A luxuriant green stillness, diverse ecosystems, a range of communities living along the mighty Brahmaputra – these are the first impressions of a visitor to Assam. The state covers an area of 78,438 q km and has a population of 22,294,562 (1991 census). Dispur is the capital.
The word Assam is derived from the Sanskrit word Asama, meaning peerless. Some say that it comes from the word Ahom, the Thai rulers who controlled Assam’s destiny for 600 years. Indeed this state of the Red River and the Blue Hills is exquisite in its natural beauty, the wealth of its cultural diversity and traditions.
The Brahmaputra which bisects the state sweeps along 724 km before turning south into Bangladesh. Roughly, a fourth of the state’s area comprises hills and the rest is verdant alluvial plains. The Arunachal hills are on its northern boundary, Nagaland and Manipur touch the eastern flank. The Mizo Hills rise from its southern extreme. Bangladesh lies to its west, sharing the western border with Meghalaya and Tripura. On the southern extreme, the Barak Valley is marked by swampy flats, unusually diversified by low hills.
Assam is synonymous with fine, strong tea and about 290,000 hectares of land are under tea. It is home to India’s greater one-horned rhonoceros and the graceful Gangetic dolphin.
Assam is also known as the land of Srimanta Sankardeva, the renowned 15th century Vaishnavite reformer and saint. Monks of the Vaishnavite order lived in the satras or monasteries that Sankardeva and his disciples founded. These centres of culture and learning are still vibrant today and this unique way of life is preserved in places like Majuli, one of the several large islands on the river. In fact, at 840 sq km it is the world’s largest riverine island.
The largest city of the Northeast and the gateway to the region is Guwahati, a fastgrowing, crowded metropolis on the banks of the Brahmaputra.
History and people
The advent of the Tai-Ahoms from Burma into Assam in 1228 was one of the significant turning points in its history. The following 600 years were eventful for Assam. The long-drawn conflict between the Mughals and the Ahoms finally culminated in the 1669 with the legendary battle of Saraighat near Guwahati, which gave the Ahoms a stunning victory and the Ahom general, Lachit Borphukan, legendary fame among his people.
Later, the British established their suzerainty over the Brahmaputra Valley under the Treaty of Yandaboo between the British and the Burmese in 1826. The latter surrendered all claims on Assam. Gradually, after a series of battles and punitive expeditions colonial administration was extended to different hill areas of the Northeast.
Art and culture
Assamese society is distinguished by its ethnic diversity. Its people have their origins in the Tibeto-Burman anthropological groups and also other groups including the Aryans. The Bodos, Mishings, Kacharis, Morans, Sooteas, Karbis, Tiwas and other tribes living in the state are part of this tradition. These groups penetrated Assam at different periods during pre-historic times, while the Ahoms arrived in the 13th century. Besides the earlier groups, the Ahoms contributed significantly towards the growth of Assamese culture.
The only hill districts are the North Cachar Hills and Karbi Anglong. North Cachar Hills district is inhabited by the Dimasas, the only Bodo-speaking people living away from the Brahmaputra plains.
Once this place was home to tantrism as borne out by the Sakti temples like Kamakhya at Guwahati and the temple near Kundilghat. Buddhism has a small presence.
While Assam shares the religious festivities observed elsewhere in the country as also the national festivals, Vaishnavism is the predominant faith among most of the local Hindus. Islam has old roots here, going back to the 11th century when an Iraqi prince came to Assam. Sikhism followed in the 17th century with the arrival of Guru Tegh Bahadur. A great, historic Gurdwara stands on the banks of the Brahmaputra at Dhubri in southwest Assam.
Rongali Bihu, Bhogali Bihu and Kati Bihu are popular agricultural festivals of the state. Similarly, Ojapali Nritya, Deodhani Nritya, Biya Naam (marriage songs) and Tokari Geet (songs of mendicants), ring out on appropriate occasions. The Mishings of Majuli revel during Ali-ai-ligang, Po-rag and Oi-nitom, as do the Deuris and Sooteas during Bahagiya and Visu. The Rabhas and Karbis too make merry during Baisakhu and Chomangkan festivals.
