Brahmaputra and Gold Washing

It is often said that the old man has been the witness of glory and sorrow. “The Brahmaputra seems to be an open book, always ready to tell its story. But it runs deep and wide and encompasses many complexities”, said Arupjyoti Saikia and rightly so.

Therefore, the tales of Brahmaputra are incomplete without the story of “Lauhitya bed full of gold.” The oldest reference of gold in Assam come to light in Mahabharata, Sabha Parva, the second of the 18 books that comprise the epic which mentions people from Lauhitya, the ancient name of Brahmaputra, bringing gold as a gift to Yudhisthira. Arthashastra and Tezpur copper plate mention gold washing.

Mighty Brahmaputra was once a source of gold in the past. The separation of these gold particles from sand was an elaborate craft. The Ahom kings derived revenue from gold washing. The craft of gold washing was known to only few. One of the earliest known inhabitants of Assam, Kachari commuity had the hereditary expertise of gold washing.

The vast territory of Assam before the advent of Ahoms was ruled by Kacharis, who belong to Bodo tribe. The gradual expansion of Ahoms towards westwards at the expense of Kachari kingdom led to subjugation of Kacharis. Kacharis were organised into khel or guild by Ahoms. The members who belonged to this khel came to be known as “Sonowal Kacharis.” These artisans developed a sophisticated understanding of river and geomorphology.

Ain-i-Akbari provides references to similar practices in the rivers of western India with elaborate details on Jhelum and Beas. Maniram Dewan, revenue official of East India Company described removal of gold from the sand to be a laborious task. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a famous French gem merchant as well as traveller wrote about gold in Assam in this travelogue, Travels in India, “As for the gold, no one is permitted to remove it out of the kingdom, and it is not coined into money, but is kept in large and small ingots, which the people make use of in local trade, and do not export it.” Mughal texts like Alamgirnamah and Padshahnama mention that around 12,000 craftsmen were engaged in this craft.

It was in the twentieth century that gold washing craft disappeared. The British administration introduced far fetching changes in the revenue system of Assam in 1838. The paik system, corvee labour system of Ahoms, was replaced by land revenue tax. This sudden change in the revenue regime dramatically freed the gold washers from their annual compulsory tribute to the king, which reconfigured the relation of the craft and the craftsmen with the rivers.