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ASSAM, INDIA'S TEA GROWING NORTHERN STATE

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DIMITRA STASINOPOULOU

ASSAM

INDIA’S TEA GROWING NORTHERN STATE


ASSAM


ASSAM STATE

Assam is the biggest of the Seven Sister

States in the Northeastern part of India. It

is comprised mostly of the valleys of Brahmaputra

and Barak. Assam and the rest

of the States are connected to the rest of

the country via the Siliguri Corridor or

the Chicken’s Neck, a 22 km small strip of

land in West Bengal. Its other name is the

Gateway to the Northeast, as it is the main

connection to reach the other states in

the NE part of the country. The State also

shares an international border with Bhutan

and Bangladesh.

The Assamese landscape is a picturesque

golden-green vista of jigsaw-like rice fields

and tea estates, framed in the distance by

the blue mountains of Arunachal in the

north and the highlands of Meghalaya and

Nagaland to the south. Despite certain

linguistic and cultural overlaps with

people in neighboring West Bengal and

Orissa, Assam is proudly sovereign about

its identity. Despite numerous invasions,

mostly by the Muslim rulers, no western

power ruled Assam until the arrival of the

British. Though the Munghals made seventeen

attempts to invade, they were never

successful. The gamosa (a red-and-white

scarf worn around the neck by men) and

the mekhola sador (the traditional dress

for women) are visible proclamations of

regional costume and identity.

Shaped roughly like a Y laid on its side, is

a land of plains and river valleys. The State

has three principal physical regions: the

Brahmaputra River Valley in the north, the

Barak River valley in the south, and the

hilly region between Meghalaya to the

west, and Nagaland and Manipur to the

east, in the south-central part of the State.

Of those regions, the Brahmaputra River

valley is the largest.

The people of the plains of the Brahmaputra

and Barak valleys are mainly of Indo-

Iranian ancestry. By the time of their arrival

in the region, however, the local Aryan

peoples had become intermixed with

Asiatic peoples.

The Ahom people, who arrived in the region

from mainland Southeast Asia during the

13 th century, ultimately stem from Yunnan

province of southern China. A significant

minority of the population consists of

rural indigenous peoples who fall outside

the Indian caste system; as such, they are

officially designated as Scheduled Tribes.

The Boro constitute the largest of these

groups. Most of the Scheduled Tribes live

in the south-central hill region and are of

Asiatic descent.

Assamese, an Indo-Aryan language, is

the official and principal language of the

State, and an unbroken record of Assamese

literary history is traceable from the

14 th century. Tibeto-Burman languages

are spoken by most of the Scheduled

Tribes, although the Khasi people speak an

Austroasiatic tongue; some groups have

adopted Assamese as their first language.

The people in the Barak valley in southern

Assam mostly speak Bengali (also called

Bangla), which, like Assamese, is an Indo-

Aryan language.

About two-thirds of the Assamese are

Hindus, the majority of whom follow

Vaishnavism, which venerates the deity

Vishnu. Roughly one-fourth of the population

practices Islam, most Muslims being

settlers from Bangladesh or converts from

the lower strata of Hindu society. Although

many of the Scheduled Tribes have


converted to Christianity, some continue

to practice traditional local religions.

Cultural life

The cultural life of Assam is interwoven

with the activities of a number of cultural

institutions and religious centers, such as

the satra (seat of a religious head known as

the satradhikar) and namghar (prayer hall).

Satras in Assam have been looking after

the religious and social well-being of the

Hindu population since the 15 th century.

The Assamese people observe all the pan-

Indian religious festivals, but their most

important celebrations are the three Bihu

festivals. Originally agricultural festivals,

they are observed with great enthusiasm

irrespective of caste, creed, and religious

affinity.

Weaving is another important aspect of

the cultural life of the people of Assam,

particularly the women. Nearly every

Assamese household, irrespective of

caste, creed, and social status, has at least

one loom, and most women are expected

to be skilled in producing fine silk and

cotton cloths.

Legend and History of Assam

The State had different names before

becoming known as Assam. The oldest

name known is Pragjyotisha, it was found

from Sanskrit records and supposedly

covered the entire Brahmaputra Valley.

