The Ahoms are the descendants of Tai clan (from the present-day Yunan province of China) and are said to have migrated to the valley of Brahmaputra from present-day Myanmar in the 13th century. Their leader Chaolung Lung Siu-Ka-Pha or Sukaphaa laid the foundation of a new state by suppressing the older political system in the 16th century and this Ahom dynasty went on to rule the region for more than 600 years from 1228 to 1838 till it was annexed by the British.
It is thus only fitting that the word ‘Assam’ is derived from ‘Asama’ or ‘invincible’, the local name for the Ahoms. But it wasn’t only their political or administrative prowess that was formidable. The Ahom rulers were also great builders and many of the medieval shrines and palaces in the plains of North-Eastern India are credited to them.
The signature features of their monuments are their sheer size and solidity, both of which can be seen in Sivasagar, the Ahom capital from 1699 to 1788. Some of the standout Ahom structures here are the Kareng Ghar or palace, Rang Ghar or amphitheatre, Sivadol temple complex and Talatal Ghar or military station.
Talatal Ghar, on the bank of the Dikhow River, was built by Suremphaa or Swargadeo Rajeswar Singha after his coronation in 1751 CE. However, it is believed that his father Rudra Singha originally built a palace made essentially of wood and this was replaced by the present edifice of brick masonry by his son.
Amazingly, three of the seven storeys of Talatal Ghar are underground. It was an army base and this design provided extra security. While the overall architecture resembles that of the Mughals, the design of its staircases has a close affinity to some staircase patterns in northern Thailand.
Suremphaa also rebuilt the grand Kareng Ghar after the old palace was destroyed. It had an audience hall where the king addressed people and which is beautifully described by Shihabuddin, a writer who accompanied Mir Jumla, a Mughal subehdar, on his expedition in 1662. He says, “It stands on 66 pillars... The sides of this palace have been partitioned into wooden lattices of various designs carved in relief, and adorned, both within and outside, with mirrors of brass polished so finely that when sunbeams fall on them, the eye is dazzled by the flashing back of light. This mansion was completed by 12,000 men working for one year.”
Rang Ghar, the ampitheatre, was first constructed during the reign of Swargadeo Rudra Singha. Originally made of bamboo and wood, it was later rebuilt in brick by Swargadeo Pramatta Singha between 1744 and 1750. Rang Ghar was the royal sports pavilion, where Ahom kings and nobles were spectators at games like buffalo fights.
Interestingly, it is believed to be one of the oldest surviving amphitheatres in Asia. The roof of Rang Ghar is shaped like an inverted royal Ahom longboat. The base of the monument has a series of arched entrances, while a decorative pair of carved stone crocodiles crowns the roof.
One of the most-visited places built by the Ahom rulers was Sivadol, a temple complex with shrines dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Durga. Located alongside the Sivasagar tank, it was built in 1734 by Bar Raja Ambika, the queen of Swargadeo Siba Singha.
North-East India is an earthquake-prone zone and the Ahoms mastered the engineering skills needed to build quake-resistant monuments. Their techniques were so sound that their monuments have survived eight to nine earthquakes, including the especially devastating one in 1950.
For a long time now, scholars have been studying the techniques used by Ahom engineers, with astonishing results. For instance, ground-penetrating radar used at Talatal Ghar found that its foundation walls, an extension of the walls above ground, had walls built parallel to them and the space between these was packed with earth so they could absorb the impact of earthquakes. Also, instead of cement, a local mixture of rice and egg was used as a binding agent in these buildings. Further, large monuments were always built near water bodies as the moist earth in the vicinity absorbed seismic and other shock waves during natural disasters.