CULTURE OF ASSAM, ASSAMESE CULTURE

Original in Assamese: Kushal Dutta
Translation: Bibekananda Choudhury

Let us first define clearly the terms ‘Assam’ and ‘Assamese’ before we proceed to discuss Culture of Assam and Assamese Culture; but the irony of the situation is such that while the image carried by the term ‘Assam’ is fairly clear, on the other hand, the definition of the abstract word ‘Assamese’ is still undefined. Still, generally speaking – of the planet Earth, in the Union of the States named India lying in the continent of Asia – the North-East Region before independence; and in the era after that one of the States from the group of eight of the North-East is known to all as Assam bounded by its political boundaries.

On the other hand, the indigenous people living in Assam are Assamese. And again, people originating from this land and staying at various places outside Assam in various other States of India and also strewn around the globe outside India are also Assamese. And, the culture related to Assam and the Assamese people is the culture of Assam and Assamese Culture.

Though there are numerous instances of a single culture of a certain nation in a certain country in various corners of the world since history could reach, the culture of Assam and the Assamese has developed as a mixed or hybrid culture. The similarity of Assam and Assamese Culture with these characteristics of great India and Indian Culture is highly noteworthy. Staying within a political boundary except this only major similarity and this culture of Assam and Assamese Culture even after being a part of great India and Indian Culture we identify it independently only because of the ingredients that form Assam and Assamese Culture, developed it and is sustaining it – all these are more or less elemental. Like Switzerland or Kashmir is termed paradise on Earth, in one sense, without any hesitation, Assam can also be termed cultural paradise on Earth as a limited edition of huge expanse of human culture.

Though the historians are yet to arrive at a consensus regarding the point of time when ‘Assam’ became the approved and accepted name of this land – everyone generally agrees that since after the arrival of the Ahoms led by Siu-Ka-Pha across the mountain range of Patkai in 1228, they had coined and popularized it to make it acceptable to all. Before the arrival of the Ahoms this land was known as ‘Pragjyotishpur’ and subsequently as ‘Kamrupa’.

As on today, Assam forms a State of Indian Union. Situated at the right flank of Himalayan Range between 140 to 280 North Latitude and 900 to 970 East Longitude, the total area of Assam is roughly 78,550 square kilometers. On the north of Assam is Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan; on the east Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur; on the south Mizoram, Tripura, Manipur, Meghalaya and Bangladesh; on the west there is Meghalaya, Bangladesh and West Bengal. The total population of Assam according to 2011 census is 3,12,05,576. The two major natural regions have formed centered around the two major river systems Brahmaputra and Barak. The Brahmaputra River Valley system is based on Brahmaputra River covering Assam entirely in an East-West direction and the Barak Valley Region covers the southern portion from North to South centered around the Barak River. The five major cities apart from the capital city of Guwahati are – Silchar, Dibrugarh, Jorhat & Tezpur; and the number of urban colonies are gradually increasing; but still some 86 percent of the population are village dwellers. Assam is a well known household name around the world because of its tea, crude oil, one horned rhinoceros, the Assamese language, Bihu, Kamakhya Temple, Satras of Majuli etc.

