Exploring the Maidams: A saga of the Ahom ruins

Dr Arundhati Duta Choudhary
Associate Professor
Department of English
Ramdhamadhab college
Silchar, Assam

Defaced ruins of architecture and statuary, like the wrinkles of decrepitude of a once beautiful woman, only make one regret that one did not see them when they were enchanting. Horace Walpole.1

Architectural ruins of the past are probably the lingering legacy that stand if not erect, then stooping and fractured to carry on the age old burden of narration- narration of its once possessed might and glory. They are the lone sentinels of by-gone days isolated by the ravages of time to speak out all which are unspoken till today. From a literary standpoint a traveller or anyone interested to visit the ruins, the essential dilemma rests on the reciprocity between a piece of ruins and the onlooker. The dense silence and the emptiness inside the ruins demand attention both from the viewers and the visitors as it was they which witnessed the fall and glory of their past inhabitants. The recorded history remains a solid framework against which the dwindling architectures fail somehow to negotiate and the onlookers feel the void between the chronicled events and the empty alleys behind the chambers, halls and passages of fragmented ruins of the past.


In the context of the North East, the Ahom ruins mostly scattered around a few districts of Upper Assam, Sibsagar, Dibrugarh, Golaghat and places in the lower Assam, reveal a strand in history that necessarily support a researcher to make a proper estimation of the social, political, religious aspects of the Ahom dynasty, their temperamental factors and their relationship with the common people. Thus, the paper intends to execute a study of the rise and significance of Ahom architecture both from a historical and interpretive point of view. Architecture from its strict etymological stand can be defined as designs, patterns, structure and construction but again from a literal standpoint it stands for culture, aesthetics, art and combination of manifold forms of symbols and images. They again may be classified into various groups and divisions depending on the purposes they served or propagated.

          As it is found, around in the 13th century,  a kingdom in the main land of the Brahmaputra valley was established by Chaolung Sukaphaa (1228-1268), also Siu-Ka-Pha a Tai prince from Mong Mao, (which is now included within the Dehong-Dai Singpho Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan in Peoples Republic of China). The Ahom dynasty ruled the Ahom kingdom in present day Assam for nearly 600 years. During their 600 years old sojourn in the Brahmaputra valley, the Ahoms were in the constantprocess of assimilation while conquering previously settled indigenous tribal groups  and non-tribal belts like Nagas, Kochs, Jaintias, Kacharis, Morans, Borahis and Chutiyas. Their long dynastical rule ever recorded in the world history as to be the longest was probably based on this continuous process of cultural reciprocation and interconnection. The most significant aspect of this cultural communication was the combination of the preserved cultural hue of the Tai Ahoms and their acceptance of the non-Ahom cultural flow due to the process of Hinduization. Such modifications and cross cultural adjustments had tremendous impact upon every facet during the Ahom rule including art, architecture and literature. Though the Ahoms started conversion into Hinduism as early as the 17th century, they refused to give up their traditional religious norms.”The Ahom religion consisted of ancestor worship, a politico-religious priesthood, frequent sacrifices and a monotheistic idea of a creator god called pha. They observed elaborate fertility rituals, marriages and burial customs. The Maidams still existing at Charaideu district of Assam, which are uncannily similar to the Aegean Tholos tombs or the Anglo-Saxon burial mound known as barrows or tumuli of Great Britain, are proof of the scale of a royal mortuary ritual”2 Though after adopting Hinduism, they started burning the dead, but even after the cremation ceremony was over, the ash-remains were carried by many to bury inside a Maidam.  This unique spirit of collaboration and co-ordination with the belief systems of the indigenous people while strictly following their own ancestral customs and beliefs though speak of the Tai-Ahom monarchical system, the administrative system perhaps was tied with the political assimilation of the Ahoms with the local sentiment. Though the Ahoms were absolutely non-prejudiced to the caste system, temperamentally they were highly rigid in framing a formal, hierarchical monarchical structure. Such as the Moidams reflect and represent the fundamental Tai-Ahom religious base that revolved around their belief in the supernatural andthe worship of the ancestral spirit and the beneficial spirits of the hills, forests and water.

