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Headlines       Vol. 1 Issue 26-27      Nov 22- Dec 6 , 1998

Assamese literature
An overview and historical perspective Linking into broader Indian canvas


Assam, the eastern most part of India was differently called in different historical periods. The name Assam is comparatively a new one. In the epic age it was known as Pragiyotishpura and Kamarupa. References of Pragiyotishpura are found in many places of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, Harivamsa, Visnupurana, Brahmand-apurana, Raghuvasma, etc. In the Allahabad Inscription of Samudragupta of the 5th century A.D. the name Kamrupa is found. These references indicate that this country had a link with the rest of the sub-continent. The names found in some early inscriptions also indicate that the Mahakavyas and Puranas made their way into this part very early. Moreover the language and the script of the inscriptions are vey strong evidents to prove the existence and use of the Sanskrit language and of the local variation of the Brahmi script. The Nagajari-khanikar gaon inscription and same inscriptions recently found in the Dhansiri valley tract clearly date back the use of the above mentioned language and script to second century A.D. Kanaklal Barua comes to a logical conclusion that the Alpines, an Aryan language-speaking race entered this region approximately 400 B.C., and they were responsible to bring with them the pre-vedic Aryan language which was rich in vocabulary to give the benefit to the earlier inhabitants who were supposed to be the speakers of different small branches of the dialects of Tibeto-Burmese origin or the Chino-Tibetan origin, or Kuki-chin or Bhot-chin origin and were quite not being able to follow the tonal distinctions of the dialects other than that of their own, to create a lingua-franca for their common use. In this way a common language, based on the syntax-system of certain Tibeto-Burmese dialects and with the rich vocabulary of the pre-vedic Aryan language, came into being. Most of the original inhabitants of this region were of the Indo-Mongoloid origin from the ethnic point of identity. The description of the soldiers of Ghatokosha, the king of Pragjyotishpura, who fought for the Kauravas in the Kurukshetra war, as found in the Mahabharata, is itself an indicator of this ethnic identity.

All these data prove that though a large number of the population of Assam are not of Nordic or Alpine origin, yet their language is a branch of the Indo-Aryan speech and the script is of the Brahmi origin. The first reference of the language of Kamarupa is found in the note of the Chinese pilgrim Hicuen Tsang who in the 7th century A.D. came to Kamarupa at the invitation of the king Kumar Bhaskara Varman. He noted that the language of Kamarupa slightly differed from that of the language of middle India. This note points out that in the 7th century A.D. this language came into being with its primary distinctivenesses. In the map of the Indo-Aryan language, the Assamese language forms and occupies its eastern-most part. So, from the points of view of the language and script, Assamese is a strong branch of the Indo-Aryan language.

In the Kalika Purana of 10th century and in the Yogini Tantra of 16th century, the territorial jurisdiction of Kamarupa is clearly demarcated by saying that "From the mountain of Kancana in Nepal up to the confluence of the Brahmaputra, from the Karatoya to Dikkaravasini, in the north the mount Kanja, in the west the Karotoya, in the east the Diksu, in the south the confluence of Laksa with the Brahmaputra". It indicates that a great portion of north Bengal and Bihar was also included in the ancient kingdom of Kamarupa. But later on it broken into different kingdoms.

The name Assam came to its existence and use after the Ahoms in 1228 invaded and ruled the country for long six hundred years. Till 16th century there were three principal kingdoms in this region, namely, Assam, Kamarupa and Kamata with Behar (Cooch Behar); but the language spoken by the people of these three kingdoms was one. After the Ahom kings expanded their kingdom up to Manah the whole region came to be known as Assam, and the people and their speech to be known as Asamiya. It was the Britishers who had transformed these words to Assam and Assamese as such.


