History of Assamese

Amongst the various modern Indo-Aryan languages of the East are Bengali, Oriya, Maithili, Assamese (Ass), Magahi and Bhojpuri. This article is about Assamese. Assam is in the North-East of India, a beautiful state very green with lots of wild life. The Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary famous for its Rhino is there. Unfortunately the state has been a victim of unabated infiltration from Bangladesh resulting a change in the demographic composition of the population. Sooner or later it will become a part of Bangladesh!

In ancient times Assam was known as Pragjyotisa and Kamaraupa. The present name Assam derives from the name of a Sino-Tibetan tribe, the Ahoms, who came from North Burma and conquered eastern Assam in 1228 a.d.

Bengali, Oriya and Assamese form the easternmost group of the Indo Aryan languages, and they have a common source in Magadhi Apabhramsa, the principal dialect that developed for the Old Eastern Prakrit. This dialect spread to become Oriya, Assamese and Bengali.

Ass is spoken along the valley of the Brahmaputra river. Numerically Ass is not so important but its literary output is quite respectable showing the high culture of its speakers. Ass is very much like Bengali, and early Ass and early Bengali at one time converged into one speech. In fact the grammar of these languages is also very similar, its pronunciation that makes them different.

The Ass vocabulary is mainly derived from Sanskrit. In spoken dialect, however, the original Sanskrit words are mostly replaced by tadbhava (words derived from Sanskrit) or ardha-tatsama (half-Sanskrit words).

The article is verbatim from The History and Culture of the Indian People published by the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan. I then compared notes with the Cultural History of India published by the Ramakrishna Mission and made additions thereafter. The article is divided into five periods namely 1300 to 1526, to 1707, to 1818, to 1905 and ending with 1947. There is only one chapter.

1300 to 1526
The beginnings of Ass literature may be traced to the mystic lyrics known as the caryas centering on the esoteric doctrines and erotic practices of the later Sahajayana form of Mahayana Buddhism. Written by 23 siddha-purusas (8th to 12th century a.d.) they belong to eastern India as a whole, although they have been claimed as their own by Assam, Bengal, Orissa and Mithila. The emergence of Ass as a distinct language is marked by the outburst of a rich poetical literature based on the two great epics and Puranas.

The oldest Assamese writer seems to have been Hema Sarasvati of the late 13th century. His Prahlada-charita based on the Sanskrit Vishnu Purana shows a finished Sanskritized style for Ass. Other poets in the court of Kamatapur like Harihara Vipra and Kaviratna Sarasvati rendered into Ass verse episodes from the Mahabharata in the early 14th century.

Kaviraja Madhava Kandali 14th century is the first great poet of Ass. His work consists of a version of the Ramayana and a narrative poem Devajit on Krishna as the supreme divinity. He wrote in simple Ass and anticipated the later Vaishnava renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Another great poet was Durgavara who retold the story of the Ramayana in songs. Quite a mass of literature known as the Mantras or Magical charms of unknown authorship was found in Ass probably going back to the period before 1500. The Mantras contained magical formulae against snakebite, against ghosts and demons and against various kinds of diseases.

The greatest period of Assamese literature was ushered in with the Bhakti movement started by the great Sankaradeva 1449 to 1568. The movement he started was of course the provincial Ass form of a pan-Indian Bhakti movement that thoroughly changed the face of Hindu society of Assam. In that province Saktism or worship of the Mother Goddess, which might have largely been derived from the pre Aryan Mongoloid peoples of Assam, appears to have been the dominant religion before the advent of Sankaradeva a high caste non Brahmin. He preached absolute faith in a God of Love, Vishnu or his incarnation Krishna. To spread his movement a lot of literature was created. Sankaradeva’s hyms and other works formed the basis of evening prayers and evening service in all the villages of Assam where people gathered in the Nam-ghar or The House of Praise for communal worship through songs and chant or reading. Among the more important of the 27 works composed by him are the last canto of the Ramayana, some portions of the Bhagvata Purana, Kirttanaghosha, Rukmini-harana a narrative poem depicting an episode of the life of Krishna, the Bhakti-pradipa and the Nimi-nava-siddha-samvada. He also wrote a number of dramas that show the Maithili influence. Another kind of poetry introduced by him was Bar-git, devotional poems, extremely popular to even this day.

