Textual Tradition of North East India Antiquity
BY: A.K. DAS
Folio from Chitra Bhagwata, preserved at Assam Museum, Guwahati
Aug 01, 2012 NEW DELHI, INDIA (SUN)
North Eastern India (erstwhile greater Assam) remained peripheral in the horizon of Sanskritization that brought in social and cultural changes within the broad outline of the Indian civilization. The civilizational interface in this region marks its presence in concrete terms probably between 4th and 6th century A.D. as revealed by archaeological finds such as the Dah Parbatia edifice of Gupta style on the north bank of the middle Brahmaputra valley.
Some of the Assamese scholars are, however inclined to take back the period of Sanskritization to the pre-Christian era on the basis of finds at Surya Pahar in Goalpara district in the lower Brahmaputra valley. The finds reveal Buddhist stupa-like stone edifices along with rock-cut relief images of some deities of the Hindu pantheon.
These finds need absolute dating to place them in an appropriate period of history. In this context, it may be mentioned that when the Chinese traveler Hsuan Tsang visited Assam in 7th century A.D. he was believed to have come across many temples. Yet, except for the Dah Parbatia there are hardly any known temple ruins of that period in the North-East. Most of the ruins of ancient Hindu temples and other structures in this region belong to the medieval and post-medieval periods.
Regarding the Buddhist finds it may be mentioned that the northern fringe of the region reveal some edifices of 17th-18th century A.D. The Tawang monastery in Western Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh is the oldest Mahayana-Vajrayana sacred complex and was built by Mera Lama in the 17th century. Other monasteries in this region were built at a later period. One of the most interesting Hinayana Buddhist structures discovered in the Tirap District of Arunachal, a Burmese pagoda style stupa known as Khomong, belongs to the late 18th century A.D.
It is important, therefore, to understand the antiquity, historicity and continuity of the textual tradition of Assam in terms of this archaeological context as well as the Sanskritization tendencies over time. Additionally, it may be noted that an understanding of the Sanskritization process will also remain incomplete without a study of the textual tradition of this region.
To begin with, it must be admitted that the historical sources of ancient Assam originate from the textual traditions discovered so far in multiple forms such as rock-cut inscriptions, copper-plate inscriptions, coins, terracotta plaques/bricks, bark/leaf manuscripts and handmade paper manuscripts as early as the 7th and 8th century A.D.
There is scarcely any concrete evidence of pre-Sanskrit inscriptions in Assam. Old Sanskrit inscriptions on rock surfaces are few in number. However, there are a large number of rock-cut inscriptions in old Assamese scripts scattered across the region. Some of these are well studied. The earliest example of this tradition is the Umachal Rock inscription. Instances of writing are also found in other media, such as stone sculptures, bronzes of the medieval period as well as coins of the Hindu and Ahom kings, of which a very good record is available from a very early period.
The copper-plates formed a part of the writing tradition in Assam as early as the 7th century A.D. A credible account of the history of Assam may be found in these, issued as they were by the pre-Ahom kings of different periods. For instance, Vashkarvarman issued the copper-plate grant now known as the Nidhanpur grant, Vanamala issued the Tezpur grant and Ratnapala the Guwahati grant, etc.
Terracotta plaques and inscribed bricks also form a part of the textual tradition of North-East India. Several such plaques are found in Dabaka, Middle Assam, bearing inscriptions in old Assamese script. A single brick from Bhismaknagar, Arunachal Pradesh, reveals an inscription in old Assamese script belonging to 12th -13th century A.D.
Making of a Manuscript
The use of Agaru tree bark, popularly known as sanchi pat, was a later development, the appropriateness of the material for writing upon being a pre-medieval realization. Agaru trees are found in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas and its bark has been used in the North-East for about six hundred years or so for writing manuscripts. Tulapat, a kind of handmade paper, was a later addition, probably introduced by the Tai Ahoms.
Another aspect, which is equally important, is the mohi or the ink that was used to write these manuscripts. The black ink is prepared from a mixture of urine of bull, khilikha (a kind of citrus fruit) and iron ore. In general, colours used in the illustrations are prepared from the indigenous dye called hangul and haital. A typical pen used for writing is specially prepared from the nal khagari (a kind of reed found in river side), although sometimes the feather of a swan or a duck is also used.
