2006 Wikipedia CD Selection

Map of India with Assam highlighted.
26.15° N 91.77° E
Largest city Guwahati
Population (2001)
26,638,407 ( 14th)
• 340/km²
78,438 km² ( 16th)
• 23
Time zone IST ( UTC +5:30)
Chief Minister
Legislature (seats)
1947- 08-15†
Ajai Singh ( list)
Tarun Gogoi ( list)
Unicameral (126)
Official language(s) Assamese, Bodo, Karbi
Abbreviation (ISO) IN-AS

Seal of Assam
† Assam had a legislature since 1937

Assam (অসম) is a northeastern state of India with its capital at Dispur. Located just below the eastern Himalayan foothills, it is surrounded by the other northeastern states: Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya. Assam and its commercial capital Guwahati form the gateway to the northeastern states, together called the seven sisters. These states are connected to the rest of India via Assam's border with West Bengal and a narrow strip called the " Chicken's Neck." Assam shares international borders with Bhutan and Bangladesh.

Origin of name

The land of Assam was known by various names in the past---Pragjyotishpura in ancient Hindu scriptures like the Mahabharata; and Kamarupa in the early medieval times. After the decline of the Kamarupa kingdom in the 12th century, the land that included a part of the old Kamarupa kingdom and regions to the east of it was ruled by a Shan people, who called themselves Tai, but who were called Ahoms by the others. This kingdom lasted for nearly 600 years. Satyendra Nath Sarma writes [Assamese Literature, Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1976]:

While the Shan invaders called themselves Tai, they came to be referred to as Āsām, Āsam and sometimes as Acam by the indigenous people of the country. The modern Assamese word Āhom by which the Tai people are known is derived from Āsām or Āsam. The epithet applied to the Shan conquerors was subsequently transferred to the country over which they ruled and thus the name Kāmarūpa was replaced by Āsām, which ultimately took the Sanskritized form Asama, meaning "unequalled, peerless or uneven" [Banikanta Kakati: Assamese: Its Formation and Development, p2]

Early documented mentions

Therefore, the name Assam is of relatively recent origin. One of the first unambiguous references come from Thomas Bowrey in 1663 about Mir Jhumla's death: "They lost the best of Nabobs, the Kingdome of Acham, and, by consequence, many large privileges" (Bowrey, Thomas, A Geographical Account of Countries around Bay of Bengal, ed Temple, R. C., Hakluyt Society's Publications). Tavernier's "Travels in India", published in 1676 uses the spelling "Assen" for Assam in the French original. The official chronicler of Mir Jhumla too calls the place "Asam" (The Indian Antiquary, July 1887, pp222-226). Most scholars accept that the first known mention of the word Assam today is in a stanza from the Assamese Bhagavad Puran composed/translated about the middle of the 16th century which described the ethnic groups of the region (Srimadbhagavad, skandha 2, H Duttabaruah and Co., Nalbari, pp-38) transcribed in iTrans:

       kiraTa kachhaari      khaachi gaaro miri
               yavana ka~Nka govaala |
       asama maluka            dhobaa ye turuka
               kubaacha mlechchha chaNDaala ||

Later adoption

After the fall of the Ahoms and the conquest by the British in 1826, "Assam" was used to denote first the principality of the erstwhile Ahoms, and later the British province. Soon, the province was expanded to include regions that were not part of historical Ahom kingdom. The boundaries of Assam have been redrawn many times after that, but the name Assam remained.

Other mentions

The word asama or assama was used during the time while Bhaskarvarman ruled Kamarupa. Then the present upper Assam used to emit poisonous gasses and was uninhabitable. Some of the Kamrupi criminals escaped to this land during those days in order to avoid punishment, as reported in the travel notes of the Chinese traveler Xuanzang. Those people were also called asama or assama. Xuanzang not traveling back via this route returning to China was because he was worried about attacks from asama or assama people. In Kamrupi, the term can also mean one who is not comparable with, in addition to weird/sinner, but no yester year Kamrupi scriptures referred the land asama or asam or asom.

The British general did not choose the name from any of the above, but concatenated it from the scientific name “ Anthera Assama”, i.e., he dropped “Anthera” and “a” of “Assama”. This was done for the first time while British created “Upper Assam State” after the “ Yandabu Accord”.

