Overview of the State
Assam - a land of natural beauties, lush green, rivers, lakes, hills, animals -is the gateway to the North East India. It is a land of unexplored opportunities, gifted with abundant natural resources. It is one of the major States of North East India. Amazingly Assam is a multi- ethnic society but the mother tongue of the people of Assam is Assamese. Assam is famous for tea plantations and one horned rhinoceros which are found in abundance in Kaziranga National Park. Assam is also famous for petroleum production. Assam is such a beautiful state, totally different from the other states of India, that one should include the state in their tour itinerary to explore a different world.
It is one of the seven north-eastern states (together called as 'seven sisters'), which is situated just below the eastern Himalayan foothills, and bordered by the Kingdom of Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh to its north-east. The states of Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram lie in the south, while Meghalaya lies to the south-west. West Bengal and Bangladesh are to its west. The state of Assam spreads over an area of 78,438 sq.kms and has a population of 26,638,407.
Blessed with several natural gifts, Assam is dominated by the massive Brahmaputra River which has its origins in Tibet. The state is bestowed with vast alluvial plains and dense forests, tracts of paddy and tea and oil from the deep depths of the earth. In Assam, you can see a variety of flora and fauna that includes some very rare species. In fact, after Africa, Assam is perhaps the only part of the world where a wide variety of wildlife exists. Besides, Assam's colorful fairs and festivals, rich art and culture and cuisine will surely leave you spellbound.
In the 1860s, sub surface oil exploration activities started in the dense jungles of Assam in north-east India and in March 1867, oil was struck in the well drilled near Makum. This was the first successful mechanically drilled well in Asia.
The first commercial discovery of crude oil in the country was, however, made in 1889 at Digboi when a group of gallant oilmen erected a 20 meter high thatch covered wooden structure at the head of the Brahmaputra Valley, in the extreme corner of northeastern India. This modest structure or 'derrick' had little geometric or aesthetic appeal. Nevertheless, it marked the beginning of the saga of the quest for petroleum on Indian and, indeed, Asian territory. The only inhabitants were elephants and rhinos, the odd jackal, snakes and many leeches. The environs smelt of the rain soaked forest mingled with heavy odour of oil seepage.
Asia's first refinery was set up at Digboi in Assam. The discoverer of this Digboi oilfield was the Assam Railways & Trading Company Limited (AR&T Co. Ltd.), a registered company of London in 1881, with the objective to explore the rich natural resources of Upper Assam.
Subsequently, Assam Oil Company Ltd. (AOC) was formed which is one of the earliest enterprises in the world engaged in exploration and production of oil. AOC was later acquired by Burmah Oil Company Ltd. (BOC), founded 1896, which played a major role in the oil industry in South Asia for about a century through its subsidiaries and in discovery of oil in the middle east though its significant interest in British Petroleum. Assam Oil Company was taken over by the BOC in 1910, and between 1910 and 1930, the BOC carried out extensive exploration work in Assam and adjoining areas. Assam Oil is now a division of the Indian Oil Corporation.
In 1823, a Major Robert Bruce had also learnt of the existence of tea in Assam and sent samples to the East India Company's Botanic Gardens at Calcutta, who declined to confirm that the samples were tea. Lieutenant Charlton, who was on service in Assam in 1831, sent plants to the Agricultural and Horticultural Society in Calcutta with the observation that the leaves were drunk as an infusion in Assam, and that they tasted of Chinese tea when dried. Charlton's plants were also denied official recognition. Robert Bruce had passed on the knowledge to his brother Charles Alexander Bruce before dying in 1825.
In 1834, Charles sent samples to Calcutta, that the true identity of the plant was finally confirmed to be tea, or more accurately, Assam tea. It is now known botanically as Camellia sinensis var. assamica. Subsequently there was huge controversy between Charlton and Charles Alexander Bruce as to which of them was the first to 'discover' tea in India.
In 1833 the British lost the monopoly of the Tea trade with China and the Tea Committee dispatched the secretary George Gordon to China to study the methods and begin tea plantation in Assam. He returned with the Chinese variety and imported labor from Bihar and Orissa, which today forms a significant demographic group in Assam. It was found that the local variety of plant was more suited to the local climate. Crossing with the Chinese tea plant led to Indian hybrid tea, which has great variability and vigour.
In 1838, 350 pounds (160 kg) of Assam tea were dispatched to London, and sold at India House, London on 10th January, 1839. Drinkers were impressed with the tea, and the tea industry in Assam was born. Charles Bruce and others, including Maniram Dewan, the sole native tea planter and the famous freedom fighter of Assam began clearing the jungles and establishing tea estates.
Today, Assam produces more than half the tea grown in India. Assam is the leading tea producing state in India. Most Assam tea is sold through the Tea Auction Centre at Guwahati.
The Silk Industry of Assam
The art of Sericulture was known in ancient Kamrup as early as the Epic age and silk was used as early as the Vedic age. Classical writers mention about the production and trade of different varieties of fine silk in the region. There are also references about dyed Pat, Eri and Muga silk. Greek scholars mentioned about a country named Seres (probably ancient Kamrupa), which at that time produced a silk known as Sericum. The culture of sericulture therefore continued throughout the centuries.
Sericulture is unique to the socio-economic life of the people of this region. Rearing of Eri, Muga, Oak Tassar and Mulberry silkworms has already been a part and parcel of the culture of Assam. The congenial atmosphere of Assam helps for the healthy growth and development of the sericulture industry.
Eri culture is the most common and pre-dominant among sericulture in the state although it exists in the other North Eastern states. However the Muga culture is very unique and is confined particularly to the Brahmaputra valley. The Muga silk is golden yellow in colour, which makes it very attractive. No other silk has this colour in the natural state.
The tradition of rearing and weaving is still maintained and silk has remained as the preferred dress material and a regular costume for the average Assamese women. Traditional glamorous brocades like Kinkhap, Gomseng, Karsip, Sisupal and Bankara are still sought after by the affluent. The Central Silk Board, the State Government and the North Eastern Council are striving hard to sustain and develop this heritage by improving the host plants, building seed organisations, setting up co-operatives and providing marketing facilities.