Buddhism In Ancient Assam (India) –a Study by Dr.Bandana Baruah

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Buddhism In Ancient Assam (India) –a Study by Dr.Bandana Baruah

Dr.Bandana Baruah
Head & Associate Professor
Department Of History
Cotton University
Guwahati Assam,India
Email : bandanabaruah2011@gmail.com

Introduction :

Assam , a constituent state of the Indian Republic is the gateway to the north eastern region of the country and is situated between 28 degree and 24 degree north latitude and 89 degree 86 minutes and ninety six degree east longitudes . The land which earlier encompassed almost the whole of north-eastern region with the exception of Tripura and Manipur has been truncated in the decades after India achieved independence from British rule leading to the formation of new states-Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. At present Assam is one of the seven states of north-eastern region.

The land has been known by different names in different historical periods. The earliest name of the land was Pragjyotisha. ‘By this name the country was known in the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as well as in some of the principal Puranas…It has been described in the Kalika Purana that immediately after Naraka of Mithila became king and was placed in charge of the goddess Kamakhya, the name of the land was changed from Pragjyotisha to Kamarupa. The term Kamarupa (Kamakhya) symbolized a new cult and in exaltation of it the land itself was rechristened… According to the Yogini Tantra the country lying to the east of Karatoya as far as Dikkaravasini is called Kamarupa.1 The earliest epigraphic reference to Kamarupa is however to be found in the well-known Allahabad inscription of Samudragupta where Kamarupa is mentioned as a frontier territory.2Pragjyotishpura, Haruppeshwara, Durjaya and Kamarupanagar were the capitals of Pragjyotisha kingdom at different times. It was ruled by different dynasties from time to time ,namely- Varman, Salastambha and the Palas in the ancient period.

Hiuen Tsang a devout Buddhist and a Chinese pilgrim who visited Assam in 643 CE called this land Ka-mo-lu-po. He stated that” the country was more than a myriad li (1667 miles) in circuit and its eastern boundary was a series of hills that reached the confines of China ,thus indicating that about that time the extreme eastern portion of the Assam valley was included within Kamarupa. 3K L Barua states that Pragjyotisha or ancient Kamarupa was a much larger kingdom than most of the other kingdoms mentioned in the Mahabharata and most of the sixteen Mahajanpadas existing during the time of Gautama Buddha.4 It was also known as Waisali or Waisali-long.5The Buddhists of Burma and South east Asia even at present refer to Assam as Waisali-long.’6P C Choudhury writes’ No definite mention of either Pragjyotisha or Kamarupa is made in the early Buddhist or Jain records and it is not included among the sixteen Mahajanpadas of the Nikayas. It is probable that during the 6th century CE or at a later time Pragjyotisha was included in the greater kingdom of Magadha and the land did not engage the attention of the Buddhist writers. But Lohicca identified with the Lauhitya finds mention in the Nikayas which refer to two Brahmanas from the country of the Lauhitya. The evidence proves that as early as the period of the Nikayas , the Lauhitya region which probably included Pragjyotisha entered into the pale of the Buddhist geographical knowledge and attained a fair reputation as a centre of Brahmanical culture.7

The present name, Assam was probably given in early thirteenth century and derived from the word asama-meaning uneven in Assamese, the lingua franca of the land which in all probability referred to the terrain of the land. It is also probably attributed to the valour of the Ahoms who ventured into the land at that time and ruled the land for almost six centuries.

The territorial extent of the land fluctuated at different historical periods. As the land is in one of the migration routes of mankind emigrants from prehistoric times onward had entered. Assam is thus inhabited by various racial elements. Of the principal races who migrated to this land were the Negroids, Australoids, Mongoloids and Caucasoids. The diverse racial strains has led to a heterogenous demography of the land.

