We’ve made our way to the ancient capital of Assam, full of monuments of the Ahoms.
Digboi to Sivasagar | Upper Assam | North East India
We’ve been really well looked after by friends and relatives and far from the backpacker roughing it style. Apart from long, bad dreams from the malaria pills, I’m sleeping well and eating a little too well.
Bad dreams when I keep taking the pills
Bad dreams are a known side-effect of malaria pills. I woke up after a lengthy dream of Sarah being unfaithful and Sarah dreamt I had a secret baby from a prior marriage. We then had a mock argument about whose behaviour was worse. We have another twenty bad dreams ahead of us but on the positive side, she’s still unaware of my secret love-child.
Donny sent us a driver for our five hour drive from Digboi to Sivasagar. A five hour car ride goes quickly in Assam. The scenery is just too interesting, it’s a scrolling tapestry of idyllic rural life, a binge-worthy series indeed.
Sivasagar (or spelled Sibsagar) is a bustling town centred around a Burmese style temple and a huge tank of water from which it takes its name meaning the Ocean of Lord Siva.
In the morning we entered an old Ahom temple called Sivadol where a Brahmin sat crossed legged in the dank, cool interior by a pool of petal-filled water in the light of butter lamps. The smoke of incense sticks drifted upwards making it very atmospheric.
Sarah took some amazing photos in there, they looked like 16th century scenes in oils, so I’d recommend visiting her site to see them.
1974: My early memories of going to the Sivadol
One of my earliest memories was visiting this temple in 1974 with my dad, aunt and cousin Meeta. I would ask my dad so many questions; when we arrived in the inner sanctum of the temple, I asked, ‘Where’s God then?’. I was expecting to see a man on a throne. My dad just replied ‘down there,’ and pointed to the pool of holy water and I wondered if we should swim.
Then I asked him, ‘If smoking is bad why do we put incense here.’ I think my dad sighed; I’m sure he gave a considered answer; he always did.
Sivasagar is pronounced completely differently by the Assamese using a subtle sound not normally used in spoken English (unless you’re Scottish or Scouse or you speak German.)
Confused? Then here’s a little guide to this oft-used Assamese sound …
How do the Assamese pronounce ‘Assam’?
Assam is pronounced Ass-am or Us-aam in the west but the Assamese themselves pronounce it …
… the O is pronounced as in hot and the ‘ch’ is a light throat-clearance noise that just tickles the tonsils. The sound is similar to the ‘ch’in the Scottish word for lake, loch.
This subtle sound is also found in German (for example in their word for I, Ich ); it’s also heard in Liverpool’s chicken shops where someone might say ‘chicken and a can of coke’ as ‘chichen and a chan of choke.’
This subtle ch sound is sometimes written as an ‘x’ if someone is writing Assamese in Roman letters, so they might want to keep the pronunciation true and write it as ‘Oxom’.
So, not wanting to labour the point and for completeness, Siva in Assamese is pronounced Xibo, and Sagar is pronounced Xagor. So the town is pronounced in Assamese as Xiboxagor. Who would have thought.
The Ahom monuments of Sivasagar
The Ahoms were a tribe who came to Assam from Yunan in China, via Burma, in the 1200s and they established a royal dynasty that governed Assam as a sovereign nation till the 1800s when the British annexed Assam from Burma.
The Ahoms built roads, ponds, huge temples with domes tipped in solid gold, forts and embankments; they had a superb army and navy and built their capital here in Sivasagar in the 18th century when they called it Rangpur.
We visited several of these monuments; the royal palace (kareng ghar) a multi-storied red sandstone building, a sports pavilion (ronghor) and a palace/ army base that had secret tunnels, some as long as 15km, as escape routes for a fleeing monarch (Talatalghar).
We walked amongst the mysterious royal graves (Charaideo), a series of burial mounds (maidams) covered in grass. Some of these graves have never been excavated and it’s not known which royal was buried where but Sukapha, the founder of the Ahom dynasty, is said to be buried here.
It is a beautiful, peaceful area when you’re not being hounded by the one-selfie-please-mam posse (and it usually is mam), and the mounds resemble the Hobbit shire, where cows graze and the only noise is birdsong and an occasional Bollywood ringtone.
The government has done a commendable job in restoring these graves which were overrun with foliage and dilapidated and has brought dignity to long-dead monarchs.
The heroics of the Assamese army
The military prowess of the Assamese who defended their land from Mughals invasion 18 times, was apparent when we visited the kharghar or gunpowder house.
Khar in Assamese can mean both a popular Assamese alkaline dish eaten at the beginning of meals, or gunpowder.
” When cooking it’s important to differentiate these two types of ‘khar’ or else you may have an explosive curry or your gun will be firing blanks, so to speak. “
This reminds me of the military exploits of the Ahom army and navy using psychological warfare and derring-do that have gone down in Assamese folklore and passed down from generation to generation.
There was Bagh Hazarika who scaled enemy Mughal ramparts and poured water on their cannon and gunpowder.
There was Lachit Barphukan , the hero of Saraighat, Assam’s Battle of Trafalgar, who despite fever achieved victory ; he even killed his own uncle for not building a rampart in good time. I think they didn’t have the system of three cautions and then you’re sacked; the job was done in under a day after that. The army were also adept at guerrilla tactics and mind tricks, how else could a smaller army beat a bigger one; they sent hundreds of butter lamps floating downstream at night to fool the enemy in to thinking distant gunboats were patrolling. They would leave hundreds of seemingly used eating utensils by the riverbank to give the impression that their army was huge and well fed.
Their armoury consisted of canon, mortars, swivel guns and muskets but the royal men carried intricate gold and silver swords called heng dung, and fought as well.
Making their own gunpowder from cow dung,
Since the 14th century the Assamese army had been manufacturing their own gunpowder from plants, charcoal and chemicals like salt petre.
Interestingly cow dung was also used to make gunpowder; all the Assamese, who were mainly farmers but conscripted as soldiers, were made to keep two cow sheds. Dung and urine was mopped up and after two weeks a white residue was left; this was a key ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder, potassium nitrate and would be collected by a man called Khargharia Phukan.
Because of its armed forces Assam was able to protect itself and have a continuous dynasty that lasted 600 years.
A visit to the night market
I left the Ahom monuments slightly in awe of a byegone time; in the evening we went back to the town and strolled through the Central Market. Sarah who’s a photographer took photos of the traders, amongst fish, colourful shiny vegetables, and little pyramids of spices; they appeared flattered and had a bit of banter going. ‘Taak tul,’ (Take a picture of him) they would shout. My role was just as a translator.
”To Sivasagar: home of the Assamese kings’ was first published on http://www.heyloons.com
This post is part of the blog series called ’90 Days in South East Asia’