Me-Dam-Me-Phi: The Ancestor Worship Celebration Of The Ahoms
The martial Ahoms along with their brethren of the Tai stock perform ‘Me-Dam-Me-Phi’ in the memory of their ‘Ancestral Spirit’ (Phi-Dam), their ancestors and the departed.
When Is ‘Me-Dam-Me-Phi’ Observed:
People of the Tai stock, including the Ahoms, celebrate ‘Me-Dam-Me-Phi’ on the last day of January every year.
Significance Of ‘Me-Dam-Me-Phi’:
‘Me-Dam-Me-Phi’ is the most significant socio-cultural and religious communally celebrated festival of the Ahoms.
Tracing The Roots Of ‘Me-Dam-Me-Phi’:
The roots of this annually observed socio-cultural and religious celebration of ‘Me-Dam-Me-Phi’ observed by the Tai Ahoms can be traced to the days of yore.
By observing the festival of ‘Medam-Me-Phi’, the Tai Ahom community also remember the contributions of their forefathers to the society.
The Concept Of Ancestor Worship:
The concept of ‘Me-Dam-Me-Phi’ as celebrated by the Ahom community has its roots in the ancient tradition of ancestor worship.
How & When Is Ancestor Worship Is Done:
The indigenous martial race of Tai Ahoms in Assam and certain parts of Arunachal Pradesh worship their ancestors in five elaborate ways.
These worshipping processes are carried out in the traditional Tai Ahom system.
The chief priest of the Tai Ahoms, the ‘Bailung’ along with his associates perform these worshipping processes.
Rituals & Language:
The rituals of all these four ancestor worshipping processes are carried out strictly according to the Tai Ahom tenets and in the Tai Ahom language.
While observing the ancestor worship processes, the Mongoloid martial community of Tai Ahoms offer prayers and various items to their ‘Ancestral Spirit’ known in the Tai Ahom language as ‘Phi-Dam’.
The Tai Ahoms offer prayers to also their forefathers by observing four worship.
Four Ancestor Worshipping Processes:
Besides ‘Mae Dam Mae Phi’, the Tai Ahoms offer prayers to their forefathers by also performing ‘Umpha’, ‘Phuralong’, and ‘Rik-khwan’ worship.
These four ancestor worshipping processes are annually organised in different months.
Elaborate Rituals & Rites:
The Tai Ahoms organize these elaborate processes of ancestor worship according to Tai rituals and rites.
Researchers have traced the earliest reference to Me-Dam-Me-Phi in the script written in Tai Ahom language — the ‘Lit Lai Peyn Kak’.
The Tai Ahom community (of the northeastern Indian State of mainly Assam and some bordering areas of the neighbouring State of Arunachal Pradesh) organizes their ancestor worshipping processes, including ‘Mae-Dam-Me-Phi’ on four different occasions.
Etymology Of ‘Mae-Dam-Me-Phi’:
The term ‘Me-Dam-Mae-Phi’ has been derived from the following four Tai Ahom words: ‘Me’, ‘Dam’, ‘Me’, and ‘Fi’.
The Tai Ahom term ‘Me’ connotes ‘offerings’; ‘Dam’ refers to ‘ancestors’; and ‘Phi’ points to ‘deities’ or ‘gods.
Therefore, the word ‘Mae Dam Mae Phi’ means oblations offered to the Ancestors spirits.
Custodians Of The Tai Ahom Religion:
There are three custodians (priestly clans) of the ethnic Tai Ahom religion.
These three priestly clans are known as the Mo’sam, Mo’hung, and the Mo’Plong.
The Four Tai Ahom Worshipping Occasions:
During the four annually observed ancestor-worshipping processes of ‘Umpha’, ‘Phuralong’, ‘Me-Dam-Me-Phi’ and ‘Rik-khwan’, the Tai stock of people offer their respects to their ancestors.
The Tai Ahoms also reflect on the contributions of their forefathers.