Saivism or at least the worship of Siva prevailed in Assam from a remote period and it was the popular form of religion both amongst the aboriginals and the Aryanised people…Besides, there were and even now are various tribal modes of worship of Siva. 8Saktism, worship of Vishnu or Vaishnavism were also prevalent.’Besides, these major sects, we get some references of other Puranic gods and goddesses whose sculptural representation have also been found in the province. We have images of such gods as Ganesa, Kartikeya, Indra, Agni, Kuvera,Surya etc from the 6th century onwards, but we have however no definite knowledge of their cults.9

The objective of this study is whether Buddhism prevailed in ancient Assam and its beginnings.
Archaeological source

Existing icons of the Buddha lends credence to the fact that Buddhism prevailed in ancient Assam and still continues to be a religion, though exact numbers are not available.’ Among the remains we find traces of Buddhist temples not only at Hajo, but also at Nilacala, Singri and Tezpur…. It is likely that some Hindu temples were built on the sites and with the materials of old Buddhist shrines.10Many scholars hold the view that the existing remains at the Kamakhya temple on the Nilachala hills as well as the icons of the Bodhisattva and other Buddhist monuments have been found not only on the Nilachala hills but also elsewhere in the state. All the main events of Buddha’s life have been epitomized on the basis of traditions enshrined in Buddhist scriptures and have been represented by sculptures… One such beautiful sculpture is found just near the Kamakhya temple to the north. This huge stone image of the elephant undoubtedly stands for the birth story of the Buddha .’ 11The Buddhist scriptures like the Lalitvistara5 narrate Gautama’s participation in marriage archery competition. One such sculpture is found engraved on the stone wall at the western side of the Kamakhya temple. 12 Gautama renounced the World of Pleasure and this event is found sculpturally represented on Buddhist monuments .One such fine sculpture engraved on stone in the lower courtyard to the south of the Kamakhya temple has been discovered.13In sculptural representation, Gautama appears seated under the Bodhi tree along with Mara attacking him with weapons in his hands…Such a representation of the Buddha’s place of enlightenment is to be seen in Kamakhya. A big rock measuring 24 x 12 is still lying by the left side of the old path leading down from the temple edifice.14 Sculpturally, the eight fold path is represented by eight sided stone pillars which were used as posts of the temple mandapa. Similar eight sided stone pillars are found attached to the mandapa of Nilacala.15The holy Master was epitomized in many a Buddhist monument which are known as Stupa or Caitya which originally contained the ashes of the Buddha. The stupa at Nilacala it may be stated was originally of andakriti ( in the form of an egg) as was conceived by the emperor Asoka to whom the world was egg shaped…One stone casket is found lying near the western gateway of the temple of Nilacala.16 K L Barua writes “Sculptured images on stones and terra-cotta plaques which unmistakably represents Buddha and which can be assigned to the tenth or the eleventh century , have been found from excavations at Gauhati. One of them is a distinct image of Buddha on a thin stone slab, the figure exhibiting the Abhaya mudra. The other is a terra-cotta votive tablet with the image of Buddha stamped on it. Below the figure is inscribed the well known Mahayana creed in characters of the eleventh century. In this plaque Buddha is in the earth touching attitude, Bhumisparsa mudra.17 K L Barua further argues that ‘It is true that both these images are of a portable nature and might easily have been imported from outside the kingdom by some Buddhists….but their occurrence in Gauhati shows there were then Buddhists in Gauhati.18

On Pancharatna hills in district Goalpara two figures of Buddha icons in his bhumisparsa mudra have been found.19 One of the earliest evidences of Buddhist sculptural art is noticed at Da-parvatia of post Gupta period representing a torso of a seated male figure identified as a torso of Buddha was noticed in early part of 20th century CE.20

Two Buddha icons of brass of latter period are noticed from Tinsukia and Golaghat.21 Miniature Buddha images are also noticed on two door jambs, one from Diphu and another from Nagaon Park.22 Sasananda writes ‘For proof regarding the existence of Buddhism in early Assam one may point to the expressions, Dharma, Sasana and Tathagata which occur in the Nidhanpur Grants of Bhaskarvarman of the 7th century CE and Gauhati grants of Indrapala of the 11th century CE.23 The occurrence of these words in these Royal Grants obviously indicates the existence of Buddhism in ancient Kamarupa .

