Eden, move over for the Garden of Assam

April 14, 2017

Tucked away in India’s “Wild East” is the state of Assam. With wide open spaces, silk weaving, tea plantations, and thriving wildlife reserves, it is surprisingly absent from the tourist radar.

 

That is exactly the sort of place for an E.Y.H.O. tour.

 

For seven days, my husband and I explored Assam. Atop an elephant, we swayed through Kaziranga, home of the rare one-horned rhino. Kaziranga is one of the few success stories in the world of rhino conservation. The rhino population here is on the increase, as evidenced by a sighting of mother and baby.

In Jorhat, we camped – ok, luxuriated – in a tea planter’s bungalow belonging to the Talayar family. They were the first local Assamese family to challenge British stronghold on Assam tea. Talayar is an exquisite Renaissance-inspired mansion set in emerald tea gardens and surrounded by unusually small family-owned plots of tea.

 

In addition to long walks through tea gardens, we visited with villagers for their beautiful textiles, and came back laden with shopping to more pampering by the bungalow staff.

Guwahati’s Kamakhya Devi temple train-wreck fascinated us at a 900-year old tradition of daily animal sacrifices to appease a blood-thirsty goddess. According to legend, the Goddess Sati  used to retire here in secret to satisfy her amour with Shiva, and it was also the place where her yoni fell after Shiva danced with the corpse of Sati. This 9th century temple is a major Hindu pilgrimage centre for fertility and tantric worship. 

Not far from Kamakhya is the town of Sualkuchi, which was set up under royal patronage by the Ahom dynasty for sericulture of the world’s finest silks, Muga and Eri. Muga is prized for it’s longest, smoothest silk fibre which does not take a dye, and is therefore always the warm colour of champagne. Eri, also known as “peace silk”, does not harm the moth in its production.

Assam had delighted us so far. But it was Majuli, a riverine island caught in the shallows of the mighty Brahmaputra that captivated us. Approach by a local ferry provided an excellent opportunity to observe a slice of local life, including a top-deck no-rails casino which sprang up on each ride for the entertainment of commuters.

 We took the ferry to Majuli island.

Majuli is the world’s largest inhabited riverine island. With the Brahmaputra forming a natural moat, it has developed into a world apart from the rest of Assam.  Majuli’s exceptional cultural heritage dates back to 16thC saint-scholar Sankaradeva’s reform of Hinduism. He advocated the change from a ritualised caste-ridden religion to the monotheistic and compassionate faith practised across Assam today. Sankaradeva’s legacy lives on in fourteen satras (university-monasteries), each devoted to a fine or performing art discipline. Art forms such as mask-making, music, weaving, literature, and dance are used to espouse Lord Krishna’s divinity. In the satras, five hundred year old traditions continue to be handed down from one generation of monks to the next.

 A mask of the demon god Ravana.

 A young mask maker.

Casting forth every morning from our delightful bamboo cottage homestay, we traversed Majuli discovering its cultural riches. But first — breakfast cooked the old-fashioned way.

 

Early morning, Majuli children greet us on their way to school.

Villages of the semi-nomadic Mishing tribe – so called because the British, in an attempt to study their lifestyle, found them “missing” i.e. moved away due to temperamental flooding of the Brahmaputra plain. Their weaving is part of the fabric of their lives; each woman produces enough for her family’s needs or to barter.

Your appetite whetted? Join me on our North East India tour in February 2018.

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