Assam: Extraordinary little-known travel destination in India
(eTN) - Assam is a little-known Indian destination full of charm and attractions.
(eTN) – Assam is a little-known Indian destination full of charm and attractions. Starting from the Brahmaputra River running through it, the area is defined by origin, size and the course of this mighty river.
Among the emerging tourist destinations, Assam – the largest of the states of northeast India – is emerging on the world map as a true travel destination thanks to its rich history, art, culture, nature and the innate reception propensity of its inhabitants.
The Brahmaputra River stands out above all the major attractions in Assam for its irrepressible force, and for being a generator of life and death.
In the countries crossed by the Brahmaputra – Tibet, India, and Bangladesh – the river is named: Tsangpo, Brah, and Jammu – three names, three countries, three religions, only one river. It is a mythological source hidden among the glaciers of one of the most sacred parts of the world.
Many legends tell of this mysterious river: stories of men that have ventured to discover its origins, armies that have gone through it, pilgrims who have purified in its water, deity who competed by its shores, stories of savage tribes and of tea pioneer. But also stories of sea otters that feed from its fish and stories of the Bengal tigers.
The Brahmaputra is a mystery that fascinates as much as the Palace of the Winds in Jaipur or Agra’s Taj Mahal. Around its shores, the lives of the Assamese have developed, but its popularity transcends geographical boundaries. It is the only river in India to have a male name whose meaning is “Son of Brahma.” This mighty river evokes reverence to the over one billion Hindus in both the Indian subcontinent and those living in the world.
It is said that the Brahmaputra can tell the story of generations from Yunan (China) to Hindustan, to Bangladesh, from its birth from the womb of the Kailash mountain range of the Himalayas, south of Kanggye Tso Lake, southeast of Tibet at an altitude of 5,300 meters.
The tortuous run of more than 3,000 kilometers of water crosses one of the most inhospitable regions on Earth, and for a long stretch, the river is the highest on the planet, flowing from west to east, about 4,000 meters above sea level. From here it runs through about 2,000 kilometers to join the sacred Ganges, ending its run in the Bay of Bengal.
Among winding trails and scenic waterfalls, the river flow subsides in the region of Assam only in the dry season, when its one-mile dimension in width in the vicinity of Guwahati, reaches up to 20 kilometers in width in certain areas. What remains impressive is its maximum depth of 3,600 meters.
The only navigable river east of the Himalayas, the Brahmaputra comes alongside the African Zambezi River for its floodplain power. During the monsoon period, it floods vast territories, forcing people and animals (including those of the Kaziranga National Park reserve) to seek shelter in the heights for months.
After the water have receded, the river is no longer the same. Its banks appear modified, new islands and new courses have sprouted up, and it is even easy to find fishing boats that have run aground sitting on the sand dunes. Downstream, residents tirelessly rebuild their villages. The world of Assam’s Majuli island is the largest river island in the world (about 450 kilometers), existing as an island within the river itself. The annual floods from May to August that bring destruction, eventually retreat, leaving a valuable natural fertilizer behind that allows lush crops, in particular about a hundred varieties of rice, to flourish.
Among the river’s economic resources, other than rice, there is fishing; ship craft carpentry; and a remarkable production of masks, pottery, woolen fabrics, and silk knits. The Satras (monasteries), scattered among the many villages, bring the Majuli River to the center of the Assam culture every year where a celebrated festival that represents the legacy of various ethnic groups – mainly Mongols and Indo Arians, plus the legacy of other cultures – contributes to the region’s economic income.
Time on the island has a slow course with the stoic awareness that life is at the mercy of unpredictable and uncontrollable nature which can be destructive as well as generous, and knowing all along that nothing is lasting.
The floods of the river can bend but not break the hearts of the proud laborious people who live there. Women continue to weave on their frames in their bamboo huts on stilts, men cultivate the fields, and the children grow up in an atmosphere of serene sharing.
And it is this great joy and hospitality that attracts western visitors to Assam. And, of course, there is the history behind the affable smiles of the local people – a rich and ancient culture witnessed by the numerous temples that attract pilgrims from around the world every year after the monsoon season has ended. Among the most attractive sites is the Kamalabari Satra – the temple of the dancing monks located on Majuli Island.
The monks are ordained at a young age, and they grow their hair long, and learn the art of dance in the roles of women to honor the God Shiva. Only when they have reached the age of 18, may they leave the monastic life behind, if they wish. Another temple to see is the Kamakhya in Guwahati that symbolizes the “fusion of faiths and Aryan practices in the state of Assam.” This temple has a sacrificial corner where, almost every day, animals are sacrificed, especially goats, in the presence of a multitude of the faithful.
Another must-see stop is Sibsagar – the ancient capital of the powerful empire of the Ahom kings, and home of the Thai of Ahom language. Those who lived here came from Yunnan, China, in the 13th century AD, and here, visitors can admire the imperial monuments that are still well preserved.
Also well worth a visit is the Kaziranga National Park, a World Heritage site and one of the largest wild animal reserves among many in India, located in the floods plain. At sunrise, a safari begins with tourists comfortably seated in a vehicle while tracking wild elephants and rhinos on the great savannah. The park is home to a rich variety of over 180 birds and mammals, including tigers, deer, and bison that for 500 years, have amalgamated in this land.
Assam Tea is known to be the best in the world, and here, tea plantations are sprinkled over the region, each one with its own history of colonialism and the newly-wealthy local owners. The Haroocharai Tea Estate is open to enjoy delicious blends and refined Assamese cuisine, and visitors are greeted by the owners, Indrani Barooah. Local dancers contribute to a cheerful outdoor dining experience, while the tea pickers in their colorful clothes collect the leaves of the Camellia sinensis, while stealing a view of the dancers for a moment.
Guided tours in Assam are organized by Far Horizon Tours, owners of cruise ship Mahabaahu, a modern luxury floating hotel (www.farhorizonindia) and curator of excursions with local guides. The press trip was organized by Indian Tourism Milan (www.indiatourismmilan.com) in collaboration with Far Horizon Tours for a duration of 7 night and 8 days including the excursions. The river cruise, done in style and comfort, is an alternative to hotels (note that infrastructure as well as the tourism organization are still under development). Reaching Assam from Italy was via Air India from Milan and Rome with direct flights to N. Delhi. The best time to visit Assam is from March to October. Points of interest: Sivasagar, home to the ancient buildings of the Ahom (the Thai population that settled in Assam since 1228); Haroocharai, known for its tea plantations; Majuli Island; the village Luitmukh; Bishwanath Ghat; Koliabor with the typical farms that process tea; the Kaziranga National Park; and Silghat and Guwahati where, respectively, are the temples of Hatimura and Kamakhya.