Dialogue April-June, 2005, Volume 6 No. 4
Buddhism among the Singphos
The Singphos, once considered as one of the most powerful tribes in the Indo-Burmese period, have played an important role in the history and culture of North-East frontier.1 Colonel Hanney2 considers the Singphos to be identical in race with the Kakhyens of Burma, whose chief habitat was on the great eastern branch of the Irrawadi river. As per their oral traditions, regarding migration, we are told that originally a hill people from upper Burma and unable to resist the superior might of the Burmese, the Singphos left their original home, crossed the Patkai ranges of hills on Indo-Burmese border and entered Assam in late 18th Century A.D.3. The Tungkhungia Buranji and the Ahomar Sesh Yugar Buranji refers in certain terms to their migration to Assam sometimes in 1793 AD4. As per their history, the Singphos are said to have first made their appearance on the eastern tip of Assam during the days of the famous Moamaria rebellion during the reign of Ahom king Gaurinatha Singh and came across the Khamptis, whom they successfully outsted from their settlements east of Sadiya and gradually occupied the whole tract of the country watered by the Buri Dihang, the Nao Diihang and the Tengapani rivers5. The Singphos are at present settled in Miao and Bordumsa sub-divisions of district Changlang and Chowkham circle of district Lohit; besides a few Singphos in Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts of Assam. Like their neighbours the Khamptis, and Tikhak Tangsas, the Singphos of Arunachal Pradesh are followers of Theravada school of Buddhism, but side-by-side, some elements of primitive religion can be easily identified among them.
That the Singphos are followers of Theravada Buddhism is known from the writings of British scholars. J.B. Neufville in 1828 mentions about the worship of Gautama among the Singphos, whose temples and priests were found in all their principal villages. He further stated that the Singphos borrowed this concept from the Shans and the Khamptis6. Butler, writing in 1847, confirms the observations of Neufville7. E.T. Dalton in 1872, while mentioning about the religious life of the Singphos observed that there was no regular priesthood amongst them but they used to pay great deference to Pungyes or priests of the Buddhist Shans8. A scrutiny of literature of 19th and early 20th century reveals that the form of Buddhism among the Singphos is not as pure as those of the neighbouring tribe Khamptis. Buddhism, says Verrier Elwin, ‘retains its hold on the Khamptis, but the religion of the Singphos, has been considerably modified by a belief in witchcraft and sorcery and by the importation of local gods into its pantheon’9.
A few oral traditions of the people throw light on their religious life10. As per one tradition, the Singphos vaguely imagine Chau-ci-giya, a Buddhist God as the creator of all things. Another Buddhist deity locally called Chau-Khung-Chang is adapted in their Pantheon. Interestingly, a Singpho legend, refers to one spirit, Sori Mittiya or Ari Mittia, who is said to have destroyed the earth by causing violent rains which washed away all the cinders and ashes and made the earth refreshed and refertilized. In an other legend, the Ari Mittia is described as one who brought everything into being and is identified with the sun. It may be mentioned here that this name Ari Mittia is derived from the Khampti theology, which mentions Ari Mittia as one of the past incarnations of Lord Buddha. Ari Mittia is no other than Arya maitreya – a Bodhisattva of the Buddhist pasntheon11. These oral traditions do signify the in vogue notion of the Singphos regarding Buddhist Pantheon in the past.
Some of the Singphos were Buddhists before they migrated from the Hukang valley to their present land. Late Umbondwee and Unbontang are considered to be the first Singpho Buddhists who migrated to Assam during mid- 18th century A.D. It is told that they carried a wooden Buddha image while coming from Burma and this historical Buddha statue is still kept at Kumsai Buddhist temple at Lekhapani in Assam12. It is generally believed that one Pienduin Chow Siradow, a Burmese Buddhist scholar popularised Buddhism among the Singpho community with missionary zeal13. On 5th July 1882, Siradow left Myanmar and came to the eastern frontier of Assam for propagation of Buddhism among the Khamptis and the Singphos. After arriving at Khuming village (Vijoyanagar in district Changlang), he stayed there for eight days. Then he reached Khagam village, where a Singpho chief Late Kumku Nong embraced Buddhism. Chiradow traveled extensively in all the Singpho villages in Miao area, where he converted many Singphos into Buddhism. He also visited Khangam, Ningru, Mohong village in Lohit and Bordumsa and Bisa villages in Changlang area. In 1890, he proceeded towards Lazum, Tazi, Umbon, Koli and then went to Chowkham, Shengchap, Sunpura, Kharem and Sadiya. In 1892, he constructed two ordination temples, one at Chowkham and another at Borphakey village of Assam. Barphakey temple became the headquarters of Siradow. He popularised the concept of having atleast a monastery in every villages of the area and advised the people to give up their traditional sacrificial rituals, practise non-violence, love, kindness and popularised the teachings of Buddha. He introduced the procedure of Sangkham (ordination of monk) and is credited to have introduced many Buddhist festivals among the Singphos.