The suffix iya has added up with Axam (Assam) to form the word Axamiya (Assamese). Though the definition of this abstract concept of the name ‘Assamese’ is still to be defined, we have already mentioned that the indigenous inhabitants of Assam are Assamese (Hoiberg, 2010). And again, people originating from this land and staying at various places outside Assam in various other States of India and also strewn around the globe outside India are also Assamese. Generally we get a concept that Assamese people are the ones who use Assamese, the major language of Assam that is the main connecting language amongst the people using various languages. In the true sense, the Assamese nation has been formed with the people residing in Assam from various religious faiths – Hindu, Islam, Christian, Sikh, Buddhism, Jain etc. The Assamese nation is formed by all the tribes, sub-tribes and communities like Adibasi, Ahom, Aka, Baishya, Barman, Beite, Bengali, Bhaife, Bhui, Bodo, Brahmin, Sema, Dafala, Deuri, Dimasa, Hajong, Hojai, Jayantia, Jemi, Kachari, Kalita, Karbi/Mikir, Kayastha, Khamti, Koch, Kuki, Lingam, Liyangmai, Lusai, Marowari, Matak, Mech, Mhar, Mising, Mizo, Manipuri, Moran, Munda, Naga, Nisi, Nocte, Nath/Jogi, Phake/Tai Phake, Rabha, Rajbongshi, Rengmai, Sonowal Kachari, Tai Aiton, Tansa, Thengal Kachari, Odia, Tiwa/Lalung, Turung etc. Apart from the people with the major language Assamese the Assamese nation is formed by all these people, using all the languages and dialects. And Assamese culture is a connection of all these religions, races – tribes and sub tribes, language and dialects.

The concept of ‘Assam’ and ‘Assamese’ has been mentioned separately in the beginning to make easier entry into the next phase of discussion, but from now on only the word pair ‘Assamese Culture’ would be used. Because the geographical limit imposed by culture of Assam is not present in ‘Assamese Culture’ – it is open, ever changing and developing. The sense of culture also generally carries such expanded meaning.

The development of culture obtained from education (Neog and Goswami, 1987); the mental virtues reflected by the influence of education, intelligence, art and culture, upbringing, customs and rituals (Neog, 2001) and the manifestation of habits and conducts of a society or the members of a society (Hoiberg, 2010) – where the food habits, language, dress codes, daily life and rituals, popular belief, music and songs, arts and paintings, architecture, sculpture, religion, science, sports – all the properties and ingredients are reflected – that is culture in totality. Likewise people speaking different language and following different customs, heritage, folklore, food habits, language, dress code, daily life style, song and music, art and paintings, architecture, sculpture, science, sports, religious faith of all races, tribes and sub-tribes combine together to form Assamese Culture.

After getting a concise picture of Assamese Culture in the backdrop of space, now we can differentiate it into various segments for our convenience with respect of time. In the backdrop of flowing time we can divide it into segments like–
i)             From pre-historic to the arrival of the Ahoms.
ii)           From the beginning of Ahom Rule up to the period of Sankardeva.
iii)        From the period of Sankardava to the arrival of the British into Assam.
iv)       From the period of British Rule till India’s independence.
v)       From Independence to the present era (Up to the state-of-the-art e-age,   globalization etc.) and get into a brief discussion about the development-   evolution-expansion-contraction and the cultural elements.

The Himalayan range was born some fifty million years ago rising up from under the sea bed through various geo-natural phenomenon. Along with the Himalayas was also born the Indian subcontinent – popularly known as ‘Jambudweep’ in the prehistoric era. Likewise, several million years elapsed before the North East Region of Indian subcontinent became fit for human habitation after coming into existence through the natural process. There is no evidence of evolution-development-movement of Paleolithic humans as per information received through state-of-the-art DNA analysis of oldest Roman fossils ever discovered. It means that the species called homosapiens (human) must have migrated from various other parts of the globe to this region. But when did the very first of such migration take place?

Many researchers tend to mention that the people of Austric group migrated to this region between about 3500 B.C. to 2500 B.C. and started living here. Many even try to term it as a mixed flow of population naming it as Austro-Asian migration. The Austrics entered into Assam through the sea route lying in the South-West region. The Austrics were short, dark skinned and had coppery curly hair on their head. Many people like to identify the present Santhals, Kukis, Manipuris, Kacharis etc. as the descendants of the Austrics.

After the Austrics, between 3500 B.C. to 2000 B.C., the Caucasians too arrived in Assam along with the rest of India and started living here. These people of Caucasian root arriving from coastal regions around Mediterranean Sea & West Pacific Ocean, Iran and Saudi Arabia established the Hindu Civilization that was extended to the North East Region through the people belonging to Indo-Dravida group.

