India’s north-east has an enchanting and a very rich cultural history. Assam which lies in the heart of this very region is a land of epic fame with plethora of legends and literary accounts as well as monumental and antiquarian remains.
As Assam is situated in one of the greatest route of migration, many people belonging to various cultures came pouring into her fertile hands. Its geography and favorable physical environment has lent a major hand in its socio-cultural growth. People having different cultural background migrated to this land and made it their home. They introduced new cultural entity which homogenized with the existing cultures. Assam valley acts as a limit to the Gangetic plains of North India. But with the continuation of the plains, it helps this land to be in constant contact with the mainland India, which has provided opportunities for this valley to have close cultural and religious affinities with the rest of India from ancient times. Connections and relations between Assam and the mainland can be historically proven from the architectural remains (mainly temples) found in Assam, which, when compared shows signs of similarity in theme and to some extent the style of north Indian temple architecture.
In the Puranas and the Tantras, Assam is mentioned as Kāmrupa(2013, Mahanta) and in Mahabharata it is referred to as Prāgjyotisa (1995, Devi), ruled by Naraka and his son Bhagadutt.
In his book “The History of Medieval Assam”, N. N. Acharya mentions that majority of the Mongolian stock, supposed to have descended from the sub-Himalayan hills and is of Tibeto-Burmese origin. To mention a few, the tribes comprising these races are Koch, Mech, Lalung, Dimasa, Garo, Rabha, Tipura, Chutiya, Moran and Borahi. These tribes are considered as the original inhabitants of Assam.
During the 13th century, Assam saw the advent of a new group of people who settled here and ruled for nearly six hundred years creating history by making this land their home. This group of people belonged to the Tai or Shan family which includes the Āhoms, the Khamtis, the Phakiyals, the Naras and the Aitoniyas.(2013, Mahanta). Many scholars deeply believe that the name Assam is actually associated with the Shans (Āhoms). The Ahoms are also called Tai-Mao people who came from Mong-Mao situated in the present South-Western Yunan province in China.
It is well mentioned in almost all of the Āhom Buranjis and other historical records that the Tais under the leadership of Sukapha advanced to the Brahmaputra valley during the thirteenth century. They left Mong-Mao in AD 1215 (1962, Bhuyan). Before they entered this valley, the Āhoms were recorded to have formed their states in regions of Northern Burma.(1926, Gait)
When Sukapha left Maulung he was followed by eight nobles, and nine thousand men, women and children. Along with that he also had two elephants and three hundred horses.(1926, Gait). For thirteen years he wandered the hilly tracts of the Patkai region where he encountered the local Nagas and had numerous conflicts with them. By 1228, he entered Khamjang where he had to fight many wars again with the local Nagas of that region. Later, after defeating them he gained confidence and entered the Assam Brahmaputra valley. Thus, Sukapha and his men, after years of warfare and meandering the Brahmaputra valley desperately searched for a suitable place to settle and establish their center. But initially, the Āhoms could not peacefully build their empire. They faced series of conflicts against various local kingdoms namely the Chutiyas, the Kamatas and tribes like the Morans, the Borahis and the Kacharis. Finally, after overcoming all the struggles and shifting places from Tipam, Muṅġlang Chekhru (Abhayapur), Habuṅg, Ligirigaon to Simalguri, the Āhoms chose a suitable spot as their capital. This particular place was surrounded by hills and was known as Charaideo, which is said to have been ruled by the Borahis until 12th century. It is situated 28 km east from Sivasagar.(2011, Biswas). Sukapha, the founding father of Āhom dynasty capitalized Charaideo in 1253 CE.(2011, Biswas). From his time onwards this site mushroomed into a thriving center of cultural consolidation. Sukapha ruled here for about sixteen years and took his last breath on this very land. After him, his descendants continued to rule and ascended the throne. With increasing power of the Āhoms, their dominance over the region extended and resulted in extension of the kingdom. They also sought for different sites resulting in shifting of their capital viz., Saragua, Gargaon, Rangpur and Jorhat, all within the erstwhile of Sivasagar District. During the time of their rule they patronized various architectural activities out of which the majority comprises of the religious type.
