The Ancient Period

 

The early period of the history of Assam is the most glorious because it was during this period that the land produced kings who made a mark in North Indian politics. Bhagadatta and Bhaskaravarman were two eminent kings who are still known for their just and wise nature. It should be noted that no reliable chronicles dealing with the early history of Assam has come down to us – the history of that period has therefore to be reconstructed on the various sources, the most important of them being epigraphic. The chronicles called the ‘Buranji', were written in the late medieval period.

The sources of ancient history of Assam can be divided as given below:

 

Literary

Ancient Assam was not mentioned in Pali literature and in the Puranas. The legends of the mythical kings Naraka, Bhagadatta, and Brajadatta are found in Sanskrit literary works like the Mahabharata, Harivamsa and the Puranas. The latest form of the Naraka legend can be found in the Kalika Purana. Bana's Harshacharita; written in the period of Harshavardhana gives an interesting account of Bhaskarvarmana (the then king of Assam) seeking the friendship of Harshavardhana (the king of the Pushyabhuti dynasty of Thaneswar). The importance of the account is great; as it is known that Bana was a contemporary of Bhaskarvarmana and that his information can be compared with (a), the accounts of Hiuen-Tsang and (b), and the inscriptions of Bhaskarvarmana.

Kamrupa is mentioned as a ‘Sakti-pitha' in many Tantric works. The traditional boundaries of Pragjyotisha-Kamrupa as well as the importance of the Kamakhya Temple in the religious life of the people of Assam are mentioned in Kalika Purana and the Yogini Tantra.Among foreign accounts, the Greek historical references to the primitive Kirata people and the accounts compiled by the Buddhist Chinese pilgrim Hiuen-Tsang who known to have visited Assam during the period 629-45 A.D, are of great historical importance. Some Arabic and Persian works written in around 851A.D. also vaguely mention Kamrupa. A very important Persian work is Minhujuddin's Tabakat-E-Nasiri, which gives an account of Muhammad-I-Bakhtiyar's expedition against Tibet through Kamrupa.

 

Inscriptions

The absence of Assam in very early literary records fits well with the fact that the earliest epigraphic records of Assam belong to the fifth century A.D., and seem to the point to the lateness of the advent of Aryan culture in the lands lying to the east of the Brahmaputra.

A list of inscription found in Assam is arranged in chronological order below:

  1. Umachal (Kamakhya hill, Kamrup district). Rock inscription of Maharajadhiraja Surendravarman of dynasty of Pushyavarman

  2. Nagajari (Sarupather, Golaghat district). Fragmentary stone inscription assigned to the fifth century A.D.

  3. Bargana (near Doboka, Nogaon district). Rock inscription of Paramabhattaraka Maharajadhiraj Bhutivarman of sixth century A.D.

  4. Doobi (Barpeta district). Copper-plate originally issued to Bhutivarman and later re-issued by Bhaskarvarman.

  5. Nidhanpur (Sylhet district, Bangladesh). Copper plate issued to Bhituvarman.

  6. Nalanda (Patna district, Bihar). Clay seals of Bhaskaravamana.

There are nearly 38 similar inscriptions found.

 

Coins

 No coins bearing the name of early kings of Assam were discovered. Coins of pre-Ahom times were discovered at Paglatek lying on the south bank of the river Brahmaputra. The coins bear, within a circular dotted border, the crude figure of a man, whereas in the reverse side a crude figure of a woman is seen. The same types of coins have been found in Bangladesh and Tripura. Some copper coins were found recently in Dhulapadung Tea Estate near Tezpur. They are almost round in shape but differ in weight. These coins have a blank reverse and a single letter on the obverse.

 

Archeological and Monumental Sources

Assam has yielded some rare antiquities of the Stone Age, and also some architectural and sculptural remains of the ancient period here and there. Of the few places that have been satisfactorily excavated, mention should be made of Dah Parvatiya near Tezpur. Among the early sculptures and statues discovered as a result of excavations and explorations, we find a close affinity with the concurrent styles of the Gupta period. Some other Archaeological sites are Singri in Sonitpur district, the Kamakhya hill and Hajo in Kamrup district, Deopani and Numaligarh in Golaghat district.

 

Pragjyotishpur as the Capital of Kamrupa (900 BC to 1699 AD)

It was believed that in around 1500 BC, astrology was an important field of study here. ‘Prag' means ‘Eastern' and ‘Jyotisa' means ‘light'. ‘Pragjyotispur' thereby simply means "the city of eastern light or astrology". The 'Nabagraha' temple at Guwahati, which is dedicated to the nine planets or grahas speaks volumes for the development of the science in early Assam.In Sankhyagrihasangraha it is mentioned that Surjya Pahar in Goalpara was known as a place for ‘Jyotish Sastra' and a land where Surya was worshipped.
In the Kautilya's Arthasastra, among the names of the various locations, Paralauhitya may be the same as Parasamudra since the Lauhitya or Brahmaputra is represented as a sea in several early medieval inscription of Assam.

According to historian Banikanta Kakoti ‘Pragjyotisha' is a word from the ancient Austrik, signifying a vast hilly and uneven area.
For nearly 2,500 years between 900 BC to 1699 AD Assam was in the midst of world commerce. Centrally situated on the land routes from eastern Kamboj to western Kashgar and from northern China to southern Ceylon, all the known powerful races like the Aryan, Dravidian, Tai and Astrics communicated with each other through these routes.Chang Kien, a Chinese explorer traces his country's trade links with Assam as far back as 100 BC. According to the Periplus of the Eastern Sea, Assam silk like Muga and 'Pat' reached the kingdoms of Egypt and Rome and was as famous as Chinese silk and Tibetian pasmina. The weavers of Pragjyotisha thus made their country wealthy. It was believed that some of Assam's major rivers like Dihong, Suvansiri, Bhoroli, Dhansiri and Pagladia overflowed with gold. That's why Assam has been often referred to as the land of the Golden Sands.

 

The Traditional Boundary

The boundaries of Pragjyotisha-Kamrupa are clearly indicated in the Yogini Tantra, which was not written earlier than sixteenth century. The boundaries are (1) Mount Kanchana in Nepal, (2) the confluence of the Brahmaputra, (3) the Karatoya, and (4) Dikkaravasini apparently in the north, south, west and east.

 

Territorial Units, Cities, Rivers, and Hills

 The territorial division of Assam is conflicting. They are four in number, viz -
   (1) Kama-pitha from Karatoya to the Sankosh.
   (2) Ratna-pitha from Sankosh to the Rupahi
   (3) Suvarna-pitha from Rupahi to the Bharali
   (4) Saumar-pitha from the Bharali to the Dibang.                                        

The country is stated to have been triangular in shape.

