among characters such as Phantom and Mandrake. When I browse through the old issues of these comics, I find that there are several instances where letters of fans from states such as Assam, Manipur and Mizoram appear in the ‘letters to editor’ sections. This clearly shows the wide reach these comics did in even remote areas of the country. Sadly, this open indulgence of fans from India’s remote northeast quite vanished once Indrajal shut down shop in 1990.

These comics also began the trend of introducing their heroes in vernacular languages. The one character that benefitted the most from this translation game was Phantom, who became famous in most households as ‘Betaal.’ Most of the non-English reading masses made Betaal a cult figure that many of the older generations still remember. In the 90s, Diamond Comics translated most of the Phantom and Mandrake issues into vernaculars. Thankfully, Assamese made it to the list as well and we no longer had to do with the Bengali comics any more.

The comic trend that was kicked off by Indrajal in the 70s and 80s was picked up by other publishers such as Manoj Comics, Kiran Comics and most notably, Amar Chitra Katha, which reintroduced Indians to Hindu mythology and Indian history in illustrated comic format like never before. The AMC’s Tinkle comic book magazine was an absolute rage during the decade of 90s and it was a weekly affair for every child to covet the latest edition of the magazine.

The 90s saw the rise of the Indian superheroes with the advent of Raj Comics in the late 80s. Their characters such as Nagraj, Super Commando Dhruv, Doga and Tiranga ruled the roost in the 90s among Indian comic book fans. While there is no denying that most of these characters were just rip offs of some of the world renowned superheroes from the DC and Marvel comics, Indian comic book fans finally got a range of home bred superheroes. The Indian comic book superhero reached a stage of maturity where writers and illustrators did not shy away from showing matured content and complex storylines in their issues.

Diamond Comics also sparkled the 90s era with beloved comic characters such as Chacha Chaudhary, Sabu, Billoo, Pinky, Raman, etc. They also had their own range of superheroes such as Fauladi Singh, Agniputra-Abhay and Tauji. The brand became the only source for the older generations from the 70s and 80s to read Phantom and Mandrake comics in the 90s after the demise of Indrajal.

The deep rooting of TV throughout India during the early 90s and also the coming of cable TV brought Indians into newer avenues of entertainment. Children were exposed to various cartoons from foreign shores and also foreign comic brands like DC and Marvel began to aggressively push sales in a vast country like India. The onslaught of this foreign assault was too much to be borne by our Indian comic book publishers. The new millennium saw a spark in the sale of foreign comic books in comparison to the Indian ones. Characters like Batman, Superman and Spider-Man took centre stage among Indian comic readers rather than the home bred ones. Somehow I feel Indian comic book makers could not reinvent themselves to the needs of the changing times that the new millennium brought in with it.

While Raj Comics and Diamond Comics still continue to publish their titles, they are no longer the rage today anymore among the youngsters. Sadly, the comic book reading culture among young Indians has died out today after the advent of internet and various options available in the visual medium. Comic book reading is an almost dead hobby in India today, much like stamp collecting. Though a sizeable number of comic book readers still exist, they are nothing compared to the huge numbers that once existed throughout the country about twenty years ago.

Comic book reading culture saw a rising phase throughout the 70s and 80s and reached its golden climactic era in the 90s. The comic books we see today are but remnants of that bygone era that we have lived as children during the 90s. It is rather difficult for me to explain to today’s youngsters how important characters like Phantom and Mandrake mattered to young Indians once. Or how cool it was to own comic book issues of Indian superheroes such as Nagraj and Doga.

Today’s youngsters mostly call themselves fans of characters like Batman and Superman only after watching the movies or going through their animated series on the TV or internet. But most of them have sadly missed out the larger fun of picking up their comics and discovering them panel by panel in an illustrated comic book format.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

No Home for Leopards!

Guwahati is a unique city. While it is a hustling and bustling metropolis on one hand, on the other hand it is a city that has ample amount of unabashed natural beauty. The hills that surround Guwahati are special as they house some of the wild beauties that other city goers don’t usually get to see at such close quarters. And yet this natural beauty has been upset by the increasing urbanisation and encroachment into the forest areas. And the worst casualties in this mayhem have been the leopards.

Guwahati has been home to a sizeable leopard population that has thrived in its surrounding hills and the forest areas. Over the last three decades, Guwahati has expanded in all directions and this growing urbanisation has eaten up most of the city’s natural forest cover that has been a part of it since time immemorial. While the need to create houses for the increasing populace of Guwahati continues to exert pressure, the traditional leopard habitat has been hit hard with most of their homes been taken over by the concrete structures. This has resulted in increased man-leopard conflict over the past few years that has reached a worrying level today.

Once, leopards were found in almost all the hills in and around Guwahati. Over the last few decades, their habitats have been destroyed due to encroachment and destruction of forest covers over the hills. The city is no longer a safe zone for leopards as per most conservationists and experts and it is only a matter of time before the resident leopards of Guwahati go completely extinct. Leopards have already been exterminated from the main hill of Nilachal, the GMCH hill and the Nabagraha hill. Today most of the leopards in the city areas are concentrated in the hills at Maligaon and Pandu, where thankfully, the forest cover over the hills has also been largely intact so far.

