In almost all the traditiol societies in the world, worship of the ancestors is prevalent in their own characteristic ways. The Tai Ahoms who 0rigilly came from Mong Maolung of South Chi as back as in 1228 AD are no exception. While their compatriots and kin in South Chi, particularly in the Yunn province of Chi are called Dai or Tai, the people who came with Prince Chao Lung Siu-Ka-Pha in 1228 AD and settled in Assam are known as Tai Ahoms (one of the main branches of Tai Long i.e.Big Tai or Thai).
The ancestor worship among the Ahoms is called Me-Dam-Me-Phi. Literally, ‘Me’ means worship, ‘Dam’ means the dead and ‘Phi’ means god. That is, the dead ones are; worshipped as gods by the Ahoms. This belief in the divinity of the dead is an ancient one and all the Tai (Thai) speaking people have had the custom of worship their the ancestors as gods in their own way. The Ancestor worship is related to the idea of the soul living forever; after one’ s death, his soul would leave his body and go back to the place in heaven where his ancestors live. Many Tai families offer sacrifices to “Heaven, earth, king ancestor and teacher” in the central room of their house. When people get gifts from relatives or any kind of fresh products, they consecrate first to the ancestors and then eat.
According to the Tai Ahom belief, man is not reborn after death. After death, the person becomes a god and goes to the assigned place in one of the several heavens and lives with his relatives. It is believed by them that if the close kin or the society as a whole observe the ritual of ancestor- worship (Me-Dam-Me-Phi), the dead ones, particularly the parents and grandparents who stay in heaven, come down to the earth to bless their offspring and accept their offerings. Like the Tai Ahoms, the red Tais of Vietm believe that the heaven is stratified and divided into several provinces and each clan has its own habitat in heaven. Po’ Then-Kham, the lord of heaven remains with other gods and goddesses and under each god or goddess remains the’ Phi’ or the souls of the dead.
One of the important customs among the Ahoms is that the dead body is not burnt but kept in a box and buried. The burial mound s called “Maidam”. This custom is also prevalent among the other Tai people like the Tho of north Vietm. They bury the dead in the burial ground in wooden coffin like the Ahoms. They hold rituals of worship of the dead after 49 days and 100 days.
It is stated in Ahom history that when the heavenly princes Khun-Iung and Khun-Lai were sent down from the heaven where the reigning deity Lengdon ruled, Goddess Jasingpha gave them this advice, ‘Lord Lengdon , your grandfather is sending you down to the earth from the heaven to rule the earth.When in the month of Din-ha, the sacred flower ‘Chinkara’ will blossom, then you select a day in that month to propitiate Lord Lengdon and other gods and goddesses and make offerings of sacrifice of animals and other good things for them. Then Lord Lengdon and eight hundred thousand gods and goddesses will go down to the earth and bless you.’ This was the dictum of Lord Lengdon to the king of the Tais and the Tai people. The practice of the worship of ancestors was started by the first Tai kings on earth, mely Khunlung and Khunlai ,the progenitors of the Tai royalty including the Ahom royalty.
It is also recorded in history that Chao lung Siu-Ka-Pha the first Swargadeo (heavenly king) of the Tai Ahoms observed this sacred ritual of Me-Dam-Me-Phi and sought the blessings of his forefathers in the new place. The nobles and the soldiers collectively worshipped their ancestors in the Me Dam Me Phi ritual with their king and the collective Me Dam Me Phi ritual started from his days and was observed by his successors. After his death, Chaolung SiuKa-Pha was buried in Charaideo as recorded in history and Me-Dam-Me-Phi was observed by his son Siu-Teo -Pha who became the king after him. As all the kings and queens of the Tai Ahoms got buried in this sacred place, Charaideo became the Jerusalem of the East for all the Tai-speaking people and the designs and techniques of the Moidams are drawing the attention of the scholars both tiol and intertiol, as the architecture of the Moidams is unique in its own way and is comparable to the Egyptian mummies.
There are historical references of yearly observance 0f ‘Me-Dam-Me-Phi by all the Ahom kings from Siu-ka-Pha . Only during the reign of Jaydwaj Singha, the ritual was not observed. When Jaydwaj Singh was defeated by the Mughal army led by Mirjumla, the King said to the Prime Minister, Atan Buragohain, in deep anguish and grief, “Gohain, gods have forsaken me”. Gohain then said, “Swargadeo, do not grieve. Victory and defeat are two sides of the same coin. When gods will favour us, then Swargadeo will defeat the outsiders with his own might”.
After the death of Jaydwaj Singha, his younger brother Swargadeo Chakradwaj Singha thought that the mighty Ahom King was defeated by the Mughals as gods were not favourable to his elder brother because he neglected their worship. This king, realizing the importance of this ritual, celebrated Me-Dam-Me-Phi at Charaideo with pomp and glory under the direct supervision of Langcheng Borgohain and with the active assistance and participation of Deodhai, Mohong and Bailung . Chakradwaj Singha won the war of Saraighat and re-established the glory of the Ahoms.