As regarding the cities of the Pragjyotisha-Kamrupa country, the first to be mentioned was situated in modern Guwahati. It was the capital of the mythical king Naraka and his legendary successors. 

   The name Kamrupa, according to the Puranic legends is associated with Kamadeva, the God of love. It was here that Kama was sent by the gods to put an end to Siva's mourning after the death of his consort and awake in him again the ‘passion of creation'. He was burnt to ashes by the angry glance of the great god, but later recovered his original form (‘rupa'), hence the name ‘Kama'-‘rupa'. During the medieval period, Kamrupa became a center of Tantric worship and was considered the most sacred place, specially the temple of Kamakhya, where Ma Kamakhya Devil was venerated.

 

Mythological Period (100 BC to 643 BC)

  

The earlier kings of Assam re said to have belonged to non-Aryan tribes, such as ‘Danavas' and ‘Asuras'.  The name of the earliest ruler was Mahiranga Danava. He was followed by Hatakasura, Sambasura, Ratnasura and Ghatasura. Another Asura king of Assam namely, Naraka gets mentioned in the Ramayana and in the Mahabharata. As found in Harivamsa and Kalika Purana, Naraka was born to Bhumi (Mother Earth) by Vishnu. He was brought up king Janaka. Later on he invaded Pragyotishpur, conquered the country from the Kiratas and became the king. Initially he was pious and ruled his country righteously. But later, he became friendly with the king of Sonitpur, Bana, under whose influence he became irreligious and began to harass all. At last he was killed by Krishna and his son Bhagadutta become the new king. According to the Mahabharata Bhagadutta was a powerful warrior. He fought against the Pandavas in war of Kurukhetra. He was killed in the war and his son Vajradutta took his place. It is assumed that this happened around the year 1000 A.D.  Sri Krisna appears frequently in Assamese mythology. He fought against the king Vismaka of Kundil, and married his daughter Rukmini. The evidence found in ‘Agnigarh' shows that he also fought with the King of Sonitpur, Banasura - his daughter Usha was secretly married to Sri Krishna's grand son, Aniruddha. The entire episode is narrated in Kumar Haran.

According to the Yogini Tantra, a Sudra named Deveswar was ruling in Kamrupa at the commencement of Saka era. Mention is also made of Nara Sankar who flourished at Pratapgarh in Bishanath towards the end of 4th century: the ruins of a fort attributed to him are still in existence. That kingdom continued for two hundred years at Lohityapur. Later, a Kshatriya named Drona Pal is said to have come from the west and founded a kingdom making his capital in the west of Guwahati. He is attributed to bringing a number of Brahmans and other high cast Hindus from Upper India. The sage Kendu Kulai is said to have lived in his reign. He was succeeded in turn by Padma Narayan, Chandra Narayan and others, his dynasty ending with Ram Chandra.

Ram Chandra's capital was Ratnapur in the Majuli river island. Majuli happened to be capital of various kings like Kusaranya who ruled over Gaur, Kamrupa and Jaintia. King Arimatta, the son of Ram Chandra is believed to have ruled around that period somewhere in lower Assam. Unaware of their relationship, Arimatta and Ram Chandra fought against each other; Ram Chandra lost the battle and died. Later Arimatta was attacked by the king Phengua, king of Kamatapur. Although Arimatta was killed in battle, his son Ratna Singha was able to defeat him. Ratna Singha was defeated later on by the Kacharis. After that the Rajas of Rani and Dimarua claim to be the descendents of Ratna Singha. This would conclude the Mythological period, when proper historical rendering or other historiography sources are unavailable.This would conclude the Mythological period, when proper historical rendering or other historiography sources are unavailable.

 

Political History of Ancient Period (4th Century to 13th Century)

The history of Assam becomes a little clearer from 4th century AD onwards. The Chinese pilgrim Huynh Tsang can be given a lot of credit for recording Assam's history of the period. His written accounts and Bana's Harsha Charita can be taken as the first authentic information regarding ancient history of Assam. He completely ruled out the presence of Buddhism in Assam during this period. The king was described as a Brahmin. From the copper plates that have been found, we have now come to know that in the period between 4th to 13th century, Kamrupa was ruled by three dynasties: the Varmanas, the Salasthambha and the Palas.

The ancient history of Assam begins from 4th century with the Varman dynasty. It was established by Pushya Varman. He was a contemporary of King Samudragupta (350-380 AD). He took the name of 'Maharajadhiraj'. His capital was Kamrupa. Mahendra Varman was the next king who is supposed to have won against 'Gupta Dynasty' and was the first Varman king who performed the 'Aswamedha Yagna'. The most famous and last king of Varman Dynasty was Kumar Bhaskar Varman (594-650). He was a contemporary of Harsa Vardhana. He was also known as Siladitya.  Harsa Vardhana honored Bhaskar Varman at a conference held at Kanouj. More information about Bhaskara Varman is found in copper-plate inscriptions recording grants of land made by the king.

After Pushya Varman began the Varman Dynasty, he was succeeded by the kings Samudra Varman, Bala Varman, Kalyana Varman, Ganapati, Mahendra Varman, Narayan Varman, Mahabhuta Varman, Chandra Mukha, Sthita Varman and Susthita Varman. The last king was Bhaskar Varman.

The genealogy of the kings as described below

Name                                                           Date

Pushya Varman                                            4th century A.D
Samudra Varman                              
Bala Varman
Kalyan Varman                                              5th century A.D
Ganapati Varman
Mahendra Varman
Narayana Varman
Mahabhuti Varman                                         6th century A.D
Chandramukha Varman
Sthita Varman
Mrganka
Supratisthita Varman                                       7th century A.D

Bhaskara Varman

Since Bhaskar Varman was a Kumar (unmarried) and left behind no heir, Salasthambha established a new dynasty (650-790). The only clue to this period can be found in the copper plate inscriptions of Ratna Pala. It was found that twenty kings intervened between Salastambha and Brahma Pal. The kings worshiped Lord Siva. Among them Sri Harshadeva was a good king (725-750). The last king Tyaga Sinha (970-990) died childless. From the few historical sources for reference, we can draw up the following lists of kings of the Salasthambha dynasty:

Name                                                   Date (Approximate)

Salastamba                                           Middle of 7th century
Palaka                                                  Later part of 7th century A.D
 Kumara                                                           8th century A.D
Vajradatta 
Harsa
Balavarman
Cakra and Arathi                                             Did not reign
Pralambha                                                      9th century A.D
Harjjara
Vanamala
Jayamala
Balavarmana                                                10th century A.D

Tyagasinha

The family of Salasthambha being extinct, the kingdom passed into the hands of a new line.  In 9th century, the Pala dynasty was formed; it was established by Brahma Pal (990 AD-1010 AD). We have no epigraph of Brahmapala, but records of his son Ratnapala have been found, and it appears that he reigned around 1000 A.D. Ratnapala was the first powerful monarch of the family. He shifted his capital to Durjaya.  Jayapala was the (1120 AD-1142 AD) the last king of Pala Dynasty. The names and approximate periods of reign of these kings are given below.

