Assam – a land of grace, a land of plenty
I am a born-again Assamese. Truly. And I say this with great pride to whoever is kind enough to lend me an ear! My love affair with all things Assamese, I suspect, began when I became an Axomiyabuari (literally meaning Assam’s daughter in law) after marriage. My transition to an ‘Assamese’, of course, came with the eventual mastery of the language which opened up a whole new world for me. Before I knew it, I began to embrace all aspects of Assamese culture – from the gorgeous and graceful mekhalasadors (Assam silk dress) to the mesmerizing beat of the Dhul (Assamese drum) and the gentle sway of the Bihu (a popular springtime folk dance) dancers to the fascinating stories of its glorious past and most of all a gaiety and exuberance that seemed to exude from all facets of their lives. This gaiety is perhaps what personifies the land, coupled with a gentleness of spirit and the grace of its people.
Assam, our gateway to the northeast of India, is a land blessed with natural resources – a blessing that its people have enjoyed for thousands of years. So much so, they effectively drew from its strengths when they managed to defeat the mighty Mughals seventeen times! The terrain, and the torrential rains kept the Mughal armies at bay and gave the people of Assam a peaceful existence for a long, long time. Needless to say, keeping in mind the tropical climes of the state, travel is best avoided in the hot, muggy summer months or even during the monsoon.
The word ‘Assam’ means ‘uneven’ and refers to the undulating landscape of the state. From the mighty Brahmaputra river to the dense tropical forests, from lofty mountains and their broad valleys in the North, to the grasslands of the Kaziranga and Manas national parks, no other state in India perhaps enjoys so much geographical diversity as Assam.
The Brahmaputra river
For me, its’ most striking and awe-inspiring feature is the Brahmaputra river. From the moment it greets you in Guwahati – its sparkling waters flowing lazily in full splendor – to its rather fast and furious journey across the state, the river dons numerous avatars. In its most benevolent form, it is a giver of life and in its most turbulent, a destroyer! To experience it’s different forms, a cruise on its waters is highly recommended. The river (the ninth largest in the world) begins its journey high up in the Mansarovar Lake region near Mount Kailash (at 21,778 feet) in the Himalayas before descending into Assam. Here, its rich eco system makes it home to one of the largest river islands in the world – Majuli. When I stepped on its fertile shores, I was mesmerized – to say the least! It was almost as if I had set afoot a lost world, a world of stark contrasts; so bounteous, yet fragile, teeming with life yet hauntingly quiet.
Accessible by ferry from the city of Jorhatin upper Assam, Majuli has been the center of Assamese civilization seen in its Vaishnavite (a form of Hinduism) traditions. You can get a glimpse of these traditions in the various monasteries known as satraswhere ancient crafts (carved masks or woven apparel) or religious dance forms such as Gayan Bayan have been painstakingly preserved. For me, it was truly an honor to witness the graceful Sattriya dancers and their lyrical dance dramas. It was equally amazing to witness the lives of the indigenous people – the various tribes that inhabit the island and their incredible efforts to conserve the fast-shrinking wetlands, its biodiversity and ancient heritage.
From being home to one of the largest rivers of the world, to having the world’s largest river island, Assam is also one of the largest producers of tea in the world! Once again, the river gives life. This time, it is the clay-rich soil of the Brahmaputra floodplains coupled with a high density of rainfall that makes it most conducive to growing tea.
Indeed, Assam is the world’s largest producer of black tea – known for its strong, vibrant color and malty flavor that is often used as ‘breakfast’ tea around the world. Situated mostly in the cities of Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Sibsagar, Tinsukhia, and Golaghat the tea estates are a timeless reminder of the British era – who formulated the tea plantations way back in 1839. You can partake the simple pleasures of tea-tasting (which I did happily!) and pick up a blend that suits your palate. If you love tea, I promise, you will not be disappointed. In the past two decades I have been the proud owner of numerous tea blends – some purchased from the plantations, some gifted by indulgent friends.
In fact, a strong cup of tea is the best pick-me-up, and you’ll definitely need that for your next leg of travel into the wild – the famed national parks of Assam; theKaziranga National Park – A World Heritage Site – and the Manas National Park – UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site. Kaziranga, with its vast expanse of tall elephant grass and marshlands is home to the one horned rhinoceros(now endangered) and the Royal Bengal Tiger and at one time, was supposed to have one of the highest densities of tigers in the world! It was this that lured me and my fellow travelers to get up before dawn, climb an elephant, and go in search of the elusive cat. The tiger unfortunately, we did not see. But we did manage to meet a couple of rhinos at a water hole, plenty of water buffaloes, swamp deer, and elephants, of course. With the sun beating hard upon us, it was time to call it a day. And time for my next cup of tea!
As I relaxed in the comfortable environs of my nature resort, a thought crossed my mind. Wherever I had been so far, in everything that I had seen, there was one thing that struck me – the endless greenery and fertile land. So much so that it is believed that people carried its soil to other parts of the country in the hope that its magic would rub off on their land too!
In fact, a testimony to its fertility can be seen in the numerous harvest festivals celebrated with much rigor in the state. The most popular of these is the festival of Bihu celebrated in the month of April and marks the beginning of sowing of seeds. The Bihu dance form itself, with its sensuous movements of the hips and arms by young women is seen as a celebration of their fertility and the feminine form. In fact, no other state perhaps worships the feminine form with such devoutness.
My blog would be incomplete without a mention the numerous indigenous tribes – Mishing, Bodos, Karbi, Rabhas, Kacheri, Deori, and Dimasa. Most of these tribes live primarily in agrarian societies and still follow traditional methods of farming.They are deft in the art of bamboo making, silkworm rearing and most importantly, weaving. Weaving is integral to the tribal way of life and most households possess a loom.The silk weaves made of mulberry silk are exquisite and some of the finest in the world. If you want to pick up these beautiful weaves make a stop at the city of Sualkuchi, about 35 kms from Guwahati. You will not return empty handed, trust me!
Other than its famed ‘golden thread’ (pat silk) Assam is also the only state in the country that produces its own oil. The first oil well in Asia was drilled in Digboi, way back in 1889, and the first refinery was started here as early as 1901. Cities like Digboiand Duliajaanhave a distinct colonial flavor – from the sprawling bungalows to the pretty ‘English’ gardens, from rituals of afternoon tea to clubs that are the focal point of social life. Time almost seems to stand still here. As it does in most parts of the state, where you can almost get used to its more gentle, unhurried pace. It is a pace (called lahelahe or slowly, slowly) that is most dear to the people, and perhaps isthe reason for the grace and tranquility that prevails.
A media professional with over 15 years of experience, I specialize in writing and editing across platforms. I have written extensively on lifestyle and entertainment for several publications and mediums – newspapers, magazines, and the Internet. I author a blog called HighTimes that focuses on lifestyle, parenting, education and giftedness. Do drop in @https://www.facebook.com/shareinspireempower/
In addition to writing, I am a compulsive traveler with decidedly itchy feet! Of course, parenting a demanding tweenager doesn’t leave much time to spare, but when possible, I indulge in a bit of hobby baking and cake art and am a Le Cordon Bleu certified cake decorator.