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THE HINDUISATION OF THE TAI-AHOMS Jose Kuruvachira SDB Introduction Edward Gait in his A History of Assam (1905) states

that early in the thirteenth century A.D. a band of hardy hill men wandered into the eastern extremity of the Brahmaputra valley, led by chance rather than by any deep-seated design, and quite unconscious of the fact that their descendants were destined to bring the whole valley under their rule and set a limit to the eastward extension of the Mughal empire. These were the progenitors of the Ahoms. They were an offshoot of the great Tai (Thai) or Shan race 1, which spreads eastwards, from the border of Assam over nearly the whole of further India and far into the interior of China2. The Ahoms who were strict adherents of their traditional tribal religion, which they brought with them from their land of origin. But in the course of history they came to be Aryanised and Hinduised. How this cultural mutation took place is the main concern of this paper3 and will, therefore, deal with some aspects of Ahom history, religion, politics and culture. 1. The advent of the Ahoms The advent of the Ahoms in Assam was an event of great significance for Indian history. Sukapha, the Shan prince, is said to have left Maulung in 1215 AD as a result of a dispute with one of his brothers, with some nobles, a few hundred followers and a retinue of two elephants and 300 horses to seek his fortune elsewhere4. The Ahoms passing over the Patkai range which divides Assam from Upper Burma (Mynmar) subdued in turn the different Bara tribes: the Morans, Borahis and Chautiyas which they found in possession of the Brahmaputra valley. The Ahom chronicles put the date of their coming to the Brahmaputra valley as 1228 AD. After many years of wandering Sukapha settled at Charaideo (near Jorhat) in 1253 AD. Ahoms have phoids or khels the principal ones being seven in number (satgharias = belonging to seven houses)5. The name Asam or Assam is derived from the ruling race, namely, the Ahoms (Ahom, Asam, Assam) 6. However the name Ahom was given to them by the Borahis and Morans living in upper Assam7. The Ahoms increased in number and extended their dominion until the time of Rudra Singh (1696-1714). By then they were in possession of practically the whole valley of Assam, managed to repel the Muhammadans who had invaded the country on several occasions and to defeat the great Kachari king Nara Narayan as well as the Raja of Jaintia8. The history of Assam during the Ahom period ranges roughly from 1200 to 1806 AD and is characterised on the one hand by the stabilisation of the people of Assam with their language and culture as an Aryan speaking Hindu people9. The Ahoms possessed a high degree of historical sense and their priests and leading families possessed buranjis10 or chronicled histories written in Ahom language, which were periodically made up to date. The more recent of the buranjis are written in Assamese which was gradually adopted by the Ahoms after their conversion to Hinduism. But the earlier ones are in the old tribal language which is similar to that of other Shan tribes and is written in a character derived from the Pali. Edward Gait writing in 1905 says that the knowledge of it is now confined to a few old men of the Deodhai or priestly caste11.

40 2. The religion of the Ahoms The Ahoms believed in an all-powerful God who created the universe. He is a spirit and cannot be identified with any power in nature 12. Gait has identified the Supreme Being of the Ahoms as Pha13. The Ahoms worshipped a number of gods and goddesses with sacrifices and offerings The principal of them were Phuratara (Creator), Lengdon (God of heaven), Jasingpha (Goddesses of Learning), Phai (God of Fire) and Kao-Kham (God of Water). Their tutelary deity was the image of Chom-Cheng later called Chomdeo (due to the influence of Aryanism). Ancestor worship was an important aspect of their religion. Worship of Chom-Cheng was common among the Ahoms of the Brahmaputra valley and they continued to do the same till the end of their rule with the belief that the deity would bring them success in war, peace and prosperity14. The Ahoms had their own priests, the Deodhais, Mohans and Bailongs15, who also acted as their political advisors in the beginning. But gradually their role was overshadowed by the Brahmins16. Probably the name Deodhais was applied to them after the conversion of the king and his court to Hinduism for in Ahom language the priests are called Sangman17. The Ahoms considered Charaideo as the most sacred place of their faith18. The Ahoms had Saifa and Umpha ceremonies for good crops and for the prosperity of the State. Sarkai was the ceremony of scaring away the evil spirits; Rikhivan19 was the expiation ceremony20. They also had elaborate ceremonies connected with marriage and burial of the dead. Gait says that the Ahoms were most superstitious and several occasions it is narrated that the king hastily left the house he was occupying merely because a screech owl had perched on it21. M. Narimattam is of the opinion that the God of the Ahoms is more of a power than a personal God who intervenes in history. Again, their experience of God seems to be an imageless and emotionless cognition of some great impersonal force which does not demand total commitment from them22. P.R. Gurdan has been unable to trace Buddhist influences on the original Ahom religion. Possibly Buddhism had not penetrated so far as the Upper Mekong before the Ahoms left their ancient site Mungrimungrang, or had become so inextricably mixed with the concept of the gods of earth and sky as to become indiscernible 23. The Ahom priests identify practically all their principal deities with gods of the Hindu pantheon. But it is difficult now to say when they did this, probably long before the Ahom conquest of Assam. Aryan princes found their way to further India at a very early date and took the Hindu mythology with them24. Some argue that the Ahoms had already known Brahmanism in China as India had contact with that country already from ancient times. 3. The process of Hinduisation of the Ahoms The Ahoms of Assam have abandoned their original tribal religion and have undergone the process of Aryanisation and adopted Hinduism25. Today the Ahoms are among the many tribes of Assam that have became Aryanised and Hinduised, such as, the Bodos, Chautiyas, Morans, etc. It is difficult to ascertain precisely when the Aryans came into the Brahmaputra valley. But there is hardly any doubt that they settled in Assam at a fairly early period either by successful invasion or by peaceful colonisation at least by the beginning of the Christian era. Maheshwar Neog observes that there has been infiltration of Sanskrit-oriented classical culture of Aryavarta into selected quarters, at least from the initial centuries of Christianity26. Hindu priests continued to come to Assam with each wave of immigrants of Hindus27.

