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SPECIAL ARTICLE

Literary Cultures in North East India


Shrinking Frontiers
Tilottoma Misra

The history of a communitys literature has usually been


inseparable from the history of the language in which
the literature is produced. In North East India, the
problem arises in the case of those communities which
have a rich and vibrant oral tradition, but no written
texts. When writers from these communities adopt a
literary language which is alien to their culture, they have
to understand the historical conditions that enable them
to use that language. The literary cultures in this region
have witnessed a gradual shrinking of frontiers from the
trans-regional vernaculars to a confined and limited
regional space, where atomisation of cultures is more
visible than development of cosmopolitan vernaculars.

This is a slightly revised version of a lecture delivered at the Nehru


Memorial Museum and Library on 3 September 2015.
Tilottoma Misra (tilottoma.misra@gmail.com) is a writer and social
analyst based in Guwahati.

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hen a bilingual or multilingual writer chooses to write


in a particular language, it is a conscious choice
that s(he) makes. In all epochs of literary history
across the world, a writer is always faced with the necessity of
choosing a literary language. In that choice, the writer also
makes a social and political decision. In largely monolingual
societies, the choice for a writer is between ones mother
tongue and a cosmopolitan literary language like Sanskrit,
Prakrit, Latin or Persian as in premodern times or a globalised
language like English in modern times. But, in regions where
the process of vernacularisation of culture is still in a state of
emergence, the boundaries between languages remain fuzzy
and writers pick and choose literary languages according to
their perception of the emerging cosmopolis of a particular literary language.
In the case of some of the literary cultures of North East India,
this process began as early as the 12th century of the common
era. But for some of the emerging new literatures from the
region, the process has just begun in the last 100 years or so.
This complex literary tradition requires a detailed analysis of
the historical process of the emergence of manuscript and
printed texts in cultures which were predominantly oral. This
presentation, however, would be confined only to Assam and
a few other regions of the geographical space called North
East India.
Most of us are familiar with the traditional method of studying literature through systematic and chronologically arranged literary histories which assume that language, literature and the nation are the unchangeable categories which
guide literary historiography (Harder 2011: 7). In this system
of study, literary works composed in a language which is perceived as the national language, are picked up, sometimes
from a wider canvas, and placed within the fold of what is
conceived as the national heritage of a linguistic community.
But in this process of giving shape to a national or subnational
cultural heritage, texts written in diverse varieties of a source
language, are claimed/appropriated by literary historiographers, sometimes of rival linguistic communities. In the process, works, which had originally been a part of a different
tradition, find themselves placed in unfamiliar surroundings.
Thus, for instance, the compositions known as Charyapada
have been claimed by historiographers of Asamiya, Bangla
and Oriya literatures because the language of these verses
resembles old Asamiya as much as old Bangla and old Oriya
(Chatterji 1966: 30).
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There are other similar texts available which reveal a transregional character in language and content. The language of
Baru Chandidas Srikrishna Kirtan composed probably in the
earlier part of the 14th century, resembles the literary language
used by the Assamese poet Madhava Kandali in the same era
and the 15th century Vaishnava poets of Assam. It also has a
strong affinity to the Deshi-Rajbangshi bhasha of western
Assam and also to old forms of Oriya, Maithili and eastern
Hindi.1 The available manuscript copies of the text show that
even its script resembles the old Asamiya script (the two letters
wa and ra are written as in Asamiya).2 The poets who composed these texts were writing for a polyglot literary community whose works belonged to a wider canvas than the narrower limits set by modern nationalism.
The 14th century Maithili poet Vidyapati who popularised
the Brajabuli dialect which later became the chosen vernacular of
most Vaishnava writers of eastern India, was appropriated by
historiographers of Bangla literature (Kaviraj 2003; Sen 1960)
because the political boundaries between the Mithila region
and modern Bengal had not been clearly demarcated in colonial
times and Maithili was perceived as almost a dialect of Bangla.3
For similar reasons, most of the premodern vernacular writers
from Assam and Tripura have also been appropriated by
modern literary historiography of Bangla, thus, exercising a
cultural hegemony which overlooks the historical and linguistic
evidence that can identify literary texts belonging to separate
vernacular cultures.
Sukumar Sen, for instance, in his history of Bangla literature, while referring to the vernacular poets who had been
patronised by local rulers, includes the 14th century Assamese writers Madhava Kandali and Hemasaraswati and the
15th16th century Assamese Vaishnava writers Sankardeva
and Madhavdeva in his list without specifying that the
vernacular chosen by all these writers was the literary form
of the language which is spoken in Assam till today. He also
disregards the fact that the local rulers mentioned by him
actually ruled over regions, which were not a part of Bengal in
precolonial times.
The ancient Barahi-Kachari king Mahamanikya, who was a
patron of Madhava Kandali, ruled over a region in central
Assam in 14th century and the Koch king Naranarayan, who
was a great patron of vernacular literature ruled over the
Kamata kingdom in 16th century from his capital at Kamatapur
in the present-day Cooch Behar region. The vernacular in
which Madhava Kandali, Sankardeva and Madhavdeva composed their epic and narrative verses was a vibrant form of
the language spoken in this region stretching from Cooch Behar to the Brahmaputra Valley and which became a powerful
form of expression in subsequent compositions of the Assamese
Vaishnava poets of the premodern period.4 Thus, literary
historiography like the enterprise of nation-building has the
tendency to devour smaller literary communities existing in
the peripheries.
This process of building national consciousness through the
enterprise of writing literary histories, also acts as an instrument of exclusion, especially of texts that do not fit into the
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enterprise of writing the nation. It also excludes that large


category of oral literature of unscripted communities, which
continue to remain on the periphery of the great mission of
nation-building. Literary historians are often reluctant to
grapple with the problematic category of the literary. The
historical process by which a language emerges from the
documentary stage to that of the literary has become the
focus of scholars only in recent times (Pollock 2003: 79;
Harder 2011: 4). Can genres other than written texts possessing certain aesthetic qualities be left out of literary historiography completely, thus alienating a large part of literature from
the category called national heritage?
Literary Historiography

