There are legends that indicate that in early times Siva was a popular deity among the Kiratas. Siva's own life-style of liberal outlook to food and drink is a valuable mechanism for assimilation in a non-Aryan milieu. The Kiratas worshipped him with ducks, pigs, wine, rice and buffalo. But Saivism popularity was not just confined to non-Aryans, the royal dynasties of ancient Kamrupa as well as the Brahmans were devotees of Siva. The Kalika Puran (7th-11th century AD) mentions that in Kamrupa Siva temples were thrice as many as the temples of Vishnu and Devi. Even in today's Assam, Saivite temples still outnumber temples associated with other gods and goddesses.

To various tribal communities like the Sonowal-Kacharis, Tiwas, Karbis and the Dimasas, Siva is one of the principle deities and is called by different tribal names. The Bodo-Kacharis believe that they are descendants of Bathau-Sivrai, which is one of the manifestations of Siva. The ruling family of Tripura used to claim their origin from Siva.


Courtesy:  Assam State MuseumSaktism is the cult of worshipping a female goddess as the supreme diety. The procedure of worshipping is mainly recommended in the Tantras. Because such recommendation plays a vital role in Sakta worship, Tantricism is sometimes confused with Saktisim. But these two terms do not stand for identical ideas, though in practice both may concern themselves with kindred forms of religion. Tantricism is a mystic esoteric system of worshipping the supreme deity or supreme reality by chanting mystical mantras accompanied by way of cultured meditation and yogic exercises in order to understand the oneness of the individual self with the supreme reality. Tantricism is prescribed in the Tantras and are basically non-Vedic formulas for meditation, rituals and mystical structures. Saktism cult goddess is variously called Devi, Durga, Kali, Candi , Uma, Tara, Kamakhya.

Courtesy:  Assam State MuseumAncient Assam was recognized as the principal center of Sakta cult with its chief temple at Kamakhya. The Kalika Puran was composed to glorify the goddess Kamakhya. In Assam there were at least four other sites of Sakta worship including Ugra Tara in Guwahati, the copper temple in Sadiya. In ancient texts Siva is invariably mentioned whenever there is a mention of Devi worship. However Tara, Candi etc are also Buddhist Gods and it is imputed that Sakta worship degenerated (10th century) due to its association with occult Buddhism. The cult of Vishnu regained royal patronage.

The worship of Sakti did not entirely subside. The worship of the Devi involved animal sacrifice and had an appeal to royal families because of the power said to have derived with such bloodshed. The Koch rulers in western Assam, Chutiya kings of Sadiya, The Kacharis and the Ahoms were true Sakta devotees. Sakta worship still continues in various temples of Assam today. There are folk variations of this worship related to the snake God Manasa, which continues till today mainly in Western Assam.


Courtesy:  Assam State MuseumVaishnavism is the cult of worshipping Vishnu in any of his several forms. Vishnu is worshipped according to the procedure in Pancaratra Samhita. The Kamrupa rulers trace their lineage to Vishnu. Various icons of Vishnu, his incarnations and deities associated with Vaishnava cult have been recovered from different parts of Assam and can be viewed in the Assam State Museum, Guwahati.

Vishnu was a God subsidiary to Siva and evolved due to the preponderance of Brahmans who wanted to curb the liberalism in Siva worship. Several Sanskrit scholars whose works flourished in Kamrupa between the 11th and 12th centuries were Vaishnavites in religious creed. The cult of Vishnu regained popularity and royal patronage due to the debasement of Saktism from its fusion with esoteric Buddhism. Vaishnavism was however highly ritualistic and priest ridden. The religious rites were conducted in Sanskrit language and were not found suitable by the non-Aryan ethnic groups.


Courtesy:  Assam State MuseumIt is a matter of interest to note that the Haragriva Madhav temple in Hajo is today recognized by Buddhists from Bhutan, Tibet, Ladakh and Southwestern China as a holy place and is visited annually. There is a strong tradition amongst the Lamas that Padma-Sambhava, the great founder of Lamaism, died here. Some scholars feel that a Buddhist caitya was erected here around the 1st century AD under the initiative of the celebrated Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (100 AD) who lived in Pragjyotishpur.. They maintain that in the 3rd-4th century the Buddhist caitya at Hajo was converted into a Hindu temple. These scholars base their views on texts written long after Hueng Tsang's visit (C 640 AD). Hueng Tsang, however noted that those of the Buddhists creed in Kamarupa performed their acts in secret. But there are some archaeological remains in Surya Pahar of Goalpara district that show signs of Buddhism and Jainism influences much prior to Hueng Tsang's visit. The rock cut stupas (see photo) as also the Jain caves two furlongs away are attributed to the period around 300 AD.

The Kamarupa King Bhaskaravarman had traveled to Kanauj and Prayag (Allahbad). He had been with Emperor Harsha at Prayag at the festival that took place every five years in the Ganga-Yamuna confluence. Neither they or any other monks whether Buddhists, Jain, Ajivikas or others who gathered there in thousands along with the Brahmins for a great distribution of gifts by the Emperor Harsha would have been conscious of any contradiction. This incongruity of the Indian character had become current even in Kamrupa before Hueng Tsang's (625 AD) arrival at Guwahati. Hueng Tsang had noted this incongruity where on the one hand 'whatever Buddhist there was in Kamarupa they performed their acts of devotion secretly.' While on the other 'the King Bhaskaravarman though not a Buddhist treated accomplished Sramanas with respect". Bhaskaravarman had told the Chinese pilgrim that if he settled in his dominion he would build 100 monasteries on his behalf.

Buddhism had entered the valley definitely by the 1st century AD. Perhaps some of its esoteric practice was regarded as subversive during the time of Hueng Tsang's visit. Around this time Buddhism was under a cloud in UP and Bihar. The Kamarupa king's adversary Sasanka of Gouda was reputed to have destroyed many Buddha images besides cutting down the Bodhi tree at Gaya. In 655 AD Nalanda monastery was sacked and burnt down in the general disorder after the death of Harsha.

Courtesy:  Assam State MuseumCourtesy:  Assam State MuseumIn Kamarupa after the 7th century AD there is convincing evidence of the prevalence of Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism. Recent researches have indicated this more convincingly. (See Links). The circular shrine in Chaygaon near Guwahati locally known as the Medh is yet another vestige of Buddhism. The placement of a circular slab under ground level and encircling it by a circular passage with a rectangular exit (See photo) indicates the antiquity of this shrine. The finds near Narakasur Hill near Guwahati, which are now displayed in the State Museum, include two pieces of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, two pieces of Tara and one of Canda. (see photos) However the Brahmans counterpoised a Sakta Tantricism in such a manner that the distinction between the two creeds became diffused. Tantric Buddhism waned but an occult debased form of Tantric Buddhist magic cults continued for a while.

The Tai-Ahoms were partly Hinayana Buddhists partly Tantric Buddhists having their own form of ancestor worship. During the early phase of their existence in the valley they performed the Phura lung Puja which is identified with Buddhists traditions. In the 18th century Hinayana Buddhism migrated from Burma to Assam with the Khamptis. The Khamptis were a group of Shans who were allowed to settle in Sadiya by the Ahom rulers. The Singphos also came from Burma (1793) and pais lip-service to Buddhism. Earlier (1760) many groups of the Buddhist faith like the Tai-Phakes, Nara, Turungs and Aitaniyas trickled into Assam. The Sherdukpens, Monpas and Khambas of Arunachal Pradesh have been professing Tibetan Buddhism for nearly two centuries now.

Links: Charya Songs - Dr. Pranabjyoti Deka