This name was also mentioned in the epics

of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

Later, the name Kamrupa came up, which

supposedly covered the Western part

of the state. This name was found in an

inscription of Samudra Gupta and from the

records of Hiuen Tsang, a Chinese pilgrim.

The name Assam was not even in use in

the region until the Ahoms came to it. The

Ahoms are a Shan tribe from Burma, they

crossed the Patkai Range and conquered

Assam. Other evidences state that the

name Assam has some relations to the Tai

and the Mongoloid people, mostly from

other countries in Southeast Asia. In fact,

the Thai and Siamese people are referred

to as Shan, a variation of Syam, but

pronounced with an n as Burmese words

ending in ‘m’ are pronounced with an ‘n’.

Syam was later changed to Asam, Ahom,

Aham, Ahomiya and Axomiya.

Historically, from the Ancient Era during

350 AD, when Assam was referred to as

Pragjyotisha and Kamrupa, it has been

conquered by different dynasties. Salasthamba

of the Mlechchha Dynasty ruled the

region from 655 AD to 990 AD.

In the Colonial Era, there was a surge of

tea plantations in Assam. However, this

was also the time when the first Anglo-

Burmese War ensued in 1824. The war

ended in 1826, after the Treaty of Yandabo

was established. The treaty lasted until

1838 until the British annexed Assam.

Assam was first separated from Bengal

during the year 1874. It was then known

as the Assam Chief Commissionership.

In 1905, it was established as a part of

the new province of Eastern Bengal and

Assam. It was only in 1912 that it became

the Assam Province. In the year 1970,

Assam was separated into several states to

fulfil the national aspirations of the tribal

people living in it.

Assam State symbol


DIBRUGARH

NORTHERN ASSAM


HISTORY OF THE TEA IN INDIA

“The tea cultivation in India begun in

the nineteenth century by the British, in

an attempt to break Chinese monopoly,

however, has accelerated to the point

that today India is listed as the world’s

leading producer, ahead of China and

the teas of Assam and Darjeeling are

world famous. However, because Indians

average half a cup daily on per capita

basis, fully 70 percent of India’s immense

crop is consumed locally. The British,

“using Chinese seeds, plus Chinese

planting and cultivating techniques,

launched a tea industry by offering land

in Assam to any European who agreed

to cultivate tea for export.”

In the early 1820s, the British East India

Company began large-scale production

of tea in Assam, India, of a tea variety

traditionally brewed by the Singpho

people. In 1826, the British East India

Company took over the region from

the Ahom. In 1837, the first English tea

garden was established in Upper Assam;

in 1840, the Assam Tea Company began

the commercial production of tea in

the region, run by indentured servitude

of the local inhabitants. Beginning

in the 1850s, the tea industry rapidly

expanded, consuming vast tracts of land

for tea plantations. By the turn of the

century, Assam became the leading tea

producing region in the world. Tea was

originally only consumed by Anglicized

Indians, and it was not until the 1920s

that tea grew widely popular in India.

Prior to the British, the plant was used

for medicinal purposes.

Research shows that tea is indigenous

to eastern and northern India, and was

cultivated and consumed there for thousands

of years. Consumption of tea in

India was first clearly documented in

the Ramayana (750-500 BCE). For the

next thousand years, documentation of

tea in India was lost in history. Records

re-emerge during the first century CE,

with stories of the Buddhist monks

Bodhidharma and Gan Lu, and their

involvement with tea.

Tea cultivation in India has somewhat

ambiguous origins. Though the extent of

the popularity of tea in Ancient India is

unknown, it is known that the tea plant

was a wild plant in India that was indeed

brewed by local inhabitants of different

regions. The Singpho tribe and the

Khamti tribe, inhabitants of the regions

where the Camellia sinensis plant grew

native, have been consuming tea since

the 12 th century. It is also possible that

tea may have been used under another

name, it was perhaps better known as

“Soma” in Indian mythology.

The practice of Ayurveda has resulted in

a long-standing tradition of herbal teas.

