The Iconography of Shiva-Maheshwara : The many magnificent sculptural imaginations from the ancient Brahmaputra Valley

The Brahmaputra Valley, now in the state of Assam in India’s North East, has cradled an ancient civilization. At the crossroads of many ancient migratory routes, the region has many unique traditions, of many tribal, pre-Hindu deities being appropriated and installed into the Hindu pantheon of Gods with the spread of Brahminical Hinduism over centuries. This syncretic tradition has also left behind a rich legacy of magnificent stone sculptures in high relief. I have shared just two forms of Shiva or Maheshwar above to illustrate the rich diversity of ideas and craftsmanship that has defined the artistic traditions of the ancient Brahmaputra Valley. The iconography and form of the myriad Hindu gods and goddesses are defined by the Shilpasashtras but the uniqueness of traditions appear from the richly creative interpretations of these almost canonical definitions.

A much more detailed post on the iconography of Shiva in the Brahmaputra Valley, with a definitive account of the iconography of the magnificent Deopani Shiva shall be posted later.

Below are the two images, separately for the discerning admirer of sculptural art.

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The Kasomari Monoliths: Re-exploring Kachari Grandeur

The magnificent Kachari monoliths of Kasomari Pathar in the Golaghat district of Assam.

Road to Kasomari:

Just after crossing the world famous Kaziranga National Park as one travels eastward on the NH 37 in Assam’s Golaghat district, one reaches the junction of Numaligarh. A turn to the right, that is towards the south, takes one along the NH 39 that leads, winding its way through the historic towns of Kohima (in Nagaland) and Imphal (in Manipur), to the Moreh-Tamu border crossing on the Indo-Myanmar border in Manipur. But we won’t go so far on this particular journey to re-explore Kachari (the old Anglicized spelling is Cachari) splendour.

A cut-away section of the historic 'Numaligarh' revealing distinct Kachari brickwork at the core.

Another section of this medieval rampart.

Numali’ in Assamese would mean the youngest daughter, although here it is used in reference to a princess or a royal consort. ‘Garh’ means a rampart. Numaligarh therefore refers to a rampart that has some association with such a princess or a royal consort from the medieval age where ‘ramparts’ were a common defensive construction in strategic border areas or around garrisons. The remnants of the Numaligarh can now be seen as a tall ‘dyke’ like construction running parallel along the southern edge of the stretch of NH 37 for some Kilometres as we reach the point where NH 39 branches out of it to the south. In many places, as the pictures above shows, the rampart has been breached and dug away, revealing the distinct brickworks beneath the mounds of earthen work. This is where the Numaligarh Refinery Limited draws its name from and the complex and township of this 3 MMTPA Refinery lies just a few kilometres down the NH 39 from the bifurcation.

The NH 39 near Numaligarh passes through lush green tea gardens on both sides.

This stretch of the NH 39 passes through lush green tea gardens and the river Dhansiri, a major tributary of the Brahmaputra, flowing from the south to the north runs in an almost parallel contour few Kilometres east of NH 39, but closing in on the road or crossing or re-crossing it in its winding journey out of the Naga hills. After about 30-35 Kilometres, one leaves the NH 39 and turns towards Merapani, the place which has been claiming headlines occasionally for decades due to the Assam-Nagaland border dispute which often leads to clashes and bloodshed. As one turns onto the paved country road, away from the one which leads to Merapani and towards Kasomari, the tea estates are interspersed with lush paddy fields, the rice bowl of Assam. If one is aware of the forces that shaped the history of Assam in the medieval age, it isn’t difficult to understand why the Ahoms and the Kacharis fought pitched battles for centuries for control of the land here.

The river Dhansiri reflecting the gloominess of an overcast monsoon sky.

Lush green paddy fields which have been under the plough for wet-rice cultivation for centuries, with equally verdant tea gardens in the background.

 The Ksomari Pathar Monoliths :

The tallest and the most elaborately curved monoliths of Kasomari Pathar with the author standing besides to give an idea of scale.

