Chandubi revisited – Assam

During our visit to our hometown Guwahati earlier this year, when my wife mooted the idea of taking my mother and my brothers out on a day’s trip to break the monotony of being locked in for months, the first question that hit us was, where?

Among the names that came up was Chandubi Lake, a popular spot with year-end picnickers. My first visit to Chandubi was way back during junior school, as part of a hiking group. I had faint memories of the place. There was a lake, hills around and lots of trees – and that we had lot of fun. That’s about it.

I believe that any place not seen for half a decade is worth visiting again as it always throws up a fresh perspective and outlook – almost like new.

With this thought in mind, on a sunny and breezy Saturday morning, we set forth for our countryside destination, located just 65 km from the heart of Assam’s capital city Guwahati, and about 38 km south-west of the Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport.

Zipping away on an unusually low-traffic NH-17 after leaving the choc-a-bloc city— crossing the airport on the right and the Ramsar freshwater wetland Deepor Beel, which is home to exotic migratory birds and aqua fauna, on the left – we took a left turn from Mirza, a prominent town in south Kamrup, to enter Assam’s evergreen countryside.

As we drove past the barren paddy fields, which would be lush green during the rainy season, and tiny villages dotting the landscape, the feeling of leaving behind the noise and dust of city life was something indescribable in words.

There was dust here too, but this was fresh from the fields – something you could breathe and feel, something that made you rejuvenate. I shut the AC, rolled down the windows and let the fresh air reach my lungs.

Meandering through the meadows, tea gardens, small settlements and heavily forested areas, the small but bitumen-layered, snaky country road slowly led us towards our destination, surrounded by the pristine Garo and Khasi Hills of adjoining Meghalaya.

After almost a two-hour riveting drive, we arrived at Chandubi, a freshwater body of about 2,000 hectares, said to have been formed during a devastating earthquake in Assam in 1897.

Villagers recall they have heard from elders that five hills had sunk to the ground during the quake, forming the lake, which is now a bio-diversity hotspot. There are different stories about its origin, though.

Whatever be the truth, it didn’t matter to us at all at that time. What mattered was the greenery, the misty hills of Meghalaya that beckoned us from a distance, the tranquillity of the surroundings and the silence, which was broken now and then by the soft whistle of the trees swaying in the strong breeze and sweet chirping of the birds.

I stood at the edge of the water for some time, soaking in as much energy and freshness as we could. The silence was almost deafening but pleasing to the ears, hammered day and out by the din of city life.

We had feared the presence of boisterous party gatherings but there were hardly any people around, which worked to our advantage as we wanted to be away from the hustle and bustle and humdrum of daily city life – far from the madding crowds.

The man at the boat-ticketing counter told us that till just a few days ago, when the weather was cooler, hordes of picnickers used to flock the place. “The queues of vehicles would stretch up to kilometres. This place would be packed. Some would even turn back from the main road without getting here… though the villagers earn a lot by selling different stuff during such time, it is better like this…calm and serene,” he said.

I echoed his thought. It would have been a futile exercise coming all the way from the city only to end up with similar crowds. Year-end picnics are a common practice in Assam. This is when families, neighbours or office colleagues would plan a day’s trip to somewhere outside the city, together cook in the open, play loud music and go back by the evenings – leaving the surroundings littered with left-over stuff.

Nevertheless, nothing of that sort was to be seen there and the whole of Chandubi was there just for us to enjoy. Unlike the monsoons, when Assam turns lush green –enough to make many dry areas green with envy – this was mid-March, when the weather was generally dry and dusty, when tree leaves – barring the evergreen ones — would turn brown. But it was green enough to make natural greenery-starved people like me happy.

We rode a crude dinghy with a boatman that slowly took us to the other side of the lake, to a small resort where we spent the rest of the day. There are a couple of resorts, or eco-camps as the operators prefer to call them, offering simple local delicacies, lodging and limited activities to those who want to spend a night or so to soak in the quietude of Assam’s forests, at an affordable cost.