Anthera Assama was discovered long before the Yandabu Accord, and assama here implies unequal or not comparable withassama was chosen as part of the scientific name because the silkworm can only live in the climate of foothills of Eastern as thing.

( disputed )


T-shaped, the state consists of the northern Brahmaputra valley, the middle Karbi and Cachar hills and the southern Barak Valley. It experiences heavy rainfall between March and September, with very high humidity in the summer months. The temperatures are generally mild, never extreme during any season.

Assam is very rich in vegetation, forests and wildlife. Lumber was once a lucrative business, until it was declared illegal by the Supreme Court of India. The region also has a number of reserved forests, and one of them, Kaziranga, is the home of the rare Indian Rhinoceros. The state produces a lot of Bamboo, although the bamboo industry is still nascent. The wildlife, forests and flora, rivers and waterways, have great natural beauty, providing growth in tourism.

High rainfall, deforestation, and other factors have resulted in annual floods that cause widespread loss of life, livelihood and property. An earthquake prone region, Assam has experienced two large earthquakes: 1897 (8.1 on the Richter scale) and 1950 (8.6).

Assam is divided into 23 districts: Barpeta, Bongaigaon, Cachar, Darrang, Dhemaji, Dhubri, Dibrugarh, Goalpara, Golaghat, Hailakandi, Jorhat, Kamrup, Karbi Anglong, Karimganj, Kokrajhar, Lakhimpur, Marigaon, Nagaon, Nalbari, North Cachar Hills, Sibsagar, Sonitpur, and Tinsukia.


Assam is a multiethnic society. Forty five different languages are spoken by different communities in Assam. The state is the meeting place of three major language families: Austro-Asiatic (5), Tibeto-Burman (24) and Indo-Aryan (12). Three of the spoken languages do not fall in these families. There is a high degree of bilingualism.

The number of ethnic communities in the state is very large. The People of India project (POI) has studied 115 communities. Of these 79 (69%) identify themselves regionally, 22 (19%) identify themselves locally, and 3 communities identify themselves transnationally.

The benefit of development in Assam is relatively evenly spread. It has a larger representation of leadership in panchayat and regional levels and a relative gender equality.


Pre-historic and ancient Assam

Assam and adjoining regions have evidence of human settlement from all periods of the Stone ages. That the known hills settlements belonged to earlier periods may suggest that the valleys were populated later, or it may reflect sampling bias due to mountainous areas being more likely to remain less disturbed over long stretches of time.

The earliest ruler according to legend was a mlechchha (non-Aryan) ruler named Mahiranga (sanskritized form of the Tibeto-Burman name Mairang). He was followed by others in his line: Hatakasura, Sambarasura, Ratnasura and Ghatakasura. Naraka removed this line of rulers and established his own dynasty. Historians consider Naraka's victory over the mlechchha rulers to mark the beginning of sanskritization in this region. The Naraka king mentioned at various places in Kalika Purana, Mahabharata and Ramayana covering a wide period of time were probably different rulers from the same dynasty. Kalika Purana, a sanskrit text compiled in Assam in the 9th and 10th century, mentions that the last of the Naraka rulers, Narakasura, was slain by Krishna. His son Bhagadatta, mentioned in the Mahabharata, fought for the Kauravas in the battle of Kurushetra with an army of kiratas, chinas and dwellers of the eastern coast. Later rulers of Kamarupa frequently drew their lineage from the Naraka rulers.

Medieval Assam

Medieval Assam was known as Kamarupa or Kamata, and was ruled by many dynasties. Chief among them was the Varman Dynasty ( 350- 650). During the rule of the greatest of the Varman kings, Bhaskarvarman ( 600- 650), a contemporary of Harshavardhana of Kanauj, the Chinese traveler Xuanzang visited the region, and recorded his travels. The other dynasties that ruled the region were the Kacharis, the Chutias etc. that belonged to the Indo-Tibetan groups.

Two later kingdoms left the biggest impact in the region. The Ahoms, a Tai group, ruled eastern Assam for nearly 600 years ( 1228- 1826). The Koch, a Tibeto-Burmese/ Dravidian group, established their sovereignty in 1510 which later extended to western Assam and northern Bengal. The Koch kingdom later split into two. The western kingdom became a vassal of the Moghuls whereas the eastern kingdom became an Ahom satellite state.

