Tripping on the Brahmaputra at Umanada


If you ever find yourself in Guwahati with an afternoon to kill, head to the Umananda Temple. Located on an island in the middle of the Brahmaputra, it can be reached by taking a boat from the Kachari Ghat, right in the heart of the city. When I last visited this beautiful city, it was in the winter of 2011. As the waters had receded substantially, I had to walk on sand followed by a nervous balancing act on a bamboo bridge to reach the jetty. The sun had just begun to set over the horizon and the Brahmaputra looked mightier than ever.

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Reaching the Jetty was an adventure in itself
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A traditional fishing contraption
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Traffic on the Brahmaputra comprises mostly of country made boats, packed to the rafters

From the jetty, a wooden country boat fitted with a makeshift diesel engine takes you to this tiny island, bang in the middle of the limitless expanse of water that is the Brahmaputra. My first encounter with Umananda was a completely different experience, however. Back in 2004, we were visiting the city’s iconic Cotton’s College for the prestigious Manik Chandra Barua Memorial Debate (bragging alert: we won). The day before the debate, my partner and I inexplicably landed up on a boat to the island while out exploring the city.

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The island reveals itself

It was at the very end of the long rainy season and shortly after we set off from the jetty, as far as the eyes could see, stretched the Brahmaputra. To the residents of Guwahati, the island is popular for its ancient temple, to reach which, you need to climb a flight of almost 250 stairs. However, for me, the main attraction was definitely the family of Golden langurs which were introduced here decades ago by a whimsical monk.

After you have walked around a bit, it is time for you to climb down the rocky slopes of the island, right to the water’s edge, and it is here that the river overwhelms you. All of a sudden you come face to face with a force much beyond your comprehension. You sit down on a rock and admire the beautiful shapes made by the river’s churning currents, shapes that appear only momentarily before disappearing or transforming into another. Almost like thought itself. The river, to you, becomes a stream of consciousness.

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View from the highest point of the island
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Sunsets rarely get better than this

At this point of time, the river takes over your being. You are hypnotized by its beauty and the sheer monstrosity; then the tide rises. (For all of you who did not know, rivers experience tidal cycles too). First, there’s a hint of a chill at the very end of your toes which are pointing downwards, resting on a sloping rock face. Soon, the chill changes into the feeling of the cold water. As moments go by, the cold water climbs up to your ankles, then to your shin and by the time it finally reaches the knee, you know that the river has had enough of you, sitting by its side, feeling like James Joyce. And you get up and head for the waiting log boat, to ferry you to where the rest of the humanity is.

On the way back, if you are extremely lucky, the Brahmapurta will treat you to a fiery red sunset, like only this river can!

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The Lohit delivers a blood-red sunset
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The Lohit delivers a blood-red sunset
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The Lohit delivers a blood-red sunset

When birds are made to fight in the name of tradition


The ubiquitous red-vented Bulbul is the hunted one these days in Assam’s Hajo. A 400 year old tradition pits these birds against each other in the compound of the historic Haigrib Madhab Temple on the day of Bihu.  A year after the contentious event was banned by  the sessions court, the bird fight is back this year with the High Court removing the ban. Buoyed by the order,  around 100 families are expected to participate this year with a catch of over 400 birds for the fight.

The birds are first trapped, then kept hungry and often drugged to make them more ferocious. On the day of the fight,  birds from two villages Sonaritula and Bharalitula are pitted against each other. It is this hunger which forces them to attack each other.

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A villager shows off his captured Bulbul at Hajo.

Animal rights activists are now mulling a move to Supreme Court against this fight. Sangeeta Goswami of People For Animals (PFA) says she would like to seek Union Minister Maneka Gandhi’s help to take the legal fight forward. She also says that apart from the pre-fight torture, a number of birds do not survive the injuries received during the fight itself.

Haigrib Madhab Temple in Hajo, where the Bulbul fights take place
Haigrib Madhab Temple in Hajo, where the Bulbul fights take place

Residents of Hajo however maintain the birds are never tortured. They claim the birds often stay back after the fight when they are released. But we suspect they stay back for that intoxicating mixture of 108 ingredients which are allegedly fed to the bird while they are held captive before the fight. Not a single villager was willing to speak to us about this.

A battle rages on – between a 400 year-old ‘tradition’ and the question of ethical treatment of animals. It is probably time to take a stronger view against these traditions, be it Jallikattu of Tamil Nadu, the cock fights of Andhra Pradesh, or the Bulbul fight of Hajo.

