History of Assam

All about Assam History

Much of the ancient past of Assam still lies buried deep beneath its soil. Lack of proper and systematic archaeological research has resulted in a dearth of archaeological material, and though evidence of human habitation in the land has been traced back to the Early Stone Age, the overall picture remains vague and indistinct. That Assam, by whatever name, was known in other parts of the world as far back as in 100 BC is nevertheless clear from the records of the Chinese explorer Chang Kien who traced his country?s trade with Assam during that period. The Periplus of the Erythrean sea depicts how Chinese silk from Assam reached Egypt and Rome before the advent of Christainity. Ptolemy?s geography also acknowledges the existence of Assam.

The earliest inhabitants of Assam can be safely said to be the Australoids or the pre-Dravidians. It was however the Mongoloids who entered the land through the eastern mountainous passes who were to almost overrun the land long before the time of the compilation of the Hindu religious literature known as the Vedas around the 10th Century BC. The Vedas called the Mongoloids Kiratas, and the present-day tribes of the Northeast are all considered to be the descendants of the Kiratas. Pragjyotishpura, the City of Eastern Lights, was deemed to be the capital of the Kiratas, and the epics define a land of the Kiratas stretching from the foothills of the Himalayas in the north to the Bay of Bengal in the south.The Kirata king Narakasura is said to be the founder of Pragjyotishpura. The Kalika Purana and the Vishnu Purana identifies this land as Kamarupa saying that it extended for 450 miles in all directions from the shrine of Kamakhya atop the Nilachal Hills in modern Guwahati. Narakasua?s successor, Bhagadatta finds mention in the epic Mahabharata, leading a huge Kirata army with a large number of elephants in the war between the Pandavas and the Kauruvas against the former.

The records of the Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang shed light on the area in the Seventh Century. Pragjyotishpura came to be known as Kamarupa in the medieval period. Hiuen Tsang speaks of a powerful and prestigious Kamarupa under King Bhaskaravarman. Kamarupa had perhaps achieved the zenith of its power during the time, for subsequent centuries were witness to repeated onslaughts by aboriginals which reduced the power of the kingdom and led to its fragmentation.

Between the heydays of the Kamarupa kingdom and the coming of the Ahoms in the Thirteenth Century, the land experienced a spell of turmoil in which no single power could hold sway. Thus, when the Ahoms entered Assam through the eastern hills in 1228, they chanced upon a period in its history when it was at its most susceptible. Among the local tribes, only the Chutias and the Kacharis could offer a semblance of resistance.

Thereafter, the next six centuries belonged to the Ahoms who founded a powerful dynastic rule with their capital in Sibsagar of Upper Assam. It was after the Ahoms that the land was named Asom or its more anglisized version Assam. The advent of the Ahoms marked the beginning of a new era in the history of Assam.

The centre of power was thus shifted from Kamarupa in Lower Assam to Upper Assam, and the importance of Lower Assam declined sharply save for an intervening short period in the early Sixteenth Century when the western limits of the kingdom of the Koch, one of the Kirata tribes, increased considerably under their illustrious king Naranarayana.

Meanwhile, the unprecedented rise in power of the Ahoms was taken as a challenge by the Mughal emperors in Delhi who sent seventeen military expeditions to shackle the Ahoms, all in vain. The last of these expeditions resulted in a long-drawn see-saw battle between the Mughals and the Ahoms at Saraighat, the present site of the first bridge over the Brahmaputra, near Guwahati, which climaxed in a resounding victory for the Ahom forces under its general Lachit Barphukan.

Lachit Barphukan achieved immortal fame and his heroism together with the battle and its many annecdotes, one of which relates the interesting incident of Lachit beheading his own uncle for slight of duty, as an example of his patriotism, are now integral parts of the history and folk culture of Assam.


Read Part 2 of History of Assam

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