THE ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA

A DICTIONARY OF ARTS, SCIENCES, LITERATURE AND GENERAL INFORMATION

ELEVENTH EDITION 1911

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ASSAM, a former province of British India, which was amalgamated in 1905 with “Eastern Bengal and Assam” (q.v.). Area 56,243 sq. m.; pop. (1901) 6,126,343. The province of Assam lies on the N.E. border of Bengal, on the extreme frontier of the Indian empire, with Bhutan and Tibet beyond it on the N., and Burma and Manipur on the E. It comprises the valleys of the Brahmaputra and Surma rivers, together with the mountainous watershed which intervenes between them. It is situated between 24° 0′ and 28° 17′ N. lat., and between 89° 46′ and 97° 5′ E. long. It is bounded on the N. by the eastern section of the great Himalayan range, the frontier tribes from west to east being successively Bhutias, Akas, Daphlas, Miris, Abors and Mishmis; on the N.E. by the Mishmi Hills, which sweep round the head of the Brahmaputra valley; on the E. by the unexplored mountains that mark the frontier of Burma, by the Hills occupied by the independent Naga tribes and by the state of Manipur; on the S. by the Lushai Hills, the state of Hill Tippera, and the Bengal district of Tippera; and on the W. by the Bengal districts of Mymensingh and Rangpur, the state of Kuch Behar and Jalpaiguri district.

Natural Divisions.—Assam is naturally divided into three distinct tracts, the Brahmaputra valley, the Surma valley and the hill ranges between the two. The Brahmaputra valley is an alluvial plain, about 450 m. in length, with an average breadth of 50 m., lying almost east and west. To the north is the main chain of the Himalayas, the lower ranges of which rise abruptly from the plain; to the south is the great elevated plateau or succession of plateaus known as the Assam range. The various portions of this range are called by the names of the tribes who inhabit them—the Garo, the Khasi, the Jaintia, the North Cachar and the Naga hills. The range as a whole is joined at its eastern extremity by the Patkai to the Himalayan system, and by the mountains of Manipur to the Arakan Yoma. The highest points in the range are Nokrek peak (4600 ft.) in the Garo hills, Shillong peak (6450 ft.) in the Khasi-Jaintia hills, and Japva peak (nearly 10,000 ft.) in the Naga hills. South of the range comes the third division of the province, the Surma valley, comprising the two districts of Cachar and Sylhet. The Surma valley is much smaller than the Brahmaputra valley, covering only 7506 against 24,283 sq. m.; its mean elevation is much lower and its rivers are more sluggish.

