Category Archives: Assam

Tracking the Big Five at Kaziranga

The monsoon has caused the mighty Brahmaputra to take a toll on the North-eastern part of India causing innumerable and irreplaceable losses. I saw this one particular photo of a floating carcass of the striped beast- the National animal of India in the newspaper this morning and I was taken back in time when I visited Kazhiranga last year, post monsoon. After a wonderful drive through the National highway from Guwahati, we reached Kazhiranga on a night lit with Diwali lamps all around. Kazhiranga national park is divided into four main areas: The Central range at Kohora, Western range at Bagori, Eastern range at Agaratoli and the Burapahar range at Ghorakhati. Here, the tourists can enjoy the elephant and jeep rides into the forest that are organized by either government or private parties. It is closed during monsoon and we were lucky that the Central zone at Kohora had just opened. We had a nice meal and settled down at one of the numerous resorts that exist on the boundary of the National park in the Kohora range. Meanwhile, our resort guys helped us to get tickets for a safari ride scheduled for early next morning.

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Enroute to the forest gates

We woke up the next morning and headed towards the gates where the elephant ride was supposed to commence. The drive itself was so refreshing… Mud roads with green paddy field dotted with and bamboo huts here and there; Thick mist slowly clearing up with dew drops reflecting the rising sun- It was a wonderful drive all the way till the tourist tower inside the forest gates. Kazhiranga is synonymous with the one-horned rhinoceros. Even before we started our ride, we spotted rhino families all around the tower we were standing at. With about 2/3rd of the world’s population of these beauties found in just this area, it was no surprise that we began to spot them one after the other. We even found a few of them grazing by the roadside fields on our way back. With that we realized, that Kaziranga was something beyond rhinos. Our elephant had arrived, we sat atop and started our ride into the haze of the misty green grasslands of the Kazhiranga.

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The elephants marching into the forest

The elephants that we were sitting on were walking through dense thickets of elephant grass- The grass that was taller even for elephants to walk through. Slowly, the mahout started to point out and show us the animal sightings. First, it was a wild elephant with its calf. We were told that Rhino and elephant conflicts were common and this mother elephant was wounded just that morning in a bid to protect its new born calf. So, that meant we were not safe sitting on one either! We slowly moved out of tall grass to another area where a couple of rhinos were finishing their morning chores. It was very surprising for us to know that large rhino groups identify space where each rhino marks its own spot (making a private toilet space for itself) and does not let any other rhino enter the area. Wow! We slowly passed that place and spotted herds of swamp deer. World’s largest population of these herbivores too is concentrated in these forests. They are handsome animals. Just as we were photographing them, we saw a herd of Asiatic wild water buffaloes marching out of a slush pool. We had no idea that over 57% of the world’s water buffaloes too were accommodated in the woods here! Another surprise awaited us- Kazhiranga national park has the highest density of the Royal Bengal tigers in the world!!! Whoa!!!! That’s like……..!!! So we had checked off 4 out of the big 5 of the Kazhiranga before heading towards the exit gates- The One horned rhinos, Asiatic elephants, swamp deer and wild water buffaloes… We need real luck to find the last one- the elusive beast: The Royal Bengal tiger…

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Clockwise: The Single horned Rhino, Swamp deer, Wild water buffaloes and the Asiatic elephants

We realized that we still had time to make it for the morning batch of jeep ride. I strongly recommend to try both ways of exploring the woods- on elephant back and by a four wheel drive. Both are different experiences and the type of terrain and sightings are different. While an elephant will be able to take you through the tall grass, a 4-wheel will be able to enter deeper areas of the forest. So, we had a gypsy to take us in… Needless to mention- Herds and herds of rhinos greeted us all along our way. Wild boars, barking deer etc. were spotted in abundance. The highlight was however- the innumerable varieties of migratory birds that we spotted. Our driver mentioned several names out which only pelicans and spoon-billed storks were the prominent ones that I have managed to remember. At the end of the drive one way, the guards took us to a watch tower from where we could catch a very good view of hundreds of animals that come to drink water from the flowing river. It was a very calm and a serene place to spend a while with nature… What caught our curiosity was some random years mentioned on the wall of the watch tower. So, here is a picture that may give an idea of the monsoon fury and severity of floods that affect this area year after year. The tower itself if located at a height from the river. My friend in the below picture is a 6-footer. The water level of 2016 is marked above him… Can you imagine how impossible it is for the animals to escape out of the area??? It’s insane to think of…

