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History of Assam

 

The early history of Assam is lost in the mists of antiquity, though there are several references to the in the Mahabharata, the Puranas, and the Tantras. In these sacred scriptures the area was known as Kamrupa; it encompassed the Brahmaputra valley, Bhutan, Cooch Behar (West Bengal), and the Rangpur region (now in Bangladesh). The legendary king Narakasura, whose son Bhagadatta fought valiantly in the Mahabharata war, ruled Kamrupa from his capital at Pragjyotishpura (modern Guwahati). The site has a famous temple dedicated to the Tantric goddess Kamakhya.

Sri Krishna frequently appears in the legends and mythology of Assam. It was Krishna who fought against king Bhismaka of Kundil (now Sadia) in his bid to marry Bhismaka's daughter Rukmini. King Banasura of Sonitpur (now Tezpur) fought against Sri Krishna, when Banasura's daughter Usha secretly entered into wedlock with Aniruddha, Krishna’s grandson.

Historical evidences prove that the first king who ruled over Kamrupa was Pushya Varman (350 - 380 AD), who was a contemporary of Samudragupta (350 - 375 AD). He took on the title of Maharajadhiraj and ensured steps to establish Kamrupa as a prosperous state. His descendant Mahendra Varman waged a successful war against the Guptas and also performed the Ashwamedha Yagna (horse sacrifice). The glory of Varman dynasty reached its zenith during the rule of Bhaskar Varman (594 - 650 AD), who was a contemporary of Harshavardhan (606 - 648 AD).The latter had invited and honoured Bhaskar Varman at a conference held at Kannauj.

The mighty Brahmaputra-
Assam's lifeline


The famous
Kamakhya temple


Ruins of Banasur's capital Sonitpur (modern Tezpur)
In 640 AD, the famous Chinese pilgrim-scholar Hiuen-Tsang, reported that he had attended the court of king Bhaskar Barman. Several stone and copper inscriptions dating from the7th to the 12th centuries indicate a succession of Hindu dynasties.

The Salasthambha dynasty was the next to rule Assam. The first to rule was a chieftain called Salastambha. Shri Harshadeva (725 - 750 AD) proved to be an excellent ruler. The last king of this dynasty, Tyaga Singha (970 - 990 AD), was succeeded by Brahmapala (990 - 1010 AD), who founded a new dynasty- that of the Palas. Jayapala (1120 - 1138 AD) was the last ruler of this dynasty.

The first Islamic invasion (between 1206 - 1226 AD) of Kamrupa took place during the reign of a king called Prithu who was killed in a battle with Illtutmish's son Nasiruddin in 1228 AD. During the second invasion by Ikhtiyaruddin Yuzbak (alias Tughril Khan), about 1257 AD, the king of Kamrupa Saindhya (1250 - 1270 AD) transferred the capital Kamrup Nagar to Kamatapur in the west. After the invasion of the Mughals in the 15th century many Muslims settled in Assam and thus became the first Muslim settlers of this region.


Hiuen Tsang
   
During the early part of the 13th century, when the Ahoms (who originated from Ruili in the Yunan province of China, very close to the border with Myanmar). Established their rule over Assam with the capital at Sibsagar, the area between the Sovansiri and the Disang rivers were under the control of the Chutias. According to popular Chutia legends, the Chutia king Birpal established his rule at Sadia in 1189 AD. He was succeeded by ten kings of whom the eighth king Dhirnarayan or Dharmadhwajpal, abdicated in favour of his son-in-law Nitai or Nityapal. Nityapal's failure to rule efficiently gave an opportunity to the Ahom king Suhungmung annexed it to the Ahom kingdom.

The Bhuyans were petty chiefs whose principalities were located towards the east of Kamrup-Kamata area. Baro (twelve) refers to the twelve chieftains who, even though were not kings, established small kingdoms on the basis of their strength. They took up arms against the Ahoms. But the Ahom king Pratap Singha crushed the uprising of the Baro Bhuyans.

Bishwa Singha (1515 - 1540 AD) laid the foundation of the Koch dominion in the early part of the 16th century and established his capital in Cooch-Bihar (modern W.Bengal). He was succeeded by his son Malladeva who assumed the name of Naranarayana. His brother Sukladhvaj, who became the commander-in-chief, was known as 'Chilarai' or 'Hawk King' due to his ability to attack the enemy swiftly like a Chila (hawk/ Kite). Naranarayan's rule was the most glorious period of Koch kingdom. He defeated the Ahoms in 1562 AD, annexed the kingdoms of Kachar, Manipur, Tripura, Jayantia and Srihatta (modern Sylhet in Bangladesh),thus extending the boundaries of his domains. Chilarai also fought the Nawab of Gour, but succumbed to an attack of smallpox. Naranarayan died in 1584 AD after a reign of nearly fifty years (1540 - 1584 AD). It was during his reign that the Assamese literature and culture flourished. After his the kingdom weakened steadily and until 1615 AD when it was annexed to the Mughal Empire.