The Mongols were the third largest flow of people that arrived in Assam after the Austric-Dravidas. The Mongols came across the Himalayas from China-Mongolia regions during about 3000 B.C. to 1000 B.C. and started living in Assam. The pundits opine that the Karbi, Bodo, Deuri, Garo, Mising, Chutiyas are the descendants of the Mongol race.

The Aryans arrived in Assam along with the rest of India nearly at the same time with the Mongols that continued till some time after. Improved agricultural practice, a decent life style, developed language had been the fore of the Aryans with which they could establish supremacy over the people of already settled races. Majority of the Upper caste Hindus, Brahmins, Gosains etc. are considered as the descendants of the Aryans.

There had been no huge wave of influx for a long time after the arrival of the Aryans. On 1228 A.D. another segment of the Mongoloids, the Ahoms who actually laid the foundation of the greater Assam and the Assamese nation as we find today arrived from the Mong-Mao province (now under Chinese occupation). Prince Siu-Ka-Pha set on an expedition in search of a new land – ‘the land of golden corn’ in 1215 A.D. Siu-Ka-Pha entered into Assam in December 1228 accompanied by some three hundred mounted soldiers and nine-thousand foot soldiers traversing several thousand kilometers of woods-denseforest-hills-mountains-rivers-villages and towns. Siu-Ka-Pha established the Ahom Kingdom by defeating the kings of tiny provinces of Assam and by entering into friendly ties with some less belligerent ones. The following six hundred years of Ahom Rule can be termed as the Golden Era of Social and Cultural life of Assam.

Somewhat at the same time with the Ahoms, a section of Muslim invaders coming from far away Turkey, Afghanistan etc. stayed back in Assam forming integral part of Assamese Nation and Culture.

After the Ahoms following the Yandabo Pact signed on February 24, 1826, between the British Army and Burmese Army, the English came temporarily to Assam. To facilitate large scale produce of tea by establishing a large number of tea gardens, the British brought around two million labourers from Jharkhand, Odisa and Bengal and settled them here. During the British reign a huge number of people also migrated from East Bengal (now Bangladesh), Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Nepal etc. and settled in Assam.

But the largest migration to Assam after independence happened from Bangladesh. Though the actual figure is yet to be arrived at, at least four million migrant Bangladeshi people has affected and changed the population structure and pattern in an extensive manner. A good number from Nepal and Bhutan also migrated and started living permanently in Assam during the post independence period.

It is observed from all these studies that at various times various groups entered into Assam, but except the Burmese and British, no one left this place. Austric, Dravidian, Mongoloid, Aryans – all these people arrived at various juncture to Assam and formed the large Assamese Nation amidst all the differences. All the people belonging to various nations, group, religious faiths and speaking different languages has formed a common large Assamese Nation and its Culture while preserving their independent religious customs and rituals, language and heritage. So in the true sense Assamese Culture is a mixed culture, a hybrid culture, a culture of unity among diversity, a culture of oneness amongst differences.

Now what are the elements, parts and subparts of the abstract concept that we get by the term ‘Assamese Culture’? We are going to mention only its major ingredients and parts in this short discussion though the culture encompasses generally all the sides of a nation like life style, nature and behaviour and habits, food habits, language, dress code, daily routine, popular belief, music, science, sports & games etc.

