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.

Reaching the Jetty was an adventure in itself
A traditional fishing contraption
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.

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.

View from the highest point of the island
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!

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

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

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!

Need i say more?

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

to be continued…