A narrow strip of flatland extending along the length of Nepal’s southern border, the Terai was originally covered in thick, malarial jungle. In the 1950s, however, the government identified the southern plains as a major growth area to relieve population pressure in the hills, and, with the help of liberal quantities of DDT, brought malaria under control. Since then, the jungle has been methodically cleared and the Terai has emerged as Nepal’s most productive region, accounting for more than fifty percent of its GDP and supporting about half its population.
The jungle barrier that once insulated Nepal from Indian influences as effectively as the Himalayas had guarded the north, making possible the development of a uniquely Nepali culture, has disappeared. An unmistakeable Indian quality now pervades the Terai, as evidenced by the avid mercantilism of the border bazaars, the chewing of betel, the mosques and orthodox Brahmanism, the jute mills and sugar refineries, and the many roads and irrigation projects built with Indian aid.
Fortunately, the government has set aside sizeable chunks of the Western Terai in the form of national parks and reserves, which remain among the finest wildlife and bird havens on the subcontinent. Dense riverine forest provides cover for predators like tigers and leopards; swampy grasslands make the perfect habitat for rhinos; and vast, tall stands of sal, the Terai’s most common tree, shelter huge herds of deer. Of the region’s wildlife parks, the deservedly popular Chitwan is the richest in game and the most accessible, but if you’re willing to invest some extra effort, Bardiaand Sukla Phanta further to the west make quieter alternatives. The region’s other claim to fame is historical: the Buddha was born 2500 years ago at Lumbini. Nearby, important archeological discoveries have also been made at Tilaurakot.
Four border crossings in the western Terai are open to foreigners. As it’s on the most direct route between Kathmandu and Varanasi, and fits in well with visits to Lumbini and Chitwan, Sonauli is the most heavily used. Less popular are the crossing points south of Nepalgunj or Dhangadhi. Alternatively, on the far western frontier is Mahendra Nagar, only around twelve hours from Delhi, but an arduous journey to Kathmandu.
The weather in the Terai is at its best from October to January – the days are pleasantly milder during the latter half of this period, though the nights and mornings can be surprisingly chilly and damp. However, wildlife viewing gets much better after the thatch has been cut, from late January, by which time the temperatures are starting to warm up again. It gets really hot in April, May and June. From July to September, the monsoon brings mosquitoes, malaria and leeches, and makes a lot of the more minor, unpaved roads very muddy and difficult to pass, and some rivers burst their banks.
Chitwan is the name not only of Nepal’s most visited national park but also of the surrounding dun valley and administrative district. The name means “Heart of the Jungle” – a description that, sadly, now holds true only for the lands protected within the park and community forests. Yet, the rest of the valley – though it’s been reduced to a flat, furrowed plain – still provides fascinating vignettes of a rural lifestyle. Truly ugly development is confined to the wayside conurbation of Narayangadh/Bharatpur, and even this has left the nearby holy site of Devghat so far unscathed.
The best – and worst – aspects of Chitwan National Park are that it can be visited easily and inexpensively. It is high on the list of “things to do in Nepal”, so unless you go during the steamy season you’ll share your experience with a lot of other people. If you want to steer clear of the crowds, and don’t mind making a little extra effort, try avoiding the much-touted tourist village of Sauraha and base yourself in one of two villages along the park’s northern boundary, just west. Ghatgain and Meghauli are much quieter and less developed than Sauraha, but also have guesthouses, guides, elephants and entry checkposts (though jeeps are more difficult to come by). You can also do a jungle trek from Sauraha to either village. Or, if you’ve got the money ($200–350 per night per person, all-in), opt for pampered seclusion at any one of the luxury lodges and camps inside the park itself.
In Nepal and throughout southern Asia, elephants have been used as ceremonial transportation and beasts of burden for thousands of years, earning them a cherished place in the culture – witness the popularity of elephant-headed Ganesh, the darling of the Hindu pantheon. Thanks to this symbiosis with man, Asian elephants (unlike their African cousins) survive mainly as a domesticated species, even as their wild habitat has all but vanished.
