Assam

Assam

Assam is a north eastern state of India with its capital at Dispur, a part of Guwahati. Located south of the eastern Himalayas, Assam comprises the Brahmaputra and the Barak river valleys and the Karbi Anglong and the North Cachar Hills. With an area of 78,438 km² Assam currently is almost equivalent to the size of Ireland or Austria. Assam is surrounded by the rest of the Seven Sister States: Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya. These states are connected to the rest of India via a narrow strip in West Bengal called the “Chicken’s Neck”. Assam also shares international borders with Bhutan and Bangladesh; and cultures, peoples and climate with South-East Asia—important elements in India’s Look East Policy.

Assam Rhino, KazirangaAssam is known for Assam tea, petroleum resources, Assam silk and for its rich biodiversity. It has successfully conserved the one-horned Indian rhinoceros from near extinction in Kaziranga, the tiger in Manas and provides one of the last wild habitats for the Asian elephant. It is increasingly becoming a popular destination for wild-life tourism and notably Kaziranga and Manas are both World Heritage Sites. Assam was also known for its Sal tree forests and forest products, much depleted now. A land of high rainfall, Assam is endowed with lush greenery and the mighty river Brahmaputra, whose tributaries and oxbow lakes provide the region with a unique hydro-geomorphic and aesthetic environment.

Physical geography

Geologically, as per the plate techtonics, Assam is in the eastern most projection of the Indian Plate, where it is thrusting underneath the Eurasian Plate creating a subduction zone. It is postulated that due to the northeasterly movement of the Indian plate, the sediment layers of an ancient geocyncline called Tethys (in between Indian and Eurasian Plates) have been pushed upwardly to form the Himalayas. It is estimated that the height of the Himalayas is increasing around 4 cm each year. Therefore, Assam possesses a unique geomorphic environment, with plain areas, dissected hills of the South Indian Plateau system and with the Himalayas all around its north, north-east and east.

Geomorphic studies conclude that the Brahmaputra is a paleo-river, older than the Himalayas, which often crosses higher altitudes in the Himalayas and sustaining its flow by eroding at a greater pace than the increase in the height of the mountain range. The heights of the surrounding regions are still increasing to form steep gorges in Arunachal. Entering Assam, the Brahmaputra becomes a braided river and along with its tributaries, creates the flood plain of the Brahmaputra Valley. The Brahmaputra Valley in Assam is approximately 80 to 100 km wide and almost 1000 km long and the width of the river itself is 16 km at many places.

The hills of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar and those in and around Guwahati and North Guwahati (along with the Khasi and Garo Hills) are originally parts of the South Indian Plateau system. These are eroded and dissected by the numerous rivers in the region. Average height of these hills in Assam varies from 300 to 400mt. The southern Barak Valley is separated by the Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills from the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam. The Barak originates from the Barail Range in the border areas of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur and flowing through the district of Cachar, it confluences with the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh. Barak Valley in Assam is a small valley with an average width and length of approximately 40 to 50 km.

Assam is endowed with petroleum, natural gas, coal, limestone and many other minor minerals such as magnetic quartzite, kaolin, sillimanites, clay and feldspar. A small quantity of iron ore is also available in western parts of Assam. The Upper Assam districts are the major reserves of oil and gas. Petroleum was discovered in Assam in 1889. A recent USGS estimate shows approximately 399 million barrels of oil, 1178 billion cubic feet of gas and 67 million barrels of natural gas liquids in Assam Geologic Province.

Areca Nut Tree or Tamul GossWith the ‘Tropical Monsoon Rainforest Climate’, Assam is a temperate region and experiences heavy rainfall and high humidity. Winter lasts from late October to late February. The minimum temperature is 6 to 8 degrees Celsius. Nights and early mornings are foggy, and rain is scanty. Summer starts in mid May, accompanied by high humidity and rainfall. The maximum temperature is 35 to 38 degrees Celsius, but the frequent rain reduces this. The peak of the monsoons is during June. Thunderstorms known as Bordoicila are frequent during the afternoons. Spring and Autumn with moderate temperatures and modest rainfall are the most comfortable seasons.

Assam is one of the richest biodiveristy zones in the world. There are number of tropical rainforests in Assam. Moreover, there are riverine grasslands, bamboo orchards and numerous wetland ecosystems. Many of these areas have been protected by developing national parks and reserved forests. The Kaziranga and Manas are the two World Heritage Sites. The Kaziranga is the home for the rare Indian Rhinoceros, while Manas is a tiger sanctuary. Moreover, there are numerous other valuable and rare wildlife and plant species available in Assam. Few of the rarest species are the Golden Langur (Chloropsis cochinchinensis), the White-winged Wood Duck or Deuhnah (Cairina scultulata), the Golden Cat, etc. The Hoolock Gibbon in Assam is the only ape found in South Asia. Assam is also known for orchids.

