Guwahati, not being the capital of the state of Assam, is the city that works as a gateway to the so-called Northeastern States, mainly due to its geographical position in a lowland area, between Bhutan and the mountains of the state of Meghalaya.
Under the generic name of Northeastern States, gathering seven states also called Seven Sisters, located in the extreme north-east of India, delimited by Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar) and Tibet (China). These states along with Sikkim are “linked” to the rest of the India by a narrow strip of territory, part of the state of West Bengal. This strip of Indian territory between Nepal and Bangladesh is called “chicken’s neck,” that at some point only 23 km wide.
These Seven Sisters are Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland. Until recently these states had some restrictions being necessary permits to visit, but currently, only the state of Arunachal Pradesh requires permits, both foreign and Indian nationality, given the sensitive border with China.
After a 30 hours train trip, the usual bustle of Indian big cities waits for us, with noise, traffic and the hurried movements of people. But Guwahati has the advantage of having the train station right in the center of the city, which avoids the usual stress of negotiating rates with tuk-tuks drivers.
And being the gateway to the northeastern states, it is noted upon arrival, a big ethnic diversity.
Leaving the train station we are faced with the Paltan Bazaar located on the left side of the busy national highway running through the town, the GS Road (Guwahati-Shillong Road). In Paltan Bazaar, within five minutes from the station and the bus terminal, there’re plenty of accommodations, dominating the hotels with a big range of prices and quality. But this is here where the difficulties begin. Many of the hotels don’t have the special license need to accept foreigners, given the small number of non-Indians visitors that come so far. Therefore, the most modest lodgings don’t accept foreigners, arguing that they are full when are obvious the room keys hanging patiently at the reception.
This way we are pushed to more expensive hotels, some taking advantage of the few alternatives, charging high prices for a room in miserable conditions… 600 rupees that don’t guarantee clean sheets!
In this search for a place to sleep came on my way the Youth Hostel, an institution that I was unaware of existing in India. In a building that has seen better days, reigns an atmosphere of abandonment and emptiness, where the room show an urgent need of repairs and the toilet is decrepit, but cheap price, the clean sheets and the friendly staff made this place look like a warming shelter to spend a night, before traveling to the mountains of Meghalaya.
The last afternoon spent in the Guwahati there wasn’t the opportunity to get away from restless city center, away from the confusing Paltan Bazaar and Fancy Bazaar, which despite the names are quite similar. But there was time to walk to the banks of Brahmaputra, which the brownish waters offers a serene landscape that contrasts with the movement of the city streets. The Brahmaputra, one of the largest Asian rivers, runs through the state of Assam, heading south until the Bay of Bengal, crossing the plains of Bangladesh.
In Hindu religion, it is common the representation of the yoni with the lingam, which corresponds to the female and male elements of cosmic creation, according to the Shiva followers. But in India, there are few temples dedicated exclusively to the female side of this energy: Shakti (also referred as Devi), the goddess representing the energy of creation and change, also associated with fertility and creativity.
Guwahati is one of the most important temples dedicated to mother goddess: the Kamakhya Temple, where during Ambubachi Mela animals are sacrificed, according to Tantric tradition, with the blood of goats symbolizing the annual period of goddess Kamakhya.
For those who visit the place, where the red color stands out, symbolizing the menstruation, the female reproductive cycle and fertility… in the red robes of the pujari (followers of goddess Kamakhya), in the red flowers that adorn statues, in the red pigment covering the statues of Kamakhya, from whom are lit incense and candles, and the red that seems to come out from vaginas of women statues associated with fertility.
How to go to the Kamakhya Temple:
To go to Kamakhya, you can catch one of the buses that pass on GS Road. Just ask for “Kamakhya” and stop on the main road (AT Road). The bus ticket costs 8 rupees. After crossing a gate, there are the ASTC buses that make the journey to the top of the hill, for 7 rupees; these buses depart when are full and the journey takes about 10 minutes. There is a pedestrian access, a staircase you access to the temple but that seems to be little used, with the pilgrims prefer the comfort and the speed of the bus.
