My Stay in Silchar

I have been to Assam earlier also when I was posted in Cachar in the Southern Assam. The area is bounded by Bangladesh and Tripura and North Cachar Hills separate it from the rest of Assam. We lived in a town called Silchar. Although it is in the Assam but most of the population is Bengalis. Muslims dominate the rural areas. The Barak river flows through it and splits into two rivers called Surma and Kushiara which again join together in Bangladesh.

This river is very famous for a variety of fish called illish. Although it has more bones than any other fish, it tastes great and the Bengali people whose weakness for the fish is well known are crazy for this variety.

During the days we were there, there were very few means of communications. All the flights coming into this area from Kolkata fly for most of their journey in the Bangladesh space. Traveling by train taken at least 12 hours to the capital city of Guwahati which is better connected with rest of India. The trains have to cross the North Cachar Hills through tunnels and on meter gauge. But then the whole region is sleepy and naturally gifted with great beauty.

During the monsoons the Barak river is in spate and many a times breaks the dykes and inundates the whole region. Houses are submerged, and crops are destroyed. There are tea gardens on all side and Surma valley tea is quite famous. During British times, the area produced petroleum in places like Badarpur. There were oil wells on the small hillock and crude oil flowed through channels specially made for the purpose to storage tanks on the banks of Barak river. From here the crude was transferred to the ships and sent away.

The boundary of India with Bangladesh was very near. The border was very porous at that time and people sneaked from one country to another easily. In fact many of them have relatives on both the sides. Like in Punjab many Hindus had to migrate as refugees to Silchar leaving behind their properties.

Sibsagar in Assam

ASSAM SILK SAREE SHOP IN NORTH LAKHIMPUR ASSAM
ASSAM SILK SAREE SHOP IN NORTH LAKHIMPUR ASSAM (Photo credit: rajkumar1220)

Sibsagar is a district in upper Assam. It is called Shivasagar these days. It is an important historical town in Assam. It drives its name from a huge water tank named after the Ahom King Sib Singh. Sagar means a large water body. Ahoms are not the original inhabitants of Assam. They came here from China through Patkai range of hills. Slowly from invaders, they stayed here bewitched by the beauty of the land, lush green woods and hills. During there early days they subdued local Chutia and Kachari kings.

They established their capital in Rongpur which falls in this district. They were very fond of very huge water tanks and made so many of them. The water never dries in them indicating that they are fed by underground water sources.

The town is famous for silk clothes. In those times, there was a loom in every home on which women of the house weaved clothes of silk and cotton not for sale but for the family folks. Silk was obtained from three kinds of worms namely eri (Attacus ricini), Muga(anthraea assama) & Pat(Bombyx textor). they produce different kinds of silk. These silk worms feed on leaves of different trees. Eri feeds on castor oil plant, Muga worms feed on sum-tree and Pat worms on mulberry trees. A fine white thread which is much valued is obtained by feeding Muga on chapa (Magnolia griffithi) and mezankuri (tetranthera polyantha). During British times, Muga production ousted all other forms. Pat production was lowest.

These days, there are many shops which do roaring business in silk materials. Silk clothes are acquired from Manipur mostly these days. In the town there is a popular shops called Sangeeta dealing in all sorts of silk materials. Most of the visitors to the city make it a point to buy tea, silk dress materials and visit the sibsagar tank and famous Shiva temple called Shiv dhol.

Travel travails in North East India in 1988-Return Journey

So we reached Nazira after harrowing experience. It was very cold there. In the winter, the sun goes down at about half past four in the evening. Those were the days when an extremist outfit called ULFA was very active. There were kidnappings and murders. So people ventured outside mostly in the daytime or under the protection of security forces.

We left in the early mornings and came back early. We went to see the Sivasagar town which was the capital once upon a time of Assam under the rule of Ahom kings. Ahoms came from South-East Asia and settled in North East India for good. Although in the beginning they followed Buddhism but converted to Hinduism and began suffixing “Singh” to their names. Thus the town of Sivasagar was founded by King Shiv Singh. It is a large town. There is a very large lake called Shiv Sagar. In fact the whole area has number of such lakes and the water in them is very clear.Adjacent to the lake is a Shiv temple called “Shiv Dol”. It is gigantic structure.

