Tai Khamti Buddhism and Culture An Observation from a Visit to Khamti Land in Arunachal Pradesh in 2006, by Chulalongkorn University
Tai Khamti Buddhism and Culture An Observation from a Visit to Khamti Land in Arunachal Pradesh in 2006, by Chulalongkorn University
by Mongtai Power1 Khamti Buddhism and Culture An Observation from a Visit to Khamti Land in Arunachal Pradesh in 2006* By Associate Professor Dr. Siraporn Nathalang, Department of Thai and Director of Thai Studies Center Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University Bangkok 10330, Thailand Introduction Shan are Tai speaking peoples, called by Thai people in Thailand as “TaiYai” () opposed to “Tai Noi” () which refers to Thai and Lao people. However, Shan call themselves “Tai” (), “Tai Loung” or “Tai Luang”(). Historically, it is said that Shan kingdom was the oldest Tai kingdom known as Mawk Khao Mao Luang Kingdom (กก) dated around 6th century. Later on, there was another center of Shan power called Saenwi Kingdom (ก ) which covered the land Shan State today. In the 13th century, a certain group of Shan migrated across Khao Pad Kai (Pad Kai Mountain Range-!ก!"#ก) to settle down on the other side of the mountain establishing Ahom Kingdom in the area of Assam, India today. In late 8th to Early 19th century, a large group of Shan, e.g, Tai Khamti (), Tai Ai-Ton (), Tai Pha-Ke (ก) from northern part of Shan State migrated to live in Assam and certain Tai Khamti group migrated to live in certain part of Arunachal Pradesh ($"%!&), India. All of these so-called Tais in various names are Shan people who all share common Shan culture. Today majority of Shan people live in Shan State, Myanmar, but they also live in Dehong Prefecture in Yunnan, People’s republic of China which used to be the land of Muang Mawk Khao Mao Luong (!ก) in the old days, in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, India and also in northern Thailand, particularly in Maehongson province. * Paper presented at the Conference on Shan Buddhism and Culture, held by SOAS Center of Buddhist Studies and The Shan Cultural Association, UK, at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, 8-9 December, 2007
2 In May 2005, there was a conference on Tai Studies at Muang Mao, Dehong, Yunnan. The conference was held in the context of the Pao Po festival which was the occasion that the Chinese government allowed the Shan people in Shan State to cross the border at Muang Mao to meet the Chinese Shan in Dehong and Tai Lue in Sipsongpanna, Yunnan, China. There, we met Chow Na Mein, a Khamti Minister of Education of Arunachal Pradesh who kindly invited us to visit Arunachal Pradesh. This then provided a chance for a group of Chulalongkorn university scholars* to visit Khamti land in Arunachal Pradesh in March 2006. This paper is then inspired by my visit to Lohit District, Arunachal Pradesh, India in March 2006. Hardly anyone in Thailand is familiar with the name “Arunachal Pradesh” and can tell where it is. Very few Thai scholars have ever been to Arunachal Pradesh. Dr. Boonyong Ketthet, the first Thai scholar, went to do his Ph.D fieldwork about Khamti people in Arunachal Pradesh in 1984. And ever since, no or very few Thai scholars have been there again until in March 2006. It was then interestingly to ask and worth exploring to what extent Khamti Shan have maintained their Shanness in the context of Arunachal Pradesh in India. Having inhabited among many other ethnic groups, e.g., Singpho, Monpa, Bengali, how do Khamti people have tried to preserve their Shan identity and through what kind of cultural mechanism, e.g., their language, their folklore, their Buddhist practice, etc.? This paper will provide pictures and field data about Khamti Shan Buddhism and culture collected from observation, participant observation and interview gathered and experienced from my short visit to Lohit District, Arunachal Pradesh, India between 22-29 March 2006. Village Setting To get to Arunachal Pradesh, we flew from Bangkok to Guwahati, the capital city of Assam. In Assam, there are many ethnic groups, e.g. Bengali who are Hinduist; Tai Ahom, Tai Phake, Tai Ai-Ton who are Theravada Buddhist, etc. From Guwahati, we flew to Dibrugarh, a border town between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. It took about three hours by car from Dibrugarh * Professor Dr. Prakong Nimmanahaeminda, Associate Professor Dr. Siraporn Nathalang, Associate Professor Dr. Suchitra Chongstitvatana and Associate Professor Sukanya Sujachaya, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University. The trip was under the care of Minister Chow Na Mein of Arunachal Pradesh with Professor Puspadhar Gogoi from Dibrugarh University, Assam as an honorary guide.