But these habitats are also being threatened as more and more houses are being built adding more woes to the survival of Guwahati’s local leopards. Leopards normally live within rocky structures or caves where they rear their young. Most of such rocks on the hillsides are taken away and used up in the quarrying process for cement, leaving the leopard homeless. The loss of their habitat also means that they lose out on their natural prey due to the vanishing forest cover. As a result of this, they have to venture out into the city areas in search of food that brings them in direct conflict with man. The result is that we have had several news of leopards straying into the city areas and then being brutally put to death by a mob of panicked people.

The largescale encroachment of people into the forest areas over the hills has put the leopard population at stake today. What is surprising is that most of the encroachment has happened in the reserved forest areas of the hills as well but forest authorities are completely helpless in removing the encroachers from there. This is because of the political backing that these encroachers get due to vote bank politics and often we see violent resistance for any eviction drive.

The worst part is that the forest department seems to have no response mechanism to this growing threat of encroachment to Guwahati’s forest areas. There is no presence of any rapid action force in the forest department to look into immediate cases of encroachment. And it seems the government is not interested in forming strong anti-encroachment laws in the areas because of their rotten vote bank politics.

It is extremely important to save the leopards of Guwahati as they are the oldest residents of the city and not us humans. There should be strict laws whereby further encroachment should be stopped and strong mechanisms should be undertaken to empower the forest department to tackle the issues concerned. Translocation of the big cats should not also be ruled out and they can be taken away and resettled to other reserved forests where they can get ample food and shelter. It is still a better option than to silently watch these magnificent felines be killed due to mindless mob violence.

As per an estimate that is several years old, the total forest cover in the hills was just 13.60 percent. Today it is bound to be far less, given the ongoing encroachment, illegal logging and earth-cutting on the hills. Of the 7,023 hectares of hill land, about 2,642 hectares fall under reserve forests but a major part of even these protected forest covers lie destroyed and degraded due to encroachment and tree-felling.

Something needs to done fast in this regard before we have to experience the misfortune of lamenting the demise of the last leopard of Guwahati. Afterall, if you think deeply, it is we who have invaded their territory and not the other way around. 

The beautiful world of Pobitora

If you are someone who itches for a peek of nature and wildlife then there are lots of options for you since you are living in Assam. For someone in Guwahati though, the options are not bad considering that the Deepor Beel birds sanctuary is quite nearby. Also, there are several hills around the city that allow nature lovers a peek into some local wildlife. But if you are itching for a real safari experience then again you should be thankful for being a Guwahatian.

Not far from the city, about 48 kms away in the Morigaon district is situated the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary. For those who feel that Kaziranga is too far away to fit in their hectic routines, a day’s getaway to Pobitora is a refreshing experience as it allows you to spend some time among the Great Indian One-Horned Rhinoceros. Covering an area of about 38.80 square kilometres, Pobitora is perhaps the other most prolific place to witness the rhino in its wild glory after Kaziranga.

Reaching there is no hurdle as it is just about an hour ride away from Guwahati. But yes, do take your own vehicle as there are no bus services till there. I had lived all my life in Guwahati, but got to visit the place only recently. The sanctuary is quite close to Mayong and even covers a small hillock in the Raja Mayong area. The area for effective rhino habitat is only about 16 square kilometres. So one good thing is you don’t to travel long distances within the sanctuary to catch a glimpse of the magnificent beasts.

Pobitora is quite an interesting place. It is surrounded from all side by villages and has a strict area boundary unlike Kaziranga where sometimes the boundaries blur with human settlements. There are reportedly about 93 rhinos within the sanctuary and if reports are to be believed, it has become overpopulated for the species. Most of the rhino grazing areas are near to the human settlements and the boundary is demarcated by a road running along the area. Cattle and livestock from the nearby villages roam carefree within the park area among the rhinos and other animals such as water buffaloes and wild boars. We went on a jeep safari ride and it was already late in the morning and we were surprised by the number of cattle present within the park area. The rhinos didn’t seem disturbed at all by the presence of the large number of cattle and livestock around them and peacefully carried on with their grazing.

The safari ride took us through a patch of area that had ample amount of shady trees that gave quite a picturesque look to the place. And on top of it you could see the cattle roaming in the area along with wild boars and rhinos in between. Pobitora is a beautiful place and some of the most picturesque locations if you are interesting in wildlife photography. But do remember to reach the place by 7 am if you want to enjoy an elephant ride safari.

Because of its comparatively smaller area to other sanctuaries, the problem of poaching is quite unheard of here, unlike Kaziranga where it is rampant. The rhinos have grown accustomed to the presence of humans and their livestock in their vicinity and hence peaceful coexistence prevails here. Apart from rhinos, the sanctuary also has a sizeable population of water buffaloes, wild boars and over 2000 varieties of birds and reptiles. There is no population of tigers or deer here. There are some leopards but their presence is only in the deeper areas of the sanctuary. Pobitora is a fine place to spot several species of birds, especially in the winters when migratory birds come in large numbers here.

Pobitora makes for a great day long getaway along with your family to witness the beauty of the wilderness in the presence of the magnificent rhinoceros. And the best part is it is quite close to a major city like Guwahati.