Northeastern India : Assam
Assam (Assamese: অসম Ôxôm [ɔxɔm]) is a region straddling in a transitional zone between South Asia and South East Asia and politically a state in India since 1947. Prior to that Assam was a part of British India since the British annexed the Kingdom of Assam and its tributary states in 1826 following the Treaty of Yandaboo. Assam is a land of blue hills, green valleys and a red river. Situated in the north eastern region of India and located just below the eastern Himalayan foothills, it is surrounded by the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya, which together with Assam are known collectively as the seven sisters. Leaving Manipur and Tripura, rest of these states are carved out from Assam during 1960s and 70s and Sylhet, a district of Assam was annexed with Bangladesh during partition of British India (1947). With an area of 78,438 sq km Assam currently is almost equivalent to the size of Ireland or Austria. Assam shares international borders with Bhutan and Bangladesh and the international borders of China and Myanmar are within the range of 80 to 100 km.
Assam was known as the Kingdom of Pragjyotisha-Kamarupa during the first millenium A.D. and was broken into smaller states during the beginning of the second millenium; however, later, after 13th century for next six hundred years the region again transformed into a united sovereign country as the Kingdom of Assam under the later dynasties such as the Ahoms and Koches. Despite being an archaeologically and historically rich region, Assam is still a terra-incognito to the world.
Assam is a world leader in production of tea for more than past one hundred years and currently produces around 25 percent of the world's tea. Traditionally it is a producer of high quality silk, locally called paat bred on mulberry leaves, and the only place in the world where all four major silk types are cultivated, the others being the golden silk Muga unique to Assam , the Ahimsa silk Eri bred on castor leaves, and tassar. It has the highest reserves of oil and natural gas after Bombay High and Gujarat. Along with neighbouring Arunachal, it has the richest biodiversity in India.
Present Assam can be divided into four distinct regions. The regions and the specific tourist interests in these are:
History of urban development goes back to almost two thousand years in the region. Existence of ancient urban areas such as Pragjyotishapura (Guwahati), Hatapesvara (Tezpur), Durjaya, etc and medieval towns such as Charaideu, Garhgaon, Rongpur, Jorhat, Khaspur, Guwahati, etc are well recorded.
Guwahati with its more than two thousand years of history is the largest urban centre and a million plus city in Assam. The city has experienced multifold growth during past three decades to grow as the primate city in the region; the city's population was approximately 0.9 million (considering Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA) area) during the census of 2001.
Major urban areas are:
Golaghat, Nalbari, Mangaldoi, Barpeta, Kokrajhar, Goalpara, Dhubri (Dhubury), etc are other towns and district head quarters. On the other hand Duliajan, Digboi, Namrup, Moran, Bongaigaon, Numaligarh, Jogighopa, etc are major industrial towns. Currently, there are around 125 total urban centres in the state, with Rangia amongst them.
Assam has several attractive destinations; majority of these are National Parks, Wildlife and Bird Sanctuaries, areas with archaeological interests and areas with unique cultural heritage. Moreover, as a whole, the region is covered by beautiful natural landscapes.
National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries:
There are several other wildlife sanctuaries across the length and breadth of Assam.
Heritage, Cultural and Others:
A paradise for nature lovers
Assam and surrounding regions have to be a paradise for the nature lovers and researchers. The region's uniqe natural settings, hydro-geomorphic environment and biodiversity have no parallel in Asia. Within a eighty to hundred kilometres of journey by land, one can travel from a flat flood plain with tropical rainforests and wet paddy fields to mountainous regions of Alpine-Himalayan climatic conditions at very high altitude. Geomorphic studies conclude that the Brahmaputra, the life-line of Assam is a paleo-river; older than the Himalayas. The river with steep gorges and rapids in Arunachal Pradesh entering Assam, becomes a braided river (at times 16 km wide) and with tributaries, creates a flood plain (Brahmaputra Valley: 80-100 km wide, 1000 km long). The hills of Karbi Anglong, North Cachar and those in and close to Guwahati (also Khasi-Garo Hills) now eroded and dissected are originally parts of the South Indian Plateau system. In the south, the Barak originating in the Barail Range (Assam-Nagaland border), flows through the Cachar district with a 40-50km wide valley and confluences with the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh.