Though the Ahoms possessed a sincere urge to record every detail of their life in the form of Buranji (the annals of history) in the Tai- Ahom language, their later adherence to the Assamese language is an example of their wisdom to adopt the language of the conquered race as their official tongue. Before elaborating on the Ahom architecture, the first glimpse of their construction of roads and ponds obviously penetrate deep into their earlier adherence to the concept of community welfare as prefaced in the religious doctrine of Buddhism. Besides the construction of royal palaces, sports compounds, temples and tanks, the most illuminating and singled out projection of Ahom architecture probably rests on their unique designing of their burial tombs called Maidams. Those dome like sepulchers probably remained entirely unaffected by any trace of modernization or Hinduization as it was in the case of the Ahoms. An introspective curiosity in the choice and development of Ahom architecture by the Ahom rulers keeps us perplexed till today as the lineage of the structure of the Maidams with such other similar structural magnificence scattered in West Asia, Egypt or Aegean civilization remains unresolved and unanswered. But the peculiarity of the belief, concept and perhaps purposes of erecting such dome like structures were not always correspondent to each other.  Before conversion to Hinduism the Ahoms did not perform cremations and instead they buried the dead underground. Such rites had made the Moidams a necessity as they were marked as the graves of the noble class of the Ahom community. In Charaideu which is also known as the royal graveyard of the Ahom rulers, the Maidam of Sukhapha, the first Ahom king was constructed.”Charaideu means ‘ a prominent city on the hill top’ is known as ‘ Jerusalem of the East’ for its location of Maidams i.e. Vaults of the Tai-Ahom kings, the queens and the nobles”.3

Though the Charaideu premise was strictly restricted for the graves of the Ahom noble class, royalty and aristocracy, in and around the region between Jorhat and Dibrugarh towns other Maidams are occasionally found mostly in ruins or demolished by miscreants. ‘Maidam’ is an Ahom term that stands for graveyard. ‘Moi’ means rest and ‘dam’ means dead person.’ Maidams are vaulted chambers often double storied entered through an arched passage.  Atop the hemispherical mud mound layer of bricks and earth is laid, where the base of the mound is reinforced by a polygonal toe-wall and an arched gateway on the west. Eventually the mound would be covered by layers of vegetation, reminiscent of a group of hillocks, transforming the area into an undulating landscape. Excavation shows thateach vaulted chamber has a raised platform where the body was laid. Several objects used by the deceased during his life, like royal insignia, objects made of wood or ivory, gold pendants, ceramic ware, weapons, clothes, ….were buried with their king.”4

          The structural pattern of Maidams follow some specifications. Structurally, a Moidam consists of vaults with one or more chambers. The vaults have a domical superstructure that is covered by a hemispherical earthen mound that rises above the ground with an open pavilion at the peak called chow chali. An octagonal dwarf wall will enclose the entire Moidam. Though externally Moidam appears like a hemispherical mound, architecturally this is an underground  burrow with two or three bedrooms. The structural construction and the process of royal burials are explained in the Ahom Buranji known as Chang-Rung Phukanar Buranji with the details, even with the mention of the articles that were buried with the deceased. The historical chronicles say that wives, attendants, the dancers, cook, pet animals, and huge quantity of valuables like gold and silver coins were buried with the departed kings.  During the Mughal attack in the 17th century, the then  Ahom capital Garhgaon was briefly came under the power of the Mughal general Mir Jumla. According to a Dutch soldier, Glanius who accompanied Mir Jumla wrote in his book A Relation of an Unfortunate Voyage to the kingdom of Bangala “As for the riches we wanted them not, having found good store in graves. It being the people’s custom to enter with their dead, their best apparel, money and greatest part of their servants, whom they bury alive to bear their master’s company. … Our general (i.e.Mir Jumla) caused several of these tombs to be opened, wherein we found vast treasures, which he carried away with him…”5

It is said that during such political turmoil many Maidams were looted and excavated in search of buried treasures which were customarily kept along with the dead body inside a Moidam. During the British rule too after 1826, Maidams were defiled and excavated which was an affront to the Ahom community as it was an assault to their traditional belief that Maidams are associated with the Ahom ancestral worship and the exclusive Ahom festival called Me-Dam-Me-Phi. The British made tunnels into each of the maidams in Charaideu to dig out the buried treasure.Serjeant Clayton wrote to the British Govt about the Moidam of the ablest Ahom Prime Minister Purnananda Buragohain “The tomb is said to be that of the Bura Gohain Purnananda, who exercised great authority during the later part and after the reign of Gaurinath Singha; it was built entirely of massive timber….the posts and beams being of Nahor, and the plank of Orium, all in excellent preservation…