Physical Aspects.—Assam is a fertile series of valleys, with the great channel of the Brahmaputra (literally, the Son of Brahma) flowing down its middle, and an infinite number of tributaries and watercourses pouring into it from the mountains on either side. The Brahmaputra spreads out in a sheet of water several miles broad during the rainy season, and in its course through Assam forms a number of islands in its bed. Rising in the Tibetan plateau, far to the north of the Himalayas, and skirting round their eastern passes not far from the Yang-tsze-kiang and the great river of Cambodia, it enters Assam by a series of waterfalls and rapids, amid vast boulders and accumulations of rocks. The gorge, situated in Lakhimpur 771 district, through which the southernmost branch of the Brahmaputra enters, has from time immemorial been held in reverence by the Hindus. It is called the Brahmakunda or Parasuramkunda; and although the journey to it is both difficult and dangerous, it is annually visited by thousands of devotees. After a rapid course westwards down the whole length of the Assam valley, the Brahmaputra turns sharply to the south, spreading itself over the alluvial districts of the Bengal delta, and, after several changes of name, ends its course of 1800 m. in the Bay of Bengal. Its first tributaries in Assam, after crossing the frontier, are the Kundil and the Digaru, flowing from the Mishmi hills on the north, and the Tengapani and Dihing, which take their rise on the Singpho hills to the south-east. Shortly afterwards it receives the Dihang, flowing from the north-east; but its principal confluent is the Dihong, which, deriving its origin, under the name of the Tsangpo, from a spot in the vicinity of the source of the Sutlej, flows in a direction precisely opposite to that river, and traversing the table-land of Tibet, at the back of the great Himalaya range, falls into the Brahmaputra in 27° 48′ N. lat., 95° 26′ E. long., after a course of nearly 1000 m. Doubts were long entertained whether the Dihong could be justly regarded as the continuation of the Tsangpo, but these were practically set at rest by the voyage of F.J. Needham in 1886. Below the confluence, the united stream flows in a south-westerly direction, forming the boundary between the districts of Lakhimpur and Darrang, situated on its northern bank, and those of Sibsagar and Nowgong on the south; and finally bisecting Kamrup, it crosses over the frontier of the province and passes into Bengal. In its course it receives on the left side the Dihing, a river having its rise at the south-eastern angle of the province; and lower down, on the opposite side, it parts with a considerable offset termed the Buri Lohir, which, however, reunites with the Brahmaputra 60 m. below the point of divergence, bearing with it the additional waters of the Subansiri, flowing from Tibet. A second offset, under the name of the Kalang river, rejoins the parent stream a short distance above the town of Gauhati. The remaining rivers are too numerous to be particularized. The streams of the south are not rapid, and have no considerable current until May or June. Among the islands formed by the intersection and confluence of the rivers is Majuli, or the Great Island, as it is called by way of pre-eminence. This island extends 55 m. in length by about 10 in breadth, and is formed by the Brahmaputra on the south-east and the Buri Lohit river on the north-west. In the upper part of the valley, towards the gorge where the Brahmaputra enters, the country is varied and picturesque, walled in on the north and east by the Himalayas, and thickly wooded from the base to the snow-line. On either bank of the Brahmaputra a long narrow strip of plain rises almost imperceptibly to the foot of the hills. Gigantic reeds and grasses occupy the low lands near the banks of the great river; expanses of fertile rice-land come next; a little higher up, dotted with villages encircled by groves of bamboos and fruit trees of great size and beauty, the dark forests succeed, covering the interior table-land and mountains. The country in the vicinity of the large rivers is flat, and impenetrable from dense tangled jungle, with the exception of some very low-lying tracts which are either permanent marshes or are covered with water during the rains. Jungle will not grow on these depressions, and they are covered either with water, reeds, high grasses or rice cultivation. On or near such open spaces are collected all the villages. As the traveller proceeds farther down the valley, the country gradually opens out into wide plains. In the western district of Kamrup the country forms one great expanse, with a few elevated tracts here and there, varying from 200 to 800 ft. in height.

Soils.—The soil is exceedingly rich and well adapted to all kinds of agricultural purposes, and for the most part is composed of a rich black loam reposing on a grey sandy clay, though occasionally it exhibits a light yellow clayey texture. The land may be divided into three great classes. The first division is composed of hills, the largest group within the valley being that of the Mikir Mountains, which stand out upon the plain. Another set of hills project into the valley at Gauhati. But these latter are rather prolongations of spurs from the Khasi chain than isolated groups belonging to the plains. The other hills are all isolated and of small extent. The second division of the lands is the well-raised part of the valley whose level lies above the ordinary inundations of the Brahmaputra. The channels of some of the hill streams, however, are of so little depth that the highest lands in their neighbourhood are liable to sudden floods. On the north bank of the great river, lands of this sort run down the whole length of the valley, except where they are interrupted by the beds of the hill streams. The breadth of these plains is in some places very trifling, whilst in others they comprise a tract of many miles, according to the number and the height of the rocks or hills that protect them from the aberrations of the river. The alluvial deposits of the Brahmaputra and of its tributary streams may be considered as the third general division of lands in Assam. These lands are very extensive, and present every degree of fertility and elevation, from the vast chars of pure sand, subject to annual inundations, to the firm islands, so raised by drift-sand and the accumulated remains of rank vegetable matter, as no longer to be liable to flood. The rapidity with which wastes, composed entirely of sand newly washed forward by the current during floods, become converted into rich pasture is astonishing. As the freshets begin to lessen and retire into the deeper channels, the currents form natural embankments on their edges, preventing the return of a small portion of water which is thus left stagnant on the sands, and exposed to the action of the sun’s rays. It slowly evaporates, leaving a thin crust of animal and vegetable matter. This is soon impregnated with the seeds of the Saccharum spontaneum and other grasses that have been partly brought by the winds and partly deposited by the water. Such places are frequented by numerous flocks of aquatic birds, which resort thither in search of fish and mollusca. As vegetation begins to appear, herds of wild elephants and buffaloes are attracted by the supply of food and the solitude of the newly-formed land, and in their turn contribute to manure the soil.