With brains four times the size of humans’, elephants are reckoned to be as intelligent as dolphins. What we see as a herd is in fact a complex social structure, consisting of bonded pairs and a fluid hierarchy. In the wild, herds typically consist of fifteen to thirty females and one old bull, and are usually led by a senior female; other bulls live singly or in bachelor herds. Though they appear docile, elephants have strongly individual personalities and moods. They can learn dozens of commands, but they won’t obey just anyone; as any handler will tell you, you can’t make an elephant do what it doesn’t want to do. That they submit to such apparently cruel head-thumping by drivers seems to have more to do with thick skulls than obedience.
Asian elephants are smaller than those of the African species, but still formidable. A bull can grow up to three metres high and weigh four tons, although larger individuals are known to exist. An average day’s intake is 200 litres of water and 225kg of fodder – and if you think that’s impressive, wait till you see it come back out again. All that eating wears down teeth fast: an average elephant goes through six sets in its lifetime, each more durable than the last. The trunk is controlled by an estimated forty thousand muscles, enabling its owner to eat, drink, cuddle and even manipulate simple tools (such as a stick for scratching). Though up to 2.5cm thick, an elephant’s skin is still very sensitive, and it will often take mud or dust baths to protect against insects. Life expectancy is about 75 years and, much the same as with humans, an elephant’s working life can be expected to run from its mid-teens to its mid-fifties; training begins at about age five.
Large patches of jungle still exist outside the park in Chitwan’s heavily populated buffer zone, albeit in a less pristine state. The areas designated as community forests were originally conceived to reduce the need for residents of this critical strip to go into the park to gather wood, thatch and other resources, but they’re now nearly as rich in flora and fauna as Chitwan itself. Two forests, Baghmara and Kumroj on the outskirts of Sauraha, offer alternatives to entering the park itself, and the elephant rides, particularly, are often no less rewarding.
Another community forest, the Bis Hajaar Tal (“Twenty Thousand Lakes”) wetland area, is one of the best areas – inside or outside the park – for birdwatching, though the growth of water hyacinth has reduced bird numbers. There are plenty of animals, but it’s one of the few areas of jungle that can be visited independently with relative safety – though, as always, you’ll probably get more out of it in the company of a good guide. Nepal’s second largest natural wetland, the area, provides an important corridor for animals migrating between the Terai and the hills. The name refers to a maze of marshy oxbow lakes, many of them already filled in, well hidden among mature sal trees. The area teems with birds, including storks, kingfishers, eagles and the huge Lesser Adjutant. The forest starts just west of Baghmara and the Elephant Breeding Project and reaches its marshy climax about 5km northwest of there.
While Chitwan’s forest ecosystem is healthy at the moment, pollution from upstream industries is endangering the rivers that flow into it: gangetic dolphins have disappeared from the Narayani, and gharial crocodiles hang on only thanks to human intervention. With more than three hundred thousand people now inhabiting the Chitwan Valley, human population growth represents an even graver danger in the long term. Tourism has picked up again, after dropping off considerably during the civil war – the key issue will be to ensure the resultant development is handled in a sensitive, sustainable manner.
The key to safeguarding Chitwan, everyone agrees, is to win the support of local people, and there’s some indication that this is happening. Several organizations run awareness-raising programmes, particularly targeting children, but there has been little government action in this regard. Another pressing problem for the area – and the country as a whole – is a lack of investment in infrastructure, notably roads.
Communities living in the 750 square kilometres around the park receive some state financial support, and compensation is paid for damage caused by wild animals (safety has improved but one or two people are still killed each year). The National Trust for Nature Conservation (w www.ntnc.org.np), funded by several international agencies, is active in general community development efforts such as building schools, health posts, water taps and appropriate technology facilities, as well as in conservation education and training for guides and lodge-owners. They have also been instrumental in helping set up community forests around Chitwan and the prospect of collecting hefty entrance fees from these is turning local people into zealous guardians of the environment.
Whether CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK has been blessed or cursed by its own riches is an open question. The coexistence of the valley’s people and wildlife has rarely been easy or harmonious, even before the creation of the national park. In the era of the trigger-happy maharajas, the relationship was at least simple: when Jang Bahadur Rana overthrew the Shah dynasty in 1846, one of his first actions was to make Chitwan a private hunting reserve. The following century saw some truly hideous hunts – during an eleven-day shoot in 1911, a visiting King George V killed 39 tigers and 18 rhinos.