Buddhist Monuments of the Singphos
In every Singpho village, one can notice a monastery, which they call ‘thang’ or ‘kyang’14, generally in the eastern part of the village. Most of the older Changs are built of timber and thatched which is attested by Dalton’s writings15 though we do have example of concrete Changs now a days. A full fledged Singpho monastery has a Budhist temple proper (chang), living quarters (kuti) for monks (Bhikkhus), novices and temple boys, stupa (Chedi or Chedi Kangmu), Bodhi tree, boundary stone (Sima or Simaghar), rest houses (Sarap) for upasaka and upasika, a boat like structure (Chongfra or Kyangfra) and so on. In Bordumsa and Miao circle of district Changlang, a number of Singpho monasteries are seen in villages like Gurju, Bordumsa, Wakhet, Nalung, Kiding, Dirakbasti, Mohong, Mogaando, Kherembisa, Balijan, Wakhetna, Dirakpathar, Gidding, Lalung, etc.
One of the oldest monastery of the area is near the village Bordumsa. The Venuban Buddhist monastery is said to have been constructed in 1870 by the villagers as per the bhikkhu of the Vihara16. The monastery has undergone renovation three times since its inception. The structure measuring 35x25x15ft is of single storey and consists of one prayer-cum-meditation hall, two big rooms for preservation of religious texts, besides the monks hostel. About 400 religious texts of Tai script are preserved here. The Buddha idols of stone and bronze, kept on the altar, are said to have been brought from Burma in late 19th century AD. Village Guju, hardly 3 kms from Bordumsa, has preserved two Buddhist monasteries, one of the earlier period and the other one of recent times17. The older chang, constructed sometimes in 1890, consists of a big prayer hall, monk’s Kuti and three rooms for preservation of manuscripts. Known as Buddha Pradipa Vihara, it measures 45x35x18ft and near it, a few votive stupas are found. The other monastery, originally constructed in 1857-58, has undergone renovation in 1892-1893. This monastery consists of a magnificent Buddhist temple of 71ft high where can be noticed a standing Buddha image of 12 feet. A few votive stupas, Kyan-fra and a magnificent gate have been added to the structure, where one would clearly glean the touch of Burmese Buddhist architecture.
The Kherem Bisa Buddha monastery dating back to 1890, measures 40x20x12ft and consists of a prayer hall, Bhikkhu’s kuti and two rooms for preservation of religious literature. Almost all the Buddhist festivals of the Singphos are celebrated in the monastery.18 The village Dirakpather (1984), Lalung (1972), Wakhetna village Dirakpather (1984), Lalung (1972), Wakhetna (1983), Gidding (1983), Balijan (1984) and many others have viharas constructed during the years specified. In fact most of the Singpho monasteries noticed at present are constricted after 1950s, or renovated completely; as most of the older monasteries were built of bamboo and other perishable materials. Monasteries are being constructed now a days in various Singpho areas and the people of the respective localities take care of them.