Geology.—Geographically the Assam hills lie in the angle between the Himalayas and the Burmese ranges, but geologically they belong to neither. The older rocks are like those of Bengal, and the newer beds show no sign of either the Himalayan or the Burmese folding—on the top of the plateau they are nearly horizontal, but along the southern margin they are bent sharply downwards in a simple monoclinal fold. The greater part of the mass is composed of gneiss and schists. The Sylhet traps near the southern margin are correlated with the Rajmahal traps of Bengal. The older rocks are overlaid unconformably by Cretaceous beds, consisting chiefly of sandstones with seams of coal, the whole series thinning rapidly towards the north and thus indicating the neighbourhood of the old shore-line. The fossils are very similar to those of the South Indian Cretaceous, but very different from those of the corresponding beds in the Nerbudda valley. The overlying Tertiary series includes nummulitic beds and valuable seams of coal.

The border ranges of the east and south of Assam belong to the Burmese system of mountain chains (see Burma), and consist largely of Tertiary beds, including the great coal seams of Upper Assam. The Assam valley is covered by the alluvial deposits of the Brahmaputra.

Of the mineral productions by far the most valuable is coal. Compared with the Gondwana coal of the peninsula of India the Tertiary coal seams of Assam are remarkable for their purity and their extraordinary thickness. The “Thick Seam” of Margherita, in Upper Assam, averages 50 ft., and in some places reaches as much as 80 ft. The average percentage of ash in 27 assays of Assam coal was 3.8 as against 16.3 in 17 assays of Raniganj coal. The coal seams are commonly associated with petroleum springs. Gold is found in the alluvial deposits, but the results of exploration have not been very promising.

Earthquakes.—Assam is liable to earthquakes. There was a severe earthquake in Cachar on the 10th of January 1869, a severe shock in Shillong and Gauhati in September 1875, and one in Silchar in October 1882; but by far the severest shock known is that which occurred on the evening of 12th June 1897. The area of this seismic disturbance extended over north-eastern India, from Manipur to Sikkim; but the focus was in the Khasi and Garo hills. In the station of Shillong every masonry building was levelled to the ground. Throughout the country bridges were shattered, roads were broken up like ploughed fields, and the beds of rivers were dislocated. In the hills there were terrible landslips, which wrecked the little Cherrapunji railway and caused 600 deaths. The total mortality recorded was 1542, including two Europeans at Shillong. The levels of the country were so affected that the towns of Goalpara and Barpeta became almost uninhabitable during the rains.

