Cultural Linkage of TheAhom with the Tais of Southest Asia: A case study of Ahom— Thai Linkage ණ....Dr. Girin Phukan, Moran


     The Ahoms are an offshoot of the Shan Branch of the Tai family of Southeast Asia. Originally they migrated from Yunnan of China though upper Burma (now called Myanmar) where they established a group of small kingdoms. Sukapha crossed the patkai hills around 1228 A.D. and established his new kingdom in the Brahmaputra valley of present Assam. Eventually, they acquired the local name 'Ahom' for which in the course of time,  the Brahmaputra valley came to be know as, 'Assam' more importantly, in due course, the ahom made formidable contribution in the consolidation of composite Assamese society and were virtually absorbed into the Hindu social structure. Therefore some scholars call the 'homs' as the 'Assamese Tai '.
   The Ahoms were free from religious inhibition and caste prejudices. They were prepared to receive whatever they found suitable for them  -  man,materials, ideas, customers and the like. In fact, the ahoms had tremendous qualities of adaptability. Thus they were practical, unprejudiced and tolerant of others. Gradually, they therefore, came under the influence of Aryan culture and become ardent and liberal patrons of Aryan language and religion and had greatly contributed to the growth of a composite Assamese society and culture. It may however be noted that long before the ahoms came to the Brahmaputra valley, the processes of aryanization was started. As such most of tribes conquered by the ahoms already adopted the aryan culture. Due to absence of caste rigidity in the social organization, the ahoms married non - ahom girls, mostly form the aryanized chutias, kacharis and koches.In fact, the ahoms found it difficult to administer the huge country with a small number of their own people who came with the first conqueror 'Sukapha'. Perhaps, they were compelled to increase their number by marrying form the non Ahoms or Hindu families and by conferring upon some non ahom families the privileges and status of the ruling race. These new entrants were assimilated with the ahoms and they and their descendants could also hold high offices and enjoy privileges like other ahoms. Obviously theirfore, maintenance of matrimonial relation with the non ahoms and accommodation of non ahoms families into the ahom fold made the later to leave their traditional religion, customers, language and other practices in favour of Aryan language and culture. This is, however, not imply that the ahoms had completely abandoned their traditional cultural traits. In fact, there had also been and indelible impact of the Tai - Ahom language and cultural on the Assamese society. Although since the late sixteenth century, along with the monarch, a larger section of the tai ahoms started adopting Hindu rites, customers, even then the Mohan. Deodhai and Bailong (M'-Hung, M'-Sham and M'- Plang), the priestly families of the ahoms, remained outside the purview of Hinduism and continued to profess their own traditional culture and ritual of practicea.Even today, along with the priestly class, many ahoms strictly adhere to their traditional tai cultural which is almost simlar to those of the tais of southeast Asian countries. Since the early seventies of this country, their has been and awareness among the ahoms to revitalize their traditional language and culture. Nevertheless, it is great interest to note that amongst the traditional ahoms, particularly those who live in relatively isolated villages, their still survive old cultural practices which undoubtedly represent the Tai - culture.
                                   II
  Like the ahoms, another section of the Tai generically closer to it,moved to the Chao Phraya valley to the mainland of Thailand. In both the Brahmaputra and Chao Phraya valleys, the tais were not restricted by mountains and they were interacted with long established civilization much large extent than other tai in southeast asia. In the chao phraya valley, the tai built up state known as Siam, and in doing so they transformed much of their original tradition under the influence of that of the khmer and to a leaser degree of that of the Burmese. Thus the process of the spreading tai culture must be seen as a two way traffic. While the tai elite influenced local indigenous cultures, the local culturals left their mark upon the tai. By and large, the tai who derived their culture from the rural agro - based culture from the, started migrating to different places in southeast asian in search of plain land suitable for cultivation.In the subsequent period, they moulded their culture within the framework of the new geographical environment. At any rate, there has been a greater degree of similarity of culture of the tai tai people of the world. In fact, basic ingredients of tai cultural have still been retained among the tai farmers of the rural areas of different countries. This paper is however limited to understand the cultural similarities between the tais and the ahoms. It is generally believed that traditional tai culture is intimately connected with rice - growing low land. The tai therefore, most likely chose the relatively safe edges of the low land where irrigation was simply a matter off topping mountain streams in the direction of small level fields, each surrounded by a small dyke.whatever the tai people dominant, there appears to be the cultivation of glutionus rice in proportion of the field available for cultivation of glutinous rice in proportion of the field available for cultivation. It is indeed, difficult to find oriza gluttonous in areas where no tai live. The tai people thus appear to have spread this type of vice over mainland southeast Asia in Assam. It is, therefore oblivious that another name of tai cultural is agrarian culture. It view of this, while delaing with the culture affiliates between the Thais and the ahoms, we will mainly confine to the agricultural based traditional culture of both the tai families.
