My list of identified and photographed birds species at Thattekad(including record shots): 66. Pictures below the name list. Click here for my blog : THATTEKAD
Photo credits : Mihir Vilekar and self
- Srilanka Frogmouth -male and female (lifer)
- Malabar Trogon Male- male and female (lifer)
- Jerdon’s Nightjar (lifer)
- White-bellied Treepie (lifer)
- Malabar Grey Hornbill
- Rufous Treepie
- Vernal Hanging Parakeet
- Malabar Parakeet (lifer)
- Red Whiskered Bulbul
- Red Vented Bulbul
- Yellow Browed Bulbul
- Flame Throated Bulbul
- Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
- Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo
- Black Drongo
- Drongo Cuckoo (lifer)
- Streak-throated Woodpecker (lifer)
- Yellow-crowned Woodpecker (lifer)
- Lesser Yellow Naped Woodpecker (lifer)
- Lesser Goldenback Woodpecker
- Heart-spotted Woodpecker
- Bar-winged Flycatcher (lifer)
- White-bellied Blue Flycatcher (lifer)
- Little Cormorant
- Little Egret
- Great Egret
- River Tern
- Spot-billed Pelican
- Cotton Pygmy Goose (lifer)
- Bronze-winged Jacana
- Lesser Whistling Ducks
- Coppersmith barbet
- Grey Shrike
- Bay backed shrike
- Wood Shrike
- Asian fairy Bluebird-male and female
- Black Hooded Oriole
- Magpie Robin
- Hill Myna
- Orange Headed Thrush
- Spotted Dove
- Yellow-footed Green Pigeon
- Imperial Green Pigeon (lifer)
- Pompadour Green Pigeon
- Blyth’s Starling (lifer)
- Brahminy Starling
- Jungle Babbler
- Common Kingfisher
- Pied Kingfisher
- Stork-billed Kingfisher
- White throated Kingfisher
- Minivet- male and female
- Green Bee-Eater
- Chestnut Headed Bee-Eater
- Blue Cheeked Bee-Eater
- Grey Tit
- Red-Rumped Swallow
- Indian Nut thatch (lifer)
- Jungle Owlet
- Indian Coucal
- Jungle Fowl
- Red-wattled Lapwing
Hover mouse over the stacked images for description
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!
Under the faint luminescence of a crescent shaped moon that hung from a star-studded sky, we strolled the forests of Hollongpar on a cold December night. The silence around was deafening, except for the crumbling of withered leaves under our feet and the intermittent buzzing of crickets. While we hovered our torches along the length of the tall Hollong trees, our eyes prudently followed the narrow beams of light, searching for a rare and demure soul of the night. Not may know of Hollongpar –a sanctuary that lies approximately 160 kms to the east of the mighty Kaziranga. It is home to two endangered creatures of the animal kingdom, the Bengal Slow Loris and the Western Hoolock Gibbon- the only ape specie found in India. Slow Lorises are nocturnal and shy, making it extremely cumbersome to spot. Sanjib, our guide, had elevated our sprits stating that a Loris was sighted on a tree adjacent to the rest house just two days ago. So there was a high possibility that it hadn’t reached too far. We ventured into the forests in the dark of the night, scanning every single tree trunk on either sides of the trail. Almost an hour into the forest, there was no sign of the Loris. On a couple of instances, Sanjib took a deviation from the trail and disappeared into the bushes to try his luck, only to reappear with a dejected look on his face. As we inched further, the chances got bleaker. There was no way the Loris could have come this far with its snail-pace. My desperation even lead me into imagining a Loris hugging on to a Hollong tree, staring back at us with its nervous, yet watchful eyes gleaming like large fireflies. After about two hours of unsuccessful endeavours, we finally took a U-turn. Somewhere at the back of my mind, I knew that the probabilities of sighting such an evasive animal in a limited window of time were grim; almost null. However, the experience of exploring a pristine forest in the dark was so fulfilling that, not being able to see the Loris did not really matter any longer. Upon our return to the rest house, a huge Gecko peek-a-booed from behind a rusty cupboard. Dinner comprised of piping-hot Maggi cooked on wood-fire with onions and potatoes – undoubtedly the most perfect way to end a long day.
