Sunday Monitor

Assamese identity & a rich history of commingling communities

The creation of a nation is equally related to all the material, intellectual and cultural life of that nation. The development of culture and civilisation are often dependent on each other. The Assamese community is also not exception to this. Many factors contribute to bring people together as one community.



Language and literature reflect thoughts, imagination and ethnic feelings of people.Long 2000 years spanned to appear Assamese as full fledged language. Nearly 4,000 years ago, the Austroloid people, the aboriginals of southeast Asia, migrated here. But the modern Assamese language originated in Indo-Aryan dialect. It evolved from Magadhi Prakrit, many linguists term it as Kamrupi dialect.

The Indo-Aryan language was formed before 5th century in some elite localities of Kamrupa empire. Austro-Asiatic people were abundant on both sides of the Brahmaputra valley. There were some Tibeto-Burman immigrants.

The Kamrupi dialect prevailed in western Assam and later spread to other parts. This claim of Assamese scholars could be authenticated from the writings of Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang in the early seventh century. Old Kamrupi or origin dialect of Assamese language is found in King Vaskar Varman’s inscriptions. The Assamese language has borrowed or added many Austro-Asiatic or Tibeto-Burman words.

Before the emergence of the Assamese community, in 16th-17th century, Assam was under rule of different royal administration. Two prominent powers were Ahom in the east and Koch in the west. But Assam was not bipolar and many small kingdoms existed. Moreover, Muslims inhabited in many parts of Assam, including Kamrupa. Under these kingdoms, many sub-communities also lived. Besides own local dialects, their central communicating language was one without any distinctive name. People could not sense then the linguistic nationalism or unity. All these things happened spontaneously until the name of Assam or Assamese was born.

Ancient Assamese people

A mix of blood and culture shape the biological and mental nature of a community. History only can touch from the reign of Varman dynasty. The main ethnic groups which migrated to ancient Kamrupa were Alpine, Mongolian and Caucasian.

Another community namely Veddid, likely to be Caucasian, came in a lesser extent. It is worth mentioning the influence of monarchy for uniting the said ethnic groups. During the reign of Varman dynasty, the Brahmaputra valley became more liberal and tolerant than elsewhere in India.

As a result of Mongolian influence, occupational communities were not identified as separate caste or community like in north Indian Aryan belts. Therefore, there is no strict communal or professional distinction among people except a few classes like sweeper, fishermen etc. The demographic pattern of the Brahmaputra valley itself signifies the generosity and tolerance. So, it is evident that not only during pre-Vedic or Vedic period, settlers in the valley from North India were Hindus but various tribes of Mongolian ethnic communities embraced Arayanised language, religion and culture. This is the reason behind the lack of ethnological uniformity among Assamese Hindus. Rather ethnological diversity was conspicuous. This was due to mixed blood of Alpine, Mongolian, Caucasian and Veddid people.

Mongolian population

A majority of Assamese people belong to this group of vast Mongolian group known as Kirat. The arrival of Kacharis was the first of this group. Anthropological, linguistic and cultural evidences have concluded that the blood level of the Kacharis is significantly higher among the Assamese population. We have to study about the communities during their stay in Mongolian fold for adequate knowledge of Assamese sub-communities. May be after 12th century onwards whenever the process of assimilation started with Indo-Aryan people, their original distinction, lifestyle and language were lost gradually. Among many ethnic groups in upper Assam, only Deoris have been speaking or preserving their language in a limited periphery.

Similarly, in middle Assam, the Tiwa or Lalung people communicate in their languages. Tiwas are now recognised as a mainstream Assamese community. The communities in lower Assam, such as Bodo, Rabha, Garo, Koch could not sustain separate national identity other than Assamese. Only the language of Bodo people is dominant.


Other three communities of Veddid origin are Hira, Bania and Koibarta. They were Aryanised but accorded lower social status.


Among the old inhabitants of Kamrupa, the Nath community is also included. They are Aryanised Shaiva, followers of Gorakhnath. The Pala and Salastambha kings were Shaiva but did not relate to the Naths. The main occupation of the Naths was to raise larvae of moths and make yarn from them. Therefore, they were known as Katini Yogi.

The community is more likely emerged from the union of the Aryan and Aryanised ethnic tribes.This is one reason for not getting equal status with that of Arayan. But they intellectually and culturally established as Assamese before 12th century. However, Assamese is a modern word not used then. But these ethnic groups have contributed to the formation of collective identity of the people we call now as Assamese.