One arrives at the site of the Kasomari Monoliths to find it a piece of flat, rectangular ground enclosed by a concrete boundary wall and gates. It is one of the Archaeological Survey of India’s ‘protected sites’ in Assam. The site must have been accorded protection quite early because I have found a specific reference for financial allocation for protection and maintenance of the site in The Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey of India 1924-25 which I quote below:

“Rs. 276 were spent in providing notice boards to the Asian monuments in the Sibsagar sub -division of the Lakhimpur district and a small sum was expended in surveying and levelling the ground around the palace at Garhgaon. The Natmandir attached to the Sibdole temple at Sibsagar was repaired as was also the Bishnudole temple at Gaurisagar near it. Repairs were executed at the Rang-ghar palace at Jayasagar at a cost of Rs. 189, and Rs. 1,214 were spent on the Karanghar Palace in its vicinity. The ruins of this vast palace were cleared of jungle and a very large amount of rubbish and debris was removed from the interior, exposing the remains of the original palace to view. A thorn barricade was placed around the image of Durga at Deopani in the same district to protect it from the ravages of wild elephants and Rs. 300 were spent on the prehistoric Pathar monoliths at Kasomari Pathar also in that district.

In the Naga hills district a notice board was fixed near the monolithic columns at Dimapur and others were put up near the rock-cut temple at Maibong and in front of the raja’s palace at Khaepur in the Cachar district. The majority of the Central Government monuments in Assam have now been provided with notices.”

  • The Kasomari Pathar Monoliths are a group of thirty three (33) stone monoliths now arranged in two (2) north-south rows. The front row contains eighteen (18) monoliths and the back row fifteen (15) monoliths.

  • Thirty two (32) of the monoliths are like huge chisels with their sharp cutting edge pointing towards the sky. They are rectangular (in cross-section) and elongated stone artefacts, some of which are as tall as 15 feet above the ground. What portion remains beneath the ground remains unknown to me. Many of the larger and taller monoliths are exquisitely carved with magnificent real and mythical animals and floral patterns, but in low relief. Some of the shorter monoliths are bereft of any ornamental carvings.

The lone 'phallic' Kasomari monolith with a striking resemblance to the ones in the old Kachari Dimapur Palace compound.

  • Only one (1) of the monoliths is huge phallic cylindrical stone artefacts intricately carved with ornamental patterns with an ornamental domed top. This monolith, about 12-13 feet tall, bears a striking resemblance to the ones that were discovered in the Kachari Royal Fort and Palace in Dimapur further to the south and which perhaps immediately helped even these to be identified as belonging to the same culture.
  • The stones for the monoliths could not have been obtained in the immediate vicinity as there are no quarries. They must have been quarried and transported for at least 30-40 Kms to where they are now. All the carvings must have been on site as they would otherwise have been damaged during transportation. That is also the reason I suspect the smaller monoliths without carvings to be incomplete ones or abandoned pieces which were damaged during transportation. When the site was reconstructed, those who did it may not have assumed this significance and had placed upright abandoned stone blocks which weren’t meant to be planted upright as a monolith.
  • Many of the pillars have acquired a reddish patina, the result of pigment seeping out of haematite veins in the stone blocks and staining their surfaces.

But why were these magnificent monoliths built? What purpose did they serve? A brief recounting of the history of the Kacharis and their significance to Assam’s medieval past may offer us some indications.

Re-exploring the Kachari Past :

At the time of the advent of the Tai-Ahoms into the Brahmaputra valley from the east over the Patkai in 1228 AD, the Kacharis were perhaps the most numerous native ‘Mongoloid’ population constituted by several groups inhabiting the entire Brahmaputra valley in a geographical and cultural continuum and sharing a group of similar languages and customs. Today, the Bodos and the Dimasas are two most prominent ethnic group among the Kacharis. Kachari sovereignty was exercised most visibly by the Chutiya Kingdom, which held sway over territories in the north-easternmost fringe of the Brahmaputra valley and the Kachari Kingdom which held sway on the southeast, but stretching over a far greater area towards the west. When the Tai-Ahoms under Sukapha consolidated their initial foothold in the Brahmaputra valley and began expanding westward, a clash of arms was inevitable.

