Locating Tai-Ahom in Assam:
The Place and People
Certain histories do not require lengthy introductions. For example, a
general history of Europe or a history of the Holocaust would discuss
familiar subjects even if their writers approached the representations of
these subjects in new ways. Thus, a historian addressing these subjects
would not have to inform her or his readers of Europe’s location or
explain to them the identity of the Jewish people. Indeed, most school-
children worldwide learn about these subjects from their textbooks; and
Hollywood, novels, and other media help to keep them alive in peoples’
memories long after their last history lessons have ended. Histories that
can start without a preface are the histories of the known; they are the
dominant stories in the narrative of world history.
But let us not forget that history is present in all communities. Even
powerless and unknown groups have their histories. The story of the Tai-
Ahom is one such little-known story. Thus, one could not start the narra-
tive of Tai-Ahom history without first addressing the context within
which the stories about this community have developed and are produced
today. The physical and cultural spaces of Assam—the arena of the Tai-
Ahom struggle—first must be understood before a narrative of identity
construction can commence.
Assam is a northeastern state in modern India. The origin of the name
Assam is variously interpreted; according to some, it derives from the
Sanskrit word asama, which means ‘‘uneven’’ and ‘‘undulating’’ and refers
to the area’s hilly terrain. According to others, the word Assam comes
from cham, which is a Sanskrit cognate for the verb ‘‘to eat.’’ This second
interpretation is based on the region’s fabled reputation as a land of can-
nibals or a land inhabited by people who ate whatever they found. Thus,
when the first group of Brahmins came to Assam and found that the
people there were not cannibals, they called the area and the people
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