Sivasagar, 369 km east of Guwahati in Assam , remained the seat of Ahom power for approx. six centuries. The Sivasagar district encompasses the sites where vestiges of Ahoms are located. Literary records and local tradition mention about the Ahoms inheriting the tradition of construction by using impermanent materials. Satsai Buranji credits Suhungmung who started the tradition of building royal palace with gable ends. Local traditions ascribe the use of permanent materials like bricks and stones to king Rudra Singha who brought the expert artisans for the purpose from Koch-Bihar.
Some examples of the Ahom architectural marvel in Sivasagar are:
Devi Dol, Joysagar : The Devi Dol, was built by king Rudra Singha (AD1696-1714), on the western bank of Joysagar tank near Rangpur.. The temple is consecrated to a Durga. It resembles like a do-chala Assamese hut. Its exterior wall is plastered with lime and surkhi. The temple is provided with a portico facing south. The surviving foundation and some wall portion of mandapa and garbhagriha indicate the use of bricks in its construction.
Joi Dol, Joysagar : Built by Ahom king Rudra Singha (AD 1696-1714) the temple popularly known as Joidol or Keshavanarayan is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It stands in the western extremity on the north bank of the Joysagar tank. On plan it has an octagonal garbhagriha, an antarala and two mandapas, all aligned to the east-west axis. The bhitti portion is decorated with rosette design and images of divine personages in alternate row. Its oval śikhara, provided with angaśikharas, is decorated with numerous squares of receding dimensions formed by linear bands within which are carved full-blown lotus flower.. Built with brick masonry the temple is a nilachala type, that is, a domical śikhara with honeycomb designs, a type of regional character made in combination of Brahmanical and Islamic architecture fusion. Exterior wall portion of the temple is carved with figures of various divinities of Brahmanical faith.
Its squattish pinnacle, with a few modifications, was adopted as standard for the later construction.
Sivadȏl, Joysagar: Dedicated to Lord Shiva, this temple was built by Rudra Singha (AD 1696-1714). The temple is popularly known as Vaidyanath Siva Temple. It consists of a garbhagriha with a domical śikhara and attached with a mukhamandapa having do-chala (gabled) hut type roof.
Gaurisagar group of temples:
At the northern bank of Gaurisagar tank Ahom king Siva Singha caused the construction of three temples, one each dedicated to Devi, Siva and Vishnu, exhibiting different architectural design-such as the Nagara style for Devi Dol and Nilachala type-circular śikhara for Siva and Vishnu Dols. .
Devi Dol, Gaurisagar: Located on the eastern extremity on the northern bank of the Gaurisagar tank and consecrated to Devi, this temple was built with brick and stone masonry by Phuleswari, the queen of king Siba Singha (AD1714-44). Devi Dol, having octagonal garbhagriha , antarala and mandapa on plan, is perhaps, the earliest example of brick built Ahom temple.
The temple possesses a nagaraśikhara over the main sanctum and clustered by four angaśikharas in four cardinal directions. The śikhara over the garbhagriha, appearing more like an elongated tower, is corrugated with vertical bands of crest and trough.
Plan of the garbhagriha is of pancharatha order while that of mandapa is square and covered by do-chala roof. Mandapa is connected through an antarala with the sanctum. Exterior wall of the vimana is decorated with various divine figures of Brahmanical faith. There is an enclosure wall around the temple complex.
Siva Dol, Gaurisagar: Standing on the northern bank of the Gaurisagar tank, this temple was constructed by Phuleshwari Devi, the queen of Ahom king Siba Singha (AD1714-44). The temple is built in brick masonry and comprised of garbhagriha and mukhamandapa. The śikhara of the temple is domical, decorated with honey-comb design, with one aṅgaśikhara at each of the rāhāpaga. Over the śikhara are two kalaśas, placed one above the other. The temple is enclosed by an enclosure wall.
