by Richard Freeman
The expeditionary team of Dr Chris Clark, Adam Davies, Dave Archer and myself, who had previously searched for the Russian almasty (a relic hominid) and the puzzling Sumatra orang-pendek (mystery ape or hominid), were getting our heads together in planning where to go in2010.
Several years before Adam had been in Tibet on the track of the yeti. Ian Redmond, Tropical Field Biologist and Conservationist mentioned to him that there were numerous reports of the yeti in the northern Indian state of Meghalaya.
Upon returning to England he investigated more closely and found that a local documentary film maker and journalist, Dipu Marak had been on the trail of the creature for some years.
I too had heard of the Indian yeti or as it is locally known ‘mande-barung’ the forest man. In June of 2008 BBC journalist Alistair Lawson visited the area to investigate sightings of the creature. He was impressed by the remote, undisturbed landscape and wrote…
“If ever there was terrain where a peace-loving yeti could live its life undisturbed by human interference, then this has surely got to be it. Perhaps the most famous reported sighting was in April 2002, when forestry officer James Marak was among a team of 14 officials carrying out a census of tigers in Balpakram when they saw what they thought was a yeti.”
Dipu had given the BBC some hairs he had found at a remote are called Balpakram. Upon analysis these proved to be from a goral , a species of Asian wild goat. This however did not negate the eyewitness reports.
We decided that the CFZ team should investigate and began to lay plans for a trip to India. Adam, who is a great organizer, contacted Dipu who in turn organized guides, lodges and contact with eyewitnesses.
The four of us were to be joined on this trip by Jonathan McGowen. Jon is an excellent field naturalist and taxidermist as well as being the curator of the Bournemouth Natural History Museum.
On Halloween 2010 we flew out to India. During the long journey Chris collapsed and we called for a doctor. He was given oxygen and quickly recovered. The verdict was that he has been suffering from a lack of oxygen on the long stuffy flight.
We arrived in the mad cacophony that is Delhi in the evening and checked into our hotel. We had an evening to kill so we arranged for a taxi to show us some of the sights of the city. Unfortunately, the taxi driver just dumped us at a western style mall think that, as westerners, it would be the place we were most interested in!
Finally we made it back to the hotel after avoiding wandering cows in the road and a near collision with a surprised sheik in a three wheeler. Driving in Asian cities is certainly an experience. It seems to consist of 90 percent horn beeping. In India there is even a horn code, certain numbers of beeps meaning certain things. The legend ‘Horn Please’ is amusingly written on the back of many vehicles.
The following day we flew out from the surprisingly clean and efficient Delhi airport to Guwahati in Assam. We were met at Guwahati by our chief guide Rudy Sangma assistant guide Pintu and our drivers. We then began the long journey to the town of Tura in the West Garo Hills.
Meghalaya is a mountainous state in the north east of India. It was carved out of the state of Assam in 1972 to accommodate the Khasi, Garo, and Jaintia tribes who at one time each had their own kingdoms. The three territories had come under British administration in the early 1800s and were assimilated into Assam in 1835. Once fierce head-hunters the Garos were among the first Indians to be converted to Christianity by British missionaries. After conversation the tribes were largely left alone allowing a lot of their culture to remain intact.
This expedition was to be somewhat atypical. Generally, we camp out in the jungle, mountains, dessert or were ever 24 / 7 returning only to ‘civilization’ to stock up on supplies. This time however the Indian Government would not let us stay overnight in the jungle due to the activities of the insurgent group the Garo National Liberation Army. The significantly reduced our chances of seeing the mande-barung.
Landlocked between Bangladesh, China and Burma, North-East India is a mosaic of peoples and ethnicities long prey to inter-communal tensions. Some tribal groups are still leading separatist insurgencies against New Delhi.
As the winding roads rose upwards, giving way to rocky tracks Rudy told me of some of the other strange creatures from the folklore of the Garo Hills. One creature that looms large in the Garos is the sankuni. This is a monstrous snake that bears a crest upon its head much like rooster’s comb. The description of the sankuni matches up very well with that of the naga, the vast crested serpent I searched for in Thailand back in 2000 and the ninki-nanka the serpent dragon of the Gambia I hunted in 2006. All are said to bear crests, be of huge size, have shining black scales, live in lake or river as well as subterranean burrows and to have an association with rain.
