Land of Red River and Blue Hills
Assam shares a boundary with all the states of Northeast India and serves as a doorway to the secrets of the seven sisters. This land has its deepest roots to the mighty Brahmaputra River which overpowers the landscape and has shaped both culture and the environment. Assam is renowned over the world for its tea plantations and also as a delicate interconnected hotspot of cultures, wildlife and biodiversity.
The great plains of Assam has a long history and has been mentioned even in the age old Vedic scriptures such as Mahabharata and Kalika Purana where it was referred as Kamrupa in the ancient times. In Hindu mythology, this land was also believed to be ruled by the demon Narakasura who had his capital at ‘Pragjyotishpur’, the eastern city of lights and a learning centre of astronomy. Perhaps the first written records is from the 7th century Chinese traveler Huan Tsang who visited ancient Assam during the reign of King Bhaskarvarman whom he described as “the aristocratic king of eastern India’ and a devotee of Lord Shiva. The medieval era is predominantly marked with the invasion of the Tai Ahom clans from northern Myanmar in 13th century which ruled over the Brahmaputra valley for six hundred years and have recorded their history in the Buranji chronicles. It was finally the British East India Company which arrived in 19th century and colonized the region. British historian Edward Gait defined the boundary of Assam as “The plains of Assam, parts of East Bengal and foot hills of Bhutan”. Their administration merged the plains of Brahmaputra valley with the surrounding hills and tribal areas and eventually formed the state of Assam, deriving the name from the Ahom word ‘Axom’, meaning ‘the land like no other’.
Dispur is the capital of Assam and is a suburb of Guwahati, the largest city in the region that connects mainland India to the northeastern frontier. Guwahati is a historic city of the Brahmaputra river civilization and is most important commercial centre for the region. Other important urban areas such as Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Tinsukia and Tezpur emerged due to the growth of tea industry and oil refineries in the region. Most of the human habitation is located along the fertile plains of the Brahmaputra river where the people live simple lives in small cities, towns and villages.
The countryside of Assam appears lush green due to its estates of tea plantations, never-ending paddy fields and large forest cover. The landscape is also dotted with thousands of riverine islands and sand bars on the banks of Brahmaputra during its long course through the plains. The state is surrounded by mountains and hills on all sides that often loom in the distant horizon and adds to the scenery.
From wild habitats to ancient temples of mysticism, shrines and unique monastical practices, villages of well preserved indigenous cultures, colorful festivals and a large hospitable population, Assam is a prefect non-touristy destination with plenty of attractions and mysterious. The great nobleman Swami Vivekananda once must have rightfully said “Next only to Kashmir, Assam is the most beautiful place in India.”
Assam has a diverse culture of several ethnic groups and indigenous communities of various origins. The ethnic groups of Assam can be grouped into hill tribes and plain tribes, each with their distinct languages and culture. The cultural diversity of this state is rich in classical religions as well as tribal heritage. The difference in local culture, language and cuisine can be experienced across the state, while it can also be noted that the modern Assamese culture is largely an integration of various kingdoms that have ruled the land powerfully over the ages.
The Koch group of Bodo Kacharis in the west, Sonowal Kacharis in the east and Dimasa Kacharis of Dima Hasao hills in Cachar are considered as the oldest inhabitants of the region and are of Tibeto-Burman origin. They formed independent kingdoms before the arrival of other ethnic groups such as Ahoms during the 12th century. Though they lived in different parts of the state, their Kachari dialects were mutually intelligible. The Bodos are today the largest tribal community of Assam and they dwell primarily near the foothills of Bhutan in western Assam. Bodo culture is well known for the Bagurumba dance and Bathow worship. The Sonowal Kacharis were one of the earliest ethnic groups to have come in contact with the invading Ahoms. They served as gold washers for the Ahom kings. Whereas the Dimasa Kacharis who had their capital in Dimapur of modern Nagaland have similarities to the Tripuri peoples of Tripura.
The majority Assamese speaking population then arrived with the spread of Hinduism during antiquity, inhabiting the vast plains of Brahmaputra valley. Bihu is the main festival of the Assamese people. Bihu dance during the traditional new year celebration along with classical Sattriya of the Vaishnav monks and the mystic Deodhani dance can be associated with Assamese people.
Numerous tribal communities such as the Rabhas, Tiwa, Hajong, Mishing, Deori, Matak and Moran also coexist in the Brahmaputra valley. The Mishing community of Majuli island originally dwelled in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh alongside fierce tribes, but later migrated to the plains to live peaceful lives. The Tai Ahoms from Myanmar which invaded and ruled Assam during the medieval period and had their capital in Sibsagar, had their own language and script but had to adopt local culture in order to rule over the natives. The other Tai groups such as Tai Aiton, Tai Phake, Tai Turung, Tai Khamyang and Tai Khampti who came later in search of the Ahoms also adopted the local Assamese culture and language. The Ahom Kingdom has had the most influence in shaping Assamese culture.
