While the world is busy building concrete structures, in the northeast of India a state struggles to live in sync with the natural world. Weavers, bamboo huts, river island temples, forests and ancient traditions, Assam is rooted to the earth.

Even as the shouts of excitement grew stronger on the stage, I kept clicking pictures of the crabs being cooked on bamboo sticks. A stick on five cost INR 100. Youngsters ruled the evening — around the performance area and the food stalls. Rice beer, live grills, organic tea and more dotted the grounds of Srimanta Sankardev Kalashetra in Guwahati. This was the fourth edition of the annual Rongali festival. Guwahati was overwhelming with its rush and fascinating for Assam’s largest city screamed of being lost between the old and the new. My Assam sojourn began with an exploration of the city.

Umananda Temple, Guwahati

It would take 20 minutes for the ferry to go, we were told by the man sitting at the ticket counter of the Inland Water Transport boat-turned-waiting centre. The government runs ferries from Uzanbazar Ferry ghat (ticket: INR 20 per person) and there are private ones from Sukleshwar ghat or Fancy Bazar ghat. It wasn’t a pleasant sight with old wooden planks being used as a bridge, but the waves of the mighty Brahmaputra had a soothing effect. The island didn’t look like it was far. It turned out I was right, the wait was longer than the sailing time.

While Kamakhya temple is the most well known and visited one, this little island temple in the middle of the Brahmaputra has an unmatched charm. Dedicated to Shiva, this is known as the smallest inhabited riverine island in the world.

The island is named Peacock because of its shape, but legends call it Urvasi. Constructed by the Ahom King Gadadhar Singha (1681–1696) in 1694, the legend of this sacred space goes back to Kalika purana. It was here that the god of desire Kamadeva disturbed Shiva’s meditation and was burnt to ashes when Shiva opened his third eye in anger. Hence, the hill is named Bhasmacala (bhasma means ashes). A small shivalinga lies in the womb here, you have to climb down, where the god is said to have taught his wife Parvati (whose name is also Uma).

The scripture also says that goddess Urvasi, who is responsible for bringing nectar to goddess Kamakhya, stays here. The original temple was destroyed by an earthquake in 1897. It was reconstructed by a local merchant later, who believed in the preserver Vishnu. Now, the temple houses the 10 avatars of Vishnu, besides the Shiva family. The temple was even patronized by Mughal emperors Jahangir and Aurangzeb.

We had reached when the sun was about to set and didn’t get time to enjoy the much-needed cup of tea, or wear the local dress and take a picture. It costs just INR 50 to wear the local costume. But as the sun set, the waves changed colour and the brightness of the peacock lay in the waters.

Sualkuchi: The Weavers’ Block

The block in Kamrup district was sleeping because the town was celebrating Bihu (shift of equinoxes when sun moves into Capricorn). Better known as the ‘Manchester of Assam’, it is home to many cottage industries, the most well-known being Muga, Pat and Eri silk. While most weavers were holidaying, we did manage to find one open in Kalitapara. And the owner, Hari Lal Kalita, showed us some beautiful products — slippers, umbrella, sarees, stoles. Only one weaver was at work and the price ranged from INR 1,000 to INR 80,000, depending on the time, the weave and the final product, explained Kalita. Muga is the most expensive, and mulberry, eri and tussar are within an affordable range. The purity of silk is ascertained by a laboratory test and a label is put. He has an old machine as well as one with the latest technology — the only one in the entire area, he claimed.

Kaziranga National Park

Home to the famous one-horned rhinoceros, this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is best explored through safaris-both by Gypsy and elephant. Even from the road, one can see the rhinos, Asiatic wild water buffaloes, Asian elephants and swamp deers and it’s quite an awesome sight, especially the morning safari. This was my second time in the park and now, I held the camera with care. The park is such an eye-opener on community bonding. With little time for warfare, the rhinos, deers and elephants all graze in perfect harmony, waking up before dawn and departing to their sleeping places at dusk.

The park has just about everything that a wildlife lover would like to see, but most of the area is cordoned off to avoid animal-human conflict as well as poaching. The Bengal tiger also resides here, but it doesn’t come in the zone that is open for safaris. Then there are birds such as vulture and hornbills, turtles, fishes and snakes such as the python. The designated time of one hour on elephant and two-three hours in the Gypsy is not enough for those who yearn to keep observing.

Majuli

We were all gung-ho about visiting the ‘world’s biggest river island in the Brahmaputra river’. But as the river has been growing, the island has been shrinking. And that was the charm. Maybe it wouldn’t shrink in my lifetime, but this was really a once in a lifetime kind of trip. However, the ferry ride from Neemti ghat in Jorhat to Majuli can be quite a backburner. It takes just 30 minutes to reach the jetty in Majuli, but those 30 minutes are with bikes, cars, just about enough space to put your two feet on, clinging on to the bags and the luggage and even then enjoying the breeze and the shimmering waters. Well, it’s just 30 minutes in one lifetime!