Architecture of the Ahoms


Rang Ghar in Sibsagar -
Assam's ancient capital
   
The 13th century saw the rise of the Kacharis, one of the ancient races of Assam. The most famous and powerful kings of the Kachari Kingdom were Jashanarayan, Pratapnarayan, Jamradwaj and Govindchandra. The Kacharis claim descent from Ghatotkacha, the son of Bhima (the second Pandava). Towards the end of the 15th century the Kacharis were forced to surrender their capital Hidimbapur (now Dimapur, in Nagaland) and the adjoining areas adjoining it to the Ahoms.

The Jaintias was a matriarchal race which had established their kingdom in and around Jayantia hills. Dhanamanik and Jashamanik were the powerful kings of the Jayantia Kingdom. They forged matrimonial relations with the Ahoms and allied with them during the Mughal invasion. Bijaynarayan was the last Jayantia ruler after whom the kingdom passed into the hands of the British along with the Ahom kingdom.

The 13th century witnessed the advent of the Ahoms, led by their first king Sukafa who was the prince of Monlung (Upper Burma, modern Myanmar). In 1228 AD the prince together with a band of followers entered the boundaries of Assam through the Naga Kingdom. He set up his capital at Charaideo in 1253 AD. After Sukafa died in 1268 AD, his son Suseupha (1268 - 1281 AD) became king and gradually extended the boundaries of the Ahom kingdom. In 1397 AD Sudangpha (1397 - 1407 AD) was crowned as king. His accession marks the first stage in the growth of Brahmanical influence among the Ahoms.During this period there was a skirmish between Ahoms and Tipams, but it ended peacefully. during his reign but was later on peacefully concluded.

A specimen of Assam's
ancient sculpture
   
King Suhungmung's reign (1497 - 1539 AD) is considered to be the most memorable period of the Ahom rule. He assumed the Hindu name Swarganarayan (literary king in heaven).

He annexed the Chutia and Kachari kingdoms to his territory. He created various classes of ministers: Borgohain, Buragohain and Borpatra Gohain. It was during his reign that the first ever census was conducted. During this period, the Mughals invaded thrice but were unable to win. The invasions were an eye opener for the Ahoms – they learnt the use of guns which was a deviation from the traditional weapons like bows, arrows and swords. Suhungmung died in 1539 AD as the result of a conspiracy hatched by his son Suklengmung (1539 - 1552 AD).

Susengpha, a descendant of Suklengmung, ascended the throne in 1603 AD. He took on the name of Pratap Singha. It was during his time that war between Ahoms and Mughals reached its peak. But Pratap Singha fought valiantly and further extended the boundaries of his dominions.

Supungmung (alias Chakradhvaj Singha, 1663 – 1669 AD) was an independent minded king who combatted the Mughals again. In August 1667 AD, under the excellent leadership of Lachit Barphukan (son of Momai Tamuli Borbarua, a man of humble origins who had risen to be the Governor of upper Assam as well as the Commander-in-Chief of the Ahom army) a brave warrior and an able general, the Ahoms were able to wrest Guwahati and Pandu from Mughal control. An enraged dispatched a huge force under Ram Mohan Singh to tackle the Ahoms. In 1671 AD afierce battle took place between the Ahoms and the Mughals at Saraighat. The Mughals were inflicted a crushing defeat. As a result of this battle, the Manas river became the line of demarcation line between the Ahom and Mughal territories. This arrangement continued until the British occupation in 1826 AD.

The kingdom of the Ahom reached its zenith under Rudra Singha (reined between 1696 - 1714 AD), the renowned military strategist and patron of the buranji, or Ahom chronicles. Rudra Singha established a flourishing trade with Tibet and built the city of Rangpur.

During the decades that followed, the Ahom rulers were gradually torn asunder by feuds and factions, conspiracies and intrigues. Their mighty kingdom began to totter.
In 1817 AD, the Burmese took advantage of this political instability and overran the Brahmaputra Valley. The Burmese had actually been invited by Barphukan Badan Chandra a general in lower (western) Assam. He was the son-in-law of Purnananda Burhagohain a powerful minister under the king, who was based in upper (eastern) Assam. The Burmese also unleashed a series of genocides, in which the masses were indiscriminately killed. Fearing intrusions into their own territories, the British drove ousted the Burmese from the Brahmaputra Valley shortly afterwards. By means of the Treaty of Yandaboo between the British East India Company and the Burmese King of Ava, signed on February 24, 1826 AD, between the Burmese and the British, annexed the Ahom kingdom in 1826 AD. In 1838 AD, all of northeast India became part of the Bengal Presidency of British India.

