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Assam, the eastern most state of the Indian sub-continent, extends from 22o19' to 28o16' north Latitude and 89o42' to 96o30' east Longitude between the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas and the Patkai and Naga Ranges. The Kingdom of Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh border Assam in the North and East, and along the south lie Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. Meghalaya lies to her South-West, Bengal and Bangladesh to her West. Assam is connected with the rest of the Indian Union by a narrow corridor in West Bengal that runs for 56 km below the foothills of Bhutan and Sikkim.

The population of Assam is a broad racial intermixture of Mongolian, Indo-Burmese, Indo-Iranian and Aryan origin. The hilly tracks of Assam are mostly inhabited by the tribes of Mongolian origin. This broad racial intermixture is the native of the state of Assam, called their language andthe people "Asomiya" or "Assamese".

According to the last census, the population of Assam is 22 million, 89 percent of which is rural. Assamese-speaking Hindus represent two-thirds of the state's population and indigenous Tibeto-Burman tribal groups make up another 16 percent of the total. More than 40 percent of Assam's population is thought to be of migrant origin. The term "Assamese" is often used to refer to those who are citizens of Assam. Native Assamese, Mymenshingy settlers (from Bangladesh) and tea-garden laborers are thus included in this coverage. The term can also be used to describe the indigenous or long-settled inhabitants of this northeastern state. The state has the largest number of tribes within their variety in tradition, culture, dresses, and exotic way of life. Most tribes have their own languages; some of their traditions are so unique and lively that these causes wonder to others. Boro, Kachari, Karbi, Koch-Rajbanshi, Miri, Mishimi and Rabha are also among these tribes exhibiting variety in tradition, culture, dresses, and exotic way of life. Assamese is the principal language of the state and is regarded as the lingua franca of the whole northeast India. The Assamese language is the eastern most member of the Indo-European family. Although scholars trace the history of Assamese literature to the beginning of the second millenium AD, yet an unbroken record of literary history is traceable only from the 14th century AD.

During the six hundred years of rule, the Ahom dynasty managed to keep the kingdom independent from the Mughals, the muslim invaders of India, before the British, as well as other invaders. The Mughals attacked Assam seventeen times and were repelled each time.

The state has the largest number of tribes within their variety in tradition, culture, dresses, and their own exotic way of life. Most tribes have their own dialects and unique traditions.

HISTORY

Assam was known as 'Kamarupa' or 'Pragjyotishpura' in the period of the Epics. Human inhabitation of this area dates back to about 2000 BC. The population of Assam comprises of the migrants from Burma and China. They came into Assam after the mongoloid migration. They came from Punjab through Bihar and North Bengal. Thus Assam presents a fusion of Mongol-Aryan culture. The early history of Assam is believed to be of the Varman dynasty. The reign of this dynasty extended from 400 AD to 13th century. The visit of Huien Tsang is said to have taken place during the 7th century at the time of Kumar Bhaskar Varman. The Ahoms ventured into Assam in about 1228 AD. By 15th century the kingdoms of Ahom and Koch were established. This period witnessed a sea change in all walks of life in Assam.

In the later part of the 18th century the Ahom Kingdom was weakened due to internal strife. The Burmese ran over the political authority in Assam thus invoking British intervention to subdue the Burmese. After a conflict between the Burmese and the English, the treaty of Yandaboo restored peace in 1826. The British then set out to organize the administration, transport and communication. Besides the various changes, the construction of railways, introduction of tea plantation, discovery of coal and oil etc. proved fruitful to the British during the World War II. After Independence of India, Assam witnessed several separations of territories. In 1948, NEFA (Arunachal Pradesh) was separated, in 1963 Nagaland, in 1972 Meghalaya and in 1987 Mizoram.

FESTIVAL OF ASSAM

Bihu

The primary festival of the Assamese are the three Bihus. Intricately connected to agriculture, the celebrations are secular. The first of the three Bihus is Bohag or Rongali Bihu which marks the advent of spring and the Assamese New Year, celebrated in mid April. On the eve of Rongali Bihu, the cows are ceremoniously washed with turmeric, tied with new rope and fed with vegetables like brinjals and bottle gourd. Celebrations extend over a week and include exchange of traditional hand woven gamochas (scarves), singing ,dancing and merriment.Traditional delicacies are also prepared in every household.