Assam is one of the richest biodiversity zones in the world and consists of tropical rainforests, deciduous forests, riverine grasslands, bamboo orchards and numerous wetland ecosystems; Many are now protected as national parks and reserved forests. The Kaziranga, home of the rare Rhinoceros, and Manas are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Assam. Pabitora has the highest density of rhinos. The reserve forests of Joypur, Upper Dihing and Dirak are a stretch of pristine rainforests. The region is the last refuge for numerous other endangered species such as Golden Langur or Honali Bandor (Trachypithecus geei), White-winged Wood Duck or Deohanh (Cairina scutulata), Bengal Florican or Ulumora, Black-breasted Parrotbill, Pygmy Hog or Nolgahori, Greater Adjutant or Hargila, Hispid Hare or Khagorikota, Slow Loris or Lajuki Bandor, Swamp Francolin or Koira and so on. Some other endangered species with significant population in Assam are Tiger, Elephant, Hoolock Gibbon, Jerdon's Babbler and so on. Assam is also known for orchids the more well known being the foxtail or kopou and blue vanda or bhatou.
Climate and disasters
With the “Tropical Monsoon Rainforest Climate”, Assam is temperate (Summer max. at 35-38 and winter min. at 6-8 degrees Celsius) and experiences heavy rainfall and high humidity. However, temperature is much lesser in the hilly areas in the Central Assam. The climate is characterised by heavy monsoon downpours reducing summer temperature and foggy nights and mornings in winter . Thunderstorms known as Bordoicila are frequent during the afternoons. Spring (Mar-Apr) and Autumn (Sept-Oct) are usually pleasant with moderate rainfall and temperature.
The region is prone to natural disasters with annual floods (in specific areas) and frequent mild earthquakes. Floods usually occur during monsoon (mid June till late August) and many a times can create trouble by destroying roads and railway linkages at places. Strong earthquakes are rare; three of these were recorded in 1869, 1897 (8.1 on the Richter scale); and in 1950 (8.6).
Assam is also a region, which can be termed as a crucible of cultures. It is a true meeting place of South Asian and South East Asian cultures, where the principal language Assamese (Oxomeeya) exhibits hybridity between Indo-Iranian, Tibeto-Burman and Tai-Kadai group of languages. Apart from the hybrid Assamese population, there are several distinct ethno-cultural groups such as Bodo, Karbi, Mishing, Dimasa, Tiwa, Rabha, Hasong, Taiphake, Taikhamti, Taiaiton, Singphow, Bru, Garo, etc with distinct languages, dialects, food habits, architecture and settlement pattern, textile design, dance, music, musical instruments, beilef, etc.
History and archaeology
Assam is also rich in history and archaeology. In the ancient times, the Kingdom of Pragjyotisha-Kamarupa under at least three successive dunasties for more than 700 years and in the medieval periods the Kingdom of Assam under the Ahoms for 600 years were strong and sovereign kingdoms; no western powers including the great Mughals could invade and occupy the region till the British had come. Apart from several failed attempts by the north Indian kingdoms in the ancient times, the Mughals attempted invading Assam for 17 times, where only once they could get little success in occupying and controlling a major portion only for a small period of two years. Mughals were defeated and completely thrown out from the Brahmaputra Valley in the 17th century. However, Mughals had maintained control on the western territories (now North Bengal) of the Koch Kingdom and in some parts of the Jayantiya Kingdom (a tributary ruler under the Ahoms) - now in Bangladesh. Due to richness and self-sustained nature of the kingdoms in Assam, the rulers hardly attempted any outward aggression leaving only few instances. During the rule of Barman Dynasty of Kamarupa the king Bhaskarvarman occupied the then Gauda (later Bengal) along with its capital city Karnasuvarna in the 7th century; then a major portion of present eastern Bangladesh was a natural part of Kamarupa. In the 17th century, a plan for reoccupying the lost land of the ancient Kamarupa kingdom and destroying the Nawab of Gauda by the Ahom king Rudra Simha was thwarted after the king's sudden death during his organisation of a large amry of 4 hundred thousand in Guwahati. With such a historic background, Assam possesses hundreds of historic and archaeological sites, where extensive research opportunities and tourism potentials are still left.