In the wee hours of dawn the next day,, we took the same trail, but this time our target was to track down a Hoolock Gibbon. Hollongpar had transformed from a mysterious piece of land under the moon the previous night to a celestial world that morning, illuminated by the golden rays of the sun piercing through the slightest opening in the canopy of a dense evergreen forest . The dry leaves were now wet with mist and dew drops dripped from the shrubs and trees. Butterflies and moths in vibrant colors and varied sizes fluttered everywhere. The quietude was blissful; almost meditative, only to be broken by sudden and loud echos of ‘wooooo-eh-wooooo-eh-woooooh-eh’. The shrieks were long and continuous, more like sounds coming off a wind instrument. Yes! It was the song of the Gibbons! Sanjib spotted the first Gibbon within seconds of hearing the calls and pointed towards the rustling of leaves amidst a cluster of Hollong trees a few feet away. The first gibbon was out for some sun-basking! It was perched so high up, that our necks began to hurt as we tried to follow its movements! Soon, a second gibbon with a baby clung to its chest joined in. A little ahead, we heard more calls. This time, there was an entire clan, settled on lower branches than the earlier pair! The males were furry and black with long white eyebrows. The females were white with a lovely orange and golden tinge to their fur. Spreading their ultra-wide arms, the Hoolocks swayed between branches with superb precision. They seemed to be self-entertaining! As the sun went higher, the jungle reverberated with gibbon calls from all corners. The forest floor was scattered with thousands of half-eaten Hollong fruits thrown away by the playful apes. Hollongpar was abundant, not just with Hoolocks, but also with Pig-Tailed macaques, Stump-Tailed macaques and Capped Langurs, apart from countless butterflies and birds. A spectacular pair of Trogons hovered in the woods with their brilliant orange bellies looking like flames flying through the evergreen forests. After soaking in all that I could, I left Hollongpar with fond reminiscences of the gibbons; their ‘‘wooooo-eh-wooooo-eh-woooooh-eh’ echoing in my ears.
Rich biodiversity of the evergreen forests of Hollongpar
How to reach: Nearest city is Jorhat in Assam , which also has an airport. The sanctuary is apprx 20 kms away from Jorhat town and can be reached through a taxi.
What to do: Explore the evergreen forest, rich is biodiversity. The only species of ape, namely the Western Hoolock gibbon is found here. Apart from gibbons, the sanctuary also has multiple species of macaques, butterflies and ample birdlife. Leopard sightings are rare. Special permits need to be taken for a night trail to spot the Slow Loris. Permits may NOT be granted.
Ideal season: Oct through March
Ideal length of stay : Max 2 days.
Where to stay: Forest Rest house. Contact DFO, Proshun Das-7086984546. Ask for a guide called Sanjib, an expert in spotting gibbons. Cost of stay is INR 450, plus camera and forest charges. Total cost comes upto INR 500.
What to carry : Warm clothes for winter, leech socks. Basic food supply.
Avoid : Littering, playing loud music or creating ruckus. Do not feed the gibbons.
*We refers to myself and my spouse who is usually my partner in most of my travel feats.
Sitting under the canopy of trees, I listen keenly to Madhavan, the priest of the Mela-Kaav (Upper temple) as he narrates a string of fascinating mythological stories. The quaint village of Palloor near Thalassery, was gearing up for its beloved and cherished form of worship; unique to this (Malabar) region of Kerala and coastal belt of Karnataka where it manifests itself as ‘Bhootakola‘. I was here to get my first ever ‘up-close’ experience of one of the most ancient and traditional art of worship-the Theyyam. Infact, Theyyam, I am told, is considered to be a form of Upasna or the attainment of God itself!
At the Koyyodan Koroth temple premises, the preps have begun. A temporary Aniara (changing room) with thatched coconut palms is erected at one end. A huge pandal with enormous vessels containing prasadam in the making, stands adjacent to it. This auspicious food would be first offered to God and then served to more than a thousand devotees at lunch the next day. In a few hours, a series of Theyyams would commence and continue through the night into the next evening with intervals in between. Small groups of bare chested men sat on the muddy ground ripping delicate strips from coconut palm fronds to create the outfits for the performers. A 30-feet long skeleton made of cane is being festooned with identical shapes cut out of palm leaves. Costumes and ornaments made of metal and glass hung on ropes shimmer in the light of the afternoon sun. Inside the Aniara, faces are being smeared with bright orange paint and sketched with delicate, almost invisible patterns and outlines. Few artists painted their faces themselves, looking through tiny bright colored mirrors in their hands. Their eye sockets are daubed with jet black. As the performers get into their wardrobe, they are adorned with ornaments and garlands. Their head gear is secured tightly on their crown amidst final touches. Everything around is happening with lightning speed and precision. As I move around in cramped spaces to click all the action, I meet curious eyes, friendly smiles and mouths uttering repetitive questions. Strong whiffs of toddy fill the shed. Finally, by late evening the first set of Theyyam performers- namely, the Gulligans are ready for the show!
