the village house and its campus

Namphake Village: Perspective of a Village Museum

Abstract:

The Tai Phake people of the Namphake village have tried to preserve their customs, tradition, their material culture and way of life in their ecological and cultural environment irrespective of modernizations. The village has grown into an interesting heritage center attracting tourists from different parts of the world.

The village in itself appears to be a living museum with its salient features such as the Buddhist monastery, the typical bamboo stilt houses, the festivals, their food habit, rituals and practices. The ecology of Burhidihing river flowing through the heart of the village has influenced the life style of the people through time immemorial.

The village entrance gate or Torana

The village entrance gate or Torana

The research based topic “Namphake Village: Perspective of a Living Village Museum” explores the tangible and intangible cultural properties of the Tai Phake community in their natural environment. Through this paper my aim remains to understand and highlight the synergies of New Museology movement in a living ethnic space. The socio-cultural context of the Tai Phake community of  Namphake village shall contribute to the notion of a living village museum. Further, preservation, awareness, promotion, safeguarding and in-situ conservation of the heritage resources by the Tai Phake community will also be a part of the study. Inspite of their remarkable effort to sustain their tradition and cultural practices within the community, the Tai Phakes are facing critical challenges to protect and preserve their heritage and culture in this era of globalization. The perspective of a living museum that I propose to explore in respect of Namphake village depends on the interface between the man and the nature. The interface between man and nature in their territory results in a living museum.

Stilt House of the Village Headman

Stilt House of the Village Headman

Here the idea is to compare the living museum with that of the Folklife museum concept in U.S.A.

The Tai Phakes of Namphake village belongs to the Tai race which migrated to Assam from the Howkong valley of Myanmar in 1775 AD. Tai is a generic name of a major branch of the mongoloid people of Asia (Padmeshwar Gogoi, 1968, p 1). The Tai Phakes came through Assam’s eastern mountainous corridor. With a microscopic population of 660, spread in 80 houses, the Tai Phakes is a small tribal community living at the non-descript village of Namphake situated along the banks of the serene Burhidihing river under the Naharkatiya constituency in upper Assam. The Namphake village was setup in the year 1850.

A Phakiyal(Phakial) lady on her loom

A Phakiyal(Phakial) lady on her loom

The Tai Phake people are into paddy cultivation and most of the foods they consume are obtained from the local resources. The Buddha Vihara in the Namphake village treasures some of the ancient manuscripts and books which narrate the story of their journey, struggle and settlement. These are written in Tai Phake and Pali language. Over the time, Namphake village is growing as a heritage center attracting national and international tourists. The Tai Phakes have preserved their rich tradition, intangible culture, beliefs, material culture, practices, customs and language in this village. Due to its cultural significance the village has also attracted scholars from all over the world and media for doing research work about their culture.

entrance gate of the buddhist monasteryin the buddha viharaInside the Buddha Viharaoutside view of the buddha viharaPriest or Bhanteyvisitors in the buddha vihara

According to the villagers, the striking factor of Namphake village is that police have never entered its premises, adding that the Tai Phake people believe in peaceful coexistence. Also, claimed by the villagers, Namphake village is completely free from anti-social activities. The living condition and the lifestyle of the Tai Phakes are very simple. They have not allowed the outside world to mark an influence over their culture. Though less in number, and inspite of facing identity crises, the Tai Phakes are able to maintain their glorious legacy. They maintain their distinctive culture, which can be seen in their festivals, traditional dresses and traditional food. They are bilingual, speaking the Phake language among themselves and Assamese with those outside of their community.

A phake family threshing rice grains         a phakiyal lady threshing rice grains

Since its 150 years of establishment, the Namphake village has developed into a research centre, a laboratory, an open museum for researchers and tourists coming from different regions and parts of the world. (Deka, 2011, enajori, p 132). The village has become a cultural hub which provides wide scope for research in different areas to the researchers. Concerned about the preservation and safeguarding of the Tai Phake culture, tradition, language tangible and intangible cultural properties, the community has set up an eco tourism camp named Hapkhaek in the heart of the village. In collaboration with the NGO Tai Phake Artists Aid Trusts they conduct workshops and various other activities among the Tai Phake people to keep their culture and tradition alive. They also provide guided tour of the village to the tourists and other visitors.

