As the car rolls through the quiet and quaint streets of the scenic hill station of Halflong towards the valley of Jatinga 9 km away, the cloud quickly engulfs all the passengers in the vehicle.
The hills here are mighty and their towering presence draw awe and respect in the hearts of travellers who come to witness their majestic beauty. The road from Halfong to Jatinga is winding like any Himalayan road. Thick with vegetation, with the clouds creating a tinge of mystery in the surroundings, the scenery here is like emeralds strewn in a field of foliage.
Haflong is a small hill station in the Dima Hasao district of the North Eastern state of Assam. This region was earlier known as North Cachar Hills and is still popularly called by that epithet. It is home to tribes with unique cultures. One of the prominent tribes is the eponymous Dimasa – their name means the ‘Sons of the big river’ referring probably to the river Brahmaputra. They speak a Sino-Tibetan/Trans-Himalayan language, one of the oldest in this region. Other important tribes include Zeme (Zeme Naga), Hmar and Kuki. Dima Hasao was earlier a part of the ancient Cachar Kingdom.
The best place to enjoy solitude
The town of Halfong itself is beautiful to say the least and is a perfect place to enjoy solitude for every person who comes to its environs. The town has a unique quietness and because the clouds hover all the time in every nook and cranny, there is mysticism and freshness in the air, which are beyond the sectarian differences that have plagued this region in the past. A traveller can visit many interesting sites here. The Kali Bari – the Holy Shrine of the Mother Goddess – is the most famous. Another popular destination in Halflong for a family outing is the Haflong Lake with its picturesque setting and boating facilities.
In any hill station, a view point is necessary to witness the rolling hills and the verdant valleys kissing the distant horizon with a colorful tapestry; in Halflong this is being taken care of by the beautiful view which one gets from the lawns of the government circuit house.
After a whole day of site-seeing in the periphery of this town, the next destination is of course the mysterious valley of Jatinga with its legend of flocks of birds coming here to commit hara-kiri. Ever since the bird mystery here has unfolded, people’s attention have always gone to that phenomenon and in the process, the beauty of this valley has been neglected in the popular media. The valley of Jatinga minus the bird mystery is still a better place than many popular destinations of India. Of course, the sectarian clashes in the past have not boded well for its tourism potential. The valley itself is scintillatingly beautiful and on a clear day, one can easily trek down deep into its gorge to reach the powerful stream at the bottom of the hills with its icy chilled water. Here, amongst the boulders, a family can have a day out for a picnic with the mesmerising hushed mountains all around and its cool breeze hovering over the head all the time.
'Bird suicide' mystery
The draw of Jatinga internationally though is because of its mysterious circumstances of the birds coming here to commit ‘suicide’. This story has gone into popular consciousness so much so that it has been mentioned in literature and the media countless times and even one of the greatest Bengali writers of all time – Sunil Gangopadhyay – had based one of his novels for young readers on this phenomenon. However, this is actually a misnomer. The birds don’t really commit suicides at all but they still flock here to their deaths. The mystery is, why do these birds come here in a delirium to embrace their end at the hands of the local people?
Let us discuss the phenomenon in details now. In a certain time of the year, mostly from late August to early October, just after the Monsoon, on a cloudy, misty, foggy evening in the darkness of a moonless setting, preferably after a bout of rains with a certain wind direction, it has been observed that numerous birds converge on a strip of land in this valley, attracted by the spherical light which the villagers lit on poles there, where they fall prey to those lights and the villagers catch them easily to cook them for their dinner. The birds that come here are not migratory, contrary to popular beliefs, but are local birds and especially the ones that are not nocturnal. In fact it’s their resting time then. This has really baffled experts and researches are on to find the reason.
With growing awareness, the authorities have convinced the villagers to desist from carrying out this killings. The phenomenon was first accidentally spotted by a group of tribals in 1905 when they set out with flaming torches to search for their missing buffalo.
Later, famous British naturalist Edward Prichard Gee published his book ‘The Wildlife of India’, the forward of which was written by our first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, where Gee explained this phenomenon and expressed his befuddlement.
Over the years, though many experts have given scientific explanations, there is no definite conclusion. Some experts have suggested that the phenomenon has something to do with the earth’s magnetism in that area which affects the central nervous system of birds like Little Egret, Pond Heron and Black Bittern.
The nearest airport to Haflong or Jatinga is Silchar. Silchar is a mini-city with numerous transport facilities. But the drive to Halflong will take a few hours. Another place of interest is the beautiful Maibang town situated on the banks of the Mahur River. The North Cachar Hills, known as the Barail Range, is one of the most beautiful regions of India.
Saurav Ranjan Datta is an internationally recognised quiz researcher, a writer for several publications for the last 10 years, a poet, a traveller and a quiz master. He has also worked for several reputed organisations in the corporate world in senior positions for the last 15 years.
First Published: IST