The Name ‘Assam’: Towards Understanding its Historical Roots

The present constitutional name of our state is Assam which occupies a significant place within the Union of India. As a matter of fact, the state or province of Assam, which is the valley of the Brahmaputra River, had other names too. Assam is known by different names in the Epic, Puranic and early historical literature.1 The oldest name, which we can find from these Sanskrit records, is Pragjyotisha, which covered the entire Brahmaputra Valley, from the place where the river enters to Assam plains flowing from Tibet southwards through the gorges of Himalayas. In both the Epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata the name of the kingdom of Pragjyotisha have been well mentioned. Slightly later than this, we get the name Kamrupa, which was specially the name of the western part of the state, centering round the modern town Gauhati and the ancient shrine of Kamakhya. It is known for the first time as Kamarupa in the Allahabad pillar inscription of Samudra Gupta (fourth century A.D. and in the early Puranas.2 From the records of the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen-Tsang we came to know that he visited the kingdom of Kamrupa in the second quarter of the seventh century. The name Assam, which has virtually made absolute the earlier two names, now used for Assam state or province in general and the Brahmaputra valley in particular.3 There are several explanations as to the origin of the name Assam. The most pertinent fact is that this name was not applicable to this region prior to the arrival of the Ahoms to this land. In Indian folk-lore, the name Assam has hardly any place.4 Suniti Kumar Chetterji has rightly said that, “It was not in use even in Assam in early times, and could not have been in use there or elsewhere before the beginning of the thirteenth century A.D., when the Ahoms, a Shan tribe from Burma, crossed the Patkai Range and penetrated into Assam, and established themselves as conquerors in Eastern Assam (1228).5

Names given by other Mongoloid people of China and Southeast Asia to the Tais: Many evidences verify that the name ‘Assam’ itself has close connection with the Tai and the other Mongoloid people mostly living in China and other places of Southeast Asia. “The word in this form (Shan) is derived from the Burmese. Assam and Siam are related terms. The Jingpho term for Shan is Sam”.6 The Thai or Siamese are referred to by the Karen and Burmese of Lower area of Burma as “Shan”.7 In fact, in old Burmese stone inscriptions and sometimes even now, the word “Shan” is spelled as “Syam” pronounced with the “n” sound, but as in all Burmese words ending with “m” it is, pronounced with the “n” sound. Wa, Karen, Palaung, and others, refer to the Tai as “Sam” or “Syam”. This is strange because the Shan never refer to themselves as anything but Tai. No one really knows the meaning of the word “Siam”, a name given by others to the Tai/Thai people, although theories abound.8Another important observation was made by Mojor H.R. Davies. According to him, “The name which the Shan race given to them is Tai or T’ai as it is pronounced in Siam. This name seems very universal, and is used by nearly all the branches of the race. Our word Shan is the Burmese name for them, and variations of this name are applied to them by many other tribes: for instance, the Kachins, A-ch’angs, Zis, and La-shis, call them Sam, the Ma-ru name for them is Sen, the Palaung name Tsem, the Wa name Shem, and the Talains call them Sem”.9 “The Shans are an extremely numerous and widely spread race. In the west they extend into Assam. In fact, in the 13th century A.D. they conquered that country”.10

The First Ahom king Chao-lung Siu-ka-pha came from Mong Mao which is now included within the Dehong-Dai Singhpho Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan in Peoples Republic of China. Historically, since the 13th century, the Mong Mao chief extended his power over other Tai kingdoms in the Yunnan-Burma periphery. The Ming Imperial Dynasty carried out large scale military conquest of Mong Mao and finally sub-divided Mong Mao into divisions under several chieftains. Mong Mao is located along the Mao River (call Shweli by the Burmese). The Tai people who lived in Mong Mao since early times call themselves Tai Mao.11 The ancestors of Dehong Dai were recorded as “Dian Yu” and “Sam” in ancient literature as early as West Han and East Han dynasties. In the tenth century they set up a kingdom “Mong Ko Tsampi”, and a regional government in Luchuan later. The army of this kingdom went on an expedition toward India, and set up Ahom kingdom in Assam. According to these historical records, it is known that Ahom and Dehong Dai are descendants from a common ancestor “Dian Yu” or “Sam”. This conclusion has been confirmed by many Chinese and foreign writers.12

