Assam is a northeastern state of India with its capital at Dispur. Located just below the eastern Himalayan foothills, it is surrounded by the other northeastern states: Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya. Assam and its commercial capital Guwahati form the gateway to the northeastern states, together called the seven sisters. These states are connected to the rest of India via Assam's border with West Bengal and a narrow strip called the "chicken's neck." Assam shares international borders with Bhutan and Bangladesh.
Origin of name
The origin of the name is uncertain. Some consider it is a corruption of the Sanskrit word asama meaning uneven, that describes the hilly region; since the Indo-Burmese corridor consists of a number of mountainous chains of the lower Himalayan region and valleys between them. Others believe the word is related to the Ahoms who ruled Assam for 600 years, since there is no record of the use of this name before their advent in 1228 and since historical texts have occasionally used the word asam for the Ahoms.
T-shaped, the state consists of the northern Brahmaputra valley, the middle Karbi and Cachar hills and the southern Barak Valley. It experiences heavy rainfall between March and September, with very high humidity in the summer months. The temperatures are mild and never extreme during any season.
Assam is very rich in vegetation, forests and wildlife. Timber felling used to be a lucrative business, till it was declared illegal by the Supreme Court of India. The region also has a number of reserved forests, and one of them, Kaziranga is the home of the rare one horned rhinoceros. The state produces a lot of Bamboo, though the bamboo industry is still nascent.
The high rainfall, deforestation etc have resulted in annual floods that cause widespread loss of life, livelihood and property. An earthquake prone region, Assam experienced two very big earthquakes: 1897 (8.1 on the Richter scale) and 1950 (8.6).
The wildlife, forests and flora, rivers and waterways, and great natural beauty are providing the right ingredients for a nascent tourism .
The region that comprises Assam and the adjoining areas was called Pragjyotisha in ancient times, as mentioned in the Indian epic of Mahabharata. The land was populated by kiratas and chinas, generally believed to be people with Asian features.
Medieval Assam was known as Kamarupa or Kamata, and was ruled by many dynasties. Chief among them was the Varman Dynasty. During the greatest of the Varman kings, Bhaskarvarman, a contemporary of Harshavardhana of Kanauj, the Chinese traveler Xuanzang visited the region, and recorded his travels. The other dynasties that ruled the region were the Kacharis, the Chutias etc. that belonged to the Indo-Tibetan groups.
Two later kingdoms left the biggest impact in the region. The Ahoms, a Tai group, ruled eastern Assam for 600 years; and the Koch, a Tibeto-Burmese/Dravidian group that ruled 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.
Inspite of numerous invasions from the west, mostly by Muslim rulers, no western power could establish its rule in Assam till the advent of the British. The most successful invader was Mir Jhumla, a governor of Aurangzeb, who briefly occupied Gargaon the then capital of the Ahoms (1662-1663). But he found it difficult to control the people who carried on guerilla attacks on his forces and he and his army had to leave the region. The last attempt by the Moghuls under the command of Raja Ram Singh resulted in the victory for the Ahoms at Saraighat (1671) under the Ahom general Lachit Borphukan.
Ahom palace intrigue (and political turmoil resulting from 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, and the East India Company took control of the region.
The British subsequently annexed adjoining areas to the original occupation and called it the Assam province. At the time of independence of India, it consisted of the original Ahom kingdom, along with the present North East Frontier Agency, Naga Hills, original Kachari kingdom, Lushai Hills, and Garo, Khasi and Jayantia Hills. Of the Assam province on the eve of Independence, Sylhet choose to join Pakistan after a referendum, and Manipur and Tripura became Group C provinces. The capital was Shillong.
After the independence from British rule in 1947, Assam spawned four more states to become one of the seven sister states in the 1960s and 1970s. The new states were Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya. The capital of Assam, which was in Shillong, had to be moved to Dispur, now a part of an expanding Guwahati.
When the leaders of Assam tried to establish Assamese as the official language, the Cachar district, which is populated by a predominantly dominant Bengali speaking people, erupted in rebellion. This resulted is the death of some agitationists, and finally the order was watered down.
In the 1980s the Brahmaputra valley saw a six-year Assam Agitation that began non-violently but became increasingly violent. The movement tried to force the government to identify and deport foreigners who, the natives maintained, are illegally inundating the land from neighboring Bangladesh and changing the demographics. Critics called it a xenophobic reaction of a chauvinistic people. The agitation ended after an accord between the leaders of the agitation and the Union Government. Most of the accord remains unimplemented today, a cause for a simmering discontent.
This was followed by demands for greater autonomy especially by the Bodos in the later 1980s and 1990s. The period also saw the growth of armed secessionist groups like United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). The union government responded by deploying the Indian army to control the situation in November 1990, leading to claims of human rights violations. The Indian army deployment has now been institutionalized under a Unified Command. Worsening inter-ethnic relationships also marked this period.
The 2000s saw inter-ethnic killings, especially in the Karbi and Cachar hills (e.g the Hmar-Dimasa conflict).
Assamese and Bodo are the official languages of the state. Linguistically modern Assamese traces its roots to eastern Magahi Prakrit, with strong influences from the Tibeto-Burman and Mon-Khmer languages which are spoken by ethnic groups in the region. Bodo is a Tibeto-Burman language. Bengali (Sylheti) has become the dominant language in the Barak valley after the advent of the British and the partition of Bengal in 1947. Nepali and Hindi are other important languages spoken in the state.