 

Name .......................................................................Date

Brahmapala                                                     Later part of the 10th century A.D
Ratnapala                                                        Early part of the 11th century A.D
Purandrapala
Indrapala
Gopala                                                             Later part of the 11th century A.D
Harshapala
Dharmapala                                                     12 century A.D

Jayapala

The Pala dynasty was replaced by the Gour dynasty by Rampala. He seems to have set up on the throne of Kamarupa, a vassal named Tingyadeva. This is observed from the Kamauli Grant of Vaidyadeva. But the subsequent kings Tingyadeva and Vaidyadeva ruled independently. The 'Kamauli lipi or grant' of Vaidyadeva is an important manuscript during that period. From the available sources the genealogy is given below:

Rayarideva
Udaykarna
Vallyabhadeva

Rayarideva is said to have defeated the king of Banga. Rayarideva's descendant Vallyabhadeva was also a powerful king. According to Roy and Bhattasali, the campaign led by Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar in 1202 A.D to Tibet was annihilated in Assam either by Vallabhadeva or his successor. This victorious incident was recorded on a stone boulder at east of northern Guwahati. The medieval period is usually regarded as beginning after this incident.

 

Administration

 

Kings

The form of government prevalent in ancient Assam was monarchy. Kingship was hereditary. The ‘abhiseka' (coronation) of the king was an important ceremony. Apart from its mystic value, the rite of coronation conferred upon the king the legal title to his office. The symbol of royalty was an umbrella which was of moon-like whiteness, embellished with the chowries. Some of them took on new names after assuming kingship. Abdication was not rare. Usually a king abdicated for his son and retired to spend his life in pious meditation. The working of a monarchy depended largely on the personal qualities of the sovereign. The epigraphs provide us with numerous references to the personal qualities necessary for kingship. This included the physical body of the king – he needed to be "broad in the chest, slender and slim in the waist, with a thick set neck and club like arms." For almost all kings, war was the important sport and success in war and valour in the battle was the ruler's highest ambition. The king needed to be endowed with innumerable good qualities. He must never get angry, and never use improper words. His deposition must always be noble. He was to be just and righteous. He was the supporter of learning and of the fine arts, and a patron of poets and wise men. The first and foremost duty of the king was to give protection to all of his people and look after their general wellbeing. The Vedic religion was assiduously practiced by the kings. Numerous references are also available to kings who studded the kingdom with ‘white washed temples' and sacrificial courtyards with immolating posts. 

 

Central Administration

We have seen that from the time of Mahendra Varman, the Kamrupa kingdom ceased to be a small state and developed imperial dimensions. The empire was built up by defeating in battles, the rulers and chieftains of the neighboring territories.  Among the officers of the central administration, the most important were the Samantas, Yuvaraja, Mahasenapati and the Amatyas.

 

Local administration

The rajya, desa or mandala denoted the kingdom as a whole. It consisted of a series of well-defined administrative units. The biggest division was Bhukti or province. The next unit was visaya or district. Visayapati was the head of a visaya. Justice was administered according to the Vedas, the Angas, the Dharmasastras and the Puranas. Revenues were collected under the head of regular taxes, occasional taxes, commercial taxes, fines, income from state properties, and tribute from feudatories. Taxes were collected through administrative heads like the ‘Vasayapati', the ‘Nayaka' and the ‘Gramika'. The chief officers of the police i.e. the judiciary department was ‘Dandika', ‘Dandapasika', ‘Cauroddharanika'. The writers were designated ‘Lakhakas', and the documents were kept in the custody of the registrar.

The military organization of the empire was strong and efficient. The commander-in-chief was known as ‘Senadhaksa'. Owing to geographical conditions, waterways were of vital importance for Assam. Assam was largely dependent on her rivers for communication. The royal Navy was maintained by many kings. From the epic period, elephants had an important rank in Indian armies. As Assam is noted for its well bred elephants, elephant squadrons naturally formed an important division of the Kamrupa army. As was the tiger to Cholas, the boar to the Calukyas, the bull to the Pallavas, so was the elephant the natural symbol of Kamrupa. On the other hand the Cavalry did not seem to have occupied an important place in the army. This was probably due to want of good horses. ‘Muhammad', a writer of the later period noted that cavalry was not in use in Assam. In fact the Assamese were greatly frightened by horses. Writers on ‘Nitisastras' attached great importance to the constructions of forts. The geography of Kamrupa accorded an ideal opportunity for the construction of hill-forts. Judging from the locations of the great cities, Pragjyotisha, Harrupesvara and Durjaya, it is clear that the Kamrupa kings understood the necessity of fortifyng the capital as a defensive measure.The chief weapon of war was ‘asi' (sword), ‘parasu' (axe), ‘katanga' (spear), ‘gada' (mace) as well as the bow and arrow. The Bargoan Grant refers to the ‘cloth which protects the king's broad chest'. The ‘Dhvaja' (flag) and ‘Pataka' (banners) were also used in the battle fields. It is, therefore, plain that the ancient administration of Assam consisted of civil, judicial, police, revenue, and military departments. The religious institutions were also controlled by the state officials in some way or the other. 

 

Economic Conditions

The economic life of a state is generally controlled by three factors viz; the geography of the landscape, the climate and the general living pattern of the people. Assam was furrowed by two large rivers, the Brahmaputra and the Surma. Also there was a huge amount of rainfall. The Assamese people cultivated rice and fruits like banana, coconut, cotton etc. suitable to the climatic conditions. From early times, the villages in India have been the back bone of the land's economy. People lived a rustic life with agriculture as their main occupation. Rice cultivation was their chief employment; this led to the formation of compact villages. Compact villages were convenient for matters of defense also. The usual name for village was ‘grama'. Although people lived mainly in villages, cities were known by the common name ‘pura', ‘kataka' and ‘nagara'. They were also the seats of the ‘adhikarana' (government), ‘skandhavara' (royal camp), or of ‘durga' (fort). Religious as well as commercial consideration played an important part in the creation of new cities. The cities rose to importance during the medieval period.  From the Grants we note that the capital Durjjaya was surrounded by ramparts and with a fence. The four sides of the city Sonitpura were supposedly protected by huge flames of fire. The cities were extensive and filled with magnificent buildings. The royal palace was an impressive building with well decorated apartment's during Ratnapala's regime. Other houses were plastered and white washed. Houses were either made of stone or mud and were plastered over with lime water. The inner walls were decorated with beautiful forms and on the outer walls, sculptures were artistically laid out. The Yogini Tantra gives us a beautiful description of the sacred city ‘Apunarbhava' which has since been identified with the modern Hajo that has the temple of Hayagriva Madhava.

