THE CAPITAL of Assam, Guwahati is also the gateway to Northeast India. Ringed by the Neelachal Hills, the city stretches along both banks of the broad Brahrnaputra river. An ancient seat of tantric Hinduism, with a number of interesting temples in its environs, Guwahati is now a busy commercial centre for Assam’s tea and oil industries. Its outer fringes are dotted with the slender, graceful betelnut palm trees from which Guwahati (literally “Betel Nut Market”) derives its name.
Perched on Nilachal hill, 8 km (5 miles) northwest of the city, this temple is one of India’s most important pilgrimage destinations. The present structure with its typically Assamese beehiveshaped shikhara dates to the 17th century, after the original temple was destroyed by Muslim invaders. According to legend, as a furious and grieving Shiva carried the corpse of his wife, Sati (also known as Parvati) around the skies, parts of her dismembered body fell to the earth . All these sites have been sanctified by major temples. Karnakhya is helieved to mark the place where her vagina fell, and is thereware said to have special powers associated with energy and creation. In accordance with tantric rituals, a goat is sacrificed here every day, and offered to the goddess.The giant turtles in the temple ponds look forward to being fed by visitors. The colourful annual Ambubachi festival, which marks the end of the earth’s menstrual cycle, attracts pilgrims here from all over India, to be blessed by the goddess.
On Chitranchal hill, in northeast Guwahati, is the Navagralaa (“Nine Planets”) Temple, believed to mark the site of the ancient city of Pragjyotishpur, Guwahati’s old name, which was famous as a centre of astronomy. Beneath its red beehiveshaped dome is a dark chamber with nine lingas representing the nine planets. Umananda Temple Peacock Island. Umananda Ghat, 1 km (0.6 miles) N of railway station. Enchantingly located on the lush green Peacock Island in the middle of the Brahmaputca, this 16th-century temple is also dedicated to Shiva’s wife. The island, swarming with friendly langur monkeys, is an excellent place to stand and watch the river, deceptively slow on the surface but with swift undercurrents.
This interesting museum, just east of the railway station, has fine reconstructions of tribal villages, a comprehensive collection of local handicrafts and a gallery of medieval stone and bronze sculptures, which were excavated from Amhari, an archaeological site In the heart of the city.
ZOO & BOTANICAL GARDENS
The well-maintained zoo is in the eastern part of the city. A white tiger, clouded leopards, hornbills and, of course, the native one-horned rhinos, can he seen ire spacious, moated enclosures. The Botanical Gardens adjoin the zoo.
ENVIRONS: The Vashishtha Temple, 12 km (7 miles) southeast of Guwahati, stands In a pretty spot that marks the confluence of three streams, with a waterfall and groves of trees around it. This is said to be the site of the ashram of the sage Vashishtha, a character in the Ramayana.
Sualkuchl , 32 km (20 Hiles) south of Guwahati, is a Majors weaving centre war Assam’s famous golden-hued mega silk. Several houses here have women working at their looms, and they are happy to welcome visitors. Hajo, 32 km (20 miles) west of Guwahati, is a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. The 16thcentury Hayagriva Madhava Temple, on Manikota Hill, is sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists, who believe that the Buddha died here. Fine bas-reliefs of scenes from the Ramayanca decorate its walls. Below the temple is a pond, home to Hajo’s most famous resident – a giant turtle. On another hill in Hajo is the Pao Mecca (“Quarter of Mecca”) Mosque, established by an Iraqi prince who came to Assam in the 12th century. A pilgrimage here is believed to be equivalent to a quarter of the piety attained by a Haj pilgrimage to Mecca.
The spectacular temple ruins at Madan Kamdev are 50 km (31 miles) northwest of Guwahati. Exuberantly erotic carvings of deities and celestial nymphs lie strewn on a small hillock here. They date from the 10th to 12th centuries, when the area was ruled by the Pala dynasty.