Travel is the negotiation between self and other that is brought about by movement in space.
– Carl Thompson
It was in 2011, when I visited Tezpur for the M.Phil Clinical Psychology entrance exam at LGB Regional Institute of Mental Health. It was already 8 p.m. when I reached Guwahati city from the airport after an hour long drive. There were no train services to Tezpur then [i] I went to the transport hub in Paltan Bazar where Winger [ii] services operate to Tezpur. Coming from Kerala, where public spaces are highly gender-segregated, I was surprised to find humans of different genders sitting side by side in the vehicle. As only one seat was vacant next to a girl, I waited for the next Winger. The driver upon learning that I am travelling to Tezpur lead me to take that seat with an air of mindful regard. I sat after I got ‘consent’ from both the girl and the driver. This incident acted as a window to the world of Assam where gender empowerment is practically seen on the ground at least concerning usage of public spaces in contrast to Kerala where few women [iii] dare to venture out of their homes after sunset.
I reached Tezpur at 1 a.m. I felt dolorous when I had to take the service of a human-powered cycle rickshaw to reach the hotel. It was heartrending to see men drawing fellow humans, bringing textbook images of slavery alive in my mind. I felt proud of Kerala’s commendable efforts in reducing gap between haves and have-nots immensely. As I walked to the exam venue next morning on foot, I didn’t feel that I am in one of Assam’s largest cities. People were recoiling themselves slowly, children were playing at the courtyards, and youngsters lipsyncing to songs played out in the misty morning.
Life is slow, rich and mindful in Tezpur, unlike other cities in India which are heavily focused on professional education, job and other materialistic pursuits. Nestled on the banks of the Brahmaputra, Tezpur is called the city of eternal romance in memory of the epic love between Usha and Anirudha that blossomed here. Agnigarh [iv] (fire fort) where Usha was kept in custody, is situated on a hillock on the outskirts of the city. The enigmatic stone sculptures on the way to Agnigarh are thematic of these mythological stories. The war that ensued between Lord Krishna and Lord Shiva (Harihar yudha) left the city blood-soaked, thus the name, Tezpur; meaning ‘city of blood’.
For a history enthusiast, a visit to the 6th-century temple remains at Bamuni Hills preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India would be spellbinding. Gupta and Hellenistic art and architectural styles have been traced here. Nag Shankar temple houses turtles aged over 100 years, believed to be incarnations of God. Mahabhairav temple [v] is home to one of the biggest Shivlings in Asia.
The film Tezpur 1962 [vi] recounts the turbulences of Tezpur which is the only town in independent India that was evacuated after the Chinese army marched towards the town during Indo-China war in 1962. Currently, Tezpur is a major military base; a strategic, operational platform against Chinese aggression. The thundering sounds of Sukhoi fighter jets comfortably blur the thin line between war and peace. In 1959, Tezpur gave a warm welcome to His Holiness the Dalai Lama after India granted asylum to the Tibetan spiritual leader and his retinue of 10000 people.
Tezpur chilly (Bhoot jalokia[vii]) was voted as the hottest chilly in the world in 2007. Rated at more than 1 million Scoville Heat Units, the chilly grenades developed by Indian Army for riot control is derived from bhoot jalokia. Bhoot jalokia pickles were a constant companion for me as my north-east friends in the hostel brought it to the table. Tezpur litchi, a unique variety of litchi is simply mouth-watering.
In Tezpur, children take time off to play, explore their surroundings, form enduring relationships, and care for their near ones while in Kerala, children are at the cusp of competition for ‘development’. So they are hooked to books and tuition centres, leaving no time for introspections. They miss the pleasures of life and the anchoring offered by intimate relationships, which ultimately leads to a collapse in times of adversities. In this sense, Tezpur is an ideal place to learn how to balance modernity and tradition, emotion and logic and the urban and the rural.
Tezpur is the least polluted [viii] city in India, according to a WHO report (Soares 2016). In a unique departure, the people of Tezpur have demonstrated that nature relatedness is fundamental to human well-being and sustainable development. However, as I learn about the developmental projects currently underway in ecologically fragile northeast region in response to widespread developmental angst, will Tezpur sustain its tenacity to provide a breather to anthropocentric development? Or will Tezpur fall to the mainstream discourse of development to witness the fury and ungovernable power of nature? Should development be measured only in terms of four-lane highways and buzzing commercial hubs? Tezpur is not remembered for skyscrapers, but the rich tapestry of relationships Tezpurians have woven with nature and their fellow people. It is remembered for the different stories of love, friendship and camaraderie it crafts to be told and retold again and again.
During the three years I spent in Tezpur, every Tezpur home I visited gave me Gamosa[ix](handwoven cultural cloth of Assam) to carry with me as a symbol of respect, friendship and devotion.Gifting me neatly packed saplings of Litchi, my Tezpurian friend held my hand with much warmth and said, “Bhalk Thakiba, Akou Log Paam” (“Stay good, will meet soon”). Now when I see the Litchi growing in our farmland in Kerala, I feel I have brought the essence of Tezpur with me. I would urge every visitor to take Tezpur with them for Tezpur is not only a city but also an emotion, a state of mind and a state of existence. I am sure Tezpur would tide over the present crisis of COVID-19 with its inherent goodness and resilence. It is also a call to think local when we are increasingly globalizing.
[i] At present Dekargaon near Tezpur is a major railhead well connected to the rest of the country.
[ii] Tata Winger is a multi-utility passenger vehicle popular in India’s north east region
[iii] I use woman broadly to denote both ciswomen and transwomen.
[iv] It is believed in popular culture that Usha was incarcerated in Agnigarh by her father, King Banasura and it was lit by fire all around so that no one could enter or exit the fort.
[v] Other important temples in and around Tezpur are Ganesh Ghat temple on the banks of Brahmaputra, Swetambar Jain temple, Rudrapath temple, Haleshwar temple, Bhairabi temple and Ketakeswar Devalaya.
[vi] This film can be bought online from the website of Films division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Another film Seema-The Untold Story by national award winning filmmaker Hiren Bora also dwells on the same topic.
[vii] Literally translates into ‘ghost chilly’.
[viii]Also, according to the report of the Central Pollution Control Board for 2018, Tezpur emerged as the least polluted city in India.
[ix] Gamosa, tamul paan and Xorai are three significant symbolic cultural practices in Assam. When someone visits home, firstly, Tamulpan (areca nut and betel leaves) is given on a special metal tray called Xorai.
The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
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