Vishnu Dol, Gaurisagar : The Vishnu Dol, having only octagonal garbhagriha and a square mandapa attached with an antarala is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The temple was built by the Ahom king Siba Singha (AD 1714- 1744). It has a domical śikhara and two angaśikharas at the rāhāpaga . The temple lies in the western extremity of the northern bank of the Gaurisagar tank and is made of brick masonry. The exterior wall of the temple is carved with figurers of various divinities.
Sivasagar group of temples
On the southern bank of a specially excavated huge tank called Sibsagar , Siva Singha constructed, three temples dedicated to Siva, Vishnu and Devi.
Siva Dol, Sivasagar : Siva Dol, having 40m. high Nagara śikhara, built of stone upto bhitti portion, consists of an octagonal garbhagriha attached with an antarala and a mukhamandapa. The temple was built by queen Ambika Devi, wife of king Siba Singha (AD 1714-44). The antarala has do-chala roof whereas the modern mandapa has pyramidal roof with curvilinear eaves. The exterior wall of the temple has sculptural carvings with various Brahmanical gods and goddesses and floral and geometrical designs. The bhitti is decorated with stone plaques having numerous sculptures and floral designs in low relief. The śikhara, decorated with fluted vertical ribs, has four urnamanjaris at the rahapagas. The amalaka, built in the form of the Buddhist chhatravali, supports the gold plated brass kalasa.
Vishnu Dol, Sivasagar: Dedicated to lord Vishnu, this temple was built by queen Ambika Devi, wife of king Siba Singha (AD 1714-44). The temple consists of a garbhagriha with a domical śikhara in honeycomb designs and is attached with an antarala and mukhamandapa.
Devi Dol, Sivasagar : Dedicated to Devi, this brick temple was built by queen Ambika Devi, the second wife of king Siva Singha (AD 1714-44). It consists of a garbhagriha with a domical śikhara surrounded by eight angaśikharas and has a do-chala (gabled) mandapa.
Kareng-Ghar : Ahom Raja palace or Kareng-Ghar at Garhgaon was built during the time of king Rajeshwar Singha on the ruins of old impermanent structures. It, one of the most Imposing brick edifices, with the collapsed western verandah and watch towers, appears like a square one. It has an underground cellar and four storeys in receding dimension. The top floor has dome like roof with a chamber . It had four watch towers, of which now only two remains. The enhance to the palace is from north. Ground floor has three west facing halls, each with front and rear chambers.
Talatal-ghar : Talatal-ghar meaning house having several storeys, considered to be the largest of all Ahom monuments, is situated at Rangpur. Construction of this edifice, though started by king Rudra Singha, was completed in the time of his successor Rajeswar Singha. It is built in a north-south axis, with long annexes at either ends and the middle. The first floor built on the columns and stylobates can be approached by an elegant stairway provided in the front and by a narrower one at the mid-western portion of the main axis. Except a Siva temple ,a guard room, three large-chambers and a big hall with courtyard having separate entrance, the entire area of this floor was left open. Presence of numerous post holes at the terrace indicate the practice of erecting temporary shades to cater the needs of ceremonial gatherings.
Ghanashyam’s House Monument, Joysagar : Popularly known as Ghanashyam’s House, this edifice was built by king Rudra Singha (AD 1696-1714). One of the most beautiful construction of Ahom period it is situated on the western bank of the Joysagar tank. The structure is dedicated to the architect Ghanashyam who is said to have built several Ahom buildings. The external surfaces, chamber and facade of this brick built structure are embellished with exquisitely moulded terracotta plaques decorated with the designs of trellis, creepers, floral, animal, divine personages, depicting different puranic stories.
The monument resembling ekratna prasada, is a fine example of the beautiful blending of the Brahmanical tradition in the garb of the Islamic one. It is an Islamic gate type flat-roofed house, having a hall like chamber with verandah having three engrailed-arched entrances, crowned with a row of battlements.
Gorakhiya Dol : Situated in Nazira, the Gorakhiya Dol is one of the earliest available example of Ahom constructions, built by Ahom king Pratap Singha. It has an octagonal garbhagriha and a rectangular mandapa. The inverted cone like śikhara is embellished with vertical ridges, radiating down from pinnacle to the junction of the bhitti and śikhara.
