Saturday, 3 May 2014

The Call of Paradise

As travel enthusiasts, we were looking for a break in 2014, a sabbatical, albeit with a purpose - probably the smartest and exciting move for urbanites like us. During one such orientation programme for college teachers, ‘voluntarism’ was part of the itinerary which offers one the unique opportunity to combine a tour with a social cause. Needless to say one also discovers in the process about the varied tapestry of cultural and natural diversity while travelling. For all the teachers it was a shift in the paradigm – to gain new perspectives, to interact with people and expand our horizon.

The very idea of spending a few days in a rustic village in Assam was indeed an exceptional experience for most of us globetrotters, an utterly altruistic and joyful adventure. And this aspiration did manifest itself in multiple ways in the days to come. Located in the Kamrup district of Assam, Kulsi is about 40 kms from Guwahati, the capital city. The eastern panorama has always beckoned visitors for its wealth and biodiversity, the impressive views of deep gorges and its flower blossoms in myriad shapes and sizes. The best part about Kulsi, as compared to other natural spots, that it is a bit unknown. Our willingness to embrace the sublime came true as nature unfolded the rustic veil exposing the exquisite landscape blending seamlessly with the environment and merging with the lagoon.

We reached the Kukurmara town near Kulsi village in almost 90 minutes from Guwahati by a bus arranged for us by the Guwahati University. The journey was short and pleasant with Bhupen Hazarika’s songs humming from the stereo nostalgically reminding me of the profoundness of the maestro’s melodies, “Bistirno duparot...” and “Dola ho dola...”. The bus took a right turn from the highway and moved towards an uneven, dusty road that took us to the isolated and quiet village. The route from Guwahati to Kukurmara village, prior to reaching Kulsi is a twisting, undulating ribbon of sandy surface. On both sides of the road, there were a number of lush green trees as we traversed through this otherwise unspoilt and delightful area. At the side of the road at regular intervals there are tiny thatched huts with green fields.   After we embarked from the bus, the local guide, Bhaity pointed his fingers towards the lagoon which looked inviting in the midday sun some 2 kms from our vantage point. The ripple of the loch indicated that it is vibrantly active. My companions facetiously remarked that it would be charming to swim in the waters. I immediately retorted, “How many of you know swimming and that too in an untamed river?” That kept them quiet from further banter. 

This river is a tributary of the mighty Brahmaputra and the locals prefer to call it ‘kolohi’. After lunch I’ll take you further to show the ‘xihu’.

We were naturally curious to know what ‘xihu’ meant. He explained that this river was a fresh and unique hotspot for river dolphins known as ‘xihus’. As arranged by the Wave Ecotourism, we were welcomed by some of the locals with ‘phoolam gamochas’, a kind of embroidered drape- traditional way of welcoming guests, which overwhelmed us. Then they took us to a traditional Assam type house made of wood and bamboo where we would stay during this excursion. The simplicity and pristine aura of the house was appealing with the spartan setting and local cuisine was served on banana leaf which looked authentic. We sat on wooden benches and had a taste of mati daal, kkaar, fish tenga and khorika hah (duck preparation). My colleagues liked the light lunch as Assamese cuisine is delectable and nutritious.

Let’s take rest for an hour and then start exploring this region. I’m really tired!” Reena yawned as she spoke.

“I’ll try my luck with fishing”, spoke Ranita with a gleam in her eyes. We all seemed excited at the porospect.

“I’ll come after an hour then and take you towards the river and the forest area, baideu “ Bhaity replied.

The russet hues of the evening suffused the sky and everything looked unspoiled as I gazed at the blessed land, at the incredible beauty in awe which was not just a physical experience for me but an emotion which goes beyond the picturesque landscape. The tranquil scene seemed to form a symbiotic link with nature and my self. I vividly remembered the famous lines of Whitman as I stood in the midst of the promised land away from the din and bustle:

I leane and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass...
The play of shine and shade on the trees...along the fields and hill-sides.

The ripple of the Kulsi river, the foliage in all their glory, the chirping of the birds and the untouched loveliness of the vale truly revealed God’s artistry. Since it was the festive season, the distant echo of ‘dhol’(drum), ‘‘bahi’(flute),‘Khol’, ’gogona’(split bamboo instrument) and ‘pepa’(made of buffalo-horn) accompied by Bihu dance and songs were reverberating the valley. The lilting sound totally mesmerised me:

"Ipine pepper math, hipine phoolar math/majote nachoni nache...” chorused the lively singers.

The month being the spring of April, harbinger of Rongali Bihu was significant with merry making and musical performances. Indeed, our visit to this mystic land definitely had a lot to offer. 

As we strolled towards the magnificent water labyrinth of the Kulsi, we felt that Assam is indeed a land of abundance with fertile verdant grounds laden with exotic fruits and flowers swaying in the light breeze. The beauty doesn’t end here. As we come across the Bihu dancers, their ensemble and accessories showcased the creativity and craftsmanship of the people. The muga mekhela-sador, gam-kharu and embroidered gamochas were intricately designed and beautiful. It was a cultural melange for us and we gained profound insight into the realm of Asssamese culture, language and ethnicity. The vivaciousness, rhythm and cadence of the bihu songs and dance captivated us and we felt our feet tapping lightly with the music.