   Thailand is a country where two world's meet; the world of traditional thai - culture and the world of modern global culture. To day, there has been the influence of the industrialized western culture on the younger generation of Thailand. Global media international economics and tourism carry western clothing, music, food and ideology to youth all over the world. The Thais are not exception to it, many aspects of the traditional Thai culture, however, have been heavily influenced by interaction with global culture. Naturally therefore, imported technology, tourism, trade and foreign values have radically altered the traditional way of life. Despite such influence, there is still a distinctly Tahi stam to much of the country's culture. A bulk of the rural Thais continue to use traditional Thai values, ideas and morals to make sense of the rapidly changing circumstances that affect the setting of their every day lives. Almost a similar kind of situation obtains in the Tai Ahom society of the Brahmaputra valley.
                  The valley are basic unit of the Thai social system, the people's habits and customs are based mainly on agricultural amd religion. Almost each village has Buddhist monastery and a shrine for a village deity unlike the ahom villages in Assam. The monastery series their spiritual as well as the people's!education. All arts, erafts, and learning emanates from the monastery. But there is no influence of Buddhism on the ahoms. However the agricultural is the main source of living of the large majority of the rural Thai and the ahoms is agriculture. In order to understand deeply their culture, it is necessary to know the crop cultivated, folklore and rites related to it. Like the ahoms, rice has been closely associated with the Thais It is a major economic and staple food crop too. In fact has been an important factor, responsible for creating a cultural identity and determining the social values and way of life of the people. By and large, the Thai culture as well as the ahom culture is the agrarian based culture.
               The rites and folk lore related with rice reflects a way of life of the people in both the thai and the ahom society. Geographical conditions, water sheds, climate, type of crops and traditional beliefs are the important factors similarising agricultural culture in both the rural Thai society and the ahoms. The traditional rites related with agricultural both in Thai and the ahom societies are quite similar in nature which may be broadly divided into five categories such as rites performed for the purpose of (I) praying and imploring (ll) cultivation (lll) maintenance (iv) harvesting and (v) celebration. Prior to cultivation and during cultivation rite is performed for the purpose of praying y Gods, sacred things amd ancestors soul and imploring them to protect the prayer agonist all hazards to life and properties and to blessing and richness in all dimensions as well as beg for luck, good opportunity and confidence in living life all the year round. Beside, rain - begging rites (khor phone)  are also very prominent among the cultivators of both of the Thais and the ahoms. In addition to those, there are number of similar ceremonies among them such as farm land fertilizing ceremony, first rice growing ceremony, rite to get rid of paddy enemies and many others. Thus the agricultural culture contributes to a wide range of diverse culture aspects of both of the Thai and the ahoms. The festival 'pay - chiang - can ' in Thailand and the Bihu in Assam are the manifestation of the agricultural culture of these two groups of people respectively.
                The traditional ploughing instruments used by the cultivatos are quite similar in nature. Ploughing with, buffaloes is considered more convenient than with bullocks. The use of bamboo fencing with peculiar technique of the making to protect the paddy fields from cattle, fashing equipment made of bamboo and yarn, tools of handlooms are another kinds of affinity of agricultural culture. It is interesting to note than bamboo is used very extensively by both the ahoms and the thais in their day to day lives such as making house, fancing, fishing equipments, musical instruments and so on. Therefore, the bamboo culture is a inseparable part of large tai culture.
           Beside agricultural rites, there are number of other ritual ceremonies which are common to both the thais and the ahoms. For instance, ceremony loke 'Rik Khan ' performed by the ahoms is also found among the Thais of Thailand particularly in the traditional Thai villages. In ahom language 'Rik' means 'to call; 'Khan' 'implies vitality;  Therefore, this ceremony is observed in other th gain new life or to obtain longevity. It is performed thought a peculiar method in Tai language on many occasions such as when a person has had a person had a severe shock or fright and also during marriage ceremony. Almost a similar kind of what in Thai language pronounces - "rik khwan " is performed in most of the rural areas of the northern Thailand "to make people secure and confident to set the mind at place lf one is sick,  it is believed, he will recover from disease after performing this rite.