The astute businessmen that the British were they discovered that the region of Assam was a virtual goldmine for them. Hence they embarked on a process of development and progress. The British dismantled the Ahom administrative structure, made Bengali the official language, and recruited Bengali Hindus for various posts instead of the local populace. Coal, limestone, and iron mines were opened and the government offered incentives to European entrepreneurs to start plantations for the production of tea, rubber, chinchona (source of quinine) hemp and jute. The British brought in contract labour from Bihar, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. By the turn of the century, one and a half million of such coolies were employed on 700 plantations producing 145 million pounds of tea annually.

The first revolt against the British was led by Dhananjay Borgohain and Gunadhar Konwar in 1828 AD. Gunadhar Konwar was sentenced to seven years in prison and Dhananjay Borgohain, having been sentenced to death fled to the Matak kingdom. There he secretly joined hands with his own sons Harakanta and Haranath, son-in-law Jeuram Dulia Baruah, and many others and made plans to attack Rangpur. But before they were betrayed by one of their associates, Sadiya Khowa Gohain. Some members of the gang were hanged and others expelled from country. Thereafter, the British control over Assam was strengthened. Besides Assam, they annexed Khamtis, Singhpho, Matak, Kachari, Naga, Garo, Lushai and other hilly kingdoms.

 
   
More was yet to follow. The famous Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 AD, found an echo in Assam under the leadership of Maniram Dewan and Piyoli Barua, who were eventually hanged in 1858 AD.

Meanwhile, the British had sought to clamp to linguistic freedom of the natives by introducing Bengali as the medium of instruction in 1837 AD. However it ended in a fiasco because owing to the efforts of the American Baptist Missionaries, and noted intellectuals of the day like Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, Hem Chandra Baruah, and Gunabhiram Baruah, Assamese was reinstated as the medium of instruction in 1873 AD.

In 1874 AD, Assam was separated from Bengal, and made into a separate province, with its capital in Shillong.

The Assamese intellectuals realized that there ought to be an element of cohesiveness in the social fabric of the state, so that the fight for liberty could percolate to every strata of the society. In 1884 AD Jagannath Baruah formed such an organisation at Jorhat and named it Sarbajanik Sabha.

In 1905, the British Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, again got Assam amalgamated with East Bengal following the partition of Bengal into the west and the east. The year 1912 is of great significance, in Assamese history, because of three landmark events that took place during the year: The first was Gandhi’s visit to Assam, secondly, strikes by Assam Bengal train service and steamer companies, plunged the region into chaos and last but not the least, after a gap of 63 years, Assam became a separate province under a governor, thus paving the way for a dual administration, which lasted till 1936.

In 1916, the Assam Chhatra Sanmilan and in 1917 Assam Sahitya Sabha were formed. This was followed by the formation of Assam Association by Manik Chandra Baruah. In 1919, Assam Association joined the Assam branch of Indian National Congress.

In 1919 - 20 Assam too plunged into the non-cooperation movement launched by Gandhi. Assam's participation in the mainstream of the country’s politics had begun way back in 1886 AD at the second session of Indian National Congress held at Calcutta, where Debi Chandra Baruah, Gopinath Bordoloi, Kamini Kumar Chandra, Satyanath Baruah and Joy Gobindasom had represented Assam.

Assam joined the rest of India in the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930 launched by Gandhi. In 1935 self-goverance in Assam was introduced. Assam plunged into the Quit India Movement in 1942 which was also popularly known as Peoples' Revolution.

Early in the 20th century, the government of India, made vast tracts of land in Assam available to predominantly Muslim farmers from the provinces of East Bengal for settlement and cultivation. Nepalis were employed as herders and encouraged to colonize new lands. The subsequent immigration of Marwaris and Sikhs, boosted capital development in Assam and strengthened its ties with the rest of India.

In the post-independence era, the Assamese won control of their state assembly and launched a campaign to reassert the preeminence of Assamese culture in the region and improve employment opportunities for native Assamese. This led to the alienation of some tribal districts. Moreover many tribal districts were demanding independence from India. In a bid to placate the various tribes, the Indian Government partitioned the former undivided Assam into the tribal states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh over the next few decades.


It would be interesting to note that during the latter half of the 16th century, the revered saint-teacher of Assam, Shankara Deva, inspired a popular Vaishnavite movement that sought to reform the esoteric practices of Tantric Hinduism and to limit the prerogatives of Brahmins attached to the Ahom court. The Ahoms themselves patronized an extensive network of Vaishnavite monasteries (satras), whose monks played a key role in the reclamation of wastelands for rice cultivation throughout the Brahmaputra Valley. Because of its rejection of caste related privilege, Shankara Deva's Vaishnavism held immense appeal for the local tribals.Consequently within a short period of time it became a highly popular cult.


Hemchandra Barua –
one of the greatest
intellectuals of Assam
 

 

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