Rang Ghar: At the outskirts of Rangpur, Sivasagar, Rang Ghar was built by Ahom king Pramatta Singha as a pleasure house for the royal members and dignitaries to witness and enjoy outdoor games like bullfight, elephant fight, wrestling etc. Rang Ghar is one of the oldest amphitheatres in Asia. It is two storeyed rectangular structure with two trapezoidal ends, constructed in around year 1745. Its massive shell-shaped roof is crowned by the model of pleasure boat with makara ending and three turrets at the centre.
Maidams : These are hemispherical mounds having funerary affiliation. Ahom prefers to place their departed family members at Charaideo where their first king Sukapha was laid to rest. The Buranji informs that wives, attendants pet animals and huge quantity of valuables were also buried with the departed kings. Practice of burying alive was banned by king Rudra Singha. In appearance it is a hemispherical earthen mound erected over an underground vault with one or more chambers having domical super structure, crowned by a small open pavilion called chow-chali (four roofed cottage. Whole mound is usually enclosed with an octagonal mound
Ranganathdol, Sivasagar : Dedicated to lord Shiva, it is a small but graceful temple of brick masonry built by the Ahom king Rudra Singha (AD 1696-1714). The sanctum sanctorum of the temple enshrines a Sivalinga. A do-chala mandapa is attached with the garbhagriha. The śikhara is conical in shape devoid of any carvings. A trishul or trident is placed on top of the amalaka.
The Ahoms were the great builders. Their building activities spread far and wide beyond the limit of the political boundary of Sivasagar District.
The temple architecture of this period has its own beauty with regional elements infused to a traditional north Indian style of temple architecture, whose foundation had been taken from the Purānas and the tantrās.152 Actually, the Āhom temples can be said to be an admixture of the Nagara, Bengal and Assamese hut style and the Islamic stylistic detailing. All these elements all together make the temples of Āhom period strikingly different from the rest of the temples of India.
It is interesting to note that a variety of architectural structures around the genre of temple building under the Āhoms. This is a proof to the fact that the Āhoms were trying to develop the architectural techniques and were trying to create a structure that could be living model for the later temples to be built taking it as an example, which did happen in the reign of Rudra Singha and Siba Singha.
Even though the six hundred years of the Āhom rule came to an end, its glory is still present in the state of Assam and the temples which are still in practice are a living example of it. Thus, they must be credited to have tried to build a myriad of varied forms of temple architecture that provide the present generation to study them and for people to visit these temples and offer prayers.
- Amalaka : Ribbed or global part crowning the top of a śikhara
- Aṅgaśikhara : The adjacent śikharas of the main vimāna
- Antarāla: A chamber in front of the garbhagriha, usually linking with the mandapa
- Buranji : Chronicle
- ćālā: House or hut mainly found in Bengal
- Chou-ćālā : Four roofed hut
- Do-ćālā : Two-roofed hut
- Dȏl : Temple in Assam
- Garbhagriha : Sanctum sanctorum that houses the deity
- Kalaśa : Crowning element of the temple in the form of a stone vase
- Maidam : Burial place of the Āhoms
- Mukhamandapa : The front porch in a temple
- Nilāćāla : The type of temple architecture initiated by the Koch rulers of Assam. A temple with hemispherical dome on a cruciform base.
- Puranas : Vedic texts of the Hindus
- Rāhāpaga : The central projection of the śikhara
- Bhuyan, S.K. Deodhai Axom Buronji. Guwahati: Lawyer’s Book Stall, 1962.
- Biswas S. S, Haque Zulekha. Terracotta Temples of Bengal. Calcutta: Friendship Publishers.
- Devi Amiya. Swargadeo Rudra Singha. Guwahati: Lawyer’s Book Stall, 1995.
- Gait, Sir Edward. A History of Assam. Guwahati: Saraswati, D. N. Publication, 1926.
- Mahanta Sarat. Concise History of Assam. Guwahati: DVS Publication, 2013