From the above observations it can be proved that from the time immemorial, these Tai people were called as Sam/ Sem/ Sham/Shem/ Syam/ Shan/ Siam/ Tsen/ Xian/ Lacham/ Asam by many other bordering and neighbouring tribes such as Kachin (Singpho/ Jingpho), Karen, Kadu, A’chang, Daeng, Buleng, Nakhi, Minchia, Lolo, Laho, Lisu, Lashi, Lutzu, Mon, Maru, Miao, Palaung, Yai, Zi, Wa, Wangthu, Hani,, Akha, Naga, Burmese, Khmer etc. A strong relation had been grown up from the ancient time among the Tais and the other tribes who lived in the hills surrounding them. Thus one can very clearly understand that the history of the word Shan is very old. Even in China, Thailand and Cambodia, they were known as Syam/ Siam/ Sam or Xian. Many opine that this word has come from Chinese word ‘Shan’, meaning, mountain or mountain people. In Chinese language mountain names as such usually end with suffix ‘Shan’. Examples can be given of the mountain ranges of China like Tien-shan, Talou-shan, Kunlum-shan, Min-shan, Ala-shan, Chin-ling-shan, Shihp-pao-shan etc. The early habitat of the Tai people in Nan-Chao (Yunnan) is a mountain region. Rev Dr. William Clifton Dodd, an American missionary having worked for many years among the Tais of China, Laos and Siam, and backed by his personal knowledge, wrote a book under title The Tai Race: Elder Brother of the Chinese. In it he has stated that the original habitat of the Tai was in the vicinity of the Altai Mountains. Later they slowly moved to China proper in the north and about the sixth century B.C. they started migrating to South China, and from there, they moved to other areas of Southeast Asia. (Most of the modern scholars have discarded this theory of Dr William Clifton Dodd.)

The Records say that over a period of 2000 years the Chinese has called the Tai peoples as Siam/Sam. Professor Huang Haikun of the Yunnan Institute of Nationalities has proved with a good number of documents in his article, “A Research on Ancient ‘Siam-Dai’ Kingdom”, that the Chinese records of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 A.D. – 220 A.D.) contain the names Sam/Siam which were exclusively used for the Tais.14 Giving the reference of the ‘History of Later Han Dynasty’ he has clearly stated that in 79 A.D. the King of Sam had sent presents to the contemporary Chinese emperor On He Di. This was repeated in 120 A.D. and 139 A.D. It is recorded that during the time of the Ming Emperors (1368 B.C.-1644 B.C.) of China there was relation between China and Thailand. In the Chinese Pin-yin system the word Tai is written as Dai and the word Siam as Sam/Syam. In the history named Ming Silu which was written in the Chinese national language (PinYin system), Xian-lu means Siam. The word “Xian” was used for Thailand. The word Xian is another form of Siam/Sam.15 Thus from last two thousand years the Tais are called as Sam/Syam/Xian. In a rock inscription of ancient Champa kingdom of middle Vietnam, the word “Shyam” is found which indicates the Tais particularly. The Cambodians called the Tais as Siam or Syam. In the Angkarvat temple of Khmer Emperor, Surya Barman of twelve century the word ‘Syam kuk’, meaning (Sham soldier) is seen in the bas-relief of wall writings. It can be ascertain that in the twelfth century the name Sam/Sham entered Kombodia and the Khmers pronounced it as Syam/Siam. (In Sanskrit Syam means dark blue or black, but the Tais were not dark skinned). This name Sam made its entry more eastward in to the ancient city of Campa of middle Vietnaam. The Burmese too used to write the name ‘Sam’ to refer the Tais but they pronounce it as ‘Shan’. In the rock inscriptions of Pagan of eleven and twelve centuries the name ‘Sam’ is there. But the word Sam was not created by the Burmese. From long time back this name had been used by the hilly tribes to mean the Tais. Thus the Burmese learning from others started calling the Tais as Sam/Shan.16 It is believed that the Europeans imitating the Burmese used the word ‘Shan’ in their writings in the later period. Thus, it can be historically prove that in the ancient times, such names as Sam/ Sem/ Shem/ Sham/ Siam/ Shyam/ Sen/ Xian etc. were largely used in referring to the Tai people living in many places of Southeast Asia including China. All these names are found in various old rock inscriptions, writings on the temple walls, art, sculpture, architecture, folklore, government documents, writings of famous scholars and foreign writers etc.

