Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Guwahati Walking Tours - Uzanbazar, Cultural & Historical Area of Guwahati

A small area of Guwahati called Uzan Bazar, located between the south bank of Brahmaputra and the city railway station, is the most culturally and historically rich part of the city.

The ancient pond of Dighlipukhuri is placed like a jewel, at the centre of this area. Since the area has so many places to visit, this walking tour is divided in two parts.

Uzan Bazar and Guwahati city centre, images by Sunil Deepak

The image above is from a small lane close to Dighlipukhuri and shows the preparation of Saraswati idols in preparation for the Saraswati Puja festival.

This first part of the walking tour focuses on the Dighlipukhuri pond and the area to its south including the Assam State museum, the state library, Robindra Bhoban cultural centre, Ambari archeological area, Cotton college and Nehru Park. Let’s start the tour by a brief introduction to the history of this area.

Uzan Bazar is very well connected by public transport. You can get down at Dighalipukhuri and then easily walk to all the places mentioned in this post.

History of the Uzan Bazar area

Ambari archeological area was discovered in 1960 and excavations are still going on. They show that this area was an important cultural centre in the ancient Kamrupa empire, when Guwahati was known as Pragjyotishpura. The excavations have shown constructions and artefacts from two periods – from 8 to 11th century CE and from 13th to 18th century CE. An artist guild with production of sculptures was located here. Glazed terracotta potteries, Kaolin pots and Celadon wares found here show that the area was an important trading centre in the medieval period.

Due to high level of subsoil water in the area, deeper digging was not feasible here.

During the British times, building of railway tracks and construction of the Paltan Bazar railway station, brought a different kind of development in the area. While the capital of the British Assam was in Shillong, important buildings in British colonial style were built here.

Dighalipukhuri Pond

According to Assamese writer-historian Kumudeshwar Hazarika, in 19th century, when the British had arrived in Guwahati (then known as Gauhati), there were around 300 ponds in the city. Pond-construction was seen as one of the duties of the kings, and often ponds were built to thank or to mark some special occasion. In 19th century, most of those ponds were filled.

However, Uzanbazar area still has some of these ponds. Dighlipukhuri is the biggest and oldest of all the ponds of the city.

Uzan Bazar and Guwahati city centre, images by Sunil Deepak

I don't know how big a water body should be, to be considered a lake, rather than a pond - probably, Dighlipukhuri is big enough to be called a lake.

Dighlipukhuri, built during Ahom empire, was earlier connected to the river Brahmaputra in the north by a canal and used as a boat-port. This canal was closed and the European club was built here by the British, which is now used as part of the High Court (old campus).

To the south, the pond also connected to a marshy area called Shola Beel. This area was covered when Paltan Bazar railway station was constructed.

Dighalipukhuri has a children’s park, a boat club and paddle boats for the tourists. It is a great area for the morning and evening walks, though during office hours, it is a little noisy with the traffic rush.

Central Library and the State Museum

Assam state museum and the central state library are both opposite the south end of Dighalipukhuri.

The library courtyard has the statues of three of the famous Assamese cultural icons of 20th century – playwright, writer and film maker Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, pioneer of music and art Bishnu Prasad Rabha and actor-director Fani Sharma. Unfortunately India does not have a tradition of honouring its cultural icons, and most of the public statues are reserved for politicians. Guwahati and Assam are probably an exception to this trend.

Uzan Bazar and Guwahati city centre, images by Sunil Deepak

I did visit the state library and museums for cultural events but not for their original purpose. Thus, I never managed to see the books in the library and to visit the exhibits of the museum. Instead, I participated in the cultural events held in their premises such as the annual conference of Indian museologists and the Indian youth festival, presented in the two images below.

Uzan Bazar and Guwahati city centre, images by Sunil Deepak

Uzan Bazar and Guwahati city centre, images by Sunil Deepak

Robindra Bhoban

Close to the state museum is Robindra Bhoban cultural centre that has a rich programme of plays, dance and other cultural events through out the year. The building also hosts a cultural museum which I never managed to visit it as well – finding it closed the couple of times I visited it. The image below shows an art exhibition held in its courtyard.

