My recent trip to Nagaland to experience the Hornbill festival, led me through the Gateway to the North East, the grand city of Guwahati in the state of Assam, India.
It is one of the largest cities in that region and is famed for its rich culture and its presence in the history of the country’s independence struggle. The mighty river Brahmaputra slices through the city and the several temples (one of them on the river itself) make the place a must visit for pilgrims.
Apart from being a transit hub that radiates towards the other North Eastern states and even Bhutan, it is obviously also the route to get to various places of tourist interest within Assam itself.
During my passage through the city, I managed to make the most of the few hours there, which certainly was an insufficient duration to explore the myriad points of interest within the city and its surroundings.
However, that does give me good reason to return 😀 and until then you can join me here and experience my fleeting glimpses of this land.
When you find ‘social media’ friends who turn into real life friends when you visit their city, then you can consider yourself blessed indeed. I met Sanjukta Dutta online and when I informed her of my Guwahati visit, she very kindly offered to spend time showcasing her city to me. And when someone local is your talented and brilliant guide (and shares the same interests as you), then that is the best and optimal way to spend your limited time. I thank her for her time and for the knowledge she imparted, some of which I have used in this blog post.
And not to forget the delicious meal she treated me to 😀 Wait … I am getting to all those interesting parts soon after this thank you speech. Stay patient !!!
About Assam –
Assam is a state in the North Eastern region of India and is a part of the Seven sisters (the 7 contiguous states that make up this region).
This 33 district state is so wide spread that it borders several states like Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram and West Bengal and also shares international borders with Bhutan and Bangladesh.
Assam is bountifully blessed with dense forests, gorgeous rivers and a stunning landscape, making it an ideal destination for adventure tourism and wildlife safaris. It is home to the famed One horned rhinoceros and many other endangered species of animals and birds.
It is also a land of temples and receives many a pilgrim througout the year.
Assam tea is world renowned as its lush emerald green tea estates are a tourist’s delight.
Famous for its multiple varieties of rice, the landscape of Assam is carpeted with paddy fields that add to the aesthetic charm of its countryside. Its special Soft rice called Kumol Saul or Boka Saul, needs no cooking and has received the Geographical Indication (GI) tag by the Government of India.
Its rich heritage, history, culture, traditions, handicrafts, exotic cuisine etc, cater to a wide range of interests and make this state a tourist haven.
About Guwahati –
Guwahati is the largest city in Assam and it ensconces the actual capital of Assam, which is Dispur. It is a city that is blessed with the presence of the beautiful Brahmaputra, the only Male river in India. Unlike its tumultuous avatar higher up North, the river here is far calmer and cruises gently, providing a channel for many activities like tourism, fishing, employment for boatmen etc.
Within the city one can visit the numerous temples, bustling marketplaces, restaurants, commercial areas for shopping, as well as the parks, zoo, lakes and river.
Getting around –
App based taxi operators like Ola and Uber are saviors for tourists like me and are available at all hours. These taxis from the airport will cost around Rs 400 to get to the heart of the city.
Autorickshaws within the city are also a good option, though they do not seem to be metered. However, they have fixed reasonable rates from point to point and if one is aware of the charges, then it becomes easier to settle on a fair fare !!!
Public buses are supposed to be efficient and have a widespread network but I did not experience them and hence cannot elaborate further.
Where to stay –
Guwahati is a well developed city and there are innumerable options ranging from low budget to 5 star accommodation.
I stayed at the Chandrupal lodge a very reasonably priced hotel which was very close to the railway station (hardly 5 min by cab) and situated in a safe locality close to shops and restaurants and tourist attractions. With rooms that can accommodate 3 people and facilities like running water, geyser, fans, well maintained washroom and clean bed linen, this place was a steal for the price.
Things to see and do within the city of Guwahati –
River cruises on the Brahmaputra –
Cruising on the waters is always an interesting activity and a great way for tourists to get a perspective of any city. The Alfresco Grand cruises operates cruises on the Brahmaputra at fixed times in a day. The cruises begin and end at a location by the riverside known as Machkowa on MG Road, which is quite a popular and well known area. The sunset cruise that takes place from 4 pm (boarding time 3.30pm) and goes on till 5 pm is one of the best and one can get good views and photographs. They also have the lunch cruise, dinner cruise, island cruise for private parties on a nearby island and the Sundown cruise. The sundown cruise is the most uneventful of all, with merely some on board live music and DJ.
River side and ghats –
The riverside is a pleasant place to generally hang out and pass time, if one has that luxury.
One can visit the Sukreshwar ghat and temple which seems to be a popular place, going by the crowds. One can get a good view of Umananda island from the steps of the ghat.]
Very near the temple is the Northbrook gate which is a 134 year old colonial structure that was built to welcome the Viceroy Lord Northbrook. One pays a paltry sum of Rs 5 to get close to the memorial and take pictures.
A little ahead of this place along the river back, is Azan Peer park, which is the gateway to the boarding point of the Al Fresco cruises and the view of the flaming sky at sunset and the distant Saraighat bridge and the hills in the backdrop, is a sight worth watching.