The Magh or Bhogali bihu is celebrated in mid-January, during which the harvest is gathered. Uruka is celebrated on the eve of Magh Bihu, in which temporary shelters (meji) are built of hay and wood to a considerable height resembling a lofty temple on the harvested paddy fields, beside which a bonfire is lit for community feasting to celebrate the harvest. The next morning, the meji is ceremoniously lit. The feasting is followed by sports throughout the day. The half-burnt sticks and ashes of the meji are strewn on the fields and at the root of the fruit trees, as they are believed to increase fertility of the soil.

The Kati or Kangali bihu is known as 'poor' bihu and held in the month of Oct-Nov coinciding with the autumnal equinox. The main function associated with this bihu is the worship of the sacred tulsi (basil) plant at the root of which earthen oil lamps are placed. For a whole month lamps are lighted at the foot of the tulsi plant. People pray for a better harvest for the coming year.

ECONOMY

Assam is famous for producing Tea, growing almost 500 million kgs, about 60 % of India's Production. This plantation is introduced by the British in Assam. The third largest tea auction centre of the world is situated at Guwahati, the capital city in Assam.

Agriculture, however is the main occupation of 63% of the population, rice being the main crop and the staple diet. Other crops include pulses, jute, sugarcane, potatoes, cotton , oilseeds, coconut, arecanut etc. Agriculture is monsoon dependent and in addition to normal agricultural practices, the tribal population also practices jhum or shifting cultivation. Oranges, lemon,bananas , guavas, pineapple and mangoes are some fruits extensively cultivated.

Forest and forest products are important part of the state's economy, Cane and bamboo being substantial revenue earners. The forests also house some rare species of birds and animals for which there is a tremendous development in tourism of Assam.

INDUSTRY

Assam is also home to oldest refinery in India, the Digboi Refinery having started production in 1901, and played a significant role in Britain war effort during WW II in Burma. A substantial portion of India's onshore oil assets are in Assam and are being systematically harvested by ONGC and OIL. Assam is also an important producer of silk of different varieties, like eri, pat (Assam silk) and muga (Golden silk). Oil, tea, bamboo and silk is the backbone of the economy here.

GUWAHATI CITY

Situated on the banks of the mighty river Brahmaputra, at an altitude of 55 metersabove sea level, Guwahati is the junction of three important roads, National Highways 31, 37 and 40. It is split into two parts by the river Brahmaputra and North Guwahati. The nearest important city is Calcutta (1182 km), while the capitals of the other northeastern states are at distances varying from 110 km to 650 km. The city experiences an annual rainfall of 180 cm (from May to September). While summer temperatures range from 22 to 38C, in winters the mercury ranges from 10 to 25C. The best time to visit this cosmopolitan city is from October to April.

KAMAKHYA TEMPLE

Over the centuries, Kamrup Kamakhya has been the seat of the powerful tantrik cult in India. Situated atop the Nilachal Hill in Guwahati, it is one of the 108 Shakti Peethas of the country. Rising to a modest height of 562 feet above the mighty river Brahmaputra, the hill on which the temple stands commands a magnificent view of the entire city. Several smaller shrines and temples dedicated to Kala Bhairava, Shiva and other Hindu deities are also located in its vicinity. Legends says that Kamakhya came into existence after the female genitalia of Sati, the Great Mother Goddess, fell when Vishnu started dismembering her body to force her inconsolable husband, Shiva, into performing his divine duties again.

Legend has it that King Daksha had organized a sacrificial rite, to which he invited all the deities except Shiva. In fact, Daksha had done it deliberately to insult Shiva. Sati, being the daughter of Daksha, came uninvited. During the ceremony, Daksha began to speak ill of Shiva. Unable to bear the insults heaped on her husband, Sati immolated herself. The meditation of Shiva, who is omnipresent, was disturbed. Furious, he descended on Daksha and his kinsmen and destroyed them. With the dead body of his beloved Sati on his shoulders, he started the dance of destruction (Tandava). In his attempt to calm down Shiva and save the world from ruin, Vishnu sent forth his chakra to cut Sati's dead body. The reproductive organ of Sati, the yoni, fell at the spot where the temple of Kamakhya stands today.

When the yoni of Sati fell on the hill, where the temple stands, the hill turned blue and came to be known as Nilachal (blue mountain). Narakasur, the demon king, gave the name of the place Kamrup Kamakhya. He made Kamakhya his patron deity. Kamdev, the God of Love, with the help of the celestial architect Vishwakarma, built the original temple.

