Assam is known for Assam tea, petroleum resources, Assam silk and for its rich biodiversity. It has successfully conserved the one-horned Indian rhinoceros from near extinction, tiger, numerous species of birds and provides one of the last wild habitats for the Asian elephant. It is increasingly becoming a popular destination for wild-life tourism and notably Kaziranga and Manas are both World Heritage Sites. Assam was also known for its Sal tree forests and forest products, much depleted now. A land of high rainfall, Assam is endowed with lush greenery and the mighty river Brahmaputra, whose tributaries and oxbow lakes provide the region with a unique hydro-geomorphic and aesthetic environment.
Assam was known as Pragjyotisha in the Mahabharata; and Kamarupa in the 1st millennium. Assam gets it name from the Ahom kingdom (1228-1826), then known as Kingdom of Assam. The British province after 1838 and the Indian state after 1947 came to be known as Assam.
Geomorphic studies conclude that the Brahmaputra, the life-line of Assam is a paleo-river; older than the Himalayas. The river with steep gorges and rapids in Arunachal Pradesh entering Assam, becomes a braided river (at times 16 km wide) and with tributaries, creates a flood plain (Brahmaputra Valley: 80-100km wide, 1000 km long). The hills of Karbi Anglong, North Cachar and those in and close to Guwahati (also Khasi-Garo Hills) now eroded and dissected are originally parts of the South Indian Plateau system. In the south, the Barak originating in the Barail Range (Assam-Nagaland border), flows through the Cachar district with a 40-50km wide valley and confluences with the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh.
Assam is endowed with petroleum, natural gas, coal, limestone and other minor minerals such as magnetic quartzite, kaolin, sillimanites, clay and feldspar. A small quantity of iron ore is available in western districts. Discovered in 1889, all the major petroleum-gas reserves are in Upper parts. A recent USGS estimate shows of oil, of gas and of natural gas liquids in Assam Geologic Province.
With the “Tropical Monsoon Rainforest Climate”, Assam is temperate (Summer max. at 35-38 and winter min. at 6-8 degrees Celsius) and experiences heavy rainfall and high humidity. The climate is characterised by heavy monsoon downpours reducing summer temperature and foggy nights and mornings in winter . Thunderstorms known as Bordoicila are frequent during the afternoons. Spring (Mar-Apr) and Autumn (Sept-Oct) are usually pleasant with moderate rainfall and temperature.
Assam is one of the richest biodiversity zones in the world and consists of tropical rainforests,, deciduous forests, riverine grasslands, bamboo orchards and numerous wetland ecosystems; Many are now protected as national parks and reserved forests. The Kaziranga, home of the rare Indian Rhinoceros, and Manas are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Assam. The state is the last refuge for numerous other endangered species such as Golden Langur (Trachypithecus geei), White-winged Wood Duck or Deohanh (Cairina scutulata), Bengal Florican, Black-breasted Parrotbill, Pygmy Hog, Greater Adjutant and so on. Some other endangered species with significant population in Assam are Tiger, Elephant, Hoolock Gibbon, Jerdon's Babbler and so on. Assam is also known for orchids.
The region is prone to natural disasters with annual floods and frequent mild earthquakes. Strong earthquakes are rare; three of these were recorded in 1869, 1897 (8.1 on the Richter scale); and in 1950 (8.6).
According to Kalika Purana (c.8th-9th A.D), written in Assam, the earliest ruler was Mahiranga followed by Hatak, Sambar, Ratna and Ghatak; Naraka removed this line of rulers and established his own dynasty. It mentions that the last of the Naraka-bhauma rulers, Narak, was slain by Krishna. Naraka's son Bhagadatta, mentioned in the Mahabharata, fought for the Kauravas in the battle of Kurushetra with an army of kiratas, chinas and dwellers of the eastern coast. Later rulers of Kamarupa frequently drew their lineage from the Naraka rulers.
Ancient Assam known as Kamarupa was ruled by powerful dynasties: the Varmanas (c.350-650A.D.), the Salstambhas (Xalostombho, c.655-900 A.D.) and the Kamarupa-Palas (c.900-1100A.D.). In the reign of the Varman king, Bhaskaravarman (c.600–650A.D.), the Chinese traveler Xuan Zang visited the region and recorded his travels. Later, after weakening and disintegration (after the Kamarupa-Palas), the Kamarupa tradition was somewhat extended till c.1255A.D. by the Lunar I (c.1120-1185A.D.) and Lunar II (c.1155-1255A.D.) dynasties.
