Nepal’s Royal Chitwan National Park is home to wild tigers, domesticated elephants and an abundance of the Indian One Horned Rhinoceros. Occasionally, it needs to unload rhinos on Bardiya, Nepal’s other major tarai reserve.
Long before it was demarcated into nation-states, the Indus-Ganga-Brahmaputra belt that constitutes the northern half of South Asia was one long, wild tract where the rhinoceros ruled supreme. Indus Valley civilisation court seals indicate the presence of the rhino in today’s desert-like Pakistani Punjab, and dense jungles and riverine forests all the way across to the Lohit in Assam, provided ideal habitat until the human population became sedentary and needed to clear the jungle. And clear it did, from before the time of Siddhartha Gautam (Buddha) more than 2.5 millennia ago, through the rise and fall of various indigenous dynasties, through the Mughal years and down through the imperial times to the modern era. What remained by the 1950s of this great South Asian jungle swath were tracts in the Nepal Tarai and in Assam, and these were the only two places on earth where the South Asian rhino continued to exist in significant numbers. Even today, these forests are a fraction of what they once were, and now what is left of rhino country is protected as national parks.
This is where the Royal Chitwan National Park comes in, a former hunting preserve of the Ranas of the Kathmandu Durbar, which in the last quarter-century has earned a name as one of the best managed wildlife preserves of South Asia. So successful has it been, through erstwhile royal patronage, that the Chitwan rhino population is larger than its forested flats and grasslands can handle. The park needs to ‘export’ them.
I was sent to Chitwan to learn about the rhino relocation programme for a Kathmandu newspaper whose over-worked regular staff was stretched that weekend. The trip to Chitwan involves a ‘four hour’ bus ride from Kathmandu to the park. I use inverted commas because that estimate assumes certain ideal conditions, none of which applied to our trip. After leaving from Kathmandu’s Thamel neighbourhood an hour late, a truck accident delayed us for another hour before we even reached the Trisuli-Narayani River Valley, which constitutes the principle leg of the Kathmandu-Chitwan journey.
After clearing the accident, the bus driver pulled over for a tea break 2.5 hours and 50 km into the trip. Nepal’s Maoist struggle is being played out principally in the countryside, and while there is a State of Emergency in place and news of massacres is all too common, there is a curious languidness with which Nepalis seem to countenance the situation. Across from the roadside teashop hung a red banner written in English: “Long Live Communism-Marxism-Maoism! Pranchanda Path!” Were the people too afraid /supportive of the Maoists to take the sign down, and what of the policemen who patrol the highway in pickups? ‘Let us live and let live while we kill elsewhere’ seemed to be the unwritten code that left this banner fluttering defiantly in its place.
After stopping for an extended lunch and for several military checkpoints, we reached Chitwan at around 3 pm. Our ‘four hour’ trip, for which I had awakened at 6:15, was finally complete. The purpose of the visit was, of course, to learn about the rhino relocation programme beginning the next morning. We suffered through a two-hour official briefing on the subject before being deposited inside the national park for dinner. There are seven ‘inside’ resorts, or concessions, inside Chitwan Park today, following the precedent set by the American-managed premium resort, Tiger Tops. It was Tiger Tops which started elephant safaris and jungle walks by local guides, and until environmental correctness took over, the resort allowed tigers to maul tethered buffalo calves for the benefit of tourist viewing.
Today, with the buffalo bait a thing of long ago, tourists have to be lucky to view even a tiger dropping in Ch1twan. But there are rhinos aplenty, and the area around the Sauraha entry point (which has developed budget lodges much like Kathmandu’s Thamel quarter) in particular sports many ‘tourist rhinos’. These human-friendly beasts engage in leisurely mastication and provide tourists with enough opportunity to photograph their (the rhinos’) formidable flanks, sideways, full-frontal with horn, and backside with its tiny twitching tail.
Many budget lodges and so-called resorts now dot the national park’s northern boundaries, on the ‘outside’ of the Rapti River, the park’s northern frontier. Sauraha has the heaviest concentration of lodges as well as tourist knick-knack stores and Internet cafes. The inside resorts are said to have great leverage over park officials, which seems logical given the higher level of income and influence of their proprietors. At the resort whe.re we were brought in for dinner, the presence of a solder drinking in uniform at the reception seemed to offer indirect confirmation of influence-peddling.