The regional office of the Archaeological Survey of India in Guwahati had registered some two hundred and fifty manuscripts in Northeast India as antiquities. Some of the manuscripts are fully illustrated. However, there are also one hundred and ten manuscripts in the collection of the Department of Antiquarian and Historical Studies, Assam, including fifty-seven illustrated manuscripts. The Kamarupa Anusandhan Samity, Guwahati, is another institution having a large collection of manuscripts some of which are on display in the Assam State Museum.
A substantial number of manuscripts are to be found in the six hundred or so Vaishnava monasteries (Satra). Moreover, a large number of manuscripts are lying in the Namghars (prayer halls) of the villages and towns in the Brahmaputra valley. However, it is a matter of concern that a considerable number of manuscripts are in a very bad state in private homes of individuals.
Buddhist monasteries in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam are important repositories of manuscripts as well. Most of the Mahayana manuscripts in Arunachal Pradesh are written in Tibetan language and script. The library at the Tawang Monastery in Western Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh is in possession of a large number of Tibetan manuscripts dealing with Buddhist philosophy and allied subjects, Tanjur and Kanjur comprising the significant corpus of manuscripts. In the same district, monasteries at Dirang, Jang, Shangti, Kalaktang, Rupa, Jeegaon, Shergaon, et al, have a good number of such manuscripts. All these manuscripts belong to the 17th -18th century A.D. or later. Some of the later Tai manuscripts could be retrieved from the Hinayana monasteries or Bapusang located in Lohit District of Arunachal Pradesh. Other important repositories of manuscripts are the Chowkham and Khereme monasteries. In Assam, the Buddhist monastery at Tai-Fake village of Jaipur block on the bank of Dihing river in Tinsukia district and the monastery at Barsaraki village of the Khamiyang tribe in Sibsagar district have a few Tai manuscripts of the 18th and 19th century A.D.
The zenith of the textual tradition in North- East India was reached in the manuscripts prepared in the post-medieval period with the use of languages such as Sanskrit, Old Assamese, Tai Ahom, and Tibetan. Most of the Ahom buranjis (13th to 19th century A.D.) and Vaishnava literatures (16th to 18th century A.D.) such as Kirtan, Namghosha, Ankia-nat, Bhagawat, et al are written on sanchi pat. Besides myths of creation, the study of elephants and epic episodes are also the subjects of the manuscript tradition in Old Assamese. One of the older texts, written in Sanskrit, is the Kalikapurana believed to have been written in the 9th century A.D. Some of the little known manuscripts on sanchi pat are Kumaraharan by Rama Dvija (1652 A.D.), Laitu Buranji (1715 A.D.) of Tai Ahom tradition and an interesting manuscript written in the Muslim tradition by Dvija Rama in 1797 A.D. This manuscript is titled Sahapari Upakhyan. Here we find a kind of diffusion of the folk literatures from the west to this region.
The most famous illustrated manuscripts of the Brahmaputra Valley are Bhagawat, Kirtan, Usha Haran, Shailya Parba and the Hastividyarnava. Hastividyarnava an illustrated treatise on the study of elephants is unique in itself. This manuscript reflects the significance of the elephant to this region since the practice of elephant-catching by mela sikhar and kheda sikar and the training and eventual domestication of elephants is elaborately documented.
While this article has not discussed the manuscripts of the Barak valley due to adequate scholastic work conducted on those in the past and their close ties with the Bengali tradition, it has tried to throw some light on other traditions that deserve equal attention. Given the richness of the textual tradition in North-eastern India, and the diversity of influences that shaped it, it is imperative that more research be conducted with a focus on these texts.
1. Choudhury, R.D. (1985), Archaeology of Brahmaputra Valley, Agam Kala Prakashan, New Delhi
2. Choudhury, R.D. op cit
3. Choudhury, P.D, (1964), Archaeology in Assam, Guwahati.
4. Choudhury, R.D, (1987), Catalogue of the Inscriptions in Assam State Museum, Guwahati
5. Sarkar, Niranjan (1976), Tawang Monastery, Research Department, Arunachal Pradesh
6. Choudhury, P.C. (edited), (1976), Hastividyabarna, Guwahati.
A.K. Das is Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri Memorial, New Delhi
Source: Kriti Rakshana, the National Mission for Manuscripts
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