The Tai Khamyang Community in Assam: Society, Culture and Religion

in Overview
Published on: 28 November 2019

Chandrica Barua

Chandrica is an independent researcher with an undergraduate degree in Medieval Literatures and Cultures from the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom. She is interested in themes of memory, trauma, gender and sexuality, post-structuralism, and folkloristics. She is currently based in Jorhat, Assam, and aspires to travel the world.

Tai is a large ethnic group consisting of various subgroups currently scattered mainly across parts of Southeast Asia and South Asia (especially, Northeast India) having followed different patterns of migration from their original homeland, believed to be in Yunnan, China. The meaning of the word ‘Tai’ is ‘free’ or ‘independent’ or ‘attachment-less’. Many people connect the present-day Tai to the ancient Yue, and new scholarship has located its origin in the ancient Dian kingdom of Yunnan. Contestations regarding the origin of the race are rife because it is difficult to trace the history of the Tai before the Han dynasty (206 BC– AD 220). However, the history after the Han dynasty is widely accepted, where the roots of the current Tai diaspora lie. 

After the Han period, the Tai moved to various parts of Southeast Asia and South Asia —Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand and India—as Thais, Laos, Shans, Lus and so on. These Tai groups, despite varied forms of migration, have a shared cultural and sociopolitical legacy. Through generational practice of their ancestral culture and social systems, they have been able to preserve their ethnic identities while being assimilated into the adopted homelands. 

Since the traceable history of the Tais, they have been followers of Buddhism. It is very difficult to ascertain their religious/spiritual affiliations before the advent of Buddhism. A local from Na Shyam Gaon informed: ‘We have been Buddhists since the beginning of what we consider history. We cannot be certain of anything before that.’ Another informant conjectured that Tai people had probably been animists originally. 

Tai migration and settlement hinged upon their skills in rice cultivation—armoured with this, they could settle and live sufficiently within themselves in any terrain/space. To this date, many Tai families maintain their personal farmlands and livestock. This is also integral to the sustenance of communal living, which has become a significant marker of their sociocultural identity. Another unique cultural aspect of the Tais, which they take great pride in, is that their social system has conferred equal status to men and women in terms of society, education and economics. 

Tai Khamyangs of Assam
Of the Tai groups, six found their way to Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India during the twelfth century after the first foray by the prince Sukaphaa of Mong-Mao (a Tai state in Yunnan in southern China). These groups were Tai Ahom, Tai Phake, Tai Aiton, Tai Turung, Tai Khamyang and Tai Khamti. 

The Tai Khamyang community (also known as the Khamjangs) is a subgroup of the Mongoloid Tai racial stock, and are today popularly known as Shyams (Shyam is also the surname for a majority of the Tai Khamyangs). One is left to conjecture whether Shyam is a derivative of Shan (the Burmese name for the Khamyangs) or, as one informant of Na Shyam Gaon contended, a derivative of Siam, the old exonym for present-day Thailand. 

In present-day Assam, the Tai Khamyangs are scattered across Na Shyam Gaon, Betbari Shyam Gaon and Balijan Shyam Gaon in Jorhat district (near Titabor on the foot of the Naga Hills); Chalapathar Gaon, Moniting, Bongaon and Disangpani Gaon (one hour from Sivasagar town) and Rahan Shyam Gaon (near Sapekhati, two hours from Sivasagar town) in Sivasagar district; Rajapukhuri Shyam Gaon in Golaghat district; and Powaimukh Shyam Gaon (near Margherita) in Tinsukia district.

There are also a few Shyam villages in Arunachal Pradesh in the Lohit and Sanglang districts, parts of which are also inhabited by the Tai Khamptis, a closely related group to the Khamyangs. For the purpose of work, many Khamyangs also settled in parts of Titabor, Jorhat, Sonari, Dibrugarh, Guwahati and similar town areas. 

Sociocultural and Religious Life

Building of houses
The Khamyangs, like other Mongoloid Tai groups, live in chang ghors (stilt houses) together in a village. Tai groups inhabiting parts of Southeast Asia share this characteristic of living in chang ghor. These south-facing houses have a low chang (stilt) located one feet below the main chang of the house where they spread out rice grains to be dried. In front of the house is a chang bhoraal (granary) used as a storehouse for grinding and husking grains. The women of the house set up their taat-xaal (handloom) below the chang of the house. 