Like in any other holiday destination, there are quite a few things you can do in Chandubi – or just do nothing, lay down gazing at the sky and nature, feel the air and let your nerves relax. We opted for the second one.

If you love roaming around, you can go on a village tour to observe the local way of life and culture – in this case that of the ethnic Rabha tribals that dominate the area – or visit local markets, where you can get good barter deals, fresh veggies and fish and local artefacts and items. I spotted a local market not far from the lake.

Or just walk down or take a bicycle on rent, pedalling along the ruralscape, the adjoining tea garden belt or within the permitted limits of the nearby forest areas (where you need to be on guard for wild elephants), enjoying the lush greenery if you are visiting in the monsoons, which can be a little tough for first-timers. The period around winters – September-October to February-March — is generally preferred for a hassle-free visit.

The lake can be a birdies’ delight during winters when a lot of migratory fauna visit the region. We spotted some exotic birds and different varieties of ducks, cranes and herons but as I am not a bird expert, couldn’t identify them.

If you like hiking, you can also visit Rani Khamar. Located a few kms from Chandubi, along the Meghalaya border, the flowing Kulsi River – a tributary of the Brahmaputra – has made it a favourite for trekkers and picnickers. You can also trek along the nearby hills, spotting the numerous freshwater springs and small waterfalls along the way, which come alive during the monsoons. Or you could just hire a boat and take a ride around the lake.

We started the day at the resort with chai and mixed pakodas, devouring everything in a jiffy as we were famished – skipping breakfast at home as we wanted to start early. Sitting on crude wooden bench, sipping away the hot cuppa under the shade of the imposing, whispering teak trees that were swaying in the wind, I gazed at the still waters and the nearby hills – letting all my worries blow away; at least for those moments.

I looked at my 13-year-old son. Perched on a swing that was tied to sturdy tree branches, he also kept on looking at the water and the surroundings – a sight he can never experience in the concrete jungle of Delhi-NCR. My 74-year-old mother was next to try the swing that had an old rubber tyre of a truck for a seat, followed by wifey, me and then my kid brother, who has the body of a 39-year-old but the feelings of, maybe, a three-year-old. In medical lingo, he is a Down’s syndrome child. But among us all, he was the one who enjoyed the most, mingling himself with nature in its purest form.

Lunch was purely traditional, comprising rice cooked in bamboo tube, urad dal with local herbs, mashed potato mixed with soaked chana dal paste and spicy hot chilles, smoked tomato chutney, elephant apple chutney, chicken curry, chicken fry and papad. We ate in the open, slowly savouring the dishes cooked in a firewood-fuelled kitchen. Our tummies full, I missed our brand new hammock we had got during our Allapuzha trip but which we never got a chance to use.

The rest of the time, we just idled around, clicked photos and gazed at the open sky. I would have loved to stay at least for a night to have a feel of the silence after dusk, but due to the paucity of time, we had to return – though with big smiles and oodles of freshness on our faces.

For those who want to hang around, the home stays run by local people offer basic amenities at a budget price. There are bamboo huts with or without stilts with beds and attached/common toilets. Tents are also available if you want to stay in one. The resorts offer local tours on request.

To promote eco-tourism, the government has been organising the Chandubi Festival at the lake for years now. The place comes alive during the four-day festival when various local cultures and traditions, ethnic food, music and dance, traditional outfits and local handloom, cane and bamboo products, etc., are on display.

If you are a writer and want to finish a book without any hindrance, or just want to stay away from that prying boss or those cranky marketing calls for a while, or just want to unwind, then Chandubi is the perfect place to be as even phone/internet network is patchy here.

As one of the signages mentioned, “There is no wi-fi in the forest, but you will find a better connection.”

Nilutpal Thakur

Nilutpal Thakur

Nilutpal Thakur, an independent journalist based in Delhi-NCR.