Assam’s Brahmaputra & Tea – The Heritage Tourism Story

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 and of those joyful days when as kids we would play beach cricket on the sandy stretches of the riverbank every winter.

There was also a wild side to this river in that 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 perennial problem of flooding of the Brahmaputra valley still continues unabated despite the best efforts of the conservation authorities.

Assam, a name some scholars claim was derived from the Sanskrit word ‘asoma’ meaning ‘peerless’ or ‘unparalleled’, is located south of the eastern Himalayas and is the home of the son of Lord Brahma, or the Brahmaputra, which perhaps accounts for the Brahmaputra River being the only male river in India.

Assam’s Brahmaputra & Tea - The Heritage Tourism Story

The Brahmaputra’s long, verdant valley had never previously been a possession of any outside entity until the nineteenth-century collapse of the Ahoms. That event led to the Burmese invasion, followed by a swift transfer to British hands in 1826 after their victory in the First Anglo-Burmese War. Almost immediately the territory became central to the economic prosperity of the Raj, as the first oil wells in Asia were discovered at Digboi and Assam became the world’s largest and most profitable tea-growing territory.

It’s said that the easy-going and laid-back nature of the Assamese people is an effect of the wet, humid climate of Assam, Land of ‘lahe lahe’. This weather induces a soporific tendency amongst its people and therefore life itself is a slow, unhurried and laidback affair.

Embracing the shores of the turbulent Brahmaputra, Guwahati is the gateway to the northeast and is at its festive best during the month of April in time for the all-important ‘Rongali Bihu’ festival. This is the most popular festival of the people of Assam, the colourful Bihu dance at the Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra is truly mesmerizing.

Assam’s Brahmaputra & Tea - The Heritage Tourism Story

The beating of the drums and the melodious tunes of the ‘Pepa’ reverberates in the air. The sight of beautiful Assamese women in traditional ‘Mekhela Chader’ is every bit gorgeous. The Rongali Bihu is a tribute to Mother Nature and all the Bihu songs are basically love songs.

No visit to Guwahati is ever complete without a visit to the holy Kamakshya Temple perched atop the Nilachal Hills. After offering Puja at the sanctum sanatorium of the temple, one can admire the uninterrupted view of the city which appears like a multi-hued carpet. The sight of the majestic and mighty Brahmaputra River ceaselessly flowing makes for a kaleidoscopic vignette.

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

Assam’s Brahmaputra & Tea - The Heritage Tourism Story

For shopping, Guwahati has numerous centrally located markets such as the Fancy Bazaar, Paltan Bazaar, Ulubari, Ganeshguri, and GNB Road. A popular haunt of tourists to Guwahati is the Assam State Emporium where bamboo and cane products are extremely popular, along with shawls, wall hangings, and fancy Assamese hats. Assamese silk is world-famous and a must-buy item for any new age woman is the quintessential Assamese ‘Mekhela Chader’.

October 3rd, 2021 will forever be etched in the history of Assam’s riverine history as a very special day. The Mahabahu Brahmaputra River Heritage Centre on Guwahati’s Barphukanar Tila (Barphukan’s Hillock) – a one-of-its-kind Scottish wooden bungalow dating back to 1850 was impeccably renovated and transformed into a unique river heritage center.

Inaugurated by the Honorable Vice-President of India – Shri Venkaiah Naidu, this heritage center, which in the 17th century used to serve as the military officers of the erstwhile Ahom rulers, beautifully depicts the folklore and legends surrounding the greatest river on earth – The Brahmaputra.

Assam’s Brahmaputra & Tea - The Heritage Tourism Story

On display at the heritage center is Assamese war boats, an amphitheater, an exhibition space, a cafeteria, and two exclusive decks for viewing the flow of the Brahmaputra river. Handcrafted textile designs, ethnic motifs, and traditional musical instruments of diverse communities residing on the banks of the Brahmaputra for several centuries have found space at this one-of-kind river heritage center.