ALSO WATCH: A special report on the Bulbul fights from Hajo

 

 

This article was written for Beyondlust by Subhajit Sengupta, Bureau Chief, North East with CNN-IBN. You can find more if his work here.

The Assam Experience – Day 5 & 6


The destination for this leg of the tour was Shivasagar, the ancient capital of the Ahoms. We got up and left when it was still dark and extremely foggy out. On our way would be two significant Namghors (literally, a place to chant the Lord’s name… a temple of sorts for Assamese Vaishnavites).

Foggy January morning!

Barely 5 kms out of Jorhat town, we first stopped at Dakhinapat Satra (satras, or Vaishnavite monasteries had been set up in the island of Majuli in the 15th century by Shankaradeva and flourish to this date. Some of them, however have in recent years moved to mainland Assam due to land-loss on account of erosion).

A young understudy monk at Dakhinapat. He is 11 years old now and has already been in the satra for seven years!
Dakhinapat Namghor

After Dakhnipat, we went to visit the Dhekiakhowa Bornamghor, one of the biggest and most revered in the region.

Dhekiakhowa Bornamghor – assembly hall
Trays to place offerings in. The offerings, usually fruits and other foodstuff is wrapped in the gamosa before being placed in front of the deity. Another use of the gamosa
Dhekiakhowa Bornamghor – the sanctuary. Notice how the deity is covered with gamosas
Lamps for sale outside Dhekiakhowa

Our next stop was at the Auniati Satra.

Audience hall at the Auniati Satra namghor
Auniati Satra – scripture wrapped in gamosa

Shivasagar, earlier known as Rangpur was once the capital of Assam under the Ahoms. Remains from a bygone era are visible in the forms of remains of palaces, some exquisite temples and numerous tanks.

The Devi Dol on the banks of the Gauri Sagar tank, 5 kms from Shivasagar
An Ahom arsenal on the way to the Talatal Ghar
Yours truely atop one of the structures at Talatal. My gamosa and i were inseparable
Inside the Talatal Ghar
Rudra Sagar in Shivasagar
Rang Ghar – one of the earliest theaters in Asia!
Another view of the Rang Ghar

At the center of Shivasagar is the Shiv Sagar Tank, from which the town derives its name. On the banks of the temple are three spectacular temples. The Shiva Temple, one of the tallest of its kind in the world is flanked by the Vishnu temple (right) and the Devi Temple (left).

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The lofty shikhara of the Shiva Temple
Devotees lighting lamps at the mandapa of the Shiva Temple.
Vishnu Temple adjacent to the main Shiva Temple

After exploring much of the town, we headed off to the nearby village of Garhgram, which houses a fine palace dating back to the Ahom times.

On the way to Garhgram
The palace at Garhgram
Inside the palace – I
Inside the palace – II
Inside the palace – III

We had to get back to Jorhat on the same day. So after wrapping up at Garhgram, we stopped right outside Jorhat town at Nimati Ghat, on the banks of the Brahmaputra. On the other side we could see, against the setting sun, the treetops of Majuli, the largest riverine island in the world. This time due to the strict schedule we adhered to, we had to leave out Majuli. Next time for sure.

Nimati Ghat
Same boat, different angle!

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My last day in Assam was the laziest. I woke up earlyish and had a nice, long cup of tea, after which i set forth exploring Jorhat on an auto.

An assortment of Gods!
Saraswati Puja approacheth!
Colonial guest house at Tocklai Tea Research Centre, Jorhat
Colonial guest house at Tocklai Tea Research Centre, Jorhat
Migratory bird in Jorhat town. Can anyone help me identify it?
Doss & Co. One of the oldest departmental stores in India
In the sanctuary of a temple in Jorhat

That takes care of my Assam Experience. Next up, we travel to Chhattisgarh in the very heart of India. I have worked on four travel guides with the Govt of Chhattisgarh and in the process have covered the state extensively. One of the most memorable trips was in October 2008 when we visited the 11th century Bhoramdeo Temple, deep inside the forests on the Maikal Hills. This little-known gem is sometimes referred to as the Khajuraho of Chhattisgarh. The Bhoramdeo Travel Guide was published in March 2009 and is available free of cost from any of the many offices of Chhattisgarh Tourism Board.

Till we meet again…

The Assam Experience – Day 3 & 4


Sleep is the perfect answer to a day marked by hard work and overeating, and sleep i did. I had a long day ahead. We were to leave Guwahati and head across the Brahmaputra to the north bank and follow the National Highway 52 to Tezpur with a halt at the Madan Kamdev Temple. From Tezpur, we were to cross the Brahmaputra again to the south bank over the Kalia Bhomora Bridge and join National Highway 37 to Kohora in Kaziranga National Park.

