The period which opened with the coming of Sukapha (1228 A.D) and ended with the deposition of Purandar Singha (1838 A.D), is generally known as the Ahom age. This period not only witnessed a gradual subjugation of the Brahmaputra valley, from the eastern frontier, by a race of conquerers of Asiatic origin, but also, their eventual elimination from the political authority by a process of European colonial expansion that started from the western boundary of Assam.
The Mongoloid conquerors, who later on, came to be known as the Ahoms, did not bring their womenfolk. They enlarged their holdings in the new territory by marriage and conquests. As they grew powerful, they acquired some duties, privileges and status, and these became hereditary in time. These duties and status of the men, simultaneously began to determine the position of women in that society.
The society in Ahom age was more rural than urban and agriculture was the main source of income. Except for the Brahmins and the scribes, literary education was not encouraged in general. However, the sons of the Ahom priests and astrologers like the Deodhais, Mohans and Bailungs were taught lessons on religion and history at home. There was no formal education for women. For them, education was a philosphy of practical life. It was founded on the faith “for the good of them and for the good of the household in which they were supposed to spend the rest of their lives as housewives.”
While teaching of military warfare was confined to the male, knowledge of weaving and spinning was essential for the female. It was made compulsory for every women of a household by Momai Tamuli Barbarua, an influential Ahom official, in the later part of the seventeenth century. Besides the household works, a female had to help the male in the agricultural field during harvest and seedtime. She was his companion in fishing too.
From some legendary sources it appears that military techniques were not unknown to the women. According to one of them, Mula Gabhoru, an Ahom princess, went to the battlefield to take revenge of the death of her husband Frasengmung Borgohain. He was killed by Turbak, a Muslim invador of Assam, during an encounter. But she also met with the same fate. Another legendary source informs that Radha and Rukmini, the two wives of the Moamaria leader Nahar Khora, showed similar spirit in coming out to the battlefield to fight with the Ahom army.
The popular belief that women were allowed to take part in the administration in Ahom age, cannot be claimed as an honest contribution of the male to the female wisdom. It was not deliberate. Sometimes it was a chance and sometimes a necessity. King Tyaokhamti or Sukhangpha (1380-89) during his campaign against the Chutiyas, left the elder of his twe wives, in charge of the government, in his absence. Out of jealousy, the issueless Regent, planned to kill the younger queen who was pregnant during that time. Order for her execution was also passed on false pretension. The minisiters, who could neither disobey the authority, nor tolerate the injustice, sent the accused adrift on a raft in the Brahmaputra without any knowledge of the elder. The queen continued to commit acts of oppiession even after the victorious king resumed his duties. The king could not take any action against her. His weakness irritated the nobles and to get rid of the high-handedness of the queen, assassinated him.
It was predicted that King Siva Singha’s rule could shortly come to an end due to a “Chatrabhanga Yoga” ( Chatra – the royal umbrella; the Ahom symbol of soverignty, Bhanga – break; Yoga – a particular astronomical combination of stars).
One more example in this aspect can be cited from the regime of King Siva Singha (1714-1744). During his administration, the the astrologers and Brahmins predicted that his rule could shortly come to an end due to a “Chatrabhanga Yoga” ( Chatra – the royal umbrella; the Ahom symbol of soverignty, Bhanga – break; Yoga – a particular astronomical combination of stars). The probable dimension of prestige of a dethroned king before the eyes of his subjects alarmed Siva Singha. This negative aspect of the prediction offered a miraculous gift to his queen Phuleswari. She got a chance to sit in the Ahom throne as the “Bor Raja” (Chief King). The King remained as an indirect supervisor of her activities.
It seems that Siva Singha declined to offer the kingship, even temporarily, to his brothers, suspecting that it would be difficult for him to restore it from them, when his dark days were over.
Phuleswari could not show talent in administration. The later Ahom monarchs, from the time of Jayadhwaj Singha, embraced Hinduism and accepted it as the royal religion. This helped them to mix with their Hindu subjects, who formed the majority, with a feeling of oneness. They showed a remarkable tolerance in their religious and social outlook. But queen Phuleswari, for her misuse of power, failed to keep the subjects of the Sakta and Vaisnava persuasions, in unity. She was even more under the irifluence of the Brahmins than her husband and extended royal patronage to the Sakta cult in the extreme. As the Sudra Vaisnavite priests refused to worship the goddess Durga, queen Phuleswari invited them along with some of their disciples to a Sakta shrine where sacrifices were being offered.
