Guwahati, the capital city of the northeastern state of Assam, was formerly known as Pragjyotishpur (the City of Eastern Light). Its etymological root is derived from two Assamese words, "Guwa," meaning areca nut and "Haat," meaning market. Couched between the picturesque hills of the eastern flanks of the Himalayan mountain range, Guwahati houses the political capital of the state, Dispur. The gateway to the seven other northeastern states, Guwahati is a vital tourist link point, besides being an attraction in itself.
Situated on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra, at an altitude of 55 meters above sea level, Guwahati is the junction of three important roads, National Highways 31, 37 and 40. It is split into two parts by the river and North Guwahati is almost a separate town. One can visit it via the Saraighat Bridge or by the ferries that ply on the river. The nearest important city is Calcutta (1182 km), while the capitals of the other northeastern states are at distances varying from 110 km to 650 km. The city experiences an annual rainfall of 180 cm (from May to September). While summer temperatures range from 22 to 38°C, in winters the mercury ranges from 10 to 25°C. The best time to visit this cosmopolitan city is from October to April.
There is magical aura that still lingers over the ever-expanding city. The demon king Narkasura is said to have built this ancient city. Another reason for Guwahati's charm is its being the ancient 'Kamrup', the birthplace of Kamdeva, the God of Love.
The most notable festival here is the Bohag Bihu, which marks the beginning of the Assamese New Year and falls sometime in mid-April. Various local delicacies like pithas, larus, and other sweetmeats are available then. All these preparations are strictly vegetarian. The Durga Puja, celebrated in the month of October, is another major festival. In the months of June-July, there is the famous Ambubashi Mela at Kamakhya temple that attracts thousands of pilgrims from all over the country.
Guwahati is particularly famous for its Kamakhya temple situated atop the Nilachal hill, at a distance of 10 km from the railway station. Noted to be the most sacred among the tantrik shrines of Shakti worship in the world, Kamakhya, was built in the 10th century by the Koch king, Naranarayan. It is a common practice here to offer animal sacrifice to appease the Goddess. Above Kamakhya is another small temple, Bhubaneshwari, from where one can have a bird's eye view of the city.
The Shiva temple of Umananda, reached by motor boats and public ferries from Umananda Ghat, stands on an island in the middle of the Brahmaputra.
Atop another hill in east Guwahati is the Navagraha temple-the "temple of the nine planets,"-an ancient seat of astrology and astronomy. Housed in a red beehive-shaped dome, the central lingam is encircled by further nine representing the planets (graha)-Sun (Surya, Ravi), Moon (Chandra, Soma), Mercury (Buddh), Venus (Sukra), Mars (Mangal), Jupiter (Brhaspati) and Saturn (Sani). Two more were added, Rahu and Ketu, the dragon's head and the dragon's tail, or the ascending and descending nodes of the moon.
Nearby, there is the Vashistha Ashram, an interesting old shrine, with plenty of verdure and three beautiful streams, Lalita, Kanta and Sandhya. It is at a distance of 12 km from the railway station and is said to have been the abode of sage Vashistha. Several other temples like the Ugratara temple, famous for its golden idol and buffalo sacrifices, are also strewn across the city.
Besides these religious sites, one must visit the Guwahati Zoo, which is the largest natural zoo of the country. The various museums-the State Museum, Anthropological Museum, Forest Museum, and Cottage Industries Museum-are treasure houses of Assam's rich cultural past. The Guwahati planetarium, located on MG Road, is one of the finest in the country.
To complete one's tour of Guwahati, one must visit the Srimanta Sankardev Kalakshetra. Built in the 1990's, this modern complex at Panjabari provides a one-stop review of the artistic excellence of the region.