Assam State Museum: Treasure house of heritage and history
When your neighbour is as old as the Mahabharata believed to have been written 5,000 years ago, crossing 75 might not be a big deal. But there’s more to Assam State Museum than its age.
It was perhaps coincidental that the museum, a window to Assam’s history and ethno-cultural heritage, came to be parked on the southern end of the myth-laced Dighalipukhuri that is the centrepiece of Guwahati, Assam’s principal city.
Fables say Dighalipukhuri – the name means ‘elongated pond’ in Assamese – was carved out by Bhagadatta, an ancient local king, for his son-in-law and Kaurava prince Duryodhana to occasionally swim in. A warmonger, Duryodhana was a key character in Mahabharata.
If the tank adds to its ambience, an array of relics and exhibits inside makes Assam State Museum one of India’s largest multipurpose museums. The collections are systematically preserved in more than a dozen uniquely designed galleries. They take the viewers back to Assam’s glorious past besides acquainting them with indigenous lifestyles.
The museum has some 14,000 objects, of which 5,000 are in display. It showcases prehistoric sculptures, tribal artefacts, terracotta objects, copperplate inscriptions, a variety of excavated archaeological resources, golden coins and royal ammunitions including canons used by Ahom soldiers to thwart the Mughals and other invaders, World War 2 relics such as Japanese bombs, traditional ethnic costumes and musical instruments, ivory paintings, rare mythological books, astonishing antiquarian items, etc. Many exhibits date back to the ancient dynasties and the medieval Ahom rulers.
The reconstructed ethnic huts displayed in the museum are also prime attractions among other varied range of items reflecting Assam’s unique folk culture in a unique way.
The museum has its roots in the Kamarupa Anusandhan Samiti (Assam Research Society) established in 1912. A pioneering organisation in the field of historical and antiquarian studies, it built the Assam Provincial Museum in 1940. It was rechristened Assam State Museum and was formally inaugurated by Sir Robert Neil Reid, Governor of Assam, on 21 April that year. Rai Bahadur Kanak Lal Baruah, a leading resident of Guwahati at that time, played a key role in the construction of the museum whose galleries are outlined here.
Manuscript section: A number of old manuscripts of the late medieval period written in Assamese, Tai, Myanmarese, etc., are displayed here. These rare manuscripts were written on sanchipat (bark of agar tree), tulapat (handmade paper) and talpat (palm leaves). A few Assamese manuscripts are in colour.
Arms section: Cannons and cannonballs used by Ahom soldiers in war, hengdang (royal Ahom sword), various ammunitions of Koch and Mughal origin, daggers and shields belonging to the medieval period are displayed here. In addition, a few modern specimens of arms and ammunitions used by Japanese troops during World War 2 are preserved here.
Prehistoric terracotta section: This section displays Indus Valley civilisation specimens excavated from Harappa and Mohenjodaro besides terracotta objects collected from different parts of Assam and Northeast India.
Numismatics and metallic sculptures section: Some fascinating metal sculptures such as Mahismardini (Goddess Durga), Lord Vishnu and Lord Buddha are displayed here along with a number of ancient coins belonging to the Ahom and Mughal periods. It also has also a coin cabinet that holds more than 6,000 coins of different ancient periods,.
Epigraphy section: This section displays some stone and copperplate inscriptions belonging to the 5-18th centuries. Royal proclamation regarding deeds such as war victory, grant of land to the Victorian warriors, construction of temples, etc., are found recorded in various scripts and languages. Inscriptions written in both Sanskrit and Assamese are preserved here.
Sculpture section: This ground floor section of the museum’s new building displays sculptures mostly belonging to the pre-Ahom period. Most of these sculptures were fashioned between the 6th and 13th century AD, shedding light on the reign of the Varmana, Salastambha and Pala dynasties of ancient Assam. The ideals of classical Indian treatise are distinct in these priceless sculptures. Sculptures excavated from the Ambari site nearby are also in display in this section.
Ethnography section: This section has art and artefacts of various ethnic communities of Assam such as Bodo, Rabha, Dimasa, Tiwa, Karbi, Sonowal Kachari and Deuri. Traditional homemade textiles of the Rabha, Mishing and Dimasa communities, ‘Dagla’ jacket and waterproof jacket ‘Daran’ of the Tiwas, traditional musical instrument ‘Muri’ of the Dimasas, ‘Badungduppa’ and traditional clay flute of the Rabhas are some of the most remarkable items displayed here.
Natural history gallery: This new section showcases the exotic natural diversity of the state. It houses life size one-horned rhinoceros, crocodile, birds, moths and butterflies.
Conservation laboratory: This lab was opened on 26 June 1984 with a view to preserving and restoring stone sculptures, archaeological monuments, rare manuscripts, old coins, traditional garments and costumes, wooden sculptures, traditional paintings, etc. Nearly 2,000 objects have been preserved scientifically in this section.
The Assam State Museum is a major source of knowledge, education and research. A tour of Guwahati is not complete without visiting it.
Sujit Ranjan Kashyap
(Sujit Ranjan Kashyap is a freelance journalist and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com)