Route Map

We turned right from NH 52 at the village of Baihata Chariali and continued on a unpaved road for two kms to reach the base of the hill on top of which is the Madan Kamdev Temple. None of the seven temples in the complex are extant and are identifies by their plinth and foundation and the numerous exquisite sculptural fragments. The misty morning air and the strangely golden vegetation made for rather interesting ambiance.

All that remains of the once glorious temples
Lintel of what was once a door jamb
Mist-clad desolation
Loose sculpture
The goddess

After about an hour at Madan Kamdev, we resumed our onward journey towards Tezpur. The roads passed through Assam’s idyllic rural heartland. We kept stopping every now and then to capture the life around us.

I don’t belong here!
Potter on his way to the haat
Mirchi!
And of course there were the tea gardens, reminding me of home
Mustard fields forever!

Tezpur was wrapped up at a feverish pace and we could not wait to reach Kaziranga. We were to stop here for the night and were booked at the Jhupuri Ghor, a resort run by Assam Tourism. The resort consisted of a number of independent cottages built in the traditional style with cane and bamboo. We checked in around 2:30 in the afternoon and took off immediately to the Baghori range for a jeep safari.

At the entrance to Kaziranga
My cottage @ Jhupuri Ghor
Interiors – I
Interiors – II
Welcome to Kaziranga!

The safari took us the the westernmost range of the park, Baghori. When we met the Managing Director of Assam Tourism for dinner on the first night, he had told us that “Rhinos in Kaziranga are like cattle… they graze everywhere”. At first we thought that we was simply building it up for us, but then when we spotted four rhinos from the highway itself, we started getting hopeful.

Across the stream is Kaziranga!
First sighting, Wild Water Buffalo (Bubalis bubalis arnee)
I need a good telephoto…gosh they are so expensive!
Hog Deer (Axis porcinus)
The grasslands of Kaziranga
There he is, the Great Indian One Horned Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis)
One more time, folks!

Rhino spotting seems to be the easiest thing at Kaziranga. I actually saw so many of them that by the end of it i started wondering if there are any other animals except them. At one point of time, i was staring at a field and i could count 26 of them. No, but seriously, it was amazing. Considering this is one of the few places in the world, you can see the Indian, Rhino, may their numbers increase ever so steadily. The Managing Director was right. He was not only building it up for us, but was complimenting himself on a job very well done!

The cattle of Kaziranga!
Damn them tourists!
Guardhouse, Kaziranga-style!
Sunset @ Kaziranga
Sunset @ Kaziranga
Sunset @ Kaziranga

After the delightful evening in Kaziranga, went to check out some of the local hotels and collect the details for inclusion into the book. One place that stood out was Wild Grass Resort. It had a small hut which acted as a namghor (a place of worship for Assamese Vaishnavites) where a priest was reading the kirtan (devotional hymns). The feel of the place was completely out of the world and i could not resist clicking some.

Worship – I
Worship – II
Traditional murals on the ceiling of the shrine
The Priest!

That was that for the day. Tomorrow we are to head eastwards towards our next destination, Jorhat.

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The next morning, we could afford to conduct our businesses at a more relaxed pace as our next destination, Jorhat was only 97 kms away. But as is the rule, we never travel at one go. We stop for pictures,conversation and most critically, food!

Anyway, our first stop en route Jorhat was a little village on the way. The village was populated by people of the Mishing tribe. They have lived for centuries along the basin of the Brahmaputra and their history, culture and tradition are intricately linked to the great river. The trademark of Mishing people are their unique houses. Built on stilts, the houses help avoid the rising water levels of the river during the floods.

Mishing houses
Mishing House

After the Mishing village we stopped at a little eatery in Bokakhat, the last settlement in Kaziranga and ordered puri sabzi. Interestingly it came on banana leaves and was accompanied by a very hot, and very tasty chilly achar.

Breakfast!
Sometime i wonder if man made god or god made man!
Sweet-maker!
Finally someone clicks me…with the boss, that too! Notice how i put the gamosa to good use. I will demonstrate more uses for this wonderful piece of fabric in subsequent photographs.
Basket shop!

Around 25 kms from Bokakhat, after the town of Dergaon is a small village called Negheriting. It is home to a dol (derived from deul, meaning temple) built in the 17th century by the Ahom kings in the panchayatana ( where the main shrine is accompanied by four subsidiary shrines, usually in the four cardinal directions) style. Located on top of a hill, the main garbhagriha enshrines a shivalinga while the four subsidiary shines were dedicated to Durga, Vishnu, Surya and Ganesh.