Two later dynasties, the Ahoms and the Koch left larger impacts. The Ahoms, originally a Tai group, ruled Assam for nearly 600 years (1228–1826) and the Koch, a Tibeto-Burmese, established sovereignty in c.1510A.D.. The Koch kingdom in western Assam and present North Bengal was at its zenith in the early reign of Naranarayana (c.1540-1587A.D.). It split into two in c.1581A.D, the western part as a Moghul vassal and the eastern as an Ahom satellite state. Since c 13th A.D., the nerve centre of Ahom polity was upper Assam; the kingdom was gradually extended till Karatoya river in the c.17th-18th A.D.. It was at its zenith during the reign of Sukhrungpha or Sworgodeu Rudra Simha (c.1696-1714A.D.). Among other dynasties, the Chutiyas ruled the north-eastern Assam and parts of present Arunachal Pradesh and the Kacharis ruled from Dikhow river to central and southern Assam. With expansion of Ahom kingdom, by c.1520A.D. the Chutiya areas were annexed and since c.1536A.D. Kacharis remained only in Cachar and North Cachar more as an Ahom ally then a competing force. Despite numerous invasions, mostly by the Muslim rulers, no western power ruled Assam until the arrival of the British. The most successful invader Mir Jumla, a governor of Aurangzeb, briefly occupied Garhgaon (c.1662–63A.D.) the then capital, but found it difficult to control people making guerrilla attacks on his forces, forcing them to leave. The decisive victory of the Assamese led by the great general Lachit Borphukan on the Mughals then under command of Raja Ram Singha at Saraighat (1671) has almost ended Mughal ambitions. Mughals were finally expelled in c.1682A.D. from lower Assam.
Since mid-20th century, people from present Bangladesh have been migrating to Assam. In 1961, the Government of Assam passed a legislation making use of Assamese language compulsory; It had to be withdrawn later under pressure from Bengali speaking people in Cachar. In the 1980s the Brahmaputra valley saw a six-year Assam Agitation triggered by the discovery of a sudden rise in registered voters on electoral rolls. It tried to force the government to identify and deport foreigners illegally migrating from neighbouring Bangladesh and changing the demographics. The agitation ended after an accord between its leaders and the Union Government, which remained unimplemented, causing simmering discontent. On the other hand, political parties neglecting the burning problem have used the Bangladeshi card as a vote bank.
The post 1970s experienced the growth of armed separatist groups like United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). In November 1990, the Government of India deployed the Indian army, after which low-intensity military conflicts and political homicides have been continuing for more than a decade. In recent times, ethnicity based militant groups (UPDS, DHD, KLO, HPCD etc.) have also mushroomed. Regional autonomy has been ensured for Bodos in Bodoland Territorial Council Areas (BTCA) and for the Karbis in Karbi Anglong after agitation of the communities due to sluggish rate of development and aspirations for self-government.
As the situation in Assam has turned very serious as communal clashes continue in two central districts of the state, namely Udalguri and Darrang, TIMES NOW has uncovered startling evidence of a suspected Pak ISI-HuJI link to the communal violence raging on in the state of Assam.
TIMES NOW journalists have filmed the hoisting of a Pakistani flag in the Sonaripara and Mohanpur villages of Central Assam. Unconfirmed reports also suggest that the flag was unfurled at another village named Kalaigaon in neighbouring Darrang district.
Highly placed sources within the Government are of the view that the hoisting of the flag might have been done to heighten tensions in the adjoining communally disturbed districts, where rioting has left around 25 people dead and several injured. As of now officials and security forces are not willing to offer any explanations.
In a shocking incident, the Pakistani flag was hoisted in trouble torn Udalguri in the midst of communal violence in a village named Sonari. A local villager said, "We think this is the work of Huji. They came with weapons. We could not imagine that they have such a number of weapons. They chased us away in this Sonaripara-Kuptimari-Jhargaon area and hoisted the flag." The government has not reacted to the incident in spite of the controversy it has generated.