Though the emergence of the Assamese language is traced back in the 7th century A.D., no literary evidence till the time of the ‘Charyyapadas’, the Buddhist songs, supposed to be composed within a time-frame of four hundred years, i.e. from 8th century A.D. to 12th century A.D., could be traced till date. Therefore the Charyyapadas are taken to be the first literary evidence of the Assamese language. Of course, the Bengali, Oriya and the Maithili languages also claim these songs to be the earliest specimens of their own languages. Because these four languages including the Assamese, originated from the Purva-Magadhi Apravramsa, therefore it is very natural that there would be some common identical characteristics. But from the phonological and morphological traits registered in these songs, it is clearly evident that the language of the Charyya are much more close to Assamese than the other languages. Some significant phonological and morphological traits found in these songs have come down in unbroken continuity to modern Assamese.

However, from the days of the Charyyapadas, for about last one thousand years till the modern time, the whole gamut of literature created in Assamese, can be divided into three broad periods, namely, the early period, Medieval period and the modern period. In the early period, besides these Charyyapadas, the Krishna-kirtana of Baru Chandidas and Sunya Purana of Ramai Pandit, these two works are included. The titles themselves speak that the themes are knitted with the Pan Indian background, while the treatment has its local characteristics. Of course these works are also claimed to be specimens of Bengali literature. But gramatical rules and the cultural backdrops as drawn in the works support the claim of the Assamese language strongly. Whatever it may be, the main point to look at is that the themes and spirit of the Sanskrit literature made their way into Assamese during this early period till 12th century A.D. The names Keshava, Janardana, Mudhava, Samkarsana, Madhusudana and such other names found in the inscriptions are also strong indicators in this connection. Of course, in the works mentioned, the influence of the bordering languages can also be traced easily.

The Assamese literature found its strong footing in the 13th century A.D. under the patronage of the king Durlabhnarayana of Kamata. During this period Hem Saraswati authored a little book Prahlad charit. He took the story, as he has stated, from the Vamana purana but took much liberty with the original Sanskrit work. Another work he authored is Hara-Gauri sambada, the story of which was also taken from one purana and also from folk lore. Other two poets Kaviratna saraswati and Rudra kandali also received the patronage of Durlabhnarayana and they wrote Jayadratha-vadha and Satyaki-pravesa respectively. Both these plots were taken from the Mahabharata.

During this period another king Mahamanikya of the Barahi kingdom patronised Madhava Kandali to translate the whole of the Sanskrit Ramayana into Assamese, and Madhava kandali did a splendid work without deviating from the original and also adding local flavour with commendable ability. Later on Sankaradeva the great saint poet-artist-philosopher, praised him as a flawless poet of high order.

These works of 13th and 14th centuries make it clear that, (i) Sanskrit language and literature were very much known to the educated people (even from the names of the writers Hem Saraswati, Madhava Kandali, Rudra Kandali and Kaviratna Saraswati it is very much evident). (ii) The Assamese language reached its full grown stage before this period, otherwise it would not have been possible to translate and recreate these works, (iii) The Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas became familiar to the general masses through the translations and (iv) the people of this whole language-region started sharing the spiritual, moral, social and cultural values that were shared by the people of the other language-regions of present India. It is also to be noted that these poets did not make literal translations; rather either they adopted the stories to tell in their own language and idioms or recreated those stories keeping the general readers and listeners before their mind. Another important point to be noted is that king Durlabhanarayan was a Koch king and king Mahamanikya was a Barahi, i.e. a Kachari king. Both these kings, from the ethnic point of view, were of non-Aryan origin. The Koches and the Kacharis were the offsprings of the Bodo tribe. It signifies how in the early period the non-Aryan language-speaking tribes turned to be Indo-Aryan and Indo-Aryan originated language speakers in this region. The then form of the present Assamese was their mother tongue. Even the Ahoms who entered this region in the 13th century A.D., adopted the language of the land, and it was their name after which the name of the land, the people and the language of the people had been identified.

