Uday Gogoi
Brahmaputra Valley Academy, North Lakhimpur, Assam 

     The Khamtis are the followers of Theravada or Hinayana Buddhism. Theravada literally means the teaching of the Elders or the Ancient Teachings, which is the oldest surviving Buddhist. This school is ultimately derived from the doctrine of analysis which was a continuation of the older Sthavira group at the time of the Third Buddhist Council around 250 B.C.  

      Though the Khamtis brought their Buddhism from Burma, the Khamtis of Lakhimpur district had face a difficulty as they brought no Buddhist Bhikkhus (an ordained male Buddhist monastic; the female is known as Bhikkhuni )with them at the time of their migration. But they carried some Buddhist texts, scriptures, manuscripts and Buddha images. As a result they had to take Vaishnava ordination from the Auniati and
Kamalabari Sattra of Majuli, the biggest River Island of the World by two sons of Bhadiya Gohain family, Maniram Gohain and Sikan Gohain and Namsoom and Lungost family respectively. But as soon as their kinship of Sadiya and in original Bor Khamti country was restored, they went back to their Buddhist faith and till now they preserved their religious identity which permits no social bar, caste system and untouchability like other orthodox religious.

      All Khamti people believe that a true Buddhist must sincerely follow the path of the Lord Buddha. But though the Khamtis are Theravadins, now-a-days some of their rituals are oppose to Buddhism. Because the Khamti people kill and eat animals which are not supported by the Buddhist faith as Buddha Panchasila teaches neither to kill nor to harm others.  

      Regarding the concept of God and Soul the Khamtis are different from original Buddhist faith, because Buddhism denied the existence of God and Soul. There is a theory in Buddhism which is called Anatmavada or the theory of no-soul. But the Khamtis believe Buddha as the God and pray saying him as “Buddha Bhagawan”.  Again they also believe and worship different Gods, Phra, evil spirits or demons, the spirits of the ancestors or phi-nam or phi-dam Which are for them present in trees, rivers, Gardens, houses, crops etc. The Khamti people believe and worships an Earth Goddess which is called “Nang-Vasunduri-Devi” and two supernatural agents – Phi and Leva. 
      The Khamti people believe in the bipolar concepts of papa (sin) and its opposite punya. If a man has a large amount of merit to his credit, his soul (khwan) will go to heaven (muing-phi) and when his merit is exhausted he will be reborn on this Earth. If a man has committed both papa and punya he will first go to hell (ngalai) and stay there till his demerit is totally expiated, then he will go to heaven to enjoy his merit before being reborn. And if his life is wholly sinful, he will be committed to hell or will wander a long
time on earth as a disembodied spirit (pikta or phi).

      From these beliefs it is clear that their concept of salvation is a strictly individualistic pursuit. According to them wisdom or merit is the means of salvation which can be earned through giving (dana), morality (sila), and meditation (favana). They have two alternative conceptions regarding this tried and the attainment of
salvation. According to the first notion which is called “worldly merit” (lokia-kuso), this triad is a ladder leading to salvation. They believe that by giving and morality is a means for improving one’s future rebirths while meditation alone produces the merit necessary for Nirbana.

      The second concept is called “other worldly merit” (lokotala-kuso) according to which this triad is a representing steps on a ladder leading to Nirbana. Because one must be reborn countless times before sufficient merit for Nirbana can be acquired.
     The Khamti people practiced both cremation and burial. Dead bodies of children below 10 years, death by suicide, death during the time of childbirth and death caused by certain diseases are buried without any ceremony. If any person dies on Friday or Saturday, necessary funeral rites are done on the next Sunday afternoon. A purification ceremony is observed on the sixth and seventh day.

