The spiritually oriented, Guwahati is home to the goddess Kamakhya; to history buffs, it stands on the very spot where the brave people of this great land thwarted the mighty Mughal army in the battle of Saraighat in 1671; to the inhabitant, it is the child that has been, over the years, nurtured, fulfilled and at times, even admonished by the mighty Brahmaputra.
Guwahati is commercially and spatially one of the fastest growing cities in India. From a humble population of 2 lakh in 1971, presenting Guwahati is a teeming metropolis with 808,021 people (2001 Census).
The city stretches for 45 kms from Gopmath Bordoioi International Airport in the west to Narengi in the east and from the southern bank of the Brahmaputra to the foothills of the Shillong plateau for around 15 kms. Guwahati Municipal Corporation administers an area of over 216 sq kms.The town derives its name from two Ahomiya words – guwa or a areca nut and haat or the weekly market, thus tracing its origins to a time when it was a trading post on the Brahmaputra.
Guwhati is identified with the ancient city of Pragjyotishpura overlooked by the hallowed temple to goddess Kamakhva. In the Mahabharata, it was the capital or the Kamrup kingdom under Narakasura and his son Bhagadattu who fought in the battle of Kurukshetra on the side of the Kauravas.
The 7th century Chinese traveller, Hiuen Tsang, w ho visited the court of Bhaskar Barman writes that Pragjyotishpura stretched 19 kms from east to west and was the principal base for the kingdom’s strong navy consisting of more than 30,000 war-boats.
From the 7th century to the founding of Ahom rule in the l3th, Guwahati passed through the hands of the Palas, the Kamtas and the Kochs. Excavations in Ambari and at Cotton College suggest that it was a prosperous city from the 9th to the 11th century AD under the Palas.
Under the Ahorns, the city saw a spurt of building activity, and it was during this period that most of the ponds in the city were excavated.
Taking advantage of the weakening of Ahom rule in the last decades of the eighteenth century, the British East India Company made rapid inroads into the region. By 1938 they came to control entirely what is now the state of Assam. Guwahati received a boost with the establishment of the city of Shillong and the booming tea business. Burgeoning trade in tea and timber (not onlv from the northeast but also from Burma) hastened the arrival of railways and telegraph, laying of roads and increased accessibility.
After Independence in 1947, Guwahati remained the most important commercial centre of northeast India. After 1972, when the state of Meghalaya was carved out of Assam, Shillong became the capital of Meghalaya while Dispur, a part of Guwahati town, was made the administrative capital of Assam. With its wide roads, serene water bodies and numerous parks, Guwahati is a well-planned and picturesque city.
In the heart of Guwahati is the Pan Bazaar area. Not only it is it the commercial hub of the city but also houses some of Guwahati’s important landmarks. The famous Cotton College, a premier educational institute, stands at the northern edge of Pan Bazaar. Established in 1901, the college was named after Sir Henry John Stedman Cotton, Chief Commissioner of the erstwhile British province of Assam.
On the southeastern corner of Pan Bazaar is a large, rectangular lake, Dighali Pukhuri. The lake is believed to have been dug by Bhagadutta, king of Pragjvotishpura and was once connected by a canal to the Brahmaputra. It was used extensively by the Ahom rulers as a sheltered harbour for their naval vessels. Dighali Pukhuri derives its name from the word dighal meaning elongated.
To the west of Dighali Pukhuri and facing the main entrance to Cotton College is Nehru Park. A little green oasis in the heart of town, the park preserves a number of rare species of plants.
Behind Nehru Park is Christ Church. One of the earliest churches in northeast India, it was consecrated in 1859 by Reverend Daniel Wilson Bishop of Calcutta. The original structure collapsed in an earthquake in 1856 and was rebuilt in 1861. Barely four decades later it was destroyed once again in the earthquake of 1897 only to be rebuilt again in 1901.
Curzon Hall, Earle Law College, Handique Girls’ College, Kamarupa Anusandhan Samiri, Assam State Museum, Cotton College, Assam Sahitya Sabha, Assam Lawn Tennis Association and the High Court are located on the banks of Dighali Pukhuri.
Assam State Museum, just east of the railway station, was established in 1940. Apart from separate sections on archaeology, numismatics and epigraphy, it has particularly interesting ethnographic displays that include local crafts, a reconstructed tribal village and medieval stone and bronze sculptures from Ambari.
Nagkata Pukhuri derives its name from the custom of serpent worship, prevalent in medieval Assam. Its origin is traced back to the days of the Ahom king, Swargadeo Pramatta Singha (1744-1751).
Sil Pukhuri derives its present name from a stone (sil) inscription found on its banks, in Sanskrit, but written in Ahomiya alphabets. The inscription mentions that the pond was excavated by Tarun Duwara Phukan in 1753 AD, during the reign of Swargadeo Rajeshwar Singha (1751-1769). The pond now stands in the middle of Guwahati’s business district, surrounded by bustling shops and high-rise residential buildings.
Sil Pukhuri was originally called Nau Konia Pukhuri, (or ‘the lake with nine corners’). It is believed that when the lake was excavated, nine wells were dug in nine corners. Water was taken from these nine wells to perform the navagraha bath (a ritual bath involving invocations and incantations to the nava or nine grahas or planets).