Fauna.—The zoology of Assam presents some interesting features. Wild elephants abound and commit many depredations, entering villages in large herds, and consuming everything suitable to their tastes. Many are caught by means of female elephants previously tamed, and trained to decoy males into the snares prepared for subjecting them to captivity. A considerable number are tamed and exported from Assam every year. Many are killed every year in the forests for the sake of the ivory which they furnish. The government keddah establishment from Dacca captures large numbers of elephants in the province, and the right of hunting is also sold by auction to private bidders. The annual catch of the latter averages about two hundred. The rhinoceros is found in the denser parts of the forests and generally in swampy places. This animal is hunted and killed for its skin and its horn. The skin affords the material for the best shields. The horn is sacred in the eyes of the natives. Contrary to the usual belief, it is stated that, if caught young, the rhinoceros is easily tamed and becomes strongly attached to his keeper. Tigers abound, and though many are annually destroyed for the sake of the government reward, their numbers seem scarcely, if at all, to diminish. Leopards and bears are numerous; and the sand-badger, the Arctonyx collaris of Cuvier, a small animal somewhat resembling a bear, but having the snout, eyes and tail of a hog, is found. Among the most formidable animals known is the wild buffalo or gaur which is of great size, strength and fierceness. The fox and the jackal exist, and the wild hog is very abundant. Goats, deer of various kinds, hares, and two or three species of antelope are found, as are monkeys in great variety. The porcupine, the squirrel, the civet cat, the ichneumon and the otter are common. The birds are too various to admit of enumeration. Wild game is plentiful; pheasants, partridges, snipe and water-fowl of many descriptions make the country a tempting field for the sportsman. Vultures and other birds of prey are met with. 772 Crocodiles (commonly called alligators) swarm in all parts of the Brahmaputra, and are very destructive to the fish, of which hundreds of varieties are found, and which supply a valuable article of food. The most destructive of the ferae naturae, as regards human life, are, however, the snakes. Of these, several poisonous species exist, including the cobra and karait (Naja tripudians and Bungarus caeruleus). The bite of a fairly-grown healthy serpent of either of these species is deadly; and it is ascertained that more deaths occur from snake-bite than from all the other wild beasts put together. Among the non-poisonous serpents the python ranks first. This is an enormous boa-constrictor of great length and weight, which drops upon his prey from the branch of a tree, or steals upon it in the thick grass. He kills his victim by rolling himself round the body till he breaks its ribs, or suffocates it by one irresistible convolution round its throat. He seldom or never attacks human beings unless in self-defence, and loss of life from this cause is scarcely ever reported.

Agriculture.—The principal and almost the only food-grain of the plains portion of the province is rice. The production of this staple is carried on generally under the same conditions as in Bengal; but the times of sowing and reaping and the names given to the several crops vary much in different parts of the province. In 1901-1902 out of a total cultivated area of 1,736,000 acres, there were 1,194,000 acres under rice. In addition jute is grown to a considerable extent in Goalpara and Sylhet; cotton is grown in large quantities along the slopes of the Assam range. Rubber is grown in government plantations and is also brought in by the hill tribes; while lac, mustard and potatoes are also produced.

Tea Plantations.—The most important article of commerce produced in Assam is tea. The rice crop covers a very great proportion of the cultivated land, but it is used for local consumption, and the Brahmaputra valley does not produce enough for its own consumption, large quantities being imported for the coolies. The tea plantations are the one great source of wealth to the province, and the necessities of tea cultivation are the chief stimulants to the development of Assam. The plant was discovered in 1823 by Mr Robert Bruce, who had proceeded thither on a mercantile exploration. The country, however, then formed part of the Burmese dominions. But war with this monarchy shortly afterwards broke out, and a brother of the first discoverer, happening to be appointed to the command of a division of gunboats employed in some part of the operations, followed up the pursuit of the subject, and obtained several hundred plants and a considerable quantity of seed. Some specimens were ultimately forwarded to the superintendent of the botanic garden at Calcutta. In 1832 Captain F. Jenkins was deputed by the governor-general of India, Lord William Bentinck, to report upon the resources of the country, and the tea plant was brought to his especial notice by Mr Bruce; in 1834 a minute was recorded by the governor-general on the subject, in which it is stated that his attention had been called to it in 1827 before his departure from England. In accordance with the views of that minute, a committee was appointed to prosecute inquiries, and to promote the cultivation of the plant. Communications were opened with China with a view to obtain fresh plants and seeds, and a deputation, composed of gentlemen versed in botanical studies, was despatched to Assam. Some seeds were obtained from China; but they proved to be of small importance, as it was clearly ascertained by the members of the Assam deputation that both the black and the green tea plants were indigenous here, and might be multiplied to any extent; another result of the Chinese mission, that of procuring persons skilled in the cultivation and manufacture of black tea, was of more material benefit. Subsequently, under Lord Auckland, a further supply of Chinese cultivators and manufacturers was obtained—men well acquainted with the processes necessary for the production of green tea, as the former set were with those requisite for black. In 1838 the first twelve chests of tea from Assam were received in England. They had been injured in some degree on the passage, but on samples being submitted to brokers, and others of long experience and tried judgment, the reports were highly favourable. It was never, however, the intention of government to carry on the trade, but to resign it to private adventure as soon as the experimental course could be fairly completed. Mercantile associations for the culture and manufacture of tea in Assam began to be formed as early as 1839; and in 1849 the government disposed of their establishment, and relinquished the manufacture to the ordinary operation of commercial enterprise. In 1851 the crop of the principal company was estimated to produce 280,000 ℔ Since then the enterprise has rapidly developed. Tea is now cultivated in all the plains district of the provinces. When the industry was first established, the land which was supposed to be best for the plant was hill or undulating ground; but now it has been found in the Surma valley that with good drainage the heaviest crops of tea can be raised from low-lying land, even such as formerly supported rice cultivation. At the close of the year 1905 there were 942 gardens in all, with 422,335 acres, and employing 464,912 coolies. The majority of gardens are owned by Europeans, 405,486 acres belonging to them as against 16,849 to Indians. The total out-turn for the province in 1905 was 193,556,047 ℔ Between 1893 and 1898 there was a great extension of tea cultivation, with the result that the industry began to suffer from the congestion that follows over-production. Also to meet the requirements of the industry, an enormous number of coolies had to be brought into the province from other parts of India, and in recent years the supply of labour has begun to fall off, causing a rise in the cost of production. For these reasons there was a crisis in the tea industry of Assam, which was relieved to some extent by the reduction of the English duty on tea in 1906.

