Author : Prateek Baruah
Assam, a state in North East India, a steaming hot cauldron of numerous races, diverse ethnicities as well as major religions of the world, has not only been able to carry the burden of various incoming cultures but provide all the eventual inhabitants a convivial atmosphere to survive as well as flourish despite occupying a relatively tiny spot in the mammoth geography of our earth. Specifically speaking, over the last few centuries, Assam has served as the converging point for Indo-Aryan, Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman cultures to give birth to today’s very complex and unique Assamese culture.
‘Tai Phake’ is one such community that branched off its original roots outside Assam and silently integrated itself with the Assamese culture. An offshoot of the great Tai race, the Tai Phakes penetrated Assam in the latter half of the 18th century. The Tai race, in turn, forms a major branch of the nomadic Mongolian confederation which now inhabits large areas of the Asian continent. The Tai people have largely expanded themselves to China and Eastern India. They can be found from Assam in the west to as far as Hainan province of China in the south-east and from the Chinese Yunnan province in the north to Thailand towards south. But wherever they go, the Tai people do acquire a different indigenous label for their community. For example in Burma, Thailand and Yunnan province, they are known as the Shan, Siamese and Pai respectively. They are recognised as the Lao community in countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Similarly, the Tai Phakes are called “Phakial” in Assam and Many Assamese historians believe the Phakials to be immediate descendants of the Ahom race that ruled Assam for almost 600 years between 1228–1826 A.D. According to Historian Edward Gait, the Tai Phakes first settled at a place called Moongkongtat near Ningroo(a village in Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh). In the early 19th century, one Ahom commander Chandra Gohain was believed to have brought the Phakials to Jorhat district of Assam. During the Burmese invasion of Assam in the 19th century ( between 1817-1824 A.D ), the Phakials were ordered by the Burmese authorities to return to Mogoung( a township in Kachin state of Myanmar ). But the Phakials went up to river Burhidihing in upper Assam and settled on its south banks. That very place is now known as Namphake village. Geographically, it is about 550 kilometers from Assam’s capital Dispur(Guwahati). Two of the major townships of upper Assam, Nahorkatiya and Dibrugarh are respectively about 5 and 35 kilometers away from this village. One of the notable nearest landmarks is the Nahorkatiya College which is a couple of kilometers from this historic place. The nearest major railway station is the Nahorkatiya station whereas Dibrugarh airport is the nearest for air-travelers.
The word “Phake” associated with this Tai community has a history of its own. “Phake” is a combination of two Tai words. One is ‘Pha’ which means “wall” and the other is ‘Ke’ which denotes “ancient” or “old”. People living near antique stone walls in Myanmar were known as “kunphake” which meant “people living near phake part of the country”. Descendents of those “phake” people are now believed to be living in Namphake village. Phakial people are also established in other villages like Borphake, Tipamphake etc in upper Assam but the majority is found in namphake area.
The namphake village was established in 1850 A.D. With around 600 members, the phakial community in namphake village is small as far as numbers are concerned. But they have maintained their culture and preserved their century old traditions, thereby making a vital contribution to the already diverse and rich Assamese culture. This Tai community worships Lord Buddha. There is a sprawling Buddhist monastery at the heart of this village. This awe-inspiring Tai-Buddhist religious citadel includes several stupendous monuments within its premises. There is a Buddhist Pagoda ( a pyramidal tower with an upward curving roof ) which was built in the late 30’s of the last century. A symbolic Ashoka pillar stands tall amidst all other monuments nearby. Ashoka was a legendary king of the Mauryan Empire in India and contributed immensely in the rapid spread of Buddhism during his reign in the 3rd century B.C. Near the pillar, a stilt house called “Chaitya-Griha” was constructed. It is a double entrance hall for religious offerings with the Buddha stupa or pagoda near its rear entrance. A distinctive water tank known as the “Mucalinda” tank or “Nong Mungchiringta” is worth a view inside the monastery. The water tank has a statue of meditating Buddha at its centre protected by a snake with its hood. There is a myth that, the king of all serpents “Mucalinda” came from beneath the earth to protect lord Buddha from a prodigious rain after he attained enlightenment. The tank’s architecture is a beautiful depiction of that sacred myth.
The head priest in namphake monastery is known as Gyanpaal. The monks and their disciples reside in the monastery premises. The monastery’s main temple houses a majestic 6 feet tall golden statue of Lord Buddha in sitting position. Another statue of Lord Buddha in a resting position also graces the monastery. Beautifully crafted mosaic, tiled and marble floors give this Buddhist shrine a sophisticated yet spiritual ambience. The monastery is basically run by the Buddhist monks and villagers of namphake help them out in every manner including supply of food and traditional attires to the monks.