41 3.1 Inter-marriages The Ahom prince Sukapha is said to have left Maulung with a following of eight nobles, and 9000 men, women and children. Since they had brought with them very few women they were forced to intermarry with local tribes. In the beginning the Ahoms wanted to maintain feudal superiority and separate existence as a ruling community and did not allow its members to have social relationship with the peasant population of the country. With the passage of time they found it impossible to administer the vast country with a small number of their own people who came with the first conqueror Sukhapa. They were compelled to increase their number by marrying in non-Ahom or Hindu families and by conferring upon some non-Ahom families the privileges and status of the ruling race. These new entrants were thoroughly assimilated with the pure Ahoms and they and their descendants were not disabled from holding high offices and enjoying privileges to which the older Ahoms were entitled28. When the Ahom ruler Tao-Khamti (1380-1389 A.D) made peace with the Kamata king the latter gave his daughter to the Ahom king in marriage. This is the first recorded marriage of an Ahom king with a Hindu princess. B. L. Baruah commenting on this incident says that this event definitely brought some Hindu elements to the Ahom royal house29. The Ahoms intermarried and incorporated many of the conquered tribes into the Ahom fold. Several of these tribes were already Hinduised then. Thus there was an admixture of blood, and children were of mixed origin as most of the Ahoms had not brought their wives when they first came and as they accepted wives only when they came to the Brahmapura valley30. 3.2 Patronisation of Hinduism by Ahom kings With Sudangpha (1397-1407 A.D) the influence of Brahmanism in the Ahom court began to be felt. Prior to that the reference to Brahmin nobles in court was hardly recorded. But with Sudangpha their number in court became numerous. Evidently, then, the reign of Sudangpha was an important stage in the Hinduisation of the Ahoms31. Sudangpha was known as the Brahmin Prince as he was born and brought up in the house of a Brahmin. His mother, thrown off from the kings harem through an intrigue, was sheltered by a Brahmin and the prince himself was brought up by him. His reign marks the early stage in the growth of Brahmanical influence among the Ahoms. He brought with him, from the Habung country, the Brahmin who had given his mother shelter and raised him up along with his own children. He appointed the Brahmin as his confidential advisor and the sons of the Brahmin and other relatives were given high posts in the administration32. Gait states that the old Brahmin himself was installed as his confidential adviser and under his influence many Hindu rites and ceremonies began to be observed33. Thus during Sundangphas reign the seeds of Hinduism were sown in the Ahom kingdom. The Brahmin had brought with him worship of Lord Vishnu. The worship of Vishnu continued along with that of the Ahom deity Chom-Cheng (Chomdeo). But the kings leaning towards Hinduism might not have been liked by some of his tribes men34. When Sudangpha shifted his capital to Charagua near the Dihing he performed a coronation ceremony called Singari-ghar utha, as the coronation hall on the occasion had to be constructed with Singari wood. The ceremony was performed according to the Ahom rites but it is possible that his Brahmin foster-father blessed him with Vedic mantras when the king assumed the Hindu tittles Maharaja and Rajrajeswar Chakravarty35. The Hindu influence was more marked in the reign of king Susengpha or Pratap Singh (1603-1641) who was personally grateful to the Brahmin priests for ridding him of a demon which had possessed him during his youth36. He vigorously patronised Hinduism and showed his inclination towards it. He recruited the non-Ahoms to a number of

42 responsible offices and proved his confidence in them by replacing many Ahom officials by the non-Ahoms, preferably Brahmins37. Pratap Singh also patronised Hinduism by rebuilding the Naga-Sankar temple on the north of the Brahmaputra. This act of the king gained him the good will of the Aryanised mongoloid tribes of the region who helped him on his subsequent conquest of Habung and Panbari38. Sutyinpha or Jayadhvaj Singh (1648-1663) was the first Ahom king to formally accept Hinduism, who wanted to propitiate the gods by his devotion to religion and atone for his patricide. Jayadhvaj Singh and his successors up to Sulikpha or Lora Raja (1679-1681) accepted Vaishnavism as their creed, which was the predominant faith in Assam at that time. But Supatpha or Gadadhar Singh (1681-1696) lent towards Saktism39 and persecuted the Vaishnava mahantas and gosains. His son Sukhrungpha or Rudra Singh (1696-1714) in the later part of his rule became an open supporter of Sakta faith and from his death onwards that faith became the creed of the Ahom monarchs and of the principal nobles and officers. Thus Saktism became the religion of the kings and Vaishnavism that of the majority of their subjects. It was at this time that the monarchy adopted a policy designed to win support of the heads of the satras and yet to maintain the spiritual status of the Deodhais unimpaired. In this way they consciously shaped a liberal policy towards all the creeds which, however they could not continue for long because of the threat of danger inherent in Vaishnavism40. Sunyatpha or Udayaditya Singha (1669-1673) became highly unpopular for showing undue favour to a sanyasi named Paramananda coming from Gokulur (Buranjis say he hailed from Brindaban) whom he accepted as his spiritual guide and established with land-grants at Chamaguri. He also induced many nobles to accept initiation from the sanyasi and thus made many enemies41. Sukhrangpha or Rudra Singh (1696-1714) is regarded as the greatest of the Ahom kings. He was an orthodox Hindu and sent Brahmin boys to great centres of learning in other parts of the country42. He also established numerous schools for the Brahmins. His reign is memorable for the final triumph of Hinduism over the national religion of the Ahoms. Many of his predecessors had taken Hinduism, as well as Ahom names, and had shown great respect for the Brahmins, but Rudra Singh was the first to announce publicly his intention to become a disciple of a Hindu priest. His son and successor Sutanpha or Sib Singh (1714-1744), was completely in the hands of the Brahmins of the Sakta sect43. Several Ahom kings patronised Saivism by constructing new temples and renovating old ones. They built huge temples called Siva Dol and Joy Dol with their capital complex near the modern Sibsagar town in Upper Assam and dug a huge lake called Joysagar close by44. However, later some of the Ahoms kings patronised Vaishnavism and zealously established satras and allocated large areas of revenue free land45. Brahmin influence grew rapidly in the capital and the Vaishnava movement of Sankardev was making itself felt more and more in the north-western part of the kingdom46. 3.3 Influence of Brahmins in the Ahom court According to N.N. Acharya, Sudangphas accession to the throne in 1397 AD marks the beginning of the Brahmanical influence amongst the Ahoms. He made his capital a colony of the Brahmins and converted the tribal court of the Ahoms into a centre of orthodox Hindu culture. As already mentioned he founded the Singarigha festival, which was followed by the later Ahom rulers. He assumed the title of Maharaja and Rajrajesvar Chakravarti, a favourite tittle of almost every great king of ancient and Medieval Hindu India47. From the time when the Ahom kings accepted Hinduism, Brahmanic influence began to be felt in the Ahom court. Brahmins were brought to the Ahom court from Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and other centres of learning. Most of them were distinguished Sanskrit scholars and men of learning and culture interested in proselytisation. The influence of these Brahmins had, at last, caused the tribal Ahom court to be greatly