Negheriting Shiva dol
Sculpture on the northern walls of the dol
Imprisoned by faith? Temple priest at Negheriting
This is interesting! The round red chillies you see here are supposed to be the hottest in the world. Locals call it Bhoot Jholokiya (one that makes you see ghosts). I was very pleased with myself when i finished an entire chilli over lunch a few days later!

By the time we reached Jorhat it was well past 2 in the afternoon and we decided to go pay a visit to the Hoolock Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary, 20 kms from Jorhat. As the name suggests, the park protects India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon. We did not see any apes but i got some interesting pics.

Hoolock Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary
The region has seen an influx of migrants from Nepal. Many of them stray into the forest to illegally collect firewood. One such expedition was underway, but hearing us approach, the people fled, leaving behind these huge stacks of wood.
Someday i shall find employment as a gamosa model!
In my defense, i was unaware of the moment this pic was taken.
This is perhaps one of my favourite pics of the entire trip. We were returning to Jorhat  and the sun had started to set. I was in the back-seat of an Innova when i noticed the hues in front of me on the road. I took this shot, zoomed in through the glass. Personally, i feel this is the perfect explanation why ‘dusk’ in Bangla is called godhuli (a time when the air is full of dust [dhuli
My room at Hotel Paradise, Jorhat. Could it BE ( a la Chandler Bing) more tacky?

Well, folks, that is as much as i got for you this time. Next up, we discover more of Jorhat and the amazing Shivaagar.

Till then…

The Assam Experience – Day 2


The first day being extremely unproductive (as far as WORK is concerned) we decided to slog it off on the second. The day began at an unearthly hour in the morning. Even the taxi guy was on time… damn! Anyway, a reluctant shower later, we were ready for the day.

We were to cross the Brahmaputra and go over to the northern bank and head towards Hajo, a medieval temple town built by the Ahom dynasty. On the way was one of Guwahati’s biggest attractions, the Kamakhya Temple.

Entrance to Kamakhya

It is believed that after Sati’s death, Shiva, driven crazy with grief embarked on the tandava nritya or the dance of destruction. To save the world from destruction, Vishnu cut Sati’s body into 51 pieces that scattered over the Indian Subcontinent. Every place where a par of Sati fell, was charged with primordial energy and came to be known as Shaktipeeths. Kamakhya was where Sati’s yoni fell.

Located halfway up a hill, the Kamakhya Temple is one of the most important Shakta shrines in India. On the summit of the hill is the Bhubaneshwari Temple, believed to be another Shaktipeeth.

View of Kamakhya settlement from Bhubaneshwari Temple

Strangely, it is forbidden in our family to visit the temple. I am not aware of the details but in the past a couple of people have died on the way to the temple. So before i left for Guwahati, my mother made it a point to remind me of the stricture at lease twice everyday.

Picasso, where be thou?
Landscape as seen from the Kamakhya Hill

After the brief stop at Kamakhya, we resumed the onward journey to Hajo, 40 kms from Guwahati. The largest temple here is the Hayagriba Madhav, built in the 18th century by the Ahoms.

Stairs leading to the Hayagriba Madhav
Fogged out!

As you can see from the photographs, it was excessively foggy. While i thought it made for some ‘interesting’ (ahem ahem) pictures, they are no good for the travel guide i am working on. Lets see!

Lotus medallion – Hayagriba Madhav
Another view of the temple
would it be chiched to caption this “Stairway to heaven”?
Burn baby, Burn!
Pond-scape around Hajo

After Hajo, we proceeded to the tiny village of Sualkuchi, hub of Assam’s traditional weaving industry. The two main products here are the Mekhla-Chador and the Gamosa, woven on muga silk and cotton respectively. Mekhla-Chador is a two piece garment worn by Assamese ladies while Gamosa can be best described as a towel, which over the years has acquired a ceremonial and ritualistic place in Assamese culture.

It is used to cover the altar at the prayer hall. An object of reverence like a scripture is never placed on the bare ground, but on a gamosa. It is used by farmers as a waistcloth (tongali) or a loincloth (suriya). A Bihu dancer wraps it around the head with a fluffy knot for ornamental effect.

It is hung around the neck at the Namghor and was thrown over the shoulder like a stole in the past to signify a high social status. Even today, guests are welcomed with the offering of a gamosa and tamul (betel nut) and elders are offered gamosas (referred to as bihuwaan in this case) during Bihu.

