A gateway to the mystical northeast, Assam is the land of the rare one-horned rhinoceros, rolling plains, lush tea gardens and diverse ethnic groups. To savour its luxurious blue hills, unique flora and fauna and the many charms of the enormous Brahmaputra, is any discerning traveller’s dream. Silhouetted by the Karbi-Anglong and Kachari hills, and strewn with many rivers and lakes, the state shares its extended borders with the Kingdom of Bhutan to the North, the six sister-states of northeast, as well as Bengal and Bangladesh.

Assam’s mythological history dates back to the era of Puranic and Tantric scriptures. King Bhagadatta, ruler of the mythical kingdom of Pragjyotishpura (now Guwahati), who was killed by Arjuna at Kurukshetra, finds mention in the epic of Mahabharata. Other Hindu texts mention the appearance of Lord Krishna in Assam as well – the lord himself had fought against King Banasura of Sonitpur (now Tezpur), when the later’s daughter Usha secretly entered into wedlock with Krishna’s grandson Anirudh.

Evidences show that King Pushya Varman (350 – 375 AD), a contemporary of Samudragupta, established the first historical kingdom of Assam, known as Kamrupa. King Pushya’s kingdom covered the entire Brahmaputra valley, parts of North Bengal and Bangladesh. Though in succeeding centuries the kingdom broke up into several smaller entities led by various ethnic groups like Ahoms, Kacharis and Chutiyas, the region was still referred to as Kamrupa by chroniclers. Later on much of Assam, which was unified under the Ahom dynasty, was torn asunder by political intrigue and conspiracy. The Burmese and British finally annexed it jointly in 1826.

Once under British rule, Assam’s rich natural resources opened up like a Pandora’s box, where astute British entrepreneurs saw huge potential – coal, limestone and iron mines were opened, and cheap labourers brought in from neighbouring regions of Orissa, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh to start plantations of tea, rubber, hemp and jute. Today Assam is the largest producer of tea (the camellia sinuses is its indigenous variety) in the world; while it also contributes around 15 per cent to India’s crude oil production. Owing to its fertile river valleys, the state accounts for large production of rice, potato, citrus fruits, spices, orchids as well as legendary silks like Muga, Eri and Paat.

Assam’s biodiversity is its major draw – the state is a mishmash of grasslands, tropical rainforests and wetlands – each having its unique colour and character.  Dense forests of sal, teak, bamboo, banyan and elephant grass inundate the valley, which is also dotted with verdant paddy fields all across. This biodiversity can be best observed in its reserve forest belts like Kaaziranga (near Jorhat), Nameri (near Bhalukpung) and Manas (Barpeta Road). Governments, conservationists and institutions like UNESCO have lauded Assam’s successful efforts at conservation of its rare species of animals and plants.  The almost extinct one-horned rhino, the tiger, the asian deer or the sambhar, wild buffaloes and over 500 species of birds can be found in these belts. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kaaziranga boasts of having the highest density of tigers in India (current populations, thanks to the Project Tiger initiative is upwards of 100); it is also the last remaining habitat of the Asian Elephant.

The best time to witness Assam’s natural splendour is between September – March, when fleets of migratory birds and other species of animals can be spotted among its gigantic thickets of elephant grass which are ceremonially burnt around February. Also, once the monsoon sets in, animals usually cross over to the higher grounds and neighbouring hills.

Various guided tours, like elephant and jeep safaris, are organised by forest departments for tourists; while regular eco- tours and camps are held for nature and wildlife enthusiasts, bird watchers, anglers, as well as for those looking forward to get a taste of the cultural demographics.  A unique initiative has been started at the Eco-Camp of Nameri National Park (Potasil) which involves local tribesmen like the Mishings, to help foster conventional farming, fishing and conservation techniques.

Assam’s rich and vast ethnic diversity is an anthropologist’s delight. There are vast populations of indigenous tribes like Karbis, Missings (also spelt as Mishing), Bodos and Kaccharis spread across the region, along with the traditional Ahoms and other Tibetan-Burmese sub-groups – each having their distinct dialects and uniquely colourful customs. The people are enmeshed in natural surroundings so their knowledge of the flora and fauna of this region is almost instinctive – you can often hear a tribal spewing out scientific names of species at random! Village tours that give a glimpse of the life of these communities are organised for tourists; just as tours of indigenous handicrafts and handloom villages where exquisite bamboo artefacts or the rich Assamese silks are made.

As tea-tourism gains ground in Assam and international tourists make a beeline to get a taste of life on India’s tea estates – more and more tea-garden owners are promoting the erstwhile colonial-style bungalows to provide the right blend of solitude and luxury amidst the verdant gardens. Here travellers can interact with plantation workers, learn about the history of tea and the various methods of production, as well as enjoy the colourful jhoomoor dance, traditionally performed by plantation workers after every harvest.

Colourful fairs, festivals and events augment Assam’s vibrant cultural and social landscape throughout the year. Come April and Assam’s numerous communities, tribes and sub-tribes, all join hands to welcome the new agricultural season through the joyous celebration of Bihu. Dressed in traditional silks, men and women partake in song and dance performances to the beat of the dhol (drum) and the melody of the pepa (flute).

Other events such as the Dehing Patkai Festival – a heady combination of ethnic fairs, adventure tours, wildlife excursions and tea-tasting tours is held annually in January.

Assam is steeped in myriad religious and mythological legends. There are many destinations here considered sacred to people from various faiths, shaivites, shakti worshippers, Muslims as well as Sikhs. One such region is Majuli - world’s largest river island near Jorhat.  An exotic destination nestled in the lap of the mighty Brahamaputra, Majuli has been the cradle for neo-Vaishnavite culture and learning, ever since its initiation by Assamese saint Srimanta Sankaradeva around the 15th century. This very scenic locale today houses over 15 satras or monasteries each considered a crux of Assamese art, music, dance, literature, drama and religion. The three-day long colourful Raas festival to celebrate Lord Krishna’s life is held with much fervour and enthusiasm on this island.

Some other prime attractions of Assam include -

  • Digboi, known for its lush tea estates, golf courses and an oil refinery, which is over a century old.
  • Bhalukpung, (52 kms from Tezpur), the border town between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh – is nestled amidst the enticing Himalyan ranges of Arunachal Pradesh, on the banks of the Jia Bhoreli river. The place is a much-favoured destination for discerning wildlife enthusiasts and nature lovers. Just 5 kms away from Bhalukpong is the Tipi Orchid garden, Asia’s largest orchid centre – it has around 500 species of exotic orchids on display
  • Guwahati – surrounded by striking blue hills with the waters of the Brahmaputra lapping on its shores, this bustling city is an educational and business hub of northeast. A very revered destination as well, Guwahati also has the famous Kamakhya Temple, atop the Nilachal Hills, dedicated to goddess Kali. The famous Ambubashi Mela is held here annually during mid-June.
  • Tourists also opt for the Brahmaputra river cruise here – which gives a fascinating view of the city and its surrounding hills.

 

View List of Hotels & Resorts in Assam