An amazing story of 600 years of rule by the Tai People of Southern China...........Ramdas Iyer
01.01.2020 - 01.04.2020
On the flight from Calcutta to Jorhat, Assam I was seated next to a very attractive woman with whom conversation ensued following take off and did not stop for nearly two hours of flying. She insisted that I must visit Shibsagar, her beautiful home town sometime during my travels but did not quite explain the significance of that place. I asked my local guide to take me to Shibsagar but other than showing beautiful buildings and architecture the history of the place had still eluded me.
Upon return to my lodging I quickly combed the internet to do further research on the place. While 2000 words are not enough to highlight an empire, its mere absence in normal conversations outside of Assam was an object of dismay for me. Having a thick veneer of knowledge in Indian History, the chapter of the Ahoms was completely missing from my knowledge base Not knowing its rich history I deeply regretted not spending enough time especially to see the World Heritage Site: The Burial Mounds of the Ahom Kings. I felt the need to tell the story of the Ahoms and used the quiet time provided by the pandemic to present to my blog readers a comprehensive 600 year history of an amazing kingdom: the Ahom Kingdom of the Brahmaputra Valley in North East India.
The ancient kingdom of Kamarupa once covered the present state of Assam. Pragjyaisha, the capital, was located near Guwahati. Kamarupa is mentioned as a frontier kingdom and tributary of the Gupta Empire in the Allahabad inscription of Samudra Gupta (A.D. 330-375). The Kamarupa -Varman empires (350-650 AD) of the great ruler Bhaskaravarman and his contemporary Harshavardhana ranged up to present day Bangladesh, West Bengal and North Bihar. The Chinese traveler Hsuan Tsang( 602-664 AD) visited the capital of Kamarupa and has written about it. He recorded Bhaskaravarman as the King of Eastern India.
The ancient Kingdom of Kamarupa eventually became the Kingdom of Ahom ( 1228-1826) of Assam being physically distant from the center of India it was ruled by tribal kings for many centuries until the early 19th century. The Assamese tribes today numbering over 106 is what makes it a very interesting place with a variety of cultures melded into mainstream Hinduism.
The Kingdom of Ahom remained virtually cut off from the rest of the world for a long time partly because of its geographical location, separated as it was by numerous hills and rivers interspersed by deep valleys, and partly because of the deliberate Ahom policy of isolation. Most of the inhabitants settled along the fertile banks of the Brahmaputra or on the banks of its tributaries. The journey to and from Assam was extremely long and tedious.
To understand the history of the NE of India one must familiarize them with the Caste and Tribe based system that still dominates India. Scholars have argued that during the Aryan settlement in the Indo-Gangetic plains from 1500 BC onwards, the creation of a Hindu state replete with caste system and the usage of the Sanskrit language were considered mainstream. Since Ahom were never in the Sanskritised part of the Indo Aryan people its importance after the Varman Empire was diminished. It was more connected with the hill tribes from north east India, Nagaland, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Yunnan province's non Han Chinese people.
Origins of the Ahom People
The Ahoms were a Tai speaking people came into prominence first in the Yunnan province of China , from where they moved to mainland Southeast Asia in the middle of the 11th century after a long and fierce battle with the Han Chinese. The Tai-Ahoms are traced today to either the Mong Mao Tribe of South China or to the Hukawng Valley in Myanmar.
According to chronicles kept by the Ahoms—Sukaphaa, a Tai prince of Mong Mao, accompanied by his family, five nobles and many followers, mostly men, crossed the Patkai hills and reached the Brahmaputra valley in 1228. They came with a higher technology of wet-rice cultivation then extant and a tradition of writing, record keeping, and state formation. They settled in the region south of the Brahmaputra river and to the east of the Dikho river; the Ahoms today are found concentrated in this region. Sukaphaa, the leader of the Tai group and his 9000 followers established the Ahom kingdom (1228–1826 CE), which controlled much of the Bramhaputra valley until 1826.
Tai-speaking peoples are widely distributed in southern China, mainland Southeast Asia and the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam. For ethnographic and linguistic purposes many subdivisions are recognized, the most important of which are the Chuang in southern China, the Tho, Red Tai, Black Tai and White Tai of northern Vietnam, the Lao, the Siamese or Thai, the Shan of northern Burma, and the Ahom of Assam. The greatest Tai empire to exist till date is that of the Siamese kings of Thailand( Tai Land).
The Ahoms believed that they were divinely ordained to bring fallow land under the plow with their techniques of wet-rice cultivation, and to adopt stateless shifting cultivators into their fold. They were also conscious of their numerical minority. As a result, the Ahom polity initially absorbed Naga, Borahi and Moran, and later large sections of the Chutiya and the Dimasa-Kachari tribal peoples. This process of Ahomisation went on till mid-16th century when the Ahom society itself came under the direct Hindu influence. That many indigenous peoples were ceremonially adopted into Ahom clans are recorded in the chronicles. Since the Ahoms married liberally outside their own exogamous clans and since their own traditional religion resembled the religious practices of the indigenous peoples along with Hindus, the assimilation under Ahomisation had a little impediment.
The Ahom occupy a rather exceptional position amongst the Tai peoples. In the first place, they have remained relatively isolated from other Tai speakers, their contact with Shan (The Burmese Shans can be found in my 'Peoples" album in RamdasIyerphotography.com) and Khamti groups of northwestern Burma being via long, difficult and hazardous trails, and apparently interrupted for centuries at a time.
