Close on the heels of the 400th birth anniversary of legendary Ahom General Lachit Barphukan, who crushed the Mughals, comes another good news about the Modi Government’s decision to nominate Assam’s Charaideo Maidams or Moidams of the Ahom kingdom for the UNESCO World Heritage Site tag this year.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose the Maidams, the mound burial tradition of the Tai Ahom community in Assam dating back to the 13th-19th century CE from among 52 sites across the country for the World Heritage Site status.
The decision to put forth the proposal to UNESCO for according World Heritage Site tag to Assam’s Charaideo Maidams by the Union Government was disclosed by Assam Chief Minister Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma in Guwahati. Later taking to Twitter handle, Dr Sarma said, “We are immensely grateful to Hon’ble PM Shri @narendramodi ji for selecting our dossier ‘Moidams – the Mound Burial System of Ahom Dynasty in Charaideo’ as nominations for @UNESCO World Heritage Site status this year. A great honour for Assam.
If selected, 90 royal burials at Charaideo will be the only cultural heritage site in the North East to get the coveted status. Assam making it to the nomination among 52 sites in India reflects our Adarniya PM’s love & respect for the rich cultural heritage of Assam & NE.”
There is currently not a single World Heritage Site in the category of cultural heritage not only in Assam but also in the entire North East part of India. Assam has two World Heritage Sites – the Kaziranga National Park and Manas National Park – but both are listed in the natural category.
The Maidams of Charaideo contain sacred burial grounds of Ahom kings and queens and is also the place of the ancestral Gods of the Ahoms. The tombs or Maidams of Ahom royalty at Charaideo hillocks resemble the shape of the pyramids and are objects of wonder, revealing the excellent architecture and skill of the sculptors and masons of Assam representing the late medieval period
The Maidams of Charaideo known as the ‘Pyramids of Assam’ are architectural marvels with unique designs. It contains sacred burial grounds of Ahom kings and queens and is also the place of the ancestral Gods of the Ahoms. The tombs or Maidams of Ahom royalty at Charaideo hillocks resemble the shape of the pyramids and are objects of wonder, revealing the excellent architecture and skill of the sculptors and masons of Assam representing the late medieval period. The sacred place is known for its collection of Maidams, tumuli or the Ahom royalty burial mounds.
Charaideo (literally: the shining city on the hills) is a town in the Charaideo district, 30 km away from the historic town of Sivasagar, was also the first capital of the Ahom dynasty, established by the first Ahom king Chaolung Siukapha in 1253.
According to Tai-Bailung-Mohong Buranji (a manuscript in Tai), Siukapha was buried in the capital city of Charaideo. The Ahoms reigned for almost 600 years until the British annexed their kingdom in 1826 following the Treaty of Yandabo.
Before the arrival of Siukapha, the place was a place of worship for local tribes like Moran and Barahi.
Though the capital of the Ahom kingdom was shifted many times, Charaideo remained the symbolic centre.
Of the 386 Maidams, only 90 royal burials at Charaideo are preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India and Assam State Archaeology Department. The remaining Maidams are in a state of decay.
The biggest unprotected Maidam is the Bali Maidam near Nimonagarh. This Maidam is called Bali Maidam because while the Britishers were plundering, they got obstructed by excess sands (Bali) in the surrounding areas.
On April 15, 2014, for the first time, a detailed dossier was submitted to UNESCO to recognise the Maidams – the mound-burial system of the Ahom dynasty as a World Heritage Site under the cultural heritage category.
It is to be noted that the Tai-Ahom clan, upon their migration from China, established their capital in different parts of the Brahmaputra River Valley between the 13th to 19th CE. Usurping the Barahi tribe, Chaolung Siukapha established the first capital of the Ahoms at the foothill of Patkai hills and named it Che-rai-doi or Che-tam-doi, meaning “a dazzling city above the mountain” and consecrated the site with a ritual.
While the clan moved from city to city, the landscape of Che-Rai-Doi or Charaideo continued to retain its position as the most sacred where the departed soul of the Royals could transcend into the after-life. Their unique system of vaulted mounds continued for almost 600 years until many Tai-Ahoms converted to Buddhism while others adopted the Hindu cremation system.
