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Assam’s Charaideo Moidams are sacred. Now Unesco bid moves it to India’s political centre

Showcasing Ahom dynasty’s burial mounds is part of the BJP govt’s emphasis on warriors who fought the Mughals. Ahoms stopped Mughals’ expansion into the Northeast.

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Charaideo: Satyen Konwer remembers playing on the dome-shaped mounds in Upper Assam’s Charaideo district. The 61-year-old used to climb them to steal sugarcane. “Sometimes, a cow would fall into the pit, and we would tie a rope to the tree and pull it out,” he said. These mounds called the Moidams were the burial chambers of the deceased Ahom kings and nobles.

Today, Konwer’s playground is India’s sole nomination for the UNESCO World Heritage Site status this year. It offers a window into the Tai Ahom dynasty, which is almost 600 years old. More importantly, it’s part of the BJP government’s push to highlight warriors across India who fought the Mughals. The UNESCO bid moves the sacred Moidams to India’s political centre. From Emperor Shah Jahan to Aurangzeb, the Ahoms fought the Mughals and prevented their expansion into the Northeast.

General view of Moidams at Charaideo archaeological site | Special arrangement
General view of Moidams at Charaideo archaeological site | Special arrangement

Surrounded by hills and forests, water bodies, and tufted wild grass, the Moidams in Charaideo are considered sacred. For the local people, it’s a place where holy spirits reside under the endless sky. The royal burial ground in Chukafa Nagar where Konwer played as a child —about 380 km from Guwahati—is the ‘nominated property’.

A team from the Directorate of Archaeology led by archaeologist Dr Deepi Rekha Kouli took two years to prepare the World Heritage nomination dossier, which was submitted to UNESCO a few weeks ago in January.

“We met Tai experts to understand the manuscripts and collated those with evidence from exploring and excavating. It is a step towards recognition of the heritage of the Tai Ahom community,” said exploration officer Simran Sambhi, who is part of the team.

Konwer and other residents from Chukafa Nagar and nearby villages are happy that the proposition of World Heritage status for the Moidams will bring publicity, protection and preservation. But there is some anxiety about a possible loss of their intimately guarded sanctity.

“Our people would get economic and livelihood opportunities,” said Konwer. And word has already started to spread.

“People from the seven villages under this revenue circle and adjoining areas have been involved in preserving the sanctity of Moidams. The history of Assam and the heritage of our Ahom community is associated with it,” said Indreswar Konwer, 45, the village head of Bakupukhuri Haabi revenue village in Charaideo district.

For the Directorate of Archaeology, it could mean more funds. In 2021, it received Rs 25 crore from the Assam government, which had made the allocation in the 2019-20 state budget.

“We have carried out work including landscape development, boundary wall construction, conservation, etc. This fund is more or less sufficient now, but in near future, we might need more — for long-term conservation and protection of the site,” said Dr Nabajit Deori, deputy director at the Directorate of Archaeology and project coordinator for the Charaideo Moidam archaeological site.

Everyone is on tenterhooks waiting to see if the dossier will meet UNESCO’s “completeness check.” The results are expected to be announced by the end of March.

The Directorate of Archaeology team is waiting for a delegation from UNESCO to visit the site for final verification. If they are satisfied with all the criteria and norms, then the Moidams of the Ahom dynasty will soon be a world heritage site, said technical officer Dr Chabina Hassan.

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Discovery of Moidams, excavations

There was a time when children played in the royal necropolis, cows fell into burial pits, and encroachers dug up the mounds for plantations. The Moidams have always been revered by villagers who trace their ancestors to the Ahoms.

Over the years, encroachments have been cleared and the sugarcane crop uprooted. The site includes 90 burial mounds spread across 95.02 hectares in the Patkai foothills. As per historical records, it is home to the burial mounds of majority of the Tai Ahom kings. The site along with a 754.52-hectare buffer zone is jointly maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Directorate of Archaeology of Assam government. The buffer zone is home to historical tanks or water bodies that date back to the Ahom period, tea gardens and estates, and even a few sparsely populated villages.

Of the 386 Moidams explored so far from Tipam Hills in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia district to Nagaon in Central Assam, the 90 Moidams in Charaideo are considered to be accurate examples of historic burial traditions of the Ahom dynasty.

It was only in 1951 that the ASI declared four large Moidams in Charaideo as protected sites for their historical significance. This led to the site being declared a national property in 1975. In 2015, the adjacent Moidams were notified for protection by the Directorate of Archaeology and the Indigenous and Tribal Faith and Culture Department of the Assam government.

