History revisited: The Ahom dynasty of Sibsagar, Assam

Assam is a state rich in history, mainly due to its multi-ethnic nature. While the Hindu Assamese are a major part of the state, there are several tribes and communities that live along the plains of Brahmaputra and also the hills of the state. One such community, the Ahoms, ruled Assam for 600 years and were influential towards the culture of the state. In fact, the name ‘Assam’ comes from the word ‘Asam’, which is a Sanskritisation of the word, ‘Aham’ or ‘Ahom’. We will explore the Ahom history through their capital city Sibsagar.

History of Ahom dynasty

The Ahom dynasty was founded by Sukaphaa, a prince from Mong Mao in current day Myanmar. Sukaphaa belonged to a clan of people known as the ‘Shaan’. These people can be found in Myanmar, Thailand and China. The Shaans had their own religion which was neither Hindu, nor Buddhist. Nor did the earliest Ahom rulers embrace Hinduism. However subsequent rulers who were born and grew up in Assam embraced the religion and appointed ministers and priests who were Hindus.

The future generations of Ahoms considered themselves to be descendants of the Lord of Heaven, Indra. Hence the kings were termed as ‘Swarga Deva’ or Lords from Heaven. Various queens also held the helm for a while and they were called ‘Bor Raja’.

The rule of Ahoms was never entirely peaceful. There were several skirmishes with kingdoms from Myanmar and China. The Mughals, in their bid to conquer all of the land near the major rivers of India, also attacked the fertile Brahmaputra valley. To their credit, the Ahoms outlasted all the battles and lasted nearly 600 years from the 13th century to the 19th. They were one of the few Indian dynasties who remained undefeated against Islamic invaders.

The downfall of the Ahoms was not brought about by outsiders, but due to internal strife among themselves. The lust for power and the king’s throne was too enticing for the Ahom nobility, ministers and clergy, who took turns usurping one king after another and finally ending up with rulers who were not good at warfare. From being a lineage of Indravamsa Kshatriyas skilled in warfare, the Ahoms rulers became petty politicians. The Moamoria rebellion, an internal revolt among the classes of Ahoms, followed by a full-fledged Burmese invasion broke the back of the Ahoms in the early 19th century. This was followed by an swift attack by the British leading to the first Anglo-Burman war. With the Ahoms killing each other and the Burmese weaponry being no match for the British army, the East India company practically enjoyed a cake walk with little resistance. They promptly annexed all of the Brahmaputra valley and also Burma with the treaty of Yandabo in 1826.

Descendents of Ahoms still live in Assam, mainly in Sibsagar district. They are no longer royalty, but regular citizens of Assam and India. Their Ahom / Tai language has been replaced by the state-wide Assamese language.

Sibsagar

As the Ahom rulers embraced Hinduism and Assamese language, they established their capital at Sibsagar, a local pronunciation of the word Shiva Sagar. At Sibsagar, you can find the Sibsagar lake and Ahom-style buildings such as Rang Ghar, Talatal Ghar, Shiva Dol, Devi Dol and Bishnu Dol. Let’s look at each of them.

Sibsagar lake

View of Shiva Dhol temple across Sibsagar lake

Sibsagar or Shiva Sagar is a lake, also known as a tank, built by queen Ambika, wife of Ahom king Shiva Singha. The lake is also called Bor Pukhuri or the Chief Lake. The area and the ring road around the lake is the most important locality in the town. Three temples, viz. the Shiva Dol, Devi Dol and Bishnu Dol are situated around the lake. Also seen are the municipality office, district collector’s office and the Ahom dynasty museum. It is said that the water level in this lake never changes despite the season.

Shiva Dol

Shiva Dol

The Shiva Dol is a large Shiva temple situated on the southern bank of the Sibsagar lake. The temple was commissioned by queen Ambika, who also commissioned the Sibsagar lake. The temple’s sanctum is 104 feet (31 metres) high. At the top of the dome above the sanctum is a 7-feet (2.3 metre) high tip made of gold. The walls of the temple are carved with several motifs and sculptures of stories from mythologies and also those of deities.

Devi Dol

Devi Dol is a temple dedicated to Goddess Durga. It is also on the southern bank of Sibsagar lake. This temple is 60 feet (18 metres) high. Navratri festival is an important event for this temple and people visit from all over Assam.

Bishnu Dol

Bishnu Dol is one of the most unique Vishnu temples in India. It is to the west of Devi Dol. Similar to Devi Dol, this temple is also 60 feet (18 metres) high. The Vaishnavites of the Ahom dynasty did not believe in idol worship. They believed that God is in everyone and that we must seek Him within ourselves and must worship innately with the God in mind. No form must be used to represent God in the form of a deity. As a result, the Bishnu Dol has no idol inside the sanctum sanctorum. Similar to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Bishnu Dol has a book inside the main chamber. It is Srimanta Shankaradeva’s Naamghosa, a book that recites praises of Lord Krishna.

Rang Ghar

Rang Ghar

Rang Ghar was the royal pavilion and games arena commissioned by king Pramatta Singha. Here the royal family and noblemen used to watch duels between men (such as wrestling), birds (such as cock fight) and animals (such as bull fight and elephant fight). The area around the pavilion is manicured with floral gardens.

Talatal Ghar

Talatal Ghar

Talatal Ghar translates to a ‘house under the ground’. It is an Ahom palace which has 7 levels, but 3 of the levels are under the ground. The palace is also the source of two secret underground passages and was used to escape invasions and seek reinforcements from the surrounding kingdoms. The purpose of Talatal Ghar was military rather than as a luxury. It was built during the rule of king Rudra Singha. The underground sections and passages are now sealed and off-limits for the public.