Some salient features and attracting spots in the Namphake village are:

  1. Tai Phake community.
  2. Namphake Buddhist Monastery.
  3. Buddhist Pagoda.
  4. Manuscripts written in Tai language.
  5. The Culture and tradition.
  6. Bamboo stilt houses.
  7. The daily lifestyle of the Tai Phake community.
  8. Folk dances.
  9. Folk songs.
  10.  Festivals.
  11. Social means of life (marriage and other rituals).
  12. Language and culture.
  13. Handloom and ethnic dresses.
  14. Handicraft items. 

granary            the village road

Overall, the village is a hub of tangible and intangible cultural heritage and to have a glimpse of the culture and tradition of the Tai Phake community, people from every walks of life step into the village. (Gohain, 2012, p 11)

The Tai Phake families of Namphake village have successfully kept their tradition, their unique identity, customs, beliefs and language intact after around 200 years of struggle.

Facing the challenges of globalization the Tai Phake people have become increasingly interested in the notions of local distinctiveness and spirit of place, associating themselves with the construction of identities and feelings of belonging, and have also become more and more concerned with the promotion and safeguarding of the range of intangible and tangible heritage resources that form the very essence and fabric of their local distinctive and spirit of place.

The Burhidihing river

The Burhidihing river

After visiting the village and interacting with the community, understanding their way of life, culture, living tradition, practicing customs and rituals, the Namphake village can be conceptualized as a living museum where it has the possibility to offer different taste of their culture, both tangible and intangible, to the visitors. The village has diverse products to offer the visitors in the form of its pristine cultural heritage. The village attracts visitors from different parts of the state, from the country as well from other countries; it becomes an ideal place for the tourists who want to know about the ethic cultural heritage of the Tai Phake community. Starting from the beautiful Buddhist monastery, the unique architectural structure of the bamboo made stilt houses accompanied by the living cultural practices, colourful festivals, beliefs, traditions and customs to the never ending flow of the majestic Burhidihing river amidst the serene landscape of the village, an integral part of their socio-economic life, make a centre point of attraction to locals as well as international tourists. The beautiful handicrafts and colourful handloom items of the Tai Phakes are another point of attraction which showcases their finest skills.

The concept of a living museum is a new form of open air museum envisaged, built, managed by the authority and agency of local communities. This approach was developed after the New Museology movement underwent in the western world. In particular it refers to a new idea of holistically interpreting cultural heritage for sustainable development which originated in France in the 1970s. Heritage interpretation is an integral part of the living museum concept which is placed within the holistic context that aims to bring the community and the environment together, focusing on both natural and cultural resources. Within the concept of living museum, heritage interpretation becomes the key to re-establishment of cultural pride and a sense of place for preserving the traditional values and promoting the cultural richness of the community. The different ideas of museums beyond walls which got birth after the New Museology movement in the late 1970s are now widely established around the world. Folk life museum, open air museum, living museum, village museum, ecomuseum etc are some of the concepts which were developed in different areas, territories, regions across the world. For example: In China, ecomuseums have been constructed in a number of villages of ethnic minorities to help conserve minority culture and assist their future development.

close view of the yarn in the loom

close view of the yarn in the loom

In recent years the concept of a living museum in the natural environment has been acknowledged as:

… a new museum paradigm for the holistic interpretation of natural and man-made environment as well as tangible and intangible heritage, in which communities conserve, interpret, and manage their sites for sustainable development” (Su, 2006, p 509)

Therefore the relevant multiple areas (ethnology, agronomy, sociology, history etc) involved enable the Tai Phake community to become a driving force behind initiatives which aim to safeguard local heritage and development.

Exploring Namphake village as a living museum will not only rest on the expressions of the local culture and environment, but also act as a strong instrument for local development. Exploring the idea of a living museum concept in the Tai Phake community of Namphake village will take into account a holistic and integrated approach which can be effectively used to promote and safeguard the Intangible cultural heritage of the community. It will also contribute to the overall protection of the Tai Phakes cultural richness, the significance, values and meanings of their cultural expression.

