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771
ASSAM


district, through which the southernmost branch of the Brahmaputra enters, has from time immemorial been held in reverence by the Hindus. It is called the Brahmakunda or Parasuramkunda; and although the journey to it is both difficult and dangerous, it is annually visited by thousands of devotees. After a rapid course westwards down the whole length of the Assam valley, the Brahmaputra turns sharply to the south, spreading itself over the alluvial districts of the Bengal delta, and, after several changes of name, ends its course of 1800 m. in the Bay of Bengal. Its first tributaries in Assam, after crossing the frontier, are the Kundil and the Digaru, flowing from the Mishmi hills on the north, and the Tengapani and Dihing, which take their rise on the Singpho hills to the south-east. Shortly afterwards it receives the Dibang, flowing from the north-east; but its principal confluent is the Dihong, which, deriving its origin, under the name of the Tsangpo, from a spot in the vicinity of the source of the Sutlej, flows in a direction precisely opposite to that river, and traversing the tableland of Tibet, at the back of the great Himalaya range, falls into the Brahmaputra in 27° 48′ N. lat., 95° 26′ E. long., after a course of nearly 1000 m. Doubts were long entertained whether the Dihong could be justly regarded as the continuation of the Tsangpo, but these were practically set at rest by the voyage of F. J. Needham in 1886. Below the confluence, the united stream flows in a south-westerly direction, forming the boundary between the districts of Lakhimpur and Darrang, situated on its northern bank, and those of Sibsagar and Nowgong on the south; and finally bisecting Kamrup, it crosses over the frontier of the province and passes into Bengal. In its course it receives on the left side the Dihing, a river having its rise at the south-eastern angle of the province; and lower down, on the opposite side, it parts with a considerable offset termed the Buri Lohit, which, however, reunites with the Brahmaputra 60 m. below the point of divergence, bearing with it the additional waters of the Subansiri, flowing from Tibet. A second offset, under the name of the Kalang river, rejoins the parent stream a short distance above the town of Gauhati. The remaining rivers are too numerous to be particularized. The streams of the south are not rapid, and have no considerable current until May or June. Among the islands formed by the intersection and confluence of the rivers is Majuli, or the Great Island, as it is called by way of pre-eminence. This island extends 55 m. in length by about 10 in breadth, and is formed by the Brahmaputra on the south-east and the Buri Lohit river on the north-west. In the upper part of the valley, towards the gorge where the Brahmaputra enters, the country is varied and picturesque, walled in on the north and east by the Himalayas, and thickly wooded from the base to the snow-line. On either bank of the Brahmaputra a long narrow strip of plain rises almost imperceptibly to the foot of the hills. Gigantic reeds and grasses occupy the low lands near the banks of the great river; expanses of fertile rice-land come next; a little higher up, dotted with villages encircled by groves of bamboos and fruit trees of great size and beauty, the dark forests succeed, covering the interior table-land and mountains. The country in the vicinity of the large rivers is flat, and impenetrable from dense tangled jungle, with the exception of some very low-lying tracts which are either permanent marshes or are covered with water during the rains. Jungle will not grow on these depressions, and they are covered either with water, reeds, high grasses or rice cultivation. On or near such open spaces are collected all the villages. As the traveller proceeds farther down the valley, the country gradually opens out into wide plains. In the western district of Kamrup the country forms one great expanse, with a few elevated tracts here and there, varying from 200 to 800 ft. in height.

Soils.—The soil is exceedingly rich and well adapted to all kinds of agricultural purposes, and for the most part is composed of a rich black loam reposing on a grey sandy clay, though occasionally it exhibits a light yellow clayey texture. The land may be divided into three great classes. The first division is composed of hills, the largest group within the valley being that of the Mikir Mountains, which stand out upon the plain. Another set of hills project into the valley at Gauhati. But these latter are rather prolongations of spurs from the Khasi chain than isolated groups belonging to the plains. The other hills are all isolated and of small extent. The second division of the lands is the well-raised part of the valley whose level lies above the ordinary inundations of the Brahmaputra. The channels of some of the hill streams, however, are of so little depth that the highest lands in their neighbourhood are liable to sudden floods. On the north bank of the great river, lands of this sort run down the whole length of the valley, except where they are interrupted by the beds of the hill streams. The breadth of these plains is in some places very trifling, whilst in others they comprise a tract of many miles, according to the number and the height of the rocks or hills that protect them from the aberrations of the river. The alluvial deposits of the Brahmaputra and of its tributary streams may be considered as the third general division of lands in Assam. These lands are very extensive, and present every degree of fertility and elevation, from the vast chars of pure sand, subject to annual inundations, to the firm islands, so raised by drift-sand and the accumulated remains of rank vegetable matter, as no longer to be liable to flood. The rapidity with which wastes, composed entirely of sand newly washed forward by the current during floods, become converted into rich pasture is astonishing. As the freshets begin to lessen and retire into the deeper channels, the currents form natural embankments on their edges, preventing the return of a small portion of water which is thus left stagnant on the sands, and exposed to the action of the sun’s rays. It slowly evaporates, leaving a thin crust of animal and vegetable matter. This is soon impregnated with the seeds of the Saccharum spontaneum and other grasses that have been partly brought by the winds and partly deposited by the water. Such places are frequented by numerous flocks of aquatic birds, which resort thither in search of fish and mollusca. As vegetation begins to appear, herds of wild elephants and buffaloes are attracted by the supply of food and the solitude of the newly-formed land, and in their turn contribute to manure the soil.

