History of Assam – Etymology, Ancient and Dynasties

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Assam is one of the eastern states of India and is bestowed with breathtaking landscapes of natural beauty. The state is bejeweled with vast stretches of thick forests, hills and gives passage to India’s largest river Brahmaputra and Barak which form enchanting valleys that are home to many tribes, races, and ethnic groups.

Assam Etymology

Assam finds its mention in the ancient Sanskrit literature by names of ‘Kamrupa’ and ‘Pragjyotisha’- ‘Prag’  meaning ‘former’ or ‘Eastern’ and ‘Jyotisha’ meaning ‘a star’, ‘astrology’ ,’ shining’ thereby meaning the ‘City of Eastern Astrology’. The word Kamrupa and references to it are found in literature and epigraphs, the most renowned being the story of Sati, Shiv, and Daksha, where in Kamdev was sent to break Shiva’s severe penance and make him fall in love again after the death of Sati, his wife. Kamadeva succeeded but enraged by this Shiva burnt him to ashes. Kamadeva eventually regained his form in the land of present-day Assam and thus the land came to be known as Kamrupa- where Kama regained his Rupa or form.  The epic texts of Mahabharat, Ramayan, and Puranas also establish the knowledge of Assam thereby proving its historical and mythological connection to India.

Ancient Assam

Assam went through many stages of changes and development to take the form it has today. Each stage contributed immensely to the rich diversity of cultures that are presently witnessed in the state. India holds one of the largest populations of the world’s indigenous people and Assam houses its fair share of such a population, their beliefs, practices, and identities. The history of Assam can be understood in four stages. The ancient era stretches from the 4th century with the mention of Kamrupa in Samudragupta inscription on Allahabad’s pillar and the establishment of Kamarupa Kingdom. The medieval period of Assam saw the attacks from the Bengal Sultanate from 1206 by Bakhtiyar Khilji after the breakdown of the ancient kingdom and the advent of chieftain-ship in place of kingdoms. The colonial era began with the treaty of Yandaboo in 1826 and the post-colonial period after India’s independence in 1947.

Chinese traveler Xuanzang wrote detailed accounts of this region which indicates that the dwellers of this land attained considerable power and social, economic, and technological development between the 7th and the 12th century. There are several clay seals and inscriptions on copper plates that provide clues of important locations of ancient settlements and the various connecting routes between them.

Dynasties of Assam

Various dynasties ruled Assam- the Pala, Koch, Kachari, and Chutiya and like any dynastic rule there was constant warfare among the dynasties until the advent of the Ahom people in the 13th century. The Ahoms arrived in Assam in 1228 AD and are regarded to have given the name ‘Aham’ or ‘Asom’ which was later Anglicized into Assam. The Ahoms were a powerful dynasty that fully integrated with and ruled over Assam for as long as 6 hundred years. The Ahom dynasty chronicled a glorious period in the history of Assam. Sukaphaa was the one who established the Ahom dynasty after crossing the Patkai Mountains that lie on India’s northeastern border with Myanmar.  The Ahoms succeeded in assimilating various tribal communities into their dynasty. Initially, the Ahoms ruled over upper Assam but slowly they won over other kingdoms like the Chutiya kingdom, Baro-Bhuyan confederacy, and pushing down the Dimasa kingdom further south to consolidate their power in the region. The end of the Ahom rule came with the Burmese invasion of Assam coupled with the Treaty of Yandaboo which led to the annexation of the region by the British East India Company.

Post East India Rule Assam

After coming under the East India Company rule, Assam became much smaller as new states emerged within its borders. The British were on an expansionist prowl and annexed Cachar in 1832 and Jaintia Hills in 1835 both lying in the southern parts of Assam. Shillong became the capital of Assam in 1874, which by now was a separate province. In the due course of the British rule and the ultimate independence of India, Assam went through many changes territorially, losing and gaining territory within its ambit to Meghalaya, Bengal and Bangladesh. Assam and its people were ardently involved in the freedom struggle contributing to many courageous activists that aspired for an independent India. Assam became a constituent state of India in 1950. Though its territorial integrity kept changing as Dewangiri in the North Kamrupa was ceded to Bhutan in 1951. The capital was shifted from Shillong to Dispur in 1972. Further, the states of Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, and Mizoram got their own separate states.

Assam after Independence

Post-independence, Assam saw rapid developmental initiatives with the setting up of the Guwahati University, Guwahati High Court and Guwahati station of  All India Radio in 1948, the first five-year plan, important agricultural reforms, Panchayat system in 1957, setting up of an oil refinery in at Noonmati, Guwahati in 1962, the construction of the Saraighat Bridge over Brahmaputra river in 1965, setting up of the Bongaigaon PetroChemicals, paper mills at Jogighopa and Jute factory at Silghat in the 1970s.  Many such initiatives strengthened the foundation of the state and helped it achieve self-reliance.

In the years 1959-1960 a strong language revolt led by the people of Assam began wherein it was demanded that the official language of the state was declared to be Assamese. The revolt ended with the victory of the people and Assamese became the official language of the state.

The Assamese Movement

The Assamese people led an incredible movement between 1979-1985 called the Assamese Movement which was started against the illegal immigrants infiltrating and proliferating in Assam. The movement was led by All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP), and All Assam Students Union (AASU). These organizations developed programs, protests, demonstrations to convince and compel the government to identify and expel immigrants that entered Assam illegally- most of them being Bangladeshis (east Pakistanis). This movement aimed at preserving the unique and precious culture of the indigenous people of Assam and preserving the demography of the state.  The movement demanded constitutional, legislative, and administrative safeguards for the indigenous population of Assam.

The movement was largely nonviolent but did see rare instances of violence- the Nellie massacre being an example of the same. The agitations ended in 1985 with the victory of the people of Assam with the Assam Accord which was signed by AASU-AAGSP and the Government of India. The Assam Accord was a middle ground chosen by the Assam movement and the Government of India wherein the Assam movement agreed to accept all immigrants that had entered into Assam prior to 1st January 1966 and the government of India agreed to protect the political, social, economic concerns of the Assamese people and agreed to revise the electoral database based on that date.

The government also agreed to identify and deport all refugees and illegal migrants after 25th March 1971. The massive influx of illegal immigrants was owing to the civil war and associated genocide between East Pakistan and West Pakistan, which lead to many people illegally migrating to Assam, West Bengal, Tripura, and Myanmar.

The Assam Accord of 1985 was called a Memorandum of Settlement  (MoS) signed between the representative of the Government of India and the leaders of the Assam Movement in New Delhi on 15th August 1985. This MOs provided the people of Assam assurance from the Government on its promise of safeguarding the interests and needs of the indigenous people.

Today Assam is a vibrant state with roaring industries and an enchanting tourist attraction. It’s a beautiful confluence of religions, cultures, natural beauty, and the warmth of its valiant people that make it an experience of a lifetime.

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