On such socio-cultural and religious events, the Tai Ahom community along with their friends from other communities of the larger Assamese society congregate at the respective venues of ‘Me-Dam-Me-Phi’ and the other three events.
All participate in the social proceedings and also partake of the feast that culminates the events.
The Tai Ahom Scriptures:
There are four Tai Ahom scriptures. These are te ‘Lit Lai Peyn Kaka’, ‘Lai Lit Nang Hoon Pha’, ‘Lai-Phala’ and the ‘Phra-Long’.
During all the all four ancestor worshipping customs, the Tai Ahoms follow four events.
These are ‘Phi Dam’ or ‘Ancestor worship’; ‘Aai Sing Lao’ or ‘Prayer’; ‘Ban-Phai’ or ‘Lighting Lamps’; and ‘Po-Tai’ or ‘Animal/fowl sacrifice’.
The rich culture of the Tai Ahoms is witnessed particularly during their marriages when the Tai practice of ‘Choklong’ is inevitably followed.
A significant section of the Ahoms – belonging to the ‘Tai’ stock – in Assam has been following the neo-Vaishnavite religion known as ‘Xangkori’.
Nevertheless, there are still many among the Ahoms who simultaneously follow the Tai Ahom tradition of including ‘Mae-Dam-Me-Phi’.
These age-old annually observed ‘Tai’ practices strictly follow the religious tenets of the ancient Tai practices).
The Tai Ahoms deem all their four ancestor-worship processes as social events.
Members of the community turn in large numbers during these socio-cultural and religious events.
Location Of The Tai Ahoms:
The Tai Ahom community is spread across the north-eastern Indian States of Assam and also Arunachal Pradesh.
The Ahoms or Tai Ahoms are indigenous people of India.
In Assam, the Tai Ahoms are generally found in the middle and upper Assam districts.
The Ahoms are located in Morigaon, Nagaon, North Lakhimpur, Dergaon, Sivasagar, Jorhat, Golaghat, Demow, Charaideo and Tinsukia besides other places of Assam.
In Arunachal Pradesh, the Tai Ahom community is found in the neighbouring places adjoining North Lakhimpur, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts besides other places of Assam.
In Assam, the indigenous community of Tai Ahoms belong to OBC (Other Backward Caste).
The Ahoms are basically rice-eaters and non-vegetarians.
The Tai-Ahoms follow the patriarchal lineage.
The profession of the majority of the Tai Ahoms is agriculture.
However keeping in tune with modern times, the up-and coming generation among the Tai Ahoms has been taking various modern-day vocations.
Language Of The Tai Ahoms:
The Tai Ahoms generally speak the Assamese language.
Nowadays, various attempts have been made to teach the children the original Tai language.
There are also moves to impart the basics of the Tai language at the primary school level in several places in upper Assam.
Idolatry & The Tai Ahoms:
Idolatry has no place in the Tai religion followed by the Ahom community.
However, the Tai Ahoms do regard with deep respect the Ahom King, whom they deem as their titular deity.
Mentionably, the liberal-minded Ahoms also practise the ‘Xangkori’ tenets.
The Tai Ahoms & The Concept Of Heavenly Kingdom:
The Tai Ahoms have a concept of a heavenly kingdom or heaven. They refer to this abode as ‘Mong Phi’.
Roots Of The Ahom Religion:
The roots of the ethnic religion of the Ahom community can be traced to 1228.
Sukaphaa & His Traditional Imprints:
It was in this year (1228) that Tai prince Sukaphaa along with a group of his martial horsemen and two clans of priests entered the then undivided region of the Brahmaputra valley. Later, a third clan of priests also arrived.
These early Tai Ahoms brought with them their scriptures, religion, tenets, rituals, and practices.
The Tai Ahom priests are known as ‘Bailungs’.
Subsequently, Tai prince Sukaphaa laid the foundation of greater Axom (Assam).
Farsightedness & Liberal Political Outlook:
Tai prince Sukaphaa was able to create greater Axom (Assam) with his farsightedness and liberal political outlook.