3 to approach the borderland of Arunachal Pradesh entering Lohit district where the Khamti live. Lohit district is situated by Lohit river which flows into Brahmabutra River in Assam. In Lohit district, there are 42 Khamti villages with approximately 28,000 Khamti people. The Khamti live among several other ethnic groups, e.g., Singpho, like Khamti, who are Theravada Buddhist; Monpas, Membas, Tsanglas and Khampas who are Tibetan Buddhist or Mahayana Buddhist; and Mishmis whose beliefs and rituals are indigenous in the worship of nature. We visited about 10 Khamti villages: Namsai ('(), Mo Mong (), Mak Mo (ก), Chong Kham ()(), Saen Sap (*), Kherem (!)!), Umpong (+,"), Wing-go (-ก), and Phanaeng (.). Like any other Shan or Tai villages elsewhere, these Khamti villages, are settled by the small river the water of which is used for rice growing. Each village has a temple which is used as the common ground for community religious and social gathering. Khamti houses are made by bamboo or wood. Rice barn storing rice paddy is located nearby. Textile weaving loom is placed under the house. The living ground is surrounded by bamboo trees, palm trees, coconut trees or mango trees and small vegetables garden. Khamti Buddhist Belief and Tradition A week before we arrived in Arunachal Pradesh was the time of the celebration of Buddha Mahotsava festival in which Arunachal people would worship the relics of the Lord Buddha for their prosperity and happiness. The host of this festival takes turn from one district to another and this year it was held at Chongkham, Lohit district. Accordingly, it can be seen that Buddhist festival is used for promoting Arunachal tourism and for harmonizing all the ethnic groups since everyone will be present in this festival to participate in cultural shows, traditional games and sport, festival food, elephant safari, boat safari, music and seminar. Architecturally, Khamti Buddhist chong (-temple), kong mu (!# 0-chedi containing the Buddha’s relics) has similar style as any other Shan chong and kong mu elsewhere, e.g., in Dehong, Shan State or in Maehongson, Thailand. In Namsai village, at the temple, we observed the presence of the image of Phra Uppakutta sitting in the shrine in the water. The Khamti call Phra Uppakutta as Chao Sang Uk Puk (กก). Also in Um-pong village, there is an Uppakutta shrine situated by the river. It was explained by the Khamti people that Phra Uppakutta is the God of Protection or a protective guardian.
4 The belief in Phra Uppakutta and the cult of worshiping Phra Uppakutta as a protective guardian is widely found in Shan and Burmese popular Buddhism and also in northern Thailand and Laos (Strong 1992). At the Kherem temple in Kherem Village, we met a sala (-ก), one who makes the Buddha image. He showed us the very beautiful, kindly and peacefully looking Buddha image. This indicates the peaceful mind of the Khamti sala who must be a devout Buddhist. And also in this temple, we saw a hang hod ( !-!), the long wooden naga shaped pipe used for pouring water over the monks in the SangKaen ceremony ("/"ก/ก%/Shan New Year ceremony). The celebration of Sangkaen is practiced by both Khamti and Singpho in Lohit district. It is reported that (Obang Tayeng 2006: 31) in the New Year celebration, people would sprinkle clean water over the image of the Buddha to evoke his blessing for protection against evil spirits. People also pour water over hands and feet of the monks and elderly people seeking for their blessing. An interesting Khamti Buddhist tradition that we learned from visiting the Khamti temples is poi lu lik (&'), the tradition of dana dhamma ("))%) in which people offer the lik (&'-a literary script made of palm leaf) to the temples. Whichever temples we visited, we would see tremendous amount of lik placed on top of one another in special shelves. Each lik is the script of certain Buddhist literature. Its first page tells who has such literature written for what purpose and for the benefit of whom. Actually, the tradition of offering Buddhist scripts to the temple is commonly practiced by any Theravada Buddhist Tais whether they are Tai Lue in Sipsongpanna, Tai Khoen in Chiangtung, in Shan State or Thai in northern and northeastern Thailand. What is interesting is the Khamti tradition of selecting certain story for certain purpose to offer the lik to the temple. The selected Buddhist literature based on its content has a correlation with the purpose of the host. For instance, if one is sick and wish for good health, one will offer the story of Sang pha ku (23ก4) to the temple. We asked for the reason and the Khamti explained that because this story has a certain part that a women built a toilet for the temple and it is believed that offering this story to the temple would help heal the sick person. To wish for good health, one would offer the story of Susilakhantha ($ & 50). This was explained that since it has a part when Indra transforms somebody from an old man to a young man. The logic behind this is probably because to be younger indicates better health. Or, if one wants his children to be clever or wishes for wisdom, one would offer the story of Chao Sang Nagasen Pa Maleng (Milindhapanha-)&&*+,) since this story is the dialogue on dhamma issues between Nagasen Monk and King Milindha. If one wants