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Record of the flood water level of the Bramhaputra

Although a little disappointed for not being able to spot a tiger, we were feeling content for having our long pending wish of visiting this heritage site come true! We then headed back to the resort for breakfast. The drive back was an extremely nice one which had gone unnoticed during the hurried drive through misty roads in the morning… Tea plantations flanked the roads on both sides. The famous Assam tea grows in flat lands and under shade, totally contrary to what I had seen and grown up with in down South. We stopped by to sip on some hot brew of these dried leaves and bought some for our caffeine addicts back home. A quick visit to the Orchid research centre was an interesting place to drop by too…

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The Assam tea estate

So, that was an eventful day at Kazhiranga with warm memories from the woods before heading to our next destination- Jorhat. If you wish to spend more time with nature, I recommend you all to explore all the 4 ranges of the national park. Don’t go by recommendations of people of which range to go in… Each area is distinct with different types of vegetation, landscape, flora and fauna concentrations.

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Hiking up Assam’s highest point- Hapeo peak

This trek happened by chance. It was an instant plan when the activity aimed at was not happening due to unfavourable conditions. That said, here’s what happened to the backup plan: The hike to Hapeo peak, the highest point in the state of Assam. We wanted to reach the peak for sunrise. However, due to the clouds that had hovered that morning, we decided to snooze for a little longer before going ahead with the plan.

There are totally 13 native tribes in Dima Hasao and each tribe has its own village. A local NGO called spectrum is working for the upliftment of local tribes and improvement of tourism in the district. They helped us in getting this event organized. They drove us in their 4WD vehicle from Haflong to the village called- N.Liekung. This a village of the Kuki tribes. We got the required permission from the village head and thus, a local guide was arranged to take us through this off-beat wilderness. After a small stop in front of the holy Cross at the prayer area of the Kukis, we began our ascent towards the highest peak in the state of Assam.

Hardly 4-5 trekkers climb this hill in a year apart from the tribes who like to party atop the hill. The climb wasn’t a very difficult one as compared to what we had done back in the Southern India. But what made it seem difficult was the high grass that had grown to cover the entire stretch through which we had to find the trekking trail. The first half of the trek has a well traceable path with steps laid. However, at some places, the stairs have been lost amid the thickets. We had to cut the grass and bushes in order to find our way… The first 3rd of the path was full of high grass with occasionally placed animal traps which our guide ahead would carefully move aside to make way for us… Then we reached at the only flat area and grassland vegetation for not more than 500mts. This was the only place apart from the highway from where we could actually see the peak that we were apparently scaling up!

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The only grassland in Hapeo trek

The next part was through thick jungle with a canopy of trees that allowed very less sunlight to penetrate. Varieties of innocent looking wild mushrooms had bloomed at several patches, but we were careful by not picking them as they could actually be lethal with allergens or venom. We were accompanied by strange sounds all being the cries of migratory birds around. Our Kuki guide enlightened us with their tribal customs, culture with a few videos on his phone of their traditional dances performed on their festivals… It was barely two hours and we had already scaled up the hill top. He jokingly told us how his fellow folks are named in the tribe. The names may not mean anything, anything random that sounds nice goes as a name and thus he was called after a ‘Song that was Sung’ (I’m sorry, I don’t want to give out his name). But the tradition is that the maternal grandfather selects a name for the granddaughter and the paternal grandmother picks a name for the grandson and vice-versa. It is a patrilineal system of inheritance.

