Sometime during the 13th century, the Shan tribe of
erstwhile Burma (Myanmar) made inroads into the Brahmaputra river valley.
Gradually, they settled down in the northeastern part, adopted Hinduism
and established the Ahom dynasty, which ruled almost uninterrupted for 600
Most visitors to Assam prefer to draw the line at Kaziranga National Park. But if one continues further northeast, following the national highway 37 and past the tea gardens of Jorhat, one will come across the nondescript town of Sibsagar. Not much different from any other wayside town of India, Sibsagar is far from your idea of a frenetic, tourist-jammed place. So step down the pace, merge with the relaxed low-key atmosphere of the place and discover its rich past, mostly tucked within a wealth of vernacular architecture.
According to most historians, the name 'Assam' has been derived from the word Ahom or 'Asom' - names by which the local tribes referred to the conquerors. Their unparalleled bravery helped them not only to consolidate the entire valley for a considerable period of time but also repulse nearly 17 invasions by the Mughals and the Sultans of Bengal.
But the Ahoms were not merely a warmongering dynasty. Sukapha, the acknowledged founder of the Ahom dynasty, established his capital at Charaideo (about 28-km from the present Sibsagar town) in 1229 AD. And it was he who began the patronisation of architecture, which reached its height during the 17th and 18th centuries.
By repulsing the Muslims and other tribes from the neighbouring regions that evolve free from any outside culture to evolve free from any influence. It was during their reign that saint and composer Sankaradeva founded the vaishnavite movement, which rejected the caster systems and ritualistic practices.
During their reign of 600 years, the Ahoms shifted the capital several times. So it is convenient to sightsee around the place by concentrating on the various capitals, which are now scattered, less than 30-km from Sibsagar town (Which itself was a later-day capital). There are no conducted tours and so you have to hire a car or an auto rickshaw to see the place. Although there are not any pointers to the attractions, the local people are most helpful with directions.
Charaideo - The Erstwhile Ahom Capital
Charaideo, the first capital is the farthest. The most spectacular buildings here are the burial vaults belonging to various kings and noblemen. These have an uncanny resemblance to the pyramids of Egypt. However, most of then are now in various stages of ruins.
Almost all occasions were marked by the making of a water tank with its own groups of temples. Dotting the vicinity of Sibsagar are a number of large tanks, a feature reminiscent of Mahoba, the capital of the Chandela rulers of central India - although the two dynasties never met. The temples are a study of historical morality- simple but strong.
The Temple Structure
Usually referred to as 'Dol', the name probably is an etymological derivation from the Sanskrit word Deul, which means temple. In most of the places, the temples are in groups of three - one each dedicated to Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu and Goddess Durga. The tectonic style usually follows the spired Shikhara style of northern India, but with local variations. The temple wall with fluted vertical lines on the exterior tapers towards the top, ending up with the traditional 'Amlaka' pattern; the sloping roof often merging with downsized replicas of the main roof called "Uramanjari", which could number four or more. Sometimes, the Amlaka pattern gives way to the pitcher-like Kalasa (also spelt as Kalasha) pattern, specially at the Devidol temple through which one has to pass to reach the interior.
Kareng Ghar Palace, Gargaon
About 13-km east of Sibsagar is Gargaon, the capital of the 15th century Ahom king. Suklemnung. Little remains of the former palace built around 1540. Nearby is later day palace built by king Rajeshwar Singha because he disliked the former palace. Known as Kareng Ghar, the seven storeyed palace has four storeys above ground and three below, as well as two secret tunnels, one of which probably leads to the nearby Dikhow River.
Talatal Ghar Palace, Rangpur
A similar Kareng Ghar Palace was built by king Rudra Singha in 1699 whose capital was at Rangpur. About 6-km from Sibsagar, the palace is now referred to as the Talatal Ghar, the name originally given to the three storeys, which were below ground and housed the barracks.