After discovery of Camellia sinensis (1834) in Assam followed by its tests in 1836-37 in London, the British allowed companies to rent land since 1839. Thereafter tea plantations mushroomed in Upper Assam, where the soil and the climate were most suitable. Problems with the imported labourers from China and hostilities of native Assamese resulted into migration of forced labourers from central-eastern parts of India. After initial trial and error with planting the Chinese and the Assamese-Chinese hybrid varieties, the planters later accepted the local Camellia assamica as the most suitable one for Assam. By 1850s, the industry started seeing some profits. Industry saw initial growth, when in 1861, investors were allowed to own land in Assam and it saw substantial progress with invention of new technologies and machinery for preparing processed tea during 1870s. The cost of Assam tea was lowered down manifold and became more competitive than its Chinese variant.
Despite having commercial success, tea labourers remained exploited and worked and lived under poor conditions. In the fear of greater government interference the tea growers formed The Indian Tea Association in 1888 to lobby for the continued status quo. The organization was very successful in this, and even after India’s independence conditions of the labourers have improved very little.
Assam is divided into 27 administrative districts. More than half of these districts were carved out during 80s and 90s from original 1. Lakhimpur, 2. Jorhat, 3. Karbi Anglong, 4. Darrang, 5. Nagaon, 6. Kamrup, 7. Goalpara, 8. North Cachar and 9. Cachar districts, delineated by the British. Earlier, during 70s, Dibrugarh was separated out from original Lakhimpur district.
These districts are further sub-divided into 49 “Sub-divisions” or Mohkuma. Every district is administered from a district head quarter with the office of the District Collector, District Magistrate, Office of the District Panchayat and usually with a district court.
The districts are delineated on the basis of the features such as the rivers, hills, forests, etc and majority of the newly constituted districts are sub-divisions of the earlier districts. For the present districts of Assam and their location, refer the attached map.
The local governance system is organised under the jila-parishad (District Panchayat) for a district, panchayat for group of or individual rural areas and under the urban local bodies for the towns and cities. Presently there are 2489 village panchayats covering 26247 villages in Assam. The 'town-committee' or nagar-xomiti for small towns, 'municipal board' or pouro-xobha for medium towns and municipal corporation or pouro-nigom for the cities consist of the urban local bodies.
For the revenue purposes, the districts are divided into revenue circles and mouzas; for the development projects, the districts are divided into 219 'development-blocks' and for law and order these are divided into 206 police stations or thana.
Total population of Assam was 26.66 million with 4.91 million households in 2001. Higher population concentration was recorded in the districts of Kamrup, Nagaon, Sonitpur, Barpeta, Dhubri, Darang and Cachar. Assam's population was estimated at 28.67 million in 2006 and at 30.57 million by 2011, 34.18 million by 2021 and 35.60 million by 2026.
Growth of population in Assam has experienced a very high trajectory since the mid-decades of the 20th century. Population grew steadily from 3.29 million in 1901 to 6.70 million in 1941, while it has increased unprecedentedly to 14.63 million in 1971 and 22.41 million in 1991 to reach the present level. The growth in the western and southern districts was of extreme high in nature mostly attributable to rapid influx of population from the then East Pakistan or Bangladesh.
Assam has many ethnic groups and the People of India project has studied 115 of these. Out of which 79 (69%) identify themselves regionally, 22 (19%) locally, and 3 trans-nationally. The earliest settlers were Austroasiatic, followed by Tibeto-Burman, Indo-Aryan speakers and Tai-Kadai speakers. Forty-five languages are spoken by different communities, including three major language families: Austroasiatic (5), Sino-Tibetan (24) and Indo-European (12). Three of the spoken languages do not fall in these families. There is a high degree of bilingualism.
Major religions are Hinduism (64.9%) and Islam (30.9% - grown to the second largest proportional population among Indian states after J&K). Others include Christianity (3.7%), Sikhism, Animism, Buddhism (Khamti, Phake, Aito etc. communities).