This uncanny dovetailing of these stories made we seriously wonder if the sankuni and other monster snakes are based on encounters with a real-life species of gigantic snake unknown to science. Unlike the naga or ninki-nanka the sankuni is also associated with landslides. Its underground crawling is supposed to cause massive shifts in wet earth. This sounds much like the weird South American serpentine cryptid known as the minhoco that is said to cause disruption, uproot trees, destroy houses and even alter the course of rivers. The sankuni is not wholly malevolent. Indeed, in legend, it is said to allow humans to use its great coils as a bridge allowing them to cross rivers. It is also said to manifest in dreams warning people of impending landslides. The sankuni is said to crow like a rooster much the same as the crested crown cobra of Africa. ItS likeness to both the European basilisk (save in vast size) and the giant serpentine lindorms and worms hardly needs to be stated.
Another weird entity from folklore that Rudy told me of was the skaul. This is a vampiric entity that resembles a normal human being by day but at night its head detaches from its body and flies about as an independent entity. It has luminous hair and saliva. The skaul is said to feed on excrement and rubbish but also to suck up human life force causing the victim to fall ill, weaken and finally die. The skaul may have been an early attempt to explain disease and illness. The luminous hair and saliva might well be based on early sightings of ball lightning or some other metrological phenomena. The skaul has analogues across Asia with the Malayan Penanggalan, the Philippine Manananggal, the Balinese Leyak, the Thai Krasue and the Japanese Nukekubi.
We arrived in the ugly mountain town of Tura. Soulless grey buildings sprung up like crowded fungus whilst gas and water pipes snaked above ground like rusting metal mycelia. The town was dirty, noisy and smelly. We checked into the tumbledown Sandre Hotel and unpacked.
Tura’s unappealing nature was offset by our meeting with Dipu Marak the man who had been on the trail of the mande-barung for many years. A delightful man Dipu has a deep and infectious passion for the Indian yeti. He told us how he recalled hearing stories of the beast in his childhood and that sparked his lifelong interest. With a Garo mother and a Bengali father Dipu is a huge fellow who towers over everyone else in the town.
The native Garos are quite distinct from the average Indian. They are an oriental race who originated in Tibet. They fought their way down to India and finally settled in the hills that bear their name to this day. Property and land are passed down the female side of the family, a wise move in a people who had to fight every step of the way on their long migration.
Nokrek National Park is home to a population of Red Pandas, Asian elephants, 8 species of felines including tiger, 7 species of Primates and many species of birds. There have been several recent mande-barung sightings here.
The following day we journeyed to Nokrek National Park. The hills here are covered by deep virgin rainforest. It was here we intended to leave our camera traps for the duration of the expedition. It was here that the wild ancestor of all modern varieties of orange was discovered. I sampled some Citrus indica, finding it to taste like a less sharp lemon. Another plant growing in abundance was a small, dirty brown, spherical fruit the locals called ‘tescun’.
They looked like oversized oak gall but tasted exquisite. The flavour was quite unlike anything I have ever tried before. To attempt to describe it would be akin to trying to describe a new colour. Rudy told us that a few weeks before the area was swarming with elephants and wild buffalo, but they had now moved on. We heard hoolock gibbons calling in the distance.
We took an arduous trek into the rainforest. The terrain was very hilly and the constant climbing up and down ridges. We came across the nest of a wild boar and climbed down a dangerously steep cliff to investigate a small cave. The cave offered up no results other than the paw prints of a small felid, possibly an Indian leopard cat.
We planted camera traps at several locations making sure each had a good view of the area. All the traps were baited with bananas and oranges. The mande-barung is supposed to be primarily a herbivore although there are a couple of sightings of the creatures eating freshwater crabs. Dipu told us of one case were a farmer saw a family of four mande-barung stealing pineapples from his fields. The creatures ran away upon seeing him snatching fruit as they went.
We moved from Tura in the West Garos down to Siju in the South Garos. We were met by Rufus, a friend of Rudy’s and another guide. We stopped in a rather down a heel and basic but clean tourist lodge. Close by were the Siju Caves where the village head man had supposedly encountered a mande-barung several years before. The whole area was awash with wildlife from Indian false vampire bats and tokay geckoes in the kitchen to tarantulas in the walls outside. Jon McGowen used some fishing line and a live cricket to go tarantula fishing, baiting the spider out far enough to be photographed.
The caves themselves were amazing. Apparently, they go on for miles with many smaller passages branching of the main cave. Fulvous fruit bats roosted in the cave and bizarre white fungus sprouted up from their droppings. The waters that ran through the cave were alive with tiny fish, shrimp, crab and cave crayfish. A swarm of them were feeding on a dead bat. Jon found two recently dead bats and decided to take them back with him to be stuffed. Huntsman spiders as broad as a human hand scurried over the rocks.
