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Woodcraft

The woodwork industry in Assam was prolific in ancient times when the forests were abundant with rare and valuable woods like sandalwood, salmali, agaru and vata (banyan). It was traditionally carried out by a group of people namedkhonikors who hand carved wooden decorations in the palaces of the Ahom rulers. It is reported that their work was so highly regarded and popular with the royals that a separate village called Khonikargaon was built for them near Sibsagar in the district of the same name.

Testimony to the artistic creations of the khonikars is evident in many naamghars(prayer houses) and sattras (Vaishnava monasteries) in Assam and the indigenous tradition of wood-working still continues in the district of Sibsagar. Here local carpenters still make simghashan, throne-type structures which are often supported by four elephants, twenty-four lions and seven tigers, kharai (book rests) and carve the wooden doors, windows and beams of the prayer houses and monasteries with mythical figures like Hanuman, the monkey deity who featured in the story of the Ramayana, leaving visitors awe-struck by their beauty.

In the plains districts of Assam the traditional carpenters, important in village society, belong to the community Sutradhar who have worked with wood for generations. They traditionally earned their livings building houses, manufacturing carts, ploughs, looms, furniture, icons and boats and doing wood repair work, decorating their looms and boats in particular with intricate carvings of peacocks, monkeys, fish and floral designs, but their numbers have declined and some of the businesses are now being run by migrants to the state with a more commercial outlook.

Still retaining large areas of forest Assam does continue to have a thriving woodcraft industry although boatbuilding has declined over recent years. Carpenters now tend to focus on making domestic items like stools, chairs, tables, walking sticks and kharam (wooden sandals) while in the tribal villages artisans still use their traditional tools for building houses and making the household apparatus and utensils they need and the modern-day khonikars produce artifacts like the great one-horned rhino and replicas of the world-famous Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati that appeal to visitors to the state.

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