In the earlier days, because of dense forests in Assam, domestic animals were kept to drive away wild animals. Farmyard and gardens were also maintained, as the Khamyangs are Buddhists and flowers are a necessity for prayers and rituals. The Khamyangs place great faith in their family deities, and meditate on them before building a new house. They believe that each house has a phi-hon (house deity). So, after the phi-lam (pole) is set on the ground outside the house, a thread is drawn from a nearby house of the same community and is tied to the phi-lam so as to create a protection against malevolent spirits. As Khamyangs live by their spiritual beliefs in their daily life, when they enter new houses they do so in the presence of family, friends and neighbours, and usually in the evening.

Marriage in Khamyang society
Marriage between people of the same clan is not allowed in Khamyang society. There are three types of marriages in the community—pan-lungpan-on and chaoli. The pang-lung marriage is an expensive affair—kings, ministers, royals and courtiers used to conduct this kind of marriage. This marriage method is no longer functional due to the financial burden it imposes on the people involved. Pan-on is the conventional civil marriage, and the one most commonly held. According to this convention, the bridegroom’s family selects the bride. A village elder is then sent as a matchmaker to the bride’s family to respectfully ask for their approval. With the permission of the bride and the whole family, the bride’s parents send their approval for the suit with the appointed matchmaker. However, if a girl is already betrothed or emotionally attached to someone else, the parents immediately inform the matchmaker of the issue. Once there is approval from both sides, the wedding preparations begin. The wedding takes place at the hall which has the phi-lam, in the presence of people from both families. Previously, there was a tradition of the would-be bridegroom working at the house of the bride’s family for three to four years to prove his worth as a prospective husband. The third kind of marriage, chaoli marriage, is a much more cost effective ritual and came up because not everyone has the means to spend the money required for pan-lung and pan-on. 

There has also been the prevalence of Gandharva marriage since times immemorial. In this type of marriage, the boy elopes with the girl and the boy’s family happily welcomes the couple into their home. This kind of marriage is accorded the same status as a conventional civil marriage. After they return, the two families meet and hold a feast for the extended family members to receive societal validation. 

The Khamyangs do not conduct marriages in the months of Bhadro (August–September), Kaati (October–November), Punh (December–January) and Sout (March–April) as well as the three months of rainy season. And in marriages, as in all sociocultural festivals, they consume and serve strictly non-vegetarian food. 

It is difficult to ascertain the religious affiliations of the Tai race before the advent of Buddhism. Based on the gods that the Tais have continued paying homage to generation after generation—apart from the tenets of Buddhist philosophy—it can be conjectured that they had been followers of the Tao way of life. After the advent of Buddhism, the Tai people penned down and recorded the scriptures and edicts in their Tai language. These manuscripts are still kept preserved in the Buddhist temples of the various Khamyang villages. The priests, who can read the Tai script, and the Buddhist disciples chant the verses in a specific manner recorded in these manuscripts during religious proceedings. 

The Buddhism practised by the Khamyangs in the ancient times was different from the current Theravada (a school of Buddhism) way of life and had similarities with the Mahayana sect. However, as a consequence of historical events such as the invasion of the Shan kingdom and the later invasion of Assam by the Burmese, the Khamyangs were influenced by the Buddhist way of life in Burma, which was Theravada Buddhism, the most ancient form of Buddhism practised today. 

