The Buddha Smiled- The story continues east
Fried Eye note- You can read the other episodes of Shahwar’s Chain Reaction here .
The man in the trench coat with the weather beaten face was oblivious to the gaze of over a hundred pairs of eyes fixed on him. The well worn trench coat seemed a little out of place in mid February, but he couldn’t care less. He was lost in his music as he played an indigenous two string musical instrument and sang his own version of Bhupen Hazarika’s “Moi Ati Jajabor”.
He sang in a soulful manner – his stage was the roof of a jam packed ferry in the middle of Brahmaputra river early in the morning and the audience were the everyday commuters and a few Europeans tourists.
We were crossing the Brahmaputra River to get to Majuli Island. The island is a World Heritage site in Assam and is the largest river island in Asia. The island is indeed unique with its own culture and tradition. But getting to the island is another unique experience in itself! My two friends – Alex, Anuj and I, rode our fully loaded motorcycles into the ferry through a thick plank of wood.
We were early and had the ferry to ourselves but in the next hour it filled up to the brim. Two SUVs took up most of the space in the deck and the crew started shifting some of the 50 odd bikes to the roof of the ferry! A cart load of TV sets came in as did some more large bundles meant for the shops on the island. And the final passengers in the ferry were a herd of goats and a few cows! There was an elephant on the bank of the river and I half expected that to come in too!!
Even in mid February, when the water level of the Bhramaputra is low…we still couldn’t see the other side of the huge river. It takes 2 hours to get to the island and after an hour or so, the tea vendor did the rounds, serving black tea in tiny plastic cups with too much sugar on it and an assortment of local biscuits that tasted wonderful. I wished the cups were a little bigger.
As the ferry docked, there was a mad rush to get off and the passengers ran towards the waiting buses and jeeps that would take them to the town across 10km of dusty road.
As we rode to town, we saw the man in the trench coat walking on the embankment, his army boots kicking up plumes of fine dust and he strummed on his stringed instrument and sang…still in his own world.
Majuli is the seat of Vaishnavite culture in Assam. There are some very old monasteries in the island. Some of them like the Dakhin Pat Satra and the Uttar Kamalabari Satra were built somewhere during the 1500 and mid 1600 AD. The Auniati Monastery has an in-house museum. Like everywhere else, these monasteries also have an all pervading peaceful atmosphere and we ended up spending about three hours in one of the monasteries.
The other place we spent hours was at the Samuguri Satra to see the masks. Hem Chandra Goswami and his immediate ancestors have been making the masks for the last 100 years or so. These masks are used in the theatres that are held all over Assam and over the years, they have become better. All of us put the masks on to pose and boy, did we look weird!! The paper mesh masks with the moveable jaws make the theatre much more interesting.
Majuli seems to be losing the battle against the Bhramaputra as the river has eroded away a very large portion of the island over the years. The island had a total area of 1250 sq kms but now only about 500 sq kms remain.
But the river seem to have mercifully left alone an old women’s hut built right on the river bank. She is a potter and has an unique method of making the pottery. She does not use the usual wheel but beats the clay with a wooden plank to make it round. Very hard work indeed and I wonder how financially viable it is. The hard work to monetrty gain ratio seems to be very lopsided.
The two nights in the Island were very relaxing…Everything moves at its own pace and you can’t hurry anything. The easy pace is such a pleasant change from the mad rush of the metros where everyone is in the rat race…..never realising that even if one win the race, one would still be a rat!
Although we checked in at Danny Gam’s beautiful bamboo house on stilts built in the traditional Missing tribal architecture, we spent the second night by the river in out tents. Except for the irregular crackling sound of the firewood and the rhythmic lapping of the river, there was an all encompassing silence. The river water sparkled like a thousand diamonds in the velvet night and as I looked up, I saw the stars punch a million holes in the dark canopy.
Across the river again. We had to cross a rather long and flimsy bamboo bridge and it sure was a little scary. Across the bridge was a little shed which was the toll booth (yes! We had to pay a toll of Rs 20 per bike!). The booth also doubles up as a joint selling local rice beer and at Rs10 for a quater bottle, it was cheap. Alex and Anuj suddenly decided that needed some beer to sooth their nerves after crossing the rickety bamboo bridge! They almost cleaned out the tiny shop off all the sweet beer.
We rode on till we came across a capsized ferry and then found that there weren’t any ferry plying to Lakhimpur. There were only small country boats plying across the narrowest part of the river and they looked rather unstable. The only other option was a 15 hour round trip which was not acceptable.
