Assam, a name some scholars claim was derived from the Sanskrit word asomameaning “peerless” or “unparalleled”, is located south of the eastern Himalayas and is home of the son of Lord Brahma or Brahma-putra, which perhaps accounts for the Brahmaputra River being the only male river in India. Linked to the rest of the country by the Sillguri Corridor, a narrow strip of land just 22 kms wide at its slimmest, it acts as a sentinel guarding India’s gateway to her North Eastern states that share frontiers with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, China and Tibet, collectively known as the Seven Sisters. Until only a few years ago this whole area was closed and although Assam no longer requires visitors to obtain special permits some of the other North Eastern states do.
Falling into the transitional zone between the Indian, Indo-Malayan and Indo-Chinese zoogeographic realm, Assam is a state of breath taking scenic beauty, rarest flora and fauna, lofty green hills, rolling plains and mighty waterways with the Brahmaputra cutting a swathe through its centre from northeast to southwest. Known as the “agricultural state” it is one of the most fertile areas in India. According to the Assam Department of Environment & Forests it has 950 bird species and 193 species of mammals, both representing more than half the total found in all India.
The state has evidence of human settlements from all the periods of the Stone Age. It’s colourful ancient and mediaeval history is the story of a confluence of peoples from the east, west and north, the convergence of Austro-Asiatic, Indo-Aryan, and Tibeto-Burman races. Assam has been invaded but never served as a vassal or colony to an external power until the advent of the Burmese in 1821 and subsequently the British in 1826.
Its ancient history has been reconstructed from literature and historical stories, like the Mahabharata and during the epic period of Indian history (1000-600BC) Assam was named Pragjyotishpura, meaning place of eastern astronomy. It was referred to as the Kamarupa Kingdom from the 4th-12th century and its mediaeval history is dominated by the Ahoms, a Tai group that migrated from what is now Yunan in China and ruled Assam for nearly 600 years (1228-1826) and the Tibeto-Burmese Koch, whose kingdom split in two, one group allying with the Moguls and the other with the Ahoms. Ahom-Mogol conflict finally ended in 1682 with a Mogul defeat. Assam repelled numerous invasions, mostly led by Muslim rulers, but with the waning of Ahom power the Burmese overran the entire territory in the early 19thcentury. It was then ceded to the British in 1826, the first and only western power to ever rule Assam. In 1874 a separate province of Assam was created with Shillong as its capital. It became a state of the Union of India when India attained independence in 1947 then, after Assam was divided in 1972, Shillong was made capital of the new state of Meghalaya and Dispur, located near the city of Guwahati, became Assam’s new capital.
With its boundaries shrunken over a turbulent past, Assam is the meeting ground of diverse cultures. The people of this enchanting state form an intermixture of various racial stocks such as Dravidian, Mongoloid, Indo-Tibetan, Indo-Burmese, Indo-Iranian and Aryan. The Assamese culture is a rich and exotic tapestry of all these races that has evolved through a long assimilative process. The natives of the state of Assam are known as "Asomiya" (Assamese), which is also the state language of Assam.
Broadly speaking the inhabitants of Assam can be divided into three categories: tribal, non-tribal and scheduled castes. There are seventeen distinctive tribes in Assam that consist of different ethno-cultural groups and include the Bodos, Mising, Karbi, Mishimi, Deoris, Rabhas, Nagas and Garos. The non-tribal groups include the Ahoms, Kayasthas, Kalitas, Morans, Muttaks and Chutias. The scheduled castes include the Basfors, Baniyas, Dhobis, Hiras, Kaibartas and Namasudras. Immigration was mostly from Bengal, Bangladesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Nepal and Rajasthan although another group, known as Baganias, was brought from Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh by the British planters to work in the tea gardens.
The seven states of northeast India is home to only approximately 10% of the entire population but their people speak over 30% (over 300) of India’s dialects and languages and nearly all the tribes in Assam have their own languages as well as their own unique traditions, culture, dress and exotic ways of life. The principal language of the state is Assamese with Bengali second however Bodo, an ancient tribal language of Assam, is also widely spoken.
The indigenous religions are Animism, Tantricism, Brahminism and the majority of Assamese follow Vaishnavism (a sect of Hinduism). They do not believe in idol worship and perform Namkirtana when the glory of Lord Vishnu is recited. The two important religious institutions that influence the cultural fabric of Assam are thesattras (monasteries that nurture the 16th century reformer Srimanta Sankardeva, Assam’s most famous spritual leader), which have become the guardians of religious celebration and culture and the naamghar, communal prayer halls, both of which have been in existence for over 400 years.
Apart from the tribal villages rural communities are usually made up of families from a number of distinct castes that typically associate because they frequent the same local naamghar or centre for devotional worship. Although the caste system does exist in Assam it is not as prominent as in other parts of India.
Other religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam are also practised. Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims represent the largest minorities, followed by Nepalis and populations from neighbouring regions of India.
Owing to its vivid, mixed history it is not surprising that Assam is a land of colourful fairs festivals and dances.
Most of the valley area is under cultivation and rice is the principal food crop of Assam. The cash crops grown are tea, jute, cotton, oil-seed and sugar cane and the state is dotted with oil and natural gas fields that produce roughly 1/6th of India’s petroleum and natural gas. Digboi in upper Assam was the first oil refinery in Asia.
Large tracts of Assam are occupied by lush forests, making it one of the most forested states of India and the largest producer of timber, like sal and teak, in the country. Assam is also known for its handicrafts made from cane, bamboo and brass as well as its exquisite cotton and silk handloomed fabrics.