LOCATION: India (Assam state)
POPULATION: c. 20 million
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Hindus; People of India
In referring to people, the word "Assamese" is used in two senses. It can identify the entire population of the state of Assam in northeastern India (numbering 26, 655,528 according to the Census of India, 2001). Used in this manner, it includes not only the majority ethnic group found in the Brahmaputra Valley, but also all the tribal groups (e.g., Bodo, Mikir, Miri, and Naga) and immigrants from other parts of India living in the state. In its more restricted sense, "Assamese" refers to the peoples of the Brahmaputra plains whose native language is Assamese and who developed what may be considered Assamese culture. Unless otherwise stated, it is this latter group that is the focus of this article.
The Assamese of the plains are mainly of Indo-Iranian stock, with some Mongoloid physical characteristics. This reflects the complex history of migrations into the area over many centuries. Early Indian texts identify Assam as Kamarupa, and the 7th-century Chinese traveler Hsuan-tsang has left a detailed account of the region. The Assam valley fell under various regional and local dynasties until the Ahom, a Shan people from Burma (Myanmar), assumed power in the 13th century. The Ahoms ruled Assam for four centuries, until their kingdom fell to Burma in 1821. The former Ahom lands were ceded to Britain in 1826 following the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–26). Assam was administered as part of British India until India gained its independence in 1947. The modern state of Assam is much reduced in area from colonial times, reflecting the separation of many of the tribal areas of the northeast as states in their own right.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
Assamese are the dominant ethnic group in Assam, making up some 48.8% of the state's population. The Census of India 2001 gives a population of 26,655,528 which, at current growth rates, would be projected to over 29 million people today.
The geographical and historical heartland of the Assamese people lies on the lowlands of the Brahmaputra Valley. One of India's great rivers, the Brahmaputra (literally, "Son of Brahma") emerges from the Himalayas in eastern Assam. It then flows in a southwesterly direction for 650 km (400 mi) through the length of the state. As it leaves Assam, the river swings south into Bangladesh where it joins the Ganges and flows into the Bay of Bengal. The Brahmaputra and its valley are the dominant physical features of Assam. The river is over 8 km (5 mi) wide during flood stage, and widespread and destructive flooding is common in the area. The valley, lying at elevations generally below 100 m (330 ft), averages about 100 km (60 mi) in width. To the north lie the foothills of the Himalayas. South of the valley are the Meghalaya Plateau and the hills that form India's eastern border with Burma. Climate is monsoonal. Annual rainfall varies from 160–320 cm (65–125 in) and falls mainly between May and September. Mean monthly temperatures range from 16°C (61°F) in January to 29°C (84°F) during the summer months.
Assamese is the language spoken by the Assamese people. It belongs to the Indo-Aryan language family but has been influenced in its vocabulary, pronunciation, and structure by its contact with the Tibeto-Burman dialects spoken in the region. Assamese is closely related to Bengali and is written in a script that shows only minor deviations from the Bengali script. Assamese has emerged as the lingua franca of northeastern India. A lingua franca is a language that is widely used for communication by peoples who do not understand each other's languages. Currently, there are about 20 million Assamese speakers, of whom perhaps 13 million reside in Assam (the remainder are found on the borders of Assam and in the Indian State of West Bengal. In 2001, for the first time, Assamese speakers accounted for less than half the population (48.8%) of Assam.
The Mahabharata and Kalika Purana relate numerous stories concerning Kamakhya, the site of an important temple near Gauhati, in Assam. According to legend, when the goddess Sati died, her distraught husband, Shiva, carried her body on his head as penance. Vishnu, fearing this would give Shiva excessive powers, cut Sati's body into numerous bits with successive throws of his discus. Each place on earth where a piece of Sati's body fell became a sacred center of pilgrimage. Tradition has it that Sati's sexual organs landed at Kamakhya, where a temple was built to mark the spot. There is no image of the goddess—who is also called Kamakhya—at the temple, but in the depths of the shrine is a cleft in the rock that is worshiped as the yoni (female organ) of the goddess. Kamakhya is one of the most important sakti or Mother Goddess temples in India. (Sakti, or "energy," refers to the power of a deity manifested through his female counterpart.) Rites of worship at the temple include animal sacrifice.
