The Mysterious Mounds of the Ahoms
The Pyramids of Egypt, are among the most visited sites in the world. But did you known that India has its own version of large structures where kings were buried with their impressive paraphernalia. Sadly few know of the maidams or mounds of the great Ahom kings of Assam… but then again, few really know about the Ahoms themselves!
The name ‘Assam’ comes from the word ‘Asama’ or invincible which is a local name for the Ahoms. The Ahom kingdom in the Brahmaputra valley included most of the present day Assam and they ruled for 600 years between 13th and 19th century CE, before being ousted by the British East India company in 1826.
Located around 400 kms from Assam’s capital Guwahati, is the town of Charaideo. This was the first capital of the Ahom dynasty. What makes this town special, is that there are man-made burial mounds of various sizes, known as maidams, constructed for the Ahom royalty and nobility. This type of funerary structures are one of a kind and quiet unique in India. The maidams of Assam made the list of tentative World Heritage Sites in 2014.
– The word maidam is derived from the Tai word Phrang mai-dam or mai-tam which means to put into the grave or to bury the spirit of the dead.
To understand the burial mounds -maidams, it is important to understand the origins of the Ahom dynasty. The Ahom Kingdom was established in 1228 CE, by Chao Lung Siu-Ka-Pha, a member of the Great Tai (Tai-Yai) clan from the present day Yunan province of China. In Assam, they came to be known as the Ahoms. King Siu-Ka-Pha established his capital at Charaideo. His descendants would rule Assam for 600 years, till its annexation by the British in 1826 CE.
The early Ahoms spoke the Tai language and followed the traditional religion and customs of Tai. Like the ancient Egyptians, the Ahoms also believed in life after death, and built commemorative structure for them which is considered sacred. The Ahom kings, queens, princesses and nobles, would be buried along with their possessions in maidams.
The word maidam itself is derived from the Tai word Phrang mai-dam or mai-tam, which means to put into the grave or to bury the spirit of the dead. Unlike the pyramids the maidams were hemispherical in shape. They varied in size depending on the power, status, and resources of the person buried. The privilege of constructing maidams was restricted only to the Ahom royals and the nobility.
A maidam consisted of three major 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, a smaller maidam was far simpler structures.
Ahom kings used to be buried with several objects used by the deceased during his life, like the royal insignia, clothes, ornaments, weapons etc. The Ahom chronicles, known as the Buranjis, not only refer to the huge quantities of valuables buried, they also make references to attendants - dead and alive, being buried with the royals or the nobles.
– The earliest maidam constructed in Charaideo was that of the first Ahom king, Siu-Ka-Pha
The Ahom kings appointed a 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 or ministers of the highest rank. Special officers, were appointed to protect and maintain the maidams.
The earliest maidam constructed in Charaideo was that of the first Ahom king, Siu-Ka-Pha who died in 1268 CE. Charaideo was considered sacred and over time, maidams were conscructed for his successors, their queens and ministers. While we don't know exactly how many maidams were built, we do know that the reference to the construction of a maidam is during the reign of King Rudra Singha (1696 – 1714 CE). By them, the Ahoms had moved away from their Tai beliefs and adopted the practices of mainstream Hinduism. They began to cremate their dead, as per Hindu tradition.
Due to tales of untold riches being buried there, the maidams, much like the pyramids, attracted greedy plunderers and grave robbers, even in the medieval period. For example, we know that during the Mughal invasion of Assam by Subedar Mir Jumla in 1662, he is known to have plundered a maidam. Similarly, even local people began digging these maidams, in search of treasures.
– Maidams were looted by grave robbers even during the medieval period
Even the British, after their conquest of Assam, could not resist laying their hands on these mounds. In 1840, a local British officer, a Sergeant C. Clayton along with his team dug open a maidam, and found rings, a silver toothpick case, ear ornaments, goblets, platters and a small gold lime container. He sold them and these pieces are untraceable. It was Clayton, who also made the earliest sketch of the ground plan of a maidam was published in the Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, in June 1848.
In 2000-02, the Archaeological Survey of India, Guwahati Circle excavated the maidam No. 2 in Charaideo. It had a hole on the top indicating that it was robbed earlier. Though robbed, scientific excavation of the chambers of the maidam yielded several artefacts including the skeletal remains of five individuals. Among the artefacts, the most noteworthy was the ivory pen depicting a mythical dragon – the Ahom royal insignia, along with intricate carvings of elephants, peacocks, and other floral motifs. Other objects found were copper objects fitted to wood, iron hooks, iron pins, small ivory decorative art objects, round shaped ivory buttons, cowries, gold pendants, and few lead cannon balls.The exact date of this maidam or to whom it was dedicated to is difficult to ascertain in the absence of written records.
Recently, in April 2018, the Archeological Survey of India has built a walkway inside the excavated maidam no 2, which will allow visitors to have a glimpse of how the maidam looked from inside.
A lot more research needs to be done to understand these mysterious mounds and all the secrets they hide within.
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