The Tai Khamti, (Khamti: တဲး ၵံးတီႈ, Assamese: খাম্পতি) or simply Khamti as they are also known, are a Tai ethnic group native to the Hkamti Long, Mogaung and Myitkyina regions of Kachin State as well as Hkamti District of Sagaing Division of Myanmar. In India, they are generally found in Namsai district and Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh.
The Tai Khamtis who inhabit the region around the Tengapani basin were descendants of migrants who came during the century from the Hkamti long region, the mountainous valley of the Irrawaddy.
The Tai-Khamti are followers of Theravada Buddhism. The Tai-Khamti have their own script for their language, known as ‘Lik Tai‘, which originated from the Shan (Tai) script of Myanmar. Their mother tongue is known as Khamti language. It is a Tai language, closely related to Thai and Lao.
The Khamti, who are a part of the great Shan race, migrated to Assam only in the second half of the 18th century. This happened when Alomphra, King of Burma, caused the final dismemberment of the Shan Empire of Pong. The Shans (Tai) are believed to have originally their home to the west of China. Samlonpha, brother and commander of the army of the thirteenth king of Pong, Sukempha (777 A.D) is said to have led his military expeditions as far as the Brahmaputra valley in Assam. As E.T. Dalton points out (Descriptive Ethynology of Bengal, Calcutta 1872, P. 6),
Whatever may have been the original seat of these people, they migrated to Assam, within the last hundred years, from the country known to us as Bor-Khamti near the sources of the Irrawady, which was visited by Wilcox in 1826, and according to their own annals they had occupied that country for many centuries.
It was partly owing to dissensions among themselves that horde of Shan immigrants began to pour into Assam in the same period. The first batch of the Khamti which left Bar-Khamti or Mung-Khamti-lang or Manche in Upper Burma made their first settlement on the Tengapani or Te’ng river south of Sadiya with the sanction of the ruling Ahom authorities. But during the reign of Gaurinathasimha (1780-90) they pushed to Sadiya, and ousted the Ahom Sadiyakhowa Gohain, the Warden of the Marches there, and their chief soon arrogated to himself the title and office of Sadiyakhowa Gohain (1794). The Khamti were so sturdy and powerful that the Ahoms and, later, the British acknowledged the Khamti Gohain.
In May 1835, there was a fresh immigration of 230 Moonglary Khamtis (Alexander Mackenzie, North-Eastern Frontier of Bengal, Calcutta, 1834). As the Sadiya-khowa Gohain was deprived of his office, the Khamtis rebelled in 1839 against the British and succeeded in surprising the British garrison at Sadiya and killing Col. Adam White, in command there. They were, however, eventually defeated and scattered about the country, and in the following year, many Khamtis returned to Bar-Khamti. Those who stayed on were divided into four parties and settled in different parts of the then Lakhimpur district – Chunpora, Saikhowaght, Dhemaji, and Dikrang – Narayanpur. In 1850 a fresh group of Khamtis numbering 300 to 400 persons came from Burma and settled in this State. The Khamti were returned as 2,883 souls in the 1881 census and as 3,040 in 1891 (Report on the census of India. 1891, Shillong 1892, part II, p.183).
The Khamti villages in the Lohit Frontiers District are situated at about the area where the first batches of immigrants settled. The Dikrang–Narayanpur Khamtis came to the present site in 1843 when after the 1839 rebellion, 500 people were parceled out by the British in a steam-ship down the Brahmaputra. The boat took them as far as the place Kalabari, where these deported people stayed for some days and then finally settled on the river Dikrang in the Narayanpur area, spreading out into as many as seven villages.
Khamti (Khaam) is a Southwestern Tai language spoken in Myanmar and India by the Khampti people. It is a Daic language, specifically Kadai, Kam-Tai, Tai, Southwestern, Northwest branch. The language seems to have originated around Mogoung in Upper Myanmar. It is closely related to the Thai and Lao languages. The name “Khampti” means “place of gold” (Khamp: gold; ti: place).
