In 1986, UNESCO declared Manas a World Heritage Site. In 1990, the area was extended to include the Kokilabari, Kahilama and Panbari Reserve forests and it was declared a National Park. Between 1990 and 1993, the Bodo insurgency escalated causing Manas to be redefined as a 'World Heritage Site in Danger'. The situation was deemed to be under control by October 1995, when tourists were once again permitted to venture into the area.
Manas derives its name from the local Goddess Manasa. The Mushahari or tiger clan of the Bodo community claim to have descended from the tiger! Any clan member who witnesses the death of a tiger undergoes a period of mourning for at least a week, much as one mourns the death of a parent. This community has played a significant role in nature conservation owing to their customs where the tiger is regarded as a symbol of health and killing a tiger or eating its meat is considered blasphemy. But in recent times such legends do not seem to have prevented tigers from being killed.
An area of startling diversity, the gently sloping alluvial plains are watered by countless rivulets, streams and nullahs that carry large amounts of silt, pebbles and even huge boulders downstream at the height of the monsoons! This ageless process has led to formation of alluvial terraces, comprising deep layers of deposited rock and detritus overlaid with sand and soil of varying depth, shifting river channels and swamps.
The terrain is characterised by rocky, porous soils like sandstone, limestone and shale in the bhabar tract towards the north. The coarse detritus is covered with sandy loam and a fine layer of humus. Rich alluvial soils from the Himalayan wash are found in the Terai belt towards the south, where the water table lies very close to the surface.
Manas has over 540 species of plants, which include some rare orchids. Reinwardtia indica, Desmodium motorium, Pueraria subspicata and Biden pilosa are some of the other rare plants found here. The Elaichi phool is a gorgeous flower that can be dazzling in full bloom in the months between January and March.The three main types of vegetation are: (a) Tropical semi-evergreen forests in the north (b) tropical moist and dry deciduous forests and (c) extensive alluvial grasslands in the west, comprising many different grass species along with a variety of tree and shrub species The forests themselves are moist mixed deciduous and semi-evergreen in the riverine areas. Sal forests are found at the foothills and small grassy glades grow under the canopy that blocks off most of the sunlight. Fifty per cent of the sanctuary is covered by grasslands. A considerable variety of aquatic flora is found along river banks and in the numerous pools that dot the area.
Manas is home to as many as 22 of the 41 Indian species that are classified as 'highly endangered' i.e. under Schedule I in the IUCN Red Book. Wild buffalo and elephants dominate the landscape. Rhinos used to be common, but have been all but wiped out. The Asiatic buffalo is one of the highlights of Manas. Larger than most other elephants on the subcontinent, huge tuskers stroll in large herds across the Manas river that divides Bhutan and India. The tiger and the leopard are the predominant cats in the area but are elusive to the casual visitor. The clouded leopard is another cat that you may be lucky to spot.
Primates include the capped langur and the golden langur on the Bhutan side of Manas. Both are shy and tend to stay high up in trees safe from danger. The golden langurs are a stunning sight on the elegant flowering trees that they inhabit and the only place on the Indian side where they have been reported is in the Chakrasheela forests of Assam. It is possible however to cross the river at its narrowest and row across to the forests of Bhutan to sight them.The slow loris and the Hoolock gibbon also exist here but are rarely seen. Assamese macaques, though rare, exist in the islands downstream where they may be seen in large troupes. If you look out for it, you might spot a pair of attractive Malay tupaia or tree shrew, pygmy hogs and the hispid hare (Assamese rabbit).
The hog deer or pada, barking deer or muntjac, chital and sambar abound. The swamp deer is found in occasional pockets. Sloth bears tend to stay in thick-forested areas, but can be seen at dawn and dusk. Wild pigs are easily seen around rivers and you may chance upon a pack of otters or water monitors here
An astounding variety of insects, butterflies and birds are found in Manas, making it a rewarding location for ornithologists and entomologists alike. Scarlet Minivets dazzle with their bright orange and yellow garb while Great Pied Hornbills sightings are almost assured in the early morning as they set off from favoured roosting spots in search of food. Kaleej Pheasants and the Red Jungle Fowl seek food under fallen leaves, making brisk rustling movements.