Still, the Ranas’ patronage afforded Chitwan a degree of protection, as did malaria. But in the early 1950s, the Ranas were thrown out, the monarchy was restored, and the new government launched its malaria-control programme. Settlers poured in and poaching went unpoliced – rhinos, whose horns were (and still are) valued for Chinese medicine and Yemeni knife handles, were especially hard hit. By 1960, the human population of the valley had trebled to one hundred thousand, while the number of rhinos had plummeted from one thousand to two hundred. With the Asian one-horned rhino on the verge of extinction, Nepal emerged as an unlikely hero in one of conservation’s finest hours. In 1962, Chitwan was set aside as a rhino sanctuary (becoming Nepal’s first national park in 1973); and, despite the endless hype about tigers, rhinos are Chitwan’s biggest attraction and its greatest triumph. Chitwan now boasts around 508 rhinos, and the park authorities have felt confident enough to relocate some to Bardia National Park. A number were killed by poachers during the conflict but now the soldiers are back at their posts in the park the problem has declined (though it has not been eradicated).
There are thought to be around 122 tigers in the park. Chitwan also supports at least four hundred gaur (Indian bison) and provides a part-time home to as many as 45 wild elephants, who roam between here and India. Altogether, 56 mammalian species are found in the park, including sloth bear, leopard, langur and four kinds of deer. Chitwan is also Nepal’s most important sanctuary for birds, with more than five hundred species recorded, and there are also two types of crocodile and more than one hundred and fifty types of butterfly.
Visitors can only enter the national park accompanied by a guide, and guides for activities such as jungle walks, elephant rides, canoe trips and jeep safaris vie for your attention once you arrive in the vicinity of the park. Note, however, that promises of “safari adventure” in Chitwan can be misleading. While the park’s wildlife is astoundingly concentrated, the dense vegetation doesn’t allow the easy sightings you get in the savannas of Africa (especially in autumn, when the grass is high). Many guides assume everyone wants to see only tigers and rhinos, but there are any number of birds and other animals to spot which the typical safari package may not cover, not to mention the many different ways simply to experience the luxuriant, teeming jungle: elephant rides, jeep tours, canoe trips and jungle walks each give a different slant.
DEVGHAT (or Deoghat), 5km northwest of Narayangadh, is many people’s idea of a great place to die. An astonishingly tranquil spot, it stands where the wooded hills meet the shimmering plains, and the Trisuli and the Kali Gandaki rivers merge to form the Narayani, a major tributary of the Ganga (Ganges). Some say Sita, heroine of the Ramayana, died here. The ashes of King Mahendra were sprinkled at this sacred tribeni (a confluence of three rivers: wherever two rivers meet, a third, spiritual one is believed to join them), and scores of sunyasan, those who have renounced the world, patiently live out their last days here hoping to achieve an equally auspicious death and rebirth. Many retire to Devghat to avoid being a burden to their children, to escape ungrateful offspring, or because they have no children to look after them in their old age and perform the necessary rites when they die. Pujari (priests) also practise here and often take in young candidates for the priesthood as resident students. Suggestions that a hydroelectric project might be built just downstream of the confluence seem, fortunately, to have fallen by the wayside.
Dozens of small shrines lie dotted around the village, but you come here more for the atmosphere than the sights. Vaishnavas (followers of Vishnu) congregate at Devghat’s largest and newest temple, the central shikra-style Harihar Mandir, founded in 1998 by the famed guru Shaktya Prakash Ananda of Haridwar. Shaivas (followers of Shiva) dominate the area overlooking the confluence at the western edge of the village.
To reach the confluence, turn left at a prominent chautaara at the top of the path leading through the village: Galeshwar Ashram, on your right as you walk down the steps, and Aghori Ashram, further downhill on the right, are named after two recently deceased holy men. One of them, the one-armed Aghori Baba, was a follower of the extreme Aghori tradition and was often referred to as the “Crazy Baba”, claiming to have cut off his own arm after being instructed to do so in a dream. Various paths lead upstream of the confluence, eventually arriving at Sita Gupha, a sacred cave that is closed except on Makar Sankranti, and Chakrabarti Mandir, a shady temple area housing a famous shaligram that locals say is growing.
