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2. Tai-Ahom manuscripts

jeudi 12 juin 2008, par F. Jacquesson

Tai Chronicles in Assam

A group of Tai-speaking people arrived in Assam, from Upper Burma and through present-day Naga country, in the 12th century. They are now called Ahom. They brought to Assam the Chinese custom of writing down chronicles, and of using cyclical computation for dating events. They used a special script, derived from a Burmese old type (ans eventually from Indian origin). Here is the left part of a typical sanchi bark folio. The text is one of the most important chronicles of arly Assam. This extract tells about the conquests by the Ahom king Suhum in the 16th century.

JPEG - 80 ko
Buranji detail
Photo F. Jacquesson, with permission by the DHAS. And with thanks to the officer for Ahom studies in the DHAS, Mrs. Ye Hom Buragohain.

These texts were written on a special tree bark, a fragile material anyway. Able people had to copy texts again on fresh bark, when the material grew too old. When copying, they were likely to introduce mistakes, but they also took the opportuny of adding new chapters at the end, telling about more recent developments. Nowadays, when we read (it is not an easy matter) the full chronicles, it is not so difficult to realize the difference in style and lexicon between the older chapters and the more recent ones. The last ones include many words borrowed from the Assamese language, which dominated Assam since the 17th century. About the same time, the Tai-Ahom language disappeared, because even the most noble Ahom families shifted to Assamese language.

Where are these old manuscripts stored ?

Still now, most manuscripts in Assam, either Tai-Ahom or Assamese, are with the families, in private houses. The Ahom regime disappeared when British power decided to be interested in local affairs, but the aristocratic families somehow succeeded in keeping valuable properties. However, several great scholars could persuade enlightened Ahom families to provide public collections at least with a copy of their manuscripts. S. K. Bhuyan and other notable Assamese intellectuals could begin the scientific analysis of extant literary treasures. Several important manuscripts are now stored in the Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies (DHAS) in Guwahati. A catalogue of the Tai-Ahom manuscripts was published by the DHAS in 2004. In the DHAS, Ahom texts are not only preserved, they are also studied. Scholars like Y. H. Buragohain or J. N. Phukan are able to decipher these texts, but such people are becoming fewer and fewer. Some years ago, Professor J. N. Phukan composed an Ahom Reader, the only one of its kind, and an excellent method for all people interested in the reading of old Ahom texts. He kindly allowed us to publish the Ahom-English part of it on this website. We are much honoured by his permission : this is the only book with which scholars or laypeople can become familiar with Ahom grammar, lexicon and phraseology.

Our Australian colleague Dr Morey, who published a good book about modern Tai languages in Assam, is much devoted to Ahom studies. He is currently working about Ahom lexicography. He also devised several Ahom fonts for which we all are much thankful to him. Stephen Morey’s webpage

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