Pintu, one of the guides, who found a mysterious bone in Siju caves
I was excavating in the earth of the cave in the hope of finding some bone material as cave systems Pintu, one of the guides / porters found a section of what looked like leg bone under some rocks. It was around six inches long. Upon examining it in the daylight Jon thought it looked like the femur of a biped. We kept it for analysis.
The following day we set out across a huge suspension bridge that spanned the Simsang River and began to trek into the jungle. Early on Chris complained of pains in his chest and turned back, leaving us all quite worried. Despite being the eldest among us, on previous expeditions he had romped up mountains, across desserts and through jungles that left the rest of us gasping. It was clear that there was something wrong with him.
As we entered the jungle a huge Bengal eagle owl went crashing through the canopy. As the path rose, we glimpsed wild jungle fowl, ancestor of the domestic chicken. This place really did remind me of Kipling’s India. We came across an area of limestone outcroppings in the jungle. Some had been sculpted by wind and water to resemble human faces; other looked like the walls of lost temples or ruined cities, though all were natural in formation. The brought to mind the Cold Lairs where the Bandar-Log, or monkey people brought Mowgli in the Jungle Books. One are in particular was a narrow passage between two limestone cliffs. Rudy and Rufus told us that up until around 20 years ago the passage was used by hunting tigers to ambush men. Humans were forced to walk single file and the walls were too steep and slippery to climb making the men easy prey for the great cats. Later we came upon a watering hole and searched the mud for tracks; we found elephant, sambur, barking deer and buffalo. At one point as we were resting in the jungle something leapt down from the trees just over a ridge above us. The guides thought it may have been a leopard that was stalking us but on examination they said it was more likely to have been a monkey. Indeed, though we saw none we did find many monkey droppings.
The paradox of the jungle is that although it contains the greatest concentration of life anywhere on Earth animals are more difficult to see here than anywhere else. Creatures can hear a human coming from a long way off and melt like ghosts into the shadows. Wildlife is much easier to spot in open grassland areas. In all my time in many rainforests around the world I’ve only seen a handful of large animals.
Whilst most of us had been away in the jungle ,Dave Archer had stayed by the Simsang searching for snakes and looking for animal tracks. He had found the footprints of a tigress in the sand. It was good to know that there were still tigers in the area.
Later we interviewed the head man of the village, Gentar. He had encountered something strange in the Siju caves several years before, something that had frightened him so much that he refused to go back there. He and some friends had been fishing by the light of burning torches. They had heard a noise that he described as sounding like someone treading on bamboo. On investigation they found wet footprints on the rocks. They were human-like but of a vast size. They led down one of the passages that turned off the main one. The group thought a mande-barung had entered the cave from one of its many jungle entrances. They panicked and fled the cave.
I found it odd that such a creature would be lurking so close to human habitation, but I was to hear subsequent stories of them approaching other villages. Cave systems retain a stable temperature, it could be that the creature had entered the caves to keep cool or possibly to hunt for crabs.
Rudy and Rufus told us of their worries over the future of Garo culture. The younger generation are losing interest and increasingly wanting to become westernized. Only the very remote tribes are still animist and still hold onto all the old beliefs that are beginning to die out elsewhere. They are planning to write a book recording Garo culture and custom before it is lost.
From Siju we moved down to Bagimara and set up HQ in a delightful lodge with a magnificent view of the Simsang. In the evening we would watch the sun setting over the river from the veranda. I enjoyed several chapters of Kipling’s immortal Jungle Books, so cheapened and bastardized by Disney. Of all the places we stopped in India this was my favourite.
Whilst here we were introduced to a local man called Beka. A sculptor by trade he had an interest in cryptozoology. He told us of a story his father related to him. Around 1940 in a lake near the borders of Bangladesh a group of armed men, possibly soldiers had shot a sankuni. Apparently, the creature had devoured a number of people over the years. The creature’s body lay partly out of the lake and partly in. The portion out of the lake was said to measure 60 feet. If there was any truth to the story it made me wonder just what kind of fire-arms would be needed to do any kind of serious damage to a snake so huge and also what happened to the body? The story might be nothing more than a tall tale, but it highlights the belief in a giant crested serpent in the Garos.
More recently, within the last five years, there had been a case of a woman who dreamed that a man had warned her that her house was going to be destroyed due to an impeding landslide. She moved out of her house that was indeed destroyed by a landslide. Witnesses saw a huge sankuni crawling away from the wreckage. It could be, that if the sankuni is a real, flesh and blood animal, it inhabits underground burrows and lairs. If these are disturbed by a landslide and the animal is seen crawling away, then people may have thought that the sankuni’s coils had been the cause of the landslide.
