Field day: Youngsters of Chengale Mari, a village of 190 Garo families, perform the Wangala (harvest) dance. - KALYANI PRASHER
The state isn’t just a ‘gateway’ to more exotic destinations but offers some heady adventure and romance
Abhishruti Bezbaruah’s soulful voice sets the perfect mood for driving in the rain across Assam’s countryside. I can’t understand the words (later I find out it is Tok Dekhi Mor Gaa, her popular Bihu song) but the music keeps beat with the thunder and downpour as I make my way across Sonitpur on tree-lined roads; the hills that divide Meghalaya and Assam are in view all along the way. It’s utterly beautiful.
I have wronged Assam all my life. Not a fan of tea gardens, I am on a tour of interior Assam mainly to visit the Kaziranga National Park. The itinerary, which begins with a night in Guwahati, culminates at the park that has been on my bucket list for more than a decade. I am excited only about the end, waiting to get through with the other places with minimal interest.
Consequently, from the very first moment, I am in for pleasant surprises — even the drive from the airport to Guwahati is scenic. I had heard about the natural beauty of Meghalaya and the rest of the North-East but Assam, to me, was only the ‘gateway’ to those more exotic destinations. Left to myself, I would have driven straight to Kaziranga but the slow, long route to one’s destination is always more rewarding and this is especially true in Assam.
The Wild Mahseer, an eco-lodge inside the Eastern Himalayan Botanic Ark (four hours by road from Guwahati), is just the right base if you want to explore the surrounding Sonitpur district. It is also a hub of cultural activities, organised by the Balipara Foundation, which works in the fields of conservation and community development. The Ark, adjacent to the Addabarrie Tea Estate, is more like a mini-forest, a 22-acre certified organic estate that is home to over 75 species of birds and 1 lakh trees. Inside this green haven are the tea estate bungalows where the Burra Sahib (estate manager) and his team lived years ago, and where guests today can experience life as it was in another era.
Life hasn’t changed much since then at Baligaon village, just 20 minutes from Wild Mahseer. The Mishings (pronounced Mising) have been living here for more years than anyone can remember and, even though I’ve clearly come to peer into their lives, I am greeted with warm smiles and apong, a rice beer with medicinal wild herbs that the tribe is well known for. Clad in red-and-black sarongs and white drape tops, the Mishing women with tightly tied hair and arched eyebrows guide me to a bamboo hut on stilts that they offer as homestay. I am happier with air-conditioning back at the hotel but I can see the charm of staying with the Mishing, eating their version of Assamese cuisine such as wild rice with pork and bamboo shoot, and dancing a round or two after a few mugs of apong.
Back at Wild Mahseer, after a fabulous meal of masor tenga (fish in a sour gravy) and stir-fried local ferns with joha rice, I retire early that night so I can rise in time for a jungle walk around the property. The rain gods have other ideas. With most of the morning washed out, I spend the early hours over chai and chatter at the scenic dining pavilion, all glass and surrounded by greenery, taking in the beauty of Balipara. Finally, the rain wanes and I set out for another drive through the countryside.
Chengale Mari, around 30 minutes away, is more my kind of a place, with a community of 190 Garo families. I spend the late morning meeting village elders and watching the hypnotic Wangala dance held in rice fields. The groovy music is all flute and drums, a haunting melody that still plays in my mind. The Garos are originally from Meghalaya but when artificial lines were drawn to demarcate state boundaries, some of them became part of Assam. They now speak an Assamese dialect of the Garo language and even their dress and food is different from the Meghalese people.
Walking around the shockingly green village, looking at picture-book cottages spread across the woods, I spot a red jungle fowl skittering away into a home. Elsewhere, I hear the distinctive honking call of the hornbill. I spot wild boars and walk past towering bamboo thickets. This is nothing but a jungle walk. It is raining softly as I cross the mud paths, enjoying being out in nature without going into a forest.
On the last day, I am back on the road in the rain, for a smooth, three-hour drive to Kaziranga, in the hope of spotting the one-horned rhino. But that’s another story for another time — suffice it to say, my trip to Assam was no longer just about Kaziranga. I have found a slice of Assam that not many talk about.