The northeastern state, with the mighty Brahmaputra flowing through it, offers scenic and historical wonders to the curious visitor
BY PRASANTA J. BARUAH
Assam is known as the land of the Red River and Blue Hills. The Brahmaputra river is intrinsic to the socio- cultural life of Assam. It is one of the largest rivers in the world in terms of discharge and sediment. Originating in the glaciers of the Kailash range of the Himalaya, the 288-km river travels 1,625 km in China, 918 km in India and 337 km in Bangladesh. In ancient Sanskrit literature, it is called Lauhatiya, meaning Red River. Brahmaputra also means son of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation.
The name Assam immediately brings to mind the aroma of the internationally acclaimed ‘Assam tea’, grown in over 1,000 lush green tea estates of this premier state of Northeast India, located close to India’s international border with as many as four countries— China, Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh.
Along with the most rejuvenating beverages, Assam tea, the state is globally known for its one-horned rhinoceros, whose number has increased from just about 20 or so to more than 2,000 in about 100 years, often described as the most successful conservation story of the past century.
Assam was annexed to British India in February 1826, after the invading Burmese forces were defeated. Earlier, the Burmese had taken control of Assam after overcoming the Ahoms who ruled Assam for 600 years from 1228.
According to Madhumita Bhagawati, Director, Tourism, Govt. of Assam, “Assam is much more than just tea and the rhinoceros. The Kamakhya Temple dedicated to the Mother Goddess, the mighty Brahmaputra river and the historical relics dotting its bank, the half-a-dozen or so national parks, the golden muga silk, the world’s largest inhabited river island (Majuli), the earthen pyramids (Maidams) of Charaideo, the colourful people representing almost all races of the human species, the springtime Bihu festival—all make Assam one of the most compact tourist destinations in the world.”
Guwahati, the capital city, is the gateway to Assam and the entire northeastern region of India. One can fly to the Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport in Guwahati from any part of the world. It is connected with all major cities of India by railway. Luxury buses ply from Guwahati to the capital cities of all the northeastern states. In ancient times, Guwahati was known as Kamrupa. The Chinese scholar, Hieun Tsang, who visited Kamrupa in AD 640 wrote glowingly about King Bhaskar Barman and Kamrupa. Guwa in Assamese means betel nuts and haat means market. Guwahati is said to be the second oldest continuously inhabited city in India. The majestic Brahmaputra flows through the city. Visitors and tourists can enjoy luxury cruises and see the captivating reddish sun set on the verdant hills surrounding the city, blessed by the Mother Goddess, Kamakhya, atop the Nilachal (Blue) Hill.
The Temple of Mother Goddess Kamakhya atop the Nilachal Hill is an important place of pilgrimage for lakhs of people every year. The Mother Goddess is also called the Goddess of Shakti (power).The temple is as old as ancient Kamrupa. The present temple was built by Koch King Naranarayan in AD 1565. There is no idol in the sanctum sanctorum; instead, it is the divine yoni that is worshipped in the garbhagriha, which itself is a cave. There are nine other temples of the Mother Goddess near the main temple, besides five Shiva shrines in Nilachal. One can get a beautiful view of the mighty Brahmaputra as also of Guwahati city from Nilachal Hill.
Guwahati has one of the oldest churches of the region, Christ Church, which was founded in 1844 and consecrated in 1850. It was totally destroyed in the great earthquake of 1897, and was rebuilt in 1901. At Kamarpatty, about a km away, is the Guwahati Baptist Church—established in 1845. The structure of the churches is a reflection of early 20th century colonial architecture, with inspiration from local design.
At Ambari is the Burha Masjid or Burra Masjid, the oldest mosque in the Assam capital, said to have been built between 1663 and 1667, when the city was under Mughal occupation briefly. While the original structure was destroyed more than once due to earthquakes, the present structure came up in the early 1980s.
An important destination in Guwahati is the Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra, a centre of art and culture. A sprawling complex, it has become a meeting place for artists, poets, authors, musicians, actors and singers. Visitors to Kalakshetra can watch a play or a dance performance and see artisans, sculptors and painters busy in their creative activities. Adjoining Kalakshetra is the first film archive of the Northeast, established on the premises of the Assam Film Finance and Development Corporation. It currently has over 130 films. At Khilipara nearby stands Jyoti Chitraban, the country’s first state-owned film studio.
The Assam State Museum stands on the southern side of the Dighali Pukhuri. Established in 1940, the museum’s collections include royal garments, paintings, sculptures, stone and copper inscriptions. Some memorabilia from World War II is also on display. A visitor can learn a lot about the history of Assam here.
