Hinterland study reveals Buddhist secrets

by PANKAJ SARMA, The Telegraph, March 7, 2006

Team documenting monasteries finds wealth of information on spread of religion

Guwahati, India -- A newly-discovered Tai translation of the Ramayan has thrown new light on the synthesis of Hindu elements and Buddhism in the Northeast.

<< Monks at the Amingaon monastery in Guwahati. Picture by Eastern Projections

Written on handmade paper, the Tai Ramayan was found by a research team at the Buddha Vihar in Nam-Phake village of Dibrugarh district recently. Bangalore-based academic C.V. Nageswara, who is leading the team’s pathbreaking study on Hinayana Buddhist monasteries in the region, said he was amazed by the “remarkable synthesis of mythologies from diverse sources”.

The study is being conducted by the Vivekananda Kendra Institute of Culture (VKIC) in collaboration with the Union art and culture ministry.

The first phase of the VKIC survey of monasteries yielded several objects of cultural significance, including the Tai Ramayan with pictographic descriptions and several manuscripts in the Tai and Burmese languages. Of the 100-odd monasteries in the region — most of them in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh — 44 were documented. The rest will be covered in the second leg of the survey, which is likely to be completed by early next year.

“Recorded information about the locations and condition of monasteries was found to be inadequate, which is why we have undertaken this survey. It is for the first time that such an attempt is being made,” Pradip Sarma, director of the research council of VKIC, said.

The institute has long been involved in documentation of the art forms and distinctive cultures of different races inhabiting the region.

Sarma said Theravadi, or Hinayana Buddhism, struck roots in the Northeast in the early part of the 13th century, when the Tai Ahom dynasty ruled Assam. The influence of Buddhism was, however, restricted to people who had migrated from Southeast Asia to parts of eastern Assam.

The study, which started in October last year, includes data collection and videographic documentation.

Buddhist establishments in Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Sivasagar, Jorhat, Karbi Anglong and Golaghat districts were surveyed in the first phase.

The communities on which the research team focused are the Singphos, Tai Phakes, Tai Khamyans, Tai Aitons and Tai Turungs.

“Of the 44 monasteries documented, 18 are in Tinsukia district, four in Dibrugarh, 11 in Sivasagar, six in Jorhat, three in Golaghat and two in Karbi Anglong,” Sarma said.

A distinct Burmese influence was observed in Buddhist structures like stupas, pagodas and memorials to bhantes or bhikshus (monks). Several religio-cultural functions such as Varsha Baash, the initiation ceremony of neophytes, were documented at Duarmara and other places in Tinsukia district.

“One of the interesting aspects we noticed during the first part of our study is the adaptation of local customs and festivals by the monasteries in their own way,” Sarma said.

He revealed that a Buddhist festival celebrated in mid-January bore a striking resemblance to Magh Bihu, which is celebrated at the same time of the year. “Similarly, Poi Sanken, also known as Pani Bihu, is derived from the Hindu Sankranti and held on the same day, which is on the eve of the Assamese Rongali Bihu in mid-April. The festival marks the start of the traditional New Year and is celebrated by all the indigenous Theravada Buddhist communities of the Northeast.”