Most of the trading is in the hands of Marwaris which originally migrated from Rajasthan. In fact they are so enterprising merchants that there is hardly any place in the North-East where they have not set the shops.One reason for their flourishing in this part of the region is the indolent nature of the local people.There is many shops which sell the silk sarees and cloths. The silk is from Assam and Manipur and comes in three main varieties namely Golden Muga, white Pat and warm Eri Silk. These varieties are produced by the same silkworms when fed on leaves of different trees. Everyone who goes there purchases the silk along with the tea. You can see unending stretches of tea plantations everywhere along the main roads.

Then we visited the “Madams” which are very elaborate mud structures where the bodies of kings and other royal people are interred exactly in the same fashion as the Pharaohs in Egypt.

Days went by very fast and time came for returning. There was a train in the early afternoon and we went to Simulgudi station again. There people moving here and there confused and worried. There we saw a notice saying that due to “Bandh (strike)” in Cachar Hills all the trains going towards Silchar shall remain cancelled for next 4 days. We went back feeling helpless and thought of going to Guwahati and from there more trains shall be available for Silchar although we had to do a lot of useless journey. So we boarded a train after 2 days and it reached Guwahati at noon. The scene was not promising.I went to booking counter for a train inquiry and ticket. As usual no reservation was available on the counter. I caught hold of a tout and gave him extra money for getting the berth reservation. The train was at about 4 O’clock in the evening which meant we have to occupy the berths after sometime and sleep and reach in the early morning at Silchar.

But as the night approached, there happened a surprising thing in the train. There was no electricity in the train. On top of it, the train was over crowded and there was not an inch to move for going to toilet. The reservation did not have any relevance because on such trains which stop at every station people alight and board at every station. The train halted at some station where we procured some candles and a match box. Without light you could see the person sitting next to you. Sometimes I was afraid that if anyone of us moved, he or she could not retrieve the way back.

Somehow, the night passed and reached Silchar in the early morning. It was such a perilous journey.

Travel travails in North East India in 1988

The company I work with is the premier in the quest of oil and gas in India. It explores oil and gas in every corner of India. The problems of logistics, politics & terrorism do not deter it in its pursuit of this highly prized commodity. In India, it was in Assam where the British struck the oil. The town of Digboi bears the testimony where the Edwin Drake prodded the diggers with the cry of “Dig boy Dig” and the place got the name Digboi. Our company is having drilling in many parts of Assam. One such place is in South Assam and is called Silchar which is the city from where it is engaged in the search of oil in the Barak valley.

In 1988, I was posted in Silchar, headquarters of Cachar district. The place was very quaint and visitors from outside feel transported to the ancient times. The district borders Bangladesh and most of the population speaks Bengali language. The particular dialect they speak is Sylhetti which is spoken in the adjacent Sylhet district of Bangladesh. At that time, modes of communication were very few. Not to talk of mobile phones, even the landline phones were available in offices only. Similarly, logistically it was very poor place. Due to the peculiar shape of Bangladesh, it was very long journey by train to reach there from Calcutta or rest of India. Even these days no trains of note run from the capital Delhi to Silchar. You have to cross the Cachar hills to reach south Assam from Guwahati in the North Assam. These are the same hills which find a mention in the Mahabharata. Here lived Hidimba which fell in love with Bhima because of his physical strength and had a son by him called Ghatotkach.  Only few trains run between Guwahati and Silchar. There were only two flights in the daytime from Calcutta which flew almost over Bangladesh.

Anyway on to the description of the journey which is the subject of this topic.

My brother-in-law was also working in the same company and was posted at a place called Nazira in upper Assam. He sent us an invitation to visit them. My wife was very happy and looked forward to the journey to meet her brother and sister-in-law. I also wanted to undertake this journey because I also wanted a break from the tough working conditions in the Silchar. We had two very small children at that time. We booked the tickets and made the preparations and boarded the train running one a meter gauge rail in the noon.  This train was supposed to reach Lumding junction at about 4 O’clock in morning where we had to alight from this train and board another train coming from Guwahati and going to Tinsukhia in the extreme East of the country. The weather was very good and became cooler as the train proceeded North.

The train crossed through the lovely picturesque  Barak valley. The farmers with chinese hats on their heads worked in the lush green fields. There were bamboo and banana groves here and there. On the Barak river there were boats sometimes looking so insignificant on the mighty waters spread in a very broad span. They were fishing boats and fish of very delicious variety is found in this river. The boats yonder looked like dots. Occasionally group of birds would take flight as if in fright. Since it was December, the days were short. Train was chugging long slowly but steadily in the plain.