5 long life, one would offer Su Mahavara (),-). If a women cannot have a baby, she would offer the tripitaka by walking under the elephant Accordingly, what we learn here is the function of Buddhist literature in Khamti Shan social context. It indicates how Khamti Shan use Buddhist literature for worldly purposes. The tradition of poi lu lik can then be seen as the mode of transmission of Buddhist literature. Hence, we can see how Buddhist literature is transmitted through Buddhist ritual. At Phadaeng village, we can see another example of how literature is associated with ritual. The Khamti believe that Phadaeng temple has the oldest Buddhist text called dhamma sangkhani ()"). The Khamti believe that this Buddhist text can be opened to read only on Sangkaen Day. On every Sangkaen, New Year’s day, the text will be opened and changed the woven cloth that is used to tie around this sacred text. It is also believed that anyone who opens this text on other days will bleed. This reflects Khamti Shan folk belief and their pride of possessing and their means of protecting and preserving their over 200 year old Buddhist text that was brought along while migrating from Shan State to Arunachal Pradesh. Overall, we have the impression that Khamti in Arunachal Pradesh are very good Buddhists. Their way of life is closely tied with Buddhist tradition. When we went to any villages, the monk and old people would take us to the temple and showed us the lik they had. At Wing-go Village, the abbot showed us Lik of the Five Buddhas (&',%). At Mo-mong Village, the monk showed us the Lik of Vinaya pitaka (-&"./ก). Old people wear white blouse with proper white cloth over; this white cloth will be placed down when they pay respect to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangkha. However, as it is observed that wherever Buddhism reached, it would be mixed with the indigenous or other religious traditions in the area. Here we also observed the co-existence between Buddhism and Hinduism, e.g., the copresence of the pictures of the Buddha and Goddess Sarasawati in the temple at Um-Pong Village. Goddess Sarasawati is the Goddess of Liberal Arts. In the picture, we then saw Goddess Sarasawati standing on the lik and on the left side is the picture of the Buddha. And also, in one of the villages we visited, there was some kind of pha yantra (0"%), called by Khamti as Ung which is a magic cloth placed on the top part of the door. The pictures on the cloth reflect various figures, e.g. the Buddha and Phra Sivalee representing Buddhism; the two Naga, the frog-man and the gourd symbolizing the indigenous beliefs in Gods of Fertility.
6 Thus, what we experienced in the Khamti land in Lohit district is the dominance of Theravada Buddhism with the co-existence and, probably in certain rituals, the syncretism with animism and Hinduism or any other indigenous beliefs which we can probably call such religious practices, “Khamti Shan Buddhism.” Khamti Chaofa Political System Shan people has a unique political system called “chaofa” (1123). The word is pronounced as chao bha () or sao bha in Shan. According to the myth of Khun Lu Khun Lai, Shan believe that the king or people who are at the head position of the kingdom and also the head of the town level are chaofa, descendants of heaven. Sumitr Pitipatra et al (2002: 43-46) reported that the Khamti in Shan State live on the land called Khamti Luang (,-/4,) in northern Shan State. Khamti Luang is composed of 7 muang (town), e.g., Muang Kong (!ก), Muang Meed (! #), Muang Yang (!), Maung Sua (!!). According to the Khamti myth, these muangs were built by brothers who are chaofa. These brothers were believed to be descendants of Chao Luang Sua Khan Fa (!!67), the Great king of Mawk Khao Mao Luang kingdom. It is also believed that people in the land of Khamti Luang were migrated from Muang Mao and they continued their chaofa political system. And when the Khamti migrated to Arunchal Pradesh and Assam, they divided their territory into towns, each town has chaofa as the head. The position of chaofa is transmitted through their sons. Such is how the chaofa political system has persisted where ever the Shan live. Accordingly, Shan in Shan State, Myanmar, in Dehong Prefecture, Yunnan as well as in Arunachal Pradesh do have their political structure governed by the chaofa system. In Lohit district, there are Chaofa of Um-Pong, Kherem, Mo Mong and Chongkham. When we visited Um-Pong, we were invited to the house of Chaofa. He showed us his hat, sword, and the Lik of Dhammasatra -the symbols of chaofa as ruler. Chaofa at Mo Mong showed us an old lik recording the history of their migration from Shan State to Arunachal Pradesh and the history of the ancestors of the 8 major clans in Arunachal Pradesh. At Chongkham, we met Chao Khamune who is the Chaofa Luang (!67-!67), the King of chaofa, who is the oldest chaofa –85 years old. He has his own temple and kong mu. Thus, it can be seen that although the Khamti migrated to Arunachal Pradesh over 200 years ago, they remain their chaofa political system and do respect the royal blood of their Chaofa. Shan people look up to their chaofa with respect and believe in their chaofa’s royal blood.