Three dialects of Khamti are known:
- North Burma Khamti,
- Assam Khamti, and
- Sinkaling Khamti.
Speakers of Khamti are bilingual, largely in Assamese and Burmese.
The Tai Khamtis have their own writing system called ‘Lik-Tai‘, which closely resembles the Northern Shan script of Myanmar with some of the letters taking divergent shapes. Their script is evidently derived from the Lik Tho Ngok script since hundreds of years ago. There are 35 letters including 17 consonants and 14 vowels. The script is traditionally taught in monasteries on subjects like Tripitaka, Jataka tales, code of conduct, doctrines, and philosophy, history, law codes, astrology, and palmistry, etc. The first printed book was published in 1960. In 1992 it was edited by the Tai Literature Committee, Chongkham. In 2003 it was again modified with tone marking by scholars of Northern Myanmar and Arunachal Pradesh.
The Khampti are one of only a few Tai-speaking people groups found within India’s borders. Their language is related to Shan, but after centuries of geographical separation, Khamti has developed its own characteristics. They have their own script, called Lik-Tai, which resembles the script used by the Mon in southern Myanmar.
Due to the almost complete lack of ethnographic material available in Myanmar, most of what is known about the Khamti comes from India. One researcher there found that ‘though the Khamti are Buddhists, they eat a variety of fish. They consume the meat of fowls, pigs, goats, bears, deer, and tigers. Beef is a taboo.‘ Khampti society is hierarchical, with the village chief at the top, followed by the Buddhist monks, the common people, and the former slaves at the bottom.
A Mann or village is laid out without any systematic plan, but houses are constructed according to a specific pattern. Each village, as well as each house, is demarcated by a boundary, the village has fairly good roads. A drainage system exists in most of the villages to carry off rainwater. There is always a Chong or monastery in every Khampti village.
The Tai-Khamti society adopts three different types of marriage systems. All three marriage systems are different from each other based on nature and character. Nevertheless, they have adopted them and amalgamated them into their culture making it more natural. The three marriage systems are: Arranged marriage, through service (Khoun-Khoi) and marriage by elopement (Pai Pein Huean). The tai khamti society regards arranged marriage as the most systematic and thus, it is the popularly supported system. It is because, in this system, the wisdom and experience of the elders are involved. Here, the parents and elders of the families decide about the pros and cons of the arrangement in favour of both the girl and the boy.
The marriage ceremony of the Khamptis is called “Lap Thop Magla”. When a Khampti couple gets married, ‘a mediator accompanies the groom’s relatives (barring his parents) to the bride’s house in a procession. The groom’s party offers a basket of dried fish and rice beer to the bride’s parents. When the entertainment is over the mediator negotiates with the bride’s father, whereupon he hands over his daughter to the groom’s party. On its way back with the bride, the groom’s party is stopped by the boys and girls of the village demanding a price for the bride.
Like other tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, the Khamptis are also patriarchal in nature. Hence, all the final decision of the house is taken by the male guardian. But in many cases without any male, the female counterpart and other family members are taken into consideration. Two types of family systems exist among the Khamptis. A small or nuclear family, which consists of father, mother, and their unmarried sons and daughters. The other is a joint family, consisting of grandparents and grandchildren staying under the same roof. In the Khampti community, a family generally consists of Pho or husband, Mey or wife (wives), and lon lakha or children. The family system is patriarchal and normally the Khamptis live in a joint family. But, if there is any misunderstanding among the family members, the families break up and the married son establishes a separate household.
The Khampti village is a well-defined political and administrative unit, though the Khamptis have the institution of Chieftain-ship at the tribe level, it was not hereditary. At the village level, the village headman is called ‘Chow maan‘. The Khampti Chief is called ‘Chow Pha‘ or ‘Chow Fa Kon Moong‘.