43 Hinduised, and thenceforth, Hindus rites, manners and customs became a regular practice in the capital of the Ahoms48. During the reign of Suklengmung or Garhgaya Raja (1539-1552) the religious policy took a further turn. He disfavoured the idea of hailing both Chom-Cheng (Chomdeo) and Lakshmi-Narayana deities representing two different faiths in the palace. He therefore, installed the deity of Chom-Cheng in a separate temple outside the palace but within the palace campus. This indicates the growing preponderance of Brahmins in the Ahom court49. Under Susengpha or Pratap Singh (1603-1644) the Ahoms language continued to be the medium of conversation between the king and his nobles, but Hindus were often appointed as envoys in preference to Ahoms who were sometimes found wanting in intelligence50. With the acceptance of Hinduism by the Ahoms the buranjis or chronicles came to be written not only in Ahom but also in Assamese51. This practice was continued even after the British occupation of the State52. Surampha or Rajeswar Singh (1751-1769) was an orthodox Hindu. Soon after his accession to the throne he paid a visit to Guwahati to do worship at the various temples there. He erected many temples and made gifts to the Brahmins. His body was cremated at Sonarinagar and the bones were interred at Charaideo. His cremation ceremony was performed according to Brahmanic rites, which practice was followed by all his successors53. 3.4 Assumption of Hindu names by Ahom kings Ahom kings assuming Hindu names was another expression of the increasing influence of the Brahmins in the court. In most cases the Ahom kings maintained both Ahom as well as Hindu names. Gradually they began to use their Hindu names than Ahom names in official records. Out of the forty-four Ahom rulers about half of them assumed Hindu names54. Among the Ahom kings Suhungmung (1497-1539) was the first to assume a Hindu name Svarga Narayan and Hindu way of life55. But he was better known as Dihingiya Raja because he made his capital at Bakata in the Dihing56. The title Svarga Narayan or its variant Svarga Deb became henceforth the designation by which the Ahom kings described themselves in their official documents57. Sukhampha or Khora Raja (1552-1603) was succeeded by his son Pratap Singh who is referred to by his Hindu name in preference to his Ahom name Susengpha. The earlier kings had no Hindu titles but were satisfied to rule with their Ahoms names only. Thus the death of Sukhampha marks a further stage in the Hinduisation of the Ahoms58. 3.5 Invention of the Brahmanical origin of the Ahom kings There are two versions of the origin of the Ahom kings one which tallies very closely with what is still preserved among the Shans of Upper Burma (Myanmar). The other is a modification of it invented by the Brahmins with a view to encouraging their conversion to Hinduism59. Thus the Ahom kings considered themselves descendants of Indra and the royal dynasty came to be known as Indra-vamsa60. The Ahom gods and legends also came to be identified with Brahmanical ones. Gait says that the Brahmanical origin of the ruling family is very similar to those invented for other kings of aboriginal stock who from time to time were induced to enter the fold of Hinduism61. In 1497 Suhungmung became king. It was during his reign that the first buranji in Assamese entitled Sri Sri Swarganarayan Maharajar Janma Katha was written wherein the Ahoms were assigned the origin from the Aryan god Indra, marking thereby another forward step in the process of their conversion to Hinduism62. Suhungmungs reign saw the growing influence of the Brahmins and the spread of the Neo-Vaishnavite movement under Sankardev and his disciple Madhavadev. Nevertheless the king continued to perform the Ahom rites63.

44 3.6 Introduction of Hindu calendar The influence of Hinduism became more evident when Suhugmung (Dihingia Raja or Svarga Narayan 1497-1539) introduced the Saka Era to be used for all official purposes. The Saka Era replaced the system of calculating dates by the Jovian cycle of sixty years64. 3.7 Transition from burying the dead to cremation Originally the Ahoms buried their dead. But in later years, following the Hindu custom they cremated their dead. In some cases first they cremated and then the bones and ashes of the dead were buried. At times Hindu priests were appointed to offer prayers at the Ganges for the dead kings. Generally the kings were buried with all their paraphernalia including living attendants. The practice of burying men alive was stopped by Rudra Singh. Since the time of Surampha or Rajeswar Singh (1751-1769) the Ahom kings took to cremation and performed their funeral ceremonies according to Vedic rites65. 3.8 Introduction of Hindu Law and Assamese language After the Hinduisation of the Ahoms from about the beginning of the sixteenth century A.D Hindu Law as expounded by the Brahmins seems to have been generally followed 66. Gait says that when the mass of the Ahoms accepted Hinduism the Ahom priests gradually fell into disrepute, although they themselves had long resisted the proselytising efforts of the Brahmins. The result was that the new generation of Ahoms was taught the Aryanised Assamese language and not Ahom, and in a few years the knowledge of the latter language practically disappeared from the Ahom kingdom67. 4. Rudra Singh, the greatest promoter of Hinduism Rundra Singh (1696-1714) was perhaps the greatest promoter of Hinduism in the Ahom kingdom and in whose reign the Ahom power and glory reached its zenith. He, unlike his father, patronised Vaishnavism. But as he grew older his inclination towards Sakta Hinduism increased and finally he decided formally to embrace that religion and become an orthodox Hindu. This involved a ceremony called saran lowa or taking the initiation, at the time of which the neophyte prostates himself before his religious preceptor. Rudra Singh decided not to humiliate his position by prostrating himself before someone who is a mere subject, however saintly, and therefore summoned from Bengal a Sakta Brahmin priest named Krishnaram Nyayavagish for the purpose. He also promised him the care of the temple of Kamakhya, near Guwahati. But when the priest arrived the king declined to become his disciple and asked him to go back. The return of the priest was followed by a severe earthquake which was interpreted as due to the curse of the priest. Krishnaram was then called back, but the king died before having his initiation. He however instructed his sons to accept the Bengali priest as their religious preceptor and establish him as the priest of the Kamakhya temple68. It is said that when Rudra Singh died his body was cremated on the Mani Karnesvar hill, instead of being buried in a vault at Charaideo according to the custom previously in vogue. But in the Buranjis it is distinctly stated that his remains were buried like those of his forefathers69. 5. Religious syncretism In the religious history of the Ahoms we notice many traits of syncretism 70. Though many Ahom kings became Hinduised, they did not altogether abandon their ancestral religion and practices. Their coronation ceremony was solemnised by both Ahom and Hindu rituals. From the time of Suhungmung or Dihingia Raja practically all the Ahom kings on ascending the throne assumed two names, one in Assamese Hindu form and the other in Ahom71.