The Assamese are Hindu and follow the basic observances of the religion. They worship many Hindu gods, are organized into castes, and have ritual specialists (the Brahmans) to perform religious functions. Within this overarching structure, however, there exists considerable diversity in practice. Vaishnavism has a strong following among the peoples of the plains, and Krishna (an incarnation of Vishnu) is by far the most popular deity among the Assamese. Villagers gather at namghars (prayer halls) to recite Krishna's name as part of the rituals of this devotional (bhakti) sect. Shiva, too, has his following, while the importance of Kamakhya has already been noted [see "Folklore"]. At the level of folk religion, local deities such as Manasa, the snake goddess, and Shitala, the goddess of small pox, are revered. Assamese believe in spirits who inhabit trees, water, and other elements in nature. Some are good, but some are evil and cause disease and other problems for humans. Various charms, spells, and rituals are used to deal with the spirit world.
The Assamese have three principal festivals known as Bihu. Baisakh Bihu is celebrated in mid-April to usher in the New Year. It also marks the end of the unlucky month of Chait, and the beginning of Baisakh which is considered auspicious. Cows are worshiped and bathed in the sacred Brahmaputra. They have their horns painted, are garlanded with flowers, and are then driven through the village streets in procession. It is a time for visiting friends and relatives, for singing and dancing, and for general rejoicing. The other Bihu festivals, Magh Bihu and Kati Bihu, are also occasions for feasting and merriment. Other major Hindu festivals such as Holi, Durga Puja, and Janamashtami (Krishna's birthday) are also celebrated.
RITES OF PASSAGE
The Assamese follow the basic life-cycle rituals as set out by the ancient Hindu lawgivers. Some specific customs, however, are unique to Assam. When a baby is born, for example, a knife is kept under the mother's bed to keep evil spirits away. Iron is believed to have certain magical properties. Similarly, fish play an important role in Assamese culture. When a baby is born, and particularly if it is a son, the Assamese distribute fish to friends and relatives. Fish is invariably served at the feast that accompanies the naming ceremony, which is usually held when the baby is around six months old. The period of pollution for a woman after childbirth lasts for a month. A girl attaining puberty is also considered unclean and is confined in a room during her first period.
At death, the corpse is removed from the house. It is rubbed with oil and turmeric paste, before being bathed and dressed in new clothes. The dead person is thus ready for his or her last journey. The body is carried to the cremation grounds, where it is burned according to Hindu custom. The man who performs the sraddha (funeral) rites carries a knife, the metal being protection against evil spirits. The mourners returning from the cremation have to bathe, place their feet on stones, and step over a fire before they can enter the house. If it is late at night, they cannot enter until the next morning, in case the spirit of the dead person follows them into the house.
As a rule, Assamese have two names. One is known publicly, but the real one, which is given in accordance with astrological calculations, is kept secret. This is for fear that harm might befall the person if the true name is divulged. Names are often given after popular gods and goddesses in the hope of receiving protection from them, or of children acquiring their godly qualities.
The Assamese are mostly rural people, living in villages and hamlets on the alluvial lowlands of the Brahmaputra River valley. Traditional houses are built of wood, bamboo, and other available materials. The walls are plastered with a mixture of cow dung and clay, with the roof thatched with grasses or reeds. A residence typically consists of a building containing the living quarters and kitchen, a separate structure for cattle, and a storehouse—often built on piles—for keeping paddy rice and other items. Wealthier families may have a separate guest house, and a small hut for daily worship. Furnishings depend on the means of the individual family but in villages typically consist of cane mats, wooden stools and beds, and the usual cooking and eating utensils.
The Assamese follow North Indian marriage patterns. They practice caste endogamy and clan (jati) exogamy. Marriages are arranged, and among castes such as the Brahmans and Kayasthas child marriage is still prevalent, particularly in rural areas. The marriage rituals last for two or three days and follow the Vedic rites, although certain practices reflect local customs and beliefs. In an Assamese marriage, for example, a conical structure called a bei is built of bamboo and bark, and the bride and groom bathe under it. A couple of eggs are buried at the spot of the bathing, and sometimes the bride has to carry two eggs to her new home. The egg is a symbol of fertility, and this custom may have been acquired from local tribal peoples for whom the egg has great ritual significance.
As with all Hindu groups, the bearing of male children is the desired outcome of any union. Divorce and widow remarriage are not permitted by most groups. The extended family system is traditional among the Assamese, with residence being patrilocal (i.e., the bride resides at the home of her new father-in-law). Although women are assigned an honored position in Assamese society, inheritance passes down the male line.
The typical clothing of Hindu men on the Assam plains is the dhoti, the long cotton loincloth that is wrapped around the body, then drawn between the legs and tucked in at the waist. Villagers might go bare-chested, but the higher castes wear upper garments. The kurta and the Western-style shirt are common dress nowadays. Villagers of social standing often wear a turban. Female dress consists of a blouse, with a long cloth wrapped around the body just above the breasts like a sarong. Alternatively, the traditional choli (bodice) and sari are worn. Ornaments favored by women include earrings, necklaces, nose studs, armlets, bangles, and anklets. The use of scented oil is a common practice among both men and women.
