STREAMS ENTER RIVERS-Dimasas’ rightful place in Assam

Thai-tsho Daulaguphu

One thing that the Dimasas have to their credit is the undisputed claim by each and all writers and historians that Dimasas are the aborigines or the first inhabitants of Assam. If Sir Edward Gait, who is regarded as one of the greatest contributor towards history text in Assam, is to be quoted, he writes “The Kacharis (Dimasas) may perhaps be described as the aborigines or the earliest known inhabitants of the Brahmaputra valley.” He further adds ‘In the thirteenth century it would seem that the Kachari (Dimasa) kingdom extended along the south bank of the Brahmaputra from the Dikhu to the Kallang or beyond, and included also the Dhansiri valley and the tract which now forms the North Cachar sub-division”
 Historian Laxmi Devi states, “The Kacharis (Dimasas) may perhaps be described as one of the aboriginal tribes or earliest known inhabitants of the Brahmaputra valley”. Suffice it to say here that there is absolute unanimity amongst all that the Dimasas were the earliest settlers in Assam. Dimasas have always been proud about this fact and have therefore considered themselves to be part and parcel of the greater Assamese society.
 To understand the rightful place of the Dimasas in Assam a look into the history of Assam is inevitable and particularly the Dimasa-Ahom relation and the Dimasa-Mughal conflict. If the Ahom-Dimasa relation is of importance to highlight the position of the Dimasa prior to the advent of the Ahoms, the Dimasa-Mughal conflict is as important as the battle of Saraighat where the Mughal were stopped from entering Assam. The Dimasa-Mughal conflict is solely responsible for the failure of the Mughols in entering Assam initially through Shyllet into the Barak valley through the present day Bangladesh. But this fact has never been highlighted in the History of Assam, neither are the Dimasa kings, who fought the Mughal, given due recognition. King Indra Pratapnarayan and his commander-in-chief Bhimbal or Darpa Bhimanarayana deserves credit for defeating the Mughals. But in the annals of Assam history they are not even mentioned.
Ahom-Dimasa Relation:- Before the advent of the Ahoms, undoubtedly the Dimasas were most powerful among the rulers of Assam. While the Ahoms used rude fright as a measure to subjugate their adversaries, with the Dimasas the method adopted was totally different. The Dimasas do not have written records of their reign hence have to rely on other sources. The prime source of information about the Ahom-Dimasa relation is the Buranji. Buranjis are official records of the Ahoms recorded by royal chroniclers. They are therefore, likely to be lopsided in favour of the Ahom. It is only natural that the royal chroniclers, to win favours from their kings, would exaggerate the events in their kings’ favour. It is therefore pertinent for all to take a careful look into the Buranjis.  But even accepting the authenticity of the Buranjis it is interesting to note that Ahom used a totally different approach towards the Dimasas and also that initially they had failed on more occasion than one. Also it took three hundred years for the mighty Ahoms to finally conquer the greater part of the Dimasa Kingdom.
According to the Buranjis, Sukapha, who laid the foundation of Ahom rule in Assam in the thirteenth century, knew that taking the Dimasas by the horns should not be the approach hence he left the Dimasas untouched. According to noted historian Laxmi Devi, Sukhapha the great adventurer “perhaps realized the impossibility of overcoming the great number of Kacharis with their organized government over a vast territory….. there was no conflict between Sukapha and the Kacharis.”
It was during the reign of Sukapha’s son and successor Suteupha, according to Buranjis, that the first claim and counter claim for territory took place. It is interesting to note that while the Ahom used sheer might against all, the approach towards the Dimasas was totally different. The first few encounters between the then mighty two need to be highlighted here to substantiate the difference in approach of the Ahom towards the Dimasas. The first encounter- Suteupha demanded the surrender of the territory upto Namdang from the Dimasa king. The Dimasa king refused to comply, but Sutuepha, rather than declaring a war as would have been the normal practice, proposed for a competition instead. According to the terms of the competition proposed by him, a canal 1500ft long and 30ft wide was to be dug by both parties in a single night. Whosoever could do so would possess the “disputed territory”. It is said that Suteupha made him men hide themselves in the forest with some cocks and instructed them to make the cock crow much before dawn. The Dimasas it is said, were sure to win the competition but mistook the cocks’ crow to be the signal of daylight and stopped work.