      The sacred place of the Khamtis is the Buddha Vihara which is called Kyong or Chang or Bapu-chang is a necessary and important part of every Khamti village. The Vihara is prominent among the houses of every village by its height and structure. Sometimes these are look like Burmese type roofs. Generally these temples are built in eastern part of the villages situated on the bank of local rivers. In Vihara a number of Buddha images of  different shape and size made of marble, bronze, silver brass wood etc. are  placed on a high pedestal which is about 3-4 feet of height from the level of  the floor. In the Buddha Vihara of Borkhamti village of Lakhimpur district there is one big Buddha image which was brought from Burma at the time of their migration. All the images are kept facing to the East as it is believed that Gautama attained enlightenment in this direction. Many religious books and manuscripts written in Pali, Hindi, Sanskrit and Tai languages are preserved inside the Vihara. Out side the Vihara a Kyang-phra, the house for washing the Buddha images during Change-ken festival is constructed.  There is a calm atmosphere in the Vihara and people come to learn religious injunction from the Bhikkhus who are considered by them as their friend, philosopher and guide. It is very satisfying factor that all people irrespective of cast, creed, sex and religion can enter into the Vihara. Vihara are elaborately carved in wood, ivory and bone which are made by the priests and in the internal portion neatness is maintained. For a pious Khamti the first and the last acts of the day consist of devotional hymns performed in front of the small Shrines which are found in every Khamti households.

      Monastery is an important part of every Khamti village. A village monastery consists of a single building inhabitant by its Chief Monks, several other Monks and a small number of postulants and novices. Temples and priests quarters are made of bamboo and are thatched. Within the compound of a monastery may be a small hut inhabitant by a pious lay-man who looks after the needs of the Monks. The office of the Monks is not hereditary. Monastic property cannot be transferred without the permission of the ‘Sangha’.

      Every Khamti society has their Priests (Chau-mun) which are men of great importance. Because to commence any decision must be consult with them. Almost all the rituals related with birth, marriage and death are performed under the guidance of Bhikkhus. Whenever any people go out of their house or want to start a new house or agricultural work, they begin all these by worshipping Buddha through the Bhikkhus. The priests are also the school-masters and all Khamti boys and girls being compelled to attend school in the temples. But now-a-days as soon as formal education has been restored in the villages the children began to go to school to achieve formal education. They are the spiritual administrator, who guides people in different religious festivals. It is responsibility of the followers to provide food to the Bhikkhus, who may also receive
gifts of the barest necessities and accept invitation to meals. As Robison mentioned “in past, in every morning the Bhikkhus hurried  through the village or concerning area preceded by a boy with a little bell  holding a lacquered box in which the Bhikkhus collected the offerings of the  people, presented generally by the women, who stood waiting at their  respective doors with a portion of their ready cooked meal”. But now-adays this is rare. Nevertheless, villagers take the first portion of their ready cooked meal to the Vihara and offer these to Bhikkhus.

      Different festivals are observed by the Khamti people both individual and community level in which their religious believe reflects.

      Followings are the main festivals of the Khamtis –

      Me-Nam-Me-Phi is a ceremony relating to Phis or spirits whish is performed to satisfy the household deity or ancestors. The Khamti people believe that ancestors live in the Chow Lai or the main post of the house and they are prayed and offered with cooked rice, flowers, candle etc. This festival is called by other Tai communities as Me-Dam-MePahi. They hold it regularly on 31st  January of every year. But the difference between the Khamtis and other Tai communities regarding this festival is that  other communities celebrates it with meat of pigs, fish, homemade wine etc. but  the Khamtis with cooked rice, flower etc. But in remote past the Khamtis of Lakhimpur district according to the aged people of that area is was performed till about 1928 A.D. on the bank of the Nong how phi tank situated near the Barkhamti village accompanying with sacrifice of buffalo, pig and drinking of wine and meat. It was happened because there was no Bhikkhus for some times. But later Bhikkhus came from Burma and in his effort   they abandoned this practice and now they celebrate this festival by offering only cooked rice, flower candle etc. without any blood sacrifice at all.

      Paya Puthikham or Poi-nen-Hok means Buddha Purnima is held in the full Moon of the month of May, the day on which Gautama Buddha was born, attained Enlightenment and died. The festival is marked by watering the Bo-Tree in addition to the central ritual.