Traditional Indian kitchens have long

utilized the medicinal benefits offered by

various plants and spices and traditionally,

teas made with these plant leaves

or spices have been in use for centuries

for maladies ranging from the serious to

the trifling. Tea is also mixed with these

traditional herbs. The taste of chai (sweet

and milky) helps disguise the stronger

and more bitter flavors of some of the

medicinal additives, while other, more

pleasant flavors such as cardamom and

ginger add a pleasing flavor and aroma

to the tea along with health benefits.


MAJULI ISLAND

NORTHERN ASSAM


MĀJULI ISLAND

Mājuli is the biggest river island in the world,

formed by the Brahmaputra River in Assam

and also the 1 st island district of the country.

The island had a total area of 1,250 km 2 at the

beginning of the 20th century, but having lost

significantly to erosion it now has an area of

only 352 km 2 . However it is recognized by Guinness

Book of World Records as World’s Largest

River Island. Majuli is the nerve centre of neo-

Vaishnavite culture and has been included in

the World Heritage Sites of Unesco. Home to an

estimated 160,000 people of different ethnic

groups, the island is an assembly constituency

reserved for scheduled tribes.

Originally, the island was a long, narrow piece

of land called Majoli (land in the middle of

two parallel rivers) that had the Brahmaputra

flowing in the north and the Burhidihing

flowing in the south, till they met at Lakhu.

The dwellers of Mājuli are mostly of the Mising

tribes from Arunachal Pradesh who immigrated

here centuries ago. The island has 144

villages with a population of over 150,000. The

only mode of association to the outside world

is through a ferry service which operates six

times a day. The inhabitants are expert navigators

by boat; their expertise is most visible

during the monsoon season when they navigate

the turbulent waters of the Brahmaputra.

The main industry is agriculture, with paddy

being the chief crop. Mājuli has a rich and

diverse agricultural tradition, with as many as

100 varieties of rice grown, all without pesticides

or artificial fertilizers. Fishing, dairying,

pottery, handloom and boat-making are other

important economic activities. Handloom is a

major occupation among the distaff population

of the villages. Weaving is exquisite and

intricate with the use of a variety of colors and

textures of cotton and silk. The locals speak in

the Mising and Assamese languages.

Mājuli has been the cultural capital of Assamese

civilisation since the 16 th century; based

on written records describing the visit of Srimanta

Sankardeva - a 16 th century social reformer.

Sankardeva, a pioneer of the medieval-age

neo-Vaishnavite movement, preached a monotheist

form of Hinduism called Vaishnavism

and established monasteries and hermitages

known as satra on the islet. The island soon

became the leading center of Vaishavinism

with the establishment of these satras.

The satras set up preserve antiques like

weapons, utensils, jewellery and other items of

cultural significance. Pottery is made in Mājuli

from beaten clay and burnt in driftwood fired

kilns in the same mode carried out by the

peoples of the ancient Harrappan Civilisation.

Sociologists have stressed the preservation

of these unique peoples, whose culture and

dance forms are untouched by modernism.

Kamalabari Satra: The Kamalabari Satra,

founded by Bedulapadma Ata in 1595, is

a centre of art, cultural, literature and classical

studies on the island. Kamala means

orange and bari means garden, hence Kamalabri

means Orange Garden. Its branch the

Uttar Kamalabari Satra has performed cultural

programmes of the Satria Art all around the

country and abroad.

Auniati Satra: Founded by Niranjan Pathakdeva

in 1653, the satra is famous for the “Paalnaam”

and Apsara Dances and also its extensive

assortment of ancient Assamese artfacts,

utensils, jewellery and handicrafts. It also has

a hundred and twenty five disciples and over

seven hundred thousand followers worldwide.

Its name was derived from Auni Paan, a

kind of betel creeper plant found locally in the

town and Ati which means elevated place. The

presiding deity here is Lord Krishna, which is

referred to as Govinda.

Shamaguri Satra: The satra is famous for the

mask making in India.