On the Barphukanar Tila, a hillock beside the Brahmaputra in Panbazar, is the Mahabahu Brahmaputra River Heritage Centre, with the old Kamrupa Deputy Commissioner’s residence being converted into a museum of sorts. During the reign of the Ahoms, Lachit Barphukan, the great general who defeated the Mughals in the Battle of Saraighat (1671) in Guwahati, was its most illustrious occupant. It has on display the heritage of Assam’s boats and vessels, a rich collection of fishing equipment of different communities, rare photographs and artifacts related to Guwahati.
Ropeway across Brahmaputra
While in Guwahati, one should not miss crossing the mighty Brahmaputra by the ropeway. The 1,820-m ropeway, which connects Panbazar on the south bank to Rajaduar near Doulgovinda Temple on the north, takes only 436 seconds to cross the river.
Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary
For the nature lover, about 38 km from Guwahati is the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary. It has the highest concentration of rhinos (107 as per the 2022 census). Described as a microcosm of Kaziranga, it is ideal for visitors to Guwahati with little time to spare.
Less than an hour’s drive from Guwahati is Mayong, a village that literally weaves magic. Mayong is an occult village where live at least 100 practising wizards and witch doctors—oja or bej in local parlance.
Assam has two major World War II cemeteries where lie in peace 686 soldiers who died fighting the invading Japanese forces. The Guwahati War Cemetery has 486 graves. The other cemetery is at Digboi.
In the southeastern part of Guwahati is Basisthashram, dating back to the Vedic ages. It was here that Sage Basistha regained his physical form after removal of a curse through rigorous penance. A Shiva temple stands at the juncture of three mythical rivulets—Sandhya, Lalita and Kanta.
Atop Chitrachal Hill is the Navagraha temple of nine planets, one of only two such temples on earth. It is an ancient seat of astronomy and astrology, and the sanctum sanctorum has a stone imprint of the solar system as depicted in ancient Indian astronomy.
Sualkuchi—the Textile Town
Assam silk is famous all over the world. About 25 km west of Guwahati is Sualkuchi, the textile town of Assam. Several thousand men and women work round the clock on their looms to produce muga—the exclusive golden yarn available only in Assam—and paat silk. Sericulture is said to have flourished here as early as the 4th century BC.
Lachit—the Great Hero
On the Brahmaputra in Guwahati stands a 35-foot statue of Lachit Barphukan, the greatest hero of Assam. The great Ahom general inflicted a crushing defeat on the Mughals in the Battle of Saraighat in 1671. A statue of Lachit Barphukan also stands at the entrance of the National Defence Academy at Khadakvasala.
Assam State Zoo
The largest zoo in the entire Northeast, the Assam State Zoo has about 30 species of mammals, 41 species of reptiles, 173 bird species, 227 species of butterflies and moths, over 150 species of insects and 610 species of plants and orchids. It is located in the Japorigog area of Guwahati and is spread over an area of 175 hectares.
Guwahati has a number of restaurants which specialise in local ethnic food, be it from Assam or other northeastern states. Traditional Assamese food—both vegetarian and non vegetarian—has been a favourite with visitors.
Guwahati has close to 600 hotels, from five-star to budget category. While most budget hotels are located at Paltanbazar and Panbazar, close to the railway station, the three-star to five-star hotels are located on the outskirts of the city.
Sivasagar—the royal capital
For lovers of history, a visit to Sivasagar, 360 km from Guwahati, is a must. The nearest airport is at Jorhat, a two-hour journey. It was a part of the ancient capital of the Ahom kings.
One can see here the Talatal Ghar—the royal palace—the largest among the Ahom monuments. Nearby is the 18th century Rang-ghar, said to be the first amphitheatre in Asia. Sivasagar also has several important temples, all built during the Ahom era. Of them, the Shiva-doul, built during 1714- 1744, is said to be the tallest ancient Shiva temple (32 m) in the country. The Sivasagar Barphukhuri is said to be the largest manmade tank on earth, covering an area of 257 acres. It attracts thousands of migratory birds during winter. One can also enjoy the sunrise and sunset on Barphukhuri.
About 13 km east of Sivasagar is the Kareng-ghar, the royal Ahom palace at Gargaon, which used to be the capital of the Ahom kingdom for more than four centuries. It was built in 1752.