                 There is a great deal of affinities of style of living house. Like the rural Thai people of Thailand, the house of rural ahom families have been made of wood, bamboo and two roofs are typically designed by the thatching  grasses.  Every families orchard and plough land are situated near their house. The houses of the inhabitant have been built in scattered fashion within the bamboo groves. At one time, The ahom built their house on still called Ren Huan (Chang Ghar ) with about two metres high above the ground level like traditional Thai families. They live in houses made on raised floors for reasons of security and hygiene. Wild animals and enemies generally can't attack such houses from which the ladder for climbing is kept away at night. Moreover pigs and poultry's!kept bt these people as domestic animals can't make such raised floor dirty and unclean. More importantly, most of them use the open space beneath the main house for the cattle. A portion of it is also used for weaving activities of the women folk. Gradually, however, they have been changing to modern type of house.
                      As is well known the food habit is one of the important variables of culture. Most of the ahoms particularly in the rural areas, still maintain a traditional menu of their own food like the Thais. Rice is the staple food and Nam - lao (home made rice beer)  is traditional drinks. They used to take Khar  (Alkaline separated from banana bark and ripe banana pales)  betgaj (cane's lips)  and many there naturally grown plants as vegetables which possess medicinal substance. Besides, they prepare a number of food items from rice almost similar to the Thais. Some of them are Handhahguri ( a kind of specifically prepared fried rice powder)  Sewabhat (Vapoured rice ) chunga cliawa ( sticky rice cooked in a immature bamboo popes)  ,Till pitha ( prepared from sticky rice powder) , Horoom,  a special treated fried rice which is very light and easily digestible. The process of preparation of this item was quite unknown to population other than the ahoms and the Thais,  Kumal chawal (unboiled soft rice prepared from a special variety of sticky rice with a unique technique ), Tupula Bhat ( Kind of rice cooked packing with a particular kind of plant leaf with good smell called, 'tara pat' and preserved bamboo sauce are some of the favorite food items of the ahoms which are almost similar to the traditional diet of the thais. Besides, porks, chicken, duck, frogs, many kind of fishes, hukati fish (dry preserved fish mixture)  Muga lata (Cocoon seeds of endi and muga worms)  eggs of red and their typical items of dishes. Even, some kinds of insects are also good food, for the ahoms. Like the thais, the ahoms prefers to take boiled food having no spices and directly burnt fish, meat and vegetable like brinjal, tomato etc. The ahoms also ate beefs till the influence of Aryan cult on them. But now, only few ahoms take it.
       Another very important ingredient of culture is the type of cloth worn by the people. In fact, peoples style of dress is a reflection of many aspect of their lives depending on wearer's society and the place of the wearers within a particular social setting. Dress is often used and perceived as a maker of identity and as such traditional textiles commonly identity them according to their groups identity. By and large, clothing serves as an indicator of identity in terms of culture, gender, class and age.
          But in modern Thailand, there has been a considerable western influence on thai dress. This influence dates from the reign of king mongkut in the mid nineteenth century although it did not really become significant until the period of king culalongkorn. The village handicraft diminished if not died out as people bought imported goods like cloths and tools instead of making themselves. To wear western style dress is viewed as modern. But to wear more traditional types of dress is seen as old fashioned and only for those who could not afford to wear more westernized commercial cloth women's turbskrits or 'Pha - Sin ' for example came to be associated as suitable clothing for servants and poor people or for leisure were around the home. In fact, rapid economic growth in Thailand in recent decades has caused the decline of weaving by hand, which has, however, survived mostly in the north eastern style dress has came to dominate in all regions of the country among all sections of the society. Although it is apparent to any observer at western style dress in now almost universally worn in Thailand, it is equally apparent to day that there has been a growing interest in wearing more traditional types of dress as well.  This tendency has become especially noticeably within the past couple of years among elite and middle class Thai women. By and large, as in the past contemporary Thai clothing fashion reflects the nature of modern Thai society as people adopt to a globalize world. The westernization of Thai fashion has indicate an eagerness to be a part of the larger contemporary world, while recent traditional fashion has, at the same time indicate the desire on the part of many Thais to ensure that they retain something that is distinctly Thai. Therefore, perhaps, some Thais use traditional dress on a festive occasion which helps to define their 'Thaines's within the globalize context.