This leads us to the next crucial questionif nation is the


main plot of all written literary histories (Harder 2011: 2), then
can the people who have no literary histories be a part of the
nation to which they belong politically? Can the definition of
the literary be reframed to include the vast repository of
non-literary material such as myths, folklore and other components of the dialogic traditions which form the backbone of the
traditional culture of unscripted communities like those of
North East India? Another tricky problem to ponder over is
because literary historiography in modern India is considered
as a nationalist endeavour where the unique identity of each
regional literature has to be zealously upheld as a national
commitment, any hint of a doubt regarding the unity of a
particular literary tradition might be seen as a betrayal of a
so-called national cause.
Some of the recent academic initiatives5 afford a new
perspective on the complex problem of writing literary histories
of the Indian subcontinent. For instance, a project on literary
cultures concentrates, among other issues, on the processes by
which new literary languages were created and decisions taken on the choice of a literary language in a multilingual space.
This project has also focused on the emergence of transregional literary languages and their dynamic interaction with
other regional vernaculars (Pollock 1995: 2). Literary historiography is no longer seen as a mechanical exercise of recording
how one literary movement followed another in a well-ordered
pattern of development and decay.
Instead, the main concerns of academic research are being
increasingly focused on more complex issues like the interaction between cultures that lead to transformation of literary
cultures and changes in vernacular as well as cosmopolitan
languages, the political forces working behind these transformations of cultures that lead to inclusion/exclusion or change
of identity. The scholars of literary cultures in history seek to
ignore geographical or political boundaries and concentrate
more on the movement of ideas, texts and people (Pollock
2003: 12). These projects which have received considerable
attention from scholars of South Asian studies based in the
American or European universities, have so far left the literary
cultures of Assam and other north-eastern regions of India out
of their purview (Hindi, Bangla, Sindhi, Gujarati, Marathi,
Kannada, Tamil, Telegu, among others have been studied
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extensively as exemplars of the spread of the vernacular tradition in India). I would, therefore, briefly deal with the course
taken by the literary history of the Brahmaputra Valley during
the last six centuries or so and the relatively recent emerging
literatures from the other states of North East India.
Most literary cultures of northern India underwent a rupture
with the advent of colonialism and the modern and the premodern forms of the languages were distinctly separated.6
This rupture was visible not only in the contents, forms and
styles, but also in the changes that took place in the very structures of languages. Harish Trivedi and Sudipta Kaviraj in their
surveys of Hindi and Bangla literary histories respectively,
have drawn our attention to the patterns of change in the literary cultures of the premodern and colonial modern phases.
This break is visible in the Asamiya literary culture too from
around the middle of the 19th century. Significantly, this
rupture also heralded the beginnings of linguistic nationalism
in the second half of the 19th century. Did colonial modernity
transform the Asamiya language and literature and with it,
did it snatch away from the people the freedom to speak, read
and write in multiple languages without being obsessed with
national self-consciousness? Did the new colonial enterprise of
demarcating territorial boundaries affect adversely the fluid
nature of regional or even cosmopolitan languages to transform and adapt themselves in keeping with the social, religious or political needs of communities?
History of Asamiya Literary Culture

Questions such as these are relevant in the case of almost all


regional vernacular cultures of India. In the light of these
questions, I examine briefly the history of Asamiya literary
culture and also look at some of the emerging literary cultures
of other regions of North East India which are in the process of
encountering some of these issues in the last five or six decades. In fact, processes that took several centuries to mature in
the case of Asamiya and other Indian literary cultures, have
been taking place in the literary cultures of some of the north
eastern states in a bewilderingly shorter period.
Assam, whose original inhabitants speak varieties of Asamiya,
underwent considerable changes in its territorial boundaries
from the ancient, through the medieval to the modern time.
The region was known as Pragjyotisha in the ancient times
and according to legends the ruler of this kingdom, Bhagadatta
fought in the Mahabharata war. The earliest historical records
about the location and size of the Kamarupa kingdom date
back to the early part of the seventh century AD, when a
powerful ruler named Bhaskaravarman ruled the kingdom.
The Nidhanpur copper plate inscriptions of Bhaskaravarman
trace back his ancestry to the legendary Naraka.
In the notes made by the Chinese traveller Yuan Chwang
(Hiuen Tsang) who visited Kamarupa during the reign of
Bhaskaravarman and the epigraphic records found in the
Allahabad inscriptions of Samudragupta, Kamarupa has been
mentioned as a large kingdom in eastern India. According to
Hiuen Tsangs accounts, the circumference of the kingdom
was about 1,700 miles, which must have included the whole of
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the Brahmaputra and Surma Valleys, parts of northern Bengal