The region is also prone to natural disasters. High rainfall, deforestation, and other factors have resulted in annual floods that cause widespread loss of life, livelihood and property. The region is also prone to earthquakes. Mild tremors are familiar, and strong earthquakes are rare. There have been three strong earthquakes: in 1869 the bank of the Barak sank by 15 ft; 1897 (8.1 on the Richter scale); and 1950 (8.6).

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.

British Assam

Ahom palace intrigue, and political turmoil due to the Moamoria rebellion, aided the expansionist Burmese ruler of Ava to invade Assam and install a puppet king in 1821. With the Burmese having reached the doorsteps of the East India Company’s borders, the First Anglo-Burmese War ensued, in which Assam was one of the sectors. The war ended with the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826, which saw the East India Company take control of the Lower Assam and install Purander Singh as king of an independent Upper Assam in 1833. This arrangement only lasted until 1838 when the British annexed most of independent Assam, annexing the remainder the following year.

Under British administration, Assam was made a part of the British Indian province called the Bengal Presidency with its capital at Calcutta. Sometime about 1905-1912, Assam was separated and with parts of Bengal, a separate province of Eastern Bengal and Assam was established, with Dhaka as the capital.

At the time of independence of India, it consisted of the original Ahom kingdom, the present-day Arunachal Pradesh (North East Frontier Agency), Naga Hills, original Kachari kingdom, Lushai Hills, and Garo, Khasi and Jaintia Hills. Of the Assam province on the eve of Independence, Sylhet chose to join Pakistan in a referendum; and the two princely states Manipur and Tripura became Group C provinces. The capital was Shillong.

Post British period

In the Post British period since 1947, unfortunately economic indexes of the region, which were above average before independence, began to fall compared to the rest of the country. Separatist and militant groups began forming along ethnic lines, and demands for autonomy and sovereignty grew, resulting in the new states of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram in the 1960s and 1970s. The capital of Assam, which was in Shillong in present Meghalaya, had to be moved to Dispur, now a part of an expanding Guwahati. After the Indo-China war in 1962, Arunachal Pradesh was also separated out.

At the turn of the last century (1900s), people from present-day Bangladesh migrated to Assam. The British tea planters imported labour from central India to work in the estates adding to the demographic canvas. In 1961, the Government of Assam passed legislation making the use of Assamese language compulsory. The legislation resulted in widespread protest in Barak Valley, particularly by the Bengali speaking majority. Coming under intense pressure, the Government withdrew the legislation.

In the 1980s the Brahmaputra valley saw a six-year Assam Agitation that began non-violently but became increasingly violent. The movement was triggered by the discovery of a sudden rise in registered voters on electoral rolls. The movement tried to force the government to identify and deport foreigners who, the natives maintained, are illegally inundating the land from neighbouring Bangladesh and changing the demographics, gradually pushing the indigenous Assamese into a minority. The agitation ended after an accord between its leaders and the Union Government. Most of the accord remains unimplemented, causing simmering discontent. However, political parties have increasingly used the Bangladeshi card as a vote bank rather than addressing the concerns of the Assamese populace. Former Governor of Assam (Retd) Lt Gen. S. K. Sinha reported explicitly on the burning problem in his report to the Government of India.

Like indigenous peoples in other parts of the world, the many ethnic groups of this region struggle to maintain their cultural heritage resulting into active autonomy movements in the Bodo and Karbi dominated regions in the 1980s and 1990s. At the same time, added by economic stagnation, high aspirations for development and failure of public policies in the region in almost all the fronts, the period experienced the growth of armed secessionist groups like United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). In November 1990, the Government of India deployed the Indian army to control the situation, leading to claims of human rights violations. The Indian army deployment has now been institutionalised under a “Unified Command”. The low-intensity military conflict has been continuing for more than a decade now without an end to the insurgency at sight. In recent times, ethnicity based militant groups have also mushroomed (UPDS, DHD, KLO, HPCD etc.) leading to violent inter-ethnic conflicts (e.g. the Hmar-Dimasa conflict).

History of Assam Tea

Assam TeaThe 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.

This 1850 engraving shows the different stages in the process of making tea in Assam.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.

