Located on the banks of Burhi Dihing River, about 60 km from Dibrugarh town in Assam, is a small discrete community residing in a village called Namphake. What makes this community stand out is that they are a direct descendants of the great Tai race, believed to have migrated from the Shan Kingdom Mong Mao (Muang Mao), of Myanmar in the 18th century.
The Tai race 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 Northeast 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 recognized as the Lao community in countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
The origin of the Tai Phakes in Assam, is that of a nomadic journey undertaken centuries ago that terminated in the lush greens of this Northeast state. First residing on the banks of the Nam Turung or Turung Pani, the Tai people later settled in the rich south bank of the Burhi Dihing River, which came to be known as Namphake. The word Phake is a combination of two Tai words. One is ‘Pha’ which means ‘wall’ and the other is ‘ke’ which means ‘ancient’ or ‘wall’. 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, near Dibrugarh.
Phakial people, as they are known in Assam, are also established in other villages like Borphake, Tipamphake etc in upper Assam but the majority is found in Namphake area. The phakials have beautifully maintained their age-old Tai traditions while at the same time assimilating with the local Assamese culture. It is amazing to see how they have managed to confluence the two cultures together yet maintain distinctness in their own cultural practice and daily ways of life. A good example of this is their bilingualism. They speak in Tai language with each other while using Assamese to converse with people from outside.
The Phakials are Buddhists by religion. Thus, there is a Buddhist monastery in the village which also is a major tourist attraction. Apart from the monastery, there is a Buddhist Pagoda in the village and Ashoka pillar nearby. Inside the monastery, there is a distinctive water tank known as ‘Mucalinda’ tank. It has a meditating Buddha statue guarded by a snake. The head priest in this monastery is called Gyanpaal who resides there with his disciples. Inside the main temple house, there is a golden statue of Buddha, which is 6 feet tall. Another Buddha statue is found in resting position. The villagers help generously in running the monastery.
When their ancestors migrated to Assam way back in the 18th century, they brought along lots of valuable religious scriptures. Some of these are still stored in the monastery. It has a few books with pages in pure gold. There are other ancient books made of palm leaves and clothes too.
The Tai Phakes wear their traditional dresses. The women wear colourful dresses woven by them. Their outfit consists of an ankle-long skirt; a blouse open at the front and fastened around the armpits with a girdle; to tighten the skirt around the waist. The colours of their dresses are expressive of their ages. Men wear short ‘kurtaas’ and ‘fanut’, which are dark colored lungis. A white chaddar with a plain border (Fa Fek Mai) and white long sleeved shirt are worn by the elderly people when they go to any distant places.
They live in houses made on wooden polls. The walls and floors are made of flattened bamboo strips while the house roofs are made of Takau leaves. These houses help them stay safe during the floods. For living, they mostly resort to agriculture. They are mostly vegetarians and after the kids enter adolescence they vow not to slaughter animals in a ceremony named Ostomarg.
The Tai Phakes refrain from using modern medications. Instead, they rely on traditional herbal medicines. They marry within the community mostly but cross cultural marriage is not prohibited. The Namphake village thus poses a unique opportunity to bring people from the Southeast nations and Northeast India, rooted in the similar cultural heritage, together.
Based on this connection, an initiative was undertaken by the Thai ministry of foreign affairs in 2009, when a 23-member Royal Thai delegation headed by Kiattikhun Chartprasert, deputy permanent secretary in the ministry of foreign affairs, brought Royal Kathina robes and other gifts sent by Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej for the monks of Namphake Buddhist monastery. The robes were handed over to the chief priest of the Namphake Buddhist temple Gyanpal Mahathera. Such initiatives form goodwill gestures between the two countries and help strengthened bonds.
It is thus a great opportunity to bank on; by creating a cultural tourism experience, interesting pathways will open up in various avenues which will enrich the ties between the Southeast Asian nations and Northeast India. Efforts need to be made to highlight Namphake village and turn it into a major tourist attraction. The village, owing to a serene location also forms a picturesque destination. The government and tourism departments in the state need to explore this hotbed of an opportunity.
(The article was earlier published here.)
(The story was edited after a flag from our reader Anjan Nag mentioning about the correct distance between Namphake village and Dibrugarh.)