In December 1992, I traveled to Guwahati, in the state of Assam in India.
Just two days before, the historic Baburi mosque at Ayodhya (built by the
first Mughal king, Babur, in A.D. 1526) had been demolished by a group of
Hindu fundamentalists working under the aegis of the Bharatiya Janata
Party, the Shiva Sena, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Their aim was to
reclaim the site of the mosque as the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama.
Since the incident at Ayodhya, politics throughout most of India have
focused on religious identity issues, and tensions between the Hindu ma-
jority and the Muslim and Christian minority groups have increased dra-
matically, resulting in violent clashes and the brutal repression of minority
voices and identity. While watching events unfold after Ayodhya, I real-
ized that identity in India is, as elsewhere, neither stable nor fixed but
rather fluid and changeable; it can be made and unmade in a flash, over
and over again by various agents and agendas. I have also realized that the
construction of identity serves vested interests and is controlled by people
in power. These realizations have motivated me to examine the problem
of identity and to explore the processes of identity construction in India.
Indeed, this volume focuses on the activities and struggles for identity of
an obscure minority community called Tai-Ahom in the northeast Indian
state of Assam.∞
However, during that fateful December of 1992, I had not yet devel-
oped these research interests. I was on my way to my homeland Assam not
to investigate identity but to meet Domboru Deodhai Phukan. In a then
recent article on Assam, the Thai anthropologist Barend Jan Terwiel had
identified the deodhai as the last living Tai-Ahom priest and, as such, a
repository of the ancient rituals and customs of Assam’s Tai-Ahom reli-
gion and culture (Terwiel 1983).≤
Because I am an ‘‘ethnic Assamese,’’ I
was intrigued by Terwiel’s article.≥
Who are the Tai-Ahoms? What is their
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