The world’s longest crocodile – adults can grow to more than 7m from nose to tail – the gharial is an awesome fishing machine. Its slender, broom-like snout, which bristles with a fine mesh of teeth, snaps shut on its prey like a spring-loaded trap. Unfortunately, its eggs are regarded as a delicacy, and males are hunted for their bulb-like snouts, believed to have medicinal powers.
In the mid-1970s, there were only 1300 gharials left. Chitwan’s project was set up in 1977 to incubate eggs under controlled conditions, thus upping the survival rate – previously only one percent in the wild – to as high as 75 percent. The majority of hatchlings are released into the wild after three years, when they reach 1.2m in length; more than five hundred have been released so far into the Narayani, Koshi, Karnali and Babai rivers. Having been given this head start, however, the hatchlings must then survive a growing list of dangers, which now include not only hunters but also untreated effluents from upstream industries and a scarcity of food caused by the lack of fish ladders on a dam downstream in India. Counts indicate that captive-raised gharials now outnumber wild ones on the Narayani, which suggests that without constant artificial augmentation of their numbers they would soon become extinct. A few turtles can also be seen at the breeding centre.
A procession of bicycle-toting locals crossing the Rapti at dusk, wading or being ferried across the river before disappearing into the trees of the national park on the far side, was once a familiar Sauraha scene.
In the late 1990s, more than 20,000 people lived within the park boundaries, mainly in Padampur, the area immediately opposite Sauraha. Inevitably, villagers were forced to compete with the park’s animal population for forest resources and the ever-increasing number of wild animals would regularly raid farmers’ crops, causing widespread damage and even deaths. The situation became increasingly unsustainable, and the government finally decided to relocate Padampur’s villagers from the park itself to Saguntole, around 10km north of the national park, which extends from Bis Hajaar Tal towards the hills of the Mahabharat Lekh. This programme has now left Chitwan itself free of human settlement.
This has inevitably raised troubling issues. Foremost is that people have been forced to leave their homes to make way for animals and the tourists who come to see them. A great deal of knowledge, and the cultural beliefs that go with it, has been, if not lost, then undoubtedly threatened. There are concerns about water supply in Saguntole and allegations of corruption surround the villagers’ compensation payments. The move could also accelerate the destruction of a vital wildlife corridor, one of the few that still connects the plains and the hills.
Spectacularly situated on the banks of the Rapti River, opposite a prime area of jungle, SAURAHA (pronounced So-ruh-hah) is one of those unstoppably successful destinations at which Nepal seems to excel. In some lights it looks like the archetypal budget safari village, with its lodges spread out along dusty roads at the edge of the forest; at other times, you could half-close your eyes and imagine yourself in a mini Thamel. While there’s still a lot to recommend it, not least the ease of access into the park, Sauraha loses a little more of what once made it so enjoyable each year: buildings are springing up at an alarming rate.
The fast-changing cluster of shops and hotels that make up Sauraha “village” constitutes most of the action, though there’s little to do except shop, eat and plan excursions.
In addition to the Tharu village tours, you can also learn about real Terai village life by hopping on a bike and just getting lost on the back roads to the east and west of Sauraha. Stopping at any village and asking “chiya paunchha?” (where can I get a cup of tea?) will usually attract enough attention to get you introduced to someone.
In November, when the rice is harvested, you’ll be able to watch villagers cutting the stems, tying them into sheaves and threshing them; or, since it’s such a busy time of year, piling them in big stacks to await threshing. January is thatch-gathering time, when huge bundles are put by until a slack time before the monsoon allows time to repair roofs. In early March, the mustard, lentils and wheat that were planted after the rice crop are ready; maize is then planted, to be harvested in July for animal fodder, flour and meal. Rice is seeded in dense starter-plots in March, to be transplanted into separate paddy fields in April.