Lasam or A-sa-m, the name, which was given by the Kachins of Burma and Yunnan, 17 came along with this Mau-shan group of Tai people while coming across to the other side of Patkai. When Siu-ka-pha came to the Brahmaputra Valley in the early thirteen-century, the existing hill and plain tribes of this region as the Nagas, the Singphos, the Morans, the Borahis, the Chutiyas, and the Kacharis also called them as Asam, Acham, Asyam, Aham, Ahom etc. according to their respective pronunciation. It is very peculiar to see that, although the Ahoms mentions themselves as Tai while writing their own Buranjis, they willfully accepted the different names given to them by their new friends. Without any hesitation they introduce themselves to others by these names. From Tai-Mao people of Mong-Mao they changed themselves to Asam/ Aham/ Ahom/ Ahomiya and finally to Axomiya of the Brahmaputra valley. In course of time, this Asam was changed to the Sanskritised form Axom. The newly emerged Assamese educated middle class intelligentsia started to write the Sanskritised Asama in their writings. We get such names in the Acham Buranji, written by Haliram Dhekial Phukan in 1829 and in the Asam Buranji Puthi by Kashinath Tamuli Phukan in 1829. It is to be noted that all these new writings started only after the Ahoms lost their rule in 1826. After the establishment of the colonial rule, when the British officers and writers asked about the meaning of Asam/ Asham, this Assamese intelligentsia failed to give any satisfactory answer as there was no such meaning of the word Asam and Asham in Sanskrit and Assamese language. So they gave the explanation as Na-Sama = Asama. According to them the actual name of this place was Asama which later on changed to Asam/ Asham. But this explanation was out rightly disapproved by the British writers as they found too much of Sanskritised essence in it. W.Robinson, in his book ‘A descriptive account of Assam’ wrote that this theory can not be accepted as the indigenous inhabitants of this region who are mostly of Mongoloid origin can not pronounce the Sanskritised Asama (Na+ Sama=Axom). 18

A good number of interpretations have been given by different scholars supporting the view that the name Assam has a strong bond with the Tai Ahoms (Tai-Mao) who established a kingdom in the ruins of the Kamrupa kingdom in the early part of the thirteenth century. In fact the name A-sa-ma itself is a cultural heritage of the Tai –Ahoms. Eminent historian Padmeshwar Gogoi writes in his journal, Lik-Phan Tai that ”Assam” is a combination of the Bodo word “Haa” meaning land with “Sham” meaning the Tais. Therefore the name Assam means, “Land of the Tais”.19 Gait writes that the local people of the Brahmaputra Valley applied the term in the sense of “the peerless” to the Shans. He further adds that the Burmese by Athan knew Assam.20 According to Banikanta Kakoti, “the word Assam was connected with the Shan invaders of the Brahmaputra Valley”. He points out that in Tai (Ahom), “Cham”, means “to be defeated” and with the privative Assamese prefix “A”, the whole formation Asam would mean “undefeated” or “peerless”. The word Asama was first given to the Shams (Ahoms) was later on applied to their country.21 Even noted scholars like Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, Birinchi Kumar Barua, Debananda Bharale, Ananda Chandra Agarwalla, G. A Grierson supported the view that the name Assam originated form the name “Sam”. Grierson has noted that Assam (Asam) in the sixteen century meant the Ahoms and the Ahom country.22 Some of the non-Ahom Tai Tribes who migrated to Assam during the last days of Ahom rule and the early part of the British rule in Assam are still known to be the name “Shyam”.

Another interpretation regarding origin of the name Assam is given by B.H. Baden Powel. According to him, the word ‘Assam’ might have been derived from even older original Bodo word “Ha-Sam” meaning lowland.23 However this theory cannot be acceptable as we don’t get a single evidence of the name Assam in any of the records of the early Assam before the advent of the Ahoms.

Hence, what may be the course of word development according to the rules of Philology, Asam developed from “Sam” in the dialects of Brahmaputra Valley.

The Name in Assamese Historical Records

In the Ahom kingdom, regular records of history or chronicles known as Buranjis were traditionally maintained. Initially Buranjis were written in the language of the Ahoms and later on Buranjis were also written in Assamese language. As it has been discussed earlier that the Ahoms, while writing their Buranjis mentions themselves as “Tai” or “We”, there is no written record of the word “Ahom”, “Asam or “Asham” in the Tai-Ahom Buranjis. Before starting to write Buranjis in Assamese language the word Acham, Asam,Aham, Ahom had been used in the popular conversation only. When the system of writing the Buranjis in Assamese language started, the recorders use the term Asam or Acham for the Ahom kingdom and its subjects. One can get lots of proof of these in old Assamese Buranjis, a number of rock inscriptions, copper plates grants, political and non-political treaties of the Ahoms with different local and foreign rulers, different letters and records of the Ahom kings and the writings of foreign writers. As for example–

1. To denote the people of Assam particularly the Ahoms, the form ‘Acham’ has been frequently used in the Purani Asam Buranji, edited by the revered Assamese scholar Pandit Hem Chandra Goswami, dating seventeen century.

