Assam, a familiar name to all tea drinkers, is the third state of North-Eastern India that I visited last spring. Compared to Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, Assam looks more like the India we know, at least on the surface. But surface appearances can be deceiving, and this large state, home to 30 million inhabitants, offers many unique experiences from wildlife to satras– a combination of monasteries and centers for the art– to temples from the 18th-century Ahom (Axom) kingdom. Our journey took us through various areas of this fascinating state, but my favorite stop was Majuli island, India’s largest river island (the locals claim it is the largest river island in the world, a disputed fact) in the middle of the Brahmaputra with a strong artistic tradition.
We reached Majuli Island by crossing the Brahmaputra on two tiny ferries that managed to take us and our cars (but not at the same time). One of the ferries was moved by a man pulling on a cord attached at both ends of the crossing. On Majuli Island, the pace of life felt relaxed and our time was spent enjoying some of the art forms practiced in the satras and the villages. Satras are unique to Assam and are essentially monasteries where the worshipping of Lord Vishnu is done through art, dance, music, and poetry. Of the 22 still on the island, we visited two stunning ones. At the Shri Shri Uttar Kamlabari Satra, graceful white-clad monks treated us to an entrancing performance of music (drums and cymbals) and dance. It was a mesmerizing and unforgettable experience. The other satra we visited, the Shamaguri Satra, specializes in the art of mask making. Some of these masks were featured in a rendition of a snippet of the epic story Ramayana that we were lucky enough to watch.
We also visited a Mishin (also called Miri) village, one of the ethnic groups found in the area. There again, women of the villages kindly performed their traditional dances for us. Exploring the village a little further, I ran into a group of children performing on their own, almost as aptly as their mothers. Our time on Majuli Island was most enjoyable but we learned that if we want to see it again we should not wait too long since the island is shrinking at an alarmingly fast rate. It is estimated that at current levels of erosion the island will cease to exist within 20 years.
Leaving Majuli Island on a bigger ferry, I could not help but be impressed by the long list of categories of fares for the journey, which included “Elephant with Mahout (rider)”, and “Wild Animals like Tiger, Lion, etc”. None of these exotic passengers were on board when we crossed, thankfully, but we ran into a mahout and his elephant on the road shortly thereafter. A stop in the Kaziranga National Park allowed us to see the famous Indian one-horned rhinoceros that was once endangered but now seems to be thriving there. While driving around Assam, we also visited some handloom weavers as weaving is strongly linked with Assamese culture. In Sibsagar, the ancient capital of the Ahom kingdom, we visited three temples from the Ahom period. At the Shivadol temple, believed to be the highest Shiva temple in India, an old man sat in front of the entrance for a very long time.
But of course, what Assam is famous for is its tea; it is a world leader, accounting for 20% of the world’s production. One is reminded of it constantly, being surrounded by large well-manicured tea estates. With their different shades of green, the tea gardens almost look hand-painted with the tea pickers placed in them to add bursts of color. Sadly, the story of the tea laborers is not quite as pretty as it looks. The work is very demanding, and we see women (only women seem to be doing this job) working tirelessly under rain or hot shining sun. Workers are paid according to the weight of tea they manage to pick. For her backbreaking work, a diligent tea picker barely earns $2 per day. Every year there is an outcry about the poor conditions and low wages of tea pickers (from Assam and other parts of the world), but things do not seem to change. Personally, I would gladly pay a bit more for my cup of tea if it would go to increase the wages of the pickers.