Assam finds Buddhist tourism treasure

The Telegraph (India), June 2, 2006

Project to focus on villages inhabited by descendants of 13th century migrants

Jorhat, India -- Three villages, 100-odd families, a wonderful tapestry of culture and traditions, and a history that goes back 700 years - Assam has just discovered a tourism goldmine.

Residents of Balijan Shyamgaon, Betbari Shyamgaon and Na Shyamgaon, all in Jorhat district, are said to be descendants of those who came to Assam in the 13th century from Thailand, via the Patkai hill ranges. That was the Great Migration from Southeast Asia, leading to 600 years of Ahom rule.

However, what is of immediate interest to the tourism department is the fact that these descendants of the original migrants have maintained a link with their past. The inhabitants of Balijan Shyamgaon, Betbari Shyamgaon and Na Shyamgaon - near Titabor, chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s constituency - remain Buddhists and have temples (viharas) and pagodas with art and sculptures that echo their distinctive history, culture and traditions.

J. Balaji, who was the additional deputy commissioner of Jorhat before being transferred to Nagaon as deputy commissioner, is one of those who believes the three villages can be combined to form a tourism circuit that people from the Southeast Asian countries will find attractive.

“With a little development and publicity, these villages will attract not only tourists from other states but also countries that have a sizeable Buddhist population,” the bureaucrat said.

Dispur has already drawn up a project and forwarded it to the Union tourism ministry for approval. The objective is to develop and preserve the Buddhist connection and facilitate community participation in tourism initiatives. “Since all three villages are backward and located in the interiors, bordering Nagaland, infrastructure has to be developed to attract tourists,” Balaji said.

Among the objets d’art and relics preserved in these villages are a statue of the Buddha, a pair of Burmese chivar (robe), a golden kammawara (a religious book) and a large cane basket that was gifted to the Balijan Buddhist temple as a token of love and friendship by the Burmese general Mingimaha Bandula about 300 years ago.

The Balijan shrine is already a major pilgrimage spot for Buddhists of the Northeast. The first general conference of the All Assam Buddhists’ Association, which is a regional chapter of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, was held at Balijan Shyamgaon in 1942.

Residents of Balijan and the other two villages play traditional musical instruments like the kong (flute), which is still used in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, China and Vietnam. Although there have been slight deviations from the original Tai-Khamyang culture, the villagers still adhere to customs such as the birth ritual called khawn.

Each of the villages has a vihara, where monks teach Tai and Pali scriptures to students. Regular schooling is taken care of by Assamese-medium institutions.

Several Buddhist scholars from Myanmar, Thailand, Taiwan and Japan have already visited the three villages for research.