Administration and politics which originated with the formation of organized societies are generally dominated by menfolk. Women, even in the matriarchal societies could hardly play a dominant role in it. But that does not mean that women had no interest in this field; the fact is that organised society being a patriarchal one, women’s participation in that sphere was simply not favoured. Still then, there are instances of intelligent and courageous women, who formally took the reins of government to their own hands or acted as informal advisors. This is true of the women of early Assam as well.
Authentic history of Assam beings with the fourth century A.D.. But very little is known about women’s role in administration till the close of the fourteenth century, although there might have been quite a few who influenced political matters behind the screen. On the other hand, there are instances of two princesses from Assam who could exercise their influence in the administration of their royal consorts. One was princess Amritaprabha, married through a sayamvara to king Meghavahana of Kashmir, who ruled in the first part of the fifth century A.D.. Amritaprabha took from her father’s court a Tibetan Buddhist monk named Stunpa to Kashmir and had a lofty vihara (monastary) established ‘for his benefit’. This vihara originally called ‘Amrita-bhavan’ was later distorted to ‘Anita-bhavan’ or ‘Anta-bhavan’. The other was princess Rajyamati married to the Nepal king Jayadeva ?? who ruled in the middle of the eight century A.D.. It was at the instance of Rajyamati that Jayadeva had the famous Pasupati temple of Nepal erected. Religion and politics being inseperable in early times, these two daughters from ancient Assam by exercising their influence on religious matters had also played their roles in administration and politics.
The first woman who played a direct role in administration in Assam was the chief queen of the Ahom king Tao-Khamthi (1380-89). She was put in charge of the kingdom, when the king was out for an expedition. But she could not manage the affairs properly, probably because of not receiving any cooperation from the ministers and also due to her jealous nature. In the Chutiya Kingdom of Sadiya, queen Sadhani acted as advisor to her husband, who being of humble origin had no experience in administration. When the Chutiya kingdom was conquered by the Ahoms in 1523 A.D., Sadhani preferring death to dishonour committed suicide by jumping from the top of a hill.
Chao-Ching a very accomplished consort of the Ahom king Suklenmung or Garhgayan Raja (1539-52) acted as informal advisor to the king. The Assamese chronicles state that it was at her instance that the office of the Barpatra Gohain, the third ‘great’ minister of the Ahom kingdom was created. Thus records a Buranji (Assamese chronicle): The queen told the king: “A cooking pot can keep its balance only when it is placed over three stools. How do you expect to maintain balance to the pot with two stools only?” The king understood what the queen meant and he created the office of the third minister. On another occasion, the queen suggested to the king: ‘A capital should be properly fortified, ours is not such. So steps should be taken to surround it with embankments.’ The king following her advice fortified the capital by raising embankments on all sides, for which it was named as Garhgaon and the king also came to be known as Garhgayan Raja.
Nangbakla Gabharu, the wife of Tao-mung Bargohain, one of the three great counselors of the Ahom kingdom could revoke a major decision of the king-in-council by her courage and determination. Once the Ahom king Sukhampha (1552-1603) had to suffer a serious defeat at the hands of the Koches and by the terms of the treaty concluded with the victorious party, he had to send as hostage to the Koch king one son each from the Ahom ministers. When Nangbakla Gabharu had to part from her son, she flared up. She rushed to the royal court where the king was holding discussions with the ministers and rebuked them for their defeat in the following words: ‘What kind of a king you are and what kind of ministers you are! You could not defeat even the Koches. Let me have your headdress, girdle, belt and sword. Though I am woman, I shall fight with the Koch king and let him know how a woman can fight with a man.’ Despite her protest, when her husband wanted to obey the king, she snatched away her son uttering spiritedly the following words: ‘Who can give my son? If the course of the Dikhou river can be diverted upwards to the hill by putting a dam across, then only my son can be given.’ The king dared not compel her and sent his own brother instead.
Another such brave woman was Mula Gabharu, who died fighting against the Muslim general Turbak Khan of Bengal in 1532 A.D. to revenge the death of her husband at the hands of the enemy.
Phuleswari, the chief consort of the Ahom king Siva Singha (1714-44) was the first queen of Assam to govern the kingdom directly. The king was predicted by the astrologers that he was under the evil influence of the stars (chatra-bhanga yoga) as a result of which, he might lose his throne. At the advice of the chief priest, the king therefore handed over the reins of the government to his queen Phuleswari. The latter on assuming the charge of the kingdom took the name Pramatheswari, and the title ‘Bar-Raja’ or ‘Great king’ and minted coins in the joint name of herself and her husband. A devout sakta, Phuleswari wanted to make Saktism the state-religion and took drastic steps to realise this end. This had created deep resentment amongst the Vaishnavas which acted as one of the factors for disintegration of the Ahom kingdom. But Phuleswari had a number of good qualities too. She inspired the translation of the Sakuntala into Assamese verse and established a school in the palace campus for teaching Sanskrit. She had the Gaurisagar tank excavated near the present town of Sibsagar and three temples dedicated to Siva, Vishnu and Devi erected on its side. Besides, she made a number of land-grants to Brahmana preceptors and temples.
Phuleswari’s successor Ambika ‘Bar-Raja‘ was a great patron of learning and education. She was the inspiring soul behind the composition of the Hasti–Vidyarnava, a very famous work on elephantology. She had also the famous Sibsagar tank excavated and the temples on its bank constructed, the one dedicated to Siva being the biggest of its king in Assam. The last ‘Bar-Raja’, Enadari alias Sarbeswari had also a temple constructed at Sibsagar for commemorating the name of her mother-in-law Keri Rajmao. Enadari was a patron of music, weaving and literature. All these three queens had actually governed the kingdom one after another, whereas the king acted simply as advisor.
