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.