Monday, March 12, 2012

North East Chronicles 8a: Jorhat and Golaghat - silently surprising!

There are beautiful surprises as one reaches Jorhat which is about 200 km from Guwahati ( 5 hours by road, and 1 hour by flight from Kolkata).  

I  still remember my first flight in.  It was a beautiful view from the aircraft's window.  The Brahmaputra and its tributaries run like blue veins on Nature's green body - the canopy of green leaves.   The thatches which are brown in color give the typical human touch to this nature's palatte.  
Jorhat - Night sky

I believe that every place, when assimilated with eye lens or delicated captured by the camera, or converted into adjectives - is beautiful.   Only somebody had the time to stand and stare at this beauty forever!

SURPRISE 1: JORHAT - THE JEWEL OF ASSAM

Jorhat district
 Below those canopies, lie the serpentine roads of Jorhat - the first surprise is the town itself.

Jorhat is the second largest city in Assam, after Guwahati.  One can feel the bustle of human life here - especially the busy trading life.  After all, the name ' Jor' means joining and 'hat' means market.   The city is not different from any others, but you can feel the vibrant life of the locals.   It is a more than  the usual trading post.   It has its share of history by virtue of being part of the Ahom folklore.

The city is the last capital of the Ahom rulers.   Its bit of history which is relegated to the foot note because of the neighbouring Sibsagar.

Post the Ahom's rule, the neighbourhood was ravaged under successive Burmese assaults.  Finally it became a quiet distant town in the ever-expanding British empire in the 1820's.  The present administrative district was carved out of the erstwhile Sibsagar district in 1983.

The city has its unique cultural identity.   The population is predominantly Assamese speaking people, but Majuli River Island population is made of Misings, tribals who form more than 70% of the population.

Jorhat has been a thriving bed of religion. Especially, Majuli, the unpredictable river island, became the principal place of pilgrimage of Vaishnavites since the ages of the Ahom rules. There are several Satras resembling medieval monasteries headed by Satradhikars preaching the Vaishnavism ( following Lord Vishnu) which was initiated by Sankardeva (1449–1568).  Each Satra has unknown wealth of Vaishnav Scriptures and extensive revenue free lands being cultivated by the “Bhakats” of the Satras

Jorhat has produced many creative writers, historians, journalists. Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya, the first Assamese to win India's highest literature award, the Jnanpith Award, was from Jorhat. 

Gibbons - protected!
It also is the home of the Hoollongapur Gibbon National park, dedicated to protecting Gibbons, a type of primates.  The sanctuary is landlocked by tea gardens.  Earlier this used to be part of a large migration path of Indian elephants.

With such rich cultural and natural heritage, Jorhat is the 'cultural capital' and also the 'jewel' of Assam.

SURPRISE 2:  MAJULI  - The largest riverine island in the world?

Majoli was once an island that was 1250 sq km in area.  Now it is almost 1/3rd of its size.  Reason: Erosion.  This island is the the largest riverine island in South Asia.  Sometimes, it is called - especially in its tourist websites as the largest riverine island in the world.

Brahmaputra is considered to be the only MALE river in the world.   The island is seen as a representation of male on one side and the female on the other ( Arthanari form).   Mythology says Krishna used to play here with his friends.  This is in harmony with the earlier myth about this area being part of Narakasura's kingdom.

One side of Majuli Island
Originally, the island was a narrow and long piece of land called Majuli (land in the middle of two parallel rivers) that had Brahmaputra flowing in the north and the Burhidihing flowing in the south, till they met at Lakhu.

Frequent earthquakes in the period 1661–1696 set the stage for a catastrophic flood in 1750 that continued for 15 days, which is mentioned in historical texts and reflected in folklore. As a result of this flood, the Brahmaputra split into two anabranches—one flowing along the original channel and the other flowing along the Burhidihing channel and the Mājuli island was formed.( Verbatim: Wickipedia)

The area is now a thriving Vaishnative centre.  In the 16th century, Sankar Deva, a collossal figure helped build the cultural fabric of the region and  acted as the peace bridge between the Ahom and the Koch kingdoms. He preached strongly a new form of the Hindu religion - that there is one god - as seen as Krishna.   The absence of Radha or any form of Sakthi ( as practiced earlier) was due to the strong influence of this brand of neo-Vaishnavism.

Sankar Deva - A collossal
influence on Assam's culture
Sankar Deva created a cultural hegemony of sorts.  His works in literature, culture and dance have left an ever-lasting influence in the history of Jorhat - Majuli.   His followers set up Satra's or Monastaries to continue his form of religion.  There are still about 26 thriving Satras in Majuli.    These are definitely worth exploring both as a tourist and pilgrim.

Virtually every single person on the island is involved in the three-day long raas festival, depicting the life of Krishna. People from hundreds of kilometers away come to celebrate this festival including a number of expatriate members of community.


Rasleela Performance in Majuli
Erosion has made life in Majuli unpredictable.  The island and its inhabitants have had to endure Brahmaputra's monsoon fury year after year.  Like a terminal cancer, erosion has been eating Majuli's body slowly.  About 2/3rd of the island has vanished.

The main occupation is Agriculture, while tourism is also offers the additional monies.   Each of the Satra's have honed the respective skills of trade - Natun Samuguri Satra for example, one can still find the craft of mask-making; and in the Kamalabari Satra the finest boats are made

A wetland, Mājuli is a hotspot for flora and fauna.  Lot of migratory birds like the Pelican and the Siberian crane visit this place.   The island is unspoilt by industry and is a great example of culture, nature and humanity living side by side.

I could not visit Majuli during my stay in this area in 1999-2000.   Never did I realize, that there was so much of undercurrent of culture in the place I spent about a year and a half.   As I share these as the backdrop, my anecdotes to follow become more interesting.  

- The One

(Pics courtesy respective owners.  The author acknowledges the original contributions in Wickipedia and other tourist websites for supply of location information)




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