Land of the Ahom Royals : Maidams at Charaideo, 35 kms from Sivasagar

    Maidams at Charaideo : From 13th to the early 19th century CE, the Ahoms ruled over Assam. Their long reign established political and cultural unity and gave economic stability to this region. This helped in the process of evolution of a new nationality and culture by bringing together various ethnic groups under one administration. Their policy of matrimonial alliances and socio-cultural assimilation paved the way for the growth of a composite nationality, which was later on recognized as the Assamese.

    Traditionally and culturally the Ahoms are members of the Great Tai (Tai-Yai) group of peoples. In the year 1215 CE, the Ahoms migrated from Mong-Mao or Mong-Mao-Lung (present Dehong dai Jingpho autonomous prefecture of South-Western Yunan province of people Republic of China).  They entered in to the upper Assam region of the Brahmaputra Valley through Patkai hills under the leadership of a Mao-Shan Prince, named Chau-lung Siu-ka-pha. He became the first king or Chao-Pha or Swargadeo (Lord of the Heaven0of the Ahom dynasty, who established the first Ahom capital at Che-rai-Doi or Charaideo. By the end of the 17th century, the Ahoms had expanded their kingdom over the length and breadth of the Brahmaputra Valley.  In their long six hundred years of power, Chau-ling Siu-ka-pha’s able and intelligent successors like Suhummung (CE 1497-1539), Suklengmung (CE 1539-1552), Pratap Singha (CE 1603-1641), gadadhar Singha (1681-1696), Rudra Singa (CE 1696-1714), Siva Singha (CE 1714-1744), Pramatta Singha (CE 1744-1751), rajeswar Singha (CE 1751-1769), built a strong state in the Brahmaputra valley by defending it from the Islamic rulers including the mighty Mughals and the provincial rulers, which provided this Valley an era of peace and prosperity and helped the multi-ethnic Assamese Culture to flourish.

    The Ahoms took up a number of secular and religious architectural activities in their reign. One of them which has drawn the attention of the world community is the Maidam (the burial mounds) architecture. No other funerary structures found in other oarts of the country can be compared with them.

    There are four Maidams under the Archeological Survey of India at Charaideo. These are Maidam No. 1 (265m diameter), No. 2 (300m diameter), No. 3 (150 diameter) and no. 4 (150 diameter). Besides these four, there are number of smaller Maidams with Archaeological Survey of India. A large number of Maidams are protected by the Government of Assam while many are unprotected.

    Traditionally, the Ahoms buried their dead. The Maidams are the burial mounds of the Ahom kings, queens and nobles. The word Maidam is derived from the Tai word Phrang mai-dam or mai-tam. Phrangm mai means to put into the grave or to bury and dam means the spirit of the dead.

    Though Maidams are found in all the districts of Upper Assam, Charaideo, the first capital of The Ahoms was the necropolis of almost all the Ahoms Royals. Charaideo is situated 28, east of Sivasagar. The first king of The Ahoms, Choa-pha Siu-ka-pha was buried at Charaideo  after his death observing all the Tai-Ahom religious rites and rituals. Since then, it turned into a norm to bury Tai-Ahom kings, queens, princes and princesses at Charaideo. During their six hundred years of rule, this place became a venerated and sacred place.

    The exterior of the Maidams is hemispherical in shape, and their sizes vary from a modest mound to a hillock of twenty metres or so in height, depending upon the power, status and resources of the person buried. A Maidam consists of three najor features; a vault or chamber, a hemispherical earthen mound covering the chamber with a brick structure (Chow-chali) for annual offering over it and an octagonal boundary wall around the base of the mound having an arched gateway on its west. However, the smaller Maidams did not have all the above features.

    Earlier the vaults were made of solid wooden poles and beams. Probably from the time of King Rudra Singha (CE 1696-1714) and his successors, wooden vaults were replaced with stone and brick vaults. According to the chronicles of Chang-rung Phukan (Chang-rung Phukanar Buranji), the bricks and stones of the Maidam were joined with a mortar mix consisting of lime (lime stone and snail shell), pulses, resin (Canarium resiniferum), hemp, molasses, fish, etc. Inside the vault, the mortal remains of the dead were kept, after observing the rituals which extended from 6 months to 2 years. The Ahom kings used to be buried along with their treasures including articles of their day to day use i.e., clothes, ornaments, weapons etc. The Ahom chronicles refer that a huge quantity of valuables and attendants living or dead were buried with the royalty and the dignitaries. The practice of burying alive was banned by King Rudra Singha (CE 1696-1714).