The Royal Nepal Army guards the Chitwan jungle together with the National Park Warden and his forest guards, and the two together have done a creditable job of keeping poachers out of the jungle. The Maoist threat, at present, has restricted the army presence within the park to only seven locations, thereby leaving large sections unguarded, leading to fears that rhino poaching may rise yet again. The other impact of the rise of Nepali Maoism has been the ban on khar khadai collection this winter. During February every year, Park authorities used to allow villagers entry into the forest for a period of two weeks to collect reeds and grasses for thatch roofing, fencing and the like. Villagers from all over Chitwan valley would descend on the national park and carry away a year’s worth of thatch and fencing, while also carefully bundling dead and fallen timber. This year, there was no khar khadai, and this has affected the poorest of the poor, particularly the Tharu indigenes.
Chitwan is a wide inner-Tarai (bhitri madhes) valley that was completely forested with riverine and Sal (shorea robusta) jungle as late as the 1960s. Before the hill people of Gorkha, Syangha and Lamjung descended from the hills to colonise Chitwan in the 1960s and 1970s, only the Tharu inhabited its vast jungle. These jungle people, immune to malaria, lived in patches on the forest floor and were the unacknowledged lords (and ladies) of Chitwan until American aid and the World Health Organistaion arrived with the programme of malaria eradication. Once the anopheles was tackled, it suited King Mahendra to promote his plan of settling the plains as much as possible with hill people as a way of ensuring that hill Nepalis inhabited the land rather than migrants coming up from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. With the encouragement of His Majesty’s Government, the hill people flooded down to colonise the forests that were first finished off with the authorities’ blessings by timber contractors. The forest receded till as far as the Rapti river to the South, which was when the king and government alike woke up to the need to preserve at least a part of the Chitwan forest.
On the night of our dinner in the park, the guests huddled in the sparsely lit areas while the forest’s trees haunted us silently from all sides. The pre-dinner ‘cultural presentation’ (which is a fairly standard feature in all of Chitwan’s concessions) involved local Tharu boys performing a stick dance for the assembled guests. The dozen-odd dancers coordinate a cyclical train of moving bodies, thrashing sticks against their partners’ in a performance that is both amazingly well coordinated and provides its own musical beat. The crowd seemed appreciative at first, but after the whisper chain communicated the arrival of dinner, only a few guests remained for the dance’s close, myself not included. Such is the fate of ‘cultural’ performances that are reduced to pre-dinner spectacles at tourist lodges.
At 8 am ‘sharp’ the next morning (at least according to the pre-arranged itinerary), we were deposited back at the inside camp to board elephants. The rhino programme is a joint effort of international donors, national NGO conservationists and government officials charged with animal protection. The much-publicised success of the programme over the years has assured that more than a dozen VIPs, local and expatriate, will be on hand to watch the annual relocation. This year, four ambassadors and several top Nepali bureaucrats made the trip to Chitwan.
The morning of the relocation played witness to a comedy of more than one hundred people stuffed onto 40 elephants and their howdahs coordinated in the pursuit of a solitary rhino. Royal Nepal Army troops took up positions on elephants with their automatic rifles, and one wondered if they were protecting the diplomats from Maoists or the wild animals. The howdahs themselves are not the elaborate wickerwork structures of yesteryear, but wooden joists balanced on jute bags where the legs dangle down the elephants sides – which make for a fairly uncomfortable ride once you begin to notice it.
During the Rana period, similar processions witnessed British royalty and assorted viceroys being feted by the Kathmandu oligarchs, who requisitioned hundreds of elephants to entrap and dispatch leopards, tigers, rhinos, sloth bear, wild boar and chital deer.
The national park is a 938 sq. km odd polygon carved out of the central Nepal Tarai, and India’s Bihar state is within a stone’s throw of its southern boundary. The word ‘tarai’ is thought to come from Persian and means ‘damp’, which is a well-suited description of this land watered by the Rapti and numerous tributaries. The late King Birendra created the country’s first national park in 1973 out of land that his father had demar-cated as the Mahendra Deer Park fourteen years earlier. Nepal’s conservation history dates back to 1957, when the first rhino protection law was passed (Assam, India, created the first South Asian rhino reserve in 1907).
In 1986, the country initiated a major rhino translocation programme to help keep the Chitwan population at a manageable size and create a viable population in the Bardiya forest, about 350 kilometres to the west along the East-West Highway. The first South Asian rhino translocation took place in India in 1984, although Nepal has better developed its programme over the years – Indian conservation officials were on-hand this year to learn about translocation techniques.
