The Tai Phake community of Assam

The Namphake village in Naharkatiya is home to a small population of the Tai Phakes community. Zafri Mudasser Nofil writes about their glorious legacy, customs, festivals and way of life.


Taiphake women

About six kilometres from the upper Assam town of Naharkatiya and 37 kilometres from Dibrugarh town, is the Namphake village in the riverine area of Buridihing, home to a small population of Tai Phakes. About 150 Phakial families of this village are keeping alive their unique identity, customs and traditions.

Tai Phake is the branch of the great Tai race that entered Assam in the latter half of the 18th century. The word Phake has been derived from the Tai words ‘Pha’ meaning wall and ‘Ke’ meaning ancient or old. People living near and around the stoned walls in due course came to be known as Kunphake, i.e., people residing near Phake part of the country. In The Tai and the Tai Kingdom, Padmeswar Gogoi writes, “The Tai is a generic name denoting a great branch of the Mongoloid population of Asia. The Tai people are now mainly concentrated in the Indo-Chinese peninsula. The present habitat of the Tai people extends from Assam in the west to Kwangsi and Hainan in the east and from the interior of Yunnan in the north to the southern-most extremity of Thailand (Siam) in the south.


‘Kapan’- welcome dance -2

Wherever they have spread, the Tai people have acquired local appellation. In the four major areas of East Asia namely, Burma, Thailand (Siam), French Indo-China and Yunnan, they are known as the Shan, Siamese, Lao and Pai respectively. There are many instances of the same groups being named differently by different people at different historical periods. But the members of this great race, to whatever local groups they may belong, call themselves Tai.” Edward Gait in his History of Assam writes, “Prior to their immigration into Assam, they were residents on the banks of the Nam Turung or Turung Pani. Coming to Assam, they at first settled under their chief Chow Ta Meng Khuen Meng of the royal line of Mung Kong at a place called Moongkongtat, a little above Ningroo on the Buridihing. Hannay says the Phakials were subjugated by the Ahom officer Chandra Gohain who visited the eastern districts with a small force early in the 19th century. Chandra Gohain brought the Phakials from their original habitat to Jorhat. When the Burmese invaded Assam, they and others of the Shan race were ordered by the Burmese authorities to return to Mogoung. The Phakials went up to Buridihing and settled there.” On their arrival in Assam, they settled in the rich south bank of the Buridihing River, about 2 km from the present Naharkatiya College. The village, in recent years, has been a victim of massive erosion by the river. This year, however, in spite of heavy floods, the village miraculously escaped from the clutches of erosion. There has been no sincere effort on the part of the State Government to initiate measures to check erosion. An embankment was constructed in the early 1980s, but even then, the problem of back flow of water was not solved. The Phakials are scattered in the Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts. Besides Namphake, they are also found in Tipamphake, Borphake, Man Mau, Nam Chai, Man Long, Nang Lai, Ning Gum and Phaneng villages.


Umbrella Dance –‘Kachong’

The Phakials are bilingual. They speak Phakial among themselves and Assamese in other places. All the people are well versed in both the languages. They have their own separate scripts and also have preserved manuscripts, most of them religious scriptures. According to Ganesh C Sarmah’s The Tai Phakes of Assam, “The Phakials have a fine tradition of keeping records of family history. Ho Likboi is such a record in which genealogies of a particular family are recorded. Generally, Ho Likboi is prepared by an elderly man called Pathek who is well versed in all the details about the people. One such Ho Likboi was found in the possession of one Ai Mya Kheng Gohain of the Namphake village. It was written sometime in the year 1790 and read by one Thou Mung Cheng Chon on the occasion of Borsabasa festival held at Nongtao. According to these records, the first person who descended from Mung Phake (Phake principality at Mogoung) was Thou Kyo Khon. The record says that originally, the Phakes resided on the confluence of the three small rivers – Turung, Taram and Silip – under the jurisdiction of the Hokong valley. The person who established Mung Phake was known as Chou Tai Cheo. They had 101 clans, Fan Kun Pak Chu Neng and the boundary of Mung Phake was the Patkai Hills on the north, Nai Langta attached to Borkhamti on the east, Jambubum attached to Mogoung on the south and the Hokong Hame Hills along with the Pungi Punga on the west.”