State of tourism
It is important to understand that in the past 60 years, the Government of India's restrictions on the foreigners in the region such as the Restricted Area Permit System (RAP - finally abolished in Assam and neighbouring Meghalaya in the 1990s), acted as major hindrances for the foreign tourists and foreign interest groups to legally enter in to Assam and gradually pushed Assam in to isolation from the world. Assam today is a terra-incognito to the new generations in the developed world; while the old generation British, other Europeans, Americans and Japanese still remember 'Assam' whatever may be the cause varying from colonial administration, to tea and oil industry or to WWII. For past 60 years, tourism promotion and development was a neglected subject. At the same time during the same time period, negligible numbers of Assamese have come out from Assam to other places; Assamese have been happy inside Assam, inside their native places and inside their houses, which offcourse recently has seen a sea-change with thousands of students and skilled labourers coming out to different cities in India. Therefore, as a not well-known place, Assam has long way to go to establish herself as a foremost tourist destination. However, Assam possesses everything that is required for developing herself as a leader of travel and tourism in the world and most importantly Assamese are one of the most hospitable people.
Assamese is the principal language and the lingua-franca in the region. Assamese and Bodo are the local official languages in Assam and Bengali is also used as the same in Barak Valley. There are several other local languages such as Mishing, Karbi, Dimasa, Garo, Hmar, Bru, Taiphake, Taikhamti, etc used by the specific ethno-cultural groups in different pockets. However, most educated people speak English and Hindi with local tunes. Bengali is also spoken in many parts of Assam especially Guwahati and Silchar where Bengali community resides in large numbers. Moreover, there are also large numbers of other Indian language and dialect speakers such as Punjabi, Marwari, Bhojpuri, Gujarati, etc particularly in the urban centres.
Usually, all official signs and documents are written in both Assamese and in English, using British spelling. The Government of India establishments Indian Railways, ONGC, etc will have sign-boards in all three languages - Assamese, English and Hindi. Commercial and street signs are usually written in Assamese and English and in Bengali in Barak Valley. As English has a wider base, foreigners need not to worry about not knowing Assamese or any other local language; however, it is an additional advantage for a tourist to know few sentences of a local language.
There are good air-connectivity to Assam from the major cities in India. Guwahati's Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport is the businest in Assam and other major airports are in Dibrugarh, and Silchar. Air India and Indian Airlines along with several other private airlines operate daily services from all the major cities such as Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bangalore, etc. Moreover, there are other airports in Tezpur, Jorhat, etc with less frequent flights connecting cities such as Kolkata and other cities of North East Region. Arriving by plane, however, gives a wonderful welcome aerial view of the green valley surrounded by blue hills in Assam. The major airlines operating in the region are:
For the international travellers from East Asia or South East Asia, the most easiest route to travel to Assam is via Kolkata. There are several direct flights from Kolkata to Guwahati, Dibrugarh, Silchar and Jorhat. Journey time in a direct flight from Kolkata to Guwahati is of less than 45 minutes, while to Dibrugarh (the eastern most civil airport in Assam) is of around 90 minutes. Similarly for travellers from Europe, Middle East, Central Asia and African countries either via Delhi and Mumbai or even Kolkata route is preferable. However, Delhi and Kolkata have higher frequency of flights to Guwahati. A Delhi-Guwahati direct flight takes 2:30 hrs of journey time. There is currently no direct flight from Guwahati to any international destination after cancellation of the Air India's Guwahati-Bangkok flight few years back.
Assam is also well connected through Rail Services to Indian cities. Three major routes of North East Frontier Railways (NF Railways) covers entire Assam and provides linkages to principal zones and cities in north, east and south India. Guwahati railway station is the largest in Assam and is served by direct trains from most of the major cities in India. The Rajdhani Express (fully airconditioned) from New Delhi (takes 27 hours) and Saraighat Express from Howrah in Kolkata (takes 17 hours) are the fastest ones. There are many direct trains from Delhi (including the Rajdhani Express) and Kolkata for Dibrugarh in Upper Assam. Usually, Dibrugarh is an additional nights journey (12hrs) from Guwahati.
