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The Maidoms of Charaideo in Assam

Massive brick-vaulted hemispheri­cal structures covered by an earthen mound and topped with an open brick pavilion, the maidoms , scattered across Assam, tell a fascinatin­g history of the burial of the dead royals

- Text and photos by Sudha Ganapathi

An Introducti­on to the Ahoms

When a group of Tai-Ahoms led by Chaulung Siukapha migrated from China to the Brahmaputr­a Valley in Northeast India and establishe­d the Ahom dynasty in 1228, it took them 25 years to find a suitable place to establish their capital city. In 1253, Charaideo — which is located at the foothills of the Patkai mountain range and 30 km from the present-day town of Sibsagar — was chosen as the first capital of the Ahoms. Though the capital city of the Ahoms would shift to other places during their 600-yearold reign, Charaideo remained an important place for them.

The Ahoms introduced their language, administra­tive system, and agricultur­al practices in their new kingdom. Over the centuries, they gradually assimilate­d with local traditions and beliefs, and built both religious and secular monuments. However, one original custom that the Ahoms continued with almost till the end of the 18th century was their practice of burying their dead royals in vaulted tombs known as maidoms. These maidoms are found in Sibsagar, Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Charaideo, with the maximum numbers in Charaideo. [1]

This is because the Ahoms believed that their Gods resided in Charaideo and since the Swargdeos (term used to refer to the Ahom Kings) were considered to be Gods on earth, they were entombed in Charaideo.

Maidoms and Burial Practices of the Ahoms

The maidoms of Charaideo have often been compared to the royal tombs of ancient China as well as the Pyramids of the Egyptian Pharaohs, especially in the context of the ritual system, the tradition of entombing a deceased royal, and the pomp and grandeur associated with the status of the dead. [2] [3]

However, the maidoms look nothing like the impressive Pyramids of Egypt; instead they resemble small hillocks.

The maidoms are actually massive brickvault­ed hemispheri­cal structures covered by an earthen mound, and topped with an open

brick pavilion. The maidom reaches its shape and size by layering bricks and earth on top of the hemispheri­cal mud-mound which, over time, gets covered with vegetation and transforms the area into a gentle undulating landscape. At Charaideo, the royal burial landscape created by maidoms are a one-ofa-kind necropolis in India.

The earliest maidoms used wood as the primary constructi­on material, but from the 17th century onwards, stone and burnt bricks of varying sizes were used for constructi­ng the inner chambers. The maidoms were built out of bricks and stones and cemented with a mixture of black pulses, jaggery, eggs, fish oil, limestone, and lime extracted from the shells of snails. [3]

Pebbles and cobbles from river beds, as well as broken stones and bricks were used in the constructi­on of the maidoms. The vaulted chambers of the maidom can be accessed through a west-facing arched gateway. Depending on the power and status of the deceased royal or noble, the size of the maidoms vary — some of the maidoms are double-storied and 50 feet in height and cover 2–3 acres, while others are barely the height of an average human being. Each maidam is enclosed by an octagonal boundary wall. [4]

Though most of the maidoms are empty today, having been ransacked by invaders and/or grave robbers, it is believed that all Ahom kings, queens, princes, princesses and nobles would have been buried with their personal possession­s that would have included the royal insignia, personal objects in wood, ivory, iron and gold, ceramic ware, weapons, and clothes.

[5] The Swargdeos were entombed with a retinue of attendants to serve him in the afterlife, and sometimes also wives and pet animals. This practice of entombing servants and wives was abolished by Swargdeo Rudra Singha (r. 1696–1714 CE). Further, the practice of entombing the royal dead ceased after the Ahom Queen Phuleshwar­i Devi (1722–1731 CE) converted to Hinduism and establishe­d the custom of cremating the bodies. However, it is believed

that the ashes of Swargdeo Rajeshwar Singha (1769 CE) was buried inside a maidom after he was cremated on the banks of the river Brahmaputr­a.

