Etymology of Assam
The origin of the name of Assam, a state in India is unclear—among the competing theories, two attribute it to the terrain, whereas the others relate it to the Ahom people. Whatever the source of the English name, Assam is itself an anglicization.
John Peter Wade (1805) called the Ahom kingdom, that commenced on the Konder Chokey, "Kingdom of Assam". Some have speculated that the Bodo word "Ha-com" meaning low land was Sanskritised to 'Asama', dating its origin to at least first millennium common era.
Banikanta Kakati quotes Grierson in Linguistic Survey of India that "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" Satyendranath Sarma repeats this derivation while quoting Kakati. Colin Masica too endorses this view.
Satyendra Nath Sarma writes "Assamese is the easternmost Indo-Aryan language of India, spoken by nearly eight millions of people inhabiting mostly the Brahmaputra valley of Assam. The word Assamese is an English formation built on the same principle as Simhalese or Canarese etc. It is based on the English word Assam by which the British rulers referred to the tract covered by the Brahmaputra valley and its adjoining areas. But the people call their country Asama and their language Asamiya". 
Grierson records that "Assam" is an corruption (anglicization) of the Bengali name Āsām, he writes "It (Assamese) is based on the English word 'Assam', which is a corruption of the word 'Āsām', the Bengali name of the tract which consists of the Brahmaputra valley."
The land referred to as Pragjyotisha in the Mahabharata is now accepted as present-day Assam and North Bengal. In the Bhismaparvan, the Pragjyotisha king Bhagadatta is said to have joined the Kurukshetra war with an army of kirata and cinas. Since the name China is derived from the Qin Dynasty (221 BCE - 206 BCE), the reference cannot be dated to earlier than the third century BCE. In the Ramayana, Pragjyotisha is situated on the Varaha mountain and not in present-day Assam; According to Shastri (2002), the author "had no idea at all of its location and was just eager to refer to it as it had already become a celebrated town". (Shafer 1954) believes the center of the Pragjyotisha state was in upper Punjab that moved to Assam in the post epic period.
The Kamarupa kings called themselves the Maharajadhiraja of Pragjyotisha. One of the kings Vaidyadeva, referred to Pragjyotisha as a bhukti and Kamarupa as a mandala (a smaller division, possibly within Pragjyotisha).
The earliest epigraphic mention of the Assam region comes from the Samudragupta's Allahabad stone pillar from fourth century CE, where it is called Kamarupa. The pillar lists the frontier kingdoms (pratyanta nripati) and lists Kamarupa (Western Assam) along with Davaka, a region in the central Assam (undivided Nagaon district). Therefore, during the fourth century, the eastern boundary of the Kamarupa did not extend beyond west Assam. The Kalika Purana and the Yogini Tantra refer to Kamarupa as a kingdom from Karatoya in the west to Dikkaravasini in the east. Dikkaravasini is identified with present-day Sadiya. The copper-plate inscription from Vaidyadeva calls Kamarupa a mandala within his own kingdom. Later epigraphic sources from Assam call the kingdom Pragjyotisha-Kamarupa. In the early twelfth century, epigraphic sources from the Pala dynasty mention Kamarupa as a mandala of the kingdom they ruled. The invasion of western Assam by Allauddin Hussein of Gaur up to Barnadi river in 1498 is recorded in coins from the early sixteenth century, declaring Hussein as the conqueror of Kamru (Kamrup) (and not Assam).
Asam and variations
Assam, Asam and other variations started appearing in relatively recent times, and their uses cannot be attributed to any period earlier than the sixteenth century. The names appeared primarily in three different scripts: the Assamese, Persian and the Roman scripts. The sixteenth century is the period when Srimanta Sankardeva established his Ekasarana Dharma. This was accompanied by a profusive production in literature. At the same time, Vishwa Singha established the Koch kingdom in the west and the Ahom kingdom saw both a rapid expansion in territory and an increasing Hindu and Assamese influence in its court under Suhungmung. This increased prominence of the Ahom kingdom brought it to the attention of those outside the Brahmaputra valley.