The golden period of medieval Assamese literature began with the emergence of Sankaradeva (1449 A.D. - 1569 A.D.), the great saint-poet, artist-philosopher, a social reformer and preacher of the neo-Vaishnavite order in the whole region of three states. He, in his youth studied the Vedas, Upanishadas, Puranas, Philosophy, Poetics, Yoga, etc. in the Sanskrit ‘Tol’ of Mahendra Kandali and he travelled the North and the Eastern parts of present day India extensively. His sojourn to the centres of Vaishnava culture, his profound knowledge of Sanskrit and Indian philosophy, his deep realisation of the ultimate truth of the life and the universe, his strong faith on the path of ‘Bhakti’ made his creative genius ignified. He had started sometimes adopting, sometimes recreating and sometimes translating the stories from the Bhagavata Purana, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. He had written the Harichandra Upakhyan Kavya, Rukminitarana Kavya, Kurukshetra Kavya, Balichalan Kavya. Amrit Manthan Kavya, the stories of Ajamil and Gajendra in the Kavya form: he had translated with liberty, the Uttara-kanda of the Ramayana and the 1, 2, 10, 11 and 12 books of the Bhagavata Purana; he had authored books on ‘Bhakti’ like Bhakti Pradip, Anadi Patan, Nimi-Navasiddha Sambad, in poetical form, authored the most popular book the Kirtana-Ghosha, the principal book, meant for ‘Prasanga’, a significant order of prayer, composed the Borgits based on Raga and the songs of the drama, composed the Gunamala i.e. the theme of the Bhagavata Purana in brief in poetical form, and he wrote five dramas, the first of its kind in the Northern Indian languages. He adopted the themes and the stories from the Mahakavyas and the Bhagavata Purana, but with his creative genius he made his creations original in character. He was a poet par excellence, he was a composer of music and dance of Indian system, he was a reliable translator, he was a scholar of high order, and above all the pioneer of the Bhakti movement in Assam, Kamarupa and Cooch-Behar.

Sankaradeva in a very big way brought India into Assam and strongly associated Assam with India. He was followed by his great disciple Madhavadeva (1489-1596). Besides his other works, the unique contribution of Madhavadeva is the Namghosha in which the most sweet, powerful and melodious confluence of Philosophy and Rasa can be found. Sankaradeva emerged and stood as the guiding and inspiring spirit to see a band of poets and dramatists and composers of songs, making their powerful entrance into the arena of literature, culture and religion. Ramsaraswati translated and re-created five books of the Mahabharata with liberty and he on the basis of the Mahabharata authored a series of kavyas under the name Badha-Kavya. Ananta Kandali, Sridhar Kandali, Kamsari, Gopalcharan Dwija, Kalapchandra Dwija, Haridev, Gopal Dev, Narayan Das Thakur, Gopal Misra, Ramcharan Thakur, Govinda Misra, Purusottam Thakur, Aniruddha Dev, Daiyari Thakur and about not less than four hundred writers emerged during the period of four hundred years since the emergence of Sankaradeva till the end of the 18th century. Moreover, Assamese prose literature also grew up during this period. Bhattadeva wrote the Bhagavata Purana and the Srimad Bhagavata Geeta in prose in the early 17th century, Raghunath Mahanta wrote the Ramayana in prose in 17th century and Chakrapani Bairagi told the biographies of Sankaradeva, Madhavadeva and other Gurus in prose in 17th century. It may be noted that no prose literature in other Indian languages was created till then.

It is not that all the writers were of the Vaishnava faith and fold. There were some writers, though less in number, who wrote for enjoyment and entertainment and also for imparting knowledge, but not for any religious aim or object. Their writings were of secular character and some of them were of technical nature. But they were more or less very close to the great Vaishnava literature in form.

Under the patronage of the Ahom kings the literature of secular and technical nature made a healthy progress. Moreover, though the Buranji literature, i.e. the chornicles written in Assamese under the patronage of the Ahom kings and nobles, had nothing to do with the Indian tradition as such, yet in the narration it is very much evident that the chronicles as well as the then society were governed by the spiritual, moral, social and cultural values imbibed from the Indian tradition.