From Sauraha, the most fertile country for exploration lies to the east: heading towards Tadi along the eastern side of the village, turn right (east) at the intersection marked by a health post and you can follow that road all the way to Parsa, 8km away on the Mahendra Highway, with many side roads to villages en route. Given a full day and a good bike or motorcycle, you could continue eastwards from Parsa along the highway for another 10km, and just before Bhandaara turn left onto a track leading to Baireni, a particularly well-preserved Tharu village. From Lothar, another 10km east of Bhandaara, you can follow a trail upstream to reach the waterfalls on the Lothar Khola, a contemplative spot with a healthy measure of birdlife.
For a short ride west of Sauraha, first head north for 3km and take the first left after the river crossing, which brings you to the authentic Tharu villages of Baghmara and Hardi. If you’re game for a longer journey, pedal to Tadi and west along the Mahendra Highway to Tikauli. From there, the canal road through Bis Hajaar Tal leads about 10km through beautiful forest to Gita Nagar, where you join the Bharatpur–Jagatpur road, with almost unlimited possibilities. A good route is to continue due west from Jagatpur on dirt roads all the way to Meghauli, though you may have to ford a river on the way, impossible on a motorbike from June/July until at least late November. Don’t overlook the possibility of an outing to Devghat, either.
Hordes of travellers hurry through Lumbini Terai, an ancient part of the Terai west of Chitwan, but few take the time to look around. It’s best known, unfairly, for Sonauli, the main tourist border crossing between Nepal and India. Yet just 20km away is one of Nepal’s premier destinations, Lumbini: birthplace of the Buddha and the site of ruins going back almost three thousand years.
After I am no more, Ananda, men of belief will visit with faithful curiosity and devotion to the four places – where I was born … attained enlightenment … gave the first sermons … and passed into Nirvana.
The Buddha (c.543–463 BC)
For the world’s one billion Buddhists, LUMBINI, 22km west of Bhairahawa, is where it all began. The Buddha’s birthplace is arguably the single most important historical site in Nepal – not only the source of one of the world’s great religions but also the centre of the country’s most significant archeological finds, dating from the third century BC. With only modest ruins but powerful associations, it’s the kind of place you could whizz round in two hours or rest in for days, soaking up the peaceful atmosphere of the wooded park and its monasteries, founded by countries from all over the Buddhist world.
The Buddha has long been a prophet without much honour in his own country, however, and the area around Lumbini is now predominantly Muslim. The main local festival is a Hindu one, commemorating the Buddha as the ninth incarnation of Vishnu – it’s held on the full moon of the Nepali month of Baisaakh (April–May). Celebrations of Buddha Jayanti (the Buddha’s birthday) are comparatively meagre because, as the local monks will tell you with visible disgust, Buddhists from the high country think Lumbini is too hot in May.
Pilgrims used to stick to the more developed Indian sites of Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar, but in the 1970s the government, with the backing of the UN, authorized a hugely ambitious master plan for a religious park consisting of monasteries, cultural facilities, gardens, fountains and a tourist village. After a glacially slow start, the plan is finally taking shape under the direction of (or perhaps in spite of) the Lumbini Development Trust (w lumbinitrust.org); at the time of research 14 monasteries and meditation centres had been built (out of a target of 42), with a further 12 in the pipeline. Of course, there’s ample cause for scepticism, not least when it comes to the nakedly commercial aspirations of the Nepali government, but if the remaining plans come off, Lumbini could grow to be quite a cosmopolitan religious site. Japanese tour groups have already added it to their whirlwind tours of Buddhist holy places.
Roads enter the master plan area from several directions, with the main entrance gate at the southeastern edge. A road leads from there to the Sacred Garden, which contains all the archeological treasures associated with the Buddha’s birth. North of the Sacred Garden, two “monastic zones” are filled by an international array of temples, overlooked by the grand Shanti Stupa, or Peace Pagoda. Alongside, a miniature wetland reserve has been established for the endangered sarus crane, and 600,000 trees have been planted throughout the site, attracting many birds and animals.
The little border scrum of SONAULI (technically the Nepali side is known as BELAHIYA) is the most popular border crossing between Nepal and India. While it’s not quite as awful as Raxaul/Birgunj, there’s no need to linger.