It was still day as the train seemed to be running into the blue colored hills and crossing many tunnels on the way. The speed was decreasing because the hilly slopes had started. The train would stop at any place where it pleases and for a time which seemed interminably long. After a long wait, the train reached the Jatinga. It is a fabled place where on a particular night thousands of bird commit suicide by hitting themselves on the lights fixed on the bamboo poles by the villagers. The scenery at the railway station was breathtaking. The mountains in front looked like a solid blue wall. The water was making a purling sound in the rivulets nearby. As it was getting dark and chilly, fog began floating and seemed to be conversing with the trees. The smoke from hearths in the village huts seemed suspended as dense cool air made difficult for it to rise.

The train seemed to have permanently there. Passengers alighted from the compartments because a beautiful site beckoned them. Whole platform looked orange colored because it was strewn with oranges. There were heaps of them and local gardeners sold them in  special bamboo baskets. Everyone was busy in the bargaining for the oranges and forgotten the train.

By and by the night began to fall. The hill outlines became silhouettes and soon dissolved in the pitch black  night. The reality began to dawn on us that the train is surely going to reach late at Lumding and miss the connecting train. The train somehow began moving and as expected reached the Lumding station very late. The next connecting train was around 09:30 and 10:00 in the evening and specter of spending whole day at the station loomed over us. Harrowing ordeal began. These two coaches were detached and parked in the sidings. The mottled group of passengers became friendly with each other. The food was scarce. On top of it, there was strike in the town and whole town was deserted as reported by some passengers who were adventurous enough to go out. There was no facility for depositing the luggage and go out which in the present conditions was impossible. The day began to heat up causing uneasiness and restlessness among the passengers especially children.

After a wait of whole day, a train chugged into the station and our coaches were attached to it. The train was rushing into the pitch dark night towards its destination. Ultimately it reached Simalgudi station where we were to alight. It was 4 O’clock in the morning. A thick pal of fog hanged over the station and people looked like wraiths. We were complete strangers to the place and did not know how to proceed to Nazira which is about 15 kilometers. Fortunately, a Muslim boy who had become acquainted with us during the journey helped us to find a taxi. We asked him where he himself was headed. He told us that he was going to Sivasagar, which was the capital of Ahom kings which ruled Assam for a long time. We asked him how he would go there, he told that soon a bus of a company shall come and he would go in that bus. Surprisingly the bus belonged to our company and was a shift carrying bus!!!.

Such was the journey. So I called it “such a long journey”

Famed Silk of Assam

For some people, Assam is synonymous with tea. It is not an under statement, it is true because the tea of Assam travels all over the world. Assam tea is known for its strength and Darjeeling tea on the other hand is famous for its aroma. When two are blended in right proportions, magic is created. The people in Assam like their tea brew without any milk added to it. They call it “Lal cha”, the red tea liquor due to beautiful red color. This brew has been proved to be very good for health as it contains many chemicals which are antioxidants. Apart from the tea, Assam is known for the silk fabrics. This silk is so much in demand that the people who go to Assam for work in oil industry, tea gardens and as tourists makes it a point to buy lots of silk sarees and cloth for making salwar and kameez. There are good shops selling silk fabrics in all the big cities.

Silk weaving is an very ancient art of Assam. There are references of silk in the early literature of India. For example, in the times of Chandragupta Maurya, this silk was highly praised by Chanakya. The writer of Alamgir Nama, Mirza Muhammad Kazim mentioned that quality of the silk products in Assam was at par with the Chinese silk.

Three varieties of silk are available in Assam. These are Eri, Muga and Pat. There was a caste of weavers called Katani which specialized in Pat silk. Muga variety is the golden silk with natural color. When I was in Assam at Sibsagar, I saw villagers selling the the silk worm cocoons and someone told me that people here eat these worms as food.

The most famous place for silk weaving is Soalkuchi which is also called the “Manchester of East”. It is a weavers village specializing in the silk weaving. It is said that artisans here were brought to this place from Tantikuchi which was the village of weaver nearby. In fact, the word “tant” stands for the thread.

