A Look at an Unknown Piece of India: The State of Assam
While lovers of India have likely spent time in New Delhi,
Mumbai, Calcutta and even the state of Kerala where ayurvedic reigns supreme, there is yet another area of the country that is lesser known, but worth the trip.
The state of Assam is the largest northeastern state in terms of population, and the second largest in terms of area. It is bordered by Bhutan and is well-known for Assam Tea and Assam silk. It is also the home of the one-horned Indian rhinoceros and a number of the tigers still found in the country are in this region.
THE FESTIVAL EXPERIENCE
My jaunt to Assam was in the summer, and yes, it does get hot there at that time of year.
The highlight was a festival called Ambubachi Mela, also known as the tantric fertility festival, held in the city of Guwahati. I was driven up the Nilachal Hill to the Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati where people from all over India and abroad were already gathered in throngs at the temple’s premises waiting to be blessed by Goddess Kamakhya.
From a Hindi perspective, the yearly festival is held during the monsoon season that falls during the Assamese month Ahaar, which is in mid-June. The Ambubachi Mela festival surrounds the mythical course in time celebrating goddess Kamakhya’s menstruation cycle. Her devotees are believed to be blessed with Goddess Kamakhya’s nurturing power during the festival. The temple of Goddess Kamakhya is considered to be one of the most sacred in Hindu legend because this is where one of the severed body parts of the goddess fell after being severed.
The temple is actually closed for three days before the festival begins, at which time the devotees gather outside. I saw everyone – from the magical Sadhus, to households from across the country, to the singing minstrels of West Bengal known as Baul to Tantriks – all there to worship this fertility goddess. There was chanting, singing and large crowds of devotees working themselves into a trance. The chanting increases during the three-day wait for the temple complex to open.
There is no idol of goddess Kamakhya, but devotees worship her in the form of a yoni-like stone over which a running spring continually flows.
Assam is a land of festivals overall, very colorful and keeping to the true tradition and people from the Assamese culture.
The Bihu Festival is another popular festival in Assam and is held three times a year, marking the beginning, middle and end of the harvest season. It is at this time people dress up in traditional Assamese clothes and gather at one place for a lavish feast.
The festival of Baishagu is another important festival celebrated in April primarily by the tribe of “Boro Kacharis.” Here you will see many colors and hear traditional music of the region through the sounds of the local instruments; hawbang, Jotha, Gogona, Siphung, and Kham. To end the Baishagu Festival of Assam the people gather in one place for a final community prayer, “Garjasali,” given in the Assamese language for the final blessings of the year.
Pujas for Durga, Diwali, Swaraswati, Lakshmi and Kali are also celebrated throughout the calendar year in Assam, usually based on the timing of the full moons, as these goddesses are very significant in the Assamese culture.
MORE TO SEE
Also in Guwahati is Srimanta Shankardev Kalakshetra, a sprawling enclosure that tells the story of the history and culture of Assam. The complex was named after the medieval poet-playwright Srimanta Shankardev and includes a museum, library, and children’s park. Established in the late 1980s, the religion that Srimanta Shankardev is known for is called Ekasarana Dharma, or Shelter-in-One and is a neo-Vaishnavite monolithic religion that was founded in the 15th-16th century in Assam.
Assam is also home to wonderful areas of nature with seven national parks, and 16 wildlife sanctuaries. Manas National Park, a World Heritage Site, is one of the natural highlights that is a must visit. The park is in western Assam and borders the county of Bhutan near the Bhutanese Himalayas.
Expect dense forest alongside alluvial grasslands, low alluvial savannah woodland and the Assam valley semi-evergreen forest. This rich wilderness offers a great home for a variety of wildlife, including many endangered species. Of the many varieties of there are three unique and rare residents that can be found; the rare Pygmy Hog, the Hispid Hare, and the Golden Langur, all are on the endangered list.
Of course, you can also see herds of elephants, which was one of the first sightings for me when I arrived in the park. There are also Indian Bison, barking deer and wild hogs. For bird watchers the Bengal Florican and the Great Hornbill or rare and can be seen on occasion. Other avian species include Jungle Fowls, Khaleej’s Pheasant, Fishing Eagle, Falcon, Bee-eater, Lapwing, Plover, Sandpiper, River Tern, Woodpeckers, and Warblers.