More often than not, civilization is identified with the city. Within its walls artists and philosophers, teachers and priests, nobles and merchants found shelter. These cities were inhabited by hundreds of well-to-do people, and adorned by religious preceptors and poets. The streets were of considerable width and were gay with brilliant colors. Women of great beauty and courtesans decked profusely with all kinds of adornment and jewels could be seen on the streets. The cities possessed a wealthy trading and industrial class. The goldsmiths' shop attracted people from afar because they were filled with pearls and jewels, rings and bracelets flashing with precious stones. Assamese merchants were full of enterprise and grew in wealth and prosperity during the time. Public parks were also to be found. The towns were adorned with many temples. These served more purposes than worship; and were spaces for the community, where village meetings were held, festivals celebrated, and performances organized.

 

Land System

All the land belonged to the crown; the king was the owner of the woods, forests, ferries, mines and so on. The kings often gifted land to Brahmins. There is not much information about the system of land tenure. Mostly, land was given to the religious heads or temples. The right of occupation was hereditary. There were many regulations relating to land tenure besides the ‘bhumicchidra’ – which was known from the time of Kautilya. The value to the state of such grants is evident, for they increased the cultivation area without permanently depriving the revenue of the increased value of land.
The age-old tradition of the kingdom was to regard the pious endowments as rent free. Land tax was known as ‘Kara’. The system of land revenue prevalent under Ahom kings was however, a personal service.  The whole of the adult male population was divided into bodies of three men called ‘gots’, each individual being styled a ‘paik’. One paik was allowed two ‘puras’ of the best rice land free of rent. If personal service was not required, the paik paid two rupees instead.

 

Agriculture

The staple food of this region was rice. Early Assamese literature abounds in description of a hundred varieties of paddy. A variety of rice called ‘boka dhan' was consumed uncooked, the favorite meal during the festivals. The hill people generally opted for the shifting (jhum) method of cultivation. Besides rice, the people of Assam cultivated fruits too. Hiuen Tsang mentions the jack-fruit and coconut in reference to Kamrupa. Others known fruits were mangoes, oranges, plantains, citrons, limes, pineapples etc.

 

Forest land

From the earliest times, the forest tracts were regarded as no-man's land and every householder exercised their community rights over them. They served as natural pastures, burial places, cremation grounds, and so on. But gradually, forest property was taken to be state property. Kalidasa mentions that Kamrupa was covered with forests of valuable trees. Among these, the ‘Vata' (ficus indica) and ‘Asvattha' (Ficus religiosa) were used for religious purposes. Bamboo and cane were also largely grown in the forests of Assam. The state was an important source for the supply of aromatic wood, resins etc to the rest of India. The best qualities of Sandal wood were produced in abundance here. Agaru or aloe wood which is used as incense and also for perfumes, is even today a valuable product of Assam forests. ‘Tejpat', which has been identified by Ahoms and other writers as the malabothrum of the Greeks and of the Romans, was traded and exported from India from early times. This evergreen tree with aromatic leaves is rare in Indus to the Sutlej but is common in Assam and Burma. From the account of Periplus it appears that this trade was carried through Assam. Black pepper or long pepper and lac were two products of Assam forests. Assam was a large producer of Shellac, which was exported to China and Japan to be used in manufacturing of cabinets. The quality of this lac was the best in the whole of Asia. The Peacock, the Kokila (Indian Cuckoo) and the Keteki are a few of w ell known birds of Assam.  The Dhanesha is a hornbill with long yellow beak seen only this region.

 

Crafts and Industries

 

Silk

Craftsmen of all sorts flourished in ancient Kamrupa. They were weavers, spinners, goldsmiths, potters, and workers in ivory, bamboo, wood, hide, and cane. Assam silk is known for its high degree of perfection. The Mohammedan historians noticed that the silks of Assam were excellent and resembled those of China. Almost all the historians of the time refer to the quality of Assam silk as the very best. Mainly three types of silk found here were Pat, Muga and Endi. In the period of the Ramayana Assam was known as the land of the ‘cocoon rearers'. The Golden Silk of Assam is Muga which has a unique beauty. A considerable amount of cotton was also produced in Assam. The Assamese women were (and still are) excellent weavers.

Another important ancient industry was gold-washing and jewel-making. Gold was found in abundance in many of Assam's rivers. According to the Silimpur inscription, King Jayapala offered a gift of gold equal to his own weight to a learned Brahman. Even in later times, during the Ahom rule, gold-washing was done on an elaborate scale; and excellent jewels crafted. Some other types of craftsmen were basket makers, wood-workers, and painters. There were also artisans who made the copper-plates and stone carving, etc. The large number of terracotta that has been discovered leads us to believe that the village potters also made a variety of toys, along with pots and vases. Leather work was also done in that period. Assam was noted for her textiles and various valuable forests and mineral products. Many of these products were not only exported to neighboring provinces but also found their way to Tibet, Burma and China. The trade was mainly carried on using river transport. The route to China was through sea and also through the northern mountains of Assam.

 

Society

Kamrupa proper was inhabited by the Proto-Mongoloid, Proto-Astraliod, Tibeto-Burman and Alpine people. Aryan culture was assimilated with these other racial elements when they migrated to Assam. The kings of Kamrupa seem to have taken special care to preserve the traditional divisions of society, namely, Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Sudras. It should however be noted that ‘varna' had lost its original significance and become ‘jati', which laid emphasis on birth and heredity. The original divisions of the varna system submerged and numerous new castes and sub castes evolved, mainly due to the development of different arts, crafts and professions; also to be taken into account are the influence of different tribes, races and religions. A man's life was divided into four stages: ‘brahmacharya', ‘grihastha', ‘vanaprasthin' and ‘sannyasin'.

From 5th century A.D there comes about the Gupta influence on Assam. This led to the immigration of large numbers of Brahmans to Kamrupa. They were given land as gifts so that they could settle themselves and can pursue matters of religion. The Brahmanas was distinguished by ‘gotras' and ‘veda-sakhas'. Gotras originally denoted only seven or eight ‘rishis'. The conception of the term ‘Pravara' is closely interwoven with that of the gotra. It is a stereotyped list of the names of the ancient rishis. ‘Deva', ‘Sarman', and ‘Svamin' are some of the titles of the Brahmans. They had to live a holy and righteous life. The Brahmans are said to have assiduously practiced their set of ‘six fold duties'. The first and foremost duty of the Brahmans was to study the Vedas. They also discussed the various sciences and the arts. They were often appointed as high administrative officers, and even had some space in the armies. This is derived from Kautilya who is quoted as having said that the Kamrupa kings had the armies composed of Brahmanas, Khsatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras.Among the other non Brahmins, the Karana and the Kayastha were chiefs. They were state officials. The Kayastha were the royal officials and their existence is recorded from the 9th century. The Kayasthas were believed to be the descendents of the ‘Nagara' Brahmans. The ‘Ganakas' and ‘lekhakas' were associated with court. Ganakas were astrologers associated with the study of the ‘grahas' or planets.The ‘Vaidya' held high ranks in the society. The Kayasthas and Kalitas are now looked upon as the purest of the old Hindu people of Assam. Next to the Kalitas were the Koches, who form a large portion of the population of Assam to this day. Some of the other castes were the ‘Kaivartas', the ‘Kumbhakara' (potters), the ‘Tantuvaya' (weavers) and the ‘Nauki' (boatmen).

