From Alipurduar to Guwahati, we have 280kms to cover so we leave our hotel at 7.30 as we want to get to Guwahati early enough to get to our hotel and make the most of Diwali which starts from 6pm today!! We are out of Alipurduar in no time and ride into the morning mist, along the most beautiful countryside. The patchwork of colours and textures created by rice fields at different stages of maturation, giving farmers up to 4 crops a year, is a feast to our eyes. We keep stopping to admire them.
We love riding on these small country roads, through tiny quiet villages. Quiet villages in India I hear you ask?! Yes, it is Diwali today, a national holiday and these quiet roads are a real treat. People are preparing for Diwali.
So what is Diwali? Diwali, also known as Deepavali in other parts of South-east Asia and the Festival of Lights, is a 4 day festival, celebrated throughout India, to dispel darkness and lighten lives and is one of the biggest of all Hindu festivals. It celebrates the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair. Being a festival of joy and light, it is celebrated with great enthusiasm and happiness. On Diwali night, Hindus dress up in new clothes or their best outfit, light up diyas (lamps and candles) inside and outside their home, and participate in prayers.
The much celebrated Kali Pooja of West Bengal is also celebrated in Guwahati and coincides with the Diwali Festival.
Kali is worshipped for her destructive mode. She initially went on a rampage, killing and destroying all evil men and demons in the world. But she got carried away. She only came to her senses when she realised she nearly killed her husband Shiv by putting her foot on him as he deliberately lay down in her path. She is terrifying to look at, furious, has 4 hands, dripping blood and dressed in human heads, one foot on Shiv, her tongue sticking out in shock and horror at realising what she was about to do and the destruction she was causing.
We will be in for a treat and I am really looking forward to this evening!!! That is why I am keen to arrive in Guwahati by mid-afternoon.
As we ride through the villages and small towns on our way to Guwahati, we come across many pandals, temporary temples, built just for Diwali celebrations tonight – some are huge and elaborate, other are tiny simple ones on a road junction – and many wooden boards lining the streets, with designs made of tiny holes – so it seems…
After checking into our hotel, quick shower and change, meet up with a driver we got the hotel to organise to take us around Guwahati to witness the various Diwali celebrations. The first thing we notice are the roadside ‘cutouts’ have come alive. And my goodness, are they alive!! We see flying butterflies, jumping fish, flashing flowers. They will be even more amazing at night…
Luckily we get to see the final touches being put on before the sun sets. People are buying offerings of flower garlands, fruit, tiny terra cotta bowls. As we had ridden today, we’d noticed so many people dragging massive banana branches. We had also seen many vendors selling lots of clay bowls. Now we knew what they were for: to decorate each each stand and home entrance, by framing them with a couple of branches which become candle stands. The tiny clay bowls are in fact oil lamps: they fill them with mustard oil, place a cloth wick to light the oil. Paths to homes, shop fronts, open and closed business were lined with dozens of oil lamps. Only the petrol stations didn’t have them thank goodness, although Anthony did spot one lone candle at one of them!!
The tiniest alley is beautifully decorated. Either with electric lights, but especially with a multitude of tiny burning oil lamps. It reminds us a little bit of our Christmas lights but here there is something a lot more meaningful. It is not simply about having the best decorations, but we feel a genuine celebration of their beliefs. We witness many people, all beautifully dressed, bringing offerings to the various temples, praying at the temples or pandals. From the pandals, we hear music, mostly drumming but we feel it is inappropriate for us to walk into them just as observers, as people are praying, so we listen from outside. We wish we could understand the meaning behind some of the pandal designs.
It was fantastic to have a driver who knew all the back streets of Guwahati. We would drive a little, stop, walk, listen, observe and enjoy. (It was the second time in India that we had a guide/driver, and it definitely made it a lot more enjoyable.) The atmosphere in the streets was definitely joyful and the celebrations sincere.
In addition to lights and music, there were fireworks – although they were more like crackers. They were mostly fun but at times, in one place in particular, I found those quite stressful as kids would throw tiny crackers around you and a dozen would go off all at once.
Here’s a video montage which Anthony took:
We were glad we listened to our driver at one point as we were ready to return to the hotel but he gently insisted we should see “Guwahati’s number one temple” – the Kamakhya temple, dedicated to Mother Goddess Kamakhya – the granter of desires – and one of the most venerated Shakti shrines in India. So off we head through an arch way to the temple. So we thought. But the road went on and on, it got darker and darker and the road kept climbing. Where did this hill come from?! We didn’t remember there being such hills when we first came here from Bhutan!! And it went further up. We stopped half way – what a view!! We could see so many colourful lights, hear crackers, see fireworks. We went to the temple. Again, it was full of worshipers and we felt like we were intruding.
What a wonderful experience Diwali was for us.
Ever since Siliguri, we have noticed a difference in the people. We have found a much gentler, open, smiling and maybe more content people than further west. We can definitely see the advantage of organised trips, staying in just a handful of places, spending longer in each. We do not have the luxury of unlimited time though as we have a deadline to get back to Australia by and still have a few miles to cover by then. But we are making the most of each place as best we can. And this Assam region has been beautiful and quite enjoyable (apart from the drivers still…!).
Heading to the hillier and more remote Kohima and Imphal next… Feeling excited with a touch of trepidation – will I be up to the state of the roads??