Land of Red River and Blue Hills
Assam shares a boundary with all the states of Northeast India and serves as a doorway to the secrets of the Seven Sisters. This land owes its deep roots to the mighty Brahmaputra River which overpowers the landscape and has shaped both culture and environment. Assam is renowned the world over for its tea plantations and also as an interconnected hotspot of cultures, wildlife, and biodiversity.
The great plains of Assam have an ancient history and gain mention in age-old Vedic scriptures like the Mahabharata and Kalika Purana. It is referred to in these texts as Kamrupa. In Hindu mythology, this land was also believed to be ruled by the demon Narakasura who had his capital at 'Pragjyotishpur', the eastern city of lights and a learning center of astronomy.
Perhaps, the first historical written records can be traced to the 7th-century Chinese traveler Huan Tsang who visited Assam during the reign of King Bhaskarvarman and described him as 'the aristocratic king of Eastern India' and a 'devotee of Lord Shiva'. The medieval era is predominantly marked by the invasion of the Tai Ahom clans from Northern Myanmar in the 13th century. It was the Ahoms that would rule over the Brahmaputra valley for the next six hundred years, recording their triumphs in the Buranji chronicles.
It was finally the British East India Company that arrived in the 19th century and colonized the region. British historian Edward Gait defined the boundary of Assam as "The plains of Assam, parts of East Bengal and foothills of Bhutan". Their administration merged the plains of the Brahmaputra valley with the surrounding hills and tribal areas and eventually formed the state of Assam, deriving the name from the Ahom word 'Axom', meaning 'the land like no other'.
Dispur is the capital of Assam and is a suburb of Guwahati, the largest city in the region that connects mainland India to the Northeastern frontier. Guwahati is a historic city of the Brahmaputra river civilization and is the most important commercial center in the region. Other important urban areas such as Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Tinsukia, and Tezpur have emerged due to the growth of the tea industry and oil refineries in the region. Most human habitation is located along the fertile plains of the Brahmaputra river where the people live simple lives in small cities, towns, and villages.
The countryside of Assam appears lush green due to its tea plantations, never-ending paddy fields, and healthy forest cover. The landscape is also dotted with thousands of riverine islands and sand bars on the banks of Brahmaputra as it takes its long course through the plains. The state is surrounded by mountains and hills on all sides, that loom on the distant horizon, adding to the scenery.
From wild habitats to ancient temples of mysticism, shrines, and unique monastical practices, villages of well-preserved indigenous cultures, colorful festivals, and a large hospitable population, Assam is a perfect non-touristy destination with plenty of attractions and mysteries. The great nobleman Swami Vivekananda once must have rightfully said "Next only to Kashmir, Assam is the most beautiful place in India."
Assam has a diverse culture of several ethnic groups and indigenous communities of various origins. The ethnic groups of Assam can be grouped into hill tribes and plain tribes, each with its own languages and culture. The cultural diversity of this state is rich in classical, religious as well as tribal heritage. The difference in local culture, language, and cuisine can be experienced across the state, while it can also be noted that the modern Assamese culture is largely an integration of various kingdoms that have ruled the land over the ages.
The Koch group of Bodo Kacharis in the West, Sonowal Kacharis in the East, and Dimasa Kacharis of Dima Hasao hills in Cachar are considered the oldest inhabitants of the region and are of Tibeto-Burman origin. They formed independent kingdoms before the arrival of other ethnic groups such as the Ahoms during the 12th and 13th centuries. Though they lived in different parts of the state, their Kachari dialects were mutually intelligible. The Bodos are today the largest tribal community of Assam and they dwell primarily near the foothills of Bhutan in Western Assam. Bodo culture is well known for the Bagurumba dance and Bathow worship. The Sonowal Kacharis, one of the earliest ethnic groups to have come in contact with the invading Ahoms were influenced by their culture whereas the Dimasa Kacharis had their capital in Dimapur of modern Nagaland and share similarities with the Tripuri peoples of Tripura.
The majority of the Assamese-speaking population then arrived with the spread of Hinduism during antiquity, inhabiting the vast plains of the Brahmaputra valley. Bihu is the main festival of the Assamese people. Bihu dance during the traditional new year celebration along with classical Sattriya of the Vaishnav monks and the mystic Deodhani dance can be associated with Assamese people.
Numerous tribal communities such as the Rabhas, Tiwa, Hajong, Mishing, Deori, Matak, and Moran also coexist in the Brahmaputra valley. The Mishing community of Majuli island originally dwelled in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh alongside fierce tribes, but later migrated to the plains to live peaceful lives. The Tai Ahoms from Myanmar which invaded and ruled Assam during the medieval period and had their capital in Sibsagar had their own language and script but had to adopt the local culture to rule over the natives. The other Tai groups such as Tai Aiton, Tai Phake, Tai Turung, Tai Khamyang, and Tai Khampti who came later in search of the Ahoms also adopted the local Assamese culture and language. The Ahom Kingdom has had the greatest influence in the shaping of Assamese culture.