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The concept of a living museum was another such approach which was formed out of the New Museology movement. It can be defined as a territory encompassing both tangible and intangible heritage, including the memories of the people who live there. It involves a dynamic way in which communities preserve, interpret and manage their heritage for sustainable development.

Here, a territory encompasses aspects of the landscape (geology, scenery), built heritage (architecture), natural heritage and intangible heritage (dialects, songs, stories etc). The boundary is defined by the culture of the locals, for instance, musical tradition, a dialect or particular forms of dress.

view of the strap loom

view of the strap loom

The Namphake village has a very rich living culture and tradition. The Tai Phake community has kept their tradition, customs, beliefs, practices, festivals alive. Though the fact of globalization impact cannot be ignored but the community is constantly working to preserve their unique tradition and culture. Also, with media coverage and through other local newspapers the importance of the site has been widespread, attracting tourists, scholars and other individuals to pay a visit to the village. The village has transformed itself as a living cultural center offering a unique taste of community traditions and value to its visitors. Some of the researchers have also mentioned the village as an open museum. Visiting the village during festival hours one can participate in their folk dances and rituals. Their unique traditional food is enjoyed by every visitor. Some of the Tai Phake people also maintain visitor feedback book, in which they ask the tourists or any other visitors to write down their experience. Thus, after studying the community and the village from every prospect it can be conceptualized as a living museum. In the Namphake village the Tai Phake is a tribal community that shares a territory, a common history and a memory of its history. The concept of a living museum can be used to celebrate the Tai Phake community, through their folk dances, folk songs, traditional houses, textiles, customs, practices and the achievements of their craftsmen and skilled workforces.

The origin of living museums cannot be explained through museological developments only. Seen in a wider context, the first living museums are an expression of the increasing interest in folk culture as this manifested itself in the spiritual climate during the second half of the nineteenth century. Undoubtedly, the principal motive for this interest was the preservation of a cultural identity which had become subject to increasing threat from various quarters. Development of the living museums can be summarized as environmental and contextual.

It is studied that in the village the intangible cultural heritage resources are recognized, including the particular knowledge system, cultural expression and traditional practices passed down through the generation among the Tai Phake community.

So the living museum concept of Namphake illustrates the way of life and traditions of the Tai Phake community.

Similar to the living museum concept, in India, there are not many ecomuseum sites which got underway after the New Museology movement, but Korlai ecomuseum is noteworthy among others which is the first ecomuseum site in India. The uniqueness of the project lies at preserving in-situ the heritage, rather than confining it to the closed confines of a building. In other words, it would be India’s first eco-museum with the culture and traditions of the Chauli tribe being allowed to develop in their natural surroundings. This ecomuseum site was developed by Prof. V.H. Bedakar.

Prof. Bedakar discusses the objective behind setting up the Korlai eco museum site as: “All folk songs, documented history and literature in Creole would come to discuss as very soon, there will be nobody to read or narrate them, an entire culture is at risk of being wiped out forever.” (http://www.tribuneindia.com/2001/20010422/spectrum/main2.htm, accessed on 2 January, 2014)

Similarly, Namphake village in Assam is inhabitant by the ethnic tribe called Tai Phakes who has preserved their rich culture and heritage since times. Though the number of population is very few in the village, roughly 660 to account, every phakials, by which they are often called has preserved, practiced and presented their customs, festivals, beliefs in a very traditional way. Under the initiative of different organizations working for the community the conservation work done so far , here, continue to focus on the ongoing documentation of both the tangible and intangible cultural heritage in situ. To elaborate, a really important part of this documentation work has centered on the recording of the oral testimonies, folk songs, festivals and memories of the elderly Tai Phake men and women. In this subject the work done by publishing a complete documentary by the Doordarshan, the National television channel of India is outstanding and worth praiseworthy.

Since Namphake stands out as a popular tourist destination, therefore, conceptualizing it into a living museum can higher the chances of popularizing it as a cultural center by organizing services for visitors, designed by the members of the tribal groups, in a respectful, orderly and with planned out programmes. The idea of a living museum would also encourage providing diverse forms of training available to the locals and also provide them with adequate skills to develop projects that respond to their own needs and aspirations.