Fascinating Assam (Asom, Axom) straddles the fertile Brahmaputra valley, making it the most accessible core of India’s northeast. The archetypal Assamese landscape offers mesmerising autumnal vistas over seemingly endless gold-green rice fields patched with palm and bamboo groves and distantly hemmed with hazy blue mountain horizons. In between are equally endless, equally gorgeous manicured tea estates. Unlike Sri Lanka’s or Darjeeling’s, Assamese tea estates are virtually flat and take their particular scenic splendour from the dappled shade of interplanted acacia trees that shield sensitive tea leaves from the blazing sun.
Assamese people might look ‘Indian’, but Assamese culture is proudly distinct: the neo-Vaishnavite faith is virtually a ‘national’ religion and the gamosa (a red-and-white embroidered scarf worn for prayer by most Assamese men) is a subtle mark of ‘national’ costume. Despite similarities between Bengali and Assamese alphabets, Assam is vehemently NOT Bengal. Indeed the influx of Bengali migrants to the state remains one of Assam’s hottest political issues. The Assamese have long bemoaned a perceived neglect and imperial attitude from Delhi for failing to stem that tide of immigration.
However, by no means all of Assam is ethnically Assamese. Before the Ahom invasions between the 13th and 15th centuries, much of today’s Assam was ruled from Dimapur (ironically now appended to Nagaland) by a Kachari-Dimasa dynasty. The Chutiaya (Deori-Bodo) kingdom was an important force further west. While this might seem of minor historical interest, the Dimasa and Bodo peoples didn’t just disappear. During the 20th century, increasing ethnic consciousness led their descendents to resent the Assamese in much the same way as the Assamese have resented Bengal and greater India. The result was a major Bodo insurgency that was only settled in 2004–05 with the creation of a partially self-governing ‘Bodoland’ in northwestern Assam. In the Cachar Hills around Haflong, the Dimasas continue a violent campaign for autonomy.
Don’t let that put you off. Assam is a delightful, hospitable and deeply civilised place that you can easily grow to love. Its national parks protect a remarkable range of wildlife. And don’t miss the delicious Assamese food: fruity, mild and finely pH-balanced using a unique banana-alkaline extract called khar.
Assam’s beautiful rice fields look their emerald best in October. However, the national parks rarely open before November and, even then, the state’s iconic rhinoceroses will remain hard to spot amid elephant-height grasses. These grasses have burnt off by February, but by that stage the plains will have turned a relatively drab brown.
For more information, visit www.assamtourism.org.