The Thai-Assam Connection

Reporting from Guwahati on February 6 this year, for The Hindu, Sushanta Talukdar writes: ‘A safari in the Kaziranga National Park has left the visiting Princess of Thailand Maha Chakri Sirindhorn fascinated. The park authorities now look forward to more visitors from Thailand to the World Heritage Site.

The Princess, a Magsaysay award winner and scholar, watched rhinos, deer, wild buffaloes and other animals and birds during a three-hour safari, KNP Director S.N. Buragohain said. Others in the 22-member entourage also enjoyed the visit. Items of traditional Assamese cuisine served to her included chunga chawl (rice cooked in bamboo), pani tenga (tangy mustard chutney), and duck preparations. The food was served on traditional Assamese bell metal dishes.

The princess was on a three-day visit to Assam. She visited Namphake village populated by the members of the Tai Phake community on the banks of the Buridehing near Naharkatia in Dibrugarh district and interacted with villagers in Tai language. She went to the Tocklai Tea Research Institute and the North East Institute of Science and Technology at Jorhat. She visited Patsako village of the Tai-Ahom community in Sivasagar district. She watched the Ahom monuments in Sivasagar. The Tai-Ahom dynasty ruled Assam for about 600 years until the arrival of the British.’

Yasmin Saikia, an Aligarh Muslim University alumnus, who teaches History and also does research on South Asian history topics in the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina, has this to say about her own Tai-Ahom connections in a resume of hers some time ago. ‘I have recently completed another book entitled Fragmented Memories: Struggling to become Tai-Ahom in India (Duke University Press, 2004). This book examines the connections between memory, history and identity through the story of an obscure community called Tai-Ahom in Assam. I investigate Tai-Ahom as a cultural site for memory building and a battleground between scholars and activists. The book has won the Srikanta Datta Memorial prize for outstanding book in the social sciences (2002-04) from the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, India.’

Presenting a paper in the site, http://www.india-seminar.com/, in 2005, the Professor asserts that ‘even today, scholars of Indian history by and large view Assam as a militant frontier peopled by insurgent groups who disrespect the sacred national history.’ She holds that these perceptions are the views of colonial outsiders who back their assumptions with official power to transform myths into believable facts. She continues:

‘If, on the other hand, one investigates the memories and local narratives of the people of Assam a very different picture emerges. Local history that is recorded in the pre-modern chronicles called buranjis provides a picture of a place in motion. Ruled by a god-like king referred to as swargadeo, the area of the swargadeo’s domain was a blended space settled by a hybrid community referred to as kun-how in the Tai language and Ami meaning we in the Assamese language records called buranjis. This group did not have a fixed label but was referred to as a conglomerate of ‘we’ people. What is the memory of the historical ‘we’ community in Assam today?’

Saying this Dr Saikia goes on to investigate the process and consequences of the making of a new Tai-Ahom memory to rethink a history of the ‘we’ community at the crossroads of Assam linking South Asia with Southeast Asia. Although a very small number namely no more than six hundred thousand people in Assam are involved in the Tai-Ahom identity struggle, salient questions about the epistemological and geographical limits of Indian history have been raised. The Professor believes that these challenge the inherited colonial historiography to open the space for a dialogue between Delhi, Yangon and Bangkok. This is expected to benefit marginal groups and extend the horizons of history and memories to include the past in the present linking of South with Southeast Asia. Let me come back to further contents and surmises of the Professor a little later.

{xtypo_quote_left}The first ruler of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, King Ramathibodi I, made two important contributions to Thai history: the establishment and promotion of Theravada Buddhism as the official religion – to differentiate his kingdom from the neighbouring Hindu kingdom of Angkor – and the compilation of the Dharmashastra, a legal code based, however, on Hindu sources and traditional Thai custom.{/xtypo_quote_left}

Let us shift our attention to Thais in their own land and look at what Wikipedia has recorded about the not too ancient Thais. Around the first century AD, according to Funan Epigraphy and the records of Chinese Historians(Coedes), a number of trading settlements of the South, appear to have been organized into several states with Sanskrit, Indic names, among the earliest of which are Langasuka and Tambralinga. The name, Dvaravati first came to the attention of modern scholars during the 19th century through the translation of Chinese texts. These texts mentioned To-lo-po-ti, Tu-ho-po-ti and Tu-ho- lo-po-ti, names that were translated into Sanskrit as Dvaravati. We know that this polity had an international presence, as it sent a number of missions to the Chinese court, but it is difficult to reconstruct what kind of polity is represented and scholarly opinion is split. It is best to consider Dvaravati as a broad term, encompassing all aspects of a culture, comprised mostly of Mon speakers who produced predominantly religious art and lived in large towns concentrated in the Chao Phraya Valley whose influence extended into other parts of Thailand.

