Vibrant Culture of Assam
The Assamese adorn very simple dresses, and mostly hand loomed. The women wear motif-rich Mekhela Chador or Riha- Mekhela. The men wear ‘suria’ or ‘dhoti’, and over it, they drape a chadar known as ‘Seleng’.
Gamosa is an indispensable part of almost all socio-religious ceremonies in Assam. It is derived from the Kamrupi word ‘Gaamasa’ (gaama+chadar) which was used to cover the Bhagavad Purana at the altar. It is considered as an act of purification and used to clean the body after bath. It looks like a white rectangular piece of cloth along with a red border on three sides and woven motifs on the fourth. Assamese men wear the dhoti-gamosa which is their traditional dress. Bihu dancers wrap it around the head, and it is often used to cover the altar at the prayer hall or the scriptures. The other things like Tamul paan and Xorai also important symbols. The former is considered as offers of devotion whereas the latter is a bell used for container medium.
It is not a surprise that Assam is rich in folk music. From the time of the Kamarupa Kingdom followed by Ahom Dynasty, Assamese culture has been influenced by each of its rulers except the British rule which ended the Ahom Dynasty. The indigenous folk music has influenced the folk music of artists like Bhupen Hazarika, Parvati Prasad Baruva, Jayanta Hazarika, Utpalendu Choudhury, Nirmalendu Choudhury and many others. Classical Assamese music is divided into Borgeet and Ojapali which combines narrative singing with dancing. The music of Oja-pali has a raga system of clear traditional orientation.
Art and Craft
It’s been more than two thousand years that various traditional crafts have emerged in Assam. The traditional crafts like pottery and terracotta work, brass craft, jewellery making, musical instruments making, cane and bamboo craft, silk and cotton weaving, and Woodcraft are a major source of employment for the people of Assam.
Weaving is the most ancient of all the practices where even now women take pride in the possession and occupation in the handloom industry. Gandhiji lauded the Assamese weavers as artists who could weave dreams in their looms. Various ethnocultural groups make exclusive types of cotton garments with embroidery designs and colour combinations.
Painting is another ancient form which has been known since the time of Chinese traveler Xuanzang (7th century CE). Most of the manuscripts from the Middle Ages have excellent examples of traditional paintings. They have been influenced by the concept and designs in the medieval works such as the Chitra Bhagawata. There is a Department of Fine Arts in Assam, called University Silchar, which is a central government organization which focuses on the art and craft of north east India with a particular reference to Assam.
Assam is full of festivals, the most important being the Bihu. It is celebrated to mark the important points of a cultivator’s life over a yearly cycle. A non-religious festival which is celebrated irrespective of caste and creed. Rongali or Bohag Bihu celebrated in mid-April with the coming of spring and the beginning of the sowing season. It is also known as Rangaali Bihu (“rang” means merry-making). Next is the Kangaali Bihu (kangaali meaning poor) is celebrated in mid-October. It is called so because by this time the harvest is brought home. The Magh Bihu is celebrated in mid-January. There are community feasts and bonfires which take place. Also known as the Bhogaali Bihu (“bhog” means enjoyment and feasting). The first day of rongali bihu’ is called Goru Bihu when the cows are taken to the nearby ponds to be bathed.
Ali-Ai-Ligang is the spring festival, and the name of the festival is made up of three terms- ‘Ali’, root and seed, ‘Ai’ means fruit and ‘Ligang’, to sow.
Ojapali, Devdasi, and Satriya are the major dancing styles of Assam. Oja or the lead dancer narrates a mythological story along with the fusion of dance and acting. It is of three types – biyah-gowa that presents Mahabharata stories with the rhythmic use of feet, sukananni which celebrate the worship of snake goddess Manasa, and ramayani is based on the Assamese version of Ramayana. Satriya, developed by Sankardeva. Devadasi – deva-nati or nati nas is a conventional temple dance that is performed by unmarried women who submitted their lives to the presiding deity.
The dances of the Bodos are associated with the Kherai Puja festival where Bagurumba dance is the most popular. Other folk dances are incomplete without the Jhumur performed by the Adivasis which is a synchronized dance of boys and girls to the sounds of drums and flute.