It was the scariest 30 minutes of my life! Since the bikes were heavily loaded, they couldn’t be laid down sideways and we had to sit on them and the boat rolled like a pendulum. Well, we made it to the other side and I swear, never again! The 15 hour ride would have been much less stressful!
After about riding an hour through narrow village road, we hit a lovely highway at North Lakhimpur and made our way to Nameri Eco camp in Tezpur. The Eco camp is way off the main road and inside a village and it is just fantastic.
The river behind the Eco Camp draws a large number of anglers for the huge Masher and the jungle is a bird watcher’s delight. It seems that there are birders who have been visiting Nameri regularly for years to photograph a particular bird! Truck loads of patience they have!!
Early next morning we were at the police checkpoint at Bhalukpong, the border town between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Formalities of Inner Line Permits over, we push onwards to Dhirang – 145 kms away from the border.
It is just a bamboo barricade that separates the two states, but there is a world of difference. The topography changes immediately and drastically. The hills start almost immediately after the barricade and keep climbing. The plains of Assam had big trees and there were lots of grassland and cultivation while the hills of Arunachal were covered with dense forest.
It had rained the previous day and the freshly cut road was a total mess. Vehicles of all description were stuck and it resulted in a huge jam. And we were the worst off. In the shin deep mud, there was no way we could put on the side stand and so we carried on, slipping and slithering, till we came across some firm ground.
Thankfully we hit better roads and at Durga Mandir, the small tea shop beckoned. The priest at the mandir, who is from Bihar, got chatting with us and said he has been at the particular temple for more than 50 years! But surprisingly, in 50 years, he has not learnt to the local language fluently but his Hindi has been hilariously diluted…liberally sprinkled with local words.
The fog at Zero Point delayed us for 30 minutes. Visibility improved after some kilometres and from atop the Nag Mandir, the view was simply breathtaking. We swept down the lovely road to the cantonment town of Tenga, crossed the army areas and started climbing again towards Bomdila. It was close to sundown and we stayed at the Monastery Guest House at Bomdila, 45 kms short of Dirang. I avoid riding at night unless there is some pressing emergency and there was none.
Bomdila to Tawang is 180 kms and it is a long distance in such terrains and we still had the Sela Pass to cross. After a quick stop at the Dirang Dzong, we continued to ride. 20 kms after Dirang, the wind suddenly picked up and snowflakes started falling coupled with rain. I have ridden in snow before but the three of us have never been so miserable and cold in all our life!! The snow gradually got thicker and at Baishaki, it was simply impossible to go on. The army closed off the road for vehicular traffic and we had to return to Dirang and holed up at the Yak Research Centre guest house for two days.
When we moved again, we found everything was blindingly white and there was hardly any traffic on the route. At the top of Sela Pass, a woman runs a tea stall. In that howling wind at 13,700 ft, the hot tea and noodles tasted out of this world and filled us with warmth. We bid our goodbyes and started on our way down to Tawang. The Sela Lake had frozen over looked like an ice hockey rink.
Another 40 kms to Jung and we relied on some more cups of hot tea and smokes to keep us warm. The skies were turning dark again and we hurried on after some more tea at the War Memorial at Jaswant Garh.
Like in all other Buddhist town, a colourfully decorated gate welcomes us to the town. It is the time of the Losar festival and the locals sure were in a festive mood. HH The Dalai Lama is omnipresent. Almost every house and business establishment has a large framed picture of the Dalai Lama in a prominent place.
It started snowing again as we checked into the hotel and it snowed through the night. I have never seen the Tawang Monastery covered snow and for once, the bright yellow roofs were replaced with the powdery white of fresh snow.
A senior monk gave us a guided tour of the monastery the next day. It is said to be the biggest monastery after the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The museum contained relics from the 5th Dalai Lama’s period and a huge elephant tusk….looked more like a mammoth’s tusk!!
We sat at the silent and empty prayer hall with a huge statue of the Buddha. The monk gave us cups of butter tea and we were discussing our planned departure the next day and how far and how fast we should travel. I looked up for a moment at the statue and I felt that Buddha was smiling at us. Good omen I thought.
That night it snowed heavily and completely blocked off everything. There was nothing we could do but sit tight. The bar tender of the hotel invited us over for dinner on the second night for some simple food peppered with much love.
We had wanted to go to Bumla but the snow ruled that out. When the road opened after three days, we crawled along with the rest of the convoy and covered 145 kms in 14 hours.
Laying in bed that night I realised, we were rather brash and pompous in declaring our schedule. We thought we could beat the bad weather at the Pass with our speed. I should have known better than to have pompous thoughts and plans like that!
The Buddha smiled at our brashness.
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