Speak of a land of wooded hills and vales with a wide river meandering through, of sprawling tea gardens, of enticing songs and dances, of fine silks, and you are already able to hazard a good enough guess. Add to that, the one-horned rhinoceros, the oldest refinery in India, a people made all the more colourful by a sizeable population of tribals and one of the most venerated Sakti temples in the Country , and you know it is Assam- the land of the Red River, the Brahmaputra, and the Blue Hills flanking it.For Assam is identified no better than by its Bihu songs and dances, the Kaziranga Wild Life Sanctuary where the rare one-horned rhinoceros roams at will, silks such as paat and muga which rank amongst the finest in the world, the State’s tea which finds its way to millions of homes all over the globe, and the Shrine of Kamakhya which draws thousands of devotees every year.
What is in the name
In ancient times Assam constituted a part of the land known successively as Pragjyotisha or Pragjyotishpura, and Kamarupa. Asom (Axom) or its anglisized version Assam is a comparatively modern name. Opinions on the root of the name vary with one view ascribing its origin to the Bodo word Ha-Cham which means "low or level country" and a second view ascribing it to the word Asama, meaning "unequalled" or "peerless", and used to denote the Ahoms, a Shan tribe which ruled the land for six centuries from the 13th Century A.D.
With a majority of the total population using the tongue, Assamese is the major language of the State. Besides English, Assamese was accorded the status of the official language of the Brahmaputra Valley by the Official Language Act of 1960. However, Bengali and English were also simultaneously accorded the status of official language for the Barak Valley and the two Hill Districts by the same Act.The earliest specimen of the Assamese script is to be found in copper plates and inscriptions discovered in different parts of the region. Scholars opine that the origin of Assamese goes back to the Magadhan-Prakrit script. By all standards it is a composite language into which words of Indo-Aryan and Indo-Chinese origins have made their way. Pre-Aryan ans non-Aryan influences are also discernible not only in loan words but also in its grammar, syntax and pronunciation.Speeches of the Tibeto-Burman, Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Chinese families abound among the tribal population.The widest variety of language found in the tribal popluation can however be attributed to the Tibeto-Burman family. The Bodo language group with its Kachari, Lalung, Rabha, Moran and even Chutia variations, in turn dominate the Tibeto-Burman family. Other recognized Indian languages spoken in the State include Bengali, Hindi and Oriya. Oriya, Mundari, Santhal, Tamil and Telegu are mostly spoken mostly by the tea garden labourers.
Art and Handicraft
Handloom weaving is a way of life in Assam. The number of looms in the State stands at around eight lakhs which works out to around 16 per cent of the looms in the entire Country. More than thirty thousand looms operate exclusively in silk. Cotton, muga, paat (mulberry silk) and endi are the basic raw materials for hand-woven fabrics in Assam. Sualkuchi is the biggest centre of silk production and weaving in the State. There are more than 3,000 weavers in and around the township. Sualkuchi is known as the Manchester of Assam.Muga silk has a natural golden colour and rare sheen that becomes more lustruous with every wash. Eri is a warm silk suitable for the winter. The designs used in Assam are mostly stylised symbols of animals, human figures, creepers, flowers, birds, channels, cross borders and the galaxy. Each ethnic group of the State has its own distinctive design and style. Assamese weavers produce beautiful designs on the borders of traditional garments such as the mekhela-chaddar and riha and on the gamosa (towel) .The Laichangphi, produced traditionally by the weavers of Cachar district, is a popular quilt sought after because of its warmth and softness. The tribals make beautiful shawls.
As Assam is a state of many ethnic groups of people, it is also a state of many religions. It represents in full the religious diversity of the country. Besides the major religions, some of the tribes also follow animism, and worships nature in its various manifestations. Worship of trees, mountains and rocks are common among tribes such as the Dimasas of North Cachar Hills in the south.As Assam is a state of many ethnic groups of people, it is also a state of many religions. It represents in full the religious diversity of the country. Besides the major religions, some of the tribes also follow animism, and worships nature in its various manifestations. Worship of trees, mountains and rocks are common among tribes such as the Dimasas of North Cachar Hills in the south.
