Travellers who have been to both Assam and Myanmar instantly notice similarities. Glinting paddy fields, blue hills, muddy rivers and domed temples. The pretty leaf-tipped eyes. The Assamese and the Burmese (I’ll use Burma and Myanmar inter-changeably in this post) also share much common history.
800 years ago a tribe of princes from Myanmar who came from south China, crossed the Patkai Hills to Assam and established one of the oldest royal dynasties in history. The Ahom dynasty as it became known, lasted 600 years, nearly three times longer than the Russian Romanovs, and five times longer than the English Tudors. the Ahoms left such a profound influence on the region, they gave their name to the land of Assam, which the Assamese pronounce Oxom.
A brief digression: how Assamese people pronounce Assam
Those of you who follow my blog will know I’m partial to a digression now and again so here goes …
The Assamese people pronounce Assam, O-x-om, with the ‘x’ sounding like the ‘ch’ in loch, the Scottish word for lake. Linguists call this subtle, tonsil-tickling sound the voiceless velar fricative which is high-sounding, technical-speak meaning the sound is created by constricting airflow at the back of the tongue, without using vocal chords. This sound in the international phonetic alphabet is denoted with an ‘x’ so Assam should really be spelled Oxom
That does pose a certain risk of relegating the finest tea growing region on earth to sounding like a mundane beef stock cube, Oxo. Although that said, OXO is also the international texting shorthand for hugs and kisses. Yes I quite like that. The Assamese are a lovely, welcoming people, so it’s rather well suited. Go there, meet them and let me know.
Anyway let’s get back to the Ahoms. Where were we? The 1200s. The Ahoms wisely adopted local customs, swapped out their ancestor worship for the local Hinduism, and became as Assamese as a til pitha. As Assamese as khar.
The Ahoms created a new country, the sovereign nation of Assam, they built a well-trained army. Like Bruce Lee, it was small but perfectly formed. It could kick ass. They defeated the mighty Mughal armies, repelling their invasions sixteen times and they constructed magnificent temples with solid gold tips, highways, forts, embankments, lakes and palaces, especially around their capital Sivasagar which we visited.
As with most dynasties, things started to go pear-shaped. In the 1820s the King of Ava (as Myanmar was called) invaded Assam and so began a terrible period of cruelty that decimated the Assamese population by a third.
The British, who were just a canon-shot away in the British Indian capital of Calcutta trumpeted in wearing their red jackets, kicked the Burmese out and brought with them opportunities to extend their empire and make the perfect cup of Assam tea. The Treaty of Yandabo as it was called, was signed in 1826 and ended the sovereignty of the small but perfectly formed nation of Assam. (I still like that Bruce Lee analogy).
So it’s really rather logical that Assam and Myanmar would be like two little half-brothers, with a bit of common DNA and a common childhood filled with a bit of brotherly bickering, with the bigger one trying to steal the other’s toys
So on that recent trip, just before the pandemic, here’s what I saw that reminded me of the similarities of the two places
1. The Assamese Xorai and the Burmese Hsun ok
In any corner of the world, wherever there is an Assamese person, you’ll usually find in their home a bell-metal vessel with a domed peaked lid called a xorai.
It will take pride of place in their home, an item of affection and veneration, even adulation, on a mantel-piece perhaps, often in a hallway with a gamosa and betel nuts as a sign of welcome. It’s versatile too, having ceremonial uses at weddings and at the temple altar, the monikut.
The Assamese have always been experts in making objects from bell metal (an alloy of copper and tin) and in a typical Assamese house meals are eaten from bell-metal plates (kaahi) and bowls (baati). Apparently food kept in bell -metal does not spoil easily.
When I visited a market place next to Inle Lake in Burma and stepped up a stone path to a temple, it was lined with countless stalls of local handicrafts. Paintings. Lacquer ware. Bamboo crafts. But the hsun ok caught my eye, an artifact that seemed to exude a connection to Assamese eyes.
The hsun ok of Myanamr
The Burmese have vessel called a hsun ok (or soon-oke) which, like the Assamese xorai, is also used as an offering tray, usually to present food to monks. Instead of being made from bell metal, its made from wood, which is turned and lacquered. It too has a spire lid and a similar looking base to the xorai, but it’s often painted in bright colours and is often more ornate having gilding and sometimes coloured glass..
2. The Jaapi of Assam
The Jaapi is a traditional conical hat from Assam, made from cane and palm. It is both practical, being used as protection from the sun, and decorative (with shiny red and green triangular patches in the weaving). Historically, ornate jaapis were worn as status symbols and the undecorated ones were used by farmers.
In the same market at Inle, I saw the same hats, hung up high on a timber. In a similar way , jaapis too are used as purely decoration, to brighten up a wall and not to be worn. With their flashes of red and green triangles, the similarities were too close to ignore.
3. The Temples of Bagan and Sivasagar
On the same trip we went to Bagan, a world heritage site, perhaps one of the most incredible places on earth. Imagine 2,000 Hindu temples, 900 years old, on a dusty plain. We took our electric scooters and spent five days there exploring this remarkable place. We could have spent more.
Most of the temples in Bagan are domed and some are capped with gold tips . It’s no longer permitted to climb the temples at Bagan, out of respect for religion, but the government has constructed a viewing tower from where my wife and I were nearly blown off in a tropical storm.
A few weeks earlier we had visited the Ahom monuments at Sivasagar and saw the Hindu temple dedicated to the God Siva, Sivadol.
Incidentally, Sivadol is pronounced hibodol by the Assamese and Sivasagar is pronounced Hibohagor … let’s leave that for another day.)
It was constructed in 1730 by the Ahoms and again the similarities with their parallel ridges and furrows were very obvious. It too was crowned with a golden tip, this one was 8 feet tall. Apparently when the Burmese invaded Assam in the 1820, they tried to shoot down the gold tip, but just managed to bend it.
I know I would love to go back to Myanmar one day. Its people are kind and welcoming, and the worst excesses of profiteering that chase tourists seem to have no place there. Many of the regions are still out of bounds for foreigners, and due to the pandemic no one’s being let in at the moment. But I can’t wait to visit again one day. Perhaps I’ll find even more similarities with Assam.
PS: My complete blog series visiting Burma, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia is called 90 Days in South East Asia.