Culture of Assam
The culture of Assam (Assamese: অসমীয়া লোক-সংস্কৃতি) is traditionally a hybrid one, developed due to cultural assimilation of different ethno-cultural groups under various politico-economic systems in different periods of history.
The roots of Assamese culture go back almost two thousand years when the first cultural assimilation took place with Austroasiatic and Tibeto-Burman peoples as the major components. According to the epic Mahabharata and on the basis of local folk lore, these people probably lived in a strong kingdom in the era before Jesus Christ, which led to an early assimilation on a greater scale. Typical naming of the rivers and spatial distribution of related ethno-cultural groups also support this theory. Thereafter, western migrations such as those of various branches of Mediterraneans, Irano-Scythians and Nordics along with mixed northern Indians (the ancient cultural mix already present in northern Indian states such as Magadha) enriched the aboriginal culture and under certain stronger politico-economic systems, Sanskritisation and Hinduisation intensified and became prominent. Such an assimilated culture therefore carries many elements of source cultures, of which exact roots are difficult to trace and are a matter for research. However, in each of the elements of Assamese culture, i.e. language, traditional crafts, performing arts, festivities and beliefs, either local elements or the local elements in a Hinduised/Sanskritised forms are always present.
It is believed that for 300 years under the great dynasties of the Pragjyotisha-Kamrupa (Varman dynasty), 200 years under the Mlechchha dynasty and 200 years under the Pala dynasty during the first millennium AD, Assamese culture in its original form developed. The records of many aspects of the language, traditional crafts (silk, lac, gold, bronze, etc.) are available in different forms. When the Tai-Shans entered the region in 1228 under the leadership of Sukaphaa to form one of the strongest politico-economic systems (Ahom kingdom) in Assam for the next 600 years, again a new chapter of cultural assimilation was written. The original Tai-Shans assimilated with the local culture, adopted the language on one hand and on the other also influenced the main-stream culture with the elements from their own. Similarly the Sutiya kingdom in eastern Assam, the Koch Kingdom in western Assam and the medieval Kachari and Jaintia kingdoms in southern Assam provided stages for assimilation at different intensities and with different cultural-mixes.
The Vaishanav Movement, a 15th-century religio-cultural movement under the leadership of Srimanta Sankardeva (Xonkordeu) and his disciples, have provided another dimension to Assamese culture. A renewed Hinduisation in local forms took place, which was initially greatly supported by the Koch and later by the Ahom Kingdoms. The resultant social institutions such as namghar and sattra (the Vaishnav Monasteries) have become part of the Assamese way of life. The movement contributed greatly towards language, literature and performing and fine arts. On many occasions, the Vaishnav Movement attempted to introduce alien cultural attributes and modify the way of life of the common people. Brajavali, a language specially created by introducing words from other Indian languages, failed as a language but left its traces on the Assamese language. Moreover, new alien rules were also introduced changing people's food habits and other aspects of cultural life. This had a greater impact on the alienation of many local ethno-cultural and political groups in the later periods.
During periods when strong politico-economic systems that emerged under powerful dynasties, greater cultural assimilation created common attributes of Assamese culture, while under less powerful politico-economic systems or during political disintegration, more localised attributes were created with spatial differentiation. Time-factors for such integrations and differentiations have also played an important role along with the position of individual events in the entire series of events.
With a strong base of tradition and history, modern Assamese culture is greatly influenced by various events those took place in under British rule of Assam and in the Post-British Era. The language was standardised by American Missionaries according to that of the Sibsagar (Xiwoxagor) District, the nerve centre of the Ahom politico-economic system while a renewed Sanskritisation was increasingly adopted for developing Assamese language and grammar. A new wave of Western and northern Indian influence was apparent in the performing arts and literature.
Due to increasing efforts of standardisation in the 19th and 20th century, the localised forms present in different districts and also among the remaining source-cultures with the less-assimilated ethno-cultural groups have seen greater alienation. However, Assamese culture in its hybrid form and nature is one of the richest and is still under development.
Composition and characteristics
Assamese culture in its true sense today is a 'cultural system' composed of different sub-systems. It is more interesting to note that even many of the source-cultures of Assamese culture are still surviving either as sub-systems or as sister entities. In broader sense, therefore, the Assamese cultural system incorporates its source-cultures and However, it is also important to keep the broader system closer to its roots.
Some of the common cultural traits available across these systems are:
- Respect towards areca-nut and betel leaves
- Respect by Salutation of the Siju (Euphorbia sp.) plant.
- Respect towards particular symbolic cloth types such as Gamosa, Arnai, etc
- Respect towards Jaapi
- Respect towards traditional silk and cotton garments
- Respect towards forefathers and elderly
- Great hospitality
- Bamboo culture
Symbolism is an important part of Assamese culture. Various elements are being used to represent beliefs, feelings, pride, identity, etc. Symbolism is an ancient cultural practice in Assam, which is still very important for the people. Tamulpan, Xorai and Gamosa are three important symbolic elements in Assamese culture.
Tamulpan (the areca nut and betel leaves) or guapan (gua from kwa) are considered as the offers of devotion, respect and friendship. It is an ancient tradition and is being followed since time-immemorial with roots in the aboriginal Austroasiatic culture.
Xorai, a traditional symbol of Assam, is a manufactured bell-metal object and an article of great respect and is used as a container-medium while performing respectful offerings. It is an offering tray with a stand at the bottom. There are xorais with or without a cover on the top. Traditionally xorai are made of bell metal although nowadays they can be made from brass and/or silver. Hajo and Sarthebari are the most important centres of traditional bell-metal and brass crafts including xorais. Xorais are used:
- as an offering tray for tamul-pan (betel nuts and betel leaves) to guests as a sign of welcome and thanks.
