A narrow, dusty road leading to the forest inspection bungalow (IB), cut through a massive and impressive marshland. I was elated to spot the first single-horned Rhino within minutes of entering Pobitora! The Rhino and its young were grazing miles away from us into vast expanse that looked more like an enormous grass field. The picturesque surroundings led to frequent pit-stops en-route to the IB. With little time at hand, we managed to gulp some food at a small home-cum-eatery at the forest gate. Rotis were served straight out of the pan onto our plates with some Subzi, Dal, pickle and onions. Pobitora, largely underdeveloped, has little trace of tourism. There aren’t any stand-alone hotels and resorts are only a handful. We got onto a gypsy, accompanied by a driver and a guide. A little ahead of the entrance, a baby elephant swayed merrily next to its tamed mom. Apparently, all the other elephants had been temporarily shifted to another location for a few days under the order of the forest department, thus hampering our plans to explore Pobitora on an elephant back. Our gypsy passed through some striking and placid landscapes with water bodies scattered in patches. Water birds were in abundance– Herons, Ibis, Terns, Ducks, Lapwings, Adjutant storks and more. We were told of a garbage site nearby where the shy and endangered adjutant storks were found in plenty! A little ahead of the swamps, the terrain gradually transformed into a grassland. A Rhino was spotted at close proximity, feeding next to a stunt tree, basking in the golden light of the setting sun. We had hardly moved a kilometer further on the trail, when our guide signaled the driver to stop, urgently. The gypsy halted abruptly, blowing a cloud of fine dust into the air. A robust Rhino stood under the canopy of woods, almost motionless. Fully grown and powerful; its heavy-duty muscles were clearly visible from a distance. It twitched its elfin, dusty orange ears occasionally. The Rhino, aware of our harmless presence, continued grazing peacefully, keeping a watchful eye on our movements. Pobitora also had a substantial population of deer, wild buffaloes, eagles jungle fowls and water birds. Mist had begun to settle over the extensive grassland and by around 4.30 pm, twilight took over. Deer and wild pigs ran timidly into the canopy of tall grass and peaked at us with curiosity from a distance. Pobitora saw only a bunch of tourists that day, all of whom had departed after the safari, except for us. The inspection bungalow faced a serene lake with a wooden hanging bridge. We spent some time in tranquility of the lake before we could leave to explore the darker side of Pobitora- the side ruled by black magic..
6 kms away from Pobitora, in a village called Mayang, a trim, cheerful man with a pony tail, Roninder Nath, welcomed us. Entering his dimly lit home provided quite a relief from the chilly December night of the forest. A few items including a wooden box, a scarf, towel and rice grains were kept on the sofa. Roninder narrated the history of his village. Mayang was infamous for black magic for ages and is dreaded by many even now for its sorcery. Though witchery and blind faith have been wiped out, its traces still prevail, but mostly in the form of harmless magic performed for entertainment. Magic ran in Roninder’s family for generations. He learnt the tricks from his father and is currently passing it on to his 4 year old son. After a brief rendezvous, Roninder demonstrates his first trick. He opens an empty wooden jewelry box. Seeking a concurrence from us that it is indeed empty, he shuts it and chants a Mantra. In a flash he flips open the box, which now contains a few currency notes! My gaze shifts to our driver, a native of Assam, who is petrified by the abracadabra! Next, Roninder places a bowl of rice grains into an open towel, instructing his son to hold the other end of it. ‘Magical’ water from a small bottle is sprinkled onto the grains while another hymn is chanted. He tosses the rice grains in the towel for a few seconds, transforming the grains into rice puffs or Poha! In his third trick, Roninder holds a coin under a small cloth asking us to touch and confirm its presence between his fingers. Within moments, he retrieves the coin from my spouse’s palms, while his hands are empty. In his last trick, he displays a medium sized “Jhola” or a pouch with a handkerchief dropped in it, asking us to identify the color. While I identify it as white, my spouse sitting at a distance from me, sees it as pink. This is repeated a few times, however, our answers remain constant. Thoroughly entertained by his magic, we thank Roninder and take this leave. The show isn’t over yet..
Not too far away, a museum dedicated to black magic awaited our visit. It felt like a scene straight out of a typical Bollywood horror movie. It was pitch dark and the lights were out. The caretaker of the museum was an old, skinny man, dressed in a white dhoti and kurta. As we followed him hurriedly under the faint light of his torch, I smelt a strong trail of toddy behind him. He unlocked the rusty lock and flung-open the squeaky gates, behind which, a dilapidated house-like structure stared into my face. Its door opened into a dingy room and I could sense that it hadn’t seen visitors for a long time. To the right, a replica of a group of men and a tiger was arranged in a semi-circle. The keeper tells me that this depicts the power of a specific mantra, which when read, is known to mellow down a ferocious tiger. “See, the tiger is actually bowing to the men with its front paws joined together”, he says. Vessels and cutlery in copper and brass in varied shapes and sizes were on display. I got curious about a heavy brass plate, almost the size of a drum lid with a small stand attached to its bottom. ‘Who Raja ki Thali hai’ (That’s the plate of the King), said the feeble, shivering voice. A host of daily-use household items, hunting weapons, tools and pottery had been haphazardly arranged in the room. The central wall had a line-up of frames with photographs of locals engaged in various acts of black magic and animal sacrifices or ‘Bali’. A huge glass cabinet placed at the centre of the hall contained primeval currency coins and neatly arranged books wrapped in red cloth. Each book had a description of the black magic it pertained to. Some Mantras were inscribed on palm leaves secured together with a thick jute thread. There were books with Mantras for wealth, love, power, fortune, ill-luck, destruction and so on. A chill ran down my spine on the very thought of a world that set its beliefs so deeply on blind faith and magic, not very long ago.
The squeaky gate closed behind me as we retreated from the museum. On our way back to Pobitora we were urged by our caretaker, Joton, to visit his home. It was a petite hut made of bamboo and dung, comprising of a small courtyard and a cowshed. The family barely earned anything, but their hospitality was heart-rending. There couldn’t have been a sweeter end to Pobitora, than munching on delicious Peethas* and Laddoos* served with love by his aged mom. All of this, amidst some piping-hot tea and conversations beyond language barriers with a warm family in the magical land hidden from the rest of world..
*Peetha– A savory made of rice flour.
*Laddoos– traditional Indian sweet usually made with sugar or jaggery combined with flour or coconut, shaped into a ball.
- Best time to Visit : October through April. Though April is the best since the grassland is almost dry.
- How to reach : Nearest airport is Guwahati. Hire a cab through a travel agent to reach Pobitora.
- Stay : A few resorts are available. You may choose to stay at the Forest Inspection Bungalow(IB). Contact Ashok Das-9435141158 for bookings. Rate is @ 1400 for room only.
- Safari related info : (do validate with the forest officer while booking). Elephant Safari is available only in the morning. Starts at 6/ 6.30 or 7 am depending on the season. Cost along with entry fee, cam charges and other fees is approx. 1800 INR Jeep safari available at noon : starts at 2.30 pm. All inclusive cost comes to 2200 INR approx.
- Things to do: Two safaris are sufficient. You may combine a visit to Kaziranga and Hoolongpar Gibbon sanctuary if you have 3 to 4 days at hand. However, since local commutation may be challenging, the same cab needs to be blocked for the whole trip in the interest of time. Don’t forget to visit Mayang and witness the world of magic!