For an ardent lover of this beautiful State, the mere mention of the name ‘Assam’, ‘Asom’, ‘Oxom’ or ‘Axom’ creates an unexplainable emotional and magical spell in the mind. With so many different tribes, varied culture, heritage, religion, dialects and diverge aspirations, the name of the geographical entity is the bonding glue of the otherwise loose Assamese identity and sub-nationhood. “Jai Aai Axom” (Victory to mother Assam) reverberates through the minds of all passionate Assamese, irrespective of caste, creed or religion, uniting and inspiring a scattered jig-saw puzzle called Assam and constantly motivates us to relentlessly fight for preservation of our common vulnerable identity, every now and then.
But incidentally, the name that inspires and unites us all in the same fold is not very old. Famous historian Dr. SK Chatterjee conclusively opines that the name ‘Asam’ could not have been used before the advent of the Tai (Siam) invaders led by Swargadeo Chaolung Syu-ka-fa, now revered by all Assamese as the father of greater Assamese nationhood. As narrated by Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, on an eventful day of 1228 AD, when Syu-ka-fa leading a huge army entered the Brahmaputra valley and established his capital at Charaideo, he found the entire valley from Tipam to Koliabar was inundated under flood water. The Tai people named the area as ‘Khao-Kham’. In Tai language, ‘Khao’ means water and ‘Kham’ means field. In the process, possibly ‘Khao-Kham’ became ‘Ao-Kham’, then ‘Akham’, ‘Asam’, ‘Assam’, ‘Axom’ or ‘Oxom’. ‘Axom’ or ‘Oxom’ is a typical Assamese guttural (throaty) pronunciation of ‘x’. From these narrations, it can safely be said that the name that denotes our nationhood or sub-nationhood today is rather nascent, not even eight century old. However, many etymologists hold varied opinions on the issue which will be discussed later.
The earliest mention of the land as city of Pragjyotishpura is found in Ramayana and Mahabharata. As per the tenth century mythological text ‘Kalika-Purana’, here Lord Brahma first created the stars and subsequently, the city was known as Pragjyotishpura, the city of Eastern Lights or the Eastern City of Astrology. The name coincidentally matches with the city being a seat of astrological, astronomical and tantra-mantra activities. Researchers of history now accept that the land referred to as Pragjyotisha in the epics is the present-day Assam and North Bengal. In the ‘Bhismaparvan’, the Pragjyotisha king Bhagadatta is said to have joined the war of Kurushetra in favor of the Kauravas with his army of Kirata and Cina soldiers. Many ancient relics discovered by archeologists also confirm the existence of the name in olden times. However, now-a-days Guwahati is referred as Pragjyotishpura, sometimes.
During the later period of Puranic times, the Pragjyotishpura kingdom was referred to as Kamarupa. Mythology has it that Lord Shiva was in deep meditation and stopped performing his assigned godly duties. Lord Vishnu deputed Kamadeva, the god of love, to lure Lord Shiva to break his meditation. Kamadeva was successful in his mission but in the process drew tremendous ire of Shiva who opened his third eye in anger that emitted fire and Kamadeva was burnt into ashes. Ratidevi, the goddess of erotica and wife of Kamadeva, prayed to the Lord for revival of her husband. Being satisfied, Shiva bestowed life back to Kamadeva. Since Kamadeva received a new life (rupa) here, the place came to be known as Kama-rupa.
However, according to Dr. Bani Kanta Kakati , the name Kamarupa is derived from an Austric formation of ‘Kamru’ or ‘Kamrut’ denoting a lesser divinity in Santhali tribal dialect which means magic and necromancy (supposed communication with the dead). Prevalence of black magic and tantric practices justify the opinion. The earliest epigraphic mention of the region as Kamarupa was found in King Samudragupta’s Allahabad stone pillar of fourth century CE with mentioned boundary of the kingdom as present day West Assam. But Kalika-Purana and Yogini-Tantra refer Kamarupa as a kingdom from Karatoya in the west, in present day Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal, to Dikkaravasini, present day Sadiya, in the east. Many epigraphic sources also mention the land as Pragjyotisha-Kamarupa. Even in early sixteenth century, Allauddin Hussain of Gaur after invading the western part of the kingdom issued coins inscribing the area as Kamrup. In late seventeenth century, chroniclers of Mir Jumla’s invasion however mentioned the kingdom as ‘Asam’.
The name of a country that is given by outsiders or invaders can be different than the local name. The case in point is that Bharat was denoted as India outside which finally became the official name. Some believe that the name of the area was derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Asama’, meaning uneven terrain or unequalled. But historian Edward Gait and a few others rejected the theory and asserted that the name Assam or Asam is associated with the Ahoms. Historian Grierson accepted that the native people called the invading army of Syu-ka-fa as ‘Shan’ or ‘Sham’. Another theory is that the native Bodo people referred to the area under Syu-ka-fa’s occupation as ‘Ha-Sham’, meaning land of Sham people which probably became ‘Asam’ or ‘Acam’, subsequently. It could also be from a Tai root ‘Cham’ (defeated) and with an Indic prefix for negation ‘a’, ‘A-cham’ might mean undefeated. The Bodo word ‘Ha-com’ meaning low or level country could also be the original source of the name. Phonetics and corruption of pronunciation played their roles over the years too.
After the treaty of Yandado, the British colonial regime unequivocally established the name of the administrative unit as Assam which continues till date. Notwithstanding whatever is the origin, our forefathers created a distinctive Assamese identity with a very strong and rich foundation of culture and language. At this crucial juncture, it’s our ardent duty to work relentlessly in unison to preserve and enrich Axom’s identity discarding all parochial considerations whatsoever.
(The author of the column is a former Vice President of Reliance Defence & Engineering Ltd., Gujarat. Presently, he is a freelance writer, management consultant and professional trainer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)