Travel and sightseeing opportunities were rare during my soporific school days. I used to read about various places in local newspapers and books. So, I vaguely remember various books and newspaper articles about ancient Assam mentioning Umananda-Urvashi etc. These two places were mostly mentioned together, indicating they are located near to each other.
Umannada is indeed a well-known attraction in Guwahati, a small river island that can be reached with a short boat ride. However, Urvashi doesn’t usually show up in tourism brochures. What happened to it?
Urvashi is not always talked about because it’s not always there!
Urvashi is a smaller island, more of a big rock in the middle of the river, not far from Umananda. It gets submerged during the rainy season and remains invisible for several months and reappears only during the winter months and remains approachable till the end of dry spring (Somewhat like Bathu ki Ladi in Kangra). This too depends on the amount of rainfall in a particular monsoon and if it rains heavily that year, even the winter visibility may be an issue.
Anyway… Coming back to the present, I had almost forgotten about it over the years but then I saw a few recent images in a Facebook group and decided that it was the time to do it. Rain was comparatively light last year and the recent months have been very hot and dry, making the island visible as well as easily reachable.
While winters are the best time for it, winter days are short and it gets dark very quickly. This March afternoon seemed more appropriate. March days are a bit too sunny and dry for my liking so I waited till around 4 PM at a cafe in Uzan Bazar and started my walk. I reached the old Ferry point opposite Vivekananda Kendra (now it’s been shifted to a different spot slightly ahead near the fish market, which is also supposed to be a convenient crossing point).
Nevertheless, this seemed closer so I walked down to the banks of the river. Earlier the ships to Umananda used to leave from here but now it looks a bit abandoned, with a broken boat lying on the bank. What’s worse is that people have started using as a garbage dump (littering has become the favourite pastime of Guwahatians), making the approach somewhat unpleasant.
Anyway, I walked past that spot. The pillar on the Urvashi was visible from a distance and although some water was flowing in between, my instincts told me that I’ll be able to cross it at some point. After around five minutes of walking I was proven right as I saw a local guy coming back, walking through the sand and silt and then jumping over the water from a narrow point.
I took the same route and reached the sandy “beach”. This combination of sand and silt is very soft and walking here is slow. So, it took another ten minutes but I got to the island soon. Umananda was just in front of me, but across deep waters in the middle of the river, not something you can just jump over. I could see the ferries from Uzan Bazar reaching Umananda. Over my head was the Guwahati Ropeway, the newest attraction in town that takes you over to the other side of the river and also provides a panoramic view of these islands.
More About Urvashi
So, at this point, we need to discuss a few things. Firstly, most people in India will probably know that Urvashi is a celestial Nymph (Apsara). There are many stories associated with her origins and her romantic life has been immortalized by Kalidasa through his epic Vikramōrvaśīyam. There are many other lesser-known stories including a scandalous one that connects her to Sringa Rishi, who has a temple in Banjar Valley, just under Chehni Kothi.
In fact, the more I tried to find out, the more it got confusing. From whatever I could learn, Kalika Puran mentions the temple here and it must have been a major one connected to Kamakhya, Umananda, and some other major shrines. The remains suggest that it was probably a a major temple dedicated to Shiva and Apsaras usually don’t have temples dedicated to them. Probably we’ll never know the exact reason.
Another possible explanation is that originally this place was not in the middle of the river. It was a major temple, and a pond called Urvashi Kunda, where the pilgrims went for ablutions before visiting Kamakhya. It got submerged as the river changed its course.
Most of it is located facing Umananda Island (This leads to another theory that the temple was built to pay respect to the larger temple at Umananda). So, you won’t see it immediately as you walk towards it from the river banks.
So, what remains now?
There’s a semblance of a staircase, along with a small shivling atop the rock. On the face of the rock there are some visible sculptures including Ganesha and Dashavatara sculptures and a separate sculpture of Vishnu (probably). Stylistically, they are not dissimilar from other major archaeological sites I have seen in the greater Kamrup region.
Apparently, there was also a sculpture of Urvashi herself. However, I could not figure it out. In fact, I’m not sure if I managed to see all of them. Some of them may be located in awkward spots, just on the edge of the river.
The big concrete Pillar in the middle of the island is not an archaeological piece but was built later. Initially, I thought it would turn out something epic like the Heliodorous Pillar but it’s just something that has been built to act as an indicator. When the rest of it gets submerged, the pillar remains visible, providing an idea to the boats to avoid the rocks underwater.
The close connection of this island with Umananda can also be observed from the fact that the priests from that island conduct certain rituals here every spring. While I did not see anyone doing so, some of the sculptures had fresh flowers and vermillion on them, indicating that some had recently worshipped there.
There are also some incomplete engravings and some insciptions (apparently in Brahmi). They were very faint and I found it hard to spot them. There is a scope to study each and every one of these sculptures and there may be more underwater. I hope someone does it in the near future.
There is another smaller island nearby, in the winter it’s basically another rock on the sandy banks. It’s called Karmanasha Dweep. There’s a big Banyan tree where one could have sat and meditated. There are more stories related to it but I could not see any archaeological remains here. It was already close to sunset too, so I decided to return and I even found a new route to emerge directly in front of the Guwahati High Court.
I have also made a video that has been uploaded on my failed YouTube Channel that probably no one will watch but I am embedding it below anyway.
Urvashi Island Travel Guide
Urvashi is a seasonal island in the middle of the Brahmaputra river at Guwahati. It remains submerged during the rainy season but becomes visible once the water recedes in the winters. The rocks here have thousand-year-old engravings, which makes it an important archaeological site.
How to Reach?
You just have to look for a spot where you can cross over to the sandbank that connects to the island. Usually, the conventional route starts from the fish market/ghat of Uzan Bazar. However, I found one nearer to the ropeway pillars, through a small road approachable from the judge’s field.
It is located just under the Brahmaputra Ropeway which connects Guwahati to North Guwahati with Umananda Island as the middle point. While it’s inaccessible in the summer and monsoon, you can expect to walk to it during winter and spring as the water recedes and the rocks reappear along with vast sandbanks. You may still have to cross a little bit of water here and there or look for a convenient spot to cross it. Usually, locals at Uzan Bazar put logs at various points to facilitate access to the islands.
When to Visit?
It is only visible between winter to spring (December to March), that too if it doesn’t rain too much. As the river dries up, the islands become approachable as you can walk along the sandbanks to the island. You can also get an aerial view of the island if you take a ride with the Guwahati Ropeway.