The statue of Ahom general Lachit Borphukan in attacking stance against the Mughal siege during the Battle of Saraighat in 1761, stands tall with accompanying soldiers and canons, on the pedestal that emerges out of the Brahmaputra near the shore here.
Umananda (also known as Peacock) island –
This is the smallest inhabited riverine island in the world. There is no conclusive reason that I could gather as to why it is called Peacock island because it has none other than a story that it resembled the shape of a peacock but one would have to really stretch one’s imagination to believe that 😀
However, I did think that the large rock at the entrance to the island resembled a rhino or a crocodile maybe ? … I can stretch my imagination only thus far 😀
Visible from the banks of the river, Umananda is accessed by ferry run by the Government’s Inland water department from Kachari ghat, in a very quick 10 minute ride, depending on the state (or spate) of the river. At certain times, dolphins can be spotted frisking in the waters.
There used to be private run ferries and budbudi (motor) boats earlier but they have now been stopped, which leaves only this government ferry as the means of transport.
Rs 20 per head is the ticket fare for a to and fro ride.
A seemingly derelict light house makes for a good photograph en route the sail.
The main attraction on the island, is the Umananda temple and most people come here to pay obeisance. There are a few steps to get to the top where the temple is located but it is not a very steep climb.
The island is said to be the home of the Golden langurs but it is not really easy to spot them at all times.
The circumference of the island takes barely a few minutes to cover on foot.
Washroom facilities are available and are also a couple of vendors selling jhal muri which is a local street side snack and tender coconut water.
The ferry has fixed timings and one has to wait for the return ride since there is no other way to leave the place. The Sepia in the picture below, is only for aesthetics and not to indicate how long we waited 😀
Kamakhya temple –
The Kamakhya temple perched on the Nilanchal hill, is one of Guwahati’s most visited places of worship. This is said to be one of the 51 shakti peeths and is the location where Sati’s genitals and womb fell when when Vishnu destroyed her corpse as Shiva danced the Tandava in rage. The main object of worship in the sanctum sanctorum here is the female genitalia of Sati.
Deepor Bheel –
This is also called Dipor Bhil and is a freshwater lake situated not too far from the airport en route from the city. It is a wetland and is home to over 120 species of birds. It is easily accessed by local public transport.
Assam State Zoo and Botanical garden –
This is the largest zoo in the North East region at 430 acres and houses over 900 animals and birds. It is situated barely 6 km from the commercial hub of the city, making it very accessible to visitors. Public transport is available.
Where to eat –
Guwahati is a cosmopolitan city and there are restaurants serving cuisines right from tribal to local Assamese as well as the cuisines of the neighboring North East states. Generic North Indian is of course ever present.
One has a choice of all budgets, beginning from street foods to small eateries to fine dining.
There are also restaurants serving international cuisines like Mexican, European, Mediterranean, Asian etc
My day in Guwahati –
As I mentioned, my limited time in transit through Guwahati did not permit me to spend time in the city to my heart’s content. In fact all that I managed out of my long wish list was Al Fresco’s Sundown cruise, a visit to the Northbrook gate, a quick expedition through the very interesting vegetable market at Umananda ghat, a ferry ride to Umananda island and a sumptuous lunch at Paradise, which was a truly fitting finale to the brief tour.
The Sundown cruise as I said, is the most uneventful cruises of the day especially for someone like me who would want to view the city and take photographs. It gets dark pretty early in Assam and on this cruise one can only see the twinkling lights of the shoreline and city. However I had no other option since I had arrived only in the evening from Manas National park which was my earlier destination.
Given a choice, next time I will definitely experience the Sunset cruise because of the views and photo ops that it offers.
The 5.30 pm cruise requires you to be at the jetty before 5 pm which is the time scheduled to board the boat that will then take you in a few minutes to the actual cruise craft that awaits further out into the river. Likewise on the return, the cruise ship deposits you at the feeder boat which then brings you back to the jetty.
On my cruise, food and drink were not a part of the package but were to be ordered off an a la carte menu if desired.
The entertainment on board was some live singing followed by a DJ who played music to which many of the tourists danced to, entertaining themselves and others 😀
An important fact to be noted is that the jetty and feeder boat are mosquito infested to such an extent that even clicking a picture becomes an extremely difficult task !!! The person manning the ticket booth assured me however, that these were not dengue mosquitoes, which was small consolation while I was being used as mosquito feed !!! Hence make sure to use repellent creams before venturing out, though going by the force of these insects, I am sure that they use the cream as dessert !!!
I was advised to buy a ticket on the lower deck of the boat since thankfully that area is protected by netting and while that hampers the view, it makes sure that 90 % of the mosquitoes stay out. Yes the other 10% manage to squeeze in but compared to the full force, this is far more tolerable. The upper deck has better views and one can also climb up there to get some good pictures in the daytime. It is also less expensive than the lower deck.
Northbrook gate, Umananda ghat vegetable market, Umananda island –
The next morning I set out early and along with my companion Sanjukta, I first had a quick glimpse of the Northbrook gate and the Sukreshwar ghat and temple before taking an autorickshaw to the nearby Kachari ghat to board the ferry to Umananda island.
