The vibrant city of Sivasagar in Upper Assam (approximately 360 kms North East of Guwahati) holds within it the vestiges of a glorious chapter in the annals of the political history of Assam. The city houses a number of remarkable monuments built by the Ahoms, a powerful and enterprising dynasty that held sway over the Brahmaputra valley for nearly 600 years! It is under the Ahoms that the polity, economy, society, art and culture of this region underwent significant development. The architectural legacy of the Ahoms stands as a testament to the power and resources that they commanded as well as their aesthetic vision and sensibilities. The Talatal Ghar, situated in the Dicial Dhulia village of the Sivasagar district, is the grandest and biggest of all Ahom monuments and epitomizes Ahom power at its zenith.
The saga of Ahom rule in Assam began in the early 13th century CE when a Tai or Shan prince from Maulang (believed to be situated somewhere in the Northern and Eastern hill tracts of Upper Myanmar and Western Yunnan), Sukaphaa, leading a group of around 9000 followers, entered the Brahmaputra valley through its South Eastern frontier. They set up their base at Charaideo (28 km from the present-day Sivasagar district) in 1228 CE, and over the coming centuries brought the entire valley under their political domination through a process of conquest, conciliation and marital alliances. In the course of this expansion, the Ahom kingdom which began as a tribal political formation evolved into a centralized state structure. The expansion and consolidation of the Ahom empire attracted the attention of the Mughals in the 17th century CE and led to a protracted period of Ahom-Mughal conflict (1615-1682 CE). This struggle ended with the defeat of the Mughals in the Battle of Itakhuli in 1682 CE, and established the Ahoms as the undisputed masters of the Brahmaputra valley up to the river Manah/Manas in the West (which remained the western boundary of the kingdom till the British took over in 1826 CE).
It was under King Gadadhar Singha (1681-1696 CE) that the Ahoms won this decisive victory over the Mughals. Also known as Gadapani, he is the first king to whom the initiation of the and progress of Ahom architecture is attributed. The dissolution of a major external threat to the empire must have facilitated the peace and stability necessary for undertaking architectural projects. Gadadhar Singha is credited with building a few temples including the Thaora Dol and the Umananda temple on the river island of Umananda in Guwahati, and two stone bridges over the river Dijoikhana and the Rahdai. However, it is the succeeding rulers- Rudra Singha and Rajeshvar Singha, who brought about structural changes in the architecture of the period.
The Ahom monuments, today, are found scattered in and around the district of Sivasagar in three areas which were also the principal capitals of the kingdom: Charaideo, Garhgaon and Rangpur. The capital at Rangpur (then known as Tengabari) was established by King Rudra Singha in the beginning of the 18th century CE. He is credited with the introduction of what has been termed by historians as the “permanent phase of non-religious architecture in Assam”. Prior to this, in this region one only comes across religious structures (such as temples) built in stone. Structures of civil and administrative use were constructed using perishable or impermanent materials such as timber, bamboo, thatch, cane etc. This is evidenced by the account of Shihab-ud-din Talish who accompanied the Mughal general Mir Jumla (1662-63 CE) to Assam. He wrote, “In the whole of Assam there is no building of brick, stone or mud with the exception of the gates of Garhgaon and a few temples.” Even after the introduction of stone and brick masonry, the earlier practice of building royal palaces of timber was continued and, in some cases, went hand in hand with the permanent materials, as will be witnessed in the architecture of the Talatal Ghar.
The Satsari Ahom Buranji states that the Talatal Ghar was started by King Rudra Singha. However, initially the building was still primarily constructed of semi-permanent and perishable materials. Rudra Singha, a pioneering ruler, is believed to have brought artisans from Cooch Bihar to introduce new styles and techniques of construction. In this context the authoritative colonial historian of Assam, Sir Edward Gait writes, “He (Rudra Singha) was anxious to build a palace and a city of bricks, but there was no one in the kingdom who knew how to do this. He, therefore, imported from Koch Bihar an artisan named Ghanshyam, under whose supervision numerous brick buildings were erected at Rangpur…” It was during the reign of King Rajeswar Singha that major additions in brick were made to the Talatal Ghar, along with the renaming of Tengabari as Rangpur.
The Talatal Ghar is the largest of all Ahom monuments. The name of this monument in fact captures the structural essence of this building. The word “Talatal” means “multi-storied”. The present-day standing structure consists of an elongated building aligned in a north-south axis having annexes on either side and the middle. The ground floor has rows of columns with semi-circular arches and includes both open and closed chambers. It is believed that this floor used to house stables and storage rooms. The upper floor is mostly an open terrace. However, several circular holes cut into the terrace floor have been interpreted as post holes for wooden pillars, suggesting the existence of upper stories constructed of timber. The annexes, especially in the middle, contain multi-storied roofed structures. Some of these roofed structures are constructed in the do-chala or cottage style, an architectural tradition unique to this region. An octagonal roofed structure with an arched entrance is believed to have been used as a temple.