Uzan Bazar and Guwahati city centre, images by Sunil Deepak

Like Kalakshetra, the other important cultural centre of Guwahati, even Robindra Bhoban (Bhawan) does not have a proper website or facebook page or even an email mailing list to get information about its events-programme. Thus, unless you live in the area and can check its billboards regularly, it is not easy to be updated about its activities.

Ambari archaeological area

Under the “History” section above, I have already given some information about the significance of Ambari archaeological area. It is a five minutes’ walk from Robindra Bhoban. The area is part of archaeology department of Guwahati university.

Here you can see the remains of the medieval houses of the old city as well as visit the small but nicely maintained museum that has many artefacts from 8th to 10th century and from medieval period, discovered in the diggings in this area.

The image below shows a 10th century Shivalinga and a medieval bamboo statue of Ganesh from the Ambari museum.

Uzan Bazar and Guwahati city centre, images by Sunil Deepak

Cotton College

A side road near Dighalipukhuri, takes you to Cotton college and Nehru Park. Cotton college is one the old institutions of higher education in Guwahati, established in 1901, during the British colonial rule. It was also an important centre of the freedom movement in the north-east. With its wide open areas, low colonial buildings and huge ancient trees, Cotton college is a beautiful area.

The image below has one of the busts of the luminaries of Cotton College, which include Bhupen Hazarika.

Uzan Bazar and Guwahati city centre, images by Sunil Deepak

Near Cotton college, a picturesque street going towards the river has the shops of flowers and plants-sellers.

Uzan Bazar and Guwahati city centre, images by Sunil Deepak

This part of the city has been beautified by bas-relief artistic panels fixed along the walls of the buildings facing Dighlipukhuri. The image below presents the details of one such panel.

Uzan Bazar and Guwahati city centre, images by Sunil Deepak

Similar panels have also been put up in Dispur. As far as I can tell, each panel is a work of art, different from all others. I wish that the city would give recognition to the artists of such works by indicating their names near each panel.

Nehru Park

The entrance of Nehru Park is from the Cotton college road. It is a nice garden with a lot of sculptures, starting from a nice group of terracotta statues including India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru with three children.

Uzan Bazar and Guwahati city centre, images by Sunil Deepak

Close to the entrance, the garden on the left has terracotta statues presenting the different dance and music traditions of Assam. The image below presents the Zikar singers, a traditional art form of Assamese Muslims.

Uzan Bazar and Guwahati city centre, images by Sunil Deepak

Another favourite area of the park is close to its other border towards the river, which has a Bhul-bhulaiyan (maze) made of shrubs, where once you enter, you can easily get lost and not find your way out (not so much for adults, as for children).

This area also has a lovely sculpture of Kushal Konwar, a follower of Gandhi ji and a believer in non-violence, who was hanged by the British in June 1943.

Uzan Bazar and Guwahati city centre, images by Sunil Deepak

Road and Park events in Dighalipukhuri

Though formally Guwahati is not the capital of Assam and only the Dispur area of the city is called the state capital, the areas between Dighalipukhuri, state museum and library are popular venues for protest marches, public meetings and strikes to attract the government and public attention.

Every time I went to this area, I always went around to see who was protesting or doing hunger strikes and for what reason. The image below is from the Dighalipukhuri park showing a meeting of the farmers of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) with its leader Akhil Gogoi.

Uzan Bazar and Guwahati city centre, images by Sunil Deepak

The next image is from a fashion show in front of the entrance to Dughalipukhuri park during the north-east GLBTQI pride parade in February 2016.

Uzan Bazar and Guwahati city centre, images by Sunil Deepak

Conclusions

For me, in terms of its importance to the soul of the city, this area can be considered as the “centre of Guwahati”. As you can see, there are a lot of places to visit in this part. I have touched on only some of those places in this post.

