By Nishiraj A. Baruah
For one, she is the brand ambassador of Assam Tourism. Drapped in Assamese mekhela sador, she looks lovely, of course, even as she breaks into a Bihu dance. But then there are several other reasons why she wants you to take an Assam break. I get a good idea when I myself visit the state recently to cover an annual cultural fest called Rongali.
However, the start of my trip isn’t exactly as I have envisioned, as I find myself in a precarious position when I become an object of curiosity. Everyone is watching me, you see. Like a zoo animal in a cage. Locked up behind an iron collapsible gate, with random people stopping to stare at me, I feel awkward of course. I cry out for help. Some move on unable to figure out what’s happening. Others try to help looking out for the chowkidar. To make things worse, my journalistic colleagues whom I call on the phone to rescue me, are ROFL seeing my plight.
I was at the loo of Srimanta Sankaradev Kalakshetra, a sprawling cultural hub in Guwahati, and when I come out – that’s around 10 pm – I find that all the lights of the building are switched off and all the entrances locked, making an exhibit of me in the exhibition hall.
Without checking that someone could be inside the loo, the chowkidar went away happily locking the building up. Leaving me trapped. It has been about 15 minutes now and I am worried that the chowkidar may have left for home, in which case, I will remain locked up for the night.
And then there is this gentleman passing by along with his family who stops to see what the commotion is all about. When he realises the situation, he fishes out his phone to speak to someone. Apparently, he is a senior official at the Kalakshetra.
“Wait for a while. The chowkidar is coming with the keys,” he says as I thank him from behind the bars. The crowd is swelling up, much to my discomfort. Finally when the chowkidar arrives after good 20 minutes, the gentleman who has been patiently waiting all this while shouts at him. “Didn’t you check if people were inside before locking!?” he growls. “I did,” the chowkidar protests. “I shouted if anyone was inside.” But obviously, I didn’t hear.
1. Rongali: A mini Assam
I am at the Kalakshetra to attend Rongali, the annual tourism fest that takes place in Guwahati. Organised by the same guy, Shyam Kanu Mahanta, who organises the NE fest in New Delhi, the fest held end of January, is literally a mini Assam showcasing all its colours – traditional and tribal, the cool and the contemporary.
The food stalls dishes out a variety of local flavours: Rice, steamed in bamboo; pork, burnt, boiled, baked and steamed; drinks like Laupani (rice beer) and sulai (made from jaggery); masor tenga (sour fish curry); and so on. Assamese traditional weaves and wear like mekhela sador, muga silk, and Assamese jewellery are showcased at a fashion show where models also wear skirts and gowns made of Assamese silk. And if Bihu with its uptempo dhol beats and its flirtatious lyrics gets the audience grooving, rock music by local bands gets everyone head banging – aptly displaying a side of Assamese contemporary culture. Big names like Papon and DJ Nucleya also throw in a gig. Journos from Delhi and Mumbai who are there to cover the event pretty much gets a fair idea about Assam through the festival. Says Mahanta: “Festivals are a great way to experience a place. Within just about a few thousand square feet area, a festival provides us a pretty good picture about the place’s culture, craft, cuisines and clothes, all in one place. Rongali offers a synopsis, a quick glance of Assam before you actually travel the miles to explore the land of blue hills and red rivers.”
2. This culture club is cool
The Kalakshetra, where the fest is held, itself is a tourist attraction. Named after the medieval poet-playwright and reformer Srimanta Sankardev, it includes a cultural museum, library, auditorium, and a children’s park. Built in the 1990s, the artistic excellence of Assam and rest of the north-eastern region is displayed here. There are eateries, places of worship, emporiums and open-air theatres within its sprawling premises. A cable car facility is also available inside the park. The Bhupen Hazarika museum is another attraction. The Kalakshetra quite often holds various workshops of drama, cinema and other performing as well as visual arts. There are murals on the walls that depict various war moments, Bihu dances and other Assamese motifs. You need an entire day to explore this.
3. Blood and the bleeding goddess
“Oh my god, oh my god!” one of our Delhi based journalistic colleagues sends out a shrill cry of horror when she witnesses a goat being sacrificed with blood sputtering out, the floor bloody too, at Kamakhya temple, the seat of Tantric power. Goat, pigeon, and even buffalo are routinely slaughtered here as sacrifice.
The temple is home to Kamakhya Devi, revered as the ‘Bleeding Goddess’, where the mythical womb and vagina of the goddess Shakti is. Curiously enough, every year during June, the Brahmaputra river near Kamakhya turns red. It is believed that the goddess ‘menstruates’ during this period.