The Cachar area of Southern Assam is also home to a large number of ethnic communities. The Karbis are the predominant tribe in this region and live in the hills of Karbi Anglong. They are a Tibeto-Burman group and follow the animist religion. Bishnupriya Manipuris of Manipur also settled in this area during the Burmese invasion and the Anglo-Burmese wars. The Cachar hills also have many clans of the Kuki community of Mizoram who lived a nomadic lifestyle practicing 'jhum' cultivation. A large section of Bengali-speaking communities live in the Barak valley which is located close to Bangladesh. The Santhal and Munda tribes from Central India who were brought by the British to work in the tea estates have also become a part of the Assamese society.
Due to the presence of various ethnic communities, Assam is also renowned for its diverse arts and crafts, particularly textiles. The Assamese people are well known for their excellence in weaving. Muga silk is spun in many villages where ladies weave Mekhela Sador, a traditional dress with intricate floral designs. Gamosa is another famous woven motif that also symbolizes Assamese culture and has a wide usage. Bell metal crafts are popular in areas of Western Assam where craftsmen prepare the Xorai utensil, a popular souvenir. The decorative Jaapi, a large farmer's hat, is present in the homes of most people. The monastic order of Majuli island has preserved their old traditions of mask making and papyrus painting since the 15th century. The Mishings and Deoris are also skilled weavers with almost every household owning a traditional handloom. Every tribe has its own unique patterns and colors on its textile. Cane and bamboo handicrafts of Assam are also popular like those of its neighboring states.
A 19th-century British historian's account of the Kingdom of Assam narrates "The Assamese had been a warlike and enterprising people, and their princes worthy of the government."
The landscape of the state mainly comprises the vast Brahmaputra plains, Cachar hills, and the Barak valley in the South. The Cachar hills and its Barail range separate the Brahmaputra plains from Barak Valley. The wide Brahmaputra river forms a major part of the landscape of Assam, flowing across the length of the entire state from Sadiya in the East to Goalpara in the West. Many rivers flowing from the surrounding mountains of the neighboring states also form tributaries of the Brahmaputra. Majuli, the biggest inhabited river island, and Umananda, the world's smallest island are both in Assam. The meandering Barak river flows only in the Southern part of the state before it flows into Bangladesh. An interesting quote from the 19th century reads "The number and magnitude of rivers in Assam probably exceed those of any other country in the world of equal extent. They are in general of a sufficient depth at all seasons to admit commercial intercourse in shallow boats, and, during the rains, boats of the largest size find sufficient depth of water. The number of rivers, of which the existence has been ascertained, amounts to 61, including the Brahmaputra and its great branches… Many of these contributory streams are remarkable for their winding course."
Assam has some of the densest and richest forests in the world. Being located in the tropics and with abundant rainfall, it has a large forest cover. Most of the tropical evergreen forests are located at the foothills bordering Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh, and Nagaland, which support a wide variety of sub-Himalayan fauna. The grassland of the Brahmaputra flood plains also forms a part of the major national parks and wildlife sanctuaries of the state namely, Kaziranga, Pobitora, Orang, and Dibru-Saikhowa. The forests are mostly tropical with broad-leaved evergreen trees, and a large number of wild orchids are found abundantly.
The forests of Assam have the presence of the One-horned Asiatic Rhino, which is not only the state animal but is also a symbol that represents this land. The dense tropical forests are also home to numerous other species such as wild buffaloes, gaur, elephants, swamp deer, hog deer, barking deer, and tigers. Various species of primates such as hoolock gibbons, Assamese macaque, pig-tailed monkeys, capped langurs, and golden langurs can be also seen in the wild. The large wetlands of Assam attract numerous migratory birds during the winters such as pelicans, greylag goose, ruddy shelduck, pintail duck, and others. The rare wood duck is the State Bird of Assam.
Ambubachi Mela is a three day fair held during June/July at the Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati. Large number of pilgrims gather to celebrate the yearly menstruation course of the Goddess Kamakhya. Read More
Rongali Bihu is the main festival of the Assamese community. It marks the start of a new year in the local calender. This spring festival takes places in mid April and is celebrated all over the state. Read more
Raas is a popular festival of Assam. it is a religious event observed by the Assamese Hindu people. The festival showcases traditional dances and dramas that depict tales from Hindu mythology. Read more
Magh Bihu is an important festival of Assam. It is the harvest festival of the Assamese people in mid January. Also called as Boghali Bihu as it deals with community feasts after the annual harvest. Read more.
The climate of Assam undergoes four seasons. Winters from mid-November to March remain sunny and dry making the season ideal for travel. Peak winter nights are very cold. The season transitions to spring between April to May when the climate is hot and a bit humid. The first pre-monsoon showers and thunders start in early spring. Summer lasts from June to September when the temperatures are very hot and humid, but accompanied by more than abundant rainfall brought in by the monsoons, especially between July and September. Autumn lasts from October to mid-November when the days and nights are pleasant with occasional post-monsoon showers.