There is a very vibrant vegetable market at the entrance to the ghat and being obsessed with such places, I had a quick tour where I discovered exotic produce to delight my senses :-D, like Indian olives, Haritaki (hilika or kadukkai), bamboo shoots, several exciting varieties of rice including black rice and Kumol saul, beaten rice, jaggery, large yams, several greens, water chestnut, local limes, elephant apple and even cane and bamboo products like baskets, brooms etc.
We then boarded the ferry to reach Umananda island in less than 10 min. After spending some time here going around the tiny island, we took the return ferry.
Having to leave to the airport in the afternoon, I was left with no time for anything else other than lunch … which of course was going to be very exciting since I was to dine at Paradise, in the locality of Silphukuri. This is one of Guwahati’s famous eating places and well loved for its traditional Assamese thali.
The meal began with an intense gooseberry soup and rice crackers that I loved. An ideal appetizer, it excited the taste buds and made them yearn for the feast to follow.
The main course was a thali full of delectable looking items and my companion who is also an expert foodie and skilled cook, gave me an interesting lesson on the various dishes and correct sequence of eating them.
The meal begins with Khar which is the alkaline component of the meal and proceeds anti clockwise with dal and rice being eaten next. Then comes the pitika which is a mash of certain vegetables like potato, brinjal, raw banana etc. Following this, one has the greens which are a good source of fibre. A poultry dish like pigeon or duck or chicken is next. Sometimes mutton is served instead. The final dish is the sour dish generically called Tenga. A fish curry using the local river fish was the tenga of the day. A little bowl of condiments also is a part of the thali and ours contained a tiny sphere of lentil pitika, a slice of the local lime, some fermented bamboo shoot shreds and a tiny but potent ball of fermented mustard, their equivalent of wasabi 😀
The meal was a very different and delicious experience for me, though the quantities were too much for my limited capacity.
We also tried the fish baked in a bamboo cylinder, served along with some seriously lickable chutneys !!!
The meal ended with an innocuously simple looking dessert called Hurung, that surprisingly stunned with its texture and taste. This consists of Hurum (a type of puffed rice) that is topped with clotted cream and liquid jaggery and is a signature dessert here. It is seriously addictive and was a very memorable end to my brief sojourn in Guwahati. I have to go back … if just for the Hurung 😀
Day trips from Guwahati –
If you want to venture outside the city to places within a couple of hours away, then some of the interesting options would be as follows –
Pobitora Wildlife sanctuary –
Pobitora in Morigaon district, is a great option for safaris, being situated just 45 km away from Guwahati. Being a smaller park, the concentration of animals per square area is higher than some of the national parks and spotting rhinos and other wildlife like wild boar, barking deer and water buffalo, is pretty much guaranteed. It also has several species of birds both resident and migratory.
Pobitora can be covered in a day trip from Guwahati. Private taxis can be hired for the duration of the tour. The elephant and jeep safaris operate at fixed times in the day. So it is better to check the timings beforehand.
Mayong village –
This village is located around 40km from Guwahati, very close to Pobitora and is known for being a land where black magic, voodoo and witchcraft are practiced. They also have witch doctors who are said to cure all ailments with the help of a copper plate.
Though many of the villagers seem to lead normal lives nowadays, the annual Mayong Pobitora festival keeps traditions alive and does showcase some of the magic in the various programs that it hosts.
Hajo village –
Hajo village is situated in the district of Kamrup and is around 25 km from Guwahati. It is famed for being a sacred place of pilgrimage for Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists.
It is also known for its brass and bell metal industry and the artisans craft some exquisite utensils, bowls, plates, tumblers, water pots etc.
Sualkuchi weaving village –
This village is near Hajo at a distance of 10 km away. It is around 35 km from Guwahati and takes an hour to reach. It is famous for its textile cottage industry and most of the families are engaged in weaving on looms that they own. Muga silk, Eri silk and Paat silk are the 3 types of silk that are woven in this place.
Intricate designs representing local flora and fauna, are incorporated onto the weaves.
Sualkuchi is also home to the highly endangered Greater Adjutant Stork locally called Hargila. It houses 80 % of the world’s population, which is a mere 600 birds.
It is heartening to note that as a conservation initiative, the artisans have now taken to blending tradition with conservation by using the stork motifs on their fabrics in a bid to spread awareness about the need to protect it.
Other Things to do in Assam –
Assam is a large state and blessed with national parks, rivers, wildlife, birds, heritage sites and locations of historical significance.
Kaziranga National Park, Nameri National Park, Manas National Park, Majuli island are some of the well known tourist attractions.
Getting to Guwahati –
Guwahati is well connected by air and its airport the Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi (LGB) International Airport connects with several international and domestic cities. The airport is 20 km from the heart of the city and takes around 45 min by cab.
Guwahati railway station is also connected to most of the major stations of India and is situated very centrally within the city at Paltan bazaar.
Buses of course are an ever present means of transport to and from Guwahati and many major towns and cities.
Please Note – The information on this post is based on the inputs that I received from various sources as well as my own experiences.
Dec 11th-12th, 2018