With one eye slightly closed and the other utterly focussed on the cane he is weaving, Chowkim Singpho sits cross-legged deeply engrossed in his work. A large tool kit and paraphernalia surround him. He is almost in a meditative state and I already feel apologetic about disturbing him. It’s 9 in the morning and we are in Wagun village near Namsai.
We are here to take a sneak peek of the region’s rich craftsmanship. Chowkim is 71 and a little hard of hearing. It’s only after our third attempt at greeting him that he raises his head to welcome us only to return to his work immediately. His mother, who is sitting in the kitchen in front of a wood fire is intrigued to see that they have visitors from Delhi. I can see a childlike excitement in her sullen eyes. At 94, she is still proud of her son, whose skill as a craftsman draws many craft enthusiasts like us to their modest house.Chowkim tells us that he is also the Goan Bura or village headman of Wagun. While his expertise lie in bamboo and cane crafts, he also loves sewing Buddhist prayer flags for several monasteries in and around Namsai. “Mai dharam kapda bhi banate hain,” (I also make religious flags), he says. “I am also invited to different festivals throughout the year for making prayer flags,” he adds. Right now, he is making a Golam, which is used in every rural household to blow wind into steamed rice during its preparation. So we limit our conversation to bamboo and cane. The people of Namsai, both Khamptis and Singphos are brilliant at making lovely handicrafts from bamboo, cane and wood.
The pièce de résistance of bamboo crafts in Namsai is the phon or traditional bamboo and cane container used to store food. You could say it’s their version of the modern casserole or hot case. Chowkim tells us that it takes him ten to fifteen days to make a single phon. One phon is sold for as much as Rs 5,000 in the market.Chowkim has been pursuing his craft since the age of 20. He was inspired by his maternal uncle who would weave floor mats from bamboo. Chowkim feels proud that he is self-taught. He wishes to pass on the legacy to the youngsters of his village but not many people are interested in taking up the craft. “Youngsters today lack the patience and dedication for it, they have a very small attention span,” the craftsman laments.
Chowkim was involved in the cultivation of timber till the time it was allowed. He then took the onus of becoming the village headman but nothing has ever come in the way of his first love-making interesting things from cane and bamboo. To this day, he starts his day by practicing his craft. It is only after he has done it for one to two hours that he leaves home for office or for running errands. (Inspiring artists and craftsmen, I hope you are taking notes!)
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Chowkim proudly tells us that his handicrafts are also sold in Assam and several crafts fairs that are held there. But now, since he has aged, he only makes bamboo handicrafts on special order. In his heydays, he would make two to three phons in a week. Just when he is telling us about the three phases of learning the craft, sloping being the most difficult of them all, he is interrupted by a neighbour, who has come to take him to redress a long pending matter in the neighbourhood. He bids us a goodbye but is kind enough to pose for Sandipan, our photographer.
From Chowkim’s house, we go to another rural household in Wagun. Duong Ingkhang looks happily lost in his own thoughts as he approaches us. He is holding a knife in one hand and a bamboo tube in other and beating the latter with the former to create music of sorts. He welcomes us to his home and introduces us to his lovely kids, who are fascinated by our presence and can’t stop giggling. Kids being kids, you see.Duoung and his family put up in a cute little bamboo hut and they also have a hand pump in their courtyard. Their house is surrounded by sprawling tea plantations and there is absolute tranquillity in every corner. Desi chickens are running around in the courtyard and look a tad upset by our presence.
Doung is a full time craftsman and makes the beautifully crafted sword pha-nap, which is carried by almost every Khampti man at all times of the day. He takes us to his little workspace and starts sharpening his tools against a block of wood. He tells us that he has been involved in the craft since the last 15 years. Like Chowkim, Doung is also a self-taught craftsman, who has honed his craft over the years with regular practice.Doung uses wood from Champa trees, which he collects from the forests of the Manabum hill range. He tells us that he gets around three thousand rupees to make a single pha-nap. The 36-year-old takes two days to make one pha-nap. First, he makes the sword and then he gives shape to its case. What follows is an interesting photo session, where I, Sandipan and our guide Sukiyo take turns to strike a warrior like pose with the pha-nap. Sandipan is rather impressed with Doung’s simplicity and does not misses a photo-op with him.By now, I have fallen for the place. I daydream about living there and writing under the shade of a thatched bamboo hut soaking in the serenity of the tea plantations that encompass Doung’s house. I am sure this piece would have been much poignant had it been penned there. But then, not everyone is as fortunate as Doung, right?
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Later in the day, we are lucky enough to get a glimpse of the weaving traditions of the Khamptis and Singphos as we visit two households in Empong and Piyong village. Khampti women are great at weaving and they make beautiful lungis or pha-noi as they call it, which is worn by the Khampti men. For themselves, the Khampti women make gorgeous wrap-around skirts called sui. They also make cotton and silk scarfs. Similarly, the Singpho women are also self-reliant when it comes to making traditional attire for themselves.Meeting all these lovely craftspeople have been an absolutely enriching experience. In a post-pandemic world, when travellers are choosing experiences over sightseeing, embarking on a day trip to explore the rich cultural traditions and crafts of the tribal communities of Namsai could be one of the best travel experiences of your life. You have to do it to believe it.