Lost Footsteps
Lost Footsteps
The History of Assam

4th Century - 19th Century

The History of Assam

room India

မြန်မာဘာသာဖြင့် ဖတ်ရန်

In ancient times, western Assam, including the area around Gauhati, was known as Kamarupa, the land “Where love regained his form”. The story goes something like this: 

The god Daksha had a daughter who married another god, Shiva. Daksha hated Shiva and disapproved of the marriage. One day Daksha hosted a great sacrifice and invited everyone but Shiva. Daksha's daughter attended but was so distraught with her father’s treatment of her husband that she killed herself. Shiva then became mad with grief and anger, dancing a terrible dance around the world while clutching his dead consort’s body, which ultimately fell to the earth in 51 pieces.

The other gods became worried and finally sent Kamdeva, the Cupid of India, to make Shiva fall in love again, forget his wife, and end his dance of death. The plan worked. But Shiva then became so angry at Kamdeva that he turned him to ashes with a fiery glance of his eyes. Kamdeva eventually regained his life and form. The place where this happened was called Kamarupa. 

Many believe that one of the pieces of the dead body of Shiva’s consort – specifically her yoni, or genitalia – fell to the earth just outside Gauhati at a hill-top where there is a temple to the goddess Kamakhya. All the 51 places where the pieces fell - spread over India, Nepal and Bangladesh - are places of pilgrimage and worship. Kamakya is one of the more important, a power centre of Tantric practice.

No one knows when the Kamakhya hill and the little spring were first worshipped as a sacred site, and the very early history of the area is hazy at best. Ptolemy, writing from Alexandria in his second-century Geography, referred to an “India Beyond the Ganges”, perhaps meaning not only Assam but also Burma. The accounts are not particularly flattering. He described the people of this area were “white, with flat noses”, “stooping, ignorant, uncultivated, and with a broad forehead”. It was, he said, a place rich in gold, with tigers and elephants and the best cinnamon in the world, with robbers and wild men living in caves who had skin like hippopotamuses and could hurl darts with ease.

Today, there remain people spread in pockets around central and eastern India who speak different Austro-Asiatic languages (such as Munda) that are distantly related to Vietnamese and Cambodian, as well as lesser-known languages (such as Mon and Wa in Burma). Scholars believe that in ancient times, Austro-Asiatic speakers may have been much more widespread; the arrival of later migrants leaving them in their present scattered locations. Their societies, now forgotten, may have been fairly advanced. Their words for rice farming, for example, have found their way into the eastern Indo-Aryan tongues that arrived later, like Assamese and Bengali, and this suggests it was these Austro-Asiatic speakers who were the agricultural pioneers of the region. 

Kamarupa and the western areas of present-day Assam became home to a hybrid of Buddhist and Hindu dynasties, from at least the fourth century AD. The centre of the Indian world was then not far to the west, along the middle and lower Ganges, and the kings of Kamarupa were doubtless influenced by the more powerful monarchs and imperial courts next door. And it was from middle India that the great Chinese traveller and Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang came to Assam in the early seventh century, as a guest of Kamarupa king, Bhaskaravarman, a devout Buddhist himself, who had heard of Xuanzang’s learning and piety. 

Xuanzang had come to India the long way around – across the deserts of Central Asia and Afghanistan. When he was in Assam, he had been travelling for more than ten years and reflected wistfully on how close he was again to China. But he also felt that it was too difficult and too dangerous to attempt to travel onwards via Assam and Burma to China, and would later return the way he had come. This was at the time when there were already the first small Buddhist and Hindu states along the Irrawaddy River, and just before the emergence of the Nanzhao kingdom in Yunnan. The route eastward from Assam was dangerous, but not closed, and for those living throughout this region - from Bengal to Dali - there was regular if limited contact and commerce. 

Six hundred years later, Assam would be conquered from the east, by a people known as the Ahom, who would then rule the valley, until they themselves were conquered, first by the Burmese in the nineteenth century, and then by the British East India Company. The Ahoms had come over the mountains from present-day Burma. Ahom is also pronounced “Asom” and is the same word as “Assam”. It is also the same word as “Shan” in Burmese and “Siam”, the old name for Thailand. These different names sometimes obscure the fact that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries there was a vast expansion of people speaking very closely related Shan dialects, from a core region along what is now the Burma-China border, reaching south to form the Thai kingdoms of Sukhothai and later Ayuthaya, east to found Vientiane, and west to conquer Kamarupa. Much of what is today Assam, northern Burma, western Yunnan, Laos and Thailand came under a medley of closely related ruling elites. 