Literary sources

Taranath, a renowned Tibetan scholar states that the people of Kamarupa were formerly worshippers of the Sun prior to the introduction of Buddhism by Thera Dhitika, who had to convert the people of the land under the pretext that he was a follower of the solar cult.24 We are further informed that the renowned Brahmin Siddha , being converted into the Buddhist faith , built a Maha Caitya Vihara and convened a grand assembly of the Bhikkus from all the four directions for propagation of Buddha Sasana ie the Buddhist teachings in Kamarupa .Thus the law of the Buddha was widely spread in the land. .He further states that Asvabhaba preached the Mahayana cult in the land25B K Barua too in his book states that Taranath tells us that Buddhist monk Dhitika was responsible for converting the people of ancient Kamarupa from Sun-worship to Buddhism.26He propagated Sarvastivada Buddhism (ie an offshoot of Theravada Buddhism) in the land.27

The Dipvamsa, Mahavamsa, Samantapasilika states that after the third Buddhist council held at Patliputra two missionaries under the guidance of Thera Sona and Thera Uttara were sent to Suvarnabhumi(South-EastAsia) in the 19th year of Emperor Ashoka’s reign.”28There were two probable routes which could have been used by the Indian Buddhist missionaries to travel to Suvarnabhumi-one via Assam after passing through Burma and the other route was the sea route from the port Tamralipti… It appears probable that Assam might have received Buddhism from the missionaries carrying the message of the Buddha’s teachings to all the people of this region. 29 LW Shakespear points out that the Buddhist faith prevailed in the land even before the introduction of Hinduism.30 S C Goswami in his Hidden Traces of Buddhism in Assam opines that Buddhism might have been introduced in ancient Assam( known as Kamarupa) late in the 6th or 7th century AD.31 L M Joshi also holds similar view.32 This implies that Buddhism was prevalent in the land even before Hiuen Tsang’s visited Assam. Mazumdar opines”An examination of the materials will show that the faith prevailed long before Hiuen Tsang’s visit. The apparent reason for controversy is that Kamarupa is not mentioned in early Buddhist works and in the inscriptions of Ashoka ; nor is it proved that land was included within his empire.33 Sir Edward Gait states that he finds no trace of this religion in the old records and inscriptions. 34But Gait’s view will not stand scrutiny for, as the Law of Buddha is mentioned in the inscription of Bhaskaravarman himself. Similar mentions are found in the inscriptions of Indrapala and Dharmapala. Indrapala’s first inscription mentions a sasana or charter connected with the name of Tathagata which cannot but mean Buddha.35

Hiuen Tsang’s account shows that in the seventh century the people of Kamarupa worshipped the Devas and did not believe in Buddhism. According to him there were a few Buddhists in the country, but for fear of persecution they had to perform their devotional rites in secret.36 K L Barua contends that Hiuen Tsang made an exaggerated statement for in his biography Silabhadra is said to have informed him before he started for Kamarupa ,that the law of the Buddha had not then widely extended in that country. This indicates that Buddhism was then prevailing in the kingdom but not to a wide extent.’ 37

King Bhaskarvarman of Kamarupa (Assam) 648 CE was himself not a Buddhist though it is said that he treated accomplished sramanas with respect. 38Though he was personally devoted to Saivism he is said to have expressed his interest to acquire knowledge of the Thatagata ie Buddhism, in his letter to Thera Silabhadra who was then abbot of the Nalanda Mahavira. 39As he was a virtuous man he easily influenced his subjects who too became ready converts to this new religion.40That he visited Nalanda which was then a great seat of Buddhist learning is evident by the discovery of the royal seal from the ruins of Nalanda Mahavira.41Extending invitation to Hiuen Tsang, the devout Buddhist to his royal court lends testimony of his interest in Buddhism. Bhaskar Varman’s devotion towards Buddhism is evident from his appeal to the pilgrim to stay in his kingdom-“If the master of the dharma is able to dwell in my dominion and receiving my religious offerings I will undertake to found and erect one hundred monasteries on the master’s behalf.42 This reflects the keenness of interest in Buddhism of king Bhaskar Varman of the Varman dynasty of ancient Assam.