and Mymensing (Barua 1933: 86). At the time when the Ahoms
entered Assam from the northeast and established their rule
over eastern Assam (1253 AD), the kingdom of Kamarupa had
been destabilised by a series of invasions by the Muslim rulers
of Gaur from the west and threats from the powerful Kachari
power in the east. Around this time, the kings of Kamarupa
shifted their capital to Kamatapur in Cooch Behar and the
king of Kamata also got the kingdom of Kamarupa till the end
of the rule of Naranarayan in the 16th century. Kamarupa
Kamatapur was spread over almost the whole of northern
Bengal, the Assam Valley and the Surma Valley. The rulers of
Manipur, Tripura, Jayantia, Dimarua, Khairam and other smaller
tribes accepted the suzerainty of the Koch king.7 The rise of
Ahom power in the east led to AhomKoch clashes for a prolonged period till hostilities ceased after treaties of friendship
between the two. The western borders of the Ahom kingdom
of Assam did not encroach into the Cooch Behar region even
after the Ahoms extended their rule up to Kamarupa. At the
time of British annexation of the kingdom it comprised only of
the Brahmaputra Valley up to the river Manas on the west,
adjoining the British territory.
According to Griersons Linguistic Survey of India, Asamiya,
the language of the region, was, developed from the Magadhi
dialect, which is similar to the old eastern Prakrit. Magadhi
Apabhramsa spread in different directions, taking different
distinct forms in Orissa, Bengal and KamarupaKamatapur.
Grierson says that the reason why we find some affinity between
the languages of northern Bengal (and Assam) with Oriya is
because both are connected with the common parent, the
Magadhi Apabhramsa (cited in Kakati 1941: 6).
Suniti Kumar Chatterji, basing his thesis on the material
collected by Grierson divides eastern Magadhi, Prakrit and
Apabhramsa into four dialect groupsRadha, Varendra,
Kamarupa and Vanga, of which Kamarupa is the name given
to the dialects spoken in northern Bengal and Assam. This
linguistic history of eastern India has often been sidelined by
powerful votaries of linguistic chauvinism who try to marginalise less powerful varieties of Magadhi Apabhramsa as mere
patois of their more powerful branch, which received colonial
patronage earlier than others.8
Early Assamese writers did not refer to their language as
Asamiya, but variously called it local, loukika or own
speech.9 This spoken language had acquired a variety of forms
from the eastern to the western boundaries of the kingdom. But,
the literary form of the vernacular that appears in the writings
of Hema Saraswati, Madhava Kandali,10 Rama Saraswati,11
Haribar Bipra, Sankardeva, Madhavdeva, Ananta Kandali and
other Vaishnava poets of 15th16th centuries, was heavily
drawn on Sanskrit. The Sanskrit texts, which they translated,
adapted, recreated or reinterpreted, necessitated a liberal mixing of tadbhava (derived from Sanskrit) and tatsama (Sanskrit)
words. Many of the writers followed the tradition of dispensing with verbs, which give the local identity to a vernacular
language and often merely strung together nouns and adjectives
drawn directly from Sanskrit. Such a blend of Sanskrit and
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vernacular referred to as dual-language (Kaviraj 2003: 512)


was used by many Vaishnava poets of the premodern times
elsewhere in India, which gave a cosmopolitan character to
their language and such a literary language could be understood easily by a wider section of the literate public, extending
from the eastern-most limits of the Brahmaputra Valley, across
Cooch Behar, Bengal, Orissa and the Mithila region. Recent
studies on the literary cultures of premodern India have shown
that this urge to use a dual language on the part of the earliest
vernacular writers in different regions of the country was induced by the religious and literarycultural training that the
scholars received in the traditional tols, or the Jain gacchas.
The nature and scope of the traditional form of education
imparted in the tols and chatuspathees of the time was responsible for the development of a Sanskrit-based vernacular language in the region. The schools introduced students to the
vedas, kavyas, shastras, and philosophical texts written in
Sanskrit and also to the basic principles of Sanskrit grammar
and lexicon. So, Sankardeva learnt in his guru Mahendra
Kandalis tol,12 the Vedas, Upanishads, the two epics, the
puranas, the samhitas, the tantras, Sanskrit grammar, lexicon
and the kavyas. With such grounding in the classics, it is significant that Sankardevas earliest composition Harischandra
upakhyana, which he completed when he was still in school,
was not in Sanskrit but in vernacular. This text is an adaptation from the Markandeya purana and was probably one of
the popular puranas of his time in eastern India (Neog 1998:
162). However, Sankardeva did compose a few Sanskrit verses
in his totaya hymn madhudanava,13 which he recited in the
court of king Naranarayan probably to establish his
credentials as someone who had his scholarly training in the
classical language.14 He also compiled an anthology of philosophical verses in Sanskrit called Bhakti Ratnakara. Ananta
Kandali who proclaimed in one of his colophons that he
was adept in Sanskrit verses (Sarma 1991: 4) wrote only two
digests containing slokas from the Dharma-sastras (Niti-ratna
and Kalpa-druma) but did not attempt to write his own verses
in that language (Sarma 1991: 4953).
Writers Preference of Language

It is difficult to give the exact reason why these writers chose


to write in the local vernacular rather than in the cosmopolitan literary language in which most of the texts, which they
studied as a part of their academic curriculum was written.
Proselytising mission and royal patronage are the two most
frequently cited explanations for the cultural choice of the literary language. But, there might have been other reasons that
can explain this choice. Aesthetic suitability of a vernacular
language for a particular type of writing or the extant of a
vernaculars reach could also have been plausible reasons for
a writers preference for a literary language. Ananta Kandali,
in one of his colophons, gives his reasons for the choice of
the vernacularthat though he can compose in Sanskrit, he
prefers to compose in the local language so that women,
sudras and illiterate people may share the delight of listening
to the verses.15 Madhava Kandali (2008), in order to justify his
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bold innovation of retelling the Rama story in the Assamese


language, adopts a similar device of assertion of independence
from the original language of gods in which Valmiki had
composed the epic. In a colophon verse attached to the Kishkindhyakanda of his Ramayana he says:
You have so far heard the story of Rama which is replete with diverse
poetic sentiments (rasas) most sacred. May your minds be filled with
satisfaction, but do not find fault with the abridgements or elaborations that I have introduced into the text. Valmiki had composed this
shastra in prose, verse and rhyme and I have composed these verses
according to my own understanding of his work. Who can ever comprehend each and every sentiment of the poet? A bird can fly only as
far as his wings will permit. Similarly, poets compose according to
the usages of their own time, sometimes guided by their own imagination and sometimes by the available material in the society. This
composition is not in the language of the gods (deva-vani), but in that
of the common man (laukika). Therefore, do not look for its defects
everywhere.16

Here, Kandali asserts his freedom as a poet to choose his


language and to transfer Valmikis verses into the vernacular,
according to his own understanding of the text. But, elsewhere, he acknowledges that he wrote in vernacular in order
to please his royal patron Mahamanikya. Kandali belonged to
a village located in that area and spoke the language which
was also the language spoken by the king and his subjects.17
In another colophon attached to his Lankakanda, he reveals
his identity and purpose in the following words:
I, who am known as Kaviraja Kandali, at the request of the Baraha
Raja Sri Mahamanikya, have rendered the beautiful verses of the
Ramayana into this form for the benefit of the common people. Dispensing with unnecessary details, I have added certain poetic embellishments to the language spoken by Raja Mahamanikya, like the
cream that emerges from churning of milk. If scholars are displeased
with my effort, I beseech them to reserve their censure till they find
anything in my work which is not there in the original book.18

