Assamese is spoken all along the Brahmaputra valley and sounds quite similar to Bengali, except for a few differences. In fact, the old text Charya Padas is claimed by both Old Assamese and Old Bengali.
The oldest Assamese writer was perhaps Hema Saraswati, who wrote his famous Prahlada Charita in the late 13th century AD. Madhava Kandali (14th century) was the next well-known figure, having written a vernacular Ramayana. Prominent among 15th century works were Durgavara’s Giti Ramayana, poems and songs from the Puranas by Pitambara and Manakara and the mass of literature called Mantras of unknown authorship.
The echoes of the Bhakti Movement of 15th century, which took over the whole of India, were felt in Assam too under the leadershipe of Shankara Deva. Until now religion had meant worshiping the Aryan gods, like the Mother Goddess for instance, who was more dreaded than loved. Priest craft, magic and morbid rituals like animal and human sacrifices dominated the scene. The Bhakti Movement brought a healthy change – with prayer, praise and simple worship. In Assam, Vishnu or his incarnation Krishna took the altar position as the God of Love and the Vaishnava Renaissance followed. Shankara Deva wrote a host devotional songs and translations from the Sanskrit canon. Rama Saraswati’s lucid translation of the Mahabharata and Vadha Kavyas (stories from the Puranas) were also very popular. Everybody seemed to be doing the right thing at last – making literature easier for the common people.
The Ahoms of Burma who ruled Assam and gradually settled here wrote chronicles called Buranjis (1228 to 1824), a unique collection of prose. A mass of technical literature on astrology, medicine, mathematics, music, dancing and so on based on Sanskrit works was also written. In the modern period the political upheavals were felt in the literary scene too. Bengali tried to gain the upper hand for a while, until the Christian missionaries Nathan Brown and Miles Bronson helped resume writings in Assamese.
The later half of the 19th century witnessed a flood of literary activities, the enthusiasm of which spilled over to the present century. Dictionaries like Hema Chandra Baruwa’s Hema Kosha were written and magazines like Arunodaya Samvad Patra (1846) and Asam Bandhu (1885) were launched. A fresh style of prose, based on the spoken language was the order of the day. Anandaram Dhekial Phukan (1829-96) and Gunabhiram Baruwa (1837-95) were the two big daddies of this age. Short poems and novels, dramas, lyrics and folk poetry pleased the literary circles. A generation of novelists and poets like Rajanikanta Bardaloi (1867-1939), Hiteshwar Bezbarua (1871-1931), Chandra Kumar Agarwala (1867-1938), Padmanath Gohain Baruwa (1871-1946), Benudhar Raj Khowa (1872-1935) and their contemporary, Raghunath Chaudhari, wrote profusely in an age of nationalism and social reforms.
Contemporary Assamese literature has a vibrant short-story genre. Some of the best writers are Phul Goswami, Indira Goswami, Harendra Kumar Bhuyan, Arupa Patangia Kalita and Manoj Kumar Goswami.