Adaptability Of Tai Ahoms:
Under the guidance of Sukaphaa, the Tai Ahoms mixed with the local residents and also adapted significant aspects of their culture and religion.
In this way, the Tai Ahoms started adopting these rich socio-cultural and religious elements into their own ethnic culture.
This adaptability of the Tai Ahoms is also reflected in their costumes and cuisines while also preserving their own.
‘Ban-Phi’ In ‘Mae-Dam-Me-Phi’:
The Tai Ahoms follow the ritual-oriented ancestor worshipping tradition while performing ‘Mae-Dam-Me-Phi’.
This annually observed socio-cultural and religious event requires sacrifices of animals and fowls.
The sacrifice is known as ‘Ban-Phi’ in the Tai Ahom language.
Along with ‘Ban-Phi’, the indigenous Tai Ahoms of North East India, also religiously follow a tradition that has Buddhism influence.
While oblations are offered to the spirits of ancestors, sacrifice is forbidden in this ancient Buddhism ritual.
This ritual of the Tai Ahoms is known as ‘Phuralung’.
Ancestor Worshipping & The Animistic Concept Of ‘Khwan’:
The Tai-Ahom community closely follow the animistic concept of ‘Khwan’ while worshipping their ancestors.
Similarities With The Tai Stock:
Significantly, the Ahoms of North East India share the two concepts of worshiping the ancestors as well as that of ‘Khwan’ with their brethren of the Tai stock.
Ancient Roots Of Mae-Dam-Me-Phi’:
The Tais including the Ahom community of the north-eastern Indian States of Assam and certain bordering areas of Assam in Arunachal Pradesh have been celebrating ‘Mae-Dam-Me-Phi’ since quite ancient times.
The socio-cultural and religious annually observed ‘Mae-Dam-Mae-Phi’ is the occasion when the indigenous community of the Tai Ahoms offer oblations to the spirits of their ancestors.
Primary Events Undertaken During ‘Mae-Dam-Me-Phi’:
The primary events undertaken during ‘Mae-Dam-Me-Phi’ are ‘Phi Dam’ (Ancestor worship); ‘Aai Sing Lao’ (Prayer); ‘Ban-Phai’ (Lighting of earthen oil lamps and candles); as well as ‘Po-Tai’ (Animal sacrifice).
Revivalism Among The Tai Ahoms:
Owing to a revivalism movement among the Tai Ahoms and efforts from several scholars, significant portions of the age-old practices of the Tai-Ahom religion have been revived.
The revivalism moves gathered strength and accelerated since the 1960s and 1970s.
History Of Ancestor Worshipping & ‘Buranjis’:
Researchers have been following the Tai Ahom chronicles known as the ‘Buranjis’ to know various details of the Tai ancestry.
First Community In Assam To Write Chronicles:
Incidentally, the Tai Ahoms are the first community in Assam to practice writing chronicles. This was carried out under the patronage of the Tai Ahom kings.
Origin Of Ancestor Worshipping:
The Tai Ahoms have their own faith and tenets.
The royal ‘Buranjis’ (chronicles) render a divine ancestry to the Tai Ahom rulers.
‘Mong Phi’ & ‘Mong Ri’:
The Tai Ahom ‘Buranjis’ claim that ‘Mong Phi’ – the ruler of the heavenly kingdom made a decision to send two of his grandsons – Khunlung and Khunlai – to ‘Mong Ri’.
‘Mong Ri’ is identified with the present-day ‘Xishuangbanna’ in China.
At that moment, Ye-Cheng-Pha – the Tai Ahom deity of knowledge — suggested that Khunlung and Khunlai should worship their ancestors.
‘Mae-Dam-Me-Phi’, ‘Phuralong’, Rik-Khwan’ & ‘Umpha’:
The Tai Ahom deity of knowledge – Ye-Cheng-Pha – pointed out four specific Ancestor worshipping processes known as ‘Mae-Dam-Me-Phi’, ‘Phuralong’, Rik-khwan and ‘Umpha’ to Khunlung and Khunlai.