The second encounter- As per the Buranjis, after Namdang it was Dergaon which the Ahoms demanded. The Ahoms apprehending defeat at the hands of the Dimasas should a war take place, “contrived to bring the Dimasas into an agreement for ascertaining the mutual boundary by the result of a living sacrifice to God”. It was agreed that the party whom the omen might favour should receive Dergaon. In the sacrifice that followed the Dimasas received “untoward result” and thereby gave up Dergaon to the Ahoms claims the Buranjis.
The third encounter- The next, according to Buranjis again, to secede to the Ahoms was Marangi. The Ahoms proposed that Marangi should belong to the party whose workmen first find water in the tanks to be dug up on the Marangi hill by either party. The Ahoms, it is said, applied “foul means” and was able to show water to the Dimasas.
According to the Buranjis, the first war with the Dimasas broke out in 1490 AD. The Ahom army that was sent against the Dimasas crossed the Dikhow river. The Dimasas fell suddenly upon the Ahom army and pressed them so hard that they were compelled to retreat. The Dimasas made a hot pursuit killing one hundred and twenty Ahom soldiers and chased the Ahoms upto Tangsu. This victory made the Dimasa king to retrieve the territory of Namdang, ceded to the Ahoms earlier.
The Buranjis further testify that in 1526, during the reign of the Ahom king Suhungmung, the Dimasas were victorious in the first encounter but suffered a crushing defeat in the second whence the Dimasas had to flee from Dimapur for Maibang. This was the first decisive win over the Dimasas by the Ahoms.
These are however, from the Buranjis, and as mentioned earlier there is considerable chance that these facts may be lopsided in the Ahoms’ favour. According to the Buranjis, Dershongpha (Nirbhayanarayana) the Dimasa king who established the capital at Maibang following the loss of Dimapur was a subordinate ruler of the Ahoms. However, according to Rhodes and Basu, “The Ahoms constantly reminded the subsequent rulers of the Dimasa Kingdom of their subordinate position, but the coins do help to confirm that their subordinate status did not stop the Dimasa kings from striking coins in their own names” this they wrote of Dershongpha who struck coins from fine silver in 1559. Further it is interesting to know that most of the coins which Dershongpha struck were found in Bangladesh and only a few in Maibang. This implies that the coins were used mostly for trading purposes and it further negates the subordinate status of the Dimasas as mentioned in the Buranjis. Rather the king from Maibang had independent trading terms with the kings of Bangladesh particularly Shyllet.
Dimasa-Mughal conflict:- Very little is known of the Dimasa-Mughal conflict but its significance lies in the fact that the Dimasas are proud people and had all along lived independently. The Dimasa kings fled from upper Assam, to Dimapur and thence to Maibang because they rued being subjugated and desired to be independent.
In the year 1601, Dimasa King Indra Pratapnarayana struck coins celebrating his military victory over Shyllet which was under the Mughal during the reign of Emperor Jahangir. In May 1607, the Mughols invaded Shyllet which was ruled by Bayizid. According to Rhodes and Basu, “In this war, the King of Kachar (Dimasa King) came to the aid of Bayizid with a large army. Apparently Bayizid had suffered an initial set-back, but matters changed when the Kachari army arrived”.  “The first phase of the war ended with the withdrawal of the Mughals, and the Afghans under Bayizid with the help of the Raja of Kachar were able to defeat the Mughol forces”. ‘Numismatic evidence proves that the Kachari king at that time was Pratapnarayan and the Mughal chronicle confirms his military prowess” write Rhodes and Basu. Soon after this defeat, however, Bayizid was defeated by the Mughals and, “this time the Kachari army did not intervene”.
Having defeated Bayizid, the Mughals now set their eyes on the Raja of Kachar. The Raja of Kachar learning of this moves sent his regiments to oppose the Mughals. “On most of the nights the Kacharis used to make vigorous raids upon the imperial army, and created great commotions among the soldiers until the break of day.” ‘ At last after over a month of fighting the imperialists occupied the Kachari fort (near Karimganj), still the Kacharis fought at the hills and baffled the Mughals with their night attacks”  Finally, the Kacharis lost the battles and the Mughal under Shiek Kamal sent envoys to the Raja and made peace with him.