Tea-Garden Coolies.—The labour required on the tea gardens is almost entirely imported, as the natives of the province are too prosperous to do such work. During the decade 1891-1901, 596,856 coolies were imported, or about a tenth of the total population of the province. The importation of coolies is controlled by an elaborate system of legislation, which provides for the registration of contracts, the medical inspection of coolies during the journey, and supervision over rates of pay, &c., on the gardens. The first labour act was passed in 1863, and since then the law on the subject has been changed by successive enactments. The measure now in force is called Act VI. of 1901. Under this act the maximum term of the labour contract is fixed at four years, and a minimum monthly wage is laid down, the payment of which, however, is contingent on the completion of a daily task by the labourer. Labourers under contract deserting are liable to fine and imprisonment, and, subject to certain restrictions, may be arrested without warrant by their employers. In addition to the labourers engaged under this act, a large number are employed under contract enforceable by Act XIII, of 1859, which provides penalties for breach of the contract, but does not allow of the arrest of deserters without warrant. Neither does this act regulate in any way the terms of the contract, nor contain any special provisions for the protection of the labourer. Many labourers on the conclusion of their first engagement under Act VI. of 1901 enter into renewed contracts under Act XIII. of 1859. In 1905 there were in all 664,296 labourers, and 24,209 fresh importations, of whom 62% chose the old act.

Railways.—The Assam-Bengal railway runs from the seaport of Chittagong to the Surma valley, and thence across the hills to Dibrugarh, at the head of the Brahmaputra valley, with a branch to Gauhati lower down the Brahmaputra. The hill section of this line was found exceedingly difficult of construction, and extensive damage was done by the earthquake of 1897; but it is now complete. This railway is financed by the government, though worked by a company, and therefore ranks as a state line. At the end of 1904 its open mileage was 576 m. There are several short lines of light railway or tramway in the province. The most important is the Dibru-Sadiya railway, at the head of the Brahmaputra valley, with a branch to the coal-fields.

