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Chatla Haor, The hidden beauty of Southern Assam

To me, Chatla Haor is one of the best places in southern Assam for photographers and tourists. In fact, this is the birthplace of many photographers (including myself). I am very attached to the place and have had a long-standing desire to tell others about it. Chatla is a seasonal wetland, around 16 km north of the second largest city in Assam, Silchar. It takes hardly 20 minutes to reach there from Silchar. The Ghagra river, a tributary of the Barak river, overflows onto this wetland during the rainy season. When inundated, Chatla has a maximum depth of 10 metres and is spread over 1,800 hectares.

The uniqueness of Chatla is that it is used as farmland during the winter; but between March and April, it gets swamped with water and becomes a huge lake. This place is very famous for its fisheries, it is one of the main suppliers of local fish to Silchar, and supports more than 1,500 fisheries. Although Chatla is home to all types of fishes, the Bhujia fish (a mix of tiny fishes) is its speciality—once you have eaten this dish (properly prepared) you will fall in love with it. During the rainy season, fishermen venture out late in the night to catch fish and return to a temporary market at dawn to sell them. Chatla is also famous for its flora and fauna and many researchers from the nearby Assam University and from abroad have done their research in the area.

According to historians, Chatla Haor was originally a part of the Kachari kingdom. In the absence of heirs from the Kachari dynasty, this territory lapsed to the British Raj under the terms of an agreement executed in 1826. Cachar district was created in the year 1830, after the annexation of Kachari Kingdom by the British. Chatla remained uninhabited until 1963, when refugees from Bangladesh, part of a fishing community called Kaiwartya, whose traditional lifestyle is profoundly associated with water and fish, settled in Chatla. There are many tilas (small highlands) in the region and Harintila was the first village settled by the refugees. After their settlement in the area, the state government assigned land to each family. Today, there are 32 villages in the Chatla area. The residents of Chatla are mainly Bengalis.

During the winter season (October to March) the inhabitants of Chatla engage themselves in the cultivation of different varieties of rice and other agricultural activities. Besides cultivation, the people of Chatla also do cattle and duck farming, the latter of which is a very successful business for the people of Chatla.

From a photographer’s point of view, this is the perfect place to learn and practice photography. Chatla has nurtured many photographers, and their works on Chatla have won them laurels and recognition in the country and the world. During the winter, one can shoot the various agricultural activities like rice cultivation, harvesting, preparation of rice from paddy and making of parboiled rice. A photographer who is interested in the lifestyle of people and is comfortable roughing it has many opportunities to do so in Chatla.

As a landscape photographer, I personally began my photography journey at Chatla Haor. I still remember the day. It was a September afternoon when I went to Chatla—equipped with my first camera, which I had bought just a week before the trip—to shoot the sunset. Though those photographs were not that great in terms of composition and framing, the colour and structure of the clouds were great. Later, when I purchased a DSLR, I went there to learn and practice different aspects of photography. For me, Chatla was a school. I learned photography here and polished it in other parts of India. I have so many good (and some not so pleasant) memories of Chatla.

Once, on an early morning shoot, I ventured deep inside a part of the wetland. On my way back, I stepped on what looked solid ground but turned out to be soft mud. I sank almost waist deep and my co-photographer had to help me free myself. On another occasion, during the rainy season, we were returning home by boat after an evening shoot, when suddenly a strong wind built up. Within 15 minutes, our boat was being tossed around dangerously. Luckily, our experienced boatman took us to a place of safety. On the good memories side, my first international recognition as a photographer and one of the top photographic awards I have won was for a photograph of Chatla titled “Golden Hour”. The photograph was clicked in September 2014, but it continues to impress—in December 2017, I got a national level award for it. Other photographs taken in Chatla were also featured in various national magazines and calendars.

I would suggest to every landscape and travel photographer that they visit Chatla at least once, preferably in September/October. During those months, the Chatla sky turns into a stunning canvas painted with an amazing range of colours and hues—red, yellow, orange, magenta, golden, and many other shades I cannot even think of names for. I think my photographs shared in this article reflect the beauty and drama of this wetland. According to my own belief, Chatla produces the most colourful sunset in India.

The place is easily accessible from the town of Silchar. From the town, you can take a public bus or a shared private vehicle, or even hire an autorickshaw and get down in Silcoorie Camp (it costs about 15). From there you can take an autorickshaw ( 10) to Chatla, or hire an auto for 50 and go inside Chatla. From Silcoorie Camp, it takes hardly 5 to 7 minutes. You will get down where the road ends. From there, if it is the rainy season, you can hire a boat from here ( 200) and explore the water body. For tourists, the boat ride will be very enjoyable. Photographers looking for good shots can take pictures from the boat itself, or ask the boatman to take them to one of the many tilas (highlands) dotting the area if they want to take photos off dry land. Photographers interested in night photography will also find good opportunities—since Chatla is some distance from the town, and the area is not very developed, there is no light pollution.

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