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Why Ahom heritage stands tall in Sivasagar

Located in a highly seismic zone, monuments from the Ahom era in Sivasagar have now withstood tremors for centuries

The Rang Ghar or the entertainment arena and sporting pavilion of the Ahom kings. Photo: iStockphoto

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It’s a searingly hot October day and the lotuses have just begun to bloom in the Borpukhuri, the Sivasagar tank spread across 257 acres. The Shiva dol, or temple, stands majestic on its banks, its shikhara framed against the blue sky. The devotees are scattered across the vast expanse, lending the space an uncrowded feel. Chants can be heard on the loudspeaker.

I have been to Sivasagar (Sibsagar), a city in upper Assam, several times in the past 15 years—mostly on fly-by visits for family functions or reporting assignments. For the first time last year, I managed to plan a leisure trip to explore the architectural and archaeological wonders that lie between Dibrugarh and Sivasagar, in between visits to friends and relatives.

The complex is a cluster of three temples, dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Devi, or the Mother Goddess. The walls of the dol feature exquisite carvings. A particularly striking one, of the 16-arm Durga slaying Mahishasura, looks luminous against the grey walls. The central tower, at 104ft, is considered to be the tallest in any Shiva temple in India. Most visitors head to the Borpukhuri after paying obeisance to the Shiva linga, with the children delighting in the sight of playful catfish in the waters. A sliver of breeze cuts through the cloying heat, tickling the flowers.

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The dol is just one of the many Ahom-era monuments in Sivasagar, capital of the Ahom dynasty from 1699-1788. The Ahoms are believed to have ruled Assam for six centuries, until the advent of the Burmese in 1819, and then the British. The temple, built on the orders of Bar Raja Ambika, the wife of king Swargadeo Siva Singha, dates back to 1734.

Shiva Dol. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Shiva Dol. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ahom-era monuments, the material used and the manner of construction, are fascinating architects and archaeologists, for they have withstood tremors in an active seismic zone when those that came before or after haven’t been able to.

A short drive away from the temple complex is the Rang Ghar or the entertainment arena and sporting pavilion of the Ahom kings. The two-storeyed structure, believed to be one of the oldest surviving amphitheatres in Asia, looms behind well-laid flower beds populated with fiery red blossoms. Made with mud and wood, this unique structure is shaped like an inverted boat, adorned with crocodiles on either side.

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A flight of stairs takes one to the viewing balconies, where the sun seems to be playing a fine game of light and shadow. Family members act as the perfect guides, peppering the visit with delightful anecdotes. This space, it seems, once hosted ferocious buffalo fights. When we visit, restoration work on the structure, built during the reign of Swargadeo Rudra Singha, is on. The impact of earthquakes on the Rang Ghar is evident, in the cracks in the walls, for instance. But it’s standing.

To understand the architectural style of the Ahoms, it is important to place the dynasty within Assam’s historical framework. Manjil Hazarika, assistant professor and head of the archaeology department at Cotton University, Guwahati, shares some fascinating insights about the geomorphology of the Brahmaputra valley. The prehistoric sites, dating to the early and late Neolithic periods, are located far away from the valley, on hills and hillocks. The plains have not revealed much evidence of prehistory as of now, perhaps due to changes in river course. The valley begins to show signs of early settlement during the early Christian Era , particularly in places like Guwahati and Goalpara.

“With that, the historical phase began in the valley, either near the main Brahmaputra river or close to its tributaries. You can find mention of the Kamarupa and Davaka kingdoms (fourth century) on the Allahabad pillar inscription of Samudra Gupta. Gradually, valleys such as Kalang-Kapili, Kapili-Jamuna, Dhansiri-Doiyang, and further Tezpur-Sonitpur regions were also occupied for human settlement. This is evident from the rich varieties of material culture available in these regions,” says Hazarika.

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Each of these valley systems has early medieval temple remains. Most of the architecture in the Brahmaputra valley from the eighth to 12th centuries has been attributed to the Salasthambha and Pala dynasties, with their capitals in present-day Tezpur and north Guwahati, respectively. Though the remains of temples from this era can be found in abundance in the region, they are mostly in the form of ruins. Made with large stone blocks and dry masonry technique, they have not been able to withstand the earthquakes through the centuries.

“From the 13th century onwards, art and architecture started declining in the valley due to political turmoil in the region. Bigger dynasties started giving way to smaller principalities,” explains Hazarika. “Only with the advent of the Ahom and Koch dynasties in the 16th century did a big wave of construction activity start. So, you can still find dols, xakus (or bridges), ramparts, palaces, golaghar, and more, from that time in places like Sivasagar.”

The Ahoms, who are believed to have migrated from Yunnan in south-west China from the 13th century onwards, established their first capital in Charaideo, later moving to Sivasagar, and slowly began to adopt the tenets of Hinduism; they were strongly influenced by the Shakti cult.

Their architecture, and its adaptability to the seismic activity in the region, is now increasingly a subject of study. The Ahoms, it seems, believed in using locally available materials and thin bricks combined with a paste of rice, eggs, pulses and fish scales in construction.

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Ahom Monuments: An Architectural Marvel (New Perspective), a paper authored by Milan Kumar Chauley of the Archaeological Survey of India’s Guwahati circle and published in Heritage: Journal Of Multidisciplinary Studies In Archaeology (2016), states that while the early Ahom rulers used perishable materials for construction, brick and lime mortar came into use from the time of Rudra Singha (1696-1714). “The whole of the Northeast falls in a highly seismic zone and in the last 500 years at least 14 big earthquakes are recorded to have taken place in Assam. And, it is surprising to see that the extant monuments at Sivasagar (or Sibsagar) have withstood at least 8 to 9 earthquakes (including the last one in 1950, which is believed to be one of the world’s most devastating earthquakes),” noted Chauley.

Even when houses in the Assam-type style from the colonial period collapsed, the Ahom monuments survived with only minor damage. “This very fact gives an insight into the fact that the Ahoms very judiciously used the available resources for making their structures earthquake- resistant,” he added. “(It seems that) the Ahom architects had an in-depth idea about the geological and soil conditions of the area.”

Chauley says the Ahom engineers used boulders and earth/clay to fill up the foundation trench, with a super structure of brick in lime mortar—a contrast to the practice of using similar material for both. And their monuments continue to bear testimony to centuries-old wisdom.

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