The tranquillity of Jatinga, a scenic village in the Borail Hills range, is broken every night by a disturbing occurrence - the 'mass suicide' of hundreds of birds. Locals have been witnessing the mysterious phenomenon from September to November for the last couple of years. As the sun sets, hundreds of birds fly full speed towards buildings and trees, crashing to their deaths. The repeated episodes are confined to a 1.5 km strip of the village.
With lush greenery and plentiful freshwater, Jatinga, the headquarters of the Dima Hasao district is a resting place for many migratory birds. The birds include the kingfisher, Indian pitta, green breasted pitta, green pigeon, black drongo, racket tailed drongo, whistling ducks, spotted doves, emerald doves, and grey heron.
But come September, and the locals brace for the ghastly sight. Is it really suicide, or something else?
"It is not a suicide, to be precise. But the fact remains that birds are attracted by light and fly towards any object with a light source. This phenomenon still puzzles bird specialists," says Anwaruddin Choudhury, a well-known ornithologist in Assam. B. Brahma, conservator of forests, Hills Circle, Haflong, also echoes the view.
The 'suicide', however, is just a part of the mystery. The more baffling question is why birds fly after sunset at all, as most birds are active only during daytime. The late Dr. Salim Ali, pre-eminent ornithologist, too was struck by this oddity. "The most puzzling to me is that so many birds should be on the move when, they should be fast asleep. The problem deserves a deeper study from various angels," he had written.
Jatinga was originally inhabited by the Zeme Nagas, who saw the phenomenon while guarding their paddy fields on a moonless, dark night. Frightened, they sold the land to Jaintias and left the place way back in 1905 but the Jaintias interpreted it as a gift from the gods. The earliest reference to this phenomenon was made by E.P. Gee, a British tea planter in his book "Wild Life of India" in 1957. The Zoological Survey of India had sent a team here in 1977. Later, leading ornithologists from Europe, the US and Japan too studied the mystery.
Some bird specialists attribute the phenomenon to the electro-magnetic forces of Jatinga, which is surrounded by geographical faultlines all round. But no conclusive evidence has emerged till now.
The deaths, though perplexing, are not mourned. Locals are quick to trap the birds using bamboo sticks, which are then consumed with relish. Those desiring a first-hand experience of the phenomenon can visit Haflong - with Silchar (110 km) and Guwahati (350 km) being the two nearest airports. If travelling by train, board a broad gauge train from Guwahati till Lumding, from where another meter-gauge train will take you to Haflong. The route from Lumding to Haflong passes through many tunnels and it is an exciting journey somewhat resembling the Kalka-Shimla track. By road, it takes around 10-11 hours as you have to negotiate bumpy roads.