Political institutions of the Khampti
The traditional political institution of the Khampti comprises the Chow Pha (chief), the Chow Maan (headman), and the council of elders. The traditional political institutions are centered around the chief, to whom all legal authority was attached. Village-based polities formed the traditional political systems of the Khampti of Arunachal Pradesh. The maan (village) formed the basis of administration. The chief was the secular head of a village or a cluster of villages. Traditionally, the institution of the Chow pha was the most important institution of the Khampti who believed that all laws were ultimately derived from the chief and his council.
The Chow pha or chief was the highest legal authority and supreme administrative head whose orders and words were law within the boundary of his village. He symbolized the village and was the source of all power and authority. It was around him that the entire administrative machinery of the village revolved. The chief was seen as a benevolent autocrat who worked for the well-being and welfare of his subjects and was viewed as a kind of ‟father figure”.
The traditional political system of the Tai Khampti was chiefly centered around the Chow pha where the politico-legal authority was completely vested in his hands. He ruled the village as a sovereign and independent entity with the help of certain officials who were appointed by the chief himself, which entirely depended on his personal preference and discretion. Nevertheless, he ruled based on traditional and customary laws. Traditionally he was guided by a code of written law called the Thamasat. The rule of the Chow pha was undifferentiated and multi-functional as it combined social, political, and economic functions.
The word Chow pha means king in Khampti; where Chow translates to mean lord, ruler, king, master, or prince and the word Pha when translated into Khampti means sky. Mythologically, they were deemed to have a celestial origin.
The office of the ‘Chow Fa‘ and ‘Chow Maan‘ is hereditary in the clan but not in the family. Every village has a council of elderly people headed by the ‘Chow Maan‘. He takes all the decisions with the consultation of village elders regarding civil and criminal cases. The decision is taken according to the provisions codified in ‘Thama-Sat‘.
The function of the Chow Maan includes the following:
(i). Allotment of land to individual house;
(ii). Allotments of land to a new comer (Konmau) settle in the village area.
(iii). Allotment of land to the government.
(iv). Resolving internal disputes the village.
(v). Organising co-operative activities like digging or repairing, irrigational channel, common fencing etc.
(vi). Imposing fine/punish to the offenders of customary law of the community.
Economy / Agriculture
Agriculture is the main source of earning of the Khamti people. 80 percent of the total population of Khamtis are directly engaged in agriculture. Tea cultivation, sugarcane, etc. are some of the allied activities of agriculture of Tai Khamtis. They also grow various types of crops, mustard and potato, etc
The Khamti are settled, agriculturists. They use a plough (thaie) drawn by a single animal, either an ox or a buffalo (or even an elephant in the olden days). The Khamti raise crops such as paddy rice (khow), mustard/sesame seeds (nga) and potato (man-kala).
They are the earliest people to have used tea in India. But there is no substantial documentation of the history of tea drinking in the Indian subcontinent for the pre-colonial period. One can only speculate that tea leaves were widely used in ancient India since the plant is native to some parts of India. The Singpho tribe and the Khamti tribe, inhabitants of the regions where the Camellia sinensis plant grew native, have been consuming tea since the 12th century. It is also possible that tea may have been used under another name. Frederick R. Dannaway, in the essay “Tea As Soma“, argues that tea was perhaps better known as “Soma” in Indian mythology.
The Khampti’s are strong believers of Theravada Buddhism. They refer to it as Tra Stratow. They build proper prayer rooms in their houses and have a practice of praying two times a day. They pray in the morning and the evening by offering flowers (nam taw yongli) and food (khao tang som).
Almost every Khamti village is adorned by a Buddhist temple (vihara/kyong). Idols of Lord Buddha and pictures from scenes from Jatakas form the interior designs of the temples.
Bhikkhu or a Buddhist monk is a man of great importance in the Tai Khamti society. He delivers to the spiritual needs of the Tai Khampti people.
