Sivasagar is a district in the state of Assam, India, 369 kms away from Guwahati. The district is located on the upper Brahmaputra Valley. It is known for its historic monuments and temples built during the reign of the Ahom Dynasty.
The Ahoms influenced the political and cultural life of Assam and ruled from the 13th century to the early 19th century. Charaideo was one of the earliest capitals of the Ahom Kingdom. Later, under the reign of different rulers, Saragua, Gargaon, Rangpur and Jorhat became capitals of the Ahom Dynasty at different points of time. The Ahoms were the descendants of the Shan/Tai tribe of Chinese origin who had settled in the region of Upper Burma. Thereafter, Sivasagar was founded by King Chaolung Sukaphaa, also known as Siu-ka-Pha of the same tribe. It is said that Siu-ka-pha was accompanied by his soldiers, elephants, ministers and officials when he entered the Brahmaputra valley in the 13th century crossing the Patkai Hills.The rule of the Ahom Dynasty ended with the Burmese invasion of Assam somewhere between 1817 and 1825 and then the subsequent annexation by the British East India Company in 1825.
The Ahom dynasty reached its zenith under the reign of Rudra Simha (1696-1714). During his rule the capital was shifted to Meteka near present-day Sivasagar. He built the city of Rangpur with the help of Ghanashyam, the chief architect. It is believed that Ghanasyam was a Muslim from Bengal who later converted to Hinduism. As a result of Ghanashyam’s influence we find an amalgamation of Islamic architectural elements such as domes, arches with Hindu elements like the sikhara.
The architecture of the buildings constructed during the reign of the Ahoms can be understood in two ways - secular and religious. The secular architecture includes forts, pavilions and palaces. Whereas the religious architecture is dominated by temples dedicated to Lord Siva, Lord Visnu and Goddess Durga. A dynasty which lasted for almost six hundred years paid great attention to the security of their kingdom. They built ramparts at various points which are locally known as Garh. These were surrounded by deep and wide moats called Garkhawoi which were filled with water. In fact, today the presence of ramparts can be determined from places whose names have ‘Garh’ as suffix.
The city of Sivasagar is named after the famous Sivasagar tank, locally known as Borpukhuri. The city embraces multiple ethnic groups such as the Mishing, Naga, Manipuri, Garo and Deori. The peaceful co-existence of these ethnic groups have led to the evolution of their diverse cultures in the arena of Sivasagar.
The art, folklore, costumes, dance, cuisines of these groups are unique and collectively exhibit the rich tradition of Assam. The monuments on the other hand, stand as a symbol of the power and the might of the Ahoms. The locals of Sivasagar embraced Hindu rites, beliefs and customs. Sivasagar is home to two popular saints of the Vaishnavite tradition, Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva and Sri Sri Madhabdeva.
The Satra at Amguri, Assam has been imparting their teachings. Satras are social centres associated with the Ekaharana tradition of Vaishnavism. The word ‘satra’ has been mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana as a Sanskrit term ‘sattra’, which means a gathering of devotees.
It is said that the Ahoms observed three Bihu which are the festivals related to agriculture. Bihu has its origin from the Tai word ‘Pi-hu’ or ‘Poi-Hu’. People of Sivasagar observe various traditional festivals and rituals among which Bihu is of great importance. Poi-Chankein or Bohang Bihu (observed in April) is the main festival and is observed at the beginning of Spring Season. It is celebrated right before the paddy cultivation. In this festival, people wish for a good harvest because this is the time when farmers start sowing. Chip-song-ka or Kaati Bihu (observed in October) is celebrated to mark the cutting and binding of grain and Meji Joluwa Utsav or Magh Bihu (observed in January-February) marks the season of harvesting of the crops. The main aspect of these three celebrations is the ancestor worship called Me-Dam-Me-Phi. Where, Me means worship, Dam means the dead and Phi means God. That is, the dead are worshipped as Gods. Another very popular festival celebrated in the new year’s month of Dinsing or Aghun is called Kin-on-Meu or Na-Khuwa. In these festivals, the first produce of the season is offered to the ancestors. Some of the traditional rituals performed during these festivals are chanting of hymns by the priests, eating traditional food like Amroli-tup and pork and drinking lao or rice beer.
