Assam: Gateway to the Orient

Nurtured by the tempestuous Brahmaputra, terraced with tea gardens, home of the endangered one-horned rhino and replete with undulating hills, Assam offers a rich mix of natural beauty and cultural education

Assam: Gateway to the Orient

Nurtured by the tempestuous Brahmaputra, terraced with tea gardens, home of the endangered one-horned rhino and replete with undulating hills and cosy hamlets, Assam (pop. 35 million) surprises and enchants the tourist in myriad ways. Etymologically the word ‘Assam’ finds its root in the Sanskrit word asoma meaning ‘peerless’.

Historically ‘Assam’ is an anglicised version of asom — the name the Ahom tribe gave to the region after conquering it. Mythologically, the Brahmaputra (son of Brahma) is the only male river of India — a designated national waterway.

Though Assam has been reduced to one-third of its original size over the past 45 years, it is still the largest of the ‘seven sisters’ states of the north-east. Flanked by Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh in the north; Nagaland and Manipur in the east; Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram in the south and Bangladesh and West Bengal in the west, Assam is the most accessible of the north-east states of the Indian Union.

Inevitably Assam’s past is shrouded in mythology. Its ancient name was Kamapura with its capital at Pragyotishpura — latter day Guwahati — as recited in Vedic literature. Kama — the god of love — after being reduced to ashes by Shiva was reborn here. Various sites mentioned in the great epic Mahabharata still exist in contemporary Assam. Aryan tribes comprising the priestly and warrior classes subjugated Assam in ancient times and the first king who ruled over Kamapura was Pushya Varman (350-380 AD), a contemporary of emperor Samudragupta, who reigned in north India. The Varman dynasty ruled Assam until 650 AD followed by the Salasthamba regime. Subsequently, the Pala Dynasty founded by Brahmapala (990-1010), ruled Assam until 1138. These early Hindu kings worshipped Shakti and were followers of mystic tantric cults some of which exist even today.

The Ahoms from Myanmar (aka Burma) invaded Assam in the 13th century establishing a Hindu dynasty that flourished until the 19th century despite repeated invasions by the Mughals. The Burmese invaded Assam again in 1817 reportedly decimating one-third of the local population. Shortly thereafter the British annexed the region after driving away the Burmese and Assam joined with the rest of India in the struggle for independence.

Assam is rich in natural resources. It was the very first state in India where oil was discovered (at Digboi) in 1889. Indeed it has the oldest oil refinery in the country. Of Assam’s agro-based industries, tea occupies prime position. Robert Bruce, an official of the British Empire, discovered the brew in 1823 and ever since, the leaf of the cup that cheers is extensively cultivated in the Brahmaputra and Barak plains.

Currently, Assam produces more than 50 percent of the annual tea crop in India and approximately one-sixth of the tea leaf output of the world. The state also has large reserves of coal, granite, limestone and natural gas. With a rich and ancient tradition of tribal art and crafts, Assam’s cottage industries produce silk and jute products, bell-metal crockery and cutlery, brass and ivory work, cane and bamboo furniture, woodcraft, masks, gold jewellery, terracotta work and pottery. The province also has a flourishing tourism industry — from 2014-2018, over 26 million domestic and foreign tourists visited the state.

Bihu - AssamIn keeping with its important position as India’s cultural gateway to the Orient, Assam offers a rich variety of exotic fairs and festivals. The most colourful agricultural festival is the Bihu, celebrated three times a year in the cropping season, during harvest and even the lean season. Likewise the tea festival is celebrated annually in Jorhat amidst music, merriment, jungle safaris, golf, food festivals, river rafting, angling, shopping and of course, visits to tea gardens.

Moreover, every year the Kaziranga National Park stages an elephant festival to promote the conservation and protection of the Asian elephant. The Rangoli Utsav is held in April with tribes and sub-tribes dwelling on the banks of the Brahmaputra welcoming the agricultural season — a celebration of the vibrant vernal fertility cult. Other important festivals are the Ambubashi Mela (monsoon tantric festival dedicated to the Mother Shakti of the Kamakhya Temple of Guwahati), the tribal winter Jonbeel Mela, the Baishagu festival of the Bodo tribe, the Bohaggiyo Bishu of the Deoris and the Rajini Garba of the Dimasa tribe.
 
The best time to visit Assam is in winter from October to March. Tourists are advised to pack light woollens in winter and cotton garments in summer.
 
Guwahati is well connected by air and rail with New Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai. It is also connected by rail with Bangalore, Cochin and Thiruvananthapuram. 
 