Some of the issues in Assam have acquired such a dimension that seeking a solution has become akin to chasing a mirage. Events of the last two decades have shown that the gentle surface of the region belies the simmering bitterness, alienation and conflict that abounds. Conflicts of ethnic interests, charges of exploitation by New Delhi, linguistic disturbances, border disputes and the hillman?s suspicion of the plains people as exploiters have plagued the area. To add fuel to the fire, the issue of illegal migrants from Bangladesh and the agitation against this influx have devastated social cohesion. Insurgencies and militant groups battle the Indian state and it appears unlikely that things will normalise on this front in the near future. As a result, the economy has been in a shambles, despite generous Central aid over the years. There has been a decline in the human living index and in overall social, financial and industrial areas.
The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) are the major militant groups. operating in the state. Further, despite the six-year-long agitation by the All Assam Students? Union (AASU) (1979-1985) over the illegal foreign nationals issue little tangible success has been achieved. The attitude of the authorities in tackling the illegal influx continues to create fear that the local people will eventually be reduced to a minority, thus leading to a sense of widespread insecurity.
Deforestation, floods, unemployment, border problem, lack of industrialisation, rampant corruption and lack of adequate infrastructure are problem areas. Frustration bred of unemployment, poor governance and failure by governments at the Centre to understand the heart of the issue has led to disillusionment. The inflexibility of the militants has aggravated the problem. There are accounts of human rights violations by security forces and militants. Annual ravages by floods have also hurt the state?s development. Roads, bridges, standing crops and public utility facilities worth hundreds of crores are washed away with alarming regularity. Misuse of Central funds and communication bottlenecks have added to the region?s woes.
On the brighter side, Assam?s tea production has been able to cross the 450 million kg per annum mark and capture a sizeable chunk of the export market. This is one of India?s largest foreign exchange earners, of which Assam contributes the biggest chunk with its strong brew. Guwahati is home to the largest tea auction centre in Asia. The golden Pat, Muga and Endi silk continue to cater to the domestic demand. Fine bamboo and cane products along with ivory and bell metal articles produced in the state are well-known and have attracted wide national interest. Oil giants like the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited, Oil India Limited and the tea sector are the largest employers. Besides, there are coalfields at Makum, Ledo and Margherita under the Coal India Limited.
The state?s tourism circuit has much to offer. Besides the three national parks at Kaziranga, Manas and Nameri, there are numerous smaller sanctuaries. There are many historic monuments and temples.
Among the must-see sites are the Kamakhya temple at Guwahati (referred to as the ancient Pragjyotishpur in the ancient texts), the Haigrib-Madhav temple and the Pua Mecca mosque at Hajo, Siva Dol, Rang Ghar, Kareng Ghar, Talatal Ghar and Gargaon Palace at Sibsagar and the Tocklai Experimental Station -the world?s first tea research organisation at Jorhat. There are other attractions: the world?s largest riverine island of Majuli, Dibru-Saikhowa Reserve off Dibrugarh town, a sanctuary where wild horses roam. The nearly extinct white-winged wood duck is found at Nameri near Tezpur. The sensual stone carvings at Madan Kamdev in Sonitpur district, a visit to Tezpur, a dreamy town steeped in mythology, are among the options available for visitors. The world?s oldest oil rig is to be seen at Digboi in Upper Assam, while Jatinga in the North Cachar Hills offers a challenge to naturalists to solve a ?bird mystery? that occurs each year.
Cruising along the Brahmaputra and stepping into the underdeveloped char areas, one is confronted by problems of social transition, ecological havoc, flood-induced devastation, besides health-related issues in the flood plains. Tea garden labourers too offer a fascinating subject for research and study and a visit to Assam will be incomplete without a trip to a tea plantation.
Visitors should contact the state Department of Tourism or the district administration concerned for reservations in guest houses, hotels, circuit houses and dak bungalows.