Assamese culture is traditionally a hybrid one developed due to assimilation of ethno-cultural groups in the past. Therefore, both local elements or the local elements in Sanskritised forms are distinctly found. The major milestones in evolution of Assamese culture are:
With rich traditions, the modern culture is greatly influenced by events in the British and the Post-British Era. The language was standardised by the American Baptist Missionaries such as Nathan Brown, Dr. Miles Bronson and local pundits such as Hemchandra Barua with the form available in the Sibsagar (Xiwoxagor) District (the ex-nerve centre of the Ahom Kingdom). A renewed Sanskritisation was increasingly adopted for developing Assamese language and grammar. A new wave of Western and northern Indian influence was apparent in the performing arts and literature.
Increasing efforts of standardisation in the 20th century alienated the localised forms present in different areas and with the less-assimilated ethno-cultural groups (many source-cultures). However, Assamese culture in its hybrid form and nature is one of the richest, still developing and in true sense is a 'cultural system' with sub-systems. It is interesting that many source-cultures of Assamese cultural-system are still surviving either as sub-systems or as sister entities, for e.g. Bodo or Khasi or Micing. Today it is important to keep the broader system closer to its roots and at the same time to focus on development of the sub-systems.
Some of the common and unique cultural traits in the region are peoples' respect towards areca-nut and betel leaves, symbolic clothes (Gamosa, Arnai, etc), traditional silk garments and towards forefathers and elderly. Moreover, great hospitality and Bamboo culture are common.
Symbolism is an ancient cultural practice in Assam and is still a very important part of Assamese way of life. Various elements are being used to represent beliefs, feelings, pride, identity, etc. Tamulpan, Xorai and Gamosa are three important symbolic elements in Assamese culture. Tamulpan (the areca nut and betel leaves) or guapan (gua from kwa) are considered along with the Gamosa (a typical woven cotton or silk cloth with embroidery) as the offers of devotion, respect and friendship. The Tamulpan-tradition is an ancient one and is being followed since time-immemorial with roots in the aboriginal Austro-Asiatic culture. Xorai is a traditionally manufactured bell-metal article of great respect and is used as a container-medium while performing respectful offers. Moreover, symbolically many ethno-cultural groups use specific clothes to portray respect and pride.
There were many other symbolic elements and designs, but are now only found in literature, art, sculpture, architecture, etc or in use today for only religious purposes. The typical designs of assamese-lion, dragon, flying-lion, etc were used for symbolising various purposes and occasions. The archaeological sites such as the Madan Kamdev (c. 9th-10th A.D.) exhibits mass-scale use of lions, dragon-lions and many other figures of demons to show case power and prosperity. The Vaishnava monasteries and many other architectural sites of late medieval period also showcase use of lions and dragons for symbolic effects.
Traditionally Assamese was the language of the commons (of mixed origin - Austroasiatic, Tibeto-Burman, Magadhan Prakrit) in the ancient Kamarupa and in the medieval kingdoms of Kamatapur, Kachari, Cuteeya, Borahi, Ahom and Koch. Traces of the language is found in many poems by Luipa, Sarahapa, etc in Charyapada (c.7th-8th AD). Modern dialects Kamrupi, Goalpariya, etc are the remnant of this language. Moreover, Assamese in its traditional form was used by the ethno-cultural groups in the region as lingua-franca, which spread during the stronger kingdoms and was required for needed economic integration. Localised forms of the language still exist in Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, North Bengal, Cachar, etc and in the south, languages such as Chatgaia, Siloti, etc exhibit similarities. The form used in the upper Assam was enriched by the advent of Tai-Shans in the 13th century.
Linguistically modern Assamese traces its roots to the version developed by the American Missionaries based on the local form in practice near Sibsagar (Xiwoxagor) district. Assamese (Oxomeeya) is a rich language due to its hybrid nature with its unique characteristics of pronunciation and softness. Assamese literature is one of the richest.
Bodo is an ancient language of Assam. Spatial distribution patterns of the ethno-cultural groups, cultural traits and the phenomenon of naming all the major rivers in the North East Region with Bodo-Kachari words (e.g. Dihing, Dibru, Dihong, D/Tista, Dikrai, etc) reveal that it was the most important language in the ancient times. Bodo is presently spoken largely in the Lower Assam (Bodo Territorial Council area). After years of neglect, now Bodo language is getting attention and its literature is developing. Other native languages of Tibeto-Burman origin and related to Bodo-Kachari are Mishing, Karbi, Dimaca, Rabha, Tiwa, etc. Rajbongshi also known as kamatapuri/Goalpariya is also widely spoken by the people of western assam.