Guwahati
 
Srimanta Sankardeva KalakshetraSited on the banks of the Brahmaputra, Guwahati (pop. 1.1 million) is the gateway to Assam and the north-east region. A rapidly growing metropolis which boasts IIT-Guwahati, it offers several places of tourist interest. Among them: The Assam State Museum which houses an excellent collection of sculpture, paintings, costumes, woven fabrics, inscriptions and archaeological descriptions of local tribal groups; the State Zoo-cum-Botanical Gardens which is home to panthers, tigers, lions, several species of rare and exotic birds and Assam’s famous one-horned rhino; the Nabagraha Temple dedicated to the nine planets and an important seat for the study of astronomy; Kamakhya Mandir, Guwahati’s most well-known temple and the centre of Shakti worship and tantrik Hinduism. 
While in Guwahati, also visit the Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra, a multi-arts complex named after the great Vaishnava saint and integrator of Assamese society; the Umananda Temple, a quaint Shiva shrine sited on a secluded island in the midst of the mighty Brahmaputra, and Madan Kamdev, described by Omar Khayam as “a veil past which I could not see”. 
 
Excursions. Guwahati offers several day and weekend excursion options. The more popular among them are: Vasishtashram (12 km) believed to have been the hermitage of sage Vasishta and currently a perfect picnic spot, easily accessible by road. Sualkuchi (32 km) on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra is the best place to buy the legendary silks of Assam. Another interesting site on the northern bank is Hajo (32 km), where Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism meet. Hajo has an eclectic mix of temples, the most important of which is the temple of Hayagrib Madhav which contains a relic of Lord Buddha. Buddhists believe that Lord Buddha attained nirvana here. Bhutias visit this temple during winter. There’s also a mosque built by Pir Giasuddin Aulia, also known as Poa Mecca, as it is believed to have one-fourth the sanctity of Mecca.
 
Chandubi (64 km) is a natural lagoon and a beautiful picnic spot. An excellent hangout  for fishing and rowing enthusiasts.
 
Accommodation. Top-end: Vivanta Guwahati (Rs.6,160-9,499); Dynasty Hotel (Rs.6,160-9,204 per night);. Mid-range: Hotel Nandan (Rs.3,908-5,842); Viswaratna Hotel (Rs.3,025-5,525); Budget: Ashirwad Homestay (Rs.731-1,204); Hotel Prince B (Rs.765-800).
 
Wildlife parks and sanctuaries
 
Kaziranga National ParkThe globally famous Kaziranga National Park dates back to 1908 when the dwindling rhino population in Assam was brought to the notice of the British administration which declared the small area of Kaziranga, on the floodplains of the river Brahmaputra a reserved forest. In 1916 Kaziranga was upgraded to a game sanctuary and in 1950 to a wildlife sanctuary. Later in 1974 the sanctuary was declared the first national park of Assam. In 1985 Kaziranga was included in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. 

Today Kaziranga which sprawls over 430 sq km is the largest grassland area in north-eastern India. The grass and reeds (aka elephant-grass) grow to a height of more than five metres during the monsoon. Home of the rare one-horned rhino, Kaziranga is a conservation success story, with the population of the one-horned species having risen from a few dozen in 1908 to over 1,500 currently. Rhinos can be spotted from elephant back, jeeps or watchtowers.

Kaziranga National ParkKaziranga also hosts the Asiatic wild water buffalo, the largest of the undomesticated bovines. The grasslands are speckled with several species of deer including the hog, sambar, muntjak and barking deer and carnivores such as tigers, jungle cat, leopard and fishing cat. Moreover with 490 avian species, Kaziranga is a birdwatcher’s haven. Winter is the best time for ornithologists as migratory waterfowl descend in large numbers from distant hills.

Other wild animals found in Kaziranga are the hoolock gibbon (the only ape species in India), the rhesus macque (a primate), the capped langur, flying fox, Chinese pangolin, Malayan giant squirrel, the Himalayan porcupine, the Gangetic dolphin, more than 10 species of bats and monitor lizards, a wide range of serpents, turtles and innumerable amphibians and butterflies. Kaziranga remains closed from May to September. In case of a late monsoon the park remains out of bounds until end-October.

Accommodation. There are a few spartan accommodation options on the periphery of the park offering basic facilities. Kaziranga Eco Village (Rs.2,142-4,368 per night); Green Village Resort (Rs.3,420-4,020); Bonani Lodge (Rs.500 onwards); Banashree Lodge (Rs.300 onwards).

The Rajiv Gandhi National Park spread over an area of 72 sq km teems with several species of wildlife including the one-horned rhino, elephant, leopard, sambar, barking deer, tiger, green pigeon, florican, teal and several varieties of white birds.

Nameri National Park. Located in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, Nameri’s wildlife population includes the white-winged wood duck, tiger, leopard, clouded leopard, sambar, elephant, gaur, Indian wild dog, hornbill and other birds.

Accommodation. Jia Bhorelli Wild Resort (Rs.2,240) per night.