 

Social Institutions

The family was the smallest unit of the society; marriage being an important social celebration. The Hindu shastras recognized eight types of marriages. They were (i) ‘Raksasa', where the bride is carried off by force; (ii) ‘Paisaca', a secret elopement; (iii) ‘Gandharva', a secret informal union by copulation; (iv) ‘Brahma', where the bride is freely given to a worthy bridegroom with due ceremony; (v) ‘Daiva', where she is married to a priest; (vi) ‘Arsa', in which the girl's father received from  the bridegroom a formal gift of oxen; (vii) ‘Kaya', in which the proposal comes from the side of the bridegroom; (viii) and ‘Asura', when the bride was acquired by purchase. Assamese marriages followed the Vedic rites. Marriage was usually arranged after ‘rahi-joracova' – the consultation of horoscopes of the pair. Sometimes, bride price was paid. The celebrations lasted for five days. The usual practice was that the bridegroom should come to bride's house on the marriage day in an auspicious hour in the evening. On the evening of the third day after marriage, the conjugal couple makes an offering to two demons – this is the ‘khoba-khubuni'. The marriage is consummated after this ceremony.

Chastity and devotion to their husbands were the chiefly desired qualities of Brahman women. The queens seem to have some responsibilities in matters of the state. The inscriptions suggest that they were cultured and pious women. Queen Jivada, the mother of Harjavarmana was considered to be the source of great spiritual force. Motherhood was one of the outstanding aims of married life; widowhood the highest calamity that could befall a woman. But the practice of sati was not present here. Women were usually beautiful, if we are to take into account the various historical records that make relevant references. The custom of appointing women as dancers and courtesans in connection with temple services seems to have been quite common in Assam. These women dedicated to the temple service usually known as ‘Nati' or ‘Daluhangana'. Brahman women were especially well educated and skilled in the arts of poetry and rhetoric.

 

Food and Luxury

The staple food of this region was rice. Early Assamese literature abounds in description of a hundred varieties of paddy. A variety of rice called ‘boka dhan' was consumed uncooked, the favorite meal during the festivals. The hill people generally opted for the shifting (jhum) method of cultivation. Besides rice, the people of Assam cultivated fruits too. Hiuen Tsang mentions the jack-fruit and coconut in reference to Kamrupa. Others known fruits were mangoes, oranges, plantains, citrons, limes, pineapples etc.

Rice, fish, meat, fruits and vegetables were the main foods during these early days, and these habits continue. ‘Payasam' was made from rice and milk, and greatly liked. The earlier literature mentions between twenty-five and fifty kinds of special dishes prepared with vegetables, pulses, fish and meat. Spices such as ginger, cumin, pepper, and mustard were used. Common edible herbs were ‘mulaka', ‘rajaka', ‘vastuka', ‘palanga', ‘nalika' etc. Two popular preparations were ‘Pocola' and ‘kharica' made from the young banana plant and bamboo shoots. Various fruits such as ‘thekera', ‘cakala', ‘tenteli', and ‘ou' were used to make sour preparations. Fish-eating is probably a pre-Aryan custom and in Assam it might have been borrowed from the Mongolian people. Amongst meat, duck, pigeon and wild boar were consumed. It is note-worthy that unlike the other provinces of India, the Brahmans and the Vaisnavas both eat meat and fish without any social bar or comment. The sacrifice of various animals was considered very auspicious.

 

Articles of luxury

 Perfume and cosmetics were used by the people of ancient Assam, as various sources tell us. Anointing the body with scented oil before bath was (and still is), a common practice. Sandal paste seems to have been favorite among those who could afford it. A rich perfume was prepared with ‘krsna-guru' oil, which generally preserved in bamboo tubes. ‘Karpura' (camphor) which was "cold, pure, white as bits of ice" was also in use. Musk was used to prepare cosmetics. Among other articles of luxury were hand fans, garlands, and jeweled mirrors used by women. Combs were made out of ivory, bamboo, or wood. Foot-wear was fashioned out of deer-hide and wood. Umbrellas were also used in a special sense: it was the symbol of kingly authority and spread over the heads of idols of gods and goddesses. During the Ahom period, a kind of umbrella known as the ‘japi' came into vogue. There were different kinds of japis for kings, queens, princes, nobles and other kinds for different classes of citizens.

Spirituous liquors and intoxicants of various kinds were used. One of these alcoholic drinks was the ‘ulluka'. The Yogini Tantra highlights the worship of Goddess Kamakhya with wine, meat, and blood. ‘Laopani' or rice beer is to this day one of the main locally produced beverages of the various tribes of Assam; also offered in the worship of tribal deities. Another common practice was the eating and chewing of ‘tambul' (areca-nut), both ripe and unripe, together with ‘paan' (betel-leaf) and ‘chun' (lime). This custom of the chewing of unripe betel-nut is unique to Assam, and is still an important feature of contemporary Assamese society. In burial, the Khasis placed betel-nuts on the pyre and bid farewell to the deceased.

 

Dress and Ornaments

According to the Kalika Purana, textiles are divided into four classes: ‘karpasa' (cotton), ‘kambala' (wool), ‘balka' (bark), and ‘kasaja' (silk from cocoon). Cotton clothes were extensively used and there was a special class of weavers for this material. ‘Kambala', a texture of fine wools, was imported from Bhutan or Tibet. ‘Balka' denotes fibers and fiber-made fabrics in general. The bark fibers were woven into cloth called the ‘ksauma', and was the most important source of clothing in the ancient times. According to Kulluka (15th century A.D), ksauma was a cloth made of atasi fiber. It was highly valued in the ancient days. ‘Duluka' was the usual name given to the finest ksauma. The Arthasastra states that the duluka produced in Subarnakundya (in Assam) was as "red as the sun, as soft as the surface of the gem, woven while the threads were very wet and of uniform or mixed texture" and was considered as the very best available anywhere. It is, therefore evident that Assam, even in the fourth century A.D was celebrated for duluka that was fit to be kept in the royal treasury. The ‘Kasaja' was the silk obtained from the cocoons of various kinds of silk worms. Commercially silk was of two kinds: the wild silk and the true silk. Wild silk was the product of silk-worms which fed on the leaves of various trees and plants growing in forests.  True silk was the product of silk worms which fed on mulberry leaves. The wild silks were of two kinds, ‘Eri' and ‘Muga'. The Eri cloth was of a drab color, but very durable; light, but warm. There were varieties of Muga available, like the, ‘mejankari' muga. This Mejankari silk was the dress for the upper classes. ‘Pat' was another kind of silk available in the early times. The art of dyeing both yarn and cloth was well known; it was very common among the hill tribes of Assam. Some of the Naga tribes in particular were very expert dyers and could produce extremely brilliant colors. The Manipuris are also known as skillful and artistic dyers. The art of embroidering on cloth was also practiced. The dress of the people was a single uncut and unstitched piece.