There is definitely some kind of mysterious power about this temple. At least I have some reason to believe so. Decades ago, I went there as a child along with my parents trekking all the way up a hill where it is located – there was no motorable road then. Along the way I remember there were several rocks that were sculpted into Lord Ganesha, smeared by vermillion. There was a rat menace in our Dibrugarh house and mom prayed to the pot bellied god (whose pet is a rat) to relieve the house from these pests. In something that couldn’t be explained by logic, when we reached home after a few days, there was a surprise waiting: About 50 odd rats were scattered across the rooms, all dead!
4. Sailing the river to a tiny island
If Kamakhya temple takes you to a world of supernatural, Umananda temple, located in the smallest inhabited riverine island in the world, takes you to a scenic world. “How much?” I ask a boatman. “Rs 100 both ways,” he says. I look at my partner. “Good deal it is, lets go!” I tell her.
So off we sail towards the island, taking in the pretty views of Guwahati and the Brahmaputra river, backdropped by distant mountains. The 15 minute ride is nice and breezy as you dock near the island which is basically a hill. This is a Shiva temple built by the Ahom King Gadadhar Singha (1681–1696).
Later in the evening I catch up with my fellow journos. “So did you go to Umananda?” I ask. Of course they had. “How much did the ferry ride cost you?”
The answer leaves me feeling idiotic.
“Rs 25,” my colleague says, “both ways.”
5. Love pork? Visit this place.
When we return, it is almost lunchtime. When you are in Assam you got to have pork. I ask a local friend where to enjoy a good pork meal. The festival grounds of Rongali has some good pork stalls, but for fine dining, one must go to Raja Mircha, where the owner Vedanta Bhagawati serves nine varieties of pork – all his own recipes. With a menu that includes the bestseller, pork with sesame seeds, served in traditional Assamese brass plates, the restaurants have a no-nonsense décor offering a very affordable pork thali. Bhagawati had travelled all across Northeast – Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, etc – to pick up pork recipes, which he tweaked to add his own unique flavour. His pork dishes have become so popular that within months of opening his first outlet in Dispur, Guwahati, he has opened another one at Rukmini Gaon. We love what we eat at Raja Mircha, each melt-in-the-mouth dish throwing us into a gastronomical orgasm.
6. F%$k all Paltan Bazaar
And then the sound happens. Loud sound. Monotonous sound. Mysterious and monstrous. Like a SUV without a silencer pipe. The TV becomes inaudible and me and my partner can barely hear each other talking. It is making us miserable, irritable, aches brewing in our heads. It seems to be coming from the corridor. I go out to check. Nah, I see nothing. Now the sound seems to be coming from above the false ceiling of our room. It is driving us crazy.
For God’s sake would you please stop the sound? I call the manager of our multistoried hotel Vishwaratna, boiling with rage. He says some renovation work is on and workers are drilling holes. But why the hell should I suffer? It stops for a while only to resume half hour later. Guess it is better to be outdoors.
But Paltan Bazaar, the place where this hotel is located, itself is a noisy chaos, congested with perennial traffic jam and honking horns. No, never ever stay in Paltan Bazaar – the Paharganj of Guwahati – even if it is close to the railway and bus station.
7. Dine and drink on a Brahmaputra cruise
Far away from the chaos, we finally manage to escape to the serene banks of the Brahamaputra where a crowd assembles for the sunset cruise. With a glittering Guwahati for a view, the onboard bar cum restaurant serves ethnic Assamese meals, the stage is the venue for folk music and dance performance. With stars above, we beer our way to a fabulous evening. Hopefully the sound in our room is silenced by now.
8. What is it that dries in the shade and hides in a fist?
Creepers are woven into borders, peacocks prance about the sadors, and delicate, geometric flowers dot the bodies of the mekhelas. Kinkhaap, a design from the Ahom era that consists of two front-facing lions, are also woven into the silks. Other popular designs include Assamese jewellery like the gaamkharu (a wrist band) or joonbiri (a half moon-shaped pendant) and the wildlife of Kaziranga National Park. Assam’s flora and fauna often sneak into its mekhela sadors.
We witness this at Sualkuchi – 32 km away from Guwahati, where we go the next day. This is the place where Assamese mekhela sador is woven. A small village, here every house is a factory, the rhythmic click-clack of the traditional throw-shuttle loom coming from everywhere. We walk into one of the houses and see them – mostly women – weaving. They are shy when we want to take pictures, and speak very little Hindi. With only me as the lone Assamese in the group, I work as a translator between the journos and the weavers.