        On the other hand,  similar impact of western style dress on the ahom society is not visible, particularly among the women folk. They still maintain their traditional dress to a considerable extent. The excellence and special character of texting such as the homespun dresses made from cotton, muga silk bear the testimony of Thailand's textile culture among the ahoms. Weaving beings a way of life with the ahom society, every rural girl is adopt in weaving silk, cotton and endi cloth. Thus like the Thais, the ahoms are adopt in making thread from Muga and Endi - worms. This practice of sericulture and rearing Endi - worms is quite, similar to the traditional Thai agricultural society The rural manfolks of the ahoms wear 'dhuti ' or Phanoi (lungi) and tight fiting jacket called, chapkon made of cotton or mugasilk. The ahom women wear mekhela woven with Muga silk or cotton and 'Seleng sadar ' and a third piece called 'Reha " which is worn such a way that it serves as a breast band. The use of 'Reha' as an out fit is increasingly falling into disuse giving way to blouse and brassier .In rural areas most of the ahom women wear black 'Mekhala' it may also be noted that some of the ahom women, who are not completely influenced by hindusim, do not use 'orani' (veil) and keep their head bare and do not use vermilion like that Thai women.
       The language is yet another determinant of the nature of any culture. The tai and spread so widely that because of geographical factors and political circumstances, the various Tai groups have lost contact with each other. Obviously, therefore, the Tai language spoken by different Tai groups also it's homogeneity. However, despite this fact, all present day tai language has been closely related to each other. Those Tai speakers who have mastered a relatively, pure from of Tai have little difficulty in understanding other traditional tai language. Thus even,  ahom tai language which has been mostly confined to a handful of ahom people belonging to the priestly class for some time, is more closely related to other tai languages. It is however, it is mainly used in traditional religious ceremony. In fact, the ahoms have lost the skill of speaking tai long back and only a few amongst them can decipher the old books and chronicles pertaining to their history. Therefore the ahom language is not as pdeveloped as the Thai of Thailand. Therefore, both these tai groups can hardly understand each other in their own language despite having lot of similarity of meaning of different tai words.
            Beside these affinities between the ahoms and the Thais, another interesting point of similarity between them is their primogenitural system. The ahoms like the Thais, cling th their clannish behavior based on primo genitural system in identifying the families relation where seniority and respect to elders are based not on age consideration but on familial lineage. It also remarkable that in both the society, the status of women is higher as they are considered as symbol of creativity, women are not only given of spring, they are also associated with various agricultural activities. The absence of dowry system in Assamese society can be ascribed to ahoms influence. It may also be noted that the general nature and appearance of the ahoms are similar to those of the Siamese Thailand. In fact, facial characteristics of the ahoms indicate a link with the Thais particularly of northern Thailand. Short and blunt nose, elevated bone of the cheeks and erect hairs are some such characteristics of those people.
             Another outstanding common feature between the rural Siamese cultivators of Thailand and the ahom cultivator is collective manner of working. The villagers of both of the communities stand unitedly in time of rejoining and merry making. Co villagers are invited at the time of building house and in time of harvesting to perform these jobs collectively. The same collective approach is noticed even in the time of fishing and hunting. Significantly, the consciousness of social distinction based on caste, creed and social status, which is a predominant trait of the people of Aryan origin, is completely absent among them. As such they have no taboos and they are free from caste prejudices and untouchability.
       Unsubmissiveness in matters of prestige and self respect is another remarkable trait in the character of the ahoms and the Thais. They never yield before others. Nor do they make any pledge without thinking seriously. Once a pledge is made it is never left unfulfilled. They are steadfast and resolute in their views and opinions. Both of them are simple by nature and are very hospitable land they can create confidence easily. However, the ahoms are not having smiling faces like the Thais.
                                  IV
 From the above account in appears that the basic traditional traits of Thai culture survive among different tai groups who now inhabit the South Asian countries. As they lost contact with each other since the days of their migration, there is, however, no longer complete homogeneity in the Tai culture maintained by them. It became apparent mainly due to the fact that most of them, in the course of time, come into contact with the respective indigenous cultures which influenced them considerably and vice - versa Nevertheless, basic cultural affinities between the ahoms and the Thais are still prominent despite the influence of western culture on them in recent times. It may confidently be observed that there is no direct or indirect contact between the rural Siamese farmers in control Thailand and ahom farmers in assam. Yet they share certain common cultural values and to the smallest details. Agricultural ceremony, ploughing, fishing, equipment, tools of hand looms, textile culture, way of life, food - habits, marines and names of paddies, tree, creeps, and rivers reflecting the common ancient faith of the Tais are eloquent testimony of common cultural heritage.
