Origin of the word – Assam

How did the word “Assam” come about and lend itself to a north eastern state — a look at historical facts 🙂 . Many thanks to Rupam P Shyam Khenlung of Guwahati for the valuable inputs.

In all probability , the word Assam evolved from the word “ Saam” , lent to the Brahmaputra valley by the Shan tribes of next door Burma. The Shan tribes from Burma were called Saam in today’s Assam , and later on adopted the Sanskrit pronounciation Shyam among the Assamese Hindus. The word Ahom on the other hand, appears to be a phonetic variant of the word Asaam. The Tai or Shan tribes migrated / settled into the regions of upper Brahmaputra and the region was called ‘ Asam’ by the Bodo tribes , who ofcourse have existed in those parts since many millenia. In old Assamese writings, the area is consistently referred to as Asam , Ashaam , Achaam , Asom. Thus it has been derived from the Tai Ahoms / Shans who settled the Brahmaputra valley in the thirteenth century. To be more specific , with Swargadeo Sukapha’s reign in the early part of that century. Similarly , Mughal writings such as the Tarikh e Ashaam and the Assam as mentioned by Vaishnav preachers in the fifteenth century also point to the same.

A note on the ‘ Tai ‘ tribes of Burma :

The Tai are today concentrated mainly from Assam in the west to Hainan in the east and from Yunan in the north to Thailand (Siam) in the south. The Assam branch of the Tai tribes , which ruled the Brahmaputra valley for six hundred years – 1228 AD to 1826 AD , they are known by local name – Ahom. Tai tribes which arrived later – the Hpake , Sham , Iton etc still retain their old names.

The Tarikh e Ashaam –

One very good source of ascertaining that even outside of the north east , the region was known as Assam and /or its variants is a book known as the Tarikh e Ashaam. As the name suggests , it is a memoir on the happenings in Assam. Its author , Shahbuddin Talesh , accompanied Mir Jumla’s army on its invasion of Assam in 1661 – 1662. The book mentions the word “ Ashaam” to denote the Brahmaputra valley a number of times. It is an excellent contemporary source, originally in Persian, but with an English translation now readily available. Furthermore, Mughal court letters sent to Ram Singh by Aurangzeb , clearly mention the word Ashaam. Going slightly back in time , Mirza Nathan of the Bahiristan e Ghaybi , which pertains to the time of Jahangir / Shah Jehan also use the word Assam. Thus , safe to conclude that the word Assam has its origins in the Tai tribes and Shans of Burma and as such was widely in use even throughout medieval India. Once again , many thanks to Rupam P Shyam Khenlung .

References :

1. The Tai and Tai Kingdoms
2. Tarikh e Ashaam
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© Aneesh Gokhale , author of –
1. Brahmaputra – The Story of Lachit Barphukan

2. Sahyadris to Hindukush – Maratha conquest of Lahore and Attock .

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