45 The Ahom gods and legends came to be identified with Brahmanical ones so that both the Ahom and the Hindu population were made to feel that after all the pantheons of the two peoples were essentially the same. Thus, we find that Chaopha (king of heaven) was identified with Lengdon or Indra the progenitor of the Ahom kings; Jaching-pha was identified with Saraswati. Lung-chai-net with Vayu; Khan-Khampha-pha with Sakti; Khun-tun with the Sun god; Khun-ban with the Moon-god and Lan-khe with Visvakarman72. The Ahom kings patronised both Ahom priests and Brahmins and allowed them to perform their rituals and to officiate at ceremonies like marriage, funerals and coronation of kings. The Ahoms performed their marriages according to their own rites called Chaklang. But when the Ahom kings married Hindu girls, Vedic rites were observed 73. In the same way, appeasing the spirits of the dead, burial customs, ceremonies before going to war, etc. showed that Ahom customs were not altogether neglected. For example, the Tai ceremony for obtaining long life (rikkhvan) was performed at least thrice during Suhungmungs reign, besides other thanksgiving services after victorious military campaigns74. Sudalpha (1677-1679) took the Hindu name Parvatia Raja. On Ascending the throne he performed the rikkhvan ceremony and offered sacrifice to Siva as well as to the Ahom gods75 The Chomdeo was still worshipped and before a battle it was still the practice to call upon the Deodhais or tribal priests to tell the omens by examining the legs of fowls. This however did not prevent the king from encouraging Hindu priests. When the tank at Misagarh was completed, Brahmins were called in to consecrate it; temples for the worship of Siva were erected under the kings orders at Dergaon and Bishnath and grants of land were made for the maintenance of Brahmins and of Hindu temples. It is recorded that on one occasion shortly after gifts had been distributed to the Brahmins a son of the king died and Pratap Singh was so enraged in consequence that for a time he persecuted them and even put some of them to death76. B.L. Baruah says that the Ahoms monarchs by adopting the Sakta faith, by supporting the Vaishnava monks and satras and by maintaining the Ahom rituals and ceremonies, encouraged a state of triarchy in religious matters leading to a considerable amount of rivalry between the three groups77. They also entertained Muslims priests in their court and sent them to pray for their welfare at the principal Muslim shrines. Muslims priests were also endowed with land grants78. 6. Subtle form of proselytisation Gait says that Hindu priests and worriers undoubtedly found their way to Assam at a very early age. In the early days the number of Hindu settlers was small, and they confined their attention to the king and his chief nobles, from whom alone they had anything to gain. They would convert them, admit the nobles to Kshatriya rank and invent for the king a noble descent, using the same materials over and over again and then enjoy as their reward lucrative posts at court and lands granted to them by their proselytes. They would not interfere with the tribal religious rites, as to do would call forth the animosity of the tribal priests; nor would they trouble about the beliefs of the common people, who would continue to hold to their old religious beliefs. If the dynasty lasted long enough, the influence of Hindu ideas would gradually filter down to them and they would follow the example of their betters, as has now actually happened in the case of the Ahoms. But before this could come to pass, the dynasty would ordinarily be overthrown; the downfallen survivors of the old aristocracy would become merged in some Hindu caste79. 7. Religion for political ends The satras were powerful religious institutions. They were centres of organised religion, power and wealth. The devotees of the satras formed the bulk of the soldiers of

