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Friday, April 23, 2021

Khenglong-po in the time of Yeti: meet the hairy wild man of Assam

With the Yeti dominating discourses — humorous and scientific both — courtesy the Indian Army’s tweet last week, we track the footprints of yet another mythical beast. Meet the Khenglong-po, the hairy wild man of Assam’s Karbi Anglong.

Written by Nabarun Guha | Guwahati |
Updated: May 6, 2019 7:25:19 pm
 Khenglong-po, Anwaruddin Choudhury, A Naturalist in Karbi Anglong A sketch of the Khenglong-po — the mythical wild-haired man of Assam — by Anwaruddin Choudhury in his book A Naturalist in Karbi Anglong. Image Courtesy: A Naturalist in Karbi Anglong | Anwaruddin Choudhury

On a summer day in May 1992, experienced hunter and guide Sarsing Rongphar and his regular companion Buraso Terang ventured deep inside Assam’s Dhansiri Reserve Forest. At one point, they came across a trail of unusually large human-like footprints, approximately 1-1.5 feet long and 6-7 inches broad.

They tracked it for sometime and three kilometres later, the duo got the shock of their lives: a big ape-like creature, almost six feet tall, was sleeping with its back resting against a large bhelu tree. They had been hunters for more than a decade then but never had they seen anything like it. They ran for their lives. 

They did not know it then but Sarsing and Buraso had met the Khenglong-po.

Looking for the Khenglong-po

On April 29, the Indian Army tweeted pictures of giant footprints at Makalu base camp in Nepal, claiming that they belonged to the ‘Abominable Snowman’ or the Yeti — the mythical creature referenced in many Himalayan legends and folklore. Though the incident set off a series of memes and jokes on social media (as well as a Jimmy Kimmel video), it was refuted by experts.

The mystique around mythical creatures (be it the Big Foot in North America or Loch Ness in Scotland) — often the subject of books, comics and films — remains.

In Northeast India, there is a little-known legend of the Khenglong-po, a wild hairy man that has been fascinating and scaring the residents of Assam’s Karbi Anglong for years now.

On that May afternoon of 1992, as Sarsing and Buraso breathlessly recounted their adventure once they were back in the village, the elders told them calmly that they had met Khenglong-po.

Soon word about Sarsing and Buraso’s discovery spread, and naturalist Anwaruddin Choudhury, who was the Additional Deputy Commissioner of Karbi Anglong at the time, met the duo. He showed them the pictures of the Himalayan Black Bear and Mountain Gorilla, the former which is found commonly in Karbi Anglong. 

“I had interviewed Sarsing and Buraso separately. Both identified the bear correctly but said that the gorilla was similar to the creature they saw,” remembers 59-year-old Choudhury.

Choudhury — arguably the first person  to document the wilderness and biodiversity of Karbi Anglong located about 250km from Guwahati — has a detailed account of this incident in his book A Naturalist in Karbi Anglong, published in 1993. 

Choudhury mentions other sightings of the strange animal. “Some hunters from the Kuki tribe also said that they had seen a large terrestrial ape called Gammi. Two Gammis were seen in 1982 in Upper Deopani Area. Another elderly Kuki hunter told me about encountering a strange human-like beast, way back in 1977-78 in the Intanki Reserve Forest, now a sanctuary in Nagaland. There have been some reports of Khenglong-po sighting in parts of Hamren and Dolamara in Northern Karbi Anglong as well,” he says.

 Khenglong-po, Anwaruddin Choudhury, A Naturalist in Karbi Anglong Sarsing Rongphar (left) the hunter who “met” the Khenglong-po in 1992. Photo Courtesy: A Naturalist in Karbi Anglong | Anwaruddin Choudhury

Environmentalist Soumyadeep Dutta has written about mysterious apes of Northeast India in Assamese book Nana Katha Nana Prasanga which he co-authored with his wife Moromi Dutta Talukdar. He says, “Many people have said that they have seen Khenglong-po but there is no proper evidence to support those claims. Few people have even told me that they saw a mysterious ape-like creature in Jeypore Rain Forest in Dibrugarh. However, only crypto zoologists (who study mythical animals that exist in folklores and legends) might be interested in these claims because to be fair, there have been no serious attempts to trace these creatures.” 

Myth or reality?

There are myths galore about the Khenglong-po in Karbi society. Mondor Teron, who teaches History at the Eastern Karbi Anglong College, says, “It is believed that the Khenglong-po doesn’t have elbows and knees. They are also said to be meat-eaters with no aversion to human flesh. So village elders used to tell people to stay away from these creatures. They are considered to be very strong with the ability to chase even big mammals like elephants.”

Choudhury feels that the possibility of existence of such a terrestrial ape, larger than gibbons can’t be ruled out entirely in Karbi Anglong and adjacent parts of Nagaland. He says locals of Karbi Anglong are familiar with Hoolock Gibbons and black bears and so they would not easily confuse these animals with the Khenglong-po.

 Khenglong-po, Anwaruddin Choudhury, A Naturalist in Karbi Anglong The areas where the Khenglong-po has been sighted. Photo Courtesy: A Naturalist in Karbi Anglong | Anwaruddin Choudhury

He writes in his book, “Maybe, the creature was very rare and preferring the remotest part of jungle, somehow evaded discovery. Specific explorations have not been done in most parts of Karbi Anglong. Expeditions to the heart of Dhanshiri Reserve Forest and Singhason hills could have yielded some results about it. I am looking for some fossil evidence including skull or bone, which will at least give some information about Khenglong-po even if it is extinct.”

Diphu-based journalist and conservationist Sushanta Roy says that many claimed to have seen the creature in the past. But that’s all they were: claims. For instance, in September 2005, there were reports that a Khenglong-po had been caught in Hawai Ingti village of Karbi Anglong. When the creature was finally brought to Ouguri forest range office, it was identified as a slow loris.

The writer is a freelance journalist in Assam and tweets at nabarun_guha45.

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