Tradition has it that once in every year, the spring waters at Kamakhya turn red and the temple remains brought from near and afar by devotees are soaked in the waters and distributed as prasad (offering).

SUALKUCHI VILLAGE

Assam produces three unique varieties of silks, the Golden Muga, the White Pat and the warmEri. Silks grown all over the state find their way to Sualkuchi.Sualkuchi is one of the world's largest weaving villages often called the Manchester of the East. The entire population here is engaged in weaving exquisite silk fabrics. A renowned center of silk production, particularly known for Muga - the golden silk of Assam, which is not, produced anywhere else in the world.

One can distinctly hear the rhythm of the shuttles of the looms as soon as one enters this craft village. Sualkuchi, the biggest village of Assam with a population of around 50,000, is situated on the north bank of the mighty Brahmaputra. Drive to Guwahati (35 kms).

HAJO VILLAGE

The town of Hajo (35 km west of Guwahati and closed to Sualkuchi) is a sacred place for Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. The town also boasts of the Hayagriba Madhava Temple, accessible via a long stone stairway. Hajo village is renowned for their bell metal work.

NAMPHAKE (NAMPHAKIAL) VILLAGE

An exotic destination four kilometers away from Naharkatia (65 kms from Dibrugarh) town in Assam. Spread three-odd kilometers along the bank of the Dihing, a tributary of the mighty Brahmaputra, the picturesque village has an enticing old-world charm. It is the largest of the Tai-Phake villages in Assam, boasting 70 odd families, which trace their ancestry to the great Tai race. The village folk speak a dialect similar to the language in Thailand and still follow the traditional customs and dress code of the great Tai race. The hamlet is also home to the Namphake Buddhist Monastery, one of the oldest and most respected Buddhist Monasteries in Assam. The villagers live in 'chang ghars' - bamboo and wood houses built on raised platforms and are mostly engaged in agriculture.

SRI SURYA PAHAR

Sri Surya Pahar, a confluence of the three religion of Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, is a treasure trove of ancient monuments, is situated about 12 kms. Southeast of Goalpara, 136 kms northwest of Guwahati.

In addition to being a confluence of the three religions which is evident from the innumerable sculptures , Sri Surya Pahar can also be called a garden of medicinal plants, most of which awaits identification. The hills are also abode to rare primates and local legends claim that one less than a 100000 shivalingas dotted the hills but after centuries of neglect and pilferage, not all remain. All this together makes it a favored destination for naturalists and adventure tourists, in addition to religious tourists.

Recent archeological find indicate that an ancient civilization flourished in and around Sri Surya Pahar and some scholars refer to the accounts of Chinese traveler, Huen Tsang and to the unearthed relics to claim that it was Sri Surya Pahar and not Guwahati that was the ancient land of Pragjyotishpur, capital of the Kingdom of Bhaskarbarman. The finding of the nearby archeological site of Pagletek is cited to strengthen this claim.

The name Sri Surya Pahar implies association with the cult of 'Sun worship', and with references available in the Kalika Puran that there were two seat of Sun worship in Assam, Sri Surya Pahar stands identified as one of them. A carved stone slab, housed in the Surya Temple is worshipped as Surya. Archeologists have identified this circular carvings as Prajapati, which is in an inner circle, the outer circle of which includes twelve lotus petals, each seated with a figure of Aditya, each Aditya depicting the twelve solar divinity of Dharti, Mitra, Aryaman, Rudra, Varuna, Surya, Bhaga, Vivashan, Pushan, Savitri, Tvastri and Vishnu. Other Brahmanical pantheon in Sri Surya Pahar includes the Twelve armed Vishnu, covered with a seven hooded canopy standing erect on a lotus, worshipped as Dasabhuja Durga , however some scholar argue that this is a likeness of Manasha. Other notable remains include Ganesha, Harihara, Shivalingas, Vishnupadas etc., all dated to the 9th century AD.

Amongst the identified Jain figures in one of the first Tirthankara, Adinath, carved in sitting posture in the rocky ourcrop with two bulls in the base, also believed to be of the 9th century AD,.

