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Assam’s Religion and Craft: A Historical Perspective

Temple Culture


To understand the value of Assam in the larger context of indic culture one can glean religion and traditional craft practices of the state from a historical perspective to be the most valid indicators of future steps to elevate the state as a global platform for cultural engagement.


This religious history of Assam has seldom been explored in any serious way by modern scholarship but instead typically has been dismissed as the thin veneer of Brahmanical Hinduism over a substratum of indigenous tribal religion. The land of Assam, the remote and hilly northeast corner of India on the border of China and Bhutan, has long held a place of mysterious fascination and tantalizing allure in both the eastern and western imaginations. Famed as a realm of treacherous jungle and strange tribal ritual, Assam has for centuries been portrayed in Indian literature and in European accounts as a savage, untamed country. However religion serves as a telling story of the past, a time warp with medieval customs still followed in religious pilgrimage sites such as the Kamakhya Temple. 


This temple is one of the oldest site among the 51 Shakti Peethas. A Shakti Peetha is a site of goddess worship. Texts such as Shiva Purana, the Devi Bhagavata, the Kalika Purana and the AstaShakti recognise this site as one of the Adi Shakti sites wherein; according to the most popular account, the ornaments of Parvati fell after sati, upon Shiva's tandav


This site lacks deep archaeological research however it is believed through historic investigation the earliest temple was constructed during the Mlechchha dynasty. According to the Kalika Purana, Kamakhya Temple denotes the spot where Sati used to retire in secret to satisfy her amour with Shiva, and it was also the place where her yoni fell after Shiva danced with the corpse of Sati. Being the centre for Tantra worship this temple attracts thousands of tantra devotees in an annual festival know as Ambubachi Mela. Another annual celebration is the Manasha Puja. Durga Puja is also celebrated annually at Kamakhya during navratri in the autumn.


Much of Assamese religion is rooted in the esoteric and centers around the optimizations and harnessing of power, on all levels - cosmic, physical, social, and political. The reliance of the Assamese people of this powerful goddess is owing to their treacherous history of complex and often violent statecraft and warfare. This site in ancient times was known as Pragjyotisha, the land of eastern lights and in medieval times as Kamarupa, "the form of desire". Assam has a rich Buddhist history with king Kumara inviting Hsuan Tsang, the great chinese pilgrim who visited India to learn the Dharma to further propagate it in China. The state finds its Buddhist history in the oldest known list of the four pithas that we find in the Hevajra Tantra a Buddhist text of the eighth century. 


The state is replete with other centers of pilgrimage that present a good case for the government to elevate tourism support. These age-old temples are classic examples of brilliant late medieval Indian brick architecture. The Archaeological Survey of India documents Assam as a state with rich cultural history and important monuments that require protection. The total number of monuments protected by the ASI has gone up to 54 in Assam. Understanding the monuments of national importance once can infer the most important religious devotion was Shakta worship. Thus, apart from these complexes, there are 12 other temple complexes associated with Shakta worship, which serve as important sites of devotion. 


Craft Culture


To further understand the elusive culture of Assam one must make an attempt in studying the nature of the rural economy of the plains districts of the Brahmaputra Valley – revealing an interesting landscape of traditional industries in Assam. Below is an overview of all the traditional crafts which existed up till the eve of British occupation along the Brahmaputra valley.


Some of the most important areas of craft development in Assam was gold washing, silk, lac, artillery, and tea. It is silk that is one area that has flourished overtime in Assam and has carved its niche across the handicraft landscape. Sericulture and weaving of silk was carried on for both household consumption as well as for the supply to the royalty and nobility of the Ahoms. The word koseyya is mentioned in the early Buddhist works in the list of textiles. The Indian tradition from very early time explains koseyya cloths as made of silk-worm, and they silk which is reared from them is also called by the same name. there exist three varieties of silk known as tasar, muga and eri. These are wild silk and unlike the mulberry silk, the insects producing them do not require to be domesticated. Some amount of muga silk started being exported to Bengal and beyond around the last quarter of the 18th century. Muga silks is reared on the non-mulberry plant, was most common. This insect of this particular variety was fed on the tree as it grew.


It is now with the boost in craft revival techniques that the richness, grandness and regality of silk is associated with the Indian attire. This is being brought back into mainstream fashion as accessible attire. Handloom revival has seen only a few Indian designers experimenting on silks with the western look. Designers like Shruti Sancheti, Divya & Ambika of Dabiri, RIna Dhaka and Samant Chauhan are rethinking Indian fashion and rethinking Indian fashion and showcased a collection of modern silhouettes using silk fabrics like mulberry, muga, eri and tussar at the Amazon India Fashion Week.


The rich cultural trove of Assam remains at the periphery of the cultural identity of the nation, thus it requires the attention that festivals such as Namami Brahmaputra are endevouring to bring to these sectors in order to highlight the gaps and thus create sustainable business models to elevate the cultural offerings of a state in a tangible manner.

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