The Tai-Ahoms (henceforth Ahoms) first came in contact with the Chutiyas in the later half of the fourteenth century and after rivalries and conflict over approximately 150 yrs, completely sacked and annexed the Kingdom in 1522 AD. The rivalry wasn’t just over territory, it must have been over resources too. The annexation of the Chutiya kingdom gave control of the region’s salt brines to the Ahoms, besides land suitable for wet-rice cultivation.

The other Kachari Kingdom, the one which had its capital in Dimapur, could never be fully annexed by the Ahoms and their rivalry and conflict continued throughout most of the six hundred years the Ahoms ruled Brahmaputra valley till the British annexation of Assam in 1826 AD. But the Ahoms did wrest away phase by phase most of the Kachari territory, valuable wet-rice land, from the Kachari’s till they were left with a tiny sliver of a kingdom in what is now the North Cachar Hills district or Dimaraji district of Assam. The Dimasas claim lineage to this historic Kachari kingdom in Assam.

It is women who primarily practice planting paddy.

Among the many factors that helped Ahoms to expand their suzerainty over almost the whole of the Brahmaputra valley and rule for six hundred years, beating back several Mughal invasions in the process even, was their relatively advanced means of production through use of plough and wet-rice cultivation, thus yielding greater surpluses; better utilization of labour; and control of iron ore. The present day Golaghat district of Assam where the Ahom-Kachari conflict most intensely played out over at least four centuries represents territory which was coveted for wet-rice cultivation, contained iron ore deposits, controlled vital routes of trade, and access to areas with rich natural resource deposits. From references in the Ahom Buranjis we learn that Dimpaur was brought under Ahom suzerainty by 1531 AD and it is reasonable to believe that authority over these areas too were wrested from them. What we do not know for certain is whether these came to be directly administered by the Ahom kingdom or were left in administrative control of Kachari’s as tributaries of the Ahoms. Subsequent rebellions by Kacharis finally got them evicted further south and these areas were firmly incorporated into the Ahom kingdom by the end of that sixteenth century. But conflicts continued intermittently as there are references of the Kacharis breaching these borders to carry out attacks on Ahoms well into the seventeenth century.

It is not surprising at all, therefore, to come across remnants of Kachari material culture in some form or the other here. Given the fact that such ‘megalithic’ cultures were quite common among various peoples of India’s North East, including Assam and among Kacharis, the finding of these monoliths too are not surprising. Such stone ‘menhirs’ were often raised to remember the ancestors or even commemorate the dead, but most such ‘erections’ were of rough hewn natural stones. The Kasomari momoliths stand apart in being of stones quarried at a great distance, transported with some effort and then meticulously curved with exquisite designs with great care. It is therefore logical to believe that these monoliths were actually ‘cenotaphs’ to fallen Kachari war heroes.

Disappearance and Re-discovery :

With the eviction of the Kacharis from these areas, it is certain that the importance of their monuments declined. But they were unlikely to be abandoned altogether as the entire population native to the area is unlikely to have migrated in distress, or evicted altogether. Only the hold of the Kachari ruling elite was likely to have been curtailed by ‘eviction’. Also, many Kachari fortifications etc continued to be used by Ahoms as well. But repeated brutal Burmese invasions of the Brahmaputra valley during the last century of Ahom rule made many people to flee from areas they had resided for centuries. Human habitations disappeared from many areas and forest cover creeped back. Many Kachari monuments of their erstwhile territories became overgrown by seemingly impenetrable tropical forests, particularly within the limits of the present Golaghat district. Even the memories that these ever existed faded.

The British found the Burmese advance into Brahmaputra valley too close for comfort and that is why they finally advanced against and defeated them, now referred to in history as the Anglo-Burmese wars. In the resulting treaty of Yandaboo in 1826, control of Assam finally passed on to the hands of the British Empire in India. Initially the British were reluctant to invest themselves much in expanding their administration in Assam. With growing commercial interests in tea plantations and discovery of mineral resources like coal, however, protection of economic interests and development of communication lines for trade became indispensable. For the former, the hill tribes in the surrounding areas had to be ‘pacified’ and the areas surveyed and brought under British administration; and for the latter, railways had to be introduced and expanded, again requiring survey and construction of tracks through areas which had remained uninhabited for centuries. In both these endeavours of the Empire, several ‘Frontier Police’ forces, locally raised and commanded by British officers played an instrumental role. Much of these paramilitary ‘Frontier Police’ forces, raised as sort of light infantry, became merged into what is today known as the Assam Rifles. In survey of frontier areas as well as in survey for alignment of new railway tracks, men of this force played an instrumental role in leading explorations, providing security and carrying out surveys. And it is during such explorations and surveys, the Kachari monuments in Dimapur and Kasomari were rediscovered.