Geology.—Geographically the Assam hills lie in the angle between the Himalayas and the Burmese ranges, but geologically they belong to neither. The older rocks are like those of Bengal, and the newer beds show no sign of either the Himalayan or the Burmese folding—on the top of the plateau they are nearly horizontal, but along the southern margin they are bent sharply downwards in a simple monoclinal fold. The greater part of the mass is composed of gneiss and schists. The Sylhet traps near the southern margin are correlated with the Rajmahal traps of Bengal. The older rocks are overlaid unconformably by Cretaceous beds, consisting chiefly of sandstones with seams of coal, the whole series thinning rapidly towards the north and thus indicating the neighbourhood of the old shore-line. The fossils are very similar to those of the South Indian Cretaceous, but very different from those of the corresponding beds in the Nerbudda valley. The overlying Tertiary series includes nummulitic beds and valuable seams of coal.

The border ranges of the east and south of Assam belong to the Burmese system of mountain chains (see Burma), and consist largely of Tertiary beds, including the great coal seams of Upper Assam. The Assam valley is covered by the alluvial deposits of the Brahmaputra.

Of the mineral productions by far the most valuable is coal. Compared with the Gondwana coal of the peninsula of India the Tertiary coal seams of Assam are remarkable for their purity and their extraordinary thickness. The “Thick Seam” of Margherita, in Upper Assam, averages 50 ft., and in some places reaches as much as 80 ft. The average percentage of ash in 27 assays of Assam coal was 3.8 as against 16.3 in 17 assays of Raniganj coal. The coal seams are commonly associated with petroleum springs. Gold is found in the alluvial deposits, but the results of exploration have not been very promising.

Earthquakes.—Assam is liable to earthquakes. There was a severe earthquake in Cachar on the 10th of January 1869, a severe shock in Shillong and Gauhati in September 1875, and one in Silchar in October 1882; but by far the severest shock known is that which occurred on the evening of 12th June 1897. The area of this seismic disturbance extended over north-eastern India, from Manipur to Sikkim; but the focus was in the Khasi and Garo hills. In the station of Shillong every masonry building was levelled to the ground. Throughout the country bridges were shattered, roads were broken up like ploughed fields, and the beds of rivers were dislocated. In the hills there were terrible landslips, which wrecked the little Cherrapunji railway and caused 600 deaths. The total mortality recorded was 1542, including two Europeans at Shillong. The levels of the country were so affected that the towns of Goalpara and Barpeta became almost uninhabitable during the rains.

Fauna.—The zoology of Assam presents some interesting features. Wild elephants abound and commit many depredations, entering villages in large herds, and consuming everything suitable to their tastes. Many are caught by means of female elephants previously tamed, and trained to decoy males into the snares prepared for subjecting them to captivity. A considerable number are tamed and exported from Assam every year. Many are killed every year in the forests for the sake of the ivory which they furnish. The government keddah establishment from Dacca captures large numbers of elephants in the province, and the right of hunting is also sold by auction to private bidders. The annual catch of the latter averages about two hundred. The rhinoceros is found in the denser parts of the forests and generally in swampy places. This animal is hunted and killed for its skin and its horn. The skin affords the material for the best shields. The horn is sacred in the eyes of the natives. Contrary to the usual belief, it is stated that, if caught young, the rhinoceros is easily tamed and becomes strongly attached to his keeper. Tigers abound, and though many are annually destroyed for the sake of the government reward, their numbers seem scarcely, if at all, to diminish. Leopards and bears are numerous; and the sand-badger, the Arctonyx collaris of Cuvier, a small animal somewhat resembling a bear, but having the snout, eyes and tail of a hog, is found. Among the most formidable animals known is the wild buffalo or gaur which is of great size, strength and fierceness. The fox and the jackal exist, and the wild hog is very abundant. Goats, deer of various kinds, hares, and two or three species of antelope are found, as are monkeys in great variety. The porcupine, the squirrel, the civet cat, the ichneumon and the otter are common. The birds are too various to admit of enumeration. Wild game is plentiful; pheasants, partridges, snipe and water-fowl of many descriptions make the country a tempting field for the sportsman. Vultures and other birds of prey are met with.