The Khamti’s were not a Buddhist tribe since their inception. They have their age-old traditional beliefs and practices that they have been following even after the acceptance of Buddhism as their main religion. The secrecy of beauty, unity, and its strength lies in the dual practice of twin faith and beliefs in their religious and cultural lives. But the people give more precedence to Buddhism. So the traditional pre-Buddhist principles are somewhat overshadowed by the Buddhistic principles. The traditional traits and faiths are being uninterruptedly practiced by them but some forms have undergone modification due to the influence of Buddhism.
In connection to traditional beliefs and practices, it has been found that they believe in the action of several spirits or Phi. They are of the idea that spirits/Phi control their lives from birth to death. They also have a strong belief in ghosts (phi). Phi are those souls that remain back on the earth after death and move around to take revenge. It sometimes enters the body of another person to cause harm. They perform certain ceremonies, offer things that the spirits like, and cooked food to appease them.
Sangken — 14th April
Sangken is an important religious festival of the Khamptis and the Singphos. It is observed in the month of April depending upon the direction of the scripture. This marks the beginning of the Tai New Year. On this occasion, the image of Buddha is brought out and washed ceremoniously with great devotion. A small house ‘Kinge‘ is made voluntarily by the villagers and is decorated with leaves, flowers, and buntings. The image is ceremonially brought out to this house Kinge and is kept for two to three days (13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th Day of April), during which water is poured on the image. Men, women, and children sprinkle water (colour and mud might also be used) on each other out of fun to celebrate this festival. `Khaw-Mun‘ or Rice Cakes and sweets are prepared for this festival and guests are entertained with these delicacies. At the end of this celebration, the images are taken back to the monastery.
Poi-Pee-Nau (The New Year) —Nov-Dec
Poi Pee Mau – a New Year festival of the Tai Khamptis – is the celebration of the advent of a new dawn for the community to usher a fresh era of socio-cultural development. Poi Pee Mau Tai Khampti or the Tai Khampti New Year has become the biggest festival amongst the folks of the Tai communities in the world. Thus, the idea to give a chance through such celebration was conceived and brought up by the Tai Khampti Development Society (TKDS) of Namsai to celebrate the New Year day festival in accordance with the ancient Tai calendar. It usually takes place in November or December.
Mai-Kou-sum-Fai — February
In the month of February (Noun Sam), the Khamtis celebrate the festival of Mai-Kou-sum-Fai, which is socio-religious. This festival is observed with great solemnity paying homage to the last years of Buddha’s life. It is said that during the days of illness when he was 80 yrs old, the Licchawi people of Vaishali had looked after him by offering him pap food (Khau Yaku-mixture of rice, sesame seeds, yam, leafy vegetables, nuts, and condiments). The main ingredient in this dish is the sesame seed. However, this season is celebrated to mark the end of the winter season and the beginning of the summer season.
The Khamtis celebrate this festival with great joy and enthusiasm. A triangular-shaped structure is erected about 20-30 feet in height with bamboo posts and dry wood. Three bamboo poles are erected at a distance of about three feet from one another forming a triangular shape. It is an occasion of joy and merrymaking for the youths who are engaged in collecting and drying the firewoods and bamboos. Before the construction of the Meiko, the place is cleaned and holy water is split over the ground by the Vante of the respective village. The day before they dig the ground to erect the pillars they pray to Phe-Nam (spirit residing beneath the ground) to move from the place as they would dig it.
The night before the Meiko the village youths gather near and guard it. A grand feast is also arranged on the site for all the villagers especially the youths. As a part of merrymaking, other village youths also come and enjoy the feast. The Meiko is arranged all over with lights and candles.
The next morning the Vante arrives and recites mangala suta. The village youths beat Drums and cymbals and one among them take fire in his hand and climbs the ladder and light the Meiko at the apex. The villagers gather there and offer Khoi to the fire in the name of Buddha and pray for their well-being and prosperity.