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A view of Dima Hasao district from Hapeo peak

Suddenly, the darkness of the jungle had turned into snow white of the clouds. We were told that one could see the entire district of Dima Hasao from up there but we were greeted with thick fog and clouds… We spent some time soaking in nature’s beauty and waiting for the clouds to clear so that we could catch a glimpse of the beautiful view. There is just one small shelter with a bench atop the hill and nothing apart from yourself there! Our guide mentioned about a 2×2 patch right behind the bench where there is a natural and strong magnetic force due to which none of the mobile phones work. Yes, we did observe the phenomenon too. Although all our phones had FULL network, we were unable to place any calls. But none of us had any scientific reasoning for what he told. In the next fifteen minutes, the clouds had slowly started to clear. We spotted the railway bridge at Lumding onto the right side of the horizon. This is the longest and highest in the Silchar route. Our guide pointed towards another hill onto our left through which the longest railway tunnel in the North-east passes… It is around 3.5kms he said! The Silchar-Lumding railway route has been featured in several tourism websites and has been one of the scenic stretches in the country. As the weather slowly worsened and began to drizzle, we decided to start our descent.

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The thick forest path in the Hapeo trek

When we had just started to climb down when we received a call from the NGO… We were told to reach back the base of the hill ASAP as cyclone alert had been given in the Bay of Bengal and heavy rains were expected in this region. Within no time, it started to pour cats and dogs… The fastest pace we could catch is roll down the hill… With all the rain, thick grass covering the path and steep down, the descent was extremely slippery and we had to struggle to walk steadily… There was nothing enroute to take shelter and waiting at any place made no sense because the rains would continue for the entire day or two. We were already drenched till our bones and hence decided to simply continue… We were back at the base by 11.00.a.m. and thus ended our trek to the highest point in the state of Assam.

We were invited over to our guide’s house to dry ourselves up and have a cup of hot tea. We thanked him much and bid adieu with a warm heart to this lesser known corner of the world!

Endurance testing of a car- A road trip across Assam

I have been involved in testing of new cars that belonged to my company. But, all that are with SOPs and defined patterns. This time, it was about driving a competitor in the extreme road conditions just for the joy of driving and fun of travelling. No SOPs and we were our own bosses… The India unique driving conditions… With money spent from our own pockets… So this is what it was all about.

Part 1: We meet our new friend from the showroom- Maruthi Swift Petrol
The car was delivered from the showroom just 30 minutes before our arrival. It had the ribbon on its hood and a TC plate for registration indicating us that we were the first people to drive it. After all the formalities, the experimental trip kicked off in a traditional Indian way- Getting ourselves photographed in front of our brand new car with the self-drive company owner handing over the keys to us. The road ahead is supposedly beautiful with greenery all the way with paddy fields, hills and tea plantations. It was past sunset and hence, it was just a cruise from Guwahati to Kaziranga highway. We checked into the resort by 10.00.p.m which we had booked at Kohra range of Kaziranga National park.

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The National Highway passing through Kazhiranga

The next morning, we drove through the rustic areas of Kohra to reach the elephant Safari area. It was a splendid view with lush green paddy fields hovered over with mist and mud smeared huts dotting the entire stretch which set a positive tone for the day. We even spotted a couple of rhinos by the roadside itself 😀 An elaborate story of Kaziranga is another post altogether and hence, I will drive you across from here to reach Neemati ghat as the last ferry would leave for Majuli by 04.00.p.m. The car too sped similar to the drive you’ve just been through the post from Kohra to Neemati ghat- HIGH SPEED! Majuli is yet another post in my blog and that comes with Diwali lights, fireworks and a lot of pulling and pushing of the car in the dusty terrain of the countryside. A drive to be truly remembered!