We travelled to the village of Imangri and trekked into the jungle beyond. We saw simulacra of a footprint in limestone beside a river. It is natural formation but the fact it has been linked with the mande-burung argues that the creatures must have been known of for a long time for such an association to have arisen. Swarms of yellow butterflies flittered around, and we rested awhile beside the waters. Chris once more felt ill and stayed behind in the village.
We returned to Imangri and interviewed the head man Shireng R Marak, a 56 -year -old with two thumbs on his right hand. In 1978 he and some friends were hunting in the forest. As it was begging to grow dark he heard something big and powerful crashing through the forest. He hear a loud, deep call AUHH!-AUHH-AUHH! Which he imitated for us loudly. He had heard village elders talking about the mande-barung and demonstrating the sound it made. He and his friends ran into a cave and lit a fire at the entrance. They heard the creature bellowing and crashing around outside the cave all night. At first light it moved away into the forest and they ran back to the village.
Shireng said that sightings of the creature were more common 40 years ago. His friend’s grandfather had shot one. He said it was man-like, covered in black fur and a face like a monkey.
The village shaman had supposedly seen the mande-barung as well. He was out in the fields somewhere so a boy from the village was sent to look for him. In the meantime, I took a short trip by canoe down the Simsang River. Finally, the shaman was found and we interviewed him over tea.
Neka Marak was 77 and was now suffering from cataracts. He made medicines and charms. Back before the Indo / Pakistan War of 1965 he had been searching for an incense tree in the jungle. He came upon some thick creepers that had been snapped by something with immense strength. He heard a crashing sound and turned around to see a huge mande-barung charging at him through the jungle. Neka pointed to the roof of a nearby tea house in the village in order to give us an idea of the size of the creature. The roof of the tea house was 15 feet high, a size I was totally unable to except for the mande-barung. I don’t know if it was the old man’s cataracts making him over estimate or the length of time since the sighting or sheers fear. He went on to say it resembled a huge hair covered man. The face looked very human and the hands were big enough to have broken a human’s neck. After all this time he could not recall the colour of the creature’s fur. To his credit he did not try to embellish but admitted that he could not recall the colour of the hair. He fled from the forest as quickly as he could.
Neka had also seen the sankuni. This also occurred prior to 1965. He saw the creature emerge from a cave beside the Simsang River. He did not see the whole animal as be beat a hasty retreat. He indicated that the portion he saw was in the region of 25-30 feet long. It was black scaled with a yellowish underbelly. It had a red, rooster-like crest and red wattles under the lower jaw. He fled in terror from the giant snake.
The following day we drove to Balpakram an area that looms high in Garo legend. It was thought to be the place the souls of the dead rested before going into the next world. It is a national park and the forested areas are full of wildlife.
The roads grew more treacherous as we drove higher. Soon even the four wheeled drives were struggling to cope. We walked the final couple of miles on foot to the great plateau that formed Balpakram. I notice that the area was heavily used for grazing and there were quite a few people around. Herdsmen were burning off the dry grass to promote new growth for grazing their livestock. I found it hard to visualize a large ape or indeed any big animal existing in the area. The basalt rocks in the park were formed into six sided geometric forms much like those in the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. The molten rock formed the shapes as it cooled and contracted. Unlike in Ireland the there are no columns and the shapes are visible only at ground level. Local people call the strange configuration the ghost market. Rudy told us that fossil pumpkin, melon and tomato seeds have been found in the area leading to the legend that it is a place where spirits hold a market place at night.
As we walked further across the plateau, we finally came across a truly spectacular gorge. Seven kilometres wide, two kilometres across and around one kilometre deep the Balpakram gorge made an astounding spectacle. It was heavily forested and had near sheer sides. A river ran through the bottom and Rudy explained that the only safe way in was via canoe by the river from a nearby village. Only two or so hunters ventured into the gorge per year and it was mostly unexplored. It looked as if it could easily hide a small group of yeti in its deep, inaccessible forests. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to investigate the gorge as such an undertaking would have taken a whole week. We made plans to return to the gorge on a future expedition.
Back at the lodge we met the owner Bullbully Marak who told us how keen she was to promote eco-tourism in the area. The Garo Hills and Meghalaya in general are not often visited by tourists. Rudy and Rufus mentioned that they often feel like foreigners in their own country and are often mistaken for Indonesians or Malayans. The feeling throughout the Garos is one that the central government of India is ignoring them. Such feelings have led to the formation of several insurgent groups in the area.
