Five significant facts least explored about Assam

This write-up is a modest attempt to provide some information and discuss five significant facts about Assam that are least known or talked about. This article contains a note on significance of two sacred institutions of the land, description of the housing pattern of Assam, the unique textile, the spiritual classical dance form of the land and traditional art, craft and ornaments with an aim to enlighten those interested.

Assam, which lies in the North-eastern part of India, remained unexplored mainly due to its remote location and at times, its inhospitable terrain for several decades. But today, thanks to technology, providing information handy for us and the fast growing tourism industry in the state, people from other parts of India and abroad have started taking interest in Assam. Many of us know that Assam is the gateway to the north-east, the largest tea producing state in the country, site of the first oil refinery in Asia, home to the one-horned rhinos in the world. Many of us also know about the mighty Brahmaputra—the lifeline of the state, one of the world's largest and also considered the only male river in India; about Majuli as the largest river island in the world; Kamakhya Shakti Peeth on the top of Nilachal Hills in Guwahati; popular tourist destinations like artistically beautiful Tezpur, historically rich Sibsagar and picturesque Haflong, the only hill station of Assam. However Assam is much more than these.

Institutions of Namghar and Satra

The institutions 'Namghar' (the prayer house) and 'Satra' (the village monastery) exercise a tremendous influence on the cultural, social and community life of the Assamese people. Without the Namghar it is impossible to conceive of the Assamese society. In Assam, mornings start on a spiritual note and each day ends with the chanting of the holy Kirtana and Bhagavata, along with sounds of drums and cymbals in the Naamghars. Established by Srimanta Sankaradeva, the great Vaisnava saint of the 15th century, the Namghars were the central religious institutions of the village which worked to a large extent towards spreading the intellectual and cultural activities in the village. Even today Namghars have not lost their importance. Namghars serve as panchayat-halls where villagers discuss and solve their problems. This community centre has to play a political and judicial role too. It is the place for holding 'Nama Kirtana' (chanting prayers from the Holy Kirtana) and daily 'prasangas' which create religious enthusiasm among the people. Namghars serve as the stage, auditorium and also the green room which have made it the centre of attractions and cultural activities. Moreover, the Namghars are public institutions and their affairs are conducted on a purely democratic basis. Everyone in the village has an equal voice in the management of its affairs. The Namghar teaches the people good conduct, ethics, morals and cleanliness. This benevolent institution brings unity and solidarity among the denizens of the land. It is the most sacred institution through which equality in man is practiced and 'untouchability' is discarded. The Namghar symbolizes the Sankari culture, a tribute befitting the rich legacy of the great saint poet of Assam—Sankaradeva.

The institution of Satra, a fruit of Sankaradeva's spiritual movement in Assam has survived almost 600 years with the teachings of integrity, unity and solidarity among the diverse population of the land. It has spread all over the region with certain differences due to its belonging to four different schools (Samhatis), but a unique characteristic binding them all into one. The four different schools of Satra are—Brahma Samhati, Nika Samhati, Kaal Samhati and Purush Samhati. The Satra is an organized body comprising several adjuncts like the Baat Chora, the Namghar, the Manikuta, the raw of Hati (cloisters or huts for habitation) etc. Satra life is the only example of its kind in the world. At a very tender age young boys are sent to Satras to spend their lives till death, offering them to the Lord and spreading the message of Srimanta Sankaradeva. The aim of their life is to promote Vaisnavism, spending the life of an ascetic and keeping the purity and heritage of the institution intact. The Satradhikaras (the principal spiritual guide and preceptor), first in ecclesiastical order receive profound respect, high social status and reverence from all and his deputy (deka-adhikara), the Pujari, the Puruhit, the Deori, the Pathak, the Gayan-Bayan command in the society at large. It is enduring the tradition of broadening the base and the periphery of the Assamese society. The Satras have profoundly influenced the cultural and social life of the people. It is not only a monastery for sustenance of the Bhagavata religion to posterity but also a centre for perpetuating diverse traditions of fine arts and classical learning. The Satra is a multi-dimensional institution playing significant role in the society. It has been contributing immensely to the socio-cultural development of Assam.

Both Namghar and Satra institutions have been promoters of liberal collectivism and abiding humanistic values in the land.

The Assam-type house

Assam, at the Northeastern corner of India, is the meeting ground of diverse ethnic communities and groups. The geographical position calls for a different architecture or house-pattern for its inhabitants, popularly known as the Assam type house. It is the damp, tropical climate in Assam with bountiful rain which makes these relatively short constructions (about 6-8 feet tall) with thatched roofs perfect for all seasons. Many people have now taken to brick and mortar construction, even in the villages where they prefer 'pucca' houses to protect them from the weathers. During summer in Assam these construction provide a cooling effect.