Rituals surrounding birth and death
Whenever there is a birth, the Khamyang people present create a noisy atmosphere so as to instill courage within the newborn to face the struggles of life. An old woman uses a hollow bamboo pole to speak to the infant; she says, ‘Listen to the words of your father, mother, king and guru.’ Then they hold the child close and offer prayers to their god, Lengdon; they say, ‘O creator, if this child truly belongs to us then we accept him/her, if not, please take him back.’ After this, the umbilical cord is cut and the purification ritual begins. This ritual is only conducted by women. Bamboo leaves, dubori (scuth) grass and xun-boruwa (golden-coloured) leaves are mixed with water used to wash silver and gold, and this concoction is kept in a container which is placed at the foot of the ladder to the house. An axe, a stone and soil from unused land is also kept here. The new mother comes out of the house with her child, and steps into the medicinal water. She also makes her child step into it, and then puts the child in contact with the axe and the stone. After this, she returns to the house. Everyone gathered does the same, and then they sit facing east and pray to Lengdon. If the newborn is a boy, he is made to touch a bow and an arrow so that he can later become a skilled soldier. If the child is a girl, she is made to touch weaving tools, so that she becomes a skilled weaver. However, with changing social conditions and the diminished relevance of hunting/war, these rituals are slowly becoming obsolete. 

The Khamyangs have two methods of conducting funerals. Those who die in their old age of natural causes are cremated with honour and respect. Their bodies are carried on a chang held up by two poles. Unmarried people who die are carried on a chang held up by one pole, and buried, without cremation. The funeral rites are completed within seven days. Those who die prematurely or of unnatural causes are not cremated, only buried. The bodies of those who die outside their homes are not brought back into the village. However, in recent times, rituals have become flexible enough to allow the dead bodies to be kept in the highway near the house before being taken to the funeral grounds. 

Community life and festivals 
The Khamyangs share great community spirit and live in harmony. Neighbours help one another in building new houses, farming and other activities if the people concerned are indisposed. In sickness, neighbours are always ready to help in whatever ways they can. All sociocultural and religious festivals are celebrated with the community, as a resident of Chalapathar Shyaam Gaon informed: ‘Having left our ancient homeland as a community, having wandered together for ages, and shared all major upheavals together, community living is very significant for us. There is a deeply emotional bonding among all of us.’ 

Most Khamyang festivals are linked to their religion, Theraveda Buddhism. One of the major festivals of the Khamyangs is the Poi-sangken (the festival of water), also observed by Theraveda Buddhists. The significant point is that all over the world during Poi-sangken, a statue of Buddha is brought down from its pedestal for purification. It starts on the day of Sankranti. According to the Tai calendar (ponjika), which comes from Mandalay every year, the time to bring down the statue from the pedestal and to return it after two days of bathing is fixed. Only after gena (the bathing ritual) do the Khamyangs engage in everyday activities. During the two ritual days, the villagers cannot go away from the village, meat and fish cannot be eaten, the ground cannot be dug, and flowers cannot be plucked as they have to be kept ready for use before the festival starts.

Another festival, Maikung-Sungphai, happens during Magh Purnima (the full moon night of the month Magh, which corresponds to January–February). According to the legend that Khamyangs believe, Buddha announced on Magh Purnima that his impending death would happen in Bohag Purnima (the full moon night of the month Bohag, which corresponds to April–May). This is why the day of Magh Purnima is called Ayux Khyoy din (reduction of lifespan). In remembrance of this, the Khamyangs burn meji (balefire/bonfire) on Magh Purnima. 

Most Khamyang festivals are related to the moon. Buddha was born on Buddha Purnima and he also received enlightenment that day. On Phaguni Purnima (the full moon night of the month of Phagun, which corresponds to February–March), Buddha returned to his kingdom after receiving enlightenment to spread the religion among his people. He relinquished his body on Ahaari Purnima (the full moon night of the month of Ahaar, which corresponds to June–July). 

Women in Khamyang Society
Tai Khamyang society is patriarchal—the father is the considered the head of the family. Children inherit their father’s family name and clan identity. However, despite being a patriarchal society, women are accorded equal status to men in all matters of sociocultural, household and religious significance. Khamyang women are highly skilled and consummate weavers. They use a two-foot broad special handloom, with one end of the thread tied to their waists and the other to a pole, to weave clothes. With this handloom, women weave the clothes men wear, such as pha-lung (which is wrapped around the hips and worn as a skirt), pha-loy (dhoti) and pok-kho (turban), and clothes worn by women, such as chin (a cloth akin to a long skirt), chai-kaap (belt for the waist), long-baat (shorter cloth worn atop the chin), pha-mai (a cloth worn across the bosom), pha-chaet (gamosa, a piece of cloth worn like a scarf), as well as the unisex chyu (a piece of cloth worn both by men and women). Tai Khamyang weavers are especially known for the flower patterns on their woven clothes. Women in Khamyang society are skilled at work, self-reliant, and can move as freely amidst society as men. They are not required to put veils over their heads as many other South Asian women traditionally do. 