The Tai deity of knowledge further recommended that Khunlung and Khunlai should perform the four worships annually – but in different months.
These four annually observed worships are occasions when the Tai Ahoms pay respect to their ‘Ancestral Spirit’ known as ‘Phi-Dam’ in the Tai Ahom language.
Significance Of ‘Mae-Dam-Me-Phi’:
‘Mae-Dam-Mae-Phi’ variously reflects the customs and manners of the Ahoms.
This ancestor-worship worshipping event further build bridges among various communities of the region.
Hence, the socio-cultural and religious annual event of ‘Mae-Dam-Mae-Phi’ aids in fostering mutual understanding, brotherhood communal harmony, and unity among the up-and-coming generation.
There are a number of instances when the Ahom Kings performed the ancestor worshipping festival.
These instances are enumerated in the Ahom chronicle known as ‘Buranji’ that was translated by G.C. Boruah.
Suhungmung In 1563:
The ‘Buranji’ mentions that after routing the Kacharis on the banks of the Dhansiri River in 1563, Ahom ruler Suhungmung occupied the entire region of the Dhansiri Valley.
This occupation further included the entire porthern portion of river Kolong.
Following the Tai Ahom tradition, Ahom king Suhungmung decided to commemorate this victory.
Hence, Ahom king Suhungmung performed the traditional Ahom ancestor-worshipping worship of ‘Mae-Dam-Mae-Phi’ as well as that of the Rikhwan festival in his capital.
Ahom king Suhungmung took this important decision to seek the blessings of ancestors for the longevity and welfare of his subjects ànd also his own.
Sukhampha In 1606:
Tai Ahom ruler Sukhampha also popularly known as the ‘Khora Raja’ also performed this customary Ahom ancestor-worshipping worship of ‘Mae-Dam-Mae-Phi’ at his capital in 1606.
Sukhampha did this to offer his gratitude to the ancestors on the successful signing of a political and military alliance with the mighty Koches.
The signing of this strategic treàty ensured a formidable front against any incursion by the Koch ruler.
Pratap Singha: Tai Ahom ruler king Pratap Singha performed the ‘Me-Dam-Me-Phi’ festival thrice.
Pratap Singha In 1606:
Tai Ahom ruler Pratap Singha performed the Ahom ancestor-worshipping worshipping festival of ‘Me-Dam-Me-Phi’ for the first time in 1606 A.D.
He took this decision after defeating the Mughals at the confluence of Kopili and Mora Doiyang rivers.
Pratap Singha In 1615:
Tai Ahom ruler hi Singha again performed the socio-cultural and religious annually observed festival of ‘Me-Dam-Me-Phi’ in 1615 A.D.
He took this important decision to express his gratitude to the ancestors after the Mughals retreated following their defeat at the hands of the Ahoms in the battle at Agia Bandha.
Pratap Singha Performing For ‘Me-Dam-Me-Phi’ For The Third Time:
On the other hand, Tai Ahom ruler Pratap Singha performed the Tai Ahom traditional ancestor-worshipping festival of ‘Me-Dam-Me-Phi’ for the third time seeking blessings from his ancestors following his defeat by the Mughals.
performed because suspicion arose in his mind that during his reign the State faced many dangers including
During the reign of Tai Ahom ruler King Supangmung, many people lost their lives in two battles, including the one at Hajo, against the Mughals.
Suspecting that omen had befallen the Tai Ahom kingdom as he did not offer worship to his deceased brother Surampha before each of the two battles,Tai Ahom ruler King Supangmung performed ‘Mae-Dam- Me-Phi’ subsequently.
It so happened during the reign of Tai Ahom ruler, King Sunyeophaa that a beam made of wood suddenly collapsed in the royal court.
Then, the royal astrologers suggested that the king should perform ‘Mae- Dam-Me-Phi.
The king did accordingly.