46 the Ahom kings. Favouring Hinduism was helpful in forming alliance with neighbouring Hindu rulers against common enemies, especially the Muslim invaders. Thus the Ahoms patronised various Hindu sects as a political strategy. The Vaishnava satras were becoming powerful under royal patronage since the days of Jayadhvaj Singh (1650-1663). Despite the best attempts made by the Ahom kings since the reign of Pratap Singh to crush this institution, the Neo-Vaishnavite movement had attained such remarkable dimensions that the Ahom kings had to accept the satra institution as a fact and to mould the religious policy of the State with a view to serving the interests of the satras. Realising the importance of the satras some of the Ahom kings established some Brahmanical satras. The four noted ones are at Auniati (1654), Dakhinpat (1662), Karunabahi and Garamur80. Gadadhar Singh (1681-1696) though formally not a Saktist, greatly patronised the sakta sect. The temple of Umananda on the Peacock island near Guwahati was built under his auspices and the earliest known copper-plates record the grants of land by Ahom kings to Brahmins at the cost of Neo-Vaishnavism which had become the religion of the people. B. L. Baruah says that Gadadhar Singh wanted to use religion as a weapon to fight those who were on the side of the feudal forces rising against the system of virtual state slavery enforced through the Paik system [bonded men by birth]. It was from his reign onward that the kings religion and the peoples religion began to confront each other, leading finally to the great crisis at the time of the revolt of the Moamariyas81. When Siva Singhs queen Phuleswari insulted the Vaishnavas of the Moamariya sect whom she had invited to a Sakti worship, the Vaishnavas openly revolted against the Ahom king. This religious revolt is one of the causes of the decline and fall of the Ahom power. The discrimination and religious intolerance leading to division of the spirit were reflected in the literature of the period82. 8. Ahoms and religious freedom In general, the Ahoms practised religious toleration and were not religious fanatics. Gait observes: The religious temper of the [Ahom] period was one of non-interference and tolerance. Not only the monarchs as a rule tolerated religious sects other than their own but they patronised all persuasions in equal measure83. However, there are instances of religious persecution as a consequence of their favouring one sect or the other. When the Ahom kings patronised one Hindu sect the others had to suffer. Thus there were Hindu sects that enjoyed royal favour as well as royal persecution. When Sankardev began to preach the new Vaishnava faith he was opposed by the Brahmins and they accused him before the Ahom king Suhungmung (Dihingiya Raja, 1497-1539) of bringing disaster to the country by preaching an unorthodox religion not envisaged by the Vedas. The Ahom monarch summoned Sankardev to argue with the Brahmins of his court. Though Sankardev defeated the Brahmins in argument he however felt that his life would be in danger in the Ahom territory and so he left the place and went to Barpeta which was then under the Hindu king Naranarayana of Koch Bihar84. Gadadhar Singh was a patron of Sakta sect of Hinduism. He adopted many measures to overthrow the Vaishnava sects. He persecuted the Vaishnava mahantas, confiscated their properties, drove them from the satras, killed some and mutilated others85. But his son Sukhrungpha who assumed the name Rudra Singh (1696-1714) reversed his fathers policy in regard to the Vaishnava gosains. Though he too was a Sakta he restored the Vaishnava monasteries to their heirs and bestowed royal favours on some Vaishnava mahantas86. But the adoption of Saktism by his son Siva Singh (1714-1744) followed by the conversion to that faith of his principal nobles brought about a breach and conflict with the Vaishnavas87. But Gadadhar Singh realised his mistake only towards the end of his life and advised his son to favour the religion of the common people, namely, NeoVaishnavism.

47 Gadadhar Singh feared the power of the Neo-Vaishnavite satradikars ( the heads of the satra institutions)Therefore he felt the need to check the power of the satras in order to make the power of the Ahom kings absolute. His religious zeal for saktism led him to pursue a policy of ruthless persecution of the masses of the Vaishnavas including their priests who were considered as rebels by the king. In the process of executing the policy of the king towards the Vaishnava priests many satras were pillaged and their heads were either killed or banished. Some were forced to eat the flesh of swine, cows and fowls, robbed of their properties and compelled to do manual labour. Some of them were mutilated and others were put to death and a few were offered up as sacrifice to idols. It is aid that the Dhodar Asli which is still existent in the district of Sibsagar was built with the service of such convicted Vaishnava devotees88. Siva Singhs chief queen Phuleswari also meddled in matters of religion. She came under the influence of the Brahmins and at their instigation she attempted to make saktism the State religion. She suppressed the age-old Ahom custom of burying the dead and compelled them to take to cremation. She was a great patron of Sanskrit learning and had a Sanskrit school started within the palace campus89. When Phuleswari died in 1731 the king married her sister Draupati. Following the example of her sister Draupati also patronised Saktism. Siva Singh had numerous temples erected and made large gifts of land to them. B.L. Baruah says that with Siva Singhs support, Hinduism became the predominant religion and the Ahoms who persisted in holding to their old beliefs and tribal customs came to be regarded as a separate and degraded class. The Deodhais and Bailungs resisted the change but to no effect90. During the last days of king Trajeshwar Singh (1714-1744), the queen who wielded immense power persecuted a section of the Vaishnavas. The latter rose in revolt and the rebellion gathered such force that it shook his administration to its foundations. On account of the Vaishnava revolt and other political feuds the administration finally broke down during Chandrakanta Singhs reign (1810-1818)91. Gait reminds us that the Muhammadans who had come to Assam from Islamic lands engaged in the performance of prayer and fasting, but were forbidden to chant the call to prayer or publicly recite the word of God92. 9. Consequences of Hinduisation: Loss of Ahom cultural traits The Aryanisation of the Ahoms and their eventual Hinduisation had serious consequences on the cultural identity of the Ahoms. The Ahoms were not mere animists of the type commonly found among the aboriginal tribes of India, but had a regular pantheon of which the leading members were, in later times at least, identified with Hindu gods and goddesses93. In the course of time, due to complex reasons the Ahoms had not only adopted the Assamese language and the Hindu religion but had also become their ardent upholders94. Originally the Ahoms were a branch of the Shans, the brave and hardy Sino-Tibetan hills men95. Owing to intermarriage with the Bara (Kacharis call themselves Bara) tribe which are Tibeto-Burman origin, they exhibit probably fewer Shan characteristics than the people of the Shan States96. Gurdan says that the inordinate use of opium by the Ahoms reduced their physical strength and they further deteriorated and became incorrigibly lazy and easy going. In addition, the Ahoms are heavy drinkers, consuming large quantities of rice beer (lau; lao pani in Assamese)97. Acceptance of Hinduism involving submission to the influence of the Brahmins and to caste prejudices is reckoned as one of the most important factors in the decline of Ahom military power. Ahom soldiers were trained to stand firm on the battle field. Besides their numerical strength, physical vigour, courage and endurance were some of the decisive factors for military superiority. But adopting Hinduism had disastrous consequences. It involved the loss of the old martial spirit and pride of race with which the Ahoms had till then been animated. Their patriotic feelings henceforth became more and more

