Some of you may know about my now nine-year old daughter, the Little One or LO (though at her age, I guess it’s high time I thought up another epithet; she’s hardly little any more). The LO has, since she was a little mite, been keenly interested in nature; and when, last summer, we went to Jim Corbett National Park, she enjoyed it immensely. So much so that I promised her we’d try to visit at least one national park every year.
This time, we decided to go to Kaziranga, in Assam.
It was a short holiday, only six days in all, and of that the sojourn in Kaziranga was bookended by a day in Guwahati, which was where our flights to and from Delhi were connecting.
The excitement had been building up over the past several weeks, with the LO planning what she would pack (it seemed she was outfitting herself for an Arctic expedition; I had to drastically prune her list). On the day of our departure, though we had to leave home at an unearthly hour, the LO didn’t utter a squeak of protest. It was all adventure, all fun, even to leave home when it was still dark.
In Guwahati, we were booked at the Radisson Blu. This hotel is about half an hour from the airport, about 20 minutes from the city, therefore easily approachable from both directions. The only problem is the transport: Guwahati has private taxis, as well as Ola and Uber, but booking an app-based taxi, we soon discovered, was a real pain: the drivers were obstinate about how they wanted to be paid, many would refuse to go to a particular place, and it would take several tries before one could get a driver who would agree.
Anyhow, we ended up hiring a local taxi to get to the Radisson. The LO (and I must admit, me) was unimpressed by the lobby—large and bare, with one massive bit of sculpture in the middle—but our room met with the LO’s approval. Not only was there plenty of space to dance about (dancing about is important in the LO’s life), the bathroom was huge. There was a big bathtub in it (which the LO insisted she wanted to bathe in), and enough space for a luggage rack, ironing board, and more. This was the life, the LO decided, and made her father take photos so that she could show a friend back home (said friend having raved about a large bathroom in a hotel she’d stayed in in Rajasthan a couple of years back).
Once we’d washed up, we set off on some sightseeing. First up was the famous Kamakhya Temple, easily Guwahati’s most iconic attraction.
According to Hindu legend, the goddess Sati, furious that her father had insulted her husband (Shiva), immolated herself. Shiva, shattered at her death, took her body up in his arms and began the taandav, the dance of destruction. Shiva’s taandav would be disastrous for the Earth, so Vishnu stopped him by unleashing the celestial weapon, the Sudarshan Chakra. The chakra sliced Sati’s body into many parts, which fell all across India, and each place where one of Sati’s parts fell became holy. Sati’s yoni, or genitals and womb, fell at Neelaanchal Hill in Guwahati, where she is now venerated as Maa Kamakhya.
Neelanchal Hill is covered with temples, so you could actually spend several days (yes, really, days) just exploring these. We, however, only visited the main complex of Kamakhya, which has a number of shrines and subsidiary buildings of its own. The stretch of road up to the temple is lined with colourful, glittering shops selling tinseled red cloth, coconuts, flowers, sweets and other items for use in pooja.
Though it’s uphill, the rise is gentle and not at all taxing. If, however, you can’t make it on your own, there are sedan chair-like transport facilities available.
The main difficulty comes in accessing the temple, for a darshan. Kamakhya is so popular that people start queuing up for darshan hours in advance. Even though we visited on a weekday and in the afternoon (mornings, we were told, are even busier), we saw a long line of devotees waiting for darshan: one look at them, and we guessed there would be a wait of perhaps two or three hours. Too much for us, so we decided to skip the darshan.
Instead, we went around and saw the rest of the temple complex. A very sorry-looking ‘museum’, for instance, which seems to consist of (nothing was labelled, so I can’t say) old and rusted swords and other odds and ends from the temple.
A water tank, where devotees can sprinkle themselves with holy water, but at which the LO turned up her nose and said, candidly, “Filthy!”
And the beautifully carved temple, its exterior decorated with striking stone carvings. The temple dates back to the 16th century, and the sculpture here, while not immensely intricate, is nevertheless impressive. When we arrived, a team of workers was busy cleaning the carving, using mops and brushes dipped in a solution of chickpea flour and water.
We rang the bells off to one side, we circumnavigated as much of the yard around the temple as we could (at one point, locked doors kept us out), and the LO was taken aback by the large number of animals around. Dogs, cats, goats, pigeons: so many, milling all over the place. I pointed out, gently, that the vivid pink splashes on some of the pigeons and the goats meant that they had been marked out for animal sacrifice, but (fortunately, I suppose) the LO seemed to not be perturbed. Or perhaps, in her usual style, she wasn’t paying attention.
From Kamakhya, we headed for the Brahmaputra River Front, and the Brahmaputra River Heritage Centre there. This building, this space, is historically important in two ways. For one, this hillock was where the 17th century Ahom commander Lachit BorPhukan had his base camp (BorPhukan has a special place in Assamese history: at the Battle of Saraighat, he was able to defeat the Mughal forces despite then being seriously ill). Secondly, the building which houses the centre is an old heritage building: it was once the bungalow of the District Commissioner of Guwahati.