|Asama||Bhagavata of Sankadeva||early 16th century||Ahom community|
|Asham||Ain-i-Akbari||late 16th century||Ahom kingdom|
|Āsām, Āsam, Asam||Guru-carit||17th century||Ahom community|
|Assam||Joh van Leenen||1661||Ahom kingdom|
|Aſem||John Baptiste Tavernier||1678||Ahom kingdom|
|Acham||A Geographical Account of Countries around Bay of Bengal||c1679||Ahom kingdom|
|Acamakshara||CP grant of Rajeswar Singha||1764||Ahom script|
|Asamkshara||CP grant of Lakshmi Singha||1773||Ahom script|
|Asama||Darrangraj Vamshavali||18th century||Ahom community|
|Assam||"A Geographical Sketch of Assam"||1805||Ahom kingdom|
|Assam||Treaty of Yandabo||1826||North East India (Minus Tripura and Manipur)|
Locally, Vaishnavite writers and biographers used different forms of the name indiscriminately (e.g. Āsām, Āsam, Asam) to refer to the Ahom community. The earliest mention of Asama is found in the Assamese Bhagavat of Sankardeva, which was composed in early sixteenth century. The relevant stanza is (in iTrans):
kiraTa kachhaari khaachi gaaro miri
yavana ka~Nka govaala |
asama maluka dhobaa ye turuka
kubaacha mlechchha chaNDaala ||
The Ahoms were called Asam in the eighteenth century Darrangraj Vamshavali of Suryya Khari Daibajna; variously as Āsām, Āsam, and Asam in the seventeenth century Shankar-carit of Daityari Thakur; and Acam in Kamrupar Buranji. According to a count provided by (Bhuyan 1930), the Kamrupar Buranji names the country some thirty times, of which Āsām was used three times, Ācam was used three times, and Ācām was used for the rest, though in other Buranjis other spellings are also seen. Furthermore, Bhuyan mentions that though both "স" (s) and "চ" (c) have been used in the name, it is likely that it was pronounced mostly with /s/.
The name asama (as well as acam, asam, asam, asam) was used in the form asamakshara to denote the Ahom script in Sanskrit-Ahom bilingual copper plate grants of the Ahom kings.
As opposed to the local uses, where Asam and similar formations were used to denote the Ahom community, external sources used variations of Asam to denote the kingdom ruled by the Ahoms. The Ain-I-Akbari of the sixteenth century uses the form Asham (آشام) to denote the Ahom kingdom. The official chronicler of Mir Jumla also calls the place "Asam".
The earliest Europeans who came in contact with Assam (and who had the opportunity to write the name in the Latin script), were travelers who went to Bengal and adventurers who accompanied military expeditions against the Ahom kingdom; these groups used variations of the name Asam to denote the kingdom. In a map of "Kingdom of Bengale", drawn by Joh. van Leenen around 1661 and published around 1662, Assam was clearly named and correctly identified. One of the first unambiguous references comes from Thomas Bowrey in 1663 about Mir Jumla's death: "They lost the best of Nabobs, the Kingdome of Acham, and, by consequence, many large privileges". Though Bowrey wrote his manuscript in the 17th century, the manuscript itself was published for the first time in the 20th century. On the other hand, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier's Travels in India, published in 1676 uses the spelling "Assem" for Assam in the French original (Aſem in the English translation, published in 1678). Thus the earliest English use of the name was "Aſem", with a Long s.
Colonialists then followed these travelers and adventurers. Both Grierson and Gait agree that the British used Asam before finally settling on Assam. In various documents of the British East India Company relating to the last few Ahom kings, the name of country was mentioned as Assam. The 1826 Treaty of Yandabo, marking the conquest of the Ahom kingdom at the hands of the British, uses Assam to denote the area under the erstwhile Ahoms and its protectorates (Darrang Koch, Jaintias, Kacharis and some hill areas in the present Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland).
After the British took control of the region, the name Assam was extended to the province that was then much larger than the Ahom kingdom. It then included, Garo Hills and Lushai Hills (Mizoram). Since that time, the boundaries of Assam have been repeatedly redrawn, though the name Assam remained. Today, the political boundary of Assam contains roughly the historical Ahom Kingdom and its protectorates, the Kachari kingdom, Koch Hajo and a part of the Jaintia Kingdom.
Modern name Assam
According to Grierson (1967), the English word Assamese parallels other demonyms (Chinese, Sinhalese, Nepalese, etc.), building on Assam, an Anglicization of the Bengali word Asam that itself refers to the Brahmaputra Valley. Other writers (most notably Banikanta Kakati and S N Sarma) have repeated this claim. Gait (1906) has mentioned that the British used Asam before finally settling on Assam; though Grierson claims that the form Assam is English, The Assam Tribune has reported the finding of a Dutch map drawn around 1661 with a label Assam.
Theories on etymology
The precise etymology of the name Assam or Asam (অসম) is not known, though many explanations have been put forward. Among the different theories, two attribute the name to the terrain of the region while three attribute it to the Shan invaders of the 13th century.