As we talk of the culture of Assamese people that have lived a simple life style for ages through natural−un-natural, eco-political environment with a distinctive dress, food habit and colourful festivals the first thing that strike our mind is Assamese language that has practically linked all the races and tribes and people residing in Assam speaking various languages and observing different religious faith with an invisible chord. Assamese language falls in the Aryan language group. The Assamese language has evolved from corrupted Magadhi form developed between 600 to 1000 A.D. of the Central Indian Sub-Aryan section of Indian Aryan language that forms a part of the huge Indo-European language group. Perhaps it was about 1000 A.D. when the Assamese script earned a distinct form. Concrete proof of development of Assamese script is obtained from copper plate inscription dating back to Eleventh Century discovered at various places including Umachal Hills at Guwahati. The linguists have identified the development of Assamese language into four distinct stages; these are : Pre-Assamese language or the Assamese language of evolutionary stage (7th Century A.D. to 12th Century A.D.), Ancient Assamese (13th Century A.D. to last part of 16th Century) [ Pre-Vaishnava or Pre-Sankara and Vaishnava or Sankara Era also included in the last one]; Medieval Assamese (17th Century to the Early 19th Century or the time of commencement of the British Raj) and Modern Assamese language (from early 19th Century to the Present times). Apart from major language Assamese of Aryan origin, the other languages and dialects from Chino-Tibetan, Indo-Burmese segments of non-Aryan origin are integral part of Assamese Culture. Amongst these, the Bodo language has achieved a different dimension of development by acquiring the constitutionally accredited status. Similarly, various major and minor languages like Karbi, Sadri (Santhali), Tiwa, Deuri, Mising, Kamrupia, Goalporia etc. are moving forward through various phases of development.

Another major ingredient of Assamese Culture after the language is the literature of its various member languages. Caryapadas are the first written manuscripts in Assamese literature. Basically composed in verse form to propagate and circulate the Buddhist philosophy and culture, these were possibly written between eighth century A.D. to twelfth century A.D. Relying on this fact, one can conclude that the history of Assamese language and development of its literature is some 1000 to 1300 years old. And then, we get as evidence of Pre-Sankara era literature – Hem Saraswati composed Prahlad Charit, Madhav Kandali translated Balmiki Ramayana, Durgabar’s Geeti Ramayana of fifteenth century, and Panchali Sahitya translated by Peetambar and Mankar. Again, in the Vaishnava era, we get in the fifteenth century literature of Sankara-Madhava, various compositions by Ram Saraswati, Kathakar Bhattadev etc. that has practically triggered renaissance of Assamese literature. Thus, Assamese literature bloomed with many branches during the Ahom era. Especially, the Ahom Buranjis are valuable treasure of this period. Various Charit Puthis including Kathaguru Charit are also significant literary creations of this period.

The modern era of Assamese literature commenced in 1846 with the newsletter published from Sivasagar town by a group of Christian Missionaries Arunodoi, seeing the light of the day. Presently the Assamese literature has been able to carve its own niche in the field of world literature by dint of the hearty effort of people like Hemchandra Barua, Lakshminath Bezbaroa, Banikanta Kakati, Krishnakanta Handique to name a few. In the post independence era literatures of two prominent Assamese writers were honoured with ‘Bharatiya Jnanpith’, the highest literary award in India – one by Dr. Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya for his novel ‘Mrityunjay’ and the other by Dr. Indira Goswami (Mamoni Raisam Goswami) for her overall literary works.

As on today the literature of the major language Assamese has been progressing through various dimensions of development along with the Bodo literature that has lately achieved constitutional status. Keeping pace with these two, the other languages like Rabha, Mising, Deuri, Karbi, Dimasa, Tiwa, Sonowal, Sadri are also moving forward through various stages of development and progress.