The ornaments worn by men and women on different parts of the bodies were of different designs. The Kalika Purana describes forty such types of designs. They were made out of gold and silver. ‘Dugdugi', ‘Kerua', ‘Galpata', ‘Angada' and ‘Kankana' were some name of ornaments worn by the people. These ornaments are proudly sported even today. In the ears they wore the ‘Kundala', on the wrists were bangles called ‘Kharu'. Anklets were worn by women; they were termed as ‘Nupura' and ‘Kinkini'. The ‘Tilaka' was a forehead ornament. An idea of hair arrangement can be had from the sculptures of the period. The simplest and most common hair arrangement was the variations of the ‘khopa'.

 

Games and Amusements

The Dice was the most popular indoor game. ‘Bhanta', a game played with sticks was common among the children. Hunting was a favorite pastime, which was carried on in groups by people armed with spears, bows and arrows. The catching of wild elephants was a dangerous sport that has an interesting history; the Assamese elephant-drivers or ‘mahouts' were great experts. Hawk-fights, elephant-fights, bull-fights were other recreational past-times for the Ahom kings. Dancing and music were greatly enjoyed by the people. The bullock-cart, carriages drawn by elephants, horses and boats were the usual modes of conveyance. Royal boats were decorated with various ornaments, sonorous ‘kinkinis' and ‘camaras'.

 

Education and Learning

It is clear that education in the sense of ‘book learning' was not as widely diffused as it to-day. The learned classes were Brahmins. The ‘Vyavaharis' (lawyers), ‘Lekhakas' (scribes) and other officials were, however, educated. Education was centered round the ‘guru-griha'. Schools were maintained by the Brahmanas, for whom education was the most important, and they were taught in Sanskrit. The Vedas and various other texts were taught in these schools. The great Vaisnavite apostle Sankardeva received his education at a ‘tole' maintained by Mahendra Kandali. This reveals that even non-Brahmins were admitted into schools along with the Brahmana students. According to the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang, Assam was a land of men with high talent. Learning flourished in Assam and made it attractive to scholars of other countries. This is evident from the visit of such scholars as Sankaracharya (788-820 A.D), Nanaka (1649-1538 A.D), and Guru Teg Bahadur (17th century). Sankaracharya is said to have come to Assam to hold learned discussions with Sakta teacher Abhinavagupta. The courts of the kings were full of eminent scholars and poets, who were encouraged to compose and compile treaties on various subjects. Naranarayana entrusted Sankaradeva with the translation of the Bhagabat Purana, Purusttoma with the completion of a Sanskrit grammar, Sridhar with the preparation of a book on astronomy and Baluka Kayastha with the translation of Lilavati's book on Mathematics. The curriculum of studies included the four Vedas, the four Upanishads, the Puranas, the Sastras and other such texts.  Jyotisa-vedanga, the science which measures time by studying the movements of the planets and the stars, was extensively studied. Ayurveda, the science of medicine was also carefully learnt. There was a state medical department with the royal physician at its head. Veterinary science was also studied. Royal physician Ralph Fitch says, "They have hospitals for sheep, goats, cats, birds and for all living creatures." Elephantlogy, the science of dealing with the characteristic diseases, cures and training of elephants was an important field of study. Music too, was scientifically studied; with special focus on singing, dancing and playing instruments. Some kings maintained the custom of singing and dancing in the court. These songs were based on various ragas. The art of painting were considerably developed, and painting on walls was present from 14th century A.D. Sankardeva himself is known to have painted celestial figures for the China-yatra. The writing materials were earth, bark, leaves, gold, copper and silver. Writing pens were made of bamboo, reed, copper, bell-metal, gold, and iron. Ink was made out of a kind of fruit named silikha. Invisible ink was made out of the sap of the earthworm. The kings took special interest in Sanskrit literature, and the Kalika Purana is a notable literary work of that time. Assamese is actually a branch of the new Indo-Aryan speech and was developed into a distinct language out of the Eastern Magadhi Prakrta. 

 

Religion

Vedic religion was followed by the Brahmins. The immigration of the Brahmins to Assam from Madhyayadesa has tremendous sociological and historical significance. The kings extended patronage to the Brahmins who settled down here, and the process of the conversion of non-Aryan tribes into Hinduism began. The Koch kings and the Kachari kings were formally known to have converted to Hinduism. Saivism, the worship of Siva prevailed in Assam from a remote period, and was a fully developed religion. Siva was worshipped in the form of a concrete figure of the lingam. There were different modes of worshipping Siva, depending upon who the worshipper was – for example, the Kachari soldiers offered swine, buffalo, ram-goats as sacrifices to propitiate the gods. The tradition stuck - even today animal sacrifice is the norm in many temples of Assam.

The Devi Purana, a work composed at the end of the 7th or the beginning of the 8th Century A.D. states that Durga Devi was worshipped in her different forms in different places. In Kamrupa, the Ma Kamakhya temple was constructed. Throughout the medieval period, down to the 18th Century, the leading religion of Assam was Sikhism: the cult of worshipping a female goddess as the supreme deity. Ancient Assam was a very important seat of Sikhism. Traditionally, Kamrupa has been recognized as the epicenter of the Sakta cult with its chief temple at Kamakhya. The worship of Vishnu was concurrently present in Assam from early times. The earliest recorded reference to the worship of Vishnu in Kamrupa occurs in the Badaganga Rock Inscription (of 554 A.D). During the subsequent centuries, Vaishnavism occupied a subordinate position.  Again, during the time of Dharmapala (1200A.D) it gained some importance. The worship of the ten ‘avataras' was a notable feature of Vaishnavism. The most important avatara in the later Vaishnava cult of the province is Krishna, whose narratives became the main theme of early Assamese literature. Another important avatara is Hoyagriva.  At Hajo, we can see the famous Hoyagriva Madhava temple that is also visited by the Buddhists from Bhutan, Tibet, Ladhakh and south-western China. Not only the temple of Madhava, but the entire cluster of hills at Hajo containing temples and other object of religious interest is considered by the Buddhists with great reverence. There is a strong tradition amongst the lamas that Buddha's ‘Mahaparinirvana' took place somewhere in Assam – and the spot is located precisely at Hajo. The present temple of Madhava was built by the Koch King Raghudevanarayan of Kamrupa in 1583.  Sun-worship was also prevalent in Assam. A tradition of astrological studies remains intimately connected with the cult of worshipping Surya and grahas. The name ‘Pragjyotisha' may be connected with the practice of astronomy. Although sculptures of Ganesa are found in the most of the temples, but there was never a developed and a separate cult of Ganesa in Assam. 