The queen made them to be smeared with the blood of the sacrificed animals, upon their foreheads.
This humiliation marred the ancient unity between the Sakta and the Vaisnavas. It was one of the reasons of the Moamaria rebellion which took place half a century later, and shattered the sovereignty of the Ahom kingdom.
Phuleswari died in 1731. The king marriad Ambika, a maternal cousin of Phuleswari. Ambika was already a mother of two. sons from her first husband, a Barchetiya by rank. The sons were left with their father. The new queen was elevated to the soyeraian rank by the necessity to run the proxy government. Ambika too died in 1738 and Sarbeswari, anoher wife of Siva Singha, succeeded her as the “Bor Raja”.
The Assamese society was free from the practice of Suttee, the inhuman ritual- suicide of the widow, by burning herself in her husband’s pyre. However, female murders were not absent. Instances are there when a husband murdered his wife or a widow was killed by her relatives. But the cause of such murders was generally illicit relationship between a man and awoman.
Women were exempted from capital punishment in Ahom age. Perhaps Jaimati was a contemporary contradiction to this view. Princess Jaimati, the wie of Gadapani (later as King Gadadhar Singha) was tortured to death, by the royal authority. She was subjected to such brutal torture for her refusal to disclose the whereabouts of her absconding husband. Gadapani was one of the efficient claimants to the Ahom throne during the period, and became a fugitive to avoid arrest and probable death at the hands of his rivals.
Some social rites also, subjected the women to similar vulgarity. During the performance of the last rites of a king, some slaves were burried alive in the same grace (Maidam). Female slaves were also not spared. The superstition behind it was, they would thus reach the king in the next world and serve him in the same manner as he was served in his lifetime. This practice prevailed during the first few generations of the Ahom monarchs. With the introduction of Hindu social culture into the Ahom society, this barbarous’ practice gradually lost its ground.
Child marriage was customary among the caste Hindus, especially in the Brahmin community. The Ahom did not encourage it. A deviation from it can be seen in the case of Sulikapha or Lora Raja (the boy king, known so for his thin and undeveloped physical structure). Laluk Barphukan, the governor of west Assam, gave his five year old daughter in marriage to this king in order to raise his influence in the royal house and fulfil political ambitions.
Widow remarriage was usual but it was not permitted within the social discipline of the high castes.
As the Ahom conquerors came without their womenfolk, they were compelled to increase their population by marrying girls from the local non-Ahom tribes and communities like the Borahi, Chutiya, Koch etc to administer gradually extending territory. Caste was not a bar to them. In the royal house also, social status of a girl was sometimes ignored to strike up matrimonial relation. Instances are there when a maid or a dancer in the royal court was married by a king.
Polygamy was an accepted system in the society. Royal families maintained a system of marriage alliance with the neighbouring countries in order to strengthen their power and extend the territory. Ramani Gabhoru, the only child and daughter of King Jayadhwaj Singha was married to Ajeem (Ajamtara), the third son of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.
Rangali, an Ahom girl, was presented to the Singpho leader Bichanong, by the Ahom Bargohain Purnananda, to prevent the former from offering help to the rebellious Moamarias. But Bichanong again gave her away to the Burmese King Badawpaya (1782-1813) to strengthen friendship with the Burmese authority.
Though these examples turn us to consider that the women of the leisurefully aristrocracy were used as a potent instrument by the nobility to achieve their political ambitions, it appears that they accepted this arrested social status as customary and surrendered themselves to it without any objection. The lifestyle was different for the common women. While they had to pass a busy life in the household, they were to extend helping hand in agriculture too.
In the Sankardeva era (1449-1569) also, the sensitiveness of the male dogma played an important role to consider the weaker section as an inferior being in the society. This picture is reflected in some contemporary literatures of this period. However, the same sources also inform us that women were occasionally authorized to run the Satras (Vaisnavite monasteries). Kanaklata, the grand daughter-in-law of Sankardev, and Bhubaneswari, the daughter of Haridev, another Vaisnavite priest, are two examples in this respect.
As a general rule, women had to devote most of her time of the day in the household works and in the procreation of children. Her physiological creative power symbolized her position at home. This confinement, as in the other Indian societies, slowly took the shape of a social order in the Assamese society. The accustomed women found it difficult to break the order and to come out for wider causes even during her free time. The male hardly helped her to overcome this hesitation. This automatically opened a way for the male members of a family to occupy a superior position not only in the household but also outside it.
This article was first published in The Sentinel (Saturday Fare) on 18 April 1992.