2. In another Buranji called Kamrupar Buranji, compiled from old Assamese Manuscript edited by S.K. Bhuyan and published by the DHAS, govt. of Assam, 1958, the word Asam can be seen many a times. It is an account of ancient Kamrupa; and a history of the Mughal conflicts with Assam and Cooch Behar, up to 1682 A.D.

3. The third important Buranji in reference here is the Tungkhungia Buranji narrating the reign of the kings of Tungkhungia clan of Ahom royal family beginning with Gadadhar Singha. This Buranji was compiled by one Srinath Barbarua of Duara family of Ahoms. The modern printed version was edited by S. K. Bhuyan and published by DHAS govt. of Assam.

4. In the Bahgariya Burha-gohair Buranji, written under the supervision of Atan Burhagohain (1662-1679) there is the clear mention of the term Aham used to denote the Ahoms. e.g.

“anara bangaha na-hay, dewa-manuha yi (=ji) kay hay, eyehe Aham: aka ane sama haota nai”.

(Deodhai Ahom Buranji, edited by S. K. Bhuyan, 1932, Art. 155, p. 93)

5. To denote the people of Assam, particularly the Ahoms, the form Acama has also been frequently used in the Asam-Buranji, obtained from the family of Sri Sukumar Mahanta, dating from the seventeenth century, and edited by S. K. Bhuyan in 1945. e.g.

Acame-o nao naora taiyar kari dalan bandhiche,

amakehe dhariba-lai yatna kariche. (Asam-Buranji, p, 87.)

(The Acams, too have erected a barrier by preparing their boats and their navy, and they are trying to capture us.)

Acame goda koriche, calacala cai yuddha kariba. (Asam-Buranji, p. 112.)

(The Acams (Ahoms) have erected a fort; carry on the campaign by taking note of the passages.)

Copper plate inscriptions of the Ahom kings also bear the name “Asam” and “Acham”. For instance the copper plate grant of Gaurinath Singha of A.D. 1783 bears the name “ASAM”. The Copper plate of Rajeshwar Singha of Saka 1677 bear the name ASAM and the copper plate grant of Lakshmisingha in Saka 1699 bear the name “Asham”.24

Even in the Charit puthis mention is made of the said names. From the early seventeen century onwards in the biographies of the Vaishnava saints of Assam, like Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva, writer have used the form Asam to denote, first, the Ahom tribe and secondly, the country ruled over by the Ahoms.25 Examples are plentiful in works like Ramcharana Thakura’s (1560-1620) “Biography of Sankara Deva” and Daityari Thakur’s— “Biography of Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva” (early 17th century).26

Nara-narayana bhaila Kamarupa raja,

Apuni barila an Asamara Praja.

(Ramacarana Thakura’s ‘Biography of Sankara-deva’)

S.K. Chetteri has also said that the two forms, “Asama” and “Acama” are found to be almost contemporaneous in early Assamese literature (the second half of the sixteenth century).As for example:-

1. Kirata Kachari Khachi Garo Miri Yavana Kanaka Gowala,

Acama-mulaka Rajaka Turuka Kuwaca Mleca Candala;

Ano Papi nara krsn- sewakara sanga-ta-pawitra haya,

Bhakati labhiya samsara tariya Baikunthe sukhe calaya.

(From Sankara-devas Bhagavata, II, padas 474-75)

2. Hari-name nahike niyama adhikari

‘Rama’ buli tare Miri Acama Kachari.

(From Madhava-dava’s Nama-ghosa pada 501)


From the above passage it would be clear that, with ‘Acama’, Sankaradeva and his younger contemporary and disciple Madhavadava meant only the non-Aryan speaking tribes- the Ahoms.27 It is to be noted here that the first written form of Acama is found in the line, ‘Acama-muluka Rajaka Turuka…’ of Bhagavata, by Sankara-deva. In the Darrang Rajvamsabali written by Suryakhari Daivajna, ((ed), N.C.Sarma, Patsala, 1973 the name Acama denoted the Ahoms. In the Kathaguru charit composed during seventeenth century we get the name Ahamiya for the first time, which has very close connection with the term Ahom. It can be presumed that, later on this Ahamiya was changed to Ahomiya and Axomiya.