A word may be said about A historical literature the Buranjis. This the Ass language took over from the Sino-Tibetan Ahom speech. The Ahom conquerors of Assam who established their rule in eastern Assam in the 13th century appear to have a good sense of history and encouraged writing of history in their own language. The word Buranji is Ahom (Thai) in origin. But we cannot take up the study of this question as well of Ass prose because these Buranjis came to be written in Ass only from the 17th century onwards.

1526 to 1707
The next great poet of early Ass was Madhavadasa 1489 to 1596 a disciple of Sankaradeva whose principal works are more or less on the lines laid down by his Guru. These include –
1. Bhakti-ratnavali – a study of the different aspects of bhakti based on a Sanskrit work.
2. Nama-ghosha or Hazari-ghosha – a devotional handbook or prayer book of the Eka-sarana sect, consisting of a large number of hymns reflecting different moods of devotees.
3. Bara-gitas – depicting the life of Krishna in Vrindavana among the gopis and containing some poems of prayer.
4. Nine Anikiya Nats dealing with the life of child Krishna.

One peculiarity of the Ass literature during this period deserves notice. Unlike the Vaishnava movement elsewhere it ignored the entire episode of the love of Radha and Krishna which formed part of the movements elsewhere.

One of the most important writers of the movement was Rama Sarasvati who translated four parvas of the Mahabharata. He wrote in Ass verses of the Puranas, Bhagvatas and the Gitagovinda by Jayadeva. The Bhagavad Gita was first rendered into Ass verse by Govinda Misra.

Ass prose was influenced by the Sino-Tibetan speech of the Ahoms who founded a national kingdom in Assam that ran throughout the Mughal period. The Ahoms used to write historical prose chronicles called Buranjis in their own Sino Tibetan language which went out of use by the beginning of the 18th century. Later when the Ahoms adopted Ass as their spoken language, the Buranjis were rewritten in Ass. A number of these Buranjis dated from the 17th century onwards have come to light. They have not only enriched the Ass language and literature but also throw valuable light on the political, social and economic condition of the country, particularly North-eastern India during the 17th to 19th centuries.

1707 to 1818
The bulk of the literary productions of this period are mostly in the nature of translations, adaptations or compilations in matters religious.
The most noticeable change in Ass literature during the period under review is the greater emphasis lay upon secular rather than religious subjects before. Apart from stories and romances, books were written on astrology, mathematics, veterinary science, rituals, dancing and music. So far as veterinary science was concerned there are three treatise, namely Hasti-Vidyarnava, an illustrated and scientific book on elephant lore based on the Sanskrit work Matanga-lila and another book on the same subject with the same title composed in 1734 while the third book Ashwanidan dealing in horses, their prevention and treatment was compiled in 1806 by Suryakhari Daivajna.

As to the other scientific treatises mention may be made of Bhasvati, an astronomical work by Kaviraja Chakravarti and Kitabat Manjari, a treatise on Arithmetic composed by Bakul Kayastha about 1734. Reference may also be made to Hasta Muktavali a book on dancing by Subhankara Kavi and the romantic poem Mrgawati Charit by Ram Dvija.

Among the very important Buranjis (historical chronicles referred to earlier) were Padsha Buranji 1650 to 1780, Asam Buranji 1681, Kamrupa Buranji 1700, Kachari Buranji 1706, Jayantia Buranji 1742 and Tungkhungia Buranji 1804. There were also Buranjis written in prose. To this class of literature belongs the Durangaraja-Vamshavali (chronicle of the Darang kings) compiled by Suryakhari Daivajna in 1798 and Koch-Raja-Vamshavali (chronicle of Koch kings) by Rahikanta Dvija in 1802.

1818 to 1905
Assam was conquered by the British in 1826 and formed a part of Bengal thereafter. Assamese was looked upon as a dialect of Bengali and only Bengali was taught in Assamese schools to the exclusion of Ass up to the year 1873 when Ass as a language was restored its rightful place in the schools and courts.