Kandali was presumably well-versed in Sanskrit because his


text follows closely to the original Valmiki text. By translating/adapting the earlier text, he gave a separate identity to the
regional text. The Sanskrit texts in other parts of India too had
served as the launching pads from which the vernacular writers set off according to their own genius, freely doing what
they wanted to do with the originals. The regional writers
found Sanskrit to be a vehicle that enabled them to create
their own literary languages by borrowing liberally not only
from the vocabulary of Sanskrit, but also metrical structures
and other aesthetic elements from that language. As has been
pointed out by scholars, Sanskrit did not engender the
scorched earth policy of global English by devouring the
regional forms of speech (Pollock 2003: 25). The language of
Kandalis Ramayana was a fine blend of Sanskrit tatsama, ardha-tatsama and tadbhava words with a rich corpus of local colloquial expressions including even a sprinkling of foreign Parsi
words (dukaan, nukkar, bazaar, etc).19
Besides his competent translations of the memorable images
used in Valmikis Ramayana, Kandali embellished his text
with colourful and highly expressive local idioms, images
and metrical variations which gave a dramatic quality to his
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verses. Later Vaishnava poets have often made liberal use of


some of these elements in Kandalis language (Sarma 1984;
Bora 1993: 912). While examining the unique features of
Kandalis poetic language, one must keep in mind the compulsions of the new elements that were introduced into the contents of the vernacular version of the epic. For an audience
that was comprised primarily of people unfamiliar with the
manuscript culture but familiar with oral representations of
the epics, recasting and dramatisation of characters and
scenes in accordance with popular cultural norms was
essential for Kandali as well as Sankardeva in his Uttarakanda,20
for instance, used a powerful language tinged with forceful
local expressions, to depict the complexities of the SitaRama
relationship. Both the poets, in their portrayal of Sita, showed
their sympathy for the wronged wife and were openly critical of
the misuse of patriarchal power by Rama, who was considered
to be the ultimate defender of righteous values. The voice of
Sita in the Assamese Ramayana of Kandali, Sankardeva and
Madhavdeva emerges as a powerful expression of female resistance against the traditional oppressive social structure
(Misra 2016: 81100).
Vernacular Cosmopolis

The emergence of a vernacular cosmopolis is a remarkable feature of the initial stage of the process of vernacularisation in
India. This concept widened the territorial boundaries of the
vernacular writers of the premodern period and placed them
outside the narrow constraints of linguistic nationalism that
raised its head during the colonial times. When Sankardeva
went on his pilgrimages to various religious centres in northern
India and had a long and fruitful sojourn at JagannathPuri,
he could participate easily in religious discourses with other
Vaishnava contemporaries and compose hymns in an adopted
language (which has now been called Assamese Brajabuli).
Neither Kandali nor any of the famous Assamese Vaishnava
writers of the 15th16th centuries seemed to be concerned
about the possibility of not finding readers/listeners for their
works. While choosing or being commissioned by their royal
patrons to write in the vernacular, the writers were confident
of finding a literary community which would respond to their
ideas. The rupture with the very ancient Indian literary tradition of writing in a cosmopolitan language like Sanskrit or
Prakrit, took place gradually in most regions of the country. In
western India, for instance, the process began tentatively in
the 12th century, but reached its culmination only in the 15th
century, during the Bhakti period (Yashachandra 2003: 567
611). In northeastern India, however, the vernacularisation
process acquired its maturity at least a century before the
emergence of the great Vaishnava poets of the 15th century.
This literary community was spread across a wide area in
eastern India.21
Linguists have agreed that though none of the established
vernacular authors of ancient Assam have named their literary
language as Asamiya or Kamarupi, yet it is certain that a distinct regional language was in existence in this region as early
as the seventh century AD during the time of Hiuen Tsang visit
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to Kamarupa (643 AD).22 But, as in the case of other regional


languages of eastern India that were in the process of formation in the latter part of the first millennium, the writers who
used the spoken language of the then kingdom of Kamarupa
for their compositions, did not give a specific name to their
language. The language spoken in the whole stretch of the
territory across the Brahmaputra Valley and reaching up to
Cooch Behar and Rangpur had no name, but was accepted as
the language spoken and understood by a mixed population
of different ethnic denominations. For instance, the language
of Srikrishna Kirtana, a text written sometime around the
beginning of the 13th century before Kandali composed his
Saptakanda Ramayana, by Badu Chandidas who probably
lived in Cooch Behar (Kamatapur) during the reign of Durlavnarayan, has elements identifiable with the spoken language of ancient Assam and the deshi bhasha spoken in western Assam and Cooch Behar (Bora 2007: 1415).
It would be interesting to see how a region which for several
centuries (probably from the fourth to the 18th century) had
experienced cross-border sovereignty exercised by rulers of
Kamarupa, Assam, Kamatapur, Gaura and Bhutan, developed
a vernacular tongue which was spoken, written or understood by
numerous communities spread across the region from the borders of Mithila to the eastern limits of the Brahmaputra Valley
and down south to Srihatta and Chittagong on the Bay of Bengal. The verses in Kandalis Ramayana were read out at the
royal court of the Kachari king and were most likely to have
been heard and enjoyed by a large section of the illiterate
masses.23 Sankardeva and Madhavdevas religious verses
were chanted across the Brahmaputra Valley and beyond by
masses who were hardly trained to read or appreciate a literary
vernacular. It may be, therefore, safely speculated that at
some point during the premodern times, a vernacular cosmopolis was in the process of making in North East India which
was patronised by the Ahom, Koch, Kachari and Barahi rulers
whose mother tongues were not necessarily the literary language in which texts were written, but one of the numerous
branches of the TibetoBurman family of languages.
From linguistic and historical evidence, it has now been
almost conclusively established that the vernacularisation of
literary culture in Assam began around the 14th century under
the patronage of the Koch king Durlavnarayan (Barua 1933;
Neog 1965) and the Barahi Kachari king Mahamanikya.
Hemasaraswati of Assam was writing in the 14th century in
the kingdom of Durlavnarayan, while the writings of Kaviratna
Saraswati and Harihara Vipra have been ascribed to the reign of
Durlavnarayans son Indranarayan (Kakati 1941: 12). With the
growth of aggressive linguistic nationalism in the 19th20th
centuries, as a response to the onslaught of more powerful
political and cultural forces, contribution of these rulers
belonging to the indigenous tribes of the region to the growth
and development of the literary language was overlooked,
thus displacing and excluding the tribes from their central
position in the development of literary culture in the region.
With the conquest of Assam by the powerful Tai-Ahoms who
entered the region in the 13th century AD from eastern Burma,
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the political power passed from the Koch, Kachari and other
indigenous tribal rulers to the new power. The Ahoms adopted
the local dialect of eastern Assam as the language for their
chronicles (buranjis) and gave it a new legitimacy as the official language patronised by the royalty. Later, the Christian
missionaries who set up their first printing press in Sibsagar,
the capital of the Ahom rulers, and published the Asamiya
journal Oronodoi from it in 1846, recognised as standard
Assamese speech, the dialect of eastern Assam which was very
similar to the language of the Ahom chronicles. The spoken
language of eastern Assam had fewer variations than that of
western Assam. This could have been either because of the
levelling influence of the Ahom rulers (Kakati 1941: 15) or
because eastern Assam was relatively more isolated as compared to western Assam which was the battleground between
the invading Mughal armies, Koches, Kacharis and Ahoms at
different periods in history.
Trans-regional Literary Languages

