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ANICA MANN KAPUR | 4 AUGUST, 2017

Look East Policy: Assam's Cultural Heritage And Tourism Industry

ANICA MANN KAPUR


NEW DELHI: Much of Assamese religion is rooted in the esoteric and it centers around the optimizations and harnessing of power, on all levels - cosmic, physical, social, and political.

The reliance of the Assamese people on their all powerful goddess can be traced to the region’s treacherous history which involved complex and often violent statecraft and warfare. This site in ancient times was known as Pragjyotisha -- “the land of eastern lights”, and in medieval times as Kamarupa -- "the form of desire". Assam has a rich Buddhist history with king Kumara inviting Hsuan Tsang -- the great chinese pilgrim who visited India to learn the Dharma and to further propagate it in China. The state locates its Buddhist history in the oldest known list of the four pithas that we find in the Hevajra Tantra, a Buddhist text of the eighth century.

To understand the value of Assam in the larger context of indic culture, one can glean religion and traditional craft practices of the state from a historical perspective to be the most valid indicators of future steps. These include the aim to elevate the state within the global platform it aspires to achieve, especially with Japan's renewed interests in investing in infrastructural development. A representative from the Ministry of Development of North East Region (DONER) mentioned in a Mint article on August 3 that “priority areas obviously include infrastructure, disaster management and other natural priorities of NER like tourism, handicrafts and handlooms, water resources including fisheries, power, etc,”.

This religious history of Assam has seldom been explored in any serious way by modern scholarship but instead, typically has been dismissed as the thin veneer of Brahmanical Hinduism over a substratum of indigenous tribal religion. The land of Assam -- the remote and hilly northeast corner of India on the border of China and Bhutan -- has long held a place of mysterious fascination and tantalizing allure in both the eastern and western imaginations. Famed as a realm of treacherous jungle and strange tribal ritual, Assam has for centuries been portrayed in Indian literature and in European accounts as a savage, untamed country. However religion serves as a telling story of the past, a time warp with medieval customs still followed in religious pilgrimage sites such as the Kamakhya Temple.

This temple is one of the oldest sites among the 51 Shakti Peethas. A Shakti Peetha is a site of goddess worship. Texts such as Shiva Purana, the Devi Bhagavata, the Kalika Purana and the AstaShakti recognise this site as one of the Adi Shakti sites wherein; according to the most popular account, the ornaments of Parvati fell after sati, upon Shiva's tandav.

This site lacks deep archaeological research, however it is believed through historic investigation that the earliest temple was constructed during the Mlechchha dynasty. According to the Kalika Purana, Kamakhya Temple denotes the spot where sati used to retire in secret to satisfy her amour with Shiva and it was also the place where her yoni fell after Shiva danced with the corpse of Sati. Being the centre for Tantra worship, this temple attracts thousands of tantra devotees in an annual festival known as Ambubachi Mela. Another annual celebration is the Manasha Puja. Durga Puja is also celebrated annually at Kamakhya during navratri in the autumn.

The state has myriad other centers of pilgrimage that present a good case for the government to elevate tourism support. These age-old temples are classic examples of brilliant late medieval Indian brick architecture. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) documents Assam as a state with rich cultural history and important monuments that require protection. The total number of monuments protected by the ASI has gone up to 54 in Assam. Understanding the monuments of national importance, one can infer the most important religious devotion was Shakta worship. Thus, apart from these complexes, there are 12 other temple complexes associated with Shakta worship, which serve as important sites of devotion.

The rich cultural trove of Assam remains at the periphery of the cultural identity of the nation, thus it requires the attention that festivals such as Namami Brahmaputra in the past have brought to these sectors. These festivals highlight the gaps in cultural monetization to thus create sustainable business models to elevate the cultural offerings of a state in a tangible manner.

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