Maharajdhiraja shri surendravarmana kritam bhagavatah valabhadra swminayay idam guham
These lines are from a rock inscription found in the Nilachal Hills, a few kilometres from Guwahati. It reads: “This cave (-temple) of the illustrious Lord Balabhadra has been constructed by Maharajadhiraja Sri Surendra Varman."
The inscription is estimated to date back to the 5th century AD, which makes it one of the earliest found in North-East India. Interestingly, it refers to a temple dedicated to Balabhadra, a god of the Vaishnavite pantheon, but the location of the temple—the Nilachal Hills—was largely the site with a Shaivite tradition. Notably, the inscription also helped historians establish the line of the Varman kings. (It mentions a “Surendra Varman").
For the rest of us, though, it signalled something else—the existence of a city, Guwahati, for more than 1,500 years of recorded human history. The Nilachal rock inscription is incontrovertible proof that Guwahati has been home to a sizeable settlement for at least two millennia. The North-East has rarely figured in the imaginations of the bulk of Indian historians, and yet it has stood the test of time in its voyage through the ages.
The earliest description of the city of Guwahati cannot be distinguished from the mention of Pragjyotishpura kingdom, which, is estimated to date back far before the beginning of recorded history. As the legend goes, the kingdom of Pragjyotishpura was inhabited by the Kiratas and the Mleccha—generally depicted as addicted to meat and wine; their king Ghatak tall and powerfully built. Eventually, though, a king named Naraka defeated them and settled his own twice-born (Dvija, or Aryan) people in the region. (Today, about 5 km south of modern Guwahati, is a place surrounded by low-lying hills named Narakasur Gaon.)
Legend also has it that Naraka’s son Bhagadutta, a powerful ruler, organized the swayamvara of his daughter on a platform constructed in the middle of a large water body. Karna, the great warrior of the Mahabharata, won the tournament, but at his insistence, the princess’s hand was given to Duryodhana. The water body where this exchange is said to have taken place is called the Dighali Pukhuri today. In the epic tale of the Mahabharata, Bhagadutta fought for Duryodhana and the Kauravas in the final battle, and later died an honourable death.
In recorded history, the Nidhanpur plate inscription of King Bhaskarvarman clearly mention Naraka, his son Bhagadutta and his grandson Vajradutta as among the king’s ancestors. While genealogies in ancient times were often drawn in order to claim relations with a historical powerful ancestor and thereby legitimacy, the Nilachal rock inscription once again elucidates the past of the kingdom of Pragjyotishpura and the city now known as Guwahati.
Historians opine that after the death of King Bhaskarvaman, the old Guwahati was sacked (when was this?) by Salasthambha, one of Bhaskarvarman’s enemies, and it ceased to be of any prominence for the next three hundred years or so. The power vacuum perhaps lead to the growth of smaller but historically significant kingdoms like Beltola and Pandu.
Guwahati itself was taken over by the Kachari rulers in later times, and subsequently, in the early medieval period, it passed into the hands of the Mohammedans. The Koch dynasty too held it for some time, which is evident from the fact that it was Chilarai--the younger brother of Nara Narayan, the king of the Kamata kingdom in the 16th century--who built the Kamakhya temple in its present form, which was later preserved and further strengthened by the Ahom kings in the latter half of the 17th century.
The Ahom kings finally dislodged all opposition and firmly established themselves in Guwahati when the viceroy of Lower Assam, the Borphukan, entrenched himself in Guwahati. When the administration passed onto the hands of the British, they modelled the city into its present form as the gateway to the North-East.
What’s in a name?
Some of the earliest historical debates involving Guwahati were about the origins of its name. Historians at different times have given different explanations as to its origin. Gunabhiram Barooah, a nineteenth century Assamese intellectual, was of the opinion that in all probability,the name came from the “guwa", or areca nut, trees found in abundance across the city.
While there is no clear record on when the name Pragjyotishpura changed to Guwahati, the first mention of the latter is in Tabaqat-i Nasiri, a book by 13th century Persian historian Minhaj-i-Siraj, that chronicled Bengal ruler Ikhtiaruddin Malik’s conquest of Guwahati in 1256.
Simultaneously, the Ahom kings of Assam began using the same name--albeit for what is North Guwahati of today
Pre-Ahom rulers, such as Dharmapala, had their seat of power in North Guwahati, and the Ahom kings continued this tradition, reigning predominantly from the northern bank of the Brahmaputra river. With the advent of the British, however, the focus shifted to the river’s southern bank, which is the genesis of the present set-up of Guwahati.
While one may delve into the antiquity of North or South Guwahati, what is consistent in the narratives is the Brahmaputra itself--the lifeline of the city since it came into being. For instance, in Arthashastra, Kautilya mentions a product paralauhityaka (sandalwood), found on the banks of the Lauhitya in the kingdom of Kamrupa. The Brahmaputra is often called Luit in Assamese—the similarity to Lauhitya is impossible to miss.