Maidams are vaulted chamber (chow-chali), often double storied, entered through an arched passage. Atop the hemispherical mud-mound layers of bricks and earth is laid, where a polygonal toe-wall and an arched gateway on the west reinforce the base of the mound. Eventually, the mound would be covered by a layer of vegetation reminiscent of a group of hillocks, transforming the area into an undulating landscape.
Excavation shows that each vaulted chamber has a centrally raised platform where the body was laid to rest.
Several objects used by the deceased during his lifetime, such as royal insignia, objects made from wood or ivory or iron, gold pendants, ceramic ware, weapons, clothes to the extent of human beings (only from the Luk-kha-khun clan) and other paraphernalia were buried with the members of the Ahom royalty.
There is a great variety in materials and systems of construction used in building a Maidam. From the period between 13th CE to 17th CE, wood was used as the primary material for construction, whereas from 18th CE onwards, stone and burnt bricks of various sizes were used for the inner chambers.
The Changrung Phukan (canonical text developed by the Ahoms) records the materials used to construct a Maidam. It records the construction using bricks and stones cemented by the mixture of black pulse, molasses, eggs of duck, barali fish, lime (from limestone and snail shell). Boulders of different sizes, broken stones, bricks, and broken bricks, were used to construct the superstructure, whereas large stone slabs were used for the sub-substructure.
Apart from recording material used in constructing a Maidam, the Changrung Phukan also documents the number of labourers, duration of works, votive offerings made and rituals followed during the cremation of the Royals. The crematory rituals of the Royal Ahoms were conducted with great pomp and grandeur, reflecting their hierarchy. This unique system of vaulted mounds continued for about 600 years until many Tai-Ahoms converted to Buddhism while others adopted the Hindu cremation system.
Charaideo at the foothills of Patkai range was the first capital and the most revered landscape of the Tai Ahoms. Believing that their kings were Gods on earth, the Tai Ahoms chose to bury the deceased monarchs in Charaideo, the most sacred core of their kingdom. The continuity of this funerary for around 600 years has manifested in creating an undulating landscape reminiscent of the mountains of heaven and reflected the Tai Ahom belief of life, death, spirit and the ‘other world’.
The Maidams of Charaideo remain the only area where the largest concentration of these vaulted-mound burial chambers exists together, demonstrating a grand royal burial landscape unique to the Tai Ahom community.
The series of Maidams at the foothills of the Patkai range together to show the sculpted burial landscape reminiscent of the hills. Although subject to vandalism by treasure seekers in the early 20th CE, the group of Maidams in Charaideo has been systematically restored to safeguard its structural integrity.
The undulating man-made burial landscape of Charaideo demonstrates the funerary traditional practice of Tai Ahoms, a practice which ceased to exist after its rulers converted to other religions (Hinduism and Buddhism).
Described elaborately in their canonical text (Phukan), the landscape created by a series of Maidams together with the material objects recovered from the vaulted chambers shows the Tai Ahom belief of life, death and the appropriation of this belief system to create a landscape that is’ like a dazzling city above the mountain’ befitting their God-like kings stature.
The property and buffer zones are jointly protected and managed jointly by the Archaeological Survey of India and the State Department of Archaeology under the Ancient Monuments and Sites Remains Act’ 1958 (Amended in 2010) and by the Assam Ancient Monuments and Records Act 1959, respectively.
Of the 386 Maidams, only 90 royal burials at Charaideo are preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India and Assam State Archaeology Department. The remaining Maidams are in a state of decay. The biggest unprotected Maidam is the Bali Maidam near Nimonagarh. This Maidam is called Bali Maidam because while the Britishers were plundering, they got obstructed by excess sands (Bali) in the surrounding areas
In the ritual system and tradition of entombing the mortal remains of the Ahom kings, Maidams of Charaideo can be compared to the royal tombs of ancient China and the Pyramids of the Egyptian Pharaohs.
With the shifting of Ahom capital to south and eastwards, such burial sites have been seen in different parts of Northern Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Northern Burma, Southern China and Northeast India – together defining the region where Tai-Ahom culture prevailed. However, in this entire region, the cluster of Maidams in Charaideo distinguishes itself in scale, concentration and being located in the most sacred land of the Tai-Ahoms.
In the wake of their universal value, Assam and its people are waiting with bated breath that the Maidams of Charaideo will get the UNESCO tag as a World Heritage Site that will catapult the Ahom burial sites to the world tourism map.