Friday, August 5, 2016
AUTHOR Kalyan Panja
Tea plantations, ancient ruins and colonial villages, Assam, in the north-eastern region of India is immersed in this timeless space, away from the bustle of the metropolis. Guwahati, often regarded as the gateway of the northeast is developed along the southern bank of the Brahmaputra, is the largest centre in the region and is still a lot unexplored from the customary tourist routes with unspoiled nature, temples, cultures that remained isolated from the rest of the world for centuries.
Guwahati is in the center of a region full of attractions such as natural parks full of wildlife and breathtaking scenery. The small population of Hajo and the temple of Hayagriva Madhava are two sacred places for both Buddhists and Hindus. The Hayagriva Madhava temple is a Vishnu temple for the Hindus and at the same time is an important sanctuary for Buddhist Tibetans. Buddhists believe that the Buddha reached nirvana in this place. The temple was destroyed by Kalapahar and was rebuilt by King Koch Raghudev in 1543.
The river Brahmaputra, one of the major Asian rivers crisscross the city amidst stunning scenery and an extremely diverse and pristine vegetation of orchids and the rich Indian fauna, including endemic species such as rhinoceros unicorn, snow leopards, tigers, bears and brady elephants, protected in beautiful little visited national parks nearby.
Since 1200, and until 1826 when the British took over, this territory was governed uninterruptedly by Ahom tribes of Burmese origin who kept it isolated from the rest of India and the world. Curious is the origin of the name of the capital of Assam. The two words that make it up, Guwa or betel nut and Haat or market, testify that the site, located between the hills and valleys, served as a centre for the collection and sale of this product and many others that the fertile land of the area offered.
The excavations of Ambari trace the origin of the city to the sixth century. It was known as Pragjyotishpur and Durjaya in various periods of the past. During the rule of the Varman and Pala dynasties, it was the capital of the kingdom of Kamarupa. The descriptions of Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang) reveal that during the reign of Bhaskara Varma, seventh monarch, the city was enlarged.
The city continued to be the capital of Assam until XI century, under the Pala dynasty. Ambari excavations, as well as the brick walls and houses excavated during the auditorium construction of the Cotton College of Guwahati, suggest that it was then a large city with economic and strategic importance. After the fall and destruction of the Kamata kingdom in the 15th century, the city lost its former glory and became only a strategic outpost between the Koch Hajo and Ahom kingdoms of western and eastern Assam.
The western part of Koch's kingdom later fell under the rule of the Mughal Empire and the eastern half became a protectorate of Ahom. Meanwhile, the border between the two powers (Ahoms and Mongols) kept fluctuating between the Karatoya River, now in North Bengal and the rivers Manas and Barnadi, as Guwahati become a war front as the most important outpost.
The city was the seat of the Borphukan, the civil and military authority designated by the kings of Ahom, for the lower region of Assam. The residence of the Borphukan was in the current area of Fansi Bazaar and its council room, called Dopdar, was located 270 m west of the river Bharalu. Mojinder Baruah, the personal secretary of Borphukan, resided in the present house of the Deputy Commissioner.
The Mughals attacked Assam 17 times and on several occasions Guwahati fell under its control temporarily. In the battle of Saraighat, which took place near Guwahati in 1671, the Mughals suffered a severe defeat against the troops of Assam, commanded by Lachit Borphukan. There are several historical places in Guwahati. The Dighali Pukhuri is a rectangular lake that was connected with the Brahmaputra. It was an old boat parking lot, which was probably used by the Ahom in medieval times.
On the other hand, there are many temples, tanks, embankments, squares and courtyards in the city. The most important archaeological site is the excavation of Ambari, near Dighali Pukhuri.
It was an ancient centre of Tantric cult with regard to the demon king Narakasura who is sometimes referred to as the founder of the city. In fact this part of Assam is one that has welcomed and amalgamated, from very distant times, different races. Here are the defendants from Eastern Mongolian people who have met the Indo-Aryans of the West, people who in turn have mingled with the Dravidians. From an anthropological, view then, the faces that you see in the region is the mix of these deep ethnic cocktail.
Here you can feel the pre-colonial Indian history, combined with traces of sacred places of hinduism. The best known is the Kamakhya Temple, on Nilachal hilltop, which attracts crowds of pilgrims especially true during Ambubachi, religious festival that coincides with the peak of the monsoon season in June.
One of the temples, the Umananda Mandir, is dedicated to the god Shiva, located on an island in the middle of the river Brahmaputra, which bisects the city which is also an opportunity for pleasant boat trips on the big river. An intense experience can also be got at the temple of Nabagraha, which in the past was an important astronomical centre, so much so that the building was dedicated to the nine planets, as well as the epicentre of the tantric cult. Other Temple is the Bhuvaneshwari, also in an elevated position with respect to the river.
By means of a ferry or through the Saraighat Bridge, you can get to North Guwahati to visit temples, but above all, in the proximity of the Ashwakranta, you can find the footprint of Krishna, carved on a rock in the river edge and object of deep veneration. In the historic centre of Guwahati, in Ambari, is the Museum of State of Assam and interesting are the Botanical Gardens and the Herbarium.