       Unlike tile ahoms, the Thais are dominant in Thailand which facilitated them to maintain their basic traditional cultural traits though with a sense of dynamism. Perhaps, one of the reasons for dynamic traditionalism is Thailand's ability to have escaped from foreign colonial rule. This has allowed Thailand to enjoy and develop is own culture without interruption and to be more selective in regard to foreign influences. From the stand point of culture,Thailand is a good example to the world of how different it is when a country remains free from external political control. Though traditionally, present cultural life of the large majority Thais centred around the wat - the Buddhist temple monastery, Thailand has been experiencing rapid cultural change as the process of modernization has been taking place since last few decades. As a society linked to an international economy, tile way of life, education system and even rural formers are inevitably affected. Introduction of western thought, mass media and popular cultural all have far - reaching consequences on culture. The ahoms are also not exception to this trend though there is a difference of degree only.
    Notes and References:
*Most of the facts stated in this paper is mainly based on personal experience and observation.
1. The Tais migrated from their original homeland to make new ares of settlement. There settlements accredited them with appellations. Thus the Tais are called Shan in Burma,  Siamese in Thailand. Pai in Yunnan and ahoms in assm.
2.Historical evidence indicate that before the advent of the ahom this land was known as pragjyotishpur and it became 'Assam'   during the ahom rule. Alexander MacKenzie observers that Assam is commonly supposed to be derived from A-Sam -A, - the unequalled and ahom is said to be equipment assam see Alexander Mackenzie history of the relations of the government with the hill tribes of the northeast frontier of Bengal, calcutta, 1884,p. 2.Gunabhiram status that when the Tai - Ahom entered this land, they occupied the territory of the chutias and the borahis without shedding a drop of blood. Therefore, they called them A- ham, or unparallel from which the Assam originated (see,gunabhiram boruah / assam buranji, guwahati, 1972. Pp.  9-11. A.K Bhuyan also holds this view (See, Sk Bhuyan;  Anglo - Assamese Relations (1771 - 1826), Guwahati 1974, p.5.1.
3.See B.j. Terwiel:  The Tai of Assam and ancient tai Ritual volurne 1, 1980  (Center for southeast Asian studies, Gaya) . It may be noted that besides the ahoms, there are number of shan tribes who had at different times moved along the some route and made their settlement in various places of eastern Assam. They are the khamtis the phakes, the Turungs, the khamyangs and aitons. These Shan tribes are Buddhists and some of them still maintaining their language and culture infact. This fact shows the perhaps the ahoms migrated to Assam before the tais were converted to Buddhism. However, along with the ahoms are also called Assamese tai as they have apparently absorbed into the Assam society accepting the language from communication and medium of instruction.
4.Padmeswar Gogoi. The tai and the tai kingdom (Guwahati university, assam 1968 p. 272)
5.B.K boruah, Assamese language and early Assamese literature,  aspect of the heritage of Assam  - a souvenir, Indian history Congress, 22nd session. (Guwahati, 1959) p.64 .
6.B.J.Terwiel, op, cit, p.7.
7. Ibid, volume  11,p.6.
8.Ibid ,p.2.
9.In this study, however, the Thai is mainly used to nean the rural Siamese farmers of mainland of Thailand and the ahom is to mean the farmers of traditional ahom village.
10.  P Suratanakavikul, Thai Agrarian culture, proceeding of the sixth international conference on thai, volume II, 1996(Chiangmai university, Thailand)  p.501.
11. Detailed discussion on all the ceremonies will be beyond the scope of this pepper,
12. B.J Terwiel, op. cit.  Volume I, p. 75, also see, A.J Tambuah;  Buddhism and the spirit cult in northeast Thailand, Cambridge university press, 1970, p. 58.
13.  In fact, liquor made from rice is widely used almost in all social and religious functions. To entertain quest and people invited for the purpose of house building, harvesting and ploughing with liquor and feast is a common practice. More importantly home made rice beer is a symbol of social status of the traditional ahom.
14. Michael  C. Howard,  Identity and traditional tai textiles in contemporary thai society. Proceedings of the sixth international conference on thai studies chiangmai university, Thailand 1996,  volume, l.p. 173.
15. Ibid
16. Ibid
17.It needs to mention that ahom women's dress is not typical in the sense that is has been recognized as the dress of the Assamese as a whole.
18. The tai people extremely wide spread they live in tile plains of southern chaina, in tile valleys of northern Vietnam, then are dominating people laos and Thailand's, they inhabit most of the low laying areas of northern burma and several tai groups have also settled in Assam, India.
19.For example, a yuan speaker can communicate with any tai southern chaina and a shan feel at home in laos.