Even before the establishment of the East India Company’s rule in Assam, there were exchanges of letters between the Ahom kings and British Governor General for various political purposes. In these letters the name of the country was written as “Asham Desh”, “Asham Mukam”, “Asham Muluk”, “Asham Rajya” etc. All the records go to the period between 1550 A.D. and 1826 A.D.

In the modern Assamese writings, wrote before the independence (1947) most of the Assamese scholars used the name Asham frequently. Examples can be given to a large numbers Assamese dailies, weeklies, fortnightlies, periodicals, monthlies, journals, magazines etc. Instances can be given of Assam Buranji of Haliram Dhekial Phukan (1829 A.D.), Asam Buranji of Kashinath Tamuli Phukan (1844), Assamer Itihas of Gunabhiram Barua (1884), Asam Bilasini (1871-83), Asam Darpan (1871), Asam Bandhu (1882-85), Asam Tora (1888-90), Asam Banti, Asam Rajat, (1909-1911) Asam Hitoishi and Asam Bandhav (1910) etc.

It is to be noted that prior to 1944, Asam Sahitya Sabha was known as Assam Sahitya Sabha.

The Name in Foreign Historical Records:

a) The name “Assam” appears in various forms in the records of the Muslim Rulers of India. In the Persian publications of Mughal period like Akbarnamah (1542-1605), Padsah-Namah (1627-1647), Alamgir-Namah (1657-1667) and Tarikh-I-Mulk-I Asham, the name Asham is mentioned. It appears in Boharistan-i-Ghaybi written by Mirza Nathan, a Mughal general who come to Assam during the time of Jahangir and Sahjahan.

b) In the peace treaty that concluded between the Ahom king Jayadhajsimha and the Mughal general by Mirjumla, 1662A.D., the Ahom kingdom is described as Bilayat Asama-kasya, i.e. ‘Wiliyat or State of Asam or Ahom king’.

c) A Muslim writer named Sihabuddin Talish who accompanied the Mughal general Mirjumla during his invasion of Assam wrote a book named “Fath-i-Twarikh-i-Asham”. This book deals with the causes which led to the invasion, the occupation of the country, the conclusion of the peace, and the return of the general and his death near Khijirpur. The second part contains the description of Assam and the Assamese. In this complete book, the author mentioned Assam/Asham .

d) A latter of Mr. Joan Maetsuyker, Governor General of Dutch Batavia to Mughal General Mirjumulah on 29-08-1663, where he addressed and congratulated Mirjumlah as “Grooten Mughal in Assam”. It is taken from the book ‘Vervarelijke Schiprbruck-Van’t Oastindische Jacht Terschelling’, published by De Haan Nv, Utrecht in January 1944.

e) There is also a diary of Dutchman published in 1675 which mention the name of Assam and the people of Assam as Assamer. This Dutchman was forced fought alongside the army of Mirjumlah 1662.

f) A map of “Kingdom of Bengale” (Kingdom of Bengal) drawn by a Dutchman named John Van Leenen was drawn in 1661 and published around in 1662 A.D. John Van Leenen was in “Bengale” in 1661 A.D. The document is currently in the Maritime Museum, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. There is clear mention of “Assam” bordering Bengal.

g) Jean-Baptiste Chevalier, a Frenchman came to Assam during June 1755 to June 1757. He wrote his account titled “Les Aventures de Jean-baptiste chevalier dans l’inde orientale (1752-1765), memorie historique et journal de voyage an Assem.” There apart from mention of “ASSAM” meaning Assam in the title page, the page-5 prints the paragraph titled “Voyage en Asam (Juin 1755-Juin 757)”.

h) “Assam” is clearly written in the Map of the said book which was published according to Act of Parliament by J. Rennell August: 1780.

i) The name “ASSAM” occurs in the account of Dr. John Peter Wade who came to Assam as the Surgeon with the troops of British East India Company, which was attached to the troops of Captain Welsh’s expedition to help the king of Assam. The title page of the book is “AN ACOUNT OF ASSAM BY DR JOHN PETER WADE, 1800.”