Assamese culture is a rich conglomerate of ethnic practices and assimilated beliefs and ways of the Ahom Rulers. One great feature of the Ahom rulers unlike any medieval rulers of India was that they gratituosly took up the assamese culture and in turn also enriched it with their own cultural distictiveness. This is one reason why assamese culture is so rich in heritage and values.
Chief among assamese people is the reverence of elders and senior citizens. The 'Gamosa' is one article of great significance among assamese people. Literally translated, it means 'something to wipe your body with' ( Ga=body, mosa= to wipe). However, a gamosa is something that every assamese can identify himself/herself with. One can therefore, very well say, the Gamosa is the very essence of assamese culture. The greatest fact about Gamosa is that it is being used equally by all irrespective of religions and ethnic backgrounds.
Chief among the cultural artefacts is the Bihu festival celebrated by most ethnic groups in the state. Bihu is celebrated ( or observed) three times a year, in the months of Magh( mid January), Bohag(mid April) and Kati (late October).
Magh Bihu is celebrated by feasting and meeting relatives and friends. Magh Bihu is also called 'Bhogali Bihu'( Bhog= feast,divine repast) in assamese. It is in this Bihu that Uruka is celebrated. Uruka is the name given to the eve before Bihu, when people get together and have a magnificient feast late in the night.
The next morning, people gather in open spaces to burn what is known as the 'Meji' or 'Bhela Ghar'. It is huge bamboo structure stuffed with hay. Mejis can reach as high as 30 feet in the air.
Early in the morning, people gather despite the wintry climate during January. The Meji is burned and Magh Bihu is celebrated in its own traditional way.
Cities however seem to have distanced themselves away from this tradition due to obvious space and time constraints of assamese people working in big cities.
After Magh Bihu, Bohag bihu comes in April. It is also known as 'Rongali Bihu'. This bihu is after the Harvest time when people celebrate the newly harvested crops and make merry. Gorgeous Bihu dancers, buffalo fights and Goru Bihu( One day dedicated in reverence of cows) accompany this Bihu. Numerous Bihu Pandels mark the city in this once-a-year phenomenon.
Bohag bihu is marked with gifts and clothes being exchanged among relatives and friends. It is also a time to pay respects to elders and aged people. Celebrations continue for almost the entire Bohag month of the assamese calendar.
People also bid their farewell to Bohag by celebrating 'Bohagi Bidai' ( bidai=farewell) throughout assam.
Kati Bihu or Kongali Bihu is rather observed than celebrated. Kongali in assamese means scarcity or deprivation. It is during the period before seeds are sowed for next years Harvest. Lamps are lit across agriculture fields in order to please mother earth so that she provides the people with a rich bounty of harvest, during Bohag Bihu, when again Bohag Bihu will make a return.
This is the complete cycle of Bihu which takes place thrice a year. Other than Bihu, Durga Puja is also celebrated in Assam with great pomp and splendour, although this might be a cultural effect of the millions of bengali people living in the state. Even then, whole of assam rejoices during Durga Puja, which signifies the victory of good over evil.
Assam's biggest contribution to the world is its tea. Assam produces some of the finest teas in the world. Other than the Chinese tea variety Camellia sinensis, Assam is the only region in the world that has its own variety of tea called Camellia assamica. Assam tea is grown at elevations near sea level, giving it a malty sweetness and an earthy flavor, as opposed to the more floral aroma of highland (e.g. Darjeeling, Taiwanese) teas.
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. 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.
The region was part of the British Empire and most of the nationalities of this region were integrated peacefully into the new country, India because of popular wishes since a lot of Indian freedom fighters came from assam. The Assamese majority gained power after Independence through elections. Unfortunately despite good intentions most of the leaders were not endowed with leadership and developmental skills. They could not contribute to the development and economic progress of the region.That cannot be termed as just their their fault since similar situation prevailed across most of the country. People came to power but did not know how to utilise it.
The biggest threat nowadays comes from the various militant organisations who are all corrupt to a scandalous degree. They gain their living by exploiting the poor people of the state and denying them the chance to progress with the rest of the country. There are legitimate grieviances and the region IS neglected by the central government. The army deployed their for maintaining law and order do commit atrocities. But the solution certainly does not lie in more hate. The innefectual leadership shown by the people's representatives makes the situation worse. But if the people of Assam instead of blaming others worked towards success there is nothing holding them back. Since the turn of the last century (1900s), ethnic Bengalis from Bengal region on the west and south of Assam have been migrating to this region, and the British were sponsoring this migration because they needed laborers to work in their plantations and factories. This was because the local assamese people did not have the aptitude for hard work. They lived in a paradise where no work was required to grow their food since the land was so fertile. Therefore they grew lazy and fat and were averse to hard work.
Like indigenous people in other parts of the world, the 100 plus ethnic tribes of these region are in a struggle to maintain their cultural heritage. There are active autonomy movements in the Bodo and Karbi dominated regions. In recent times, ethnicity based militant groups have mushroomed (ULFA, NDFB, BLT, UPDS, DHD, KLO, HPCD etc.) along with violent inter-ethnic conflicts (e.g the Hmar-Dimasa conflict).
In spite of all these problems and a lot more the future still holds out a bright promise. The new generation of assamese that are emerging are not encumbered with the baggage of hostility and enemity. Having seen all the senseless violence and killings, they know that violence is not the answer. Tolerance, Hard work and an ambition to do well will serve them a lot better.
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