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The kaccha roads of Majuli

Part 2: Driving on the National Highway no.13- A sneak-peak to Arunachal Pradesh
It was complete off-road driving (Read it flying) all along the banks of Brahmaputra from Dhunaguri Ghat of Assam. We had covered a stretch of 165 kms/4hrs via North-Lakhimpur in merely an hour through a shortcut via Parbatipur. We had met a cop from Arunachal Pradesh who had asked us to follow him and we did that although skeptical about his real motives 😛 We heaved a sigh only when we saw some people around and that’s when we realized we were right in front of Arunachal gate at Banderdewa check post. Having sorted out the issues of inner-line permits for us and our swift car with no number plate (We had a temporary registration), a grueling drive into the state of Arunachal had begun along NH.13. It was pitch dark at 6.p.m. in the evening and not a soul on the road san us. We braved a couple of landslides and waterfalls- both plunging right onto the road that we were driving through. It was 12.00.a.m.when we reached Hapoli market in Ziro town of the lower Subansiri district. The three of us were trying to get in touch with the homestay owner for directions from 5 different mobile network providers and yet unable to make a call. We were kind of stranded in the middle of a freaking cold night at nowhere!! There were no civilians on the road but hundreds of cops walking around with balaclava and guns keeping vigil in the place prone to surprise social turbulence. Meanwhile, we were confronted by a CRPF cop as to what we were doing there at that time and we explained our plight to him and seeked help. He offered to help us telling BSNL lines were up and he could call our homestay from his mobile- unfortunately, our homestay guy was still not reachable, thanks to his Airtel connection! By that time, we had decided to spend the night on the road with our shorts and loafers to help us bare the zero temperature at Ziro town. But in a while’s time, a miracle happened. Our homestay owner had realized the issue with the mobile networks and come down to Ziro searching for us. He found us! But rightly then, his Maruthi 800 refused to crank… He pushed it aside until next morning, got into our car and took us to safe harbor- his homestay at Siiro!

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The National Highway at Ziro

After all the sightseeing and lifetime experiences at Ziro, we had to now drive back to our next destination- Jatinga. It was the same highway down until Banderdewa, but this time during daytime. So we had ample vistas to soothe our eyes all the way… Deep valley with clear waters and occasional rapids of the Subansiri on one side and thick jungle on the other kept up the motivation for the drive on that Roadless NH road! Occasional Apathani women folk hitch hiking a drop to different villages enroute to Potan and frequent photo stops added to the tempo. Further down, while the sunset added colour, the grazing Mithuns along the valley added charm to the drive. Mithuns are shy animals belonging to the cattle family. They resemble bisons from Nagarhole in their features but are in shades of white colour. They are handsome creatures! In such bad tarmac, we were still able to keep the good condition of our new car with just the rear mudguards hanging down. We crossed the Banderdewa by 06.00.p.m. and thus the next sojourn into Assam happened.

Part 3: Driving on the Asian Highway no.1 to Haflong.
After a short tea break and for dinner, we drove until Tezpur where we decided to stay for the night. After seeing no roads in Arunachal, the new tarmac in Assam seemed more like a speedway in NFS. We were cruising through the NH passes over the 3kms+ long Kolia Bhomora Bridge across the Brahmaputra and cuts through tea plantations and paddy fields in most stretch and was a delight to drive. But, we were watchful at the same time as the beautiful stretch was also known for anti-social elements like militants, Maoists etc. The next morning, we started early towards Dima Hasao district so that we had sufficient time to explore Haflong and make it to Jatinga to watch the famous birds’ mass suicide phenomenon. We were blindly following our dear friend- google maps and cruising on the AH, that is being newly developed in the stretch that we were supposed to drive till Haflong. We were thoroughly enjoying our drive through the newly asphalted 4-lane road passing through the forest reserve area. However, we did not want to risk ourselves by stopping anywhere even for a nature’s call as the entire stretch is known to be socially intolerant and infested with militants. It was only us and no one else amid virgin forests on both sides for as long as our eyes could reach. The map was indicating only ONE road right until Haflong without any crossroads and hence, it was an easy way to go…

We had just passed through the tunnel near Mahur junction and suddenly the road disappeared. The front wheels of our car were stuck inside a deep pool of slush. It was 01.00.p.m. and our enjoyable drive had halted. The map on all our phones continued to indicate the road ahead. We opened the doors to get out n push the car- we were amused by the knee deep water that we had just got ourselves into. There was a huge rock exactly under the front cross-bar which meant we couldn’t push it forward. Meanwhile, we noticed that the water level was rising due to a continuously flowing stream which posed a risk of the water entering the engine. While 2 of us took to task of digging a water-way for the stream to flow out, the other friend walked back until the tunnel where we hoped to find some help. There were a couple of cars who had lost their way too and drove to the place where we were stuck, but they were quick enough to shift to the reverse gear and drive back. Remember… The place is infested with militants?? Our poor friend near the tunnel- was trying to stop every single vehicle that passed by and no one cared! By 03.00.p.m. he somehow managed to walk back with 3 local boys who came down with a couple of posts to lift the car out of the slush. The ground clearance was bad which at the first place had got us down to where we were. The front bumper seemed fragile to come out if we tried to lift up with it. There were no side skirts or reinforcements that could help us to hold the car up. And then there was a huge dent & a bump on the Rear door while my friend was trying to support his shoulder in between. We together tried all possible tricks and ideas to get the car out but all in vain. The sun had begun to set by then which meant we had very little time left with daylight lest spend the night inside the car in the middle of nowhere with highest possibility of getting mugged at gunpoint and worse- become a meal to some hungry wild animal. It was 04.00.p.m. and we were still stranded.