While the border at Sonauli is officially open 24hr, you will have trouble tracking down immigration officers early in the morning or late at night. Nepali visas are available on the border but Indian visas have to be obtained in advance. Figure on a total of 30min to get through Nepali and Indian border formalities unless you’re crossing with a vehicle; appalling traffic jams on the Nepali side mean this can take hours. Nepal is 15min ahead of India.
The year of the Buddha’s birth is disputed – it was probably 543 BC – but it’s generally accepted that it happened at Lumbini while his mother, Maya Devi, was on her way to her maternal home for the delivery. He was born Siddhartha Gautama (“he who has accomplished his aim”), the son of a king and a member of the Shakya clan, who ruled the central Terai from their capital at Tilaurakot. Brought up in his father’s palace, Prince Siddhartha was sheltered by his father from the evils of the world, until, at the age of 29, he encountered an old man, a sick man, a corpse and a hermit: old age, sickness and death were the end of life, he realized, and contemplation seemed the only way to understand the nature of suffering.
Siddhartha revolted against his former life of pleasure and fled the palace, leaving behind his wife, child and faithful servant – not to mention his horse, which another legend says promptly died of a broken heart. Passing through the east gate of the palace, he shaved his head and donned the yellow robe of an ascetic. He spent five years in this role before concluding that self-denial brought him no closer to the truth than self-indulgence. Under the famous bodhi tree of Bodhgaya in India, he vowed to keep meditating until he attained enlightenment. This he did after 49 days, at which time Siddhartha became the Buddha, released from the cycle of birth and death. He made his way to Sarnath (near Varanasi in India) and preached his first sermon, setting in motion, Buddhists believe, dharma, the wheel of the truth. Although he is said to have returned to Kapilvastu to convert his family (and according to some stories he even put in an appearance in the Kathmandu Valley), the Buddha spent most of the rest of his life preaching in northern India. He died at the age of eighty in Kushinagar, about 100km southeast of Lumbini, saying “all things are subject to decay. Strive earnestly”.
The ruins of TILAURAKOT, 24km west of Lumbini, are believed to be the remains of ancient Kapilvastu, seat of the ancient Shakya kingdom and the childhood home of Prince Siddhartha Gautama. Tilaurakot gets far fewer visitors than Lumbini, yet its ruins are at least as interesting, and its history arguably even more so. Shaded by mango, kusum and karma trees, they have a serenity that Lumbini has begun to lose.
The remains include a couple of stupa bases, thick fortress walls and four gates. Looking out across the ruins from the eastern gate could hardly be a better opportunity for a moment’s meditation, as it’s said to be from here that the Buddha walked out on nearly thirty years of princely life to begin his search for enlightenment. It’s doubtful this is literally the ruins of the palace of King Suddhodana, the Buddha’s father, for the style of bricks used isn’t thought to have been developed until the third century BC, but it may well have been built on top of it; assuming the earlier structure was made of wood, no trace would remain. Indian archeologists argue that Piprahwa, just south of the border, is the true site, but excavations at Tilaurakot in 2000 uncovered potsherds and terracotta beads contemporaneous with Buddha’s lifetime, helping to corroborate the Nepali claim. A new Anglo-Nepali excavation team started work in 2011, and should help to further clarify matters.
Nepal’s remote far west, linked to the rest of the country by the Mahendra Highway, is slowly opening its doors to travellers. It’s still a hell of a haul to get here from Kathmandu, but Delhi is just twelve hours by bus from the far western border crossing, and the smooth, fast road between the two passes two of Nepal’s richest wildlife parks, Bardia National Park and Sukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve. The partly Muslim city of Nepalgunj, the largest city in the west, is the hub for flights to several remoter airstrips. The Mahendra Highway makes good time to Nepalgunj, 250km west of Butwal, crossing the Duduwa Hills (350m ascent) and following the green and pleasant valley of the Rapti River (no relation to the river of the same name in Chitwan). North of here lies Dang, home of the white-clad Dangaura Tharus, and fine cycling country.
With Chitwan becoming increasingly mass-market, BARDIA NATIONAL PARK, northwest of Nepalgunj and the largest area of undisturbed wilderness left in the Terai, beckons as an unspoiled alternative. Budget lodging is widely available, but there’s nothing like Chitwan’s commercialism, and the distance from Kathmandu is likely to shield the park from the masses for many years to come. The area was particularly badly affected during the civil war, and Bardia district had the highest rate of “disappearances” in the whole country.