In the sattras, the centres of the Vaishnava religion and culture, reading of the religious books and to listen are compulsory for the devotees. Moreover, to be a Satradhikara one had to prove one's ability in writing poetry, songs and plays and one's command over music, dance and drama. Besides the Ankiyas Nats of Sankaradeva and the Jhumuas of Madhavadeva, the plays written by the Saradhikars are to be staged. Moreover, in the villages also the tradition of writing drama to stage in the Namghars, is being followed even now. The playwrights adopt the themes from the Ramayana,the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata Purana and other Puranas. Besides the dramatic literature, Kavyas, based on the stories of these Maha Kavyas and Puranas, were composed. As a result, during the period of last four hundred years after the death of Sankaradeva, Assamese literature has been enriched in a very big way. It may be also noted that even some Kavyas and plays were written by followers of other folds too.

Since the days of Sankaradeva till the Nineteenth century, during this span of four hundred years, Assamese literature of the old school had a speedy and healthy growth. Kavyas, Mahakavyas, dramas songs, biographies, chronicles, books on technical subjects had been written in numbers. Even today no survey has been made to have a complete list of the books lying still in the form of manuscripts. Only a part of the whole has been collected by the Kamrup Anusandhan Samiti, Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies. Assam Museum, the Gauhati University, Dibrugarh University and Assam Sahitya Sabha. These vast works of letters and other art forms grew and developed during this period, moulded the individual mind and the collective mind of the people of Assam to the tune of the Indian spirit and values generated by the great Sanskrit literature of our past.


Modern Assamese literature found its growth and the first phase of development in the 19th century. The quick and sudden changes and the birth of a new class of intelligentsia in the 19th century had prepared the background and played significant roles in this regard. The Assamese intelligentsia came into contact with the western culture and civilisation during the second half of the century. During the mid 19th century, Bengal, i.e. Calcutta, was on the crest of the ‘Renaissance’, and the people of Bengal tried their best from their own points of view for an all round development of the language, literature and culture and the general conditions of society. The fight of the Brahmos against the Hindu orthodoxy and for the establishment of a neo-Hinduism, the attack of the young Bengal group on traditional values, the attempts of the rising writers in poetry, fiction, drama and in other genres of literature with new outlook, the infiltration of the western romanticism with a humanistic approach, and the emergence of the spirit of patriotism, are the most remarkable events in the social, literary and cultural history of Calcutta during this period. The spirit that was generated by the Bengal Renaissance made its way to the other parts of India to wake up the country for a modern era. The western culture, literature and civilisation made the people aware of the modern life; but at the same time, the strong feeling of patriotism also started occupying their mind. A spirit of language-based nationalism grew up in every province of British India. It inspired them to see the past of their country in glorification. Moreover, in the modern literatures of India since 19th century till the early part of the 20th century, the co-existence of sub-nationalism and Indian nationalism made its room without clash or conflict. Therefore a spirit of Indianness was equally responsible to inspire the writers.

The first half of the 19th century was a painful time for Assam. However, towards the end of the first half Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, Gunabhiram Barua and Hemchandra Barua emerged as the pioneering writers. They fought with pen for the rehabilitation of the Assamese language and for the development of modern Assamese literature. Patriotism was the guiding spirit for them to work. But they were not cut off from the Indian heritage and values that they imbibed from their own social, cultural and literary heritage. The new humanistic approach was there; but at the same time, their traditional values were also equally active in them.

