Sunday, February 25, 2024

Rhino from Mohenjo-Daro to Assam

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LESS THAN ten days ago as another day began over tea and newspapers, the headlines screamed, “Two rhinos killed in Kaziranga National Park”. This most recent replay of a recurring tragedy took me back in time. By sheer coincidence, I had recently read in John Marshall’s Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus Civilization: “The rhinoceros was very commonly modelled in clay and was a favourite with the children. It therefore must have been very well known to them.” When it appeared on seals the account is even more fascinating, “It is the single horned animal that is represented, probably the great Indian rhinoceros which was formerly found along the base of the Himalayas as far as Peshawar where it was hunted by Babur.”

     I almost did not believe what I was reading even if was edited by the man who uncovered Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa and was the then Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India! Not unnaturally, I checked out the wealth of information in the www on Baburnama. The illustrations were added to the Baburnama in the 16th century when Akbar commissioned detailed paintings for the Baburnama. So the vivid and detailed painting depicting Babur hunting the one horned rhinoceros recorded for posterity that the range of the Great Moghul Babur and the Great One Horned Rhinoceros had apparently overlapped. Do these historical evidences suggest that in four hundred years a habitat that nearly spanned the west to east extent of a subcontinent has been lost? Is that why in the 21st century, it is difficult to associate the rhinoceros with lands beyond the Indus or even ranging along the Indo Gangetic Plain? As advancing human settlement and agriculture replaced alluvial plain grasslands, it fragmented the rhino homeland even in its last eastern outpost. So national parks have become sanctuaries to some 3,000 rhinos in Kaziranga, Pobitora, Manas and Orang in Assam and the Royal Chitwan across the border in Nepal.

     The riverine grasslands along the iconic Brahmaputra and its tributaries still provide the habitat that has disappeared along the rest of the original range. For the greater one horned rhino is the most amphibious of all living species wallowing in muddy pools and feeding on aquatic grasses when not grazing on land. When moving through the chaporis (sand bars) on the banks of the Brahmaputra camouflaged by tall elephant grass they become the single word itinerary for poacher, photographer, protector or prospective visitor. In the early days of the tea plantations in Assam rhinos were so abundant that they were killed as agricultural pests. Yet in less than century Kaziranga reserve forest was set up at the behest of Lady Mary Victoria Curzon because, she was not able to see a single rhino! Later EP Gee, a planter of the Assam Tea Industry, famous naturalist and pioneer conservationist, would set up the Chitwan National park in Nepal.

     Today the rhino synonymous with Assam, is its most visible brand ambassador, gracing logos that represent everything from tourism, tea, petroleum, military, conservation, biotechnology to ethnic identities. It is the must take home memento crafted to land in the luggage of every traveller. It makes one wonder if the seals and toys of Mohenjo-Daro served an allied purpose? A holiday in the winter of 2010 at the Kaziranga National Park holds precious a memory. As the sun was going down on Christmas Eve, a rhino crossed the track ahead of our jeep. It paused, turned, bent a foreleg, struck a pose and then nonchalantly went into the jungle! “Peace on earth, good will to man,” the rhino seemed to echo words that could never grow old. The Trobairitz wonders if we can reciprocate, go beyond symbols and ensure we do not seal the fate of this rhino in north eastern part of the Indian subcontinent.

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