It has taken me a three-hour jeep ride to come down to Siliguri from the hills of Sikkim. There are many trains bound for Guwahati from New Jalpaiguri but since there is only one track, trains are invariably delayed. Luckily for me the North East Express is delayed by three hours and I am just in time to catch it.
‘How much to Guwahati by the North East Express?’ I ask at the ticket counter; but asking this question is no small matter. You have to queue up patiently, put up with slow service and ignore those who have the habit of cutting queues.
‘Hundred and three,’ comes back the reply.
I am surprised it should cost this much. I look at the ticket. A little print at bottom right reads 409 kms. I had not imagined Guwahati would be so far. This ride is going to consume the rest of the day. After a typical Indian train journey spiced up with hijras, beggars, blind singers, channa wallahs and rasgulla vendors, I arrive into Guwahati at half past eight at night.
I have an Assamese friend in Bangalore and I decide to call on his family for breakfast this morning. From my hotel at Paltan Bazaar to his place near 6th Mile, it is a straight road, the Guwahati-Shillong Road or the G.S. Road in short. India is a country of cryptic acronyms, not just in road names but in newspapers, application forms and everyday conversations. It is as if the population is cautious to conserve on breath and words, as if they are conditioned by long years of use of SMS and telegrams.
My friend’s dad runs his own firm in the construction sector. His semi-retired lifestyle allows him to welcome me in leisure through it is a weekday. He presents me a little ‘towel’ and wraps it around my neck and shoulders.
‘It is our tradition to welcome visitors in this manner,’ explains Mr. Borkotoky. ‘This is called the gamosa.’
It is a simple cloth in white with the design in red. It is of typical Assamese weave. His wife adds that this particular piece was woven in Sualkuchi, a town renowned for silk weaving. In fact, the whole of the North East has a rich tradition in weaving with many indigenous designs not to be found elsewhere in India.
Breakfast is puri and channa along with three traditional Assamese sweets. I am happy to taste good local food and that too homemade stuff. The meal is ended with tea which I assume to be from the estates of Assam; but that’s just me being romantic.
‘Besides tea, are there any other big industries in Assam? I noticed some tea estates on the way to Guwahati but I saw no towns, only isolated villages,’ I ask.
‘Oil refineries are there at Digboi. Asia’s first refinery was established at Digboi,’ tells me Mr. Borkotoky. ‘Do you know the story of Digboi?’
I shake my head.
‘People noticed oily stuff at the feel of elephants coming out of the forests. The British recognized the stuff. “Dig boy, dig,” they yelled to the locals. The town came to be known as Digboi.’
I thank the Borkotokys for their warm hospitality. My tour of Assam has started well. I proceed to Kalashetra, a modern complex built to showcase Assamese culture and rural traditions. The Cultural Museum here exhibits objects of the North East, not just of Assam. Of all things in the museum, I am most impressed by the textile collection which showcases the gamosa in many varieties. In fact, I am thrilled by the vibrant colours, bold designs and intricacy of the weaves. Eye-catching borders, repetitive lines, balanced bands of colours, geometric patterns are some common elements of design.
The other collection that impressed me is one of masks and effigies, generally made of bamboo, mud, cow dung, jute and cloth. Ravana stares with his nine heads frilled around a central one. The demons look at you with flaming eyebrows, flared nostrils, protruding teeth and extra large eyeballs. Many of the gods and demons wear the gamosa. The masks are colourful and lively. They are perfect for an onstage dance drama performance.
There is much more to Kalashetra that what I have written. I will simply say that I was there past lunch time. I skipped lunch, made my way to the Assam State Museum where I saw similar exhibits of local culture. The Sculpture Gallery was closed to my great disappointment.
Towards evening I head across the river Brahmaputra to the Kamakhya Temple. The temple stands on a hill from where a wide view of surrounding hills and inhabited valleys can be obtained. Guwahati is a city nestled within picturesque settings. Having seen many great and dirty urban spaces across India, I find Guwahati cleaner than imagined. Even the busy railway junction is a far cry from Patna’s habituated madness.
Priests at the temple are ready to pounce on devotees but they are not persistent. They are not as ruthless as their cousins from Kolkata’s Kalighat or Puri’s Jagannath. A queue is waiting for the darshan hour to commence. For those short of patience of blessed with alternative beliefs, you can peep into the sanctum through iron grills. The temple is nothing like I have seen before. It refuses to fall into the traditional styles of temple architecture. At time it feels like an eclectic mix of Hindu, Islamic and Christian. The shikara, overrun by hordes of monkeys, is almost circular and conical. Lesser temples on the hill stand with similar shikaras. The temple contains a decent number of good stone sculptures.
I think it might be a good idea to watch sunset by the Brahmaputra; but it is too late for that. As I climb downhill by a less often used stone path, the sun is already setting. Twilight lingers with its darkening greys and blues. Night lights flicker in the distance. I walk towards town in search of the Brahmaputra.