While we had given up and thinking about the way forward, a Mizoram bound family arrived in a XUV-500. Seeing a girl, they took pity on us and offered to help us by waiting until we arranged for a rope. Fortunately, another truck arrived on a lost route within the next 10 minutes. The truck driver obliged to open a compartment in his truck which was located deep under and was never touched since the time he had owned the truck. He finally pulled out a big chain which was then attached to the XUV and towed the swift out of the ditch. It was a moment of celebration… not only to us, but to so many people who had gathered during the course. With some navigation help from the locals, we took a small deviation to avoid the landslide that had actually caused the entire episode of getting our car towed. The highway ahead right until Jatinga was under construction with just heavy dust all around. There was a spot where our car was in the middle of like ten JCBs around- Like a scene from the transformers. Wow! A wonderful experience in a no-man’s world…

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The Asian Highway through Dima Hasao

Part 4: Swift gets a face wash
We found a local garage at Haflong who vacuum cleaned the interiors and did a high pressure wash for the exteriors and underbody. Our car looked as new as it was when we took delivery. Only change point was that it had a big bump on the rear door and functionally, the power steering would suddenly get harder than its manual version due to the leaking power steering oil, the brakes took a longer distance to stop and the entire electrical system would suddenly go off during the drive due to the excessive electrolyte spillage in the battery and of course- the wheel alignment had gone for a complete toss. We drove back to Guwahati braving the deadly combination of multiple malfunction Indication Lamps on and horrible road sense of the people on the newly laid highways. We returned the car at Guwahati and the rest is better left untold…

Celebrating Diwali in the island of Satras- Majuli

A good photo can tell a story… But a camera can never capture what the real eyes see…

The above expression explains my feeling when my drive to Majuli started. We drove to Neemati Ghat from where we had to get onto a ferry along with our car onboard… Although the ferry sailed away from the banks, we saw ourselves approaching the same bank within 15mins after a detour. A person who had alighted at Neemati Ghat had created a ruckus for having lost his bag of crackers in the ferry. Oh yes… Diwali with no fireworks?? After all the drama, our ferry took sail on its final trip of the day… It was approximately an hour’s journey across the mighty Brahmaputra towards Kamalabari ghat on the other end that had conveniently faded into the horizon.

We were sailing in the middle of the widest of the Indian rivers which seemed no less than a sea… In no time, it was sunset in the sky!! We saw the gold of daylight changing into molten red merging with the darkness of the sea to call it a day! Each fraction of a second was a spectacle to the eye while the universe around us was changing into hues of red. And at the distant horizon, the dark sky was being lit up with fireworks as if the world’s largest river island was set for our grand welcome. With last drop of the set-sun, our ferry touched the Majuli island at Kamalabari Ghat. The welcome was more than what we had imagined while in the waters… The streetlights in the entire island were switched off and it was like time travel to the history books of ancient days when all towns and villages used to be lit by lamps with oil soaked wicks… All villages, all streets, all houses & shops, every courtyard and like every damned place in the island was lit up with diyas of Diwali reminding us the exact purpose of the festival- Celebration of the grand return of Lord Ram, Sita & Lakshman at Ayodhya..!! The distinct rural ambience with lamp lit bamboo huts reflecting in the swamp waters just added to the amusement we had.

