The pristine aura of a conurbation, especially those laced with an innate sense of mawkishness to it, is more or less directly proportional to its subtle relation with those plethora of historical legacies that have been left behind as hallowed residue, by a certain posse of antiquated predecessors. History is replete with such instances where a particular city’s resplendent beauty is inextricably interwoven around its myriad majestic sites showcasing its historical grandeur.
The historical city of Guwahati is often considered as a gateway to the Northeast and is the largest city within the region. The city, which has even found reference in the epic Mahabharata, was supposedly once the capital of mythological kings Naraka and Bhagadatta. Epigraphic sources have also conclusively located capitals of many other ancient kingdoms in and around the vicinity of Guwahati. The all important Ambari excavations, jointly undertaken by the state archaeology department and Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), trace the origin of Guwahati to the 6th century AD. The city was known as ‘Pragjyotishpur’ and ‘Durjoya’ during different periods of history. ‘Pragjyotishpur’ of Mahabharata era is Guwahati of the present era. The name Guwahati has been derived from two Assamese words; guwa (areca nut) or tamul and haat (marketplace) or bazaar.
Within the city of Guwahati, there are a few man-made fresh water tanks/small lakes/ponds or pukhuris, mostly built during the nearly 600-year-old mighty Ahom era, (1228-1826), which hitherto still remains, having ploddingly withstood the cruel ravages of time. Prominent among these hallowed remnants, that clearly bears testimony to the supreme dexterity of the Ahom rulers in digging fresh water ponds and tanks, are the Dighali Pukhuri and Nagkata Pukhuri located in and around Panbazar, Jorpukhuri at Uzanbazar and Silpukhuri on the busy GNB Road at Chandmari.
Dighalipukhuri or Digholy Pukhury, (meaning ‘the long pond’), is a rectangular artificial pond, originally supposed to have been dug straight out from the Brahmaputra. The pond or pukhury derived its name because of its half-a-mile length, (dighol). So, in essence, it came to be known as Digholy Pukhury. It is one of the most ancient artificial ponds that still subtly graces the splendour of present day Guwahati and dates back to several thousand years. Historian Rai Bahadur Kanaklal Barua (1872-1940) in his seminal masterpiece, Early History of Kamrup, had categorically stated that the “Dighalipukhuri was as old as the epic Mahabharata itself”. Legend also has it that the pond actually was created by Bhagadutta, the king of Pragjyotishpur, by digging a canal from the Brahmaputra. Apart from the plethora of legends and myths surrounding Dighalipukhuri, it was actually during the era of the mighty Ahoms, that the real significance of the pond came to the forefront. It has been safely conjectured that Dighalipukhuri was once connected to the Brahmaputra by a channel and was used as an ancient boat yard as well as an inland port for warships, in all probability, by the Ahoms during the medieval times. In gradual course of time, the mouth to the Brahmaputra was closed, with Dighalipukhuri itself being insulated from the main river. Ultimately, during the British colonial times, the bulk of the northern end of Dighalipukhuri was filled up on which the present-day Circuit House and the Gauhati High Court were built.
Dighalipukhuri is one of the rare beauty spots of present-day Guwahati. The sight of Dighalipukhuri, especially during the evening hours, is worth capturing. It offers a very relaxing ambience and provides boating facilities as well as other recreational activities. It is surrounded by a plethora of educational and cultural institutions of the Northeast. Prominent among them are Cotton College, Handique Girls College, Assam State Museum, Rabindra Bhawan, India Club, District Library and Gauhati High Court. The Ambari excavations are the most important archaeological site close to Dighalipukhuri. This apart, the pond is also surrounded by a host of majestic trees that have been there ever since the British colonial times. According to nonagenarian Pulin Das, senior journalist and a veteran sports personality: “The present day huge majestic trees that still grace the surroundings of Dighalipukhuri were initially brought as saplings by the British from England and planted in and around the vicinity of Dighalipukhuri around 150 years ago.”