Assam, where flood is frequent and 'Bordoichila' (the great storm immediately following 'Chaitra Sankranti' in April) in a year is common, to ensure minimal damages from these the Assam-type houses are the most suitable. The essential items for constructing such houses are locally available and provided by nature (though as earlier discussed, people are now more inclined towards the brick and mortar constructions). These houses are usually built with bamboo and wooden planks. The posts, walls and roofs are thatched with 'Ikora' (a kind of reed) and 'Takaw' (a kind of betel nut leaf).

A large open space in front of the house called 'Aag Chutal' (the courtyard) is a unique feature of these houses. For the agriculturist Assamese the courtyard has much importance; it is the place where they discuss the activities of the day-to-day life, share feelings, arrange pandals for marriages, ceremonies and invite the 'Husuri' (a group of young boys singing and dancing across the village, stopping at every house, believed to bring good tidings to the house) during Bohag Bihu (the main harvest festival of the land, pretty much like the ones celebrated in other parts of India during the same period of the year). After harvesting, the act of treading out of grains by cattle is done in this yard too. At the backyard of the house the sight of 'Dheki' (an instrument for husking paddy) is very common. Each family has some extra land where different kinds of trees (preferably fruit trees) and vegetables are grown. The granary is generally constructed in a corner in front of the house. It is built on piles of wood high above the ground. Importantly in such houses no attached kitchen are constructed. Usually there are three rooms in such houses—the drawing room, the bedroom and the guest room. The long gateway to the house is the salient feature of Assam-type houses.

Assam's traditional textile and ornament

Assam occupies a prominent place in India in the field of cottage industry. Hand loom weaving, an indigenous craft, has been a part of its cultural heritage since ages. Not only does it add towards the rural economy, the exquisite hand-woven products are appreciated and are in demand across the world. The art of traditional weaving has been handed down since ancient times in Assam in almost among all communities. Hand loom weaving is not restricted to only one community/tribe like other parts of India; in Assam it's universally practiced, largely by rural womenfolk for whom it has been a way of life for them. Assam is the state having highest number of weavers in the country. Sualkuchi, a village near Guwahati, often regarded as the Manchester of the East, is the centre of professional silk industry with men weavers, which makes it famous for exclusive silk fabrics. Closely related to it is Assam's tradition of sericulture that comprises Eri/Endi (Philosamia ricini), the golden silk Muga (Antherea assama) and Paat/Assam silk/mulberry (bombyxmorii). Commercially, silk is of two types—wild silk and true silk. While wild silk created by silk-worms feed on leaves of various trees of the forest, true silk is the product of mulberry silk-worms. Assam is very proud of its indigenous products—wild (Eri and Muga silk) and true silk (Paat/mulberry), in either of the cases, the worms can survive nowhere else than Assam's climate. Assam's traditional hand loom textile unfolds weavers' high range of imaginative and creative genius; reflecting their deep understanding of beauty in color as well as design. The beautiful motifs and designs in the finished clothes are indigenous, nature being the source of those floral, plant, animals or structural and geometrical motifs. Eri, Muga and Paat silks are popular for their fine texture and durability. Eri fabric is largely used to make warm clothes which are light, but perfect for winter, very popular as shawls and quilts; Muga is a glossy silk, which can be hand-washed and its luster increases after every wash; Pat, another sought-after silk, famous for its beauty, is mostly used to make Assam's national attire—Mekhela-Chadar, which is mandatory for women to wear on their weddings. For the men it is dhoti and kurta made of Paat. These renowned silk products that very often outlive their proud owner are examples of Assam's unique cottage industry. Due to urbanization and stiff competition by less expensive mill-made products, this hand-loom industry has shrunk; now (more than ever) have become an integral part of the lives of some of the communities, who relate to it more than they did earlier, especially because of the limited number of people who feel that they are the last remaining torch-bearers of this indigenous tradition. Thanks to those born weavers, today Assam's silk fabrics have created waves in the global market.

It's said that Indian women have a great liking for ornaments and like other Indian states Assamese women, along with other ethnic groups of the region, use various kinds of ornaments which are graceful in form and tastefully decorated. Assamese goldsmiths have been inspired by nature and articles surrounding them. Though gold is the preferred metal among the Assamese, other ethnic tribes mostly wear brass, beads and silver ornaments. Most of the ornaments worn in the neck are called 'Haar' (necklaces) which are made of beads, and golden pendants are placed in the middle of the necklace. The traditional Assamese ornaments reflect the acumen of the makers in adopting assorted items from nature. 'Lokaparo', a set of ear and neck ornament, is named because it is shaped like a pigeon ('paro' means pigeon in Assamese)—the motif of a pair of pigeons is fashioned in each of the rings and on the locket of the neck piece. 'Senpatiya anguthi', so called on account of its design that imitates a bird, requires great insight to be shaped, like the other motifs. Similarly 'Jethi nejiya anguthi' is called after its design which is inspired by the shape of the lizard (jethi). 'Dholbiri' is a drum shaped pendant worn with the help of a chain around the neck (a dhol is a special drum, an important musical instrument in Assam); 'Joonbiri' is a crescent moon shaped neck locket ('joon' means the moon); 'Doogdoogi' is a pearl studded, heart-shaped, neck locket. 'Gaamkhaaru' is a special bracelet made of gold (or silver sometimes), with the two halves joined by means of two pins—one pin being the hinge and the other the fastening. These are a few to name among the many types of traditional Assamese ornaments which, with their varied form and design have provided the folk art a distinctive style.