From times immemorial, in India rivers have always been subjects of reverence, and people of India from ancient times have acknowledged the rivers for their life-regenerating power. The Brahmaputra Heritage Centre is symbolic of India’s rich maritime history and today this center stands as a symbol of all that is grand, holy, and inspiring.

The manner in which the heritage center depicts and illustrates the infamous Battle of Saraighat (1671), which historians regard as the “greatest naval battle ever fought in a river” is dramatic, to say the least.

To maintain the serenity of the place, vehicular traffic movements in and around the heritage center are strictly prohibited and it is a “Pedestrian Only” zone.

Assam’s Brahmaputra & Tea - The Heritage Tourism Story

“There should be a campaign to rejuvenate Indian rivers and inclusion of lessons on water conservation in school curricula. Other heritage centers around the country too should adopt such green and healthy practices, by creating walking and cycling paths for visitors to explore”.

Vice President Mr. Naidu

The Brahmaputra River is no ordinary river and on the basis of the length of the river (2,900 km.), 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.

When it passes through Tibet, the river is known as the Yarlung Zangbo River, the stretch of the river as it passes through the mountainous state of Arunachal Pradesh is referred to as the Dihang river and when it merges with the Ganga, it shapes up the Sunderban delta, which incidentally happens to be the world’s largest riverine delta that for centuries has been the exclusive preserve of the rare and endangered Royal Bengal Tigers.

Assam’s Brahmaputra & Tea - The Heritage Tourism Story

The Brahmaputra is a mythological river and an important facet of this river is that while most rivers in India and elsewhere in the world are regarded as females, this river stands out as the “Male River”. The very word – “Brahmaputra” literally means “son of Lord Brahma”.

For decades together, the mandarins of the Indian Tourism industry have pondered about the pros and cons of harnessing the true potential of the river Brahmaputra as a means of attracting tourists. But nothing much materialized.

For years, adventurous rafters from distant corners of the world (USA, UK, Germany) would come with all their logistics and embark on white water rafting, particularly on the lower reaches of the river where the turbulent rapids are ideal for river 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 also in countries like the UK, USA, Australia, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, Germany, France, and Italy from where they receive the lion’s share of cruise bookings.

Assam’s Brahmaputra & Tea - The Heritage Tourism Story

River cruising on the Brahmaputra and Tea Tourism are both integral to Assam. In fact, tea tourism is now a niche segment in the competitive international tourism market.

The genesis of launching tea tourism by converting the Victorian style managers’ bungalows into heritage properties was the brainchild of Ranjit Barthakur, CEO of RJBI.

“Tourists here can experience the joy of staying in the luxurious colonial ambience of the Raj era and savour the hospitality that was previously the prerogative of the British tea garden managers.”

Ranjit Barthakur

An eternal optimist, he visualized the creation of 1,000 top-end colonial heritage rooms in Assam, North Bengal, and Dooars. Barthakur is also a prominent spokesman for Assam’s natural heritage, especially Kaziranga, where he advocates development that is: “carbon-negative, energy-positive, water-positive and free from land, air and water pollution.”

Most of the bungalows run by RJBI, which are well spread out throughout Assam, are situated in close proximity to the river Brahmaputra, which adds to the spirit of adventure.

The entire tea industry of Assam, North Bengal, and Dooars regions has woken up to tea tourism. Renowned companies such as Tata Tea, McLeod Russel, Glenburn Tea Estates, and more have shown tremendous interest in this novel form of tourism.

After a history of troubles, Assam is already a traveler’s bonanza, waiting to become global. If peace remains, the state can expect a sustained tourism boom.

Assam’s Brahmaputra & Tea - The Heritage Tourism Story

Traveler’s Fact File

Getting There

Guwahati the capital of the state of Assam is well connected by air, rail, and road to the rest of India.

Subhasish Chakraborty

Travel Journalist

Subhasish Chakraborty has been working as a Travel Journalist for the past two decades and has been editorially involved with numerous international In-Flight magazines of renowned airlines like Cathy Pacific, Dragon Air, Bhutan Airlines, Air Asia, Airport Authority of India and many more. He was also involved with the UNWTO (World Tourism Organization) as a Consultant.