Guwahati: An orphan city

Very few people living in the largest city in the Northeastern Region know that Guwahati is one of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the country, probably second only to the city of Varanasi, another Indian city that is also said to be “the oldest living city” in the world. According to legend, Varanasi was founded by none other than Lord Shiva, about 5,000 years ago. Historians and archaeologists however say they have evidence that dates back to about 3,000 years. When was our Guwahati founded? Who was the founder of Guwahati? Didn’t Naraka of the so-called ‘Asura’ dynasty rule from here during the time of Lord Krishna? Didn’t Lord Krishna himself come to Guwahati at least on three distinct occasions? What are the city’s connections to Vasistha, “the sage of sages”, as he was referred to?
Well, mythology is one thing, and history and archaeology another. What do historians and archaeologists say? While archaeologists and historians have not yet come to a final conclusion about Guwahati’s age or establishment, the fact remains that they have in their possession certain terracotta artefacts dating back to the first century BC. Though these were found in the excavation site at Ambari in 2010, there are not many archaeological evidences about this city’s ancient history, particularly before 7th century AD. For those who had not heard or read it before, the Ambari archaeological site, located close to Dighalipukhuri in the heart of the city, was accidentally discovered while the area was being dug for construction of the Reserve Bank of India in 1969. (With the site yielding numerous artefacts and gradually turning out to be a major archaeological site, the Reserve Bank of India was assigned a new plot of land where it stands today.)

Leaving the past about the city to the experts in the respective fields, what is currently important is the present and future of Guwahati. What is the current status of Guwahati? Look at the list of cleanest cities in India; our city does not figure anywhere among the Top 20. Look at availability of piped drinking water; Guwahati does not figure anywhere at the Top 20. Look at end to open defecation; one need not go to any official site, a visit to the banks of the Bharalu, or to the small stream that enters the city from Khanapara will tell the real story. Look at fire safety; fire engines cannot enter most of the lanes and by-lanes. Look at the drains; while the concerned authorities do not clean them regularly, the citizens too are well adept in dumping household garbage in them. Look at the garbage collection mechanism; the garbage vans do not go to every locality on a daily basis. Look at water-logging; it has been increasing despite tall promises and investment of a huge sum in the recent months. Look at traffic; it is one of the worst, with pedestrian crossings still remaining highly unsafe. Look at crimes; the crime graph has been rising. Look at public amenities: where are they? Look at the hills and wetlands; nobody is interested in protecting them. Look at public transport; city buses here ply at the whims and fancies of drivers and conductors whose tongue is filled with foul and vulgar language.

For those who remember reading Hiuen Tsang’s notes – the Chinese traveler and pilgrim had stayed with Kumar Bhaskarvarman, the great Kamarupa king, for a few weeks in seventh century – ancient Guwahati was a well laid-out city and a centre of learning, with scholars coming from various parts of the subcontinent. Ancient scriptures on the other hand describe Guwahati as a well-fortified city with four distinct gates or entry points in four directions. But then most British reports – including that of AJ Moffatt Mills – did describe Guwahati as an unlivable, unhygienic and unhealthy place, leading to shifting the seat of administration of the province from Guwahati to Shillong in 1874, after some examination of Tezpur as a possible administrative headquarter. While the primary reason for shifting the seat of administration from Guwahati to Shillong by the British was that this city was unhealthy, full of marshes and wetlands that cause floods during the monsoons, a city where the residents entirely defecate in the open, be it their respective compounds or on roadsides nullahs or the riverside, the city looks no better except that it has turned out to be a concrete jungle.

Who is bothered about Guwahati? The Guwahati Municipal Corporation? The Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority? The Kamrup (Metropolitan) district administration? The Guwahati Development Department? The four hon’ble legislators who represent the voters of the city? Going by the list of problems already cited above, one cannot easily surmise that anyone is really and sincerely bothered about Guwahati.

What about poets, authors, artists and intellectuals? Is there a collection of poems that tells the stories that comprise Guwahati? Is there a novel ever written centering around this ancient city? Is there a film made about this story (except ‘Chikmik Bijuli’ that Bhupen Hazarika had made way back in the 1960s)? Is there an artist who has reflected on his or her canvas the dreams and struggles that comprise this city? Alas, none. This is an orphan city.