“Where have you reached?”

“Where are you right now?”

“Ask anyone for the bus-stand and get to the bus from there.”

“No, no. It cannot be that the last bus for the day has already departed. Have you asked the people at the bus-stand? Oh okay. Ask for the shared vehicles that ply then…”

We’d just gotten off a bus from Tezpur and were a bit hassled. Amidst which, I was on a call and my friend was looking quizzically at me. You would too. 3000 kilometres away from the state whose official language it is, I was speaking in Marathi to a voice on the other end of the call!

Except that I was speaking to someone in Assam!

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There’s something about bamboo plantations… Something about the way sunlight filters through

 

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If I lay here.. If I just lay here…

A quick rewind

Piran Elavia runs a socially responsible travel enterprise – Kipepeo – that offers an insight into local communities and the local eco-systems of the region. So evidently, Piran’s was one among the many brains I had picked on while planning my northeast India sojourn. It was on his recommendation that I first became aware of the Namphake Buddhist monastery and the community of the Tai Phaks – a branch of the Tai race that is a part of the same Mongoloid pool the royal family of Thailand belongs to as well.

And this was why my friend and I had arrived at Dibrugarh after Tezpur.

Read: How We Got Rerouted To Assam: Part I

namphake, monastery, assam, dibrugarh, buddhist, buddha
Entrance of the Namphake Buddhist Monastery | Dibrugarh, Assam

 

namphake, assam, buddhist, monastery, india, northeast, buddha
Entrance of the Namphake Buddhist Monastery | Dibrugarh, Assam

 

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Inside the Namphake Buddhist Monastery | Dibrugarh, Assam
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In conversation with Oksoan Tumtein | Dibrugarh, Assam

Through Piran, I had gotten in touch with Raviji, the caretaker of the monastery. That someone I was speaking to on the phone in Dibrugarh happened to be Raviji. And although we had spoken about my visit much I advance, the reason I didn’t know who I was speaking to that evening was because we had: (a) never conversed in Marathi and (b) he was calling me from another number!

Incidentally, Raviji is from Maharashtra and has a very interesting story. He worked as a junior clerk with the forest department for about 16 years before he met a Buddhist monk who he decided to accompany as a disciple. Through that association which lasted for about 29 years, Raviji came to know of Namphake where he has been now for over 12 years!

Conversations

The morning after we had arrived, we accompanied Raviji for a tour of the monastery which was built in 1850 and a walk through the village adjoining it.

During our walk through the village, we were invited to the house of Oksoan Tumtein – a silver haired lady who had recently gotten her son married. The coy couple would sheepishly exchange glances with each other while looking away every time they found either one of us looking their way. Such is the degree of the privacy these communities have been used to for generations that our very presence (let alone the camera) feels like a huge intrusion. But our hosts are polite.

Inside Oksoan Tumtein’s home | Dibrugarh, Assam

 

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Homes built on stilts | Dibrugarh, Assam

Speaking of marriages, over a cup of tea and with Raviji being our mediator and translator, Ms. Tumtein tells us how it is women who officiate the ceremony. In fact, the marriage proposal is brought by the older women of the family and tobacco leaves are exchanged as a symbol of acceptance of the proposal. The concept of a wedding invitation has been redundant as it spreads through the entire village by word of mouth – in other words, nobody is excluded from partaking in the celebration.

We also had a chance to meet with the chief of the village, Ngikya Weingken and from whom we learnt that the word Phake comes from two Tai words: Pha meaning wall and Ke meaning old. It is said that this community used to live beside old stone walls along the banks of a river in houses built on stilts as the area used to be flood prone.

Probing our understanding of the community’s beliefs and practices, we learn from Ngikya how the entire community celebrates every full moon. And this is outside of Karthik Poornima which happens thrice a year during which they assemble for three full days and Buddha Poornima which is celebrated on a grand scale once a year.

What I found rather intriguing and fascinating is how the day of the week and the birth order determine what a child would be named. However, if it is a boy his name begins with the day of the week, whereas if it is a girl, her name ends with the day of the week!

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Lunch preparations underway | Dibrugarh, Assam

tai phak, namphake, assam, dibrugarh
The chief of the village, Ngikya Weingken | Dibrugarh, Assam

The past and the future

We were told that the Tai Phakes have had to be constantly on the move owing to displacement due to climatic conditions or political situations. They have been known to have extended from Yunan Province in China to Hokam Valley in Myanmar via Thailand and to Assam in India over the centuries. It was during a Burmese invasion that the Tai Phakes sought asylum by settling along the banks of Burhidihing – which is the present day Namphake. Their entry into India can be traced back to 1776 (if not earlier) and it is said that their population – of 2000 – has remained almost constant ever since!

Currently, the Tai Phakes are settled in the Dibrugarh and the Tinsukia districts of Assam. The Tais practice Buddhism.

As a spectator from the outside one can barely tell how seamlessly they have integrated themselves within the geography of Assam and yet retained their own culture – which is said to be in its purest essence and had been the catalyst that triggered the curiosity of the royal family of Thailand.
“The princess of Thailand visited us in 2009 after our community and our origins got mentioned by an international magazine. Subsequently, the king made a visit too and this was telecasted live. We’ve seen a surge in the influx of tourists as well as writers and researchers who want to talk about us (and earn a buck or two by doing so).

The thing is, exposure of this kind is a double-edged sword. You know, there is talk about turning this village into a tourist hotspot and what they mean by this is to make it a mini-Thailand. Do you see what that would do to a community that has been able to retain its distinct history and way of living simply because it remained ensconced away from the mainstream world? The same reason that has garnered us all of the attention is going cause the dilution and the downfall of our distinctiveness!” That same evening we’d had a chance run-in that developed into a heartfelt conversation with a gentleman named Aicheng Weingken – who was Ngikya’s uncle and the former village chief.

For a community that hasn’t had a single FIR registered and maintains a zero crime rate till date, opening its doors to the outside world raises many questions; questions to which the community has to collectively arrive at a consensus on.

But how?

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Chatting up with Aicheng Weingken | Dibrugarh, Assam

 

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2 thoughts on “iRediscover | How We Got Rerouted To Assam: Part II”

  1. Thanks you for posting this article on namphake tai phak Assam.I was having no knowledge about this place but now I have some knowledge about this place after reading this article.I will surely visit this place in future.

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