In January 2003, two days before Bihu, Khyanjeet Gogoi, trekking in the forests bordering Dibru Saikhowa National Park, was picked up by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) — at the time the most dreaded militant outfit of the Northeast.
Held hostage in a secret “jungle” camp on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border, the militants interrogated Khyanjeet: “Why are you here? What are you looking for?”
“Orchids,” the 23-year-old replied.
It was an answer no one expected. Three days later, the slightly bemused ULFA cadres left Khyanjeet on the banks of a river; he was free to make his way home.
That trip, remembers Khyanjeet, was futile. “I was looking for a rare species of orchid that was apparently growing wild at the national park.” Needless to say, those orchids were never discovered, but the quest continued.
For Khyanjeet, ever since 1994, has been travelling only in search of orchids. Over the years, he has recorded 395 species in Assam alone, discovered 35 new ones, named three himself and cultivated several more in his backyard in the small town of Rupai in Upper Assam’s Doomdooma, where he teaches Biology at a local high school.
Today, the 38-year-old has many monikers in Assam: the orchid expert, the orchid whisperer, the orchid man, and is often called by the government to identify rare species.
“If my friends invite me for a holiday, the first question I ask is: is there a forest near by?” says Khyanjeet, over the phone from Rupai, “Because, if there are forests, then there are definitely orchids.”
A THRIVING ILLEGAL TRADE
In Assam, the kopou phool, or the foxtail orchid, the mauve-ish flower that blooms in April and resembles a fox’s tail, was accorded the status of state flower in 2003. It has been, since time immemorial, linked to Assamese culture (as a symbol of fertility, merriment, love and affection) and is most conspicuous during Bohag Bihu (the festival that heralds spring in Assam) — not just on trees, but also neatly adoring the head of a Bihu dancer.
“For the longest time, I didn’t even know they were called orchids. As a child, I would recognise them as kopou phool,” says Khyanjeet, who first saw these flowers not on a Bihu dancer’s head, but lying by the side of the road. “After using them, people would just throw these flowers away, and I — attracted by their appearance — would often collect them,” he says.
Later, as a student of Botany, he learned that the kopou phool was just one kind of orchid, and in the thickly-forested areas of Assam alone, there were many, many more, growing wild.
In India, there are 1,331 species of orchids, found in the Eastern Himalayas including the Northeast, Western Ghats, and the eastern part of Western Himalayas. “But the Northeast remains an orchid hotspot with 72% of total orchids found in India,” says Khyanjeet. In Assam, orchids are found in the tropical wet forests of Lakhimpur, Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Dhemaji, Kokrajhar and Karbi Anglong.
However, simultaneously, as these flowers bloom, they are wilting and disappearing too. The reasons are many: deforestation, soil erosion, over grazing — “But also, a thriving illegal trade,” adds Khyanjeet.
While some traders do have proper trade licenses, majority of orchid trade, which is in part with China, is illegal. In 2015, Assam inaugurated the three-hectare Kaziranga National Orchid and Biodiversity Park belonging to peasant activist Akhil Gogoi’s Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, which was promoted as a space for conservation. Today, it is a tourist attraction, and has 500 varieties of wild orchids.
Yet, despite these efforts, there are several species (like the Blue Vanda, or the Vanda coerulea that resembles a lady’s tresses, or the beautiful Paphiopedilum hirsutissimum popularly known as the Lady’s Slipper) that would thrive in Assam at one point but are no longer found. Khyanjeet, who helped setting up the biodiversity park at Kaziranga, and later moved away, feels that orchid conservation needs stronger laws in place. “The Wildlife Protection Act states that no one can trade anything (](living / dead plants or animals) from the forest— but when it comes to orchids, no one pays heed to that,” says Khyanjeet.
While the illegal trade with China is not a secret, no one has really investigated it. “I suppose one could but one needs to find people who are interested in orchids too,” he says. It was only last month that he did.
THE ORCHID WHATSAPP GROUP OF ASSAM
For the longest time, Khyanjeet, who “stays away from social media”, wanted to form a society with like-minded orchid lovers from Assam. He was already a life member of Orchid Society of India, and the founder member of the Orchid Society of Eastern Himalayas — “But we never had a dedicated society in Assam,” he says.
In 2015, at a youth festival in Sivasagar, he met 26-year-old Ankur Gogoi, who claims he found his life’s calling when he least expected to — as a dhul player of a local Bihu band in his hometown at Tengapukhuri in 2010. “Right before our performance, we realised we didn’t have any orchids for the girls to put in their hair. But luckily, we came across someone who was cultivating close to 100 orchids in their home.”
That made Ankur think — “If they can, why can’t I? In 2010, I started getting orchids home and began growing them.” Orchids can grow on the ground, on rocks and even on other trees and plants. “I would tie them up to the big mango and betel nut trees in my yard with a string. Soon I had twenty varieties.”
It was only when he met Khyanjeet, who Ankur considers his mentor, that the latter feels he truly learned about orchids. “He taught me a lot: how to culture them, how to propagate them, how to make more seedlings,” Ankur recalls.
For example, it wasn’t enough to just “bring orchids home”. “Orchids thrive only in certain climate — yes, they are easy to cultivate, but they are as easy to kill too,” Khyanjeet had told Ankur, who would post tidbits of information from these lessons, along with beautiful pictures on Facebook.
“I started sharing these tips on social media in the hope to find other people who liked orchids,” says Ankur. Turns out many did. Through Facebook, beginning late 2017, Ankur connected to other orchid lovers in Assam — enthusiasts from Dhemaji, Lakhimpur, Golaghat, and Tinsukia. “These were teachers, businessmen, students, tea planters — both men and women, young and old — who wanted to learn more about the orchid simply because they liked it,” says Ankur.
Soon, a Whatsapp group was formed. “I called it the ‘Orchid Group of Assam’, and it now has 53 members.” Khyanjeet, who doesn’t own a smartphone, is not on it.
AN EXPENSIVE PROPOSITION
On December 29, 2018, three days before the year ended, and almost 12 months after they connected on Facebook, the orchid lovers met for the first time at the Silapathar Science College in Dhemaji. “It was Khyanjeet da’s idea. He said that since we were already talking on Whatsapp, why not do it face to face,” says Ankur.
The Orchid Society of Assam is now a formally registered society with the singular aim of conservation of orchid species in the state. While Ankur is the Secretary, Dr Jitu Gogoi, who teaches Botany at the Silapathar Science College is President.
And then there are members like Mithu Gogoi a tea planter, who, in his backyard in Jorhat, has about 7,000 kopou phools growing, since 2013. It isn’t a commercial venture but a hobby he indulges in with sound reason. “The kopou phool is the state flower. If we can protect the rhino, our state animal, why can’t we protect the kopou phool too?” Mithu asks.
The society, now one month old, effectively wants to create awareness about the flower: to teach people its value, its worth, and how to take care of it. “You might buy it, but if you don know how to culture it in proper labs, then there is no point,” says Ankur. He now has 350 species growing at his home in Tengapukhuri.
“But it is an expensive proposition,” he admits. There are no government funds for its conservation and even the few books available on orchids are expensive. “We do it spending our own money only because we love it,” says Ankur.
As does Khyanjeet. He remembers, how as a student of Botany in Sivasagar, he found no books on the subject in his college library, save for one chapter in one text book. “That is when I decided I should write a book on orchids in Assam,” he recalls. In 2010, he published the Wild Orchids of Assam, based on his years of research. It is arguably the only full-length book in English on orchids in Assam.