Back at our rhino rodeo, the single beast we were stalking was driven out by the phalanx of elephants into one of Chitwan’s many grasslands, which are rhinos’ ideal habitat with their abundant shoots to munch and water holes in which to wallow. Once the rhino was in the elephant grass, the mahout drivers arranged the elephants in a line at the edge of the trees to prevent rhinos from escaping into the underbrush. The “lead elephant” carried a park official near to the none-too-happy-looking rhino, which received a tranquiliser dart on its hind quarters. The animal succumbed to the sedation within fifteen minutes, after swaying in an unsteady stupor for some time. A cloth was put to cover the rhino’s eyes, measurements were taken, and a tractor dragged the animal into a wooden cage.
Interest in rhinos is not limited to modern diplomats sitting haunch-to-haunch on the backs of elephants. In earlier times, hunting expeditions established kings as rulers of the wild, in addition to rulers of men. Emperor Zahir-ud-Din Babur – who led Mongol, Turkish, Iranian, and Afghan invaders into South Asia to establish the Moghul Dynasty in the early sixteen century – reportedly hunted rhinos near the Indus in 1519. Babur’s great-grandfather, Timur (Tamerlane), sacked Delhi in 1398 and hunted rhinos in north Punjab in the same year. Rhinos can also serve a useful diplomatic purpose. The sixteenth century King of Canbay sent his Portuguese counterpart a rhino from the port of Goa – the prehistoric origins and looks of the rhino gives it an exoticism that faraway rulers have found riveting. In more recent history, Nepal has provided some of its ‘excess’ rhinos to foreign zoos for consideration of foreign aid and goodwill.
The Great Indian One-Horned Rhino is distinguished by its single horn and its armour plating. According to Hindu lore, the rhino received these skin shields as a gift from Lord Krishna, who wished to replace arrow-vulnerable elephants with a more compact battle animal. Krishna captured a rhino and bestowed upon it the leg plates and trained it to fight. The problem was that the rhino lacked the mental capacity of the elephant to comprehend and follow orders, so it was driven back into the forest. Perhaps Krishna was hasty in his rejection: There are some ancient accounts of Indian kings using rhinos in battle as ‘tanks’ by fastening tridents to their horns and sending them in front of advancing infantry. In point of fact, the shields of all ancient infantry in the Subcontinent used rhino leather.
The shikars (hunts) of the rajas and maharajas, while they were high profile events, did not really make a dent in the rhino population of South Asia. The real loss in numbers came with the disappearance of the jungles over the centuries, and with the sudden loss of the little remaining terrain (in Nepal and Assam) to expanding population in the twentieth century. Today Chitwan is one of the westernmost habitats of the rhino; habitat destruction in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh has prevented rhinos from repopulating their ancestral homelands.
In this context, the rhino revival in Chitwan is significant. Out of a total remaining South Asian rhino population of about 2000, Chitwan alone boasts 542 rhinos, according to the most recent Chitwan animal census from two years ago. There are various unconvincing uses that the rhino’s various body parts are put to, and the use of rhino hide as shields for foot soldiers was probably the only truly utilitarian use. When new kings ascend the throne in Nepal, they are supposed to do an esoteric puja astride the carcass of a dead rhino. Rhino urine is said to treat all kinds of maladies from rheumatism to skin disease, and the fluid kept in little bottles hangs in houses as a talisman. In Chitwan, village kids (with guts) rush up behind rhinos to collect the liquid as the beasts urinate – this being not as difficult an exercise as it sounds because the rhino is built like a tank and, like tanks, finds its hard to turn and get at someone on its behind.
Besides habitat loss, poaching is the most proximate reason for the rhino presently an endangered species. Most rhino’s are poached for their horns’ perceived aphrodisiac properties. The horn’s use as the handle for the knives of Arabia, too, is a problem. South Asia is a ‘materially poor’ region, as they say, and so there are enough members of society willing to kill rhino to fulfill the libido of Han Chinese, whose traditional medicine attributes special powers to the rhino horn. A debate is currently raging among conservationists in different rhino countries about whether stocks of dead rhinos’ horns should be put on the market or whether this would only generate greater interest and provoke poaching.
Interestingly, the rhino ‘horn’ is not even a horn, but compressed hair – keratin fibres – cemented into a harden mass to the flesh. Like so many other Subcontinental artefacts, the largest recorded South Asian rhino horn (two feet long) now resides in the British Museum.