Tura itself is devoid of anything approaching nightlife. The one bar in the town was at the Sandre Hotel and closed at 10 pm sharp. The bar tender seemed totally disinterested in making money and resented anyone who entered the bar after 9-45.
The two hotels in Tura both had restaurants that were spectacularly badly run. Their menus were surprisingly varied but most items on them were not available. This made ordering food a bit like the cheese shop sketch in Monty Python. Far worse than this was the service. On one occasion we ordered some soft drinks. An hour later they still had not arrived despite three waiters standing around next to the fridge that the drinks . Dipu himself had to go and open the fridge and point the drinks out to them. On another occasion I ordered soup and bread. The soup took an hour to come and the bread turned up an hour later.
We were to spend the next day interviewing a number of people around Tura. The first on our list was Dr Milton Sasama the Pro-Vice-chancellor of the Garo Hills University. He had written a number of books on the history and folklore of the Garo Hills. He did not believe in the mande-burung as he had never come across descriptions of the beast in any of his studies. He had only heard of the monster, like a giant orang-utan, in the past 20 years. He also asserted that there was no tradition of a yeti like creature in Assam, the Indian state that lies between the Garo Hills and the Himalayas.
Conversely, he believed implicitly in the sankuni. He knew a man who had eaten the flesh of a dead, juvenile sankuni after it had been washed into a village by a flood. It was between 12 and 20 feet long and bore a rooster-like crest. The meat from the carcass had provided enough food for the whole village. The man, now in his 80s, called Albin Stone, resided in Tura these days.
Our next interviewee was with Llewellyn Marak the uncle of Rufus, who was a noted naturalist and author of a number of books on the wildlife of the Garo Hills. In 1999 he came across a set of four huge, man-like footprints at Nokrek Peak around 21 km from Tura. They were found in sand beside a stream and were 18 inches long. The tracks lead away into the jungle.
Llewellyn’s grandfather was a renowned hunter who amassed a large collection of trophies. He had encountered the mande-barung on a hunting trip many years before. He said that he came across the beast in a jungle clearing. It resembled a huge gorilla and was black in colour. It moved around on all fours and seemed to be searching for food. Occasionally it would stop and sit, appearing to eat something. Llewellyn’s grandfather became afraid and backed away.
This is the only report we have of the creature moving on all fours. Then again it may have been doing this in order to forage for food. The experienced hunter was sure what he had seen was not a bear.
Llewellyn, a conservationist rather than a hunter invited us to look at his father’s collection. Eagle-eyed Jon McGowan spotted something unusual among them. There were a pair of muntjac horns of unbelievable size.
On closer examination these very distinctive horns proved to be even larger than those of the giant muntjac of Vietnam and Laos. The accompanying photo shows the horns next to those of the Indian muntjac , the startling size difference is apparent. We took some samples from the antler for analysis back in Europe.
Llewellyn had also heard stories of giant catfish and giant freshwater stingrays, much like those said to lurk in the Mekong River of Indo-China.
Following this we moved on to speak to Rufus’ uncle a surgeon called Dr Lao. Dr Lao also believed that the mande-barung existed, but he thought that it was now very rare. Dar Lao had a collection of books on Indian wildlife. Among them was a book entitled ‘A Naturalist in Karbi Anglong’ by Awaruddin Choudry first published in 1993. The book, by one of India’s best- known naturalists, records his time in the Karbi Anglong district of Assam, the Indian state to the north of Meghalaya.
One chapter of Chourdy’s book is given over to the khenglong-po, a yeti like creature seen in the area. As Assam boarders onto Bhutan there is a link or corridor if you will directly from the Himalayas down to the Garo Hills along which yetis are reported and totally refutes Dr Milton Sasama’s ascertation that no such creatures are reported from Assam.
“Singhason peak and some nearby areas are sacred to the Karbis. Here in the dense forest lives the Khenglong-po, the legendary ‘hairy wild-man’. The Khenglong-po is an important figure in the Karbi folk tale. Whenever I used to get reports of its existence, I dismissed them as fable or mistaken identification of an ordinary animal. But when the much experienced Sarsing Rongphar gave me a fresh report, I had to re-think. Sarsing had been my guide in parts of the Dhansiri Reserved Forest, and I found him to be an accurate and reliable observer.”
Sarsing was a hunter who used dogs to sniff out game such as muntjact and porcupine that he then dispatched with a long hunting knife… Even before his arrival a Karbi Along Awaruddin Choudry had heard of sightings of a large, bi-pedal ape. At first, he asked witnesses if they might be mistaking a stump tailed macaque (Macaca arctoides) or a hoolock gibbon (Hoolock hoolock) but the witnesses rejected this as they were familiar with both species but when his trusted guide told him of an encounter with the beast, Choudry was forced to change his mind.
