Assam is a land of bewildering diversity- where people of different castes and creeds live together, creating a unique and colourful mosaic. Assamese culture has been enriched by successive waves of migration, which absorbed into the State’s way of life and thus, created a fascinating and exotic blend.
Assam has been inhabited by the Aryans, Mongoloids and Dravidians, along with people of Indo-Burmese, Indo-Aryan and Indo-Tibetan stock. Assamese culture is an amalgam of diverse cultures and ethnic heritage. Among these various tribes, the vibrant colours of tradition can also be seen among the Tai people of Assam.
Tais are the people of Mongoloid origin from South-East Asia, and at present, most of them are settled on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra Valley, that stretches through Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. They have been grouped as Tai Ahom, Tai Khamyang, Tai Khamti, Tai Phake, Tai Aiton and Tai Turang, respectively.
In order to be acquainted with one such Tai community, I visited Tai Phake settlement in Dibrugarh district (Namphake). The village is located at Naharkatia, which is around 37kilometres from Dibrugarh town. There I met the chief of the village (Chaupha), Aisung Hum, who is assiduously working towards the development of the culture and customs of the Tai Phake community. Hum introduced me to all the members of the Tai phake tribe, which is one of Assam’s aboriginal communities.
Flanked by rows of tall, slanting betel-nut palms, the Tai Phake villages are very picturesque. The Taiphake belongs to the Tai speaking tribal community, who live in Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts of Assam, chiefly along the DihingRiver, as well as in adjacent area of Lohit and Changlang districts, Arunachal Pradesh. The villages in Dibrugarh districts are Namphake and TipamPhake, and those in Tinsukia districts are Bor-Phake (Ingthong), ManmoMukh, Nong Lai, Long Gaon, Nigum, Phaneng and Munglang. The word ‘Phake’ has been derived from the Tai words pha, meaning ‘wall’ and ke, meaning ‘ancient or old’. They were believed to have migrated from the ‘Shan kingdom’ Mong Mo (Muang Mao), Myanmar in the 18th century. On their immigration of Assam, they settled in the south bank of the Burhi- Dihing River, which was later recognised as Namphake.
The phake people are valley-dwellers, and prefer to live near the river banks. They share common customs, traditions, culture, religion and beliefs. Agriculture is their mainstay, and they also rear cattle. Fishing is a major occupation of the Tai Phakes. They have very unique houses, which are popularly known as the Chang Ghar. These houses are built on raised platforms, with bamboo stilts, and have thatched roofs, made of takauleaves. The staircases of the houses are positioned in the north to south or east to south direction from the ground to the balcony.
The Tai Phake people are easily identifiable from their attire and aspect of material culture. A girl of tender age, after attaining puberty, generally wears a white or colourful blouse and a long, checked skirt, reaching to her ankles. A white waist-band is wrapped around the bustline. Mature girls eligible for marriage have to change their waist-bands from white to checked, with yellow and red colours, and they continue to wear the same attire after marriage. They don a white turban as a mark of maturity after their marriage. On the other hand, the male wear a shirt-like woven garment, known as lungi. Most of the lungis are dark-indigo in colour, with both horizontal and vertical stripes of different colours. The Phake women are expert weavers, but with the advent of modernity, some changes in the cultural arena are observed.
Phakes are generally non-vegetarians. Rice is their staple food. They prefer soft and glutinous varieties of rice. The rice is cooked and rapped uniquely with a tora leaf (a star-like leaf), and is popularly known as tupulabhat. With it, they also have meat (pork), chicken, fish, and forest herbs, vegetables, dried delicacies made from bamboo shoots. The mouth-watering flavour of their ethnic food tickled everyone’s taste buds.
Fairs and festivals of Tai Phakes are the colourful commemoration of religious or historical events or celebrations related to the changes of seasons. They reflect the beliefs and aspirations of the people. Every celebration centres on the ritual of prayer, seeking blessings, expressions of goodwill, etc. Poi Sangkenis a major festival of the Tai Phake people. It is celebrated on the last day of Chaitra, usually welcoming the New Year, according to Tai calendar. It is a three day celebration, where they shower water on each other, and thus, wash away their sins. They rinse the Buddha images or statues of the monastery, and offer prayers by lighting candles in the monastery premises. They also celebrate Buddha Purnima, which is a mojor festival of Tai Phakes. By offering prayers at the Buddhist monastery, they celebrate the birth anniversary of Lord Gautama Buddha. Other festivals celebrated by the Tai Phake community are Poi-Nen-chi, Naun-wa, Poi Ok-wa, Poi Mai-ko-chum-fai, Poi Lu-fra, Poi Lu-kyong, etc., among which, Poi Mai-ko-chum-fai is an important festival celebrated on the last day of the Puh month (January), that is at the end of the winter season. This festival is organised on the sandy banks of the river, which is the main attraction of the event. Countless heaps of sand, moulded on triangular shapes, is placed along with a big heap in the middle of the field, and people, irrespective of age and sex, gather at the place with flowers and candles. The monks initiated prayers at the end of the day.
The Tai Phake people are followers of Buddhism. The Buddhist Monastery at the Namphake was established in 1850. The head prist of the monastery is called Bhantai. The affairs of the monastery are run by the monks-with the active cooperation of the people. The people provide food and clothes to the monks. There is also a modern guest house inside the Vihar premises.
The Namphake village has its own administration. Problems, disputes, and even personal matters are settled and resolved by the village court itself.
It was a most rewarding experience to have spent time with Tai Phake community in Dibrugarh district. The community have a fascinating tradition, culture and stimulating lifestyle. The vibrant colours of socio-cultural scenario and the earthy life of the Tai Phake tribe of Assam would remain captured eternally in my head and heart. One should make an effort to visit and spend time with this fantastic community.
But the concerned people of the said community are now in fretfulness of losing their identity over time. Gradually, the population has also been decreasing especially due to the inter community marriages. The Tai phake people also claimed that they are been slightly deprived or isolated by the Assamese community whereas they are also a part of it. Even most of the people of Assam are hardly aware of the existence of this community. The culture of Assam is conventionally a unique fusion, which has been developed over years due to cultural inculcation of diverse ethno-cultural trios. Thus, the Assamese culture is incomplete without the amalgamation of the ethnic heritage which together is a fascinating and exotic recipe of delightful flavour.
Being a concern citizen we should take a lasting and rigid pledge to partake in peaceful as well as fruitful development and evolution of the ethnic tribes of Assam while making earnest efforts to preserve and enrich their traditions and socio-cultural heritage.
(pictures collected by TM Columnist Jurismita Puzari)