Conclusion

While we study plenty about the rulers from the north and west of India, little is known about major dynasties in the east of India. A visit to Sibsagar was a an eye-opener to a dynasty that has ruled a major river valley for more than half a century. It left us wondering how many dynasties ruled this country and how many of them, even though long-standing, were unheard of and never taught in schools. Covering a country like India through school syllabus is a massive task and hence one must visit the length and breadth of this country to know more. Why not pay Sibsagar a visit and learn about the Ahoms?

 

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Man-made Wonders: Unakoti, Tripura

The many facets of Shiva

Shiva is a deity with many legends and folk tales. From the form of a dancer, Lord Nataraja, symbolizing the cosmic dance, to the Linga, representing the atomic structure and also the structure most suited for storage of energy with little wastage. However the unique form of Shiva in Unakoti, is that of a tribal lord. Such a representation is seen nowhere else. For a moment, Amish Tripathi’s description of Shiva as a competent tribal warrior in his Shiva trilogy books suddenly rings true. The Bas relief of Shiva, his family and other deities are carved on the natural contours of the rocks in the area.

Location of Unakoti

Unakoti is part of a national biodiversity park of the same name on a range of hills called the Unakoti hills. To the west and the north of the hills is Bangladesh. Unakoti is between the state capital of Agartala and the city of Dharmanagar on the Agartala – Dharmanagar – Karimganj highway.

Important Sculptures

The main Bas relief of Unakotishwera Kala Bhairav ie Shiva is about 30 ft and may be considered one of the biggest in the country. There are several statues and bas relief carved in the adjacent landscapes and some are yet to be discovered. Statues of Goddess Durga and Ganga next to Lord Siva and the Ganesh sculptures are the most exquistive of the reliefs found in there.

The three Ganesh statues are accompanied by a small and beautiful waterfall which drains itself into a pool before the statues. One extremely unique feature is that Ganesha is shown as a lean God without his signature pot- belly.

Ganesh statue at Unakoti

A small collection of various statues found in the vicinity are displayed near the ashram found on one corner of hills. The Ashram also continues puja for the main Shiva statue. During monsoons the beauty of the place is enhanced by the greenery and the waterfalls that fall on the bas reliefs.

Legend and Folklore of Unakoti

Dating of the sculptures vary widely based on sources. Official sources date it to 9 – 10th century AD during the Pala rule. There are several legends to the origin of Unakoti .

Unakoti means one less than a crore inBengali. It is said that a local sculptor called Kallu Kumar wanted to accompany Shiva and Parvati to their heavenly abode of Mt.Kailash. Shiva wary of the request assigned Kumar the job of creating one crore sculptures by day break to grant his wish, and Kumar fell short of his target by one. Another legend says the sculptor received a divine message in his dream to create the reliefs and went on to create one crore sculptures of Gods and Goddess. at the end of this task, he created the last sculptor on himself rather than of the Gods and hence is considered as one less than a crore.

A bas relief showing Lord Ram and his weapon of choice.

Another folklore tale mentions that Shiva along with one crore deities (including himself was travelling to Kasi and decided to rest overnight in the hills, He had bid the deities to be awake and ready by day break. However at day break, Siva found himself to be the only one awake and cursed all other deities to turn into stones.

How to Reach and where to stay

Agatala, the capital city has the nearest airport and is about 178 Km away. Another airport, Kailashahar is being converted into a commercial airport under the government’s Udaan project. The nearest railway station is Kumarghat. If travelling by road from Assam / Mizoram direction, then Dharmanagar , 40 Km from Unakoti, is a good place to stay for the day trip. If you are flying into Agartala, a 3 hour journey one way gets you to Unakoti. Kailashahar is another good place to stay, but the town is on the side of Unakoti which is away from the highway, so it doesn’t make sense travelling in the opposite direction to get accommodation.

Tripura’s roads have been revamped and the roads are in excellent condition throughout the state. But the state is sparsely populated, so take care of fuel and food needs inside the cities themselves, e.g. Agartala, Dharmanagar, Kailashahar or Kumarghat.

Unakoti is maintained well and has good toilet facilities. The site is open from sunrise to sunset and the best time to get there is as early as possible before the tourist crowd hits. The highway between Dharmanagar and Agartala, which covers Unakoti along the way, has rolling hills and tropical forests. So it is a pleasure to drive.

Conclusion

It’s not often that you see a depiction of deities in tribal form as huge bas reliefs on huge rock faces. So even though Unakoti is way too far from the most important cities of India, it is well worth the visit. Don’t miss this unique man-made wonder of ancient India.

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History Revisited: Reliving Tipu Sultan’s life at Srirangapatana, Karnataka

The Cauvery river flows to the north of Mysuru. Across the river on the northern bank is Mandya district with its famous Ranganathittu bird sanctuary and Brindavan gardens. Between Mysuru and Mandya, inside the river itself, is the island town of Srirangapatana. The town itself is named after Sri Ranganatha Swamy, the chief deity of the town and a revered place for south India’s Vishnu-worshipping Iyengar sect among Brahmins. However, the rest of the town has relics and stories from another topic belonging to another religion. The majority of tourists visit Srirangapatana to relive the story of one of India’s fiercest warriors against British colonisation: The Muslim ruler Tipu Sultan. While there are equally impressive stories about the valour of Sultan Hyder Ali, it’s his son Tipu who takes centre stage in the island town. Continue reading