48 subordinated to sectarian animosities and internal dissections and intrigues and their power began to decay. In 1766 we read for the first time of Ahom nobles declining to proffer command of a military expedition98. Hinduisation and the consequent relaxation of character made the Ahoms much less active and vigorous. The dash and the gallantry which had helped them to conquer Assam were now replaced by hesitancy and speculation99. Buchanan-Hamilton writing in 1809 observed that the Ahom rulers subjected to the Brahmins soon produced the usual imbecility and the nation had sunk into abject pusillanimity towards strangers and into internal confusions and turbulence100. As the Ahoms are now almost entirely Hinduised and there are very few of the old Deodhais (the only persons who possess any knowledge of the ancient ritual and who remember the ancient religion, customs, etc), it is well neigh impossible to give an accurate account of the Ahom religion101. There are many Ahoms who claim to be Hindus but all are not necessarily Vaishnavas, and may belong to any of the various sects of Hinduism. In general, the type of Hinduism practised by the Ahoms is quite different from the orthodox because they are less rigorous with regard to the observance of Hindu food habits, customs, traditions and caste distinctions. Today there are also some Ahoms, especially in Upper Assam who are trying to revive the Ahom language, religion and culture102. 10. Some lessons from the Hinduisation of the Ahoms The Ahoms had brought to India a new speech the Sino-Tibetan Tai speech with a new script, a unique culture, a religion, and a civilisation with a high degree of historic sense. But they discarded their own speech, script and religion as well as their relationship with their ancestral homes in the Shan States103. The Ahoms fully identified themselves with the local cultures of the Brahmaputra valley, especially with regard to religious practices, customs and way of life. Though the Ahoms were the rulers they did not impose their religion and culture on their subjects. It was a tactical move with far-reaching political consequences they could rule the Brahmaputra valley for several centuries without any major threat from anyone for there was a deep cultural affinity between the Ahom rulers and their subjects in as much as they all belonged to the same Hindu fold. Here it may be observed that today there is much hue and cry among many Hindu fundamentalist organisations in India that Northeast India is a fertile ground for Christian and Muslim proselytisers. But they conveniently forget the fact that the Aryanisation of the tribes of Northeast Indian has a much longer history than the Christian and the Muslim presence in the region. The Hinduisation of the Ahoms goes contrary to the common belief that the tribals cannot be easily Hinduised. But the fact is that tribals are more vulnerable to Aryanisation and Sanskritisation than adherents of organised religions. In fact in Northeast India we have several tribes, besides the Ahoms, that have been Aryanised, Sanskritised and Hinduised due to the proselytisation activities of the Hindus. There is a general belief that Hinduism does not destroy other cultures but absorbs and assimilates them and makes them its own. But in the case of the Ahoms this does not seem to be true. There is hardly anything in the Aryanised Ahom culture which can be called typically Ahom. In the case of the Ahoms it was more of Hinduism obliterating the highly developed Ahom culture than enhancing the same. Orthodox Hindus claim that one is born a Hindu and not made through proselytisation. This argument is frequently used by many Hindus in their writings and discourses. But the history of the Hinduisation of the Ahoms goes contrary to this claim. Hindus from the main land India regularly supplied Brahmins who facilitated the steady and continuous process of proselytisation of the Ahoms. The Ahoms become Hindus because the Brahmins vigorously proselytised and cleverly used their political influence in the Ahom court for the spread of their faith. Of course the

49 process was slow and took centuries to complete it. The Brahmins in the Ahoms court encouraged inter-marriage, introduction of Hindu rites, Hindu ceremonies, Hindu festivals, Hindu calendar and Hindu laws. They promoted Sanskrit education, introduced Hindu curriculum in schools and inducted Hindus as teachers. All these eventually brought about the Hinduisation of the Ahoms. Conclusion Hinduisation of the Ahoms is a typical case of the cultural conquest of the conqueror by the conquered. The Ahoms had political power and they imposed their suzerainty over the whole of the Brahmaputra valley. The most notable achievement of the Ahoms was the political unification of the country which in the course of the years led to a deep social, linguistic and cultural unity and created a spirit of oneness among the people of Assam. In this sense the Ahom rule brought about a cultural synthesis. But in the process the people whom they unified in turn conquered the Ahoms religiously, linguistically and culturally. Though the Ahoms wielded political power they could not retain any of the significant aspect of their cultural life for long. In fact they lost them altogether. This is an indication that great danger awaits those tribal cultures that are in close contact with Aryan cultures, for the history of the Ahoms could repeat itself in their case as well. The process of Aryanisation of the Ahoms was slow, subtle, discrete and was carried out through strategic political manoeuvres extending over many centuries. Today many tribes of Northeast India are heavily under the process of Aryanisation and Sanskritisation and the methods employed are not quite unlike those used by the Brahmins in the Ahom court. NOTES