The king of Kashmir, Meghavahana had entered into wedlock with Amitraprabha, who was the daughter of a Kamarupa king of the fifth century, Balavarman. From Kalhan’s Rajataringini it is learnt that Amitraprabha took her father’s guru Stunpa, the Tibetan Buddhist preceptor and he built a Vihara or Buddhist monastery which was named Amitraprabha Vihara for the benefit of the Bhikku Sangha who came from foreign countries. This further highlights that Buddhism was prevalent in Kamarupa and was patronized by its rulers.43Taranath points that a Buddhist preacher named Asvabhaba preached the Mahayana doctrine in Kamarupa.44

There are traditions in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Assam that the Buddha died in Kamarupa . On the basis of this ,Waddell incorporates traditions as found in Tibetan works ,which state that the mahaparinirvana took place in west Assam in Sualkuchi or near the Buddhist temple at Hajo.45 P C Choudhury writes “The tradition may be unfounded, for it is established that the Buddha died in Kusinagara in modern Gorakhpur where an image of the master was found in a reclining position.46 K L Barua writes Waddell’s identification is evidently wrong.47 Choudhury writes’ the mahaparinirvana of the Buddha did not probably take place in Assam; but the Tibetan tradition may indicate that the land known by another name possibly Tangyur was associated with the faith from early times. It is likely that some relics of the Buddha were carried to Assam and enshrined in a place near Gauhati ,probably at Kamakhya where a relic casket of stone has been found and which almost certainly contained some ashes of the Buddha , over which a stupa or chaitya was raised ,or at Hajo.”48

‘ History needs to identify Tai races particularly the Tai Ahoms and the Tai stock known as the Shans….These were the people who brought Buddhism only with them into Assam as it was a part and parcel of their life.49 Sasananada states that’The Theravada Buddhism also known as the Burmese school of Buddhism ,spread into Assam with the advent of the Tai tribes such as Tai Khamti, Tai-Phaike, Tai-Aiton, Tai-Khamyang and Tai Turung from Hokwang valley and Shan states of Burma. The Singphos known in Burma side as Kachin or Kayon , the Dowaniya, the Magas and also some of the Assamese are followers of Theravada Buddhism. Besides, there are the Bengali Buddhists who are known as Barua and the Chakmas mostly from Chittagong hill tract (Bangladesh) and Nagas from Tipperra and Arakan and some Nepalis who have recently who have come over from Nepal. In Assam Theravada Buddhism is mainly divided into two sects which are locally known as Sangkha –phng or Sangha Raja and Sarataw Chrado or Sayadaw. The Bhutias or the people from Bhutan who come to Assam belong to Mahayana form of Buddhism. In the 1881 census of Assam a total of 6563 are shown as belonging to Buddhist faith. In the 1891 census Gait states that Assam is surrounded by Buddhist countries and as such it is reasonable to believe that earlier the inhabitants of Assam were followers of the Buddhist faith. The Assam District Gazeteer throws some light on the state of Buddhism in Assam as recorded in the census of 1901.50

Thus , it may be concluded from the literary and other sculptural images of Buddha and Buddhist monuments found scattered in different parts of Assam that Buddhism was introduced in Assam in the ancient period during Emperor Ashoka’s reign. Though a detailed account of the sources could not be given for space constraints it appears without doubt even from the contentions the different authors hold that Buddhism had prevailed in ancient Assam and Buddhism is still a popular religion in Assam at present.


