Arts and Handicraft
Much of the
ancient past of Assam still lies buried deep beneath its soil. Lack of proper and systematic archaeological research has resulted
in a dearth of archaeological material, and though evidence of human habitation in the land has been traced back to the Early
Stone Age, the overall picture remains vague and indistinct. That Assam, by whatever name, was known in other parts of the
world as far back as in 100 BC is nevertheless clear from the records of the Chinese explorer Chang Kien who traced his countrys
trade with Assam during that period. The Periplus of the Erythrean sea depicts how Chinese silk from Assam reached
Egypt and Rome before the advent of Christainity. Ptolemys geography also acknowledges the existence of Assam.
The earliest inhabitants of Assam can be safely said to be the Australoids
or the pre-Dravidians. It was however the Mongoloids who entered the land through the eastern mountainous passes who were
to almost overrun the land long before the time of the compilation of the Hindu religious literature known as the Vedas
around the 10th Century BC. The Vedas called the Mongoloids Kiratas, and the present-day tribes of the Northeast are
all considered to be the descendants of the Kiratas. Pragjyotishpura --- the City of Eastern Lights
--- was deemed to be the capital of the Kiratas, and the epics define a land of the Kiratas stretching from
the foothills of the Himalayas in the north to the Bay of Bengal in the south.The Kirata king Narakasura is said to
be the founder of Pragjyotishpura. The Kalika Purana and the Vishnu Purana identifies this land as Kamarupa
saying that it extended for 450 miles in all directions from the shrine of Kamakhya atop the Nilachal Hills in modern Guwahati.
Narakasuas successor, Bhagadatta finds mention in the epic Mahabharata, leading a huge Kirata army with a large number
of elephants in the war between the Pandavas and the Kauruvas against the former.
|10th Century Bamuni Hills Sculpture
The records of the Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang shed light on the area in the
Seventh Century. Pragjyotishpura came to be known as Kamarupa in the medieval period. Hiuen Tsang speaks
of a powerful and prestigious Kamarupa under King Bhaskaravarman. Kamarupa had perhaps achieved the zenith of its power during
the time, for subsequent centuries were witness to repeated onslaughts by aboriginals which reduced the power of the kingdom
and led to its fragmentation.
|Gurgaon Palace of the Ahoms
Between the heydays of the Kamarupa kingdom and the coming of the Ahoms
in the Thirteenth Century, the land experienced a spell of turmoil in which no single power could hold sway. Thus, when the
Ahoms entered Assam through the eastern hills in 1228, they chanced upon a period in its history when it was at its most susceptible.
Among the local tribes, only the Chutias and the Kacharis could offer a semblance of resistance.
Thereafter, the next six centuries belonged to the Ahoms who founded a powerful
dynastic rule with their capital in Sibsagar of Upper Assam. It was after the Ahoms that the land was named Asom
or its more anglisized version Assam. The advent of the Ahoms marked the beginning of a new era in the history
The centre of power was thus shifted from Kamarupa in Lower Assam to Upper Assam,
and the importance of Lower Assam declined sharply save for an intervening short period in the early Sixteenth Century when
the western limits of the kingdom of the Koch, one of the Kirata tribes, increased considerably under their
illustrious king Naranarayana.
Meanwhile, the unprecedented rise in power of the Ahoms was taken as a challenge
by the Mughal emperors in Delhi who sent seventeen military expeditions to shackle the Ahoms --- all in vain.
The last of these expeditions resulted in a long-drawn see-saw battle between the Mughals and the Ahoms at Saraighat
--- the present site of the first bridge over the Brahmaputra --- near Guwahati, which climaxed in a resounding victory for
the Ahom forces under its general Lachit Barphukan.
Lachit Barphukan achieved immortal fame and his heroism together with the battle
and its many annecdotes --- one of which relates the interesting incident of Lachit behaeading his own uncle for slight of
duty, as an example of his patriotism --- are now integral parts of the history and folk culture of Assam.
The victory at Saraighat was followed by a spell of
treacherous court intrigues which threatened the very existence of the Ahom kingdom until Rudra Sinha assumed
power and took the Ahom kingdom from strength to strength. From this zenith however it was a plunge straight down, starting
with the uprising of the Vaisnavite Moamoria Mahantas in protest against the religious harrassment meted
out to them at the instigation of the Sakta Ahom queen Phuleswari, in the eighties of the Eighteenth Century.
It was during the troubled times of the uprising and many court intrigues and dissension sapping the strength of the Ahom
rulers that the Burmese invaded Assam through its eastern borders.
It was history repeating itself, and just as the Ahoms themselves had overran
the land six centuries before, so also were they themselves humiliated by the Burmese who were to be the rulers of the land
till the British appeared on the scene in 1826 and forced them to cede Assam by the Treaty of
That their latest acquisition was by no means a land
of docile inhabitants was soon realized by the British when within four years of their conquest they had to face a joint resistance
by the people of Assam. The bid was abortive but marked the beginning of the confrontation between the nationalists and the
imperialist which was to end with the country achieving her independence in 1947.
The years in between, as in rest of the country, witnessed the saga of the Indian
Independence Movement marked by ungrudging sacrifices and unbreakable determination. Maniram Dewan, Piyoli Phukan
and Piyali Barua were hanged in connection with the Sepoy Mutiny. Martyrs like Kanak Lata, Kushal Konwar and Bhogeswari Phukanani
gave their lives for the Mahatmas cause. Their sacrifices were not in vain.
The Chinese aggression of 1962 was to pose a real enough threat
to the independence of this particular part of the country and was thankfully averted by a strong military response and last-minute
political understandings. But what was Assam back in 1947 constituted all the states of the present-day Northeast except Manipur
and Tripura. However, regional cultural variations were too distinct for the entire land to stay clubbed under a single political
administration. Hence we have the phenomenon of new states being carved out from erstwhile Assam one after the other. It started
with the creation of Nagaland in 1963, followed by the separation of Meghalaya and Mizoram in 1971, and ended with the formation
of Arunachal Pradesh in 1972. The part that remained as a single entity is the Assam of today.
And cultural identity has always featured prominently in the socio-economic and
political scenario of the State. Thus we have the unprecedented Assam Movement of the 1980s which is largely
deemed to be an endeavour to preserve the culrural identity of the State endengered by large-scale infiltration of illegal
immigrants from across the border from Bangladesh. In recent times, the State has also been ranckled by the terrorism propagated
by some extremist elements.