In medieval times, the banks of the Brahmaputra was also the site of numerous battles, primarily between the Muslim rulers in the west and the established kings of the east. One of the architectural marvels of the Kamrupa era—the Silsako bridge in modern North Guwahati—was the site of the battle between the Kamrupa king and the Afghan Muhammad-i-Bakhtiyar in the year 1206 AD. The Silsako bridge, however, sustained damage in the 1897 Assam earthquake.
The Brahmaputra was also the setting for the battle between the Ahoms and the Mughals, which culminated in Lachit Borphukan’s crushing victory in 1671. The fortifications by the river, along with the Itakhuli fort, repulsed the Mughals decisively. The river has thus stood as a vanguard of history, protecting the citadel of Guwahati for thousands of years.
At the height of Ahom power, the seat of Borphukan--or viceroy of Lower Assam--shifted from Kaliabor to Itakhuli, or Sukreswar Hill. To this day the hilltop offers panaromic views of the Brahmaputra river, including of the famous Umananda, or Peacock Island. The strategic importance of Itakhuli can be gauged from the fact that when the British set up their administration, the deputy commissioner’s bungalow was constructed at Itakhuli, a building that stands to this day.
During the medieval period, due to its strategic importance, Itakhuli served the purpose of a military base. Hence not much attention was paid to development of art and material culture of the city during the period. The Ahoms dug a large number of ponds during this era but, the material culture was limited to such activities.
When the British first took over Guwahati in the late 18th century, it was found to be in a state of despair. The continuous Burmese raids and the Moamoria rebellion (1769-1805) greatly weakened the Ahom kingdom. The city of Guwahati was no more the seat of viceroyal opulence but one of poverty. While travelling through Guwahati in 1808, Scottish physician and geographer Francis Hamilton commented that the city of “Gauhati" was a very poor place, despite being the former residence of Bhagadutta. Such was the situation that at one point the British administration thought of shifting the capital to Tezpur. This plan was never implemented, thanks to the intervention of the Bengal administration.
Once the British administration set in, Guwahati began to take its present form. In 1824, the British formally took over the administration of the city from the Burmese. The British established their first sadar (station) in Assam in the foothills of the Nilachal Hills in Kamakhya. The buildings and offices were later shifted to Sukreswar and the Judges Field area, the remnants of which still stand.
In 1853, Guwahati was declared a municipal region. The city of a thousand years once again became a “city" by modern definition. Yet nomenclature alone at that point did not bring much improvement in the material conditions of the city. There were no all-weather roads and almost all houses were made of mud and straw. Floods were a recurring problem and certain sections of the city roads were home to tigers after dusk.
In 1853, when a devastating fire burnt down large parts of the city, the dwellers petitioned the government for better housing facilities. The government, accepting the demands of the local population, began to procure bricks from present-day Bangladesh. The first burnt brick factory in Guwahati was set up in the Durga Sarovar area. A pond called Ita Pura Pukhuri existed for a long time in its vicinity.
In 1874, in honour of the visiting Viceroy Lord Northbrook, the Northbrook Gate was built at Sukreswar Ghat on the banks of the Brahmaputra river. Designed on the lines of the chapel in King’s College London, the rectangular structure had 12 arches. It was built with granite and limestone and was simplistic in design. While the arches of the gate have Gothic elements, the spires are inspired by Indian temples, making it one of the finest examples of Indo-Gothic architecture. Over the next few decades, the administration set up roads, drinking water facilities and street lights for the residents of the city.
Zalim Singh opened the first wholesale general store in the city in 1828. Bijulee Cinemaghar brought cinema to Guwahati. Sheikh Brothers established their bakery in 1885 and legendary Assam leader deshbhakta Tarun Ram Phukan bought the first bicycle of Guwahati in early 20th century. The day Phukan got the bicycle, the whole city congregated to look at this unique machine on two tyres. As he began pedalling, there was a thunderous applause. Phukan incidentally was also the first man in Guwahati to own a car.
By 1899, the municipal limits of Guwahati had been described for the first time. Ulubari, Rehabari, Chandmari, Rajgarh, Barpul, Bhangagarh, Kharghuli, Santipur and Bhutnath made up the length and breadth of Guwahati. By 1901, it was a city of 14,244 people, residing in a total area of 4.5 sq. km.
Today, almost 120 year later, Guwahati is spread over 216 sq. km with a population of over 1 million. Guwahati is now one of the fastest growing cities in the country and a window to the central government’s Act East policy. Modern pace and development have completely changed the face of this city and has made it an epitome of a new emerging India—restless and energized. Yet, deep within the surrounding hills and the Red River, are tales which are thousands of years old.
Ibu Sanjeeb Garg is currently working as an assistant commissioner of income tax in New Delhi.
Itihaxor Saa-Puhorot Puroni Guwahati by Kumudeswar Hazarika
An Account of Assam by Francis Hamilton
Early History of Kamarupa by Kanak Lal Baruah
Pre Ahom Assam by Nayanjot Lahiri
A History of Assam by Edward Albert Gait