Languages

Assamese and Bodo are the major indigenous and official languages of the state while Bengali holds official status in particular districts in the Barak Valley.

Traditionally Assamese was the language of the commons (of mixed origin – Bodo, Khasi, Sanskrit, Magadhan Prakrit) of the ancient kingdoms such as Kamrupa and medieval kingdoms of Kamatapur, Kachari, Cuteeya, Borahi, Ahom and Koch. Traces of the language can be found in many poems in Charyapada written by Luipa, Sarahapa, etc during the period of the Xalostombho / Salastambha dynasty (7th/8th century AD) of Kamarupa Kingdom. Modern Kamrupi dialect is the remnant of this language. Moreover, Assamese in its ancient and medieval form was used by almost every ethno-cultural group as the lingua-franca of the region. Probably the language was then required for needed economic integration and was also probably spread through the stronger and larger politico-economic systems such as that of the ancient Kamrupa. Traditional and localised forms of this language still exist in Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, North Bengal, Kacar (Cachar) and in Southern Assam (similarities with Chittagonian language in present-day Bangladesh exists). The form used in the upper Assam was enriched by contributions from many eastern immigrations such as of those of Tai-Ahoms and others beginning from 13th century onwards.

Linguistically modern Assamese traces its roots to the version developed by the American Missionaries based on the local form in practice near Xiwoxagor/Sibsagar district. Assamese or Oxomeeya (as called in Assam) is a rich language due to its hybrid nature with its unique characteristics of pronunciation and softness. Assamese literature is one of the richest. The constitution of India recognises it as a major language of Republic of India.

Bodo is the ancient language of Assam and is mother of majority of the present day languages and dialects within the state and also in surrounding areas. Looking at the spatial distribution patterns of related ethno-cultural groups and their cultural traits and also phenomenon such as of naming all the major rivers in the North East Region with original Bodo words (e.g. Dihing, Dibru, Dihong, D/Tista, Dikrai, etc) it is understood that it was the most important language in the North East India in the ancient times, where history yet haven’t opened its gates. Bodo is presently spoken largely in the Lower Assam areas mostly under the areas of Bodo Territorial Council. During past few decades (after years of neglect) it is fortunate that Bodo as a language is getting attention and much care is being taken for development of Bodo literature.

Assam is also rich with several native languages such as Mishing, Karbi, Dimaca, Rabha, Tiwa, etc of Tibeto-Burman origin and are closely related to Bodo. There are also small groups of people in different part of Assam with languages such as Tai-Phake, Tai-Aiton, Tai-Khamti, etc related to Tai-group of languages of Southern China and South East Asia. The Tai-Ahom language (brought by Sukaphaa and his followers) is now fortunately getting attentions for wide-spread research after centuries long care and preservation by the Bailungs (traditional priests), which is no more a spoken language for commons today. There are also small groups of people speaking Manipuri, Khasi, Garo, Hmar, Kuki, etc in different parts of Assam.

In the past century migration of Bengalis to the medieval kingdom of Kacar (of Kocaries) in the Barak Valley has led to their majority, prompting the government of Assam to include Bengali as the official language in the Barak Valley districts.

Tradition and culture

Development of Hybrid Culture in AssamAssamese culture is traditionally a hybrid one, developed due to cultural assimilation of different ethno-cultural groups under various politico-economic systems in different periods of pre-history and history. The roots of the culture go back to almost two thousand years when the first cultural assimilation took place with Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman as the major components.

Thereafter, western migrations such as those of various branches of Mediterraneans, Indo-scythians /Irano-scythians and Nordics along with (or in the form of) the mixed northern Indians (the ancient cultural mix already present in northern Indian states such as Magadha) have enriched the aboriginal culture and under certain stronger politico-economic systems, Sanskritisation and Hinduisation intensified and became prominent. Such an assimilated culture therefore carries many elements of source cultures, of which exact roots are difficult to trace and are matter of research. However, in each of the elements of Assamese culture, i.e. language, traditional crafts, performing arts, festivity and beliefs either local elements or the local elements in a Hinduised / Sanskritised forms are always present.

The major milestones in evolution of Assamese culture are:

  • Assimilation under the great dynasties of Pragjyotisha-Kamrupa for almost 700 years (Varman dynasty for 300 years, Mlechchha dynasty for 200 years and Pala dynasty for another 200 years) in the first millennium AD.
  • Advent of Ahom dynasty in the 13th century AD and establishment of the Ahom politico-eonomic system and cultural assimilation for next 600 years.
  • Assimilation under the Koch Kingdom (15th-16th century AD) of western Assam and Kachari Kingdom (12th-18th century AD) of central and southern Assam.