In spite of numerous invasions from the west, mostly by Muslim rulers, no western power could establish its rule in Assam until the advent of the British. The most successful invader was Mir Jhumla, a governor of Aurangzeb, who briefly occupied Gargaon the then capital of the Ahoms ( 1662- 1663). He found it difficult to control the people, who carried on guerrilla attacks on his forces and forced his army to leave the region. The last attempt by the Moghuls under the command of Raja Ram Singh resulted in the victory for the Ahoms at Saraighat ( 1671) under the Ahom general Lachit Borphukan.

British conquest

Ahom palace intrigue (and political turmoil resulting from the Moamoria rebellion) aided the expansionist Burmese ruler of Ava to invade Assam and install a puppet king in 1821. With the Burmese having reached the doorsteps of the East India Company's borders, the First Anglo-Burmese War ensued, in which Assam was one of the sectors. The war ended with the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826, and the East India Company took control of the region.

Under British Administration, Assam was made a part of the British India province called the Bengal Presidency. Sometime about 1905-1912, Assam was separated and erected as a separate province of Assam.

At the time of independence of India, it consisted of the original Ahom kingdom, the present-day Arunachal Pradesh (North East Frontier Agency), Naga Hills, original Kachari kingdom, Lushai Hills, and Garo, Khasi and Jaintia Hills. Of the Assam province on the eve of Independence, Sylhet choose to join Pakistan in a referendum; and the two princely states Manipur and Tripura became Group C provinces. The capital was Shillong.

Post independence

After the independence from British rule in 1947, Assam spawned four more states to become one of the seven sister states in the 1960s and 1970s. The new states were Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya. The capital of Assam, which was in Shillong, had to be moved to Dispur, now a part of an expanding Guwahati.

In 1961, the Government of Assam passed a legislature making the usage of Assamese language compulsary. The legislature resulted in widespread protest across Assam. In one such incident, 11 people were killed due to police firing in Silchar in southern Assam. Coming under intense pressure, the Government withdrew the legislature.

In the 1980s the Brahmaputra valley saw a six-year Assam Agitation that began non-violently but became increasingly violent. The movement was triggered by the discovery of a sudden rise in electorates in electoral rolls. The movement tried to force the government to identify and deport foreigners who, the natives maintained, are illegally inundating the land from neighboring Bangladesh and changing the demographics. Critics called it a xenophobic reaction of a racist people. The agitation ended after an accord between the leaders of the agitation and the Union Government. Most of the accord remains unimplemented today, a cause for a simmering discontent.

This was followed by demands for greater autonomy especially by the Bodos in the later 1980s and 1990s. The period also saw the growth of armed secessionist groups like United Liberation Front of Asom ( ULFA) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland ( NDFB). The union government responded by deploying the Indian army to control the situation in November 1990, leading to claims of human rights violations. The Indian army deployment has now been institutionalized under a Unified Command. Worsening inter-ethnic relationships also marked this period.

The 2000s saw inter-ethnic killings, especially in the Karbi and Cachar hills (e.g the Hmar- Dimasa conflict).


Assamese and Bodo are the official languages of the state. Linguistically modern Assamese traces its roots to eastern Magahi Prakrit, with strong influences from the Tibeto-Burman and Mon-Khmer languages which are spoken by ethnic groups in the region. Bodo is a Tibeto-Burman language. Bengali ( Sylheti) is the dominant language in the Barak valley. Nepali and Hindi are other important languages spoken in the state.


Assamese culture is a rich conglomerate of ethnic practices and assimilated beliefs. When the Ahoms entered the region in 1228, they had their own cultural features. Over the six centuries of their rule, they adopted the local language, religion and cultural customs, and embellished it with their own to such an extent that it puts them apart from medieval rulers of India. This is one reason why Assamese culture is so rich in heritage and values.