Literary historiographers are still battling with the controversy


about the linguistic status of texts written in trans-regional
literary languages which defy all attempts to place them within the nation-language-literature category. Kakati mentions
that the parallel forms and characteristics of different dialects
which had been freely used by the premodern writers of western
Assam were discontinued after writers became linguistically
self-conscious at a later period (Kakati 1941: 11). Political
considerations played a major role in this process of separation
of the mixed languages into separate entities even in the
premodern period. Suniti Kumar Chatterji says that while
Asamiya acquired the status of a separate speech under the
powerful rulers of Assam, her sister dialects of northern
Bengal accepted the vassalage of the literary speech of Bengal
(Chatterji cited in Kakati 1941: 11).
The British annexation of Assam in 1826 resulted in major
changes not only in the political boundaries of the kingdom,
but also in the socio-economic life of the region. The political
and administrative policies transformed this region into a
hinterland of the Bengal Presidency. The induction of a large
number of people from Bengal to man the colonial administrative structure in Assam and the decision to impose Bangla as
the official language and the medium of instruction in vernacular schools resulted in a major transformation of the literary
culture of the region. The tradition of ancient syncretism
which stimulated the process of formation of a trans-regional
literary culture was conclusively halted by the colonial administrative decisions by imposing new concepts of standardisation. It led to the marginalisation of a large number of spoken
dialects, which had earlier formed the storehouse from which
the literary languages of Assam, Cooch Behar and Bengal
drew their sustenance.
This was another momentous rupture which, together with
the advent of new political power, sowed the seeds of linguistic
rivalry between the newly emerging dominant literary cultures
and the less privileged cultures of eastern India. The first generation of Assamese middle-class writers who were educated
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vol lI no 38

in Calcutta or who had lived in the colonial capital in the 19th


century because of professional and business interest continued the tradition of multilingualism. Holiram Dhekiyal Phukan, Jagnaram Kharghoria Phukan, Anandaram Dhekiyal
Phukan, Jaduram Deka Barua and Laxminath Bezbarua were
amongst those eminent Assamese writers of the 19th century
who could write equally well in Asamiya, Bangla, English and
in some cases, Sanskrit.
Significantly, following the Ahom tradition of writing prose
chronicles or buranjis, Holiram Dhekiyal Phukan wrote a
history of Assam in Bangla prose in 1829, considered as the
first printed history book in modern Bangla prose.24 This
liberal multilingual tradition, however, ceased abruptly because
of the aggressive assertion of a variety of linguistic chauvinism
which took shape in Bengal as an inevitable corollary to
linguistic nationalism. Towards the second half of the 19th
century several leading intellectuals of Bengal started a debate in
Bharati, Punya, Mrinmayee, Prabashi and other Bangla journals
to establish their claim that the Bangla language has attained
a superior status amongst all Indian languages and weaker
languages in the neighbourhood, like Asamiya and Oriya
would inevitably lose their independent status and merge with
Bangla in course of time. Significantly, the strongest voice in
this debate was that of Rabindranath Tagore whose views on
the Asamiya language were vigorously challenged by the
greatest Asamiya writer of the time, Laxminath Bezbaroa.25
This bitter and often acrimonious debate between leaders
of the Bengali and the Assamese middle class was only the
culmination of a battle that had started soon after British
annexation of Assam when Bangla was imposed on Assam as
the official language.
When the Christian missionaries took the initiative in the
19th century to compile lexicons and grammars of the Asamiya
language as a necessary part of their proselytising effort, they
selected the spoken language of Upper Assam, especially
that of the Sibsagar district, which was the seat of Ahom
royal power, as the standard language for their printed books
and pamphlets. Thus, a print language in which there were
no significant literary works available from the precolonial
times was given preference over the earlier variety of Asamiya
in which all the literary works from the premodern times
were composed.26
Under the missionary lexicographic efforts27 colloquial
words from the eastern Assamese speech were given preference
over words derived from Sanskrit which had formed the backbone of the written language of the premodern Asamiya Vaishnava writers. Significantly, in a conscious effort to give a nonSanskrit base to the Asamiya language, the missionaries even
adopted orthography based on pronunciation and encouraged
the Assamese intellectuals to use it in their contributions to
the Orunodoi. However, this effort was staunchly resisted by
the Assamese intellectuals led by Pandit Hemchandra Barua,
who later compiled the first authentic Asamiya lexicon, the
Hemkosh (1900). The new print language of Assam which
appeared to be deficient in literary tradition because it was
temporarily alienated from the premodern literary language
51