The pleasing blend of the percussions pervaded the area and songs were soul stirring. The friendly dancers beckoned us to participate with them and the next hour was a hilarious experience, unique of its kind. After this Bhaity took us near the lagoon to show the ‘xihu’. The water dolphins moved so fast that it was difficult to capture them on our cameras. Finally we took some good shots when Bhaity told us to maintain silence so as not to disturb the dolphins. We also took snaps of the rugged rocks with their crags and whorls, the waterfall gushing out, the lush greenery and beauty of the twilight hour. When it was almost dark we decided to return to our hut. We were a bit excited about the next day which would our counselling sessions with the village women who would interact freely with us, share their experiences and woes. We in turn would provide constructive suggestions to get on with their lives in a positive way and adopt a healthy attitude.

We needed to intermingle and educate the simple village folks about the essential facts of life-literacy, health and hygiene, women empowerment, social ills and waste management. Our tour of the village was the very antithesis quintessential tourism. As we travelled the length and breadth of this region, from Guwahati, to Kulsi to Chandubi, it was a learning process for us too, as we actively participated in the various spheres not just received ready- made entertainments as the typical tour packages. In the sunny morning as arranged by our programme co-ordinators, Dr. Kulen Phukan and Prof. Haren Deka, the village women with their children came towards our open camp in plenty. They sat on the mats provided by wave tourism and looked at us in apprehension.

We discussed issues on poverty, illiteracy, imperious sensibilities of the powerful over the powerless, care giving and most importantly the status of women. The villagers opened up slowly and our interaction was indeed candid. We tried to create an awareness of the modern day amenities, opportunities, distant education and laws that would benefit them. We offered various constructive suggestions to their quotidian problems and also promised to visit their homes, crafts and weaving centre the next day. The session ended with the distribution of sweet pithas (usually made of sesame, coconut, jiggery and rice powder). We savoured the delicious gila pitha, til pitha and payoh, which were usually prepared during the Bihu festivals and we were overwhelmed by the warmth shown by the villagers. It was indeed a cultural exchange of a diverse kind. The memory remained etched in our minds as we discussed about the wonderful gathering late in the evening sipping the provoking local brew of lemon tea suffused with the aroma of Assam.

In the sun-baked banks of Kulsi, the most fascinating sight was of the lean –limbed fisherman with the traditional ‘gamocha’ draping their head netting the fishes. Bhaity explained that the fishes in this river were mostly medium sized and small. Occasionally the fishermen do get a bigger catch. We were excited to watch the efforts of these men who finally came up with a large variety of silver coloured wriggling and flapping marine life. They also showed us the fishes bobbing up and down in the shallow parts. With herculean effort I tried to haul the fishing rod as I thought that I netted a fish but my disappointment was tangible when I observed some mud and pebbles in my net. Everybody roared with laughter.

“Better luck next time”, my companions bantered. I made a face at them. It was as if we were drifted back to childhood innocence of fun and laughter. For us this experience however, was simply unusual. 

Aahh! The raindrops drizzling all over us symbolized the early monsoons. The delicate pitter-patter sound was fascinating and we rushed towards the cottage as we didn’t want to get drenched. It really was alluring to watch the sky get bloated with enormous clouds, deafening sound of thunder and forked lightening and there is no respite from the sharp, pelting rain showering the area. Once inside we settled for steaming tea and ‘pakoras’. This spurt of rain cleansed the leaves, grass and flowers and gave a sparkle to nature. 

The next morning was our visit to the homes of the people, to interact with them openly and know more about their life and occupation. A wizened, old man with crinkled eyes sat on the courtyard as we entered one of the dwellings. The click-clack sound of the looms greeted us and we saw two women weaving. For us the patterns of yarn and the designs created by them were incredible.

The soft silks of endi, muga and paat with the traditional patterns of peacock, flowers, trees and animals woven seemed marvellous. We also tried to use the loom as shown by the women. It was a delightful learning experience. They offered us fruits and pithas. Some of the women-folk also provided us the recipe for these pithas and literally allowed us to mix and fold these items and cook on the mud stove. We also learnt to wear the local attire, the exquisite mekhela-chador in the traditional way. There was a lot of fun and laughter and the experience was wonderful.

“We have really gathered unique knowledge from these people. They are so skilled” remarked one lady from the group. 

Indeed the villagers with their simplicity and warmth enveloped us. It was inspiring to know their culture, language and diverse art which were incomparable. They are master crafts men and excel in innumerable art forms besides weaving. It gave us an in-depth feel of the area visited as we mingled with the locals. We built a relationship with them and were going back with inner satisfaction and gratitude of people. I definitely felt that this has enabled us to experience rural Assam at its best and in peace. This unspoilt, unknown place was like going to paradise- to be one with nature and become absorbed in its hypnotic spell. It has soothed our soul-the giving and sharing and was informative as well as fulfilling. Through this lens of ‘voluntourism’ as I call it, my vista has expanded and has made a positive difference to my life in 2014. This kind of travel is a good low-budget trip to broaden one’s horizon.


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