Trade.-The external trade of Assam is conducted partly by steamer, partly by native boat, and to a small extent by rail. In the Brahmaputra valley steamers carry as much as 86% of the exports, and 94% of the imports. In the Surma valley native boats carry about 43% of both. In 1904-1905 the total exports were valued at 726 lakhs of rupees. The chief items were tea, rice in the husk, oil-seeds, tea-seed, timber, coal and jute. The imports were valued at 457 lakhs of rupees. The chief items were cotton piece-goods, rice not in the husk, sugar, grain and pulse, salt, iron and steel, tobacco, cotton twist and yarn, and brass and copper. No less than two-thirds of the total trade is conducted with Calcutta. The trans-frontier trade is insignificant; and most of it is conducted with the Bengal state of Hill Tippera. The trade through Chittagong is increasing owing to the opening of the hill-section of the Assam-Bengal railway, which gives direct communication between the districts of Upper Assam and the port of Chittagong, and the incorporation of that port in the new province of Eastern Bengal and Assam.

Inhabitants.—The total population of Assam, according to the census of 1901, was 6,126,343, of whom 3,429,099 were Hindus, 1,581,317 Mahommedans and 1,068,334 Animists. The number of foreigners in the population due to immigration by the tea-garden coolies was 775,844. But in spite of this immigration the rate of increase in the population was only 5.9% in the decade, and with the immigrants deducted 1.36%. Amongst native-born Assamese during the decade there was a serious decrease in Nowgong and some other districts, due to kalaazar and other diseases. The Assamese are an interesting race, of distinct origin from the neighbouring Bengalis. A large proportion of them derive their origin from tribes who came from the Himalayan ranges, from Burma or from the Chinese frontier. The most important of these are the Ahoms or Ahams, an offshoot of the Shan race of northern Burma. They were the last conquerors of Assam before the Burmese, and they long preserved their ancient traditions, habits and institutions. Hinduism first made its encroachments among their kings and nobility. Several generations ago they gave up eating beef, and they are now completely Hinduized, except in a few remote recesses of Assam. Hinduism has also impressed its language 773 upon the province, and the vernacular Assamese possesses a close affinity to Bengali, with the substitution of s for the Bengali ch, of a guttural h for the Bengali h or sh, and a few other dialectic changes. Indeed, so close was the resemblance that for a time Bengali was used as the court and official language of the province under British rule. But with the development of the country the Assamese tongue asserted its claims to be treated as a distinct vernacular, and a resolution of government (1873) re-established it as the language of official life and public business.

The Assam peasant, living in a half-populated province, and surrounded by surplus land, is indolent, good-natured and, on the whole, prosperous. He raises sufficient food for his wants with very little labour, and, with the exception of a few religious ceremonies, he has no demand made upon him for money, saving the light rental of his fields. Under the peaceful influences of British rule, he has completely lost his ancient warlike instincts, and forgotten his predatory habits. In complexion he is a shade or two fairer than the Bengali. His person is in general short and robust, but devoid of the grace and flexibility of the Hindu. A flat face, with high cheek-bones, presents a physiognomy resembling the Chinese, and suggests no idea of beauty. His hair is abundant, black, lank and coarse, but the beard is scanty, and usually plucked out, which gives him an effeminate appearance. The women form a striking contrast to the men; there is more of feminine beauty in them than is commonly seen in the women of Bengal, with a form and feature somewhat approaching the European. The habits of life of the Assamese peasantry are pre-eminently domestic. Great respect is paid to old age; when parents are no longer capable of labour they are supported by their children, and scarcely any one is allowed to become a burden to the public. They have also in general a very tender regard for their offspring, and are generous and kind to their relations. They are hospitable to people of their own caste, but to no others. The use of opium is very general.

