On July 18, 1894 Charles Lyall, the Chief Commissioner of Assam, noted in his file that “time had come for a sustained and systematic endeavour to arrest the process of destruction of such historical manuscripts as still survive in the province.” His views were endorsed by Edward Gait, Census Commissioner of India who was at that time compiling material for research on Assam. In fact Gait faced such difficulties in his work that he was compelled to submit a report of the progress of historical research in the province that was published in 1897.

Both Gait and Lyall were in strong favour of establishing a separate department for pure historical studies in Assam, a province that did not have a university then. Johan Richard Cunningham, the Director of Public Instruction of Assam, then submitted a formal proposal that was accepted by the Governor of Assam. In 1928 the Department of History and Antiquarian Studies (DHAS) was established to “promote the knowledge of history”. The department’s principal functions were collection, preservation, compilation, transcription and publication of records. In 1929, A H W Bentinck was appointed its provincial director while J P Mills and Surya Kumar Bhuyan were appointed assistant directors for Surma and Assam Valley respectively.

The cradle of the DHAS was the office of the superintendent of the Hindu Hostel of Cotton College and for some time, the Muslim Hostel. For some time the department even functioned from Surya Kumar Bhuyan’s vacated kitchen. 

Bhuyan gave heart and soul for development of this unique government department. When DHAS had no building to call its own, Bhuyan took care of the problem by turning his college office room into the DHAS workplace after college hours.

Due to administrative reasons and better security of the collected manuscripts, a portion of the DHAS office was shifted to the commissioner’s office complex on February 1, 1933. That summer official work was carried on from the commissioner’s complex as “Bhuyan’s new house was not fitted with a fan”.

In the very first decade of its established about 35 books and bulletins and collected thousands of rare manuscripts, a number of copper plates, inscriptions and coins. Till the 1960s there was considerable demand for DHAS publications in Oriental Studies circles in Europe. “We announce with gratification that our department counts among its friends and encouragers distinguished Oriental scholars of India, Great Britain, France, Germany, Holland, America and China,” Bhuyan had once said at an official function.

Gradually need grew for a permanent building for the department. As the government was unable to make budgetary provisions for the building for many years at a stretch, Bhuyan approached Raja Hariharprasad Narayan Singha, the raja of Amawan and Tikari, and a generous zamindar from Bihar who came to Guwahati in 1933 for funds. The Raja promised a donation, but later expressed regret due to personal constraints.

Then Rai Bahadur Radhakanta Handique came forward and donated Rs 10,000 to government to construct a building to be named after his wife Narayani Handique, “a lady of extraordinary ability”. The government allotted a plot of land adjacent to the Cotton College in consideration of the fact that when in due course of time the college would be elevated to the status of a university, the department could act as a resource base for historic research.

During the period 1935-36, the Public Works Department constructed an Assam-type building for the department. It was named the Narayani Hanqique Historical Institute and inaugurated by Michael Keane, The governor of Assam, on April 4, 1936. “The site where we stand, close to Cotton College, was chosen so that it may link up with a future university. One cannot but be impressed and astonished at the scope of variety of work accomplished in so short a time… What a magnificent promise it holds,” Keane said at the function.  

      Today the institute has about 2,500 original manuscripts, 25,00 books, many copper plates, inscriptions, coins and puthis of immense historical value. Some of its proud possessions include the original manuscript of Hastividyarnava, the classic Assamese treatise on elephant behaviour, Ghorar Vidya Putrid, treaties on medicines for ailments of horses, original nats of Sankardeva, Gopaldeva and Madhavdeva and Nitilatankur, a treaties on the Indian art of warfare by an Ahom military general. DHAS has also added the personal library of S K Bhuyan to its collection. Of late, a new multi-storied structure has been attached to the institute to expand the reading room and the library; but the DHAS office continues to function from the same old building of the Narayani Handique Historical Institute.