There also exist about 25 votive stupas of different sizes in the southern fringe of Sri Surya Pahar. The stupas are significant for it shows two points, . One ,that there was Buddhist influence in Kamarupa and two, much earlier then the rest of the country, because the design point to the early Hinayana stage of influence , earlier to the Mahayana and Vajrayana esotericism seen in Bihar and Bengal.

Animalism, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism all seem to have left their mark on this very sacred destination. Add to that it's scenic beauty, wildlife and a live archeological spot at Pagletak : Surya Pahar has something to offer for all.

ETHNIC GROUPS

THE THAI (OR TAI CONNECTIONS)

Throughout Asian History, ethnic politics inevitably set forth images of conflicts between indigenous peoples and the larger migrant group. One such dominant migrant ethnic group, which is found across South, Southeast Asia and China, is the Tais.

The Ahoms are an important branch of the Tai people. The Tai-Ahoms entered the Brahmaputra valley from the east (from Moung Mao in China through the Shan states of Burma) in the early part of the thirteenth century. They established a small kingdom in the easternmost corner having conquered the Morans and the Borahis, two small Mongoloid tribes of that area. By the first half of the sixteenth century, the kingdom had grown in size and number after the conquest of many indigenous communities like the Chutiya kingdom on the northeast, that of the Kacharis in the southwest and the Bhuyan chiefs in the west and northwest. In the seventeenth century, the kingdom was further enlarged by the annexation of Kamrupa - the south most part of the Assam valley.

As the Tai-Ahoms came from Muong Mao during first part of the thirteenth century, they might have brought to the Brahmaputra valley a Tai language spoken in the Muong Mao region of the present-day Dehong Dai-Jingpow Autonomous Prefecture in Yunan, China and the nearby areas inside Myanmar. Initially, it was probably advantageous for Siu-kha-pha (the first Tai migrant to the Assam Valley who later became its ruler) and his followers to keep the Tai language alive, speaking both the Tai & the Assamese languages.

The Phakial speakers are scattered in different villages situated on the bank of the river Buridihing. They are Buddhist in religion and this is why they could maintain their separate identity socially and culturally within the sea of Hinduism. Though the Phakials are small in population, they are still maintaining their own individualities, their gorgeous and typical multi coloured costumes, the Phakial language, their customs and tradition.

It has its own separate scripts and has also preserved in a few manuscripts, which are mainly religious scriptures. These manuscripts are written in Tai-scripts, which are preserved in their village Vihars.

THE SINGPHOS

The Singphos, a powerful tribe living in the plains and hills of Assam has a glorious story to tell. Of Mongoloid descent, folklore trace their origin to the Singra-boom hills of Tibet from where they migrated in many directions and one such group came and settled in the foothills of Upper Assam, in the Dihing Patkai region. However in the early 19th century, the invasion by the Manns and after the Sadiya Saikhowa battle, most Singphos returned to join other migratory groups in present day Myanmar and the other remaining in what is presentday Lohit and Changlang Districts of Arunachal Pradesh and in the the region covering Bisagaon, Inthem, Ketong, Khatanpani, Kotha, Ulup, Hassaek village.etc, in the Margherita Sub Division under Tinisukia District of Assam.

The story of Tea in Assam is very intricately connected to the Singphos, who knew about its existence and were also drinking it much before its official discovery. It was their King, Bisa Gam who introduced Major Robert Bruce of the Marhatta (Maratha) Regiment of the East India Company to this plant, and on whose initiative, Assam and its story of tea started. It is said that on not being paid royalty, the King ordered the chopping of the plants grown by the new plantation and that resulted in the technique of hedging/pruning of tea bushes.

Physically mongoloid, Singpho men grow their hair long and tie their hair in a top knot, so too their women who decorate their hair with silver chains and married women distinctly tattoo their legs from ankle to their knees. While the womenfolk wear traditional neck pieces earrings and finger rings of their own traditional designs, the men do not wear jewellery albeit they all carry a sheathed dao (sword) with the King's dao having embedded tiger claws.

Their various clan have their own Chief, and they reside in houses on stilts (Chang ghar), usually near a stream. They are meat eater with rice being their staple diet and rice beer and it's consumption form part of their traditions. Exogamy is practiced in marriage, they do not marry intra clan, preferring to confine marriages to certain clans only. Once a man marries to another clan, it becomes customary for his successors to seek wives from the same lineage.

The Singphos are a unique race, steeped in their traditions and belief, and time spend with them is an experience one should not forego.
 
 
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