Overall, there have been recorded 89 different tree species, 49 shrubs, 37 under shrubs, 172 herbs, 36 species of climbers, 15 species of orchids, 18 species of fern and 43 species of grass as well as 60 species of mammals, 476 birds, 42 reptiles, seven amphibians, 54 fish and more than 100 species of insects.
There are several ecological lodges available for spending the night just outside the national park. The one I stayed in was Musa Jungle Retreat. The words “Musa Jungle Retreat” are synonymous with ‘Tiger’ in the local Bodo language,. It is located on eight acres with cottages, just outside the southern gate of Manas National Park in an area known as the Bansbari range.
You don’t want to miss the sunset on the verandah over the nearby Manas River. Watch the lowering of the sun while sipping the local Assam tea as the day comes to a peaceful end.
On foot, visit a nearby Bodo tribal village, walking alongside a tea garden. This tribe, indigenous to Assam, have a rich culture of textiles, handlooms, and music.
As we were leaving the national park area after a few days of visiting and driving past the local tea plantations, our driver took a sharp turn, and our car was catapulted into a very large ditch. I had to climb out of the car on the opposite side of where I was sitting. After I was out of the car I saw the danger we were in, the car was balanced on only two tires. The good news was that the entire nearby village seemed to come out to either help or watch. It was no time before the car was back on all fours and ready to go. This experience allowed me to see the friendliness and spirit of camaraderie that exists among the people living in this rural area near the national park, and how, as they say, “it takes a village.”
Other mentionable national parks in Assam include Kaziranga National Park, which is home to the largest collection of one-horned rhinoceros. As of early last year, there were 2,613 one-horned rhinoceros left in Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve. There are jeep or elephant rides to spot these wild animals, in addition to the migratory birds, if you visit from November to April.
Another location for an excellent sighting of migratory birds is Dibru Saikhowa National Park. In fact, this park has been coined one of the 19 biodiversity hotspots in the world. Take note however, there are no roads, so for trekking you have come to the right place. There are also boat services, and sightings include the Royal Bengal Tiger, Hoolock Gibbon, and Leopards.
The Dehing Patkai National Park is in the easternmost part of Assam in the Dibrugarh -Tinsukia region and is part of the Dehing-Patkai Elephant Reserve. The park is home to the Assamese Macaque, Himalayan Black bear, Marbled cat, Clouded Leopards, Wild Pig, Malayan giant squirrels, Python, King Cobra, and the Monitor Lizard. The list of birds is long, including the Winged Wood duck, Rufous-necked Hornbill, White-backed Vulture, White-cheeked Hill Partridge, Khaleej Pheasant, Grey Peacock-Pheasant, Wreathed Hornbill, and the Great Pied Hornbill.
Since many people do visit this part of India specifically for the tigers, the Orang National Park and Tiger Reserve is also a must on the list. The area is known as the Mini Kaziranga National Park and is located near the North Bank of the Brahmaputra River. For the best sighting of the rhinos, tigers, porcupines, Gangetic dolphins, lizards, cobras, Pintail duck, and Indian Rock Python visit from November to April.
If you have the time, I recommend a one-night visit to Majuli Island. In fact, this island is said to be named by Guinness World Records as the world’s largest river island. The island is said to be slowly eroding and in about 20 years it will have completely disappeared.You reach the island by ferry; it is a one-hour ride crossing the mighty Brahmaputra River.
I recommend the Maheswar Land Homestay where the owner is a young local. You can stay in authentic stilt houses that are simple and clean and a short walk to nearby Mishing village. As you walk around the perimeter of Maheswar Land Homestay you will spot water birds, and fishing nets in the water, depicting local life. The island is about 136-square-miles so there is plenty to see. A few of the temples are worth the visit. At one temple venerating the god Vishnu, there was a priest who had the most peaceful energy as he and I exchanged silent glances.
The Satras of Majuli island have been sacred on the island since the 16th century. While there were 64 at the time of the Neo-Vaisnavism of Sankardeva ideology movement, there are now just 31 still being used with a collection of culture, literature, and art from the Assamese culture in the area. The main monastery is Dakhinpat Satra and not only patronized by the Ahom ruler, who is the head of the satras, but there are amazing pieces of artwork throughout this complex too.
So indeed, while Assam might not have been on the top of the list for your clients’ next India visit, they can certainly be assured it is worth the trip for outdoor lovers, cultural experiences and a look at India that in some cases is slowly vanishing.