Assam is at its glorious best during the festival of Bihu in April. And singer Angaraag Mahanta aka Papon, makes it a point to visit his hometown, Guwahati and tour the state during the festival, every year. Fresh from spending a month back in the land of the Brahmaputra, the singer gives several reasons to pack your bags and head to the North Eastern state. Why Guwahati and Assam?
A sunset view of Uzan Bazaar ghat in Guwahati. Pic/AFP
Assam is brimming with culture and nature. The clothes, food, landscape and indigenous people are different from anywhere else in India. Even the music is different — it is pentatonic. People have a misconception that there is unrest in the state, but those days are long gone. The occurrence of acts of disruption is like anywhere else in the country. Guwahati is a big metro city. There is a five-star hotel to stay and there are many lodges and resorts too. The roads are better now, and the airport connectivity has opened up tourism. There are two good seasons to visit Assam —October-November has great weather, and during the rains you can see the wild side of the state. The best time however is during Bohag Bihu, which is spring and the New Year and the rains arrive as well. The entire state dons a colourful vibe; there are cultural performances, lots of food to savour, and people are in celebratory mood.
Papon strums a tune in Guwahati while on tour. Pic courtesy/Ali Bharmal
The first rain that come with Bohag is called Bordoisila. In one of the many stories from local folklore, it is personified to a young girl who is weeping and distraught as she is returning to her in-laws, hence the rains and strong winds surface. The rains continue till September.
Enjoying a meal at Deka Saang on Majuli island, the largest river island in the world
What to see
Although I don't agree with how the city has grown, Guwahati is nature's gift. The Brahmaputra runs around it, and we are surrounded by hills. A very short drive outside the city will lead you to forests and protected national parks, the biggest being Kaziranga and Manas National Parks. The lesser-known Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary is an hour's drive away and on weekends, you can even drive to Shillong, which is about 98 km away. The city has a north bank and a south bank (divided by Brahmaputra) and the old side of the city, which is also a commercial centre is called Uzan Bazaar. There is a huge, famous fish market at Uzan Bazaar too, and the catch is fresh. There are many temples in and around Guwahati. One of the most famous ones is the Kamakhya Temple, one of the 51 Shakti Peethas. It is popular for celebrations of the menstrual cycle of goddess Kamakhya, which is called Ambubachi Mela. And I know, it might sound nothing special, but Guwahati's zoo is one of India's most natural zoos. where animals aren't confined to tiny cages. Majuli, which is the biggest river island, is also a must-visit.
What to eat
Assam is a non-vegetarian's paradise. It is a tropical region so there are many citrus items in the cuisine. Guwahati has many restaurants where you get authentic Assamese and Naga food too. Some of the popular restaurants in Guwahati that offer good local fare are Paradise, Gam's Delicacy and Naga Kitchen. One of my favourites is Deka Saang, they have an outpost on Majuli island too. You can also go on a drive along the highway to eat at any of the dhabas.
The cuisine includes everything from ducks, pigeons, bamboo shoots and a huge variety of fish. My favourite Assamese dish is Maasor Tenga Jool, which is a sour fish curry. We use as many as 15 citrus fruits, and the curry is soupy and has glimpses of South East Asian cuisine. There are many types of achar (pickle) on offer, famous ones include Bhut Jolokia chilli, bamboo shoot and elephant apples. Mustard oil is the backbone of our cuisine. The banana flower and stem is another unique ingredient. Assamese cuisine has many fermented dishes; however, it's an acquired taste. Most food is eaten with rice; especially sticky rice, there are many kinds as well. Pork is popular too, my favourite is Ou Tenga Pork. Food is traditionally served on a brass plate. An Assamese meal ends with paan served with betel nut (Tamul).
Where to shop
Assam is known for its many weaves. Muga silk, Eri Chador, and Mekhala Chador — the two piece sari are must-buys. You can buy traditional jackets too. You can pick vibrant sarongs sourced from weaves of different communities such as Mishing or Bodo. Guwahati has stores that stock music instruments for those who love picking souvenirs, such as buffalo horn pipe called Pepa, Gogona and Morchang (mouth harps), Bihu Dhool (drum), and Tokari, a four stringed instrument. Of course, you cannot leave Assam without picking its world-famous tea.
From Mumbai 2,079 km (by air)
How to reach: Major carriers offer direct flights to Guwahati and it takes about four hours and 30 minutes depending on the number of stopovers. There are direct trains to Guwahati from Mumbai (rail distance about 2,549 km) which take about 43 hours to reach.