Ha-com: from Bodo
One of the earliest theories published was provided by Baden-Powell in 1896, when he proposed that the name could possibly derive from the Bodo Ha-com, meaning "low or level country". He rejected the possibility that the name Assam (Asam) could be derived from Aham (Ahom). Subsequent writers like P. C. Choudhury and R N Mosahary lend credence to this theory. So, if Ha-Com is the source of Sanskrit Asama, then it traces its origin from very early times, long before any Ahom invasion.
Asama: from Sanskrit
Two different meanings of the Sanskrit word Asama have been used to explain the name: one meaning "uneven" (terrain) and the other "unequaled".
Gait (1906) reports that according to some people, the name "Assam" is derived from the Sanskrit asama, meaning "uneven" which describes the terrain of the region in contrast to the flat plains of Samatata, though he rejects this explanation on the grounds that the word was never used before the advent of the Ahoms and that the Vamshavali of the Darrang kings used it to refer to the Ahom community and not to the land.
The second theory Gait reported is that Asama, meaning "unequal" or "peerless", was a name the local people gave the undefeated Ahoms, according to a tradition that the Ahoms themselves believed in. Gait rejects this notion as well, noting that the local tribal people would not have given a Sanskrit name to the invaders.
Though Gait rejects both these explanations, he nevertheless asserts that the name is somehow associated with the Ahoms. George Grierson, Banikanta Kakati, and Dimbeswar Neog, also reject the Sanskrit origin of the name. Satyendra Nath Sharma accepts Banikanta Kakati's view in toto.
Though both explanations have been rejected in the academic literature, the notion that the name Assam has a Sanskrit origin continues to hold sway in popular perceptions, due mainly to two standard dictionaries of Assamese: Hemkox and Chandrakanta Abhidhan. The Hemkox forwards the second theory, associating the name to the meaning "unequaled".
A-Sham: from the name Sham
Gait reports that some associated the name with the Shan who are called Syam by the Assamese, an explanation which he found not convincing. nevertheless Grierson has accepted that the 13th century natives of Assam called the Shan (Sham) invaders by this name. Dimbeswar Neog notes that the Indic prefix a- does not necessarily mean an antonym in Assamese and it could just be a synonym (e.g. kumari/akumari, bihane/abihane), a feature that is also seen in Sanskrit (sur/asur); therefore, Asham could mean the same as Sham, and the name could be derived as Sham (শাম) > Āshām (আশাম) > Āsam (আসম) > Asam (অসম). Amalendu Guha, too derives it from Sham; but instead of using an Indo-Aryan rule, derives it from the Bodo form, Ha-Sham, meaning the land of the Sham people. Masica too believes that Assam derives from an earlier attested form of asam, acam which in turn is from a Burmese corruption of the name Shan/Shyam.
A-cham: from Tai
- Das, Bhuban Mohan (1987) "The Peoples of Assam" p23 "The modern name Assam is an anglicised form of the Assamese name Asom"
- "The Kingdom of Assam, where it is entered from Bengal, commences on the north of the Berhampooter, at the Khonder Chokey, nearly opposite to the picturesque estate of the late Mr Raush at Goalpara; and at the Nagrabaree Hill on the South", Wade, Dr John Peter, (1805) "A Geographical Sketch of Assam" in Asiatic Annual Register, reprinted (Sharma 1972, p. 341)
- Subir Ghosh, Frontier travails: Northeast, the politics of a mess, 2001, Page 20 the word may have been borrowed from a Boro formation like Ha-Com, meaning low land. If this derivation is correct, the name Asama may go back to a period long before the coming of the Shans/Ahoms. It appears, therefore, reasonable to suggest that the Sanskrit formation, Asama, is based on Ha-com.
- Sujata Miri, Communalism in Assam: a civilizational approach, 1993, Page 31 It is said to be an anglicised version of the Sanskrit word "Asama" meaning "unparalleled" because of its unequal terrain with hills interspersed with valleys."
- (Sarma 1976, p. 1)
- (Kakati 1941, p. 2)
- "(sarma 1976:1)
- (Masica 1993:50)
- Satyendranath Sarma, 1976
- (Grierson 1967, p. 393)
- Shastri, Ajay Mitra (2002) "Ancient North-East India (Pragjyotisha)", Aryan Books International, New Delhi.