According to tradition, Thai chieftains gained independence from the Khmer empire at Sukhothai, which was established as a sovereign Kingdom by Pho Kun Si Indrathit in 1238. ‘Father governs children’ was the theme that existed at this time. Everybody could bring their problems to the king directly; there was a bell in front of the palace for this purpose, at least a few centuries after the establishment of the Sukothai regime. We must note that the concept of such a bell, called Araaichi Mani was operative in Tamilnadu, India right from the Sangam period (around the beginning of the Christian era). Sukhothai briefly dominated the area under King Ramkhamhaeng, who established the Thai alphabet, but after his death in 1365 it fell into decline and became subject to another emerging Thai state known as the Ayutthaya Kingdom which dominated southern and central Thailand until the 1700s.

Another Thai state that coexisted with Sukhothai was the northern state of Lanna. This state emerged in the same period as Sukhothai, but survived longer. Its independent history ended in 1558, when it fell to the Burmese; thereafter it was dominated by Burma and Ayutthaya in turn before falling to the army of the Siamese King Taksin in 1775.

The first ruler of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, King Ramathibodi I, made two important contributions to Thai history: the establishment and promotion of Theravada Buddhism as the official religion – to differentiate his kingdom from the neighbouring Hindu kingdom of Angkor – and the compilation of the Dharmashastra, a legal code based, however, on Hindu sources and traditional Thai custom. The Dharmashastra remained a tool of Thai law until late in the 19th century. From the 16th century, Ayutthaya had some contact with the West, for instance the Portuguese, but until the 1800s its relations with neighboring nations including India and China, were of greater importance to its people. Ayutthaya dominated a considerable area, ranging from the Islamic states on the Malay Peninsula to states in northern Thailand. Nonetheless, the Burmese, (Myanmarese) who had control of Lanna and had also unified their kingdom under a powerful dynasty, launched several invasion attempts in the 1750s and 1760s. Finally, in 1767, the Burmese attacked the capital city and conquered it. The royal family fled the city where the king died of starvation ten days later. The Ayutthaya royal line had been extinguished. Overall there had been 33 kings in this line in five formal dynasties. Thus after more than 400 years of power, when the Kingdom of Ayutthaya was brought down by invading Burmese armies, its capital was burned, and the territory got split. General Taksin managed to reunite the Thai kingdom from his new capital of Thonburi and declared himself king in 1769. However, Taksin allegedly became mad, and he was deposed, taken prisoner, and executed in 1782.

General Chakri succeeded Taksin in 1782 as Rama I, the first king of the Chakri Dynasty. In the same year he founded the new capital city at Bangkok across the Chao Phraya river from Thonburi, Taksin’s capital. In the 1790s Burma was defeated and its rulers, probably Shan, were driven out of Siam, as Thailand was then called. Lanna also became free of Burmese occupation, but the king of a new dynasty that was installed there in the 1790s was effectively a puppet ruler of the Chakri monarch.

The heirs of Rama I became increasingly concerned with the threat of European colonialism after British victories in neighboring Burma in 1826. The first Thai recognition of Western power in the region was the treaty of amity and commerce with the United Kingdom in 1826. In 1833, the USA began diplomatic exchanges with Siam, as Thailand was called until 1939, and again between 1945 and 1949. However, it was during the later reigns of King Chulangkorn, and his father King Mongkut, that Thailand established firm rapprochement with Western powers. It is a widely held view in Thailand that the diplomatic skills of these monarchs, combined with the modernizing reforms of the Thai Government, made Siam the only country in South and Southeast Asia to avoid European colonisation. This is reflected in the country’s modern name, Prathet Thai or Thailand, used unofficially between 1939 and 1945 and officially declared on May 11, 1949, in which prathet means “nation” and thai means “free”. Suitable treaties with British Malaya and French Laos and Cambodia were adopted and these settled and stablized the borders of Thailand.