Ecologically, Bardia spans a greater range of habitats than Chitwan, from thick riverine forest and sal stands to phanta (isolated pockets of savanna) and dry upland slopes. The Geruwa, a branch of the awesome Karnali River, forms the park’s western boundary and major watering hole, and the density of wildlife and birds along this western edge is as great as anywhere in Asia. The Babai River drains the core area to the east of Thakurdwara, forming a sanctuary-like dun valley teeming with game, but it is out of bounds to visitors.
2010 saw the creation of Banke National Park, which borders Bardia to the west and stretches over 550 square kilometres. Together the two parks now form the biggest tiger conservation area in Asia; tourism has not yet developed at Banke, but may well do so in the future.
Nepal’s wildlife parks never sit easily with the inhabitants of nearby villages, who not only are barred from their former woodcutting areas but must also cope with marauding animals. In the case of Bardia, the potential for resentment is especially high, because the government actually reintroduced rhinos to the area, giving local farmers a headache they thought they’d gotten rid of. It’s estimated that half the crops in fields adjoining Bardia are damaged by wildlife (primarily by rhinos and elephants). While local people are still occasionally injured and even killed by wild animals, safety has improved since an electric fence was installed around part of the park.
As in Chitwan, Bardia’s long-term viability depends as much on human factors as ecological ones, and recent initiatives have reflected this. Between thirty and fifty percent of the National Park’s income is spent in the buffer zones, and the number of local Tharu people involved in Bardia’s tourism trade has also increased in recent years. Chitkya Community Forest, along the park’s eastern border, is being managed to allow it to regenerate naturally, providing a source of firewood and increased habitat for animals in the park. Elsewhere, the problem is rather that bushes and trees encroach on the vital grassland needed by deer and tigers, and locals are given controlled access to collect wood.
Other projects prioritize the needs of animals over humans. A notable one aims to create wildlife corridors linking together national parks including Sukla Phanta, Bardia, Banke and Chitwan in Nepal, and Dudhwa and Corbett National Parks in India. Such corridors reflect natural migration patterns, and are seen as vital for maintaining viable breeding populations. They are threatened, however, by deforestation and population growth, which runs the risk of leaving animals marooned in separate national parks. Wildlife corridors are seen as the only way for animal populations to be able to exchange genes without the aid of trucks and tranquillizer guns.
The industrial and transport hub of the far west, NEPALGUNJ is also Nepal’s most Muslim city. The presence of Muslims in the Terai is hardly surprising, since the border with India, where Muslims comprise a significant minority, was only determined in the nineteenth century. Until just prior to the 1814–16 war with the British, this area belonged to the Nawab of Oudh, one of India’s biggest landowners; after Nepal’s defeat it was ceded to the East India Company and only returned to Nepal as a goodwill gesture for services rendered during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. A fair few Muslims fled to Nepalgunj during the revolt – Lucknow, where the most violent incidents occurred, is due south of here – and others filtered in during the Rana years, seeing chances for cross-border trade. The resulting permanent Muslim community is self-contained, but maintains business and family links with India. Indeed, the entire city feels Indian.
In the heart of the sprawl is Tribhuwan Chowk, the lively but dilapidated intersection of the city’s two main shopping thoroughfares, south of which the Indian-style Janaki Mandir sits in the middle of the road like a toll booth. The Muslim quarter lies northeast of Tribhuwan Chowk and is worth a wander. The mosques in this area are disappointingly modern, though, and out-of-bounds to non-believers. Hindu worship and trade centres around the nondescript Bageshwari Mandir; behind the temple is a large pool with a jaunty, kitsch statue of Mahadev (Shiva) in the middle.
The “far west” of Nepal, west of the Karnali River, is a foreign land for most Nepalis – a remote, underdeveloped region long neglected by the Kathmandu government. In fact, Delhi is closer than the Nepali capital by bus and, until the completion of the Karnali bridge in the mid-1990s, the region was literally cut off altogether in the monsoon, the Karnali effectively forming Nepal’s western border. The region makes for some great off-the-beaten track travelling, though there’s a distinct lack of facilities and communicating with local people can be difficult.
