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Sneak Peek: Assam's Cultural Heritage

Located in the North-Eastern part of India, Assam, is its rich cultural gateway, with its temples and museums. From temples to museums, it’s a cultural and historical extravaganza. As a student of history, time and again, I have visited some of its crucial heritage destinations as a part of school expeditions, group projects, and family trips. It’s an immense pleasure to share my observations of the glorious embodiments of Assamese heritage. Today, both the Government of Assam and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) play a vital role in the protection, preservation, and maintenance of these sites.

1. Kamakhya Temple:

The main idol of the temple ‘Kamakhya Devi’, located in the hills of Kamagiri is referred to as the ‘bleeding goddess'. It is because the ‘garvagriha’ is said to have the 'mythical womb' and vagina of the goddess Shakti, that collects water from an underground spring, and is worshipped as such and not as an idol. One of the stories which I grew up hearing my grandfather narrates, is that Goddess Sati fought with her husband to take part in the grand yagna which was being offered by her father to pacify and gratify Gods against her husband’s wishes and was slighted by her father. Things became worse when Sati’s father spoke and insulted Shiva. She then stepped into the sacrificial fire. The anger of Lord Shiva knew no bounds, and he holding his wife’s burnt body, performed the ‘tandava’. To calm down the overgrowing anger of Lord Shiva, it was Lord Vishnu who further used his ‘Sudarshan' chakra' to cut down Sati's body into pieces. In my state, even to this day, people believe that Sati’s body fell across 52 different locations in the country.

This is the celebration of the idea of agriculture and of the fertile soil and of a fertile woman. The temple is closed for three days in June and the hills come alive with devotional music as the Ambubachi (which means ‘water flowing’) mela is in full swing. As such it’s the Ameti or the tantric fertility festival. The temple became popular when it was brought into the Brahmanical acceptance and known as a Shakti Peeth and the celebration of Woman Power. The Brahmaputra river’s bank turns red due to the iron content during this time.

2. Sri Surya Pahar:

I have had the privilege to visit this extraordinary hillock, 127 km from Guwahati which the Assamese call the "Hill of Faith". It is in fact the heritage of the North East region, marking the boundary of Jainism. Like most other major archaeological sites of ancient Assam, Sri Surya is located above a series of hillocks not very far from the Brahmaputra. Reports say it was probably a prosperous trading center near the river. I am sure that many more treasures are still buried underneath but the few excavations by the ASI have resulted in enough evidence to suggest that a combination of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain shrines, a thriving multi-religious melting pot similar to Ellora or Badami, even though the artifacts we see there are not as detailed or sophisticated. They represent the Pre-Ahom period. From literary sources, this was a center of Sun worship. While a stone carving preserved here shows an image of a twelve-armed deity erect on a lotus, which resembles none other than Lord Vishnu, the presence of 25 votive stupas of different shapes and sizes situated at higher altitudes suggests the Buddhist influence of 1st CE. Since Assam was ruled by the Palas of Bengal, Buddhism was strong then. The most interesting belief associated with this place is that it had 99999 Shiva Lingas, to make it the second Kashi that has one lakh lingas and as such a holy site. On the Southern side is a natural cave that has 3 rock-cut Jaina Images dating to 9th CE with bull insignia of Rshibanatha. This cave is a solitary example of Jainism.

3. Assam State Museum:

This is said to be one of the biggest multipurpose museums in the country. I personally was fascinated by the variety of exhibits of different kinds like epigraphy, sculptures, crafts, natural history, and folk-art forms. The rarest and antique collections are being displayed here which makes this museum quite a unique one. There are 42 masterpieces of 1621 displayed. Very interesting is the Nagajari inscription of the 5th CE and Nataraja image of the 13/14th CE. It is one of the most beautiful bronze sculptures I came across in the museum. It symbolizes how Shiva is the source of all movement within the cosmos, represented by the arch of flames. Another interesting artifact that I found fascinating is the model of a Namghar (Assamese Prayer Hall). It reminded me of the Bhakti movement in Assam during which the great Vaishnavite Saint Sankardeva had introduced the concept of a "Namghar" for singing devotional songs and enacting theatre performances which we call "Bhaona" in Assam. The sculptures showcased here are generally made of stone, metal, wood, and terracotta. Equally interesting are the collections of ivory paintings, royal garments, coins, bamboo items, and musical instruments. The Museum library has a rich collection of books, journals, and periodicals related to culture, art, biography, mythology, and other fields. I have been fortunate enough to enjoy the various handicraft exhibitions which are organized here.

Riyan Buragohain

BA EPH, Christ University

Intern @DH

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