The missionaries did some pioneering work by writing a grammar and dictionary in Ass publishing religious i.e. Christian literature, which helped to set up Ass for modern requirements. The Baptist from the U.S. established the first printing press in Assamese and, started a monthly magazine, the Arunodaya Samvad Patra 1846. They also brought out textbooks for schools in history, elementary science, and grammar, besides general readers. A missionary W. Robinson brought out in 1839 ‘A Grammar of the Assamese Language’.

A new literary style based on the spoken language of Central Assam came into being. Anandaram Dhekial Phukan 1829-59 was the first great Ass writer of the present age. There was also Hem-chandra Barua 1835-96 who set the standards for modern Ass language through his grammar, Asamiya Vyakarana 1895 and his Anglo-Assamese dictionary, Hema-kosa 1900. He was also a versatile writer who composed short novels as well as satirical dramas with the objective of removing social evils. Another Gunabhiram Barua brought out a magazine called Assam Bandhu. A number of Assamese men educated in Calcutta got inspired by developments in Bengali literature started a literary magazine the Jonaki (moonlight) which had a great influence in the building of modern Assamese literature.

Lakhsmi-nath Bezbarua 1868 to 1938 is regarded as the greatest figure in modern Assamese literature. He was a dramatist, a poet, essayists, a short story writer and humorist – all in one. His sketches of Ass middle-class life and the Assamese villager remain unsurpassed. He wrote serious plays as well as farces. His short stories have been collected in three independent volumes. Surabhi 1909, Sadhu-kathar Kuki 1912 and Jonabiri 1913. He invented a new literary form that was halfway between the short story and essay. Together with friends he started a new monthly, the Jonaki, in 1889, which played a vital role in providing some novel features to Ass poetry. Many other writers flourished during this period too.

1905 to 1947
Among the Assamese writers of note during this period are Hemchandra Gosvami 1879 to 1928, educationists, historian, editor of old texts, essayists. On behalf of the Calcutta University he edited three big volumes Typical Selections from Assamese literature. Another was Rajani-kanta Bardalai 1867 to 1939, outstanding novelists mostly of historical themes. Kamla-kanta Bhattacharya worked hard against the evils of orthodox religion – as a reformer he fought against the evils of the caste system and advocated widow remarriage. Amibika-giri-ray Chaudhari was a poet of Indian nationalism. There were many other writers during this period.

The writer of the present day are quite numerous in Assamese and the more important ones are Sarat-chandra Gosvami 1886 to 1944, Dandi-nath Kalinatha poet and satirist, Nalini-bala Devi poetess, Atul-chandra Hajarika dramatist who wrote on themes from the Puranas, Jyoti-prasad Agarwala perhaps the most significant contributor to Ass drama and many others.

The Ass novel shows a slow but steady growth. It was Padmanath Gohain Barua to whom goes the credit of successfully exploring the fields of historical fiction. His novels, Lahari 1890 and Bhanumati 1893, have been written in the background of the Ahom history.

The Second World War radically disturbed life in Assam and virtually atrophied all literary effort. Publications became rare and periodicals which maintained some semblance of life, dwindled. Influences from far and near came to bear conflictingly upon the thin lingering current of literature. But the change was particularly felt in poetry where experiments have been carried out boldly and successfully.

There were a number of other works during this period but putting all of them down would be too much of detail. It would be sufficient to conclude by saying that the literary atmosphere is full of life and vigor. In achievement, Ass may not have been at par with some of the leading languages of India, but its output is great and can well be compared in literary production of other major regional languages of India.

What I have realized that there existed a strong Sanskrit influence on Assamese starting with the Vaishnava Movement in the 15th century. How the beauty of Dharma as expressed in the epics and the Puranas captured the hearts of the Assamese people to become a part of their lives. Some of you might say that the Ahoms who came from Northern Burma are foreigners. Friend let us not look at boundaries from today’s perspective. Burma was always considered part of the Indian cultural unit. It was the British who made Burma a distinct political unit sometime in the 19th century.

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