The Singpho monastery generally has few bhikkhus, sometimes a headmonk, a few novices (samanera) and few ordinary laity (sankapi) without robe. There are certain rules and regulations prescribed for monkhood19. To be a Buddhist monk, first and foremost criteria is to be a male and the candidate must be free from communicable diseases and debts; neither he be illegitimate nor a slave and he must have obtained the consent of his parents. Certain educational qualifications are also required to be ordained into monkhood. He must be at least of twenty years of age before ordination as a novice – the lower ordination (pabbaja), the boy has to live on a chang and this period during which they stay in monastery is known as Kapi or Sangkapi. The lower ordination is necessary before a candidate receives a higher ordination into monkhood. A novice (samanera) must be at least eight years old so that he should remain as samanera until he receives higher ordination and as such, the samanera would have twelve years experience of monastic life before becoming a full fledged monk. The novice has to observe the dasasamnerasila and seventy five sekhiyas. The higher ordination (upasamapada) must take place in a special ordination chamber (simaghar). For this special occasion, monks from surrounding villages are invited to grace the occasion. The candidate listens to the kammavaca chanted by a monk selected for the purpose and after kneeling in front of the monks, the candidate’s head and beard are shaven. Dressed in yellow robe he affirms to various questions addressed to him by the presiding monk and after that the candidate sits before assembled monks and asks them to admit him to the monkhood. Once the candidate is pronounced a monk, a new name is given to him. At the end of the ceremony, the first section of the rule for the Bhikkhus (the four purarika) is read aloud to the new monk, first in Pali and then explained in their Singpho dialect and after each regulation is recited, he promises to follow the monastic rules as contained in Patimokkha, a short treatise which monks are to recite twice a month on Buddhist uposatha days. (Pannarasa and Catuddaso).
The Singpho monks have to follow a daily schedule within their monastery. They are expected to teach the boys who attend the monastery. In fact earlier the Theravada monasteries were the centres of learning and credit goes to the monks that they have made the people literate. The monks used to collect their alms food before 6 AM. W. Robinson, while mentioning about the Khamptis writes: “Their priests every morning hurry through the village or town, preceded by a boy with little bell, each priest holding a lacquered box, in which he collects the offerings of the people. Presented generally by the women who stand waiting at their respective doors with a portion of their cooked meal”20 It seems that the Singphos were also following the same practices for providing alms and food to the monks.
The monks play an important role in uniting the people of the village. During wedding, a funeral, a personal or a collective crisis, a Buddhist initiation ceremony or in sermon sessions, monks have interaction with villagers. The monks not only administer the spiritual needs of the people but also guide the people in religious festivities. The monks are expected to have some knowledge of herbal medicines for helping the sick persons. They act as a school teacher. The lay folk remains wholly dependant on the Bhikkhus for almost all activities in life and beyond. The role of monk is indispensable for invoking the rain god, controlling epidemics by sacrificing service, for averting calamity, increasing the fertility of soil, obtaining higher crop yield etc. the Singpho monks organize both Buddhist as well as non-Buddhist indigenous festivals like the Shapawong Yawang manua poi, which is held on 14th February every year. The monastery plays a cementing role between the Buddhist Singphos and those who do not follow Buddhist creed. Infact, the monastery and the monks are playing a role in bringing religious and cultural unification among the Singphos.
The Singphos, like other Theravada Buddhist tribes of the state, observe a number of religious festivals and ceremonies tied to the lunar calendar of Buddhism. These festivals are Sangken, Poi puthikam, Nawa, Nawa sang Kathinkg Poi, and Maiko chincphai21. According to the Singpho tradition, Sangken is a new year festival celebrated with religious piety and boisterous fun. It is celebrated in the fifth month of the Buddhist calendar, which falls in April. In this festival, otherwise known as water festival, the image of Lord Buddha is brought out and kept in a small makeshift house (Changfra) built by the villagers and washed ceremoniously with great devotion. The festival continues for three days when everybody offers food items to Buddha and prays for peace, harmony, prosperity, and happiness and seeks blessings to avoid occurrence of misfortune in the coming year. At the end of the third day, the priests, villagers and the monks give the ritual wash to idol and bring back to the main temple. The Poi-Puthikam or Buddha Jayanti festival is celebrated in the month of May, when the people listen to Ahimsa discourse from monks, recite Panchashillas and sing religious songs, followed by a mass prayer and community feast. The festival of Nowa storti is observed from the full moon day of June/July to the full moon day of September-October for three months. On this day, villagers give alms of food and fruit to the monks and the festival signifies that one who feeds the hungry, would be happy in their lives and hereafter. The Nawa Sang Sdang festivals is observed in the beginning of the rainy season on a full moon day when the villages donate sweets, cake and other food items also with required articles for the monks for their day to day life. The people recite the “fine precepts” and the devotees observe fasting. Jere Sdang is celebrated on a full moon day of Asvina (September-October), when the people donate varieties of fruits and honey and attend prayer in the temple. In the Nawa Oak Sdang, celebrated on a full moon day (October-November), the monks receive large-scale donation from devotees. The devotees prepare a small artificial trees called Petesa (Desire giving trees) and attach packets of food stuff hanging from the coloured braches, which are given as gifts to the monks in recognition of their sacrifice and piety. The Poi Kando festival is organized during the rainy season when the Junior monks lead the devotees of different villages to mass prayer. The Katting Poi is observed on the full moon day of October-November, when robes for Lord Buddha and monks are woven, dyed and offered by the womenfolk, followed by a mass prayer and a community feast. The last important festival is the Maiko Chimphai, celebrated on the full moon day in the month of February, when the youths of the village prepare a tower like structure of fire wood, locally called Maiko Chumphai, and in the early morning next day, the Maiko is set to fire, which is followed by a feast. This is celebrated to provide warmness to the monks to get happy and prosperous year and symbolically it reminds us about Buddha who on this day at Saranath told his disciples to have parinirvana after three months and people thought that the Lord would not be there in the next winter and thus offered warmth by setting fire to the firewood.