The Shans were so called because they first inhabited a land named Tyai-Shan on the bank of the river Tarim which flowed to the north of Mongolia and China. From Tyai-Shan they first migrated to China in about the 5th century AD and thence to Mungrimungram in Yunan. The Ahoms claim Mungrimungram as their original homeland and state that Khunlai their younger progenitor ruled over this kingdom. The third king of Khunlais family divided the kingdom, Mungrimungram proper and Maulung on the bank of the Sheuli river in upper Burma between his two sons. It was at Maulung that Sukapha the founder of the Ahom kingdom in the Brahmaputra valley was born. See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, New Delhi, 1985, 220. 2 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam (1905), New Delhi, 2nd edition 2004, 71. 3 In preparing this paper, besides consulting books on the Ahoms, the author had some discussions with Dr.Pranav Jyoti Deka, the retired professor of Guwahati University and Prof. M.P. Goswami retired principal of Post-Graduate Training College, Jorhat. These discussions were held on 31 August 2005 and 3 September 2005, respectively. 4 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 220-221. Assamese chronicles speak of the total strength of Sukaphas followers as varying from 480-1080. The Ahom Buranji and the Deodhai Asam Buranji put the number as 9000. It may be that Sukapha originally started with a few hundred men but their number increased as he was receiving followers from among the conquered tribes in the Brahmauravalley. Ibid., 221 footnote 1. 5 See P.R. GURDAN, Ahoms in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, James Hastings (ed.), vol. 1, Edinburgh, 1986, 235. The seven families are: Burha Gohain, Bar Gohain, Bar Patra Gohain, Gohain, Handiquoi, Duara and Chetia. See N. Narimattam, The Valley in Blossom (Neo-Vaishnavism and the Peoples of the Brahmaputra Valley), Guwahati / Delhi, 1988, 44. 6 See T.C. SHARMA, The Culture and Civilisation of Assam in Assam and the Assamese Mind, N.Saikia (ed.), Jorhat 1980 24. The ancient name of Assam was Pragjyotisa (literally Eastern Astrology, City of Eastern Lights. See D. DOLEY, Assamese Liberalism in Assam and the Assamese Mind, Jorhat 1980, 36. (35-47). Assam was also called Kamarupa. 7 See M. Narimattam, The Valley in Blossom, 42. The offshoots of the great Tai race have different appellations. They are Shan in Myanmar (Burma), Thai in Thailand, Lao in Laos, Dai and Zhuang in China and Tay-Thai in Vietnam. See J.N. Phukan, The Tai-Ahom Power in Assam in The Comprehensive History of Assam, vol.2, Medieval Period: Political, H.K. Barpujari (ed.), Guwahati, 1992, 49. 8 See P.R. GURDAN, Ahoms, 234. 9 See T.C. SHARMA, The Culture and Civilisation of Assam 22.. 10 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, v. Gait observes that buranji (literally a store that teaches the ignorant; bu = ignorant persons, ran = teach, ji = granary) is one of the very few Assamese words which are derived from the Ahoms. See Ibid., footnote. The buranjis were written on oblong strips of bark and were very carefully preserved and handed down from father to son and contain a careful, reliable and continuous narrative of their rule. When the Ahoms invaded Assam at the beginning of the 13th century A.D. they were already in possession of a written character and a literature of their own. The use of paper was unknown and they employed instead strips of bark of the Saci tree, known in Bengal as Agar (Aquilaria Agallocha). The labour of preparing the bark and of inscribing the writing were considerable. Much value is attached to an old manuscript (puthi) than a new copy of it. These manuscripts are very carefully preserved, wrapped in pieces of cloth and are handed down from father to son. Many of them are black with age, and the some characters have almost disappeared. The subject dealt with are various. Many are of historical character, others describe the methods of divination in use among the Ahom Deodhais and Bailongs; others again are of a religious nature, while a few contain interesting specimens of popular folklore. See Ibid., Appendix D, 428. The buranjis were prepared by men who had a comprehensive knowledge about the state affairs. Some of the buranjis go back to the year 568 AD when the ancestors of the Ahom kings are said to have been descended from heaven. The earlier portions are quite unreliable and they contain little beyond lists of names and it is not until Sukapha became king in 1228 AD that they can be treated as historical records. See Ibid., vi. Gait lists 6 buranjis in Ahom and 11 in Assamese. See Ibid., vi-vii. 11 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, v. 12 See P. Gogoi, Tai Ahom Religion and Customs, p.1 as cited in N. Narimattam, The Valley in Blossom, 46-47. 13 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, 72. M. Narimattam notes that the Supreme Being Pha resides in heaven. He has no beginning or end. Since God is a spirit and has no corporeal existence he has neither name nor image. Hence according to the Tai Ahoms it is not proper to make any icon of the Supreme being. See N. Narimattam, The Valley in Blossom, 49. 14 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 405. 15 The Deodhais comprised of twelve groups and was more numerous than the other classes of priests. The Mohans and Bailungs were made up of seven and eighteen groups, respectively. See M. Narimattam, The Valley in Blossom46. 16 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 406.

See P.R. GURDAN, Ahoms, 236. See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 406. 19 The rikkhavan ceremony was an important event among the Ahoms. This ceremony was performed for obtaining long life (rik= revive and khavan = life). It was generally performed at the installation of a new king or in time of danger or after a victory. Gait describes the procedure as follows: The king sat in full dress on a platform, and the Deodhai, Mohan and Bailong pandits, i.e. the tribal priests, and astrologers, poured holy water, purified by the recitation of sacred texts, over his head, whence it ran down his body through a hole in the platform on to the chief Bailong or astrologer, who was standing below. The king then changed his clothes, giving those which he had been wearing and all his ornaments to the chief Bailong. The same ceremony on a smaller scale was also frequently performed by the common people e.g. when a child is drowned. See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, 89-90. 20 See P.R. GURDAN, Ahoms, 236. This is not an exhaustive list of Ahom religious ceremonies. For more details on some of the typical forms of Tai worship see M. Narimattam, The Valley in Blossom 52-54. 21 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, 123 footnote 1. 22 See N. Narimattam, The Valley in Blossom, 57. 23 See P.R. GURDAN, Ahoms, 236. 24 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, 72-73 also footnote 1. 25 See I. MARBANIANG, Assam in a Nutshell, Shillong, 1970, 95. 26 See M. NEOG, Tradition and Style. A Few Studies in Assamese Culture, Jorhat, 1981, 1-2. 27 See I. MARBANIANG, Assam in a Nutshell, 94. 28 See B.K. BARUA, History of Assamese Literature, Kolkata, (1969), 2003, 75-76. 29 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 224. 30 See Deodhai Asam Buranji, p. 99 as cited in S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 223. 31 See N.N. ACHARYA, The History of Medieval Assam, Guwahati (1966), 1984, 77. 32 See N.N. ACHARYA, The History of Medieval Assam, 77-78. 33 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, 83-84. 34 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 225. 35 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 226. 36 See B.K. BARUA, History of Assamese Literature, 76. 37 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 253. 38 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 227. 39 Saktism is a religious faith in which the Sakti or divine energy under the female personification, especially the goddess Durga, Kali and Kamakhya is worshipped. 40 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 406. 41 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 277. 42 See I. MARBANIANG, Assam in a Nutshell, 42. 43 See Imperior Gazetteer of India. Provincial Series Eastern Bengal and Assam, (1909) Calcutta 1989, 34. 44 See T.C. SHARMA, The Culture and Civilisation of Assam, 32. 45 See M. TABER, The Pride of Being an Assamese in Assam and the Assamese Mind, N. Saikia (ed.), Jorhat 1980, 57. 46 See M. NEOG, Early History of the Vaishnva Faith and Movement in Assam. Sankardeva and His Times, Delhi 2nd edition 1980, 59. 47 See N.N. ACHARYA, The History of Medieval Assam, 82. 48 See N.N. ACHARYA, The History of Medieval Assam, 78. 49 S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 235. 50 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, 124. 51 See M. NEOG, Early History of the Vaishnva Faith and Movement in Assam. Sankardeva and His Times, 35. 52 See M. NEOG, Early History of the Vaishnva Faith and Movement in Assam. Sankardeva and His Times, 36. 53 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 299. 54 For example Suhungmung or Dihingiya Raja (Svarga Narayan) (1497-1539); Suklenmung or Garhgaya Raja (15391552); Sukhampha or Khora Raja (1552-1603); Susengpha or Burha Raja or Pratap Singh (1603-1641); Surampha or Bhaga Raja (1641-1644); Sutyinpha or Nariya Raja (1644-1648); Sutyinpha or Jayadhvaj Singh (1648-1663); Supungmung or Chakradhvaj Singh (1663-1669); Sunyatpha or Udayaditya Singh (1669-1673); Suklampha or Ramdhvaj (1673-1675); Sulikpha or Lara Raja (1679-1681); Supatpha or Gadadhar Singh (1681-1696); Sukhrungpha or Rudra Singh (1696-1714); Sutanpha or Sib Singh (1714-1744); Sunenpha or Pramata Singh (1744-1751); Surampha or Rajeshvar Singh (1751-1769); Sunyeopha or Lakshmi Singh (1769-1780); Suhitpangpha or Gaurinath Singh (1780-1794); Suklingpha or Kamaleswar Singh (1795-1810); Sudinpha or Chandrakant Singh (1810-1818); Purandar Singh (1818-1819) and Jogeswar Singh (181918