The westernmost section of the Mahendra Highway was finally completed in 2000, after a twitchy Indian government insisted on replacing the Chinese who were originally contracted to do the job. Twenty-two major bridges (many of which were subjected to Maoist attacks during the civil war) carry just 215km of asphalt, but the road now at least lives up to its alternative name of the East–West Highway, bringing new trade and industry to the region. The little-visited Sukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve, which lies just outside the relatively laidback border town of Mahendra Nagar, is an excellent place to visit for the adventurous (and resourceful) traveller.
The Mahendra Highway ends at MAHENDRA NAGAR, a border town with a good deal of spark thanks to day-tripping shoppers from India. Its bustle is only a border aberration, however, for the outlying region is one of the more traditional parts of the Terai. Rana Tharu (see p.240) sharecroppers work the fields, maintaining an apparently happy symbiosis with their old-money landlords, and their villages, scattered along dirt tracks north of the Mahendra Highway, still consist of traditional communal longhouses.
The border begins 6km west of Mahendra Nagar, and is reached by shared tempo, rikshaw, or bus. A rough road traverses the 1km no-man’s-land between the Nepali and Indian immigration posts. From Indian immigration you can catch a rikshaw across the wide Mahakali River along the top of a huge flood-control/irrigation barrage and then a further 4km to Banbaasa, the first Indian town. The border is officially open 24 hours, but you may have trouble finding the immigration officials at night or early in the morning.
The great tracts of natural grassland (phanta) in Nepal’s extreme southwest could almost be mistaken – albeit on a smaller scale – for the savannas of East Africa. SUKLA PHANTA WILDLIFE RESERVE, south of Mahendra Nagar, is dotted with them, and touring the reserve is, for once, really like being on safari. Always hard to reach, Sukla Phanta was even more cut off during the civil war, and as a result attracts barely a trickle of visitors. The park is home to one of the world’s largest populations of swamp deer – sightings of a thousand at a time are common – as well as a number of wild elephants and several rhinos. The tiger population has declined dramatically from 20–50 in 2005 to an estimated 6–14 in 2008 as a result of poaching; a sad turn of events for a park that once boasted one of the highest densities of the species in Asia. Sukla Phanta remains astonishingly rich in birds, with 470 species having been counted. Rare species include the Bengal florican and the giant hornbill.
Two great mysteries surround the Terai-dwelling Tharus, Nepal’s second largest ethnic group: where they came from and how they became resistant to malaria. Some anthropologists speculate that they originally migrated from India’s eastern hills, which would account for their Hindu-animist beliefs, but doesn’t fully explain the radically differing dialects, dress and customs of different Tharu groups. Isolated by malarial jungle for thousands of years, bands of migrants certainly could have developed their own cultures, but then why would the name “Tharu” survive with such consistency?
Further confusing the issue are the Rana Tharus of the far west, who claim to be descended from high-caste Rajput women sent north by their husbands during the Muslim invasions – the husbands never came for them, so they ended up marrying their servants. (There is some circumstantial evidence for this: Rana Tharu women are given extraordinary autonomy in marriage and household affairs.)
In terms of the malarial resistance, red blood cells seem to play a part – the fact that Tharus are prone to sickle-cell anaemia may be significant – but little research has been done. At least as significant, Tharus boost their immunity by common-sense precautions, such as building houses with tiny windows to keep smoke in and mosquitoes (and ghosts) out.
Skilled hunter-gatherers, Tharus have in modern times become farmers, and livestock raisers, fishing rivers, clearing patches in the forest and warding off wild animals. Their famed whirling stick dance evokes their uneasy, but respectful, relationship with the forest spirits. Their homes are made of mud and dung plastered over wood-and-reed frames, giving them a distinctive ribbed effect. In the west, half a dozen families or more often still live in the traditional communal longhouses.
The Tharus have fared poorly in recent years, largely reduced to sharecropping. Their distinct culture remains strong in the far west, but in other areas is being drowned out by dominating influences from elsewhere in Nepal and India. Like indigenous people throughout the world, the Tharus’ traditional skills and knowledge of the environment seem to count for little these days.