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Traditionally, Guwahati has been an important administrative and trading center and a river port. The name Guwahati is derived from two Assamese words: 'guwa' (areca nut) and 'haat' (market place). The name used to be spelled as Gowhatty (pre-colonial and colonial), standardized to Gauhati (colonial-British), which was then changed to the present form in the late 1980s to conform to the local pronunciati .There is almost a magic that hovers over the city.

Epigraphic sources place capitals of many ancient kingdoms in Guwahati. It was the capital of the mythological kings Naraka and Bhagadatta (reference in the Mahabharata). The ancient sakti temple of Kamakhya in the Nilachal hill (also important seat of tantric and Vajrayana Buddhism), Navagraha, the nine planets temple (ancient and a unique temple for astrology) located in Chitrachal Hill and archaeological remains in Basista and many other locations support the mythological characters and the city's ancient past.

An excavation in the Ambari area of the city shows signs that Guwahati goes back even up-to the 6th Century AD. Guwahati stretched to about 19 km and was probably the principal base for King Bhaskar Varman's strong naval force of 30,000 war-boats, with officers who were knowledgeable of the sea-routes from the Indian Ocean to China), as per the descriptions made by the great Hiuen Tsang. The city was known as Pragjyotishpura (i.e. City of Eastern Light) and Durjoya in different time periods, and was the capital under the Varman and the Pala dynasties of the Kamarupa kingdom. The city remained as the capital of Assam till the 10-11th century AD under the rulers of the Pala dynasty. There are also suggestions that Guwahati was a city of great size and had both economic as well as strategic importance until the 9-11th century AD. However, during medieval times, i.e., in between 12-15th century AD the city lost its earlier glory and became mainly a strategic outpost of the Koch Hajo and Ahom Kingdoms of western and eastern Assam. This was largely because of the destruction of the Kamata 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. But Guwahati was an important outpost even during times when the Ahom and Mughal powers ruled within borders which fluctuated between the Kartoya river (now in North Bengal) to the Manas and Barnadi rivers.

History also says that Borphukan, a civil mill authority of the lower a region appointed by the kings, made Guwahati the `seat of power'. The Borphukan's residence was in the present Fancy Bazaar area, and his council-hall, called Dopdar, was situated 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.

However, if one landmark historical event was to identify Guwahati, then it is the 1671 Battle of Saraighat. And the hero of this epic battle was the great Ahom General Bir Lachit Borphukan, who made the Mughals succumb to defeat by the sheer dint of his intelligence and ardent patriotism. Thus, the Mughals failed, not once, but seventeen times.