Potsherd and bricks recovered from both Moidam and Rajabari area; terracotta decorative artefacts, ivory carving recovered from Rajabari in Buffer Zone | Special arrangement
Potsherd and bricks recovered from both Moidam and Rajabari area; terracotta decorative artefacts, ivory carving recovered from Rajabari in Buffer Zone | Special arrangement

Most of the burial mounds remain unexplored. Excavations of two Moidams by the ASI between 2000 and 2003 revealed more architectural details. They recovered human skulls, terracotta plaques, decorated ivory pieces and gold pendants. In the past two years, three more Moidams have been excavated.

 Tension among villagers, sanctity of Moidams

Among many local residents, Konwer, there’s an undercurrent of tension. They are of the view that opening the Moidams for exploration and excavation could violate their sanctity.

Temple within the site where locals offer Tarpan Puja and celebrate Me-Dam-Me-Phi | Special arrangement
Temple within the site where locals offer Tarpan Puja and celebrate Me-Dam-Me-Phi | Special arrangement

Similar concerns over the conflict between the worship of ancient ancestral artefacts and the work of museum curators and archaeologists were aired by indigenous people in the United States, which gave birth to their landmark 1990 Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

“There’s much more to be done for the protection and preservation of Moidams, but we don’t appreciate the digging of burial grounds. There are cavities through which you can enter to clean it, and do your study. But we don’t want it to be broken down completely,” Konwer said.

In the Ahom tradition, the original rulers were seen as offspring of God who had come down to the earth to govern mortals. They are considered Divine Kings or Swargadeos.

Konwer recalls when many years ago the sugarcane crop was removed by local authorities from the tops of the mounds. It affected the shape of mounds, he claimed.

The Directorate of Archaeology oversees researching and determining a clearer timeline of the necropolis, its history and traditions associated with the royal burials. Excavations are underway, and the thick vegetation is being cleared. Now, archaeologists find themselves walking the fine line between digging for answers in the burial grounds without disregarding the local sentiment. Even today, villagers perform rituals to remember and honour the Ahom kings.

Others, like Indreswar Konwer, fear that the Moidams will be destroyed if full-fledged excavations take place.  “It would not be possible to build another Moidam like those in Charaideo even if all of Assam comes together to construct them,” he said. The pillaging and plundering of Moidams in the past further fuel these fears.

For the last two years, former ASI director Dr KC Nauriyal and the Directorate of Archaeology team have been talking to locals. No, the Moidams will not be destroyed. Yes, the sanctity of the sacred grounds will be maintained. Their patience is paying off.

“We have to convince each and every person. In our last interaction with the stakeholders including local people, through workshops and cultural awareness programmes, few assured full cooperation and said we could go ahead with all research work,” said Nauriyal, under whose guidance the Directorate of Archaeology team prepared the World Heritage nomination dossier.

Fifty-six-year-old Bireswar Bora, another local resident from Chukafa Nagar is convinced.

“As a native, I heartily welcome the initiative and if there needs to be any exploration for further research, we would not object,” he declared.

So far, the team is exploring mounds within the nominated site. “We have also undertaken simultaneous conservation of three-four Moidams here,” said Nauriyal. The boundary wall of the site along with the pathways and staircases are nearing completion.

For ASI official Joy Chandra Bora, who is deployed at the site, the UNESCO tag could create more awareness of the Ahom dynasty in schools and colleges. The Moidams of Charaideo are more than just a job for him.

“The Swargadeos’ Moidams are a thing of intrigue and marvel. We see schools and college students visiting during summer vacation in July. Children are curious to know about the history— at times, teachers make an effort to tell them, but many teachers themselves are ignorant about the history of Charaideo,” said Bora.

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Charaideo: The chosen place 

From the first capital city of the Ahom dynasty to the tea estates during British rule, change has remained constant in Charaideo over hundreds of years. The exceptions are the royal Moidams.

The Ahom dynasty (13th to 19th centuries) not only established political and cultural unity among different ethnic groups in Assam but also brought about economic stability to the region. Culturally and traditionally, they are considered members of the Tai (Tai-Yai) people. In 1214, they migrated from the ethnic Tai state of Mong Mao (presently part of southern China and northern Myanmar), and entered the Brahmaputra Valley through the Patkai Pass, along the Indo-Myanmar border.

They crossed the Patkai mountains to reach eastern Assam through Khampti, Singpho or Naga villages under the leadership of Tai prince, Siu-Ka-Pha. He was accompanied by his family, nobles, priests, 9,000 men, 300 horses and two elephants.