There are smaller groups of people speaking Tai-Phake, Tai-Aiton, Tai-Khamti, etc related to Tai-group of languages. The Tai-Ahom language (brought by Sukaphaa and his followers), which is no more a spoken language today is getting attentions for research after centuries long care and preservation by the Bailungs (traditional priests). There are also small groups of people speaking Manipuri, Nepali,Khasi, Garo, Hmar, Kuki, etc in different parts.
In the past century migration of Bengalis in the Barak Valley has led to their majority, prompting the government of Assam to include Bengali as the official language in the area.
There are several important traditional festivals in Assam. Bihu is the most important and common and celebrated all over Assam.
Bihu is a series of three prominent festivals. Primarily a non-religious festival celebrated to mark the seasons and the significant points of a cultivator's life over a yearly cycle. Three Bihus, rongali or bohag, celebrated with the coming of spring and the beginning of the sowing season; kongali or kati, the barren bihu when the fields are lush but the barns are empty; and the bhogali or magh, the thanksgiving when the crops have been harvested and the barns are full. Bihu songs and Bihu dance are associated to rongali bihu. The day before the each bihu is known as 'uruka'. The first day of 'rongali bihu' is called 'Goru bihu' (the bihu of the cows), when the cows are taken to the nearby rivers or ponds to be bathed with special care. In recent times the form and nature of celebration has changed with the growth of urban centres. Moreover, there are other important traditional festivals being celebrated every year for different occasions at different places. Many of these are celebrated by different ethno-cultural groups (sub and sister cultures). Few of these are:
At the same time musical tradition is also rich. Folk songs and music related to Bihu and other festivals dates back to time-immemorial. Borgeet, the popular Vaishnav songs are written and composed in 15th century. Assam has large numbers of traditional musical instruments including several types of drums, string instruments, flutes, cymbals, pipes, etc.
The indigenous folk music has substantially influenced the growth of a modern idiom, that finds expression in the music of such artists like Bhupen Hazarika, Anima Choudhury Nirmalendu Choudhury & Utpalendu Choudhury, Luit Konwar Rudra Baruah, Parvati Prasad Baruva, Jayanta Hazarika, Khagen Mahanta among many others. Among the new generation, Zubeen Garg and Jitul Sonowal have a great fan following.
Assam has a rich tradition of crafts; presently, Cane and bamboo craft, bell metal and brass craft, silk and cotton weaving, toy and mask making, pottery and terracotta work, wood craft, jewellery making, musical instruments making, etc remained as major traditions. Historically, Assam also excelled in making boats, traditional guns and gunpowder, ivory crafts, colours and paints, articles of lac, agarwood products, traditional building materials, utilities from iron, etc.
Cane and bamboo craft provide the most commonly used utilities in daily life, ranging from household utilities, weaving accessories, fishing accessories, furniture, musical instruments, construction materials, etc. Utilities and symbolic articles such as Xorai and Bota made from bell metal and brass are found in every Assamese household. Hajo and Sarthebari (Xorthebaary) are the most important centres of traditional bell-metal and brass crafts. Assam is the home of several types of silks, the most prestigious are: Muga - the natural golden silk, Pat - a creamy-bright-silver coloured silk and Eri - a variety used for manufacturing warm clothes for winter. Apart from Sualkuchi (Xualkuchi), the centre for the traditional silk industry, in almost every parts of the Brahmaputra Valley, rural households produce silk and silk garments with excellent embroidery designs. Moreover, various ethno-cultural groups in Assam make different types of cotton garments with unique embroidery designs and wonderful colour combinations.
Moreover, Assam possesses unique crafts of toy and mask making mostly concentrated in the Vaishnav Monasteries, pottery and terracotta work in lower Assam districts and wood craft, iron craft, jewellery, etc in many places across the region.
Painting is an ancient tradition of Assam. Xuanzang (7th century CE) mentions that among the Kamarupa king Bhaskaravarma's gifts to Harshavardhana there were paintings and painted objects, some of which were on Assamese silk. Many of the manuscripts such as Hastividyarnava (A Treatise on Elephants), the Chitra Bhagawata and in the Gita Govinda from the Middle Ages bear excellent examples of traditional paintings. The medieval Assamese literature also refers to chitrakars and patuas. There are several renowned contemporary artists in Assam. The Guwahati Art College in Guwahati is a government institution for tertiary education. Moreover, there are several art-societies and non-government initiatives across the state and the Guwahati Artists Guild is a front-runner organisation based in Guwahati.