1824). See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, Appendix, 417. 55 See B.K. BARUA, History of Assamese Literature, 18. 56 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, 87. 57 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, 87, footnote 1. 58 See N.N. ACHARYA, The History of Medieval Assam, 109. 59 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, 74. 60 See B.K. BARUA, History of Assamese Literature, 77. 61 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, 77. 62 S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 227. 63 S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 234. 64 See N.N. ACHARYA, The History of Medieval Assam, 87. 65 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 423. 66 See N.N. ACHARYA, The History of Medieval Assam, 126. 67 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, v-vi. 68 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 293-294. 69 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, 187. 70 The term sugkretismos first occurs in Plutarch (Moralia, 490ab) and it was probably based on sugkretos (Ionian form of sugkratos, mixed together). So the term syncretism can mean a mix of things or a combination of particular elements. In religious studies it can be used to describe a state or condition in which religious and cultural entities that were originally separate can come together in such a way that a system results which is a mix of cultural and religious elements. See C. COLPE, Syncretism, in The Encyclopaedia of Religion, vol. 14, ed. M. Eliade, London New York 1987, 218, 220. 71 See B.K. BARUA, History of Assamese Literature, 77. 72 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, 286. 73 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 422. 74 See M. NEOG, Early History of the Vaishnva Faith and Movement in Assam. Sankardeva and His Times, 59. 75 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, 167. 76 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, 123. 77 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 406. 78 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 406. 79 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, 9-10. 80 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 284-285. 81 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 288. The first challenge to the Ahom monarchy was from the Moamariyas during the reign of Lakshmi Singh (1769-1780). The Mayamara satra was seething under the oppression of the Ahom rulers. The Mayamara satra was founded by Aniruddha Bhuyan, popularly known as Aniruddhadeva, a relative of Sankardev towards the close of the 16th century AD. The term Moamara or Moamariya derives its origin from a lake called Moamari somewhere near the Majuli on the banks of which Anirudhadeva had his headquarters for some time. The Moamariyas were extremists in their reverence for heir guru. As the satras rose in prominence it aroused the jealously and suspicion of the Ahom monarchy. The transformation of the Moamariyas from a religious sect into a fighting and ruling body was a culmination of an urge spontaneously from the heart of the whole population bound together by common suffering at the hands of the enemy. See ibid., 301-305. 82 See B.K. BARUA, History of Assamese Literature, 76. 83 E. GAIT, A History of Assam, 286. 84 See B.K. BARUA, History of Assamese Literature, 22. 85 See B.K. BARUA, History of Assamese Literature, 74. 86 See B.K. BARUA, History of Assamese Literature, 74. 87 See B.K. BARUA, History of Assamese Literature, 74. 88 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 286-287. 89 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 294-295. 90 See S.L. BARUAH, A Comprehensive History of Assam, 295-296. 91 See B.K. BARUA, History of Assamese Literature,103. 92 See E. GAIT, A History of Assam, 153. 93 See Imperior Gazetteer of India. Provincial Series Eastern Bengal and Assam, 43. 94 See Assam the Emerald Treasure Island, Guwahati 1990, 18. 95 See T.C. SHARMA, The Culture and Civilisation of Assam, 22. 96 See P.R. GURDAN, Ahoms, 234. 97 See P.R. GURDAN, Ahoms, 235.

See Imperior Gazetteer of India. Provincial Series Eastern Bengal and Assam, 35. See A.C. Banerjee, British Imperialism in The Comprehensive History of Assam, vol.2, Medieval Period: Political, H.K. Barpujari (ed.), Guwahati, 1992, 371. 100 See A.C. Banerjee, British Imperialism, 371 101 See P.R. GURDAN, Ahoms 235-236 102 This information has been given to the author by Dr. Deka and Prof. M.P. Goswami whom he interviewed on 31 August 2005 and 3 September 2005, respectively. M. Narimattam observes that even to this day there are some Ahom villages in the district of Sibsagar that speak the Tai language. The revival movement also acquired momentum with the session of All Assam Ahom Association held at Dibrugarh in 1935. Many Ahoms, especially those belonging to the priestly class are in the forefront of the movement to revive their Tai culture. See M. Narimattam, The Valley in Blossom 46, 55-56. 103 See T.C. SHARMA, The Culture and Civilisation of Assam, 22.


(The author is a senior lecturer in Philosophy of religion, Phenomenology of religion and Indian culture. He can be contacted at kurusdb@rediff.mail.com)