Flowing all the way down from a Tibetan glacier, it is the mighty Brahmaputra River that has shaped life in Assam through the ages. If you look at a map of the state, it roughly resembles a bird flying with its wings stretched along the length of the Brahmaputra. The lush and fertile plain of the river’s valley has made it – among other things – a biodiversity hotspot. With over 19 wildlife sanctuaries across the state, Assam is a must visit for wildlife enthusiasts.
While the star attraction, without a doubt, is the one-horned Indian rhino (spotted widely at Kaziranga National Park, Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary and Manas National Park), visitors can also look forward to spotting the Bengal tiger, golden langur, wild Asian buffalos, sambal and a rich variety of bird species. Cruising along the Brahmaputra, a trip to Majuli – the world’s largest river island, seeking the goddess’ blessings at the centuries-old Kamakhya temple, sampling fresh tea from the estate and shopping for indigenous local weaves and silks are just some of the varied experiences on offer in the land of the Brahmaputra.
Guwahati, the capital city of Assam, derives its name from GUWA meaning Areca nut in Gowalpuri, a local dialect, and HAAT meaning market place. To discover this bustling city’s old roots you will get to visit a hidden gem, Ambari archaeological site, where the excavations trace the city to the Hindu kingdoms of Shunga-Kushana period between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD. Located at the very heart of the city, it was accidentally discovered in the course of digging the foundation for the Reserve Bank of India in 1969.
Visit one of the oldest markets by the river, teeming with local produce – tiny baby potatoes, fiddlehead ferns and local lemons – with a well-known Assamese chef and learn to cook with these ingredients. Interact with locals to discover what makes the North East, a little-known geographical and historical arena, abutted by China, Myanmar & Bhutan, so precious to its inhabitants.
In 1904, the then Vicereine of India, Mary Curzon, went on an excursion and found no signs of rhinos in the region. An ardent conservationist, she urged her husband Lord Curzon to notify the area as a reserved forest. Currently, Kaziranga, spread over 430 sq kms, is home to 2500-odd rhinos and a host of rare flora and fauna.
This was my father’s favourite stomping grounds who was always on the lookout for the elusive cat. If he were here today, he would appreciate the tireless efforts of the forest rangers that have led Kaziranga to boast of the highest density of tigers among protected areas in the world after it was declared a tiger reserve in 2006. Interested in booking a tour? Check out our exclusive tour itineraries.
Though Majuli has the distinction of being the world’s largest river island, every year, two rivers – Brahmaputra to the south and Subansiri in the north – claim parts of the island. It has been predicted that in about 20 years’ time this island won’t exist. Explore this fragile landscape on foot, capture gorgeous sunsets on your cameras, watch the migratory birds and tick the list of birds you spot in the handbook provided to you.
The largest indigenous tribe to inhibit this island are the Mishings. Visits to their villages are always delightful with a chance to meet the women who are skilled weavers and buy directly from them. Interact with the friendly village folks, who invite you to their homes for a refreshing glass of home-brewed rice beer.
The Institution of Satra is a unique feature of Vaishnavism in Assam, founded by Sankardeva, the father of Assamese culture. The Satras are not just monasteries, but centres of traditional performing arts. You get to watch a ritual dance of the monks. Visit mask makers who have innovated on the traditional technique of making bamboo frame masks and will happily give you a demonstration on how to use them. Witness a folk performance of the Ramayana.
The last capital of the Ahom kings, Jorhat is at the heart of the tea industry in Assam. With the Jorhat airport being within comfortable driving distance of Kaziranga, Majuli, Sivasagar and Nagaland, it has become a popular tourist destination. Here you’ll get to visit a tea garden and observe how the two leaves and a bud are processed. Enjoy a tea-tasting session and learn a bit about the different varieties. Spend a night in a colonial bungalow that retains the charms of the glorious tea era.
Admire one man’s tenacity to build a forest on the sand banks of Majuli that is accessible from Jorhat. Jadav Payeng, who single-handedly planted trees and nourished them, can lay claim to 1,360 acres of dense forest that now is home to many wild animals including the tiger. Enjoy a meal cooked by the guardians of this forest and soak in their stories.
This ancient town is well-known for its Ahom palaces and monuments. The Ahoms, originally from the Thai states near Burma, ruled Assam for about 600 years. The grand monuments they constructed continue to withstand the weather.
Walk around and admire these structures that were built 200 years ago using thin, baked bricks and a paste of rice and eggs as mortar. Observe how indigenous natural materials like powdered lime and bricks that was used to cover the surface of the inner walls have kept the Rang ghar (house of entertainment) interiors so cool.
Assam’s famous oil town is steeped in history. Legend has it that it got its name from the phrase, “Dig, boy, dig!” which was uttered by an English geologist who had discovered a large pool of fossil fuel seeping up from the ground beneath the thick rain forest close to the borders of Myanmar and Arunachal Pradesh. This led to the establishment of the first oil refinery outside America.
The objective of the massive Japanese onslaught through Manipur and the Naga Hills during the World War II was to capture upper Assam and gain control of the railway line as well as the Digboi Refinery. The Oil Museum in Digboi is a must see. Julie and her sisters were born in this town and you will get to drive past the beautiful examples of colonial bungalows that are so unique to this town.
Named after an Italian queen, this coal town in Assam got its unusual name in the late 19th century as a token appreciation for the Italian Chief Engineer who supervised the construction of a railway line connecting its collieries to mainland India. Julie spent many of her growing years camping and picnicking hereabouts, and if travelling with her, you will surely be taken to see a few of those scenic spots.
Visit the Singpho tribe, who live in villages surrounding this town, and grow tea in their backyard. Sip a cup of green smoky tea with a piece of jaggery, called coin tea by the tribals, in the bamboo and wood eco lodge built by them. Listen to tales of how they discovered tea and were the first Indians to drink it. Also, skilled weavers, you will get a chance to see firsthand their works displaying a melange of brilliant colours and intricate designs.
Home to the Nameri National Park, with the Jia Bhoroli river running through it, this park has been a favoured destination for anglers since the time of the British. The prized catch for anglers is the Golden Mahseer.
The Mishing tribe, also known as the river people, have small villages nearby. Visit a guesthouse set up by them for some authentic Mishing cuisine and walk around the village to observe a way of life that is slow paced and in complete harmony with its natural surroundings. Get invited for a cup of lal cha (red tea) and amble towards the river to watch the kids play.
A treat for any birdwatcher, wait patiently for a Great Indian Hornbill to fly above you, its shadow large enough to cover two people. Go rafting and enjoy a lunch cooked by the boatmen on the sandbanks. Spend the evenings camping around a bonfire and sleeping in a tent.