In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Assam

  • Introduction
  • Indigenous Religions and Their Negotiation with Sanskritic Forms of Hinduism
  • Vedic Influences in Early Kāmarūpa
  • Śaiva Traditions
  • Magic, Witchcraft, and Folk Traditions in Contemporary Assam

Hinduism Assam
Hugh Urban
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0245


Assam constitutes the region of northeast India bounded by the modern nations of Bangladesh and Bhutan, as well as by the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Bangla, Manipur, Meghalaya, and Nagaland. Known in ancient sources as Prāgjyotiṣpūra (the “city of eastern lights”) and as Kāmarūpa (the “form” or “place of desire”), Assam remains one of the least studied and poorly understood areas of South Asian Hinduism. The home to more than forty recognized tribal communities, Assam has tremendous religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity, which has helped shape the unique forms of Hinduism that have flourished in the region. Moreover, Assam also has a long reputation as a realm of magic, witchcraft, and the supernatural; for example, even in the early 21st century, the town of Mayong in Morigaon district is infamous as the quintessential “land of black magic.” The historical roots of Hinduism in Assam date back to at least the Varman dynasty of the 4th to 7th centuries, when Vedic sacrifices such as the aśvamedha and other Brahmanical rites were widespread. However, most of the kings of Assam from the Varmans onward came from non-Hindu tribal backgrounds, and the form of Hinduism that developed in the region has long been a complex negotiation between Sanskritic traditions and indigenous practices from the many local communities of the region. During the Assamese Pāla dynasty of the 8th to 12th centuries, Śākta traditions became dominant, and major texts such as the Kālikā Purāṇa were composed, praising the great mother goddess Kāmākhyā (goddess of desire) and her retinue of yoginīs. A unique form of Hindu tantra probably also began to flourish at this time, and Assam has a long reputation as one of the oldest heartlands or perhaps even the original homeland of tantra in South Asia. The Ahom kings of the 13th to 19th centuries continued the patronage of powerful goddesses while also building temples to Śiva, Viṣṇu, and others. During the 16th century, Assam like much of northern India witnessed a powerful revival of Vaiṣṇava bhakti, led by the devotional reformer Śaṅkaradeva (b. 1449–d. 1568). Through Śaṅkaradeva’s influence, Vaiṣṇavism remains a dominant cultural and religious force in Assam to this day. However, even in the 21st century, Assamese Hinduism remains incredibly diverse, and one can still see a wide range of indigenous, folk, and local practices that range from magic and menstruation festivals to spirit possession and ecstatic dance performances.

General Overviews

There is no single comprehensive study of Hinduism in Assam. Probably the broadest overviews are Sharma 1990 and Sharma 1994, which discuss religious life in ancient and medieval Assam, and Urban 2009, which covers the major Vedic, Śaiva, Śākta, Vaiṣṇava, and Tāntrik traditions in the region. Eliot 1910 on “Hinduism in Assam” is outdated and highly biased by colonial and Orientalist views, but it is interesting as an early historical document. However, there are some good historical studies that contain useful general information on the development on Hinduism in Assam, such as Barpujari 1990–1994, Basu 1970, and Barua 2011.

  • Barpujari, H. K., ed. The Comprehensive History of Assam. 5 vols. Guwahati, India: Publication Board Assam, 1990–1994.

    A large and wide-ranging collection of volumes by Assamese scholars organized historically from the ancient period to the modern era. While religion is not the central focus, the volumes contain useful information on various forms of Hinduism in the region and their role in history, politics, art, and culture.

  • Barua, Brinchi Kumar. A Cultural History of Assam: Early Period. Guwahati, India: Bina Library, 2011.

    Another useful volume that focuses primarily on the premodern history of the region.

  • Basu, Nirmal Kumar. Assam in the Ahom Age, 1228–1826. Calcutta: Sanskrit Pustak Bandhar, 1970.

    Covers the Ahom dynasty of the 13th to 19th centuries, during which patronage of Śaiva, Śākta, and Vaiṣṇava Hinduism was important. Originally a non-Hindu community from either Myanmar or China, the Ahom kings adopted Hindu titles and Hindu forms of worship, though often blended with indigenous deities and practices.

  • Eliot, Sir Charles. “Hinduism in Assam.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (October 1910): 1155–1186.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0035869X00040594

    A British colonial administrator and botanist, Eliot wrote a brief account of the religion of the region that clearly reflects his Orientalist bias but is interesting as a historical document.

  • Gait, Edward Albert. A History of Assam. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink, 1963.

    Like Eliot, Gait was a colonial administrator and served as assistant commissioner in Assam. His historical account is still widely read, but in typical Orientalist fashion, it tends to exaggerate the more exotic practices such as sacrifice and transgressive rituals.

  • Sarma, P. C. Architecture of Assam. Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan, 1988.

    A useful study of the temple architecture of the region from the Gupta period to the end of Ahom rule.

  • Sharma, Mukunda Madhava.“Religion.” In The Comprehensive History of Assam. Vol. 1, Ancient Period. Edited by H. K. Barpujari, 302–345. Guwahati, India: Publication Board, Assam, 1990.

    A good overview of religious life in early Assam from the Varman to the Pāla dynasties (4th to 12th centuries). It covers the major forms of Brāhmaṇism, Śaivism, and Śāktism in the ancient period, as well as the worship of specific deities such as Indra, Ganeśa, and Sūrya.

  • Sharma, M. M. “Brāhmaṇism, Śaivism, and Śāktism.” In The Comprehensive History of Assam. Vol. 3, Medieval Period (Administrative, Economic, Social, and Cultural). Edited by H. K. Barpujari, 211–228. Guwahati, India: Publication Board, Assam, 1994.

    A useful overview of major forms of Hinduism during the medieval era, from roughly the 13th century to the 18th.

  • Urban, Hugh B. “Hinduism in Assam and the Northeast States.” In The Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 1. Edited by Knut Jacobson, 11–21. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

    A broad overview of the development of Hindu traditions in Assam, beginning from Vedic influences in early Kāmarūpa down to the changing role of Assamese Hinduism in a 21st-century global context. The chapter pays special attention to the influence of indigenous religions on Hinduism in the region as well as to the unique nature of Assamese tantra and goddess worship.

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