Tai peoples had been migrating southwards from southern China in large numbers from at least as early as the C7th CE and possibly earlier. Some historians believe that Tais had been migrating into Myanmar (where they are called Shans) for two thousand years and point to the 78 CE revolts in China as cause for large-scale migrations (see e.g. Sai Aung Tun, 2000).
However, it was not until later that the Tais were able to establish their own states. One of the first of these was Yonok, in the Chiang Saen region where the north of Thailand borders the Mekong river and the territory beyond the river. There the Tai prince defeated the local Khom people (probably a mixture of indigenous Lawa and Mon peoples) and established his own principality (Wyatt, 1984, pp.30-1).
The pattern of migration was for a state to be established and people to settle there, occupying the river valley locations suitable for wet-rice farming and displacing any indigenous peoples to less-favourable upland locations. When population increased to place strain on the amount of cultivable land available or, else, when an adventurous noble felt he could establish his own state, then a group of families would be given royal permission to push further onwards until a suitable new location was reached, mostly ignoring any unsuitable intervening locations which might be left to whoever happened to be occupying them. By the time of the large-scale Tai migrations, “… there was no region of [mainland] Southeast Asia which was essentially empty land open to the establishment of new settlements. There was a continual migration and contact in war and peace among the various groups” (Dhida Saraya, 2000, p.8).
As a result of this pattern of migration, Tai moved further away from their previous homelands in the southern regions of the lands claimed by Nanchao (by then under the name of the Kingdom of Hou Li). Further, each new state would have a definite founder around whom tales of heroism and virtue would naturally be attached. Such was the case with Prince Siu-Ka-Pha of the Tai Mao state. Tai Mao was a principality that occupied the area around what is now known as Xishuangbanna or, in Tai, Sip Song Pan Na (twelve thousand rice fields). It existed for hundreds of years and was only finally destroyed by large armies of Chinese soldiers in 1604.
Siu-ka-pha began his march westward with his people in 1215. It was a long journey:
“… passing through several muangs, staying some time at each place, and then crossed the Irrawaddy River near Wing Men, maybe today’s Bhamo. From there they marched towards the Hnkawng valley of today’s Kachin State of upper Burma and crossed over the northern part of the Patkai range into northeastern Assam. The Tai Ahom chronicles note that Siu-Ka-Pha had an army of 9,000 men with superior weapons. On their way they came to Mainkwon, the seat of an influential Naga chief. Siu-Ka-Pha conquered the site and continued his march towards Pha-Ke-Che-Ring, the state of the Tai Phake people, an area south of the Kham hill and just west of the Loglai River.
The Phake people, another branch of the Tai Mao, originally came from Muang Mao via Muang Kwan (today’s Maing Kwan) in the Hnkawng valley. Then, they advanced to the Nong Jang lake on the Patkai range. Siu-Ka-Pha declared the lake as his territory of which the eastern limits formed the boundary between the Nara county and his land. From the Nong Jang Patkai pass he moved towards the Ruk River along the bank of the Pong or Bong River. There, they built rafts and the whole party, including three hundred horses, descended to the Dihing River. From the confluence they rowed on the Dihing River southwest through the present Tirap Division and entered the Brahmaputra valley in a region called Tipam.
There he founded the first Tai state in eastern Assam in 1229. Because of seasonal flooding, Siu-Ka-Pha ventured southwards down the Brahmaputra valley for the next twenty years. All the various locations settled at for some years proved unsuitable for cultivation until he reached the area of Sibsagar Division. There, he built his first capital on a permanent basis in 1252” (Schliesinger 2001, p.39).
The Tai Ahom people were not Buddhists and maintained their own, Tai religious beliefs and cultures. While in India, they were confronted with various Hindu and Buddhist practices and in time, inevitably, began to adopt some of these. However, it appears that many of the original Tai practices and rituals continue in something like their original form even now, despite having been renamed according to Hindu usages (Buragohain, 1999). These include belief in the full range of gods and spirits, divination, sacrifices and rites and chanting. Hence, this is an example of Tai-icisation of Indian culture to balance the somewhat earlier Indianisation of Southeast Asia. It is also an example of Sinicisation of the region because the Tai Ahom, like all Tais, had for thousands of years been rubbing up against their Chinese neighbours and over the last few hundred years had been more or less willing members of the Nanchao kingdom, serving in its armies and occasionally being coerced into forming its labour force.
The Tais living to the south of the Hou Li kingdom would not have been so thoroughly Sinicised but it is clear that they had acquired superior military technology because of the way in which they were able to spread throughout the region, defeating all the peoples that stood in their way and probably in smaller numbers than the people they were to displace. Hence it is possible to think of a Tai army at this period as coming close to the concept which is most familiar: a main force of infantry marching in different formations and with various types of orders to follow (as for example described in Quaritch Wales, 1952, pp.152-91) and armed with spears, swords and bows, mostly unarmoured, together with cavalry in a similar style as their Tibeto-Burman neighbours such as the Lolos fielded (i.e. quite small ponies, short spears, swords and some bows) and the elephants of the high and mighty, with a mahout and possibly one or two warriors to protect the more important leaders. Nobles would fight alone with their drivers only for company.
The Tai Ahom kingdom of Assam expanded and developed in culture over the next centuries and perhaps reached a zenith under the rule of King Rudra Singh (1696-1714). It was defeated by the British during the first Anglo-Burmese War and subsequently integrated into India. It is now difficult to distinguish Tai from Indian or Assamese although, as new research continues to show, the Tai culture lives on in various sometimes unexpected ways.
- Dhida Saraya, Becoming Tai: The Historical Basis of the Thai Nation (Bangkok: Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, 2000), second edition.
- Pratashlata Burahgohain, “A Glimpse of Ahom Rituals,” Tai Culture, Vol.IV, No.2 (December 1999), pp.125-36.
- Sai Aung Tun, “The Tai Ethnic Migration and Settlement in Myanmar,” in Yukio Hayashi and Guangyuan Yang, eds., Dynamics of Ethnic Cultures across National Boundaries in Southwestern China and Mainland Southeast Asia: Relations, Societies, and Languages (Ming Muang Printing House: Chiang Mai, 2000), pp.14-34.
- Schliesinger, Joachim, Tai Groups of Thailand: Vol.1: Introduction and Overview (Bangkok: White Lotus Co. Ltd., 2001).
- Wyatt, David K. Thailand: A Short History (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1984).