More of the magic of Manju (Wild Grass) leads us into the hands of Deepak. Kind, friendly and full of information, Deepak made our short time in Guwahati much more relaxing than the previous. We stayed in the 'transit flat' Manju uses for his Wild Grass clients and luckily caught his son Man just as he was leaving fo the airport for the grueling journey to Oxford (where we promised to meet up in the coming May). What a jolly splendid chap he is.
The next day, with the help of our Guwahati-ian guide, we set off early to visit our last destination in Assam and the Seven Sister States of the North East; a village of potters near the town of Dhubri on the Assamese-West Bengal border.
After a long bus ride (but with a smashing puri and sabji breakfast stop) we were collected at a stop just before Dhubri, by Krishna; a potter who had previously worked with Manju at Kaziranga. We dived into an auto and headed across a dubious bridge towards the village. Krishna dutifully showed us his ID card, as he didn't speak much English, it was kind of him to reassure us we were taken off the bus by the right bloke. Asharikandi, the Terracotta Village, came quickly into view. We were welcomed into Mr Krishna's home for some chai and snacks (including a whole pack of butter for Marc- what a champ!), then whisked off for a tour of the village. Mr Paul, his son and uncle were awaiting our arrival at one of the government funded show rooms / stock rooms. Having not embarked on one of our research ventures for a while, we had forgotten how generous and accommodating people are when you wish to learn about their culture, craft and way of life. This hamlet was a hub of terracotta activity, with somewhere in the region of one hundred and thirty seven families and well over five hundred artisans. Our enthusiastic entourage took us for a spontaneous tour of the place, which is where we really grasped the scale of the industry. Every other house had a vast array of pots drying in the Assamese sun; some made flower pots, huge rice containers (Amiee's favourite), mold-cast/hand built statues and others made huge ceramic rings used for either wells or bogs. The kilns were beyond our expectations, almost every family had erected a tall structure sheltering a hollow-centred construction. In design, these were not unlike the kilns on Majuli island some 600km to the east (confirming some previous hypothesis concerning trade along the mighty Brahmaputra).
We saw a multitude of kilns in various phases of their firing. Including big piles of pots covered in straw and mud, ready for the main pyrotechnical event. We finished our wander as dusk was falling on the dusty streets of Ashrikandi.
We were set to catch the 10pm bus (overnight) towards Sikkim, however, the bus was full and the next day turned out to be a government bund (strike). We felt this was in our favour. We stayed with the Paul family, were given our own room and fed some wonderful home-cooked cuisine (You star Mrs Paul!). Of course, we slept deeply on our full tummies and awoke about 5am the next morning to the sound of small children and families starting their day. We had a slow, but peaceful morning with breakfast at a neighbour's home and the 'expected' tour around the village school. In the afternoon we whizzed off on the back of a pair of motorbikes to local temples (where we had a mixture of experiences).
The first temple was spread out over the top of a hill, looking over the gentle, forested valleys below. The main deity was Kali- to Marc's horror the sacrifice of goats occurred every Thursday and Saturday, without fail, upon a wooden sacrificial altar whilst an enormous goat-skin drum was beaten to honor the occasion. Luckily it was a Tuesday. We received puja from a couple of the priests and walked down the path leading out of the complex, laden with temple-tack. We turned our heads in amusements as some young boys threw fruits into the trees for the monkeys to catch.
Zooming off again, Marc on the back of Krishna's brother's bike and Amiee with Debdas we arrived at our next temple; a theme park for Hindus. Each shrine was a molded cement creature, some reaching 30m high. These modern, yet colourful monstrosities housed a delightful surprise to visiting worshipers. Temples, tunnels and incense-filled caverns lay within the internal voids of this maze. Cement monkeys, doves and a menagerie of beasts stood sentinel beside their living counterparts trying to steal their next meal. It was all a bit surreal.
On our return to the terracotta town, Debdas had one more local sight for us to behold. The en-caged 20m statue of Kali stood watchfully over the main road in the company of a herd of red collared temple goats (blissfully unaware of the fate to come- ignorance is bliss!). The statue itself had several swarms of wild honey-bees colonising the dark shadows, lending a splendid buzzing beard, breast and bicep.
On our return, we took a final walk through the village and observed the busy pot makers hard at work, even as darkness fell. We sat quietly around the fire within the courtyard and enjoyed our last evening in Assam.
If we had known the journey that lay ahead of us the following day, we may of just stayed tucked up in bed. As any early start, it began with good intent. We waited around the village for an auto-rickshaw, which seemed unnecessarily confusing. One, conveniently, appeared and took us to the bus stop out on the main road. After lots more confusing discussions between groups of men (all with alarmingly strange features) we were finally told there was another bund (strike) that day. Bugger. Our only option was to persuade the auto driver that brought us from the village, to take us and a few other stragglers to the border of West Bengal where we could carry on our journey. The next 35km in a doorless rickshaw was painfully cold, numbing and cramped. An hour later, agitated and stiff, we got in a shared jeep with a record breaking 24 people and 2 vomiting children. Another less than satisfying journey. We were both thrilled to reach the town where we could catch the bus to Siliguri, boarding it with ease we sat back and relaxed for the last leg. How wrong we were. Seven more hours of bus-terror unfolded. The driver certainly seemed like he wanted us all dead, as he pursued to overtake everything on the road regardless of the oncoming vehicles. The absolute gem of the journey (after Marc nearly being left behind while taking a whizz) occurred whilst stuck in traffic, due to a lorry blocking a small bridge- undeterred, the driver swung off the road and plummeted into the river and chugged up the bank on the other side. Hurrah for his initiative, but never should a bus be at that angle.
Our white-knuckle ride finally ended in Siliguri, were we struck luck. We quickly found a cheap, suitable hotel and hot food to fill our empty tumtums. We got our permits for Sikkim and set off for Gangtok at 0730 the next day.