As has already been stated, it was Swargadeo Siu-Ka-Pha who first introduced Me-Dam-Me Phi ritual in this part of the country. He observed it more than once. He observed it after crossing m-Kiu (Irawaddy) on way to this country. After crossing Doi-Kao-Rong ( the present Patkai range), he again celebrated this festival on the bank of Buridihing at mrup (mruk) with the prayer to his forefathers and Lord Lengdon and other deities to give him victory and a new kingdom which he could rule with good governce. He once again worshipped his forefathers at Langtewkat at the lower side of Charaideo. Siu-Ka-Pha observed this ritual at Charaideo while establishing his permanent capital there to seek the blessings of his forefathers and gods.
By the end of the thirteenth century almost all the Tai people of Chi, Myanmar etc. got converted to Buddhism (of the lesser vehicle). But even after the conversion, the Tai people did not give up the practice. Khamti, Khamyang, Phake and Aiton of the North East India offer flowers and rice to seek the blessings of their forefathers, Similarly, Lao, Thai of Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Lu, Zhuang and Dai of South Chi observe the ritual even after becoming Buddhist. The Thais, who profess traditiol religion and have remained non-Buddhist like Taidam, Taihkao, ng, Nung of North Vietm, also observe the ritual by offering meat and other eatables to the dead. Zhuangs of Yunn, Chi used to offer buffalos as sacrifice to appease their ancestors. They are vigorously following the tradition of worshipping the ancestors now-a-days.
The other Ahom kings also celebrated Me-Dam-Me-Phi with pomp and grandeur as an annual festival. Dihingia Raja, Pratap Singha, Gadalhar Singha and Prarmattha Singha also celebrated this festival. The tradition and belief in Me-Dam-Me-Phi got resounded in the words of Chakradway Singha; “My brother Siu- Tam-la (Jaydwaj Singha) did not get the blessings of Pha-Nuru and other god; as he did not observe the ritual of his forefathers. That is why our country got ravaged by the attack of the Mughals and our soldiers also got killed and disgraced”. This festival continued to be celebrated up to the reign of the last king Chandrakanta with pomp and gIory.
Dam-Phi or Phi Dam ritual is, now-a-days observed in two different ways. One is public Me-Dam-Me-Phi which is held collectively by the Ahoms with new vigor every year on 31st January and the other is the Dam-Phi or Phi-Dam at the family level. This ritual observed in the household in the kitchen near the main post ( Pho’kam) where, according to the Tai Ahoms their ancestors dwell till they get emancipated by regular worship of them by the members of the family is still prevalent in the families of the priestly clans of Tai Ahoms ( Deodhai, Mohan, Bailung). On the occasion of Magh Bihu and Bhogali Bihu , the family observes it with great devotion with offerings of food, rice beer and chinkara flower and betel-nut as they think that their ancestors protect them more than the celestial gods. So they sing the hymn in Assamese eulogizing their ancestors thus: Chale nerakhe,bere nerakhe nerakhe tridasar deo, Ghardeoye nerakhile rakhotaa i aru keo’ meaning, ‘Neither the roof, nor the walls nor the gods in heaven can protect the family if not protected by their ancestors’.
In the public Me Dam Me Phi ,the Tai Ahom deities mely Khao Kham ( god of waters), Ai-Leng-Din ( god of the earth), Jansaihung ( the preceptor or Guru of gods), Lengdon, the Lord of Heaven, Chit-lam-Cham( seven sons of Lengdon, the lord of heaven who control ture) , Mut-Kum-Tai-Kum(god of the moon and the sun), Jashingpha ( goddess of learning) are worshipped with offerings of chickens, food, rice beer, flowers, betel-nuts with leaves etc. In addition, the Phi Dam ( Dam Phi) is worshipped with the same kind of offerings. Two evil spirits Rakhin and Bakhin who are believed to spoil the ritual are appeased with the same kind of offerings. While the god of waters ( Kaokham) and the god of the earth ( Ai Lengdin) are worshipped with offerings on plantain leaves, the other gods and the ancestors are worshipped with offerings on raised platforms. The offerings for Rakhin- Bakhin are placed a little distance from the pavilion for gods/goddess and the Dam. All the hymns chanted are in Tai.
The Ahoms thus give importance to their ancestors by worshipping them at home and publicly as they firmly believe that it is the ancestors who not only protect the family but give peace and prosperity to their offspring. Respect to the elders and love to the younger ones which form the basis of a successful family and continuance of the same spirit of love and respect even after death is the hall mark of the social life of an Ahom family . Thus is the Ancestor worship is the essence of the traditiol religion of the Tais .