The shell or coffin was placed upon a machan, not in the center of the room, but much nearer to the north side, and from the upper edges of the machan, rose a wall of thin rough boards enclosing the coffin on all four sides, but open at top, which however, rose to within a foot of the main roof. … One peculiarity in this tomb from others that I have seen was the total absence of iron work in the shape of nails, bolts, or other fastenings from every part of it within the coffin….”7

There is a great variety of materials and systems of construction used in building a Maidam. From the period between 13th century upto 17th century, wood was used as the primary material for construction whereas 18th century onwards stone and burnt bricks of various sizes were used for the inner chambers. The Changrung Phukan records the materials using bricks and stones cemented by the mixture of black pulse, molasses, eggs of duck, barali fish, lime (from lime stone and snail shell). Boulders of different sizes, broken stones, bricks were used to construct the superstructure, whereas large stone slabs were used for the sub-structure.8

The maximum number of Maidams in Assam are situated at Charaideu which was the royal seat of the Ahoms. Situated 28 km east of Sivasagar District of Assam, situated in the north east of India, Charaideu was the first capital of the Ahom kingdom established by the first Ahom king Chao Lung Siu-Ka-Pha in 1228. It exists as the sacred burial ground of the Ahom royalty and nobility and is also esteemed as the place of worshipping ancestral Gods. The site remains a witness to the peculiar architectural majesty of the Ahoms which has similarity with many such mound burial grounds scattered across the world- the pyramids of Egypt or the Tholos of Aegean civilization. Even in Ireland such same patterns of mound shaped burial places have been discovered which prove that it was an age old practice of the earliest civilizations to bury the deceased inside such structural types. Archaeologists have identified about 150 maidams or burrows scattered at Charaideo.  They exhibit superb architecture and skill of the medieval sculptors and mason of Assam. Only about 30 maidams are under the protection of the Archaelogical Survey of India and Assam State Archeology Department.9

The Ahom royalty had a strict hierarchical social order according to rank and position and the structure and process of carrying dead body to Moidam was closely restricted according to this stated class division. The size and shape of Moidam varied according to the dead person’s social status in the nobility. The Barbarua a Moidam located about 14km away from Dibrugarh actually consists two separate graveyards constructed in honour of  two well-regarded officials of  the Ahom dynasty. The structure of these graveyards are big in size as Maidams reflect the status of aristocracy and royalty in their design and structure. The place also has many other small Moidams constructed to honour the soldiers of lesser ranks. The greatest ever Ahom general Lachit Barphukan who fought the mighty Mughals at Saraighat in 1672  died during the battle and his last remains rested in peace in the Moidam built in honour of the General at Gohaingaon in Jorhat district of Assam by Swargadeo Udayaditya Singha.

Thus, architecture carries a strange language that interprets or they can be interpreted as well to comprehend the insights behind a lost community, their social structure, and religiosity or belief system. Maidams in the context of structural standpoint speak of a nature loving, eco-friendly race who were consciously concerned with the preservation of land surface. The unearthing process voices forth their avoiding tendency in digging the earth. Maidams also speak of the aesthetic taste of the Ahoms who did not give much emphasis on magnificent construction of tombs as it is a well-known fact that mostly the affluent class of the society in the Ahom age constructed Maidams. The serene abundance of nature surrounding the Maidams at Charaideu only signify the fact that how soothing and charming may the landscape of a burial ground be as it only narrates the tales of the last journey taken by princes and rulers with peace and tranquility.





  1.  Walpole Horace, Horace Walpole’s Miscellany, ed. Lars E triode, Yale University Press, 1978.
  2. The Ahom Dynasty of Assam:A Case of Socio-Cultural Assimilationsubhasreep.wordpress.com
  3. www.assaminfo.com tourist-places
  4. Moidams- the Mound Burial system of the Ahom Dynasty- UNESCO World Heritage Centre whc.unesco.org
  5. Barbaruah Hiteswar, Ahomar Din, Asom Prakashan Parishad,1981.
  6. { The Telegraph, Friday, April 24, 2015} 
  7. Barbaruah Hiteswar, Ahomar Din, Asom Prakashan Parishad,1981
  8. Moidams- the mound burial system of the Ahom Dynasty. UNESCO World Heritage Centre whc.unesco.org


  1. (Mark Miller ‘Scientists in India to test DNA of Ancient Skeletons to determine if they are from Ahom Royals’30 April, 2015) www.ancient-origins.net>scientists-india…
Scroll to Top