The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Aug 31, 2012

Ahom, Asom, Assam

When I was in college in the late 80s, students from the state of Assam were often militant in their politics. At the time, there were several insurrections in progress. The Bodos were up in arms, and there was a general agitation by the 'native' Assamese, who called themselves the 'Asom'. The number of ethnic groups in that state was fairly mindnumbing, and each one had its own competing agenda.

Historically, the Asom had been the dominant people, despite the more recent (in relative terms) of Bengali immigration from the southwest. Asom is a name that is the same as Ahom and Shan (in Burma) and Siam, a large family of peoples with very closely related languages extending from Laos, western Yunnan, Thailand and all the way across the Indian north-eastern states. They had moved up into the Brahmaputra valley from Burma and established themselves as regional monarchs. 

The first Asom monarch was Sukaphaa, who styled himself swargadeo, 'the god of heaven', a title that was adopted by his descendants down to the 19th century. But as the monarchy became closely intertwined with the neighbouring Hindu kingdoms, adopting Hinduism as state religion, their native language became less important, and Assamese, a language related to Bengali, became paramount. 

For several centuries, the cousins warred with each other across the hills of the northeast - Asom against the Shan - and with neighbouring little kingdoms. The height of the Asom dynasty was achieved in the 17th century when they defeated the Burmese kingdom and set the northern limit of the latter's expansion.

The biggest threat to Asom came from the Mughals who were rampaging across eastern India at the same time. Unlike the Hindu kingdoms of the rest of the subcontinent which were worn out after centuries of warfare against them, the Ahom were fresh and dominant. Given their organisation as a mobilizer of manpower rather than ownership of land, the Ahom could raise armies at moment's notice, a capability that surprised the Mughals. During the reign of Jahangir, there were almost annual battles between the two throughout the jungles around the Brahmaputra. The Ahom were expert at guerrilla tactics, demoralising the Mughals who called them 'black and loathsome in appearance' and Assam as 'a land of witches and magic'. 

Mughal victory came in 1661 when Aurangzeb's general Muhammad Said Mir Jumla annexed Cooch Behar, smashed the Ahom, occupied Gauhati and captured Garhgaon, the Ahom capital. The swargadeo and his court fled and tried to raise counterattacks, only to sue for peace two years later, with his daughter Ramani Gabharu sent to the harem of the Emperor. (She married the governor of Bengal, Azamtara, later.)  Ahom became a vassal of the Mughals and surrendered their western territories.

Unfortunately for the Mughals, Mir Jumla died, and his replacements were hardly of his calibre. In 1667, the Ahom threw off their suzerains when their commander Lachit Borphukan vanquished the Mughals under Raja Ram Singh of Amber.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the wars were between the Ahom and their southern neighbours, the Burmese, in which the Ahom often found themselves bested and having to send their princesses as gifts. Still the Burmese continued with their attacks; warlike, they wanted to carry their dominions into the rest of India. At this point, however, the British East India Company got involved; once the Burmese were defeated, they were forced to surrender Assam. 

Initially, the British weren't sure what to do with their new possession. They went around dropping pamphlets that claimed they were not led into Assam by the thirst of conquest, rather by their desire to deprive their enemy of his means of attacking them. Then they decided to stay, faced insurrections, put them down brutally, and installed a monitor over the swargadeo. In 1838, they decided he was corrupt and his court a hotbed of malfeasance, and closed down his government. 

And that was the end of 600 years of the Asom dynasty.


Thant Myint-U, Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, Faber and Faber, 2011.


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