Khau-Waa — Jul-Aug
Nau-Waa / Khau-Waa is observed on a full moon day of July-August, during the beginning of the rainy season. According to their religious belief, the barshabrat dates back to the time of Lord Buddha, who, it is said, instructed his disciples to go on meditation for three months in a year. The monks pray before the Buddha and cannot go out of the village for three months. Villagers too are prohibited from any type of pleasure pursuits like drinking etc. On this festival day, villagers visit the ‘thong‘ or monastery with an offering of fruits, candles, flowers, food, and prayers. The monk recites from scriptures and reminds the right path shown by Buddha. The people take an oath to observe Pancha Shila for three months.
Chale-Satang — Sept-Nov
(Nuen Sipight 10th Month of the Khampti) Chale-Satang too falls on a full moon day of September – October/November. This Satang is also known as Madhu-Purnima in Pali. On this day villagers offer alms of food, fruits to monks. The very festival is to feed the people, who have no food. They believe that the virtues which make the donor happy in this life and hereafter.
Poileng (Chariot Festival)
One of the important religious festivals among the Buddhist people is chariot festival. It is known as `Poileng‘ among the Khamptis and Singphos of Arunachal Pradesh. This festival is related to mortuary rites of the monk. They belief that, this festival is originates from the death of Lord Buddha.
The traditional Khamti dress of men is a full-sleeved cotton shirt (siu pachai) and multi-coloured sarong (phanoi). The women’s dress consists of a long sleeve shirt (siu pasao), a deep-coloured long sarong (sinn) made from cotton or silk, and a coloured silk scarf (phamai). Married women wear in a plain black long wrap-around sarong (sinn) and above that a shorter green wrap-around cloth (langwat).
Their jewelry consists of bright amber earrings, coral, beaded necklaces, and gold ornaments. The Khamti men usually tattoo their bodies.
The Khamti men, traditionally, tie their hair into a large knot, which is supported by a white turban (pha-ho). The Khamti chief wears a coat made of silk. The Khamti women traditionally tie their hair in the ‘skyscraper’ style. The hair is drawn up from the back and the sides in one massive roll, measuring four to five inches in length. This encircled by an embroidered band, the fringed and tasselled ends of which hang down behind.
The Khamtis live in fairly large villages, the houses (Hun) of which are built on platforms several feet above the ground. The Hun are strong timber structures built with raised floors made of bamboo (Maihoo). The houses are reached by means of a ladder (huk-kalai), which is often the notched trunk of a tree. The houses themselves are comfortable, substantially built, with good thatched roofs. Men, women, and children all live together in the same room, but there are partitions for the married people. They use bamboo but not entirely, rather wood is the main material in house construction. The structure is raised on wooden pillars. The floor and walls are made of either wooden planks or bamboo depended mainly on the economic condition of the people. As an ongoing tradition, the Tai houses generally face towards the southern direction.
“A house may be as large as 24m to 30m in length and 5m to 6m in breadth including the roof. The interior is divided into a chamber, private and for reception, and the whole terminates in a raided open balcony, a prolongation of the raised floor beyond the eaves affording a convenient airy space for the family to sit and work or lounge in. The roof of the house comes down so low that externally there is no appearance of a wall. The people of the common order have similar houses, but single instead of double” – E.T. Dalton, 1973.
Generally, the house has two doors – one at the southern side (the main door) and the other at the western side. Each chamber of the house is provided with different names according to their purpose. The floor which is at the front of the house facing the south direction is called by the Tai people as ‘Chan‘.
The dances performed by the men and women on different occasions are broadly classified as ritual, festive, recreational, and pantomimes (Pya pung) dance drama. The dances reflect their social customs, religious beliefs, and their exuberance of life, and a sense of belongingness to the community. Of all the dances, the pantomime has special significance as they depict mythological stories and events and at the same time, serve as a rich source of entertainment. Cockfight dance drama (Kaa-tuo-kai) is so popular that it is staged in every festival. The women also equally take part in different games such as To-Sal-Kho (games of lines), To-Hi mean (pulling over), To-mi-lim (seed play), To-Moong Phai (regional supremacy), and To-Mai (over the Bamboo). Such traditional games are no more played these days.