In sum, it appears that a Hindu royal line was ruling what is now Thailand from the times of the beginning of the Christian era. In the 13th century, a new line of Kings from a people who invaded Thailand, established a Theravada Buddhist presence, incorporating into it, a Hindu-Thai Dharma Shastra to act as law for the people. These visitors from a neighbouring area from China could have been Buddhist Shans. If we want to learn what the Shans could have been like, one can go to the Shan State in Burma (Myanmar), where the Shan cultivators of opium have not really changed much in several centuries. This state has borders adjoining China to the north, Laos to the east, and Thailand to the south. The state does not adjoin India, but the nearest part of India, in the north-western direction would be Assam. Shans would not have originated in Myanmar of course, but must have come from an intellectually and religiously active ancient Chinese region. The region including the well-known Mount Huang-Shan, which houses a large number of Buddhist and Taoist monasteries and nunneries these days and is the home of advanced learning, Martial Arts and ancient medicinal practice could very well have been the source of the conquering visitors to Thailand in the 13th century.

There seems to have been a Tamil influence as well in the statecraft of the Thai kings of this period. In another article examining the practice of fermentation and steaming in kitchens in the archipelago, I had referred to the Tamil King Rajendra’s invasion of the region, of the birth of a Thai Ramayana and the practice of singing ancient Tamil devotional songs on special occasions in the Thai royal court.

The present Chakri Dynasty (of which the Princess Chakri Sirindhorn, who visited Assam last week is a member two/three places away from succession to the throne) has been ruling Thailand since the eighteenth century.

Now let us revert to Assam, the Ahom people and the Swargadevs along with Dr. Saikia. In the face of a disdainful assessment of the ‘we’ people by the colonial researchers, leading Assamese thinkers like Moniram Dewan and Ananda Ram Dhekial Phukan started focusing on constructing positive markers of community identification and suggested Assamese was a ‘blended’ community constituted by Hindus and non-Hindus who were bound together by shared social interactions having to do with the Assamese language. Several societies having to do with the development of the language and culture of Assam appeared on the scene, culminating even in some political outfits like ‘Ahom Sabha’in 1893 and, again, in 1915, an ‘Ahom Association’. Dr Saikia holds that the first myths about Ahom were created by the British agents. It appears that the first British resident in Assam, Walter Hamilton-Buchannan introduced the term Ahom in the East India Gazetteer in 1828, borrowing it from the myths of Ahom origin compiled by J.P. Wade. He is believed to have claimed that a group of Shan warriors led by a person named Sukapha came to Assam in 1228 and established the Ahom kingdom. By telling this story over and over again, a particular memory of the past was sought to be created in colonial documents. No sooner they achieved this purpose the colonials became active in debunking the Ahom rulers. In 1891, the colonial ethnographers, E.T. Dalton and H.H. Risely concluded that the Ahoms, the descendents of the proud race of Shans, had degenerated into superstitious, backward, apathetic Assamese. In the shifting economic and social conditions new enclave societies emerged and the historical ‘we’ community became a phantom. Its only visible remnant was in the new shared condition of poverty of the local people. By the beginning of the 20th century, Assam, which was once a thriving crossroads kingdom in the east, became one of the poorest regions in British India.

The distinctions between Assamese and those claiming to be Ahoms were blurred, so much so that when Ahom was declared dead and folded into the Assamese no one questioned the colonial power of myth making, says, Professor Saikia. Rather the local intellectuals accepted the colonial version of their history. Dr Saikia holds that the ‘discovery’ of an Ahom community in the Tai language buranjis ia also a lie. Did the colonials find a distinct Ahom community in the chronicles? To answer this question she returns to the buranjis and investigates the descriptions of Ahom within them. She finds distortions in the colonial reading of these texts.

She argues as follows: ‘By and large, almost all buranjis being narratives of Swargadeos tell the readers of the deeds of the godlike figures. The effort is to create a cult of god-kings. In this ontological scheme demarcated identities of the subject communities was counter-politic; they appear to us a generic ‘we’ community that is continuously in process. For creating identifiable units within the ‘we’ polity, service caucuses under the command of six nobles were created. The name of the place they were associated with became their identity. Although Ahom is not a defined ethnic community in the buranjis, it is not an unknown term either. It is used to refer to a class of officers constituted from within the preponderate ‘we’ community. The Ahom men, in other words, were the Swargadeo’s or king’s men. They were the civil and military officers controlling and administering his domain. Ahom was not an inherited status, but an appointment that could be gained and lost in one’s lifetime.’

