Heritage of Assam`s Rivers of Gold

The Northeast Dialogue

The industry of gold-washing in the beds of Assam rivers like the Subansiri, the Brahmaputra, and the Buridihing yielded considerable quantities of gold at one time.  

The Kacharis, used to rule over a vast territory in Assam before the Ahoms. In the 13th century CE, their kingdom included three-fourths of the modern-day districts of Sivasagar and Charaideo and even stretched halfway across the modern Nagaon district. Interestingly, most of the gold-bearing rivers flowed through their kingdom, which explains their mastery over the profession.

However, when the Ahoms expanded their territories westwards, at the expense of the Kachari kingdom, those auriferous rivers became part of the Ahom kingdom. The Kacharis became subjects of the Ahoms and were appointed as gold-washers, who were organized into a khel or a guild. Thus, members of this khel came to be known as ‘Sonowal Kacharis' — Kacharis who practiced the art of ‘gold washing’. Although no longer associated with this profession, they continue to use the surname ‘Sonowal’ with a sense of pride and nostalgia. Maniram Dewan, one of the most celebrated Assamese of the 19th century, explains the gold washing process of the Sonowal Kacharis in his book, Native Account of Washing for Gold in Assam (1838).

The oldest recorded mention of the gold of Assam is found in the Mahabharata. Sabha Parva, the second of the 18 books that comprise the epic, mentions people from the banks of the Lauhitya, the ancient name of the Brahmaputra, bringing gold as a gift for Yudhishthira. 17th-century Mughal chronicler Shihabuddin Talish in his text Tarikh-i-Assam mentions how gold was found in the sands of Assam. Similarly, Alamgirnamah, the chronicle of the early years of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, mentions the practice of gold washing.

Likewise, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, the famous French gems merchant as well as traveler, fleetingly mentions the “gold mines of Assam” in
his travelogue Travels in India. According to the Tezpur Grant,'' The river Lauhitya carried down gold dust from the gold-bearing boulders of the Kailasa mountain.'' It is also recorded that Vanamala rebuilt the fallen golden temple of Siva (Hataka Sulin)in Haruppesvara.

It is probable that the reference in the Arthasastra (II, XII)to a variety of gold called Hataka, extracted from the mines of the same name, has a bearing on this and that such a mine might have existed in the mountains lying to the north of modern Tezpur or at the foot of the Himalayas. The histories of the invasion of Bakhtiyar again state that there was a huge image of gold, enshrined in a temple where the invader took refuge when he was surrounded by the Kamrupa army. According to Riyaz-us-Salatin, the gold image in the temple weighed one thousand mounds.

After the British occupation of Assam, a new revenue system was imposed. For instance, from 1855, the ancestral gold-washing industry of
the Sonowals was subjected to bidding by the British. This meant that
the cost of extraction substantially increased, as contractors were
extremely exploitative. The gold-bearing sandbanks regularly shifted with the change in the course of rivers. As a result, extracting gold from the same place was impossible, and new places had to be found each year. It was an extremely labor-intensive process.

In today's times, the fascinating history of Assam’s golden rivers seems
surreal as well as downright tempting.


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