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Wednesday, Oct 05, 2022

Explained: How ancient megalithic jars connect Assam with Laos and Indonesia

The jars of Assam were first sighted in 1929 by British civil servants James Philip Mills and John Henry Hutton, who recorded their presence in six sites in Dima Hasao: Derebore (now Hojai Dobongling), Kobak, Kartong, Molongpa (now Melangpeuram), Ndunglo and Bolasan (now Nuchubunglo).

The jars have been found in six sites in Assam. (Photo provided by the researchers)

The discovery of a number of megalithic stone jars in Assam’s Dima Hasao district has brought to focus possible links between India’s Northeast and Southeast Asia, dating back to the second millennium BC. According to a study in Asian Archaeology, the jars are a “unique archaeological phenomenon”. It calls for more research to understand the “likely cultural relationship” between Assam and Laos and Indonesia, the only two other sites where similar jars have been found.

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The history

The jars of Assam were first sighted in 1929 by British civil servants James Philip Mills and John Henry Hutton, who recorded their presence in six sites in Dima Hasao: Derebore (now Hojai Dobongling), Kobak, Kartong, Molongpa (now Melangpeuram), Ndunglo and Bolasan (now Nuchubunglo).

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These discoveries were followed up only in 2014, when a collaborative effort by researchers from the North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU) and Nagaland University under the Archaeological Survey of India (Guwahati circle) was undertaken.

“Two sites were discovered in 2016. In 2020, we followed that up and discovered four more sites,” said Dr Tilok Thakuria of the History and Archaeology Department at NEHU in Meghalaya.

The paper, ‘An archaeological survey of the Assam stone jar sites’, has been authored by Thakuria, along with Uttam Bathari of Gauhati University and Nicholas Skopal of the Australian National University. They documented three distinct jar shapes (bulbous top with conical end; biconcial; cylindrical) on spurs, hill slopes and ridge lines. At one site, Nuchubunglo, as many as 546 jars were found. “This is arguably the largest such site in the world,” said Thakuria, adding that most jars they found were in “poor condition” because of factors such as “weather condition, forest growth and burning owing to shifting cultivation and road cutting.”.

The significance

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While the jars are yet to be scientifically dated, the researchers said links could be drawn with the stone jars found in Laos and Indonesia. “There are typological and morphological similarities between the jars found at all three sites,” said Bathari.

Added Thakuria: “There is no reported parallel anywhere else in India, apart from the northeast – this points to the fact that once upon a time a group of people having similar kind of cultural practice occupied the same geography between Laos and Northeast India.”

Dating done at the Laos site suggests that jars were positioned at the sites as early as the late second millennium BC.

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The other takeaway is the link to mortuary practices. The paper stated that in Laos, researchers had said there was a “strong association” between the stone jars and mortuary practices, with human skeletal remains found inside and buried around the jars. In Indonesia, the function of the jars remains unconfirmed, although some scholars suggest a similar mortuary role.

Mills and Hutton, too, had suggested that the jars were associated with mortuary rituals. They referred to the “practices of ancestral bone repository of tribes like Mikir, Sakchips, Hangkals, Kuki, Khasi and Synteng and evidence of cremated bone fragments placed in one of the jars”, stated the paper. In the 1930s, anthropologist Ursula Graham Bower described these as “funerary urns”.

Thakuria said the next phase would involve systematic excavation of material remains as well as scientific dating. The researchers suggested additional surveys are required across Assam, as well as in Meghalaya and Manipur, “to understand the extent of this culture”.

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First published on: 12-04-2022 at 04:00:01 am
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