The first Ahom king was Sukaphaa and for centuries to come, until the final extinction of the Ahom monarchy in the mid-nineteenth century, he and his heirs styled themselves as the swargadeo or the “gods of heaven” of Assam. Slowly, they and their court came under Hindu and other Indian influences; within 200 years Ahom ceased being the court language and was replaced by Assamese, an Aryan language related to Bengali and Hindi. But memory of their eastern origin was never forgotten and in the upper Brahmaputra valley Ahom villagers lived much as their not-very-distant Shan cousins in Burma and elsewhere. Their court maintained systems of government, including the paik system of corvée labour, they had brought with them from across the mountains. And they fought little wars against their immediate neighbours, like the hill principalities of Jaintia and Cachar. The zenith of Ahom rule in the seventeenth century was also a period of Burmese imperial expansion, but the Burmese were then focused east towards Laos and Siam. Instead, the threat to Assam would come from the west, from the Mughals who from Delhi had snuffed out the old Bengal sultanate and were moving up the Brahmaputra.

At the time, the Mughals were perhaps second only to China as the greatest power on earth. The founder of Mughal rule in India, Babur, claimed descent from both Genghis Khan and Timur Lang (the Tamerlane of Christopher Marlowe) and had conquered Delhi from Afghanistan. His successors would expand Mughal rule across the subcontinent but failed to take Assam. The Ahoms shaped the limits of Mughal power. The Mughals were used to fighting Hindu kingdoms that had been ground down by decades or centuries of struggle against other Muslim invaders. The Ahoms, however, were fresh and at the pinnacle of their power and presented the Mughals with a very different type of warfare. As in many political systems to the east (such as Burma) the focus of Ahom administration was on the organization of manpower rather than the control of land; this meant they were able thus to mobilize quickly and move entire communities as necessary during conflict. It was something the Mughals had never seen.

From the beginning, relations between the Mughals and the Ahoms were hostile. From their strongholds in Bengal, the Mughals quickly moved into what is now western Assam, stationing their forces near Gauhati, then probing and pushing further up the Brahmaputra valley. During the reign of the Mughal emperor Jahangir in the early 1600s, the two sides battled almost every year in thick jungle and along the sandbanks of the great river. The Ahoms deployed guerrilla tactics, much like those the Burmese would deploy against the British 200 years later, building makeshift bamboo stockades, setting traps, and launching surprise night-time attacks with their experienced musketeers. They demoralized the Mughals, who referred to the Assamese as “black and loathsome in appearance” and to Assam as a land of witches and magic. And, as they moved their cannon and cavalry up the swampy river tracts, the Mughals, more used to the open deserts of western India, blamed the magic of these infidels for their troubles. 

The last war came in 1661. The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had appointed Muhammad Said Mir Jumla, the son of a Persian oil merchant and a veteran of the Deccan wars, to be his governor of Bengal. With 12,000 cavalry, 30,000 foot soldiers and hundreds of armed ships, Mir Jumla soon marched north, annexing the nearby kingdom of Cooch Behar, then capturing Gauhati before routing the Ahoms in a big river battle. Within a year he was in possession of the then Ahom capital of Garhgaon, forcing the king and court to flee. He vowed to open “the road to China”. The Ahoms then attempted to counter-attack, harassing Mughal lines during the heavy rains but, by early 1663, the swargadeo of Assam was forced to sue for peace. His daughter Ramani Gabharu joined the harem of the Mughal emperor (she would later wed prince Azamtara, governor of Bengal), and he was forced to surrender his western districts, as well as elephants and treasure, and become an imperial vassal. This seemed the end of hostilities but then suddenly Mir Jumla died of sickness and the Mughals never really followed up with another appointment of similar stature. When the inevitable disputes arose over the treaty, the Ahoms, under their supreme commander Lachit Borphukan, decisively routed a Mughal force under the Raja Ran Singh of Amber.

Thus, the Ahoms set the frontiers of Mughal power. From a Delhi and even a Calcutta perspective, power in India is normally seen as shaped from the west, by armies invading across the Hindu Kush. But, here, the map was being drawn from the east. A hundred years later, in the 1760s, the Burmese at Ava were setting the southwestern frontiers of the Manchu empire, defeating four successive attempts to invade and annex their territories. In this way, these two middle kingdoms – Assam and Burma – prevented, for better or worse, what might otherwise have been a historic meeting-up of Mughal India and Qing China. 

When collapse for the Ahoms finally came in the early nineteenth century, it was not at the hands of any Indian power, but from the king of Burma, who had set his sights on the plunder of the Brahmaputra valley. 

~ Adapted from Where China meets India by Thant Myint-U

Explore more in Myanmar's Neighbours Past and Present

Explore all Topics