Rare river chats like the Whitecapped Redstart and Forktails frequent the riverine areas and the park continues to be one of the most important areas for the rare Bengal Florican. Cormorants and duck, including the Ruddy Shelduck and the Brahminy Duck are relatively common. The goosander or merganser, a pied bird with a vermilion bill and legs, is a likely sight if you take a boat downstream. Egrets, pelicans and herons along with eagles, falcons and harriers also form part of the aquatic avifauna. Fishing eagles and ospreys are at the top of the river's avian food chain.
Wildlife sighting at Manas is neither regular nor frequent, but when it does occur, it is usually at close range.Jeep trails through the forest yield a wide variety of birds and animals. Look in the undergrowth as well as the treetops.
River banks are another sighting spot for elephant and buffalo.Cross over to the Bhutan part of the reserve (with permissions, of course!) for an almost certain sighting of the golden langur.
A small rowing boat is used to go across the narrow, shallow part of the river for a short trip. The summer palace of the King is located in the park and is worth a visit. Bhutanese tribals weave colourful fabric for sale. Remember to take permission from The Forest Department before venturing out.
The Guwahati Tea Auction Centre (GATC), which is the largest of its kind in India, is a distinctive experience. A stopover at Guwahati, either en route to the reserve or while returning is worthwhile.
A monastery and shrine of the Vaishnavite reformer, Mahadeva, a great disciple of Lord Shankar exists in the district of Barpeta, which is where the Manas National Park is also located. The associated kirthanghar is renowned and attracts Vaishnavites from all over India.
Vehicles can be taken up to Mothanguri. Jungle visits may be on elephant back, jeep or car. With special permission boat rides are possible. Walking on foot is not permitted, but trips across the river to Bhutan, which involve walking, do provide a great feel of the forest.Elephant rides from Mothanguri are an interesting way to get around the park. Reservations must be made in advance through the Range Forest Officer.
Drive slowly at a maximum speed of 30 km. per hour within the reserve. Do not honk, overtake or leave the prescribed route. Visitors are not permitted to disembark from the vehicle at any point.
There are no catering arrangements in the forest lodges, so visitors are required to bring their own provisions. Utensils, crockery and the services of a cook may be available on request and a small payment. Tips are appreciated.
The Field Director, Project Tiger, Manas Tiger Reserve, P.O. Barpeta Road, Dist. Barpeta, Assam – 781315.Tel.: 03666-32253.
November and February are deemed to be the best seasons, though it rains here only from mid-May to September providing a fairly long visiting season from October to April.Trips into the forest are only permitted between sunrise and sunset; the timings are 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
All accommodation provided by the forest department is basic and the amenities spare. The accent is on the location itself, which is pure heaven. Manas Forest Lodge Cottages and rooms are on offer. Tariff: Rs. 60 per room. Rs. 50 per cottage.
Bansbari Forest Lodge, Mothanguri Dormitories with the capacity to accommodate 48 people are available. Tariff: Rs. 25 per bed.
Besides these, several camping sites are available.For reservations at any of the above and more information, contact:Field Director, Manas Tiger Projects, P.O. Barpeta Road, Assam. Tel.: 03666-32749.
By Air: Guwahati airport is 176 km. away.
By Rail: Barpeta Road (40 km.) is the closest railhead to Guwahati. From here, one can continue onto Manas by road. Barpeta Road also serves as the sanctuary headquarters.
By Road: Manas is accessible from Guwahati (176 km.), Kaziranga (403 km.), Darjeeling (466 km.), Shillong (287 km.) and Siliguri (386 km.).
From Guwahati, conducted tours organised by the Assam Tourism Department can be availed of. For more information contact: Tourism Information Officer, Station Road, Guwahati –781001. Tel.: 0361-547102/ 54274.