Close to the main complex is a Gola Ghar or royal armoury, also constructed in the do-chala style. The entire complex is surrounded by a brick wall or Garh (only remnants of which are encountered now) and a Garh Khawoi or a ditch/moat which used to be filled with water.
In the Talatal Ghar, Ahom architectural brilliance is not only reflected in its structural grandeur but also in the building materials that were prepared ingenuously by using locally available resources. The bricks used in the structure were of diverse shapes and sizes. Some of the pillars of the structure have round ornamental circular bases with angular zig zag designs. An impressive feature is that these patterns were perhaps not sculpted once the pillars were installed, but were made out of bricks specially moulded and prepared into angular shapes for the purpose. A special cementing substance called the Karal or Karhal prepared out of black gram (matimah), duck eggs, sticky rice (bora saul), xilikha (a local fruit), resin, snail lime etc. was used for construction. Glittering pieces of snail shell are still visible in the walls. It is also believed that the Ahoms might have used some technique of water-proofing these walls, as the surface of the bricks seem to exhibit an oily texture when coming into contact with water. The interiors of the building are decorated with delicate floral patterns which are expertly engraved into the concrete.
It has been suggested by historians that the Talatal Ghar was built as an administrative and military centre rather than a residential palace. The open terraces where wooden structures are supposed to have once stood are believed to be the area where the King held court and convened other assemblies. However, some historians are still of the view that the upper stories perhaps housed residential quarters. Hence, the upper part of the building is often called the Kareng Ghar (not to be confused with the Kareng Ghar of Garhgaon, as Kareng is a generic term used by the Ahoms for a royal palace).
Over time the Talatal Ghar has attained a mythic status in popular imagination as a mysterious structure that cradles secrets and riches of a bygone era. According to a popular narrative, the Talatal Ghar has 4 underground stories and two secret tunnels. The tunnels are believed to be escape routes, one leading to the Dikhow river, and the other to the Garhgaon palace. These were believed to have ensured safe passage to the royalty in the event of an enemy attack. There also abound stories of people getting lost forever in the maze-like underground chambers, which resulted in the British closing the entrance leading underground. A Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) Survey conducted in 2015 by IIT Kanpur in collaboration with the Archaeological Survey of India (Guwahati Circle) did not reveal the existence of any secret tunnel. However, the study indicated the possible presence of structures between 1.9 and 4 metres beneath the garden, towards the left-hand corner of the monument. It was conjectured that this sub-structure could be a double foundation built as earthquake resistance.
Another popular story associated with the monument is that one of the sealed chambers of the building (above the ground) hides a Rajbharal or the royal treasury of the Ahoms and contains untold riches even today.
However, it is not just stories and legends that lend a shroud of mystery and curiosity to the Talatal Ghar. This incredibly designed monument lives up to its name in more ways than one. In Assamese, the expression Tala Nala Herua implies being confused or disoriented. To a first-time visitor, navigating the labyrinthine interiors of the Talatal Ghar may prove to be difficult without proper guidance. Several optical illusions embedded into the design of this structure work to confuse and muddle one’s sense of direction. The lower floor of the monument contains numerous identical doorways and arches. Several sets of archways are intentionally placed in an angular manner so that just when one thinks that one has hit a wall (and the passageway has ended), a new set of doorways and passages open up on the side making the structure appear seamless. Windows are sparse and the doorways are low in height requiring one to stoop every time one enters. One of the optical illusions involves a semi-opened doorway, the gap of which seems to magically shrink as one approaches the door. In certain portions of the building, a built-in acoustic effect causes even the faintest of whispers to return several times louder.
By the second half of the 18th century CE, the Ahom kingdom was rife with internal rebellion, power struggles and feuds. The Moamoria Rebellion (the Moamoriyas were a non-conformist Vaisnavite sect that clashed with the Ahom state on religious, ideological and political grounds) which amounted to a civil war greatly weakened the empire from within. The Burmese invasion (in three waves between 1817-1826 CE) lent the final blow to this already troubled state. The conquest of the Ahom kingdom by the Burmese, however, brought them face to face with the British. The Burmese subsequently lost to the latter and under the terms of the Treaty of Yandaboo (1826 CE), Assam became a part of British India.
This once indomitable kingdom is now gone and so are its kings. Yet, the Talatal Ghar stands as a tangible reminder of its might and glory. The labyrinthine passages of this structure draw visitors to immerse themselves in an era when this formidable dynasty reigned supreme over the plains and hills surrounding the mighty Brahmaputra.