A very bright and colourful part of Assamese Culture is the colourful dance-song-festivals of all the races or tribes that we must take into account immediately following the language and literature. And doubtlessly, Bihu is the most popular culture amongst all the festivals and rituals. Though there is no concrete evidence about the advent of Bihu in Assam, everyone agrees to the fact that the Ahoms started the Bihu that is celebrated with a week-long pomp and gaiety starting from the last day of Chaitra − the last month of Assamese calendar; second is Kangali or Kati Bihu observed on the last day of Aswina. The third is Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu celebrated for three days after the winter harvest from the penultimate night of Pausa. Majority of non-tribal and tribal races celebrate this Bihu with their unique heritage and customs. Dance and song in Rongali Bihu and various food items in Bhogali Bihu is an integral part of the celebrations. Apart from Bihu, many other functions related to devotional, reformatory, love and affection, friendship, marriage, of one’s profession and trade, agriculture, astrology, hunting, battle, clowning, magic & witchcraft have found its way in various rituals-festivals-dance or religious activities in both the tribal and non-tribal societies. Some of them are Me-dam-me-phi of the Ahoms; Baisagu, Bathow puja, Kherai puja, Bagurumba dance, Dahal Thungri or Ranchandri dance, Deodhoni dance, Masglangni dance etc. of the Bodos; Ali-aye-lrigang festival, P:rag festival, Gumrag dance, Ni:tam, Anoini:tam of the Misings; Bishu of the Deuris; Bayasu, Sathar dance, Bhari Gaan, Dhawa dance of the Rabhas; Sogramisawa, Barat dance of the Tiwas; Cha’mangkan festival, Rongker festival, Banjar Kekan dance of the Karbis; Bahua dance of the Sonowal Kacharis; Buchu dance, Bai-Maijai dance of the Dimasas; wangala of the Garos; Darlam of the Hmars; Kin-inkep-inlam of the Jemis; Jansalam of the Kukis; Karam puja, Jhumuir of the Tea tribes; Dhulia dance, Bhatheli festival, Huweree of Kamrupa; Kali-chandi dance, Hudum puja, Bansh puja, Kushan Gaan, Sonaray puja, Charak puja of Goalpara; Mohoho, Sukananni oza-pali of Darang; Bishnu puja, Shiva puja, Durga puja, Lakshmi puja etc. of the caste Hindu; Eid, Ramadan month of the Muslim; various religious worship and festivals of Christian, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain and all other communities.

Various folk instruments like Dhol, Dagar, Khol, Dhak, Doba, Pakhuwaj, Mridanga, Dambaru, Bordhol, Dhepadhol, Rajadhol, Deodhol, Madal, Kham, Sheng, Dumdum, Penpa, Gagana, Hutuli, Kartal, Bhortal, Khutital, Manjira, Barkanh, Jalakanh, Ghanta, Nepur, Lupi, Jatha, Shensh, Bongshee, Banhee, Benu, Sankha, Kali, Mahari, Charinda, Tokaree, Been, Bena, Ektara, Rash-Madli, Tendra etc. are used in song & dance in Assamese folk culture.

The Art and Culture of first renaissance of Assamese national life ‘Vaishnava Movement’ is a major classical element of Assamese Culture. With elements like Namghar, Satra, Ankiya Naat, Bhaona, Bargeet, Bhatima, Satriya Nritya this movement has been put on a strong steed with new armour spearheaded by Sankardeva and Madhavdeva, the two great sons of Assam.

Along with festivals and dance, the expanse of Assamese Culture has been extended by music and songs too. Apart from Bargeet-Bhatima-jikir of Sankar-Madhav-Azan – The Assamese Culture is enriched by unique songs and other elments of each and every community – tribal and non-tribal, small and large. Moreover, the modern Assamese creative music is enriched by thousands of lyricists-music composer-singers like Lakshminath Bezbaroa, Jyotiprasad Agarwalla, Bishnu Prasad Rabha, Parbati Prasad Barua, Keshav Mahanta, Rudra Barua, Bhupen Hazarika, Navakanta Barua, Birendranath Datta, Khagen Mahanta, Deepali Barthakur, Pratima Barua Pande, Parbin Sultana, Pulak Benarjee, Jayanta Hazarika, Dwipen Barua, Zubeen Garg etc.

