24th December was our second day in Guwahati. One good thing about the north east being on IST (it was when we went there) when actually it is almost two hours ahead is that however late you think you are in sleeping its quite early and you almost always get early days even though you have partied the previous night.
We were up and about pretty early. After breakfast in the hotel we set out at around 8 am to visit Kamakhya temple. Set atop Nilachal hill, we could take a taxi to the top or trek 4 km. We chose the taxi. It is one of the oldest of the 51 shakti pithas and is dedicated to the Mother Goddess and the female form. Every summer, the ‘menstruation’ of the Goddess is worshiped for three days when the water in the main shrine apparently turns red due to iron oxide. It is known for its tantric practices though we didn’t see anything like that there. Just seemed like a normal temple. It was probably an ancient Khasi sacrificial site and hence animal sacrifice is still carried out there.
The temple has four chambers. A garbhagriha and three mandapas. The material used in construction is stone. The garbhagriha has a pancharatha plan reminiscent of the Sun temple, but only slightly. The shikhara is in the shape of a beehive which is a characteristic feature of the temples of Lower Assam.
I didn’t go inside the garbhagriha as the queues for it were two long. Yes queues, there were multiple queues based on the amount of money you are willing to pay. Another reason I don’t like visiting temples. The commodification of faith. As you enter the temple priests start swooping at you to do some pooja or the other. Its a little off putting. But the history, lore, symbolism and architecture of the temple makes up for all of this.
I saw a sign which said museum, in the temple complex. I went towards it and finally after a lot of signage I came across the museum. It was a two storeyed structure with a single room on each floor filled with the most random collection of things. It had stone carvings from different temples across India, some historical artefacts used by kings and other important people and a few models and stuff. Nothing great and I seriously doubt the authenticity of it all. There was a little garden outside filled with art and sculptures by local artists.
I saw a man busy carving something. Upon going near I saw a scaled down model of the Kamakhya temple complex that he was carving in wood. As I started talking to him I learnt that he is employed by the temple to build such models. They give them as gifts to visiting dignitaries and important guests. He said that one of his models is displayed in the museum. It was a beautiful model and the effort put in was apparent. I asked him whether he exhibits and sells his work elsewhere. He said that he sends it outside sometimes and each small model fetches INR 300-400. I was taken aback by the price and the clear exploitation of small artisans. His pieces would make at least INR 3000-4000 in exhibitions and handicrafts fairs. But he seemed quite content with the situation.The income and expectations of people in Assam seem quite low. There is a lot of poverty and neglect. But one thing I have noticed is that people are happy despite everything. But I could be wrong and they might feel differently. Opportunities and resources are few and far in this state.
After the temple,we had tea and then went to Assam State Museum. After a bit of googling for the exact address, we got a bus right outside the temple which dropped us off outside the museum.
The museum was very nice. I learnt a lot about North Eastern and especially Assamese culture and the various tribes that established civilization here. Apart from this there were the usual artefacts found in every museum in India, Harrapan this and Ashokan that. I seriously doubt if these are genuine. There was a school field trip to the museum when we were there. So it got a little crowded and noisy in there. But it was fun watching the kids in the museum being, well, kids in a museum, who couldn’t care less about what they are supposed to be looking at. Brought back memories from school.
After the museum it was time for lunch. We wanted to have authentic Assamese food. So google to the rescue again! Seriously what would we do without google? As much as we want to have spontaneous, run into cool places sort of vacations, it just doesn’t happen now. We found a place called Paradise which had a lot of good reviews. There were set thalis as well as A la carte to choose from. They had a few different types of thalis. We ordered the medium ones. They were full of dishes whose names I don’t remember now. Most of them were similar to what is had throughout India like different vegetable dishes, meat, fish, dal, rice, roti. The only difference is that everything was cooked in mustard oil. It had a strong flavour. I liked it though. Among new things, I tried a bamboo shoots preparation and a mustard powder and oil dough sort of thing. Both really good. Apart from one or two things I really enjoyed the meal.
After lunch we set out to do some shopping. Again, with the help of google and the awesome Guwahati buses we reached ArtFed, a handicrafts store which sold Assamese silk and other textiles, handicrafts and souvenirs. It was nice but clearly a tourist trap. After window shopping, we went in search of the famous Assam silk. At Pan Bazaar, near Fancy bazaar there are rows and rows of shops selling silk products. After browsing around and looking into a lot of shops we found an amazing shop with the friendliest of people working there. We spent hours trying and buying silk stoles and shawls. The shop was run by a Rajasthani man who had been living in Assam for a long time. We started talking to him about the silk business, our vacation plans etc. We were supposed to leave for Shillong the next morning, he was nice enough to arrange a local car for us instead of us going through the hotel and paying tourist rates.
After our shopping, we bought a few warm things for Shillong and headed back to the hotel in the darkness. Though my watch showed 6 pm. Still wasn’t used to the early sunsets!