It was on May 13th 1992 that Sarsing Rongphar and his friend Buraso Terang and his hunting dogs ventured into Dhansiri Reserved Forest. In the afternoon they came upon large man-like footprints that were around 18 inches long and 6-7 inches wide. The pair followed the tracks for 3 kilometres until their usually brave dogs began to panic. Fearing an elephant or tiger was close by they crept cautiously forward. Soon a loud breathing sound became audible as ‘khhr-khhhr’ sound. From 260-295 feet away they saw and ape-like creature leaning against a tree, apparently asleep. The witnesses were at a higher elevation than the creature and had a clear view due to the fact there was no dense undergrowth obscuring their view. The creature was jet black like a male hoolock gibbon with thick bear-like hair on the body. The hair on the head was long and curly. The creature was a female with visible breasts. Its mouth was open and large, human-like teeth apparent. The face, hands and feet were black and ape-like. In front of the creature was a broken tree and the hunters thought the creature had been feeding on it. They observed the sleeping animal for around one hour. Sarsing likened it to a giant hoolock gibbon but with much shorter fore-arms.
On reaching their village they told tribal elders of what they had seen and were informed that it was a Khenglong-po, a kind of hairywildman that was thought to be dangerous.
Choudry took Sarsing to his camp and showed him pictures of the Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus) standing on its hind legs and the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei). The hunter identified the latter creatures as being a Khenglong-po whilst recognizing the former for exactly what it was. Choudry interviewed Buraso Terang separately and got the same answers.
A Khenglong-po was once supposed to have wandered up the railway track from Langcholiet to Nailalung.
On another occasion Choudry talked to some hunters from Karbi Anglong in central Assam. They spoke of a large, herbivorous, ground dwelling ape that they called Gammi. According to them two Gammis were seen together in 1982 feeding on reeds on the eastern slope of the Karbi Plateau in the upper Deopani area. An elderly hunter had encountered one in the Intanki Reserved Forest in Nagaland in 1977-78. The creatures are said to be covered in grey hair and to be man-like in appearance. The name Gammi means ‘wild-man’.
“It seems possible to me that a terrestrial ape, larger than the gibbons existed in some remote parts of Karbi Anglong and adjacent areas of Nagaland. The creature was always rare and preferred the remotest corner of the jungle, and, hence, evaded discovery by the scientific world. Now with the forests vanishing everywhere, this ape perhaps faces extinction. Expeditions to the heart of the Dhansiri Reserved Forest and Singhason area may well produce some result. But for now, I am looking for any fossil evidence including skull, bone or part thereof. This will at least put the Khenglong-po at its right place, even if it is extinct. Lastly, if a large mammal like the Javan or smaller one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus) can be discovered in recent years in a small pocket of the war-ravaged Vietnam, outside its known locality in Indonesia and beyond anybody’s expectation, one cannot rule out a Khenglong-po in the forests of Karbi Anglong.
We can see then an unbroken link of yeti sightings from Bhutan down into India.
The following day we interviewed another witness. He was a 51 -year -old teacher called Kingston. In 1987 he and a friend were on Tura peak. He saw large, five toed, man-like tracks in wet sand beside a stream. The toes and heel extended far beyond his own. My size nines were bigger than Kingston’s he he told me the creature’s tracks were bigger than my feet. The tracks sunk an inch into the sand were as Kingston’s own tracks only sunk in half an inch. He heard the mande-barung’s cry, AUHH!-AUHH-AUHH! He imitated the sound which was in line with that made by other witnesses. He wanted to investigate further but his friend was too afraid. He said he has heard the cry on Tura Peak again, within the last few years.
We took tea with Kingston and he told us of been bitten by a viper-from his description it was a white-lipped pit viper (Trimeresurus albolabris) – and how he had used a snake stone to draw out the venom and save his life. The use of snake stones is widespread in Asia, Africa and South America. They are not really stones at all but parts of animal bone that have been cut and shaped with sandpaper before being wrapped in foil and placed in a charcoal fire for 15-20 minutes. The porous bone is said to draw out the snake’s venom. Kingston said that the snake-stone had adhered to the bite and ‘drew up’ all the venom from his arm before falling off. Studies have shown that snake-stones are nothing but a placebo peddled by quacks. Maybe Kingston was just very lucky and recovered from the naturally or perhaps the viper did not inject the full payload of its venom. He told us the chemist in Tura still sold them. We thought it might be nice to buy some as souvenirs but as it turned out snake-stones were not to be found among the modern medicines on sale at the chemist.