- (Shafer 1954, p. 49)
- (Sharma 1978, p. 286)
- (Sharma 1978, p. 0.15)
- (Sircar 1971, p. 163)
- (Neog 1962, p. 1)
- "The Ahoms are here (Bhagavata II v 474) referred to as 'Asama'" (Neog 1980, p. 75)
- "Sankardeva, in one of his verses, composed in the early sixteenth century, while referring to the castes and communities of the then Assam used the term Axom to mean the Ahom." (Taher 2001, p. 2)
- Srimandbhagavat, skandha 2, H Dattabaruah and Co., Nalbari, pp-38
- "The Ahoms are here referred to as 'Asama'...The term 'Maluk' remains unidentified unless we take it to mean the variety of tribes in the north-eastern part of the country." (Neog 1980, p. 75)
- (kakati 1941, p. 2)
- (Bhuyan 1930, pp. a6-a7). (The page numbering in this section follows an archaic Assamese numeral.)
- (Bhuyan 1930, p. a7). (The page numbering in this section follows an archaic Assamese numeral.)
- In general these copper plates have inscriptions in Sanskrit on one side and in the Ahom language on the other. At the end of the Sanskrit side of the plate, there would be a reference to look on the other side for the same text in Ahom script (asamaksara). For example, etadartha-vijnapakam-acamaksarena-paraprasthe (the same meaning is carried by what is rendered in acamaksarena on the other page); etadarthakam-asamksaram-etad-apara-prstha (to get this meaning in asamksara, it is there on the other page) (Bora 1981, pp. 11–12)
- "The dominions of the rajah of Asham [آشام] join to Kaumvrou:" Ain-i-Akbari. Note that the 1777 translation of the Ain-i-Akbari uses the long s in place of "s" in "Asham"
- The Indian Antiquary, July 1887, pp222-226
- "Vervarelijke Schipbreuk Van't Oostindisch Jacht Terschilling", January 1944, W. de Haan NV, Utrecht. The map.
- Bowrey, Thomas, A Geographical Account of Countries around Bay of Bengal, ed Temple, R. C., Hakluyt Society's Publications
- "Of the Kingdom of Aſem", Book III, Chapter XVII (Tavernier 1678, pp. 187–188)
- "...in the early dates of British rule, it (Assam) was spelled with only one 's'". (Gait 1906, p. 240)
- (Kakati 1941, p. 1)
- (Kakati 1953, p. 1)
- Satyendranath Sarma, Assamese literature: Volume 9, Part 2 , Harrassowitz,1976, p. 43. "It is based on the English word Assam by which the British rulers referred to the tract covered by the Brahmaputra valley and its adjoining areas."
- "I got a copy of Frans van der Heiden’s book in Dutch, published in 1944. Several times the name of Assam is mentioned in this publication. I was able to find a copy of the original Dutch publication, published in 1675 in the library of the Maritime Museum, Rotterdam and compared the two publications. The 1944 version has extra preface added by the publisher including a map of Bengale drawn around 1661 where the name of Assam is mentioned." (Waleh 2008)
- "The name 'Assam' (Āsām) is most probably traceable to (the Boro) Hā-com=the low and level country;"(Baden-Powell 1896, p. 135)
- (Baden-Powell 1896, pp. 136–137)
- (Choudhury 1966, p. 26)
- "The root source of the origin of the name Assam is of the Boro formations Ha Com, Ha Som, or Ha Sam, Mushahary (1983) in "Proceedings of the NEIHA, Fourth Session, p64.
- "According to some, the word is derived from Asama meaning "uneven", as distinguished from Samatata, or the level plains of East Bengal." (Gait 1906, p. 241)
- (Gait 1906, p. 241)
- "This word is popularly, but incorrectly derived from the Assamese word aham [Grierson uses 'h' for 'x'] which means 'unequaled,' being the same as the Sanskrit asama."(Grierson 1967, p. 393)
- "...Asama meaning peerless or unequaled is a latter-day Sanskritisation of some earlier form like Acham." (Kakati 1953, p. 2)
- "... Thus little room is left for the fanciful origin of the name Asam from Sanskrit to mean 'uneven' ([terrain]) or 'unparalleled' (people)" (Neog 1962, p. 2).