Hill Tribes.—The hill and frontier tribes of Assam include the Nagas, Singphos, Daphlas, Miris, Khamtis, Mishmis, Abors, &c., nearly all of whom, excepting the Nagas, are found near the frontiers of Lakhimpur district. The principal of these, in point of numbers, are the Nagas, who inhabit the hills and forests along the eastern and south-eastern frontier of Assam. They reside partly in the British district of the Naga hills and partly in independent territory under the political control of the deputy-commissioner of the adjoining districts. They cultivate rice, cotton, yams and Indian corn, and prepare salt from the brine springs in their hills. The different tribes of Nagas are independent of and unconnected with one another, and are often at war with each other. The Singphos are another of the main population of the same race, who occupy in force the hilly country between the Patkai and Chindwin rivers, and are nominally subject to Burma. The Akas, Daphlas, Miris, Abors, Mishmis and Khamtis are described under separate headings. Under regulation V. of 1873, an inner line has been laid down in certain districts, up to which the protection of British authority is guaranteed, and beyond which, except by special permission, it is not lawful for British subjects to go. This inner line has been laid down in Darrang towards the Bhutias, Akas and Daphlas; in Lakhimper towards the Daphlas, Miris, Abors, Mishmis, Khamtis, Singphos and Nagas; and in Sibsagar towards the Nagas. The inner line formerly maintained along the Lushai border has since 1895 been allowed to fall into desuetude, but Lushais visiting Cachar are required to take out passes from the superintendent of the Lushai hills. The line is marked at intervals by frontier posts held by military police and commanding the roads of access to the tract beyond; and any person from the plains who has received permission to cross the line has to present his pass at these posts.

History.—Assam was the province of Bengal which remained most stubbornly outside the limits of the Mogul empire and of the Mahommedan polity in India. Indeed, although frequently overrun by Mussulman armies, and its western districts annexed to the Mahommedan vice-royalty of Bengal, the province maintained an uncertain independence till its invasion by the Burmese towards the end of the 18th century, and its final cession to the British in 1826. It seems to have been originally included, along with the greater part of north-eastern Bengal, in the old Hindu territory of Kamrup. Its early legends point to great religious revolutions between the rival rites of Krishna and Siva as a source of dynastic changes. Its roll of kings extends deep into prehistoric times, but the first rajah capable of indentification flourished about the year 76 A.D. Kamrup, the Pragjotishpur of the ancient Hindus, was the capital of a legendary king Narak, whose son Bhagadatta distinguished himself in the great war of the Mahābhārata.

