Former capital of the Ahom kingdom, Sibsagar and its surrounding towns are a treasure trove of Assam’s regal heritage, write ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY
As luck would have it, we happened to be in the historic city of Sibsagar the day ULFA had called for a bandh. We couldn’t let a strike disrupt our only chance to explore the ancient capital of the Ahoms. With much difficulty, we found a brave taxi driver who agreed to show us around.
The moment we got off the car to click pictures of the old British era Dikhow Bridge, we noticed locals down their shutters and flee in the opposite direction. We nonchalantly clicked away, casting a quizzical glance at their odd behaviour. Were they that camera shy, we wondered?
When we returned to our car, our driver explained that we had been mistaken for top ULFA commanders scouring the area to ensure that the response to the bandh was absolute. “Whatever gave them that idea?” we asked. “Your clothes” was his quick reply. Only then did we notice that by sheer coincidence we had worn jungle-style camouflage cargos and caps that day!
We guffawed. Thus emboldened, we went about discovering Sibsagar town with renewed swagger. Like the central section of the Dikhow Bridge that could be raised to allow ships to pass, it seemed as if the whole town had paved way for our unhindered exploration…
Centuries ago, it was another trailblazing journey that changed the course of Assam’s history. Tai prince Chao-Lung Sukapha of Mang Mao decided to seek fortune in a new land and forged south from Yunnan in China with his queens, retinue and a large army. Travelling via Myanmar and Patkai Hills to Namrup in Upper Assam, the epic journey took 13 years.
Enamored by the sight of the glorious plains of the Brahmaputra Valley, he called it Mung-Dun-Chun-Kham or the ‘Golden Kingdom’. Here, he established the medieval Ahom dynasty in 1228 AD that reigned for 600 years and took on the might of the Mughals. The kingdom eventually fell to Burmese invasions in 1819 and was annexed by the British East India Company in 1826.
Sukapha set up his first capital in 1251 AD about 30 km from present day Sivasagar. He named it Charaideo, derived from Che-Rai-Doi or “shining city on the hill” in the Tai language. Not much of it remains except the maidams (royal tombs) that looked like hemispherical mounds atop a small hillock. Historical records note how each of these vaults of kings, queens and nobles, much like the Egyptian pyramids, contained articles to be used in the afterlife and were thus plundered for their riches.
Of the 150 tombs here, only 30 remain, located in a compound protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. Over time, the Ahoms married locally and assimilated into the social fabric of the region. The kings were called Chaopha (chao means ruler, pha is heaven) or kings of divine descent. Suhungmung (1497–1539) became the first Ahom king to take on the Hindu title Swarganarayan; later kings were called Swargadeos (Lord of the Heavens). By the 17th century, the Ahoms had well adopted Hinduism.
The capital was shifted many times over the years though Charaideo remained the spiritual centre. Garhgaon, 14 km from Sibsagar was another such imperial city but the only surviving relic was the Kareng Ghar. The multi-storied palace was built in 1752 by Rajeshwar Singha at the center of a walled city encircled by a moat. The lofty citadel afforded great views over the manicured gardens that stretched around it.
Rudra Singha (1690–1714 AD), the 30th Ahom king established a new capital and christened it Che-mon or Rangpur. It served as the capital of the Ahom Kingdom from 1699 to 1788 and was renamed Sibsagar or Sivasagar after the borpukhuri (Big Tank), a large man-made lake in the heart of town. On its banks stand a troika of dols (temples) constructed in 1734 AD by Kuwori Ambika, the queen of Swargadeo Siba Singha.
Soaring over a hundred feet above the city’s skyline, Shivadol is the tallest Shiva temple in the north east. The original golden kalasha (urn) capping the spire was taken down by the British and replaced by a gold-plated replica. In the complex were smaller temples – Vishnudol and Devidol – that were testimony to the co-existence of Vaishnavite and Shakta sects. The temple walls were suffused with intricate sculptures and reliefs.
At the tall gateways Na-Duar (New Gate) and Bor-Duar (Big Gate), we noticed the winged dragon with a spiky tail, the emblem of the Ahom dynasty. The recurrent motif gave some clue about the oriental origins of the Ahoms. At Rang Ghar, two dragons graced the entry gate to what locals claim is the oldest amphitheater in Asia.
Built in 1744 by Pramatta Singha, the two storied building was oblong, allegedly inspired by the shape of the Ahom longboats. From this lofty recreational pavilion, the Ahom kings witnessed cockfights, bullfights, elephant fights and various other festivities.
We drove past Gola Ghar or Khar Ghar, the old ammunition depot that sat pretty but forlorn in the paddy fields. Talatal Ghar, the largest Tai Ahom monument, was built as a strategic military base. Only its first two floors are accessible while the upper royal quarters made of wood are long gone.
It takes its name from the three subterranean floors (currently out of bounds), which had secret tunnels for escape during war and cul de sacs to confuse the enemy. Our driver explained that the massive stone slabs had been held together by a unique mortar – a mixture of sticky rice, duck eggs, certain types of fish and other local ingredients!
Near Talatal Ghar is Joydol on the bank of Joysagar Tank, a beautiful lake spread over 318 acres. Both the lake and shrine were constructed by Swargadeo Rudra Singha (1696-1714) in memory of his mother Joymoti, who sacrificed her life to save her husband Gadapani. During the Purge of the Princes (1679 -1681) under King Sulikphaa, Gadapani went into hiding at Vaishnava satras (monasteries) and the Naga Hills. Despite being tortured for days, the Ahom princess refused to betray her husband. The valorous tale of Joymati was the subject of the first ever Assamese feature film Joymoti in 1935.
Sibsagar is a town of tanks and monuments erected by members of the Ahom royalty. Queen Bor Kuwori Phuleshwari Devi built the massive Gaurisagar spread over 150 acres. Swargadeo Lakshmi Singha built a tank in 1773 and named it Rudrasagar after his father Swargadeo Rudra Singha.
Over time, the Ahom dynasty disintegrated although a small population of Tai-Khamyang people stays at Chalapothar Shyam Gaon in Moniting. They follow Buddhism and it is home to the oldest Buddhist temple in Assam and a few other monasteries. Though the days of royalty have long gone, their legacy lives on in the lakes and temples they left behind that continue to sustain the populace.
Jet Airways flies to Jorhat, the nearest airport, from where Sibsagar is 66 km while Dibrugarh Airport is 81km away.
Where to Stay
Arunodoi Path (Boarding Road)
Ph 03772-223126, 222173, 98592 87203
BG Road, Sivasagar
Ph 03772-222200, 7399019903
AT Road, Near Shyam Temple
Ph 03772-220414, 9706012999
ATDC Tourist Lodge
Main Road, Sibsagar
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as part of the cover story ‘Jewels of the North East’ in the September 2018 issue of JetWings magazine.