The bungalow has now been restored and made into a small museum which showcases life along the Brahmaputra: with photos, maps, fishing traps and nets in one room; weaves and looms in another; musical instruments in an atmospheric pyramidal roofed room at the top of the bungalow.
There are anecdotes and photos about various aspects of Assam, from famous personalities to insights about food. There’s a small but stunning collection of handmade masks from the river island of Majuli (which is also the world’s largest river island).
The museum, while interesting, could have been better (the labelling is a little erratic; the musical instruments gallery, for instance, has only the most rudimentary of labels). But besides this museum, there are other reasons to visit the centre. The lovely landscaping, with flower-filled beds, installation art, tall trees (the ones at the gate have the added attraction of dozens of fruit bats!) are one.
The gorgeous views over the Brahmaputra, broad and majestic, are another.
And for the LO, the imaginatively designed and very fun play area under the trees was the biggest highlight. She jumped about on the giant Snakes-and-Ladders grid, ooh-ed and aah-ed over the giant chessboard, and had a ball climbing and clambering, swinging, and exploring the little wooden houses alongside.
We returned to the Brahmaputra River Heritage Centre on the last day of our trip to Assam too; we had half a day in Guwahati before we were to catch our flight to Delhi, and since we were in the vicinity, we came back here so that the LO could enjoy herself in the play area while her parents lazed about and watched the river.
The river, in fact, was something we’d wanted to see at close quarters too, ideally through a cruise. There are several river cruises on the Brahmaputra in Guwahati, but all of these turned out to be evening affairs, with dinner or snacks and live DJs and stuff. Since we had such limited time in Guwahati (and were never in the city at 4 or 4.30, which is when most cruises set off), this was out of the question. But we were recommended another way to see the river, from further up: the Guwahati Ropeway.
The Ropeway, inaugurated in 2020, connects Guwahati with North Guwahati, on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra. The trip on the ropeway takes about ten minutes one way, travelling over some interesting-looking river islands en route.
The trip is an interesting experience (especially if you happen to be a child who’s never been in a cable car before, so this is all very novel), but North Guwahati offers little by way of interest. There seem to be no great attractions here (though some men, offering rides to a nearby temple, indicated that said temple was popular). We were not interested in a temple, and besides that, we had to get back to main Guwahati by the last cable car before lunch, at 12:45: we didn’t have the time to go exploring far.
Instead, we walked along the nearby road, flanked on both sides by tall teak trees. There were several goats around, and the LO was fascinated: she bleated (and very realistically too) at them, and was chuffed when one of them bleated back at her. This particular goat kept bleating while the LO was in sight, leading the LO to feel certain the goat had decided the LO too was a goat!
There were lots of sights we didn’t get a chance to see in Guwahati. There’s the Assam State Museum, for one; Kalakshetra (Srimanta Sankaradeva Kalakshetra, to give it its full name) for another. Various markets, including the interestingly-named Fancy Bazaar, too. This, according to a taxi driver who drove us, derived its name from the fact that this area was once the site of the local jail. The ‘fancy’ was originally ‘phaansi’ or ‘hangman’s noose’.
This driver also told us about the three Bihu celebrations that mark the Assamese calendar (we were, after all, less than a week away from Bhogali Bihu, which is the equivalent of other harvest festivals from across India, like Pongal and Sankranti and Lohri). This January Bihu marks the point when the rice is gathered in, and the gods are offered thanks for the plentiful crop—the ‘bhog’, or offering of food, is what gives Bhogali Bihu its name. The Rongali Bihu, when the crop has been sold and people are flush with funds, is all about enjoying oneself: life is full of ‘rang’ or colour. The third Bihu, Kangali Bihu, is (according to the driver) when the profits are all over and everybody must now sit back and pray that the next crop is good. People are pretty kangal, or poor, by this time, but the festival, though subdued compared to the other two Bihus, still takes place.
The driver pointed out large pyramids of firewood stacked in neighbourhoods, saying that these would be burned through the night while people kept vigil and warmed themselves around the bonfires. The next day, stacks of chaff and hay (I presume; I couldn’t quite figure out what this was made from) would be burned, and goodies consumed, among other festivities.
(Talking of goodies, our staple meal in Assam, when we got the chance, was an Assamese thali: lots of restaurants offer this. It’s often a staple vegetarian meal, with rice, papad, dal, at least a couple of types of vegetable preparations, a mustard chutney or so, and perhaps a small bowl of kheer. You can order non-vegetarian dishes, like duck curry, pork curry, pork with bamboo shoot, and so on, separately. We had some great meals this way: the food is invariably delicious and not too heavy or spice-dense. Easily one of the most enjoyable food experiences I’ve had in a while).
When we got back to the Radisson to check out, we found that in the few hours we’d been away, the hotel lobby had acquired its own lovely little celebration of Bihu: a stack of chaff (hay?) on one side, with a salver full of traditional sweets alongside.
Incidentally, that stack of chaff and hay, while modest at the Radisson, could acquire much more intricate and flamboyant designs, as we saw on our trip to Kaziranga. This huge stack, nothing short of an art installation, was pointed out in a field by our driver.
But that is for the next post, of our trip to Kaziranga. Watch this space.