Happy New Year, Assam-Style / by David Johnstone

Celebrating Rongali Bihu in Shivasagar

Friday 13th to Monday 16th April 2018

I took my leave of Majuli with more lasting memories and brief friendships made, dropped off by Dadul’s motorbike, a bumpy, high-speed Sumo to the ferry point followed by a 90 minute boat ride back to Nimati Ghat. Another hair-raising minibus to Jorhat, a tuk-tuk to the station then a 3.5 hour bus ride across to Sivasagar to the east near the Nagaland border I intend to cross in a few days.

I was exhausted by the time I got to the Hotel Piccolo around 7 hours later. And a nice place it is too, great room. The welcoming staff presented me with a gamusa (the Assamese scarf), the locals taking selfies with me. Bizarre but lovely too. It’s the weekend of the Assamese New Year so I was in Sivasagar to see the celebrations along with visits to the historical 17th century temples or dols that the town is famous for. I headed back to my room, had a cold beer then crashed out.

The Dikow River 

As the original Assamese (Ahom) capital for over 600 years, Sibsager/Sivasager (or Sheepshagger as the locals pronounce it, a name easily remembered) was to be my last stop before heading east and south to avoid the impending rain. I’ve had to sadly avoid the mountains of Arunachel (and the beautiful Namdapha National Park - hopefully it won’t be cut down before I come back) so it’s the states of Nagaland and Manipur on the Burmese border for me before I head back west to Sikkim and Nepal before journeying homewards.

It’s hot here, a consequence of the ensuing monsoon rains that will arrive in an imminent deluge and it feels, for the first time in the North East, how I’d imagined India - boiling and dirty.

Still, I’d come for Rongali Bihu, the Assamese New Year (one of three bihus) that celebrates the advent of Spring and the planting of the rice paddies, as well as it’s historical temples.

Deciding to skip the first day of Bihu, the Washing of the Cows, I headed out on the Sunday - the first day of the New Year - and walked the not inconsiderable distance to Rang Ghar, an attractive temple and the first pavilion in India in the southern fringes of the town - through disappointingly filthy streets amid rising temperatures. 

There was a celebratory atmosphere building in the grounds and, after circling underwhelmingly around the temple, headed over to a fenced-off square, people congregating to witness the festivities. I was kindly invited into the seated area - a foreigner’s privilege - and sat there embarrassingly sweat-soaked as everyone else paraded immaculately. It’s a tradition to fork out on a new wardrobe for Rongali Bihu, everyone does it how ever poor, so the whole place was a vision of tailored finery. Dancing, singing and drumming followed, a genuinely beautiful spectacle, the noise, heat and throngs eventually making me take my leave back along the long road to the hotel.

I had a few more temples to complete my sightseeing tour of Shibsagar and all within a short distance this time: Shiva Dol Mandir (the most sacred), Devi Dol and Vishnu Dol situated by Shivasagar Tank, a man made lake. It was a public holiday so there were throngs of people offering alms everywhere and I was largely ignored as I trundled slowly through the baking heat. Lovely though.

My biggest concerns were finding an ATM and booking a bus to Mon in northern Nagaland. I’ll unfortunately need to take a 2 hour detour to Soneri in order to get there. Nothing new.

If I’m honest, travelling alone is taking it’s toll a little. It’s great meeting local people and I get on wonderfully with everyone I meet but sometimes it would be good to deflect attention onto someone else. And it’s tiring, how ever long you rest in one place, knowing you’ll have to move on and do it all again. I’m not a young man anymore!

In saying that, Nagaland promises to be another completely different experience. Former headhunters, animists and ferociously independent, the villages around Mon are rarely travelled and are home to the Kanyah and their face tattoos and body adornments. Travelling south to it’s capital Kohima will see me venture into other tribal areas before reaching national parks, stunning villages and the beautiful Dzukou Valley and onto the state of Manipur and the world’s only floating lake, Loktak, which is sure to be a sensational highlight (another one). 

It would be churlish to complain.