People of Assam
The people of Assam inhabit a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-religious society. They speak languages that belong to three main language groups: Indo-Aryan, Austroasiatic and Tibeto-Burman. The large number of ethnic and linguistic groups, the population composition and the peopling process in the state has led to it being called an "India in miniature".
Geographically Assam contains fertile river valleys surrounded and interspersed by mountains and hills. It is accessible from Tibet in the north (via Bum La, Tse La, Tunga), across the Patkai in the Southeast (via Diphu, Kumjawng, Hpungan, Chaukam, Pangsau, More-Tamu) and from Burma across the Arakan Yoma (via An, Taungup). In the west both the Brahmaputra valley and the Barak valley open widely to the Gangetic plains. Assam has been populated via all these accessible points in the past. It has been estimated that there were eleven major waves and streams of ethnolinguistic migrations across these points over time.
The earliest settlers were the Mon–Khmer speakers (currently identified with Khasi, Synteng groups) (1) with their origin in Southeast Asia. These people settled in the foothills but were pushed up into the hills (Khasi/Garo Hills, Karbi Anglong) by the second group of people migrating from Tibet and southern China who spoke Tibeto-Burmese(2) of the Eastern Himalayan, North Assam, Bodo and Naga groups of languages. These people are today identified as Monpas and Sherdukpens of Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh; Mishings and Deuris of Upper Assam; the Bodo-Kachari groups scattered all over Assam and the Karbis of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao.
Proto-historic and ancient
The third major ingress into Assam are attributed to the Indo-Aryans (3) from North India into the Brahmaputra valley after 500 BC, and around the same time, from the Gangetic Delta of Bengal into the Barak Valley. This signaled the dawn of the proto-Historic period and the Indo-Aryan immigration continued into the Ancient and Medieval periods.
In the medieval times, the first Muslims (4), captive soldiers of the defeated Bakhtiar Khilji (in 1205), settled in the Hajo area. This was followed by the Ahoms (5) when Sukaphaa lead his group into Assam via the Pangsau pass in the Patkai from South China. The Ahoms were followed by other Tai people who were Buddhists (6): Khamti, Khamyang, Aiton, Phake and Turung peoples who settled in Upper Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. At the end of the Medieval period a small contingent of Sikhs gave rise to a minuscule but prominent group.
Colonial and post-independence
In the beginning of the colonial period in Assam after the First Anglo-Burmese War and the Treaty of Yandaboo (1826), the political instability led to the immigration of Kachin and Kuki-Chin people (7) into the region across the Patkai and Arakan Yoma. They constitute the Singphos in Upper Assam, and the Kuki-Chin tribes in Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao. The beginning of tea plantations in Assam (1835) by the British led to settlements of Mundari speaking people (8) (Munda, Santal, Savara, Oraon, Gond etc. tribes). The beginning of British administration also led to a large influx of service holders and professionals from Bengal, Rajasthan, Nepal, etc. (9). To increase land productivity, the British encouraged Muslim peasants (10) from Mymensingh district of present-day Bangladesh to settle in Assam that began in 1901. The last major group to immigrate are the Bengali Hindu refugees (11) especially from the Sylhet district of Bangladesh following the Partition of India.
Inputs from these and other smaller groups have gone towards the building of a unique multi-ethnic socio-cultural situation.
- Eastern Himalayan
- North Assam
(6) Later day (Buddhist) Tai
|Colonial||(8) Munda||(7) Kuki-Chin, Kachin||(6) Later day (Buddhist) Tai||(9) Hindus
- Rajasthani traders
(10) Bengali Muslim peasants
|Post Independence||(11) Bengali Hindu Refugees|
The process of social formation in Assam has been marked by simultaneous sanskritization and tribalization (de-sanskritization) of the different groups of people that have settled in Assam at different times, and this process of social formation is best studied in three periods: (1) Pre-colonial, (2) Colonial and (3) Post-colonial periods.
Assam is acknowledged as the settling land for a lot of civilizations. A number of tribal grouping have landed in the soils of Assam in the course of diverse directions as the territory was linked to a number of states and many different countries. Negritos, Dravidians, Tibeto-Burmans as well as Aryans had been the most important traditional groups that arrived at the site and lived in the very old Assam. They were well thought-out as the ‘aborigines’ of Assam and yet at the moment they are an essential elements of the “Assamese Diaspora”.
Tai-Ahoms were historically the dominant group of Assam and were the ethnic group associated with the term "Assamese". More recently, the Assamese language speaking ethnic group has been associated with the term "Assamese". Bengalis are another major group of Assam and are a majority in the Barak Valley. Bodos are the dominant group in Bodoland. They mostly speak the Tibeto-Burman Bodo language and live in Bodoland. Many Bodos want to politically separate from Assam and want the creation of a separate state.
Though some people with political aspirations have tried to spread the notion in the poeople of the rest of the world about the Ahoms being the defining element of Assamese society, that is far from being true. Assamese language and culture started to take roots more than a millennium before the arrival of the Ahoms. Even though the word "Assam",the present name of the state, has been ascribed to the word "Shyam/Siam"(which was how the Ahoms were referred to in the earlier days) the area of Assam was known as Kamarupa before that. Ahoms, though they now are trying to claim to be "Kshatriyas" were never considered a caste groups by the Hindu Assamese. They are still regarded as a semi-tribal group who have nominally converted to Hinduism even though keeping alive their own tribal traditions and customs. Historians like Edward Gait too have ridiculed such claims of the Ahoms. Ahoms like all the other mongoloid groups of Assam are outside the caste system.
As per latest development Tai Ahoms have realised the above mentioned points, albeit lately, and have applied for ST status along with five other communities of Assam. This will make Axom a predominantly Tribal state having wider geo-political ramifications.
Migration of Hindus to Assam started very early in history. According to some historians Hindus startd migrating to Assam from North India as early as the 4th century BC. The first Hindu group to have arrived in Assam were the Kalitas. They brought the Indo-European speech Assamese to the Brahmaputra Valley. They are reagrded to have introduced Hindusim in the North-East. Before the arrival of the Vedic Brahmins, the Kalitas used to perform the priestly duties. Though the exact places from where the Kalitas came has not yet been ascertained, there are various theories. Dr. Banikanta Kakati has related then to the Koliyas of Kolit Pradesh(in present day North UP) while others like Dr. B.S. Guha have tried to relate them to the Nagar Brahmins of Gujarat. Though, the later day Vedic Brahmins who migrated to Assam eventually displaced the Kalitas from the position of priests of Kings, even now there are temples where one can find Kalitas acting as priests. Other caste groups like Brahmins, Kayasthas,Ganaks etc. have migrated to Assam at later periods.
- Taher 1993
- Taher 1993. Waves are migrations at a particular point of time, whereas streams were continuous migrations over time, at albeit different rates
- Guha 1984, p75. The Indo-Aryans brought with them a system of wet rice cultivation (sali), iron, plough and cattle. The later myths on Parashurama, Bashistha and Narakasura attest to this colonization.
- Assamese Sikhs in search of their roots, Indian Express Newspaper, March 13, 2009.
- Bhagawati 2002
- Bhagawati, A C (2002) "Ethnic Identities in North-East India", N K Bose Memorial Lectures. Vihangama, IGNCA Newsletter, Vol II, March–April 2002
- Taher, Mohammad (1993) The Peopling of Assam and contemporary social structure in Ahmad, Aijazuddin (ed) Social Structure and Regional Development, Rawat Publications, New Delhi
- Guha, Amalendu (1984) Pre-Ahom Roots and the Medieval State in Assam: A Reply, Social Scientist, Vol 12, No. 6, pp70–77
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