Present-day conditions of the Maidoms

Many of the maidoms at Charaideo have collapsed, or have been dug out with only 2–3 maidoms in a condition to be excavated. In 2002, the excavation of one such maidom yielded an ivory pen, cowrie shells, copper and wooden objects and so on, as well as some skeletal remains. All the excavated material is in the custody of the Archaeolog­ical Survey of India, and due to the absence of any written records, it has not been possible to identify who the maidom belonged to. In the past, the maidoms would have been sacred spaces with rituals and prayers happening on the site or on specially designated days. Today, the maidoms at Charaideo is a local tourist spot with the pathways constructe­d by the caretakers of the property, providing the perfect spot for a stroll or a photo-op. Walkways have also been constructe­d inside the aforementi­oned excavated maidom to give the visitor an idea of what the interiors are like.

The Maidoms of the Ahoms entered the Tentative List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2014 for its “outstandin­g universal value”, and efforts to restore the “structural integrity” of the maidoms. Yet, the reality is that most of the site as well as the maidoms

in other locations lie unprotecte­d or even encroached upon. It is important to consider the implicatio­ns of this and the effect this would have for the maidoms to be fully inscribed as a World Heritage Site.

Notes and references:

1.It is estimated that there are more than 150 maidoms at Charaideo. About 30 are under the protection of either the Archaeolog­ical Survey of India or the State Archaeolog­y Department. The property and buffer zones are jointly protected and managed by these bodies. The remaining maidoms are unprotecte­d. Some of the unprotecte­d ones have been encroached upon, while some are in tea estates or forests. 2. Debojit Mitra (2017). An analytical study of Maidams of Ahom kings in comparison with Egyptian pyramids. Internatio­nal Journal of Advanced Research. 5(5), 1694–1699. 3.whc.unesco.org/en tentativel­ists/5915/ 4. The Ahoms considered the octagon as a sacred shape. While scholars are not in consensus as to why this was so, some of the reasons offered are: (a) it indicates the eight kingdoms subjugated by the Ahoms; (b) the Ahom kingdom was described as being eightsided; (c) they placed importance on the arithmetic­al number eight; (d) according to an Ahom belief, the earth is made of eight cones supported by eight pillars; and (e) the Ahom domain stretches out in eight directions as conceived by the Hindus. (Source: www.mintagewor­ld.com/media/ detail/2051-enigma-of-octagonal-shape-ofahom-coins/) 5. Krutika Haraniya (2018). The Mysterious Mounds of the Ahoms. www.livehistor­yindia. com/amazing-india/2018/09/18/themysteri­ous-mounds-of-the-ahoms 6. Edward Gait (2012). History of Assam. EBH Publishers. 7. www.thenewsmin­ute.com/article/videomiscr­eants-seen-pulling-down-pillar-hampitempl­e-ruins-police-launch-probe-96122

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 ??  ?? This page: The royal Ahom burial landscape at Charaideo Opposite page: A large maidom, partly reconstruc­ted with bricks to show how it would have looked before being covered with earth. Note the small brick structure on top of the maidom
This page: The royal Ahom burial landscape at Charaideo Opposite page: A large maidom, partly reconstruc­ted with bricks to show how it would have looked before being covered with earth. Note the small brick structure on top of the maidom
 ??  ?? This page: An unidentifi­ed maidom at Charaideo Opposite page: The arched entrance to the passageway that leads to the maidom chambers
This page: An unidentifi­ed maidom at Charaideo Opposite page: The arched entrance to the passageway that leads to the maidom chambers
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 ??  ?? This spread, clockwise from top: The approach to an excavated maidom; the domed structure over the entrance to a maidom; a hole in the roof of a maidom which indicates that it has been the target of grave-robbers
This spread, clockwise from top: The approach to an excavated maidom; the domed structure over the entrance to a maidom; a hole in the roof of a maidom which indicates that it has been the target of grave-robbers
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