The rule of the Ahoms of Assam is unmatched in Indian history, for they ruled the vast Brahmaputra valley for 600 long years (1228 - 1826). Known for their military might, the Ahoms successfully fought off invaders, from the Sultans of Bengal to the Mughals, for centuries. But their downfall came not from a competing dynasty but a force from within – a rebellion that lasted 35 years (1769-1805). Many call the ‘Moamoria rebellion’ of the late 18th century an ‘Assamese revolution’, where the people rose in revolt against the oppression of the elite.
The Ahom Kingdom was established in 1228 CE by the Tai Ahom tribe who migrated from the Yunnan and Myanmar into the Brahmaputra valley. While the Ahoms followed the Tai Ahom religion, which worshipped spirits, over centuries they adopted Hindu practices.
As an administrative measure, the Ahom kings implemented a unique ‘Paik’ system, where every able-bodied male in Assam aged between 16 and 50 had to render compulsory labour without wages for 3 months a year. This was the backbone of the Ahoms’ socio-economic system.
Both these factors – religious and socio-economic – would play a very important role in triggering the Moamoria Rebellion, which eventually led to the demise of the Kingdom.
The Moamoria Sect
The rebellion is named after the Moamorias and the position they occupied in the Ahom social and administrative hierarchy. Vaishnavism, the worship of Vishnu through hymns, started to become popular in Assam in the 15th and 16th centuries, thanks to the efforts of Saint Srimanta Sankardev. The Moamoria Sattra or sect was a Vaishnava sect founded by Saint Aniruddhadev (1553-1626 CE), a relative of Saint Srimanta Sankardev.
The key feature of this sect was that it was run by the Shudra caste, the lowest in the caste hierarchy and that it accepted people from any caste, tribe or social status into its fold. Its egalitarian and humanitarian outlook made it very popular and its devotees pledged unflinching allegiance to their leader.
Over time, even the main tribal groups that had supported the Ahom Kingdom came to owe allegiance to the Moamoria Sattra. The most prominent among the tribes who embraced the socio-religious philosophy of this sect were the Morans (the mainstay of the Ahom militia), Sonowal Kacharis (gold washers), Chutiyas (expert archers and matchlock men), professional castes such as Hiras (potters), Tantis (weavers), Kaibartas (fishermen) and even many Ahom nobles and officers. The growing influence of the Moamorias set off alarm bells in the Ahom court.
But what exactly were the Moamorias rebelling against?
When the Ahoms first arrived in Assam, they were influenced by the practices of Hinduism, and the first person to introduce Hinduism in the Ahom court was King Sudangpha (r. 1397-1407). As subsequent rulers became more and more inclined towards Hinduism, the process of Sanskritization of the Ahom Kings gained momentum and reached its peak during the reign of Rudra Singha (r. 1696-1714) and his successor Siva Singha (r. 1714-1744).
On the advice of priests, Siva Singha agreed to bestow the supreme power of the state on his chief queen, Phuleshwari. Popularly known as the ‘Noor Jahan of Assam’, Queen Phuleshwari started meddling in Ahom religious practices and culture. She was determined to make Shaktism, or the worship of a Goddess in the form of Shakti, the state religion. In her zeal to do so, sometime between 1722 to 1731, she forced some of the Mahantas or high priests of the Moamoria Sattra to attend a Durga Puja in a Shakti shrine. Here, they were compelled to bow their heads before the Goddess and had the sacrificial blood of the animals smeared on their foreheads. This was a serious insult to the Mahantas, who were strict Vaishnavites. The Mahantas vowed to avenge this incident.
But this was not the first time the Moamoria sect had been subjected to practices that went against their beliefs. During the reigns of powerful kings like Surampha (r. 1641-1644) and Gadadhar Singha (r. 1681-1696), the Moamorias had been subjected to various atrocities, including the murder of their religious leaders.
Many followers of the sect and their leaders fled to other states to escape this persecution. During Rudra Singha’s reign, he brought back most of the Moamoria Mahantas and settled them in Majuli, an island in the Brahmaputra, so that he could keep a watchful eye on them. But neither he nor his successors were able to contain the rising tide of resentment, and in the late 18th century, the antagonism spilt over and took the form of a bitter and bloody uprising.
Apart from religious reasons, the uprising had socio-economic causes too. It was rooted in the Paik system followed by the Ahom Kings. Just like feudal hierarchies have alienated common folk from the privileged classes across history, resentment of a similar nature started building in Assam.
The Paik system was a labour system on which the Ahom economy depended. Adult and able males, called paiks, had to render service to the state and form its militia in return for a piece of land that they could not own but could cultivate and live off. The paiks belonged largely to the lower sections of society, which comprised various local tribes. Since they were expert professionals such as blacksmiths, tanners, potters, metal artisans or weapons makers, they played a crucial role in the economic set-up of the Ahom Kingdom.
The First Moamoria Revolt (1769 CE)
The Moran tribe, ardent followers of the Moamoria Sect, was the first to revolt against the established order. The rebellion was triggered by an incident in October 1769, when two members of the tribe, Ragha Moran and Nahar Khora, had brought elephants as an annual tribute but were mercilessly beaten. Then the ears of Nahar Khora were severed on the orders of a Minister or a Barbarua, who accused him of bringing a lame elephant. This greatly outraged their tribesmen, whose leader urged them to rise in revolt.