“Khat khat khat khatsalare sabade prean mor nite nachuyai” was one of the most popular radio songs composed and sung during the fifties of the last century by the present artist pensioner Narayan Chandra Das Of Sualkuchhi.Actually the ‘click-clack click-clack’sound of the loom make the soul of the passerby dance with the rhythmic rattle of the shuttle flying through the sheds of the wrap. In fact the weaving the cloth on hand loom brings the mind closer to the God because of the “Tana” warp and “bana” weft threads are akin to the illusion of this world and we are all lost in the tana bana. Saint Kabir wove the cloth and sung the songs of joy and praise and friendship with God.

Last Days in Assam

Peculiar things happened with me as I made preparations for leaving Sibsagar on my transfer back to Mumbai.
A few days prior to my planned departure, the weather became very hot and humid as it becomes there during summer days. But on the day of my journey to airport at Dibrugarh, it began to rain and rained so much that it became a deluge. Without any respite, the rain was falling in solid sheets. Visibility became very poor. My flight was canceled on the scheduled day despite the fact that our luggage was boarded and boarding passes were issued. Such a thing never happened to me in my three years sojourn in Assam. My flight never got canceled and I made it to airport even on the days of ULFA bandh. It seemed that there were some scores remaining unsettled, as if I owed something to others and others to me, as if someone was waiting for me to see me and fulfill the unfulfilled desires. My colleagues advised me to stay put at some hotel for next day journey but I returned back. Luckily, one of my colleagues brought back the key of the house which I had surrendered that very day. I changed my flight altogether for next day.
Next day flight again arrived one hour late and I began to have doubts again. At last it took off for Guwahati on its way to Kolkata. On my adjacent seats-I was on window seat-were sitting two very pretty young girls who incidentally happened to belong to same place I was coming from and their parents worked in same company as I. They were going to Chennai, but worried about missing their connecting flight from Kolkata to Chennai due to delay in this flight. It turned out that they were having non-refundable tickets of different airlines. If everything went on time from Kolkata not only would they miss the flight but also lose the money. I tried to help them and luckily at Kolkata when they were waiting for luggage, inquiry at help counter of the airlines revealed that the flight as usual was delayed for one hour.

But I made to Kolkata with no hurry as my connecting flight to Mumbai was late in the evening with enough time remaining. Flight to Mumbai also was delayed and reached at midnight. My real nightmare started when I hired a taxi from outside. There is a great racket going on at Mumbai airport. Some taxi driver and accompanying person will board the taxi with you and take a just outside the airport where number of taxis are waiting. He will charge money from you as they pretend it be prepaid taxi and will ask you to shift to some waiting taxi and will give the driver very vague instructions about the destination and give him some share. After traveling about half the distance, the driver will ask for the spot where the passenger will drop but he will give the name of place nearby. As you will protest that I have to go to where I have to, he will say that the fellow who transferred you in my cab told me to drop you elsewhere and for going further he will again demand some more money. Really, Mumbai is going to dogs, it will go bust. It is the city whose cycle of decline has really well started. It has become a old vamp. Name any kind of maladies-physical as well as mental- you will find them in Mumbai.
Best of luck for this dying city. My lungs choked on pollution as I sucked so many pollutants in two hours as I have done in Assam in 3 years.

Assam & Sikhs

Sikh gurus made visits to Assam during their peregrinations all over India for preaching the lesson of brotherhood, love and amity and peace. Ninth Guru, Guru Teg Bahadur, visited Assam during 1668 February and stayed in Dhubri town.

Recently, his three hundred thirty first martyrdom day was celebrated here on twenty sixth of November 2006. He was tortured and killed by Aurangzeb, the Mughal king of India as he refused to embrace the Muslim religion.

Sikhs came from far off places like Canada, UK, Bhutan, Nepal and other parts of Assam like Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Tinsukhia, Digboi and Guwahati; the district of Dhubri looked like a mini Punjab on these days.

Muslims attacked Assam in 1669 in order to extend their control beyond Guwahati. This means that Guru was also here at that time. The command of the Mughal Army was in the hands of Raja Ram Singh who was a very pious person.

In this fight, Ahoms led by the legendary Ahom General Lachit Borphukan fought valiantly with the Mughals and defeated them thoroughly. It was decided that the Mughals would not cross Brahmaputra( Luit) and the river will mark the boundary between the two. Guru, it is recorded played a vital role in bringing peace among the waring parties.