The Vaisnava revival of the Middle Ages brought to the limelight the great Vaisnavite saint Srimanta Sankardeva (1449-1568) who developed and propagated Eka-sarana-namadharma (a faith of allegiance to one God) which was part of the neo-Vaisnavite movement of India and is characterized by absence of the rituals practised by the Saktas and the principle of eqauality which annuled all caste barriers.Mahapurush Sri Sri Sankaradeva, as he is known in the State, composed hymns (borgeet), dance-dramas (ankianaat) and recitals, and with the help of his desciples, set up sattras (monasteries) and namghars (community prayer halls) for the propagation of the new faith which soon gained large-scale acceptance. Thus, Assam developed its own form of Vaisnavism which is today the predominant faith among the Hindus. So much so that borgeets, ankianaats and many other Vaisnavite art-forms and social norms are now considered to be integral parts of the Assamese culture.
Saivaism which holds the procreative energy of males in reverence and is related to the worship of God Shiva as well as Saktaism are other forms of Hinduism still practised in the State. Saivaism which holds the procreative energy of males in reverence and is related to the worship of God Shiva as well as Saktaism are other forms of Hinduism still practised in the State. The reformation movement of the Muslim saint and missionary Shah Miran, popularly known as Ajan Fakir, deserves special mention in this context. Ajan Fakir came to Assam from the Middle East about two hundred years after Shankardeva and found that the Muslims who had come and settled in the land as early as in the 13th Century A.D. were practising a form of Islam somewhat distorted by elements of the local Hindu religion. He set out to reinforce Islamic ideals and religious practices, and composed religious songs (known as Jikirs and Jaris) in the spoken language much in the same style as the Borgeets of Sankardeva.
Very soon he gained popularity and gathered a large following, and Zikirs and Jaris remain unique elements of Islam in Assam.
There are scattered populations of Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains in different parts of the State notable among which are the Buddhists among the Khamti tribes and the Assamese Sikhs of Borkhola in the district of Nagaon.
You find traces of them all there: the Australoids who were perhaps the first to come to the land; the Mongoloids who came to the Northeast in a series of migrations from the north, north-east and south-east; and the Caucasoids who came from the west by the valley formed by the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. Today, the people of the State can be broadly classified as the Non-Tribals or Plains People who generally live in the plains and the Tribals who have mainly been living in the hills. However, there is a substantial tribal population in the plains too.
At present, though there is no Australoid population as such in any part of Assam, but recent anthropological researches support that Australoid elements are discernible not only among many tribes but also in certain caste groups of Assam. Most of the ancient australoid traits were absorbed by the Mongoloids and the Caucasoids in due course of time. It is very difficult to say who came first between the Mongoloid and the Caucasoid but by physical appearance they have both retained their identities as separate groups though it is very difficult, if not impossible to distinguish them on the basis of individuals. The Ahoms who figure so prominently in the history of the State were a Mongoloid people so are the small Buddhist populations of Khamti, Tai Phake, Khamyang, Aiton and Turung in Upper Assam. Among the Assamese castes, the Brahmans and theKhatriyas find mention in the records of Hiuen Tsang and are considered to be people of Caucasoid origin.
A Meeting Ground
Since time immemorial, Assam has been the happy meeting ground of people belonging to different ethnic groups, communities and cultural entities. For example, even the Brahmaputra Valley is an area rich with the contribution of different such groups most of whom got assimilated in the composite Assamese identity. To the south, in the Barak valley, Bengali-speaking people along with tribal communities have been making similar contributions to the emergence of a distinct identity of Assam.Another group which deserves special mention is the tea garden community. During the second half of the Nineteenth Century, when the British started tea cultivation on a large scale in Assam, they were faced with the problem of dearth of labour. Hence, they brought in people from other parts of the country -from Orissa and Bihar and from as far as Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
These people ultimately settled down in the State, and successive generations not only intermingled among themselves but also assimilated much of the Assamese culture to develop a lifestyle of their own. Some of them left the tea estates and found other occupations. Today, with their attractive dances (Jhumur) and songs, and their close rapport with the tea plant, they have a distinct culture of their own.
The 1991 Census puts the population of Assam at 2,24,14,322 with a sex ratio of 896 females per 1,000 males and a growth rate of +53.26 per cent in the two decades from 1971 to 1991. There are 16 Scheduled Castes and 23 Scheduled Tribes constituting 7.40 and 12.82 per cent respectively of the State’s population.
