Gone were the days of ‘hotel-sightseeing and back-to-the-hotel’ stuff that I and my family was so used to. Instead of being guests at centrally located star hotels, we embraced for the first time the sheer fascination of being guests at a colonial tea garden bungalow in one of the remotest tea gardens (Addabarie, Balipara) of Assam.
Date with the Wild Mahseer
The Jet Airways flight from Calcutta reached on time, and, after reaching Guwahati, we drove straight to Balipara. We covered the distance in six hours with halts at several places on the way. As our car entered the garden premises, the sight of an old-fashioned colonial bungalow caught our attention. This was to be our home-away-from-home for the next two days.
The rooms of the Wild Mahseer Bungalow were impeccably furnished with colonial style furniture; also the quintessential wooden floors, high ceilings and spacious verandas all rekindled the nostalgia of the British Raj. In all, there are five exclusive colonial bungalows spread over an area of 22 lush green acres. The Wild Mahseer Bungalow is the principal property that has been catering to discerning guests from all over the world.
The best part of being a guest there was the fact that apart from educational tours to the surrounding tea gardens, one could also indulge in activities like fishing and river rafting in the swift flowing Bhorelli River. For the wildlife enthusiasts, a visit to Nameri National Park can be a very rewarding experience.
The Bhorelli River, which is located in close proximity to the bungalow, is ideal for fishing. The Barbus Tor, popularly called the Mahseer, is one of the largest freshwater fish and one of the greatest fighting fish in the world. I personally found angling for Mahseer a huge adventure. Every cast could be a potential strike. Once the fish strikes, you could snap your rod or be pulled in yourself! The fish is a fighter till the very end; hence, even landing a tired Mahseer is not that simple. Angling equipments can be hired from the bungalow.
Leaving behind Balipara, we set off for the world famous Kaziranga National Park. The drive to Kaziranga was beautiful as we came across picturesque Assamese hamlets as well as green rolling tea estates. Since we had our rooms booked well in advance at the popular Wild Grass Lodge, we were given a traditional Assamese welcome by our host.
The Wild Grass Lodge is ideally located and is a stone’s throw away from the National Park. The lodge is designed in an eco-friendly manner so as to blend harmoniously with its surroundings. Within the lodge’s premises, there are varieties of endangered tree species and well over 200 species of miscellaneous flora.
The multi cuisine restaurant offers delectable Indian, Chinese and Continental fare. Try out the traditional Assamese items such as the Kamrupi Biriyani, Thekera Dia Maasor Tenga, Masor Jhool and Xoriohor Maasor Jhool, all of which are perennial favourites with the visitors. Assamese food is predominantly cooked over wood fire, thereby imparting an exceptional flavour.
An early morning elephant ride is one great way of exploring the varied charms of Kaziranga. The beauty of Kaziranga lies in the fact that it is covered with tall grasslands and there are small streams and reservoirs (beels) spread throughout the contours of the park. Apart from rhinos, as many as 35 species of mammals have been spotted at Kaziranga and there are at least 15 species that are on the verge of extinction. As we traversed deeper inside the forest, we spotted varied species like the Hollock Gibbon, Capped Langur, Bristly Hare, Sloth Bear, Swamp Deer, Sambhar and Barasingha. As far as the big cats are concerned, it is very difficult to spot them as they are fewer in numbers.
A visit to Kaziranga, however, is not only about wildlife viewing. There are numerous tea gardens located in close proximity to Kaziranga National Park and a visit to a nearby tea garden is highly recommended. Thus, we undertook an early morning trek along the border of Hathikuli tea estate, a Tata Tea initiative. The breathtaking sight of hundreds of tribal women plucking tea leaves was a sight to behold.
Following the trek, we were invited to the factory where the tea leaves are processed. We saw the entire manufacturing process and to further enlighten us on the characteristic features of Assam Tea, the manager took pains to explain to us that the first flush has a very rich aroma while the second flush is ideally suited for the famed ‘Tippy Teas’. Tippy Teas, we were told, refers to Black tea with its quintessential golden hue.
Back at the manager’s bungalow, elaborate arrangements had been made for our luncheon. We were ushered in to the regal dining room. It was spacious and the high ceiling, Victorian style architecture and ornate wooden décor made the entire room fit for a ‘Maharaja’. Even the cutlery sets and tableware were distinctly regal and reflected the Raj era ambience.
Meeting the Karbis
The team at Kaziranga Wild Grass Lodge insisted that we go on a tribal tour of a neighbouring Karbi village to round off our excursion. We hopped inside our hired vehicle, and, in a short while, we were at a small Karbi village.
The Karbis are a colourful lot; the hill Karbis live in traditional huts and the floors are raised several feet above the ground. Apart from their melodious songs and rhythmic dances, the Karbis are very hospitable as we were to discover. Each of us was offered one gourd of local liquor (Hor), which, we were told, is the greatest respect shown to a guest in the house of a Karbi. The manner in which the liquor was served to me was humbleness personified—the right hand of my host was stretched out and the left hand held the elbow of his right hand in a salute to me—which I had to reciprocate back. At the time of drinking, it is customary to throw some liquor on the ground in the name of Hemphu, the greatest god of the Karbis.
We found the womenfolk working on their traditional looms. They do the weaving on rude wooden looms, one end of which is tied to the middle part of the body of the weaver while the other end is stretched by their legs. For our souvenirs, we bought an intricately designed Karbi shawl much to the delight of the Karbi household.
The Ministry of Tourism has already made an assessment of the British era bungalows strewn across the entire Northeastern belt, including the Dooars region, and is in the process of marketing ‘Tea Tourism’ as a niche segment in the competitive International market. This is good news for tourists because it means more choice for tourists in terms of locale, sightseeing and tribal culture. Till that plan lends itself to reality, three cheers to the Upper Assam experience.
Subhasish Chakraborty is a freelance travel writer based in Calcutta
Photos: Subhasish Chakraborty
This article was first published in Eclectic Northeast (July 2014) issue