1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ahom

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AHOM, or Aham, a tribe of Shan descent inhabiting the Assam valley, and, prior to the invasion of the Burmese at the commencement of the 19th century, the dominant race in that country. The Ahoms, together with the Shans of Burma and Eastern China and the Siamese, were members of the Tai race. The name is believed to be a corruption of the word “Ā-sām,” the latter part of which is identical with “Shan” (properly "Shām”) and with “Siam.” Under their king Su-ka-pha they invaded Assam (q.v.) from the East in the year A.D. 1228, giving their name to the country. For a century and a half from 1228 the successors of Su-ka-pha appear to have ruled undisturbed over a small territory in Lakkimpur and Sibsagar districts. The extension of their power westward down the valley of the Brahmaputra was very gradual, and its success was by no means uniform. In the time of Aurangzeb the Ahom kings held sway over the entire Brahmaputra valley from Sadiya to near Goalpara, and from the skirts of the southern hills to the Bhutia frontier on the north. The dynasty attained the height of its power under Rudra Singh, who is said to have ascended the throne in 1695. In the following century the power of the Ahoms began to decay, alike from internal dissensions and the pressure of outside invaders. The Burmese were called in to the assistance of one of the contending factions in 1810. Having once obtained a foothold in the country, they established their power over the entire valley and ruled with merciless barbarity, until they were expelled by the British in 1824–1825. In the census of 1901 the total Ahom population in Assam was returned at 178,049.

The Ahoms retained the form of government in Assam peculiar to the Shan tribes, which may be briefly described as an organized system of personal service in lieu of taxation. Their religion was pagan, being quite distinct from Buddhism; but in Assam they gradually became Hinduized, and their kings finally adopted Hindu names and titles. They believed that there were in the beginning no heavenly bodies, air or earth, only water everywhere, over which at first hovered a formless Supreme Being called Pha. He took corporeal shape as a huge crab that lay floating, face upwards, upon the waters. In turn other animals took shape, the last being two golden spiders from whose excrement the earth gradually rose above the surrounding ocean. Pha then formed a female counterpart of himself, who laid four eggs, from which were hatched four sons. One of these was appointed to rule the earth, but died and became a spirit. His son also died and became the national household deity of the Ahoms. The origin of mankind is connected with a flood-legend. The only survivors of the flood, and of the conflagration that followed it, were an old man and a pumpkin-seed. From the latter there grew a gigantic gourd. This was split open by a thunderbolt, the old man sacrificing himself to save the lives of those who were inside, and from it there issued the progenitors of the present races of men, beasts, birds, fishes and plants. The kings claimed independent divine origin.

The religion and language have both died out being only preserved by a few priests of the old cult; but even among them the tradition of the pronunciation of the language has been lost. The Ahoms had a considerable literature, much of which is still in existence. Their historic sense was very fully developed, and many priests and nobles maintained bū-ran-jīs (i.e. “stores of instruction for the ignorant”), or chronicles, which were carefully written up from time to time. A few of these have been translated, but as yet no European scholar possesses knowledge sufficient to enable him to study these valuable documents at first hand.

The Ahom language is the oldest member of the Tai branch of the Siamese-Chinese linguistic family of which we have any record. It bears much the same relationship to Siamese and Shan that Latin does to Italian. It is more nearly related to modern Siamese than to modern Shan, but possesses many groups of consonants which have become simplified in both. It is a language of the isolating class, in which every word is a monosyllable, and may be employed either as a noun or as a verb according to its context and its position in a sentence. In the order of words, the genitive follows the noun it governs, and, as usual in such cases, the relations of time and place are indicated by prefixes, not by suffixes. The meanings of the monosyllables were differentiated, as in the other Tai languages and in Chinese, by a system of tones, but these were rarely indicated in writing, and the tradition regarding them is lost. The language had an alphabet of its own, which was clearly related to that of Burmese.

See E. A. Gait, A History of Assam (Calcutta, 1906). For the language see The Linguistic Survey of India, vol. ii. (Calcutta, 1906) (contains grammar and vocabulary); G. A. Grierson, “Notes on Ahom,” in the Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft, vol. lvi., 1902, pp. 1 ff. (contains grammar and vocabulary, with specimens), and “An Ahom Cosmogony, with a translation and a vocabulary of the Ahom language,” in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society for 1904, pp. 181 ff.  (G. A. Gr.)