Hover over the image for captions..
Meanwhile, at the Thazha-kaav (Lower temple), the chitter-chatter of an impatient crowd is infused with the energetic beats of the Chenddas, Ilathalams and Kurunkuzhals*. The Gulligans parade towards the arena; their jewellery clink-clank as they pass by. After seeking blessings from the idol under the oak tree, they take their positions on stunt wooden stools. Chanting prayers, they begin spinning on their stools. The speed of their rotations increase as they jump on to the ground. It feels like being in the centre of a field with spinning red tops rotating and revolving with varied intensities. Towards the end, a Gulligan is led towards a burning heap of charcoal a few meters away. He kicks the pile with his bare feet multiple times. With no control over his consciousness any more, he faints and falls to the ground, but is immediately held by the mob of people who seem to be anticipating the act. This marks the cease of the Gulligan Theyyam.
A series of other Theyyams follow through the night and as the performance gains momentum, the degree of spiritual transcendence also rises. During the Vishnumoorthy Theyyam, the lead performer dances to the rhythm of the Chenddas with various props like swords, hand mirror and shield. His eyes are loaded with hideous expressions, more like a sly wild animal of the night. After almost an hour when the performance finishes, a line of devotees queue up to seek blessings from Vishnumoorthy who has now attained a state of Godliness. Advices on issues and questions of the future are being answered. In return money is tucked into his palms.
By 10 am, a serpentine queue has already lined up for lunch, getting longer by the second! At the arena, a set of five Kandakarnans arrive; dressed in skirts made of green and cream palm fronds. Their face masks resemble demons. My eyes follow the never ending tower of head gear worn by the men. Standing almost 20 feet tall, I struggle to fit them into my frame! Little did I know that the cane skeletons that were being decorated the previous evening were actually the head gear! The Kandakarnans have a pair of bamboo stilts each in their hands. As the beat of the Chenddas gain momentum, the key performer takes to centre stage and dances on the stilts with swift and quick movements. The stilts added another 5 feet to his height, but his balance is astounding! The rest of them dance in a similar fashion, minus the stilts.
The crowd, now tripled, impatiently awaits the grand procession of the 40-odd Kuttichathans. After about an hour of wait, the vivacious performers finally arrive- dressed in vibrant orange and red, rectangular, box shaped skirts. Props are being secured to them, one by one. First up, massive wings made of wood and glass, impersonating a peacock, is tied to their backs. Then, face masks with intricate designs, mimicking an elephant head covers the faces. Protruding silver eye gear having a tiny opening is secured to the mask. Their chests are bare and so are their rounded bellies with circular designs painted all over. One by one, all the forty Kuttichathans circle the temple premises in a swaggering gait, climb up a concrete block in front of the deity, spin around, seek blessings and perch themselves on the wooden stools. They sip a drop of holy water off a ‘Pan’ (beetle leaf) before commencing their performance. Holding the hands of the helpers for support, they sway their heads and bodies like an elephant and swing back and forth like a dancing peacock. One can easily assume the weight of their costume. They let out intermittent bouts of roaring, demonic laughter. Placing their fingers onto the burning ‘Mashaal’ (flambeau), they rub ash on their fingers and smear it onto the heads of random devotees coming their way. Koyyodan Koroth temple looked more like a fiction movie filled with creatures not belonging to this planet. Half way through the performance, almost all the Kuttichathans reach their peak of trance. After what seems like ages, the rigorous beats of the Chenddas cease, making way for a re-run of the ritual of blessings and fortune telling.
Hover over each picture for the caption..
