My Travels in Assam (Part II)
NOTE: Parts I and III are available at the links given.
On Monday morning we set off bright and early – 12 pm! – for Kaziranga. Mukut and Sen’s driver Jiten came along because Sen, unlike us, wasn’t on holiday. We set off to cloudy skies.
The dust and construction work of Guwahati gave way to scenic village schools and incredible greenery. We drove into a spot of rain, which made the landscape even more brilliantly beautiful.
I still can’t get over how green the land is, and I come from AP, a land of ricefields.
We stopped at a sidey dhaba for a late (and disappointing) lunch of dosas and chholey bhaturey. Then Priyo took over the wheel and drove us through the gathering darkness into Kohora, Kaziranga.
This is a picture of brush being strategically fired, done to control and fertilise the jungle.
There was some confusion over our bookings so we had to wait a while but eventually we got rooms at the place I’d wanted to stay, a nice, old-fashioned building with huge, high-ceilinged rooms.
There was a stuffed monitor lizard on the wall in the reception counter (to the extreme right of the photo above), to Rahul’s intense interest and my equally intense disgust.
There were monkeys and birds in the trees. Priyo and Rahul watch some monkey business here.
We spent two nights at Kaziranga, going for the early morning elephant ride there.
That was nice but rather touristy and we felt a bit cheated, Sen and I, because our chap hurried us through and dropped us off first. We only got about 40 minutes so it was a bit disappointing.
It was exciting though, or so we felt, until we went for the jungle night patrol with the rangers. Now that, folks, was an experience to treasure for a lifetime. We left in an open Gypsy at 11 pm or so, Rahul a sleeping bundle in my arms. We saw rhinos, with babies and without, buffaloes, deer of many kinds, a porcupine and to Beq’s excitement, a domestic cat. (Don’t ask, he’s rather sensitive about this.)
However, none of the photos came out well. Of course, judging by the one above, we may have been viewing the ghosts of animals too. In the jungle at midnight it's hard to tell.
No tigers though. I had a stern word with Sen about his arrangements, but not too stern because I thought he’d done a pretty good job till the lack of tigers. Oh and thanks to Mukut, we ate a lovely dinner of chicken and mutton curries at a little eating house in Kohora.
Rahul found himself another elephant to ride at the eating house, one made of wickerwork.
The food at the guest house was good too, light, healthy and filling, and they were very accommodating about Rahul’s needs.
During the course of the day I fought with Rahul and Beq, read my Larsson and went for a walk down to a nearby children’s park. All exciting stuff. The post office nearby had no stamps, postcards or envelopes but the handicraft shop did have a pretty mekhla-chador. A shop near the park had good cupcakes. The tea estate nearby was beautiful, as they all invariably are.
We left for Majuli the next day, after a peaceful breakfast of luchi-alur torkari at a shop on the highway. Had some of the famous pedas (sweets) of the region. The drive down to Nimhati was, predictably, beautiful. Towards the river we began to espy these colourful, imaginative gates on either side of us, leading to kshatras, I think.
A word on kshatras – I’m not sure I’m saying this right, but from what I could make out, these are a kind of commune, presided over by a head, dedicated to a certain form of worship, life-work and lifestyle. Majuli is broken up into various Vaishnavite kshatras.
We took a steamer from Nimhati to Majuli.
The ferry took us and our vehicle across the Brahmaputra in just over an hour. The boy jumped around, I read, Priyo dreamt and Sen took the most amazing photographs while Beq sat around looking poetic.
Accomodation in Majuli seemed like a bit of a problem. The rooms over a shop in the bazaar in Kamlabari weren’t to our taste (poky and shared bathrooms), and elsewhere we only found dormitories. We heard of a 'Frenchman’s Mishing cottages' but only found one with 3 beds available. Eventually, some urging produced two cottages back to back in a resort in Chitador that wasn’t quite ready yet. This place too had cottages raised off the ground Mishing style – Majuli loses a great deal of land to the river every year and flooding is a regular occurrence – but these were sturdy concrete structures with tiled Western bathrooms (with thatched roofs and floors, mind you!)
Rahul surprised me by quickly mastering the ladders that led up to the cottages. He and I wearily threw ourselves on the bed of the first cottage while Beq, Sen, Priyo, Mukut and Jitin went to have lunch at the first resort since food wasn’t available at this one.
I could write a whole post on the food at Majuli. The food in Assam. The cooks there managed to make me eat all sorts of unknown vegetables and leaves and what’s more, have me mop up my plate and ask for more. That lunch was not remarkable, but the dinner that night was – lovely, tender chicken in a very subtly flavored curry, brown rice that I actually liked (I don’t much care for it in general), lip-smacking dal, fish dishes that the boys went gaga over, mmm… Breakfast the next day consisted of puris with delicious potato curry made heavenly with some local leaves.
Before breakfast though there was a whole evening we spent mainly lazing around the resort, wondering whether to eat up the kid that bleated in front of us all evening or not. (We didn’t.)
Rahul fell in love with it, obviously, and wanted me to untie it so he could play with it.
As the sun set we drove down to Auniati Shatra (Aa-oo-nee-aa-ti) known for its evening worship with kirtans and instruments. As things turned out though, the kirtans were mangled by a motley bunch of ten year old boys while an old priest played this instrument I didn't recognise.
It was a pleasant place, with beautiful wrought iron grillwork at the entrance that declared it have been established in the mid 1600s.
After dinner we sat around drinking – Priyo tried the local rice wine and loved it – and chatting. Sen, Beq and I sat around till past midnight, giggling at nothing and as happy campers as ever you’ve seen. The night sky out there was so perfect, so thickly dotted with the twinkles that I kept taking Rahul out to see it, telling him stories of the people and animals up there. He was too young to appreciate how remarkable the place was, of course, but I hope some vestige of a memory remains. It was all so beautiful that just thinking about it now, a month later, makes me sad to think I might never see it again.
The next morning we made a brief trip to the nearby river Luit (pronounced Loo-it) and saw a cowherd ford it with his cows. They were in the water up to their ears, at one point.
Then we went around tracking down the things we wanted to see. A trip to some looms nearby proved abortive because the women who made the cloth were away. But it was lovely to see up close the bright cottons that are used for clothes, home linen, everything over there.
Then we set out for Shamagri Shatra (pronounced Sha-mo-gri Khaw-tro) where the Shatradhar was reputed to make the most beautiful masks.
It took us some time to find it but the drive carried us around these lovely fields and across the prettiest bridges.
The masks, when we did arrive, were satisfyingly grotesque absurdities. The one I liked was not on sale but perhaps, given Rahul’s terror of the masks, I shouldn’t have bought one anyway.
The delicate bamboo and papier mache structures would have been a pain to pack anyway. (But I did want the one I’m wearing here.)
Then, after a quick lunch of unknown vegetables (nobody tell my parents I’ve finally eaten some vegetables!) at the Kamlabari bazaar, we set off for the ferry to Nimhati.
The journey this time was faster since we were going with the current and in no time at all we seemed to have reached.
Since we were travelling in the afternoon it was soon comfortable enough to sit up on the roof so that’s what we did. Lulled a little boy to sleep sitting on the roof of a steamer sailing across the Brahmaputra. Such a soul-satisfyingly normal thing to do.
And there ends Part II. Part III will conclude the series.