The kingdom that ruled Brahmaputra Valley in Assam for around 600 years during the medieval period, later termed as the Ahom Dynasty, boasts of many administrative, economic as well as architectural contributions to the entire north-east.
Established by a Tai prince from Mong-Mao in present day Autonomous Prefecture of Yunan, called Chao-Lung-Siu-ka-fa around 1228 CE, it expanded over the next few hundred years to become multi-ethnic in character. Neighbouring regions of tribal polity were brought under control and “Ahomized” while at the same time, indigenous traditions, religion and language was adopted by the Ahom kings. This could be seen in the gradual change in titles and names (From Tai to more “Hindu” names), and in the entry of Assamese language (belonging to the Indo-Aryan branch) in the political circuit, replacing the earlier prevalent Tai language (of the Austro-Mongoloid branch).
The most illustrious of Ahom kings were PratapSingha (1603-1641 CE) and GadadharSingha (1681), both of whom ruled from the capital of Rang-pur (present day Sivasagar) during the middle and later phases of the kingdom. The existing monuments at Sivasagar, including Siva-Dol, Rang Ghor, Karen Ghor and TalatalGhar – all primarily range from these phases. The earlier building activity of Ahom rulers has not been survived by any remaining monument.
The Ahoms were in constant relation with various national and international regions like the Mughals from the Northern mainland, Bangladesh, and Burma to whom they subsequently fell during the Burmese invasion. Evidently, these regional influences are clearly evident in the Ahom-style of art and architecture in Assam. An interesting aspect of Later Ahom Architecture is the secular building activity in brick. Instead of cement, a mixture of rice and egg was used as binding agent in such buildings, the proof of which can still be seen on observing the walls closely. Few of these secular buildings have survived today, like the Rang-Ghor, Kareng-Ghor (The Palace) and Talatol-Ghor.
The Rang-Ghor(Literally meaning “House of Entertainment”) was constructed during the reign of PramattaSingha in the early 18th century CE. The purpose of this building was to serve as a royal-pavilion from which the kings could watch traditional games like buffalo-fights and enjoy dance performances during festivals such as Bihu. The activities were performed at the field surrounding the building on all sides, called the “Rupohi-Pothar”. As such, it played a similar role as the amphitheatres of Ancient Rome, and is probably the only surviving example of its kind in India.
Architecturally, it is a double-storied building with an apsidal plan (where entry is from the lateral sides) and a curved Bangala-type roof. The ground floor is octagonal in plan with trapezoid sides, and pilasters framing three main and two minor arched entrance ways. The pilasters are fluted, being topped by a fluted semi-circular shape. This probably was a distant derivative of the bell-shaped capital of the Mauryan pillars. Similarities such as this were the result of a continued stylistic evolution that functioned and evolved on a pan-Indic level through time. It was not an uncommon occurrence, and it is quite possible that the Ahoms were influenced by the stylistic trends of the Indian mainland.
The arches are topped by a double band of floral vines, which is continued all around the top of the ground floor, ending with a parapet(chajja). Empty spaces were filled with more low-reliefs of creepers and flower vases framed by rectangles and curved arch borders. Some of them even depict faunal life in the form of elephants, cattle and monkeys on branches.Clearly, these motifs show similarities with Arabesque patterns, and could be the result of Islamic contact from the north of India.
The walls of the top storey are plain or minimally decorated, except for pilasters framing the arched windows. The interesting feature here is the parabolic roof, topped by a smaller canopy with triple arches and “chattris”. This canopy is flanked on both sides by an animal that could be associated with the Indic “makara” motif, or could be attributed to influences from Burma and China. Because the building has suffered a lot of wear and tear due to the passage of time, it is difficult to be sure about what this motif clearly is.
There are also reliefs of female figures in the canopy, with upraised arms, as if they are holding up the “chattris”. It is tempting to associate this motif with the dwarf-motifs from Buddhist art (which are also depicted in similar positions many times, especially in Sanchi and Ajanta), but because of lack of enough research or corroborative evidence to compare, this is hard to prove, and should only be taken as a supposition.
The pavilion is 10 meters high, 11 meters across and 27 meters in length; a steep flight of steps leads to the higher elevation from where the royal patrons could watch the contest on the grounds below.
The Ahom Kingdom played a vital role in the history of north-east India, and their contributions towards all segments of society are evident till today. These monuments in and around Sivasagar are the only surviving examples of the Ahom dynasties building activity. They are no less than any national heritage and thus, should be preserved and conserved with a similar attitude as afforded to other national heritage sites. The monuments are in dire need of repair and conservation, and it is time that The Archaeological Survey of India take necessary steps in this direction.
Art historian and Writer at ARTINFO India
All art historical inferences by the author
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