Instrumental folk music is also very popular among them. Their orchestral music consists of following kinds of musical instruments, i.e. ‘Kong-Pat‘ (a Big Drum carved out from a piece of cylindrical wood. The wood is dressed with cow skin), Tam-mong (a set of gong earlier used as the calling bell for social gathering of the village), Pai-seng (a set of cymbal), Pi-tok (a kind of oboe; made up of small bamboo tube), Ting-trow (a kind of two-stringed fiddle) and Pi-son-sao (a bamboo pipe).
Dance is known as ‘kaa’ and the drama of the dance is known ‘kapung’ which means dance and story. It is the stories which are being depicted by this dance performances.
Ka Poong Tai
The Tai Khamti dance “Ka Poong Tai” is one of the main dramatic art form of the Tai Khamtis. Unlike many forms of traditional Arunachali dance, the Khamti dance is a dance drama, expressively and elegantly reflect the rich culture of the Khamti Buddhist here.
Kaa Kingnara Kingnari (Peacock dance)
It is a prominent art form among the Tai Khamti tribe. This dance is a Buddhistic belief in nature which depict the slow and gracious dance of mythical half human and half peacock that existed in the Himalayas.
Kaa Kong Tou Kai (Cock Fight Dance)
It is performed by two or four people who wear a head gear shaped like the head of the cock, accompanied by the beats of Drum (Kongpat), Cymbals (Paiseng) and a set of Gongs (Mong-Seing). This dance usually shows a fight between two cocks and is inspired by the ancient tradition of entertaining the king with a cock fight.
Kaa-Toe (Deer Dance)
According to the legendary story, deer-dancing in the month of October (Nuen-Sip-Eit) is a celebration of the light festival based on the story of the spirits of the people and animals welcoming the return of Buddha after his preaching and thanks giving to his mother and other spirit in spiritual world. This dance is in fact a Buddhist belief and religious in nature.
Kaa Phi Phai (Demon Dance)
Reflecting their rich cultural heritage, this dance is prominent and performed on important social and religious occasions. Its theme revolves around attainment of enlightenment by Lord Buddha despite attempts of king of evil spirits (Mara), to disturb his deep meditation. It symbolizes the victory of holy over the evil and marks Buddha’s attainment of ‘Nirvana’.
Kaa-Paan Mokya (Flower Dance)
The Khamptis of Arunachal Pradesh practice wet rice cultivation or settled agriculture. They consider rice as their staple food. Their diet also includes a variety of vegetables (Fak), potato (Mann-kla), Meat (Nou), fish (Paa), wild roots (Maan-thou), bamboo shoots (Noo), etc. They are fond of fish and meat and also preserve it by smoking or drying, called Paa-nau. They have a special curry called Paa-saac prepared from raw fish and some leaf juice. Besides all these, they have some festive special delicacies like Khao-pook, Khao-tek, Khao-lam etc. “Khampti women are very good cooks. Their Khao-lam, a kind of rice boiled in a young bamboo tube, Paa-chao, a kind of fish curry, Paa-saa a kind of indigenous sauce, Khao-hai (topalabhat), a kind of steam rice and packed in the leaf of locally available named Tong-ching (Kaupat) are very much tasty” – Gogoi, L. : The Tai Khamptis. Besides, these drying through smoking (Heng) and roasting (Pho) are popular methods of preparation, especially of meat and fish.
Their local drink is called Lao, which is prepared from rice.
- “A sociological study of the social dynamics of a Tai Khampti village” – Namchoom Vijanti (2016) : NEHU
- “History of Khampti” – Dr. Lila Gogoi. (2013)
- “Khamti-British Relations: A Political Study Upto 1947A.D.” – Chow Chandra Mantche (2018) : North Lakhimpur College
- “Changing profile of the Tai Khamptis of Arunachal Pradesh Social economic and cultural aspects” – Chowhai, Rajib (2009) : RGU
- “The Tai Khamtis Pradesh An Ethnographic Study” – Hazarika Ranju Moni (2017) : DU