Illustation: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustation: Jayachandran/Mint

Kamrupi: a language with no army

How Lower Assam's ancient language shrank into a 'dialect of yokels'

When the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Hiuen Tsang reached the kingdom of Kamrup in the seventh century, it was a country of 10,000 li, or nearly 1,700 miles, in a circuit that stretched from the Karatoya river in present-day Bangladesh to a line of hills in the east. “The frontiers," the Chinese pilgrim noted, “are contiguous to the barbarians of the south-west of China." The people, according to excerpts from Hiuen Tsang’s account, reproduced in Edward Gait’s A History Of Assam, first published in 1906, were of small stature and their complexion was “dark yellow". “They adore and sacrifice to the Devas and have no faith in Buddha," he noted. “Their language differs a little from that of mid-India."

The king at the time was described by Hiuen Tsang as a man named Kumar Bhaskarvarman, of the Brahmin caste. “From the time that his family seized the land and assumed government, there have elapsed a thousand generations," Hiuen Tsang wrote. The site of the capital of this kingdom, which was already ancient during Hiuen Tsang’s time, is not certain. Gait, in his magisterial history of Assam, speculated that it was either in Goalpara or Cooch Behar in present-day Assam and West Bengal, respectively, or somewhere near Rangpur in Bangladesh. No sign of it remains today.

There is, however, still a district of Assam between Goalpara and Guwahati that bears the name of Kamrup. The small people of dark yellow complexion seem to have vanished; or perhaps they acquired a tan. But what of their language, the one that differed a little from that of Hiuen Tsang’s “mid-India" (the upper Gangetic plain)?

A profusion of tongues

On the political map of India, Assam is a nice big block of a single solid colour in the North-East, stretching from the Sankosh river in the west to the Arunachal foothills in the east. Around it are other similarly solid blocks of different colours—Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Bhutan, and thin slivers of Tripura, Mizoram, Bangladesh and West Bengal. People often think they know that the people of Assam are Assamese and they speak the Assamese language, the people of Nagaland are Nagas and they speak Nagamese, the people of Manipur are Manipuris and they speak Manipuri, and so on. What could be simpler or more evident? It is as simple and evident as “knowing" that the people of India are Indians and they speak the Indian language—and as incorrect.

According to the Resource Centre for Indian Language Technology Solutions at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, the census of 1971 reported that 220 languages were spoken in the North-East. To find the needle that is the direct descendant of the ancient language of Kamrup from Hiuen Tsang’s time, in the haystack of tongues spoken in the region, might have been difficult but for the fact that there’s still a dialect, called Kamrupi, spoken in Assam. It comes in two main variants, Nalbariya and Barpetiya, and it is widely viewed today as the language of bumpkins.

“In Assamese, particularly within those hailing from Upper Assam, a term called dhekeri is used to describe people who speak the Nalbari or Barpeta strains of the language. Often, this term is used in a condescending manner—at least it used to be in the past, though I feel that kind of usage has reduced now," says film-maker and critic Utpal Borpujari.

Assamese cinema has rarely used the dialects of Assamese, says Borpujari. “There have been examples of using these dialects to impart a feeling of comedy, but in minor ways. The only film that I can remember having used a particular Lower Assam dialect fully is Dr Santwana Bordoloi’s internationally acclaimed film Adajya, made in the late 1990s…. Very recently, another film, Sonar Baran Pakhi, directed by Bobby Sarma Baruah and based on the life of the legendary Goalpariya folk singer Pratima Barua Pandey, used Assamese spoken in the Gauripur area along with the Rajbongshi language," he says.

Borpujari himself made a feature film, Ishu, which used the Assamese spoken by the Rabha tribals of the Goalpara area of Lower Assam, south of the Brahmaputra.

In television, according to Borpujari, there is one interesting example, a long-running serial, titled Borola Kai, on an Assamese channel. It has used Assamese spoken in various parts of the state through its various characters, without making it sound comic or derogatory. “Another serial called Oi Khapla, however, has used the Lower Assam dialects more as a comic tool, and thus, according to me, in a derogatory way," he says.

The use of Lower Assam dialects in Assamese literature, too, has been scant in the years since independence. Author and translator Mitra Phukan names Indira Goswami and Imran Hussain as two writers who have used the western Assam “bhasha" in their works. “I prefer the word tongue or bhasha to dialect, which seems to have a kind of hierarchy built into it," she says.

Phukan calls herself a “proud dhekeri". Her father was from Nalbari and her mother from Dhubri. “Among his brothers and cousins, my father spoke in the Nalbariya bhasha…. But with others, and even with us, he switched effortlessly into standard Assamese. Our home language was standard Assamese," she says. “My mother too spoke in the Dhubriya tongue with her sisters, cousins, and so on. Once more, with others she spoke standard Assamese, but with quite a strong Dhubriya accent. This was often mistaken for a Bengali accent, and it annoyed her no end that the people of other parts of Assam, especially eastern Assam, could not make out the difference, because she considered herself Assamese to the core," says Phukan.

No Bengali, please

Association with Bengali was and, to some extent, still is a risky matter in Assam. The politics of the state and the wider North-East has long had a strand of chauvinism whose particular object of hate was the “foreigner" Bengali. “As for the tongues of Goalpara, Dhubri, etc., they are looked down upon because they are perceived to be Bengali. Also, because of the intonation, they are sometimes mistaken for tongues from Bangladesh! After the Assam agitation (in 1979-85, against alleged illegal immigrants), anything thought to be connected to Bangladesh is in any case suspect. Those Muslims who speak this bhasha, and who have lived for many generations in, say, Dhubri, are looked at with hostility," says Phukan.