SPECIAL ARTICLE

of Kandali, Sankardeva, Madhavdeva and the whole of the


rich Vaishnava tradition, faced formidable challenge from
modern Bangla when it was adopted as the official language of
the colonial province of Assam.
A long and bitterly-fought battle of words ensued between a
section of Bengali intellectuals who tried to prove that Asamiya was only a dialect of Bangla, and some of the leading intellectuals of Assam led by Anandaram Dhekiyal Phukan, who
were supported by the missionaries in their effort to establish
the separate identity of the Asamiya language (for details, see
Misra 1987: 16488). Dhekiyal Phukan penned a wellresearched and passionate argument to prove his case for the
independent identity of Assam and the Asamiya language.
This plea was submitted to AJM Mills and was later printed as
an appendix to Mills Report on the Province of Assam.28 In this
plea which resonated through the intellectual corridors of Assam all through 19th century, Dhekiyal Phukan gave historical, linguistic and literary evidence about the antiquity of the
Asamiya language and included a catalogue of Asamiya books
from the earliest times to the 19th century. This effort may be
considered as the basis for future literary historiography of
Assam since literary stocktaking has been recognised as
not at all outside the normative and evaluative dimension of
literary historiography (Harder 2011: 5).
Linguistic Nationalism

Thus began a phase in Assamese social history where linguistic


nationalism became the chief marker of Assamese identity.
Urgent projects were undertaken to print old Asamiya manuscripts and Laxminath Bezbaroa took up the challenge of establishing the glorious past of Asamiya literature by writing extensively on the contribution of Sankardeva and Madhavdeva to
the religious life and culture of Assam. He delivered a series of
lectures in Calcutta at the meetings of the Asamiya Bhasha
Unnatisadhini Sabha (1888) on the relationship between language and literature, between the oral and the literary form of
a language. The inevitable split that had taken place between
premodern Asamiya and modern Asamiya, however, became a
permanent reality. When new poetry was composed in the
modern language, there was no reflection of the earlier tradition. Compared to the rich and vibrant literary language of the
past, lyrical compositions in the new language seemed mere
shadows of English romantic poetry with none of the vigour of
Kandalis Ramayana verses or of the writings of Sankardeva
and Madhavdeva.
The new literary language soon became confined within the
boundaries of the colonial province of Assam and it acquired
characteristics of an aggressive subnationalism which sought
to defend itself against the hegemonic aspirations of powerful
neighbours like Bengal, with similar zeal. In that process the
flag-bearers of Assamese nationalism failed to observe the
significance of another process of vernacularisation in North
East India, which was silently taking place probably at some
point in precolonial times when communication links had
been established between the Brahmaputra Valley and the
surrounding hills.
52

Linguists have made a rough estimate that there are at least


200 spoken languages in the northeastern region some of
which have acquired literary capacity, while the majority are
still in the oral stage. Several of them are in the endangered
language category. The speakers of most of these tribal
languages find it difficult to communicate with tribes even in
their immediate neighbourhood, not to speak of those living in
the plains. In the hill regions bordering the valley, geographical
proximity together with political and commercial intercourse,
even at the rudimentary level, necessitated the emergence of
varieties of hybrid or Creole languages which still continue
to serve as link languages between the tribal communities
themselves. Asamiya being the main component of the Creole
languages, a natural linguistic bond had developed between
Asamiya, Nagamese and Nefamese (as the languages are
called), over a considerable period of time.
After independence the new Indian state took up the project
of establishing primary schools in the interior regions of the
erstwhile unadministered or partially administered areas
of North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) with Asamiya as their
medium of instruction. But, when political compulsions in the
post-1962 scenario necessitated a faster integration of the
peripheral regions with the heartland, Asamiya was replaced
by Hindi and English in the schools. The first generation of
writers from different tribal communities in NEFA, had chosen
Asamiya as their adopted literary language. Significantly,
some of the best known Asamiya fiction writers in the postindependence era are the Arunachali writers who moulded
and shaped the Asamiya language according to their own
creative needs (for details, see Misra 2007). But, unfortunately,
this literary endeavour emerging from a neighbouring state
has not received the critical attention it deserves from the
Assamese literary world. As mentioned earlier, this phase in
the literary culture of North East India has abruptly come to
an end in the hill regions, though some of the new writers
from the plains tribal communities as well as the tea-garden
tribes of Assam have continued to adopt Asamiya as their
literary medium. A group of very gifted and talented writers
from the hill states are now choosing to write in English rather
than in Hindi, Asamiya or one of the tribal languages.
The history of a communitys literature has usually been
inseparable from the history of the language in which the
literature is produced. But the problem arises in the case of
those communities which have a rich and vibrant oral tradition, but no written texts. When writers from these communities adopt a literary language which is alien to their culture,
they have to understand the historical conditions that enable
them to use that language. The new generation of writers
who are now writing in English, do not have any memory of
cultural contact with the native speakers of the language. It is
inevitable, therefore, that the new language may remain as a
vehicle without a soul. Besides, the rich oral literature of
the people may lose its cultural core once it is written down in
an alien language that has no familiar resonances for the
speakers of the tribal languages. Whether some of the tribal
languages would be able to withstand the challenge posed by
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global English and emerge as regional or trans-regional literary languages remains to be seen.
The literary cultures in the northeastern region of the
country have witnessed a gradual shrinking of frontiers from
the trans-regional vernaculars to a confined and limited
regional space, where atomisation of cultures is more visible
than development of cosmopolitan vernaculars. From a literary culture of broad inclusiveness cutting across ethnic, religious or political boundaries, this region has witnessed a
shrinking of boundaries, both political and cultural, transforming a cosmopolitan culture into a borderland culture
with all its political and social ramifications. The inheritors of
a literary tradition which produced poets who could sing in