Women of the upper classes kept themselves informed of the political affairs of the country. Nangsen, alias Ramani Gabharu, daughter of the Ahom king Jayadhvaj Singha (1648-63) was made over to Nawab Mir Jumla in fulfillment of the terms of the treaty between Assam and Mughal India (1663). Later she was married to Azamtara, the third son of Emperor Aurangzeb and named as Rahmat Banu. Her maternal uncle Laluksola Barphukan, the Viceroy of Lower Assam stationed at Gauhati, with a view to making himself the king of Assam sought the help of Azamtara, when he was serving as the Governor of Bengal and as a reward for this help promised to surrender Gauhati to the Mughals. When Rahmat Banu incidentally came to know about this treacherous act of her uncle, she immediately wrote him a very spirited letter urging upon him not to take this ignoble action, as surrendering Gauhati meant offering the very heart of Assam to the Mughals. The power-hungry Barphukan did not listen to his noble niece, but her love for her mother-land is still remembered by the people of Assam with great reverence.
Jaymati, daughter of Laithapana Bargohain and wife of the great Ahom king Gadadhar Singha (1681-96) was another such politically conscious women. She knew it well that her husband was the only person who could put an end to the prevailing anarchical condition and restore peace and order in the kingdom. When the reigning king in order to make the throne safe for him were killing or maiming almost all the rival claimants, Gadapani (later known as Gadadhar Singha) at the instance of his wife Jaymati was concealing himself in the Naga hills. Jaymati then pregnant, was brought to the court and interrogated. But on her refusal to say anything about her husband’s whereabouts, she was tortured to death. This noble sacrifice of Jaymati for her husband and her countrymen is still held in great esteem by the Assamese people.
Love of independence was not confined to the male-folk alone. It was equally strong among all classes of women. In course of the Ahom-Mughal conflict, on one occasion, Assamese women pursued after the fleeing Mughal soldiers and beat them with bamboo rods. Surrender to defeat was considered so ignoble that even common fisher-women dared to condemn such a king in his very face.
In 1769, broke out the first popular rebellion against the Ahom government. It was organised by a section of Vaishnavas called Moamariyas or Mayamariyas. Two women, Radha and Rukmini, were in the first line of the rebel army. Their skill in fighting led to the creation of a rumour that they were possessed of some supernatural power by dint of which they were catching bullets by the upper end of their chadars (a sheet of cloth used as upper garments by women). The rebels defeated the royalists, occupied the capital and set up their own government in which both Radha and Rukmini actively participated. Finally, however, the royalists recovered the throne through the instrumentality of Kuranganayani, the Manipuri queen of king Rajeswar Singha (1751-69), and killed all the rebel leaders including Radha and Rukmini. In the next phase of the popular Moamariya rebellion, a large number of women participated. In fact it is said that there was a wing of women stalwarts who were imparted military training by the Moamariya leader Harihar Tati at a place called Ranchali on the north bank of the Brahmaputra.
Queen Kamaleswari Devi, widow of king Gaurinath Singha (1780-95), met Lord Wellesley, Governor General of India in 1806 and implored him to give her military assistance to enable ner to restore peace and good Government in Assam. Numali, mother of the last independent Ahom king Chandrakanta Singha (1811-19), brought about the assassination of Badanchandra, who became the Premier of Assam after the first Burmese invasion of the kingdom in 1817.
At times, court ladies, nurses and ligiris (female attendants) also played important roles in politics. Naranarayana, the great Koch king was greatly helped by his nurse to get the throne. At the time of his brother Chilarai were studying at Benaras. Taking advantage of their absence from the kingdom, Nar Singh, the third brother userped the throne. But Naranarayana and Chilarai’s nurse managed to send them the information and advised them to came to the capital immediately and assume power. After the imprisonment of Chilarai at Gauda, Naranarayana, with a view to winning the good will of the Ahom king wished to release the sons of the Ahom nobles including a brother of the Ahom king, who were living as hostages in his capital. At this, the chief queen and other court ladies represented before Naranarayana that a straitway release might be interpreted by the Ahom king as some sort of weakness on the part of the Koches; so a game of dice could be arranged and on the pretension of his defeat, he could send back the Ahom hostages to their kingdom. The wise king appreciated this suggestion of the court ladies and did accordingly. During the period of political instability which followed the battle of Saraighat (1671) and also in the period following the restoration of the Ahom king Lakshmi Singha (1769-80) after his deposition at the hands of the Moamariya rebels, ex-queens, court-ladies, wives of nobles and female attendants actively participated in the court intrigues, with the hope of getting power and status or improving their lot.
It was with this background that women of Assam played their remarkable roles in the national struggle for freedom. Gandhiji had high-respect for Assamese women for their proficiency in the craft of spinning and weaving and their simplicity in dress and ornaments. Assamese women could win admiration from all Congress leaders by making with their own hands all the khadi cloths required for making the canopy and covering the sides of the huge pendel erected on the occasion of the 41st session of the Indian National Congress held at Pandu near Gauhati in 1926. In the ’42 movement more than a dozen of Assamese women—Kanaklata Barua, Bhogeswari Phukanani, Khahuli Nath, Rabati Lahon, Abali Kochuni, Golapi Chutiyani, Kon Chutiyani, Thuniki Das and others laid down their lives in the alter of their motherland. Such proud heritage would always remain a source of inspiration to women of this part of the country to play their role in administration and politics and work for a better future.
Dr. (Mrs) S.L. Baruah. Professor, Department of History. Dibrugarh University
Dr. (Mrs) S.L. Baruah writes on Indian Review.