ASSAM is dominated by the mighty River Brahmaputra, whose huge, lush valley is sandwiched between the Himalayan foothills to the north and the Meghalayan hills and plateau to the south. An attractive state, Assam is one of India’s few oil regions, and produces around sixty percent of the nation’s tea. However, the industry is not as profitable as it once was, and for the marginalized adivasis – tribal people from various indigenous groups, brought in from central India by the British to work as indentured labourers on the plantations – depressingly little has changed since colonial times.
The social divisions caused by this marginalization have been some of the major sources of instability in the state. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), a separatist group declared a terrorist organisation by the Indian government, began an armed struggle for independence in 1985, and in the early 1990s, Assamese nationalism sparked opposition from Bodos, Cachars and other ethnic minorities. However, though bombings, bandhs and in-fighting continue, the situation has improved and tourists are not targets.
Assam’s busy capital, Guwahati has one of India’s most important Kali temples, Kamakhya, and is a hub for the whole region. Within easy access of the city, the spectacular Kaziranga National Park is renowned for its one-horned rhinos. Further along the Brahmaputra lies the fascinating island of Majuli, home to unique Hindu monasteries. During your visit, keep an eye out for the bhut jolokia, the world’s hottest chilli, which is native to the state.Read More
The state capital GUWAHATI (or Gauhati) lies on the banks of the Brahmaputra, whose swollen sandy channel is so wide that the far shore is often invisible. It’s a dirty and crowded city, but as it’s the main gateway to the region you will probably need to stay here for at least a night or two. The busy downtown market area contrasts sharply with the rural riverside northeast of the centre, and the surrounding hills beyond. Guwahati’s main attractions are the Kamakhya, Navagraha and Umananda temples, while northwest of the city are the silk village of Sualkachi, the pilgrimage site of Hajo and Manas National Park.
The bustling markets of Paltan Bazaar, Pan Bazaar and Fancy Bazaar, Guwahati’s main shopping areas, are bunched in the centre on either side of the railway, with the older residential areas north of the tracks. Assamese silk, wooden rhinos and other crafts are sold at several shops on GNB Road, including the State Emporium. Assam’s main business is tea, and tourists can visit the Assam Tea Auction Centre, in the Dispur suburb, with permission from the Senior Manager. The State Museum, on GNB Road, has tribal costumes and religious sculptures and the Srimanta Sankaradeva Kalakshetra on Shillong Road, Panjabari district, is an arts complex with a museum, art gallery, theatre and Vaishnavite temple.
The Shiva temple of Umananda stands on Peacock Island in the middle of the Brahmaputra. Its location atop a steep flight of steps is more dramatic than the temple itself, but you may get to see some rare golden langur monkeys. Ferries leave regularly from Kachari and Umananda Ghat.
On the commanding Nilachal Hill, overlooking the river 8km west of the centre, the important Kali temple of Kamakhya, with its beehive-shaped shikhara, is a good example of the distinctive Assamese style of architecture. As one of the shakti pithas, it marks the place where Sati’s yoni (vulva) landed when her body fell to earth in 51 pieces, and is one of the three most important Tantric temples in India. A short walk up the hill brings you to a smaller temple with wonderful views of Guwahati and the Brahmaputra.
East of the centre, on another hill, is the atmospheric Navagraha temple – the “temple of the nine planets”, an ancient seat of astrology and astronomy – with wonderful acoustics. Housed in a single red dome, the central lingam is encircled by a further eight representing the planets.
Kaziranga National Park
Kaziranga National Park
A World Heritage Site covering 430 square kilometres on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra, KAZIRANGA NATIONAL PARK, 217km east of Guwahati, occupies a vast valley floor against a backdrop of the Karbi Anglong hills. Its rivulets, shallow lakes and semi-evergreen forested highlands blend into marshes and flood plains covered with tall elephant grass. A visit here is exhilarating and you are likely to see elephants, deer and wild buffalos. The big draws, however, are the park’s famous one-horned rhinos (officially there are around two thousand), which are best observed from the back of an elephant, first thing on a winter’s morning, and its tigers, which are relatively elusive, despite a government report in 2010 that claimed Kaziranga has the highest density of tigers of any park in the world, with 32 big cats per 100 square kilometres. Jeeps take you deeper into the forest than elephants, but cannot get nearly as close to the rhinos and tigers. Driving through the park’s landscape of open savanna grassland interspersed with dense jungle, is a wonderful experience. The abundant birdlife includes egrets, herons, storks, fish eagles, kingfishers and a grey pelican colony.
Kaziranga is open from November to early April. Avoid visiting on Sundays, when it gets busy with noisy groups of Indian tourists. During the monsoons (June–Sept), the Brahmaputra bursts its banks, flooding the low-lying grasslands and causing animals to move to higher ground within the park. It is important to take care when on safari; accidents are very rare, but occasionally occur, most recently in April 2009, when a Dutch tourist was trampled to death by a wild elephant.
Land encroachment and particularly poaching remain serious problems: at least 14 rhinos were killed in 2009. The understaffed park authorities appear unable to protect the animals whose horns fetch astronomical prices. Nevertheless, Kaziranga was named a tiger reserve in 2006 – as part of Project Tiger – which has resulted in extra funds, and in January 2010 army commandos were brought in to try to combat the poachers: whether this proves enough to make a real difference remains to be seen.
- Upper Assam