- as an offering tray for food and other items placed in front of the altar(naamghar)for blessing by the Lord.
- as a decorative symbol in traditional functions such as during Bihu dances.
- as a gift to a person of honour during felicitations.
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.
Significantly the gamosa is used equally by all irrespective of religious and ethnic backgrounds.
At par with Gamosa, there are beautifully woven symbolic clothes with attractive graphic designs being used by different cultural sub-systems and ethno-cultural groups as well.
There were various other traditional symbolic elements and designs in use, which are now found only in literature, art, sculpture, architecture, etc. or used for only religious purposes (in particular occasions). The typical designs of assamese-lion, dragon, flying-lion, etc. were used for symbolising various purposes and occasions.
There are several important traditional festivals in Assam. Bihu is the most celebrated festival among all. Traditional festivals are celebrated every year around different corners of Assam.
Bihu is a series of three prominent festivals 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, celebrated with 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. Rongali, kongali & bhogali bihu are also known as 'bohag bihu', 'kati bihu' & 'magh bihu' respectively. The day before the each bihu is known as 'uruka'. There are unique features of each bihu. The first day of 'rongali bihu' is called 'Goru bihu' (the bihu of the cows). On this day the cows are taken to the nearby rivers or ponds to be bathed with special care. Traditionally, cows are respected as sacred animals by the people of Assam. Bihu songs and Bihu dance are associated to rongali bihu.
Bwisagu is a very popular seasonal festival of the Bodo of Assam. Bwisagu means start of the new year. Baisagu is a Boro word which originated from the word "Baisa" which means year or age, ang "Agu" that means starting or start
Ali-Ai-Ligang is the spring festival of the Mising people of Assam, India. The name of the festival is made up of three terms, 'Ali', root and seed, 'Ai', fruit and 'Ligang', to sow.
Assam, being the home to many ethnic groups and different cultures, is 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 are Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, Bishnuprasad Rabha, Bhupen Hazarika, Nirmalendu Choudhury & Utpalendu Choudhury, Pratima Barua Pandey, Luit Konwar Rudra Baruah, Parvati Prasad Baruva, Jayanta Hazarika, Khagen Mahanta. And among the new generation Zubeen Garg, Angaraag Mahanta, Kalpana Patowary, Joi Barua, Jitul Sonowal and Manoj Borah are well known.
And other than traditional assamese music assam's capital city Guwahati have become country's capital for rock music other than Shillong. A number of talented rock bands have formed showcasing their talents around the world.
Assam has maintained a rich tradition of various traditional crafts for more than two thousand years. Presently, Cane and bamboo craft, bell metal and brass craft, silk and cotton weaving, toy and mask making, pottery and terracotta work, wood craft, jewellery making, musical instruments making, etc. are remained as major traditions. Historically, Assam also excelled in making boats, traditional guns and gunpowder, colours and paints, articles of lac, traditional building materials, utilities from iron, etc.
Cane and bamboo craft provide the most commonly used utilities in daily life, ranging from household utilities, weaving accessories, fishing accessories, furniture, musical instruments to building construction materials. Traditional utilities and symbolic articles made from bell metal and brass are found in every Assamese household. The Xorai and bota have been in use for centuries to offer gifts to respected persons and are two prominent symbolic elements. Hajo and Sarthebari / Xorthebaary are the most important centres of traditional bell-metal and brass crafts. Assam is the home of several types of silks, the most prominent and prestigious being Muga, the natural golden silk is exclusive only to Assam. Apart from Muga, there are other two varieties called Pat, a creamy-bright-silver coloured silk and Eri, a variety used for manufacturing warm clothes for winter. Apart from Sualkuchi / Xualkuchi, the centre for the traditional silk industry, in almost every parts of the Brahmaputra Valley, rural households produce silk and silk garments with excellent embroidery designs. Moreover, various ethno-cultural groups in Assam make different types of cotton garments with unique embroidery designs and wonderful colour combinations.
Moreover, Assam possesses unique crafts of toy and mask making mostly concentrated in the Vaishnav Monasteries, pottery and terracotta work in Western Assam districts and wood craft, iron craft, jewellery, etc. in many places across the region. However we can see assam populated because of these.
Painting is an ancient tradition of Assam. The ancient practices can be known from the accounts of the Chinese traveller Xuanzang (7th century CE). The account mentions that Bhaskaravarma, the king of Kamarupa has gifted several items to Harshavardhana, the king of Magadha including paintings and painted objects, some of which were on Assamese silk. Many of the manuscripts available from the Middle Ages bear excellent examples of traditional paintings. The most famous of such medieval works are available in the Hastividyarnava (A Treatise on Elephants), theChitra Bhagawata and in the Gita Govinda. The medieval painters used locally manufactured painting materials such as the colours of hangool and haital. The medieval Assamese literature also refers to chitrakars and patuas. Traditional Assamese paintings have been influenced by the motifs and designs in the medieval works such as the Chitra Bhagawata.
There are several renowned contemporary painters in Assam. The Guwahati Art College in Guwahati is the only government institution for tertiary education. Several art-societies and non-government initiatives exist across the state and the Guwahati Artists Guild is a front-runner organisation based in Guwahati along with the Guwahati art college. There is a Department of Fine Arts in Assam University Silchar,a central government organization, and its thrust area concentrates on the art and craft of north east India with special reference to Assam.