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.
You continue to stoke my desire to visit these amazing places with your stunning photos and thoughtful prose.
Dear Tricia, You continue to make me happy. Thanks for visiting, France
Beautiful work!!!! Lovely compositions, images that tell a story, great lighting. Super!
Ruti, Thanks for visiting. Glad you like Assam. France
France, I always look forward to your blog. Your photographs of Assam are truly beautiful, Jane Bradbear.
Jane, So nice hearing from you. Thanks for your kind words, I am glad you enjoy the blog. I think this post speaks to you because there are musicians involved 😉 All the best, France
Lovely post France. The tea images are terrific!
Thanks Lisa, I guess this is a pre-chai series 😉 France
the tea-picker’s series is excellent! Dorothy Lange would be proud.
Thanks. This is very high praise. In fact, the highest I can think of. Best, France
Is tea harvested all year round in Assam?
The monks looked proud and skilled doing their performance and the masks are ornate but intimidating!
Did you speak to the old man outside the temple?
Emilie, thanks for visiting again.
I believe tea is harvested all year in Assam but the harvest from May to July is thought off as higher quality. The monks were extraordinary, I can still hear their music in my head. We had some exchanges with the old man. He was as intrigued by us as we were by him.
Warm regards, France
Loved your pics! Good work France! I am from Assam but live in the US.
Thanks Gitartha. Very happy that someone from Assam likes my images. Thanks for visiting the blog. Best, France
[…] is to some of these states, namely Assam, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh that France Leclerc recently traveled, and where she made […]
[…] about as free-spirited as I can get anyway. So meanwhile, I’ll enjoy the amazing exotic trips France captures in her astounding photos, and this blog by a couple who were lucky enough to discover each […]