Nagkata Pukhuri or Nag Kata Pukhury or Nag Puta Pukhury, (meaning ‘the pond of serpent, nag sacrifice’), is another historical pond, which is believed to have been dug during the Ahom era. The pond derived its name most probably from the custom of serpent worship, prevalent during the mediaeval Assamese society. Although there is no authentic data to corroborate the prevalence of serpent sacrifice, Nag Kata or burying of the sacrificed serpent, Nag Puta, during the mediaeval Assamese society, yet it is vaguely believed that the custom did exist ceremonially, and this very pond became the epicentre of such a revered serpent sacrifice. So, in essence, it came to be known as Nag Kata Pukhury or Nag Puta Pukhury. Sadly, very little historical data is available about the actual origin of this pond. According to Kumudeswar Hazarika’s invaluable treatise on old Guwahati, Itihakhor Chahh-Pohorot Puroni Guwahati, “The origin of Nagkata Pukhuri could be safely traced back to the days of Ahom King Swargadeo Pramatta Singha (1744-1751), who assumed the Ahom name Sunenphaa. It is commonly believed that the Nagkata Pukhuri was also related in some way or the other to the famous Sukreswar Temple located atop the Itakhuli Fort, which is an important Shiva temple in the heart of Guwahati city. Ironically, it was Swargadeo Pramatta Singha himself who ultimately constructed the Sukreswar Temple in 1744 AD.” Nonagenarian Pulin Das has a very interesting observation regarding this pond: “Over the years, especially during my Cotton College days, I have observed to my utter surprise that the Nagkata Pukhuri doesn’t seem to dry up even during the harshest of dry spells.”
In the present day context, the Don Bosco School, Triplex Dry Cleaners and The Gauhati Dairy are just adjacent to the Nagkata Pukhuri. The overall maintenance of Nagkata Pukhuri, on an official level, is placed under the direct supervision of the District Fisheries Development Officer, Department of Fisheries, Government of Assam. Presently, the office of the Fishery Investment Facilitation Centre is located on the periphery of the Nagkata Pukhuri, which till August 2008, was the office of the erstwhile Fishery Marketing Office, both under Department of Fisheries, Government of Assam. According to a recent official government notification, the Nagkata Pukhuri would be soon renamed as ‘Matsya Bikash Sarovar’.
Jor Pukhuri or Jor Pukhury, (meaning ‘a pair of ponds’), is yet another ancient pond, which is believed to have been dug during the Ahom era. The pond derived its present name, from its ‘twin’ identity; jor meaning twin or a pair in Assamese. It must be mentioned here that its original name was actually Ugra Tara Pukhury, which in turn, owes its name to the adjacent Ugratara Temple situated at Uzanbazar. The Ugratara Temple, a prominent epicentre of shakti puja, dedicated to Hindu goddess Devi Ugratara, was built in 1725 AD by Ahom King Swargadeo Siva Singha (1714-1744), who assumed the Ahom name Sunenphaa. It was he who was instrumental in digging up this very pond in 1720 AD, (simultaneously along with the construction works of Ugratara Temple), mostly to facilitate the needs of the numerous devotees, who thronged to offer prayers at the temple. There is also a small pond inside the temple, where the sacred ‘Navel Peeth’ of Devi Ugratara is situated. The erstwhile Ugra Tara Pukhury was located on the eastern side of Ugratara Temple. Like Dighalipukhuri, it was connected with the Brahmaputra and also formed the naval base as well as a boat building and repairing yard of the Ahom kings. Gradually, with the advent of the British colonial rulers in Assam, the task of building new roads was taken up on a massive scale. The erstwhile Ugra Tara Pukhury was bifurcated into two with the construction of the present-day Hem Chandra Road, which ran right in between the two now-separated ponds. It is this ultimate bifurcation that gave the pond its present name, Jor Pukhuri or Jor Pukhury.
