Tanchangya people

By Sujan Tanchangya

This article is primarily in response to a couple of emails that I received from readers who wanted to know more about the Tanchangya people. This is despite the fact that there are a number of fragmented articles appearing on the online webs and of course a number of books, booklets, and magazines about the Tanchangyas and their lives have been published in recent times. However, given its holistic nature of the article – though it may not be perfect in every sense – it wouldn’t be far from the truth to claim that this article is probably the first of its kind to be circulated over the internet world. Therefore, it is our humble hope that this article will shed some light on the Tanchangya Tribe for those who are yet to know who or what ‘Tanchangya’ is.

‘Tanchangya’ is an indigenous tribal community living in the greater Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of South-eastern part of Bangladesh. Tanchangya is one of the thirteen tribal communities of the CHT, namely, Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Tanchangya, Mro, Ryang, Khumi, Chak, Murung, Khyang, Bunjugi, Pankhu and Lushai. The members of all these thirteen indigenous communities are also collectively known as ‘Jumma’, a national ideology that gave birth after the independence of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) from West Pakistan in 1971.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts region, which has been a bloody insurgency zone between the tribal guerrilla organization known as the ‘Shanti Bahini’ (The Peace Force) formed by the thirteen indigenous tribal communities collectively known as ‘Jumma’ and the Government of People Republic of Bangladesh from 1973 to until the well-known signing of a Peace Accord officially known as the ‘CHT Peace Accord’ in 1997), covers an area of 13,189 sq. km., which is about 1/10th of the total surface area of the country. The CHT region shares borders with Arakan Hills, Burma on the East, Mizoram, and Tripura on the Northeast and Chittagong district, Bangladesh on the West. The CHT consists of three hill districts of Bandarban (bordering Burma), Rangamati (bordering India and also partially Burma), and Khagrachari (bordering India). Rangamati is the administrative capital of this specially designated hill region.

Tanchangya is used as an adjective and as a noun too, for instance, I am a Tanchangya. My name is Nimal Tanchangya. Or as a nominal adjective like – I saw a Tanchangya girl yesterday.

It is to be mentioned here that since the Tanchangya people share a common religion, a slightly- differed language, many similar social and traditional customs and norms with the Chakma people, and the fact that their history is no different from that of the Chakma’s, the Tanchangya Tribe has often been labeled as a Sub-tribe of the larger dominant Chakma Tribe. But, whatever the case be, it is equally worth mentioning that the Tanchangya tribe has been officially recognized as a separate and distinct tribe by the Government of Bangladesh and many Institutions.

In terms of population, the Tanchangya tribe ranks fifth among the thirteen tribal communities but in general reference they are mentioned as the fourth as shown above. According to the 1991 national census, their number was 21,057 and the number of Tanchangya households was 4,043 and according to the latest Bangladesh national census of 2004, the Tanchangya population is 35,000. However, some Tanchangya activists claim that their population number is much higher than officially estimated.

Anthropologically the Tanchangyas are Mongoloid but more popularly categorized as Sino- Tibetans by some. According to their folktales and oral history, the Tanchangyas claim that they originally belonged to a powerful and prosperous kingdom called ‘Champak-nagar’ (probably giving the meaning: the city of magnet) ruled by a king named ‘Bijoy-giri/vijaya-giri’ (the winner of hills) – the name signifies that he conquered many hills on which to cultivate on. The traditional practice of cultivation on burnt hills known in the CHT as ‘jhum’ (slash cultivation on hills), and this particular jhum cultivation practice gave birth to the collective name of the 13 indigenous tribal communities as ‘Jumma’ – with the help of a brave army commander named ‘Radhamon’ in a place called Arakan in modern-day Burma. They migrated to the CHT region of Bangladesh approximately in the middle of the thirteen century AD. At the time of their migration, the CHT was then an independent Buddhist kingdom ruled by a king of the Chakma dynasty. When a large number of Tanchangya migrants arrived in the Chakma Buddhist kingdom, the king at first did not permit them to settle down in his kingdom. So the Tanchangya leaders had to pledge allegiance to the king with large sum of money and jewelries, only then were they allowed to settle down in seven allocated villages nearby a famous river called ‘Rang- khyong gang’ in the Rangamati district partially bordering Burma. As time passed by, Tanchangyas of these seven villages spread in all parts of the three hill districts.

Recent researches into the history of the Tanchangya people have suggested a more fascinating story of the reason behind the historical migration of the Tanchangya people from the Arakan hills to the CHT.

