Assam is the gateway to many of the north-eastern states of India. On our way to one of them, our drive from the airport in Guwahati to the first night-stop at a jungle camp took a little over six hours, which includes stops along the way to stretch our legs but also because it was a Thursday. In towns and villages all over the north-east, certain days and spots are reserved as market days. In some places, meat and poultry are kept separate from the fruit and vegetables. Thursday is market day in Guwahati.
A nice surprise
At the foothills of the Himalayas, Eco Camp Nameri is situated on the fringes of Nameri National Park in Assam and along the Jia Bhorelli that flows down from Arunachal Pradesh on its way to join the Brahmaputra. The area, home to over 350 bird species, attracts birders from all parts of the country to trek its forests and raft the Bhorelli.
The itinerary for my trip had indicated ‘basic amenities’ as the description for the accommodation at the Eco Camp. By now I knew enough of the standard of accommodation in the north-east to temper my expectations. But I am pleasantly surprised as the thatched tents and attached baths turn out to be more than satisfactory. There’s even a frog to keep me company while I shave.
The Bihu girls of Nameri
On the way, we are waylaid by a party of girls dressed in colourful chadors, a traditional Assamese Bihu festival attire, who with customary charm succeed in extracting a tidy sum to add to their Bihu kitty. The Bihu festival is celebrated by the Assamese to coincide with the farming calendar.
The one we find ourselves in the middle of, called Rongali Bihu, is in the Baisakh season or the spring festival in mid-April. Two other Bihu festivals are also celebrated with traditional gusto — in January and October.
As there is still light upon reaching camp we decide to walk to the nearest Mishing tribal village. The Mishing was originally a hill tribe now settled in the plains along the Brahmaputra. The huts are all raised on stilts — a reminder of the rains and flooding season — and built of wood, bamboo and thatch. Like many north-east homes, they have a long room at the front with partitions between smaller rooms at the back. In the village, Bihu celebrations are in full swing.
There’s one aspect of rural India that stands out for me and that is the hospitality of its people. I suspect that this is true with rural communities everywhere. We are welcomed with open arms to join in the festivities.
The rhythmic beats of a dhol can be heard from a clearing behind a hut. We’re led with much fuss and cheer to the small knot of people gathered there. The dhol is loud over a distance, at close quarters it is deafening.
The dhol is a drum made of wood and hide. It is a key instrument used in a Bihu dance. Our dhol player uses a stick in one hand and the palm and fingers of his other hand to beat out a rhythm.
Wrapped around his dhol is a white cloth with a simple border much like an ugon. I don’t see any sign of the pepa, a hornpipe, or gogona, a type of vibrating reed, nor for that matter, any sign of the toka, banhi or hutuli all popular Bihu musical instruments.
There are at least five forms of Bihu dance, some performed exclusively by women, some only at night, and some performed under a tree. The one we witness is called Husori and is performed in the village courtyard.
As the dhol settles into its rhythm, the women start to sway and move in a circle, singing all the time. Dressed simply, they display spirit and energy in their dancing. It is a while before we can say our goodbyes and return to camp.
The mighty Brahmaputra
Later the same year I travelled through Assam again. My night-stop this time was on Majuli, the largest river island on the Brahmaputra, in the world. Ferries that ply to and fro have to constantly battle against soil erosion and shifting ghats. Planks laid across the gap between mud bank and deck allow cars, motorbikes, bicycles and passengers aboard.
Those lucky to find a seat sit on benches in the hold, others, like us, clamber on top of the wheelhouse. Unlike some of the other public transport, ferries generally keep to a timetable. Whenever possible we try to take the first one across at around half past eight in the morning. Since the crossing takes a little over an hour that gives us time to see the island.
There’s an oft-repeated quote about the Brahmaputra that goes: “If you cross the mighty river once, you’re destined to cross it again.”
Seems accurate in my case. Chugging across the Brahmaputra in a rickety wooden boat heaving with vehicles and passengers is an experience not to be missed despite the hazards that go with it. Besides the odd ferry capsizing, recently a ferry lost its way from Majuli to Nimati ghat with 250 passengers and vehicles on board. I believe, the passengers raised quite a commotion.
Majuli covers an area in excess of 350 square kilometres and has a population of over 160,000. Not an island in the traditional sense, of a single landmass surrounded by water, it is made up of several islets formed by the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. The island inhabitants are mainly tribals from the Mishing and Deori tribes related to the Mongols from Burma. The water and land have a big influence on their culture and traditions.
Majuli is the centre of Vaishnavite culture going back centuries. Vaishnavism is a Hindu philosophy whose followers take Vishnu, the preserver and protector of the universe, as their god in his many forms. Vaishnavite centres of learning and culture in Majuli are called satras. Here disciples are initiated in the traditions of Vaishnavism, which aims at reforming society through art, music and drama.
Leaving our shoes near the gate we enter one of the satras. The Uttar Kamalabari Satra is a centre for art, culture and classical studies. Like all satras it has a prayer hall and sleeping quarters for bhakts or disciples.
The mask makers
Mask making is a tradition still practised in Majuli’s satras — Samaguri Satra being the best known. Used in religious dance and drama performances to depict gods and demons, Samaguri receives orders for its masks from all parts of the country.
Led into a room which doubles as a display and demonstration hall, I recognise a Ravana and several Hanuman masks. We get an impromptu demonstration of a type of mask called lotokai mukha. These masks have moveable parts for the mouth and eyes unlike typical mukhas or face masks. There was even a bor mukha, a life-size mask, in one corner.
Bamboo, cow dung, clay, gum and cloth are the simple materials that go into making a mask. Red, yellow and indigo colours are applied with a brush made of cat or goat hair.
Salmora village in Majuli is keeping another tradition alive — handmade pottery. The potter communities, known as Kumhars, are concentrated in the south-eastern area of the island where a particular type of clay soil, or kumhar mitti, is found.
Being a labour-intensive occupation, the whole family is involved in the making and distribution of clay pots and utensils. A lot of the labour force is made up of the womenfolk. The clay pots are sold or bartered for paddy to the surrounding villages. We bought ourselves some pots and did our best to keep them from breaking on the journey ahead.
A long drive and a night-stop lay ahead before our final destination, Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh. Back at the guesthouse, another traveller was also about to continue on her journey back home to Spain on a bicycle; a journey that started in Japan and would take her six years through Indonesia, East Timor, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Myanmar, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Dubai, Oman, Iran and Europe.
The photographs here were taken with a Panasonic LX100, except for a very few which were taken with a Panasonic GF1 1.7/20mm. On the LX100, over 55% of the photos fell in the 28mm & 70mm focal lengths. The LX100 served me well till I used it one day for taking pictures of a landslide being cleared.
All images ©Farhiz Karanjawala. May not be reproduced without permission.