In his seminal work, History of the Assam Rifles (1929), Colonel L. W. Shakespear, who himself played a crucial role in raising and shaping up the Assam Rifles as a force to reckon with, offers us evidence of the rediscovery of these monuments.

“…the Father of the Frontier Police Force, Mr. Grange saw for the first time in 1840 in the Nambor Forest at Dimapur and which for many years nothing was known as to their origin, the history of the Province not having been then unravelled. During the years 1896-98 when the railway track was being cleared through the forest from Lumding towards Golaghat and construction work followed under Messers. Thornhill, Buckle and Venters, they opened up portions of causeways and canals, also turning up a considerable quantity of pottery of various sorts,…..”

Chapter XIX of this seminal book not only contains a thrilling narrative of the rediscoveries, but also meticulously detailed accounts of the state these monuments were found in. I leave it to interested readers to find the book, explore and discover it on their own.

The Kasomari monoliths are however not the only remnants of the past in this historic area. Only few sites have been accorded protection. Many other sites remain vulnerable and unprotected. But the biggest worry is that many haven’t perhaps even been discovered yet or taken note of as no systematic survey have taken place ever. This is where the Strategic Research & Analysis Organisation’s explorations and survey will perhaps make a difference, once it reaches as far as Golaghat in a rigorous village-to-village survey with extensive use of GIS in documentation.

Nature's bounty: Monsoon rains, fertile soil of the Dhansiri valley, lush green paddy.

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Songs of Mashangva: melodies of hope

Tangkhul Naga men in their traditional attire enjoying a seep of rice beer

There are many ways an oral society passes on its collective repository of memories and knowledge from generation to generation. The Tangkhul Naga tribe which resides in the lofty hills of the Patkai in Manipur’s Ukhrul district in India’s North East does so through its songs. From lullabies to soothe babies to rouse warriors for battle, from sowing in their lush terraced fields to pounding harvested paddy, from paying obeisance to their animist deities to performing their ritual dances, there is hardly an aspect of life that the Tangkhuls haven’t put into melody or couldn’t sing through songs. Collectively referred to as the Hao Laa, one can only imagine how rich the repository of folk songs must have been considering the fact that the Tangkhuls speak more than a hundred dialects among themselves, one readily intelligible to those of the neighbouring areas but may not be to others further in geographic spread.

Sadly, these oral traditions are a fast disappearing aspect of the Tangkhul heritage. Directed by a promising young ‘Meitei’ filmmaker, Oinam Doren from Manipur, Songs of Mashangva is the story of one man’s struggle to keep alive these hauntingly beautiful traditions of Tangkhul folk music.

Throughout much of their existence, the Tangkhuls, like the various other Naga tribes, lived in splendid isolation in the hills running north to south from the Himalayas in a gentle arc, west of which lie the Brahmaputra basin in India’s North East and in its east, the Chindwin-Irrawaddy basins of Myanmar. Annexation of Assam and Burma by the British and the arrival of the proselytizing Missionaries in the hills to ‘civilize the savage’ marked the beginning of profound changes in their ways of life. In 1896, Rev. William Pettigrew established the Mission School in Ukhrul, translated the Bible into the lingua franca of the Tangkhuls and baptized the first Tangkhul. In less than half a century perhaps, all Tangkhuls were converted to Christianity. Today, a hundred percent of the approximately 1,50,000 strong community is Baptist. That they are actually Hao Nagas and came to be called Tangkhuls because that is how the colonial conquerors enumerated them is one of those profound changes brought about to their age old tribal identity. Imposition of puritanical Christian morality made many a sensuous erotic Tangkhul folk song a taboo, thus hastening their disappearance.