Rice is the staple food of the Assamese, eaten with a variety of fish or meat curries. A particular favorite is sour fish curry. Most Hindus in Assam, even the Brahman castes, eat fish and meat. However, all except the lowest Hindu castes avoid beef. At certain times, such as the period of mourning following a death, fish and meat are avoided. Caste Hindus usually do not eat chicken, eggs, or pork. The rice and curried dishes are served with vegetables, pulses, and condiments such as chutneys and pickles. Fruits such as bananas, pineapples, and oranges are also eaten. A type of rice pudding prepared with milk and sugar is a particular favorite of the Assamese. Rice beer is brewed and consumed in quantities, especially at celebrations such as the Bihu festivals. The chewing of areca nut and betel leaf is universal in Assam.
Education in Assam is compulsory up to the age of 12, and free through the secondary level. However, actual educational levels of the Assamese vary considerably, according to factors such as openness to modernization, economic circumstances, and location. The literacy rate for the population of Assam 7 years and older was reported as 64.28% in the 2001 census. Literacy among males (71.93%) was higher than among females (56.03%). There are universities at Gauhati and Dibrugarh, as well as the Assam Agricultural University at Jorhat.
The earliest indisputable work in the Assamese language dates to the 13th century ad. Literature of this period was mostly derived from Sanskrit sources, but by the 16th century the buranjis, the chronicles of the Ahoms, were being written in Assamese. The writings of Shankaradeva and other poets of the devotional Vaishnava sect greatly enriched Assamese literature during the 15th and 16th centuries. Modern literature in Assamese dates to the late 19th century but has done little more than mirror Western writing.
The Assamese have a rich tradition of oral literature, folk music, and dance. Of particular note are the songs (nam) associated with the Bihu festivals and weddings. Some folk songs are lullabies and nursery rhymes for children, others deal with love, while still others focus on the god Krishna and his life. In addition, there are ballads on both popular and historical themes. Dance is as important a part of Assamese culture as is music. Special Bihu dances are performed at the time of the Bihu festivals. Ojha-Pali is a group of dancers and singers that presents stories from the Hindu epics and the Puranas. Deodhas are temple dancers who are believed to become possessed and dance in honor of the snake-goddess Manasa and other deities.
Most Assamese are cultivators, with rice being the dominant food crop produced in the region. Vegetables, pulses (peas, beans, lentils), and oilseeds are also grown. Sugarcane and jute are important cash crops. Tea is grown on estates on the flanks of the Brahmaputra Valley. However, these are often corporate ventures operated with immigrant labor from other parts of India. Assamese also work in the important forest industries, in the limited industries of the region, and in the service sector of the economy.
The amusements of Assamese children are relatively few. For the most part, they play with balls, cowry shells (which pass for money), tops, kites, and the like. They play hide-and-seek, games of tag, individual wrestling, and team wrestling (kabaddi). At the time of the spring Bihu, fighting with eggs is a game popular with children. In the past, elephant-fights and buffalo-fights formed part of the Bihu festivities. Modern sports such as soccer, cricket, volleyball, basketball, and track-and-field are played in the schools, colleges, and universities of Assam.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
The Assamese are essentially a rural people. They rely mainly on festivals, fairs, and traditional forms of folk entertainment for their recreation. Modern entertainment such as radio, television, and movie houses are available in urban centers to those with the means to access it.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Assamese women are skilled in the art of weaving, producing fine cotton cloth and gold-colored muga and rough endi silks. Nearly every household has its hand-loom, and every young girl is taught the art of weaving. Embroidery is also a local art. Artisan castes work gold and silver; produce pottery, metal goods, and brassware; and make items of cane and bamboo. Wood from Assam's abundant forests is carved into both domestic items and religious icons.
Since India became independent in 1947, separate states have been created for many of the tribal peoples of the "old" Assam. Despite this, the Assamese face serious social and political problems arising from ethnic tensions in the state. Since the 1980s, resentment among the Assamese against outsiders has led to widespread communal violence and the loss of hundreds of lives. The so-called "foreigners" targeted in this campaign are Bengali villagers who have lived in Assam for many years but still retain their Bengali identity; more recent immigrants from Bangladesh; Biharis; and Nepalis. The situation is further complicated by other ongoing conflicts. Disaffected Bodo tribespeople have been agitating for a separate state of their own within Assam. In addition, some Assamese are advocating outright secession from India. Indian security forces operating against the militant United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) are facing numerous charges of violating the civil rights of Assamese civilians.