1. Barua, BK,A Cultural History of Assam(Early Period),Vol 1,Delhi,1986,pp.10-14
2. Ibid,p.13
3. Ibid
4. Ibid
5. Sasanananda,History of Buddhism in Assam,New Delhi,1986,p.221
6. Ibid, p.405
7. Choudhury,PCThe History of Civilisation of the People of Assam to the Twelfth century A.D,Revised Third Edition,Guwahati,Delhi,1987p.15
8. Barua,BK Cultural History of Assam(Early Period),Vol 1,Delhi,1986,pp161-165
9. Ibid,p.173
10. Choudhury,PC,The History of Civilisation of the People of Assam to the Twelfth century A.D,Revised Third Edition,Guwahati,Delhi,1987,p.405
11. Choudhury,GR,Sculptural Representation of the life of the Buddha on the Buddhist monuments at Nilacala Hill(Assam Research Society for Buddhistic Studies, Gauhati, Assam),1964,pp1-2
12. Ibid,p.2
13. Ibid,p.3
14. Ibid,p.5
15. Ibid,p.8
16. Ibid,p.11
17. Barua,KL,Early History of Kamarupa, From the Earliest Times to the end of the sixteenth century,Guwahati, New Delhi, Reprint 2008,p.99
18. Ibid,pp-99-100
19. Dasgupta,NN,Buddhism in Kamarupa,I.H.Q,XXVI,1950,pp 333-336.
20. Barua KL
21. Choudhury,RD,Catalogue ofMetal Sculptures in the Assam State Museum,Gauhati,1988,pp4-11
22. Choudhury,ND,Historical Archaeology of Central Assam,New Delhi,1985,p.201
23. Sasanananda, History of Buddhism in Assam, New Delhi,1986,p.106
24. Ibid,p.94
25. Ibid,pp.94-99
26. Barua,BK Cultural History of Assam(Early Period),Vol 1,Delhi,1986,p.175
27. Dutt,N, Aspects of Mahayana Buddhism and its Relation to Hinayana,p.28
28. Gokhale,BG,Buddhism and Ashoka,Bombay,1948,p.75
29. Sasanananda,History of Buddhism in Assam, New Delhi,1986,p.100
30. Shakespear,LW,History of Upper Assam, Upper Burma and North-east Frontier,London,1914,pp.71
31. Cf. Sasanananda,History of Buddhism in Assam, New Delhi,1986,pp104-105
32. Joshi,LM,Studies in the Buddhistic Culture of India,p.45
33. Mazumdar,RC,Ancient India,pp271-72
34. Gait,Sir Edward, A History of Assam, Guwahati, Reprint 2005,p.25
35. Barua,KL History of Kamarupa, From the Earliest Times to the end of the sixteenth century,Guwahati, New Delhi, Reprint 2008,p.97
36. Ibid,96
37. Ibid,p.96
38. Ibid,p.97
39. Cf. Sasanananda,History of Buddhism in Assam, New Delhi,1986,p.102
40. Ibid
41. Ibid.
42. Ibid
43. Ibid
44. Taranath,History of Buddhism in India ed.Chattopadhyaya,Reprinted,Delhi,1990,p.99
45. Cf. Choudhury,PC The History of Civilisation of the People of Assam to the Twelfth century A.D,Revised Third Edition,Guwahati,Delhi,1987,p.401
46. Ibid
47. Barua KL, Early History of Kamarupa, From the Earliest Times to the end of the sixteenth century,Guwahati, New Delhi, Reprint 2008,p.98
48. Choudhury,PC The History of Civilisation of the People of Assam to the Twelfth century A.D,Revised Third Edition,Guwahati,Delhi,1987,p.401
49. Cf. Sasanananda,History of Buddhism in Assam, New Delhi,1986,p.173.
50. Cf. Sasanananda,History of Buddhism in Assam, New Delhi,1986,p.195-96