What we call the Assamese people of today is in fact the result of assimilation and integration of people of different racial stocks who migrated to Assam down the ages. The Assamese population can be divided into two broad groups: the non-tribal people who constitute the majority and the tribals.
Exquisite and exotic Tribal people
The tribals on their part have been divided into the hills tribes and the plains tribes according to geography of their location. A majority of the tribals practise what has been dubbed tribal religion is very close to animism but with ingredients of Hinduism. A considerable part of the tribal population has also adopted Christainity and on the rare occasion, Islam.
Each of its 23 different tribes exhibit distinct and exquisite ways of life. There are tribes like the Bodo Kacharis, Karbis and Lalungs which are purely patriarchal, and the Khasis, Jaintias and Garos which are strictly matriarchal. Then there are the Dimasas who while having a patriarchal system of family structure also have a system of almost parallel male and female clans which accords exclusive rights to women.
A number of tribes such as the Hmars, Rengma Nagas and Garos have a social institution called the Youth Dormitory in which the young males live away from their families and undergo education and training. Dormitories also serve as centres of social work and are in some cases entrusted with the security of the village. The Zeme Nagas have dormitories both for males and females.
The term Assamese could thus very well be misleading. For when we talk of the Assamese People we do not restrict ourseves to the Assamese-speaking majority but all the tribes, sub-tribes and clans, the various religious groups and the castes and sub-castes which inhabit the land and come together to form a single entity called the Assamese.
Pre-history and myths
Assam and adjoining regions have evidence of human settlement from all periods of the Stone ages. That the known hills settlements belonged to earlier periods may suggest that the valleys were populated later, or it may reflect sampling bias due to mountainous areas being more likely to remain less disturbed over long stretches of time.The earliest ruler according to legend was Mahiranga (sanskritized form of the Tibeto-Burman name Mairang). He was followed by others in his line: Hatak, Sambar, Ratna and Ghatak. Naraka removed this line of rulers and established his own dynasty. The Naraka king mentioned at various places in Kalika Purana, Mahabharata and Ramayana covering a wide period of time were probably different rulers from the same dynasty. Kalika Purana, a Sanskrit text compiled in Assam in the 9th and 10th century, mentions that the last of the Naraka-bhauma rulers, Narak, was slain by Krishna. His son Bhagadatta, mentioned in the Mahabharata, fought for the Kauravas in the battle of Kurushetra with an army of kiratas, chinas and dwellers of the eastern coast. Later rulers of Kamarupa frequently drew their lineage from the Naraka rulers.
Ancient and medieval Assam
A coin from Ahom dynastyAncient Assam was known as Kamarupa and was ruled by many powerful dynasties. The Varman dynasty (350-650AD) and the Xalostombho dynasty led Kamrupa as a strong ancient kingdom. During the rule of the greatest of the Varman kings, Bhaskarvarman (600-650AD), a contemporary of Harshavardhana of Kanauj, the Chinese traveler Xuan Zang visited the region and recorded his travels. Other dynasties that ruled the region belonged to the Indo-Tibetan groups, such as the Kacharis and Chutias.Two later kingdoms left the biggest impact in the region. The Ahoms, a Tai group, ruled eastern Assam for nearly 600 years (1228-1826). The Koch, a Tibeto-Burmese, established their sovereignty in 1510 which later extended to western Assam and northern Bengal. The Koch kingdom later split into two. The western kingdom became a vassal of the Moghuls whereas the eastern kingdom became an Ahom satellite state.Despite numerous invasions from the west, mostly by Muslim rulers, no western power ruled Assam until the arrival of the British. The most successful invader was Mir Jumla, a governor of Aurangzeb, who briefly occupied Garhgaon the then capital of the Ahoms (1662-1663). But he found it difficult to control the people, who made guerrilla attacks on his forces, forcing them to leave the region. Attempt by the Moghuls under the command of Raja Ram Singh resulted in victory for the Ahoms at Saraighat (1671) under the Ahom general Lachit Borphukan.