 

Iconography

 

Siva

In the Brahmanical system Saivism had been the most dominant faith in Assam. Siva was in most cases worshiped in his phallic form.  It is sure that from the earliest times the cult of Siva enjoyed a much greater pre-eminence over other Brahmanical cults in this territory. There were numerous Saiva temples in Assam during the early medieval period, and innumerable iconic forms of Siva. These are the ‘urdha-medhra' or the ‘urdhva-linga' (phallus erectus), the ‘trinetra' (the third eye shown vertically in the center of the forehead) and the ‘jatamukuta' (crest of matted hair) with chandrakala or indukala (crescent) on it. Among the ‘ayudhas' (literally: weapons) the ‘trisula' (trident) is most prominent, especially from the images found in north India. The other ayudhas like the ‘akshamala' (rosary) as lord of meditation, the ‘damaru' (kettle-drum) as lord of sound can also be seen. The ‘Mundamala' (garland of skulls) and a tiara of skulls adorning the hair also distinguish the fierce form of Siva. Sometimes he is shown seated and sometimes dancing on his mount.

 

Sadasiva

A multi-faced manifestation of Siva is represented by a fairly popular iconic theme known as Sadasiva. The manifestation is said to have five faces and ten arms. This image is fairly known in Eastern India.

 

Yoga-Murti

The Kurma Purana describes Siva as ‘Yogesvara'. This is the conception of Siva as a great yogi and lord par-excellence of those engaged in meditation.  The god is seated with legs crossed, below the seat is seen a lotus bud. He has four hands; hair is arranged in conical matted crest typical of the yogi in samadhi.

Gyana-Murty Vyakhana-Murty

Siva is also considered the Lord of ‘Gyana' (wisdom) and the ‘great expositor' (teacher). The respective forms of the god are called ‘Gyana-murti' and ‘Vyakhana-murti'. A curved image of Siva on a rock facing the Brahmaputra, below the Sukreswara temple at Guwahati, appears to represent of these forms. Here we find the God seated with crossed legs with a normal pair of hands. The iconography is identical to the ‘Dharmachakra-Pravartana' mudra of the Buddhists.

 

Nritya-Murty

One of the most important aspects of Siva was recognized in his conception as the ‘Nataraja'. The theme seems to have been very popular throughout the country. A few images of the dancing aspect of Siva were also known in Assam. Within a circular medallion, bordered by diamond shaped rosettes, the god was shown as dancing on his bull, with his left foot firmly planted on the back of his mount and the right rising up with the rhythm.

 

Other Forms of Siva

Siva iconography in Assam seems to be vast and varied in its thematic and symbolic concerns. Among the rock carvings at Surya Pahar, near Goalpara, two four-handed images of Siva on two sides of a Four-headed Vishnu have been found. On the walls of the Kamakhya temple three different images of Siva can be observed. At Akasi Ganga, an image of Siva seated in meditation; and another of Siva bearing a trisula has been found. At Mikir Ati, a figure of Siva seated on his bull is present. At Gachtal, a standing image of Siva with two hands and another with four hands seated in a yoga posture was found. All these variations found in the archaeological remains of a living culture speak volumes of the impact of Sakta Hinduism in Assam.

 

Uma-Mahesvara

In the context of the images of Siva, one must necessarily mention a familiar iconographic theme in which the god is shown in the company of his consort. This motif was commonly known as ‘Uma-Mahesvara' and should be distinguished from ‘Kalyanasundara' that depicts the marriage of Siva with Uma or Parvati. In Matsya-Purana we find a graphic description of this icon. In this motif, the god Siva is seated with the goddess on his lap and caressing her with one hand. A fairly preserved image from Doboka, now in the Assam State Museum, shows the god and goddess together on a lotus seat.

 

Ardhanarisvara

A composite iconographic motif combining Siva and his consort in one body was known as the ‘Ardhanarisvara'. According to textual descriptions one half of the body was that of a male bearing the iconographic cognizance of god Siva and the other half was that of a female showing the specific iconic traits of the goddess. In this unified form of the god and the goddess, the scholars are inclined to read an attempt at the concrete representation of the two major cults of Hinduism: Saivism and Sikhism. 

 

Hari-Hara

Another uncommon deity is the ‘Hari-Hara'. This iconic theme presents Siva and Vishnu unified in one of body, the right bearing traits of Siva and the left bearing traits of Vishnu. The form apparently illustrates coming together of the two major cults, Saivism and Vaishnavism. A few images of Hari-Hara have been noticed in Assam. In Deopani, two almost identical images were found. An image from North-Guwahati depicts the god Hari-Hara accompanied by their respective consorts. Reference may also be made to a seated image of Hari-Hara carved on the rock at Urvasi. The carving probably dates from the 9th or 10th century. The god is seated with crossed legs and has four hands.

 

Urga Forms: The Bhairva

The samhara-murties of Siva apparently belong to the ‘ugra' forms of the god. A few of these forms have been identified in Assam. According to the Siva Purana, ‘Bhairava' is the ‘purana-rupa' of ‘Sankara'. He is said to have assumed this form to cut off the fifth head of Brahma. The Agni Purana and the Kalika Purana also provide short descriptions of this fierce form of the god Siva.

 

Aghora

‘Aghora' is one of the forms of god Siva, descriptions of which are found in the Linga-Purana, the Karanagama, and the Sivatatvaratnakara. This form is rarely represented in art. Nevertheless, it can be found on a wall of the mandapa of the Kamakhya temple. From the style of the image, it has been concluded that it belongs to the pre-Ahom period.

 

Lakulisa

Lakulisa, the Pasupata teacher, is regarded as the last avatara of Siva. Descriptions of his form may be found in the Vayu-Purana and the Linga-Purana. Figures of Lakulisa usually appear on Saiva temples, like the temple of Dah-Parvatiya, near Tezpur. This temple was exquisitely decorated and can be traced back to the 5th-6th century.

