In Search of Ancient Religion of The Tai (Dr. J.N. Phukan)

For the past many years it has almost been a fashion to ask the question what major religion, if any, the Tai of Assam, now better known as the Ahom, held when they first came to the Brahmaputra vally in the 13 th century? The attempts made by a number of writters to get answer to this question have resulted in several views which are often conflicting and cinfusing. According to Haliram Dhekial Phukan, who wrote as early as 1829, it was a sort of animism. Acharyya Suniti Kumar Chatterjee told that the Ahoms followed their old animistic religion. Padma Nath Gohain Baruah says on one occasion that the Ahoms were worshippers of Mahavishnu and such they were Vaishnsvas. But another occasion, he says that they were Budhists. The second view was held by Rai Sahib Golap Chandra Baruah in his book " Laitu Ba Laophala " published in 1905 and said that Ahoms were Buddhists and called their God by the name, " Phura Tara Along " . It is however, interesting to note that in the preface to his Ahom-Assamese - English Dictionary published in 1920, he indicated that the Ahoms were not Buddhists when they came to Brahmputra valley. They migrated to Assam before thr Tais were converted to Buddhism. And the Ahoms maintained their own religion in fact till the begining of the 15th century. P.R.T. Gurdon also says that Ahoms were possively not budhists. In Vol.111 OF the Encyclopedia of Religion and Eyhics, J. George Scott in his article, however, says that the Ahoms were Buddhists and established Buddhism everywhere excepts the hills. For four hundred years they maintained themselves and Budhism..... Dr. Surya kr Bhuyan also thinks that the Ahoms were followers of Buddhism and writes that definites traces of buddhist-Hindu influences can be found in the Ahom scriptures which they brought from their original land. Hiteswar BarBaruah in his presidential adress of history section of Assam Sahitya Sabha Session at Nagaon in 1925 maintained that the religion of Ahoms was mixture of Mahayana and Hinayana forms of Buddhism but didnot elaborate what that mixed form was. Purna kanta Buragohain, who spent many years in Burma, in his book, " Amar Adi Buranji " published in 1946 says that tha Ahoms were not Buddhists but followed " Phra long " religion in which animals wete sacrificed. But in 1956 in an article titled, " Tai Jati " published in Tai Sankrity he maintans that the Ahoms were " Ttyiyist " which is also called, " Taioism " . He, however, never explained whether this " Ttaoism " was the same with the " Taioism " of ancient China, and hence left the readers to gusses. Khetradhar Borgohain in his presidential Adress in All Assam Buddha Mahasabha held at Balipathar in 1946, observed that The Ahoms were Budhists of the " pa- kyang " sect and " phura lung " was nothing but a form of Mahayana Buddhism in which Amitava, or Padmapani or Avalokiteswara is prominants. 
Thanuram Gogoi, who was the president of the Buddhist Society of Phra Lung Culture, North East India, in a leaflet publised in 1946, claims the Ahoms were followers of phra long sect which is a section of Mahayana Buddhist and thus they were Mahayanists and the Ahom priests maitained their religion through out the Ahom rule. The Assam District Gazetteer Sibsagar district says that " their original religion approaches Taioism, " . In an article published in 1974, Dr. Lila Gogoi wtote that at the time of of their of coming to Assam, the Ahoms were the followers of a debased or corrupted form of " Tao " or Buddhism. Two years later hr, however, said that the Ahoms were basically followers of Taoism and not are buddhism . Curiously enough, five years later, in another article published in Prakash, he said that the Ahoms were originally followers of Taioism and Phra Tra of the Ahoms are nothing but Tao. But the Ahoms who came to Assam were Budhists, the adoption of the Indian Brahmi scripts, the practice of planting of tree by the Ahoms kings, and the chak-lang marriage form of the Ahoms support this claim. These are all features of Buddhism. Harendra Nath Phukan, in an article published in 1982, thinks that Ahom religion concepted with Mahayana Buddhism. Dr. Padmeswar Gogoi who is the only scholar to conduct a critical study of the problems of the Ahom religion says " The Ahoms of Assam brought with them not Buddhism but their racial religion may be with a mixture of Buddhistics influences. By quoting W.A.R Wood he says that the racial religion was the worshipping of " ths benrficent spirits of the hills, forests and waters and propitiating numerous demons with sacrifices and offering. In 1974, in an article published in the " Journal Of Assam Research Society " he said that it was more probable that the Ahoms were influenced by Theravada Buddhism of Burma which made them perform puja like Phra Long of Lord Buddha. But in 1979 in another article titled " Tai Ahome ki Dharma loi Assamat Pravesh korisil? He said that the Ahoms were Buddhists when they entered Assam. 