Cachar area of southern Assam is the home to large number of ethnic communities. The Karbis are the predominant tribe in this region and live in the hills of Karbi Anglong. They are a Tibeto-Burman group and follow animist religion. Bishnupriya Manipuris of Manipur also settled in this area during Burmese invasion and Anglo-Burmese wars. The Cachar hills also has many clans of Kuki community of Mizoram who lived a nomadic lifestyle in search of jhum cultivation. A large section of Bengali speaking community dwell in the Barak valley which is located close to Bangladesh. The Santhal and Munda tribe from Central India who were brought by the British to work in the tea estates also became part of the Assamese society.
Due to the presence of various ethnic communities, Assam is also renowned for its diverse arts and crafts, particularly textiles. The Assamese people are well known for their excellence in weaving, Muga silk is spun in many villages where ladies weave Mekhela Sador, a traditional dress with intricate floral designs. Gamosa is another famous woven motif which also symbolizes Assamese culture and has a wide usage. Bell metal crafts are popular in areas of western Assam where craftsmen prepare the Xorai utensil, a popular souvenir. The decorative Jaapi, a large farmers hat, is present in the homes of most people. The monastic order of Majuli island have preserved their old traditions of mask making and papyrus painting since 15th century. The Mishings and Deoris are also skilled weavers, almost every household has traditional handlooms in the countryside. Every tribe has their own unique patterns and colors on their textile. Cane and bamboo handicrafts of Assam are also popular like those of its neighboring states.
An 19th century British historian’s account on the Kingdom of Assam writes “The Assamese had been a warlike and enterprising people, and their princes worthy of the government.”
The landscape of the state mainly comprises of the vast Brahmaputra plains, Cachar hills and the Barak valley in south. The Cachar hills and its Barail range separate the Brahmaputra plains from Barak Valley. The wide Brahmaputra river forms a major part of the landscape of Assam, flowing across the length of the entire state from Sadiya in the east to Goalpara in the west. Many rivers flowing from the surrounding mountains of the neighboring states also form tributaries of the Brahmaputra. Majuli, the biggest inhabited river island and Umananda, the world’s smallest island are both in Assam. The meandering Barak river flows only in the southern part of the state before it flows into Bangladesh. An interesting quote from 19th century writes “The number and magnitude of rivers in Assam probably exceed those of any other country in the world of equal extent. They are in general of a sufficient depth at all seasons to admit of a commercial intercourse in shallow boats, and, during the rains, boats of the largest size find sufficient depth of water. The number of rivers, of which the existence has been ascertained, amounts to 61, including the Brahmaputra and its great branches… Many of these contributory streams are remarkable for their winding course.”
Assam has some of the densest and richest forests in the world. Being located in the tropics and with abundant rainfall, it has a large forest cover. Most of the tropical evergreen forests are located at the foothills bordering Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, which support a wide variety of sub-Himalayan fauna. The grassland of the Brahmaputra flood plains also form part of the major national parks and wildlife sanctuaries of the state namely, Kaziranga, Pobitora, Orang and Dibru-Saikhowa. The forests are mostly tropical with broad leaved evergreen trees, and a large number of wild orchids are also found abundantly.
The forests of Assam have the presence of the One-horned Asiatic rhino, which is not only the state animal but is also a symbol that represents this land. The dense tropical forests are also home to numerous other species such as wild buffaloes, gaur, elephants, swamp deer, hog deer, barking deer and tigers. Various species of primates such as hoolock gibbons, Assamese macaque, pig-tailed monkeys, capped langurs and golden langurs can be also seen in the wild. The large wetlands of Assam attract numerous migratory birds during the winters such as as imperial pigeon, ibis Bill, Himalayan kingfisher, pelican, parakeets, fish Eagle and drongos. The rare wood duck is the State Bird of Assam.
Ambubachi Mela is a three day fair held during June/July at the Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati. Large number of pilgrims gather to celebrate the yearly menstruation course of the Goddess Kamakhya. Read More
Rongali Bihu is the main festival of the Assamese community. It marks the start of a new year in the local calender. This spring festival takes places in mid April and is celebrated all over the state. Read more
Raas is a popular festival of Assam. it is a religious event observed by the Assamese Hindu people. The festival showcases traditional dances and dramas that depict tales from Hindu mythology. Read more
Magh Bihu is an important festival of Assam. It is the harvest festival of the Assamese people in mid January. Also called as Boghali Bihu as it deals with community feasts after the annual harvest. Read more.
The climate of Assam undergoes four seasons. Winters from mid-November to March remain sunny and dry making the season ideal for travel. Peak winter nights are very cold. The season transitions to spring between April to May when the climate is hot and somewhat humid. The first pre-monsoon showers and thunders start as early as around early spring. Summer lasts from June to September when the temperatures are very hot and humid, but accompanied by more than abundant rainfall brought in by the monsoons, especially between July to September. Autumn lasts from October to mid-November when the days and nights are pleasant with occasional post-monsoon showers.