The Tai Phake people are followers of Buddhism. The Buddhist monastery at Namphake village was established in 1850. The monastery has mosaic and tiled floors. The head priest of the Namphake Buddhist temple is Gyanapal Bhikhu. The affairs of the monastery are run by the monks with active cooperation of the people. The people provide food and clothes to the monks. There is a modern-equipped guest house near the Vihar premises.

The Phakial language has ten vowel phonemes, 15 consonant phonemes, two semi-vowels, a few diphthongs and three consonant clusters. It is a tonal language and retains six prominent tones – rising, falling, high (mid), low, high (falling) and low (mid). It is also monosyllabic. Suffixes are added to retain the monosyllabic quality of the words. The Phakials also have a sound knowledge of Pali. There is a teaching centre in the village, where Pali is taught by one Wannar Sava. He first trained a team of villagers in the language who now assist him in his deliberations. The residents of Namphake village claim to be hundred per cent literate. The village has produced a number of doctors, engineers and lawyers. A primary school was established in the village in 1910. There is a high school nearby.

The houses are changghars. “It is not that we are following any traditions but the changghars are safe as the area is flood-prone,” said Ngen Gohain, a resident. The changghars are constructed in such a way that there is sufficient land for vegetable cultivation and flower gardens. The residents love flowers but the ladies never wear them. They also rear poultry. The people have a knack for vegetarianism. The children after adolescence vow not to kill animals in a ceremony known as Ostomarg. The people eat steamed rice.

The striking factor of the Namphake village is their claim that police have never entered its premises. Any dispute is settled among the people by the monks. The people are also not dependent on modern medicinal facilities. They rely on herbal method of curing. A 90-year-old woman Jingmya Gohain said, “We at fresh vegetables and food and seldom fall ill. In case of some complications, we rely on our traditional ways of healing.”

The Phakials usually marry within the community. But there is no hard and fast rule that they cannot marry outside their community. The society is basically patriarchal – the son inherits his father’s property.

The Tai Phake women wear colourful dresses woven by them. Their outfit consists of an ankle-long skirt (Chin), a blouse open at the front (Nang Wat) and fastened around the armpits and a girdle (Chai Chin) to tighten the skirt around the waist. The female child wears a skirt (Chin) and a blouse. A white turban (Phahu) is worn by the women folk on individual preference. The colours of their dresses are expressive of their ages. The girls wear white sarongs; women stripped red, yellow and green sarongs and old women deep purple and blue sarongs with stripes. The men wear lungis known as phanoot, a kurta, and a folded chadar.

Last month, on the 7th and 8th, the Poy Kanto Sangha celebrations were held in the Namphake village. On the occasion, the president of the Purbanchal Bhikhu Sangha U Gunawantha Mahathera, popular as Moung Lang Bhante inaugurated the ceremony by hoisting the world Buddhist flag. A taziya-like structure known as kalpataru is constructed where people extend their offerings, including money. Most ask for world peace and self-sufficiency. Then in the evening of November 7, the Kathin Chivara festival began. Kathin Chivara is a piece of cloth which has to be hand woven within the night. This cloth is presented at the Buddhist temple in presence of at least six monks. But most importantly, the presentation has to be completed before sunrise. Other festivals include Poiu Chang Ken (the water splashing festival), Buddha Purnima and Poi Nen Chi.

An Australian scholar has started a research project called Tai Languages of Assam. The project undertaken by Stephen Morey of the Department of Linguistics, Monash University, Melbourne involves the recording of stories, songs and history of the Tai people as well as the transcription, translation and analysis of manuscripts, considered important by pundits of the Tai language. In addition, the project will include the production of teaching material and grammatical study of the Tai language. His Tai Phake Primer is the first of the teaching material to be produced in the Tai language.

Though less in number, and in spite of facing an identity crisis, the Tai Phakes are able to maintain their glorious legacy.

By ZAFRI MUDASSER NOFIL
Senior Sub-editor and columnist, The Sentinel, Guwahati
Tel: 91-98640-22978
E-mail: zafrimn@rediffmail.com

Picture source: http://dibrugarh.nic.in/namphakiyal__village.htm