The Assam Accord was a Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) signed between representatives of the Government of India and the leaders of the Assam Agitation in New Delhi in 1985. The accord brought an end to the Assam Agitation and paved the way for the leaders of the agitation to form a political party and form a government in the state of soon after. Some of the key clauses of the Accord have yet to be implemented, which has kept some of the issues festering, and violence from insurgent groups remains a problem in Assam.
Assamese society has traditionally treated women with disdain, and the plight of women (mostly poor and low-caste or tribals) is one of exploitation. As a result of poverty, age, custom, and terrorism many women, out of dire need, are forced to sell their bodies and are engaged in the sex trade throughout India. In 2005, Javed Akhtar, a noted Assamese lyricist, raised a firestorm with his alleged remark on Assamese women on a private TV channel in Guwahati—"Assamese women are known for frequently changing husbands and can be purchased in any city of the country." Police are far too involved in fighting insurgents to turn their attention to the thousands of women and girls in Assam who go missing every year, many of these ending up as "sex slaves" for wealthy landowners in other parts of the country.
Despite this, a UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women) report finds greater gender equality in Assam than elsewhere in India. The society doesn't suffer from practices like dowry, child-marriage and bride-burning.
Barkataki, S. Assam. New Delhi, India: National Book Trust, 1969.
Baruah, B. K. A Cultural History of Assam. Gauhati, Assam: Lawyer's Book Stall, 1969.
Cantlie, Audrey. The Assamese. London: Curzon Press, 1984.
Das, Jogesh. Folklore of Assam. New Delhi, India: National Book Trust, 1972.
Hussain, Wasbir. Homenakers without the Men: Assam's Widows of Violence. New Delhi: Indialog Publications, 2006.
Kunda, Bijan Kumar. Politics in the Brahmaputra Valley, since the Assam Accord. New Delhi: Om Publications, 2007.
Where is Assam?: Using Geographical History to Locate Current Social Realities. Guwahati: Centre for Northeast India, South and Southeast Asia Studies, Omeo Kumar Das Institute for Social Change and Development, 2003.
—by D. O. Lodrick
The term "Assamese" is often used to refer to those who are citizens of Assam: Mymensinghy settlers (from Bangladesh) and tea-garden laborers are thus included in its coverage. The term can also be used to describe the indigenous or longsettled inhabitants of this northeast Indian state.
The Brahmaputra Valley population reached 12.5 Million in 1971; at the time of the 1961 census there were 16,307 inhabited villages in Assam with an average population of a little more than 500. About 12 million people spoke Assamese in 1981. The people of Assam have been described as small in stature with dark yellow complexion, an indication of their Mongoloid origin. Their language was in premodern times the easternmost member of the Indo-European Family.
The Assamese for centuries have occupied a peripheral position, both geographically and politically, in relation to the rest of India. The country was originally ruled by the Ahoms, a Shan people who migrated from upper Myanmar (Burma), at the beginning of the thirteenth century. These people variously applied the terms "Assam," "Asam," or "Aham" to their country. The Ahoms maintained chronicles of the main events of their reign. Assam originally consisted of six districts of the lower Brahmaputra or Assam Valley. But when in 1822 a chief commissionership of Assam was created by the British it was extended to include two districts in the Surma Valley, six hill areas, and two frontier tracts. Villagers associate on the basis of membership of a local center of devotional worship called a "name house" (nam ghar ), whose members describe themselves as "one people" (raij ). There are usually several name houses in a village. Assamese Households can be graded into five economic categories, chiefly on the basis of income. Villages are also made up of families from a number of distinct castes.
Rice is the staple in Assam. If a harvest is good the People may relax and enjoy their abundance for the months ahead. Their lives revolve around rice production. They have built their houses so that their fields can be easily viewed as their crops grow; the granary is positioned at the front of each house so a farmer can rise in the morning and see his store of rice before anything else.
Within the Assamese religion a form of Hinduism exists with two contrasting emphases, that of caste and that of sect. In caste one finds polytheism, hierarchy, membership by birth (inherited status), collective ideas of humanity (caste groups), mediation of ritual specialists, rites conducted in Sanskrit through priests, complexity and extravagance of Ritual, multiplicity of images, and salvation through knowledge or works. In sects one can find monotheism, egalitarianism among believers, membership by invitation (acquired status), individual ideas of humanity (individual initiates), direct access to scriptural revelation, worship conducted in the vernacular by the congregation, simplicity of worship, incarnation of God in the written word, and salvation through faith and mystical union.
Cantlie, Audrey (1984). The Assamese. London and Dublin: Curzon Press.
Census of India 1961. Vol. 3, Assam. New Delhi: Manager of Publications.