Through the Bhaona of Vaishnava heritage the theatre got developed in Assam in an organized manner. Before that puppetry dance & Durgabori Ramayana was staged though only through the bhaona of Sankardeva it took the form of rich heritage. Later, for several decades Yatra imported from Bengal too gained popularity in Assam. In the present times both professional and amateur theatre is considered a prominent part of Assamese Culture. The amateur cultural groups have played a strong role in creating a healthy drama movement. Amongst these groups Baan Theatre, Gana Natya Sangha-Assam, Kamrupa Natya Samiti, Kumar Bhaskar Natya Mandir, New Art Players, Natasainik, Navik, Seagull, Surya, Jirsong Theatre, Badungduppa, Darpan-the Mirror, Natasurya, Jyotirupa, Geetal are some noteworthy names. Not to forget than, since last half century this mobile theatre has earned recognition as an effective popular media. Amongst them Nataraj, Koh-i-nor, Awahan, Hengul, Bhagyadevi, Srimanta Sankardeva Theatre, Bardoisila are forerunners.

Like the drama, another strong media of modern culture, Cinema has also enriched Assamese Culture in a colourful way. The journey commenced in 1935 with the making of ‘Joymoti’ by Jyotiprasad Agarwalla. Till date in the 80 years since 1935 several hundred movies in several languages like Bodo, Karbi, Mising apart from Assamese has been made and released. Some noteworthy filmmakers are Jyotiprasad Agarwalla, Bhabendra Nath Saikia, Padum Barua, Jahnu Barua, Gautam Bora, Svantana Bordoloi etc. Quite a few of them even earned awards apart from being screened in many festivals at national and international platform.

One can keep on writing about many other innumerable small and big branches of Assamese Culture, but it is not possible to include all such in such a short bird’s eye view discussion. With the elements of many rituals like Tamol-paan, Gamocha, Xarai, Sofura,  etc., to the handicraft of Bamboo-Cane and fine art work on bell metal to the ornaments and then from paintings on books to postmodern unintelligible gibberish art and paintings, from pre-Ahom, Ahom, Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, British architecture to the state of the art & architecture with a couple of millennium long history with the many sculpture, colourful food items & dresses, vehicles, sports, telephone, radio, television, computer, internet, mobile, dance bar, wine shop, gambling den, vote bank politics slowly everything is getting into the larger meaning of Assamese Culture.

References

About the author: The author, Mr. Kushal Dutta (b. 1976) is an Indian poet, journalist and editor writing in the Assamese language, has five collections of poems and three other non-fictions. He has also edited a number of literary, cultural, GK, cine magazines, souvenirs and books. He was awarded the prestigious ‘Munin Barkataki Award’ (2003) from Munin Barkataki Trust (Assam), ‘Kathamalita Award’ (2011) from Kathamalita group (Assam) and ‘Srijan Sahitya Samman’ (2013) from ‘Srijan Xahitya Sammelan’ (West Bengal). His poems have been translated into almost all major Indian languages and some major languages of the world. On the other hand Photography is also a subject of keen interest for familiar poet Kushal Dutta. His first ever photo exhibition (along with painting based on Kushal’s poems entitled ‘the baya’s nest’ by Manjit Rajkhowa) was held at State Art Gallery, Guwahati from 4th to 9th Feb. 2013. By profession Kushal is a journalist working with Dainik Asam, an Assamese daily from Guwahati, Assam.

About the translator: The author, Bibekananda Choudhury, an electrical engineer by profession, has completed his MS from BITS Pilani in Systems and Information. He has also earned a diploma in French language from Gauhati University. He has got published works (both original and translated) in Assamese, Bengali & English in popular periodicals and newspapers. His translated poems has been published in 'Indian Literature', ‘Poets International’, Poetry International’, Rupsi Bangla, etc.  'Suryakatha', the Bengali adaptation done by him of the Assamese novelette in verse in the same title by Prayag Saikia was well accepted. His English translated publications include – one short story collection and four poetry collections and one Information Book on Kaziranga, apart from few others in manuscript form. He hails from Bongaigaon and presently stays at Guwahati.

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