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Guwahati - Jorhat

INDIA | Friday, 27 September 2013 | Views [571]

 

Guwahati – Jorhat

 

 When the doors to the plane opened in Guwahati I was almost overcome by the heat and humidity. It had been warm in Delhi, but nothing like the sense of melting away the Northeast created. I’d arranged for a guide and driver for this part of the trip because I am not familiar with this part of India as it is not generally part of the regular tourist circuit, and was glad I did so that I didn’t have to hassle with local busses without any air. Pradip, the guide and, Debojit, the driver, were waiting for me upon exiting the smallish but efficient airport. There are a number of important Hindu temples and a few Buddhist monasteries in the region, which is the reason I wanted to investigate the area.

 

We immediately drove by lush fields and beautiful green hills to the most important goddess temple in NE India, Kamakhya. The original temple was built no later than the 9th C and was renovated during the Koch dynasty of the Ahom period in the mid 1500s.  The renovations started a new architectural tradition in the Ahom style.  The Ahoms were the rulers of the region from the 13th to the early 19th C.  According to Pradip, the former name of Assam, was Ahom, but the British could not pronounce Ahom which came out as Assam, so the name of the region was changed.  The term ‘ahom’ means uneven terrain, and while at first glance it looks like the fields are flat between the hills in fact they are not.  On the road to Jorhat, we passed rice paddies that were on the lower flat water-soaked terrain and then the land rises about a meter. The higher ground supports acres and acres of tea bushes and their shade providing trees, whose trunks are often covered with large leafed black pepper vines. 

 

The Kamakhya Temple is dedicated to Sati and is one of the major Pitha sites.  These are the places where the Goddess’ body parts fell to the earth after Vishnu’s disc cut her deceased body into parts to startle the grief-stricken husband, Shiva, out of his mad dance of destruction so that the world could continue. There are officially 18 uncontested pitha sites in India, 51 that are most often recognized, and over a 100 that include those that are locally recognized, although not nationally so.

 

At Vaishno Devi in Jammu, Sati’s face fell (which is why there are the three images of Parvati, Lakshmi and Saraswati there); at Kolkata, her toes fell; and here at Kamakhya her yoni, sexual organs – the site of tantric generation – fell.

 

From the outside it looks like a typical Hindu temple site, the walk up passed by the brightly red and gold colored Prasad stands and a place for leaving shoes right outside the entrance. Shoes aren’t allowed in any of the temples. Inside, the temple has some unique reliefs and the core temple has an image of the deity completely covered in red hibiscus flowers and red and gold cloth; her visage isn’t visible from all the offerings she wears.  The pilgrimage path snakes around to the back where there is a Shiva Lingum and a very shallow pool of water, that is said to be the fluids of the Goddess, which protect those who believe and grant their wishes.  The core temple is quite dark with thick high gee lamp blackened concrete walls, but it is also much cooler inside than outside, even if still stuffy.  The priests at each of the many worship sections, give blessings and ask for donations.  If one is out of money by the end, as I was, one is still able to receive the blessings.

 From the Kamakhya temple we went to the state museum where there was an interesting collection of tribal costumes and masks.  The NE is famous for its number of tribal communities.

 

 The next day we drove to Sualkuchi, which is a village that is dedicated to silk production. The silk factories were fascinating, everything is hand-made, including the thread.  These factories make saris and specialize in the ivory and gold wedding attire.  In the village there are also a number of Vishnu temples. That day they were celebrating the anniversary of the passing of the village guru with music and pujas in each of the temples.  Normally women aren’t allowed inside the temples, but the priests invited me in to one of the ceremonies and I was permitted to chant and clap with them.  The village women who came later, however, were outside the walls.  At the end of town there is a temple on a hill that, according to local legend, is the site of the Buddha’s cremation.  How he got from Kushinagar to Sualkuchi was never explained to me, but there are some Buddhist images on this Hindu structure.

The combination of Buddhist and Hindu images was also present in Hoja, which has a series of hilltop temples, including the major Hayagriva-Madhava Temple. This Temple was rebuilt by the same ruler at about the same time as the Kamakhya Temple, but the reliefs, while sometimes similar, also include others that are more Buddhist in orientation, including all the elephants that surround the base of the major shrine; which is similar to the elephant in Cave 16 in Ellora. The most famous icon of the Hayagriva-Madhava Temple is a Jagarnath looking idol; I believe the face with huge wide eyes is of blank onyx encased in a solid gold headdress that also had large drooping gold sheets for earrings.  The idol is quite impressive and was dressed in the typical red and gold clothes, covered with marigold chains.  The eyes do appear to bore into one’s soul.

 Like the others, the Sri Sri Keder Shiva temple was up a set stairs that were burning hot on the soles of my bare feet.  The grass at the top of the hill surrounding the temples offered welcome relief.  Next to the Shiva temple, mentioned in both Tantric and Puranic literature, was a new Joy Durga Temple with a small group of worshippers waiting outside for the temple priests to open the sanctuary for prayer and darsan.

 The hills of Hoja sing with the calls of mynas, grackles and other unidentifiable avian and insect species. The vines on the trees and the gnarls on the trunks seem to capture human and animal figures. The spirits of the highlands appear in diverse forms to those who are open to them.

 

 On the drive to Jorhat, we passed by the outskirts of Kaziranga National Park, which is famous for its rhinos and deer.  From one of the lookouts, I was able to get a couple of pictures of a rhino and her baby in the distance along with a hatti (elephant) and some wild water buffalo.

Jorhat is a fairly large congested town and not one that warrants much attention, although it does have a fabulous tea research institute that warrants its own entry.  The area outside the city is lovely, lush and fertile with lots of yellow, pink and red wild bushes in bloom.

 & just fyi for those who are planning on coming to this region, internet connectivity is a problem. The hotels I stayed in often didn’t have wifi, and some didn’t even have a computer at the registration counter. (The infrastructure in this region is somewhat behind times.) I tried to purchase a “dongle” a USB connection to a mobile data line, but wasn’t allowed to from the governmental BSNL folks because I do not have residency in the country.  So I tried with a couple of private providers and finally found Aircel who would sell me a sim card, or so I thought.  The forms ask for all sorts of information, including copies of the passport.  So far so good; until I found out that Indian passports have permanent addresses in them, which the Aircel folks needed. As U.S. passports do not have such information, I provided my Arizona license to the mobile company, but that wasn’t recognized as it isn’t an “acceptable international document.”  Bottom line, don’t plan on using the internet while here on any regular or consistent basis.

 

 

 

& while I said I would speak mostly about the positive aspects, there is one other issue that many Westerners will have with coming to Assam and should be prepared for, and that is the dirt and mold; it is rain-forest like and the bugs proliferate.  The first hotel I was in was fairly filthy and there were cockroaches climbing on the bed; the one in Jorhat tried to be clean and at first blush appeared that way, but when I shut the bathroom door was confronted with a panel of grey/black mold that didn’t seem to stop. The Buddhist in my head reminds me to accept everything with equanimity, but my rational mind warns about the health concerns these environments foster. 

 

 

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