Me-Dam-Me-Phi: In Reverence to the Ancestors(The Sentinel,31/01/2006)

The Ahoms who originally came from Mung Maolung of South China as back as in 1228 AD are no exception. While their compatriots and kins in South China, particularly in the present Dehong-Dai-Chingphow prefectory of South China, are called Dai or Bai, the people who came with Prince Chao Lung Siu-ka-pha in 1228 AD and settled in Assam are known as Tai Ahoms — the main branches of Tai Long (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 it is said that all the Tai (Thai)-speaking people have had the custom of worshipping the ancestors as gods in their own way. For example, Dong (Kam) people of Hunan Guizhon provinces and Guangxi autonomous region have the practice of ancestor worship in their own way. 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 where his ancestors live. Many 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.

The Tai-Ahoms believe that after death, a person remains in the state of \\"Dam\\" and only after the relatives of the person offers the worship to the gods and goddesses, the dead becomes a ‘Phi’ or god.

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 seven heavens and lives with his relatives.

It is believed by them that if the close kins or the society as a whole observes the ritual of ancestor-worship (Me-Dam-Me-Phi), the dead ones, particularly the parents and grand parents who stay in heaven, come down to the earth to bless their sons and daughters, grand children and others after the ceremony — Me-Dam-Me-Phi. Like the Tai Ahoms, the red Tais of Vietnam believe that the heaven is stratified and divided into several provinces and each clan has its own village or town. In the capital of the heaven, Po’ Then-Kham, the lord of the heaven remains with other gods and goddesses. Under each god or goddess remains the ‘Phi’ or the souls.

There is a very similar belief among the Karbis: that after death of a person, he could come back to his home as \\"Thi-Reng-Bhang-Reng\\" (half dead, half alive) but he was not to be disturbed by the people in the household; but when one daughter-in-law, not knowing the truth of the visit of such an ethereal existence, got frightened and raised hue and cry, the Thi-Reng-Bhang-Reng stopped coming to the earth in the ethereal form, and they are now not seen even when they come.

One of the important customs among the Ahoms is that the dead body is not burnt but kept in a box. This is called ‘‘Maidam’’. This custom is also prevalent among the other Thai people like the Tho of north Vietnam. They keep the burial places neat and clean and offer prayers and observe rituals before the burial grounds. They hold rituals of worship of the dead after 49 days and 100 days.

It is said in the Ahom history that when the princes Khun-lung and Khun-Lai were sent down from the heaven where the reigning deity Lengdon ruled, Goddess Yasing-pha gave them this advice: ‘Lord Lengdon, your grand father is sending you down to the earth from the heaven to rule the earth... when in the month of Phin-ha, the sacred flower ‘chinkara’ will blossom, then you select a day in that month to propritiate Lord Lengdon and other gods and goddesses and make offerings of sacrifices 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 became the dictum of Lord Lengdon to the king of the Tais and the Tai people who \\"went back home\\" as Tais were heavenly-born people and they were sent down from heaven prior to the advent of the heavenly princes to the earth by the golden ladder.

It is also written in history that Chaolung 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 palace. After his death, Chaolung Siu-ka-pha was buried in Charaideo and Me-Dam-Me-Phi was observed by his son who became the King after him. As all the kings and queens of the Tai Ahoms got buried in this sacred place, Chardideo became the Jerusalem of the East for all the Tai-speaking people and the designs and techniques of the Maidams have become the object of attraction and the subject of research for all inquisitive and knowledge-loving people.

There are historical references of yearly observance of Me-Dam-Me-Phi by all the Ahom kings from Siu-Ka-Pha before Swargadeo Jaydwaj Singha. Only during the reign of Jaydwaj Singha, the ritual was not observed. When Jaydwaj Singha 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 Joydwaj Singha, his younger brother Chakradwaj Singha could realize why the mighty Ahom King was defeated by the Mughals. He thought that 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 Sui-ka-pha who first introduced Me-Dam-Me-Phi festival in this part of the country. He did it more than once. It was also a fact that Siu-ka-pha observed Me-Dam-Me-Phi after crossing Nam-Kiu (Irawaddy) on way to this country. After crossing Doi-Kao-Rong, he again celebrated this festival on the bank of Buridihing at Namrup (Namruk) 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 governance. After this festival, he once again worshipped his forefathers at Langtewkat at the lower side of Charaideo. After this also, Siu-ka-pha observed this ritual at Charaideo establishing his capital there to seek the blessings of his forefathers and gods.

By the end of the thirteenth century almost all the Tai people got converted to Buddhism (of the lesser vehicle). But even after the conversion, the Tai people did not give up the practice. Khamti, Khameyang, Phake and Aitons offer flowers and rice to seek the blessings of their forefathers. Similarly, Lao, Shan, Thai of Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Lu and Dais of South China observe the ritual even after becoming Buddhist.

The Thais, who profess traditional religion and have remained non-Buddhist like Taidam, Taikhao, Nang, Nung of North Vietnam, also observe the ritual by offering meat and other eatables to the dead.

The other Ahom kings also celebrated Me-Dam-Me-Phi with pomp and grandeur as an annual festival. Dihingia Raja, Pratap Singha, Gadadhar Singha and Pramatta Singha also celebrated this festival. The tradition and belief in Me-Dam-Me-Phi gets resounded in the words of Chakradwaj Singha: \\"My brother Sill-tamla (Joydwaj Singha) did not get the blessings of Pha-nuru and other gods 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 glory.

There are three types of Me-Dam-Me-Phi: public festival (for the King, country and people); domestic festival(with five raised bamboo platforms for gods i.e. Maihang); and again a type of domestic festival (with three Maihangs). The gods and goddesses propitiated are: Khao Kham on the floor; Ai-Leng-Din, Lengdom, Lang Kuri and Jan Chai Hung on a raised platform; and Chit-Lam-Cham, Mut-Kum-Tai-Kum and Yachingpha, all normally. The holy book of the Ahoms, Pak-Pen-Kaka, is put on the on the place of worship.

In the traditional Ahom families, Dam-Puja is celebrated every year. The ancestors of the family are worshipped with great reverence.There is a household Dam-post or Phi-lang post in the kitchen of such families. Of course, without propitiation of the gods Lang-Kuri (the fifth guru), Janchaihong, Lareng and Lengdon, Dam-Puja of the family in the first month of Lakni-era (i.e Aghon) is not held. In this Dinching month of Lakni, three previous generations of the dead are worshipped. The concept of having a post for the worship of gods is not unusual in traditional societies. Among the hill Lalungs (Tiwa) such a post is kept in the kitchen and offerings are given there.

Among the Ahoms, this sacred post in the kitchen is not only the sign of their traditional religion but it also signifies the importance of worship of the gods and goddesses as well as that of the forefather. The offerings are always the best eatables as well as rice beer which is brewed with lot of reverence for the gods and for the forefathers. To summarize, Me-Dam-Me-Phi is a very significant festival now with an universal appeal to all sections of people and it is celebrated for the welfare of the people and the society. ( Published on the occassion of Me-Dam-Me-Phi)