We came upon it by accident. An uneventful Tuesday afternoon drive through the little town of Bishwanath Chariali – which still sported shops from my parents’ days here in the 1970s – and a chance suggestion by someone to go to the river. It didn’t take us long to get to the outskirts despite a five-minute stop at Mahamaya Stores to pick up salted peanuts. The road leading to the ghat is marked intermittently by tiny mud and thatch villages, a local roadside market, cyclists and playing children. At one point, though, the Assam countryside opens up to vast paddy fields on either side, marked pale golden-yellow by a benevolent winter sun. No matter how long you’ve lived in or visited Assam, it has these pockets of delight that continually surprise you.
The road ends, quite literally, where the river bank begins. Beyond a stretch of white sand (under water during the monsoon) flows the Brahmaputra, wide and deep as the sea. Apart from a cluster of fishing boats, Bishwanath Ghat was untouched and empty. Hard to imagine then, that in the late nineteenth century, when Assam remained impossibly remote, accessible only by ferries, this was a bustling port of call. My father, who’d worked many years in the tea industry and who was a keen historian, explained that in those days, manufactured leaf was loaded and sent to Calcutta from Bishwanath Ghat. Even more amazing was that workers’ wages were sent from the city back here and stowed safely with the ghat “officer” until it was picked up by someone from the tea estate, sometimes weeks later. Sitting on the sand bank, watching the river run by, it is easier to imagine that slower, more innocent world.
The thing to do, of course, is hire a boat, elegant as a paper cut-out, and explore the area. (The rates vary according to bargaining skills, but it shouldn’t be more than Rs 150-200 for an hour.) Bishwanath Ghat, as our friendly boatman told us, is dotted with temples, both on its banks and its river island. Before we make a pious stop, though, he rows us across to an oddly shaped stone sticking out of the water. There’s just enough room for us to jump onto it. “It’s Shiva’s mark,” he says pointing to a three-pronged line on the rock. “It is never dry.” Incredulous as we were, we had to admit it was an odd, yet seemingly true phenomenon. Our next stop was a functional temple perched atop a hilly edge. The place was closed and incredibly quiet, littered with ancient carved stone. We’d missed it, but if you want to catch the evening aarti, get there just before four o’clock.
We then made our way to a small bay area with a boulder-strewn bank. Here were the remains of the ancient Gupta Kashi temple, which lies underwater in summer, but since it was early December, now had a make-shift shed around it. There was no one there but apparently it draws tremendous crowds during the bihu festival (celebrated in January, April and October). To the right of the temple, up a cow-dung splattered path, is a spot of curious interest. “It’s the place,” explains our boatman, “where the gods play dice.” Beyond a small gated entrance is a large, flat stone covered by a tin roof, on which there are strange board-game-like markings. We couldn’t quite figure out the carved squiggles but they could well have been something out of a cosmic chess game. Past this, the ground drops suddenly, and beyond the barbed-wire fence is a wide expanse of dry white river sand, appearing out of nowhere like a sudden dessert.
By the time we made our way back to our boat, the sun had set and twilight hovered over the water like a roosting bird. In the silence marked only by the splash of oars, a fisherman, somewhere in the distant gathering dark, started singing a slow, sad folk song. On the banks, others mended their nets by the dim light of lanterns. We came upon this place by accident; the gods had rolled the dice right.