It has been (mythically) suggested that the Tanchangyas were forced to flee their ancient kingdom due to a war between their kingdom and another neighboring kingdom, in which their king was defeated. In order to escape the onslaught of the advancing invading king, the Tanchangyas took temporal shelter in deep jungles and forests while some fled their kingdom and took refuge in CHT.

Even up to now, Tanchangyas, who had been scattered in various parts of that region due to the above mentioned war, have still been living in the southeastern regions of Tripura, Mizoram and Manipur States of India, as well as in the Arakan region of Burma. The number of Tanchangyas living outside the CHT region could far exceed the number living in the CHT. In Arakan, the Tanchangyas are known as ‘dounnak’, the undefeated.

Tanchangyas have their own form of language which, in actual sense, is more of a dialect. It is a mixture of Pali, Sanskrit, Prakrit and Bengali with some English terminologies included. Tanchangya language has no written script. However, recently, some Tanchangya writers and intellectuals and a handful of non-natives have been trying to put into script the grammar structure of the Tanchangya language using the Bengali script in an organized and easy-to- reference format. It has been a tough job though due to its complex spoken structure.

Like many of the tribal communities, Tanchangyas also have a very organized social and family structure. A Tanchangya family usually consists of 5-10 members but generally the sons who get married choose to live separately in a separate house. When the parents are old, usually the youngest or the eldest son is supposed to look after them. However, any son has the right to look after the parents if he so desires, so do the daughters.

A Tanchangya village generally consists of not more than 60-70 households, the largest of which may consist of may be 100 and the smallest of which may consist only of 5-10 households. Tanchangyas are well known for their choice of building their houses and huts on hill-slopes and green hill valleys, often in remote part of dense jungles. The Tanchangya hierarchical system states that only the sons are entitled to receive a portion of father’s wealth and daughters cannot claim any. Since hill cultivation also known as Jhum cultivation is the main source of income, lands and hills are vital in the survival of the Tanchangya people.

Traditionally, Tanchangyas have an extensive lineage system. The entire Tanchangya tribe consists of seven ‘gocha/gosha’ which can be well translated as ‘clan’, of which the Karwa- gocha, the Mua-gocha and the Dhunya-ghocha are the main and leading clans. These three clans dominate the larger Tanchangya tribe. The majority members and the most educated, with some exception, of course, belong to either of these three clans.

Moreover, each of the seven clans also has its own sub-clans locally known as ‘guit-ti’. The extensive Tanchangya lineage system becomes important when it comes to the linguistic and some behavioral points and matters. The dialects, dressing, behaving and some social norms differ from clan to clan and even to a lesser extent from sub-clan to sub-clan. Therefore, it can be concluded that the Tanchangya language, as a whole, is a combination or encompasses the slightly-different dialects of all these seven clans and thus the larger Tanchangya tribe is a combination of slightly-different cultures, dressing, social norms and customs of all the seven clans. However, it is also to be noted that all the Tanchangyas do not introduce themselves by name of clans or sub-clans but by the common designated title ‘Tanchangya’.

As to the marital relationship, traditionally three kinds of marriages can be found within the Tanchangya social structure:

1. A pre-arranged marriage in which the bridegroom brings the bride in his parents’ home. This is the most accepted, approved and prevalent marital system in the Tanchangya society. This kind of marriage is arranged by the help of a third party between the parents of both parties with the prior approval of the would-be bridegroom and the bride. In this kind of marriage, the parents are the decision-makers.

2. A pre-arranged marriage in which the bridegroom goes to live with the bride in her parents’ house. This is the rarest practice among the three.

3. A marriage in which the would-be husband and wife elope as lovers and decide to live as legal couple. This can be called from modern context as ‘love marriage’. Traditionally this kind of marriage is also accepted but not approved specially by the conservatives. The decisions of the couple play the most vital role in this kind of marriage. Nowadays, this third kind of marriage i.e. choosing one’s own life partner is the most chosen criteria for marriage, the influence of which can be partially due to the Western influence of so-called modernization.