When the Ahom conquered a small corner of the Brahmaputra Valley at the beginning of the thirteenth century, they probably brought with them their own script, apparently based upon a Mon example. They maintained historical records throughout the centuries, various versions of which have been preserved until today. Although it is possible that the Ahom may have taken note of the Buddhist traditions which were adhered to in some of the regions they must have crossed on their way to Assam, there is little or no evidence that they had been influenced by Buddhism when they entered Assam. Recent research suggests instead that they brought with them their own indigenous sacrificial religion, traces of which can still be found in the modern Hindu Ahom culture of today.( The famous Kali temple of Kamatakiya in Gauhati which I visited sacrifices animals regularly. For many hundreds of years human sacrifice was common here).
Alas the Ahom people found themselves in a different situation from most Tai in that they had discovered a valley of immense size, further to the west of which were mighty kingdoms and elaborate political organizations.
Gradually, step by step, the Ahom extended their grip over the easternmost part of the Brahmaputra Valley, especially at the beginning of the sixteenth century when they conquered the Kachari and Chutiya kingdoms. Later in that century, and during the seventeenth century, the Ahom kings further extended their influence and gradually became masters over the whole of the Assamese valley. This was the time when the gradual "hinduization" of the Ahom upper classes accelerated. The unified country under Ahom rule was soundly defeated by Muslim invaders in 1662, but a few years later the foreign yoke was thrown off and a new, invigorated Ahom rule was born with Shibsagar as its capital.
In the 17th century, the intellectual elite took the sophisticated Bengal culture as the ideal model. From this time onward the Ahom were firmly set on the path towards full assimilation of Assamese Hindu culture and the Ahom tongue became obsolete. Assamese script took over from the old Ahom characters. Only in a few isolated pockets were the old traditions still remembered; amongst the traditional Ahom priestly families the ability to read the old books and the observance of Tai religious ceremonies were perpetuated.
Ahom Religion and Society
The Ahoms worshipped their own tribal gods. However, Brahmanas (one of a class of Hindu sacred writings composed around the 9th to 6th centuries BC and devoted chiefly to the instruction of Brahmins in the performance of Vedic ritual) during the first half of the 17th century achieved a great influence, further giving rise to Hinduism. The rulers started assuming Hindu names since that time. In the reign, the Sib Singh, Hinduism became a predominant religion. However, the Ahom kings did not completely let go of their traditional beliefs to some extent even after adopting Hinduism.
The Ahom society was very sophisticated. Poets and scholars were given land grants. Theatre was encouraged. The Ahom state was completely depended upon forced labor and was forced to work for the state known as paiks. Near about a census of the population was taken and each village was supposed to send a number of paiks in and by rotation.
Majority of the people from the densely populated areas were moved to the thinly populated areas – further leading to the break of the Ahom clans were. However, the administration had become quite centralized by the first half of the 17th century.
The Ahoms society underwent many changes due to a large state being built. The influence of Brahmins increased. The land was given to the temples and Brahmins by the king.
Mughal Incursions & British Rule:
With the successful capture of the Kingdom of Bengal by the Mughals, their eyes were set on the North east of India. The states of Koch and Dhaka were traditional rivals of the Ahom Kingdom were now under the sway of the Mughals. 17 battles were fought between the Ahoms and the Mughals in which the Mughals suffered many defeats due to the tactical guerilla warfare and river battles fought on the Brahmaputra.
These small skirmishes reached the ears of the powerful Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. The Mughal army commanded by Raja Ram Singh I tried to capture the Ahom State but failed miserably at the hands of Gen. Lachit Borphukan ( A source of great pride even today)commanding the army of the Ahom Kingdom. Even though the Mughals could capture Guwahati for a brief period, the Ahom wrested control in the Battle of Itakhuli in 1682 and the Mughals could never recapture it again.
Around 1800 there was a small rebellion against the Ahom King Gaurinath by the Ahom nobles which was eventually quelled with the help of the East India Company. When the company eventually withdrew, there was a lot of infighting within the nobility thus opening the doors for the expansionist King Mindon of Burma.
In 1817, the Burmese took advantage of the rivalry between the Ahom chiefs, invaded Assam, and established political control. The Burmese presence threatened British commercial interests. In the first Burmese War (1824-1826), the British drove the Burmese out of Assam. Under the Treaty of Yandabo, the territory was annexed by the East India Company in 1826.
The year 1826 saw the final collapse of the Ahom monarchy which ruled for over six- centuries and marked the entry of the British who stepped in to fill the political void in the region due to depletion of state funds as a result of the many wars waged. It was the beginning of the transition from the medieval to the modern age. When the East India Company appeared on the scene, they were heralded by the Ahomese as saviors and were welcomed with open arms.
The East India Company desperately needed the gold from Tibet to finance its growing China trade. Hence, an alternative route to Tibet became an urgent necessity. They believed that such a route might be possible via Assam. And the fate of Assam was to be decided by them only. Assam was governed as a part of Bengal by the East India Company till its collapse in 1858. The British (United Kingdom) government administered the state from 1858 until 1947. India achieved independence in 1947 and Assam became a state of the Indian Union.
History of India-Romila Thapar
"Mission Assam"- Gen. S.K.Sinha
"Ahom and the Study of Tai Cultures"- Barbara& Jan Tewibl, Australian Nat. Univ, Canberra.