The Mughal officers were not happy about the deal with the Kacharis and in a memorandum to Emperor Jahangir, sought to change the Mughal Subedar Shiek Kamal by Qasim Khan. Ultimately under Qasim Khan, the Kacharis were defeated and the “amount of tribute paid by the Kachari king indicates the prosperity of the Dimasa Kingdom at that time, but this submission to Mughal supremacy was a blow to the dominance of Kacharis in the upper Surma valley”.
The above discussion on the Dimasa-Mughal conflict may perhaps sound like skirmishes to many but it attains significance in the context of the Dimasa history and to a large extent in the history of Assam. The valour of Lachit Barphukan is a celebrated part in the history of Assam and rightly so, but the Dimasa victory over the Mughals half a century before that is not known to many. King Indra Pratapnarayan and his commander-in-chief Bhimbal or Darpa Bhimanarayana deserves credit for defeating the Mughals. Assam was not invaded from the Brahmaputra valley alone but even through the Barak Valley and in the latter it was the Dimasas who tried to defend Assam, did so with initial success, howsoever small way it might have been.
As observed by E C Stuart Baker in 1907 AD, “the qualities of the Dimasas can be summarized as a race that kept their promise, never stole, seldom lied and could be trusted. Such people, as and when needed, were employed by the King as his soldiers in the Royal Army”.  To highlight the loyalty of the Dimasas, Rhodes and Bose said, “we can cite the example of Shemkhor village in North Cachar Hills district and their resident called the Shemsarao……. Sent by the king to protect the salt mine…….. still regard the royal command and faithfully guard the salt spring there and serve as royal sentinels”
On 3rd December 1853, by a proclamation following the death of Dukhadao (Gobindrachandra) without any issue, the Dimasa territory was annexed into the British Empire. But such usurpation of royal powers by the foreigners was not seen in good light by the Dimasas who loved their independence. In 1881-82 AD under the leadership of Sombodon Phonglo, the first war of independence was fought against the British rule. Unfortunately, little is known about him except the official records of the East India Company. Sombodon’s aim was to re-establish Dimasa rule. He lead his men of about twenty souls, reached Gunjung the Headquarters of the British forces in North Cachar and burnt down all the administrative houses. Three persons belonging to the British government were killed and later on 16th January 1882 Major Boyd was badly injured while fighting Sombodon’s army and he later succumbed to his injuries. In 1883 Sombodon however, died bleeding from his wound which he suffered fighting the British. Talking about the raid at Gunjung by Sombodon’s men, Rhodes and Basu writes, “True to the spirit of the freedom fighters, the Dimasas neither plundered the treasury containing cash nor did they carry off the police rifles left by the Company sepoys.”
In the thirteenth century, the Dimasas ruled over the south bank of the Brahmaputra, between the rivers Dikhu and Kallong, including the Dhansiri valley, where the capital, Dimapur, is located and extended from the tract of North Cachar hills to the plain of Cachar. The kingdom was located between Kamata towards the west and the Ahom Kingdom towards the east. An inscription at Ganeshguri, Beltola at Guwahati gives information regarding digging of tank at Pragjyotishpur by the Dimasa king thus making it clear that Dimasa king even ventured upto Guwahati. “The ruins of Dimapur, that still stand today, provide evidence that the Dimasas were considerably more advanced as regards building skills, than their neighbours at this period” observes Rhodes and Basu.  According to Edward Gait, “the Kacharis had attained a state of civilization considerably in advance of that of the Ahoms.” Mention may also be made here that the  “Dimasas were the first to mention the year on coin in chronogram among the rulers of North Eastern India”. With regard to trade, Martin had recorded in the early nineteenth century that there were merchants, goldsmith blacksmith and coppersmith among the Dimasas. Obviously such a state of commercial development had not been reached all of a sudden, but built over the centuries. The extensive correspondence between the East India Officials, stationed at Fort William, Calcutta, Shyllet and Gauhati, regarding the trade monopoly of the Dimasa king reveals the lucrative imports and exports between the Dimasas and British India through different channels. According to R. Stewart of the East India Company “excellent quality of cotton” were produced by the Dimasas and he even mentions of the rice produced in the hills some of which were of “very superior” quality. Mr Felix Carey, who was in the service of King Dukhadao, wrote to Mr Ewing, the Magistrate of Shyllet on the 25th June,1817 saying that the Dimasas “have become a formidable nation” earning enormous profits from trading in various items.