j) Sir G.A. Grierson has already noted that Assam (Asam) in the sixteenth century meant the Ahoms and Ahom country.*Linguistic Survey of India, Vol.11, p. 61

k) Travernier’s Travels in India published in 1676 uses the spelling Achen for Assam. It was written in original French language.

l) In the description of Mirjumla’s death in the book ‘A Geographical Account of Countries about Bay of Bengal’ by Thomas Bowry (Edited by R.C.Temple, Hakluyt Societies Publication) we get the name Acham in writings. e.g. “They lost the best Nabobs, the kingdom of Acham and, by consequence many large privileges”.

m) The treaty of Yandaboo between the British East India Company and the king of Burma in 1826, mention the name “ASSAM”.

n) Clara, a baby one-horned rhino traveled on a Dutch East India Company ship, named de Knapphhof, and reached Rotterdam in the Netherlands on July 2, 1741. From there, she visited almost all the countries in the continent and soon enough became a mini celebrity there. According to Dutch records, the rhino was captured in Assam in 1738 and was named Clara. After reaching the Dutch city, Clara criss-crossed Europe, making headlines in then leading news papers and stirred the imagination of artists and onlookers. In August 1741, two newspapers, Amsterdamse Couranten and Leidse Couranten, wrote about Clara’s visit in Amsterdam and mentioned “Assam”. The Austrian newspaper, Wienerisches Diarium, wrote about the one-horned rhino from the province of “Asem” in October 30, 1746. Even today, different paintings and statues of Clara can be found in different museums across the globe.28

The name “ASSAM” as written in Latin alphabets, is not given by the British as claimed by many and is certainly not a colonial legacy. Rather it is a historical name that has been in vogue during the last 800 years. All the records and documents enclosed here predates the period of British rule in Assam. The word ‘Assam’ and its various forms represent the original unaltered name of Assam state, which has remained as the sole external identifier word for the state for a long period of time. Apart from the use in the nomenclature of the land, it is used in various institutions, brands, books and also in scientific nomenclature of flora and fauna of the Assam state. The word ‘Assam’ has gained global acceptance as ‘Assam Tea’, ‘Assam Silk’, ‘Assam Oil’, ‘Assam Rhino’ etc.

The name Asam came along with the Ahoms:

This name came along with the Ahoms during the early 13th century and since then it has been in use in various dialects and languages, both local and foreigner. The Ahom advent and the founding of a Tai state in the Brahmaputra valley is an event of immense political significance with far reaching significance not only to Assam but also to the Northeast India. The arrival of Siukapha caused a new alignment in power in the decadent but glorious Kamrupa kingdom.29 The Ahoms were the extreme westernmost Tai group who migrated to the Upper regions of the Brahmaputra River Valley in the early years of the thirteenth century and established a powerful Tai kingdom after subjugating its local inhabitants. The Chinese annals and other available Tai/Shan chronicles provide us with evidences of this extreme westernmost migration of the Tai people that took place in the early years of the thirteenth century C.E. when Mong Mao, a Tai Yai power was at the zenith of its glory. The Tai (Ahom) chronicles record the advent of a group of Tai-Mao people in 1215 A.D from Mong-Mao, presently called as Ruili, in the Province of Dehong Dai Jingphou Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan, People Republic of China. Ethnographically the Ahoms were Tai Mao people and belonged to the Tai race, who once commanded a powerful empire in the Southwest China by the name Nan Chao that was vanquished by the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, in a joint Mongol-Chinese invasion. They were led by Siu-ka-pha, a prince (chao) and established a principality in the upper region of the river Brahmaputra by subjugating its local chiefs. After making a good survey of the area Siu-ka-pha founded his capital at Charaideo in the present day Sibsagarh in 1253 CE. Siu-ka-pha fondly called his newly founded kingdom as Mong-Dun-Hsun-Kham meaning Land of golden gardens. In course of time these Tai Mao people of Mong Mao got a new name, the Ahom, given by certain tribes of Tibeto Burman linguistic group. The Ahom kingdom consolidated its power for the next three centuries by subjugating the neighbouring tribes mostly belonging to the Mongolian stock. In the 13th century the Upper Brahmaputra Valley was populated by certain tribes, such as the Moran, the Barahi, the Chutiya and the Kachari. Siu-ka-pha first encountered these people, befriended them by a policy of appeasement, conciliation, tolerance, acceptance, accommodation and co-existence. This is how; Siu-ka-pha laid the foundation of the Ahom kingdom and started the creation of a new model of state formation which lasted for a period of almost six hundred years. Siu-ka-pha’s later successors in the 16th and the 17th centuries successfully enlarged the Ahom kingdom in all directions particularly towards the West to cover the whole of the Brahmaputra valley touching Goalpara, then on the eastern frontier of the Mughal Empire. Subsequently this kingdom expanded to cover the whole of the Brahmaputra valley up to Jogighopa (river Manas) in Goalpara on the west, while its eastern boundary extended as far as Mong Khwan in the Chindwin valley covering both banks of the river Brahmaputra. This territorial limit of the Ahom kingdom remained unchanged till its occupation by the British during 1824-26 following the First Anglo-Burmese War.