Later that day we visited the village of Apertee some 35 miles from Tura to meet a witness called Nicholas Sama. In the 1960s he had seen the severed hand and forearm of a mande-barung at a village market. The forearm, which was being displayed on a store selling bushmeat, was as long as his whole arm. The hand looked like a man’s but far larger, and the nails were long. The arm was covered in long black hair. Nicholas thought it was very old as the skin was desiccated. No one knew where it had originally come from. Nicholas knew what he was looking at was not the arm of a bear or a gibbon.
The next day we met with a most impressive witness in the village of Ronbakgre. Teng Sangma had heard that in April of 2004 that a village carpenter had seen a female mande-barung sucking an infant in a bamboo forest close to Rongarre. He did not believe the story but then on the 24th of that month, he and a friend were hunting for jungle fowl in the forest when they came across a huge figure sitting with its back to them. Even in its sitting position it was five feet tall. It was covered with dark hair and had longer hair on its head that fell down onto the shoulders and the back. The shoulders were very broad. It was a female and was suckling a youngster whose legs were visible at the side of its mother suggesting that the infant was sitting on her lap. The youngster was making gurgling noises. The adult was pulling down large bamboo stems and plucking off the leaves to eat them. The men got to within 50 feet of the creatures and watched them for 2 minutes before they became afraid and backed away leaving the creatures behind. Apparently, the creatures had not noticed them.
We explored the area, walking along a stream into the jungle. We found the tracks of a fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) and what looked like barefoot human tracks. The latter were far too small to belong to an adult mande-barung but we tried to take casts of them just in case. Unfortunately ,the ground on which they were imprinted was far too damp to make casting with plaster of Paris possible. Prior to our leaving the UK, I had looked into other mediums for making casts. I could find no resin and was told by a DIY shop that Polly filler was unsuitable. The only liquid rubber I could source came with a big, gun-like applicator that would be difficult to get through customs. We were all agreed that the tracks were probably made by a human, but we filmed and photographed them anyhow.
The following day we attended the Wangala Festival on the outskirts of Tura. The festival, also called the One Hundred Drums Festival has its genesis in the pre-Christian tribal celebrations of the area. It was held in each village after the harvest. It is a « Thanksgiving » ceremony to Misi Saljong, also known as Pattigipa Ra’rongipa (The Great Giver) for having blessed the people with rich harvest of the season.
A day ahead of the Wangala, a ritual called the Rugala is performed by the Nokma (a village chief) and in this ritual the offerings of special rice-beer along with cooked rice and the vegetables are given to Misi Saljong, the Giver. On the next day, the Nokma performs Cha’chat So’a ceremony or the burning of incense at the central pillar of his house to mark the beginning of the week-long Wangala Festival.
With the influence of Christianity, the festival began to die out in all but the most remote villages. So in order to protect and preserve, and promote cultural identity, a group of Garos decided to organize the Wangala Festival on modern lines. A group of 30 dancers with ten drums would form a contingent and 300 dancers would make up the Hundred Drums Wangala Festival. It has been held every year from 1976.
We were lucky enough to be guests at this gathering and met a number of local dignitaries and try some of the locally brewed rice beer. The performers, who had come from all over the Garos were brightly dressed in differing colours for each tribe. They had ten drummers apiece and dancing girls as well as a warrior with a sword and wooden shield.
Each drum rhythm and dance was different and represented various aspects of life. The most memorable being a dance to represent ‘the shooing away of flies that are perching upon rice’.
At the festival we noticed some other westerners. They turned out to be French girls who were studying the Hoolock gibbons. They introduced themselves and said that they had found our camera traps at Nokrek and apologized in case they turned up on any of the pictures. They had even written a letter to us and left it at the lodge not realizing that they would meet us at the Wangala Festival.
Later we all had dinner at a tourist lodge. The lady who ran the lodge had recently cooked for the Prime Minister of India and I could well believe it. ‘Dinner’ is a term that does what we ate a disservice. It was a feast of positively medieval proportions with whole chickens, huge fish, sides of pork and masses of fruit.
The following day we met another impressive witness. Nelbison Sangma was a farmer from the village of Sansasico. He observed a mande-barung for three days running in 2003. He was some 1640 feet from the creature looking down upon it. The creature was on the top of a smaller hill. When he first saw it, the mande-barung was standing under a tree. It was nine feet tall and covered with black hair. It moved around for an hour as he watched it. It then slept in a nest it had constructed by pulling down branches much like a gorilla does. The next day the creature was in the same place and appeared to be sunning itself. This time he watched it for half an hour. On the third day he saw it again and it was wandering about and foraging.