Back to the site of the rhino capture. Poaching and loss of its keratin- laden horn was the least of the captured animal’s worries at the moment. Rhinos are, in a word, wild – they are not keen on capture and enclosure. Once the animal was loaded into its transport cage under the inspecting eyes of the dignitaries, veterinarians administered an antidote so that the animal would be conscious during the long road trip to Bardiya. The captured rhino reacted quite badly to its new surroundings once awakened, rocking against the cage’s wooden walls. A German film crew that was peering in pulled back in haste. The rhino’s antics alarmed the circled VIP’ed elephants, one of which then charged the assembled crowd, sending people fleeing. As I took shelter behind the cage, I wondered fleetingly about the state of ‘donor funding’ for the state of Nepal, already burdened by so many tragedies, if a whole gaggle of ambassadors were to be trampled by Asian Elephants stampeding as the result of a Great Indian One Horned Rhinoceros. Fortunately, Nature’s revenge on mankind proved benign, with the caged-animal quickly calmed and my deliberations on post-disaster foreign aid applications rendered moot. The translocation organisers wisely decided not to tempt fate again and hustled away the dignitaries to an elephant breeding centre. There is another successful breeding programme within the national park for the gharial crocodile – although it would make as much sense to maintain a rhino breeding centre, one would think.)
Chitwan and 9/11
Chitwan is both a wildlife reserve and a tourist destination — in fact allowing resorts within the boundaries of the national park is said to go against international concessions. The concession owners appear to be aware of this anomaly and seem to be preparing for the day when public opinion will swing towards non-renewal of their contracts. Against such a day, most have already bought up choice properties along the Rapti and Narayani rivers, but they clearly mean to stay within the park as long as they are allowed.
In the Chitwan area, more than 90 percent of revenue comes in from the tourist dollar and the park can only exist as a wildlife preserve if local residents consider the existence of wild animals to be more of a benefit than a nuisance. The United Nations has a ‘Park and People’ project underway, which seeks to help develop the social and economic infrastructure in the villages surrounding parks and help villagers take advantage of wildlife areas. As the case is, the bulk of the income from wildlife tourism in Chitwan is taken by ‘outside’ businesses. ‘Outside’, however, is a relative term – it can be a company owned by Western interests, or a Kathmandu Valley businessman, or the lodge-owner from the district headquarters of Bharatpur, or the market-savvy recent migrants who have colonised Chitwan Valley. At the bottom of the totem pole are the Tharu, who with a few exceptions man the lower rungs of the tourism industry of Chitwan.myuen is an odd little place. Its owner is Emily Lin, a Chinese national born in Lanking who first visited Chitwan as a tourist back in January 2001. She met a local man, Rajesh Puri, and returned the following summer to invest USD 6500 to open the only Chinese restaurant in the area. With the help of Rajesh’s younger brother, Gopal, they opened Namyuen on 9 September, just in time to take advantage of the annual postmonsoon tourist onslaught. Or so they thought. Opening a tourist venture the second week of September 2001 proved to be as inauspicious as things can get. Nepal’s tourism has been reeling under multiple onslaughts of the Maoist activity of the last few years, the Narayanhiti royal massacre of 1 June 2001, and 11 September. Even though the country’s resilient tourism industry was able to withstand the other bodyblows, the war in Afghanistan, added to India-Pakistan tensions following the 13 December militant attack on the Indian Parliament, proved too much. Tourism arrivals plummeted, and investors, professionals, service staff, labourers and countless others have all been affected. In Chitwan everyone suffers, from the lodge owners to the elephant mahouts and forest guides.
Back at Namyuen, Lin and Puri admit that things have not turned out as planned, but hold out hope that their sagging fortunes might reverse in the coming months. “Because I’m not educated, I could not find another job,” says Rajesh. “But I could work in a restaurant. I want to be busy.”
The next morning, with the first batch of rhinos safely on the road, my hosts decided to send me back to Kathmandu to write my article. After a rousing night at the Rhino Lodge bar, I packed my bags and dragged my involuntary form onto the bus at 7 am for the trip back to Nepal’s capital. I was unwillingly jolted awake on the bus by a heated discussion of Assamese politics by the visiting Guwahati conservationists and veterinarians, after which I struggled against the window for some much-needed sleep. However, before restocking my reserves, we pulled off at the same teashop we had stopped at two days before. I sank silently into one of the benches and noticed that the red Maobaadi banner was still hanging across the road. After finishing my tea, I walked over and read the sign again before reboarding the bus.
During a Maoist strike in February, I read that soldiers shot and killed a man as he hung a Maoist sign on a street corner in Kathmandu. Yet here no one seemed to notice the banner, and after three days it was still hanging within the clear sight of the very road that hundreds of soldiers drove on every day. The previous day, Maoists had killed a solider in an ambush in Chitwan, which brought home the strange reality of a country which survives on tourist revenue even in the midst of a bloody Communist insurgency. I walked back to the bus a little puzzled, but Nepal can often be a confusing place for outsiders. When it comes down to it, that’s part of the country’s charm.