The Dimasas ruled the greater part of Assam from time immemorial till its territories were annexed by the British. The Dimasas nation is recorded (by others) from 13th century and only six hundred years later the kingdom was abolished. The Dimasas are proud of this fact and rightly so since it is not many nations that held on for such a long period in the history of the whole world. Ups and downs are part of any race and nation, battles and wars are fought, won and lost, but Dimasas held on to their independence ruthlessly. The sad thing about Dimasa history though is the fact that Dimasas do not have written records of their past and have to rely on others.
For a race that held sway over large part of Assam and for a long period too, the Dimasas have a small population and this had come in the way of it gaining more ground. Confined between the Brahmaputra and the Barak valley, today the Dimasas are a small group of people spread over a small area. Credit however, goes to the Dimasas for having faced the onslaught of population influx, which could have diluted its society. But the Dimasas today, especially in N C Hills, are proud of its age old custom being intact. Dimasas have successfully preserved their language, culture and traditions, and are unique in that from child-birth to death all customs are zealously preserved. Many communities have succumbed and got assimilated to greater traditions and communities at the expense of their culture, traditions and even language. Many others have sacrificed their traditions, rites and rituals and surrendered to major world religions. Though major religions, have made impact in the day to day lives of the Dimasas too, but yet, customs and traditions as followed and preserved by the Dimasas are things for others to emulate.
Assam is endowed with multi-lingual and multi-ethnic communities. In Dimasas, Assam has a community which is “Matri-Patriarchal”, unique in its own way. Books on Anthropology and Sociology describe the Dimasas as the only such society in the whole world. Dimasas have female clan and male clan running parallel together, the female zealously guarding their own clan, passing it on downwards from mother to daughter and thence to grand-daughter and so on. While the males have their own clan just as all societies do. There are in all fortytwo female clans and forty male clans with the male clan being as distinctively different from the female clan as cheese and chalk. As fallout of this, Dimasas have a society with female priest performing most of the rites for a person from birth to the “maimutharba” (parallel to shradh). While major religions the world over are still debating on whether women should be conferred priesthood, Dimasas have since time immemorial been having women priests.  The first rite for a child is performed by women priests, most rites of the maimutharba are conducted by women. It is indeed unique and surprisingly unusual that even the funeral procession is lead by women, and in the maimutharba ceremony unless the women have entered the mangkhlong (crematorium) others are not allowed and ditto is the case while leaving the mangkhlong. The status of women is surprisingly very high in the society.
As mentioned above, Dimasas have a small population, but Dimasas are proud that they once ruled the greater part of Assam and are the inherent part of the greater Assamese society. The best loyalty Dimasas showed towards Assam was when Dimasa leaders refrained from joining Meghalaya when the option was given in 1970 when Meghalaya was declared an Autonomous State.
The Dimasas are a community that is a part of Assam’s history from the beginning to the end, that which fought war against the Mughals, that which signed two treaties with the British until finally the Kingdom was taken over by the British, that which under Sambodon Phonglo fought one of the first freedom struggle against the British in Assam, that which is rich in culture, language and tradition unique and distinct, that which is considered pioneer in architectural marvel, that which issued the first coins in chronogram, that which built forts from Dimapur, Maibang, Khaspur, Budderpur to Karimganj, that which had lucrative trading relations with the British India through different channels, that which stands as uniting factor between the Brahmaputra and Barak Valley, that which joins the greater Assamese and Bengali societies. These are the contributions of the Dimasa community towards Assam, and these facts should define the Dimasas’ rightful place in Assam.

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