The status of women changes according to their social roles. Clothes worn by unmarried women and married women are different—it is possible to identify married women by the clothes worn by them. A maiden usually wears a black dyed chin, a chai-kaap around the waist and a chyu to cover her upper body. However, the daughter-in-law of a family wears specified ornaments, and apart from the maiden clothes, she has to wear a long-bat and drapes a pha-mai over the chest. For social gatherings, the newly wedded brides decorate their hair buns with flowers made of gold or silver, their arms with ornaments called bentaan or ben-kung, their necks with poi-kham or poi-ung, their fingers with lak-chop (rings) and their ears with jangphai-keru (earrings). Older women keep their hair in buns and cover their heads with turbans. 

Buddha’s tenets on equality, nonviolence and harmony rule out untouchability and discrimination of any kind in the society. The women of the house and the matriarchs have as much power and authority as do the patriarch or the men of the house. All major decisions are made with the help of the women of the house. In social gatherings, elder women are accorded the same reverence by the younger generation as the respected men of the society. In the activity of farming, women work equally as men to maintain the finances of the household. This makes the women financially capable. There is no segregation of duties according to gender or age in the aspect of home economics and household work. The delegation of work depends solely on the capability of the individual. In my field visits, I met many women who were equally invested in their farmlands and local enterprises as the men. These women sat down for the interviews with the men of their house and gave their opinions freely, often contradicting the statements of the men. However, as ideal as the social system sounds, when it came to household work, in reality, women do seem to ‘naturally’ take on the normative role of the homemaker.

Migration and Memory 
The Khamyangs have not undergone assimilation to the extent the Ahoms have. Apart from the different political agendas of the groups that led to the different degrees of assimilation, the Khamyangs take pride in the retention of their own culture and traditions. However, with lack of assimilation comes lack of access to better infrastructure and facilities. Dr Yasmin Saikia, Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies and Professor of History at Arizona State University, says:

Memory makes them both connected and disconnected from Assam and the Assamese. On one hand, they see themselves as relatively new ‘settlers’ from another place but, on the other hand, because the majority are agriculturists, they view themselves as deeply connected to the soil, to their village. In no way, the memory of migration impedes their sociopolitical life in Assam. However, one common factor that may be contributing to their sense of distance and alienation from the other communities in Assam is their poverty. Also, the level of literacy in the villages is not high and very few people have exposure to advanced education. This accentuates poverty and contributes to restlessness among the youth. Added to this, the infrastructural development, such as good roads, uninterrupted supply of electricity, public spaces for recreation and other public amenities, badly lacking in these villages. Even a basic community college could be located several miles away and the bad roads make it difficult, particularly for young girls, to access higher education. Almost all these communities, being Buddhist in their religious orientation, are cut off from the mainstream Hindu population. Neither have they forged a relationship with other minority groups like the Christians and the Muslims in their vicinity. They are not able to build networks for empowerment.[1]

Most of the Khamyangs recognise education as their means to achieve greater assimilation and upward social mobility. It was during the middle of the nineteenth century that the Khamyangs first came in contact with modern education, and many went on to work for the British imperial government. Currently, the literacy rate among Khamayngs is 90 per cent. However, despite being literate and competent in government and nongovernmental jobs, the employment rate is low. Apart from educating themselves for assimilation in Assamese society, they have also established Pali schools in association with their Buddhist temples for spiritual and religious instruction so as to safeguard their traditions and legacies. The annual Buddhist and Tai festivals also create opportunities for large-scale gathering of Tai diaspora, and are also a medium of strengthening community spirit and their sense of identity. 

Thus, while the Khamyangs envision a future of better career prospects and greater assimilation, they are also jealous protectors of their own heritage. Migration inevitably leads to assimilation, often creating identity conflict, but in the case of the Khamyangs, their identity has remained intact.

[1] Yasmin Saikia, in conversation with the author.