Ucchita Bhagavati Theyyam
In the interim, tonnes of fresh logs that had burnt all night had transformed into a huge heap of burning grey charcoal. The Ucchita Bhagavati Theyyam comprises of the artists performing around and sitting over the burning pyre for several minutes, flag the end of the 2-day long ceremony. Though I miss the performance in the interest of time, my journey would continue to other parts of Malabar where I would meet the Gods who descend in more elaborate forms like the Mucchillot Bhagavati.
The origin of Theyyam can be traced back to the 13th century or perhaps, even earlier. Manakadan Veliya Gurukkal, the Aashrit (dependent) of the King, Kolathiri Raja, is believed to be the first tutor of Theyyam. Theyyam is a family run tradition and is passed on from one generation to the other; the teachers are usually from the same family or community. Theyyam deities are believed to have been formed from 7 cults namely Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shaktheya, Gananatha, Aryaka, Guha and Stithinashakara.
There are around 400 characters or Roopams of Theyyam, each descending from a legend attached to it. Madhavan (the priest of Mela-Kaav) exclusively narrated the story of Kuttichathan and Muthappan. Kuttichathan was the son of a Namboodri (Brahmin) who went against the rules and customs of his cast and family. He often got punished for his deeds. One day, upon being scolded and insulted by his father, Kuttichathan set his house ablaze. Wild with anger, the outraged Namboodri chops off his son into 280 pieces and throws it into the forests. The chopped pieces come alive as 280 clones of Kuttichathan, possessing divine powers. Similar myth prevails about Muthappan, again a spoilt son of a Namboodri and a sorcerer, who was asked to leave his home. Obeying the order, Muthappan decided to leave for a place called Punvathur. On his way he climbed up a toddy tree and started drinking toddy from the pot tied to the tree. The toddy owner or ‘Kalluchettukaran’ named Chandan, caught him during the act and objected to the theft, to which, Muthappan, with his witchery, turned him into a statue. Later, upon Chandan’s wife’s pleas, Muthappan brought him back to life. Such are the interesting thread of stories attached to each Theyyam!
Theyyam performers are usually from the lower sects or communities. Every sect has a few varieties of Theyyams reserved for themselves. For instance, Mucchillot, Nagabhagavathi, Paradevata and Vishnumoorthy are performed only by Chettiars or Nairs, while Muthappan and Kandakarnan are performed by Izhvaah’s (Pronounced as Irvaas). Of all Theyyams, Mucchillot Bhagavati is the most elaborate and favourite form, followed by Kuttichathan which usually has a minimum of 39 performers dressed identically! Since Theyyam is only performed by men, they take up the roles and attires of women characters too. A Theyyam performer is considered to be an incarnation of God and hence has to follow strict rules or Vridhams pertaining to his lifestyle, like refraining from meat and alcohol, leading a life free of theft and sins etc. Around the days nearing the actual performance, their food consists strictly of fruits, green gram and coconut water in bare minimum quantities. On the day of the performance, there is no intake of food. Water is taken in sips from a miniature brass jug called ‘Kindi’. The heavy and elaborate costumes make it impossible for them to use the washroom for the entire day. Costumes comprise of makeup, ornaments, attire, masks and head gear, primarily in shades of bright red, orange and yellow. Ornaments are usually made of brass or white metals and flowers. The performers attain a state of trance during the performances. They are considered as immortals during the event, often thronged by the devotees for advices on their future and fulfilment of wishes.
Theyyam is broadly classified into three parts and usually spread over 3 days.
Day 1 : Natathira Orthottam : Comprises of vocal admiration and minimal dance.
Day 2: Vellattam : A more elaborate version of day 1, with longer duration of dance performances and
Day 3: Kaliattam or Theyyam which is more action packed. Of which, Kaliattam happens once in 12 years!
*Prasadam– a devotional offering made to a god, typically consisting of food that is later shared among devotees.
*Chenddas, Ilathalams and Kurunkuzhals- Traditional musical instruments of Kerala
My heartfelt gratitude to Mr. Mahadevan for the beautiful insights on Theyyam and its folklore.
Many thanx to Lijit for all his help on arranging my visit and stay. For Theyyam at Koyyodan Koroth temple, you can reach him on 9846820996.
I thank Mini and her family for the warm hospitality rendered to me during my stay.
To be continued with Mucchilott Bhagavati….