Originally published in DNA on 26 Feb 2017
When we speak of medieval Assam, Lachit Barphukan is perhaps the only name known to us, for his exploits against the Mughals. But the person who took Assam to its cultural and political zenith was a king named Rudra Singha, who ruled between 1696 and 1714 AD. He was from the Ahom dynasty which ruled Assam from 1228 to 1821 AD. Having ascended the throne, he had taken the Ahom name Chao Sukrungpha and almost immediately got down to building Assam into a prosperous kingdom. Numerous civil works were undertaken by him. The Joysagar, said to be India’s largest man-made tank with an area of 318 acres, was constructed during his reign. In a significant break from traditional Ahom architecture, which made heavy use of mud, bamboo and wood, Rudra Singha built solid stone structures. The Namdang Stone Bridge, which connects the eastern towns of Shibsagar and Jorhat, is another example. Built in the early eighteenth century, it was incorporated as part of National Highway 37 and continued to carry modern vehicles till a few years ago. Its heritage value was finally recognised some years ago and now a new road has been built.Various administrative buildings were constructed at Rangpur, the new capital of the kingdom. The king also built a number of temples, such as the Shiva Doul and Gauri Doul. He established various Satras and also gave royal patronage to the Bihu festival. He also sent young boys to Benares to study. Rudra Singha’s planned invasion of Mughal Bengal is perhaps his greatest claim to fame. Hindu kings who dreamt of going beyond their territories are few and far between. The reasons for this planned invasion are not very clear. Historian SK Bhuyan says various reasons can be attributed, such as Mughal officials sending him a khillat and Hindu pilgrims being harassed in Bengal. One must understand that Rudra Singha was a great patron o f Hinduism and the coins minted in his name contained the words “shri shrimadvengar deva rudra simhasya” and “shri shri haragauri padambuja madhukarasya”. The Tungukhia Buranji, a contemporary source, states that Rudra Singha held an assembly where he declared his intention to invade the region between Rangmati and Dhaka. Dhaka, at the time, was an important Mughal city in Bengal. Another reason could be that being a devotee of Shiva, he wanted to include a part of river Ganges into his domain. Meticulous preparations for this grand invasion were done. The neighbouring kingdoms such as the Jayantia and Cachar joined him. The Koch ruler Rup Narayan also sent favourable replies. He ruled over what is today’s region of Cooch Behar in North Bengal. He solicited support from the Hindu zamindars of Burdwan and Barnagar in Bengal. Closer to Guwahati, alliances were stitched with neighbouring kingdoms — Rajas of Morung, Bana-Vishnupur and Nadiya. For the first time, diplomatic relations were opened with Tripura and help was sought regarding the grand invasion of Mughal territories. Thus, Rudra Singha, in a short span of time, united all the tribes and kingdoms of the North East and a huge army of 4 lakh soldiers began to gather at Guwahati. Assam had a glorious tradition of beating back invaders for over 400 years. Rudra Singha intended to pay the invaders in their own coin. At this critical juncture, Rudra Singha, on whom the whole campaign rested, died a sudden death in 1714. His death is one of the great ‘what ifs’ of Indian history. With a Mughal Empire on its last legs, who knows how much success would have come Rudra Singha’s way. In the context of the capitulation of Bengal in 1757, could a strong king have perhaps prevented a British entry? His death leaves us only with conjectures. Thus, Rudra Singha was a multifaceted personality, an able king who excelled at diplomacy, politics and warfare. At the same time, he patronised art and religion, and gave a great fillip to art and architecture during his reign. Assam achieved great heights in the realm of art, architecture, civil works, as well as military prowess during his reign.