Ethnicity was not the factor that made Ahom, asserts Dr. Saikia, but the favour of the reigning Swargadeo and an individual’s ability determined his status as Ahom. Hence, in the reign of different Swargadeos, the composition of the Ahom officers differed greatly.

She continues, ‘In the buranjis we find that Naga, Kachari, Nora, Garo, Mikir, Miri, and even Goriya (Muslim) formed this blended community of trusted servants. Like the space of the polity, the class called Ahom expressed the reality of the crossroads. This history of the hybrid Ahom was overlooked by the British when they came to Assam. Unable to read the original chronicles, they concluded that the large number of king’s men belonged to one community. The discovery of Tai language buranjis led the colonial administrators to conclude that a ‘foreign’ group had migrated from the hills of Burma into Assam, established an Ahom kingdom, and used the buranji literature to record their history and culture. Immediately after declaring them an ethnic group, the colonials made the Ahoms ‘unthinkable’ by proclaiming them ‘dead’.

Ahom as a memory and a politics resurfaced in Assam in the 1940s and, again, in the 1960s. In 1967 when Assam was reorganized into hill and plains states, the Ahom group petitioned the Indian government to recognize them as a separate community. In October 1967 the Ahom Tai Mongolia Parishad demanded a separate Mongolian state to be formed in Upper Assam in which Ahom-Tais and the various other tribes would enjoy social recognition and all political rights. Their demand was not accepted and Ahom continued to be part of the Hindu Assamese but within it became a backward community.

In 1968, an attempt to create the boundaries of Ahomness led to a renewed invocation of Southeast Asia. This was actualized in the term Tai-Ahom that was coined by Padmeshwar Gogoi, a professor at the Guwahati University, in his book, Tai and the Tai Kingdoms with a Fuller Treatment of the Tai-Ahom Kingdom in the Brahmaputra Valley (1968). To complete the breakaway from the Assamese Hindus, the new Tai-Ahoms revived a religion calling it Phra Lung, which emphasized the worship of ancestors, mainly Swargadeos.’

I do not understand why the good Professor is keen on discrediting the buranjis which are after all not in English language and could not have been created by the agents of the colonial administration. Also why in the presence of a certain amount of vagueness in defining the term ahom in the buranjis , she prefers to consider it an administrative rather than an ethnic classification term. I do also wonder why she wants to discredit the possibility of Shan warriors having invaded Assam and established the rule of Swargadeos in the 13th century. One need not have any quarrel with her sympathies for the Ahoms who have had a very rough deal indeed under different dispensations. But there is no need to discredit the Tai language buranjis or the possibility of the long reign of Swargadeos in Assam.

Considering that it was in the 13th century that some Shan warriors invaded Thailand and very soon established the Sukothai kingdom, it is fairly easy to deduce that some of the Shans would have tried simultaneously to enter both Burma and Assam. The term thai/tai means free in the Thai language. The reigns of the Sukothais and of the Swargadeo precursors led by a Shan warrior with the name Sukapha in Thailand and Assam respectively have been described as benevolent and people-friendly and the Thai description would fit them both. Though Sukothai seems to be the name of a place where the all conquering Indrathit arrived, it is quite possible that the name was given to the place by him after the conquest. I think it is possible to accept the term Tai-Ahom for the people who were ruled by the Swargadeos in Assam and their descendants, even if their homogeneity is somewhat under question. Friendly overtures by Thais of Thailand, such as the recent visit of Princess Chakri Sirindhorn would certainly help to keep their spirits up. The Princess is reported to have visited monuments relating to the 600 year reign of the Swargadeos in Sibsagar (Sivasagar).

It is nothing more than a pure coincidence that the term Tai-Ahom means Mother-land in the Tamil language. Unlike the Sukothais who interacted in Thailand with Tamil priests and traders of the Chola era after Rajendra’s invasion, the Sukapha-led Shans would have had no opportunity to mix with Tamils and learn their tongue.

 

 

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