As the ferry boat approached the eastern side of the northern bank of the Brahmaputra, the boatman pointed at the rock sculpture at a distance. It was unclear at first, covered in sand and dry leaves as if left hidden and forgotten for centuries. As we got nearer, we were astonished to see an elaborate upturned sculpture of a deity, half buried in the sand.
Arijit da, a tourism expert with a keen interest in archaeology had found one research paper about some archaeological remains besides Manikarneswar Devalaya, in the Rajaduar area of North Guwahati. After weeks of planning at his behest, our group of nine had booked a ferry and went out to find the sculptures one afternoon, with just a copy of the illustrated publication.
The two boatmen hailing from North Guwahati, were themselves surprised at our findings; for they have neither heard nor seen the sculpture before. Happy to have found something so precious near to his home, Ranjit Das, one of the boatmen, offered to excavate, rather dig out the remaining part of the buried sculpture. Armed with just a branch, careful not to cause any damage, he started digging. After about half an hour and splashing buckets of water, almost three-fourths of the sculpture became visible. Although we couldn’t identify the exact deity, the intricate and detailed carvings left us in awe. Beside it is a second rock-cut sculpture, in a relatively higher position, and further uphill is another sculpture of Lord Ganesh.
We were fortunate to have found three of the four archaeological remains on the bank of the river in the Rajaduar area, for these remain submerged under water during the monsoon. Unfortunately, the fourth still remains underwater.
The rock sculptures
There are four major rock-cut images sculpted on low relief lying just on the foothill of Manikarneswar hill, belonging to the early medieval period, between the 9th and 12th centuries.
In their publication named “Archaeological Remains of Rajaduar Area in North Guwahati, Assam” published in the Ancient Asia journal, authors YS Sanathana and Manjil Hazarika describe the first rock image as Kalabhairava – one of the destructive forms of Lord Shiva.
“This figure is shown in nude form (Digambara) and in dancing posture… His right side upper and lower hands are holding the damaru and sula respectively, whereas the left side upper hand is holding a kapala and the lower hand is holding a skull. Skull studded trident is resting on his left shoulder. We can also observe two female deities in dancing posture. The left side female deity is holding a kapala-like utensil to collect the blood drops from the skull that Bhairava is holding,” the paper reads.
The second image is identified as Nagaraja. “Key features of this image are lost due to erosion and only an outline has survived. With the existing evidence … An outline of seven snake hood-like canopy over the head and two zoomorphic snake forms shown coming out of hands on both sides can still be observed. The Nagaraja image is shown sitting on what appears to be a throne of snake tail,” mentions the same research paper.
The image of Ganesh is sculpted on a shrine-like canvas which is approximately one meter high and of the same width. “Two female attendants are shown on either side of the image. Artistically this image appears to be of the Pre-Ahom period,” writes the authors. Located on higher land and easily accessible to people “the image has been painted with red colour due to which it has lost its natural aesthetics”.
The fourth, which we couldn’t locate, is identified as the sculpture of Bhogasanamurti form of Vishnu. “This Vishnu image is another excellent masterpiece of early medieval sculptural art of Brahmaputra valley. Just like the Kalabhairava image, this sculpture is also in a reverted position due to the seismic activities. It is located very close to the river bank and for the most part of the year, the rock stays underwater.”
“Vishnu is seated on Vasuki lying horizontally … Seven hooded snake canopy can be seen over the head of Vishnu… The lower right hand is lost due to erosion. A Brahma image is sculpted on the right upper side of Vishnu and he is seated on a lotus pedestal … Most of Brahma’s image is lost but a beautiful depiction of sruk or sruva can be seen here (a very rare depiction). Another standing image is depicted below Brahma but it is unidentifiable due to erosion. Still, it might be an image of Shiva as most of the Bhogasanamurti’s around the country contain a depiction of Shiva in them,” it reads.
Apart from these, there are a series of rock boulders scattered on the foothills of Manikarneswar and on the river bank containing rock carvings and masonry marks of the medieval and Ahom eras. According to Hazarika and Sanathana, seismic activities might have uprooted the sculptured rocks and transported them on the river bank, where few remain inverted. As these sculptured remains submerged for most of the year, the images and especially the details have been eroded. Cracks have occurred in many places resulting in falling out of broken pieces.
Prospects of Archaeological Tourism in Guwahati
Guwahati being an ancient city, identified with Pragjyotishapura, has been the center of cultural development through the ages. Apart from the several temples, archeological remains are scattered across the region, especially in Ambari of Guwahati, and Manikarneswar, Kanai Barasi Bowa, Rajaduar Chowk, and Daul Govinda localities of North Guwahati. As such, there are high prospects for archaeological tourism in and around the city. Unfortunately, many sites, like the sculptures on the river bank remain unexplored and inaccessible to the public.
Arijit Purkayastha, chapter chairperson of Northeast, Association of Domestic Tour Operators of India, who led the trip, said: “The trip is about the archaeo-tourism movement, for Assam is rich in archaeology but many I believe are not documented properly. Assam has much more than just wildlife to offer to tourists, but most of these remain unknown even to us tour operators to include in itineraries. Hence we are out on a mission to explore the lesser-known places.”
“During the pandemic when a few of us started searching the internet for places to visit in and around Guwahati and Assam, we came across this and many others that have found mentions in some videos or articles but are not widely known. Post-pandemic, we have decided to visit these ourselves and see the feasibility of introducing these places to tourists,” he added.
Manjil Hazarika, assistant professor of archaeology at Cotton University, speaking on the subject said: “The sculptures on the north bank are very unique. Rock-cut sculptures are part of an ancient tradition of the Brahmaputra valley and are found across Guwahati and North Guwahati. Such images are mostly of Ganesh, Vishnu, Uma-Maheshwar, and others. But these particular sculptures are uniquely elaborate.”
Hazarika said that Archaeo-tourism is a fast-developing segment of tourism and demands the active involvement of all stakeholders- researchers, historians, tour agents, and tour operators. “While historians need to identify and document more such lesser-known sites, tour agents have the responsibility to include these on their itineraries. These will not just benefit the tourism sectors, but as more people visit such sites the area around these places also develops. The government and the archaeology departments also feel the pressure of maintaining the sites and the surrounding areas.”
“The Northeast region is typically identified as being less developed, by its wildlife and tribal communities. But like the rest of India, we also have a rich and extensive history that is yet to be presented to the world. It’s time that archaeological tourism is taken seriously,” he added.
Purkayastha and other domestic tour operators have opined that while Guwahati has been limited as a transit point for tourists until now, archaeological tourism can establish the city as a major tourist attraction. Archaeological site visits can also boost river tourism in the city, as most sites are located near both banks and can be easily connected in circuits.