The name Guwahati is a portmanteau word consisting of the Assamese words ‘guwa’ (areca nut) and ‘haat’ (market place). Prior to colonial rule, the name was spelled as Gowhatty, and was then anglicized as Gauhati during British colonial rule. The name was changed to its present form in the late 1980s to conform to the local pronunciation.
Epigraphic sources place the capitals of many ancient kingdoms in Guwahati. It was the capital of the kings Narakasuraand Bhagadatta according to the Mahabharata. Located within Guwahati is the ancient sakti temple of Goddess Kamakhya in Nilachal hill (an important seat of Tantric and Vajrayana Buddhism), the ancient and unique astrological temple Navagraha in Chitrachal Hill, and archaeological remains in Basista and other archaeological locations of mythological importance.
The Ambari excavations trace the city to the 4th century AD. During earlier periods of the city’s history it was known as Pragjyotishpura, and was the capital of Assam under the Varman Dynasty of the Kamarupa kingdom. Descriptions by Xuanzang(Hiuen Tsang) reveal that during the reign of the Varman king Bhaskar Varman (7th century AD) the city stretched for about 30 li (15 km) and according to Xuanzang was a principal base for a strong naval force of 30,000 war-boats, with officers who were experts in sea-routes from the Indian Ocean to China. The city remained as the capital of Assam until the 10th-11th century AD under the rule of the Pala dynasty. Archaeological evidence by excavations in Ambari, and excavated brick walls and houses discovered furing construction of the present Cotton College’s auditorium suggest the city was of economic and strategic importance until the 9th-11th century AD.
Between the 12th and 15th centuries AD, after the destruction of the Kamata kingdom, the city became mainly a strategic outpost of the Koch Hajo and Ahom kingdom. When the western part of the Koch Kingdom (Koch Bihar) fell to the Mughals, the eastern half (Koch Hajo) eventually became a protectorate of Ahom. Although the border between the powers (Ahoms and Mughals) fluctuated between the Kartoya river (now in North Bengal) to the Manas and Barnadi rivers, Guwahati remained an important outpost.
The city was the seat of the Borphukan, the civil military authority of the Lower Assam region appointed by the Ahomkings. The Borphukan’s residence was in the present Fancy Bazaar area, and his council-hall, called Dopdar, was about 300 yards (270 m) to the west of the Bharalu stream. The Majindar Baruah, the personal secretary of the Borphukan, had his residence in the present-day deputy commissioner’s residence.
The Mughals invaded Assam seventeen times, and they were defeated by the Ahoms in Battle of Itakhuli and Battle of Saraighat. During the Battle of Saraighat, fought in Saraighat in 1671, the Mughals were overrun due to the strong leadership and hard work of Lachit Borphukan. There was an ancient boat yard in Brahmaputra, probably used by the Ahoms in medieval times. Medieval constructions include temples, ramparts, etc. in the city.
The city experienced a brief period of Burmese rule during the Burmese invasions of Assam from 1817 to 1826. After the First Anglo-Burmese War, the city became a part of the British Indian Empire Vide Yandabo Teaty on 24th Feb 1826. Later, the city was an active site of the Indian Independence Movement, being the birthplace of many independence activists. After independence, the city became the capital of the state of Assam.