The Tai Khamyangs had migrated to Assam from Myanmar around 300 years back and have now become an intricate part of Assamese culture and society. They have been balancing the demands of the modern world with their traditional way of life.
Many people associate the Tai Khamyangs with the popular Tai Ahoms of Assam. However, apart from Ahoms, there are other Tai groups prevailing in this region like the Aiton, Khamti, Khamyang, Turung and Phake. Though the population of these tribes have dwindled over the years, they have managed to hold on to their roots. Among these tribes, the Tai Khamyangs who are presently based in Upper Assam districts like Jorhat, Sivasagar, Golaghat and Tinsukia and in Lohit and Changlang in Arunachal Pradesh were known for being very close to the Ahoms.
The Great Migration
Ajanta Rajkhowa, in her book Khamyang Samaj aru Sanskriti states that they came to India from Burma. ‘The Khamyangs are the first among all the Tais to have advented to India/Assam from Burma. Khamyangs first came to Brahmaputra valley in 1236 AD. But they did not come for permanent settlement at that time. After Chaolung Sukapha’s departure from Mungmao, its king Chaolung Sukanpha (Sukapha’s brother) despatched a group of Khamyangs to find Sukapha’s whereabouts. After crossing the Patkai hills, the Khamyangs entered Assam and had met Sukapha at Abhaypur in 1236 AD. Sukapha, after knowing about their purpose of advent had requested them to settle on the border to maintain cordial relations between the two kingdoms. At Sukapha’s request and with the permission of king Sukanpha, the Khamyangs began to live in the foothills of the Patkai. They, before their actual migration to India in about mid 18th century had been in touch with the Ahom kingdom. Not only did several Khamyang princesses marry Ahom kings, the Khamyang messengers continued to visit Ahom royal court till 1758 AD (reign of Swargadeu Rajeshwar Singha) also.’
After living for five centuries in the Patkai foothills, the Khamyangs had to migrate to Assam around 1758 AD. The reason behind this was the repeated invasions of the Burmese on the Tai kingdoms of upper Burma in mid 18th century. They met the king Gaurinath Singha (1780-1795 AD) and told him about their miseries. After knowing about the problems of his brethren, the Swargadeo or Chowpha gave them the region Dholi near Titabor in 1794 AD and spared them from paying taxes or compulsory labour. Also, one Kangkham Thaomung, a leader among the Khamyangs was appointed ‘Rajkhowa’ (commander of 3000 soldiers) under Ahom govt. This Rajkhowa would turn out to be a saviour of the Assamese people during the Burmese invasions (1817-1821 AD). He saved many people from the wrath of the foreign invaders. Thus, the Khamyangs came closer to the other communities of Assam.
Moving Out of Villages
The Tai Khamyangs are presently one of the smallest ethnic groups in the region with a population of around 7000. With the passage of time, many Tai Khamyangs have moved out of villages and settled permanently in the towns. One such person is Rupam Pratik Shyam Khenglung, a young government servant who has moved out from his village in Titabor, Jorhat and is now permanently based in Guwahati.
Speaking about the demographics of Khamyangs, Khenglung says, ‘Presently, there are around 5000 Khamyangs present in Assam and around 2000 in Arunachal Pradesh. We have one village in Margherita, Tinsukia, five villages in Sivasagar, three in Jorhat and one in Golaghat. Population in most of these villages is very small. In fact, Powai Mukh village in Margherita has the highest population with 550. Many people from these villages have migrated to cities. Those who have stayed back are mainly involved in agriculture.’
The Khamyang language, along with its close relatives, Khamti, Tai Phake, Turung, Tai Aiton and Shan, is classified with the Northwestern subgrouping of the Southwestern Tai languages in the Tai-Kadai language family. Khamyang, however, is not in use among the Khamyangs of Assam except Powai Mukh. The majority speak Tai although many Khamyang terms are still retained in their vocabulary.
Khamyang Tradition and Culture
There are several clans within the Khamyang tribe like Khao Mung, Pangyuk, Khen Lung, Chao Teu Mung, Chao Loo, Chao Song, Lungking, Bailung etc. Interestingly, marriage within clans is prohibited as people have to consider their fellow clan members as brothers or sisters. Two kinds of marriage take place among the Khamyangs known as Pan Lung and Pan O’m. This tribe is free of social evils like dowry and widow remarriage is prevalent among them.
Tai Khamyangs practise Buddhism and most of their villages have a Buddha Vihara. In fact, the Khamyang villages like Balijan Shyamgaon, Betbari Shyamgaon and Na Shyamgaon, all in Jorhat district have preserved pagodas with art and sculptures that echo their distinctive history, culture and traditions.
Among the objets d’art and relics preserved in these villages are a statue of the Buddha, a pair of Burmese chivar (robe), a golden kammawara (a religious book) and a large cane basket that was gifted to the Balijan Buddhist temple as a token of love and friendship by the Burmese general Mingimaha Bandula about 300 years ago. Residents of Balijan and the other two villages play traditional musical instruments like the kong (flute), which is still used in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, China and Vietnam.
Like many other tribes, Khamyangs have their internal justice system. They form a council to maintain law and order in the village which is led by Chao Fur (village chief) and comprise of Chao Cheror and Kang Taka. This council gives their judgement on family feuds, marital problems, quarrel regarding land or property. Instances of bigger crimes like rape or murder is almost nil among the Khamyangs.
The Khamyang Legacy
After having lived in Assam for three centuries, Khamyangs have become an intricate part of this land. They have been able to successfully move ahead with time and have embraced modern culture. However, they have not lost connection with their culture yet. Khenglung informed that earlier this year, there was a get together of the Tungkhang clan at Balijan village in Jorhat. ‘All the Tungkhangs from Assam and Arunachal joined us here. Other clans organize such meets as well. This is a great way to connect to our people.’
Khamyang villages with their distinct culture and unique way of life present great tourism potential. It is about time this is recognized by the government. For not only will this bring revenue to the State coffers but will also let the world know about this great tribe with a rich history.
Words- Nabarun Guha