One of the most important aspects about the Ahoms is that during their migration from their original homeland Mong-Mao, the Ahoms brought with them a kind of political philosophy, state craft and administration, territorial divisions, economic system, socio-cultural institutions, religious belief system, language and literature, script, custom and ceremonies typical to the Tai-Mao people of the Upper Mekong and Upper Salween Valleys of southwestern China in the last part of 11th century and first part of 12th century. The Ahoms had their own system of keeping records (Buranjis), oral and literary literature, living tradition, art and crafts, architecture, marriage system (Chaklang), calendar system, burial of the dead (Moi-dam), elder brother/younger brother relationship (Pi-nong) clan system, wet rice cultivation (Na-Culture in Tai and Pothar in Assamese), cultivation by single male buffalo, water management technique, agricultural ceremonies, textile and handloom culture, weaving tools, food habits, ancestor and spirit (Khwan) worshiping, music, dress ornaments, horses, elephants, a kind of sword (Hengdang) and many things. All these constituted the cultural heritage of the Tai people which descends to them from their forefathers. This Tai culture remained as the backbone of their socio-cultural life throughout the entire Ahom rule. Thus their Southeast Asian legacy is seen reflected in every sphere of the Ahom administration. In course of time, the Tai Ahom apart from giving ‘Assam’ the present name, helped in the process of evolution of a mainstream Assamese nationality and culture by bringing together various ethnic groups under one administrative umbrella and thereby giving political unity and economic stability to the people of this region which they have never experienced earlier. The Ahoms as ruling elite in Assam for centuries displayed an extraordinary sense of liberalism in dissolving their cultural distinctiveness in the mainstream of Assamese life and culture.30 They made their contributions in diverse fields such as society, economy, polity, religion, culture, philosophy, language and literature and art and architecture. The Ahoms have played a very distinctive role in the gradual evolution of the Assamese nation. It was only during the Tai-Ahom rule in Assam; we can observe assimilations of diverse ethnic and cultural groups to the highest degree which were due to their political strategies and friendly attitude and respect to the cultures of other communities and tribes. It was partly by their policy of matrimonial alliances and partly by socio-cultural assimilation the Ahom rulers paved the way for the growth of a composite nationality, which was recognized in course of time as the ‘Assamese’. Under the liberal patronage of the Ahom rulers a plural society was grown up where each and every community was allowed to grow freely. As the ruling class they didn’t impose their religion, language and other systems upon their subjects. Rather the Ahom rulers adopted political nationalism as their state policy under which every ethnic community got the space and chance to develop and prosper. A unique nationality was born. The Ahoms who ruled Assam for more than six centuries made single contribution to the development of Assamese culture and civilization specially through their patronage and benevolence and the secret of their uninterrupted rule for such a lengthy period lay in their extraordinary sense moderation and their positive eagerness to dissolve the pride of a conqueror race, a fact which by all means enhanced the legitimacy of their rule and ensured the credibility of their system of administration among the masses.31 For all these contribution they have made in the formation of the Assamese nation, the Ahoms consider themselves as the founder of this greater Assamese society and fell humiliated if any one tries to challenge their identity. Thus the small Tai principality established by the Tai-Mao prince Siu-ka-pha, who fondly names it as Mong-Dun-Hsun-Kham was grown into a large kingdom with the new name Asham or Acham and finally Assam. The English continued to use the Assam throughout their period. It was continued after 1947 and it is the official name even today. In the Indian constitution the name of our state is “The State of Assam”. At present, the Assam state with its Assamese nationality is an integral part of the Indian constitution.



1) The Comprehensive History of Assam, Volume 1, Chapter One, Ancient Period, Edited by H.K.Barpujari, Guwahati, 2004.