The following day he took some other villagers to the area and showed them the nest. There was a monkey-like smell that pervaded the surroundings. They found man-like tracks 18 inches long and a huge dropping the length of a human forearm. This contained fibers from banana leaves.
We switched our attention back to Nokrek National Park. On the way we picked up some provisions, rice, fruit and several live chickens. These I named Little Lofty, Gloria and Mr La-di-dah Gunner Graham after characters off ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’. Dave brought a pot of the rice beer we had tried at the Wangala Festival from a roadside vendor.
We stayed in a specially made tourist lodge near a village in the park. It was made to look like a traditional Garo house constructed of wood and bamboo. During the day’s exploration we came across a huge man- like track imprinted deep into the sand beside a stream. The print was like a human track but with a couple of important differences. The heel was proportionally broader, indicating a weight -bearing heel. The toes were more even than a humans, showing much less of curve from the big toe down to the little toe. The track was sunk over an inch into the wet sand were as my own footprints could not reach even half that depth. We photographed the print with frames of reference.
Back at the lodge we ate dinner then sat around the fire telling stories. I tried some of the rice wine Dave had brought. I was to regret it later. During the night I had severe stomach pains as if someone were twisting a knife in my guts. I felt bloated and feverish. During one of my many visits to the toilet during the night I heard something large moving around in the darkness outside of the lodge. I assumed that it was a goat or a cow that had wandered down from the village.
In the morning Rudy told us that something had been pushing against the lodge door. He thought it was a tiger that had been attracted by the live chickens we were keeping inside the lodge.
I was feeling worse than ever and was in a lot of pain. I forced myself to go with the others into the jungle on the off chance the creature would put in an appearance. I found the trek hard with my intense stomach pain and fever. At a waterhole I had to stop and rest as the others went on. Dave and Jon found another set of mande-barung tracks by a stream further into the jungle. They followed the stream and seemed fairly fresh. The creature seemed to be overturning rocks and hunting for freshwater crabs. Several crabs were discovered with their insides sucked out.
I managed to stagger back to the camp. Thankfully by morning I was feeling better.
We returned to Tura as Morgan and Tara had to leave for Delhi the next day. The next day was spent around Tura chasing up some leads and loose ends. We photocopied the relevant chapter from Dr Lao’s book then visited the rather shabby library to see if there was anything on the mande-barung and the sankuni in any of the books there. We turned up absolutely nothing. We tried to track down Albin Stone, the man who was said to have eaten the flesh of a dead, juvenile sankuni but he was not at home.
Diup showed us a rib bone found by his father at Balpakram in the 1989. I thought it looked more bovid than primate, but we took a sample from it. Dipu also showed us a collection of hairs he found at Nokrek in 2006. The looked to me like goral (Naemorhedus goral) a goat-like antelope know to inhabit the area.
We met Dipu’s uncle Garfield who whilst fishing in 1956-57 came across a mande-barung print beside a stream. It was on a rock and formed by water were the creature had recently walked out of the stream and across the rocks.
Garfield also claimed to have seen the trail of a sankuni in the 1970s. It emerged from the Garo River and ran for 300 feet under a wooden bridge destroying some of the supports. It crossed a paddy field and entered a marsh. However, upon closer questioning Garfield told us that there were two tracks running parallel to each other and the ground and the vegetation between them was undisturbed. This sounds very like the tracks of some kind off all-terrain vehicle rather than a giant snake that would leave one single furrow.
All too soon our time in the Garos was over. We had to say our goodbyes to Dipu, Rudy, Rufus and the others. We returned to Delhi where we had a day to see the local sights.
The samples were tested by Lars Thomas and his team. The bone from the cave was a modern human and the antler from a known species of deer.
I am convinced that the mande-barung exists and that it is one in the same as the larger kind of yeti. The best model we have for this animal is a surviving form of Gigantopethicus blacki. As for the sankuni, its startling resemblance to the Indo-Chinese naga, the West African ninki-nanka, the Central African crested crowing cobra and many other monster serpents, convinces me that there are more to these stories than hot air.
Already there is talk of returning to the Garos in a few year’s time, probably to mount an expedition down into the gorge at Balpakram. Kipling’s India is still alive if you look hard enough and I intend to return there.
Richard Freeman eminent member of the Center for Fortean Zoology, he is the very definition of the cryptozoologist: an enthusiast, an adventurer, a writer, a free-thinker, someone who devotes his life investigating the mysteries of the animal world, all over the world. His latest book is available here.