The Gamosa is an article of great significance for the people of Assam. Literally translated, it means 'something to wipe the body with' (Ga=body, mosa=to wipe); interpreting the word “gamosa” as the body-wiping towel is misleading. It is generally a white rectangular piece of cloth with primarily a red border on three sides and red woven motifs on the fourth (in addition to red, other colors are also used). Though it is used daily to wipe the body after a bath (an act of purification), the use is not restricted to this. It is used by the farmer as a waistcloth (tongali) or a loincloth (suriya); a Bihu dancer wraps it around the head with a fluffy knot. It is hung around the neck at the prayer hall and was thrown over the shoulder in the past to signify social status. Guests are welcomed with the offering of a gamosa and tamul ( betel nut) and elders are offered gamosas (bihuwaan) during Bihu. It is used to cover the altar at the prayer hall or cover the scriptures. An object of reverence is never placed on the bare ground, but always on a gamosa. One can therefore, very well say, that the gamosa symbolizes the life and culture of Assam.

The word gamosa is derived from the Kamrupi word gaamasa (gaama+chadar), the cloth used to cover the Bhagavad Purana at the altar. The equivalent word in Oriya is spelled as gaamu + cha = gamucha.

Significantly the gamosa is used equally by all irrespective of religious and ethnic backgrounds.


Bihu is the national festival of Assam. Primarily a festival celebrated to mark the seasons and the significant points of a cultivator's life over a yearly cycle, in recent times the form and nature of celebration has changed with the growth of urban centers. A non-religious festival, all communities---religious or ethnic---take part in it. Three Bihus are celebrated: rongali, celebrates the coming of spring and the beginning of the sowing season; kongali, the barren bihu when the fields are lush but the barns are empty; and the bhogali, the thanksgiving when the crops have been harvested and the barns are full.

Durga Puja

Other than Bihu, Durga Puja is also celebrated in Assam with great pomp and splendour, although this might be a cultural effect of the millions of Bengali people living in the state. Even then, the entire state rejoices during Durga Puja, which signifies the victory of good over evil.


Assam, being the home to many ethnic groups and different cultures, is very rich in folk music. The indigenous folk music has in turn influenced the growth of a modern idiom, that finds expression in the music of such artists like Rudra Baruah, Parbati Prasad Baruah, Jayanta Hazarika, Bhupen Hazarika, Khagen Mahanta among many others. See also Music of Assam.

Economic activity

Assam tea

Assam's biggest contribution to the world is its tea. Assam produces some of the finest teas in the world (see Assam tea). Other than the Chinese tea variety Camellia sinensis, Assam is the only region in the world that has its own variety of tea, called Camellia assamica. Assam tea is grown at elevations near sea level, giving it a malty sweetness and an earthy flavor, as opposed to the more floral aroma of highland (e.g. Darjeeling, Taiwanese) teas.

The tea industry developed by the British planters brought in labor from Bihar and Orissa and their descendents form a significant demographic group in the state.

Assam oil

Assam also produces crude oil and natural gas. Assam is the second place in the world (after Titusville in the United States) where petroleum was discovered. Asia’s first successful mechanically drilled oil well was drilled in Makum (Assam) way back in 1867. The second oldest oil well in the world still produces crude oil. Most of the oilfields of Assam are located in the Upper Assam region of the Brahmaputra Valley. Assam has four oil refineries located at Guwahati, Digboi, Numaligarh and Bongaigaon with a total capacity of 7 MMTPA (Million Metric Tonnes per annum).

Problems in Assam

The region was part of the British Empire and most of the nationalities of this region were integrated peacefully into the new country. Unfortunately economic indexes of the region, which were above average before independence, began to fall compared to the rest of the country.

Militant groups began forming along ethnic lines after Independence, and demands for sovereignty grew, resulting in the new states of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram in the 1970s. ULFA, and NDFB are two major militant groups that came into existence in the 1980s, leading to a strong military crackdown. The low-intensity military conflict has been continuing for more than a decade now without an end to the insurgency at sight. High rural unemployment adds to this insurgency.

At the turn of the last century (1900s), people from present-day Bangladesh migrated to Assam, encouraged by the British to increase agricultural production and thus revenue. The migration continues today under different conditions, a claim which is hotly contested by some. The British tea planters imported labour from central India to work in the estates adding to the demographic canvas.

Like indigenous peoples in other parts of the world, the many ethnic groups of this region struggle to maintain their cultural heritage. There are active autonomy movements in the Bodo and Karbi dominated regions. In recent times, ethnicity based militant groups have mushroomed (NDFB, BLT, UPDS, DHD, KLO, HPCD etc.) leading to violent inter-ethnic conflicts (e.g. the Hmar-Dimasa conflict).

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