    As a custom (as mentioned in the Ahom chronicles), only the people from the Gharphaliya and Lukhurakhan Khel (Khel is the group of people who were assigned to do specific jobs and every Khelconsisted of 1 to 5 thousand people) were permitted to bury the bodies of kings and queen. In the Ahom  Buranjis (chronicles), it is mentioned that a coffin was made of a specific type of timber called Urium (Bescoffia javanica). The coffin was known as Rung-Dang. Rung-Dang was carried to the burial ground in kekora Dola (a kind of Assamese litter) only by the people from Gharphaliya and Lukhurakhan Khel. The massive vault under the hemispherical earthen moundis knownas Kareng-rung-dang, where Rung-Dang (coffin) was placed in east-west direction.  Only the Lukhurakhans were allowed to enter Kareng-rung-dang and after placing the body they sealed the door of the vault with boulders in clay mortar. At Charaideo there was a specific road to carry the dead bodies, known as Sa-nia Ali (Sa: dead body, nia: to carry, Ali: path or road) and a specific tank for the ritualistic bath of the dead bodies, which is known as Sa-Dhowa (Sa: dead body, Dhowa: bath, Pukhuri: tank).

    The Ahom kings appointed special officer, known as Changrung Phukan, for the construction and maintenance of all the civil works including royal Maidams. Changrung Phukan  was one of the nine Phukans of the highest rank. Special officers, called as the Maidam Phukans and guard groups, known .as the Maidamiya were appointed to protect and maintain the Maidams.

    Being famous treasure troves, the Maidans attracted many plunderers from Mughal to the British and even the locals, who plundered the Maidams many a times. The earliest sketch of the ground plan of a Maidam was published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1848, drawn by Serjent C. Clayton, who superintended excavation of Maidam during 1840, at the request of Captain T. Bordie, the then Principal Assistant Commissioner of Assam. Clayton and his team found rings, silver toothpick case, ear ornaments, goblets, platters and a small gold lime container, which were later purchased by some Mr. Bedford. The archival reports show that in 1905, under the surveillance of many Ahom princes, one Maidam was excavated, but nothing is known thereafter.

    In 2000-02, Archaeological Survey of India, Guwahati Circle excavated the Maidam No. 2. It retains all three major characteristics features of a full-fledged Maidam. It has a hemispherical earthen mound enclosing a vault within and the whole structure is encircled by an octagonal boundary wall. The earthen mound was covered with three courses of bricks laid over stone pebbles. At the top of the mound, there is a circular brick-paved platform (3.60m). The structural features of the Maidam No. 2 are massive in dimension. It was made of burnt bricks and plastered with lime-surkhi mortar. A hole on the top of the maidam roof indicates that it was robbed earlier.  The earlier arch-shaped door of the Maidam No. 2 was found on the western wall of the structure, which was originally sealed with bricks and random stone masonry. The plan of the structure is rectangular and measure (5.35 x 4.40) m internally. The side walls are raised up to 2m above the floor, over which the domical upper structure or roof is set. There is a rectangular platform in the centre of the chamber. Though robbed, scientific excavation of the chamber of maidam no. 2 yielded several artifacts including the skeletal remains of the five individuals. Among the artifacts, the most noteworthy are the ivory decorative pieces and pieces of wooden objects. One of the wooden objects is probably the shaft of a dish-on-stand (Sorai) designed in the shape of stambha (pillar). One ivory panel depicts a mythical dragon-the Ahom royal insignia, along with intricate carvings of elephant, peacock and floral motifs. Other objects found were pieces of copper objects fitted to wood, iron hook, iron pin, small ivory decorative art objects, round shaped ivory buttons, cowries, gold pendants and a few lead cannon balls.

    The exact date of this Maidam or to whom it was dedicates is difficult to ascertain in the absence of written records. But on the basis of the artefacts and the nature of the brick structures and taking the literary references from the Buranjis on the cremation practices of the Ahom after embracing Hinduism, the construction of Maidam No. 2 could be assigned to the first half of the 18th century CE.

    With the influence of Hinduism, the Ahoms also started to cremate their dead. Never the less, this burial system is still practiced by the priestly sections of the Ahoms i.e., Mo’-chai, Mo’-Hung and Mo’-Plang and the Chao-dang (royal bodyguards) clan.

    Information courtesy: Archaeological Survey of India, Guwahati Circle 2015.