Culture of Assam

Author: Madhawi Rai
Date: 2019-12-10

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The culture of Assam is usually a mixture one, developed owing to traditional integration of different ethno-cultural groups under various political-economic systems in diverse periods of history.

Historical perspective

The ancestries of Assamese culture go back closely five thousand years when the first cultural integration took place amongst Austro-asiatic and Bodo-Kachari groups. There were three waves of cultural mixing in Assam. First, it was the Tibeto-Burman cultural groups which had arrived from Tibet, Yunnan and Sinchuan provinces of China who mixed with the scarcely present indigenous Austric people like the Khasi and Jaintia. Then there was a surge of Indo-Aryans from Northern India, which transported the Vedic culture into Assam and mixed with Tantric ethos of Bodo-Kachari people. The last upsurge of migration was that of the Tai-Ahoms(Tai/Shan) who added another chapter to the Assamese culture. The Ahoms later on brought some more Indo-Aryans like the Assamese Brahmins and Ganaks and Assamese Kayasthas to Assam.

According to the epic Mahabharata and on the basis of local folk lore, people of Assam (Kiratas) probably lived in a strong kingdom under the Himalayas in the era before Jesus Christ, which led to an initial integration of various Tibeto-Burman and Autro-asiatic ethnic groups on a greater scale. Classic naming of the rivers and spatial distribution of related ethno-cultural groups also backing this theory. Thereafter, western migrations of Indo-Aryans such as those of numerous branches of Irano-Scythians and Nordics along with diverse northern Indians (the ancient culture mix already present in northern Indian states such as Magadha augmented the indigenous culture and under certain stronger politico-economic systems, Sanskritisation and Hinduisation strengthened and became noticeable. Such a mixed culture therefore carries many basics of foundation cultures, of which precise roots are problematic to trace and are a matter for research. However, in each of the elements of Assamese culture, i.e. traditional crafts, performing arts, language, festivities and beliefs, either native local elements or the original local elements in a Sanskritised forms are always existing.

It is supposed that Assamese culture developed its roots over 750 years as the country of Kamarupa during the first millennium AD of Bodo-Kachari people integration with Aryan. The first 300 years of Kamarupa was under the great Varman dynasty, 250 years below the Mlechchha dynasty and 200 years under the Pala dynasty. The records of many aspects of the culture, language, traditional crafts (silk, lac, gold, bronze, etc.) are available in different forms. When the Tai-Shans entered the region in 1228 under the leadership of Sukaphaa to establish Ahom kingdom in Assam for the next 600 years, again a new chapter of culture integration was written, and thus the modern form of Assamese culture culture developed. The original Tai-Shans culture assimilated with the local culture, adopted the language on one hand and on the other also influenced the culture with the elements from their own. Similarly, the Chutiya kingdom in eastern Assam, the Koch Kingdom in western Assam and the medieval Kachari and Jaintia kingdoms in southern Assam provided stages for assimilation at different intensities and with different cultural-mixes.

The Vaishanav Movement, a 15th-century religio-cultural movement under the leadership of Srimanta Sankardeva and his disciples, have provided another dimension to Assamese culture. A renewed Hinduisation in local forms took place, which was initially greatly supported by the Koch and later by the Ahom Kingdoms. The resultant social institutions such as namghar and sattra - the Vaishnav Hermitage have become part of the Assamese way of life. The movement contributed greatly towards language, literature and performing and fine arts. On many occasions, the Vaishnav Movement attempted to introduce alien cultural attributes and modify the way of life of the common people. Brajavali, a language specially created by introducing words from other Indian languages, failed as a language but left its traces on the Assamese language. Moreover, new alien rules were also introduced changing people's food habits and other aspects of cultural life. This had a greater impact on the alienation of many ethno cultural and political groups in the later periods.

During periods when strong politico-economic systems that emerged under powerful dynasties, greater cultural assimilation created common attributes of Assamese culture, while under less powerful politico-economic systems or during political disintegration, more local attributes were created with spatial differentiation. Time-factors for such integrations differentiations have also played an important role along with the position of individual events in the entire series of events.

Dunori from Assam

Traditional painting of Assam

Asamiya textile print design of Gamosa

Tamul-paan of Assam

A Bihu dancer with a horn in Assam

With a strong base of tradition and history, modern Assamese culture is greatly influenced by various events in Assam that took place in under British rule of Assam and in the Post-British Era. The language of Assam was standardised by American Missionaries according to that of the Sibsagar District, the nerve centre of the Ahom politico-economic system while improved Sanskritisation was progressively accepted for evolving Assamese language and grammar. A new wave of Western and northern Indian influence was apparent in the performing arts and literature.

Due to increasing efforts of standardization in the 19th and 20th century, the local forms present in diverse districts and also amongst the remaining source-cultures with the less-assimilaethnoculturalural groups have seen greater alienation. However, Assamese culture in its hybrid form and nature is one of the richest and is still under development.

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