The Tai Phakes of Assam

The Tai Phakes is a lesser known Buddhist population of Assam. With its microscopic existence of less than 2000 souls, they mostly dwell in villages. In a constantly changing world they have tried to keep up, all the while trying to maintain their ways of life, tradition and culture.


“Deep in the forests that of Assam, amidst the dark and dense ecology, still survive people who brave the dangers of wild animals for their food and survival …”

And that is where my fictitious narration will end.

India is home to several tribes and the general opinion when one says “tribe”, tend to be how I narrated. It is understandable, considering there are only few people who get to travel and live the joy of meeting new people and getting to know them. Blame it on a city lifestyle that does not forgive even a moment of slack.

The Tai Phakes is a lesser known Buddhist population of Assam. They profess Buddhism, but also follow pre-Buddhist animistic belief. With its microscopic existence of less than 2000 souls, they mostly dwell in villages. In a constantly changing world they have tried to keep up, all the while trying to maintain their ways of life, tradition and culture. It is difficult because in a struggle to progress economically compromises have to be made. Like trying to keep the traditional ways of agriculture alive when it is easier to take up a non agricultural profession. There are other instances but however, the Tai Phakes have been able to balance this process of life and thus still continue to remain a colourful and a beautiful tribe.

The history of how the Tai Phakes came to stay in Assam could make an engaging Hollywood script. Across a span of hundreds of years, the Tai Phakes migrated from Moung Mao of South China, across Myanmar and then the Patkai hills. They finally entered Assam through the Pang shau pass in 1775 AD and embraced the Brahmaputra valley as their home.

However, in 1816 when the Burmese invaded Assam, there were Tai army officials in the Burmese army who saw the Tai Phakes as their kin. The Tai army officials wanted the Phakes to go to their ancestral home and accordingly the Phakes travelled back with the army officials. On reaching Namchik (in present day Arunachal Pradesh), the monsoons started and the Phakes, with their family and children found it difficult to brave the rough terrain of the Patkai hills range. The army officials advised the Phakes to continue their journey during the dry season and left. But as time passed, the mission of going back to their ancestral home never materialised and when the British took over Assam, they traversed downhill in search of suitable land to stay and accordingly establish several villages.

The Tai Phakes today mostly reside on the banks of the river Buridehing and its myriad tributaries. While Nam Phake and Tipam Phake villages are in the Dibrugarh district, Bor Phake, Mounglang Khamti, Man mo, Long Phake, Nonglai, Ningkam Phake, Phaneng Phake in Tinsukia Districts are also their settlements. A few are scattered in Arunachal Pradesh in India.

The Tai Phakes are happy people, and the oral and written literature of the Tai Phake is a rich reflection of the affectionate, lively character, love for freedom and happy life. There are hundreds of volumes of manuscripts preserved unscientifically in the monastery and at homes, on themes like history, fables, novels, proverbs, folktales, riddles, Jataka tales, religion, astrology, architecture, herbal medicine, and lots more. Many old manuscripts are in need of scientific preservation. They sing traditional songs with words praising the nature and its beauties. Soiyoi, khe khyang (narrative song) are few of them. The Tai Phakes tradtional dance, Kaa cong, kaa paan, kaa kong, kaa won, is performed during festivals.

They dwell in houses traditionally built on wooden poles, with floors and walls of flattened bamboo strips, roofed with Takau leaves. They belief phi (spirit of the ancestors) is a benevolent deity and rests at the main post of the house. Thus ancestors’ blessings are sought for every major event of the house and of the family.

The Tai Phake women are adept in the art of weaving and dyeing. In almost every house there is at least one indigenous loom, and the woman folk produce various textile items with distinctive characteristics cloths of marvellous texture, colour and traditional design in their age old technique. The cloth they produce are mainly meant for their own consumption, with hardly 10% of their products sold because of lack of arranged market.

The woman’s traditional attire consist of pha ho, a head turban of white colour for aged men and women, a blouse cut in front, nangwat – a long colourful cloth or a long white cloth to wrap round the chest under the blouse up to the lower waist, sai sin – girdle round the waist for tightening the sin, sin – a female lower outer garment covering the body from the waist to the ankle by tucking at the waist. For men, the traditional attire is a shirt, pha nung – a chequered cloth. Man and woman use scarves while going for congregational prayer or on some occasion.

Though the Tai Phakes are not restricted to any kind of food, rice is their staple. Most of their food is stir fried and they also prefer boiled vegetables, grilled meat and fish. They also prepared Pa som (sour fish), sour bamboo shoot, dried fish, dried meat, and fish wrapped in banana leaves, all put under fire ashes to be cooked.

Sangken is the most popular festival of the Tai Phakes. Celebrated in the month of April, the Tai Phakes douse each other with water and traditionally bathe Buddha images, to signify cleansing of all evils and impurities of life and a blessed beginning after the festivities are over. Sangken is celebrated as Songkran in other South East Asian countries. Songkran is a new year in the countries like Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, etc., while the Tai Phake celebrate Sangken to signify the victory of good over evil.

The Tai Phakes of Assam is a branch of the great Tai race. Even with its microscopic population, the Tai Phakes still take pride in having been able to retain their culture including language, custom, distinctive multicultural costume, residence style, arts, religion, and identity. But it does not mean that challenges of preservation in future are absent. The future is uncertain and loom large as the world today races to overwhelm and strip everything in its pristine form. Thus the task of taking adequate measure to preserve them in their pristine form has now become imperative. The Tai phakes can successfully serve as a window, through which one can gazed at the Tai pastoral land of China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam since the ancestry of the Tai Phake can be traced back to the Yunnan province of China and the Shan state of Myanmar.

About the author:

Pow Aim Hailowng is from the Tai Phake Community. She completed her LLM, specializing in Human Rights, International Humanitarian and Refugee Law, from Guwahati University.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Seven Sisters Social Project (http://sevensistersproject.org/) is Northeast India's first mobile phone-based citizen media project. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Seven Sisters Social Project (http://sevensistersproject.org/) is Northeast India's first mobile phone-based citizen media project. more

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