The remaining places located to the north of Dighalipukhuri such as the famous Ugratara, Shukreshwar and Umananda temples, will be presented in the second part of this walking tour.

Let me conclude this post with an image of the steam train locomotiv of the North-East Queen outside the entrance to the Paltan Bazar railway station. This engine was built in 1956 and was in service till 1997.

Uzan Bazar and Guwahati city centre, images by Sunil Deepak

If you have little time and can not visit all the places mentioned in this post, I suggest that you shoud make an effort to visit at least the Dighlipukhuri lake and Nehru park.

Read the second part of this post regarding the other places of interest in Uzanbazar.

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Monday, 5 September 2016

Guwahati Walking Tours - Discovering South Guwahati

Guwahati is known mainly for the Kamakhaya temple. Visitors to the city, also like to visit three other temples – Bashistha, Nobograha and Umananda. Most persons, even those living in Guwahati, are not aware of other places to visit in the city. This post is about places to visit in South Guwahati, which includes Dispur, the capital of Assam.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
The image above shows sculpture of a Bhaona figure from the stage used for Sound & Light show at the Shrimanta Shankar Dev Kalakshetra, an important cultural centre located in South Guwahati.

Apart from the Kalakshtra, this visit will take you to a famous temple, the cathedral, some museums, an important cultural centre and to see some wildlife.

So let us start this visit with some general information about South Guwahati. All the places described in this post can be reached easily through public transport of the city – by buses that run along the G.S. road.

GENERAL INFORMATION ABOUT SOUTH GUWAHATI

Guwahati city started on the south bank of Brahmaputra river. In pre-independent India and for a few decades after independence, the whole of the north-east (NE) was part of Assam state and its capital was in Shillong.

In ancient times till around medieval period, it was known as Pragjyotishpura. During British times, it was called Gauhati. Since the NE was important for its tea gardens and timber, Gauhati was an important city for the British because of its river port and its railway station, that linked the north-east to the rest of India.

In 1972, the north-east was divided into different states including Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. Shillong became the capital of Meghalaya, while Gauhati became the capital of Assam.

In 1973, its name was changed to Guwahati and Assamese Government decided to move its capital to the southern outskirts of Guwahati city, to Dispur.

Guwahati-Shillong road (G.S. road) is one of the main arteries of the city, starting from the Guwahati railway station in Paltan Bazar and going southwards for about 7 miles till Khanapara, where Assam meets Meghalaya and the terrain becomes hilly. The G. S. road in the city has four flyovers.

Coming from Paltan Bazar, the third flyover, Ganeshguri flyover, marks the boundary of old Guwahati and the beginning of Dispur. Thus, south Guwahati starts from Ganeshguri flyover, continues over Six Miles flyover and finishes at Khanapara, where G. S. road joins NH 37.

With the widening of G. S. road and the building of the flyovers, Dispur and Six Miles are no longer considered as outskirts of Guwahati, rather they are part of the main city.

GANESH TEMPLE OF GANESHGURI

I will start my walking tour from the famous Ganesh temple of Ganeshguri. It is located on the road underneath the Ganeshguri flyover, to the right if you are coming from Paltan Bazar.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
Ganeshguri has a vibrant market and it has some of the famous restaurants where you can get traditional Assamese food.

Ganesh temple was built here to mark the entry to the city of Kamakhaya, one of the incarnations of Parvati, the consort of lord Shiva. According to the Hindu mythology, Shiva had left for a journey when Ganesh was born. When Shiva came back, he found the boy blocking his way, since the boy did not know his father. In anger, Shiva cut off the head of the boy. Only when Devi told him that he had killed his son, Shiva promised to bring the boy back to life, but in the meantime, animals had taken away boy’s head. Thus, Shiva sent his followers to bring back the head of first baby they could find and his followers brought him back the head of a baby elephant. Since then Ganesh has the head of an elephant.

Thus, the baby Ganesh of the Ganesh temple of Ganeshguri is guarding the entry to his mother’s town.