Tanchangyas are also quite famous for the husband being younger in age than his wife, a practice which can not be found in other communities. And this practice is quite commonly seen in the Mua-gocha clan of the larger Tanchangya tribe. A Tanchangya marriage does not in any way come under the influence of Buddhism. However, it is also customary for the new couple to go to the village temple for blessings of monks and listening to the chanting of the ‘Mangalasutta’ (A Buddhist Holy Scripture). The entire marriage ceremony is generally conducted by village elders who are expert in traditional values. In Tanchangya marriages, pigs, hens and fishes are killed in order to entertain the guests and well-wishers with delicious dishes. More interestingly, there is a special sacrificial offering called – shumulang – without which a couple is not considered as legally married. In this special sacrificial offering which must be conducted by a village physician [a village physician known as ‘Boiddo’ in the Tanchangya language acts as a doctor in Tanchangya villages. In most cases, these particular ‘boiddos’ also have black magical powers to drive away evil spirits and they even have powers to kill people or bring immense disasters by means of their black magical charms], two hens or cocks are killed in the name of the protecting house guardian for happiness and prosperity for the new couple.

The traditional clothing attire of the Tanchangya women in particular is yet another spectacular outlook to be observed. It is said that the Tanchangya women excel all other hilly women in wearing colorful dresses and ornaments. Like some of their counterparts of other tribes, the Tanchangya women weave, sew and make their own clothing by means of traditional handicrafts.

Traditional Tanchangya women also wear lavish jewelry over their clothing. Usually these lavish jewelry – ear-rings, hand-rings and foot-rings, necklaces, bracelets, and many different varieties of neck-garlands made of ancient coins and beads – have come down from many generations from mother to daughter. These jewelry are the only wealth daughters get from their mothers mostly at the time of their marriage and these jewelry become precious treasures for the daughters.

A Tanchangya woman-attire basically consists of five main sets:

1. Pinoin or skirt: this is the main set which is weaved with mere threads of different colors, arranged and decorated with colorful lines of designs

2. Jumo shalum or blouse: this is a piece of cloth also weaved and then later on sewn with hands with traditional designs in the form of a blouse

3. Paa-duri or waist belt: this is a piece of long cloth weaved with traditional designs and worn over the waist to support the tightness of the pinoin or the skirt

4. Mada-habong or head scarf: this is quite similar to (but not the same as) the paa-duri but is of different designs worn over the head to protect the head from sunshine and to escape from dust and it also helps to carry heavy stuff on the head

5. Hadhi or scarf: this is also similar to the paa-duri but it is a bit bigger and weaved with elaborate designs of different shining silk threads and worn over the body hanging from the shoulders up down below the waist. Sometimes it is also worn around the chest. This hadhi is a vital clothing set of decoration especially for young girls.

However, due to the rapid globalization and continuous evolution of so-called modernization, nowadays the Tanchangya women of the younger generation are neglecting their traditional dress of which their mothers and grandmothers were once proud of. These days, the so-called modernized Tanchangya girls hardly even know how to weave her set of traditional clothing. Traditionally it had been very hard for a Tanchangya girl to get a husband if she didn’t know how to weave her own set of clothing.

The Tanchangya men, on the other hand, only wear two sets of clothing, a sarong/ lung-gi or a dhoti and a shirt. Usually they buy these from markets.

Probably because of Arakanese Buddhist influences, Tanchangyas also have been Buddhists from the inception. Nowhere in their history were they recorded as followers of some other organized form of religions other than Buddhism and of course a little bit of animistic influence were inevitable.

Tanchangyas are followers of Theravada form of Buddhism. However the form of Buddhism the Tanchangya people follow is very much mixed with some animistic and tribal cults, some of which even include animal sacrifices to gods of various kinds and purposes, which are not Buddhistic in nature. Broadly speaking, these practices can be said of the influences from early Brahmanic civilization. Nevertheless, the Tanchangya people do not consider these practices as Buddhist but more of social and traditional and this makes the argument fair. Generally, there is a Buddhist temple in every Tanchangya village known in their language as ‘khyong’. They observe religious rites such as worshipping Gotama Buddha, listening to Buddhist sermons on auspicious occasions, celebrating the Buddhist Pravarana and Kathina festivals, Full Moon Days and many other Buddhist related festivals and celebrations.

Somehow or other, up to date, Tanchangyas have not been converted into Christianity as in the case of Lushai indigenous community and few others. Thus the term Tanchangya also implies a Buddhist. But at least a half or more of the Tanchangya population, given their practices and influence of animistic rituals, cannot be considered Buddhists in the strict sense of the term either. As is the case, any indigenous community is not exempted from some sort of animistic rituals and so are the Tanchangyas.

There are a number of animistic rituals which can be observed in a Tanchangya society. Some of these animistic rituals contain elaborate rites in which pigs, goats and a huge number of hens and cocks are sacrificed in the name of gods and spirits of various purposes. Tanchangyas also have some bloodless animistic rituals like candle and flower offering to the spirit of the village river and offering of cooked-rice mixed with red chili to the spirit of sunshine, to name but a few.