KAMALABARI SATRA


SHAMAGURI SATRA


AUNIATI SATRA


JORHAT & SIVASAGAR

NORTHERN ASSAM


JORHAT - SIVASAGAR

Jorhat, famously known as the ‘Tea

capital of the world’ thanks to the innumerable

number of tea plantations

here, is located in Upper Assam and is

a major urban center of the State. It

also has historical significance as one

of the capitals of the Ahom dynasty,

which ruled Assam for close to six

centuries before the colonial era, and

home to many historical monuments

of Assamese culture. This town was a

flourishing and commercial metropolis

but was completely destroyed by

a series of Burmese invasions of Assam

between 1817 and the arrival of the

British force, in the year 1824.

The British Rule, though not free from

rebellions and revolutions, contributed

to the reemergence of this historical

town. In 1885, a narrow gauge railway,

Jorhat Provincial Railway, became

operational. In time, this contributed

to the rapid growth of the tea industry.

Although, the Civil Sub-division under

Sivasagar at Jorhat was formed in

1869, it was declared the administrative

headquarters of the undivided

Sivasagar district in 1911. Surrounded

by lush and verdant tea gardens and

numerous wetlands and rivers it acts

as a gateway to upper Assam and to

the state of Nagaland. In the north of

the district, the Brahmaputra River

forms the largest riverine island of the

world, the Majuli.

The cultural diversities which prevailed

in Jorhat nearly a century ago has

inspired the people to participate in

cultural activities through the decades

and as a result Jorhat has been able to

produce many creative writers, musician,

actors, historians and journalists,

terming Jorhat “The Cultural Capital of

Assam”.

Sivasagar, ”the Ocean of Lord Shiva”, is

a town in Upper Assam. It lies on the

Dikhu River, a tributary of the Brahmaputra

River, about 50 km northeast

of Jorhat and was the capital of the

Ahom Kingdom from 1699 to 1788.

The Tai-speaking Ahoms came to the

area from Yunnan province, China, in

the 13 th century. The Ahoms ruled

Assam for six centuries, until their

kingdom fell to the Burmese in 1819

and their ruling class was all but wiped

out. The province was liberated by the

British in 1825.

Assam, in fact, derives its name from

the Ahom dynasty which held such

undisputed way in the east that even

the Mughal rulers, who had extended

their dominance over most of the

northern parts of the subcontinent,

could not make inroads into Ahom

territory.

This town’s main feature is the water

body from which it takes its name. This

is a 1.04 km 2 tank, also known as the

Borpukhuri, which is at a higher elevation

than the rest of the town, with

three temples,”Dol”s in Assamese, built

in 1734, on its banks. Of these temples,

the most prominent is the Sivadol,

standing tall at 32m. The other temples

are the Vishnudol and Devidol.


KAZIRANGA PARK

NORTHERN ASSAM


KAZIRANGA NATIONAL PARK

NORTHERN ASSAM

Kaziranga National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is a national park in the Golaghat and Nagaon districts

of the state of Assam, India. Located on the edge of the Eastern Himalaya biodiversity hotspot, the park

combines high species diversity and visibility. Kaziranga is a vast expanse of tall elephant grass, marshland,

and dense tropical moist broadleaf forests, criss-crossed by four major rivers, including the Brahmaputra.

The sanctuary, hosts two-thirds of the world’s great one-horned rhinoceroses. Listed as a vulnerable species,

the large mammal is primarily found in parts of north-eastern India and in protected areas in Nepal, where

populations are confined to the riverine grasslands in the foothills of the Himalayas. Weighing between

2260 kg and 3000 kg, it is the fourth largest land animal and has a single horn, which measures 20 cm to 57

cm in length. Today, about 3,000 Rhinos live in the wild, 2000 of which are found in Assam’s Kaziranga alone.

Kaziranga is also home to the highest density of tigers among protected in the world, and was declared a

Tiger Reserve in 2006 as well as large breeding populations of elephants, wild water buffalo, swamp deer

and is an important bird area.

