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).

Shiva Temple
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 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…