Assam, in India’s north east, is known as the land of the red river and blue hill. The red river has coursed its way east from Lake Mansorovar in Tibet, to turn sharply on itself in a gorge to enter India – in Assam it changes its name from the Tsangpo to the Brahmaputra.
In Assam, known also as the ‘land of slowly-slowly’, the river loses its pace and matures from the youthful, gushing torrent, to a slow, majestic glide. It’s one of the most powerful rivers of the world, over 100 metres deep in places, picking up sediments which gives it its Assamese moniker. It will eventually empty in to the Bay Of Bengal, after a journey of 1,800 miles.
Guwahati -The Big G – beautiful in glimpses
They say if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Guwahati, the main city of North East India, “the big G”, had natural beauty in abundance: blessed with expansive river views, silver sands, a central boating lake, a planetarium and green city hills but there’s a sense of a lost opportunity. It could have been a riverine Asian jewel.
The city has let itself go, litter flows, traffic clogs, roads get flooded. Opinions on the Big G are divided but the city doesn’t give a damn. This is a city of self-confidence, not vanity.
The city’s beauty is offered in momentary glimpses like the one from the single deck government ferry that waits at Kachari Ghat. Down an embankment of silver sand, the urban sprawl gives way to a rural idyll, devoid of traffic noise, only the squawk of crows and the river’s breeze in the trees.
We board, tickets are a fixed return fare of 20 rupees and there’s some health and safety features onboard (a railing, a life buoy, 2 life jackets).
Today the river is deceptively calm, its surface is of opaque brown glass cracked in places. The ferry steers a course to avoid whirlpools for in its dark depths, there’s a fierce power which every monsoon swells up like a chimera to consume embankments, chip away at islands and sweep away people sleeping in their homes.
The Brahmaputra at Guwahati is narrow but where it’s wider it can resemble the ocean. We sail for ten minutes to Umananda, or Peacock island, a wooded and craggy hill of near-perfect symmetry in the centre of the river. People jump off before the moorings are tied and the captain shouts at them to behave.
We take the steps up to 400 year old temple past a saffron-clad holyman holding a trident. I ask him some questions in Assamese like where he’s from, how long he’s been here on the island but his answers are vague and shortened prematurely with a brown-toothy smile. He’s been smoking something and it’s not a biri.
The temple is dedicated to Siva and was built by a King of the Ahom dynasty, a line of kings that came to Assam from Burma in the 1200s and ruled till the 1800s, one of the longest dynasties in history that also gave Assam its name. They adopted Hinduism, created superb armed forces that repelled waves of Mughal attacks and ensured that Assam was sovereign for 600 years.
An argument interspersed with ancient Sanskrit
Steps behind the main altar lead us down in to a dark inner altar where a Brahmin sits bare chested, his face aglow in the light of butter lamps, surrounded by wisps of incense smoke.
We’re the first people off the boat and he tells me to put my hand on an ancient stone covered in vermillion, and repeat his Sanskrit words one by one.
An irritated voice behind us echoes in the chamber: “Hurry up!”. The holy man is unperturbed and continues with his list of ancient Sanskrit words which I continue to repeat. He then shouts back in to the darkness: “Who said that?” and in the same breath continues with the Sanskrit words. “There’s people queueing here with children, hurry up!” comes the voice again. He says more Sanskrit and then: “I’ll take my time, this is my temple,” he replies. More Sanskrit words then: “Anyway who are you?”, still unable to shake off his irritation at the intrusion. The voice is more submissive now and says, “I’m only saying father, that people are waiting here.” He says more Sanskrit words that I try to repeat, and then he shouts, “So wait then,” and he carries on in Sanskrit.
View from a hot tin roof
We decide to return on a country boat, which are long wooden vessels, with a single outboard motor and a corrugated tin roof, which passengers can sit on.
The banks are misty and edged in trees, in the distance the Saraighat Bridge, the river red with mud and sunlight and on the southern bank is Nilachal, literally the Blue Hill, site of the temple of Kamakhya, one of the holiest places of pilgrimage in Hinduism.
We take tea under the Viceroy’s gate, put up in the 1870s to welcome Queen Victoria’s representative to one of the last additions to British India.
A ferry, long wooden country boats and a luxury steamer cross the stretch of water before us in a timeless sunset scene.
We could be watching the first chests of Assamese tea on a steamer in the 1830s on their way to England via the Indian capital Calcutta, or the Ahom Navy’s admiral, the Barphukan, ready to give the order to fire the cannon on his decks, ignoring his fever to eye a victory against the mighty Mughals at Saraighat to the west.
The Big G gifts us one flitting glimpse of beauty before we hail an auto-rickshaw in to the madness of the growling rush-hour traffic on GNB Road.