Majuli wakes up early, home to some amazing people and some amazing birds. The island has all good roads and is inhabited mainly by the Mishing tribe. The roads did surprise me for I could never imagine life on an island, living in the high flung capital of India, seeing the luxury of land and trees. The island has educational institutions, hospitals, offices, even petrol pumps.

Majuli was green with roads lined by houses built on bamboo stilts. Surrounded by a river, it is best to have high homes, said the women who had looms on the ground. They wove to sell and also for themselves. There are concrete houses as well. Some sold their cloth to the satras, that is the temples or monasteries.

Satras are hermitages founded by the 16th century social reformer and saint Srimanta Sankaradeva. The island housed 65 satras during his lifetime but now only 22 remain. The main god worshipped here is Vishnu, the preserver. Our first stop was at Auniati Satra, which house over 125 disciples who live and study the scriptures here. The satra also houses a museum with artifacts, utensils and clothes of the days gone. The ambience is all about silence and prayers, as fragrance from the incense sticks envelops the devotees. Lamps burn in one corner; prasad is of sprouts. Everything here is as green as it can be with ponds, shrubs, flowers and chirping birds.

Recommended by all, we drove over to Shamaguri Satra which is famous for mask making. Among these is the home of Hem Chandra Goswami, an award-winning mask maker. The masks are made for bhaona or plays enacting the times of Mahabharata and other Indian epics, mostly centering on the god Vishnu. These are the islands main entertainment. So, a catchy mask was of Narsimha (man with a lion’s head) avatar.

Imagine being by the river and watching the sun go down, that’s exactly how the time at Majuli ended.

Sivasagar

While most in the group weren’t interested in seeing the ancient structures of Sivasagar, I was adamant. After all, this had been the capital of the Ahoms from 1699 to 1788. They had ruled Assam for almost six centuries before the empire fell in the hands of the Burmese in 1819. Then it was known as Rangpur.

We spent barely an hour here and saw only three monuments, but it’s a place with stories and those can only be explored when you come at ease. So, armed with a ticket, I walked through the manicured lawns of Rang Ghar. Rang means color and the place was an amphitheatre where the cultural colors exploded. The double-storied, red oval structure had a roof shaped like an inverted boat. Constructed by Swargadeo Pramatta Singha, this is believed to among the largest of amphitheaters of its time.

Our next stop was the Talatal Ghar, a palace built as an army base. The two secret tunnels and three floors below ground level as exits during wars gave it this name talatal, which means underground.

Finally, the most famous temple, Sivasagar Sivadol with its golden dome, turned out to be quite an end to the trip. Built in 1734 by Kuwori Ambika, wife of Swargadeo Siba Singha, this temple houses a sanctum dedicated to Shiva. There are separate spaces for his wife Parvati and the preserver Vishnu in the same complex. Behind this is Joysagar, which is the believed to be the biggest man-made lake in the country. It was built by Swargadeo Rudra Singha for his mother Joymoti.

There’s a lot to Assam that lies unexplored but perhaps some day, I shall see those parts.

How To Reach Assam, India

  • Most international flights land at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi at T3. Some international flights also come to the Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport, also known as Guwahati International Airport, which is the international airport for the northeastern states of India. Alternatively, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport at Kolkata is also accessible from some countries.
  • The state is best explored by road. Once can hire taxis or mini-buses, depending on the number of people from Guwahati.

Things To Keep In Mind

1. Preferably wear cotton clothes and keep yourself covered. Do carry some woolens, if you are coming in winter.
2. Carry a water bottle, some places are not clean.
3. Carry some sunscreen, medicines and first-aid kit. Mosquito repellants are a good idea.
4. Keep your passport under lock and key. Keepign some photocopies though is a good idea.
5. Bargaining is a good idea in the market. Keeping some cash handy works.
6. There are many beggars but it is not a good idea to encourage them.
7. Locals ask for money if you want to take their photographs, so change is handy. It’s better than begging.
8. When trying street food, make sure you have a strong stomach.
9. Everyone pretends to be a guide, but is not. You can ask for credentials.
10. Temples are sacred spots and keeping them that way helps. Donations are an individual choice. Please do not get shocked at the practices in these temples, as some of them follow the ancient ritual of animal sacrifice.
11. Tips are welcome. Normally a 10% works well. But you can choose to give as per your discretion or not give also.
12. Do carry a pair of binoculars for the region is a paradise for bird and wildlife lovers.
13. While Assamese is the state language, people do understand Hindi. You will need interpreters for English.

What Would Help

India-based journalist, photographer and videographer, worked with Outlook Traveller, Swagat and written for patriot.in. Mail: ambicagulati@gmail.com