FESTIVALS AND RITUALS OF TAI-AHOMS OF ASSAM
Tai-Ahoms during their six centuries long reign in Assam greatly influenced the socio-cultural practices of people of the land. The first Ahom King Sukapha established the political base at Charaideo at 1253 A.D. They were credited as the unifying force that held various communities, tribes of Assam together in harmony. Tai-Ahoms brought along a specific system of social, political, economic, religious traditions, beliefs and customs, language and script of their own, which were completely different from those of the people who had been living in Brahmaputra valley.
However, Tai-Ahoms adopted beliefs and customs of local populace to achieve political consolidation. Many Hindu rites and beliefs were embraced by the community. Similarly, after the expansion of Neo-Vaishnavism preached by Sankardeva and Madhabdeva, Vaishnavite customs, rituals and principles were also embraced by Ahoms. Still, Tai-Ahoms especially the priest classes like Mohans, Deodhais and Bailungs, continued to observe their customary ceremonies, religious rituals and festivals as per traditional manners and customs.
There exist different opinions among historians about the religion that Ahoms brought along with them to Assam. However, they originally belonged to Tao religion. The Taoists adopted many things from Confucianism. As a consequence, Taoism took a social form oriented towards society and life.
Tai-Ahoms have been observing various traditional festivals and rituals in Assam both in public and within the family. They contributed greatly towards extension and celebration of agriculture-based or seasonal festivals. Among those Poi-Chankien or Bohag Bihu, Mai Ko Chung Phai or Meji Joluwa Utsav and Chip-song-ka or Kati Bihu are very important. But ancestor (Dam) worship is the main part of these three Bihus. Tai-Ahoms call the deceased one (Dam) as Na Dam (Na = new; Dam = dead), Chi-ren-Dam (Chi = four; ren = house, thus meaning the fourth generation of dead parents of the dead grandfather of the living house owner); Ghai-Dam (Ghai = Main; the main dead grandparents of the living house owner); and Jakarura Dam (the collective dead ones who died unnaturally). Before the Dam post, several offerings are given and the priestly classes of Ahoms chanted Tai-Ahoms hymns. Eating Amroli-tup (Amroli— a species of reddish brown ant. It is fried with duck egg) and pork; drinking Luk – lao or rice beer - are traditional rituals. Ahom kings organized animal fighting for the entertainment. A ceremony is observed in front or by the side of the granary called ‘Khek-Hu-Chung-Khura’ after start of stocking rice. Another agro-based ritual Phang Chi Mung is observed for well-being of village during crop failure, epidemic or bad weather. Chora Utuwa Aai Sabah (Chora means boat, utuwa means floating and Aai means mother) ritual is generally observed in the rainy season. Hens are sacrificed for this ritual and an artificial boat made of sheath of the banana tree is floated in water. The ceremony is meant for getting rid of diseases in rainy season.
Kin-on-Meu or Na-Khuwa, which is a very popular and famous celebration among Tai Ahoms, is celebrated in the New Year’s month of Dinsing or Aghun month. In this festivals too, the first seasonal crop, vegetables and fruits produced by the household are offered to the dead first before praying to ancestors: ‘Oh, our Ancestors, we pray homage to you on this day. Please bless us. If there is any misfortune likely to occur to any member of our family, we pray for its remedy and wellbeing of them. Because today is the occasion of Na-Diya (first use of the rice from the harvest), the offerings are made to the deceased. May the deceased be satisfied at this offering and do away with any kind of disease, misfortune or evils that might occur; and may they bless the household with such abundance that granaries in the front and backyard remain full throughout the ages to come and the beggars and paupers may also be given enough of the grains from them.’
Tai-Ahoms have no separate prayer halls. Deodhais and Bailungs set up their Dam post in the eastern corner of their kitchen while the Mohons do the same in the western corner. The tradition of bowing before the Dam post before going out for some auspicious purpose is still practised in some places of Assam. Now-a-days Me-dam-me-phi is termed as festival of unity rather than worship to facilitate its extensive celebrations. They observe it in different ways - Ban-phi and Fralung. Non vegetarian foods are strictly prohibited in Fralung system. Among the most worshipped Gods of Tai- Ahoms, Jasingpha is regarded as the God of wisdom. As Goddess Saraswati for Hindus, Jasingpha is presiding deity for Ahoms and the tradition of worshipping her is still in vogue among a section. Hubachani Puja is another important ritual observed by some Ahom families in every two or three years. According to some scholars of Upper Assam it was not the traditional form and call it another form of Durga puja. Three Ahom priests perform this ritual with several materials, birds and animals for sacrifice. Worship of goddess is aimed at earning blessings for good health, wealth, prestige and power.
Tai-Ahoms follow some special traditions, rituals in different stages of life. One of such rituals is Chaklang. Now-a-days, it is seen that all rituals relating to Chaklang such as ceremony of Rikhkhv?n, Deo-b?n etc., are not performed and only the main Chaklang is done. It is performed by the community with pomp and grandeur. According to Dr. Padmeswar Gogoi, the ritualistic part of Ahom marriage is a mixture of ancient Tai-Ahom, Buddhist and Hindu formalities. The ceremonies of Rik khvan, Deo ban, Ap-tang, the relating of Buranji, presentation of Hengdan, exchange of gold rings, lime box and knife, oblation to the five deities are definitely Tai-Ahom ; the lotus circle with one hundred one lights appears to be Buddhist ways and ceremonial bath and uruli are Hindu elements.
Death related ritual ‘ Maidam dia’ or ‘Gor kora’ is another unique customs of Ahoms. Though the practice of making burials in the maidams has remarkably decreased, it is still in vogue among some families of upper Assam. A ‘Ruk- dang’ (coffin) to bring the dead body to burial place was made of a kind of timber called uriam. Now-a-days, common people make a box-shaped coffin with bamboo called ‘Rang’. The three ‘molung’ or priests make complete respectful offering on 11th/13th/17th/21st day. As per tradition, the eldest son-in-law of the deceased offers a pig. The cook begins cooking only after the son- in- law sets the cooking pot. The cooks serve the relatives (of the dead) along with rice beer. It is called ‘chik chak khowa’. On that day, the deceased is founded in the Griha dam’ as new Dam or ancestor.
Of late, several organisations have tried to rediscover customs and traditions of Ahoms so as to popularize them among the masses. Another rarely observed ritual is Rik-Khan-Mung-Khan (Rik-call, khan-longevity or ‘Agus tola’) concerning with health and diseases. The elderly women in the village take out a procession to the nearby water source and after propitiating the water god Khaokhom, draw water to give ritual bath to sick persons for his recovery or enhancing his vitality.
At present, Ahoms, barring a small section, perform most of their religious activities as per Hindu tradition. For example, mango and tulsi or basil leaves are used in place of peepal leaf and Blok-sing-pha flower respectively, Ahoms’ religious Phuralung mixed with Hindus’ Barsabah, Hubosoni became Barseva etc. Moreover, Tai-Ahom scholars attribute this to reasons like scarcity of the materials required in the festivals and worshipping ceremonies, huge expenditure involved, want of experienced people in addition to apathy of the new generations.
As opined by Tai- Ahom scholars, festivals and ceremonies observed by them though may differ from time to time and place to place in terms of customs and manners of observation, but observation is characterized by spiritual and moral sense besides objectives of welfare of the society and motherland. Moreover, traditional food items of Tai-Ahoms have gained wide popularity, which, if propelled in the right direction, may be expected to gain international stature.
(Minakshi Borah is Associate Professor, Department of History, Jorhat Kendriya Mahavidya. She can be reached at –firstname.lastname@example.org)