      This is the festival of ‘The New Year’, which is also known as Pani Bihu. It is held in the month of April of every year for which it is synchronizes with Rangali Bihu of Assam. This religious piety and  boisterous fun mixture festival continues for three to four  days in which  images of Buddha are taken out from the Vihara and the people pour water  over the images and offer prayers to The Lord Buddha, discuss life and work of the Lord by encircle the Monks.

      It is the self purificatory festival for the Monks only. This three month long festival may be observed in any temple.

      In this festival large numbers of firewood are offered to The Lord Buddha and his faithful disciples on a river side by prayers to The Lord Buddha and gifts to the Monks.

      If the people badly suffer by natural calamities, this festival is organized to pray to The Lord Buddha by offering Cheti i.e. temporary sandy cones.

      This festival is conducted to christening the newly converted Monks which is observed once in three or four years.

      This festival is observed to regain the lost Khwan or spirit or soul of the ailed person. Hik or Hong means to bring back and Khwan means spirit, essence of life or soul. So this festival means calling back of the souls. The Khamti people believe that spirit control every aspect of  human life.In this festival some articles like cooking pot, boiled egg, rice, water, bow and arrow etc are offered by reciting some holy prayers.

     Thus we have seen that the Khamtis are a Tai group of Shan origin who migrated to Assam in the 2nd half of the 18th century. They are followers of Theravada Buddhism, brought from Burma. Some time though it has been seen that they observe some extra Buddhist beliefs, they never violate rules to follow the noble eight fold path, panchasila and to attain Arhatship. They live in a very peaceful atmosphere without any violence among themselves and also with others. They observe all their festivals by inviting the people of other villages thereby fostering unity and brotherhood. They still maintain a healthy relationship with the land of their origin – Burma. Different scholars, Buddhist Bhikkhus and the people belonging to the various royal families of Burma and Thailand also come to Assam in different times and communicate their views, which we may
consider a great step towards international brotherhood and unity.

[1]  Gogoi, Lila. 1992. The Tai Khamtis of North-East India.  New Delhi:Omsons Publications.
[2] Sharma Thakur, G.C. 1972. The Plans Tribes of Lakhimpur, Dibrugarh,Sibsagar and Nowgaon. Guwahati: Tribal Research Institution, Govt. of Assam.
[3]  Waddell, L.A. 2000. The Tribes of the Brahmaputra Valley. Logos Press.
[4]  Gogoi, Nitul Kumar. 2006. Continuity and Change Among the Ahom. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company.
[5]  Neog, Maheswar. 2008. Religion of the North-East. Guwahati: Publication Board, Assam.
[6]  Copper, T. T. 1984. Religion of the North-East India, New Delhi: Uppal Publishing House.
[7]  Robison, W. A. 1975. A Descriptive Account of Assam. Guwahati: Bhabani Books .
[8] Sabhapandit, H. & Rajkhowa, A. ed. 2008. Lakhimpur (A Commemorative volume of the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of Lakhimpur Kendriya Rangalee Bihu Sanmilan). North Lakhimpur: Lakhimpur Kendriya Rangalee Bihu Sanmilan.
[9]  Gogoi, T. & Gogoi, B. 2009. Dhemaji (A Souvenior of the 70th Dhemaji Session of the Biennial Conference of Asom Sahitya Sabha). Dhemaji: Assam Sahitya Sabha.  

Deferent person with whom I discussed various issues at different times:

[1]  Dr. Puspadhar Gogoi, Retired Prof. & Prominent Tai Scholar, Dhemaji, Assam, India
[2]  Dr. Anil Saikia, North Lakhimpur, Assam, India
[3]  Chaw Aijep Phukan, North Lakhimpur, Assam, India
[4]  Chaw Ranjit Chaw Sing, North Lakhimpur, Assam, India
[5]  Ms. Mitra Das, Research Officer, The Assam Institute of Research for SC & S T., Guwahati, Assam.