Assam’s Unsung Moi-Dams: Reclaiming A War Hero’s Legacy

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It is easy to miss them if you’re zipping along National Highway 37 in Assam’s Dibrugarh district. So, when you’re approaching Sessa, 30 minutes from the town of Dibrugarh, watch out for two rather large but gentle mounds that draw into view in the unkempt fields along the highway. They are too perfect to be natural formations and stand out from the otherwise unremarkable landscape.

These humps are the burial mounds, or Moi-Dams, of two historic figures in Assam’s history. One of them is a legendary war hero, Alon Dihingia Borborua, and the other is his son, Deka Dihingia Borborua, who was also an important administrator in the erstwhile Ahom Kingdom. And, yet, despite their historic significance, these funerary structures have been sitting here in stoic silence, at the mercy of the elements, for more than 300 years.

Who Were The Ahoms?

The Moi-Dams have been nicknamed the ‘Pyramids of Assam’ and are the resting place of kings, nobles and other historic figures of the Tai-Ahoms. This ethnic community, led by a Prince named Sukapha, came in from Yunnan province in China in the first half of the 13th century CE and settled in what is present-day Assam. The Ahoms ruled the region for around 600 years. They were the most powerful Empire in Assam as well as the longest-running dynasty in India.

While the districts of Charaideo (Ahom’s first capital) and Sivasagar have the largest concentration of around 500 Moi-Dams, there are other burial mounds scattered across the state too, mostly of nobles and high-ranking officers.

What Are Moi-Dams?

Just like any other migratory group, the Ahoms too brought their traditional beliefs with them. In time, as they promoted a homogenised society, to assimilate completely with the myriad tribes of Assam, the Ahoms shed many of their ancient customs. Those that remained were core beliefs and practices, such as Mae-Dam-Mae-Phi, a ritual revolving around ancestor worship.

The Tai Ahom community’s belief in the afterlife was very powerful, so they prayed to their ancestors, who they regarded as their guardian angels. According to this tradition, a deceased individual transformed into a spirit and looked after his or her living family from the afterlife. The Ahoms revered and worshipped their ancestors, and sought their blessings and protection.

The Ahoms believed that the spirit of the deceased resided in a Moi-Dam, a term derived from ‘Phrang Moi Dam’, where Phrang Moi means to ‘bury’ and 'dam' means the spirit of the dead. To make sure the spirit had all it needed for its comfort, the deceased was buried along with articles of daily use, such as clothes, gold and silver utensils, bedsteads, and treasures such as jewellery, ornaments and other valuables. Kings were also buried with their royal insignia, weapons, and attendants, wives and pet animals, dead or alive.

A Moi-Dam consists of four main features – an underground vault comprising one or more chambers; a hemispherical roof visible above-ground; an octagonal boundary wall at the base of the roof with an arched entrance; and a small pavilion on the top of the roof. The materials used were mud, brick and stone, held together by mud or a lime plaster made of natural substances. The size of the Moi-Dam varied with the status and power of the individual buried inside.

Moi-Dams were used by the Ahoms as sacred mausoleums for centuries until the practice was given up in favour of cremation when the Ahoms embraced Hinduism.

Two Great Ahoms

So who exactly were the two men whose burial mounds we see at Sessa today?

Statue of Lachit Borphukan (in the middle) at Sivasagar with other Ahom Warriors | Wikimedia Commons

While the Battle of Saraighat (1671 CE) led by the legendary Ahom General Lachit Borphukan and its role in halting the Mughals’ advance in Assam are well known, it was the Battle of Itakhuli (1682 CE) that finally routed the Mughals form the region.

The great hero of this battle was Alon Dihingia Borborua, whose mausoleum is one of the two Moi-Dams in Sessa. Occupying a post (Borborua) equivalent to that of a present-day Cabinet Minister, Alon Dihingia is remembered for his incredible leadership in the Battle of Itakhuli. This military conflict, fought on both land and water, marked the end of the long-standing Ahom-Mughal conflicts. It made sure that the Mughals would never invade the Ahom Kingdom again.

Garhgaon Palace | Wikimedia Commons

It was in recognition of the exemplary service rendered by Alon Dihingia that Ahom King Gadadhar Singha (r. 1681-1696) had an entire road built and dedicated this to him. Known as the ‘Barbarua Ali’, this arterial road started from a place close to another iconic road named Garhgaon Ali of Sivasagar and extended all the way to Mohanaghat in Dibrugarh. Now most of the Borborua Ali doubles as the NH-37.

Thowra Doul with the figures of two mythical animals central to Tai Ahom architecture | www.abhijna-emuseum.com

Alon Dihingia also had the famous Thowra Doul of Sivasagar built in 1683-85 CE. This brick temple, which has a tank adjacent to it, now skirts the NH-37, a heartbeat from the historic town of Sivasagar.

Within the premises of the Barbarua Tea Estate of Dibrugarh is the famous Borborua Pukhuri or Pond spread across several acres. It was dug by Deka Dihingia Borborua, son of Alon Dihingia, who was also appointed to the office of the Borborua by King Rudra Singha (r. 1696-1714).

Borborua Pukhuri | Author

Interestingly, the historical significance of this pond was discovered only after the discovery of a rock inscription by labourers working nearby in the 1964. That inscription, which dates to the period of Deka Dihingia, mentions a few land grants made by him with the King's permission. It is believed that the present Borborua Haat or bazaar, which flanks the NH-37, once sat on the banks of this historic pond until the pond was incorporated into the Barbaruah Tea Estate.

Disappearing Heritage

The two Moi-Dams at Sessa are protected monuments under the Assam Ancient Monuments And Records Act 1959 but that has made no difference to their condition. They are situated in an area that turns swampy with a thick overgrowth of bushes and shrubs during the monsoon, and one can only imagine the damage this has wrought. Moreover, the boundary wall meant to protect the site from trespassers and vandals has caved in at several places. No one seems to be paying any attention to them.

A board at the Sessa Mound | Author

Their fate is no different from the numerous Moi-Dams scattered across Upper Assam. It is only the 30-odd royal burial mounds at the Charaideo complex that are protected by the state and national archaeology authorities.

Shockingly, there has been so little attention paid to these archaeologically priceless structures that the Moi-Dam of the first Ahom King, Sukapha, was discovered in Charaideo as recently as 2015 and has generated little interest. In some places, grave robbers have vandalized these mausoleums and looted their sacred treasures.

Even the effort to get some of the Moi-Dams in Charaideo onto the UNESCO World Heritage Sites List is not without apparent bias. Conservation activists point out that only 14 royal burial mounds have been included in the dossier to be sent to UNESCO for the tag, whereas the actual number should have been much more. It does not even include the Moi-Dam of Sukapha.

It is time we turned our attention to this slice of the great Ahom Dynasty, to respect the dead and preserve an important part of Assam’s rich heritage.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Izaaz Ahmed is a communications expert with a profound fondness for past and antiquity.

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