Hunting with spears, bows and arrows along with hand-made nets in the deep and dense jungles up the green hills is also a part of Tanchangyas’ daily activity which, in a way, is also a means of their survival especially in the remote jungle areas where modernity has not yet found a footing. Nevertheless, the aforementioned animistic ritualistic elaborate sacrifices and hunting for wild animals have almost come to a stop due to the relentless efforts of some socially engaged Buddhist monks who have been trying hard to bring a stop to all these non-Buddhist ritualistic practices.

Apart from this, however, the most celebrated festival of the Tanchangya people is the ‘bishu’ festival which corresponds to the Bengali New Year of the month of April. Bishu is celebrated for a lengthy period of four to five days, during which Tanchangya people also go to temples to pray for a better and prosperous beginning of the New Year and say good bye to the old year and also pray for a better agricultural harvest. All the Tanchangyas decorate their houses and temples with wild flowers and creepers. During the bishu festival, all the Tanchangya people shun all form of daily activities but enjoy it with their heart-fill followed by elaborate traditional entertaining concerts. This is the day of family union. This is the day of exchanging visits among friends and relatives. This is the day of enjoyment and merry-making. This is the day of happiness for all Tanchangyas.

The Tanchangya people also have a long oral history in which many interesting and elaborate traditional or even historical incidents and stories are recorded. As recorded in the oral history, [the Tanchangya oral history is still being preserved without being committed to writing in any form. There are some special groups of people known locally as ‘ging-guli’ who are preserving the history orally. These people are invited in traditional festivals and weddings to relate the history of the Tanchangya people and even love stories. They only use a violin and relate in poetic form which may continue the whole night non-stop. But sadly due to modernization, the young generation, nowadays, hardly pay attention to this invaluable traditional form of entertainment. As a result, only a handful of ‘ging-gulis’ can be found nowadays], the story of Radhamon, the commander-in-chief of King Bijoy-giri and his fiancée Dhonpudi is worth mentioning. Radhamon and Dhonpudi were lovers. And this traditional love story is one of the most well-known told stories among the Tanchangya people but most popular among the older generation. This love story is pretty much like the Roman love story of Romeo and Juliet.

Besides these, there are also many traditional songs known as ‘uba-git’ and folktales known as ‘kit-ta’ and moral-related stories known as ‘poshon’ preserved in the Tanchangya oral history. No doubt, if the entire Tanchangya oral history is put into writing, it will form yet another large volume of fine world literature.

However, in spite of having some unique traditional and cultural values and a rich literature, the Tanchangyas still lag behind some of the larger contemporary indigenous communities in the region of the CHT in respect of modern education, regional politics and cultural awareness. The 1991 national statistics showed that not even one third of the Tanchangya population is educated in its modern sense. Nevertheless very lately, quite a large number of Tanchangyas have been holding some government civil posts in the fields of education, health and to a lesser extent regional politics. During the past two decades or so, a considerable number of Tanchangyas also have undergone and have been undergoing higher educational training locally and in abroad. But still the majority of the Tanchangya population is yet to get the smell of modernity.

Lately many books, articles, magazines and leaflets have been published about the life and culture of the Tanchangya people. In them, the Tanchanya people have been described by many anthropologists and writers as – ‘shy, modest in nature, honest, easily approachable and hospitable’.

Existence and survival of any human society is a continuous flux of evolution, transformation and preservation. Many distinct human races have been uprooted from this world or at least on the brink of complete annihilation and destruction. The Tanchangya Tribe is no exception. And this realization has given birth to a thing called ‘cultural awareness’ in the minds of the modern educated Tanchangya people. These people have formed a number of societies and organizations in the CHT for the re-evaluation, transformation and preservation of the Tanchangya cultural and traditional values. Hopefully, this cultural awareness of the Tanchangya people would help maintain and persist the existence and survival of the Tanchangya Tribe in the long run.


* This article, written by Sujan Tanchangya who is currently engaged in undergraduate research studies in Thailand, is basically for general reference. The writer wishes to stress the point that the lifting of ideas and information from this article is not copyrighted provided he/she is responsible for any outcome of his/her action. The ideas and information in this article are based purely on the personal knowledge, experience, observation and research reading of the writer. Any misinformation in this article is therefore open to creative criticism and correction; and any feedback, suggestions and recommendations are cordially welcomed.

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