It is a small temple, with most of its statues being placed outside on its walls. Inside the temple, Ganesh is shown as a natural uncarved rock covered with vermillion. At different religious festivals, this temple and the whole area is crowded with believers.

I am more of a spiritual person and I do not feel particular devotion when I visit temples. Rather, I have an anthropological curiosity to understand the rituals. However, among all the Hindu gods, Ganesh is my favourite since I feel that he represents the unity of man and nature, and asks us to be respectful of the nature.

THE ZOO OF GUWAHATI

The same road of Ganesh temple, on the other side of the flyover will take you to Chandmari and the Guwahati zoo. (BTW, Assamese language lacks the ‘ch” sound of ‘church’, thus Chandmari is pronounced as ‘Sandmari’). To reach the zoo, you should take a bus from the Ganeshguri crossing.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
The zoo of Guwahati has a beautiful location, with hills, forests and canals. Some water birds and animals have open enclosures separated by moats so that they can be seen properly without any barriers.

Some enclosures of the zoo give an impression of being a safari park. For example, the elephant enclosure has a small pond at the edge of a dense green forest, and is very beautiful. However, here it is difficult to see the elephants unless they come out of the forest to drink water at the pond. Similarly, the raised up view-platform of the tiger enclosure is a good place to observe these animals, while ensuring visitors' safety.

Unfortunately, most enclosures in the zoo are old fashioned, ugly looking iron grills or nets. Many sign boards are missing and overall maintenance of the zoo seems to be poor.

Assam is full of wildlife and wildlife parks. Compared to that experience, visit to the zoo can feel a big let-down. With a bit of effort, Guwahati can have its own wildlife park inside the zoo, with a better view of the birds and animals. Perhaps, the zoo officials can visit the city wildlife park of Nairobi (Kenya) to get some ideas about how it can be done.

The zoo also needs to make more efforts to teach visitors about importance of nature and how to behave with the animals and birds.

ASSAM STATE ASSEMBLY AND SECRETARIAT

The Assam State Assembly, a short distance away after the Ganeshguri flyover, is not accessible to visitors because of safety concerns. This part of Guwahati is called Dispur. The place has armed police guarding it, so you can just look at it from far away.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
Many Assamese are very particular about Dispur being their state capital and not Guwahati. However, it is difficult to tell the boundaries of Dispur. It is just one of the bus stops for the Guwahati buses.

BELTOLA MARKET

The road next to the State Assembly leads to an area of Guwahati called Beltola. The road connecting Beltola to Jayanagar holds a roadside market, especially a vegetable market, every Thursday and Sunday. Farmers and tribals from all around, including the neighbouring Meghalaya, bring their produce to this market. It also provides a glimpse into the wonderful biodiversity of India. You can see tens of variaties of each common vegetable here, something that does not exist in any supermarket.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
In my opinion, this market represents a wonderful tradition and hopefully, the authorities will safeguard it and not destroy in their search for soulless ‘development’. The image above shows one of the market stalls at night.

I have read that Beltola was a small kingdom till early twentieth century and it had the palace of its king. However, in spite of asking to a lot of persons, I could not find more about the king of Beltola and his family house. Like so many old traditional heritage houses, replaced by concrete buildings, it is a part of the lost history of Guwahati.

CATHEDRAL OF GUWAHATI

The cathedral of Guwahati is located close to the Six Miles flyover, a short distance after Dispur, on the right side of the road. It is of a recent construction and has a utilitarian architecture, thus it is not very impressive from the outside. Inside, the paintings behind the altar and the coloured glass windows, make it look much better.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
The cathedral is venue of a large gathering of the faithful in November each year for the festival of Christ King, when Catholics from all neighbouring cities and towns come here to hold a procession. The image above shows the Christmas lighting at the cathedral.

