Over the past few years public historian Anirudh Kanisetti has emerged alongside Manu Pillai as a fresh, new voice helping us understand our many layered past. In this piece Mr Kanisetti helps us understand that India’s North East was just as much of a battleground (between incumbent natives and foreign invaders who later assimilated and become part of India’s fabric) as the North West of the country. Specifically, Mr Kanisetti challenges the narrative that the battle between the Ahoms and Mughals in the 1600s is most important historical event in the North East’s history. More significant he says was the rise of the colossal kingdom of Kamarupa:

“In the late 4th century CE, amid the ruin of the Kushan Empire and its consumption by new local powers, a poet and military commander came to what was called Prayaga, where the Ganga and Yamuna rivers met. Here, an ancient pillar erected by the half-forgotten Gangetic emperor Ashoka still stood. The commander ordered the inscription of a great Sanskrit eulogy to a new Gangetic emperor, Samudragupta. This might seem like a strange place to begin the story of Assam, but it is the first known literary mention of a kingdom that would later dominate the Brahmaputra river valley: Kamarupa.

Kamarupa was one among many new polities – stretching from the frontiers of South Asia deep into Southeast Asia and possibly as far as Borneo – that used the newly-emerged Sanskritic court culture to launch themselves into the circulatory systems of ideas, goods, and personnel that came to dominate much of Asia through the medieval period. Its earliest kings…claimed descent from the demon Naraka, son of the god Vishnu and the earth-goddess Bhu. This simultaneously linked them to Gangetic Vishnu-worshipping traditions and local goddess worship.”

Mr Kanisetti says that the defining tussle which shaped the North East of India for a millennium were the endless battles between Kamarupa and a neighbouring kingdom (which was effectively modern day Bengal & Bangladesh): “By 600 CE, by which point the medieval period had begun in earnest, Kamarupa had also come to neighbour many other kingdoms in the marshy, heavily forested Ganga-Brahmaputra delta. Most important among them was Gauda, on the Padma River at the edge of present-day West Bengal and Bangladesh.

As historian Suchandra Ghosh writes in Kamarupa and Early Bengal: Understanding Their Political Relationship, Gauda and Kamarupa would have a long-running rivalry, each seeking to conquer and defeat the other and penetrate the forested hinterland for resources. The first known instance of this was in the early 7th century when the powerful Gauda ruler Shashanka attacked Kamarupa’s capital and captured two princes. After Shashanka’s death, one of those princes managed to occupy the former’s capital, but it was not to last. Kamarupa occupied an enviable geopolitical position in the lower Brahmaputra valley, capable of harnessing flows of horses and precious woods into Tibet and Yunnan. But it lacked the extensive irrigation systems and wet rice cultivation of the Gangetic Plains. And the resources of the Gangetic Plains were frequently harnessed by the rulers of Gauda, especially the imperial Pala dynasty that emerged in the 8th century, keeping up a relentless pressure on Kamarupa.

Over subsequent centuries, Sanskritic culture gradually began to penetrate deeper into the Brahmaputra valley, writes historian Nayanjot Lahiri in her paper, The Pre-Ahom Roots of Medieval Assam, and her book, Pre-Ahom Assam: Studies In The Inscriptions Of Assam Between The Fifth And The Thirteenth Centuries AD. Tracts of land, usually under cultivation by peasants descended from various Mikir, Kuki, Khasi and Khachari tribes, were granted to Brahmins. A Sanskrit-based administrative and political apparatus spread, with large fortified cities, Buddhist stupas, and temples to Shiva and Vishnu. All of these aided Kamarupa’s ongoing confrontations with Bengal.”

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