So, later that year, the Morans under the leadership of the two wives of Nahar Khora, namely Radha and Rukmini, barred a royal group from collecting timber from their area. Enraged, the Barbarua sent 2,000 men to attack the Morans. But they were defeated. The royalist camp then sent 14,000 men under General Haranath Senapati Phukan but he was arrested by the Morans and his troops surrendered. Thereafter, the royalist soldiers were defeated by the Moamorias in several engagements, which broke the soldiers’ morale. Even the attendants of the Ahom Generals became spies of the Moamorias.
The rebels soon occupied the old Ahom capital of Garhgaon and proceeded towards the new capital, Rangpur, from where King Lakshmi Singha fled to Gauhati, accompanied by his senior officials. But they were intercepted by a group of rebels, who captured them and imprisoned in Rangpur. Here, the Ahom King was forced to salute the Moamoria King (the rebels had declared their leader as the king in the Ahom capital). One of the senior Ahom officials and his sons were chained with iron fetters and many nobles were executed. Only the King was spared.
But the Moamorias went too far and the revolt began to unravel. The atrocities they heaped on the nobility and the followers of different sects made them unpopular. The new government they formed under Ragha Moran didn’t last long as they began fighting among themselves in just five months.
The Paik System was abolished by the rebels and the peasants were discharged from their compulsory military service. But the rebels were unable to fill this vacuum and the new government began to teeter.
The fugitive King Lakshmi Singha took advantage of this and, with the help of the Princess of Manipur, Kuranganayani, killed Ragha Moran. The deposed Lakshmi Singha was reinstated in 1770 bringing to an end the first Moamoria Revolt.
The Second and Third Moamoria Revolts (1782 and 1786-94)
During the rule of Lakshmi Singha’s son, Gaurinath Singha the Moamorias once again rose in revolt against the atrocities carried out on the king’s orders, where many rebels were killed without a trial in 1782. But with timely action taken by Ahom General Ghanashyam Burhagohain, this phase of the rebellion was quickly quelled.
In 1786, the Moamorias revolted again, by joining hands with the Daflas-Bahatiyas (paiks who had been allotted to the Bahatiya tribe. They defeated the forces sent by the King Gaurinath Singha, forced the monarch to flee to Gauhati and eventually occupied Rangpur. They installed Bharat Singha, a Moamoria, as their new King.
The struggle between the Ahoms and Moamorias continued, with huge losses on both sides. Between 1788 and 1789, Bharat Singha was a Moamariya leader who proclaimed himself as king and minted coins in his name till 1797. The power shifted from one side to another intermittently. Ahom Prince Pat Konwar was killed and many died of starvation and illness. Agriculture suffered greatly and there was an acute food shortage. The common people had suffered so much that they would have probably accepted a rebel leader but for the untiring efforts of the Ahom General Purnananda Burhagohain. He trained the villagers to fight back and also brought back many Brahmin Sattradhikars or heads of the Sattras.
However, there were others especially people around Majuli area, in Lakhimpur under the leader named Gobha, who were inspired to revolt against the Ahom monarchy, as a result of which the monarchy eventually collapsed. In a last-ditch effort to suppress the Moamorias, Ahom King Gaurinath Singha appealed to the British East India Company in Bengal. The British readily accepted the invitation as they wanted to restore the Ahom King to the throne as a puppet ruler.
In November 1792, the British moved in and suppressed any signs of revolt. They then proceeded towards Rangpur to restore the Ahom King. In February 1793, they signed a trade treaty with Gaurinath Singha, who returned to his capital in March 1794.
However, no sooner had the British recalled their troops from Rangpur than did Gaurinath Singha resort to severely persecuting the rebels. But the rebels took over Rangpur once again and Gaurinath Singha died in 1795.
Purnananda Burhagohain became the virtual leader of the Ahoms and played an important role in dealing with the Moamorias. Since the Moran tribe was the most powerful among the Moamorias, he entered into an agreement with their leader, Sarbananda Singha. According to this pact signed in 1805, the Moamorias ceded a territory called the Matak Kingdom with Bengamara (present-day Tinsukia) as the capital. It became a new kingdom, which agreed to pay an annual tribute to the Ahoms. The Moran tribe were the most resolute and persistent among the rebels, so this was a policy of 'divide and rule' by Purnananda Burhagohain, Prime Minister. There were no more revolts after that.
The civil war among the Ahoms lasted three long decades and left in its wake a shattered kingdom, which was vulnerable to invasions from the Burmese and the British. Eventually, the British annexed Assam, which spelt the end of the Ahom Kingdom in 1826.
The Moamoria Rebellion was a reaction to an oppressive socio-economic regime but it failed to put an alternative system in place, leading to its failure. Nevertheless, the uprising is unprecedented, for it brought to an end the rule of the longest-reigning dynasty in India.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mahasweta Dey is an MA in History from Cotton College, Assam and currently teaches history and social science in a school in Guwahati.
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