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Lamps being lit at one of the huts at the Missing village

After getting directions from our homestay owner, we drove through stretches of Gurmur only to be guided with lamps that marked the boundary between the road and the bamboo forests on a moon-less night… A neatly done-up bamboo cottage was awaiting our arrival in that bamboo island… After freshening up in our cottage, we took a stroll in that magical village in search of some local food for dinner. We had to satiate our hunger at a small but pleasant hotel with a simple Assamese Thali.

The rest of the night was spent star gazing in a clear moon-less sky outside our bamboo hut, with moist dew-kissed grass underneath and sipping apong- the local rice-beer… Right there, I found what I wanted from my trip- A piece of peaceful life… It was BLISS..!!

Day 2: The next morning, we woke up leisurely and took a stroll around the village enjoying the rustic countryside… As it was start of the winter, we witnessed several endemic & endangered bird species including migratory birds that had come to nest in this extensive wetland. After breakfast, we decided to explore the cultural diversity offered by the island. Although I would any day choose to cycle around this vast district, my friend wanted to drive around instead and so we did… Majuli has always been the cultural headquarters of Assam. It is known for its ancient monasteries which have been practicing various forms of art for over 500yrs now. These monasteries are called Satras. There were over 660 Satras in the island which has reduced to a handful of practicing schools now. We were hence keen on exploring a few of them. The drive around the bamboo groves alternately opened up to the swamp waters of the island making the drive very enjoyable. And every household had a loom placed outside under the shade of the hut with several women folk weaving the famous textile of Majuli. Several others were busy with the preparations for ‘RaasLeela’ the biggest cultural festival of the island flocked with people from across the world due for a few weeks ahead.

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The bamboo huts/ houses in the Mising village

Firstly, we visited the ‘Natun Samaguri Satra’- known for mask making. The humble person Mr. Hem Goswami was patiently explaining the process of mask making to every visitor who dropped by. Since, the preparations were on for RaasLeela, most of the masks available were those of characters from Ramayana. We were amused with the way Mr. Goswami got into the skin of the character of the mask that he wore each time. Be it the aggression of King Vali or the gracefulness of seditious Mohini- He adorned them all with ease… We then drove across the island to ‘Uttar Kamalabari Satra’- famous for the origin of Sattriya dance, ‘Kamalabari Satra’ known for boat making and ‘Aouniati Satra- the largest among all and ‘Dakhinpat Satra’- The oldest of all Satras in Assam. The monks or Bramhacharis as they are called were all occupied in the practice of hymns for the Raas night!

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The masks at the Samaguri satra

The island is inhabited by the Mising, Deori & Sonowal Kachari tribes in separate villages in this bamboo district. And hence, the indigenous culture of the tribal folk is another attraction in addition to all the cultural and bio-diversity that the island has to offer. After all this exploration of the island district, we headed towards Dhunaguri Ghat from where a 3hour drive would get us to the gates of Arunachal Pradesh. Firstly, we need to cross a small swamp with a ferry which is available at any point in time, so one needs to just hop in and get rowed across. There is a bamboo bridge being constructed by the local tribes parallely which I think is eligible to be called world’s longest bamboo bridge. The amount of engineering and effort the locals have been putting in is noteworthy. Next was a short drive through the tribal settlements to catch another ferry that runs on a fixed time. But, this drive was again like an emotional farewell to us by this beautiful island… The oblique rays of the setting sun laid a golden tone for the entire backdrop. With the bamboo huts onto our right, the view to our left was a visual treat! Grey waters of the Brahmaputra, green paddy fields, blue Himalayas at a distance with the golden sunset- all in one sight looked like layers of colours and terrain merging into one another forming as if a dream was frozen on canvas.

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The ferry and the under construction bamboo bridge at Dhunaguri ghat

We waited at the banks for a long time and captured various silhouettes in the backdrop of a dreamy sunset until our ferry arrived. We boarded our car onto the launch and bid a final goodbye to the beautiful island and its people…

Summary:
Majuli is THE place for a traveler who wants to break through some offbeat destination with multiple touch points- Cultural, traditional, geographical, eco and biological diversity all at one place!

Must do:
• Take a cycle tour exploring the Satras around the island.
• Attend the annual cultural festival- RaasLeela in 3rd week of November.