7 Khamti Folklore and Folklife Apart from Buddhist literature already mentioned above, Khamti in Arunachal Pradesh do have many myths and folktales. We tried to explore the names of the myths and folktales commonly known among the Khamti and other Tai speaking peoples. For myth, they have creation myth and the story of Khun Lu-Khun Lai, Shan ancestors who climbed the ladder from heaven to settle down on earth together with Shan people. The story of Khun Lu-Khun Lai is also told among Dehong Tai in Yunnan, Tai Phake and Tai Ahom in Assam and Shan in Shan State; wherever the Shan live, they are all descendants of Khun Lu-Khun Lai. Besides, the Khamti also have the myth of Sangkaen to justify the Songkran festival similarly told among other Theravada Buddhist Tais . In Thailand we told the story of Kabilaprom who has seven daughters who have to take turn carrying the father’s head for fear that if the father’s head falls down, it would cause fire. The Khamti version is similarly told since the head of Khun Sang who is the Chief God cannot be fallen down to the ground for the same reason so his four daughters have to take turn carrying their father’s head. For folktales, the Khamti have many stories which can be categorized as folk jataka, e.g., Along Hoi Khao (,'-), Along Khao Hom ('-,)), Along Nu Phuek (,05ก), Along Chang Phuek (05ก), Along Ngo Luang ("-4,), Along Nok Yung (ก). Besides, the Khamti here as well as the Shan elsewhere know well the legend of Upam Samlo () )), the story of the tragic triangle love between one woman and two men ending with the death of all the leading characters. While sitting and talking in the village one day, we began to ask the Khamti about their folksongs. They told us about songs accompanying rituals, such as “Ey Sangkaen” (!8ก) which people sing in the New Year celebration. Also, there are songs singing while weaving new robe for monks in poi kathin. They said that the song is about the wish to finish weaving the robe in one day and night in order to be offered to the monks in Kathin ceremony. We asked about Khamti favorite song that every Khamti would know and sing, they sang a song which touched us deeply. Here is the song: “4,)5 -ก6"ก6"ก6")5 7.9 which can be translated as follows:
8 “Our Muang Tai, Waisali, is beautiful. In our Muang Tai, there are always monks, temples and dhamma, our good muang Tai…..” The song impressively reflects the pride of being in a Buddhist Land. Although the Khamti are far away from their motherland, the Shan State, what is left in their mind is their good memory and their ongoing of Theravada Buddhist practice in their normal daily life. My impression is that, living among other ethnic groups, the Khamti Shan express their identity through their being good Buddhist, as if they want to say, “To be Khamti is to be Buddhist.” Concerning “being Shan,” there was another interesting thing that we learned from the field. One of the Khamti showed us the DVD of Thai television drama dubbed with Shan language. We were told that the popular drama series in Thai televisions are made into DVD dubbed in Shan. These DVD are widely sold in Shan land in Shan State and also cross the border to be sold in Arunachal Pradesh, India. This interestingly indicates the association between being Shan with being Thai. Although this is not quite “pan Tai movement”, but it reflects the identity of Shanness with Thainess through Thai drama exported to Shanland. Thus, whether the Shan are in Myanmar or India, it can be observed that their ethnic consciousness is related to “Tai” or “Thai” rather than with the countries they are inhabited. Concluding Remarks It can now be seen that the Khamti, living far away in the land that not many people would ever be able to go, among many other ethnic groups in Arunachal Pradesh, impressively maintain and preserve their Shan ethnic identity, e.g., being Theravada Buddhist, continuing their chaofa political system, growing rice as any other Tai groups as their main subsistence, speaking Tai languages. It is also fascinating to learn that where ever the Shan live, in Shan State, in Dehong, or in Arunachal Pradesh, they share, to a large extent, Shan culture with their phi-nong Shan. Shan in Thailand today may have already been assimilated to Thai culture. But from what I myself have witnessed, I must say that Khamti Shan in Arunachal Pradesh, since they live in quite a remote area, seem to remain their Shanness as if they were still in northern Shan State where they departed long time ago.
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