The Seven Sisters of India - Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Manipur are located in the remote, northeastern part of India. This region shares borders with China, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar, and contains a wide variety of indigenous tribes and remarkable flora and fauna. Assam is the largest of the Seven Sisters, and also the easiest to visit, although hotel accomodation is still very sparse compared to other regions of India. I had wanted to visit Assam for many years, drawn by the prospect of sighting a one-horned rhinoceros and of stockpiling superb estate teas that I couldn't get at home.
Guwahati, Assam, October 2019 - The Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati dates to the 8th or 9th century A.D. It is one of the oldest of the 51 ancient Shakti Peethas on the Indian subcontinent. These are places of worship dedicated to shakti, the divine feminine force that governs all cosmic creation, existence and change. These temples are sited where parts of Sati Devi’s corpse fell after Vishnu cut it into pieces with his sudarshana chakra. Kamakhya is purported to be where the yoni (genitals) of Sati fell, giving the temple a unique energy associated with creation. It is also reputed to be a secret site where Sati and Shiva fulfilled their amorous desires. There is no icon per se in the inner sanctum; one finds only a piece of rock bed with a cleft in it, resembling the sacred yoni of Sati, out of which flows water from an underground spring.
Kamakhya Devi is worshipped here as the young bride of Shiva, one who yields to all desires, and a giver of salvation. A special sindur, the red pigment worn by married Hindu women along the part of their hair, is sold at the temple and is supposedly blessed by the deity. The temple attracts many practitioners of Tantra, and rituals such as the sacrifice of goats, pigeons, ducks and buffalo are regularly made as offerings to the goddess. There is a specific part of the temple complex where these animals are brought by devotees, and it is believed that certain goats actually allow themselves to be sacrified. A temple priest explains to the goat that by giving its life for the goddess, it will be reborn as a higher life form. If the goat then walks to the sacrifice pit on its own, its life will be taken. If not, it is deemed unwilling, the mother goddess wll not accept it as an offering, and it is left to wander the complex freely.
The current Kamakhya temple structure was built in the 17th century, and is of the Nilachal type, consisting of a hemispherical dome on a cruciform base.When we visited, it was a few days after Durga Puja (see The Durga Puja Festival), and the 'general admission' line for darshan (viewing the deity) was four hours long. Waiting in line in to reach the inner sanctum of a Hindu temple is not for the faint of heart. It makes waiting in line for Pirates of the Caribbean during spring break seem..well...like Disneyland. Devotees are typically segregated into male and female, and made to snake through a maze of high metal barriers while temple guards blow whistles at a painful decibel in an attempt to move the crowd forward. It is extaordinaily hot, people push and shove - not out of rudeness but out of exhuberance - and if you are lucky, when you faint, a guard is nearby who can drag your prone body under one of the barriers to safety.
Thankfully I know my limits, so instead we took a leisurely stroll around the outside of the temple, avoiding numerous baby goats 'on the lamb' as it were. We then decided to pay a donation to get a quick glimpse of the inner sanctum from an interior, elevated passageway. The energy emanating from the yoni rock was indeed tremendous - a sense of heat, moisture and pressure that felt as if it was coming from the middle of the earth.
Kaziranga, Assam, October 2019 - Located on the banks of the Brahmaputra River, Kaziranga National Park is best known as the home of the Indian one-horned rhinoceros. This endangered species was close to extinction at the start of the 20th century due to poaching, but has made a miraculous comeback thanks to the efforts of conservationists and the Indian government.
Initial preservation efforts can be traced back to Lady Curzon, who urged her husband, then Viceroy of India, to protect the rhino after failing to see a single specimen while on safari in 1904. Kaziranga was declared a national park in 1968, and a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985. In 2013, the park began ingeniously utilizing drones, monitored by forest guards, to protect the area from armed poachers. Due to its location on the Brahmaputra, monsoon flooding is common, thus the forest guards also spend considerable time rescuing animals from rising waters and from the dangerous highways and unhappy villagers they encounter as they seek refuge.
The park is comprised of 166 square miles of grasslands, marshes, tropical moist broadleaf forest and tropical semi-evergreen forest. The area is dotted with exposed sandbars and riverine flood-formed lakes called beels. Elevated regions called chapories, some of which were made by the Indian Army, provide shelter for animals during major floods. Besides rhinoceros, other animals found in the park include tigers, leopards, Asiatic wild buffalo, wild elephants, Hoolock gibbons (the only ape found in India), Golden langur, swamp deer, gaur, sambar, pangolins, flying squirrels and over 300 species of birds. Two of the largest snakes in the world, the reticulated python and the rock python, as well as the King cobra, can also be found in the park.
While in the area, I took the opportunity to visit the Kaziranga National Orchid Park. The prime blooming season for these beauties is March/April, though in October we still saw an incredible collection of wild orchids from Assam, plus a nice variety of hybrid orchids. The Orchid Park also contains a gallery of orchid photographs, a garden of medicinal plants, and a rice gallery with 255 dried species on display.
