A promising background, a reverberating atmosphere, beautiful damsels with equally magnificent bouquets in their hands and a great mission – this is definitely one of the most beautiful memories etched on the canvas of my mind forever. During my visit to Namphake, I had to first get to Naharkatia, a small town in the district of Tinsukia, which is closest to the village. After spending the night in a moderately decent accommodation in Naharkatia, I was more than anxious to reach the village. After approximately an hour’s drive, my car took the forked road from the highway towards the village where I was welcomed by a cement gate inscribed ‘Namphake Village’.
After driving further and further past the rather un-impressive gate, I saw the reason why I came here; large, looming fields rich with produce, small platform houses, people marching towards their daily activities and a magnificent monastery in the backdrop – it looked like a perfect science project where you try to portray the yesteryears in this contemporary world. In fact, it almost felt as it must have fifty decades ago – pure, pristine and preserved.
Migrating from a widespread province Yunnan in China in 1228 AD, the Taiphakes have, in their quest for a proper and suitable dwelling place, wandered for 75 years from one bank to another of the river Buridihing. Travelling through Burma, Arunachal and other parts of Assam, a section of the Taiphake people finally established a village on the bank of the river in 1850 A.D. The name ‘Nam phake’ itself has many legends attached to it. The Tai people inhabiting the vicinity of this area, called the old wall of the mountain ‘pha-ke’. Thus, in other words ‘phake’ referred to the Tai people who inhabited the side of the old mountain. Similarly, ‘nam’ meant water and so when the people of ‘tai phake’ settled on the bank of the river Buridihing, they called the village ‘Nam phake’.
As I moved around the village, I noticed that all the houses were situated near the river, and hence accustomed to their past. Magnificently, the Buridihing River (from which the village has derived its very name), has been an everlasting companion of these people since their nomadic days. Even today, if you enter the village platform houses, you can still hear the poignant sagas of the Taiphakes and their history. I was thrilled about experiencing all of this first-hand, and without losing any time at all, moved towards the monastery.
Established in 1850, I could see that the monastery held a very strong position not only in the village but also in the hearts of the people. Since time immemorial and according to the treatise, The Taiphakes (during their entire history of dissemination) have always been followers of Buddhism. The monastery has been playing a very major role in helping the people keep their culture and traditions alive. I was lucky to have a very modest monk of the monastery as my local guide, who showed me around the must-see spots of the monastery. Just as we spoke, old and young women were coming towards the monastery with traditional baskets in their hand. On enquiring, I was told that all the villagers offered food to the monastery in the early morning, just before they started off their day. A casual duty otherwise, this activity had already become a ritual for the villagers of Namphake and till date, the villagers have never failed to offer food to the monastery. Where else can we find such commitment towards a duty? As I watched the women folk walk in with the baskets with utmost dedication, I had an inkling that I was going to love the day ahead.
Tour of the Village
On touring the village, I also realised that most of the village people go off to the fields after their morning prayers, as the Taiphake community is basically an agrarian society. The ones that stayed at home were busy with household activities; this was definitely a hardworking and determined clan. Sure enough, as every society metamorphoses with the changing times, the people of Namphake have also started adopting modern amenities to make their lives more comfortable and better but without losing their identity. Though many modern gadgets exist in every house, the way of living is not mechanical. One very strong example of this was the kitchen. With the kind consent of one of the women in the village, I had a peek at her kitchen which was as traditional as the food cooked there. I was even luckier to be invited for a lunch of sticky, steamed rice and a simple vegetable preparation, which perfectly satiated my taste buds.
The Change at Sundown
As the afternoon slipped by, I saw that all the disciples and monks of the monastery were engrossed in reading. These were the Holy Scriptures written in the Tai language. If you are interested, you can also take a peek at the little library of Tai language at the monastery. Moreover, elderly persons of the village also write improvised versions of the treatise in the Tai language called ‘lik-puti’ and donate them on religious occasions. They do this because they believe it to be one of the greatest deeds in their lives. I instantly understood their secret ingredient of preserving their culture so well.
Nearing sundown, the scenario in the village was changing. Young girls with beautiful bouquets in their hands were coming into the monastery to offer their evening prayers. It was indeed a very beautiful way to keep the young generation connected to their roots because this practice had become a custom for them. But today was special; apart from the young girls, the village elders were also flocking to the monastery. I was told that it was purnima, the full-moon day of the month, when the phakes observed asthsila.
Every month on this day, the elderly folks of the village come to the monastery in the evening and offer their prayers. As I sat beside them, I felt a pure and divine emotion take over me. The sight of flowers and candles conjoined was so stunning that I wished I could have captured this moment for eternity.
I watched the people adhere to the ritual and take their oaths to follow the eight paths of knowledge strictly for the next twelve hours. I deeply understood the meaning of commitment. I believed that even though these people would renounce their oath officially the next morning, they would always respect it for their entire life. As the ceremony ended, the people offered all the flowers and offerings to the river as a mark of tribute to it. I too, threw my flowers into the river, but for me, the ritual had just started – the ritual of commitment and dedication. By the time I left the village, it had induced the art of living in me (despite many tribulations), just as the small village was doing. This is the magic of Namphake!
Travelling is all about food for the taste buds and feast for the eyes, but some journeys can definitely be food for the soul. At Namphake, you get just that!
Shila Sinha is a documentary filmmaker and freelance writer, based in Guwahati
This article was first published in Eclectic (October 2009) issue