Tai Ahom ruler King King Sudingphaa performed ‘Mae-Dam-Me-Phi’ after his brother Suklingphaa was cremated at the traditional royal cremation spot – Charaideo.
He performed the socio-cultural and religious ancestor-worshipping festival of ,’Mae-Dam-Me-Phi’ under a Nuni tree.
Hence, the Tai Ahom royally sponsored chronicles known as ‘Buranji’ has recorded how and when the Ahom rules performed ‘Mae-Dam-Me-Phi’ on various occasions.
The occasions were as varied as for averting any danger (imminent) or for commemorating victories in battles, and also seeking blessings from ancestors for longevity of life.
The Tai Ahoms
The ‘Indravamsa Kshatriyas’:
The Sanskrit compound term ‘Indravamsa kshatriyas’ means ‘the martial descendants of the ruler of Heaven – Lord Indra (according to Hinduism).
It is coined from the two words: ‘Indravamsa’ and ‘kshatriyas’.
The Sanskrit word ‘Indravamsa’ means ‘the people having the lineage or blood of Lord Indra.
The other Sanskrit word ‘kshatriyas’ is a generalised reference to a ‘martial race’ or ‘community’.
The Hindu priests first applied this newly coined terminology of ‘Indravamsa kshatriyas’ for the Tai Ahoms sometime between the later part of the 16th Century and the first half of the 17th Century.
Increasing Influence Of Hinduism:
Incidentally, the regular process of jotting down important events of the Ahom times was possible primarily due to the growing influence of Hinduism in the royal court.
This process of jotting important events of the Tai Ahom kingdom in the Assamese language commenced during the reign of Tai Ahom ruler King Suhungmung (1497–1539).
This historical watershed of keeping tract of various events marks the beginning of the ‘Buranji'(written in Assamese).
Prior to this historically significant literary process, there was no such record in the then undivided Axom.
Overwhelming Influence Of Hindu Priests In The Tai Ahom Court:
The increasing influence of Hinduism and especially of the Hindu priests in the Tai Ahom ruler and consequently on the royal court was particularly overwhelming.
The New Lineage:
The Hindu priests conjured the new lineage for the Tai Ahom rulers.
While doing so, the Hindu priests also kept in tact the heavenly connection, although with their own interpretation.
Thus, the Hindu priests were successful in bringing the Tai Ahoms into their caste system. In doing so, they ensured that the Tai Ahom kings – traditionally believed to be possessing a divine lineage – was kept intact.
Lineage Traced To Lord Indra:
The new Brahmanical lineage traced the Tai Ahom rulers to the union of Lord Indra (whom the Hindu priests identified with Lengdon) and Syama (a woman of low-caste).
Therefore, the Hindu priests declared the Tai Ahoms as ‘Indravamsa kshatriyas’.
They created this lineage exclusively for the Tai Ahoms.
The Assamese term ‘Swarganarayan’ means ‘Lord of the heavens’.
This nomenclature of ‘Swarganarayan’ was first adopted by Tai Ahom ruler King Suhungmung.
Subsequently, the later Tai Ahom rulers too started using this prefix of ‘Swargadeo’ before their respective Hindu names.
It was during the reign of Swagadeo Suhungmung that the Buranji entitled ‘Sri Sri Swarganarayan Maharajor Jonmokotha’ was written.
In this Buranji written in Assamese, the source and lineage of the Tai Ahom kings were connected to the Hindu deity – Indra, Lord of the Heaven.
The subjects of the Ahom kingdom used to call the Tai Ahom rulers as ‘Chao-Pha’ or as ‘Swargadeo’ in Assamese.
On the other hand, the external historical accounts of the mediaeval period referred to the Tai Ahom rulers of the then undivided Assam as ‘Asam Raja’.
The writer — Nilutpal Gogoi is an entrepreneur, senior journalist, writer, translator (from Assamese to English & vice versa), avid traveller, British English Accent & grammar trainer, educationist, and martial arts (Taekwondo) practitioner.