A Noteworthy Attraction
The most notable water tank is the one located in the heart of Sibsagar town and from which the town derives its name. Constructed by queen Madambika in 1734, the tank is so big that earlier people fondly referred to it as a Sagar or the sea. Situated on its southern bank is the 33m high Shiva temple called Sivadol, which is probably the tallest Shiva temple in the country. As the popularity of the tank increased and more and more people crowded to the site, the Ahom rulers shifted their capital to Sibsagar and even today the town radiates outwards from the tank. Shivarathri (also spelt as Shivaratri) is the biggest festival here when people from distant corners flock here.
Other notable tanks are Joyasagar, Gaurisagar and Rudrasagar.
According to local people, the Joysagar tank was built in memory of queen Jayamati by her son Rudra Singh. The queen is revered for her fidelity- she refused to divulge the whereabouts of her husbands prince Gadadhar Singha who had fled the kingdom to escape being maimed or killed by the reigning king who in turn feared that Gadadhar was plotting to usurp the throne. The queen was fatally tortured. Later Gadadhar Sinha returned to avenge her death and claim the throne. Standing on the banks of the lake are the three temples Sivadol, Vishnudol and Joyddol.
16-km south of Sibsagar is the Gaurisagar Tank constructed by queen Phuleswari in 1723. Of its three bank-side temples, the Devidol is most famous. Here one can see the spire ending in a three-tiered gold plated Kalasa pattern atop a circular brick base. The walls of the temple also contain ornamental patterns. 8-km from Sibsagar, the Rudrasagar Lake was built by king Laxmi Singha in 1773.
A fine example of a secular building is the rang ghar which can be seen as one travels from jorhat to sibsagar via the assam trunk road. This oval-shaped, double-storeyed building was constructed sometime in the mid-18th century by king pramatta singha. If served as a gallery from where the kings and noblemen used to watch elephant fights and other similar sports.
As one travels along the NH 37, the spectacular Namdang Bridge will catch one's eye. Constructed out of a single rock it was commissioned by king Rudra Singha and built in 1703, interestingly, it is said that he was also responsible for opening a trade route between Assam and Tibet. He also invited musicians from Bengal to his court to encourage the growth of performing arts.
Around 1817, invading tribes from Burma repeatedly attacked the weakening Ahom kingdom and the British were forced to intervene which ultimately led to the annexation of the Ahom kingdom. The British realised the potential of tea cultivation in the northeastern parts of Assam and encouraged the setting up of garden by cutting down forests and imported labourers from distant Bihar and Orissa. An alien culture was gradually grafted on the prevailing social system. With Jorhat and Dibrugarh (70-km) gaining prominence with their tea trade, Sibsagar lapsed into anonymity.
The most spectacular buildings in Charaideo are the burial vaults belonging to various kings and noblemen. These have an uncanny resemblance to the pyramids of Egypt. However, most of them are now in various stages of decay due to lack of maintenance.
Although popularly known as Sibsagar, the present official name of the town is Sivasagar. The Assamese language does not support 's' which is usually pronounced with 'h' - therefore when the local people mention Sivasagar, it may sound a little strange to the uninitiated.
Air: Jorhat airport, which serves Kaziranga National
Park, is also the nearest airport to Sivasagar.
Rail: The nearest railhead with onward connections is Simulguri, 20-km away but travelling by rail is quite inconvenient unless one has plenty of spare travelling time.
Road: The best option is to travel by road. Guwahati, the working capital of Assam is 369-km away, and is connected by regular bus and taxi- travelling time seven to eight hours. There are frequent buses connecting Jorhat with Sivasagar. It would be prudent to add an extra couple of days to your trip to Kaziranga National Park and see Jorhat and Sivasagar as well.
Sivasagar being a commercial hub, there are budget hotels near the central bus stand. But tourists can opt for the better ones too. There is also a moderate budget tourist lodge run by the Assam Tourism.