 

Ganesha

Ganesa had been a popular divinity in the Hindu pantheon. In the developed Puranic mythology he was associated with Siva and Durga, and temples affiliated to either of these great divinities mandatory have representations of this god. His pre-eminent position is indicated by the fact that in Hindu rituals, the first invocation is always offered to Ganesa. The iconography is described in all the major texts, like Brihat Samhita and the Matsya Purana. He was described to have a short-statured corpulent body with a distended belly and an elephant head with a simple tusk. He was portrayed as being fond of sweets. In the iconographic representations the god is also seen with a mulaka (radish) in one hand. Seated images of Ganesa were more common. They occur among the rock-carvings at Pandu, Umananda and Urvasi. Independent images of the dancing Ganesa were also not rare in Assam.

 

Sakti/Devi

The concept of ‘Sakti' is said to have originated from various sources: pre-Aryan, non-Aryan, Aryan and aboriginal. The processes in fertility and motherhood and the active and energizing forces involved therein apparently led to the emergence of the concept of a supreme goddess who was considered to be the repository of all energy governing the universe. She is known under various names. The most common name was Durga or Devi. The Puranas gave us lists of her names. This divine mother goddess functions for the good of mankind and for the destruction of evil. She manifests herself in innumerable forms in accordance with her functions. Assam was considered to be the land of Sikhism and some scholars were of the view that this territory was the chief diffusion center of Sikhism along with its Tantric aberrations. The iconographic representation of the Devi in Assam was mainly seen in the images showing the goddess in the act of fighting and killing the demon. ‘Durga Mahisasura-Mardini' had been represented in Indian art from the early centuries of the Christian era.  Some of the different names of Durga can be presented in the following way:

 

Katyani

This image is fairly common in Assam. In this image the goddess was to stand in her right foot stretched on the back of the lion and left, slightly bent, on that of the buffalo from which issues the asura.

 

Ugrachanda

The Agni-Purana describes a representation of nine Durgas under the collective designation of Nava-Durga. Each of them is shown to be in the act of killing Mahisasura. This Devi was fashioned with eighteen hands, and was the central divinity of the Nava-Durga theme.

 

Matrikas

It will be relevant here to mention the part that the Saktis of different gods played in the exploits of the Devi in her fight with the danavas.  These saktis came to be known later as ‘Matrikas'.Among the minor goddesses, we can name Laxmi- the patron deity of wealth and prosperity; Saraswati- the goddess of learning and music; and Manasa- the goddess of snakes.

Vishnu

The iconography of Vishnu had been described in a number of texts like the Mahabharata and the Brihat Samhita. The special iconography features of the gods were that he was to have the kaustabha jewel on his chest and ‘vaijayantimala' hanging down from his shoulder. He was to be adorned with jeweled ornaments.  The image, having four hands and standing erect upon a lotus, is the standard iconic pattern of a ‘Chaturvimsati-murtayah'. The rock cut figures of Vishnu at Surya-Pahar, Goalpara, seem to belong to the 9th century.

 

Vibhavas/Avataras

The conception of Vibhavas (evolved forms) or avataras (descended forms) of the Supreme God was a characteristic of Vaishnava theology. The collective representation of the ten avataras may also be seen on various architectural slabs, like those in Cole Park at Tezpur, Moroni in Goalpara district, and at Hajo.

 

Matsya

In this form, the upper part is human whereas the lower part is that of a fish (matsya). The image has two hands, the right bearing a ‘gada' and left a ‘chakra'.

 

Kurma

In this icon, the upper part belongs to a human and the lower is that of a tortoise holding a ‘gada' and ‘chakra'.

 

Varaha

Here again, the upper part is of human form while the lower part is a boar standing in ‘pratyalidha' to the right. This icon has four hands.

 

Narasimha

This is by far among the more popular forms with its torso and lower body being that of a human and its face that of a lion. It was shown as tearing into the entrails of the demon Hiranyakasipu that lay across the knees of the angry avatar of Vishnu.

Vamana

Vishnu in this form was said to have deceived the demon king Bali and sent him to the nether regions. The god was said to have come to the demon king in the form of a dwarf (vamana) Brahmana and asked him for ‘tripada-bhumi' (earth that would be covered by three paces). Bali agreed, and Vamana assumed a colossal form (‘Virata-rupa'), covering the three worlds with his three steps. Bali was left with no other option but to be pushed to the nether regions.

 

Parasuram

 Parasurama is considered only an ‘avesa-avatara' of Vishnu who temporarily reposed in his person to destroy the kshatriyas as many as twenty-one times in order to cleanse the world of sin as told in the Gitagovinda

 

Raghav Rama

Rama, the son of Dasaratha of the Raghu dynasty, is recognized as the seventh avatara of Vishnu. The story of Rama is well known to all Assamese people as the Ramayana.

 

Balarama

 In Indian mythology, Balarama has a dual personality. He belongs to the category of the four ‘vyuhas'. He is also recognized as the eighth avatara of Vishnu.

 

Buddha

 Buddha, the propagator of the heterodox creed of Buddhism, has also been incorporated as the ninth avatar in the traditional list of the ten avataras of Vishnu.

 

Kalki

Kalki, the last of avataras, is to appear at the end of the present aeon (‘Kaliyuga') to purge the world of sin by destroying the ‘mlechchhas'. These are the ten avataras of Vishnu that are often the reference points in ancient Hindu iconography of Assam.

 

Surya

Surya is another principal god of sectarian Hinduism and is considered to be the presiding deity of the Saura sect. From fairly early times in Assam, Surya worship is common: he was worshipped not only for the attainment of desire and wealth, but also for the healing of many ailments.

 

Miscellaneous Divinity

Among these miscellaneous categories of icons, we find Brahma – the creator of the world; Dikpalas – the guardians of the directions; Indra – the guardian of the east; Varuna – guardian of the west; Yama – of the south; Kubera – of the north; Agni – of the north-east; Isana of the north-east; Vayu – of the north-west; and Nirriti of the south-west. Kamadeva is the representative God of love in Hindu mythology.

Buddhism in Assam was not prominent in Kamrupa, according to Hiuen Tsang. K.L.Barua has referred to two representations of the Buddha, one in stone and the other in terracotta.  From these it can be said that Assam indicates the prevalence of Buddhism in this territory. Mahapratisara was one of the goddesses of the ‘Pancharaksha' group and descriptions of her form may be found in the Sadhanamala. One other Tantrik Buddhist goddess, Chunda was seen to have been represented in a metal image from the Narakasura hoarding.

Relics of the ‘Jaina' faith had earlier been unknown in Assam. It was only recently that two rock-cut images with definite Jaina affiliation have been discovered in a cave in Surya-Pahar.

 

Art

Literary and epigraphic records testify to an abundant architectural activity in Assam. These can be both secular and religious. In Assam, building activity for religious purposes goes back to a fairly early period. Such activity was concerned mostly with the erection and consecrations of temples for the proper enshrinement of divine images for worship.