BALPAKRAM NATIONAL PARK Source: Himalayan News Chronicle

A Sanctuary for Souls

By Our Special Correspondent

Balpakram National Park is a national park and biosphere reserve in the south of Garo Hills in Meghalaya close to Bangladesh. Established in 1987, like all other parks it provides habitat for a number of flora and fauna endemic to the region including elephants. Balpakram meaning “land of the eternal wind” besides being a national park is also a proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site. But more than anything else attached to a national park it is a place of bone chilling mysteries and hair-raising myths for which it is also called a sanctuary of the spirits of the ancestors of the local Garo tribals.

Balpakram is considered a sacred place by the Garo tribe of Meghalaya and has deeply rooted indigenous beliefs and myths associated with the  plateau.  According to local  myths,  the spirits of the dead of the Garo tribe first visit the Balpakram plateau, and that is where it is decided whether the spirit would finally voyage to heaven or hell.
Hence it is considered as the “sanctuary of the souls” or “the land of the spirits”. Garos also believe that one must visit Balpakram at least once in their lifetime to be reincarnated as a human being in the next life.
Balpakram offers many sacred sites and natural formations that have several emotional and cultural connotations with the tribal ancestry of the Garo tribe. There are mythological places like  Gandhi  Soram which consists of three hillocks marking the funeral site of their tribal ancestors, It has Mebit (the Oracle rock) which contain pebbles that foretells the direction where jhum cultivation can be started.

There are even designated places of the spirits. Balpakram   gorge is  considered  as the resting place of spirits of the dead, Chidimak is the bathing place of the spirits, Me.mang Anti-Charam is the marketplace of the spirits, Dikini ring is an upside down boat and many more. There are identified places of the animals and birds too. So.gin Sa.ram is the nesting place of vultures, Matcha melaram which is the meeting place of tigers and Deoban is the fishing place of deities. Local people even heard cries in the dark hours from the park.

Interestingly, Balpakram also rivals the Himalayas with places like Kailash similar to the peak of Lord Shiva  found  in the Himalayas in Tibet. Places such as Mahadeo, Hatisia,  Moheshkola and Kanai are evidence that shows the once flourishing Hindu practices in the Garo hills. Garos believe that it is the area from where Hindu God Hanuman collected  Sanjivanee, the particular herbal that could heal the wounds of Rama during the fight with Ravana as mentioned in the Hindu epic, Ramayana. In all other scriptures, it is mentioned that Sanjivanee was found in the northern part of Himalayas. Not just Sanjivanee, Balpakram is believed to have many other magical plants like Dikge that do not grow elsewhere.

The landscape is extremely unique with patches of moist deciduous forests, dense tropical forests surrounded by giant rocks that at times take the form of long narrow chains of caves that still remain globally unexplored and unmapped. The dynamic landscape offers a multitude of fauna with  different  species of mammals, rare birds and several florae such as varieties of orchids including the Lady’s Slipper  orchid,   which is the State plant of Meghalaya. Balpakram also has  two  varieties of the insectivorous Pitcher Plant. But here again the spirits have links with the trees. Boldak Matchu Karam is believed to be a place in the sprawling park where it is believed that animals were tied up on a tree trunk by the spirits for their funeral and rest here for a while. The Schima wallichii tree even has a depression on its trunk.
Local people believe that it was caused by spirits that take rest here on their way to their abode of the dead and tether  animals   killed on their funeral feast. The tree has a strangle mark! Believe it or not, whenever the tree falls due to strong winds, another tree nearby gets afflicted by the same depression in the trunk as the other.

Garos who are of Tibeto- Burmese origin though largely converted to Christianity were originally of animist religion known as Songsarek. The indigenous groups who settled in the Garo Hills brought their ancient animistic  religious beliefs and practices, with deities and ancestors who must be appeased with rituals, ceremonies and animal sacrifices to ensure the welfare of the tribe.

Balpakram, the land of the spirits is full of legend, lore, myth and beliefs of the Garo people. The literal meaning of the word ‘Balpakram’ means a ‘place where cool breeze blows incessantly’. Garos believe that the body dies but the spirit remains forever practicing the same activities as human beings do till, he or she is born again as human beings or in other forms. Balpakram is a place of religion for the Garos who believe in the traditional life and spirit. Balpakram should be seen as virgin land and not be touched by human hands.

The small state of Meghalaya has as many as seven sanctuaries, national parks and biosphere reserve:

Names Areas Districts Estd.
Siju Wildlife Sanctuary
Nongkhyllem Wildlife Sanctuary
Baghmara Pitcher Plant Sanctura
Balpakram National Park
Nokrek Ridge National Park
Nokrek Biosphere Reserve
Narpuh Wildlife Sanctuary
5.81 sq km
29 sq km
0.02 sq km
220 sq km
47.78 sq km
820 sq km
59.90 sq km
South Garo Hills
Ri-Bhoi District
South Garo Hills
South Garo Hills
East Garo Hills
East, West & South Garo Hills
East Jaintia Hills