2) Ibid.

3) The Name ‘Assam – Ahom’, Selected Papers, Bangla-Nibandha-Chayana, Suniti Kumar Chetterji, vol. 11, Peoples Publishing House, New Delhi, May, 1979.

4) Ibid.

5) Ibid.

6) Political Systems of Highland Burma, by Professor E.R. Leach, published by University of London, University, (originally by G. Bell & Sons Ltd in 1954, reprinted in 1964).

7) The Shan of Burma: A Memoirs of a Shan Exile by Chao Tzang Yawnghwe (alias Eugene Thaike), Published as Local History and Memoirs by Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 1987. (Chao Tzang Yawnghwe was a son of Chao Shwe Thaike, the ruler of Yawnghwe Shan State and the first President of Independent Burma. Chao Tzang, educated in the Rangoon University, turned himself as a rebel leader and fought against the Burmese army. Finally he fled to Thailand and remained in exile in Chiengmai till he migrated to Canada where he passed away in 2004 and never again saw his homeland. The Shan of Burma is both factual and informative about the Shans of Burma and their fight against the Burmese Government.)

8) Ibid.

9) Yunnan: the Link between India and the Yangtze by Major H. R. Davies, published by Cambridge University Press, 1900. (Major H.R. Davies was a military officer engaged in survey for railway line from Burma to Western Yunnan and he had traveled about 5,500 miles by road between 1894 and 1900. His journal was published by Cambridge at the University Press in 1909. The information contained in the book is a hundred years’ old but it gives some graphic description to understand the Tai people of Yunnan and their habitat.)

10) Ibid.

11) On the Relationship between Dehong Dai and Ahom Dai” by Xhao Hongyun and Ke Yuanxiuo of Yunnan Nationalities Research Institute, Kunming.


12) Ibid.

13) The Tai Race: Elder Brother of the Chinese, Rev Dr. William Clifton Dodd, published by Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1923.

14) The Tai Race: Elder Brother of the Chinese, Rev Dr. William Clifton Dodd, published by Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1923.

15) O’Ming Shi-lu as source for Thai History 14th to 17th Century, by Geoff wade, University of Hong Kong, Paper presented at the 5th International Conference on Thai studies, SOAS, London, 1993.

16) Assam Namor Pom Khedi, (In Assamese) J.N. Phukan, published in the Souvenir Khe-nam-ti-ma by Purbachal Tai Sahitya Sabha, Sarupathar 2004.

17) Huang Haikun and Xie Yuan Zhang, Thai-Yunnan Project News latter, No.5, June 1989, p.6.

18) William Robinson, A Descriptive Account of Assam, Culcutta 1841.

19) Lik-Phan Tai, Padmeswar Gogoi. vol.1, pub. 1966, p.24.

20) A History of Assam, by E.A. Gait. Culcutta, (Second Edition), 1926, p.245-46.

21) Assamese-Its Formation and Development, Dr. Banikanta Kakoti, M.A., Ph.D., Published by the Government of Assam. In The Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies, Gauhati, Assam, 1941, P-1.

22) Linguistic Survey of India, G.A.Grierson, Calcutta, 1903-9 vol. II. pp 59.

23) Indian Village Community, Badan Powell, B.H, London, 1896.p.135.

24) Prashya Shasanavali, edited by Moheshwar Neog, 1974. Plate no. 82, 100, 110, 148.

25) Bangla-Nibandha, Select Papers, Vol, 11, Suniti Kumar Chetterji, Peoples Publishing House, New Delhi, and May, 1979.

26) Ibid.

27) Ibid.

28) Rhino’s 18th-century Europe tour backs ‘Assam’ name, The Times of India: 29 January, 2007.

29) Chao-Lung Siu-Ka-Pha, Dr J.N.Phukan, Margherita, 2009, pp.8

30) The Ahoms: An Analysis of their Folk Customs in Cosmogony Of Caste And Social Mobility in Assam, Bimal J. Dev, Dilip K Lahiri, Mittal Publications, Delhi, 1984,p.125.

31) The Ahoms: An Analysis of their Folk Customs, Cosmogony of Caste And Social Mobility In Assam, Bimal J Dev & Dilip K. Lahiri, Mittal Publications, Delhi,1984, pp.91.

By Sangeeta Gogoi
Assistant Professor & Head of the Department
History, Mangaldai College
Mangaldai, Assam.


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