Traditional Crafts and Occupational Structure of the Assamese Rural Society in the 19th Century^
Regional variations have added interesting facets in the mainstream study of India under colonial subjugation. An attempt in studying the nature of the rural economy of the plains districts of Assam—better known as the Brahmaputra Valley—in this context reveals interesting facts regarding the nature of traditional industries of Assam.1
Abundance of arable land, and the typical practice under the Ahom administration (prior to British rule) whereby major portion of the state revenue used to be demanded in the form of personal services rendered by the adult male population, were two distinct features of an almost closed Ahom economy, bearing utmost relevance to some later developments. It appears that these contributed a great deal towards the lack of commercialization of Assamese cottage industry in comparison to its counterparts in the neighbouring states of Bengal, Bihar etc. Historical and administrative sources indicate that a visible growth had taken place in the internal and external commerce of the valley following British annexation of Assam in 1826 leading to both generation and redistribution of income. On the other hand private investment however remained limited—either in European enterprises, e.g. tea plantation, or in trade by Marwari merchants.
Earlier, although weaving, oil crushing, basket making, rice pounding and a number of other crafts were all carried on primarily within the household, industrial production at the artisanal level too had existed side by side under the Ahom patronage. These industries primarily catered to the consumption needs of the royalty and nobility, and, to a limited extent, the public. But the civil war and the Burmese invasion, followed by changes in administration brought about by the British, had weakened the base of these traditional industries. The subsequent competition from imported articles left the domestic industries without much hope for reconstructing it independently. The open-
* Research Scholar, Centre for Historical Studies, J.N.U., New Delhi.
** The author is indebted to Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya for comments on an earlier draft.
Social Scientist, Vol. 18, Nos. 11-12, November-December 1990