The confusion of tongues of Lower Assam with Bengali dialects is perhaps not surprising since they share a common origin. Their ancestor is Kamrupi. Going further back, Bengali, Assamese, Odia, Bhojpuri, Magadhi and Maithili all originate from a language called Magadhi Apabhramsa—probably the language that was spoken, with some variations, in both Kamrup and what Hiuen Tsang called mid-India around 1,400 years ago.

The linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterji, in his masterwork The Origin And Development Of The Bengali Language, published in 1926, wrote, “The modern representatives of Magadhi Apabhramsa are Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Magahi, Maithili and Bhojpuriya." He classified Bengali, Assamese and Odia as eastern Magadhan. Odia branched off first. The common dialect in North Bengal and Assam continued as one speech, as a member of the Bengali-Assamese group of dialects. “In the 15th century," wrote Chatterji, “it split up into two sections, Assamese and North Bengali, when Assamese started on an independent existence of its own by not acknowledging the domination of literary Bengali, already established in East Bengal as well."

So while eastern Magadhan was the source of Odia, Bengali and Assamese, Chatterji says that it was the eastern Kamrupi dialect (the version spoken in the eastern parts of the Kamrup kingdom much later) that developed into Assamese. Western Kamrupi gave rise to various dialects, including those of Rangpur in western Goalpara (western Goalpara, including Rangpur, is now in Bangladesh), Koch Bihar (now Cooch Behar) and North Bengal. The dialects of a language called Vanga, associated with an ancient kingdom “east of the Brahmaputra and north of the Padma", gave rise to Sylheti, Kachari and most of the dialects of what is now Bangladesh. The dialects of a language called Radha or Rarha became the tongues of West Bengal.

The idea of a Bengali language and identity are relatively new. “The first native name for Bengali was Gauda-bhasa, probably coming into use as early as the 16th century," writes Chatterji. “This name continued down to the beginning of the 19th century, nay, even later, side by side with the new name Vanga-bhasa or Bangala-bhasa." Raja Rammohun Roy, the first Bengali to write a grammar of his mother tongue, called his work Gaudiya Vyakaran, meaning the grammar of the Gaudiya—not Bengali—language. It was first published in 1826, in English.

Kamrupi roots

In neighbouring Assam, it was Kamrup—meaning Lower Assam and North Bengal, not the Ahom territories of Upper Assam—where the early stalwarts of Assamese culture did their life’s work. Assam from ancient times was known as Kamarupa till the end of Koch rule in the 17th century, according to the renowned Assamese linguist Upendranath Goswami. In his research paper (later published as a book) A Study On Kamrupi: A Dialect Of Assamese, published in 1958, Goswami wrote that “the Aryan language spoken first in Assam was the Kamrupi language spoken in Rangpur, Cooch Behar, Goalpara, Kamrup district and some parts of Nowgong and Darrang districts".

“It is in this Kamrupi language that the early Assamese literature was mainly written," writes Goswami. “Up to the 17th century, as the centres of art, literature and culture were confined within western Assam and the poets and writers hailed from this part, the language of this part also acquired prestige." The most considerable Assamese poet of the pre-Vaishnavite period in Goswami’s estimation was Madhava Kandali, who belonged to the present district of Nagaon and rendered the entire Ramayan into Assamese verse under the patronage of King Mahamanikya, a Kachari king.

“The golden age of Assamese literature opened with the reign of Naranarayan, the Koch king. He gathered around him at his court at Cooch Behar a galaxy of learned men. Sankardev, the real founder of Assamese literature, and his follower Madhavdev worked under his patronage," wrote Goswami. Sankardev and Madhavdev’s Vaishnava devotional songs are still performed to this day. They are in a literary language called Brajabuli, first popularized by Maithili poet Vidyapati in the 14th century.

It was only after the decline of Koch power by the 17th century that the centre of literary importance shifted from western Assam to the Ahom court in eastern Assam. Colonialism and the advent of a new technology played a significant part in the shift.

“In 1836, two remarkable members of the American Baptist Mission, the Rev. N. Brown and O.T. Cotter, with their families, first set foot on Assamese soil. Among other things a printing press was part of their missionary equipment. The missionaries made Sibsagar the centre of their activities and used the dialect of Sibsagar for their literary purposes," wrote Goswami.

These missionaries published, from their press, the first Assamese grammar and the first Assamese-English dictionary. According to Goswami: “Under the influence of the missionaries, a set of native writers grew up, and books and periodicals in the language of eastern Assam multiplied. Thus the traditions of the Ahom court supported by the mission press established the language of eastern Assam as the literary language of the entire province." The eastern Assam dialect became the language of newspapers, education, courts and government, and was established as the standard Assamese. “The differences between the standard and Kamrupi dialect are not insignificant. They range over the whole field of phonology, morphology and vocabulary," Goswami wrote.

Under colonial influence, the ancient Kamrupi language of Lower Assam shrank into a dialect of yokels and its speakers became “dhekeris".

There’s a famous quip about languages and dialects, that a language is a dialect with an army and navy. The vicissitudes of a language’s fortunes depend on power. As for linguistic identities, those are often results of political map-making.

The transformation of three villages in a swamp into Calcutta was an achievement of British imperialism that established Gaudiya as the very definition of Bengali and transformed the Vanga dialects such as Sylheti and Kachari into subjects of ridicule. In Assam next door, something similar happened. Kamrupi, the language of a kingdom that was old when Hiuen Tsang visited it around 643 AD, might have enjoyed a very different status today if the Baptist missionaries had set up their printing press there, rather than 500km east in Sibsagar.

This is the third in a series that takes stock of the neglect of languages and the attempts to revitalize them.

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