Wildlife is everywhere in Kaziranga. One day a Hornbill (below left) landed on a papaya tree outside of my hotel window as I was sipping my morning coffee. On the drive into town from Guwahati, wild elephants roamed the wetlands. On safari, rhinoceros sightings were plentiful. I have been to a number of wildlife parks in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, and what makes Kaziranga unique is the prominence of water and its immense open vistas filled with shimmering grasses. As the sun sets over the landscape, oranges and reds emerge like fireworks., their brilliance reflected in the lakes and marshes, providing a heavenly back drop for these wonderous mammals as they head home for the night.
Jorhat and Dibrugarh, Assam, October 2019 - Assam is the largest tea growing region in the world by area, and second only to southern China by volume. Each year the tea estates of Assam, which straddle both banks of the Brahmaputra between Jorhat and Dibrugarh, produce 1.5 trillion tons of tea, representing 17% of the world's annual tea production and 50% of India's annual production. Assam teas are known for their bold, malty flavors and deep orange-red color when brewed. This is attributable to the fact that they are grown at or near sea level in a humid climate, versus in a cool, mountainous region like Darjeeling or the Nuwara Eliya region of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). They pair well with milk and sugar, and are often found in breakfast tea blends and in masala chai.
The type of tea plant grown in Sri Lanka, the rest of India and most of China is Camelia sinensis var. sinensis, a varietal native to China. The British first tried growing this plant in Assam's tropical climate, but had little success. Legend has it that a Scottish explorer, Robert Bruce, discovered that the local Singpho tribe regularly drank a brew made from the leaves of a large shrub that resembled the Chinese tea plant. This turned out to be Camelia sinensis var. assamica, a unique varietal found only in Assam and in Yunnan, China, right over the Himalayan Hump.
The Singpho, known as the Jingpho in China and the Kachin in Myanmar, migrated from Mongolia hundreds of years ago, and still produce pan-roasted tea with an earthy, smoky flavor. They store it in bamboo containers and leave it over the hearth to age. During my trip, I enjoyed lunch in a Singpho village, and managed to acquire a container of six-year old tea (shown in the below left photo) to add to my stash of orthodox and CTC teas from other estates in Assam. I am told that it tastes like a blend of Pu-Erh and Lapsang Souchong, but I have not yet opened it - I am saving it for a special occasion!
There are very few hotels in Jorhat and Dibrugarh. Instead, visitors can stay in colonial-era plantation houses, a selection of which have been renovated. These wooden structures are elevated on stilts to protect from monsoon floods and to afford expansive views of the surrounding tea fields. They contain enormous covered porches, as well as several bedrooms, and formal living and dining rooms. It rained a lot during our October visit, so we had no choice but to enjoy many cups of tea and watch the downpour from the dry porches of these homes.
Majuli Island, Assam, October 2019 - The only river in India to have a male name, the Brahmaputra (Son of Brahma, Creator of the Universe) is an integral part of life in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. In the middle of this mighty river sits Majuli Island, one of the largest inhabited river islands in the world. It once covered an area of 350 square miles, but is now being eroded by strong river currents, its boundaries eternally shifting and its small communities migrating from one region of the island to another.
The island is best known for its Vaishnavite satras, or monasteries, which were initiated in the 15th and 16th centuries by Srimanta Sankardeva and his disciple Madhavdeva. Srimanta Sankardeva was a scholar, a poet, a playwright, and a social reformer, essential to the religious and cultural history of Assam. He preached a bhakti (pure devotion), monotheistic form of Hinduism called Vaishnavism, which considers Vishnu as the Supreme Lord. He established 65 satras on Majuli Island, of which 22 are still active today. Besides being a place of worship, these satras are dedicated to preserving traditional devotional music and dance forms. For example, the Samagiri Satra is known for its mask dances and mask making artisans, while the Auniati Satra is famous for its Paalnaam and Apsara dances.
Besides masks, I discovered a wonderful craft and textile tradition on the island. We met with Jamini Payeng, an award-winning handloom weaver from the Mising tribe who works in cotton, wool and Muga silk. Evidence suggests that silk weaving and sericulture were introduced to India through Assam by Tibeto-Burmese groups migrating out of China around 3,000 B.C. to 2,000 B.C. Assamese Muga silk was prized by Ahom (Assam) royals for its yellow golden color and sheen and its tremendous durability. Many village houses in Assam have at least one loom for weaving gamosa, a multi-purpose cotton cloth featuring red and white designs, and mekhla chadar, Assam's traditional two-piece sari. We also met a father and son duo of woodcarvers, and a family of potters who bake their wares in driftwood-fired kilns.
I was supposed to stay in a Mising tribal community during my visit, in a traditional thatched hut on stilts. Pigs and chickens lived under the hut. When I was there, however, the entire island lost power and I couldn't see two inches in front of my face...not ideal for using the toilet in the middle of the night. Every time I turned on my flashlight ten billion insects swarmed my face, so I shifted to a much less atmospheric concrete hotel with a generator. I still found a preying mantis on my nightstand when I went to bed...the insects in Assam were beyond anything I had ever encountered before in India, from magnificent butterflies to spiders the size of baseballs.