Manas National ParkThe Manas National Park is the only tiger reserve in Assam. Here one might spot the hispid hare, pigmy hog, golden langur, elephant, tiger, buffalo, deer and hornbill.

Other wildlife sanctuaries include Laokhowa (wild buffalo and rhino); Orang (on the northern banks of the Brahmaputra) and Sonai Rupai (located at the base of the Dafla hills).

Hill stations

Lush green hills rise from the heart of Assam and seem to touch the clouds. The spring breeze brings with it the aroma of exotic wild flora while summer rains dapple the green hills. Come autumn and an eerie silence descends on the hills, wrapping them in mysterious wonder.

These hills are home to friendly people living in villages perched precariously on their slopes. Here simple hill folk drape themselves in the exotic self-manufactured textiles woven at home, and live in dense forests in close communion with nature. For visitors, the hills also provide ample opportunities for adventure sports. There are several ideal locales for rock climbing, mountaineering, trekking, mountain biking, paragliding, hang gliding and other adventure sports.

Haflong. This lakeside hill resort of startling sylvan beauty is sited in south Assam. A variety of orchids grow here, including the rare Blue Vanda. In the neighbouring Jatinga village, flocks of migratory birds mysteriously crash to death in dark silent nights between August and November. There’s a hot water spring Garampani, believed to possess medicinal properties.

Accommodation. There are very few hotels in Haflong. Among them is: Nhoshring Guest House (Rs.1,512-2,318)
Bamuni Hills. The ruins of the Bamuni Hills are famous for their artistic heritage with some sculptures dating back to the 9th and 10th centuries.

Majuli. The largest river island (886 sq km) in the world, it lies in the midst of the mighty Brahmaputra. It is renowned for its 22 ancient Vaishnavaite Hindu monasteries or satras, which are also centres for the preservation of Assamese performing and literary arts. Assamese poet, composer and philosopher Sankardeva, a devout worshipper of Lord Vishnu founded the first satra in the 15th century.

Apart from being a religious retreat for Vaishnava Hindus, Majuli island offers a wide range of attractions to discerning tourists. These include: rare migratory birds, traditional handicrafts, pottery, ethnic culture, dance forms and water sports.

Accommodation. The satras allow travellers to stop overnight for a modest donation. The only other accommodation option on the island is the government circuit house (Rs.500-600).

The majestic Brahmaputra. Ranked among the world’s largest rivers and India’s widest, the Brahmaputra (flow length: 2,900 km, width varying from three-18 km) and its tributaries flow through Assam offering a wide array of lagoons and backwaters for recreation. A cruise down the river is a memorable experience. The rich alluvial soil of the banks of the Brahmaputra is a verdant carpet of tea plantations and golf courses. The 3.05-km General Kalia Bohomora Phukan bridge named after a legendary military strategist, arches over the Brahmaputra and connects Nagaon and Tezpur.

Tea Gardens. The Brahmaputra and Barak valleys and hill slopes of southern Assam are covered with tea gardens which produce over 400 million kg of tea per annum. Assamese tea is unique in its rich full-bodied flavour and bright liquor. The Tea Festival organised by Assam Tourism in November, offers holidays combining trips to the gardens and adjoining golf courses as well as river cruises.

Tezpur (aka city of blood) has several sculptural marvels and ruins dating back to the 9th century in its Chitralekha Udyan. Also take in the Shaivite Mahabhairava Mandir, an ancient temple where King Bana worshipped Mahabhairab, an incarnation of Shiva. The Da-Parbatia Mandir has some of the finest and oldest specimens of icon art in Assam. Perhaps the most enchanting tourist spot of Tezpur is Agnigarh or the rampart. According to local folklore Princess Usha, the only daughter of King Bana, was imprisoned in the palace fenced by a gate of fire. Today Agnigarh is a hillock facing the Brahmaputra, offering awesome views of the river and Tezpur.

Accommodation. Hotel KRC Palace (Rs.2,162-3,638 per night); Hotel Welkin Residency (Rs.1,885-2,570); Pine Yard Hotel (Rs.965 onwards); Prashanti Tourist Lodge (Rs. 762 onwards).

Excursions. Bhalukpong (64 km) is a beautiful picnic spot and fishing resort, at the foot of the Aka Hills. It also has a hot spring and orchid garden.

Sibsagar. This capital of Ahom kings, originally built around the Sibsagar tank dug more than 200 years ago, is famous for its temples. Of special note is the Shiva temple of 1734 built to a height of 115 ft and is believed to be the tallest Hindu temple in India.

Accommodation. Boarding Boutique Guest House (Rs.2,632-2,936 per night); Hotel Holiday Palace (Rs.2,215-2,854); Hotel Priya (Rs.790 onwards); Hazarika Lodge (Rs.564 onwards)

For further information contact: The Directorate of Tourism, Assam or visit www.assamtourismonline.com

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