Siu-Ka-Pha established the Tai Ahom kingdom in Upper Assam and became the first king or Swargadeo of the Ahom dynasty. He chose to establish his capital in Che-Rai-Doi, which means a dazzling city on the hills. Later it came to be known as Charaideo. It was the administrative centre of the Ahoms for 145 years.

Though the later Ahom kings shifted their capitals, most of the kings, members of the royal family and high-ranking officials are entombed at Charaideo. But by the early 19th century, as the British cemented their hold on India, the city was abandoned.

Much like the pyramids of the Egyptian pharaohs, tombs of Ahom royalty were filled with gold and silver utensils, quilts and pillows embroidered with gold thread, precious stones and traditional objects such as cowrie shells, royal insignia carved in ivory and cannon balls. But over the years, they have been pillaged by treasure hunters.

The temples, shrines and Moidams were stripped brick by brick to build residences and tea factories, according to historical records.Post-Independence, the destruction slowed down in the wake of public resentment and increasing demands for protection.

The last Ahom king, Purandar Singha (1807-1846) whose Moidam was traced in the Jorhat district, had requested the British to abstain from converting the elevated areas of Charaideo into tea plantations as much of the landscape had royal Moidams.

While a large part of the hill tracts of Upper Assam and Charaideo were transformed into tea plantations under British rule, the core area of royal burials survived this change, probably because the mounds remained obscured in dense vegetation.

Remnants of the dense growth in the protected site have made work difficult for the Directorate of Archaeology team.

“It was not possible to penetrate Moidam No 38 for excavation because of the wild vegetation. Over the past two years, we have cleared the thick undergrowth, and exposed a few more Moidams,” said Nauriyal.

The Moidams

The simple green mounds belie the architectural complexity of the Moidams. Concealed under them are underground burial chambers and alcoves with five components: the Garvha (underground chamber or pit), Tai (vault), Ga-Moidam or body of the Moidam (earthen covering over the vault), Dole or Chou Cha Li (temple-like open pavilion atop), and Garh (dwarf boundary wall). A narrow strip of open land with cobblestone edging encircles the mound.

They are found as single or double units and even clusters across a wooded landscape complete with water bodies. The height of a royal Moidam can vary from 0.3 to 17 metres.

Within the buffer zone are the essential components of the funeral rituals like the Sha-Niya Ali and Dhodhur Ali, ceremonial pathways to carry the dead, Petu Dhua Pukhuri, a sacred pond where the intestines of the corpses were removed, and the Sha Dhuwa Pukhuri, another sacred pond where a body was bathed before it was embalmed and taken to the Moidam.

Historical records show that during the reign of King Suremphaa or Rajeswar Singha (1751-1769), Ahoms had started incorporating local practices of cremation before entombing the ashes and constructing a Moidam.

The word Moidam originates from the Tai script ‘Phrang Mai’ (to bury) and Dam (spirit of the dead).  According to villagers, some families claim to be descendants of the royal Ahoms.

“The ones who consider Charaideo a pious place offer prayer here. Many remove their shoes at the gates before entering the site,” said Joy Chandra Bora.

Horais being arranged for Tarpan | Special arrangement
Horais being arranged for Tarpan | Special arrangement

The Ahoms hold two annual rituals to honour the dead. Tarpan is observed in December and the Ahom festival of Me-Dam-Me-Phi (worshipping of ancestors) is celebrated on 31 January.

“I first came to know about the importance of Moidams and the history of the royal burials from elders during a Tarpan ceremony in 1984. It was a spiritual awakening,” said Konwer.

He recalls his youth when the area was thickly forested. But those massive tracts of forests were later replaced by tea plantations.

“We were made to run errands for Tarpan as children. There is a nearby Naamghar (prayer hall) where we used to gather ahead of Tarpan. The night before the puja, hundreds of villagers would come together and prepare 42 Horais (offerings made of traditional bell-metal) and perform naam-kirtan (prayers).”

Tarpan is observed in a temple within the protected site.

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Oral history and lost Moidams

While filling in the blanks in the Ahom Dynasty, Nauriyal cannot discount oral history, which could be “conflicting” and “difficult to authenticate through excavation” at times. But the lore passed down and probably embellished by generations are potential leads to discovering new Moidams.

As per oral history, about 10 Moidams were vandalised by the army of Mir Jumla II, a prominent governor under Aurangzeb who invaded Assam in 1662. But it would be difficult to find out the precise location of those Moidams.

Similarly, villagers are convinced that the Moidam of the first king, Siu-Ka-Pha, is in the buffer zone.

But oral lore is far from being ironclad. The dossier submitted to UNESCO makes no mention of this or any individual Moidam for that matter.

“There are possibilities, but without irrefutable proof, we cannot ascertain these claims,” said Nauriyal.

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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