There are highways from Indian states in the west and buses run between Siliguri (to Siliguri buses are available from Kolkata, Darjeeling and Gangtok) and Guwahati; However, travelling by bus may not be comfortable in this patch and travel time is usually longer than that of trains. Road connectivity to surrounding Seven Sister States is good, however may take different durations depending on the location of the state.
Tamu in western Myanmar is connected to a reasonably good highway to Assam via Manipur; Tamu in Myanmar border is closer to Mandalay. The historic Stilwell Road between Assam-Myanmar-China from Ledo in Upper Assam to Myitkina in Myanmar and further to Kunming in China is right now not fully operationalised.
There are also roads connecting Bhutan.
By bus and car
Buses are the most common medium of travel in Assam. Buses in Assam are generally well maintained and comfortable. There are regular bus services connecting important places within Assam and to neighbouring states. Long distance buses generally are called Night Super Bus (because they usually travel only at after sunset) are more comfortable with reclining seats. Assam State Transport Corporation (ASTC) is state run bus company with a very exhaustive network. Some private players have large networks as well.
Taxi cabs can be a good option for travelling inside Assam and to the surrounding region. In majority cities and even small towns private taxi-cabs are available for rent for local travel as well for inter-city travel. The taxi-cabs can be also rented on daily basis. For a traveller, it is easier to hire a taxi from the hotel he or she is staying; usually the hotels can arrange or provide with information on the local car rental agencies.
Self driving may not be advisable for many reasons - dangerous traffic, frequent agitations and 'bandh's and insurgency in certain areas to name some.
Although having a fairly extensive railway network, trains are less convenient than buses or taxis for travelling short distances within Assam - inter-city or inter-regional trains are not very frequent within Assam. Moreover, the Assam's rail network is fragmented due to different gauge size. The services on narrow gauge and meter gauge lines are irregular and uncomfortable. Broad gauge service links Guwahati with major cities in upper Assam (Dibrugarh, Jorhat and Tinsukia), which is comfortable but little more time consuming than the buses; However, from Guwahati, one may try using the Rajdhani Express (fully Airconditioned) for an over-night journey to reach Dibrugarh or Tinsukia. The railway tickets are bookable online or available at the electronic ticketing counters in the stations. It is important to have a reservation for an overnight train journey, to obtain a berth in a comfortable A/C or non A/C sleeper coach. For reservation, booking should be made 2 months before the journey; however, in majority trains 'Tatkal' sevice is available.
Air travel from Guwahati to Upper Assam or Southern Assam districts can be quicker and easier. Guwahati is linked with Dibrugarh, Tezpur and Silchar with several flights. However, it is important to book a ticket earlier. A flight between Guwahati and Dibrugarh takes roughly 45 minutes.
Major cities like Guwahati, Tezpur, Jorhat and Dibrugarh offer a wide variety of restaurants and eat outs. Restaurants are normally very cheap and a good meal will cost about $0.50 to $1 per person. There are also ambient restaurants which serve all varieties of Indian and Assamese dishes for about less than $5 - $8 per person.
It is also worth while to taste ethnic Assamese cuisine which comprises of Rice with regional curries, including choices of fish, lambs, chickens and ducks. Assamese meals are usually accompanied by various side dishes like mash potatoes (Alu Pitika) or pickles of small fried fishes.
Visitors should be aware that the United Liberation Front of Assam (Ulfa) has been engaged in a campaign for independence in the state since 1979. Previously, their tactics were to destroy facilities, such as oil and gas pipelines, that were of economic benefit to India as well as targeting security patrols. However, in recent times they have become more assertive in their demands and the Hindi speaking civilian population have also become targets of intimidation and kidnappings, and indiscriminate exploding of bombs in areas frequented by Hindi speakers have become increasingly common. Foreigners have not been targeted in the campaign, though, of course, it is possible to be caught in the violence due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, so vigilance is required while visiting the state.