Majuli is said to be the largest inhabited river island in the world with an area of 525 sq km in the middle of the Brahmaputra. It is a centre of Assam’s Vaishnavite monasteries or Sattras. The over 40 monasteries located on the island are a hub of art, culture, dance, music, theatre and literature. Assam’s 16th century saint reformer, Srimanta Sankardeva, and his disciple, Madhavadeva, embarked upon a massive socio-cultural renaissance from this island that took them to various parts of the Brahmaputra valley and beyond. Sattriya dance, developed by Sankardeva, is today recognised as one of the classical dances of the country. Traditional bhaona plays are very popular. Located about 350 km from Guwahati, the nearest airport is Jorhat. One has to cross the Brahmaputra by boat to reach the island.
Raas-leela, held in November, is the largest festival of Majuli.
Kaziranga—gift of nature
Assam is famous for its flora and fauna. Swami Vivekananda described Assam as the most beautiful place in India after Kashmir.
Assam at present has seven national parks and 20 wildlife sanctuaries. The seven national parks are Kaziranga, Manas, Dibru- Saikhowa, Orang, Nameri, Dihing-Patkai and Raimona.
About 190 km from Guwahati, Kaziranga National Park, with an area of 858.98 sq km, today has over 2,600-plus one-horned rhinos—a conservation success story when one recalls that the figure had gone down to 20 a hundred years back. It also has the highest concentration of the world’s Royal Bengal Tigers: 121 in 2021. Home to a number of primate species, the purest breed of Asiatic water buffaloes and one of the largest herds of Asian elephants, the Brahmaputra flows through it.
It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and a tiger reserve. Elephant safaris, jeep safaris, hill trekking are activities available here. The nearest airport is Jorhat.
Manas National Park
A World Heritage Site, Manas National Park is about 150 km northwest of Guwahati. The 500-sq-km park is a Tiger Reserve, Elephant Reserve and Biosphere Reserve and is contiguous to the 1,057-sq-km Royal Manas National Park of Bhutan. It derives its name from the Manas river flowing through it.
It is home to Royal Bengal Tigers (latest count 48), leopards, clouded leopards, wild water buffaloes, elephants, rhinos and red pandas, among other animals.
Pyramids of Assam
At Charaideo—30 km from Sivasagar—lie the royal burial grounds of the Ahom kings. Surrounded by tea estates, one can see here several Maidams—earthen pyramids—where lie in peace several Ahom kings including Sukapha, who founded the Ahom dynasty in 1228. The nearest airport is at Dibrugarh.
Rampur—treasure house of sal trees
About 125 km west of Guwahati, just south of Goalpara town, is Rampur village of the Rabha tribe. It has shot to international fame for its unique theatre festival called “Under the Sal Tree” held every December since 2008 inside a forest of sal trees. Organised by Badungduppa, a registered society, the festival attracts artistes from across the globe. There are homestay facilities available.
Digboi oil refinery
India’s first commercial oil well was struck at Digboi in October 1889 and in 1901 Asia’s first oil refinery came up here. The refinery is a heritage site today, being the second oldest refinery and at present the world’s oldest running oil refinery. One can visit the Centenary Heritage Park and Museum, and Discovery Well No 1. The nearest airport is at Dibrugarh.
Assam’s 1,000-plus tea gardens are dotted with hundreds of heritage bungalows built during the British era. Some of the best heritage properties for tourists are the Burra Sahib’s Bungalow, Mistry Sahib’s Bungalow, Banyan Grove, Thengal Manor, Chameli Memsaab Bungalow, Purani-Bheti Bungalow (all in Jorhat), the Mancotta Chang Bungalow (Dibrugarh), the Balipara Bungalow and Wild Mahseer (both near Tezpur). The nearest airports are at Jorhat and Dibrugarh.
Assam’s tea-tees—golf courses on tea estates—are a big attraction for tourists.
There are 20 tea-tees, natural and almost all with nine holes. Some of the estates have airstrips for tourists to arrive and leave in chartered aircraft. The 18-hole Digboi Golf Course and the Kaziranga Golf Resort Course are major attractions. The nearest airports are at Jorhat and Dibrugarh.
The Jatinga mystery
About nine km from the hill town of Haflong in the Barail range of central Assam is the village of Jatinga, known the world over for its mysterious phenomenon of birds committing suicide under particular conditions. On moonless nights from September to November, when the breeze blows from south to north, there is moderate fog and drizzle, birds flying over or past Jatinga drop towards any powerful light—some dying after hitting the ground, others killed by people.