Saturday, May 03, 2014

Kamakhya & the Ahoms

The city of Guwahati has an intriguing landscape. It sits on the flood plains of the mighty Brahmaputra river, and yet, unlike the Gangetic plains, the landscape here is dotted with little hills, poking out abruptly here and there. 

On the outskirts of the city, the river is more than 16km wide, so it is not surprising that much of the urban sprawl is spread around a few hills that constrict the river, narrowing it down to a point where bridges are relatively easy to build. On one of these hills sits the ancient Kamakhya temple.

To my untrained eye, the temple looked as though it has been transplanted from Western Himalayas. The narrow pathway to the temple resembles Kangra, the sculptures look like the handiwork of masons from Bageshwar, but the apparent absence of proportions in the temple complex leaves you a little confused.  

And then you have the animals. A large black goat nibbles at ornamental plants near the gate, sheep of various sizes amble all over the Shikara area which is home to hundreds of pigeons in white, brown and grey. These are not pets. 

Special scaffoldings are built around the temple tell you where the black goat is going next. In side the temple you need to go down a narrow, dark flight of stairs to reach the sanctum where the Devi is represented by an irregular mound. The Panda sitting here has two things by his side - a towel spread on the floor for collecting the cash offerings, and a set of decapitated animal heads - two buffalos, five sheep.

The temple may be as old as the earliest settlements in lower Assam but the present structure was mostly built by the Ahom kings (). Like the Cholas in South India, the Ahom economy was built on the agriculture surplus coming from the fertile Bahmaputra plains.

The surplus has to be carefully protected against regular raids from the hill tribes and enemies further afield. It is interesting to know that the military structure and hierarchy that evolved over the centuries is still reflected in the surnames of people in this area:
  1. Bor-fukan: Supreme commander of the armed forces
  2. Bor-baruah: Senior commander
  3. Baruah: Commander
  4. Hazarika: Leader of a 1000 men
  5. Saikia: Leader of 100 men
  6. Bora: Leader of a team of 10 men

A similar hierarchy existed for the intellectual / spiritual / political leadership. 
  1. Budha-gohain
  2. Bora-patra-gohain
  3. Bor-gohain
  4. Gohain

It is perhaps no surprise that the Kamakhya temple resembles the resembles the Himalayan shrines. This temple too has seen numerous sieges and and may have been pulled down quite a few times by the Muslim armies. The last round must have been during the Ahom-Mughal wars (1615-1682).

The temple we see today may have been a hasty, piecemeal reconstruction that has been happening over the last two centuries.


* Thekaekara, Tarsh (2014): WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, Indian Express Eye, 27Apr14

* Sanyal, Sanjeev (2014): ONCE UPON A RIVER, Indian Express Eye, 27Apr14
- 1661 - Ahom Kingdonm repulses Aurangazeb's attack
- Dec. 1667, Aurangazeb sent a huge Turkik-Rajpur army
- Ahom army heded by Lachit Borphukan defeats the Mughal army in March 1671 at Saraighat, near Guwahati
- Bharmaputra - 2900km long - originates from Mansarovar area - flows as "Tsangpo" in Tibet - enters Arunachal as "Dihang/ Siang" - enters plains at Pasighat
- Secret Surveyors - 1880 - Chinese Lama and Sikkimise surveyor called Kinthup - throwing logs into Tsangpo

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