Notes
1 Khan Choudhury Amanatulla Ahmed points out
the similarities between the language of the
Buddhist dohas and songs, the oral tradition of
Jugir-geet/Moynamoti-geet/Gopichandar-geet,
Gorakhnather-geet, the tiger-god Sonarayar-geet,
which may be cited as examples of the ancient
Koch language, and the literary language of
Srikrishna Kirtan, Madhav Kandali, Sankardeva
and other early Vaishnava poets of Kamarupa
(2015: 174). He also dwells upon the influence
of the languages and dialects of the neighbouring communities with which the Koch kingdom
had active commercial and cultural contact
(the Tibetans, Bhutias, Garos, Meches, Nepalis) together with the literary languages of the
Muslims (Persian and ArabicMusalmani
Bangla) (Ahmed 2015: 187).
2 Bora (2007 Introduction: pxv). This text has
been claimed by literary historiographers of
Bengal as one of the earliest available texts in
Bangla.
3 Ghosh (1948) says that Vidyapati was considered a natural-born Bengali poet by his admirers because there was no fundamental
difference between Maithili and Bengali languages (p 55).
4 Sukumar Sen makes special mention of
Hemsaraswati, the 14th century poet as the
poet who wrote Bengali narrative verse. In
his bhaneeta (colophon) to the verses in Prahlad Caritra, Hemsaraswati refers to his birthplace as Kamatapur (Kamatabhuvana) and the
name of his patron as king Durlavanarayan, a
13th14th century Koch king, who ruled in the
Darang region of the Brahmaputra Valley. The
language in which he composed his verses has
been recognised as the ancient language of
Kamarupa and Kamata in the pre-Vaishnava
period. This language was certainly not a variety of modern Bangla, but had more affinities
with that of the Charyapadas (for details, see
Chakravarty 1996: 14, 37, and also Sen 1960:
11520).
5 Contributors to Pollock (2003).
6 See the discussions by Harish Trivedi, Sudipto
Kaviraj and others in Pollock (2003).
7 See Gait (1963: 5253) Despite disagreements
amongst historians about the exact size of
Naranarayans empire, it is certain that he had
exerted his suzerainty over a large region east
of Mithila or Trihut, extending up to the
borders of Burma in the east, reaching up to
Bhutan and Tibet in the north and the Bay of
Bengal in the south (Ahmed 1936), translated
from Bangla by Anjan Sarma 2014: 206; Gait
1963: 5155).
8 The comparative obscurity of Assamese and
the spread of a powerful Bengali literature
almost all over the globe gives an impression to
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SEPTEMBER 17, 2016

many voices are fettered by the chauvinistic compulsion of


adhering to a single brand of regional culture in a standard
literary language.
Recently in a scholarly study of the complexity of the
Mughal culture, the author uses a colourful expression from
Dylan Thomas poetry, through throats where many rivers
meet, to describe the creative confluence of multiple languages like Hindi and Persian in some of the literary texts
from the period (Phukan 2001). Such creative liberty which
surpasses all political, religious, ethnic or caste boundaries is
hard to come by in the present era of linguistic and cultural
chauvinism which sponsors purity of tongues rather than a
rich blending of voices.

foreigners that Assamese is a patois of Bengali


(Kakati 1941: 6). Kakati establishes with
meticulous care that the Asamiya language
does not show any characteristics of being a
dialect of Bangla. Rather, both the languages
developed on parallel lines, each with peculiar
dialectical predispositions of its own. He
discusses at length the difference between the
two languages in the vocabulary system, in the
systems of accentuation, in the case affixes, in
the completely different negative conjugations
in the Asamiya language, in the use of plural
suffixes and other linguistic features.
9 Madhava Kandali says: This composition is
not in the language of the gods, but in that of
the common man. Therefore, do not look for
its defects everywhere (Madhava Kandali,
Kishkindhyakanda, 26, 7278, in Saptakanda
Ramayana). Sankardeva, in his rendering of
Uttarakanda which was appended to Madhava
Kandalis Ramayana, seeks forgiveness from the
wise for his attempt to render the verses of the
epic in his own language following on the footsteps of Madhava Kandali whom he acknowledges generously as purba kavi apramadi:
dirgha hraswa nana chande, birasila padabandhe, sesh katha uttarakandar/ padat
dushana pai, nindibeka nujuwai, mahanta janar
kshama dharma (Uttarakanda, 19: 46). Ananta
Kandali in a colophonverse added to his translation of Dasama says that he prefers to write in
the local speech so that women and sudras may
delight in listening (Sarma 1991: 4). According to
the Assamese verse chronicle Darranga Raja
Vamsavali composed by Suryakhari Daivagna,
the king asked Rama Saraswati to render the
Mahabharata into vernacular verse (vv606
607). Choudhury Amanatulla Ahmed points
out that Pitambar Siddhantabagish who was a
court poet in Naranarayans court, translated
the Markandeya purana and the Dasam-skandha
of the Bhagawat as instructed by the king. In the
colophon of the Markandeya purana, Pitambar

10

11

12

13
14

says that he was requested by the king to translate the difficult verses from the puranas which
can be understood only by the pundits, into the
language of the masses so that everyone can
partake of the wisdom of the shastras (nij
deshbhasha bande raciyo payar). It is obvious
from this royal command that whatever may
have been the original dwelling place of the
poet, the language in which he composed the
vernacular texts was the language of the common people of the Koch kingdom. In other compositions undertaken by poets in Naranarayans
court too, similar usages of verbal forms, pronouns and prefixes can be found (Ahmed 2014:
168).
Though not much material is available on the exact facts about the life and works of Madhava
Kandali (also known as Kaviraj Kandali), it has
been surmised from the linguistic evidence
gleaned from his writings and from his colophonverses in the Ramayana, that he lived in the
Nagaon area of Assam and was the court poet of
the 14th century Kachari king Mahamanikya, who
ruled in the Kapili valley at that time. Since
Sankardeva acknowledged him generously as his
gifted predecessor, it is surmised that he lived
and wrote in the latter part of the 14th century.
Rama Saraswati who was a contemporary of
Sankardeva was commissioned by king
Naranarayan to render tales from the Mahabharata into Assamese verse.
According to Datyari Thakurs SankardevaMadhavdeva Jivana-carita and the Kath-gurucarita (Neog 1998: 102).
A celebration of the divine attributes of Vishnu
in rolling alliteration (Neog 1998: 207).
Naranarayan and his brother Cilarai before they
took over the reins of Kamrup and Kamatapur,
had spent several years in Kasi and acquired
considerable mastery over the Sanskrit language (Darrang-rajbangshavali by Suryakhari Daivaigna, vv556557).

