It took little more than an hour from the glitzy airport of Bangkok to fly to the small dusty airport of Raroiah at Jorhat, over the mountains of Yunan, Arakan before swooping down through the high passes of Patkai range. This was exactly the route her ancestors had taken to reach Assam. Nine centuries later, the Thai princess Mahachakri Sirindhorn was on a historic mission, trying to find out her blood brothers and sisters, scattered over this part of India.
Call them Tai Phake, Shan, Siam or Lao, they are all from the same race that used to lord over a vast land from Thailand to the Brahmaputra valley. Today they are scattered in four countries but yet maintaining their distinct ethnic identity. And it was this that brought Magsaysay award winning Thai princess all the way from Bangkok to the remote villages near Naharkatiya.
It was a memorable moment for the state’s Tai Phake people as the Thai princess walked into their village and moved around house to house and often got moved by the striking similarity between her people and these villagers who had no direct touch with the Thai people for over two centuries. When her helicopter landed at the Nam-Phake village off Naharkatiya, the Tai Phake people from Margherita and Arunachal Pradesh were also there to receive her. “This is an exploratory visit for me. I am moved by the similarity of these people with our people. I am impressed how they have been maintaining their identity for so long,” she said pressing the hand of the village headmen Chamthoun Weingken. “I have come here to get a feel of the people who are so much like us and learn more about them. There is nothing official about my visit. I have come here just for an interaction and I am very pleased to find the people here so enthusiastic,” she said as she mingled with the villagers, talking in Tai language.
The princess, a double MA, visited the two schools in the village — the Nam Phake Middle English School and the Tai Phake High School — and handed over books for students and $500 as personal assistance for the upkeep of the schools. “We are really grateful to the princess for her gesture,” said Ngiyot Weingken, the headmaster of the Tai Phake High School.
The Tai Phakes migrated to Assam from Houkong valley in the year 1775. From 1775 to 1850 the Tai Phake people were wandering from one place to another in search of a permanent settlement and at first they settled down in Nongtao. Then they came to Sadiya living with the local Khamti population and Deshoi (near Jorhat).
In 1817 after the first invasion of ‘Maan’ (Burmese of present day Myanmar) they returned to Namchik in Arunachal Pradesh. Around 1826-27, they again came down and settled in Ingthong (now Inthem near Margherita). Some of them came downstream through Burhidehing river and established Nam-Phake and Tipam-Phake villages near Naharkatiya around 1850. Since then they have been living permanently there and their literature, culture and society started flourishing in various aspects.
The Tai Phake population is spread over nine villages of Dibrugarh and Tinisukia districts of Assam and some of them are in Changlang and Lohit districts of Arunachal Pradesh. At present Tai Phake population is around 1,500. They are strict followers of Buddhism and fall under the category of Hinayana sect. In each village they establish a Buddha Bihar where Buddha images made of brass are installed and regular prayers are offered by monks (known as Chow-Moun) and the villagers.
Wherever they have spread, the Tai people have acquired local appellation. In the four major areas of East Asia namely, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos (erstwhile Indo-Chin) and Yunnan province of China, they are known as Shan, Siamese, Lao and Pai respectively. There are many instances of the same group being named differently at different historical periods.
The Thai princess knows all about history. All she wanted to know first hand was how the Tai Phake community has been fighting all odds to keep alive their tradition. It may be an unofficial trip for the Princess, but it is a tourism opportunity Northeast India should seize. As the Princess took part in a short prayer inside the monastery, the Indian officials escorting her were pondering how to turn this centuries-old link to a full fledged relationship between the two great countries.