Weaver at Work
The looms are traditional in design, made mostly of Bamboo
A weaver’s possession
A Mekhla taking shape
Finished items outside a traditional karkhana
Mekhlas at the local co-operative stores

Post Sualkuchi, we rushed back to Guwahati to cover the town. In the eastern part of the country, where Guwahati is located, darkness descends early, so effectively, you can shoot till 4:30 max. Here are a few shots of Guwahati town:

Dighali Pukhuri

Nehru Park

The last act of the day was to take a trip to the Umananda Temple. Located on an island in the middle of the Brahmaputra, it can be reached by taking a boat from the Kachari Ghat. As the waters had receded substantially during the winters, i had to walk on sand followed by a nervous balancing act on a bamboo bridge to reach the jetty. The sun had just begun to set over the horizon and the Brahmaputra looked mightier than ever.

To the jetty! A task in itself
The Brahmaputra at Guwahati
My boat was just like this, only less crowded
Solitary boat on the endless river!
Setting sun over the Brahmaputra
Reaching Umananda
Sunset from Umananda
God is everywhere…
Through the leaves
What Colours!
Time for birds to return to their nest
Gone…going…gone!
Afterglow!

Later that night, we went to dine at one of the most reputed restaurants in Guwahati, Paradise. The owner, Mr Anal Bezbaruah, a good friend of my boss, was present to guide us through what seemed like an endless parade of delectable Assamese dishes. Most of them were very close to Bengali food and had a home cooked taste to it. The highlight of the dinner was the Hilsa tenga (a curry with a lemony tang), the khar (a mixed vegetable of sorts) and the curried duck and pigeon meat.

See, let me be honest here I worked really hard that day and i was famished. But if every tiring day ends in a feast like this, you got yourself a workaholic here!

Paradise!
Need i say more?

Tomorrow, we bid adieu to Guwahati as we travel to Kaziranga, via Madan Kamdev Temple and Tezpur.

to be continued…

The Assam Experience – Day 1


On the third day of a brand new year, work took me to Assam. We are working on a travel guide for the state and as per plan, we were to traverse the entire length of the state from Guwahati to Shivasagar, via Hajo, Sualkuchi, Kaziranga, Tezpur and Jorhat. Due to unfavourable circumstances, we have had to cancel plans for visiting Barak Valley and Silchar.

The trip, i must confess, started with a bit of a disappointment. We were taking the morning flight from New Delhi to Guwahati, and as per our original plan, we would reach Guwahati by noon and spend the rest of the day shooting around town. But anyone who has taken a flight out of Delhi in the winters will tell you that you are bound to get delayed. Our flight which was actually scheduled to depart at 9 AM finally took off at 4 pm.

When you are flying from Delhi to Guwahati, the flightpath is parallel to the Himalayas. I have been travelling on this route for some years now and accordingly i had booked a window seat and kept the camera at the ready. So instead of Guwahati, my first day accounted for some pictures of the Himalayas. Taken through a badly stained window, some of them came out rather well.

Here, you’re the judge:

I came to Delhi in 2002 to study in St Stephen’s and sometimes i would take the plane back to Siliguri, West Bengal, my hometown. Occasionally, the plane would stop first at Guwahati. I generally hate flights and i would pick a train hands down, anyday. But this route is different in the sense that you actually have things to look at from your window. Even more than the Himalayas, what impressed me was the Brahmaputra. People, if you haven’t seen the Brahmaputra, you have not seen a river. Even from the plane the river looks monstrous. In the monsoons, it is a veritable ocean while during the lean season (like this time) its a never-ending series of water channels and sandbanks.

For those who have merely heard about the Brahmaputra, heres a glimpse. In the next post, however, i shall have more pictures, taken from a boat, and hence a different perspective. For now, here’s how Brahmaputra looks from the sky.

A river flows through it…
A closer view! Notice the thick fog on the other bank
and closer!

Halfway through the flight, we received yet another bad news. After Guwahati, the flight was supposed to continue towards Dibrugarh, 400 kms east of Guwahati. But on account of the delay in departure, we were going to stop at Dibrugarh first as the airport was not equipped with night landing capabilities. What to do, but to keep clicking.

Paddy fields being burnt down to make way for the next round of crops!
A view oif Dibrugarh town with the Brahmaputra to the north

So that was my first day! The next post follows me as i travel out of Guwahati to the temple town of Hajo and the traditional weaving village of Sualkuchi. Later in the day, we see what Brahmaputra looks like in Guwahati.

So stay tuned for more, i guess!