Due to increasing efforts of standardisation in the 19th and 20th century, the localised forms present in different districts and also among the remaining source-cultures with the less-assimilated ethno-cultural groups have seen greater alienation. However, Assamese culture in its hybrid form and nature is one of the richest and is still under development.

Assamese culture in its true sense today is a ‘cultural system’ comprised of different sub-systems. It is more interesting to note that even many of the source-cultures of Assamese culture are still surviving either as sub-systems or as sister entities. In broader sense, therefore, the Assamese cultural system incorporates its source-cultures such as Bodo (Boro) or Khasi or Mishing (Micing) but individual development of these sub-systems are today becoming important. However, it is also important to keep the broader system closer to its roots.

Festivals

Bihu, AssamA Bihu dancer with a hornThere are several important traditional festivals in Assam. Bihu is the most important and common and celebrated all over Assam.

Bihu is a series of three prominent festivals of Assam. Primarily a festival celebrated to mark the seasons and the significant points of a cultivator’s life over a yearly cycle, in recent times the form and nature of celebration has changed with the growth of urban centers. A non-religious festival, all communities—religious or ethnic—take part in it. Three Bihus are celebrated: rongali, celebrated with the coming of spring and the beginning of the sowing season; kongali, the barren bihu when the fields are lush but the barns are empty; and the bhogali, the thanksgiving when the crops have been harvested and the barns are full. Rongali, kongali & bhogali bihu are also known as ‘bohag bihu’, ‘kati bihu’ & ‘magh bihu’ respectively. The day before the each bihu is known as ‘uruka’. There are unique features of each bihu. The first day of ‘rongali bihu’ is called ‘Goru bihu’ (the bihu of the cows). On this day the cows are taken to the nearby rivers or ponds to be bathed with special care. Traditionally, cows are respected as sacred animals by the people of Assam. Bihu songs and Bihu dance are associated to rongali bihu.

Music

An Assamese women in Pat Silk performing Sattriya dance.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.

Traditional crafts

Assam has maintained a rich tradition of various traditional crafts for more than two thousand years. Presently, Cane and bamboo craft, bell metal and brass craft, silk and cotton weaving, toy and mask making, pottery and terracotta work, wood craft, jewellery making, musical instruments making, etc remained as major traditions. Historically, Assam also excelled in making boats, traditional guns and gunpowder, colours and paints, articles of lac, traditional building materials, utilities from iron, etc.

Cane and bamboo craft provide the most commonly used utilities in daily life, ranging from household utilities, weaving accessories, fishing accessories, furniture, musical instruments to building construction materials. Traditional utilities and symbolic articles made from bell metal and brass are found in every Assamese household. The Xorai and bota have been in use for centuries to offer gifts to respected persons and are two prominent symbolic elements. Hajo and Sarthebari / Xorthebaary are the most important centres of traditional bell-metal and brass crafts. Assam is the home of several types of silks, the most prominent and prestigious being Muga, the natural golden silk is exclusive only to Assam. Apart from Muga, there are other two varieties called Pat, a creamy-bright-silver coloured silk and Eri, a variety used for manufacturing warm clothes for winter. Apart from Sualkuchi / Xualkuchi, the centre for the traditional silk industry, in almost every parts of the Brahmaputra Valley, rural households produce silk and silk garments with excellent embroidery designs. Moreover, various ethno-cultural groups in Assam make different types of cotton garments with unique embroidery designs and wonderful colour combinations.

Moreover, Assam possesses unique crafts of toy and mask making mostly concentrated in the Vaishnav Monasteries, pottery and terracotta work in lower Assam districts and wood craft, iron craft, jewellery, etc in many places across the region.

Oil industry

Assam also produces crude oil and natural gas. Assam is the second place in the world (after Titusville in the United States) where petroleum was discovered. Asia’s first successful mechanically drilled oil well was drilled in Makum (Assam) way back in 1867. The second oldest oil well in the world still produces crude oil. Most of the oilfields of Assam are located in the Upper Assam region of the Brahmaputra Valley. Assam has four oil refineries located at Guwahati, Digboi, Numaligarh and Bongaigaon with a total capacity of 7 MMTPA (Million Metric Tonnes per annum).

Bongaigaon Refinery and Petrochemicals is the only S&P CNX 500 conglomerate with corporate office in Assam. Its gross income for 2005 was Rs.56,740 million.