During the last ten years there has been a further increase of writting on the Ahom religion at many levels. Many of the writtings are, however, based on rudimentary and popular arguments, and are devoid of acceptable substance. Several of these seem to have written to support a particular form of religion. As a result, the Ahom religion question become more and more conflicting and confusing.
The views of the writters given above sufficiently prove that there does not exist any unanimity among writters about the religion of the Ahoms when they made their entry into the Brahmputra valley in the early 13 th century. In order to arrive at the truth, a historical and scientific approach must be adotedv. It is also essential to make a thorough study of the various religious scriptures of the Ahoms written in the Ahom scripts and language and also study the practices and sacrifices which had been observed by the Ahom priests in propitiating the gods and spirits. Attempts must also be made to draw a comparative study of the Ahom gods and spirits with those in Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. Further, a comparative study of the forms of sacrifices and ritues of the Ahom religion with those in Mahayana Buddhism, if it had any, and in Taoism will greatly correct our views on things. In this context a broad comprehension of the findings of scholars about the religion of the Tais of Burma and Thailand of the same period will be great help , for, The Ahom religious question must not be srudied in isolation. It is accepted by all that before the greatest dispersal of the Tai Fan, like during the 13th century, most of them lived together in southern China and northern Vietnam complex and some in the northern extremity of Burma and Thailand. During the period they held their religion, customs and practices in common.
Some 45 years ago Reginald LE May in his work " The Culture of South-East Asia " raised the question about the religion of the Siemese ( now Thais) and wrote " but what religion, if any, they held when they first came to Siam is not established "( p. 154) . Besides LE May's answers to this question have been attempted by several renowned scholars like Phya Anuman Rajadhan, H.G. Quaritch Wales, Professor Rong Syamanand and several others. All of them agree that the Thais of Thyland adopted Hinayana form of Buddhism after they were in the Menam valley when they came into contact with the Mons and the Khmers. According to Prof. Syamananda, they followed Mahayana Buddhism which they had adopted before their change over to Hinayana Buddhism. Prof. Saeng Chandragram of Chiangmat University also holds the views that when the Tais came from Southern China to the Menam Vally they brought with them Chiness Mahayana Buddhism. According to Phaya Anuman Rajadhon " it is not known what religion was in their homr land before their exodus from their original home into Thailand and before they become forerunners of the present day Thai. It is almost certain that animism formed the part of the early belief and there maypperheps have some tracrs of Buddhism through Tibet and China. According to H.G. Quaritch Wales, ," the religion is not known, butvit is probable that they recieved Mahayanism at a fairly early period. He also says that Thais must have been animist. According to Erik Seidenfaden, the original religion of the Tai probably was animism, perhaps coupled with ancestor worship. Another Thai scholar, Luang Suryabongsa also thinks that thecreligion of the Thais when they lived in Yunnan was animism and ancestor worship. These are some of the views of the scholars on the religion of the Thais before they adopted Hinayana Buddhism in the Menam valley. 
Turning to the Shans of Burm a similar question has been raised.It is well known that the Tais of Burma who are better known as the Shans adopted the present form of their religion only during the 14th century. It is believed that the Tais of Burma had definite influence of Mahayana Buddhism. Erick Seidenfaden, however , thinks that prior to their arrival in the Shan Land, the Tai Yai were animism and perhaps few of them have imbibed the tanets of Taioism and Mahayana doctrines.
A correct answer to the problem of the Ahom religiom can be had only after a critical and thorough study of the all the different situations and sources. Till then any sweeping observation or view will be, at best halg truth, if not distorted.