When Hsüan Tsang visited the country in A.D. 640, a prince named Kumar Bhaskara Barman was on the throne. The people are described as being of small stature with dark yellow complexions; they were fierce in appearance, but upright and studious. Hinduism was the state religion, and the number of Buddhists was very small. The soil was deep and fertile, and the towns were surrounded by moats with water brought from rivers or banked-up lakes. Subsequently we read of Pal rulers in Assam. It is supposed that these kings were Buddhist and belonged to the Pal dynasty of Bengal. Although the whole of Kamrup appears from time to time to have been united into one kingdom under some unusually powerful monarch, it was more often split up into numerous petty states; and for several centuries the Koch, the Ahom and the Chutia powers contested for the Assam valley. In the early part of the 13th century the Ahoms or Ahams, from northern Burma and the Chinese frontiers, poured into the eastern districts of Assam, founded a kingdom, and held it firmly for several centuries. The Ahoms were Shans from the ancient Shan kingdom of Pong. Their manners, customs, religion and language were, and for a long time continued to be, different from those of the Hindus; but they found themselves compelled to respect the superior civilization of this race, and slowly adopted its customs and language. The conversion of their king Chuchengpha to Hinduism took place in the year A.D. 1655, and all the Ahoms of Assam gradually followed his example. In medieval history, the Assamese were known to the Mussulman population as a warlike, predatory race, who sailed down the Brahmaputra in fleets of innumerable canoes, plundered the rich districts of the delta, and retired in safety to their forests and swamps. As the Mahommedan power consolidated itself in Bengal, repeated expeditions were sent out against these river pirates of the north-east. The physical difficulties which an invading force had to contend with in Assam, however, prevented anything like a regular subjugation of the country; and after repeated efforts, the Mussulmans contented themselves with occupying the western districts at the mouth of the Assam valley. The following details will suffice for the history of a struggle in which no great political object was attained, and which left the Assamese still the same wild and piratical people as when their fleets of canoes first sallied forth against the Bengal delta. In 1638, during the reign of the emperor Shah Jahan, the Assamese descended the Brahmaputra, and pillaged the country round the city of Dacca; they were expelled by the governor of Bengal, who retaliated upon the plunderers by ravaging Assam. During the civil wars between the sons of Shah Jahan, the king of Assam renewed his predatory incursions into Bengal; upon the termination of the contest, Aurangzeb determined to avenge these repeated insults, and despatched a considerable force for the regular invasion of the Assamese territory (1660-1662). His general, Mir Jumla, defeated the rajah, who fled to the mountains, and most of the chiefs made their submission to the conqueror. But the rains set in with unusual violence, and Mir Jumla’s army was almost annihilated by famine and sickness. Thus terminated the last expedition against Assam by the Mahommedans, whose fortunes in this country were never prosperous. A writer of the Mahommedan faith says:—“Whenever an invading army has entered their territories, the Assamese have sheltered themselves in strong posts, and have distressed the enemy by stratagems, surprises and alarms, and by cutting off their provisions. If these means failed, they have declined a battle in the field, but 774 have carried the peasants into the mountains, burned the grain and left the country desert. But when the rainy season has set in upon the advancing enemy, they have watched their opportunity to make excursions and vent their rage; the famished invaders have either become their prisoners or been put to death. In this manner powerful and numerous armies have been sunk in that whirlpool of destruction, and not a soul has escaped.” The same writer states that the country was spacious, populous and hard to be penetrated; that it abounded in dangers; that the paths and roads were beset with difficulties; and that the obstacles to conquest were more than could be expressed. The inhabitants, he says, were enterprising, well-armed and always prepared for battle. Moreover, they had lofty forts, numerously garrisoned and plentifully provided with warlike stores; and the approach to them was opposed by thick and dangerous jungles, and broad and boisterous rivers. The difficulties in the way of successful invasion are of course not understated, as it was the object of the writer to exalt the prowess and perseverance of the faithful. He accounts for their temporary success by recording that “the Mussulman hordes experienced the comfort of fighting for their religion, and the blessings of it reverted to the sovereignty of his just and pious majesty.” The short-lived triumph of the Mussulmans might, however, have warranted a less ambitious tone. About the middle of the 17th century the chief became a convert to Hinduism. By what mode the conversion was effected does not clearly appear, but whatever were the means employed, it seems that the decline of the country commenced about the same period. Internal dissensions, invasion and disturbances of every kind convulsed the province, and neither prince nor people enjoyed security. Late in the 18th century some interference took place on the part of the British government, then conducted by Lord Cornwallis; but the successor of that nobleman, Sir John Shore, adopting the non-intervention policy, withdrew the British force, and abandoned the country to its fate. Its condition encouraged the Burmese to depose the rajah, and to make Assam a dependency of Ava. The extension of their encroachments on a portion of the territory of the East India Company compelled the British government to take decisive steps for its own protection. Hence arose the series of hostilities with Ava known in Indian history as the first Burmese War, on the termination of which by treaty in February 1826, Assam remained a British possession. In 1832 that portion of the province denominated Upper Assam was formed into an independent native state, and conferred upon Purandhar Singh, the ex-rajah of the country; but the administration of this chief proved unsatisfactory, and in 1838 his principality was reunited with the British dominions. After a period of successful administration and internal development, under the lieutenant-governor of Bengal, it was erected into a separate chief-commissionership in 1874.

In 1886 the eastern Dwars were annexed from Bhutan; and in 1874 the district of Goalpara, the eastern Dwars and the Garo hills were incorporated in Assam. In 1898 the southern Lushai hills were transferred from Bengal to Assam, and the north and south Lushai hills were amalgamated as a district of Assam, and placed under the superintendent of the Lushai hills. Frontier troubles occasionally occur with the Akas, Daphlas, Abors and Mishmis along the northern border, arising out of raids from the independent territory into British districts. In October 1905 the whole province of Assam was incorporated in the new province of Eastern Bengal and Assam.

See E.A. Gait, The History of Assam (1906).


Transcriber's note: A few typographical errors have been corrected. They appear in the text like this, and the explanation will appear when the mouse pointer is moved over the marked passage. Sections in Greek will yield a transliteration when the pointer is moved over them, and words using diacritic characters in the Latin Extended Additional block, which may not display in some fonts or browsers, will display an unaccented version.

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