During the ninth decade, the most remarkable band of the Assamese students went to Calcutta for higher studies and played the most significant role towards the development of modern Assamese literature. Lakshminath Bezbarua, Chandrakumar Agarwala, Hemchandra Goswami, Kenaklal Barua, Padmanath Gohain Barua. Rajanikanta Bordoloi headed the list of those who formed the galaxy of the modern writers in Assamese. They enriched their minds with new ideas and ideals and prepared themselves to take their individual and collective programmes for the development of Assamese language and literature. All through the period, Lakshminath Bezbaroa (1864-1938), with a towering personality and with command over all aspects of Assamese literature, old and new, stood as the uncrowned king over the domain of Assamese language and literature. He was a short-story writer, dramatist, poet, humourist, belle-letter writer, critic, novelist, biographer, writer of children literature, folk-lorist and a great patriot. He also studied the Vedas, Upanishadas and other scriptures and made comparative analysis with that of the philosophical trait of the religion and literature of Sankaradeva. He also established himself as the exponent of the religion and philosophy of Sankaradeva. On the other hand his relationship with the famous Tagore family brought him near the Brahmo religion. The philosophy of Brahmo religion, excepting its rituals, was identified to a great extent with the philosophy and religion of Sankaradeva. Western humanism was tempered with Vaishnavite philosophy in Bezboroa; and this synthesization gave a distinctive direction to the intellectual life of Assam. He was out and out a preacher of Assamese nationalism; but at the same time, he did not lose the sight of broader humanism; and for this, modern Assamese literature cannot be called to carry the spirit of narrow parochialism. Moreover, Bezboroa and his other colleagues were not indifferent about the Indian nationalism and the Indianness of the values that they subscribed.

The romantic ideas and ideals mixed with Assamese nationalism and with Indian view of life and values upheld a new world of thoughts and imagination before the writers. Therefore till the World War II, Assamese literature carried this essence in it. During this period poets of high order like Chandra Kumar Agarwala, Mafizuddin Ahmed Hazarika, Hiteswar Barbarua, Raghunath Choudhary, Ambikagiri, Durgeswar Sarma, Jatindranath Duara, Nalinibala Devi, Ratnakanta Borkakoti, Suryyakumar Bhuyan, Sailadhar Rajkhowa and others came out. In the second
phase we find important
poets like Binandrachandra Barua, Parvatiprasad Barua, Ananda Chandra Barua, Ganesh Gogoi, Devakanta Barua and others. In the field of short story Bezbarua led a band of followers later on. Padmanath Gohain Barua
and Rajanikanta Bordoloi
and later on Daivachandra Talukdar and Dandinath Kalita established themselves as novelists.

The spirit of the age that was generated through the Jonaki, Bijuli and Banhi, was the guiding force of Assamese literature till the 4th decade of the twentieth century.

The World War II created a watershed in the socio-cultural and literary life of Assam. Realism, modernism and socialism started flowing through thin streams to make them bigger within a period of two decades. Birinchi Kumar Barua, Syed Abdul Malik, Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya, Jogesh Das and others in the field of novel, Hem Barua, Navakanta Barua and their colleagues in the field of poetry, Jyotiprasad in the field of drama and music, Lakshmidhar Sarma, Rama Das, Syed Abdul Malik, Saurabh Chaliha, Mahim Bora. Bhabendranath Saikia and others in the field of short story have annexed new areas. Of course their works are not alienated from the Pan Indian background. After independence we find new movements taking place in all the Indian literatures and these movements are identical in spirit and form to a great extent.

In the present days Assamese literature has imbibed different views and thoughts, spirit and forms from the literatures of far away countries too; still it is not cut off from the Indian scene. The translation projects taken by NBT and Sahitya Akademi and other non-government farms have made the literatures of Indian language accessible Assam. In spite of so many divergencies of geography, climate, language, culture and ethnicity, an Indianness is dominant from within in the life of the people of India, sometimes despite unawareness of it. In regard to the commonness of Indian literature Dr. S. Radhakrishnan observes, "There is a unity of outlook as the writers in different languages derive their inspiration from a common source and face more or less the same kind of experience, emotional and intellectual". His another observation that "Indian literature is one written in many languages" can also be cited simultaneously. Through the Assamese literature of last one thousand years also that Indian spirit has been flowing without break. From Sankaradeva onward the poets of different ages have been singing the glory of India. Madhavadevas sings.

Dhanya Dhanya Kalikal Dhanya Naratanu Bhal
Dhanya Dhanya Bharatvarisha
Kaliyuga is to be praised, human life is to be praised
and Bharatavarsha is to be praised.
(Dr. Nagen Saikia, President of Assam Sahitya Sabha delivered this speech in a seminar on Assamese Literature at IIC in Delhi)

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