SHRIMANTA SHANKAR DEV KALAKSHETRA

Kalakshetra is one of the most important cultural centres of Guwahati. Inside, it has different museums, galleries, a daily Sound & Light show about history of Assam and has a rich calendar of cultural events.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
Kalakshetra is located in Punjabari, on the road underneath the Six Miles flyover. It is a couple of kilometres from the flyover. Near the flyover, you can get a Punjabari bus which will drop you in front of its entrance.

The idea of setting up of the Kalakshetra was of Bhupen Hazarika, considered to be one of the most important contemporary cultural icons of Assam. It includes a beautiful ethnographic museum and an art gallery with works of contemporary Assamese artists. It also has a small but nice auditorium. The image below is from the ethnographic museum.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
The above image is of a sculpture by Dhan Singh Basumaty from the art gallery of Kalakshetra.

During my stay in Guwahati, I was fortunate to be able to watch some wonderful cultural performances in Kalakshetra. Unfortunately, it does not have a proper website with updated information and a calendar of its cultural events. Thus sometimes I found that its beautiful events did not have a big audience, even if they were free, which was a great pity.

SHILPAGRAM

Shilpagram, located close to Kalakshetra is a venue for handicrafts exhibitions and trade fairs. It is a beautifully made structure with nice traditional buildings. It also has a small auditorium and an open air space, often used for music concerts.

The picture below has a singer of the NE music group called Soulmate during a performance in the open air theatre of Shilpagram.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
CHINMOY MISSION AND THE FILM MUSEUM

Swami Chinmoy Mission and the Guwahati film museum are both located in the small lane next to Kalakshetra that takes you to Shilpagram.

I am not sure if the film museum is open for visitors. All the times I passed in front of it, it was closed.

KHANAPARA SPORTS COMPLEX

Khanapara sports complex is located on G.S. road, about one kilometre after the Six Miles flyover, on the right side of the road. A couple of times, I saw cultural programmes in the stadium hall of this complex, but never saw it being used for any sports meets.

The grounds of the sports complex are a popular venue for trade fairs, handicrafts shop fairs and Bihu celebrations, like the handloom fair shown in the image below.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
SCIENCE MUSEUM

The Science Museum of Guwahati is located on a small side-road of G.S. road on the left side, a little after the new Vivanta Taj hotel building. The science museum is full of things to discover, both for children and for adults.

Some things of the museum are quite low-brow, including the “deforming mirrors”, where you can look at your deformed shapes and laugh at yourself (predictably, the low-brow things are very popular with the visitors!). Other things are more high tech.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
Outside the museum, the gardens have many other things to see including an aeroplane and some robust machine models to understand functional mechanics, such as the pulleys in the image below.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
VETERINARY GROUNDS

The grounds of the veterinary college of Guwahati, some fifty metres further down the road from the Science Museum are venue for big events such as the republic day parade and the annual horticulture fair.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
Every morning and evening, the road near the veterinary grounds is closed to traffic and hundreds of local residents use it for their morning or evening walks. The house of the chief minister of Assam is located on the hill, just behind the veterinary grounds. This area also has the office of the Assam Public State Commission while the veterinary college on the G. S. road has the Khanapara post office.

Finally, the nearby Khanapara-NH crossing has buses, shared taxis and other vehicles for all the major towns of the north-east.

CONCLUSIONS

If you have only a little time for sight-seeing in Guwahati, you can give a miss to most of the places described in this post. However, if possible, you should at least visit Kalakshetra.

Like many cities of India, Guwahati also has antiquated laws regarding photography for entry in many places presented in this tour. Rather than accepting and using the selfie culture and photography for providing free publicity through social networks, they prohibit photography and ask persons with cameras to pay extra. In a world where everybody clicks pictures with their smartphones, is it really logical to ask persons with cameras to pay?

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
Let me end this visit with a question. The image above has some of the famous Indian scientists from the Science Museum. When I saw the statues shown in this image, I was able to recognise only Raja Ramanna and Homi Bhabha. How many Indian scientists can you recognise in this picture?

If you are looking for information about other places to visit in Guwahati or in the NE, check the list of my blog-posts on this theme on my Travels page.

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