The Shrine of the Mind’s Wish
Midway between Kathmandu and Chitwan, on the highway along the Trisuli River, a line of cable cars is on the move. They start low, cross the river and rise nearly vertically hundreds of feet to disappear into the mid-day clouds that hug the hillside. This is the Manakamana Cable Car, the longest in South Asia, which leads up to the hilltop shrine from which it takes its name.
Manakamana – the shrine of the mind’s wishes – is an ancient power place that goes back beyond the days when Prithvi Narayan Shah of Gorkha ventured out in conquest to unify Nepal. Indeed, Manakamana rests on a long ridgeline that goes all the way to the fortress town of Gorkha, a few hours’ walk away. One indication of Manakamana’s antiquity is the non-Brahmin officiating priest. He comes from the Magar ethnic group, one that has historically inhabited the lower midhills of central Nepal, the upper midhills being the preserve of the Gurung community. (Some historians think that the ruling Shah dynasty of Nepal is of Magar extraction.)
Until just a few years ago, the trip to Manakamana was a grueling four-hour hike up unforgiving terrace-farmed slopes. A family of successful development contractors from Narayanghat in Chitwan decided that the hilltop shrine provided the best location for a viable cable car. They contracted a top-of-the-line Austrian cable car company to set up the ropeway, and the gamble has paid off. It is said that the cable car has already paid for itself in a handful of years, and the company continues to pack it in.
The meaning of the pilgrimage has definitely been affected, if it means that you gain merit by toiling up the slope to Manakamana. Instead, today you travel upwards comfortably in a six-seater cable car. The ride can be an experiment in the surreal, of blended discordant realities. On the car ride up, I sat between an American tourist with a Nikon camera and a Hindu pilgrim holding a rooster intended for sacrifice. Such ironies are not uncommon here, as the porters who continue to carry 80-kg loads up the hillside underneath the pathway of the cable cars can testify.
Manakamana’s history dates back to the reign of Gorkha King Ram Shah (1606-1633). According to legend, the King’s wife possessed divine powers, which were known only to the Queen and her mentor, Lakhan Thapa. When the monarch discovered his wife’s powers, he died at the moment of revelation. As the Queen prepared to commit sati on her husband’s pyre, she confided in the distraught Lakhan that she would reappear near his home, as she did several months later. The new king granted Lakhan the right to build a temple at the site and to serve as its priest. His lineage has continued to protect and serve Manakamana, and the current Thapa-Magar pujari is a seventeenth generation descendant of the original priest.
The cable car delivers its passengers to the southward flank of the ridge on which the Malla-period two-tiered pagoda temple rests. The ropeway station is far enough from the shrine that a new hilltop town has come up along the curving path that leads up – enough space to create tourist and pilgrim traps that seem to have left the townsfolk nice and happy at their good fortune. Our visit coincided with the eve of Maha Shivaratri (The Day of Shiva), and there appeared to be a flux of pilgrims to the site and notably few Western tourists intruding on the scene. The temple itself is located in the northwest corner of a stone plaza, behind which a low wall demarcates the site of animal sacrifice. A young boy’s cries filled one corner as his parents struggled to shave his head in a bratabandha (mundan) ceremony. Scraps of hair littered the cobblestones beneath the boy’s struggling body, next to which Hindu mendicants chanted from scrolls.
For the pilgrims, the centre of attention is the sanctum sanctorum of the Manakamana temple, where resides the deity Bhagawati to grant all wishes of the mind. For the tourist – local or foreign – attention will be drawn northwards at the nearby panorama of Gorkha Himal, and its peaks of Manasulu, Himalchuli and Baudha, which tower over the low midhills. Visible from up here is the nearby hill trading post of Bandipur across the Marsyangdi river valley, and the districts of Kaski, Lamjung and Gorkha. To the south is Chitwan and the tarai and India beyond.
‘Religious tourism’ is a difficult task, and one which should involve self-imposed limitations on the part of the visitor. The struggle of a place like Manakamana – one that has been invaded by a cable car – is one of self-definition. It is a site now required to awkwardly reconcile its earlier role of holy worship with the new function as a tourist destination. Purists would ban tourists from the site, but tourists also bring in the money that sustains the temple and the locals. Besides, tourists are no longer just the Westerners – Nepalis and Indians come as hybrid pilgrim-tourists. Manakamana therefore emerges as a showcase of the odd juxtaposition of the ‘modern’ and the traditional, of cable cars and porters, Kit Kat wafers and dal bhat.