According to recent analysis, Assam’s economy is showing signs of improvement. In 2001-02, the economy grew (at 1993-94 constant prices) at 4.5 percent, to fall to 3.4 percent in the next financial year. During 2003-04 and 2004-05, the economy grew (at 1993-94 constant prices) more satisfactorily at 5.5 and 5.3 percent respectively. The advanced estimates placed the growth rate for 2005-06 at above 6 percent. Assam's GDP in 2004 is estimated at $13 billion in current prices. Sectoral analysis again exhibits a dismal picture. The average annual growth rate of agriculture, which was only 2.6 percent per annum over 1980s has unfortunately fallen to 1.6 percent in the 1990s. Manufacturing sector has shown some improvement in the 1990s with a growth rate of 3.4 percent per annum than 2.4 percent in the 1980s. Since past five decades, the tertiary sector has registered the highest growth rates than the other sectors, which even has slowed down in the 1990s than in 1980s.
Assam’s agriculture yet to experience modernisation in real sense. With implications to food security, per capita food grain production has declined in past five decades. Productivity has increased marginally; but still lower comparing to highly productive regions. For instance, yield of rice (staple food of Assam) was just 1531 kg per hectare against India’s 1927 kg per hectare in 2000-01 (which itself is much lower than Egypt’s 9283, USA’s 7279, South Korea’s 6838, Japan’s 6635 and China’s 6131 kg per hectare in 2001). On the other hand, after having strong domestic demand, 1.5 million hectares of inland water bodies, numerous rivers and 165 varieties of fishes, fishing is still in its traditional form and production is not self-sufficient.
Assam is a major producer of crude oil, exploited by the Assam Oil Company Ltd., and natural gas in India and is the second place in the world (after Titusville in the United States) where petroleum was discovered. Asia’s first successful mechanically drilled oil well was drilled in Makum (Assam) way back in 1867. Most of the oilfields are located in the Upper Assam region. Assam has four oil refineries located in Guwahati, Digboi, Numaligarh and Bongaigaon with a total capacity of 7 Million Metric Tonnes per annum. Although having a poor overall industrial performance, several other industries have nevertheless been started, including a chemical fertiliser plan at Namrup, petrochemical industries at Namrup and Bongaigaon, paper mills at Jagiroad, Panchgram and Jogighopa, sugar mills at Barua Bamun Gaon, Chargola, Kampur, cement plant at Bokajan & Badarpur, cosmetics plant (HLL) at Doom Dooma, etc. Moreover, there are other industries such as jute mill, textile and yarn mills, silk mill, etc. Unfortunately many of these industries are facing loss and closer due to lack of infrastructure and improper management practices.[citations needed]
Assam has several institutions for tertiary education and research. The major institutions are:
Guwahati is the largest urban centre and a million plus city in Assam. The city has experienced multifold growth during past three decades to grow as the primate city in the region; the city's population was approximately 0.9 million (considering GMDA area) during the census of 2001. The other important urban areas are Dibrugarh, Jorhat,Golaghat, Tinsukia (Tinicukiya), Sibsagar (Xiwoxagor), Silchar (Silcor), Tezpur, Nagaon, Lakhimpur, Bongaigaon, etc. Population growth in the Barak Valley town of Silchar is also astonishing during past two decades. Nalbari, Mangaldoi, Barpeta, Kokrajhar, Goalpara, Dhubri (Dhubury), etc are other towns and district head quarters. On the other hand Duliajan, Digboi, Namrup, Moran, Bongaigaon, Numaligarh, Jogighopa, etc are major industrial towns. Currently, there are around 125 total urban centres in the state.
Assam has several attractive destinations; majority of these are National Parks, Wildlife and Bird Sanctuaries, areas with archaeological interests and areas with unique cultural heritage. Moreover, as a whole, the region is covered by beautiful natural landscapes.
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| journal = ENVIS Assam, Assam Science Technology and Environment Council
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| journal = ENVIS Assam, Assam Science Technology and Environment Council
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| journal = U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin
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Tradition and Culture