A legacy transcending boundaries

Very few people outside India’s North-East are familiar with the achievements and legacy of one of the most fascinating dynasties in the nation’s medieval history, The Ahoms.

India’s North-East through millennia had attracted migrant settlers --- Australoid, Dravidians, Mongoloid and Caucasoid. The Mongoloids, who had their origin in West China, came in sporadic waves to become the dominant racial element and impart to the North-East its distinct ethnic flavour. The constant but periodic inflow initiated a process of conflict and dispersal till the settlers colonised the valleys and mountains in a mind-boggling number of communities contained within small kingdoms or principalities, each possessing distinct language and culture of its own.

Then, in 1228 A.D., an event of great significance occurred, one which changed the destiny of the Brahmaputra valley and surrounding mountains. A group of Shan or Tai warriors, led by a brave and far-sighted leader named Sukapha, left its original home in the Shan country which encompassed Myanmar and Yunnan Province of China, swept through the Patkai range of mountains into the upper part of the Brahmaputra valley, and set up the nucleus of what was later to become the powerful Ahom Empire.

From the time Sukapha entered Assam in 1228 till this region was annexed by the British in 1826, for nearly six centuries the Ahoms ruled over a greater part of the Brahmaputra valley. Few dynasties in the world, let alone Asia, had enjoyed such a long period of almost unbroken reign. Simultaneously, by bringing the valley under a single administration and providing a generally enlightened and stable rule, they initialised a process of homogenisation.

India’s North-East through millennia had attracted migrant settlers --- Australoid, Dravidians, Mongoloid and Caucasoid. The Mongoloids, who had their origin in West China, came in sporadic waves to become the dominant racial element and impart to the North-East its distinct ethnic flavour.

Apart from its longevity and its role as a coagulant, what marks out the Ahom Dynasty was the part it played in shaping the religious and cultural profile of Asia. The Brahmaputra valley was strategically located, being a highway for religious and cultural transference between the two ancient civilizations of India and China, as also between India and South East Asia.

The Brahmaputra-Ganges link had since primordial past provided easy access to the valley from the west. At the eastern edge of the Brahmaputra, there were quite a few land routes to Burma (Myanmar), China and other regions of South East Asia, much used by traders, pilgrims and proselytizers. Thus the Brahmaputra valley formed a natural corridor across which expansionist Brahmanical Hinduism could travel to Burma and South East Asian regions as early as the 1st century AD.

It can be surmised that the Hindu king Samuda, who ruled Burma in 105 AD, had proceeded there through Assam, as also the Hindus who led the Shans in their conquest of the mouth of the Mekong in 280 AD. The valley, therefore, played a seminal role in carrying Hinduism and later Buddhism to regions of South East Asia. It was also the route through which Indian ideas and literature, including the two epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, travelled to these nations.

In the process, South East Asia during ancient times was widely Hinduised --- aggressive propagation by Hindu proselytes led to erection of numerous Hindu kingdoms --- the Champa civilisation of Vietnam, Funan in Cambodia, the Khmer Empire in Indo-China, Langasuka, Ganganegara and Old Kedah in the Malayan Peninsula, Srivijayan, Singhasari and Majapahit kingdoms of Indonesia etc. The language and cultures of many countries were influenced by the Indian civilisation and Indian epics were adapted to suit local conditions.

The Brahmaputra valley formed a natural corridor across which expansionist Brahmanical Hinduism could travel to Burma and South East Asian regions as early as the 1st century AD.

No doubt Brahmanical Hinduism was gradually supplanted by Buddhism between the 1st and 5th century AD, and later by Islam in some regions of South East Asia in the 15th, and Christianity in the early 16th. But vestiges of Hindu civilisation remain in the form of magnificent relics or ingrained in customs and mores. Among the Hindu monuments still extant can be mentioned the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the largest Hindu temple complex in the world, and the Prambanan group of temples in the Java island of Indonesia. Among the numerous South East Asian adaptations of the epics we even have the Ramayana of Laos and Burma; many Hindu gods continue to be worshipped today in Buddhist Burma and Thailand; Hindu figures like the Garuda have been adopted as icons in Indonesia.

Having themselves converted and become Hindus, the Ahoms, while facilitating Hindu expansionism in South East Asia, actually prevented Islamic influence from penetrating into Burma and further to other nations across the land route. This came during the 14-16th century when aggressive expansion of Islam was becoming a global phenomenon; with the land-route blocked, proponents of that religion had to take the sea-route in order to reach South East Asia, which explains why the Indonesian Archipelago was the first region where Islam could get a toehold before spreading in the region.

Among the numerous South East Asian adaptations of the epics we even have the Ramayana of Laos and Burma; many Hindu gods continue to be worshipped today in Buddhist Burma and Thailand; Hindu figures like the Garuda have been adopted as icons in Indonesia.

During their rule, wave after wave of assaults by the Muslim rulers in Delhi to subjugate the Ahoms in order to open a gateway to Burma and beyond were repulsed; what could have loomed as aggressive conversion to Islam by the land-route was terminated at the Brahmaputra Valley itself. There can be no doubt that the Ahoms were responsible for stemming Islam from flowing into Burma and beyond through conflict, conquest, colonization and conversion --- had they not done so the religious-cultural scenario in South East Asia might have been entirely different from what it is today. This is indubitably the most significant contribution of the Ahoms as far as Asia is concerned and the abiding factor of the legacy they left behind.

(Padma Shri Arup Kumar Dutta, a prominent social historian, writer and journalist based in Guwahati, Assam, is the author of some 30 books, among them Kaziranga Trails and The Ahoms)