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INDIA | Saturday, 28 September 2013 | Views [1492]


 Today I had the good fortune to visit a small Tai Phaki Buddhist monastery in Namphake, a small village which has the largest population of Tai Phaki people in the country.  There are only 70 families and about 600 people living here as there are only about 2,000 Tai Phakis left in all India.  Today Tais live in Yunnan Province in China where they are called Pai, in Myanmar they are the Shan and in Thailand as the Siamese.  They are six distinct cultural subsets: Tai Ahom, which are the largest group and which are related to the Ahom culture which came to this region in the 13th C, the Thurum, Khantin, Eton, Kanyan and Phaki, who are also said to have descended from the earlier Ahoms.

The village and subsequent monastery were established in the 1850s having moved to Assam from Myanmar where the people of this culture had lived for about 400 years.  They originated in Thailand and their language is similar to Thai.  When the Princess of Thailand came to the village in 2009, the people were able to communicate with her without any difficulty, and when Thais visit the Ahom monuments in Assam they have free entry as they are viewed as one culture. The people in the village have kept their traditional language, clothing, style of house and general culture alive.  There has never been any crime committed in the village as, according to Horu Bhante, the senior monk who showed us around, they practice the five Buddhist silas (not to lie, not to kill, not to speak ill of others, not to consume intoxicants, and not to be greedy/want that which doesn’t belong to one).

The Theraveda-based monastery and village are on the Burhidihing River, which is a large tributary of the Brahmasutra.  There is a small sandbar island just off the shore by the gate to the monastery on which there is a major festival each January – February, which I believe is for their version of Losar.  The monastery grounds have a modern version of an Asoka pillar, which Horu Bhante helped build, as well as a small pagoda.  The central prayer hall has a 6.5ft tall mixed metal golden Buddha who was donated by a Ph.D. student who did his graduate work on the people of the village.  It was sent from Thailand and is now the centerpiece of a collection of over 200 buddhas, the oldest of which came with the founders of the order from Myanmar.  We also saw a new set of ca. 3-4 ft. high white marble buddhas that had just been shipped from Myanmar and hadn’t yet been unpacked.  Beyond the sculptures, this monastery is most famous for its 5-6,000 ancient text library.  They have scripts on palm leaves where the writing was etched in rather than written upon, and a set of “Golden Books,” books that are written on gold blocks in black ink. Horu Bhante did not know how old these books were, but an unconfirmed internet site suggests that the Gold Books are from the 16th C. (http://enajori.com/namphake-village-a-hidden-citadel-of-tai-buddhist-culture-in-assam-prateek-baruah/)

We also saw some of their “chi-liks,” scripts embroidered on cloth strips. They have a large library at the back of the monastery complex, but it is full and they have whole piles (literally) of books that are thrown into storage unit that are unfortunately being eaten by the mice as they don’t have enough money to construct more bookshelves or have the personnel to organize more space.  During the monsoon season, May – October, only 7-8 monks remain on site; during the rest of the year there are about 50 monks who live at the monastery.  During the monsoons, the majority leave to go on meditation retreats in various places in India, Nepal and SE Asia.  It is a real shame that the books in the storage bin aren’t archived properly.

The monastery and village were interesting, but the best part of the visit was meeting Horu Bhante.  He is a fascinating man.  He grew up in China (possibly a section of old Tibet), but was more interested in Religious Studies than in anything else, so although he did not join a Tibetan monastery did study with a master for awhile before moving to study with a Christian monk, then with other Buddhists in Thailand, Nepal and Myanmar. He wears the crimson robes of the Tibetans, but is Theravedan, that is, if he can be defined by any particular sect.  He speaks almost 20 languages, is very well read, and has an infectious laugh.  He said in all sincerity that he is not a good monk because he isn’t serious enough to be one; he likes people and loves to laugh.  My sense was that he was a younger version of what Tenzin Gyatso, the XIVth Dalai Lama, would have been like if he were, what he espouses to be, a simple monk. Horu Bhante wants to build a meditation center on the shore of the river and has the land, he just lacks the funds for the building and marketing. The site would be open to everyone, not just the villagers and townspeople from neighboring Naharkatia. He wants to build it because “people need to be happy and they can be happy through mediation.” When I asked him about his journey through the different religious institutional perspectives, he said, it is very simple, the Buddha said there are just three things: “Do good, don’t do evil/harm, and keep a pure mind.”  If it really were only that simpleJ





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