- "While scholars disagree over the precise origins of the name, Assam, there is a consensus that the name, given to the land by the 13th century Shan invaders impressed by the valour of the people they conquered (or, in another reading, given by the conquered to the people who conquered them, being impressed by their generosity in victory), is derived from the Sanskrit word, asama, meaning unequalled, matchless, with the secondary meaning, uneven, undulating, with reference to the terrain of the land. The two standard Assamese dictionaries, Hem Kosha and Chandrakanta Abhidhan, offer broadly the same definitions." (Prabhakara 2006)
- (Barua 2006, p. 85)
- "It has been suggested that this may be derived from Shan, or as the Assamese say Syam. This word is however not used by the Assamese when speaking of the Ahoms, but only with reference to people of Siam" (Gait 1906, p. 241)
- "The Assamese themselves call the native country Asam, with the vowels in both syllables short. The name is said to be the term given by them to the Shans or "Shams" who commenced invading the country from the east in the 13th century" (Grierson 1967, p. 393)
- (Neog 1967, p. 2)
- "The Ahom domain of Upper Assam came to be known to the Dimasa and other Bodo people as Ha-Sam (the land of the Shams or Shans) in their language. From this the terms 'Asam' and 'Ahom' were derived in due course, and the first term came to stand for the expanded Ahom klngdom. Under the impact of the Indo-Aryan heritage of the region, the concept of 'Asam' was further extended to cover the entire area defined as 'Kamarupa' in the Kalika-Purana (c 9th-10th centuries). The Ahom statesmen and chroniclers wishfully looked forward to the Karatoya as their natural western frontier. They also looked upon themselves as the heirs of that glory that was ancient Kamarupa by right of conquest, and they long cherished infructuously their unfulfilled hopes of expanding up to that frontier." (Guha 1983)
- "Ahoms also gave Assam and its language their name (Ahom and the modern ɒχɒm 'Assam' come from an attested earlier form asam, acam, probably from a Burmese corruption of the word Shan/Shyam, cf. Siam: Kakati 1962; 1-4)." (Masica 1993, p. 50)
- "In Tai the root cham means "to be defeated". With the privative Assamese affix ā the whole formation Āchām would mean undefeated." (Kakati 1953, p. 2)
- Baden-Powell, B. H. (1896). The Indian Village Community. London: Longman, Greens and Co.
- Bhuyan, S. K. (1930). "Prokaxokor Patoni (Publisher's Preface)". In Bhuyan, S. K. Kamrupar Buranji (in Assamese). Assam: Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies.
- Bora, Mahendra (1981). The Evolution of Assamese Script. Jorhat, Assam: Assam Sahitya Sabha.
- Barua, Hem Chandra (2006), Barua, Debananda, ed., অসম [asama], Hemkosha (in Assamese) (12th ed.) (Guwahati: Hemkosh Prakashan)
- Choudhury, Pratap Chandra (1966). The History of the Civilisation of the People of Assam to the 12th Century. Gauhati: Dept. of Historical and Antiquarian Studies in Assam.
- Gait, Edward A (1906), A History of Assam, Calcutta
- Grierson, George Abraham (1967), "Assamese", in Grierson, George Abraham, Linguistic Survey of India 5, New Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, pp. 393–398
- Guha, Amalendu (December 1983), The Ahom Political System: An Enquiry into the State Formation Process in Medieval Assam (1228-1714), Social Scientist 11 (12): 3–34, doi:10.2307/3516963, JSTOR 3516963
- Kakati, Banikanta (1941), Assamese, Its Formation and Development, Gauhati: Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies
- Kakati, Banikanta (1953), "The Assamese Language", in Kakati, Banikanta, Aspects of Early Assamese Literature, Gauhati: Gauhati University, pp. 1–16
- Masica, Colin P. (1993), Indo-Aryan Languages, Cambridge University Press
- Neog, Dimbeswar (1962), New Light on History of Asamiya Literature, Gauhati
- Neog, Maheshwar (1980). Early History of the Vaishnava Faith and Movement in Assam. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass.
- Prabhakara, M. S. (2006), In the name of changing names, Frontline 23 (11)
- Saleh, Wahid (September 27, 2008), What's in a name, The Assam Tribune (Guwahati, Assam)
- Sarma, Satyendra Nath (1976), Assamese Literature, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz
- Shafer, Robert (1954), Etnography of Ancient India, Harrassowitz
- Sharma, Benudhar, ed. (1972), An Account of Assam, Gauhati: Assam Jyoti
- Sharma, Mukunda Madhava (1978), Inscriptions of Ancient Assam, Gauhati: Gauhati University
- Sircar, D. C. (1971), Studies In The Geography Of Ancient And Medieval India (2nd ed.), New Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass,
- Taher, M (2001), "Assam: An Introduction", in Bhagawati, A K, Geography of Assam, New Delhi: Rajesh Publications, pp. 1–17
- Tavernier, John Baptiste (1678), "Of the Kingdom of Aʃem", The six voyages of John Baptista Tavernier, Phillips, John (tr), London: Printed for R.L and M.P, pp. 187–188