Vedic and pre-Vedic language and culture formed the basis of primary linguistic and cultural identity of the Assamese people. Among holders of this language and culture, the contribution of the Kalitas of the Alpine group and the Vedic Aryan speaking Brahmins is undeniable. The Kalitas are the first community to play an important role in the history of Assamese people.

According to the Kalitas’ history of Banikanta Kakoty, they are believed to have migrated from original settlement in the north of Videha or Mithila. It is said that once they were associated with Buddhism. There is no conclusive definition how the name of Kalita was derived. Their rank is on a par with the Brahmins in the Aryan social hierarchy.


They are another branch of Brahmins of basically fortune teller instead of performing religious occasions. Location-wise, their status is different. Vedic Brahmins have not accorded them equal status across the state. They were worshippers of planets, not Shakta, and were interested in astrology.

Towards the end of the Pala dynasty, Kamrupa became weak politically, and many small Kingdoms appeared prominently. After 12th century, the Brahmaputra valley was politically disintegrated and ruled by Kachari, Koch, Ahom, Chutiya, Bhuyans, Gova kings etc. During this period, two important communities, Muslims and Ahoms, migrated to the valley and added a new dimension to the history of Assamese people.


The first introduction of Assamese people to Islam was through the war in1205AD. That year, Bakhtiyar Khilji, the then Sultan of Bengal, invaded Kamrupa. He lost the war and returned inflicted by heavy casualties. But in third invasion, the Kamrupa king died and the kingdom passed to the Muslims. Historians also indicated that the Sultan took some tribal people with him to help him in the invasion, later they converted to Islam.

Many socially inferior classes of Assamese Hindus also converted to Islam and contributed to the growth of the Muslim population. Therefore, many Assamese Muslims are by birth Assamese in terms of language and culture.

Sikh community

Founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak visited Assam on his way from Dhaka in 1505 AD. He also met Saint Sankardev. Guru Teg Bahadur first established Gurudwara at Dhubri in 17th century.

Residing mostly in Nagaon district, Sikhs came to Assam as soldiers to fight Burmese intruders. Sent by king Ranjit Singh, 500-odd Sikh Platoon under command of Chaitanya Singh entered and settled in 1820. Now they are integral part of Assamese society as Assamese Sikh.


Mishing is one of the largest Indo-Mongolian ethnic tribe of Assam after Bodo. They are originally hill dwellers like Adi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. They generally live along the river Brahmaputra in upper Assam.

Their bamboo house architecture is unique. Traditionally, the floors of the houses are raised with bamboo pillars. The floor, door, lintel and staircase are made of bamboo and roofing with palm leaves. Originally, performed animistic rituals, but now change with time gradually merging in Vaishnavite Hinduism. Unlike many Bodo-Kachari or Indo-Mongolian tribes, they preserve their own language notwithstanding identified as Assamese.


Broadly, there are two prominent parts in the Assam history. The first influential period of Assam history was Varman dynasty expanded its legacy until the end of Pala dynasty. The second period started with reign of Ahom dynasty (1228) until modern period with the arrival of the British (1826). Ahom is the longest serving monarchy in Assamese history. The position of Koch, Kachari, Chutiya kings and other chieftains like Tiwa, Bhuyan, Matak, etc were like that of kings of Mlech and Pala dynasties in Varman kingdoms.

The big dynasties, including Koch, Kachari and Chutiya, could not extend their territories to entire Brahmaputra valley. However, Ahom Kingdom established only in 13th century occupied entire Brahmaputra valley in the end of 17th century.

Virtually the history of Ahom became the history of Assam. The language and people were known as Assamese or Assam from the Ahom’s period. However, the sense of Assamese name or nationalism was born with the advent of the British. Previously name of country or region were in the name of community like Ahom, Koch kingdom etc.

Light of Vaishnavism

Undoubtedly, the second golden age of Assam history can be considered to be the period of the Vaishnava movement initiated by Sankardev after the Varman period. The Vaishnava ideals and teaching directly or indirectly influenced people. As a result, a larger sect was created preaching equality and fraternity. So much so was their effect that Assam’s socio-cultural history can be divided into two parts — pre-Sankara and post-Sankara.

Assamese: Community of Motion

The history of a living race or civilisation never ends. The Assamese community has also been enriching itself with new elements with passing of every period. From ancient to post-modern, influxes of new ethnic, linguistic, social groups continuing assimilation with the Assamese people. Adoption and cordiality towards new flow is the strong formative foundation of the Assamese people for eternal period.

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