In Guwahati and its suburbs the variety of craft production is virtually endless with the speciality being the golden Muga, white Pat and warm Eri silk crafted in the region of Sualkuchi that is famous across India since ancient times and have been praised for the quality of the fabric, the beauty and strength of the colours, the originality of the designs. Even today are renowned silk saris in bright colours, embroidered or woven with threads of gold or silver, brocades of Sualkuchi. The place is also famous for varied and rich ethnic handicrafts ranging from the notch of the bamboo spread a little everywhere.
The namaste with folded hands is the traditional Indian greeting and its use will be greatly appreciated. Especially in the cities, the men will be happy to shake hands with tourists. In fact, this gesture is considered particularly friendly. Most Indian women is rather reluctant to shake hands with a man, both Indian and foreign and a refusal should not be considered an offence and generally proves surprise informality of the relationship between the sexes in use in Western countries.
In private homes you will be welcomed as honoured guests with the customary pan and tambul (betel leaf with areca nut) followed by the pitha and ladoo and at times the rice beer and your unfamiliarity with the habits and customs will be understood and accepted.
In food the clever use of spices which are used not only to flavour food but also to aid digestion there makes great use of bhut jolokia (hot pepper), with the staple food being rice, with fairly widespread meat courses. The curries may accompany various vegetables, chicken or lamb, or fish. Among the sattriya community devoted mainly to a spiritual guru Sri Shankardev prevail vegetarian diets, and the cuisine revolves around the rice consumed in an infinite variety of ways.
The dishes perhaps more widespread across Guwahati, however, is the simple daal, essentially a lentil soup, and the thali, the vegetarian dish, usually served on a tray with bowls full of vegetables accompanied by large amounts of rice. Among the desserts is widespread the local kulfi, the typical pistachio ice cream, made with abundant tropical fruits. Red Tea is the most popular drink made form the local produce. And a frequent habit that conclude the meal is chewing the pan with a mixture of spices, betel nuts and other powders, all wrapped in a edible leaf.
The geographic isolation and cultural pluralism here has indeed been preserved intact by hundreds of ethnic origins, always living in harmony with nature where traditional religions give way to animism, where music, dance and crafts are very creative and original, especially for the beautiful colourful fabrics, masks and wooden statues.
Each tea garden of Assam has its own story, made of hard work and legendary characters, such as Maniram Dutta Barua, a nobleman of Assam who along with British began the large-scale cultivation of tea, in the early nineteenth century. Among the many bungalows and precious buildings built in the plantations, as a centre of organization and collection of tea, stands the Thengal Mansion of Jorhat surrounded by a paradise of plants and flowers, and has long been one of the most exclusive hotels in the area of Jorhat.
The Assam Company, founded in 1839, is now the first company in the world for the production and marketing of tea.
The visit to Guwahati is really a step back in time. Who will enter on tiptoe and with great humility will come out with immense spiritual wealth.
The recommended period for travel is from October to May. The winter period, from December to February, is characterized by dry and cold weather while the autumn and spring periods are more pleasant from mid-March to May which is the months of flowering in the valleys.
In the summer months the weather is hot in the lower valleys and mild as high but the view of the hills is generally disturbed by the clouds. Rainfall varies depending on the year and areas. Heavy rains occur during the months of July and August.
DAY 01: Guwahati
Visit the famous Kamakhya Temple in the morning. The temple is a natural cave with a source. If you can reach the temple towards the middle/end of June you can see the Ambubachi festival held in honor of the deity Kamakhya. Continue to the Umananda Mandir, dedicated to the god Shiva, located on an island in the middle of the Brahmaputra River, which bisects the city. An intense experience can also be at the temple of Nabagraha, which in the past was an important astronomical center, as well as the epicenter of the Tantric cult.
Make a visit to Shankardev Srimanta Kalakshetra, a multi-arts complex that illustrates all of the complex culture of life in Assam as a whole of the North East region. It will take around 3 to 4 hours to complete the entire complex. Light And sound shows are held in the evening.
Day 02: Guwahati - Sualkuchi - Guwahati
The village of sualkuchi is around 35 Km and an hour ride. Also called the Manchester of East it is famous for its textile industry and silk in particular. Continue to Hajo, an important Hindu pilgrimage center for Hindus, Muslims and the Buddhists. Visit the Hayagriva Madhab Temple, which is sacred to Hindus and Buddhists. Visit also the Powa Mecca mosque (1/4 of Mecca) built by Pir Giasuddin Aulia with soil that was supposed to have been brought from Mecca. Visit the ruins of Madan Kamdev temple and come back to Guwahati.
In the evening take a cruise on the river Brahmaputra.
Day 03: Guwahati - Pobitora - Guwahati
The wildlife sanctuary of Pobitora is around 55 Km and an hour and half ride, which is famous for its one horned rhinos and other animals and birds. You can skip this place, if you are planning to visit Kaziranga National Park. You can substitute the same with a visit to the Basistha Temple.
In the evening you can visit the Nehru Park and Balaji Temple. If you are there in the middle of the month of April, you can catch the Bihu dance shows, held at various corners of the city, which are attended by hundreds of people.