To visit the interior of the temple is required to join the dozens of pilgrims waiting patiently in a long queue, holding offerings to Kamakhya altar. But as often happens in India, where is strong the distinction between social classes, there is a VIP access which saves the pilgrims and visitors from a long wait, by paying 501 rupees… yes, five hundred and one… why this modest rupee among other 500!?!!
Where to stay in Guwahati:
For those who stay only for one night, the GS Road and the side streets around Paltan Bazaar, offer dozens of options for several prices. From my experience, you can’t get a room with shared toilet for less than 500 rupees, which however don’t guarantee clean sheets.
Unexpectedly I found the Youth Hostel that has a discreet access on the right side of GS Road, on the corner of MD Shah Road. The building looks abandoned, and in fact, almost no one stays here, with some of the rooms being used as offices of Assam tourism department. The available room works in a dormitory system, with 4 beds with a private bathroom, but everything is in a miserable condition, in need of heavy repairs especially the toilet facility. The bed is comfortable and the sheets are clean; it has a mosquito net for each bed.
The Youth Hostel is an option for those who intended to stay only one night in Guwahati and have a very short budget.
Youth Hostel Guwahati: Bed in a dormitory room with toilet: 250 INR (the room, regardless of the number of occupants). Despite being a dorm, as no one else the room was just for me.
Where to eat in Guwahati:
Many restaurants, here called “hotel” line up next to the train station and along the GS Road, as well as the cross streets of Paltan Bazaar, with reasonable vegetarian thalis for 60 rupees. Here rules the typical Indian food, but in a poorer version that usual, with rice, potato based curries and watery dal. Almost all restaurants have vegetarian and non-vegetarian options, which reflects the taste of the Assamese for meat.
There are great parathas during the morning in two small restaurants at the beginning of GS Road, Greenview and Deepak Restaurant, located on the right side of those coming from the south of the train station exit.
If you are in Fancy Bazaar and feel the call of the stomach, Rajhans Hotel, on the second floor of an anonymous building is a nice option with vegetarian food, friendly service and a decor that takes us to a school canteen, which have certain charisma and a super smiley staff.
Rajhans Hotel: S.S. Road, Fancy Bazaar, Guwahati. Vegetarian thali for 70 rupees.
Transports in Guwahati:
Both the train station and the public bus terminal (ASTC) are conveniently located in the center of Guwahati, close to hotel and restaurants and other commercial activity.
From Guwahati, there are trains that cross Assam stat, towards the North until Dibrugarh, passing through Dimapur.
Note: Guwahati railway station has two entrances: the north side (the same side of the river) and that is the main entrance, and another on the south side that leads directly to the GS Road (Guwahati-Shillong Road). The Reservation Office (for long distance tickets) is in a building a few meters from the north entrance of the station (opposite the Paltan bazaar).
The public bus station is just outside the train station (near the Paltan Bazaar). The ticket office ASTC is inside the building, although there are several counters of private companies that also sell tickets for ASTC buses.
The bus (ASTC) from Guwahati to Shillong leaves at 7:30 am, and the journey takes 4 hours.
- Bus ticket to Guwahati-Shillong: 135 rupees (a/c)… in fact, the air conditioning doesn’t work, but it is bearable because the bus always runs with the door open, and as we move away from the plains of Assam, the temperature is drop down.
As an alternative to the buses, there are sumos, a shared all-terrain, which are a very popular mode of transport in the Northeast states, and that makes the connection between the main cities. Inside the Guwahati Bus Terminal, in the bus park, there’s a booth where you can buy tickets for the sumos. In general, these vehicles have no set time, circulating during the day, since very early morning, and depart when they are full.
- sumo Guwahati to Shillong: 170 rupees (the trip takes about 2.45 pm, depending on traffic and number of stops)
Internet in Guwahati:
Most hotels don’t have internet and those who have charge sometimes 100 rupees per day. The best option is the cyber-cafes that aren’t easy to find.
In GS Road, on the left side for who comes from the train station, there is a shop “complex”, and on the first floor there’s a cyber-cafe, Virtual Office, with good connection and wi-fi.
- Wi-fi: 30 rupees per hour.