The history of Kaziranga as a protected area can be traced back to 1904, when Baroness Mary Curzon, the

wife of the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon of Kedleston, visited the area. After failing to see a single rhinoceros,

for which the area was renowned, she persuaded her husband to take urgent measures to protect the

dwindling species which he did by initiating planning for their protection. On 1 June 1905, the Kaziranga

Proposed Reserve Forest was created with an area of 232 km 2 and over the next years the park was extended

to a total of 430 km 2 . Although the etymology of the name Kaziranga is not certain, there exist a number of

possible explanations derived from local legends and records. According to one legend, a girl named Ranga,

from a nearby village, and a youth named Kazi, from Karbi Anglong, fell in love. This match was not acceptable

to their families, and the couple disappeared into the forest, never to be seen again, and the forest was

named after them. According to another legend, Srimanta Sankardeva, the sixteenth century Vaisnava saintscholar,

once blessed a childless couple, Kazi and Rangai, and asked them to dig a big pond in the region so

that their name would live on.

The park experiences three seasons: summer, monsoon, and winter. The rainy monsoon season lasts from

June to September, and is responsible for most of Kaziranga’s annual rainfall of 2,220 mm. During the peak

months of July and August, three-fourths of the western region of the park is submerged, due to the rising

water level of the Brahmaputra. The flooding causes most animals to migrate to elevated and forested regions

outside the southern border of the park, such as the Karbi Hills.


KAZIRANGA VILLAGES

NORTHERN ASSAM


BRAHMAPUTRA RIVER

NORTHERN ASSAM


BRAHMAPUTRA RIVER - The only male river of India

The Brahmaputra River (named as the

Son of the Creator of the Cosmos, in

Hindu mythology) is one of the holiest

rivers of the World and possibly, the only

river which is considered holy by four

religions : Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and

Bonpas.

Not only is it a fabled holy river, but it is

also one of the last mysteries solved by

the Royal Geographical Society, when

the origin of this river was traced from

the glacial waters of the Mansarovar Lake

(called a lake formed from the minds of

the Gods), but whose ending was not

known and was confused to be draining

into the Irrawaddy River in Burma or,

the ending was seen in Bengal, but the

origin was not known, for three centuries

of explorations.

The lake is located at the foot of Mount

Kailash, which has been the mythical

home of the Gods and was one of the

most hidden mountains of the world,

protected to the North by the deserts

of Gobi and Taklamakhan, while, to the

South by the highest of the Himalayan

Ranges. It was discovered that from this

lake emerged four great rivers, with the

Indus flowing to the North, the Sutluj

to the West, the Karnali flowing as one

off the main tributaries into the Holy

Ganges and finally, to the east was the

Brahmaputra.

Draining nearly 40% of the snow melt of

the great water towers of the Himalayas,

this is a mighty river which in Western

Tibet is called the Horse River, in Central

Tibet is called the Tsangpo or, simply the

river. In the plains of the valley of Assam,

its great spread is seen in all its glory, as

the Brahmaputra. Its narrow part is 3 km

while its widest 40, and when it floods

it rises by over 8 meters and spreads

another 20 km.

The environment of the Brahmaputra

floodplains in Assam have been

described as the Brahmaputra Valley

semi-evergreen forests ecoregion.

The Ganges-Brahmaputra system has

the third greatest average discharge of

the world’s rivers —roughly 30,770m 3

per second; approximately 19,800 cubic

meters per second of the total is supplied

by the Brahmaputra alone.

Another important feature of the river

is its tendency to flood. The quantity

of water carried by the Brahmaputra in

India and Bangladesh is enormous. The

river valley in Assam is enclosed by hill

ranges on the north, east, and south and

receives more than 2,540 mm of rainfall

annually.

Extensive flooding is virtually an annual

occurrence in the Brahmaputra valley

during the summer monsoon. In addition,

tidal surges accompanying tropical

cyclones sweeping inland from the

Bay of Bengal periodically bring great

destruction to the delta region. One

such storm—the Ganges-Brahmaputra

delta cyclone of November 1970—

caused an estimated 300,000 to 500,000

deaths and inundated a vast area. In

the 21 st century the delta has also been

affected by rising sea levels as a result of

global warming.


INDIA - ASSAM, DECEMBER 2016

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