Book Review: Assamese Demonology

Assamese Demonology, by Benudhar Rajkhowa

As someone who has lived in Southeast Asia, I can speak with some personal authority on the survival of beliefs in various folk demons within the peoples of Southeast Asia.  The proliferation of spirit houses and the sight of the construction of those buildings suggests that even among the reputed civilized peoples of Southeast Asia there is a high degree of fondness among the local populace in sacrificing to devils to appease their wrath and when one looks at less developed places like Assam this tendency is even more to be remarked upon.  This book is an example of the sort of sociological understanding of the religious beliefs of a place that the late 19th and early 20th century excelled in, and if you have reason to be interested in the subject of the religious beliefs of people around the world from a South Asian perspective this book certainly does provide something of potential interest to the reader.  The fact that the book is short but informative suggests that it was recognized as a worthwhile book from the beginning and thus this book does not overstay its welcome or find itself padded as is the fashion of this sort of book.

This short book is only about fifty or sixty pages long and begins with ten pages of introductory material including a short preface as well as an informative table of contents.  The four chapters of this book only take up about 25 pages or so of material, including the author’s own accounts of spirits within the region of Assam, spirits that are nearly entirely malign and frequently connected with rivers (1), incantations and various rituals of aid in the expulsion of spirits from the people whom they torment (2), some supplementary notes about the spirits of the Assamense, and some stories that the author has collected about the relationship of the Assamese with the spirit world.  The rest of the book consists mostly of four appendices that provide lists of information relating to Assamese spirituality as it relates to the song of Alakhani (i), an incantation used in weaving spectral threads (ii), a list of the principal haunted places in Assam (iii), and finally a list of noted Assamese exorcists (iv), a profession that appears to be highly valued in the area given their problems with evil spirits.  The book then ends with an index.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book for someone who does not have an interest in demonology is the way that this work demonstrates some aspect of the imperial politics of the Raj.  Assam was a relatively undeveloped part of British India, and it remains a relatively undeveloped part of the contemporary Indian nation.  The author of this book was a dramatist, writer, and poet from Assam who was writing about his own people and his own area and their beliefs and writing, moreover, with a fondness and love for his people the Assamese.  Likewise, the book is dedicated to and written with a short preface from British imperial officials who viewed this book as important because it provided information that would allow for better relations between the British and the Assamese.  Obviously, knowing the Assamese beliefs about the spirit world would help in governing such people without offending their sensibilities.  The English imperial authorities in India were nothing if not a practical people, and one wonders what the author himself thought about the anomalous situation of putting himself at the service of the interests of both the Assamese people in putting their spiritual beliefs in a form that would be respected by the Western world while also providing British imperial authorities with information that would make their rule more secure.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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