Sattriya Nritya—the classical dance form of Assam

Sattriya Nitya—the ritualistic dance form of Assam is the great contribution of Srimanta Sankaradeva and his principal apostle Madhavadeva. Having evolved in the 15th century with an aim to teach devotional lessons through dance drama and to eliminate the barriers between men, the dance form sustains its glorious legacy even after six hundred years have passed. Recognized as one of the major classical dance form of India, Sattriya dance has been practiced by male monks at different Satra institutions belonging to the four schools across the state, mainly at 'Kamolabaria', 'Boretiya', 'Borduwa', 'Aauniaati', 'Dakshinpaat' and 'Gormur'. The name Sattriya itself has been derived from the word 'Satra' (Vaishnava monastery). In olden days the Vaisnavite monks, living in the Satras, performed these dance dramas as votive offerings. So, the framework and content of this dance form are devotional where 'Bhakti Rasa' (spiritual aspect) is predominant and are still preserved in the monasteries. In modern times this very eloquent ritual tradition has been passed on to the interested artists and has become a performing art. Sattriya dance consists of three distinct parts—'Guru Vandana', 'Ramdani' and 'Geet Abhinaya'. The first two are performed without music and to a great extent still remain unaffected by changes. 'Geet Abhinaya', based on childhood tales of Lord Krishna, got a face-lift with time. Sattriya dance, drenched in spirituality, passion and purity, both in monasteries and in stage, will remain an integral part of the land's culture.

Traditional art and craft of Assam

Art plays a significant role in the life of human beings. The people of Assam show rich accomplishment in the fields of art and craft. Assam's unique art and crafts have been captivating tourists from outside the state/nation. Some of the most magnificent, original handicrafts are available in the state. The land is well-known for its hand-loom and handicraft products which are to be found in each and every Assamese house as decorative and utility items. In Assam a layman (from an interior village) knows to weave artistically designed colorful attire, to create varied items made of bamboo and canes, to make varied agricultural implements/hunting tools/household belongings. Traditional art and crafts may be divided under the following heads—weaving and textile; bamboo and cane goods; brass and bell-metal products; wood work; terra-cotta; pottery; mask-making and puppetry.

Assam's fabrics, the prestigious Eri, Muga and Paat have been recognized worldwide as the finest textile. On his visit to Assam to promote Khadi during the Swadeshi Movement, Mahatma Gandhi opined, "Assamese women are born weavers; they weave fairy-tales in their cloth". Usually a guest receives a warm welcome with a 'gamucha' (the towel) woven by the women in their looms at home with creative design of exquisite beauty reflecting their aesthetic sense. Most of the people weave fabrics to make exclusive products (costumes like Mekheka chadar/Saree) and colorful cloths to be used as bed sheets or table clothes and carpets in their loom. Weavers are inspired by all colors that Mother Nature has on offer. For design they look at orchids, trees, creepers, stars twinkling in the sky, waves in the stream, butterflies on flowers, sporting fish, etc. These elegantly woven products have earned repute in the foreign market in recent times.

Nature has blessed Assam with its beauty; here cane and bamboo grow abundantly that Assamese artisans make abundant use of in making decorative items having high utility value. A typical Assamese drawing room (the 'Chora ghor') is full of arm chairs, sofa sets, tables, bars, tools, 'murha' (a sitting stool), portable partitions, 'jhula' (swing) for babies, to name a few. Moreover, table lamps, teapots, baskets, tea-trays, fruit trays, ashtrays, pedestal lamps with shades, sticks, floor mats etc. are made from bamboo and cane. Assamese artisans produce baskets of very fine shapes and sizes that range from simple designs prepared within a few minutes' time to a complicated, intricate pattern. There are carefully woven baskets for decoration as well as the ones meant for domestic use. The artisans inherit the skills from their ancestors. The bamboo is the principal house-building material in Assam. Posts, sub-posts, rafters, post-plates, ceiling and walls are constructed with bamboos. The cane splits are used in binding knots during house-building. From its finer splits are manufactured mats of different verities ('Pati dhora' and 'merdhara') to be decorated and used at home. Bamboo mats are used as floor covering. A characteristic icon of Assamese culture is the 'Jaapi' (popular headgear originally used to protect from scorching heat and rain during tailing in the paddy fields by the farmers) is a worthy product of cane and bamboo. Modern artisans produce beautifully designed colorful 'Japi' to be used as wall decorator which have received international acclaim.

