Guwahati: Window of the East

Whenever anyone dreams of an exotic holiday within India, the first region that will come to most people’s minds is North East India. These seven states that lie in the extreme north eastern region of the country are known for their varied tribes, scenic beauty, natural wonders and cuisine. Indeed there’s no doubt that the north east is quite different from other regions of the country. But, in that case every state of India has very distinct traits from the other – you cannot compare Goa with Chattisgarh or Rajasthan with Kerala. All these regions have their own flavours and culture which in turn makes visiting them such a wonderful experience.

Coming back to the north east, the ideal place to start your journey is Guwahati in Assam. This city is primarily a transit point to go to the various other states of that region. However, the city has attractions of its own too. It is famously known for the river Brahmaputra – one of the major rivers of Asia that starts its journey from Angsi Glacier in Tibet. This trans-boundary river in Asia cuts through four countries— China, India, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

However, the biggest and the smallest river islands of Brahmaputra are found in India and particularly in Assam. The biggest inhabited island is Majauli; however this island is slowly sinking and it is estimated that after 20 years it may cease to exist, with threats of abrasion caused by the River Brahmaputra itself.

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River Brahmaputra defines Guwahati in many ways

The smallest inhabited island in the world, the Peacock Island, is situated close to Guwahati. One can hire a boat or even get a ferry from Guwahati city to reach the island. If you are lucky, you can even spot river dolphins, while nearing it. The Peacock Island houses the legendary Umananda Temple, dedicated to Shiva which was built by the Ahom King in the 17th century.

While in Guwahati, another place of interest is the famous Kamakhya temple; situated on a hillock, it draws people from various parts of the country. Ideally one should start their journey quite early to visit this temple, to avoid the crowds. This temple is one of oldest of the 51 shakipithas found in the country.

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Kamakhya Temple

When you enter the temple area you will be greeted by the usual shops selling puja related items. But, when you actually enter the premises, you know for sure that it is not a usual temple. The first thing you will notice is the vermillion which will be smeared on every devotee’s forehead, on every idol, on the walls of the temple, on the floor and on the animals which are brought for sacrifice. The temple is an important pilgrim site for Tantric worshippers. There is no idol of the deity but she is worshipped in the form of a yoni-like stone over which a natural spring flows.

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Devotees lighting lamp at the temple premises

History of Assam

Assam has a complex history and to understand it a little better one should visit its museums. There are two main museums in Guwahati—State Museum and Srimanta Sankaradeva Kala Shetra. After visiting these museums you understand a little about the tribes, the culture, costumes and basically the way they live.

A small board at the entrance of the State Museum gives us a brief history of Assam. It says: “According to the legend the asuras ruled at first, in this region for many years. The inscription evidence says that from the 4th century downwards Pusyavarman and his family ruled in Pragjyotish country, watered by the River Lauthiya (Brahmaputra) for several years. The last king of the dynasty was Kumar BhaskarVarman, the ally of Great King Harsavardhan. After him some kings ruled this kingdom which was by then known as Kamarupa. By the beginning of the 13th century AD the Ahoms entered the Brahmaputra valley from Burma and ruled in the valley upto 1826. During the regime of Ahoms the kingdom came to be known as Assam. The Koch, Achari, Jayantia and Chutias, who were ruling some parts of this long valley, were contemporaries of the Ahoms. The state went to the hands of the British administration in 1826. They ruled the state till the independence of the country.”

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Statue of Ahoms erected on Brahmaputra river

This information gives an idea that Ahoms are quite important rulers. They even fought against the Mughals in 17th century. The statue of the Ahoms fighting against enemies in the Brahmaputra River at Guwahati is quite intriguing and gives an idea of their stature.

Speaking about statues, the city of Guwahati has number of them, be it in parks, gardens, etc. In Nehru Park there are a number of statues depicting various folk dance of the state. In other public places you will see statues dedicated to the leaders of the state and also of the singer and late artist Bhupen Hazarika who in many ways is the face of Assam.

One thing that anyone associates Assam with is tea. The market area is dotted with tea shops, which not only sell you tea but also provide you with a few tips on how to select your best cup of tea.

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Typical tea shop at Guwahati market area

As a whole, Guwahati may look like any other emerging metro of the country. But, its cultural diversity, its people and its heritage makes it different. Try to make some time, may be a day or two, to get a deeper and truer sense of this place.

(This article was first published on The Navhind Times Zest Buzz Weekender, July 30, 2016)

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