The Bihu dance and the Bihu Song are the most popular art forms in Sivasagar. These are performed with an instrument called Dhol and Mahar-Singar pepa. The Bihu songs were initially sung in Tai language, but over time these have been replaced by songs in Assamese language. The husari group of dancers and singers used to visit the king and nobles to bless them with prosperity, good health and luck by performing Bihu dance.
During the rule of the Ahom kings numerous tanks, temples and historical monuments were constructed. The most outstanding of these are water tanks by the name of Sivasagar, Joysagar and Gaurisagar. Various temples of great historical significance were also built such as the Sivadol group of Temples. These are located on the bank of Sivasagar tank which is also known as Borpukhuri tank. The Sivadol complex comprises of three temples namely, Sivadol, Vishnudol and Devidol dedicated to Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu and Goddess Durga respectively.
The most unique temple of Sivasagar district is the Ghanashyam Dol,, a terracotta brick temple which is located near Joysagar Tank. According to popular belief, it was constructed during the reign of king Rajeswar Singha (1751-1769) for his naati (grandson) belonging to the lineage of Parbatiya Gosain. Hence, the temple is also called Naati Gosain Dol. A different narrative of the origin of Ghanashyam Dol is that it was built under the patronage of King Rudra Singha by Ghanashyam Khanikar who was brought by Rudra Singha as the chief architect to construct the city of Rangpur.
Sivasagar houses royal palaces like “Rang Ghar”. It is close to Joysagar Tank, a popular amphitheatre called Rang Ghar. It is an 18th-century structure built by Ahom king Pramatta Singha (1744-1751). Often referred to as the Colosseum of the East, it served as a pavilion where the royal families and other dignitaries used to watch various games and sports.
An Army Base of the Ahoms, called Talatal Ghar has been well preserved till date. As the largest Tai monument, it has secret tunnels which were used as escape routes during the Ahom wars. The two main tunnels are known to be 16 kms and 3 kms in length. However, these have now been closed due to security reasons.
The tombstones of the Ahom kings and queens are known as 'Maidans'. They are constructed as pyramidal structures similar to the pyramids of Egypt.
One of the popular structures is the 'Namdong Stone Bridge' which is made from a single solid rock cutting. The famous Ajan Peer Dargah Sharif in Sivasagar stands as the symbol of Hindu-Muslim integration. It is located in the Saraguri Chapori.
This sacred mausoleum was built in the memory of a reformer and saint named Ajan Fakir who was originally from Baghdad and came to North East India in the 17th century. He played a pivotal role in unifying the people of the Brahmaputra Valley. Devotees in large numbers visit this Dargah from all over the world.
Apart from the built heritage, Sivasagar is home to archaeological sites, zoo and sanctuary. One such place is Na-pukhuri Archaeological Site also known as Rudrasagar. It is located on the bank of Rudrasagar tank, a paradise for migratory birds. The Shivadol at this site is a structure of architectural importance. It was built during the rule of king Swaradew Lakshmi Singha in 1773. The monument is a typical Ahom structure built on an octagonal base.
During the rule of Ahom Swargadeo Rudra Singha, Pohugarh came into existence as the first zoo in Sivasagar. Covering an area of 140 acres, it was built in a manner that it retains water throughout the year in order to create a natural habitat for wildlife and the avifauna.
Pani Dihing Wildlife Sanctuary was established as a Bird Sanctuary in August 1999 by the Government of Assam. The sanctuary lies between the Brahmaputra river and the Desang river covering an area of 33.93 sq. kms. The area is a grassland where more than 267 species of birds including 70 migratory species have been recognised.
The district therefore, presents before us a unified vision of a diverse culture. For many years it has been a centre of political activities, art, culture and literature.