History of Assam Tea
The East India Company began setting up poppy plantations in Lower Assam for the Opium trade to China. This changed with the confirmed discovery in 1834 of Camellia sinensis, tea plants, growing in the wild in Assam. The first chests containing leaves of wild tea were sent to Britain at the end of 1836. Botanical expeditions proved Upper Assam to be a more favourable area for tea plants than Lower Assam. British companies were allowed to rent land in Assam from 1839. Profitability for tea growers remained elusive and the first and largest actor, The Assam Company, didn't pay dividends on its stocks until 1853.The various stages in growing and making tea were learnt through a lengthy trial and error process. Imported Chinese labour proved invaluable in spreading knowledge about every step in growing and processing tea. Early tea plantations were also hindered by the hostility of native Assamese and as a result the British recruited labour from other parts of India. The native jungle was unhealthy for non-natives and had to be cleared for the plantations. The British also persisted for decades in trying to grow the Chinese tea variety (which they thought of as proper tea) or a Chinese-Assamese hybrid, before accepting that the native tea variety Camellia assamica was more suitable for local agriculture and also tasted just as well if not better.The first tea boom took off in 1861 when investors were allowed to own land in Assam. The British had hoped to undercut the Chinese tea trade by eliminating the middlemen and through more efficient production but found this difficult due to extremely low Chinese labour costs. The second boom began when William Jackson invented the first efficient mechanical tea roller in the early 1870s. He formed an association with Britannia Iron Works and out of it grew Messrs Marshall Sons & Co., Ltd which for a long time dominated the tea machinery manufacturing business. Further important inventions by William Jackson led to a thorough mechanization of the tea industry in Assam. The cost of a finished tea product went down from 11d per pound of tea in 1872 to a mere 3 shillings a pound in 1913. While India's tea exports to Britain soared to 220 million lbs in 1899, Chinese trade with Britain collapsed to 16 million lbs. Nowadays the only step that still requires considerable manual labour is the plucking of the delicate tea leaves.Despite outmaneuvring the Chinese, Indian tea labour remained exploited and working under poor conditions. In face of greater government interference the tea growers formed The Indian Tea Association in 1888 to lobby for the continued status quo. The organisation was very successful in this, and even after India's independence conditions have only slowly improved.
Assam, being the home to many ethnic groups and different cultures, is very rich in folk music. The indigenous folk music has in turn influenced the growth of a modern idiom, that finds expression in the music of such artists like Bhupen Hazarika, Anima Choudhury Nirmalendu Choudhury & Utpalendu Choudhury, Luit Konwar Rudra Baruah, Parvati Prasad Baruva, Jayanta Hazarika, Khagen Mahanta among many others. Among the new generation, Zubeen Garg, Debojit Saha and Jitul Sonowal have a great fan following.
Major cities and towns
Guwahati is the largest urban centre and a million plus city in Assam. The other important cities are Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Tinsukia (Tinicukiya), Sibsagar (Xiwoxagor), Silchar (Silcor), Sonari, Tezpur, Nagaon, Lakhimpur, Nalbari, Mangaldoi, Barpeta, Kokrajhar, Goalpara, Dhubri (Dhubury), etc. On the other hand, Namrup, Duliajan, Digboi, Moran, Bongaigaon, Numaligarh, Jogighopa, etc are major industrial towns. Currently, there are around 100 total urban centres in the state.
Religious places in Assam
Assam has several important temples, making the sites very important to the sacred geography of Hinduism, and this includes:
The Kamakhya Temple is situated near Guwahati in Assam. It is revered as one of the Shakti Peethas, and is visited by thousands throughout the year. It is also the focus of many myths, stories, and historical events.
The Kachakanti Temple im Udharbond, near Silchar is one of the most respected places of worship for Hindus in Assam.
The Surya Pahar Temple:
It is situated in Goalpara district in Assam. It is an ancient center of sun worship and there are numerous insufficiently explored archaeological remains around it.
The Navagraha Temple:
It is situated on the Chitrasal or Navagraha hill in Guwahati. The temple is famous for its unique feature of planetary faith.Sivadol, a Shiva Temple, situated in Sivasagar city is an another religious place where thousands of Shiva dovoters come daily. Besides these, other Devi Dol and Vishnu Dol (Temple) are also located to fulfill the desire of devotees and these temples were built by earlier Ahom Kings.There are also the Uma Nanda Temple located on the Peacock island in middle of River Brahmaputra in Guwahati, the Mahabhairav Temple in Tezpur and the Rangnath Dol in Joysagar. These are important Hindu pilgrimage places.