The phakial people are festival-savvy. In the month of March, the villagers in namphake observe the “Poi-Nen-Chi” festival in which they offer prayers to Lord Buddha in the “Chaitya-Griha”. “Poi-Chang-Ken” or “Poi-Shon-nam” or “Pi-hu” is the trademark event in namphake village which is celebrated every year on “Vishuva Sankranti” ( the day on which the sun transmigrates into the “Mesha” or Aries zodiac sign on its celestial path ). The event usually falls in the month of April and coincides with the Rongali Bihu, a hugely popular festival celebrated on the occasion of Assamese new year. In fact the name “Bihu” is believed to have originated from the Tai word “Pi-Hu’ or ‘Poi-Hu”. The word “chang-ken” in turn is deemed to have its origins in the Sankskrit word “Sankranti”. During this event, the Buddha statues inside the monastery are taken out to a specially designed house called “Shonfraa” and the statues are splashed with water. The water that trickles down from the freshly washed statues is collected in a special utensil called “Mo-nam-metta” and sprinkled over the gathered crowd so that they are protected from the evil. The Buddha purnima festival known as “Poi-Nun-Hok” observed on a sacred full moon night is celebrated to mark the birth of Lord Buddha. The festival date varies year to year, but usually falls in April or May. Another festival with significant religious overtones is the “Pai-Kathin” festival organised in October for distribution of religious clothing/robes of maroon or red colour known as “Kathin” to the Buddhist monks.
The phakial people have several traditional dances of their own. Among them, the dance performed to welcome distinguished visitors is known as “Kapan”. The women folk use colourful umbrellas while tapping to the “Kachong” dance form. Another dance known as “Kakong” is accompanied with typical rhythmic drum beats.
The monosyllabic language spoken by the Phakials belongs to the Siamese-Chinese branch of the Sino-Tibetan linguistic group. The Phakial language consists of 10 vowel phonemes, 15 consonant phonemes, a couple of semi-vowels, 3 consonant clusters and several diphthongs ( a unitary vowel that changes quality during its pronunciation i.e. it glides with a smooth movement of the tongue from one articulation to another ). Phakial language falls in the category of tonal languages, where each syllable has an inherent pitch contour, and thus minimal pairs exist between syllables with the same segmental features but different tones. Phakial language possesses 6 prominent tones – rising, falling, high (mid), high (falling), low (mid) & low. The monosyllabic nature of the phakial language is maintained by using proper suffixes after words. Villagers of Namphake are also well versed with the Pali language in which most of the ancient sacred Buddhist scriptures were written.
While entering Assam in the 18th century, the tai phakes carried some valuable religious scriptures along with them. Some of these books can still be seen in a library inside the monastery. The most valuable scripts that adorn this library are the 200 year old “lik-kham” series of manuscripts. There are five books in this series and each one of them has 12 pages made of pure gold. In Tai language “lik” means book and “kham” means gold. Three of these manuscripts are 18 inches in length and 6 inches in breadth, while the rest two are 14 inches by 6 inches in size. These sacred gold scripts are studied in a special enclosure called the “seemagha” located near the main temple. The scripts are taken out for studying only when younger monks take diksha ( a religious ceremony in which monks take the pledge to follow a life of strict spiritual discipline). The library is a proud custodian of another book called “fung-shen” written on “tulaa paat” or leaves of palm tree. This 60 page book contains picture tales portraying the creation of the living beings in this world. Colours were prepared from tree leaves to draw the pictures in this book. Three unique books, each one almost 20 metres long, written on clothes called “chi-lik” are worth a watch inside this goldmine of history. Two other noteworthy books, which have been translated from its original creation to Tai language, are the 300 year old “lamamaang” ( The Ramayana which revolves around the legendary life saga of Hindu deity Lord Rama ) and “Dharma Puttalam” ( The Mahabharata which climaxes with the epic battle between “the good” epitomised by the 5 brothers known as the “paandava”s, assisted by Hindu God Lord Krishna himself, against “the evil” symbolised by the 100 brothers called the “kaurava”s ). Except some special ones, other manuscripts are generally written on “saanchipaat”( barks of aloe wood, its scientific name is aquilaria agallocha ) , inked with a special composition made from ashes of dry buffalo skin, intestines of rohu fish ( scientific name labeo rohita ) and rusted iron soaked in water. Lack of proper preservation methods has resulted in drastic reduction in the number of these priceless religious books in the library. It had around 2500 books in the year 2006 but currently it houses only around 1000 of them.
The Phakial community takes pride in wearing their traditional garments. Women wear colourful hand woven dresses. An ankle length skirt called “Chin” tightened around the waist by a belt shaped cloth piece called “Chai Chin” and a blouse top called “Nang Wat” fastened under and around the arms are traditional attires for the ladies. Young girls are usually seen in white costumes; middle aged women prefer red and green coloured apparels while older women are fond of purple and blue coloured dresses. A head gear called “phahu” provides a touch of grace to the already unique attires of the women folk. The men generally wear short kurtaas, dark coloured lungis called “fanut” and a very thin blanket sized cloth piece called “chaador”.
Although the phakial society spends an eventful year with all their festivals and religious ceremonies, their main occupation is still agriculture. Over the last 150 years, the fertile south banks of river Burhidihing have been optimally utilised by the Namphake villagers to produce a variety of crops as well as fruits and vegetables. But gradual erosion of land every year by the rampaging flood waters of the river is taking its toll on the helpless villagers. In the last few years, the river has come dangerously close to the monastery itself and an extensive flood may be enough to shake the very existence of this historic religious landmark. Proper erosion control measures by the government authorities to protect Namphake village and monastery from the advancing river is the need of the hour. The village occupied news headlines for a very short period of time in 2009 when princess of Thailand Rajkumari Maha chakri Sirindhorn stepped in to have a glimpse of this reclusive place. Namphake is a virgin territory as far as tourism is concerned and continuous media spot light on this little known Tai-Buddhist village coupled with effective government action will definitely help in its development as a potentially hot tourist destination in this unexplored paradise on earth, we call Assam.