In retrospect, a survey of Buddhism among the Singphos would indicate that the Theravada Buddhism became popular among the people, sometimes in early 19th century A.D. and Pieundin Siradow played an important role in this regard. At present in most of the Singpho villages, one can notice a monastery and people celebrate a number of Buddhist festivals. Beside they also worship indigenous spirits, both benevolent and malevolent, and celebrate their indigenous Non-Buddhist festivals simultaneously.
Notes and References:
1. E.T. Dalton, Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal, Calcutta, 1872, pp. 5-11.
2. A. Mackenzie, History of the Relations of the Government with the Hill Tribes of the North East Frontier of Bengal, Calcutta, 1884, p.61.
3. Ibid. p. 62
4. Lakshmi Devi, Ahom Tribal relations (A political study), Guwahati, 1968, pp. 246-248.
5. Sir Edward Gait, A History of Assam, Guwahati, 1926, pp. 307-308.
6. V. Elwin (ed), India’s North East Frontier in the 19th Century, Shillong, 1962, pp. 398-399.
7. Ibid. pp. 400-401.
8. E.T. Dalton, op. cit, pp.9-10.
9. Varrier Elwin, A Philosophy for NEFA, Shillong, 1964, p.24.
10. T.K.M. Baruah, The Singphos and their religion, Shillong 1977, pp. 92-93.
11. Alice Getty, The Gods of Northern Buddhism, New Delhi, 1978, PP. 21-24. Here it may be mentioned that Maitreya is the only Bodhisattva known to Theravada Buddhism and statues of him are found in Ceylon, Burma and Siam, usually in company with Gautama Buddha. However in Mahayanist countries, Maitreya is found in a triad with Gautama Buddha and Avalokitesvara and also accompanied by two Goddesses Kurukulla and Bhrikuti.
12. Ven. Mahathero Narendra, The wheel of Dharma, Arunachal Pradesh Bhikkhu Sangha, 2001, p. 15.
13. Bhikkhu Bornachar, Pienduin chow Siradow, Margherita, 1980, pp.15-25.
14. S. Dutta, Choudhury, Arunachal Pradesh District Gazetteers, Lohit District, Shillong, 1978, pp. 68-72.
15. E.T. Dalton, op. cit., pp. 5-6.
16. Vide interview with Ven. Gyanodaya Bhikkhu, Monk of Venuban Monastery on 28.5.2005.
17. The history of the monastery is provided by Ven. Waradhamma Bhikku, a monk of Srilankan Origin at Buddha Pradip Vihar, Goju on 7.6.2003.
18. vide Interview with Ven. Sumedhu Bhikkhu, headmonk of Kherem Bisa Buddha Vihara on 12.6.03.
19. Kondaniya, Monastic Buddhism among the Khamtis of Arunachal, New Delhi, 1986, pp. 77-82.
20. W. Robinson, A Descriptive Account of Assam, Delhi, 1975, (Reprint), p.81.
21. M.N. Bordoloi, Our Festivals, Shillong, 1968, pp.28-29.
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