Assamese dishes are said to be less spicy than any other Indian dishes. Assamese are mostly non-vegetarian, and their staple diet is rice. Fish, chicken, duck and pigeon and pork are widely eaten and quite popular. Fish curry is another favourite which is prepared as a sour dish called Machor tenga. Baked fish wrapped in leaves with white mustard paste is a popular delicacy called Patot diya mas where ‘pat’ means leaf in Assamese. Dried fish is a traditional tribal cuisine. Mutton, duck pigeon and fowl are many of the varieties of meat preparations. The variance of rice are produced and prepared like Cheera (flattened rice), akhoi (parched paddy grain), muri (puffed rice), pithguri (pound rice), sandoh guri (fried, pound rice), komal saul and bora saul.
The presence of traditional ‘detoxifying’ appetizers like Khar is prepared by burning the stem of the banana tree. It has a specific flavor which is soothing for the tummy.
People who have a weakness for sweet won’t be disheartened one bit as the Assamese dish is incomplete without sweets and one of its specialties called pitha is made from rice. Til pitha (moulded sticky rice cake with black sesame filling), ghila pitha (fried rice cakes), sunga pitha (rice cake baked inside whole bamboo pieces), narikolor laaru (sweet coconut balls) and kol pitha (banana pancakes) are some of these delicacies of the Assamese cuisine.
The jewellery is usually hand-made, and the designs depict flora and fauna. The people are keen on wearing a beautiful and unique style of ornaments made of gold and silver and varieties of jewels. The jewellery is simple and decorated with ruby or mina. The traditional ones worn by men are called Biri, Magardana, Matamoni, Kundal and Lokaparo whereas the ones worn by the women are Keru, Karphul, Kharu, Aargathi, Nalak, Keyur and Nupur.
Customs of Assam
Customs and traditions play a significant role in the society and the Assamese strictly adhere to the customs laid down by their forefathers, pertaining to their communities. These customs are beliefs that originated in the past and have been followed ever since, generation after generation. The weddings, birth, death and festivals in Assam include many customs that are supposed to be followed by all. For instance, the Assamese use bamboo to welcome guests because of their attachment to the bamboo culture. Known as Jaapi, this is basically known as the sunshade of Assam. It is made of bamboo strips and dried palm leaves locally known as Tokow Pat. There are many types of Jaapi like the Halua Jaapi, Pitha Jaapi, Sorudoiya Jaapi, Bordoiya Jaapi, Cap etc. These Jaapis were also used as headwear back in the olden days, mostly by rich and noble families. They are also used by farmers and peasants as umbrellas in the paddy fields. People of Assam always believed in the joint family system and it is still prevalent among both tribal and non-tribal communities. The rule that was followed for inheritance was called Dayabhaga. This system holds strong even today. The custom is that a child cannot claim his share in the property of the father as long as the father lives. Some of the tribes follow customs like the matriarchal system, which asserts that the mother is the center of the clan and that her property will be given to her daughters. If there are no daughters, it will be passed to the youngest daughter of her sister. The prevalent custom among the Dimasa-Kacharis is that the sons inherit the father’s property while the daughters inherit the mother’s property.
Major Occupation in Assam
Agriculture is the main occupation of the people in Assam. It accounts for 63 per cent of the state’s workforce. The farmers engage in the cultivation of rice, which is the staple diet of Assamese people. Other agricultural crops include pulses, jute, tea and fruit cultivation. Assam is well known for its tea plantation all over the world and the tea gardens of Assam provide employment to nearly a million people. Assam’s tea plantation forms 15 per cent of the world’s tea output. The major revenue of the people IN Assam is due to the forests. Timber and bamboo are the prime products from the forests of Assam and the production of these involves many people. Besides cultivation, weaving is another major occupation in Assam. The Assamese women practise weaving as an occupation. The state is known for the production of silk material, tussar and other fabrics. The industries of wood products and food also provide occupation to many.
Assam’s beauty like the rest of the Seven Sisters is unique but neglected. We tend to forget that there is a little paradise in our own country waiting to be explored. Assam with its ecstatic frenzy has always enraptured its visitors and never left them disappointed.