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Sibsagar - Glimpses of Another Time

The mighty Ahoms reigned supreme for 600 years at Sibsagar where the ruins of their temples and palaces still exist. Resurrected by the Archaeological Survey of India, these ruins provide an interesting insight into the past glory and splendour of Assam.

Sibsagar was the capital of Ahom kings who ruled over Assam for nearly 600 years till the British annexed the region in 1826. Originally, a Burmese Shan tribe, the Ahoms, were supposed to have bravely withstood 17 Mughal invasions. But, why could they not resist the British? It is said that the Burmese caused a lot of trouble trying to take over, and the Ahoms approached the British for assistance. The Britishers did help them alright but finally helped themselves!

The first Ahom king, Chao Sukapha happened to come to Assam in 1228 AD by chance rather than by any design. Owing to some family disputes, Sukapha had to leave the Shah states in Burma. When he entered upper Assam accompanied by nobles and nine thousand people, they earned the name ‘Ahom’ meaning unequalled because of their values and the bravery. They ruled the area between Guwahati and the Naga Hilla for nearly six centuries.

Ahoms being efficient administrators with a sound knowledge of warfare, first tried to integrate the indigenous tribes and present day Assam is the result of this amalgamation. The Ahom rulers, apart from giving Assam a good and strong government and keeping the country in peace and prosperity, also ushered in an era of civil contractions. Most of these surviving relics of the Ahom period are found mainly in Sibsagar and Jorhat districts. They are not of gigantic size but are unpretentious and pragmatic in their construction techniques.

It is fascinating to learn about the legends which led the kings and queens to build these structures.

Sometime in the year 1500, an Ahom king was unseated for a while. While he managed to hide himself with the Nagas in a nearby hill, the enemies chained the queen to a tree and tortured her with leaves of a poisonous plant and let loose all sorts of bugs for stinging her. The queen bravely bore all these for 18 days and when her husband visited her in disguise, just before she died, he lost his cool, assassinated the pretender and fled.

He was helped by an old lady in hiding from the marauding army. Years later when the king returned to power, he expressed his gratitude to the old lady by constructing a bridge on the stream near the spot with only a single stone piece. This was considered a great civil engineering feat at that time. It is said that the same bridge still exists over which the present national highway runs.

This architectural feat did not stop with the king. The sons of the king and their queens distinguished themselves as great builders. One of them named King Shiva Singha and his wife Queen Madambika had 129 acres of land dug up and got mud piled up on the periphery to make Sibsagar tank after which the old Rangpur town has been rechristened. The whole project is considered a great civil engineering feat as the water level in the tank is higher than the level of the town surrounding it. Later, the king and the queen went on to build three temples on its bank – Shivadol, Devidol and Vishnudol. Shivadol is believed to have the highest dome in any Shiva temple of the country.

An interesting fact is that at Vishnudol, dedicated to Vishnu, there is also a Shiva lingam in the sanctum sanctorum, which is unusual as devotees are normally followers of either Vishnu or Shiva, not both.

Another interesting fact about this tank is that Siberian migratory ducks come all the way here, to spend the winter months. A short distance away from the temples are ancient cannons made of iron – relics from the time of the Ahom rule.

About six kilometres from Sibsagar is a another monument – a seven stories castle, four above and three underground. The floors above were called “Karang Ghar”. As the name Talatl Ghar suggests, it is an underground garrison with three stories below the surface of the earth, the lowest being connected by two tunnel pathways – one to the Dikhow river, presumably to bring water into the palace and another was connected to Gargaon Palace. The underground storeys and the passages were blocked by the Britishers to contain the rebellions about two hundred years ago.

The second son of the martyr queen, Swargadeo Rudra Singha, was so impressed with the manner in which his mother had braved all the torture for full 18 days before dying that he got a pond dugout twice as big as his brother had done at a place called Rangpur (which was the name of the Ahom capital, five kilometres from Sibsagar. He called it Joy Sagar after his mother’s name, Joymoti Kuwari. Due to this reason, this tank is considered to be divine.

The tank stands on an area of 318 acres, only half of which is under water presently. On the banks of this tank, four temples stand with the names, Joydol – dedicated to his mother Shivadol – dedicated to Lord Shiva, Devidol – dedicated to Lord Krishna. These temples are architectural marvels. Despite a massive earthquake in the year 1988 and the buildings being as old as 400 years old, they did not collapse, only the tall dome of the Joydol developed a little crack. Obviously, the king had taken al the precautions against earthquakes while designing the structures in this India’s most earthquake prone region where people did not dare to construct buildings other than thatched ones.

From what remains of the sculpture decorating these temple walls, one can see carvings of elephants and other animals in panels and rows reminding one a little of the workmanship at Belur. There is a depiction of Brahma astride a peacock and hunting scenes on the outer panels along with a rare 16-armed Durga and a Narasimha.

Close by is Rang Ghar (Entertainment House), built by King Pramatta from where they used to watch elephant fights and other sports event. Around this two stories oval shaped pavilion, there is a wide meadow which is meant for gatherings. It is perhaps one of the earliest pavilions of outdoor stadia in India. This pavilion is 10 metres high, 11 metres across and 27 metres long, a steep flight of steps leads to the higher elevations. The base of the monument has a series of arched entrances and atop the roof is a decorative pair of carved stone crocodiles. The Ahoms, used special thin baked bricks and a paste of rice and eggs as mortar for their construction. Even so, what still stands, after so many decades, is astonishing.

One thing which can be found in Sibsagar in abundance are sagars or ponds and Shiva temples on their banks. Gaurisagar is yet another pond worth visiting. It was constructed in the year 1723 by Queen Phuleshwari and measures 150 acres in area. On its bank there are three main temples dedicated to Gauri, Shiva and Vishnu. The National Highway 37 runs across the eastern side of the pond and over the historic Namdand stone bridge.

Between Gaurisagar and Joysagar, there are two more ponds – the Athaisagar and the Rudrasagar built by Rudra Singha’s son Lakshmi Singha in the year 1773. Situated eight kilometres from Sibsagar, this tank too has a temple on its bank dedicated to Shiva.

About 13 kilometres east of Sibsagar lies Gargaon Palace, the principle town of the Ahom kings built by the 15th king of the dynasty, Suklenmung, in the year 1540. This building was destroyed long ago and the present palace was rebuilt by King Rajeshwara Singha around 1762. Rising tier upon tier like an immense, square birthday cake, this brick palace is set on a grassy mound surrounded by vast open spaces.

Yet another important landmark of Sibsagar is the dargah of Ajan at the confluence of the rivers Dikhow and Brahmaputra. This dargah is known as Hoccaguri Chapori and is the most visited shrine by the Hindus and the Muslims alike. Ajan whose name was derived from azan which means prayer, was originally from Baghdad who settled in Sibsagar. He was blinded by the then ruler of Sibsagar on suspicion of being a Mughal spy. Even then, he stayed on in Sibsagar, learnt the native language, immersed himself in the worship of the Almighty God. He composed lyrics which are sung to this day.

Sibsagar does not look like a typical Assamese town but looks like a town cross-bred between Rajasthan and Bihar – most of the shops and establishments being manned by Marwaris, Biharis and east UP-ites. Hindi is, therefore widely spoken here and even tribals in the town understand Hindi.

Sibsagar is developing fast because of its newly acquired status of district headquarters and establishment of the ONGC headquarters at Nazira which is just 18 kilometres from Sibsagar. Therefore, it has a great potential of developing into a major tourist attraction. The proximity of a number of airports around it – Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Dimapur, Tezpur, etc. – is an added advantage.

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