Dialogue October-December, 2011, Volume 13 No. 2
Assam: A vital link between India and South-East Asia*
The colonial scholars created the myth of isolation – both intra- and inter-regional –about the North-East region of the country. Contrary to the prevailing perception, the region was not only well-linked intra-regionally and with rest of the country, but even played most significant role as a bridge between South-East Asia, Tibet and China. The book, Assam and Indochina, written by Dr. Pradip Sarma, helps in clearing the myth and removing the perceptional haziness in this case. Dr. Sarma, author of half a dozen books and more than hundred research and popular articles, a well-known scholar of the culture, tradition and archaeology of Assam, is former Deputy Director of Archaeology, Assam. As the Director of the Research Council, Vivekanand Kendra Institute of Culture, he guided many research projects, edited 12 books and a couple of journals of the Institute. The book under review has filled the gap where much information was desired.
In the very first chapter of the book, the author informs us about the territorial limit of ancient Assam and the frontiers of Indo-China, as well as about the Kiratas and the legend of the birth of Brahmaputra. He details the historical travel routes and the travelers' records and documents – the records of the Moryan times, reports of Chang Kien, the Chinese emissary; the Periplus of the Erythrian sea, Ptolemy’s records, other travelers’ and monks' reports, such as that of Hiuan-tsang, Kia-tan, Lama Taranath and Pemberton. The information provided by Kalika Purana is also used.
Chapter three of the book (Hinduism with a difference) emphasises Tantrism, animal sacrifice, Shaktism, Linga cult and esoterism as distinct development with local touch. In reality, the massive classical literature and the worship of Shiva and Shakti, not only throughout India, but also across its boundary, points towards the need of seeking an explanation of facts in cultural continuum frame. After all, Mahabharat emphasoises the fact that Kiratas are Kshatriyas of good birth. As Hinduism recognises tradition of any place as pious, the phrases ‘Neo-Hinduism’ and “Regulariisation of tribal festivals’ are misleading.
It is a well-known fact that India and Indo-China (South-East Asia) had deep and intimate links since remote past. Our links were maintained through land routes via Assam and Bengal, and through sea route. The book provides valuable information on the land route linking India to China and Indo-China from Burma (now Myanmar) to Vietnam. It informs us about the chain of Hindu kingdoms in South-East Asia across Patkai and their links with Kamarupa. Diffusion of some esoteric practices of Tantric Hinduism of Assam, such as Ari, across Patkai, needs in-depth study. The book gives valuable information about the ‘Kamrupi rulers of Further India’ and on ‘Assam’s contribution to the culture of Indo-China. The chapters on ‘The Kingdom of Kamboja’ and ‘Champa of the Tonkin Bay’ inform, what every Indian should know.
There are, however, certain weaknesses in the book, which need elaboration. The book is not free from the impact of colonial myths. It explains history in the over all frame-work of Aryan migration and racist Aryan-non-Aryan frame. While Asuras and Danavas racially differ from Suras, i.e., gods, for a colonial scholar, they are brothers from the same father Kashyapa; only the mothers – Diti, Danu and Aditi – being different. Here it needs mention that ‘Arya’ has only the behavioural connotation, and not the racial one in Indian tradition and literature. It needs mention here that Kiratas, according to Mahabharat, are the best-born Kshatriyas, and therefore, Indian tradition does not recognise Arya-Kirata dichotomy. Race, after all is a colonial construct.
The book, with a mine of information on culture, tradition, religion, history and archaeological finds, especially about North-East region, is a valuable addition in a field where there is a lot of communication gap in our knowledge and understanding. The book strengthens our understanding about the cultural continuum and historical links about India and Indochina with Assam as a vital link. It should, therefore, have a wide readership in our country and elsewhere.
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