In Assam the bell-metal workers are known as 'Kohar' (smith). 'Xorai' (a tray with a stem and a domed lid sometimes with/without a cover, offered as a mark of respect) which is a mark of Assam's rich cultural heritage, 'kalaha' (water vessel), flower vase, 'panbota' (a tray to offer betel nuts and leaves) and other culinary items for domestic purpose are produced with both brass and bell-metal. Hajo is known for its brass ware craft and Sarthebari for its bell-metal products. Traditional Assamese utensils are made of bell-metal and they are quite heavy. These products adorn every house as decor pieces as well as utility items and are associated with the peculiar social heritage of Assam.

Assam is also famous for its wood work. Beautiful homely furniture like decorated bed-stead with curved legs ('Paleng'), sitting stool ('tamuli-pira') etc., decorating the Namghar with divine or semi-divine figures (beautiful mythological figures on the posts/walls of Namghars) are made by the Assamese carpenters. Wood curving finds expression mostly on door walls, beams and ceilings of Satra and Namghar. In a typical Assamese house the wooden doors, windows and door-lintels with various motifs like flowers, creepers, animals, and birds are to be noticed. Beautifully curved wooden masks are to be seen in most of the Assamese families as decorative items. The artisans produce beautiful articles like images, mythological figures, trays, wall-hangings, animals, birds and other utility articles which speak of the artistic skills of the local wood workers of Assam.

Terra-cotta is an ancient craft of the land that concentrates mainly on toys and house-hold decorative items. In some rural areas clay tails of traditional designs are used to decorate walls. The history of toy making dates back to 10 century AD in Assam. Traditional Assamese toys are simple and conventional, usually sun-baked, fire-baked or painted; they are distinctive in their own way. Products made of pith/Indian cork generally representing human or divine figures, mythological birds and animals are popular too.

In Assam, pottery, a craft as old as the human civilization can be traced back to several centuries in the past. Usually it's the traditional wheel that the potter community has been using while making earthen pots and other products but products without using the wheel at all are made by the womenfolk of 'Hira' community and are the sole examples of their own kind in the world. Modern potters have extended their skill from household utility products to few other diversions with a hope to fetch a wider market. These articles, beautiful in variety, design and pattern, have tremendous market potential.

The art of traditional musk making is considered as a prestigious ancient art of the land that constitutes virtually the cultural wealth of Assam. The art of Sattriya musk and tribal musk have been preserved and practiced mainly at the Satras, and are also equally dear to the artistic tribal population of Assam who are famous for their delicate workmanship. Diverse kinds of musk are to be found in Assam like 'Mukh-Mukha', 'Chu-Mukha', 'Lutukai-Mukha', etc. which are usually made of bamboo, cane, wood, cloths, clay, pith, etc. and with traditional colors collected from nature. Presently, musks have been used in some social dramas in the mobile theaters of Assam. The art of musk making has been playing a significant role in molding the rural economy of Assam providing employment to the artisans. However this art form which is so emotionally attached to the Assamese people needs immediate attention for it is going through the dark phase of trance.

Another traditional art of Assam, very close to the hearts of the Assamese which needs exposure, is the art of puppetry/projected play as a form of entertainment. Tradition of Puppet Theater as a performing art form goes back to several centuries. The vast body Neo-Vaishnava literature has suggested that there existed a class of showmen designed as 'Tatekiya/Bajikar' who specialized in the art of animating puppets with the help of some mechanical devices. Currently popular as 'Putola Naach'/'Putola Bhawna'/'Putola Bhaotiya' in Assam, it's the string puppet shows in colloquial tongue with puppets made of soft wood and manipulated with the help of strings. The lower portions of the puppets are covered wisely with flowing cloths. Generally, episodes from Indian mythology are enacted in puppet shows which are deeply rooted in religious ethos. Once a very popular medium of entertainment in rural Assam, this folk art has lost its charm, thanks to the advent of modern technology and people's growing affiliation towards it. However, in recent times modern puppet shows with secular and contemporary themes are coming up, creating awareness among the people.

Assam is endowed with vast natural resources offering extensive opportunities for setting up varied unique industries in the state. No other state in India can offer such magnificent variety in art and craft. Assam, with its rich natural beauty, glorious past, rich heritage, multi-ethnic cultures, assorted traditions, golden treasury of traditional handicrafts from folk artists and sculptors surely can be a delight for a socio-cultural learner.

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