ASSAM, stretching across the Brahmaputra valley and surrounded by garlands of hills is the land of the ĎRed river and blue hillsí. The red refers to another name of the mighty Brahmaputra ó Lauhitya (Luit as the Assamese fondly call it) and the blue from the hills simmering in the distance creating a blue haze. With its emerald-green tea gardens, sanctuaries and carpets of green paddy fields stretching to the horizon, Assamís natural beauty is exquisite.
But Assam is also an ancient land with its name found as far back as the Mahabharata when its King Bhagadatta joined the Kauravas at war with thousands of soldiers and elephants. At that time it was known as Pragjyotishpur, presently in the western part of the state. Pragjyotishpur also marks it as an ancient seat of astronomy. Navagraha temple in Guwahati, the state capital, is said to have been a great centre of astronomical studies in the hoary past.
The other famous temple here is the Kamakhya temple, a seat of Shakti cult where pilgrims visit from far and wide. According to legends, a bereaved Shiva, after the death of his beloved wife Sati, went around the world with her body on his shoulder, neglecting his duties as one of the triumvirate avatars ó Brahma-Vishnu-Maheswara, who maintained the balance on earth. At the request of other gods, Vishnu sent his sudarshan chakra to follow him and cut Satiís body; wherever a body part fell it became a great pilgrimage centre. Her yoni or private parts fell at Kamakhya.
Whatever be the origin, a myth or otherwise, a trip to Guwahati is not complete without a visit to this temple atop the Nilachal hill from where the city, with its myriad buildings, looks like an architectís design board.
The name Assam is a later nomenclature, coming after Pragjyotishpur and Kamrup and is supposed to be related to the Ahoms, Tai-Shan people from Thailand, who entered the land in mid 13th century and ruled there for 600 years with great success.
Assam is a land of many tribes, with their individual costumes, festivals et al. The Ethnographic museum next to the State Museum gives a glimpse of lifestyles of different tribes.
The open-air zoo is also a great attraction in Guwahati with the rhino, Assamís state symbol, hogging the limelight. However, to get a real introduction to the rhino in its natural habitat, you have to go to Kaziranga National Park in central Assam where dozens of rhinos graze peacefully. The national park is open only in winter till spring.
Assam witnessed a great movement of Vaishnavism under guru Sankardeva in the Middle Ages. Sankardeva also initiated a whole gamut of cultural innovations through songs, dance and one-act plays centred on the glory of Krishna. They have now been woven into the cultural fabric of Assam. The Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra, ensconced in a huge complex, gives a glimpse of the cultural ethos of the land.
The biggest centre of Vaishnav culture is, however, much further up at Majuli, arguably the biggest river island in the world, in upper Assam. Over there the sattras (Vaishnavite monasteries) display beautiful artefacts. Women, however, are not allowed to stay in these monasteries neither are they allowed to perform and young boys enact the female roles.
To reach Majuli, you have to take a boat from Nematighat near Jorhat, the tea town. It is best to visit in the dry season as he mighty river swells in the rainy season. Constant erosion by the Brahmaputra is chipping away the island and there is genuine fear that the island, with all its historic importance, will disappear one day.
Not very far from Jorhat is Sibsagar, a town famous for its temples of Siva, a man-made lake Sivasagar, big enough to be called a sea-sagar, and many historical monuments. Naturally, since it was the capital of the great Ahoms. Witness to the glory days are monuments like the Rang-ghar where the kings used to enjoy various kinds of sports, Kareng ghar or palace etc. The drive up to upper Assam itself is a balm for the soul with green tea plantations, villages with Assam-style thatched roofs, sparkling rivers and a languorous rhythm of life. If you are here around mid-April, the fever of the Rangali Bihu, the biggest festival in Assam, will enamour you with the pulsating beat of the dhol and Bihu songs. Bihu dance, with its vibrant rhythm with women in Muga mekhela-chadar ó the two-piece ensemble of Assamese women, is justly infectious.
In towns, big and small, Guwahati being the biggest centre, the Bihu festival sees thousands of people congregating at the community grounds or bihutoli. Bihu dance competition, sports, all make the three-day celebrations worth catching up with.
Assam has many more attractions to offer. Manas sanctuary bordering Bhutan is only a few hoursí drive. The golden langur, a rare species, is abundant here as also a variety of flora and fauna making it biodiversity hotspot.
All these places are on the south bank of Assam. Cross over to the north bank by one of the bridges over the Brahmaputra, there is Tezpur, a pretty town high on the culture map and gateway to Arunachalís Bombdila and Tawang of Golden Pagoda fame. Near Tezpur is the Nameri sanctuary and an Eco-camp by River Jia Bharali, where the annual angling competition in winter has been a tradition from the British plantersí days. The golden Mohseer is a famous catch but today, responding to environmental concerns, the catch has to be returned to the river.
As Guwahati and other
major towns in Assam are conveniently connected by air and railways,
Assam is increasingly becoming a favoured destination helped by the
toning down of the insurgency-related problems. It is a land of
variety and worth exploring.