While the Missionaries may have claimed to ‘civilize the savages’ as they considered the Tangkhuls to be primitive, their oral traditions and knowledge systems actually reveal a rather acute understanding of their environment and sophisticated practices in preserving them, an observation lost to the Orientalist view of their colonizers. The terraced paddy fields are as much a testimony of their sophisticated traditional practices as their folk songs are. Their songs are messages from the past and that they could be sung helps faithful transmission where the melody acts as a mnemonic device. Could a community of people who knew that, could actually be considered primitive?

Stephen Angkang animatedly narrating Tangkhul history by the fireside

Fortunately, memories composed into traditions over millennia continued to resist taboos and still lurk in the minds of the tribal elders like Stephen Angkhang or Luiola and through them we now know that the Tangkhuls sing Naoshumlaa or Naokhotla to soothe babies, Keo Keo while pounding paddy into rice in the mortar or Laa Khamanui for the virgin dance. And it is from them, Rewben Mashangva continues to reclaim his heritage.

Rewben Mashangva playing the traditional Tingteila

Rewben Mashangva was born in the Choithar village of Ukhrul district of Manipur into a poor Tangkhul household. Not a bright student by his own admission, Rewben was just getting by in life till he became aware of his attraction to his folk heritage and set out to reclaim the messages from the past that their songs are. Songs of Mashangva narrates this intriguing journey where his life becomes the metaphor of a lost tradition being reclaimed and revealed to the whole wide world to see, listen to, understand and savour.

Saka Mashangva with his traditional Haokuirat hairstyle of his ancestors: A beacon of hope

Rewben Mashangva is now a living repository of his community’s precious oral traditions in songs and music. What is heartening is that he is ensuring that the transmission remain uninterrupted into the next generation through his son Saka Mashangva. That he will not fail his father or his community is evident. Saka Mashangva is every bit a normal youngster like any from a middle class household who goes to an English medium school in Imphal and watches cartoon on TV. But Saka Mashangva also sings his tribe’s oral messages set as songs with his father wherever he is called upon to do so and he goes to school everyday proudly sporting the traditional Houkuirat hairstyle of his ancestors which sets him apart from his friends and classmates. This is just as well because, Saka Mashangva represents the future of the tribe and could be the beacon of hope to a land and people which has seen much strife throughout the past century and had been in the news most often for the wrong reasons.

In the past decades, the only time the outside world would take notice of the Tangkhul Nagas would be with reference to the powerful Naga insurgent group NSCN (IM) whose supremo Theugaling Muivah hails from the Tangkhul Naga community or the only time Ukhrul would be mentioned would be whenever there is turmoil and ethnic clashes in Manipur on demands for separations of the Naga dominated hills districts.

The appeal of Songs of Mashangva lies in its ability to reveal to us a refreshingly different world of the Tangkhul Nagas and entices us to go along to learn more. A simple linear narrative, moving cinematography capturing the rugged beauty of Ukhrul, the exotic charm of Tangkhul villages and haunting music by Rewben Mashangva, all makes the film immensely enjoyable.

Oinam Doren, Director of Songs of Mashangva

Songs of Mashangva will dispel many false notions, some which may not be apparent to those who are not aware of the tangled skein of ethnic conflict and politics in Manipur. Those who are, will of course realize that Rewben Mashangva is a Tangkhul Naga and Oinam Doren a Meitei, the two communities which are supposed to be at war. How real it is could be fathomed from the months of blockade and violence Manipur faced last year as a result of confrontation between the Meiteis and the Nagas. Yet people make friends, create melodies and dream of futures. Songs of Mashangva is also a testimony to friendships that sustain overcoming ethnic and political divides. This is why the Songs of Mashangva are Melodies of Hope.

Songs of Mashangva is a feature length documentary of 62 minutes duration made in the digital format by the promising young filmmaker Oinam Doren. The film will be screened in Guwahati in a special programme organised by the Strategic Research & Analysis Organisation where Rewben Mashangva and Saka Mashangva will perform live.

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