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Cruising along the Brahmaputra

A voyage through Assam on the tempestuous Brahmaputra river provides an indelible experience – featuring wildlife viewing, village walks replete with riveting conversations, a brush with the rich socio-religious heritage, tea gardens and much more

Having been born and brought up in the gateway city of North East India, Guwahati still evokes images of the mighty Brahmaputra river meandering through much of the city. There was also a wild side to this river – with the onset of the monsoon season, the river's fury and turbulence would inundate large parts of the state of Assam, flooding almost all the riverside towns.

The Brahmaputra is no ordinary river and based on its length (2,900 kms), it is one of Asia's principal rivers and perhaps the most turbulent. It originates from the icy glaciers of the Himalayas, passes through much of Tibet, the North-Eastern states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam and finally merges with the holy river Ganga and empties into the Bay of Bengal.

An important facet of this river is that while most rivers in India and elsewhere are regarded as females, this river stands out as the only male river in the world. The very word 'Brahmaputra' literally means 'son of Lord Brahma'.

For decades, the mandarins of Indian tourism industry have pondered about harnessing the true potential of river Brahmaputra as a means of attracting tourists but nothing has materialised. For example, adventurous rafters from distant corners of the world would come with all their logistics and embark on white water rafting with very little co-operation from the local government. However, all these deadlocks were brushed aside with the launch of the Assam Bengal Navigation Company in the year 2003, which is an Indo-British joint venture. They started operating high-quality river cruises not only in the Brahmaputra river but also on the river Hugli in the neighboring state of West Bengal, thereby earning accolades from the tourism industry.

One of the finest moments in the history of North-East India's sagging tourism industry was when the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India conferred the most coveted 'National Tourism Award for Innovation' in the year 2004-05 to the Assam Bengal Navigation Company. From then onwards, there has been no looking back and the ABNC has gone from strength to strength with offices not only in India but across the world.

As a travel writer, I was offered the rare privilege of embarking on a 10-night cruise covering the colonial town of Dibrugarh, the medieval Ahom capital of Sibsagar, the islands of Majuli, the world-famous Kaziranga National Park, the ancient city of Tezpur and the mecca of Assam's burgeoning Silk industry – Sualkuchi.

Before I take you on the roller coaster cruise along the river, it would perhaps be apt to mention that the river Brahmaputra along with the Ganga and Hugli rivers used to be the vital transportation channels of the British East India Company. However, with the partition of 1947 and the emergence of the railways, this rather fascinating mode of water transport was laid to the backburner.

I reached Dibrugarh town after an overnight train journey from Guwahati and was escorted to a waiting cab by one of the representatives of the Assam Bengal Navigation Company. A brisk 3.5 hours drive brought us to the Neamati Ghat jetty where the magnificent vessel – 'Charaidew' was moored.

As the luxury vessel cruised along, the fascinating riverside views dotted with charming Assamese villages and the appearance of small towns made for a truly ethereal sight. I was politely approached by one of the smartly clad crew members of the Charaidew who introduced me to the luxurious ambience of the vessel's interiors.

In all, 12 luxuriously appointed cabins had all the modern amenities that a discerning guest would look forward to. Along with air conditioners, each cabin was equipped with a shower cubicle and the interiors were designed ethnically with a harmonious blend of bamboo and wood. I especially liked the indigenously manufactured rattan chairs for their comfort. The cabins being on the upper deck meant that one had access to the panoramic riverside views from the comfortable confines of the cabins viz-a-viz the spacious sliding windows.

I was ushered into the well-stocked bar also on the upper deck where the choicest of liquors and spirits was readily available. As far as the cuisine is concerned, it can range from the very best of the Assamese to the nouveau Indian and Continental.

Our first stop was at the medieval city of Sibsagar. In the days of yore, Sibsagar was a military bastion of the mighty Ahom rulers who ruled supreme for more than 600 years. Modern-day Sibsagar is a town, which is rapidly developing into one of the most vibrant towns of upper Assam. This charming town which is also a district of the same name has earned the distinction of having the highest number of oil fields in Assam.

After a leisurely bout of sightseeing in Sibsagar, we once again hopped into Charaidew for our onward journey. On day three, our vessel anchored at Majuli – the world's largest riverine island. Here we sampled the very best of Assam's rich socio-religious tradition and heritage viz a viz the monasteries and witnessed the unique dance and drama performance enacted by the locals. According to our well-informed guide, Majuli has been shortlisted by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site (Natural) and it is just a matter of time for Majuli to be conferred with that coveted status.

Day four was largely spent cruising. To break the monotony of the cruise, we made a brief halt at Jamuguri, renowned for its fascinating tribal population. We spent an hour or so going on soft treks along the narrow winding village alleyways and chatting up with the innocent village folks.

By late afternoon we had reached the outer contours of the world-famous Kaziranga National Park, the last remaining habitat of the rare and endangered One-horned Rhinoceros. One of our guests sighted the elusive Rhino and there was a herd of spotted Deers on a marshy stretch that grazed on the lush evergreen grassland. This was just the tip of the iceberg as far as the fascination with Kaziranga is concerned. The best was yet to come.

After a good night's sleep, we woke up to a cacophony of bird sounds and after freshening up had our breakfast on the Upper Deck. All the while, our vessel was literally gliding with the flow of the river. Today (Day 5) was to be a big day for all of us as it would be our first real brush with Kaziranga's wilderness. As we traveled deep inside the forest we became excited at the sight of untamed One-Horned Rhinos grazing in the grasslands of Kaziranga. We traversed deeper and spotted varied species like the Hollock Gibbons, Capped Langurs (they are cute), Bristly Hare, Sloth Bears, the Swamp Deer, Sambhar and Barasingha.

On day six, apart from the early morning elephant rides and jungle safaris, visits to the neighboring Tea Garden Estates was truly a very rewarding experience.

The last three days were spent hopping and sightseeing in places like Tezpur, Guwahati and Sualkochi, each one more interesting than the other. While Tezpur with its lush green tea gardens and its proximity to Orang National Park was terrific so was the capital city of Assam – Guwahati, with the holy Kamakhya Temple perched atop the Nilachal Hills.

As the gateway city of North East India, Guwahati has indeed come of age. Trendy multi-cuisine restaurants, neon-lit bars, and a youth brigade which is constantly evolving to the demands of the new age are characteristic features of the city.

For shopping, Guwahati has numerous centrally located markets like the Fancy Bazaar, Paltan Bazaar, Ganeshguri and GNB Road.

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