The historic present-day Jor Pukhuri not only has a profuse religious sentiment appended to it, but at the same time, adds up to the residential value of the area as well. Almost all the residents in and around the pond are very old inhabitants of Guwahati. Pulin Das has been residing at his Jor Pukhuri residence since four generations; he himself was born at this very residence, way back in 1918. Moreover, it serves as an excellent nesting ground for various birds like herons, egrets and cranes in the trees around it. This apart, the pond has also been the home to a gaggle of whooper swans (Cygnus cygnus), a large Northern Hemisphere swan, commonly referred to as raj haanh in Assamese. Presently, out of the two ponds, one is being looked after by the management committee of Ugratara Temple, while the Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA) is likely to take up the responsibility of the second one.
Silpukhuri or Sil Pukhury or even Kheel Pukhury, (meaning the stone-pond or ‘pond of stones’), bears yet another testimony to the superlative dexterity of the Ahom rulers in digging fresh water ponds. The pond derived its present name most probably from the stone plaque, (stone implies sil or kheel in Assamese), found on its banks. Apart from this precious stone plaque, a plethora of other stones also graced the banks of Silpukhuri. According to Kumudeswar Hazarika, whose write-ups mostly specializes on old Guwahati, “Silpukhuri is perhaps the only Ahom-era pond in Guwahati where a stone plaque was found on its banks. The inscription on the stone plaque was in Sanskrit language, but written in Assamese alphabets. There were four canons found on its banks. After independence, two of them along with the stone plaque have been kept in the Assam State Museum while the other two are placed in front of the Nabin Bordoloi Hall.” The stone plaque specifically mentions that the pond was dug by Tarun Duwara Phukan in 1753 AD, during the reign of Ahom King, Swargadeo Rajeshwar Singha (1751-1769), who assumed the Ahom name Suramphaa. It must be mentioned here that its original name was actually Nau Konia Pukhuri, (implying its nine ends, nau kon). The name Nau Konia Pukhuri finds specific reference in an essay, Puroni Guwahati Nogor published in the November-December issue of Assam Bandhu, a journal edited by historian and biographer Gunabhiram Barua in 1885. Moreover, it is also believed that there are nine wells adjacent to its nine ends, and that water was taken from these very nine wells to perform the ‘holy bath’ on the nava or nine and grahas or celestial bodies, which graced the adjacent Navagraha Temple atop the Chitrasal Hill. Although there is a certain sense of ambiguity as to when exactly Silpukhuri took its present name, yet historian Dr Surya Kumar Bhuyan had explicitly mentioned that “it was in the early part of the 20th century that Silpukhuri took its present name”. Moreover, the name Silpukhuri also finds reference his seminal work, Maharaj Rajeshwar Singha Swargadeo.
In gradual course of time, the callousness and insensitivity of the people had taken a heavy toll upon this historical legacy, with the Silpukhuri being reduced to a mere dumping ground of garbage and even human excreta. Barada Charan Sarma, former DGP of Assam, who has been residing just adjacent to Silpukhuri for over 20 years now, has strong views regarding the decadence of Silpukhuri: “I am really petrified at the brazen alacrity of a bunch of insensitive people, who use the banks of this historic pond to attend to nature’s call. While serving as the DGP of the state, I once got down from my official convoy and pushed a person who was shamelessly urinating on the Silpukhuri itself. I had also arranged for police patrolling to prevent people from misusing the banks of the pond to attend to nature’s call.” Octogenarian Gopal Chakraborty, proprietor of Chitralaya, the first photo-framing shop in the Northeast, whose four generations have been residing just opposite the historical pond since 1916 also lamented similarly: “The deplorable condition of Silpukhuri is not new. Such was the filthy condition of the pond that a cleansing drive was initiated to pump out the residual elements as early as the mid-1950s. Shockingly skeletal remains of both humans and animals were found.” In December 2003, the Silpukhuri Suraksha Samity was constituted in a desperate bit to revive its lost glory.
Insensitive civic sense apart, (in an era of fast paced metro-city life), let us, as conscious denizens of Guwahati, pause for a while, at least momentarily, grab our ever decaying civic senses and allow our inconsiderate, urban-metro-gumption to realize the pristine worth of these four hallowed remnants, which forlornly, our ever busy urban-metro-vision, (read eyes), seems to have brazenly ignored.
Saikh Md Sabah Al-Ahmed