Here, weaving is not just a tradition handed down by generations, but a way of life and a labour of love. The majority of the families have hand operated looms, which they call taatxaal. It can take upto a month to make a set of mekhela sador that comes in reds, blues, greens, purples as well as white, beige, black and grey. The paat silk mekhela sadors have intricate designs made out of golden silk threads or guna all over. The paat fabric is often described as one that dries in the shade and hides in a fist. Muga, the golden silk of Assam, was given the Geographical Indication status in 2007 and the GI logo in 2014.
9. Guess the animal that has only one horn, but not an unicorn
The handicraft stalls at Rongali festival grounds sell rhinos fashioned out of bamboo, but nothing like seeing the real ones as we set off for Kaziranga National Park, about a five-hour drive from Guwahati. United Grasslands, the resort we are staying, has sprawling lawns, lotus ponds, etc. The resort guys light up a bonfire by evening. Next morning we mount an elephant and enter the jungle, spotting several rhinos grazing in the misty morning with blue mountains in the backdrop. The massive animal looks like it has failed to evolve from its pre-historic avatar. We skip the jeep safari, but I am told, ideally one should take both the safaris. Elephant safaris do not go deep inside the forest, but Gypsies do, which means more sightings.
The resort with its sprawling grassy lawns is so quiet and pretty that I decide to stay one more night there. However, it is located a few kilometres away from Kohora, one of the entry points to Kaziranga, and hub of all activities. That itself isn’t a problem if the resort has vehicles to transfer guests. They don’t. So we are left standing on the main road, waiting for random cabs and when none comes our way, we start signaling trucks and tractors for a lift. Finally, one small cargo vehicle stops and drops us at Kohora where all the action is with numerous eateries, drinking places, shops and government tourist lodges. It is Saraswati Puja and the moment we saunter into a govt. school where a puja is on, we feel like celebs. Ushered in by students and teachers with much fan fare, they offer us tea and snacks and chairs to seat. It is obvious that we are not locals and that itself is enough for them to give us a royal welcome.
10. This resort is literally a jungle
It was once an elephant corridor, working as a watering hole for them. But that had to stop once the hill was developed as the Brahmaputra Jungle resort. To do that, its owner Tridib Sarma, had to build another pond higher up in the hills.
With a horrible stay in congested Paltan Bazaar, we are now more than happy to be lodging after returning from Kaziranga at this 20-acre hill resort in Sonapur, 13 km from Guwahati, complete with ponds, a domestic elephant, ethnic cottages and adventure sports like zip lining and zorbing.
Sarma had been the first one to set up a resort in this area following which others have also set up shop. But his place still remains one of a kind, extremely popular as a weekend gateway from Guwahati. To maintain the jungle theme, the trees and the bushes and the shrubs have been allowed to grow wild without much interference of human hands. Surrounded by tea gardens on the front and Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary at the back, interestingly, there are no fence marking the border of the resort. “I believe in a world without borders,” Sharma says.
11. Where is the lake, my friend?
I meet up with my childhood friend, the child-like Nozoom Rehman Hazarika, a real estate builder as also a photographer. “Forget Assam Tourism, I will show you places nobody has heard of,” he said. And I believe him given he is an explorer. However, for lack of time on my part, I can’t go to the places nobody has heard of, and end up going to a place everyone has heard of.
It is the Bara Pani lake in Meghalaya, about an hour away from Guwahati. Also called Umiam Lake, it’s actually a vast and scenic reservoir, the lake a part of a dam, constructed as a first hydel power project in North-East. You can go kayaking, water cycling, boating and scooting here. There are also row boats, paddle boats, sailing boats, cruise boats and speed boats as well. Surrounded by the lush and lofty East Khasi Hills, Umiam Lake is often compared with Lakes of Scotland. There are small islands that rise from the water that look exceedingly beautiful.
Sadly, I can enjoy none of these. By the time we arrive, the lake disappears in the dark of the night. Nozoom takes me to a popular lake-view restaurant, but we are met with closed gates. So we return, only to drown our disappointment over a drink at a roadside dhaba. Along the way, we buy several bottles of pickles made of pork, bhoot jolokia and dry fish.
There is more to Assam, of course: Golfing in Digboi; angling in Bhalukpung; sailing across a rainforest; tea trails in Dibrugarh; and exploring the culture hub that’s Majuli.
Don’t believe me? Well, ask Priyanka.