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53

SPECIAL ARTICLE
15 Ananta Kandali, Dasama, v 3094, cited in
Sarma (1991: 4).
16 Madhava Kandali, Kishkindhyakanda, 26,
7278 in Ramayana (translation mine).
17 Mahamanikya was a BarahiKachari king who
ruled over the Kapili Valley from his capital at
Dimapur about the middle of the 14th century.
According to Pandit Hemchandra Goswami, an old
Ahom Buranji (chronicle) refers to seven generations of the Barahi kings the last of whom was
a contemporary of the Ahom king Suhunmung
(see Barua 1933: 321; also, Gait 1963: 5, 48).
18 Madhava Kandali, Lankakanda, 56, 2325
in Ramayana, Sarma 2008 (translation and
emphasis mine).
19 See Ramcharan Thakurias foreword to Lilavati
Saikias Madhava Kandalir Ramayanar Bhasha
(1993). Also, Khan Choudhury Koch Biharar
Prachin Bhasha, Dwijendra Nath Bhakat,
Bargitat Rajbangshi Bhashar Samal, in
Shukladhwaj (2015: 21318).
20 Madhava Kandali, also known as Kaviraja Kandali,
composed his Saptakanda Ramayana in the literary vernacular of Assam in the first half of
the 14th century AD. As stated in the KathaGuru-Carita, a prose narrative of unknown
authorship (written probably between 1678 and
1716 AD) devoted to the lives of the Assamese
Vaishnava preachers, Sankardeva and his disciple Madhavdeva (14891586) decided to complete the vernacular Ramayana of Kandali by
supplementing the initial and concluding
books which were missing in the available text
of Kandali. The Katha-Guru-Carita assigns a miraculous authority to Sankardevas task. The earlier poet Kandali was said to have appeared to
Sankardeva in a dream, appealing to him to
save his Ramayana from the hands of plagiarists. This might be a reference to endeavours
made by some 16th century Assamese Vaishnava poets to rewrite Kandalis Ramayana with
appropriate bhakti content inserted into it because the earlier text was found lacking in the
devotional element. Sankardeva decided to
keep the earlier text intact, introducing the
bhakti element only at the beginnings and ends
of verses, like the floral motifs in the borders
of Assamese woven garments. In his version of
the Uttarakanda, therefore, he seeks to retain the style and mode of versification of
Kandalis text, though Ramas divinity is
extolled here as in all bhakti texts. However,
though Sankardeva celebrates the unquestioned greatness of his predecessor, his Uttarakanda bears evidence of his own creative genius in his handling of the vernacular with
great maturity.
21 Banikanta Kakati, one of the foremost scholars of
the formation and development of the Asamiya
language says that there was a fair degree of
linguistic homogeneity in the language that was
spoken in the whole region east of the river Karatoya (in present day north Bengal) which included
probably the whole of northern Bengal including
Koch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Rangpur, Dinajpur and
western Assam. According to ancient sources
from Assam like Kalika-purana (10th century)
and Yogini-tantra (16th century), this whole area
was a part of the kingdom of Pragjyotishpur or
Kamarupa as mentioned in the Sanskrit epics
and kavyas. The mixed language spoken in this
region was a branch of the eastern Magadhi,
Prakrit and Apabhramsa which was the origin
also of Oriya (Kakati 1941: 4).
22 Significantly, the Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang
in his travel notes does not mention the
language spoken in Gaura, but makes specific
mention of the language of Kamarupa as
slightly different from that prevalent in central India (see Kakati 1941: x of Preface).

54

23 It may be conjectured that Sabin Alun, the oral


Ramayana of the neighbouring Karbi tribes
was most probably a product of such oral dissemination of Kandalis work.
24 Several Assamese writers of the early colonial
period whose encounter with colonial modernity was mediated through Bangla, often
adopted an ingenious linguistic device of blending Asamiya and Bangla or slipping conveniently from one to the other. Holiram Dhekiyal
Phukans Assam Buranji (1829) written in
Bangla prose, uses certain precolonial forms of
the literary Asamiya which were not commonly used in Bangla. Since the book was
based on material drawn from medieval Ahom
chronicles, Phukan makes liberal use of vocabulary and phrases from the Asamiya language
as spoken in eastern Assam with their simultaneous SadhuBangla translations appearing
side-by-side in the text. (see Editors Note to
Bhattacharya (1962), 0.380.39. See also,
Suryakumar Bhuyans article on the text in the
Appendix of the same book, pp 10924).
25 Rabindranath Tagore, Bhasha Bicched in
Bharati, Shravan, 1306 BS (1898 AD) and
Laxminath Bezbaroa, Asami Bhasha, in
Punya, Vol 2, 1306 BS (1898 AD). For a detailed
discussion on this, see Tilottoma Misra, Literature and Society in Assam: A Study of the
Assamese Renaissance 18261926, Bhabani
Print and Publications, Guwahati, 2011 (second
edition), pp 17988 (FP 1987).
26 Against this colonial decision to standardise
the dialect of eastern Assam as the new print
language, there were protests from the literati
of western Assam who sought to establish the
antiquity of their own spoken language as the
source of the literary language of precolonial
Assam (for a detailed discussion on this, see
Misra 2011: 13843).
27 The first Asamiya printed dictionary was Miles
Bronsons AssameseEnglish Dictionary (1867).
The first grammar of the Asamiya language
was Nathan Browns Grammatical Notes on the
Assamese Language (1848).
28 Anandaram Dhekiyal Phukan, Observations on
the Administration of the Province of Assam,
in AJM Mills, Report on the Province of
Assam, Calcutta, 1854, Appendix J, also see
Phukan (1854: 149).

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Pollock (ed), Berkeley: University of California
Press, pp 567611.

SEPTEMBER 17, 2016

vol lI no 38

EPW

Economic & Political Weekly